Hearts and Mirrors
By Jonatan L
-A couple of days earlier...-
Kai had never expected this day to turn out any different from any other day in his life - slightly dull, in other words. As he walked, he remembered his thoughts earlier that morning - There will be nothing new today. Just another day full of grass, dusty roads and trees and stuff. Damnit, if I don't make it to more civilised areas soon, I'm going to get so bored I'll... Then he had set out, and a short while later, came to the conclusion that -
Man, was I mistaken...
-Nine weeks earlier...-
"That's good, Ryan! Let's see how you handle this one..." Cloud swung his sword in a flat arc, left to right, but as Ryan raised his own sword to block, he changed his grip, twisted slightly - and passed outside Ryan's blade. Before the boy had a chance to react, Cloud tapped him on the shoulder with his sword. "You're getting better."
"Not good enough, though," Ryan replied, lowering his wooden practice blade. "You still kick my butt every time."
"Yeah," Cloud admitted. "But that's because I've trained. You'll get better."
Ryan - a teenage boy, fifteen years old - sighed and leaned on his sword. "I suppose..."
"You will get better - trust me on that. Come on now, I asked Tifa to have some tea ready for when we got back."
"You're a lucky guy, mister."
Cloud grinned. That was something he had not done too often in the past, but recently, he had done it pretty much every day. "I know," he said, slapping his pupil on the back - and almost knocking him to the ground. "Let's just put the swords back, and then we'll have tea."
Tifa smiled at Cloud as he opened the door and let himself and Ryan in. "Cloud! Great, the tea is just finished."
"Are we really that predictable?" Cloud wondered, walking over to Tifa and kissing her on the cheek.
"You are to me," she grinned, returning the kiss. "Now sit down - I'll bring the tea."
Cloud and Ryan did as they were told, and soon the three of them finished their late breakfast.
"So what now?" Ryan asked, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
"First of all, you need to learn table manners," Cloud chided, "but after that, I don't know. We don't have anything planned for today."
"I thought maybe we could spend some time on the beach," Tifa said. "It's going to get too warm to do anything else."
"Yeah," Ryan said, leaning back contentedly. "Let's hit the beach!"
"I think it's a good idea," Cloud agreed. "Should you go tell your parents?"
"Bah, them," Ryan said dismissively. "They'll probably be there too, anyway."
"I guess you're right. Well then, maybe we should get going before it gets too crowded," Tifa suggested. "Should we take food with us?"
"We'd better," Cloud said. "If you get the bathing gear, I'll see what I can find."
"What about me?" Ryan protested.
"...you can help me pack the food."
"Okay - hey, any cinnamon cake left?"
"I think so," Tifa giggled behind her hand. Cloud's cinnamon cake recipe was getting famous - he was a surprisingly good cook. Getting up from her seat, she told them, "I'll be just a minute."
"Okay," Cloud said. "Everybody... let's mosey!"
Stopping suddenly, the young man turned his head this way and that, scanning the area. He found nothing out of the ordinary. Still, he had a strange feeling... Raising a hand, feeling the weight of a Materia-laden bracelet around his wrist, he chanted a simple spell. Around him, the world seemed to turn into shades of grey as he shifted into heat-vision.
The sun above made it painful to see. Everything was white or light shades of grey - the warmer something was, the brighter it seemed, and now the sun had been baking the land for hours. However, Kai was experienced enough to use this spell even under such circumstances - with some difficulty, he could make out the contours of trees, rocks... And somewhere among these vague shapes, there should be something that wasn't normal. He didn't know what, but he expected t know when he saw it; and to do that, picking out the body heat seemed to be the best way. Studying his surroundings closely, he became aware of an overwhelming amount of power - approaching from his right. Switching the heat-vision off with a reverse spell - knowing that this presence, whatever it was, would have no need to hide from normal sight - he turned to face the approaching power...
His jaw dropped as a great shadow passed overhead, flying to the west. "Holy...!" he gasped. "Now I've seen everything... huh?"
The creature that had cast the shadow stopped, beating its wings furiously. Turning its head to the lone black-robed human on the ground far below, it blinked its eyes...
Kai blinked back. "What...?" he asked. "A... what was that?" But the creature had already resumed its flight, leaving Kai staring after it.
He knew what he had heard, though.
It was a cry for help.
A few minutes later, the three were ready to leave the 'Villa Strifehart', as Tifa had renamed the old Shinra Villa after she and Cloud bought it. Cloud and Ryan were carrying a large basket between them - it would be packed full of food, Tifa suspected - while Tifa was carrying a blanket for them to sit on, as well as a parasol and the boys' bathing gear. She had already changed, and was now wearing a yellow bikini. Consequently, the group drew a few stares, but the walk was short and soon they reached the famous Costa del Sol beach. Tifa set up their gear, while Cloud and Ryan went to find a booth and change. Five minutes later, they had changed and were all set up, and another minute later, they were out in the warm water.
They stayed in for the better part of an hour before they decided to get back up. By this time, the beach was filling up fast, but, having got there early, Cloud and company had been able to pick a good place - not too far from the water, but not close enough to get splashed by the bathers. While Ryan just lay down in the sand, Cloud tried to wring the water out of his hair. This was no easy task, since his spiky hairdo staid almost the same even when it was wet, although the spikes sagged a little; Tifa thought he looked like a wet chocobo - and a very cute one, at that.
Meanwhile, Tifa was going through the large basket for sun lotion, and was starting to suspect that Cloud had forgotten to pack it - not very wise, if they were going to be spending the rest of the day on the sun-drenched beach. She was just about to reprimand him for that, when she felt a tingling between her shoulder blades. It was the feeling of slight unease that one sometimes gets when someone is staring.
Tifa was used to people staring at her. The boys had started looking at her about the time she was fourteen, when she had started 'filling out her clothes', and, well, they had never stopped looking. She couldn't quite blame them, either - it wasn't their fault she had turned out to look the way she did. For reasons Tifa couldn't quite understand (what was so interesting about big breasts anyway? Most of the time they were only in the way) her chest had a tendency to draw men's eyes to it like a magnet drew iron. Her long martial arts training had done nothing to impair her looks, and the battle scars - the few wounds that had healed on their own, without the help of healing magic - spoke of an interesting past. It didn't really come as a surprise that people looked. Therefore, Tifa didn't pay much attention to the feeling at first - but suddenly it felt as if someone was touching her, an insubstantial finger tracing a particular scar on her back. One particular scar that was mirrored on her stomach...
It was the scar Sephiroth had given her that time in the reactor, that time that now seemed like an eternity ago. Even though they had used magic to heal that wound, it had still left a scar, and a big one at that - Masamune was no ordinary blade, and seemed to have been determined to leave its mark on her. The thrust had missed her spine by millimetres; she was lucky the only thing she had to remember the incident by was that scar.
Feeling that peculiar touch, Tifa jumped. "Hey...?"
She turned her head.
There was no one behind her.
What...? she wondered, turning fully to observe the beach around her. I couldn't have imagined that... There didn't seem to be anyone even looking her way... Well, there was one, but...
That one was a small child, a boy no more than eight or nine years old. As Tifa looked at him, he looked back for a second, then turned his head away.
He was an ordinary child, Tifa thought - a bit pale for the area, but he could be a tourist; over half the people on the beach were. His hair was very fair - almost white... or silver. That, in conjunction with his pale skin, was a bit strange; the hair looked sun-bleached, but under it, the boy looked as if he seldom saw the sun.
It was the eyes that startled her, though.
They were blue.
"Retreat!" Godo shouted. "They are too strong! To the Pagoda, everyone!" The sounds of the battle ringing in his ears; screams, the clashing of weapons, the occasional roar of magical flames or lightning, he was not certain if anyone had heard him, but slowly the defenders started backing up, closer to Pagoda. I cannot believe this! the samurai thought as he deftly side-stepped a spear thrust and lopped the spearhead off with his sword, turning and punching the spear's wielder out with the pommel. Where did they all come from?
From the enemy ranks, a hoarse voice shouted out a command: "Cut them off! Do not allow them to get near the Pagoda!"
We shall see about that... Godo thought, as he struck down two attackers with one simple slash. "Quick! Move!"
There was a flash of fire from somewhere above him, and he looked up to see his daughter standing on a roof, holding a piece of Materia. Red fire rained down on the enemy ranks; then a bowstring sang, and the fire ceased. Godo once more turned his head to look up, but Yuffie had vanished - and the arrow was stuck in the wall. Breathing a sigh of relief, the old warrior turned to face his enemies again. This is getting out of hand! Wutai no longer kept much of an army, and since the war no one seemed to take the old codes seriously. Only Godo and a few other, ageing warriors had kept training. The others had rudimentary skills, and could hold a sword without cutting their fingers, but that was about it. One of the few exceptions... His thoughts were interrupted as Yuffie appeared on another roof, throwing a couple of fireballs at the attackers, then vanished again. Godo sighed and backed another step. We might have no choice... Gorky, Shake, Chekhov and Staniv, the other four of Pagoda, were fighting in human form, as was Godo, but they might be forced show their magical shapes if this went on much longer. Already they had lost over half their defending force - there was no telling how many were dead, how many just wounded.
Or there might be another alternative. A better alternative... He did not like the idea, but it might be what they needed. "Yuffie!" he shouted, "if you hear me... go to the Pagoda! Use the Summon!"
Then he turned his attention back to the enemy. Now I can only wait...
"By the way, Tifa," Cloud said as they walked home. "What was it that happened on the beach? You yelped, and then... when I looked, there was nothing."
"Ah, nothing..." Tifa wondered why she didn't want to tell Cloud what she had seen, but something told her not to... at least not now. "The clip on my top opened."
Cloud grinned. "I guess that's a good reason."
"It is to me." But... "Well, anyway, I have to take a shower and get the salt and sand out of my hair. Care to join me?"
"Why, that sounds like a splendid idea," Cloud replied with a mischievous grin that would have surprised her a year ago. Now, however, Tifa just grinned back.
"Let's go, then," she said with a wink.
Kai was running. He did not know why, or where, but he ran as fast as he could. He could feel the power of the winged beast even now, but it was fading fast. He wondered, as he ran, why it meant anything to him - he had no idea as to what was going on, and the flying being was unfamiliar. The idea that he might catch up with it, well, not even he was that naive. So why was he running? He slowed down, and finally stopped, panting, and leaned against a large, sun-warmed rock. "Damn..." he gasped. "I'm... stupid."
Turning his head, squinting against the strong light of the sun, he looked towards the west, where the creature had been heading. "Won... wonder where... that thing was... going?" Still breathing hard and fast, he turned the bracelet on his left wrist, finding a certain Materia orb, and focussed his mind on it. Healing power soon pulsed through his body, washing away the fatigue - a trick he had learned long ago; not terribly spectacular, but sometimes useful. However, instead of heading off again, he sat down with his back to the warm stone, caring little about the dusty road. "I wonder..." To the west - what was to the west? He thought hard, and came up with an answer.
But Wutai was a place for tourists now, not really interesting... unless one was interested in cheap souvenirs, and somehow, he doubted that the being would like to buy a cheap porcelain vase or an imitation of an expensive carpet.
Then again, why would it be heading for Wutai specifically? The Wutai area, yes, but the city? Not likely, and still...
It felt like a warning.
Fighting her way to the Pagoda, Yuffie tried not to think of anything else than the Materia sealed on the top level. It was hard, however, to keep her mind off what was happening around her. Why... why? She had seen people killed - she had killed - before, and it had never bothered her... almost never... but now... There aren't any gods. Why does he keep hoping? We don't even know if it'll work! She had just seen two young men - two boys she had grown up with! - cut down by one of the invading soldiers. The man had never stopped to see what damage his blows had inflicted; he was satisfied as soon as his opponents fell.
She had killed him. But did that bring her friends back? No. Of course not. And that made it all so much worse... Damn it! Inside, she was screaming. Something caught her eye - another Wutaian dying on an invader's blade. "Die!" she roared. The enemy soldier screamed briefly as three shuriken tore through his eye, throat and - her aim had been off with the last one - arm. He fell, dying, and the shinobi leaped over him. Then, suddenly, she stopped, looking down at her hands. They were shaking. But I'm no better than him! she realised, tears rising in her eyes. The sounds of the battle seemed to increase manifold, the screams and clashing of steel on steel deafening her. This is all... too much... But she remembered Godo's words, or what she had heard of them: "Yuffie! If you hear... Pagoda! ...the Summon!" That was all she had heard, but it was enough for her to understand. No... can't stay here... Have to get the Materia! But as she ran, she thought, with fury that surprised her, Someone will pay for this!
The climb up was long and seemed to take forever. Yuffie was half blinded by tears when she reached the last floor, and wiped her eyes absentmindedly as she approached the niche in the wall where the Materia was lying. It was small, but nevertheless a temple - the top floor of Pagoda was more important than most people realised. Almost reverently, the young shinobi retrieved the sparkling red orb, gazing into its radiant depths...
Tearing her eyes away from the Materia, she opened a hidden door, ascended a short, steep set of stairs, almost a ladder, and opened a hatch leading out onto the roof. Standing up, she looked down at the battle below...
The red-dressed Wutai soldiers were still retreating. She saw the five of Pagoda still in the front line, their skill so much greater than the other warriors that the enemies' assault was slowed by them alone. However, the white-garbed soldiers were gaining ground, and outnumbered Wutai's forces three of four to one. Yuffie sighed and averted her eyes from the scene. Why does it bother me so much? "Damn you all!" Raising the piece of Materia, holding it in both hands over her head, she screamed the Esper's name, uttering a prayer that Godo had taught her long ago. "Leviathan! God of water that flows, master of the waves! Dragon of the seas, lord of rain! Aid thy servants in our time if need!" The prayer was unnecessary; she knew that now. Leviathan was just another Esper, and far from the strongest. He was, however, the Esper that the people of Wutai had worshipped as a god for as long as anyone could remember, and so far - before the war - he had always been there to protect them. There had been no need to use the Materia - Leviathan would have come to their aid if they needed him.
During the war, all that changed. Wutai had been defeated, completely and utterly, and Leviathan had never once appeared. Some people said he had died. Yuffie knew better.
Now, the ninja channelled her inner powers into the Materia, sending the plea for help through the many-layered veils between the dimensions, and felt the 'god' respond.
"I hear you," a powerful voice said. It sounded like a great brass gong - something somewhere between music and pure noise - and this close, it was uncomfortably loud. A swirling, watery shape was taking shape above her. "What is your wish, little one?"
"Destroy them!" Yuffie whispered through her teeth, clenching her hands into fists to keep them from trembling. "Destroy them all!"
Leviathan was silent for a few seconds, and the watery shape seemed to take on a solid shape, colours appearing, scales fading into place. The river dragon turned its eyes, large and deep sea blue, on her. "Since last we met," Leviathan whispered, but even a mere whisper was loud, "you have changed... What can inspire such grief, such anguish, in one so young?"
"That... that's none of your business!" Yuffie threw all respect and reverence overboard, turning to face the dragon, anger flaring in her eyes. "They are dying! Your people - my people - are dying down there! Why aren't you helping them? Have you truly abandoned Wutai, as they say? No one outside of Wutai believes in the Espers as gods anymore! I, I... help them!" She broke down sobbing, falling to her knees. "Just help them!" she whispered. "Please!"
The ancient dragon regarded her with nothing but compassion in its eyes. "There are some things more important than lives," he said softly. "Such as souls. Hearts."
"I don't care!" the ninja sniffled. "Just help them!"
Leviathan lowered his head in a sort of bow. "It shall be done."
Susanna craned her neck to watch the fight over the shoulder of her mount. "Down there!" she commanded. "The tower! They have an Esper."
So they do, came the answer. A powerful Esper, Leviathan, master of the waves. The King of Espers.
Susanna felt a slight discomfort at this. "Can you take him?" she asked, squinting worriedly. The creature below was half again as large the one she was riding, and now that it had fully arrived in this dimension, it sparkled and shimmered in all the colours of the rainbow. Massive lances of ice were appearing in front of the dragon-like beast, falling among the white-dressed fighters, striking them down in a way that reminded her of a furious storm throwing trees to the ground.
I am not sure. Leviathan is old, and weak now. He follows Bahamut's Code, and has not appeared in this world for several years. His body is weakening, but his mind... you can see his power. Susanna looked down once more, tearing her gaze away from the river dragon god. As they struck, the ice-spears shattered into smaller fragments, tearing through the warriors, felling many white-dressed men, never touching the ones in red. Shall I try? her companion asked.
"I can't decide..."
Decide quickly. Our troops are falling fast.
"I know... Well, then... I can't sit around doing nothing. Attack him."
As you wish, Susanna.
She felt gravity reverse, threatening to tear her out of the saddle as the white dragon swooped down towards the Pagoda, its claws out and ready to strike...
"Hoo..." Cloud yawned and stretched. Something was holding his right arm... "Tifa?"
"Mmm," Tifa mumbled. She had a tight grip on Cloud's arm; he carefully pried it from her grasp, and sat up. Tifa mumbled something in protest, waking up partially, but rolled over and went back to sleep almost the same instant. Cloud smiled at her back.
Still likes to sleep late... he thought as he rose and went over to the window, drawing the curtains aside, letting the light fall in. Behind him, Tifa made a small noise of complaint, and he let the curtains fall back behind him, standing between them and the open window. A gentle wind was blowing from the west, carrying the fresh scent of sea with it. Cloud took a deep breath and stretched again, enjoying the heat of the sun on his face. I wonder... There was something that didn't feel quite right, a kind of anxiousness that he couldn't put his finger on... But as if it had just been a bad dream, the warmth of the sun and the gentle caress of the wind washed the feeling away.
The wind carried with is something else, though.
Cloud stared out towards the glittering sapphire glow of the ocean, and remembered...
He shook his head. It had been over a year since Aerith died... by Sephiroth's hand. Cloud's grip on the windowsill tightened for a second. Over a year... He could never forget her, he knew that, but now... the memories seemed so... alive. Aerith? he thought, looking up from the sea to the sky, perfectly blue - he seemed to be the only 'cloud' on his own skies, he noted with a touch of dark humour. What did you feel that day... under the city of the Ancients? He had asked that question so many times... He had asked and asked, but never received an answer.
Then another question presented itself.
What did Sephiroth feel?
That question, too, was impossible for him to answer.
To think that that man was... my friend... No, he never was my friend... it was all in my head. Or was it? I... worshipped him. I wanted to be like him... No, damn it, I wanted to be him. I just can't seem to find what I am looking for. I have this house, and Tifa to share it with me... I have friends, although it has been long since I saw them...
I have all this...
So why can't I convince myself that I am happy?
Cloud looked down, his gaze passing over the sky, the sea, the harbour and the docks... then some trees, just around the outskirts of town... a few houses... then he was looking straight down and into the smooth cobblestones outside the 'Villa Strifehart'. Thinking of the name, he smiled. 'Strifehart'... Was it a good name? It sounded perfect...
But he could not forget what his name, Strife, stood for. Battle. Discord. Conflict.
Paired with Tifa's name... Lockhart. It was made up from the words 'Lock' and 'Heart'.
Strange, Cloud thought, smiling wryly, that some words are so descriptive. Yes, he had kept his heart under lock and key... and she was the one who had unlocked it, wasn't she?
So, no longer 'Lock'.
Now it was 'Strife'.
He just hoped that this name would never be as descriptive as the other one.
Maybe it was for the better, but he had no time to continue that line of thought.
Suddenly the curtains were being pushed aside, ever so gently, and someone slid an arm around him, stroking his chest. Cloud put his own hand over hers. Even if there had been a hundred women in the room, he could have picked her out by the feel of her hand. "I thought you were still asleep." Tifa's hands were as callused as his own, but still seemed soft, somehow; both soft and hard.
"I was. For a short while, at least... You aren't getting all moody, are you?"
He smiled slightly and squeezed her hand reassuringly. "No, I'm just... thinking. Remembering stuff. It's been a while since we met any of the others..."
"Mm?" She encircled his waist with both arms and pulled him closer, pressing her body against his, leaning her chin on his shoulder. "I wonder how little Marlene is doing," she murmured.
"Yeah..." But not just Marlene. Cloud suddenly felt a strong urge to pack up and leave Costa del Sol, head to Rocket Town - or No Rocket Town, nowadays - and pick up Cid, then have the pilot fly them around the world and visit everybody. Cid had reclaimed his plane a couple of months ago, saying he needed it for some project or other - and since it was Cid's plane, Cloud couldn't very well object. "Maybe we should ask Cid to give us a ride," he voiced his thoughts. "Down to Corel... Nibelheim... Wutai..."
"Yeah," Tifa agreed, her speech somewhat muffled since her chin was on Cloud's shoulder. "We should."
"I think," Tifa said, lifting her head, "that you know very well what I think. Don't you, Cloud?"
He grinned. "Yeah. I suppose."
"So perhaps we should pack?"
"Then let's," she said, and kissed him on the ear - that was as far as she could reach. Then she hugged him tight and slid away, leaving Cloud alone by the window.
Yeah, let's, the young man thought, running a hand through his spiky hair. Maybe that's just what I need...
The feeling was growing stronger. Kai blinked his eyes a couple of times, clearing his mind as he stopped walking and sat down at the roadside, slipping into a meditative trance. Sending his thoughts out over the vast depths of the astral plane, he spun a web of awareness to capture the disruptive waves that were sure to be floating around in that creature's wake...
"No!" He snapped out of his trance with a scream, standing up as every muscle in his body seemed to go out of control. Shaking, almost incapable of moving, retching and coughing, almost throwing up, he managed to touch the healing Materia and focus on calm. Slowly peeling the chaos and pain away, layer by layer, he managed to remain standing. That was but one step. The next was to force the disorder he had felt - the pain! - away.
It took him better part of an hour, and by the time he finally succeeded, he was drenched in sweat and tired half to death. As he released the iron grip on the Materia, he almost fell back into a sitting position. Leaning his head against a nearby tree, not minding the bark and splinters getting stuck in his sweat-damp hair, he closed his eyes. It hurt. He realised he must have been keeping them open all the time. Oh, darkness! He sighed heavily. What he had felt...
He hadn't felt anything like it since the war. And even then, it had never been quite this bad... had it? It was possible it had, since he had been young and inexperienced at the time. However...
He knew very well what it was he had felt.
During the war several years ago, he had been young, but still able to stretch his mind into the consciousness-web to find disruptions. He had tried it once, only once, during the war.
That time, he had almost died. So many voices - so many souls - so much death! His young, inexperienced psyche had been unable to cope with the raw power of agony that hurtled from even a small skirmish.
He had now found that even as strong as he had become now, it was still too much - far too much.
Slowly, he reached for the healing Materia again. Channelling a trickle of power into its core, he felt the magic work its way through his body, focusing on his eyes, easing the pain. Then, knowing that as drained as he was, he would have no strength to move far, he crawled a bit further from the road, dragging his pack with him, and lay down under a bushy fir tree, fast asleep almost before he stopped moving.
His last conscious thought was, Wutai!
Susanna felt a tingle of elation as Mist dove straight for Leviathan's throat, fangs bared. But with a speed greater than seemed possible, the King of Espers lunged forwards, his long, flowing body sliding out of reach with ridiculous ease. Turning his head to look straight at Susanna, the Esper seemed to feel no fear - only slight annoyance, as if Mist and Susanna were only minor obstacles to be cleared out of the way. "Why are you attacking me?" the river-dragon asked, his voice mild but powerful. Susanna shielded her mind from the magic of a dragon's words; if she was not careful, the creature might charm or hypnotise her with the force of his voice alone. Leviathan was not consciously trying to affect them; the power was always there, noticeable whenever a dragon spoke. Susanna shivered. Mist, of course, as a dragon, was not affected by such magic - and hissed as she felt the power in the King's voice.
"You have lived in the land of Espers too long, King. Your powers are diminishing; your glow has faded. Your strength is gone, broken. How can you let that fool, that 'god', control your actions? Let him destroy your free will? You are no better than an animal to him. You are not worthy of living." Mist lunged again, but Leviathan was like the water he controlled, impossible to cut.
"You are mistaken. Our god has the power to seal us in our world, yet he has not chosen to do so. I believe in his wisdom, as do my kin. The Code is not a restricting bond; its only purpose is to guide and to protect. Bahamut knows that humankind has reached a level of power where a war might be impossible to avoid."
"Lies... all lies!" Mist hissed. "You are his pawn! You place your life, your trust, in the hands of the Great Bahamut, and what happens? I will not stand by and see this happen!" Drawing his head back, Mist spat a bolt of lightning at her King.
On the Pagoda's roof, Yuffie blanched as the battle of the two Espers commenced. Leviathan was powerful, especially here; she was sure he would win... but every second the two battled, the people of Wutai would be without help, and they were still outnumbered two to one. Her father and his four generals would hold out... but for how long? Looking up, she saw lightning flash between the two Espers, but it seemed to cause no damage, wherever it hit. This could go on forever... But I don't have forever! she thought. I have to do something... anything! But what can I...
There might be something...
Yes, there was something. But that in itself could bring almost as much trouble as the invasion alone.
But at least her people would live.
Yuffie turned and leaped down the stairs, slamming the hatch shut behind her, and ran. She practically fell down the four sets of stairs, not caring if she sustained any wounds - she only knew that she had to get out of the tower, fast!
Finally, she reached the first level, stumbling as she misjudged a step, falling on the rough wooden floor, scraping her arms and legs, several splinters digging themselves into her skin. Frantically, she sprang back to her feet, ignoring the stinging pain, and kicked the door open. Instantly, there were people all around her, making a last-ditch stand around Pagoda. Pushing her way through the crowd, she headed for the nearest building. Digging her fingers and toes into cracks and unevenities in the wall, she pulled herself up, slowly, centimetre by centimetre... but finally she reached the roof, and swung her legs over the edge, rolling onto the tiles, where she lay panting for a couple of seconds before rising to her knees. She had no really useful Materia; Vincent wouldn't give her his Ultima Materia, and the ones she had managed to keep after the battle against Sephiroth... Yes, a spell could affect a large area, but if she spread it enough for the area she needed, it would take too much power to cause enough damage; she could not hope to decimate the enemy forces enough with her magic alone.
Sighing, she put a hand in a secret pocket in her shorts - despite their size and appearance, Yuffie's clothes held several secret pockets; after all, she was a ninja - and instantly found what she was looking for.
An orb of Materia.
No, not as much an orb as a chunk of Materia, because it was not smooth; it was basically orb-shaped, but uneven, and not as smooth as normal Materia. With yet another sigh, the shinobi brought the Materia up, looking at it regretfully.
"I had hoped... I... hoped this never would have to happen, you know..." She shook her head. "It's never easy, is it? Never, ever easy..." She sobbed quietly. "I'm sorry," she whispered, almost not seeing the Materia through the mist of tears. "I'm so sorry!"
And then she performed the summon.
"Is that all?" Tifa asked as Cloud set his bag next to hers.
"It is," he confirmed. "I have all I need in there... and of course, I'll be carrying this on my back." He indicated the 'Ultima Weapon' with his thumb. The great two-handed sword was strapped to his back in a sheath that allowed Cloud to draw it quickly, but seemed about to open at any time and make him drop the sword; so far, however, this had never happened. "A few changes of clothes, there isn't much more."
"Okay, I believe you! Now, do you have the chocobos?"
"Just outside." The chocobos were ones that Cloud and Tifa had raised themselves; both strong and good-natured birds. Tifa nodded.
"Good. Now, let's see... the stove - check. The lights - check. The water - check. The papers - check... wait, you did cancel the papers, didn't you?" Cloud nodded. "Good! Then... the windows - check. The refrigerator - check. The door... we're getting to that. Was there anything else? You've talked to Ryan?"
"Yes," Cloud confirmed. "He wanted to come, but his parents wouldn't let him." Secretly, Cloud had been relieved to hear this; being idolised and seen as a hero wasn't too bad, but Ryan... the boy was thinking of Cloud in exactly the same way Cloud had been thinking of Sephiroth, a long time ago.
Cloud drew the line there. He wouldn't have anyone else repeating his mistakes. All right if Ryan wanted to be like him - and after all, learning swordplay could be useful to him some day - but when he started wanting to be him, it had gone far enough. Hopefully, this trip would give Ryan a chance to calm down a little....
"Well, we need some time on our own, too," Tifa said, happily oblivious of Cloud's thoughts. "Other than that... anything we might have forgotten?"
"Did you check the widows?" Cloud said, his voice and face serious. Tifa automatically started for the nearest window - then a furrow appeared on her forehead, and she looked down at the paper she was holding.
"Windows... windows.. Ah, there it is: windows - check..." She glared at Cloud. "You did that on purpose!"
"And what if I did, dear?" he asked innocently.
"Oh, you...!" She tried hard not to smile, but couldn't resist the urge. Soon they were both laughing.
"You said I needed to develop a sense of humour," Cloud pointed out as the laughter died down.
"That I did," his beloved replied, "although I might have made the mistake of my life, saying that!" She broke out in fresh gales of mirth, while Cloud simply watched her with a slightly amused look on his face. Finally, Tifa stopped laughing, blew Cloud a kiss, and picked up her bags. Cloud picked up his own - it was heavier than it looked, he noticed - and they exited. Cloud, having one arm free, locked the door behind them and pocketed the key. Then they headed out of town.
Although not allowed to travel with them, Ryan was there to see them off. Cloud and Tifa strapped their gear to the chocobos' saddles, and then mounted. They kept waving while the birds walked, even after Ryan had disappeared out of sight.
After that, they gave their chocobos free reins, and the birds eagerly lengthened their steps. Before long, Costa del Sol had vanished beneath the horizon.
"This isn't working," Kai realised. I need to get faster... But where could he...
There was a river nearby; he had crossed it a few hours ago. If his memory served him right, there should be a small cabin further down the stream - he had heard that some old man or other was living there, and maybe, just maybe...
He headed through the woods, closer to the river, so that he wouldn't miss the house when he passed.
For two hours, he trudged through the woods. It wasn't a very dense forest, so it didn't slow him down too much, but it wasn't easy, either. However, when he finally reached the cabin, he felt his spirits soar.
The old man had a boat.
His heart in his throat, Kai knocked on the door. It was a while before anything happened; then the door opened just a crack - Kai heard a chain rattling - and someone stepped up to the narrow opening.
"What is it?" someone said. It was an old man's voice.
"My name is Kai," the traveller said, making a small bow. "I have... important news to speak with you about. I need to borrow your boat."
"Boat?" the old man said suspiciously. "Out of the question! I need that boat, I do!"
"Please, venerable one," Kai pleaded. "I have a reason to believe that... something is amiss in Wutai. I need to get there... fast."
"Wutai, eh?" The old man harumphed. "Wutai is a place for tourists with jelly for brains! Nothing could possibly go wrong there." He seemed about to close the door, but Kai put his foot in, holding the door open.
"Please, listen! I can pay, and pay well. Look here..." He raised his left hand. The studded iron bracelet glittered dully in the filtered sunlight, but the Materia shone like stars. "If you let me use your boat, I will let you choose one of these."
The old man was tempted, Kai could tell that by his aura; it shone with greed. "Any... one of them?" he asked suspiciously.
"Yes, any one of them. Look, I'll hand it to you through the door here and now if you let me use the boat. No need for you to open up, hmm? And if I can, I will return the boat, and you can keep the Materia."
"Emm..." The man seemed to be thinking it over. Kai turned his back to the cabin and fiddled with his Materia-laden bracelet; removing some of the most valuable Materia from it and clicking other, more easily replaced ones, into the slots.
"Do we have a deal?" he asked, holding his hand up again for the man to see the sparkling orbs. "One Materia... for one boat."
"We... yeah... yes! We have a deal." The old man cackled. "But I want my pick first, before I let you do anything!"
Do you really think you could stop me? Kai thought wryly. Weak and frail he might be, but he could definitely take care of that old man... "Then pick one of your choice," he said, holding his arm out.
The man took his time trying to decide what Materia he wanted - as Kai had predicted, he had no sense of magic at all, and probably wouldn't know the Materia's effects before he tried it out. Finally, however, he settled for one containing Earth power, and, as promised, Kai handed it to him before going down to get his boat.
As he had expected, the boat had seen better days, but it was good enough to take him where he needed to go. Fortunately there were oars and a small sail - he needed both for what he had in mind.
A few minutes later, the boat was in the water, and Kai was in the boat. He set the sail and started rowing, steering the boat into the centre of the stream. Once there, he rummaged through his pack and came up with a green orb. A very rare kind of Materia, it was one of his most prized possessions.
Focusing his mind on the materia, Kai caused the air around him to start moving. A few seconds later, a wind was blowing - a strong, steady wind, a version of the spell kept inside this Materia. Called "Aero" by those who knew of its existence, this spell was all but forgotten - but Kai had, after a considerable amount of work, managed to find one, single piece of this Materia. Normally, he did not use it unless he could be certain no one saw it, but this time there seemed to be little else to do.
Under the spell, the small craft rapidly sailed down the river, towards the sea. Kai sat back and enjoyed the ride as much as he could, using the oars to steer the boat.
It took him three hours to reach the sea. Although he knew that it would take him a long time to reach Wutai in any other way, and the sea was dangerous, especially to someone in such a small boat, he kept going. What else could he do?
I will be way too late... he thought bitterly. I wish I could find a way to move faster! But that was impossible, unless he pushed the Aero spell further, but then he would risk breaking the mast. "Damn..." He would be too late. But even if he could not prevent what was happening... he could find out why it had happened.
And he could deal with the ones responsible.
A stunned silence spread throughout the enemy lines - and the Wutaians' as well - as a massive pillar of silver-white light shot from the ground, fading away to reveal a man standing at the edge of a roof.
For a few seconds, the men and women took in the sight of this man. Dressed in black. Silver hair. Carrying a long, gleaming sword.
It wasn't more than a few seconds before someone whispered, "Sephiroth! The Great Sephiroth!"
The whisper spread like wildfire, and soon everyone seemed to be whispering. The fighting had died down; the city would have been deathly quiet, had it not been for the two Espers still struggling in the air above.
"I am Sephiroth." The man spoke loud and clear, and his voice reached far. Some of the white-clad warriors, near the rear ranks, started edging away, and a few broke completely and ran, throwing their weapons.
"For many long years, I fought battles - much like this one," Sephiroth continued. "I saw more bloodshed in one day than most of you will see throughout the course of your entire lives. Yet I kept fighting." The silver-haired man stared at the warriors gathered below, his Mako blue eyes cold with anger. "Why?"
He waited. No one spoke up.
"It was because it was all I knew. I lived for the fight.
"Later, I realised there was more to life than just war.
"That realisation was followed closely by another, far more important, one. I also came to realise that I could never fully forgive myself for all the death I had caused.
"Why am I saying this? There are several reasons. One is a choice. I can chose to help either side by fighting for them. I can stand here and watch while you destroy each other. And I can try and help all of you.
"If you go through with this battle, many of you will end up the same as I - unable to forgive yourselves for what you have done. Stop this battle now, and this may never happen. Stop the killing, and you can go on with your lives, those of you lucky enough to have survived this far.
"You, warriors in white. You walk another man's errands. Do not let your lust for gold blind you. This battle can trigger events greater than you can ever imagine. For the sake all beings living on this planet, do not let this happen."
Behind Sephiroth, further up on the roof, Yuffie staggered to her feet. What is he doing? she wondered dazedly, staring down at the people below. The only ones who were fighting now were the two Espers, and so far they seemed evenly matched. All the humans, however... It is working...? It is... actually working? She stared in disbelief. He is... talking them out... of fighting?
But still, the warriors were far from convinced. Except for the ones who had fled earlier, the white-garbed ones did not seem about to leave, and all those who had been holding weapons when Sephiroth appeared, were still holding them. They all seemed to be waiting for something... what? Yuffie averted her eyes from the scene below and looked up into the sky. Now it seemed that Leviathan was slowly pushing the other Esper back. And suddenly -
Something fell from the white dragon. It was a small, insignificant speck, so small that it was almost impossible to make out even its colour. It fell, nearing the ground... and then it seemed to explode. There was a noiseless flash of sooty red fire, and the speck vanished.
Then someone shouted, "Fight! Do not be fooled!" A blue-clad woman appeared on the roof, near Yuffie. She turned to look at the ninja - and Yuffie gasped in terror. The woman's hair was silver coloured - and her eyes Mako blue. She looked, to all extents, like a female version of Sephiroth.
I can't be seeing this! Yuffie backed away, slipping on the roof-tiles, trying to put distance between herself and the woman. I must be dreaming! There was no other explanation; it had to be a dream!
The woman stepped closer, drawing a slim-bladed sword. "You are the cause of this... disturbance?" she asked. "You are the one who caused this?" She pointed with the sword, indicating the two Espers. Now Leviathan was clearly winning, pushing the white dragon back. "I will make you pay for this... dearly!"
Yuffie just stood and watched, balancing on the edge of the roof, unable to escape and unable to move, held in a firm grip by terror. This can't be happening, it must be a dream... must be a dream...
The woman took one more step towards the ninja, bringing Yuffie in range of her sword. Smiling, the silver-haired woman raised her sword, then slashed down. Yuffie followed the arc of the gleaming blade with her eyes. This is a dream. I will wake up.
The sword stopped only a decimetre from her head. No one had seen him move, but Sephiroth was there, his sword held out to block the woman's.
The parry almost jolted Susanna's sword from her hands. It felt like striking an iron wall - Sephiroth's sword never budged. Looking into his eyes, Susanna shuddered. So this is Sephiroth... 'the Great' Sephiroth...
Sephiroth looked back. There was nothing but calm in his face; she couldn't see a trace of any emotions whatsoever. He cannot be human... Sephiroth was dead. This man had to be an impostor...
But what proof did they have of his death? Looking into his eyes, she could not imagine how this could be anyone else than Sephiroth himself. Backing off, her sword scraping against his, she took combat stance. The people below still watched; nothing moved. Then Sephiroth lowered his sword.
"I have tried," he said softly, "to end this pointless battle. What good could possibly come from destroying you? Leave... and take your soldiers with you."
Susanna stared at him. "You... You... Sephiroth, backing away from a battle? Who are you?"
"You know my name."
Susanna shook her head. "The real Sephiroth would never turn down a challenge like this. You cannot be the one you claim to be."
Sephiroth shook his head, mirroring her gesture. "That was one facet of a crystal," he said softly. "Do you not care to see its opposite?"
"I care to see my mission fulfilled. And if that means I have to destroy you..." She calmly looked into his eyes, and finished the sentence, "Then I will destroy you."
Sephiroth still did not raise his sword. "It is pointless," he said. "You cannot win. What is it that forces you to act this way? What is it that compels you to throw your life away?" There was a hint of sadness in his voice, and although she desperately tried to convince herself that this was not the real Sephiroth, that this man was an impostor, Susanna found it harder to think that way for every word he spoke.
Still, she was under obligation to take Wutai. And that was one oath she would not break.
"Stand aside, Sephiroth. I must do this."
"I cannot let you."
"Then so be it." She raised her sword and lunged for his heart. Her aim was true, and the sword cut through the air - and only air. She had not seen him move, but Sephiroth was not there. Her thrust missed him by half a metre, almost causing her to lose her footing. Damn... She recovered from the thrust and backed away, waiting for him to follow. Sephiroth just shook his head again.
"You cannot see... can you?" he said. "You still have a chance. Use it!"
Susanna felt tears rise in her eyes. Use it... "I can't, damn you! I... just can't!" She raised her sword again, aiming for the child still standing motionless by the edge of the roof. "If I cannot defeat you..."
"If you could defeat me," Sephiroth sighed, "your fate would be even worse. You still have a chance. Even after all this, it is there. Take it."
Susanna felt her world spin. I can't! He knows I can't!
"I am sorry," she said. Lowering the sword, levelling it at the girl, she gathered power into a blast of fire-like darkness aimed at the ninja. Once again, Sephiroth moved so fast she could not see it. The darkness struck his sword... and vanished, absorbed into the steel, leaving only a few shadow-like blazes to strike the child, who did not seem to notice.
Susanna lowered her blade, speechless. Her most powerful spell... and he had just shrugged it off like so much hot air.
All doubt gone, she finally admitted to herself, He really is Sephiroth...
I will die here.
At least I will be remembered.
Her Mako blue eyes glowing with determination, she raised the sword again and advanced.
-Two days earlier...-
Cloud and Tifa had made their way to Rocket Town, with a small detour to Corel and a few stops at Cosmo Canyon and Nibelheim on the way to say hello to Barret, Red and Vincent. Nanaki had been very glad to see them, and they had staid at the Canyon for a couple of days; the same with Barret and Marlene, who were now living in a large house in the almost completely rebuilt Corel - together with Elmyra, to Cloud and Tifa's surprise. Vincent, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found, and they had left Nibelheim in a hurry; there were too many painful memories there for comfort.
They found Shera in the kitchen, preparing tea for Cid, who was in the back yard tinkering with his plane. The engineer was surprised, and quite pleased, to see them again, and hurriedly scrambled to get some more tea.
Cid, meanwhile, was just putting the last gear into place. Slowly and carefully, he replaced the cover plate and bolted it into place, wiped his hands on an old towel, and went inside to wash up before he had tea. As he opened the door, he heard voices from the kitchen. What...? He wasn't expecting any visitors today. wrapping a clean part of the towel around the doorknob, he opened the door into the kitchen -
"Well I'll be darned!" Who could have guessed... "Cloud and Tifa!" Surprised as he was, Cid forgot about the motor oil soiling his hands, and promptly proceeded to shake Cloud and Tifa's hands.
Once they had got rid of the oil, the four of them sat down around the kitchen table to drink tea, smoke a cigarette - in Cid's case - and chat.
"It's been a year, hasn't it?" Cid said, puffing away on his cigarette. "Damn, time flies away..."
"It doesn't feel like a year," Shera said.
"Yeah... I know," Tifa agreed. Cloud just nodded. "So how are you doing out here?" she continued.
"Doin' fine," Cid said. "No bloody Shinra bugging us anymore. Don't know why I'm still here, but..." He shrugged. "Ah, guess I've got used to the place. How about you two? Got any kids yet?" He waggled an eyebrow suggestively. Tifa smiled and managed to blush slightly, but shook her head.
"Give the kids a rest, Captain," Shera chided. "You're still young, miss Lockhart. Still got plenty of time." Tifa smiled broader and blushed deeper. "By the way," Shera said, oblivious of this, "aren't you going to get married?"
Tifa blinked. "You know, we never really discussed that. It doesn't feel very urgent, as it is. Right, Cloud?"
Cloud shrugged. "Yeah." She was right. He felt no pressing desire to get married.
"How about you two then?" Tifa asked. "Why don't you two get married?"
"What the hell?" Cid sputtered, only barely managing to set his cup down without spilling tea all over the table and himself. "Marry... We? That's a load of bull, all right!"
Shera giggled, trying - in vain - to hide it behind her hand. It wasn't exactly a secret that she and Cid liked each other, and the reason why he constantly tried to hide it was a mystery to her. Still, thinking of it made her laugh, without really knowing why. Cid glared at her.
"Don't just sit there like a moron! Get us some more goddamn tea!"
That line was too much for Shera. She almost doubled over laughing, an infectious laugh that soon had Tifa and even Cloud laughing too. Only Cid remained serious, but just for a short while. He tried to regain his posture, but failed. He felt his lips move on their own accord, and before he knew it, he joined the others. "That was a bit uncalled for," he chuckled, "wasn't it?"
"Not at all, Captain," Shera laughed. "Do you still want that tea?"
They talked for hours, well past midnight. Finally, Cloud and Tifa rolled out their sleeping bags - since there were no spare beds in Cid and Shera's house - in an adjoining room, while Cid and Shera stumbled into bed. Soon everybody were asleep.
Come morning, Cloud had no idea where he was. It took him several seconds to figure out just why he was in a sleeping bag on a hard wooden floor - but then it hit him, and he remembered. Ah, yes. Rocket Town.
As usual, ha had woken up before Tifa, but even for him, this was uncharacteristically early; it was still dark outside. He silently slipped out of the sleeping bag and got dressed as quietly as possible, not wanting to disturb her, and soon stepped out into the kitchen.
Cid was already up, and the kitchen was full of cigarette smoke. The pilot apparently knew how to make tea by himself, since there was a pot on the stove. Some fresh-baked bread was on the table, along with cheese and butter. Cid turned and nodded at Cloud as he stepped out from the small room he shared with Tifa.
"Breakfast?" he wondered around the cigarette.
"Yeah. Thanks," Cloud replied, and took the cup Cid offered him, then sat down and took a slice of the still-warm bread. Cid took a seat opposite him, and they had breakfast in silence.
"You know," Cid said when they had finished eating, "I should have visited everybody months ago. Something keeps coming between... I haven't seen you or Red since I got the 'Bronco back, and the others..." He shrugged. "Damn, I really need to get a grip on myself. Not like me at all."
"It's okay. It's the same with us," Cloud said, emptying his cup. "I guess things always get in the way. That's the way the world works."
"Yeah." Cid stubbed out his cigarette and tossed it in the sink. "That's one of those things that always stay the same. Some things change, though. You, for example."
"Huh?" Cloud asked.
"You've changed. I think we all have, but you have changed more than anyone." Cid fumbled in his pocket for another cigarette, noticed what he was doing, and put the cigarette back. He grinned sheepishly. "I think I should quit those nasty things... Anyway, it seems Tifa's good for you. Serves you right, too..."
Cloud grinned. "She is," he said. "Very."
"I can see that..." They grinned again. "So you want me to fly you to Wutai..."
"That was the idea," Cloud said. "If it's not too much trouble. And to Midgar."
"Midgar, huh... Yeah, I suppose..." Cid once more tried to get a cigarette, and once more noticed what we was doing just in time. "Reeve's in charge of Shinra now, or what's left of it... you mean he runs the company from the ruins?"
"It's not that bad, actually. The upper levels of the city are destroyed, but much of the lower ones are still inhabitable. But people are leaving, so I guess he will have move, too."
"Hm." Cid pulled the pack of cigarettes from his pocket and tossed it on the kitchen sink. "And stay there! Sometimes, damn it, I wish I had never started on that... Where were we? Oh yeah, Reeve. 'Cait Sith', huh..."
"Yeah. But Wutai first, since it's closer."
"Got it. How soon do you want to leave?"
"As soon as you're ready, I guess."
Cid stood up and stretched. "Then let's move out after the ladies have their breakfast," he said. "As I said, I should have done this a long time ago."
Kai's boat gently scraped against a rock. Its only passenger sat bolt upright, blinking his eyes against the sunlight. "What? What?" Then he realised that he was still in the boat, and that rock...
The rock was several meters behind him already. The boat was heading for a beach... but there were several other rocks sticking up above the water between the boat and the beach. That was bad... a direct collision would be devastating, considering the condition of the vessel. Positioning himself at the prow, he picked up one of the oars and used it to keep the boat from the rocks. I must be out of my goddamn mind, he thought as he struggled to push away from a large, jagged rock that seemed all too eager to tear his small craft to pieces. Crossing the sea in this... this nutshell! I must be mad.
But somehow, he managed to reach the shore with both himself and the boat still in one piece. I wonder if that's some kind of record... But how could he fall asleep like that? How careless, how utterly careless! He glared evilly at the rickety boat. "It's all your fault, you know!" he accused it. The boat, wisely, did not answer. "Oh well..."
He dragged the boat up on the beach and, with some effort, turned it over. Then he shrugged into his backpack and started walking north - not that he knew exactly where he was, but he was fairly certain it was the Wutai continent. And since Wutai was located in the northern parts, well... I wonder what I'll find... Part of him did not want to know. Another part wanted to find out fast. I hope it's not as bad as I fear...
He walked for a couple of hours, but it was getting late and the road was not the safest he had seen, what with the steep cliffs and slippery grass. Finally, he had to make a break for the night, curling up under a small, scraggly spruce.
Early the next day, he would reach Wutai.
But even that would be too late.
It had started raining. Mist was flying away from Wutai, moving slowly, wounded by the King of Espers; Leviathan had returned to Pagoda, hovering over the building, watching the scene below.
Susanna skidded over the slick tiles, her sword cutting uselessly through the air, again missing her intended target, Sephiroth. To her surprise, however, he had made no move to strike back.
"Damn you!" she shouted. Tears of rage mingled with the rainwater in her cheeks. This was worse than losing -worse than being killed in a fair battle. Sephiroth's skills were so much greater than her own that no one could doubt what the outcome would be, was he to attack her.
But he did not. He was toying with her, gods damn it! Susanna, panting, slid to a halt near the edge of the roof, only half a metre from the still stunned ninja brat - half a metre! She slashed in the girl's direction, knowing it to be futile.
Out of nowhere, her opponent's curved blade flashed out, positioning itself between Susanna and the staring child. If only she would move! Susanna found herself annoyed at the girl's open-mouthed staring.
It was not as bad as Sephiroth, however. Turning, she faced him directly, locking gazes with him over the crossed blades.
Then, whirling around, she drew a knife and slashed down with her sword, then, as he blocked the long blade, thrust the knife at him. It was a sudden move; Sephiroth had time to react, but only enough not to take a fatal wound. She hit his shoulder - the left one, unfortunately. Susanna felt the knife hit bone, though, and knew that the odds had turned in her favour.
But Sephiroth showed no pain.
"What does it take to destroy you!" she shouted, in anger and despair letting go of the knife and throwing a punch at his jaw.
Sephiroth easily dodged, then brought up his hand to pull the knife from his shoulder. "More than you have, Susanna," he said, his voice so low that she could scarcely hear it. "Far too much." But at least he wasn't saying anything about giving up anymore... Not bothering to ask how he could know her name, Susanna growled in anger and slashed at him with a two-handed hold on her blade. Again, the iron wall - it felt as if her fingers had broken. The pain in her hands was second only to the pain of the humiliation - she had always prided herself on her swordfighting skills, but now? Now a man was toying with her, like a cat with a mouse; a legend, yes, but still just a man. Screaming wordlessly, she charged -
Then she felt a strange warmth in her stomach. Looking down, she saw an X-shaped cut, shallow but bleeding profusely, over her chest and stomach.
She was shocked by the realisation. She hadn't felt the cut, nor had she seen him move - suddenly, it was just there.
Sephiroth appeared in front of her, standing on the ridge of the roof. His sword was down, the point resting against the rooftiles. Looking back and forth between him and her bloodstained shirt, Susanna hesitated. What could she do?
The answer was brought to her as Sephiroth raised his sword and attacked.
Tok... She felt a numbing pain in her right arm. Her sword clattered on the roof, sliding to the edge, then falling to the ground together with the raindrops.
Tok... The pain in her right arm was mirrored in her left. Had he cut her arms off? She could not tell. There was no doubt that he was physically able to do it, maybe even without his magical blade. She could not look down, dreading what she might see.
Tok... There went her left leg, as it, too, was replaced by a pillar of pure agony. She fell to her knees - knees? Yes, she still had both her legs! And her hands struck the roof, too. Pressure points she realised.
Tok This time, he struck at the small of her back, paralysing her from the waist and down; she could no longer remain on her knees, and fell to the side, unable to stop herself from hitting the roof hard. He's using pressure points to paralyse me!
She caught a glimpse of a gleaming blade descending towards her throat, then felt a burning pain in her neck and shoulders.
And then there was blackness.
Sephiroth looked down at the girl lying before him. She was unconscious, not wounded except for the shallow gashes over her chest. He had used the blunt, unsharpened edge of his sword to hit the pressure points, disabling her temporarily.
It was still a mistake. And if there was something about him that had never changed, it was that - he could not tolerate mistakes.
He turned to look at his Summoner. The girl was sitting in an awkward position, staring at the unconscious woman by Sephiroth's feet, eyes wide open but not quite seeing anything, tears running freely down her cheeks. Sephiroth frowned. Some of that dark power from the sorceress' spell had reached her... she would need help, fast.
His thoughts were interrupted by a bright blue light flaring around the fallen warrior, enveloping her...
It had not been her own doing, Sephiroth could see that clearly; her spell had felt different, and she was quite incapable of doing anything like that at the moment. This was an other, hitherto unknown, force, but it was clear whose side it was on.
Sephiroth sensed nothing going the other way. The spell had taken the woman away, far away - and the one who had cast it was far too good to track, even for Sephiroth. Turning his attention once more on the Summoner, he realised that something else was going on here - something important. Turning to face the crowd, the Great Sephiroth thrust Masamune towards the heavens, calling a bolt of lightning from the storm clouds above, earthing it in his magical blade, casting flickering shadows over the assembled men and women. "If you value your lives," he said, his harsh voice sounding mild after the thunderclap, "leave this place. And do not come back. Much damage has been done already; do not allow yourself to cause more. You all have lives to return to; do so, and think no more of what you have seen today."
Even Leviathan would have been hard pressed to summon such an amount of power, but Sephiroth did it without seeming to feel a thing. Slight, almost invisible bonds of psychic energy around the white-garbed ones fell away at his mental touch. Return... He spoke to them in their minds, pleading, coaxing their thoughts back in their natural patterns. It was a task no normal human could have performed, but Sephiroth, drawing upon the power of the entire Planet, did it in a way that seemed easy.
Slowly, the warriors started noticing a slight change. For some of them, it did not feel like more than a light breeze, there one second but gone the next; for others, the sensation staggered them, and over half the men and women dropped their weapons. The silence was broken by a low murmur as the people started asking themselves, and their comrades, what had just happened.
Some of them looked up, remembering a man standing on a roof just above -
But there was no one there.
Godo watched the white-clad ones slowly leave, the will to fight seeming to bleed out of them. Many of them were crying; no one carried weapons anymore. It was a mystery even to him; no one could understand fully what had just happened, and their memories of the past few minutes seemed oddly... foggy. Only Godo and his four subordinates - Gorky, Shake, Chekhov and Staniv - could remember anything clearly.
But what use is that to me? Godo asked himself bitterly. Half the population of Wutai, dead or seriously wounded. By the gods! This is all too much... and I still do not know what gave rise to this attack... let alone where these warriors came from! They had been from all over the world, he had seen that much... but how could anyone move that many warriors - almost four hundred - without alerting anyone? Four hundred warriors. Not too many, for an army, but still four times the regular population of Wutai. For some reason, they had not had any tourists visit lately; at least no innocent bystanders had been killed...
The samurai sadly bent down and put a hand to the neck of a young boy lying on the ground, feeling for a pulse. There was none. Innocent bystanders? He clenched his fists. That depends, of course, on your definition of the word 'innocent'. Gripped by a sudden fit of rage, he turned to a wall and punched it as hard as he could, his iron-gloved hand making a noticeable dent in the wood.
"Do not waste your strength, Lord Godo." The voice came from right behind him! Godo spun around, a hand to his sword, but that hand fell as he saw who the speaker was.
"S- Sephiroth!" he hissed in surprise. "Why are you here?"
"I came to get you. Come; your daughter needs you." On cue, just as Sephiroth fell silent, a bolt of lightning flashed over them, followed almost instantly by the thunderclap. Sephiroth turned his back on the ageing samurai and started walking.
"Wait!" Godo shouted.
Sephiroth calmly stopped and turned. "Will you come voluntarily, or will I have to force you?" he asked, his voice like silk over a block of steel; a soft facade, but only hardness underneath. "Lord Godo, I defeated you during the war. Do you doubt that I could do so again? Now come."
Then he walked away, not looking back. And Godo followed.
As he entered his own house, Godo Kisaragi felt a strange aura, as if he had just stepped over the doorstep of a sacred shrine or temple; as if he was violating the sanctity of his own home. It was a strange power, certainly, but he knew from the beginning that it was not unknown.
It was a power he knew well. He felt it every day; he lived and breathed that power. It was the same power that flowed through his veins every time he called upon his secret powers.
The silver-haired man materialised by his side without a sound. "Master Godo. Your daughter is resting in the shrine. You must see her immediately."
Sephiroth leading the way, Godo walked towards the small shrine. He could feel the power getting stronger the closer he came, but not much more; he felt drained, empty of feelings. Yuffie... was all he could think. Be safe...
Sephiroth stopped by the door to the shrine. "This is as far as I may go at the moment. Please, enter." It sounded like an invitation; an invitation to step inside a room in his own house. Still, it did not feel wrong, and Godo knew that powers much stronger than himself were at work here; powers of a kind that he could never hope to contend with.
He tried to put a hand on the sliding door, but it slid aside before he touched it. A golden light fell out into the hallway, almost blinding him.
Step inside... Lord Kisaragi.
Godo took a deep breath. Then he stepped inside.
He saw nothing but the soft, golden light. Gradually, however, something else faded into view; the ornately carved walls, painted gold by the light shining upon them, and the small idol upon its altar. And below it...
He knelt down by his daughter's side. "Yuffie..." There was no answer. She looked to be asleep.
She cannot hear you.
"Who are you?" Godo asked, although he knew very well whom the voice belonged to.
The voice told him.
Godo bowed, still on his knees. "What is wrong with my daughter?"
She is resting, safe at the moment. However, as soon as she leaves this room, her life will start to slowly seep away from her.
Godo felt an icy claw close around his heart. "What can I do?" he asked in despair. "Name it. No matter what it is, I will do it."
This girl has sustained a wound beyond your ability to heal, and beyond mine, as well. Apart from that, she has suffered a devastating mental shock. Only if she recovers from that will we be able to help her... but the chances are slim. I can feel her sliding further away... We can only pray, Lord Godo. Pray, and hope.
Yuffie stood in a dimly lit hallway, stretching as far as she could see in both directions. Where am I... There was a sound in the distance... water? Yes, water dripping into water. It echoed throughout the corridor, the sound becoming louder and louder, until it was so loud her ears hurt. Trying to block out the sound with her hands, Yuffie took a step... and the world spun. Stopping, she blinked dizzily. No! Stop it! The floor stopped rippling. She took another step, and another... Soon she was running. The sound of falling waterdrops became louder and louder - making it hard to think, causing red-hot pain to stab through her entire being. Make it stop! Make it stop! But the sound just kept increasing.
Blinded by tears and pain, the ninja stumbled further along the hallway.
"What the hell?" Cid asked as he turned the Tiny Bronco in a sharp U-turn, putting the plane's wings almost vertical to be able to look down to the ground. "Cloud! Tifa! Look down!" he commanded, shouting over the roar of the wind, bringing the plane closer to the ground in a spiralling move that pressed them all into their seats, almost breaking the wings.
Sensing the urgency in Cid's voice, Cloud and Tifa looked down towards the ground - and gasped in unison.
Wutai lay below them. But it did not look like they remembered it. Several houses were at least partly destroyed; there were bodies lying in the streets - there must be over a hundred of them. And on the roof of the Pagoda, a creature they recognised as Leviathan...
"Wh - what happened?" Cloud stuttered. It took a lot to surprise Cloud to such an extent; Tifa was just speechless.
"I don't know!" Cid yelled. "I'm going in! Rough landing coming up - hold on to something!" Masterfully bringing the plane out of its circling, Cid steered it towards the plains north of the city. It took him a couple of seconds to find a piece of land where he thought he would be able to land more or less safely. As soon as he had that, he brought this plane in for the landing.
It was rough, just as Cid had warned them, but the three of them were unharmed when the plane stopped, and the machine seemed not to have taken any damage either, great testimony to Cid's skill. Drawing their weapons, the three friends rushed towards Wutai.
Nothing had prepared them for what they saw. There must be over a hundred dead bodies littering the streets. It had stopped raining, and now the flies were starting to arrive. Even Cloud went pale as they surveyed the destruction - finding no living beings except for the flies. Finally, Tifa voiced everybody's thoughts:
"What happened here?"
The words rang out loud and clear over the town. No one answered it; but in the distance, a dog barked.
"The Pagoda..." Cid said, rubbing his chin. "Leviathan is there. It must... know what happened."
"An Esper... are you sure... we should talk to it?" Tifa wondered.
"We don't have much of a choice, now, do we?" the pilot asked.
"No... I suppose..."
"Then let's go!" Cid started off at a surprising speed, and the others followed him.
They reached Pagoda in no time. Once there, however, they were confronted by a young boy - the guardian Shake.
"Strife?" Shake asked.
"Yes," Cloud replied. "What happened here? Where are everybody?"
"...war," Shake said, shaking his head. "Those people in white... I do not know why they attacked. We lost many... the survivors are either wounded or taking care of those who are. But... Go to the home of the Kisaragi. You should talk to Lord Godo."
The three quickly made their way to Godo's house, which seemed to have survived the fight with only minor damage. There was no reply as they knocked on the door. Cloud tried the door and found that it was not locked, and they stepped inside.
"Godo?" he asked.
"We should check the rooms," Cid suggested. "You two go that way; I'll check the ones on the left."
Finally, Tifa found Godo in the shrine - but he was not alone. "Lord Godo... what?" Tifa caught a glimpse of a small figure lying on the floor under the altar. "Yuffie?"
Godo, his back to Tifa, nodded. "Yes. She was wounded in a battle with a witch on the invaders' side."
"That's... that's terrible!" Tifa gasped. Taking a step back, into the hallway outside, she shouted, "Cloud! Cid! Come quickly!"
Only a minute later, the three were gathered in the shrine, seated in a semicircle around Yuffie's prone shape. "So tell us what happened," Cloud commanded.
Godo drew a deep breath. "It was yesterday..."
He proceeded to tell them of the battle; how the white-clad warriors had appeared seemingly from out of nowhere; how he had asked Yuffie to summon Leviathan. It took him almost an hour, but finally he reached the end of his story. At that point, he had told then about everything that had happened... everything, that is, except for Sephiroth's appearance. He wasn't quite sure about how he was going to deal with it - apparently, no one but he, and the other warriors of the Pagoda, had any memory of that event; all the others, unexplainably, seemed to have just forgotten it all.
Maybe that was for the better. But some of the ones in white had fled before that spell took effect, and this worried Godo. The reactions if someone was to claim Sephiroth was still alive...
They sat in silence, trying to understand what they had just heard. Then, finally, Cid spoke up. "And you're saying that no one knows where they came from... and where they went?"
"Someone saw a ship," Godo said. "When they left, someone saw a great, white ship... but I cannot tell how such a vessel could have come this close without anyone noticing anything. I am afraid it will remain a mystery..." He cast a look at Yuffie. She had not moved since he first saw her; she was breathing slowly, and her skin had turned a deathly pale; she was sweating profusely, and felt burning hot to the touch. "My greatest concern lays in helping my daughter."
"I understand that," Cid said, "but we need to know where those people came from... What is to say they are not coming back?"
Godo looked down. "I... do not think they will," he said finally. "They will not be coming back. Others may, of course, but if our enemy had more troops, I believe he would have sent them at once. He must know we have power."
Cid rubbed his nose thoughtfully. "You have any idea of what they were after?"
"Ah... damn." The pilot leaned his chin in his hand. "We don't have a fucking clue, do we?"
Cloud seemed about to say something, but before he could, Yuffie stirred a little. Everybody turned to look at her, and Godo took her hand.
"I am here," he whispered to her. "Hold on, daughter. Hold on."
"N...no!" Her shout made everyone but Godo reach for their weapons. "No!" Yuffie whispered, tears trickling down her cheeks, raising her head somewhat - her eyes wide open, but not seeing. "No... Mat- Materia! No... no!" She shuddered, her face contracting in a grimace of pain, and then her eyelids fluttered shut again, her head falling back. Just as she did, however, she whispered something, so silently only Godo could hear; one single word, almost soundless. "Vincent...!"
Cloud pried his fingers away from the hilt of his sword, while Cid put his spear back on the floor. Tifa unclenched her fists and stared at the young ninja.
"Can't we do anything?" Cid asked hoarsely.
Godo sadly shook his head. "I have tried... everything. The power inside this shrine keeps her alive, just barely, but there is nothing we can do unless she overcomes the darkness in her soul." Turning his head to look straight at the idol, Godo let out a sigh. "Wutai has had many gods... the first one is Leviathan. We now know that our 'gods' are but Espers... but such knowledge does not stand in the way of the Espers' power."
"What... Esper is this, then?" Tifa asked. "It is... helping, is it not? Helping Yuffie."
"Yes..." the old samurai breathed. "Yes. She does." He turned to face Tifa directly. "Alongside Leviathan, our greatest god was Asura. Her power is the only thing between my daughter and the cold mists of death."
Looking down into the floor, he added, "But even she cannot stave death off forever."
Kane 'watched' in silence. This...
This irritated him to no end.
"Stop that. Now," he commanded.
The boy stared at him with unblinking eyes; Kane could feel his gaze as if it was a physical object. He remained silent, however, and soon averted his eyes. Absentmindedly, he stroked the silver hair of the unconscious girl whose head lay in his lap.
"Stop doing that! She failed. Get her up again, so she can make up for her mistake. She disregarded a direct order, and still failed to accomplish her goal! The only reason she is still alive, is because of you. Remember that."
They boy once more stared at Kane. "Leave her be," he said, his voice strangely hoarse and even-toned. Without looking away, he placed one hand over the girl's chest. "These wounds were caused by a sword. It may even be the one you are looking for."
"Will you stop this charade! Why that shape?" Kane was starting to feel impatient - and that was something he had not felt for years.
The boy simply stared at him.
"Are you going to get her up or not? I need to hear her report, now!"
"I said, leave her be."
Kane sighed and shook his head in dismay. I wonder if he was a mistake... "See to it. Use whatever you need to speed her recovery. Report to me when it is done." With that, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the dark room. He slammed the door behind him.
The boy watched him go, with the slightest smile on his lips.
Kai slowly rose from the deep, dark mists of sleep... and then, suddenly, he found himself fully awake. There were... three men, heading his way. All three had a haunted look on their faces; all three were dressed in white uniforms, sullied with blood and dirt. All three carried weapons; one had an axe, the other two swords. It was obvious that they were not there for the view... Kai stood up and stretched. One of the men saw him and pointed; the other two went for their weapons, but released them again when they saw the lone black-clad man. Their hands still hovered about the hilts, however; ready to draw, should he prove to be an enemy.
"Ho there! What's the hurry?" Kai asked.
"It's... war," one of the two swordsmen said. "Wutai... we were part of the assault force. Don't go there! They've got Espers and mages and everything! And they've..." He lowered his voice to a whisper, and continued, "they have Sephiroth on their side!" The other two looked over their shoulders, seemingly expecting Sephiroth to appear at the mention of his name. "Don't go there if you value your life," the man finished, now speaking in a rather normal tone of voice.
"I'm afraid Wutai is my destination... I cannot avoid it. Tell me... if you were part of the assault force... why are you here?"
The axe-wielder grunted angrily. "We aren't suicidal, mister. There's no way we're going to be able to beat Sephiroth! We ran." He did not seem ashamed to admit it, Kai noted.
"I... see." Sephiroth...? That's impossible. He's dead... isn't he? I'm sure... But he has cheated death before, hasn't he? "Thank you for the information. Good luck, you three."
"Same to you," the third man, who had hitherto remained silent, said. "Just be careful down there. I dunno what's going on over there, but that big serpent of theirs... he's still on that roof."
"I'll be careful. Thank you, once again."
He sat down again and watched them leave. Sephiroth... is it really true? Could he have survived this long...? I wonder... Kai shook his head and stood up again, hefted his pack and slung it over his shoulder. Then he started walking - the opposite direction of where the three men had been heading. Before doing this, however, he stared after the trio until they were no longer in sight. Was it just his imagination...
He hoped it was. Because if it wasn't, then it was a part of something long in his past... something that troubled him deeply.
He topped the knoll... and stared. Below him lay the town Wutai, complete with Pagoda tower and Da-Chao statues.
But it was a Wutai in shambles. Several houses destroyed. Bodies - or at least it looked like bodies from where he was standing - in the streets. And the Esper lying on the roof of the Pagoda... Leviathan, he realised. Can't be anyone else... But what was the Esper doing there? Kai assumed that it had taken part in the battle... On Wutai's side, of course. But what was it doing now?
He wasn't going to get any answers this way. Sighing, he adjusted his pack and started walking again.
"So what are we going to do?" Cloud asked. They were walking towards the pagoda to speak to Leviathan, hoping that the great Esper might be able to shed some light on these mysterious events. "If Leviathan cannot help..."
"We must hope!" Godo snapped. "We must think positive! Allow fear in, and it stays; it grows like a cancer. Never abandon hope; it never deserts you."
Cloud remained silent as he contemplated this. Never abandon... hope... never abandons you... "You are right," he admitted finally, as they stepped onto the stairs outside the Pagoda.
Godo did not answer. He waved Shake aside and opened the door, entering, followed by the others.
"Yes... I can feel her pain..." Leviathan's facial expression was unreadable to the humans, but there was no way they could miss the sadness in the great Esper's voice. "Yet there is nothing I can do, that I am not already doing. I lend my Queen strength in keeping the girl alive. This is why I remain in this world."
"Can't you do anything?" Tifa asked.
"No. The power of healing is Asura's; I can merely allow her access to the raw powers I possess." The dragon turned his head to look straight at Godo's house. "I can do nothing more," he repeated. "You must wait, and hope, as my Queen said."
"There must be something we can do to help," Cloud said. "It is obvious that the damage she has sustained is mental rather than physical, or she wouldn't still be out. When I was lost... Tifa helped me back. There must be a way we can do the same for her."
"That might have been a possibility..." Leviathan agreed, looking Cloud straight in the eyes. "That might have been a possibility. However, none of you know the girl well enough to be able to find her spirit in the abysmal darkness that holds her captive. Only her father has that power... but his fear would hold him back; that, and his duty. Lord Kisaragi, could you abandon your people now, in their hour of need?"
Godo looked down, and did not reply. The Esper shook its head. "I know you cannot. Then, we can only hope."
Everybody turned to look at Godo, who was now looking straight at Leviathan. "Wait... there may be someone else. Before she fell unconscious... she spoke the name 'Vincent'. I do not know him... but I do know he and my daughter were companions for a while, the last time she left Wutai. They seemed to have become quite close.... and he is... powerful. Yuffie said he saved her life."
"Vincent? That gothic freak?" Cid wondered. "What the hell could he and Yuffie have in common?"
"Restless souls, perhaps?" Tifa suggested. "I know they aren't really that similar... but when you think of it, both of them have... an aura of restlessness. Vincent's is much stronger, but she has it too... Cid, we must go to Nibelheim immediately!"
"Nibelheim, huh..." The pilot dropped the remains of his cigarette on the roof and ground it with his bootheel. "All right, Nibelheim it is. I don't know if Vincent can help her, but I guess he's better than nothing... come on, I'll get the 'Bronco running."
"I don't know..." Cloud said. "Wouldn't it be better if one of us remains here? They may come back, no matter what the Espers say."
"I don't know either," Tifa admitted. "Somehow, I doubt that Leviathan would speak that way if he didn't know what he was talking about... but still..."
"I thought we were in a hurry?" Cid hinted. He was already in his seat, tapping his fingers impatiently against the instrument panel. "Look, the kid's condition is not bound to improve anywhere soon, if I'm any judge. We need to get Vincent, if there's even a slight chance that he could help." He gestured towards the pagoda, where Leviathan still lay curled up on the roof. "That Esper and her father can take care of Yuffie and Wutai. We can't spare anyone. I must fly the plane, because frankly I doubt that either one of you know enough about piloting to get her up in the air from this field. And you two know Nibelheim, which is more than I can say for me... and besides, if there's any trouble, it might take all three of us to handle it. Wutai has enough warriors as it is; they handled it before, and they can do it again. So, now, let's take off!"
"You seem rather eager to be off, for someone who said he 'doesn't trust that snotty little Materia-thieving ninja brat'," Tifa muttered as she climbed into the passenger seat.
Cid turned towards her with a pained look on his face. "Tifa, there is a difference between not trusting someone, and wanting them to die... or worse. Take a good look at her, Tifa. Then name someone who would wish that upon anyone, friend or foe."
"I know, Cid... I'm sorry."
"Well forget it." He turned away and dug in his pocket for another cigarette, found one and lit it. Meanwhile, Cloud had climbed up and sat down in the passenger seat, by Tifa's side. "Everybody set?" the pilot asked, strapping his seatbelt into place. Tifa, who was already strapped in, nodded, and so did Cloud, who had just fastened his belt as well. "Roger that..." Cid muttered, flipping a few switches. The Tiny Bronco's engines started humming; the propeller spun lazily for a few seconds, then picked up speed. The plane lurched forwards, and Cid steered it a bit farther out into the field.
Turning her head slightly, Tifa looked back towards Wutai -
"Cid!" she exclaimed. "Stop! Wait!"
"What the hell?" Cid turned his head irately, glaring at her - and past her, at the figure in red that was running towards them, something shiny held high in one hand.
It was Godo. Cid spat out a particularly offensive curse, but reduced the roar of the engine to a mere purring, slowing the propeller down. Taking the cigarette out of his mouth, Cid leaned out and shouted, "What did we forget?"
Although he was in top condition, Godo was slightly winded when he reached the plane, having ran all the way from his residence. He leaned heavily on one of the wings, shaking his head slightly, then straightened and tossed a sparkling red object to Cid, who caught it reflexively. "Yuffie woke up again just a minute ago," he explained. "She started talking about Materia again... and about Vincent, too. I think, perhaps if you show this Materia to Vincent, he will be able to do something." The samurai blinked, and he added, in a slightly worried tone, "But you must never use it. Never! Is that clear?"
"Yeah, I suppose..." Cid glanced at the Materia in his hand. It looked just about the same as most Summon Materia; not polished and cut, as the Materia found in shops, but quite uneven, even if its shape was basically that of a sphere. And like most Summon Materia, it seemed to hold quite a bit more power than normal Magic Materia.
Cid stuffed the crystal in one of his numerous pockets, and looked down at Godo. "You wouldn't want to tell me exactly what it does, would you?" he asked warily. Godo shook his head.
"No. I cannot do that... Please trust me. Do not try to find out, do not use the Materia. It is better... for all of us... that way. Do I have your word on this?"
"Of course," Tifa cut in. "We won't use it, or try and find out what's in it. Is that all right?"
"Very," Godo said with a trace of a smile on his lips. "I trust that goes for all of you..."
"Of course," Cloud said. "We will make sure to return this Materia to you in the same condition that it is in now."
"Thank you, mister Strife," Godo said, making a short bow.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever..." muttered Cid. Then he fished the Materia out of his pocket again and made a wry face in its direction. "Oh, what the hell... Yeah, you have my word of honour. Now is there anything else, or can we take off now?"
Godo looked slightly surprised, but nodded, bowing in Cid's direction, and backed away. He then started walking back towards his house, and Cid cranked up the engine again. It wasn't three minutes before they were in the air.
In the back seat of the plane, Cloud rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Word of honour... he thought. Just when you think you know everything about a person...
"But!" Kai protested. "I need to speak to someone! Please!"
"No!" Shake said adamantly. "You are not welcome! Please leave."
"I am afraid I must insist..." Kai sighed. "Look, I know a little... of what happened here. But I don't know anywhere near enough! I might be able to help... please! Talk to your leader. I am sure he will want to hear me out."
"I will not repeat this again," Shake said, his youthful features suddenly not at all very childlike anymore. "Leave! If you don't, I will throw you out."
"I can't!" Kai protested. "I... I'm afraid... I know something. This could be bad, really bad... worse than you think! Please let me see your leader!"
"I warned you once," Shake said, gathering his power to change shape. His other shape, beside his young human appearance, was that of a large black and white bird with a red geometrical device on its chest; the ancient heraldic symbol for speed. Shake's purpose, when he was not fighting for the people of Wutai, was to train worthy warriors to draw every ounce of speed from their bodies. Shake could honestly call himself the fastest human in the world. Normally, however, he tried to hide this fact from normal humans.
Sometimes, however, he had to use his powers for other, less worthy purposes. Fighting off unwelcome visitors was one purpose that qualified as 'less worthy'.
It was over in a few seconds. Shake transformed, and took to the air in his bird form. The black-robed man watched in open-mouthed fascination as the guardian circled around him a couple of times, then hurriedly jumped out of the way as Shake dived down to strike. The guardian caught a glimpse of emerald green as the man raised his left hand, expertly recognising the glow - and the power emanating from the greenness - as Materia.
While lacking human features in this shape, inside, Shake grinned. It had been long since he faced a worthy challenger... about a year, wasn't it? Miss Yuffie... Shake's eyes turned bright red as his anger, and his power, flared, and he turned to face the stranger. He did this just in time to see a faint glow fade away around the man; obviously some kind of protection spell. Diving down once again, this time aiming to hurt the intruder seriously, Shake fell right into the man's trap. Once within range, he heard the stranger whisper a few words, and the air around him seemed to thicken, slowing him down. Shrieking in rage, the guardian fought against the spell, finally breaking its hold, but by then the man was out of the way, preparing another spell. His rage blinding him, Shake flew straight at the stranger...
Kai finished the incantation. Pointing towards the onrushing bird, he gathered all his power for the spell, feeling something quite like heat, but still different in some way, rush through his body; up from the earth below, through his feet and legs; from the air above, through his entire body; all the power culminating in a fist-sized ball of absolute darkness in his outstretched hand.
Praying that the spell would not prove fatal at this short range, he released it, feeling the power rush out to the energy sphere, expanding it, then projecting it towards his foe.
Shake had no time to stop, no time to dodge. The ball of darkness struck him in the chest, exploding into dark, insubstantial flames. Shake felt the strange darkness tearing at his body as he was thrust back, away from the sorcerer. Then he hit the Pagoda's wall, and his consciousness fled into another, more familiar, darkness.
Staniv stiffened. "Did you notice?" he asked the other two. Chekov and Gorky both nodded.
"Shake..." Gorky said, pursing his lips. "I wonder what befell him? He's still alive, and not too badly hurt, but still..."
"We cannot know how long he will stay that way," Chekov agreed. "We should investigate."
The other two nodded. As one, they moved for the stairs.
Kai cautiously approached the young boy. As he lost consciousness, Shake had reverted back to his human shape, and now looked like any other boy his age. Kai bent to feel for a pulse, and was relieved to find a strong, regular beat. At least he hadn't hurt the poor boy... not very much, at any rate. Sighing, he prepared a minor healing spell, just in case.
The three guardians arrived just in time to see the black-clad man place a hand on Shake's forehead. A mild green glow enveloped the hand, casting a soft light both over Shake's peaceful features and the man's own face.
"What is he doing?" Staniv asked via mindspeech. "Did he not just defeat Shake? Is he healing his enemy?"
"We may never know, friend Staniv, unless we ask," Chekov pointed out.
"Then let us ask him," Staniv said, and stepped forth. "If I may," he said, "I would ask your name."
"My name?" the black-garbed one said, without looking up from Shake. "I go by the name Kai. As for what I am doing - which, I am sure, will be the next question - I merely defended myself. I asked to see your leader... he would not let me pass. When I insisted, he attacked me. I am sorry if I have caused you any inconvenience."
Staniv nodded to himself. That sounded plausible... Still, it never hurt to be careful. "Why is it that you seek our commander?" he asked. The man looked up, removing his hand from Shake's forehead.
"You were attacked not long ago, am I not right?" When he saw no-one was going to argue with him on that, he continued, "I think I may... know something about those who attacked you."
"You know... are you then perchance one of them? Or a deserter?" Staniv asked in a chilly tone of voice.
"Heaven forbid," Kai sighed. "I'm a traveller... still, one hears many things on the road." He looked Staniv straight in the eyes, and said, "For example, I hear Sephiroth has once again cheated Death."
Staniv was speechless. "Sephiroth..." Godo had told them that no one who had seen and heard Sephiroth seemed to remember anything. Then this person must have either heard from one of those few who ran away... or maybe he was one of them? Well, in either case...
"We will escort you to our commander," Staniv decided. "If you agree to leave all your weapons, and that includes Materia, with one of us."
"Any particular reason why I should trust you?" Kai wondered. "As far as I can see, my actions have spoken of my good will - I could easily have killed the boy. Yours, however... Well, I have yet to see any actions from you." He glared pointedly at Staniv, who didn't seem too pleased.
"Still, those are our demands," he said. "Leave your weapons and come with us, or keep them and leave. The choice is up to you."
Kai thought this over for a few seconds. Yes, this person seemed stronger than the bird-kid, but he could probably handle him... what worried Kai was the way the man spoke of 'us' - were there more that Kai couldn't see? But no, his senses detected no such presence; all he cold feel was the slight humming of mystic power from the Pagoda itself, and that was expected. It certainly was not strong enough to hide any other nearby presence...
"I think I will find this person on my own. I can offer valuable help; whether he wants to accept or decline is his business, but until then, I would at least like to be treated with respect!" He rose to his feet and stared Staniv down, preparing to draw upon the power of another spell if necessary.
He was surprised to see the strange man transform into an armoured, machine-like being, then call forth a morning star-like weapon from empty air and swing it at him - and even more so when a four-armed demon leaped out to join the mechanical beast, followed closely by a strange winged creature.
Damn... I'll never be able to handle all of them! Still, his pride was on the line here.
He started casting again.
There was chaos for a few seconds, but when it was over, Kai was unconscious. Gorky was rather badly hurt by the spell he had been hit with - the same spell that Kai had used on Shake, although rather stronger this time - but the other two were unscathed; the intruder was not hurt either, apart from a slight bump on the head, where Staniv had hit him.
"So... I wonder what we should do with him now?" Chekov asked. "I have a feeling he meant what he said, but whether he still wants to help after this..."
"We should take care of Gorky first," Staniv said aloud. "That was a spell I have never seen... effective, nonetheless. Chekov, alert Master Godo. I will help Gorky recover..."
"I am on my way." Changing as he walked, Chekov returned to human shape just as he passed the door, and then headed for Godo's house.
"How are you, Gorky?" Staniv asked, turning his full attention to his wounded comrade.
"This... feels bad," Gorky managed, "but I will live. As long as I stay in the Pagoda, ah... I'll be able to heal up."
"That is good," Staniv nodded. "The pain...?"
"Bad, but I can take it."
"I see. Then... let us wait for Master Godo.
It did not take the Tiny Bronco long to reach Nibelheim; the plane had been improved upon dozens of times, and was probably the fastest propeller-driven plane on the Planet - not that there were many planes at all, of course. Cid landed just outside the city, and the three of them got out and headed for the Mansion.
"I hope he's back..." Tifa muttered. "I wonder where he went?"
"Probably went out to get the papers and some milk," Cid sighed. "Never mind where he went! The man's gotta be, what, twenty-eight years old by now! He can go wherever he wants to go."
"Yes, although it would be better if we knew where he had gone," Cloud said. "I do not know if he can help Yuffie, but still..."
"Let's get moving," Cid sighed. "This place is freaking me out." He was lighting a cigarette as he spoke.
"Yeah. Let's," Tifa said. "Do you remember how to open that door?"
"I could hardly forget..." Cloud replied.
"I don't mind, Tifa. It doesn't really bother me anymore. Now, let's see..."
They had reached the large wrought-iron gates. Cloud pushed them open, with some help from Cid, and they proceeded. The front door was unlocked, as always. It wasn't long before they stood in the eastern room, and Cloud opened the secret door leading to the basement.
"Careful, now," he said, drawing his sword. "I don't think there are any dangerous creatures down there anymore, but we better keep our eyes peeled."
Tifa and Cid nodded. Cloud had not needed to say that.
"Say," Cid muttered as they descended, "How do we know he still lives here anyway?"
"He said he'd go back to Nibelheim, the last time we saw him," Tifa replied, pushing a large cobweb out of the way, "and I assume he would stay at the Mansion..."
"Oh, great," the pilot sighed. "Don't you realise that this guy could be anywhere?"
"Yes," Tifa replied sadly. "Of course we do. But it's always better to hope, right?"
"Oh well..." Cid scratched his head. His hand came away grey with dust and cobwebs. "Damn! I'm gonna have to spend an hour washing this shit out... Anyway... Yeah, sure, Tifa."
However, hope or no hope, they found no trace of Vincent in his old room. They then checked the library, and, finding nothing there, went through the rest of the house as well, but Vincent was nowhere to be found. They had got nothing out of the visit, except for a dust, cobwebs and more dust. Still, it seemed someone had been in the basement recently - the way there was not quite as full of spiderwebs as the rest of the house, and the dust on the floor was thinner, as well.
"So," Cid asked as they finished their search, "what do we do now? Get back to Wutai?"
"We should try and find Vincent... maybe we could ask around. Someone might have seen something," Cloud suggested.
"The store?" Tifa asked. "Even Vincent has to eat... I think," she added quietly.
"Fine, then," Cid sighed. "Let's split up and ask around."
"Agreed," Cloud agreed. "You go this way -" he pointed to the left "and I'll go this way. Tifa, you go over there. We'll meet at the inn when we're done."
"Roger that." Cid turned and walked away. Cloud was about to follow him when Tifa grabbed his arm.
"Yes?" he asked. Tifa shrugged.
"Just take care, okay?"
"Of course, Tifa. As always."
It took them about ten minutes to ask all the people they could find. Cid was waiting at the inn as Cloud and, just a minute later, Tifa, got there. "No luck," he said. The pilot was halfway through his sixth cigarette for the day, and didn't seem to care. "No one's heard or seen anything, or if they have they aren't telling." Cid made a sour face. "I wonder which one it is."
"I couldn't find anything either," Cloud confessed. The two men turned to Tifa; she simply shook her head.
"We better get back to Wutai..." Cid sighed. "This has been a waste of time."
"What good would that do?" Tifa asked. "We can't help Yuffie. For heaven's sake, even the Espers are unable to do anything! If Vincent knows anything, then I say it's up to us to find him! Right?" She looked at Cloud.
She does have a point... he thought as he looked back. But we would have a greater chance finding a needle in a haystack... "Tifa. Do you have any idea, any idea at all, about where he could be?"
"I..." Tifa hesitated. "I don't think... That is, I don't know if he'd still go there, but Lucrecia's waterfall...?"
"Can't land the 'Bronco there," Cid said. "No open ground. We'd have to use the sub, if it's still operational. Or maybe a chocobo could land there."
"We might as well try..." Cloud sighed. "All right, I think I know another place where he might be. The city of the Ancients."
"The city..." Tifa mumbled. Aerith! Damn it, Cloud... "Yes, that is a possibility. What do you think... should we check it out? Vincent doesn't have the harp..."
"I can land up there," Cid said. "But we'd have to check both places... We don't know if there's another way to reach the city... that's only what we assumed. Aerith and Sephiroth... both made it through." He coughed.
"I'll take the waterfall," Cloud volunteered. "Drop me off by Costa del Sol, and I'll get the black chocobo. They you two go to the city and check it out. I'll meet you in Bone."
I guess... "Cloud... can't I go with you?" Tifa asked. Cloud shook his head.
"The less weight on the chocobo, the faster she flies. You go with Cid - I'll be fine."
Don't you see...? she wondered. You don't want to go to... to that place, but...
I don't want to go either.
"We'll do as you say," Cid said. "I guess washing my hair can wait a while more."
Cloud nodded. "Then let's get going. Move out!"
"He'll be waking up soon..."
Kai heard a voice in the distance. What was that...?
"He sure slept long..."
Where was he? Now he heard another voice, too far away for him to make out what it said. My head... hurts.
"It was a strong spell..."
"He was out cold..."
"What should we do with him? Lord Godo is not back yet..."
I've got to get a grip... there. The voices were stronger now. He was finally waking up.
"Maybe we should sleep him again..."
A sleep spell...? That would explain why he had such a hard time waking up. But then, if it is a spell, not just the blow to the head... blow to the head? Yes, he hit me... If it is a spell, it can be dispelled... He wasn't wearing his bracelet anymore. That meant he had no Materia at his disposal...
Oh well. He'd have to try anyway.
He started gathering his power, focusing it to accomplish the task. In his head, he pictured the sleep spell as a warm, fuzzy pink mist swirling around him. Then, perhaps a gust of air... He released his hold on the power. Concentrating harder, he forced the power outwards, pushing the fuzzy mist away from his body. The sleep spell being a relatively simple enchantment, and this spell was already fading, he easily broke its hold. His captors - the strange creatures he had fought, Kai guessed - seemed oblivious to this. So much better... Without opening his eyes, Kai 'looked' around in the room, trying to figure out how many of them there were - but to his surprise, there seemed to be no one but himself in the room! I must be dreaming! I can hear the voices, right above and around me... He slowly opened one eye. He found himself staring into a wall. Damn... There was nothing he could do... except reveal that he was awake. Finding himself able to move - he wasn't tied up - he sat up, and turned to where the voices were coming from.
He was surprised to see four men - no, three men, and one young boy - standing not three metres from where he was sitting - where he had felt nothing but empty air!
No, he realised a second later. He hadn't felt empty air. He had felt the power of Pagoda. There was a difference...
Then these... are its guardians? Yes, that was probably it; something connected very strongly to the Pagoda's power.
The four spun around, but did not seem too surprised. "See, I told you!" the youngest one said. "He's not just any person."
Kai was relieved to see the child he had fought earlier looking so well. Still, if he was a guardian of some kind, he might not be a child, after all...
"You are right," he said, addressing the child. "I am not just any person. I must apologise for my actions earlier this day..."
"Never mind that," the child replied. "I don't care; I'm here to fight, anyway. Losing to an outsider might not be something I am proud of... But still... Anyway, what exactly do you want? Now that you've cooled off for a while, you might as well answer our questions."
Kai thought for a second or three, then nodded. "All right," he sighed. "I guess you have a right to know..."
"We do, yes," another man said. This one was the tallest among the four, and, Kai suspected, probably the highest-ranking one.
"Okay..." Suddenly Kai realised something. "First of all, however, I want to know who you four are." When he four men hesitated, Kai added, "I'm not saying a word until you tell me."
"All right then. I'm Shake," the boy said.
"Staniv," the tall one said.
"And you already know my name," Kai said. "Kai. Well, then, shall we begin?
"As you all know, I am a traveller. I've encountered many strange creatures - including humans. One of the strangest humans I have ever come across was a scientist named Kane.
"Kane is now blind. Yet, he moves as if he could clearly see everything around him.
"Kane was obsessed with magic. He always said he'd like to find a way for humans to truly learn magic, so that we would no longer need Materia. He lost his sight in an experiment... I do not know the nature of that experiment, but as a result of it, he no longer sees as we do, but with his mind.
"Kane has become a magician.
"So far, everything is fine. He made a great discovery, and I cannot tell you why the knowledge has not spread.
"However, shortly after the accident, Kane changed. He no longer cared about magic, or anything else... except for his lost eyesight. He once mentioned that he would do anything if he could get his sight back... I did not believe him at the time. But..." Kai shrugged and fell silent. When he spoke again, it was with sadness in his voice. "Soon thereafter, Kane tried to transfer the sight-capability from another man to himself. It failed miserably. Kane was left unharmed, while his victim... Kane did not stop. He kept doing experiments, kept trying to restore his eyes. I heard him say that he needed power, an immense amount of power... power that no longer exists in this world. The last time I heard of him, he was searching for some special items... I do not know what the items were, but they supposedly hold great power. That is really all I know about him."
"Then what...?" Gorky asked.
"I'll get to that... eventually.
"It was a few days ago... I was on the road, as always. Suddenly, I felt a great amount of energy approaching, and stopped to look.
"It was an Esper, a white dragon... with a rider! The dragon sent me a telepathic message...
"It said 'help'.
"As I said, Kane is a magician. And the only thing that is powerful enough to control and Esper, is... magic. I suspected, even then, that Kane was on the move again.
"I followed the dragon, made my way towards Wutai. On the way, I encountered three deserters from the attacking force.
"I did not want to believe it, but those three wore white uniforms - the same uniforms that Kane's guards wear. I do not know if this truly means Kane is planning to attack Wutai... but I have a feeling that he is involved in this, somehow."
"What is your connection to this Kane person?" Staniv asked.
Kai glared at him. This was something he would prefer to avoid, but telling Staniv everything would probably be his best bet, at least if he wanted to meet this leader of theirs...
"He is... my... father."
"Are you sure you'll be okay by your own?" Tifa asked Cloud. He nodded wordlessly. "Got everything you need?"
"We'll meet up in Bone, right?"
"There you are, then. It won't be too long."
"It might well be too long," Cid said pointedly. "Unless we get going now."
Tifa sighed. "All right, Cid..."
"You take care now, chocobo-hair," the pilot grinned. "Don't you worry. We'll be fine."
"I know," Cloud said, grinning back. "Later, then..."
Tifa climbed into her seat, and Cid started the engine. The Tiny Bronco took off, leaving Cloud alone with the black chocobo.
"All right... just you and me, now," he told the bird. It replied with a low-pitched 'wark' and nudged him with its head. "Eager to be off? Let's go then..."
Cloud climbed onto the bird's back, and the chocobo took off. flying higher and higher, it circled around Costa del Sol a couple of times, then headed for the waterfall.
Ash the black chocobo wasn't exactly the most intelligent bird around. Compared to most chocobos, she was plain dumb. However, she was good at flying, and reached Lucrecia's waterfall in about half an hour.
Telling the bird to be good and stay where she was, Cloud stepped behind the curtain of water. Lighting the flashlight he had brought along, he looked around in the cave, but there seemed to be nothing of interest there... But then he noticed a bouquet of deep blood-red flowers lying on the floor, in the innermost part of the cave. Kneeling down, he studied it carefully. Roses... The flowers hadn't withered; they couldn't have been there for more than a day or so. He has been here... recently. But where is he now...? Cloud got to his feet and dusted himself off - Vincent might have left the flowers, but he certainly hadn't cleaned the place up. Come to think of it... He looked down at the floor. Yes, these footprints are new, too... should have noticed that. But there was little more he could do. Switching off the light, he got back outside, climbed onto Ash's back, and headed north.
Bone was a bit further from Costa del Sol than the waterfall, but, the plane being faster then a chocobo, Cid and Tifa did not need more time to reach the village than Cloud needed to reach his destination. Cid landed the 'Bronco on a field just outside the woods.
"We're here," he said, quite unnecessarily. "Shall we get it over with?"
"Don't sulk like that!" Cid shot her an evil glance. "Cloud's going to be along in a few hours at most. It isn't as if you couldn't live without him, for crying out loud!"
Couldn't I...? I'm ...not so sure about that, Tifa thought. "It's... it's not that. I'm just feeling a bit anxious, that's all."
"Yeah, me too... You know, I don't like this place." Cid turned to glare at the forest, every bit as evil a look as the one he had given Tifa. "I can feel the power of this place, and it frightens me. But Tifa, think of Cloud... it must be worse for him. He'd never tell you to go here if he thought he could do it himself."
Tifa nodded slowly, understanding Cid's point. Still, that didn't mean she liked it.
The longer they waited, though... "It's not just about us," she sighed. "If it was, I don't know if I'd be able to... go in there again. But Yuffie..."
"Get the harp," Cid muttered, "and let's go."
Tifa picked the harp out of the seat next to her own, and, holding the instrument in one hand, climbed down to the ground. The Lunar Harp was the only known power that could let someone cross the enchanted woods surrounding the Cetran city. Tifa held on to it for dear life, even refusing to let Cid hold it while she climbed down from the plane. It was their only way in... and their only way out. If they lost it once they passed the borderline, they would never get out. She was not going to let go of it while they were near that forest.
It wasn't far to Bone from the field where Cid's plane was parked, and they passed the excavation site - still as busy as they remembered it - within ten minutes. Tifa strummed the harp awkwardly as she felt the power of the forest; the instrument glowed silvery green, and the power abated. Walking slowly, the two friends made their way through the forest, Tifa with the harp in her arms, plucking at the strings from time to time to keep the ancient magic away, and Cid with his spear ready, even though he knew there were no living creatures in these woods. The pilot had been smoking nonstop ever since Cloud told him to go here. It had been easy to sound cheerful back in Costa del Sol, but here... Cid shivered and tightened his grip on the Venus Gospel. Normally, when he touched the spear, he felt a slight tingling, like a pulse of magic, something that made him feel as if the weapon recognised and accepted him - but not now. Now the tingling had increased to something resembling an electrical current, almost but not quite unpleasant. It must be reacting to the forest's magic, he realised, but that didn't make him feel any better.
Eventually, they made it out on the other side. Breathing a great sigh of relief, Tifa lowered the harp, which she had been clutching so hard her knuckles ached, and shook her head. "Through at last!"
"Tell me about it," Cid muttered glumly, thrusting his spear into the ground and flexing his hands. "Damn thing..."
"Sorry?" Tifa asked.
"Huh? Oh... no. It's nothing."
"...hmm." She didn't quite believe that, but decided not to push him. "Shall we go?"
"Yeah. Just give me a minute."
Cid finished his cigarette, stubbing it out against the blade of the Venus Gospel, and tossed the stub in a puddle. He didn't light another. He wouldn't mind having another smoke, but somehow, it didn't feel right in this place. Instead, he spat and muttered a few random swearwords, before tugging the spear from the ground. He shouldered it and nodded to Tifa.
"Ready?" she asked.
"As ready as I'll ever be," Cid replied with a mirthless grin. "We'd better get going."
Tifa nodded, and started walking.
Then seashell-shaped houses had not changed visibly. Of course, since they had been standing there for so long, Tifa had doubted that these buildings would change noticeably in a year - or even in ten years, or a hundred, for that matter. Although they knew that the city was as devoid of life as the forest around it, Cid held his spear at ready as they headed for the central building; Tifa, of course, was already wearing her metal-reinforced gloves, and did not intend to take them off anytime soon.
The strange seaweed-like plants hiding the staircase had grown, but it wasn't so dense it couldn't be passed. Although it would have been easier to cut the strange plants away, they did not do so; it felt better to just leave everything as it was. Tifa walked first, pushing her way through the plants, closely followed by Cid.
"I can't see anyone..." the pilot muttered.
"Let's not jump to conclusions," Tifa replied, keeping her voice down. "Even if he is here, he can be anywhere in the city."
"And that's about as likely as..."
"Shush, Cid! Positive thinking, remember?"
Cid shut his mouth. Whatever he had been about to say, it was nothing positive.
They climbed down the stairs, soon reaching the little shrine - or whatever it was - at the bottom level. The room was dusky, but not completely dark; some light fell in from above. Once they had used the key to reopen this room, all the entrances seemed to have become accessible.
"There's no one here," Cid sighed. Holding up a piece of Materia in the air, he concentrated briefly. A bright aura of fiery red, but still heatless, light flared around the Materia, illuminating most of the room with a slightly flickering light.
"No... you're right," Tifa sighed, disappointed. "I... what's that?" She pointed to the large platform out in the still lake. There was no wind in the room; the surface of the dark waters did not even ripple, making it seem as if it was glass rather than liquid. Cid pointed the Materia in its direction, channelling a little more power into the green orb. The light flared brighter, and he squinted at the platform.
"Can't see... not big, strange shape..."
"I'll take a look," Tifa offered. Looking at the dark, deep water, she reluctantly put the Lunar Harp down on the ground. "Keep an eye on this," she told Cid. He rolled his eyes.
"That was rather unnecessary," he remarked. "I want to get out every bit as much as you do."
"Yeah, I know... sorry."
"Stop apologising already!" Cid pointed the Venus Gospel at the platform for emphasis. "Get over there, check that thing, and let's get out of here! This place is givin' me the creeps!"
Tifa nodded and headed for the platform, jumping between the pillars leading up to it. This struck her as an odd design for what was basically a staircase leading to something she believed to be a place of prayer, but somehow it fit in with the design of this strange place...
She reached the platform and knelt down, looking closely at the strange object. "Cid...?"
"Yeah. What is it?"
Tifa plucked the thing from the ground, holding it up. "It's a flower... a rose."
"Say what?" Cid asked, although he had heard her perfectly clear.
"A blood-red rose. And it's fresh... smells lovely. Someone's been here recently... It must be Vincent."
"A rose, huh?" Cid scratched his head - with the hand holding the Fire Materia; this caused the light to flicker and cast a shadow over Tifa and the platform. However, it also served to make some light fall on the water below the platform, and Tifa noticed that there was something floating there as well.
"Cid! Light... here!" She pointed.
Cid pointed the Materia to the area she was indicating. They could both see that the floating object was another rose, as blood-red as the first one. Stepping closer to the edge of the lake, Cid once more increased the power he was pouring into the Materia orb, intensifying the light. The fire aura blazed almost white, reflecting off the smooth surface. It was now possible to see that there were more roses floating around to lake - all blood-red, all looking as if they had just been picked. Tifa thought for a second that she saw a spark of light deep within the lake, but the light was gone even before she could be certain she had seen it. The light that had been glowing from below the last time they visited was gone, now. Like Aerith, it, too, had been deprived of its life.
"Shee-it!" Cid whistled. "Who would do something like this?"
"I think we already know the answer to that," Tifa replied, looking around at the flowers. The were still floating. And that must mean... "He's been here recently... very recently."
"Yeah... Vincent. But I mean, why would he do this?" Cid indicated the flowers with his spear. "He hardly knew Aerith at all... not that anyone did, but he... for goodness' sake, they barely even talked to eachother!"
"That doesn't mean he can't feel for her..." Tifa turned away from Cid, looking across the lake, discretely wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. Aerith... Tifa's feelings for the Ancient had been so mixed. Aerith had been a kind and gentle person, but still brimming with passion; she had felt a kind of hope that the others never seemed to even sense. To Tifa, she had been like a sister... and a rival.
Aerith... I hope you can hear me... I'm sorry. If I ever hated you... I'm so sorry...
"Tifa? What's wrong?" Cid sounded worried, and his voice pulled Tifa back to reality. "Tifa? Are you feeling all right?"
"Huh... Yes, Cid... I'm just... thinking. If Aerith had been alive, she could have helped Yuffie, I'm sure of it..."
"Tifa... We should leave. Vincent may still be here. If we are to find him, we should get going now." Cid rubbed his eyes, grateful that Tifa had turned away. "Come on, Tifa."
Tifa sighed. "Yes... Yes, I know. Let's go." She looked down longingly at the rose in her hand, and then threw it over the low railing of the platform, down into the water. A slight ripple passed over the lake as the rose disappeared under the water, then surfaced again. Nearby roses moved somewhat as the slight waves passed them, but soon the water was calm once more, and Tifa put a hand to the railing, rising to her feet. She climbed down to solid ground again, picked the harp up, and headed for the stairs, closely followed by Cid.
As they reached the staircase, she stopped for a second, turning to look once more at the lake. Goodbye... Aerith.
"This is... perfect," Kane breathed as he 'looked' through the mirror. "This is just perfect..."
"You already said that."
Kane turned sharply, focusing his 'gaze' at the silver-haired boy.
"You should act, not talk," the boy continued. "It's time. What is holding you up?"
"Silence!" Kane snapped, lashing out with his thoughts.
The boy flinched, as if Kane had actually struck him. His Mako blue eyes glowed dully for a second, then returned to normal. "Yes, Master," he sighed. "I wish to know when we should act."
"Soon, my child." Kane smiled coolly as he turned back to 'observing' the mirror. "Very soon..."
"...so that, Lord Godo, is my story," Kai finished, draining the last of the saké from his cup. "You... already know the rest."
"Yes indeed," Godo Kisaragi replied thoughtfully. "However, I fail to understand why this man would attack us. You say he seek power... but what power can he find here, in Wutai? We have little magic, little technology..."
"You have an Esper," Kai pointed out. "A strong one, at that. He could be after Leviathan's Summon Materia. Then again, he could also be after something completely different... I seemed to feel some power emanating from the statues to the east. Is there anything hidden there?"
Godo and Staniv - the only other guardian in the room - exchanged glances. Staniv shrugged. "None that I know of," Godo said. "Da-Chao hold their own power, however... it is not one that can be transferred. It will stay here as long as the statues remain, and once they are gone, that power will flee this world. There is no way it could be removed."
"I was thinking more like something... portable," Kai said. "No ancient artefacts, no Materia?"
"None that we know of," Godo repeated. "It is true that there is Mako fountains in the mountains... and that could create Materia. However..."
"These Mako fountains do not contain enough power to produce anything special," Staniv finished. "We have examined all that we can find."
"Oh..." Kai remained silent for some time. Staniv, without asking, refilled his cup. The mage drained it in one gulp, and Staniv refilled it again. "Then... is there any truth in what I heard on my way here?" Kai said slowly. "Is it true that Sephiroth appeared here?"
Staniv and Godo exchanged glances again. "What do you think?" Godo asked his second-in-command.
"I... do not know. He seems honest enough." The guardian shot Kai a look; the black-clad man didn't notice, as he was staring down into his once more empty cup. Staniv refilled it again, at the same time telling Godo, "And besides, if he proves to be an enemy... we can always kill him." Godo nodded.
"Yes," he sighed. "It is true. However, Sephiroth... is not truly alive. My daughter found a Materia that connects to his spirit, and somehow, that Materia enables him to return briefly to this world, much like the Summoning of an Esper. I do not understand all of it, but apparently, Sephiroth wants to make up for his acts over a year ago..."
"I... see," Kai lied. "Can you... can you summon him? Sephiroth's knowledge is legendary; I am sure he could tell you..."
"He cannot," Godo said. "Or maybe will not. I asked him. He would not answer. Besides, we do not have the Materia here, anymore..."
"It - it was stolen?" Kai gasped.
"No! I gave it to... a friend, who is searching for someone who may be able to help my daughter. I do not know where he is now."
"...oh." Kai reached for his cup again, but didn't lift it. "Damn..."
"And besides," Staniv said, "only Miss Yuffie knows anything about this Materia. We do not know if we could even use it. Until recently, we had no idea she even had it."
"That was probably for the best," Kai agreed. "Sephiroth... Even if they knew it to be a rumour, people would... freak out, if they thought he was alive. I know about the Meteor... what if others do, too? There were soldiers who escaped, you know... they will spread the rumour."
"Unfortunately, yes," Staniv said.
"Well... Anyway, I would like to see your daughter, Lord Godo," Kai muttered. "Perhaps I can help."
"I doubt it," Godo sighed. "However..." "Staniv... can you protect her?"
"Undoubtedly, Lord Godo. This man is not my equal."
"Good..." "Yes, I suppose it would not hurt if you looked at her. Be careful, however... Whatever ails her, it may be dangerous, even to others."
"I... see. A disease?"
"I do not think so. The impression I got was that it involves a curse of some kind; however, we cannot tell what it does. All we know is that it has put her in a coma, and is apparently giving her nightmares."
"A sleep curse...? I have never heard of such a spell... but still, I would like to see her. If I may?"
"Yes... I will take you to her." Godo rose, and so did Kai. "This way," the samurai said, pushing the sliding door aside. "Just down this corridor... Staniv, come along."
The three of them walked down the corridor to the shrine, where Godo opened the door, allowing them inside. Shake, standing guard in case Yuffie woke up again, shook his head - no changes in her condition - and exited the room, closing the door behind him. Godo knelt down by Yuffie's side.
"She has been like this ever... since right after that spell hit her. Sephiroth brought her here, and our Goddess, Asura, blessed this shrine... She will not die, at least not immediately, while she is in here. But slowly..." Godo fell silent.
"A curse indeed," Kai mumbled. "Let me see..." He knelt down and placed his hands on her forehead. Closing his eyes, he concentrated...
Suddenly, he jerked his hands back, eyes wide open, barely stifling a scream. "H...hell!" he stuttered, rubbing his hands, blinking rapidly. "Hell!"
"What is it...?" Staniv asked.
"Th... at power, it's... bad. Very bad." Kai shook his head violently. "It's like... no, it isn't like anything else I've ever felt. It is a curse, all right... I can't break it. I'm sorry."
"No one else has been able to do so either," Godo sighed. "Do not blame yourself. However, it seems you learned something... Would you care to share the knowledge with us?"
"Yes... yes," Kai said, nodding dumbly. "Ah... oh, that really hurt. It's so... intense.
"I felt a great darkness. It's trying to crush her... suffocate her. She... oh, gods, she must be in pain, terrible pain... I'm afraid she won't last long."
"We know that," Godo sighed. "Anything else?"
"Yes... there is something," Kai confessed. "There is... something telling me that the spell was much weakened before it struck... that this is but a fragment of its true power! I can't... imagine how anyone could device such a spell... much less... use it. But I am certain; somehow, something took the brunt of that spell. If it hadn't, she would have been dead now." And yet it is... slightly...
Godo did not say anything. He just stroked his daughter's hair, once, and then got to his feet and left, leaving Kai and Staniv staring after him.
Cloud steered Ash towards Bone, bringing the chocobo in to land just outside the village. He easily spotted the Tiny Bronco from the air - the plane was rather hard to miss, after all. Ash made a perfect landing, only metres from the plane, and Cloud jumped off the bird's back, looking over at the craft. It was obvious that no one was around, and it had been some time since they arrived; when Cloud put a hand to the plane's engine, it was cold to the touch.
They only had one Lunar Harp - as far as they knew, there was only one Lunar Harp - and so Cloud couldn't very well follow Cid and Tifa into the forest. In order to avoid passing them on the way - not that it was very likely, but anyway - he didn't head for Bone, but climbed into the passenger seat of the 'Bronco, which was the most comfortable place to sit, and relaxed. He was getting slightly tired by now, and so, without noticing anything, he slowly drifted off into slumber...
When he woke up, it was dark. And still, there was no sign of Tifa or Cid. Cloud cursed himself for his carelessness - he really should know better than to fall asleep like that! - and then started off for village Bone.
-Just a few hour earlier...-
Cid sighed and leaned heavily on the Venus Gospel, considering - for the umpteenth time since entering the 'forgotten city' - lighting a cigarette, but deciding - and this, too, for the umpteenth time - not to do so. "Tifa, he's gone. We got to have looked through every little nook and cranny of this place... We're both getting jumpy, and I'm dying for a smoke. Why don't you just face it: he's gone. There's not a friggin' chance in hell that we'll be able to find any clues to where he's heading, either. Damn it!" He punched a wall, managing only to bruise his knuckles, even through his leather gloves. "Damn it!"
"Cid, please," Tifa winced. "You're not helping."
"Excuse me!" Cid shook his hand, swearing under his breath, but as Tifa moved on to the next room, he followed without complaints.
"Not here either..." Tifa sighed. "I'm almost beginning to think you're right... he's probably gone by now."
"That's what I said, yes," Cid said sourly. "Most likely, he just came here to leave the flowers, and once that was done, he probably took off again. We should be getting back... Cloud's probably there by now."
"Yeah. I know... but I can't just leave without making sure, first... Cid, there are two houses left, after this one. You go take that one over there -" Tifa pointed to a house some fifteen metres away "- and I'll finish here and take the last one. We'll meet outside your house... okay?"
"Yeah," the pilot grunted. "Just don't get your hopes up, okay?"
Tifa smiled a thin smile. "I won't," she said. "Trust me, I won't. Now go; the quicker we get done, the better."
"Roger that," Cid agreed, and left to look through the other house.
Cid muttered angrily as he pushed a wooden crate aside with the Venus Gospel's blade. "Damn those imbeciles... bloody ninja... hate this place..." He knew, of course, that Vincent wouldn't be hiding in a crate - well, at least not in this crate, because it was too small for the ex-Turk to fit in - but he kicked it around anyway, just because he felt like it. Then he moved on to the next room.
Of course, he didn't find anything interesting there either. There was nothing but a bed, a table with a single chair, and a wardrobe-like piece of furniture. Cid looked under the bed and table, and in the wardrobe, but still no Vincent. Cursing, he headed for the next room - the last one, he believed, although with the design of these houses, it was hard to tell.
It was as empty as the other one. There was one of those little fountains in this room, but not much more; Cid looked closely at the fountain, making sure not to touch it, lest he would get knocked out by the overwhelming power of the Ancients' voices flowing through this water - or was it water?
However, even here, he could hear voices. Not normal, human voices; no, these were the Ancients' voices... and they seemed familiar. Something was drawing him closer to the fountain, and Cid, after a second of thought, complied; figuring that if the Ancients wanted to tell him something, it was important. Hesitating only for the merest instant, he reached out and touched the crystal clear water...
Cid jerked his hand back. "What the f...?"
Danger! The voices were screaming at him! And they were all screaming the same word... 'danger'. "Danger? Danger where?" He gripped his spear tightly, but there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary in there. Shaking his head, Cid one more put his hand in the streaming water. "Danger? What do you mean by that?" he asked the voices. "What is it you're trying to say to me?"
Danger! the voices screamed. They seemed to fade away briefly, and then one, single voice spoke - a voice that Cid thought he recognised, somehow, but the memory eluded him; he could not tell where he might have heard it before. Danger... friend... go!
Then, suddenly, the voices were gone, the water just water.
And Cid heard a crash from somewhere outside.
Before the sound had faded, Cid was through the door and running towards the last house.
"This is one of them... Right?"
"Yes, Susanna," the boy said softly. "She is. But she is not the right one... However..."
"Who are you two?" Tifa demanded, looking up at the two strangers hovering half a metre off ground. One was a woman, probably a couple of years younger than Tifa, with long, silvery hair and Mako-blue eyes, while the other one... "I... have seen you before... haven't I?" she asked.
The other one, a boy about ten years of age, merely smiled. His eyes remained expressionless, though... and remained as blue as the girl's. His hair was silver, too, just like hers, and almost as long; unlike hers, though, it was tied back with a leather cord.
"Novo..." the girl said. "What should we do? Master..."
"'Master' has his own plans," the boy said. "We'll bring her along."
"Hey...?" Tifa said. "Are you talking about me?"
Novo - if that was indeed his name - smiled at her again. "Yes," he said. His voice sent shivers down Tifa's spine; it was all too soft, but it still sounded hoarse; it was not the voice of a child. "Yes, I rather think we are."
"A- Are you mad? What makes you think I'd come with you...? Whoever you are!"
He kept smiling. "What makes you think you'd have any say in the matter?" He raised his hands. Tifa suddenly felt extremely light - and now she was floating in the air! Nothing was holding her, but she couldn't reach anything; she couldn't move from the place where she was floating.
What's this... magic? "Let me down! Now!" She shook her fist in the boy's direction.
He never stopped smiling.
"I am afraid we can't do that," he said.
"Oh, but I must insist..." came a silky voice from behind him. A half-burned match dropped to the ground just in front of the boy. "Because if you don't let her down within three seconds, someone's going to get pissed. And I do not mean drunk."
The boy turned around, crossing his arms over his chest. "Another one," he observed. "Susanna, would you take care of it?"
"My pleasure..." Susanna raised a hand and launched a small blue-green orb of light at the man standing in the shadows just inside the door. A strange-coloured blade flashed; the light-orb faded away as it touched it.
"Good," Cid said, stepping closer. "But not good enough. Two seconds."
Novo's smile faded somewhat. "You really mean that, don't you?" he said.
"Sorry. You'll just have to come with us, you too." And with those words, Cid was lifted into the air, just like Tifa. Unlike her, however, Cid had a spear, and as he was lifted off the floor, he put the weapon up, thrusting it at the ceiling. The blow pushed him back towards the floor again; obviously, the spell's effect was weightlessness rather than simply grab-and-lift. Novo grinned, the smile almost reaching his eyes. "Impressive..." he said.
"Yeah, sure. No time left, kid. Let her down, or I'll air-condition both of you." Cid aimed his spear at the boy's chest in a way meant to look threatening. Novo chuckled.
"You are brave, I must give you that. However..."
"No 'however's. Let her down." Cid drew his arm back and stepped closer.
Still, Novo kept smiling.
But Novo wasn't there anymore. The pilot's attack slashed harmlessly through air and nothing else. Susanna, with a scornful smile on her lips, reached out to grab the haft of the spear. Light flaring in her Mako eyes, she unleashed a powerful electrical current into the weapon.
Her strategy would have worked, had the Venus Gospel been a normal spear. Made from metal, it would have conducted the electricity - but Venus Gospel was all but a normal weapon. Cid felt a slight increase in the tingling humming reverberating through it, and then the spear crackled with electrical light, none of it touching the pilot himself. It did, however, touch Susanna. Gasping in shock, the sorceress shook and fell to her knees, the levitation spell dissolving and floating her down to the floor.
Novo was not that careless. While Susanna's attack had, in his eyes, been useless and uncalled-for, it had served a purpose: it had distracted the lancer long enough for Novo to strike. Stepping out from the shadows, he cast a simple spell, drawing upon the powers of air and fire. A thin bolt of lightning shot from his hand, striking Cid's arm. Startled, the pilot dropped his weapon, spat out both his freshly-lit cigarette and a stream of swearwords, then turned, rubbing his arm, to Novo.
"So, that was where you were hiding..."
"Yes. And now that you are helpless -"
Cid quickly bent down to retrieve the Venus Gospel, but Novo blasted it out of reach with another lightning spell - now that Cid was not holding it, the spear no longer reacted differently from any other weapon, and was thrown into a corner of the room. Cid straightened his back. Going after the spear would serve no purpose; he'd just get blasted. However, if he could surprise the boy...
Once more, he was being lifted into the air, and now, he had no spear to aid him.
"Oh no! That's as far as you'll get..." Tifa wasn't carrying too much Materia, due to lack of storage space - her outfit did not hold many pockets - but she had a couple of green orbs attached to a bracelet. Now she finally remembered it, and proceeded to turn one of them on this strange child.
Spears of solid ice shot at the boy from all sides.
Novo smiled again, and waved his hand. The spears vanished as if they had never existed, and Tifa stared down at the orb of Materia she had used. What the...?
"That was not very polite of you," the silver-haired boy said, still smiling. "You will not do it again."
Suddenly, Tifa felt as if someone had thrown a blanket over her. The power flowing through this city seemed to have vanished; even her own Materia seemed dull and lifeless. It was no simple silencing spell; no, this was more like a magic nullifier, cutting her off completely from the power. Tifa growled in anger. "What do you think you're doing?" she asked, furiously fighting against the spells confining - no, restricting - her. "Who are you? Answer me, damn it!"
Novo looked at her with childlike innocence in his Mako eyes. "My name is Novo," he said. Still, his voice was at once soft and hoarse-sounding, and far too even-toned. Tifa shivered. "I'm afraid we will need you... you, and your friend." Novo made a gesture in Cid's direction. "You see, you two are crucial in my master's plan, foolish as it might be. And now, miss Lockhart... shall we go?" Novo bent down and helped Susanna up. "I will take care of this..." he told her. "You take the harp... and make the necessary arrangements."
"Yes, Novo," Susanna said, leaning down to kiss him on the lips. "I will be right back."
Novo smiled, a bit sadly this time, as he said, "I know you will."
Cloud soon reached the village. Stopping by at the tent that served as inn, he asked the innkeeper if anyone had passed by lately.
"Yes," the man said, looking up from the book he was reading. "I heard a man and a woman entered the woods. They had the Lunar Harp... Hey, Cloud Strife, right? I remember you... you were that guy who had the Harp dug up a year or so ago!"
"Yes," Cloud replied. "How long since they passed?"
"Oh, maybe... five hours?" the man shrugged. "I don't really know the exact time, but that's what I think."
Hmm... Cloud scratched his head. Five hours? That would be more than enough to get into the city and check it out - there weren't really that many places to look - and get out again.
"Hello?" There was someone outside. "Hey, you there with the spiky hair!"
Cloud turned to face the speaker. "Yeah?"
"Your lady friend just dropped by and told me to hand this to you." The man handed Cloud a silvery harp. "She said to tell you to... 'meet me in the temple', were her words."
Cloud took the harp and frowned. That... can't be Tifa, he realised. "Are you... Can you describe her? The woman who gave you this?"
The man looked surprised. "Why, sure! But..."
"Just do it."
"All right, all right! She was pretty, about your height... long, silver hair... and eyes just like yours. She was dressed in blue. I didn't get a very good look at her face..."
"Thank you , that's good enough..." Cloud tossed a ten-Gil coin to the man. "Thanks for your trouble."
"You're welcome." The man nodded to the innkeeper and walked away. Cloud remained where he was, standing with the Lunar Harp in one hand.
What happened to Tifa? She would never leave the harp to anyone else... but is she still in the city? It must be a trap, but... Yes, but. What had happened to Tifa and Cid? Were they still alive? Cloud clenched his hand into a fist. No! I lost Aerith there... I will not lose Tifa too! He would have to get in there. If she was still in the city or the forest, she would be unable to get out without the harp...
But then again, how had that other woman been able to get the harp? No, Tifa couldn't be in the Cetran city; there was no way anyone could get in without the harp.
No, he corrected himself - there was no known way anyone could get in without the harp. So what waited for him there?
It did not matter. Tifa had vanished, and Cloud was going to find her again... no matter how.
"I...see. Vincent Valentine, huh...?" Kai scratched his chin. "I've heard that name before... I know I have! But where...?"
"It does not matter," Godo said. "We need to find Vincent... and Cloud and the others still have not returned. I am starting to worry..."
"You think something might have happened to them?"
Godo nodded, once, slowly. "We cannot rule out that possibility."
"Damn..." The sorcerer shook his head. "Have you tried asking the Espers?"
Godo nodded again. "Leviathan does not know where he is, and Asura has never heard his name. I asked Leviathan to talk to other Espers, but he could not find the man anywhere."
"Damn. And he doesn't have anything out of the ordinary, something that we could track...?"
Godo shook his head. Then he froze. "Maybe... Yes, there may be a chance! Kai! Stay with my daughter. I shall go and speak to Leviathan again!" Godo jumped to his feet and slammed the sliding door aside, then ran for the Pagoda.
Kai, puzzled, remained seated on his pillow. "What did I say?" he asked.
Godo already having reached the Pagoda, there was no one to answer his question. After a few seconds, he got up and headed for the shrine to keep an eye on the girl.
"M... master... Leviathan!" Godo gasped, hurtling up the stairs. "Can... can you tell me... where I might find... Chaos?"
The river dragon turned its head slowly, transfixing him with its gaze. "Chaos...?" Something flared in the dragon's eyes. "Chaos, you say?"
"Yes... master," Godo panted. "The man... Vincent... I spoke of... He has the powers... of Chaos. I think... maybe it would be easier to find him if... you searched for that power."
"Vincent Valentine... Chaos?" Leviathan inquired. "Indeed? Yes, that could be possible... Are you certain of this, Lord Godo?"
Godo nodded. "Yes, master. I have seen him in that shape with my own eyes."
"I see... Chaos... Perhaps the Dragon of the Mists was right. We Espers seem to know much less than we should... Chaos...The Chaos force once almost destroyed an entire world. It certainly has enough power to be traced."
"Then... you can find him?"
"I would be surprised if I could not. Allow me a short moment."
Godo fell silent, waiting while Leviathan closed his eyes and focussed...
Several minutes passed. Then Leviathan opened his eyes again and said, "I have found him."
"Then... where is he?" Godo asked.
"According to the power currents... he is heading this way."
Just a few hours earlier...-
"Now... remains the question what I should do with you two..." Novo still smiled. Tifa found his smile most unsettling. "I cannot bring you along like this... it would be too dangerous. No, I am afraid I will have to sleep you. Don't worry; you won't feel a thing." He raised his hands. Tifa coughed nervously. She would rather remain silent, but...
"By 'sleep'... do you mean..."
"Oh, nothing like that," the boy assured her. "I merely meant to put you to sleep with a simple spell. When we reach our destination, I will awaken you... not before."
"Hey!" Cid protested. "You have no right to treat us like this! Let me down - now! And maybe I won't shove a spear up your ass sideways!"
"Such language. I see you have no idea... You see, the 'right' belongs to the one who can take it. I can. Therefore, I have every right. Now, if that is over with...?"
"It's... far from over!" Cid growled. "I'll get you, you little..."
"And once more, you threaten me. Have you not realised that you are at my mercy? I could kill you now. It would be easy. Why do you insist on fighting?" Novo was genuinely puzzled. Are these people daft...? Are they so full of pride that they cannot see the reality? Or... is it... something else? His Mako-blue eyes glowed softly as he turned to Tifa. "Why do you fight so hard? You know you cannot win. Why fight the unalterable? Why risk your life like this, defying the very one who holds your life in his hands? Answer me this. Why?"
Tifa looked at him, confused. "You mean you don't understand why we fight you?"
"Yes. It seems pointless, does it not? You are helpless, and you know I can kill you if I want... so why do you keep saying these things, why do you try and anger me, why do you still fight?"
"Maybe... because that's our nature," Cid said before Tifa could answer. "Even if it seems hopeless... we can never do more than try, and before we try, we cannot know if we will succeed."
"Oh." Novo looked down into the floor. "Hmm..."
"Look... Novo," Tifa said. "Why don't you just let us go?"
"I cannot. I must take you with me... as I should have done several minutes ago. Now..."
"Maybe," Cid said again. "Maybe it's because it's our nature and we have to try, no matter what the results may be... or maybe, just maybe, we do it because it's a good way to stall you."
Novo looked up angrily, eyes glowing. Whatever he did, if Cid had been in the way, would have reduced the pilot to ashes. However, as a lance of bright white light shot from the boy's hand, burning a hole through the wall and leaving purple and blue afterimages, Cid, a blue aura exploding briefly around him, darted aside, heading for his spear, still lying by the wall where it had slid. Novo lowered his hand as Cid dropped to one knee, retrieved the spear, and got up again in one fluid move. "How did you do that?" the boy asked, his voice betraying both curiosity and anger. "How? That spell should have kept you floating!"
"We all have our little secrets," Cid smiled. "I don't know how you made it past the enchanted forest, or how you manage to do... what you do, things I have never seen or even heard of. I do know what I am capable of doing, and all I needed was..." He raised the spear, pointing it at Novo's chest. "...time," he finished with a grin.
"Ah. I see... not at all very stupid, are you?" Novo's voice remained somewhat curious. "Most interesting... However, I am not Susanna. I do not make the same mistakes. I still have your friend." He pointed to Tifa, hovering helpless in the air. "You have to the count of five to drop your weapon and surrender. If you fail to comply, I will burn off her legs. I only need her alive." He seemed very serious, and did not smile anymore. Cid raised the spear.
"If you harm her... you die," he promised. "Remember that."
Novo nodded. "I swear by my honour that no harm shall befall her... if you surrender. I do not know if I could defend myself against your spear, and I would rather never find out. However, unless you put it down, we will both find out, but not before..." A tiny flame appeared as Novo moved his hand slightly. "The mind is much faster than the hand. I will start counting. Five."
Cid drew his hand back. Could he...?
"Four," Novo said. The small blaze became brighter, larger.
Cid hesitated. If he missed... if he was too slow...
"Three..." The flame expanded, enveloping the boy's hand.
Cid held his breath.
"Two." Now the fire seemed to draw closer to Tifa; she was feeling the heat, unpleasant even so far from her, and Cid saw a bead of sweat slide down her face. Hands and jaw clenched, she was waiting... waiting for what? He could not tell.
Cid sighed in exasperation. The Venus Gospel clattered on the stone floor.
Novo turned, the fire dispelled. "Good," he said, smiling again. "I was afraid I might have to hurt someone. Now stand still, and I will cast the sleep spell. Do not try to resist."
Cid stood still as a strange mist flowed from the boy, wrapping itself around him. Suddenly it was hard to keep his eyes open... hard to stand...
Suddenly he heard a noise, like a glass shattering, and the spell broke. Novo flinched as his fragile web of spirit shattered; feeling as if he had received a physical blow.
"What...?" Cid rubbed his eyes. "What the hell...?"
Novo recovered quickly, and turned his Mako eyes on the pilot. "Why... what did you just do?" he demanded. He seemed at least as surprised as Cid.
Cid blinked, not understanding. Novo shook his head. "I will have to look into this... at a later point." Smiling again, he raised both hands, pointing all ten fingers at Cid. "I'm sorry that it has to come to this... but before I know more, it is the only way."
Then he moved his fingers slightly, and a slight shimmer seemed to leap from his outstretched hands towards Cid, striking the pilot's chest. Cid grunted and was thrown back, hitting the wall behind him with a painful 'crack!'.
"Cid!" Tifa cried, reaching out for him - pointless, of course. Inside, she was screaming, crying, but nothing of it showed on her face as she turned her head to look at Novo. "You... bastard."
"As I said... I am sorry," Novo said, lowering his hands.
"You are... sorry?" She was getting angry now, very angry. "You are... sorry!"
"Yes," Novo said, looking her in the eyes. Tifa looked back for a second, then looked away, seeing his Mako-blue eyes. Cloud... Sephiroth... Novo... all had such eyes. Only Cloud's were comforting. "Yes," Novo repeated. "I am sorry. I did not want to harm him, but..." Shaking his head, he looked at Cid, slumped down by the wall. At least there was no blood anywhere, Tifa thought, but who knew what injuries he might have sustained? "I had no choice. He would have fought my spell off again, and I must hurry, now... he is not seriously harmed, and I shall heal him when I have the time. I hope you can forgive me..."
Tifa spat. She missed him, but Novo understood, looking at her with sadness in his eyes. For a second, she almost pitied him. Almost. "I see. Then... there is nothing more to say. Please, do not fight me... or I will have to do the same to you as I did to him."
Tifa glared at her captor. Do as you wish... I'll get you. No matter what happens... I'll get you!
Novo raised his hands again and pointed at her. And suddenly, all Tifa knew was darkness.
"So what is this... 'Chaos' thing?" Kai asked Godo. The samurai shrugged.
"I do not know. It is a powerful force... I believe, a kind of demon. Somehow, this man, Vincent Valentine, has the power to transform into this demon... How, I do not know. What I do know, however, is that this force might be able to save my daughter's life."
"A demon...? Save lives? I wonder..."
"Not a demon. A human. There is a difference," Shake remarked dryly. It was now Staniv's turn to watch over Yuffie while the Lord Godo took care of Wutai, but that did not mean Shake could rest. One of the four followed Godo almost everywhere he went - just in case there was another attack. Although it seemed unlikely that any enemies remained, it never hurt to be careful.
They were walking from house to house, visiting the wounded, helping wherever they could. Even with the power of healing magic at their command, there were people too badly wounded to get up; some would never recover. There were too many wounds to heal everybody fully. Godo, Kai and Shake helped where they could, but Kai was beginning to feel tired; it had been a while since he had a chance to sleep, and much had happened since. Much more of this, he thought, and he would start seeing double. Shake, however, was holding up surprisingly well - the power of the Pagoda probably sustained him, Kai thought with a sting of jealousy, and Godo seemed equally tireless.
"So Leviathan said Vincent was heading this way?" the sorcerer said, trying to continue the conversation. Godo nodded. "So that means what, trouble?"
"Haven't you been listening?" Shake wondered sourly. "Vincent is one of the good guys. He might be able to turn into a demon, but he's still one of the good guys. And you better not try anything funny when he arrives... if he arrives."
"If Leviathan said he was heading here," Godo said, "then he is heading here. There is no doubt about it."
"Hmm..." Kai rubbed his chin. Was there really anything more to say? He seemed to be repeating himself. Better to shut up, then. He sighed, and followed Godo and Shake towards the next house.
Vincent turned slightly to catch an air current, flapping his wings once. He was flying, in Chaos' shape - as he had done often lately. It had been half a year - ever since his meeting with Sephiroth - since he had been afraid.
Vincent had never been afraid of Jenova, nor had he been afraid of Sephiroth, or the Meteor. Nevertheless, Vincent had been afraid.
Afraid of himself, or rather, a special part of him - the part that was Chaos.
Half a year ago, that had changed. Vincent still feared Chaos, but he was no longer afraid of himself -that was a difference, and a great one.
It had also been half a year since he met any of his friends. Well, maybe not friends, but people who were slightly closer to him than the rest of the population, and that was enough.
He had had a busy time lately. A few weeks ago, a strange man, quite similar to Sephiroth, had appeared outside the Shinra Mansion, where Vincent had made his home. The man had just stared at the mansion for a few minutes, then vanished, teleporting away, but Vincent had seen his gaze, and knew that something was definitely not as it should.
Then he had visited Lucrecia's waterfall again - he usually did that once every week, and doubted that he'd ever stop doing it... until he found out what had happened to Lucrecia. After that, he had visited the ancient Cetran city... Aerith's grave. At least he knew what had happened to her.
She had not died in vain. That did not make her death easier to accept.
Vincent sighed, turning slightly, descending slightly. He was currently about three hundred metres over the sea, carried on the winds, moving his wings only occasionally. It was easy for him to concentrate on other matters - the wind did all the job, he just followed it. Perhaps I should pay a visit to Wutai... he thought. I wonder how Yuffie is doing... She had mentioned trying to 'find herself'... but had she ever done it? Vincent doubted it. Even if she had certainly found some kind of insight in the crater, he doubted that such an insight would sustain her for long; she would soon need to know more. Once again, he smiled inside, but was unable to make the smile show in his face. Chaos' features were not made for smiling; but if anyone had seen the ex-Turk in that moment, they would have seen his eyes sparkle with mirth, and for a few seconds, the fanged and horned demon did not seem quite as frightening.
He had decided. Scanning the horizon for landmarks, Vincent turned slightly, descended to find another, more suitable air-current, and headed for Wutai.
Cloud leaned on his sword and shook his head. The place was empty. He had searched for two hours, but there was nothing - at all. Now it was dark, and he was having problems seeing where he was going, even using fire magic to light his path; the flashlight's batteries had given in a few minutes ago, leaving magic his only source of light. But somehow... He did not feel as if he was alone. Tifa... Where are you? Cloud frowned. Something was very wrong. Both Tifa and Cid, gone... The Lunar Harp in Bone... Tifa would never give it up without a fight. Heck, Cid wouldn't give it up without a fight, and, knowing Tifa and Cid, it would have to be a rather spectacular fight.
There were so many pieces to this puzzle, and Cloud didn't know where to begin. And he strongly suspected that even though he had a few pieces, there were more to collect - many more. Meet me in the temple... That was what the silver-haired woman had told the man in Bone. Meet me in the temple... But he had been to the temple; he had searched it from one end to the other, finding nothing... but roses. Roses? That was a question for another time. For now, he was only interested in finding his friends.
Still, the words echoed in his head, as if he had heard her utter them. Meet me in the temple... He could clearly hear the words; a woman's voice, speaking softly, almost whispering. Cloud did not know if it was his imagination, or if he truly did hear that voice. Hopefully... I am imagining... He did not want the troubles of one year ago to return, not any more than he wanted to lose Tifa. People speaking in his head had always meant trouble. He was fairly certain that it would not be different this time, if there were any voices at all.
Meet me in the temple...
"All right... all right!" he said, out loud, addressing anyone who might be listening. "I'll go to the temple again! But there had better be something there this time..." He tugged the Ultima Weapon out of the soft dirt and started walking, sword at ready, scanning his surroundings for any possible threat.
Cloud reached the temple a short while later. No one had bothered him.
The temple still seemed empty. Cloud slowly went over to the lake, looking down into the water. Nothing... The roses were still there. Cloud thought they looked like little droplets of blood on the surface. Had the one who put the flowers there thought so as well? And who had put them there? Could it have been Tifa? But where had the flowers come from, then? Perhaps it had been Vincent? Cloud shook his head and tore his gaze from the water. "Is there anyone here?" he asked. Stop fooling around... the message said to meet her here. She must be here... or someone must... Cloud had sheathed his sword again, and wondered if that had been wise. He wouldn't draw it now; if someone was hiding in the temple, that might frighten them off, and Cloud wanted to meet whoever had told him to come here. He wanted to meet that person... and make them pay. Make them pay for making him worry about Tifa. Make them pay for making him come to this place - the last of all places in the world were Cloud wanted to be.
There was no answer, and Cloud turned back to watching the flowers again. He could see it all again... Aerith kneeling out there on the platform, praying... her gentle smile as he approached... and the look of surprise as the sword burst through her chest. She had been dead before she hit the ground. And Sephiroth had laughed... Cloud shook his head again. "Damnit..." He couldn't lose control now. Possibly, Tifa's life depended on his actions.
Sighing, Cloud made his way up to the platform where she had died. Standing in the centre of the stone disc, he looked up. There was a faint glimmer of daylight far above, only enough to prevent the cave from being totally dark. Cloud extinguished the heatless flames around the Fire Materia, and put the orb in a pocket. He'd just have to wait... and out here, the chances of anyone surprising him were low.
From the shadows across the lake, two pairs of Mako blue eyes glittered in the faint light.
Vincent's sharp eyes detected the Wutaian sentinel long before the man saw him. Even though it was dark, he could make out the man's life-force, like a beacon in the night, casting a ghostly, otherworldly light over the grass around him. The man was well hidden, but there was no hiding from Chaos' eyes.
However, the man himself was not interesting. No, he was nothing - but the reason why he was there, now that was something... Vincent stopped for a few seconds to think. Wutai had not had any guards for years - not since the war. What had happened, to make them assign one now? Looking closer, Vincent saw that there were several other spots of life near the town; six, he thought, positioned as the points of a hexagon. Six guards... Six! Something very unusual must be happening... Vincent advanced slowly, cautiously. Monster attacks...? But that in itself would be as odd as the guards around Wutai. The creatures living in the area had never attacked the city; they might eat an unsuspecting traveller or three every year, but that was about it.
Attack...? The thought was hard to grasp. There had not been any troop movements that Vincent knew of, and ever since the fall of Shinra, no one kept an army anymore. SOLDIER and the Turks no longer existed.
That did not mean the knowledge was gone, though.
Vincent silently passed the guard, all but invisible in the darkness. The man never suspected a thing.
Wutai was in a sad state. Most of the houses had sustained damage in some way; a few were uninhabitable. Judging from the fresh graves just outside the town, that would not present a trouble for the rest of the population - there weren't enough people left to fill the remaining houses to their full capacity.
He was about to descend and reverse the Change, when suddenly someone spoke, very quietly, in his head.
Greetings, Chaos warrior.
Vincent made an instinctive grab for his gun, momentarily forgetting which shape he was in. His gun was in his backpack, between Chaos' wings, and well beyond hi reach.
I am not an enemy, the voice said. I wish to speak with you. Come to the Pagoda; I am waiting on the roof. Vincent was about to think something back through the link he sensed, but the strange presence was gone before he could act. Hmm...?
He headed for Pagoda. There was something on the roof, he realised, but whatever it was, it was skilled at hiding its aura; all he could feel was that it was not human. Not human at all...
He swiftly approached the tall building. Soon, he could make out the huge, dark shape on its roof. Leviathan, he realised. I should have known.
He landed easily on the slanting roof, standing as far from the Esper as he could.
"I have arrived," he said.
"That I can see," Leviathan replied, his voice low for a dragon's, but still louder than Chaos'. "Please, resume your human form. Speaking will be easier then."
Vincent hesitated. He did not know what the Esper was up to, and whatever it was, he could probably handle it better in a more powerful shape. However... Something was telling him that the quicker he got this over with, the better. And Leviathan had never shoved any malicious intent towards him before...
"As you wish." He took a deep breath and turned the powers. Not quite as bad as the transformation from human to demon, the opposite was still breathtaking, and he almost fell to his knees once the power left him. The feeling told him not to give in. Vincent took another deep breath and shook his head, trying to clear it. "So talk," he said. Although his voice sounded strange and hoarse, as always after a Change, the Esper heard.
"I will be brief. Time is not on our side, and there are pressing matters at hand. However, before you can attend to them, there are certain things we need to discuss."
Vincent sat down, cross-legged. "So talk," he repeated.
Leviathan bowed his head, a simple nod. "Only hours ago, a battle was fought here."
"Yes, undoubtedly. However, you do not know what happened during the battle."
"Tell me." His voice was returning to normal, slowly. "Tell me what happened, and why it is so important."
"I will." Leviathan looked Vincent in the eyes, something very few beings, human or otherwise, found the nerve to do. "The battle was going poorly. The Wutaian forces were greatly outnumbered, and so they sent a Summoner to call upon my aid."
"I see. Espers cannot appear in this world unless they have been summoned, can they?"
"As a matter of fact, we can. However, it is against our laws, and rarely done.
"Enough about that. The enemy forces were allied to an Esper, Mist. While I fought this Esper, the situation was as it had been before, and the Wutaian were losing ground. In despair, the Summoner called upon another entity..."
"Hold." Vincent whispered the command, but it was enough. "I do not like where this is heading. This Summoner, she was a young girl... seventeen years old, shinobi trained?"
"Then I need not know more. What happened?" He was starting to worry. She couldn't have... No, surely, she must realise...
Vincent would rather have Wutai levelled with the ground than allow the word of Sephiroth's 'revival' spread. Even as a spirit, Sephiroth was a force of change, one that bent the world around himself; the knowledge alone, even if Sephiroth did not act, was enough to change the world.
No one would believe he was just a ghost.
"What happened?" he demanded.
Leviathan lowered his head. "I believe you already know. The Warrior released the attacking force from a slight magical bond, and erased their memories of his appearance. Once the bond was gone, no one fought anymore. However, some escaped... and these few know of his appearance.
"There is more, however. One of the invaders opposed the Warrior's power, a young witch. The Warrior emerged victorious, but the Summoner -"
"How bad?" Vincent had to force the words out.
"Very. We believe she is dying. However, the wound is not an ordinary one - or it would have healed long ago. It is the results of a curse, so powerful that no one has been able to lift it. We believe that you may have the power to do so."
I probably can... Yes, I could lift such a curse, I am sure of it. But is it worth it? "Let me see her."
"The Summoner is resting in her father's home. I must remain here."
"Then I must go to her." Vincent opened the hatch in the roof and went down the stairs, closing the hatch behind him. Yuffie... Curse it.
He started running.
"Halt! Who goes th..." Chekov fell silent as Vincent approached. "Ah. I see." Without speaking further, the Guardian stepped aside, allowing Vincent to step outside Pagoda. The ex-Turk did not bother to look twice at him as he ran down the stairs and headed for the Kisaragi residence.
An unfamiliar man - fair-skinned, dark-haired, dressed in black - was seated outside, sitting cross-legged, with his back to the wooden wall. He appeared to be meditating, but as Vincent was about to pass, the man held out a hand. "Stop. Where do you think you're..."
"If you wish to keep that hand, remove it." Vincent did not have a weapon at hand, apart from his clawed gauntlet, but his voice was enough to make most people back off. This man was no exception. Vincent glowered at him as he pulled the door aside and entered.
Shake was seated on a chair just inside the door. He immediately recognised Vincent. "So you came... You know what happened?"
"Yes. Where is she?"
"I see. Thank you." Vincent was walking away as he spoke. The shrine...
"Vincent," Godo sighed. "So they found you."
"No one found me," Vincent replied. "I came here on my own. But that is irrelevant."
"It is that, yes," Godo agreed. "Please, see my daughter. I sincerely hope you have the power to save her..."
"I cannot promise anything," Vincent told him. "But I will do my best. Now show me where she is."
"Right in here." Godo stepped aside, allowing Vincent inside the shrine. "Please. You may be her only hope."
"...that remains to be seen. Now leave... and hand me your dagger, please."
"Certainly, but... why?" Godo drew and handed the blade to Vincent as he spoke.
Vincent took it, and said, "Do not ask questions when you are not prepared to hear the answers. Please leave. I cannot do this if you are here."
Godo did not want to leave, but he had no choice but to trust Vincent - no matter how strange the man acted. He let go of the knife, stepped back, and closed the sliding door behind him.
Vincent slowly put the tanto in his belt. Then he turned to observe Yuffie, still lying under the altar.
He saw, as soon as he laid eyes on her, that the curse was worse than he had thought. Who... in this modern age, who could have the power to cast such a spell? he wondered. Could it be that someone has... rediscovered magic? The thought was chilling. Even if Sephiroth was resurrected, the change he would bring was nothing compared to what would happen if magic, true magic, independent of Materia and Mako, returned. But that all has to wait... until later. After a look at the shinobi's face, he found himself adding, subconsciously, If there is a 'later'. Then he sat down and placed his hand on Yuffie's forehead. Damn... this will be hard on her... on me. I better do it right... the first time... probably won't get another chance. Her skin was hot, more so than seemed possible. Vincent frowned slightly. Something is draining her life away... and something is... replenishing it? If it had not been for that second power, Vincent suspected, it would have been impossible for him to help her. Now he might just have a chance... a slim one.
Slim chance, he thought with disgust. Hmh. No matter how slim... No matter how slim the chance, he was going to seize it.
Vincent forced himself to relax, and gradually sank into a trance, merging his consciousness with the ninja's. The experience was... unsettling. He had no idea how he had acquired this power - but it was there, and that was all he needed.
He found himself standing between twin rows of white marble columns, stretching endlessly in both directions... but beyond the columns, nothing. He took a step, and the world lurched around him. The marble columns faded and turned into grey, solid walls, a domed ceiling fading into place over his head. So this is it... Yuffie's visualisation of what was happening to her. There always was one; the human brain was unable to transmit certain things to the consciousness, and what happened would instead be turned into simple mental images. That was where fever-dreams came from; the dreams you never remembered fully, once the fever lifted... but sometimes, you would awake in the middle of the night, finding your sheets tangled up and damp with sweat; hearing your heart pounding, and recalling a mere fragment of the dreams... Realising that all this terror was a product of your own mind.
This... feels bad.
In the distance, he heard a sound - like water drops falling into a pool. And he heard... footsteps, he decided, although they were not regular, like normal steps; it sounded as if the one walking here was staggering around, advancing very slowly. It was coming from behind him - no, further up ahead in the corridor, or - no, from behind. Once he concentrated on finding the source, he could easily hear where it was coming from...
It was coming closer. And with it, a sense of overwhelming pain, terror, hopelessness; almost tangible, here, in the spirit realm.
Almost without realising it, Vincent performed a Change. It was much easier here, without the constraints of a body. The shape he had chosen was, as he had so often lately, Chaos.
He would need the power.
He was close to the source, and it was moving towards him. He had no idea what he was going to see - all he knew was that the curse would be tearing at Yuffie's mind, primarily by means of fear. There were two ways for her to escape it all; either she overcame her fears - something much harder than it sounded - or he helped her.
The feeling came closer. Vincent shielded his mind from the worst effects, and Chaos power added to the shields, but the pain still reached him, through the multiple layers of mental shields. She had not been prepared to defend against such a spell. The probability that she would manage to escape it by herself were, at best, very slim.
Then the second option.
But if he was to be completely honest, those chances were not much greater...
Then it was there.
There was no monster, no physical being assaulting her. The only thing that appeared was a small, ghostly image of the girl; fading, almost gone... almost dead. Slowly, she staggered towards him; slowly, as of the air around her was thick and heavy. The sound of water was louder now, and every time the sound returned, the girl flinched as if she had been struck.
He could not understand these fears. But he did not need to. All he needed was to help her get loose from their grip.
It seemed simple enough. But that was until he saw the shadow walking behind her, close but not close enough to touch.
This one fear he understood. Fear of death.
Vincent had seen this fear before. It always seemed to take the same shape - a dark shadow hovering behind the victim, following her everywhere she went.
It was one of the most difficult fears to overcome. Death found every living thing; no one could escape - and this made the fear strong, almost impossible to shake.
Still, Vincent remained where he was, waiting. The shinobi slowly came closer.
Then she looked up at him. Vincent thought he saw a faint glimmer of hope in her ghostly face, but it vanished just as soon as it had come, turning into fearful pain once more. She raised one hand, weakly... speaking words that never reached Vincent, pointing behind him.
Vincent spun, raising Chaos' wings like a shield; prepared to ward off anything that might try to harm him.
Another shadow was taking shape; a shadow more solid than the one hovering over Yuffie, but still a shadow.
But this shadow wielded the Ultima Weapon.
Cloud... she fears him...? But why?
Perhaps... she fears for him. That would... possibly, that could be the reason.
But he had no time to think. Yuffie was in mortal danger...
And now she was trapped; trapped between Death and Strife.
The shadow Cloud swung his sword. Vincent deflected the stroke with his wings, the sword barely scratching him. But now Yuffie had stopped, and Death was approaching her...
If that shadow reached her, there would be nothing more to do. If she lost to her fears, she would never be able to escape them; one touch, and it would all be over. Vincent would have to act quickly.
Before 'Cloud' had a chance to act again, Vincent called forth a bolt of dark fire, tearing through the shadows effortlessly.
To his horror, the shadow figure immediately floated back together again.
Vincent tried again. The results were the same.
Sighing, he backed away a step and summoned the full amount of his powers. Three shimmering shadows faded into being, solidifying into three powers Vincent knew well.
The first was the Galian Beast. It was a part of him.
The other two were part of him, as well. Their powers were great, but Vincent could never forget what they truly were; experiments, failed experiments. Thy were creatures created by the man who had, in a way, also created Vincent; useless for whatever purpose they had been made for, but still powerful, and their genes had been part of the concoction Hojo had used to alter him.
The scientist had dubbed them Gigas and Hellmasker. Vincent had always thought of them as beasts. The Galian Beast was intelligent, in a fashion; these were simply weapons, one mindless, the other twisted and warped beyond recognition.
But here they were under his control; here they would help him, fight for him.
The beasts turned to the closest enemy - Death. Vincent called the Galian Beast to himself, preparing to strike.
As one, Gigas and Hellmasker fell upon the advancing shade. A shining silver staff appeared in the shadow's hands, and came up to meet the two attacks; then Death thrust the staff's tip at Gigas' chest. There was a silent flash of silver light, and Vincent staggered, a great part of his power vanquished in one strike. At the same time, Galian Beast leaped for the shadow Cloud's throat, only to be met by the Ultima Weapon in mid-air.
There was no blood. The creature vanished in a shower of sparks and light, but Vincent fell to his knees, returning to human shape, as the second of his creations succumbed. A third, final burst of light signalled the end of Hellmasker as well; that, as much as the pain.
He was helpless.
Just as the shadow swung its sword at him, Vincent cut the link... and once more, he was in the shrine. His clothes were drenched with sweat. ...failure. He sighed, removing his hand from Yuffie's forehead. I failed. That left...
That left only one solution. Did he dare use it?
Looking down at the knife in his belt, Vincent drew it, and paused. I... can't.
I have to.
I must. After seeing this, how can I do otherwise?
Bending down tiredly, he pried the girl's clenched jaw open. Then, putting his arm next to her mouth, he thrust the knife's point deep into his flesh.
A thin trickle of deep red blood ran down his arm, dripping into the ninja's half-open mouth, staining her lips. Remaining still for a few moments, Vincent finally withdrew, cutting a strip of cloth from his cloak, wrapping it around the wound, and waited.
He could do nothing more.
Now it was all up to her.
Yuffie feel to her knees as Vincent disappeared. He... can't die like this. He... just can't! But she had seen it... had seen the sword pass right through him. She knew that the three other beings - Vincent's other shapes - had not been real, but Chaos... "Vincent!" she screamed. "Vincent!"
He could not hear her.
Damn you, Vincent! You should never... never have come here! The pain was making it hard to think, harder to move. She staggered to her feet. Trapped. Between Death... and Cloud.
Yuffie hung her head and sighed. I guess... damn... "I don't want to die!" Her outburst seemed to startle then two shadows - they both fell back, cowering. Brilliant red flames flared around her, and the ninja felt a kind of power... power unlike anything else she had ever felt - a power at once much wilder and stronger than the Lifestream, more solid than Materia, more ethereal than any spell. The power flowed freely around her, alive inside the flames, seeking to touch her, merge with her. Still, a thin shell kept it at bay - the slightest barrier of absolute calm between her flesh and the raging fire.
What are you...?
The fire pulsed like a heartbeat, its immense power caressing her like a lover. Yuffie tried to back away, but couldn't. What do you want?
The fire withdrew slightly, and seemed to beckon to her...
You... want to... help me?
The flames roared, flaring brighter.
You want... me?
Yes, the fire seemed to say, flickering around her, basking her in its light and heat. I want you.
The fire seemed to answer, I want you...
I want you.
I... don't ... can't! Leave me alone!
You will live.
I will save you.
You... would help me... out of here? She felt a small spark of hope ignite. You would get me back to my father? To Wutai?
The fire seemed to reply, without hesitating, Yes...
I... She hesitated. Just outside the living flames, the two shadows stood... waiting. Inside the fire, it was silent... the pain was gone. She felt warm and secure... strong. Then do it!
In response, the fire burned higher, stronger... swallowing the two shadowy figures, burning them to nothingness. The thin barrier around her was not there anymore, and the fire flowed along her arms, burning her skin, entering her. Yuffie screamed as the unfamiliar power seeped into her very soul, forever bonding itself to her heart. Was it pain she felt? Yes... and no. Yuffie gasped and shivered as the fire filled her with strength... and something else. It could have been pain... or rapture. There was no difference.
Then it was over. She slumped to the ground, almost unconscious; the power spent, inside her now. She could cry in regret... or in joy.
She did neither. Slowly, she staggered to her feet...
It seemed to her that somewhere, deep in her soul, something answered, Yes...
She coughed. Her eyes blinked open...
"Vincent?" Her throat was dry. The taste in her mouth... blood? She licked her lips. They were dry... and there was blood on them.
She blinked. That voice! It was... so similar... to what she had heard...
What she had heard? When had she ever heard anything? As she tried to remember, the last memories faded away into darkness. Yuffie frowned, and sat up. "Vincent."
"Yes. I am here."
She turned. Kneeling by her side... Vincent. In his hand, held by the blade, was a knife... her father's, Yuffie realised, a tanto that had been in the family for centuries. "Wh...y... What are you... doing with the knife? Vincent?"
She met his gaze. Vincent lowered his head, avoided looking her in the eyes.
That was the first time that ever happened.
"I thought maybe... you would like to kill yourself."
There was a hint of a very strained smile, almost maniacal, as he spoke. "Or maybe kill me. I will not stop you."
"Why would I, like, want to do that? You make no sense!" She took the knife from him and put it down on the ground. "What's happening? I can't... can't remember anything..." She shook her head. "It's, like... blurry. I can't remember... anything. Not after I..." She blinked. "Sephiroth!" It was just a whisper.
"What... What happened, Vincent? You must tell me."
He heard the pleading tone in her voice. She wants it to have been a dream... wants it to never have happened. But the dream was worse... much worse... How can I ever explain? How can she ever... He hesitated. How can she ever what? Understand? Forgive?
She has the right to know.
"You were wounded very badly. The spell... the curse... held you in a coma. It would have killed you."
"So... why am I sitting here? I'm not... dead... Am I?" She ran her fingers over her face. It felt solid, and dirty. "What's happening to me, Vincent?"
"In order to save your life..." He spoke very silently, but she could hear him clearly... maybe too clearly. "In order to break the curse, I had to infuse you with a part of myself... a part of Chaos." He looked up, meeting her eyes this time. "It was the only way. That is why... the dagger."
Yuffie looked back, into Vincent's strange, red eyes.
They were the same colour as Summon Materia.
"Yes," he said. "I see you understand. The dagger is still here... you only have to take it."
Yuffie reached down and took the weapon. Keeping the eye contact, she raised it over her head - and threw it across the room. "Enough!"
Vincent nodded. "You know the nature of my curse. The power is weak inside you, at the moment... yet its strength is great, much greater than you can imagine."
"Look... Vincent." Yuffie took his hand - the right one, the one without the metal glove - in hers. "I'm... alive, right? It's because of you. I don't want to die."
Vincent shook his head slowly. "It is not that simple. If all I had done was save your life... then I would be proud. But what I have done..." He sighed. "I have committed yet another sin... and this one may be the worst of them all."
"Stop it!" Yuffie demanded. "I don't want to hear that! Look, I'm alive! Alive! That's all I care about! And you... you..." Finding no words, she embraced him carefully. She felt him tense, but then he returned the embrace with his good hand.
"Yuffie, Yuffie... You don't see anything..." She could hear the hopelessness in his voice. Not knowing what to do, she just tightened the embrace.
"I don't see... but I still know. I know you saved me. That's enough for now."
Cloud turned slowly. Where are you...?
Novo and Susanna observed silently from their vantage point. "I told you he would sense us," Novo told her. "He is strong."
"Not as strong as you."
"That goes without saying, does it not?"
"Of course it does! What are we waiting for?"
"Patience... patience! A little while longer..."
Down by the water, Cloud looked out over the lake... In the light cast by his Materia, he could hardly fail to see the roses lying scattered over the smooth surface. "What are they doing here...?" he asked himself, not for the first time.
He knelt down and reached out to pick one of the flowers up. A second before he touched the water, he froze. Aerith... No, he couldn't. He withdrew his hand, slowly, and leaned closer to look at the rose.
Deep red, like blood. Why did they only remind him of blood?
He stood up and straightened his back. I know something is down here... There was something in the air; some kind of... expectation?
In the shadows, Novo held Susanna's arm in an iron grip. "Not yet... Soon, but not yet!"
"But he's..." she protested.
"Not now," he repeated. "Wait... just a little while longer."
Cloud sighed. Whatever it was, it was not going to come out on its own...
Tifa... He sighed again. Then he made his way out onto the platform, where he stood in the centre, holding the Fire Materia high. "Brighter!" he commanded it, knowing that it was unnecessary - the emerald sphere responded only to his mind, not to his words.
The orb flared brightly, blinding him temporarily, its intensity startling him. It seemed so much brighter down here... or maybe it was brighter.
Never mind that now.
He slowly turned around, somehow feeling a presence behind him. "What are you...?"
He fell silent, staring. There, floating in the air, was a woman - the woman, Cloud could bet his life, who had told him to come to the temple - and a boy. The two of them looked quite similar; they were probably related. Both had silver hair... and Mako blue eyes.
"Was it you who called me here?" Cloud asked them. The woman smiled coldly.
"Yes indeed. That we did."
"You have something we need," the boy replied. "Or rather, that our master needs. Would you come with us, please?"
"No. Tell me where Tifa and Cid are... and then we can talk," Cloud said.
"I thought so. Susanna, if you could...?" The boy made a gesture towards Cloud. The woman - Susanna? - nodded.
"As you wish."
Lifting her hand slowly, she pointed at Cloud. The ex-mercenary raised his sword to stave off whatever attack she was preparing to use.
"Novo... that sword..."
"It is the one we are looking for," he confirmed. "It is up to us to take it... and him... with us. Now act, Susanna; act."
She nodded quickly and made a small gesture. A pinkish mist rolled from her hand, towards the blond-haired man... and vanished as soon as it connected with the semitransparent blade in his hands. Cloud, in spite of himself, grinned at her. "Is that all?" he asked.
"You wish!" she spat, making a throwing motion in his direction, flinging a small ball of fire at him. "Handle that!"
Cloud instinctively blocked, the sphere shattering against the Ultima Weapon's blade.
The ball exploded into red-hot inferno of flames. Backing away hurriedly, feeling blisters arise on his arms and hands, Cloud gritted his teeth against the pain, hurriedly drawing upon a healing spell from a Materia on his bracelet. The burning feeling in his hands soon vanished.
"He is strong," Novo observed dryly. "Do you require any help?"
Susanna spat down into the lake.
"I see. Then I shall leave you to your fight." Novo nodded at Cloud, and hovered backwards, away from the battle.
Cloud had seen what the girl was able to do, and realised that he could not just stand there and wait. Channelling his mental energy into a certain Materia, he created a thin barrier of spirit energy between himself and the sorceress. At the same time, Susanna cast another spell, ending up sending a swarm of small, golden sparks in Cloud's direction.
The sparks flared angrily as they passed the spirit shield, more than nine out of ten burning out at the touch. A few reached Cloud, burning his shirt but not the man. Susanna raised her eyebrows.
"You are better than I thought," she commended him.
"Too good for you. Tell me where Tifa is..." Cloud's grip on the Ultima Weapon tightened. He knew she wasn't dead... but if she was not dead, and not here, where was she?
These two must have captured her...
The thought of that was enough to make him see red. Holding the sword one-handed - a great feat of strength - he pointed it at the woman's chest. "Tell me," he commanded, his voice steely and cold, "where Tifa is. Or I will kill you."
Susanna smiled. "You are so noble," she said. It sounded as if she meant it. "But that will not help you this time. Won't you come with us instead? We will take you to where... Tifa... is."
Cloud did not lower his sword. "You attacked me. How do I know I can trust you?"
Susanna shook her head. "You can't," she replied simply. "But if you kill us now, how would you find her?"
"I would find a way."
"Perhaps." She did not sound convinced. "But it would take time. And who knows what may happen to her while you're searching?"
Cloud gripped the sword with both hands. "If you are implying..." He did not finish the sentence; there was no need. She understood fully.
"I am not implying anything. I merely suggest that killing us may prompt a certain kind of people to... retaliate. That would be unfortunate, would it not...?" She smirked.
That was the last drop. Turning the sword slowly, Cloud let its point rest on the ground, while he pointed to the calm water below Susanna.
There was a certain piece of Materia in a slot in his bracelet. While most normal Materia only contained one kind of magic, this particular one had all four of the elements - Earth, Fire, Air and Water.
It was the last one Cloud now called upon. "Die!" he shouted as he funnelled power through the Materia.
So close to the magic powers in the temple, focused through the lake itself, the effects of the spell were more spectacular than ever, bringing the temperature down to absolute zero, the water crystallising into sharp, deadly spikes of ice. Within seconds, Susanna was frantically trying to dodge the lances as they shot at her from below. However, the spell, powered by Cloud's rage and more, did not seem about to fade away, and Susanna could not dodge forever. Suddenly one spear clipped her shoulder, causing her to gasp and stop moving for a moment.
A moment was all it took. She was caught between he shoulder blades by another ice-spike, a glancing blow that only served to knock her head-first into a third spike. Fighting unconsciousness, she grasped the column and slowly slid down towards the water. Trapped inside the ice, just in front of her, was a single, blood-coloured rose.
The thought that it may soon be joined by real blood - her blood - was enough to make her shake off the dizziness and start recasting the levitation spell.
She did not see how the frozen waters of the lake opened beneath her, fang-like spikes rising up to swallow her.
Then the spikes snapped together around her. Susanna looked around in terror - trapped! And now her prison was starting to freeze over. Within seconds, she would be trapped inside a large ice crystal! "Novo! Help me!"
"Did you not say you could handle this by yourself?"
"...all right then. I will break this prison... but you must be prepared for the finishing strike."
"Thank you, Novo..."
The ice closed around her, encasing her inside a block of solid frozen water.
Novo stepped forth, striding on empty air as if it was a solid stone floor. Looking straight at Cloud, he clapped his hands. "Very good."
"Unless you tell me where Tifa is... you are next," Cloud told him angrily. "She is not dead yet... tell me where Tifa is, and I'll leave and let you help your friend." He pointed to the block of ice with Ultima Weapon's blade. "But you better hurry. She won't last very long."
"Ah. But she failed, did she not?" Novo smiled an unsettling smile. "Do you really think she deserves my help?"
Cloud was taken aback. "You mean you don't care what happens to her?"
Novo nodded. His power was already seeping through the ice, starting to dissolve the molecular bonds. "I do not believe in failure."
"You are not going to tell me where Tifa is." It was a statement; Cloud knew, and the words were unnecessary.
As he spoke, Novo twisted the power, and the block of ice shattered. Susanna rose from the shards, her levitation spell reactivated.
"You should have killed me when you had the chance."
Cloud shook his head. "I do not kill unless I have to." He glared angrily at the two silver-haired youths. "But unless you tell me where Tifa is... I will consider myself forced."
Susanna and Novo looked at each other and nodded.
"You won't come with us," Novo said. "So we will have to bring you."
"I am going nowhere! Not before you tell me where I can find my friends."
"We know where they are," Novo repeated. "We can take you to them."
"How do I know you speak the truth?" Cloud asked.
"Still, you cannot. But no matter what... We will not allow you to leave. Either you come with us... or we force you. It would be much easier if you would just follow us..."
"I cannot trust you," Cloud insisted. "You attacked me! How do I know you won't do it again?"
"There are never any guarantees," Novo said with a wry smile. "However, we would prefer not to have to fight about this. No matter how the fight goes, you will end up in the same place... we merely wish to avoid unnecessary bloodshed."
"Then why did you attack me?"
Novo smiled again. "That was merely Susanna being somewhat... overzealous. The idea was to sleep you and bring you with us... but I can see that strategy will not work against you."
"So what are you getting at?" Cloud asked.
"Come with us. We will take you to your girl and the pilot... and no one has to get hurt. I am not at liberty to tell you why we need you... but I can tell you, we do not intend to cause you, or your friends, any harm."
"That still does not explain any of the attacks... I recognise her, from Godo's description. Why did you attack Wutai? What do you want?" Cloud knew that time was not on his side, but there were so many questions - and the answers might be important.
But Novo only smiled. His smile was, as always, unsettling; it seemed sad, spiteful, scornful, compassionate, all at once. His blue eyes glittered.
"You know I cannot tell you. I can take you to someone who can, however."
"And that would be...?"
"Our Master, of course. He will be able to answer any questions you might have... and more. Susanna and I, however, are not enlightened... we have not the knowledge of our Master's greater plan. All we know... all we need to know... is that we must take you to a certain place... where you will also find the woman, Tifa."
"I see..." Cloud pursed his lips. "You kidnapped her to make me follow you..."
"I guess... you could put it that way," Novo said. "Please come with us. It would make this easier... for all of us."
Cloud leaned on his sword. "Lead the way..." he said. "You two walk first... on the ground... I still do not trust you. I will follow you, however... but if you try to deceive me, you will regret it. Is this acceptable?"
Novo kept smiling. "That will be fine," he said. "Just perfect. Then, if you would... this way, please." He hovered closer to the edge of the lake, finally settling down on the ground, closely followed by Susanna. "Up the stairs and out of the city... then we will lead you to our home."
Cloud followed Novo and Susanna, keeping his distance. He had not sheathed his sword; that would be foolish. After a few minutes of arguing, he had allowed Novo to carry the Lunar Harp - not that he trusted him, but he could not both hold his sword and play the harp at the same time, and given a choice, he chose the sword. If the boy tried anything, Cloud should be able to take care of it.
"I cannot believe he would fall for this..." Novo said. "Love and hope truly blinds the human eye."
"I know... but how are we going to overpower him? He has already proven that he can block my spells... with that sword, he probably has enough power to protect himself even from your power, Novo."
Novo sneered. "Don't be ridiculous. The problem is, anything strong enough to overcome that defence... would burn the man to cinders as well. I know several spells that could kill him, sword or no sword, but we need him alive... We must simply wait until he lowers his guard. And if we fail then... then we will see. The sword is much more important than Strife... and if we must kill him to get it..." He cast a look over his shoulder. Cloud was still walking with the Ultima Weapon over his shoulder, both hands on the hilt. Give him a second to react, and... "If we must kill him to get it, so be it."
They walked for over an hour, heading away from Bone and the Ancients' forgotten city. Cloud's eyes never left the two silver-haired ones walking a few metres in front of him. That was one thing he had learned while working as a mercenary; always keep your eyes on a potential enemy. But never ignore anything because of this. Even if it seemed as if he only cared about Novo and Susanna, he took in everything that happened around them - not that there was much to see. Although the curse's power was waning now, it was still noticeable, stretching much further on this side; no animals lived here. The only sounds he heard were those of their steps, and the gentle whisper of the harp. Novo was skilled; he did not simply pluck at the strings the way Cloud had done, but he actually played the instrument. The song was soft and gentle; the epitome of sadness.
It reminded Cloud of Aerith.
Suddenly the music stopped. Novo and Susanna stopped, too, dead in their tracks, and Cloud readied the Ultima Weapon, levelling it at the two. "Why are we stopping?" His voice sounded coarse and unpleasant after the silvery notes from the harp.
"Hsst. Not a word," Susanna cautioned. She pointed ahead... Cloud strained his eyes, but could only see trees and leaves.
"What are you playing at?" he asked her. "Remember, if you try something, you will end up with a sword in your back."
"Sst!" Novo turned and put a finger over his lips. "Keep silent!" he whispered. "We do not want to fight in here... and certainly not with that"
"Fight what?" Cloud asked, keeping his voice low, just in case.
"Catoblepas... the ancient guardian of these woods. I never thought I would see it..." Something that resembled fear, or maybe awe, passed over the boy's face, once more making it clear that whatever he was, it was not a mere child; much like Shake of Wutai's Pagoda, there was something ageless about him. "...but it is here. And unless we keep out of its way..." He drew a finger over his throat, a quite child-like gesture, but Cloud understood.
The question is... does the Catoplebas really exist? He had never heard the name before.
But there were many things he had never heard of. After all, he was only twenty-two years old; the thought that he would be omniscient was laughable. But that the Ancients would have left such a creature to guard their city... Cloud thought it seemed odd. First of all, the Ancients had not been very warlike; and second, the spells they had cast over the woods were potent enough to keep anything out...
Or was it? He knew someone had left roses in the temple; he knew Novo and Susanna had been able to pass through the forest without the Harp at least once. But would the Ancients really...?
He did not get to think further than that. An ear-splitting roar cut through the silence, and he caught a glimpse of a greyish blue shape between two trees... Novo and Susanna quickly and silently backed up against a tree; Cloud, somewhat slower, followed their example, standing where he could see both them, and the place where the strange blue-greyness had appeared. What kind of creature can live here? Aerith had told him the curse should be capable of keeping anything out. She had never mentioned... Catoplebas. Could it be... that... she had not known about it?
The roar was heard again, and Cloud felt the tree he was leaning against vibrate. Slowly, he put the sword down and checked his bracelet, just to be certain that he had all he needed. The few Summons were probably worthless here; the forest might affect the Espers as well, and the thought of that was... not one he liked. He still had some useful 'normal' Materia, though... I should have known... They had not been prepared to fight - after all, all they were going to do was visit some friends. He had taken little offensive magic with him, and nothing very strong; most notably, he had his Ultima Materia locked up in a safe in the basement of 'Villa Strifehart'. It was far too powerful to be carried around like that; what if he lost it?
But now he wished he had taken the chance. Fire would not be a good idea in the woods; he might end up burning the entire forest to the ground.
Catoblepas roared again. Was it closer now? Cloud hurriedly retrieved his sword. I had better survive this...
And Catoplebas burst into view. He had never heard it coming, but now it just appeared in front of them - a huge demon-like beast, a mishmash of features; goat legs, a hyena's mane, the tail of a wolf, a wild boar's tusked snout... and one single, fiery red eye. This eye, Catoplebas now turned on Cloud.
"Don't look in its eye!" Novo cautioned him. "Catoplebas can curse with its gaze! Avert your eyes!"
Cloud hurriedly looked down, holding Ultima Weapon out in front of him, feeling as if the blade offered some protection against the monster's lethal gaze. Novo was not pleased. "Fight, you fool! Fight, or you will be killed!"
Cloud adjusted his grip on his sword. What is this I feel... a familiar power...
Suddenly it struck him. "Catoplebas is... an Esper!"
"I know! But that still means we have to fight our way out of here! It won't allow us to move..." As if to prove this, Novo took a step away from the tree. The demon-like beast growled and turned its single eye on the boy instead; Novo hurriedly stepped back. "You see that? Unless we defeat it, we'll never get out!"
Still, Cloud hesitated. If it is an Esper.. then it is intelligent. There was a possibility that they could reason with it...
But before he could speak, a wave of dizziness washed over him, almost striking him to the ground. In the corner of his eye, he saw Novo shake his head, an exasperated look on his face. "Damn," the boy muttered. Slowly, he raised the Lunar Harp. His fingers danced over the strings... and the silvery music averted the powers of the curse. Slowly, Cloud's head stopped spinning... he blinked. "Hurry up!" Novo commanded. "You'll be affected by the spell again! We must get that-" he pointed to Catoplebas "-out of the way! Hurry! Susanna, you help him."
"Yes, Novo..." she replied hesitantly. "Come on! Show me some of your SOLDIER tricks, Strife!"
"I am not of SOLDIER. Still..." Cloud seemed to explode with a burst of motion, leaping for the Esper's throat, sword held low for an upwards strike.
Catoplebas waited until Cloud was half a metre from his target, then turned its head slightly, firing a red beam from its eye. The beam did not hit Cloud, but the ground just in front of him, blowing a hole. Cloud was unable to stop at such short notice, and rather than fall, he jumped, bringing the Ultima Weapon around to strike from above. As Catoplebas turned to fend off this attack, Susanna finished the spell she had been casting, releasing a swarm of golden sparks in the monster's direction. The sparks bust into flames wherever they hit, and Catoplebas, surprisingly agile for a creature its size, leapt aside to avoid them. The sparks were faster still, and most of them hit, burning the creature's strange fur. This also had the effect of bringing Catoplebas out of Cloud's reach. As soon as he recovered from his failed attack, the former mercenary charged the Esper again.
However, as skilled as Cloud was, Catoplebas had literally centuries of experience, and as Cloud had suspected, like all Espers, he was very intelligent. Glancing at the sorceress, he knew that her next spell was only half-formed, and that she would not be a threat for several seconds yet. Turning back to Cloud, the Esper reared, his eye flaring bright red. Distracted, Cloud looked up - and into the fiery red sphere.
The world slowed down...
He tore his gaze away, split seconds before the curse took its full effect. Catoplebas roared in anger, deprived of its intended prey; then it roared in pain, as Cloud's sword slashed over its chest and lower abdomen, leaving a deep wound. Seconds later, the sword was followed by a barrage of small spikes, made from ice. Catoplebas staggered under the attack, but soon recovered and countered it with a blast from its eye. Susanna leaped aside, barely avoiding the ray, and Cloud swung again, hitting the Esper's side. However, Catoplebas' coarse fur proved to be stronger than it looked, and the sword only scratched the grey hide under it.
Catoplebas growled in annoyance. There was something different from the other humans he had faced... for several hundred years, these were the first ones that had full control of their bodies; the curse of the woods did not affect them. And that had to be an effect of the magic he could feel... emanating from that instrument. Catoplebas launched a fire spell at the boy and his harp. Novo looked up at the crackling sound of flames approaching, and ducked out of the way, his small body proving to be an asset in this confined space. Shielding the Harp with his body, he slid in between two great oaks, and the fire struck the trees, flickering out within seconds, quenched by the Ancients' many-layered protection spells. Angered, the Esper leaped towards the two trees, dodging a sword-slash and shaking off a small fireball. Passing the trees, he found the boy standing with his back to the largest oak, the harp in his arms.
This close, he could hardly avoid looking at the demon-like Esper. And before Novo had a chance to close his eyes, Catoplebas' eye flared red...
and he knew nothing more.
Cloud reached them first. Catoplebas stood in front of Novo, waiting for him... but Novo...
Cloud shivered. The boy had been turned into stone! The harp glittered in his arms, useless to them now... Shit!
The Esper roared. Cloud held the Ultima Weapon out as the beast fired another ray from its eye, deflecting it. Letting go of the weapon with his left hand, he clenched it into a fist and thrust it at his enemy, channelling power through a certain Materia fitted to his bracelet. Blue-white lightning leapt between his hand and the Esper, striking at the beast's head and shoulders. At the same time, Susanna approached their enemy from behind. As Catoplebas shook under Cloud's ruthless assault, she mounted her own attack. This had better work...
Catoplebas was a creature of darkness. Then, to fight it, she needed light...
But that was something she had not mastered, and probably never would; she doubted that her blood would allow her to draw the power of Holy from the Planet. She would have to do it her way... and hope...
Cloud's lightning spell ceased, and he followed it up with fire, knowing now that there was no risk for the forest. Catoplebas staggered backwards, not visibly marked by the lightning, but weakened nevertheless. Cloud stepped forwards, as close as he dared to the Esper.
Susanna concentrated and released the spell. A faint aura of darkness appeared around the demon... and she hoped, hoped that even though her spell was, in context, of a dark nature, would effect Catoplebas.
Dark fire, or something similar to it, flared, flashing between her hands and the Esper, striking the beast's back. Catoplebas stiffened, then roared in pure agony, sinking to the ground. Cloud, surprised, ceased his attack, lowering his hand, and stared at Susanna. The power of the curse was starting to affect him again, slowly clouding his mind. Seeing the sorceress struggle to keep the spell up, he raised Ultima Weapon to strike.
The world wobbled. Cloud's strike caught the demon a blow on the shoulder; painful but not life-threatening.
But now Catoplebas had had enough. Bound by the will of the Ancients or not, he was still an Esper; he still had his own mind and wishes.
Right now, Catoplebas' mind told him that fighting further was futile. It would probably result in his destruction, and that was not something he looked forwards to. It was true; no human could ever kill an Esper, but they could destroy his current body, forcing him to spend centuries creating a new one.
Catoplebas would rather not have that happen. Struggling to his feet, he started off away from his two opponents, running as fast as his wounded body would allow him.
Cloud and Susanna stared after him. "What the...?" Cloud asked.
"I have no idea. We must help Novo... fast." Susanna pointed to the petrified boy. "I... I cannot manage a spell for that... Do you have anything...?"
Cloud nodded. "Yes."
"Then help him... and I will take the Harp as soon as he can let go of it."
Cloud nodded again. "Done," he said, and then turned the healing Materia on Novo. As he retrieved the sparkling green orb from the pocket where he kept it - this was one Materia he had not attached to his bracelet - he saw Susanna clasp her hands, and a light green aura faded in around them. Cloud spun around, feeling slightly dizzy as the curse's power grew in strength around them. "What are you doing?"
"Trying... protect myself from the curse." Susanna's features were contorted in a grimace. "Unless Novo wakes from that spell, we are dead! Hurry!"
Cloud could feel the curse, too, and knew that she was not lying. Nodding, he turned back to Novo and raised the Materia -
Susanna smiled slightly as she lowered her hands. Stepping around Cloud, she picked the healing Materia out of his rigid hand, looked at it and smiled. "Such a simple artefact. Worthless..." She tossed it over he shoulder; it fell and came to rest in a field of dark forest moss. "Wake, Novo. Wake..." Reaching into the ground, she pulled the Planet's power up and into herself, channelling it, shaping it into the form she desired. Bluish white light glowed softly around Novo for a few seconds, then vanished. And with it, the stony complexion disappeared, leaving Novo looking healthy and normal again.
He looked up at Cloud, then past him at Susanna. "Tricked him while he was helping me?" he wondered, his voice betraying more than a little sarcasm.
"Yes..." Susanna looked down, seeming to develop a strong interest in her own feet. "It was... the only way."
"Don't feel bad about it. I'm not blaming you..." Novo smiled lopsidedly as he regarded the spiky-haired man. There was a look of concentration on Cloud's face; that, and... concern. It does not matter... it truly does not matter! So why do I care? "We are under orders to bring him with us... alive, if possible. This is for the best..." He shrugged. "So now, Susanna, are you up to teleporting us home?"
"Yes... Novo." All traces of dizziness gone, Susanna smiled at Novo, and reached out with one hand to touch his shoulder, placing the other on Cloud's now-empty hand. "All right, you two... We're going home!"
Five seconds later, the only traces of the trio were a few burn-marks in the ground; marks that would soon be healed... and an orb of emerald-like Materia, sparkling in the filtered light under the trees.
-One day later...-
Damn... Tifa thought. Where the... hell am I...? She tried to move, and found she could...in a way. But something was holding her around the waist... and holding tight, too. Apparently, she had been standing up, suspended by this... thing. She ran her hand over it, and found that it felt like metal; a metal band about a decimetre wide and maybe half a centimetre thick. There was no way she could break it, and it was too tight for her to try and slip out; if she tried to slide down, the band cut into her ribs painfully; if she tried to slide up, her hips got in the way. She ran her hands over the smooth metal, to the left and right, trying to find the places where it was fastened to the wall, but she could not even feel where the stone ended and the metal began. There was something that might be a keyhole to her right, almost out of reach... but she had no keys, of course, and nothing to pick the lock with... even if she had known how to pick locks. Damn indeed...
She was in a dark cell. She could barely make out the outlines of a door, some three or four metres away - it was hard to tell in the darkness. Whatever light there was in the cell seeped in under and by the sides of the door. She could feel straw - or at least she thought it was straw - on the floor. Then again, it could be pretty much anything straw-shaped; Tifa still had her shoes on, and it was hard to tell exactly what that was she was standing on.
The cell was probably meant only for one person, she concluded as she looked around, straining her eyes to see in the darkness. The walls seemed to be made from dark stone, and they were quite close to her; not so near that she could touch them, or even come near touching them, but still not far.
She thanked her lucky star that she wasn't claustrophobic. That could have presented a problem, she thought grimly as she kicked at the straw - or whatever. "Damnit!" she muttered, then raised her voice, shouting, "Let me out of here!"
But there was no reply.
Some time passed. Tifa eventually stopped kicking around in the straw and tried to relax, prepare for whatever lay ahead. It wasn't easy, and she soon started kicking again in frustration. I wish something would just happen... Damn, what's taking so long? And where was Cloud? Was he all right? She hadn't seen him around when they caught her... Tifa shook her head, trying to banish the images that rose unbidden to her mind's eye. No... no. I won't be able to take this if I... Now wait a second... wasn't that the sound of footsteps? Maybe... Cloud had come to rescue her? It certainly was his turn to play that part now, she thought, smiling slightly.
However the footsteps did not stop outside her door, and all she saw was the shadow that passed briefly, temporarily blotting out the light, such as it was, from her sight. Then it was gone again, and the sound faded away. Tifa hung her head wearily. I guess I shouldn't get my hopes up... She was getting tired, but it was almost impossible to relax, the steel band cutting into her skin whenever she wasn't standing straight. Thankfully, she still had her clothes on; they offered some protection, scant but better than nothing.
She remained awake for hours, unable to rest, unable to move, before she finally drifted off into a restless sleep.
Godo spun around. "Yuffie! You are up!"
Yuffie nodded weakly. She looked pale, but much of that was because of the black pyjamas she was wearing. It looked somewhat out of place in the old-fashioned house of the Kisaragi, and even more so being worn by Yuffie - but she had picked it herself, and apparently felt quite comfortable in it. "Feel like hell though."
"Do not worry," Godo said as he stood up and put an arm around her shoulders to steady her. "It will pass..."
"It's been... what? Three days?" Yuffie tried to shake off his arm, but found that this slight exercise was enough to make coloured lights flash before her eyes. "Oohh..."
"Take it easy. Here, come and sit down..." He led her to a chair, one of the few in the house. Yuffie sat down, placing her hands on her knees as if to hold herself upright. "So apart from feeling like hell..." Godo tried not to smile as he said this. "...how do you feel?"
"I said, like, I feel like hell." Yuffie blinked. "But better now."
"Glad to hear it." Vincent's soft voice startled Godo, but Yuffie seemed to have known he was there all along. "Last time I asked, you sounded as if you thought you were about to die."
"What's that... you said, like... 'we are all dying, ever since the day we are born', or something?" she asked.
"So what's the big idea?"
"Nothing," he said. There was a smile in his voice; a small one, but it was there. "Now that you are able to walk... Although I would have suggested staying in bed for another day before attempting this... I think you will soon have recovered fully."
"Good. Was starting to worry..."
"So was I," he said, his voice even softer now. "I think you should rest. Can you make it back by yourself?"
"I just... got here," she pointed out.
"I know that. But can you make it back?"
Yuffie grinned, more a grimace than an actual smile. "Watch me." She put her hands on the armrests of the chair, pushing with all her strength... but no matter how hard she tried, she was not strong enough to get up. Grinning sheepishly, she looked up at the red-cloaked man. "Uh... help?"
"Certainly." Vincent put one arm behind her back and the other under her legs, and effortlessly lifted her out of the chair. "Lord Godo... I will return. We need to talk."
"I will wait here," Godo sighed. "Yuffie, you be good now."
Yuffie poked her tongue out. The samurai smiled and nodded, making a motion for the door. Vincent gently carried the ninja out of the room and back to her own quarters, where he helped her sit down on the futon. "Will you be able to manage by yourself from here?" he asked, a slight smile on his lips; as if he remembered something, Yuffie thought, that she could not recall. She managed to glare venomously at him. "I see. Then... sleep well, shinobi."
"Shinobi... Yeah... right," Yuffie muttered at his back as he left. "Fat lotta good that does me now..." But she decided not to make a big affair out of it right now, and although she hated the idea of Vincent and her father discussing something - probably, come to think of it, discussing her - without her being there to hear it, she crawled down between the sheets. They smelled of detergent and sweat. She wrinkled her nose; the scent was not very pleasant, but she was not up to doing anything about it at the moment. Sheesh... she thought as she felt the world fade away around her. Hate this.... hate hate hate it... This lying-in-bed thing was starting to get on her nerves. Someone had once described her as hyperactive, and while this certainly wasn't the case, she needed to move. But she couldn't do that... not yet, not just yet...
With a small sigh, she put one arm around her favourite stuffed animal - a penguin that Shake had brought her a long time ago, quite similar to him, even with the red symbol on its chest - and soon went to sleep.
"So, how is she?" Godo asked.
"Much better than we dared to hope..." Vincent said. Then he smiled. "But still worse than she likes us to think. She should not be getting out of bed for at least one more day... maybe two, or even three. But she will make it, Lord Godo. She will live..." But Vincent did not say everything he wanted to say. Maybe, he wanted to tell Godo, when she finds out what I did to save her life, she will curse me for it... maybe, when she finds out what the price truly is, she will no longer want to live. There is a possibility... that when she finds out, she might not have the strength to live. But he did not speak, and Godo did not ask, though he could clearly hear that there was more to what Vincent said than the actual words he spoke.
"So she's not in danger anymore..."
"No. Not more than always... not much." Unless you consider herself a danger... to herself.
Godo sighed. "I am glad to hear it... but... there is something that troubles me. Cloud, Tifa and Cid flew to Nibelheim to find you... but they still have not returned. Are you certain you have not heard from them?" It was the fifth time he asked. Vincent had counted.
"I am certain," he said, as he had the first time; as he had the second, third and fourth time, too. "If they even came close to me, we must have missed each other completely... I have seen nothing." And since he had been in Chaos' form, if they had been close, he would have seen them.
"They should have returned by now... I am worried." Godo pursed his lips thoughtfully. "They may have run into trouble."
"There is not much 'trouble' that Cloud, Cid and Tifa could run into... not that would be able to slow them down this much, at any rate," Vincent said. "No... they are probably looking for me. Still..." Still, they should have returned by now. As far as Vincent knew, there were only two places where hey would know to look for him: Nibelheim, and Lucrecia's waterfall. Maybe they would even think of the Cetran city, but he doubted that they would think to search for him there, knowing that he did not have the Lunar Harp, and knowing nothing of the powers of Chaos, which let him pass the forest as he pleased. Not even the Ancients' magic could stop him... but that was something Cloud had never realised. "When Yuffie recovers... If they have not returned then, I shall search for them."
"Thank you... Vincent. I..." Godo took a deep breath. "Before they left, I gave them the Summon Materia that... Yuffie used."
"Sephiroth's?" Vincent's voice betrayed shock and disbelief. "You gave Cloud... the Materia that links to Sephiroth?" He had heard, but he did not want to believe. "Why?"
The ageing samurai shook his head. "I realise I may have made a grave mistake... but I had to be certain that I could count on your help. That Materia would explain more than... than I could speak of to Strife and his friends. They will not know what that Materia does... and I cautioned them not to use it, ever. They all swore... I gave it to Cid Highwind... and he swore by his honour that no one would use that piece of Materia."
"Highwind's honour..." Vincent said, tasting the words. "At least he is better suited to handle that Materia than Cloud or Tifa. But..." He frowned. "I will not feel secure until I know that the Materia is back in Yuffie's hands. Under the circumstances, she is probably the best person to keep it..."
"Yuffie has a... knack for holding on to Materia," Godo agreed with a smile. "However, whether she will want to handle that particular piece after all the grief it has caused her..."
"She will keep it," Vincent interrupted. "She will keep it, because she knows that is the best she can do."
Godo thought about this for a moment, then nodded. "A few months ago... I would have told you that you were wrong," he said. "But now, I think you may be right. She has matured... considerably in the last few months."
"I know..." Yes... but it is not over yet. Feeling a familiar power stir deep within his heart, Vincent sighed. It is far from over.
Novo and Susanna finally stepped through the door, entering their Master's chambers. The rooms were dimly lit by wax candles, which emitted more smoke and scent than light. Susanna and Novo's eyes, however, needed only this light - and the rooms' owner, of course, needed no light at all.
The two silver-haired youths walked through the first room, stepping through another door on the way... and stopped right inside the door.
The 'throne room' was better lit than the other room, torches on the walls spreading their flickering light into the corners. By the farthest wall was a dais, and on top of that, a throne, carved from a single, large piece of crystallised Mako... or, in other words, Materia. The figure on the throne was slightly hunched over, and in his hands he held a sword - a knight's sword, large and heavy, its blade glittering like white silver, the hilt like gold. To the mystic senses of the two standing by the door, the Materia throne shone like a beacon... but the sword dimmed even the throne's light. So did the man.
Novo was the first to act. Dropping to his knees, he put both hands on the floor, palms down. "Master," he acknowledged.
The figure on the throne smiled, torchlight glinting off his teeth. "Yes, indeed," he said. His voice was hoarser than Novo's, contained even more power. However, as it spoke of magical might, it also spoke of physical weakness; the voice of a soaring soul, trapped in a broken body. "Now I am truly your master. While you have been gone... But let us not get into that. You have captured the three." It was not a question, and Novo did not answer. Susanna, somewhat slower, knelt beside him, pressing her palms to the floor in a gesture of submission. "You are fortunate..." Kane smiled again. "If you had failed this time, I would have begun to suspect that you were becoming weak... and I have no use for weaklings. Not now, not anymore... never again. Do you have their weapons? I cannot sense them from here."
"We have the Ultima Weapon..." Novo confirmed. "And we also have the pilot's spear, which goes by the name 'Venus Gospel'. The other sword, however, still eludes us..."
"Of course it does!" Kane snapped. He coughed, and continued, slower and more controlled: "We had no reason to expect it to show up there... in the Cetran capital. No, it existed in Wutai... but now it has disappeared. Novo, my child... stand, both of you. Stand up." The two obeyed, but kept their heads bowed. They could not see Kane smile as he spoke. "I need that sword. It is the only thing standing in the way of my plan now... If I have this sword, I will have the power I need."
Novo and Susanna did not speak. They both knew this, and they also knew that Kane would eventually get to a point - but he liked to keep people waiting, and right now, they were in no position to ask him to hurry.
"I had a chance... a chance, not long ago, to claim this blade.
"I failed... Because of you -" He pointed to Susanna, pale fire igniting in his eyes. "Because of you... Wutai won the battle. I told you not to attack unless they refused the terms!"
Susanna bowed. "Please forgive me, Master. I only acted in the way I believed to be best."
"You did, now, did you?"
The next thing Susanna knew, she was lying on the floor, writhing in agony. Through the pain, she could hear Kane's voice, very far away, speak to her. "You will not die... not here, not now. You succeeded in your mission... and I appreciate that. Still, you broke my orders..." Another wave of pure agony swept through her, and her entire body shook, every muscle out of her control.
Then the pain subsided. She opened her eyes, and saw Novo standing in front of her, his silhouette outlined in a pale, ghostly light. The torches on the walls had blown out, leaving the spellfire the only source of light in the room.
"Master..." His voice was strained.
Susanna could barely see. She only knew that he had changed... Oh, he had changed... and he was not a child anymore, not a child at all...
She wept, and knew not if it was for her own sake, or his.
"Please..." Novo pleaded. "You will kill her... You promised me..."
"Did I, now..."
"Yes." Novo's strength was rapidly decreasing; he was fighting a power much greater than his own. Still, he remained standing, shielding Susanna from his master's spell. "You promised me... and you must cease this... now... or I will die standing here. I will not move." The determination in his voice... Susanna covered her face with her hands, feeling both tears and blood on her cheeks. Her mouth was full of blood, too, almost choking her. She opened it and let the blood pour down her chin and took a deep, shuddering breath.
"Please..." she whispered. "Novo... step... away."
The light faded away, almost but not completely. "Yes, my child..."
"If you wish to kill her... you will have to kill me first. I will not step away. I will not step away."
The light vanished, throwing the room into pitch-blackness. "Then take her... and go," Kane said. "Return to your quarters... and await further orders..." He coughed again, and spat. "Your actions... caused the loss of many lives... as well as wasting my strength for the spells that bound those lives to me... Susanna. You have paid your penance... but not earned my trust. I will not tolerate another failure... do you understand? Answer me, Susanna... Do you understand?"
She found it hard to whisper, but managed to get a single word out: "Yes."
"Go, then. Go, and do not return... until I call for you."
"As you command..." Novo said softly, "so shall it be done."
Tifa tried not to flinch as the whip cut her face. Three... she counted, clenching her hands and breathing deeply, trying to ignore the pain, the blood trickling down her cheek and staining her shirt. Tears stung her eyes, but they stung more when they ran down her cheeks, into the wounds left by the whip.
Four... There would be one more, one more, then nothing more... for a while... Tifa fought to breathe. Slowly... breathe in... breathe out... breathe in... Zangan had thought her to ignore the physical world, to become only spirit. It was an important part in the martial arts training... but he had never put her through anything like this. Come on... Tifa...! It could be worse -
-much worse! Come on... come on! Don't scream... don't cry. Breathe in... breathe out... There was a sound... someone was moving. Coming closer... But not close enough. She had tried, the first time... but that had resulted in ten more lashes. She just kept silent, kept still, while her tormentor studied his work. She heard a strange, rasping laugh... then the door opened, allowing just a little light into the cell... She saw a brown boot under black trousers as the man walked through the door, then nothing as he closed it behind him.
She stared into the blackness for a while. Come on... Ignore the pain... It was easier now, now that there was no more whiplashes... but that would only last... how long? She could not know. There was no way to know time down here.
This was the sixth time they had whipped her. Six times. That meant thirty lashes... forty lashes with the ten she had received for trying to kick him that first time... Gods, she must look a mess. Cloud... where are you? Cid... She hoped Cid was all right... Maybe, she was the one they wanted... Maybe, he would not have to go through this...
The new wounds stung. The old ones, too... she felt swollen. Tifa knew that if she kept thinking like this, she would start crying... and then the wounds would hurt even more. Not that it would make much of a difference. She was already sweating so much that she might as well be crying. She leaned her head back as much as she could, trying to get sweat, tears and hair out of her face, but strands of hair still stuck to the sticky blood. Carefully, she picked them away. I have to get out... out of here! Cloud... where are you? Damn... "Cloud! I need you, damn it...! I was there... was there for you... where are you, Cloud?"
Ignoring the physical pain was easy. It was ignoring the pain in her soul that she could not do... and now her tears flowed freely, but Tifa never noticed. Cloud...
"Lord Godo... I have made up my mind," Kai told the samurai. "I must go... find out if my suspicions... I must leave. I need to borrow your chocobo."
"We do not need the chocobo at the moment," Godo said, "so I believe we can let you borrow him. But where will you go?"
"Please... I cannot say. I must go see... my father." The sorcerer bowed his head. "I hope you can trust me..."
"I believe you," Godo said. "Something is troubling you... Take the chocobo, Kai. See your father. Then, perhaps, we shall have answers..."
Kai bowed. "Thank you, Lord Kisaragi. I will not betray your trust."
"Go on," Godo said with a smile. "You should leave now. The sooner you leave, the sooner you can be back, am I not right?"
"You are right," Kai smiled. "Farewell, then... for now."
The black chocobo was a new addition to the Kisaragi stable. It had been a gift from Cloud and Tifa; since their own stable was full, they had asked if Yuffie wanted to take care of the new chick, and she had happily agreed. This bird was named Reno, because of a spot on his head where the feathers were red, looking much like the Turk's hair, and was the offspring of Cloud's black chocobo, Ash, and a yellow chocobo. Like most chocobos, he was quite good-natured, and didn't protest as Kai led him out of the stable, even though he was, in fact, quite sleepy at the moment. The mage handed him a carrot, which Reno accepted with a low 'wark'.
Climbing into the saddle, Kai grabbed the reins, and Reno took off.
Now, Kai thought as he had the chocobo circle around the city, I only have to hope...
"Are you certain... you are up to this?" Godo asked worriedly. Yuffie nodded adamantly.
"Yes. I am ready... must be."
"I cannot persuade you to stay." It was not a question.
"Then..." He sighed. "Then I wish you good luck... daughter. Vincent..."
"I know. I will look after your daughter," Chaos said. "I will return her safely."
"Thank you. Then..."
"We must be off. Yuffie..."
"Yeah. I'm like... supposed to sit here... right?"
"Ah. Yeah. Just... checking." She put a hand to the strange device strapped to Vincent's back. "How do I, like... how do I get up?"
"I will kneel down. Then you can climb up."
Vincent knelt, holding one hand out to help Yuffie up and onto his back. The ninja ignored it, but was soon seated on Chaos' muscular back, between the great bat-like wings. A leather belt would keep her from falling off, but the device still looked potentially dangerous, although Vincent had explained that if he carried someone, they would not fall off unless he let them. Godo was worried... but he also realised that Yuffie felt partially responsible for Cloud and the others' disappearance, since her friends had vanished trying to find someone to help her. No matter what... She would never agree to stay in Wutai. Take care, daughter...
The Guardians of Pagoda had gathered on the roof to see them off. Leviathan had left as soon as the curse on Yuffie had been broken, but now the river dragon had returned, and lay there watching them with his gem-like eyes.
"Stay safe..." It was Leviathan's voice, speaking in their heads. Yuffie nodded.
"I will... We will. Right... Vincent?"
"Yes... we will. Now, we must leave... we may not have much time." We may be too late all together... But he could not say that. "Lord Godo... I trust Wutai will be safe." Godo nodded. "I see."
And with that, Chaos spread his wings and rose to his feet... and then he was in the air, rapidly flying towards Nibelheim.
Twenty minutes later, Vincent landed on a ledge in Mount Nibel. He walked up to a large rock, allowing Yuffie to use it to climb down, and then reverted to human shape; the molecules of his clothes rearranging themselves, from being gathered in a thin collar and armband, to take their normal shape as well. Yuffie handed him his backpack, which was now slightly heavier, holding her gear as well; she had been carrying it, since Vincent was carrying her in its place. The ex-Turk retrieved his gun, which he kept in the bag while he used another shape, and holstered it, just in case, then adjusted the straps and slung the pack over his back. Without uttering a word, he started climbing down from the ledge, followed by an uncharacteristically quiet Yuffie.
Vincent stopped the first person he saw - a middle-aged man on his way from the store - and asked if he had seen anyone matching Cloud's description. The man said he had, four days ago - apparently, Cloud, Tifa and Cid had asked around for Vincent when they did not find him in the Mansion. Vincent thanked the man, and turned to Yuffie. She shook her head.
"They aren't here, are they?"
"Then, like... what do we do? Like... the waterfall?"
They headed out of town, getting well out of sight before Vincent once more handed Yuffie his pack and pistol, and took Chaos' shape. Yuffie strapped the pack into place and hoisted herself onto the demon's back, and Vincent took flight again.
Much faster than one would guess from the demon's appearance, Chaos made it to Lucrecia's waterfall in less time than even the Tiny Bronco would have needed. That meant that if Cloud and the others had actually gone there, Vincent and Yuffie would be gaining on them... but gaining mere minutes on days was nothing to celebrate over. Vincent did not bother to change shape as he entered the cave, spreading his wings to shield Yuffie from the cold water.
One look around the cave told him that someone had been there. The patterns of dust on the floor had changed, and there was a taste, or maybe a scent, lingering in the air... He could not tell which, only that Chaos' senses felt this. "They... no, he has been here. Cloud."
Yuffie looked at him sceptically. "Like, how do you know?"
"I can feel it." He turned his blood-red eyes on her, and Yuffie looked back. "Trust me. Cloud was here... but he is not here anymore. We waste our time."
"Man, you are cheery..." Yuffie muttered as he held one great wing over her head to block out the water while they passed the waterfall. "So what now? I mean, like, those were the only places we had to look, right? So what do we do now, huh, Vincent?"
"I... am uncertain. There may be one more place... depending on how Cloud thinks."
The ninja snorted. "Like that could ever be predicted!"
He glared at her. "Yuffie."
"Yeah... yeah, whatever! Now are you going to fly us there or are we just going to be standing here all day? And I'm starting to feel hungry."
"I am thinking of the 'Forgotten City'."
Yuffie fell silent. Finally, she managed to say, "...oh."
"Well..." She straightened her back. "We gotta do it, right? We can't just, like, not do it and go someplace else? Can we?"
"No. There is only one place left to search... and that is the city of the Cetra. You still have a choice... to come with me, or to go home. I will pass Wutai on the way and continue on my own. It would be safer for you."
She punched him in the arm, hard. "No way! It's because of me that Cloud went looking for you, and if he got into trouble, I wanna know why!" She discretely rubbed her knuckles. She had probably felt that more than he had, but it wouldn't do to let him know that. "I'm coming! Whether you like it or not!" Never mind the fact that in order for her to come along, he would have to carry her.
Vincent's facial expression was unreadable in this shape; as was his voice. "If that is what you wish..."
"Didn't you get that already?"
"I have. Then climb up..."
"You're all wet!" she protested.
"You will survive," he told her dryly.
"All right, all right then..." She sighed and grabbed his shoulders, pulling herself up into the makeshift saddle. "This is your captain speaking... Fasten seatbelts! We are about to take off!"
"Are you done?"
"Give me a minute! ...there. Done. Now will you stop talking and get going I mean flying?"
And they were off.
After another fifteen minutes, during which Vincent had pushed even Chaos' abilities to the limit, they landed in the mountains surrounding Bone and the enchanted woods. Vincent was tired - something he had thought was virtually impossible in this shape - and breathing hard once he touched down.
Yuffie hurriedly unclasped the belt and slid to the ground, feeling slightly airsick. Being carried by Chaos was a lot better than flying the Highwind had been, just as riding a chocobo was better than being on a boat, but not nearly as good as staying on the ground in the first place. Rubbing her back, which was complaining to her about the way she had been sitting, she looked out over the lush, green forest below them. It was impossible to see that there rested a dangerous, possibly lethal, curse over it. "Aren't we going in?"
"We are. However..." Vincent folded his wings, and took human form to better be able to speak. Although his voice sounded strange right after a Change, it didn't sound nearly as bad as it did when he was in Chaos' shape. "I would not wish to make that journey in the state I am in now," he whispered. "The curse may not be as effective on me as it is on you... but I am effected. Unless I am strong enough to hold it off..."
Yuffie swallowed hard and blinked several times. "You mean... we could get... stuck in there?" she asked, her voice quavering. "Like, forever?"
"I doubt 'forever'," Vincent told her, "but for a long time. And before I regain my senses, we would surely have lost each other... and I can not guarantee that I would be able to save you, should that occur."
Yuffie made a grimace. "Like, I really didn't want to know that. Really!"
"Then, would you prefer a lie?" he asked.
Yuffie thought about this for a moment, then nodded energetically. "Yes!" she said truthfully.
Vincent smiled. "I would prefer the truth... and soon, the truth will be that I can take us both into the city, unharmed. Let me rest for a few more minutes, and then we shall try."
"T... try?" Her voice fluted. "Waitaminute, I thought you said...?"
"I am sorry. When I have rested, we shall enter the city."
"You have my word on it."
Yuffie sighed, and nodded. "All right, all right..." She glared at him. "But I hope you know what you're doing! It was bad enough to walk through that forest. I really don't wanna fly through it!"
"I thought what you 'really' did not want was to know of the dangers...?" Vincent asked dryly.
Yuffie turned and glared venomously at him. "You," she said, "are so lucky I need you to get out of here! Or you'd be really sorry!"
Vincent looked back, and this time, Yuffie could not meet his eyes. The strange powers no longer frightened her... but the man she saw behind them, did. As if he was not talking to her, Vincent looked out over the forest and spoke, very softly:
"I doubt that... you could make me more... sorry... than I already am."
Yuffie did not quite know how to respond to such words... so she turned her back on Vincent, and looked out over the forest in silence.
If nothing else, she could always tell herself she needed to prepare for what lay ahead.
Not fully five minutes later, Vincent touched down just outside the central building in the old Cetran city. Yuffie hopped down and stretched her back, grimacing. The spell was not very obvious here, inside the city - she guessed even the Cetra themselves had not been fully immune to its effects, even if they had been more resistant than her or any other present-day human.
Vincent Changed, and retrieved his gun again; he felt better having it within reach. "Shall we go?" he asked. Yuffie nodded, and they headed for the temple.
"Nothing..." Yuffie sighed as they reached the bottom of the stairs. "Not a trace... wait. What the heck's that?" She pointed to the lake. Vincent did not answer; she carefully walked closer and knelt down to have a closer look. "Flowers...?" Turning to face the ex-Turk, she held up a dripping blood-red rose. "Was that Cloud," she asked, "or was it you?"
Vincent still did not answer. He just headed for the central platform, leaping between the pillars without any effort. "It was you!" Yuffie said, remaining on solid ground, "Wasn't it! You did that for Aerith, right...?"
"Perhaps... perhaps I did it for myself," Vincent replied, his voice sounding cold and distant. "They have been here."
"How do you know?"
"The rose I left here... right here..." Vincent pointed to a certain place on the platform. "...is gone. It has fallen into the water..."
He turned to look at Yuffie. "And as you feel, there is no wind here. It could not have blown off... Either, someone accidentally pushed it into the water, or someone removed it." Looking down at the place where there should have been a rose, he added, "And I believe this person may have been Cloud... and if that is so... he was very well aware of what he was doing."
"How do you know?" Yuffie repeated.
Because... "Cloud would go out here. He would see the rose. He could not miss it."
"Eh... oh. Yeah. Whatever..." Yuffie shrugged. "But he isn't here anymore, is he? So what now do we do?"
"Hush... wait." He could sense something... but what? And where? "I will have to... Change again. Wait..."
Yuffie averted her eyes. She had seen Vincent transform before. She still had nightmares about it.
"I sense... magic. Yes... this place reeks of it..." Chaos raised its head and sniffed the air. "Powerful magic... More than the usual power of the forest, or even that of the city itself... and it smells... recent." He looked up... towards the faint pinprick of light above. "And there is more... more magic... this way..."
"Should we... take a look?" Yuffie wondered, nervously fiddling with a shuriken. Damn... don't like this... at all! "Huh? Vincent? Vincent?"
"Yes. We must... Come. I will carry you..."
"I would perfer to walk, thank you very much..."
"I know. But this is the only way I can possibly follow the trail. We must go this way."
"But you can go alone..."
Suddenly, she realised it was all pointless. "Oh, heck! All right, I'm coming..." Slowly and carefully, she jumped between the pillars, watching her step meticulously. Don't wanna slip... don't wanna have to swim here. Damn those Ancients! "All right," she repeated as she reached the platform. "Let's go... Slowly, okay?"
"As slowly as you like." He effortlessly scooped her into his arms, then flapped his wings, each powerful stroke carrying them higher above ground. Yuffie, hands clenched, her knuckles whitening, refused to look down, instead keeping her eyes on the light above. It was always worse like this... Although it was probably the safest place on the Planet, being in Chaos' arms, she couldn't quite shake the feeling - the fear - that he would drop her, and she would fall, and fall, and fall...
If Vincent felt her shiver, he chose not to tell.
He flew slowly, she had to give him that... but now she wondered if it hadn't been better if he had flown swiftly, so she could get down on the ground faster.
She was on said ground as soon as he landed. "Which direction?"
"This way..." Chaos moved slowly, as if there was something holding him back, towards a shell-shaped house. Yuffie followed him closely.
Suddenly Vincent stopped, and she walked into his back. "Oof... Hey, watch -"
He pointed wordlessly. She looked... "There's a hole... Is that what we're here for? A wall with a hole? Vincent, there are excellent walls with holes back in Wutai! I could have showed them to you if I knew holes were what you were looking -" She fell silent as he held up a hand.
"This hole... was caused by magic. Powerful magic... Powerful, and a kind that I do not believe you could find in any Materia store..."
"So what you're saying is someone used an Ultima to knock a hole in the wall?"
"Not exactly... but yes, something to that extent." However... whatever did this... was more... truer than Materia.
If I knew no better... I would say this was done...
"I will examine this house... I sense the same power here, that I felt in the temple."
"But how do you know that it's out of the ordinary?" Yuffie protested. "This place is magical, right? So what's so strange about there being magic here?"
Maybe... because the same energy signatures that exist here... should not appear on a roof in Wutai. These... I sensed the same patterns... on the roof... where Sephiroth appeared.
"This energy does not belong here."
"I cannot explain it to you... you cannot understand..." But now, maybe she could understand... How strong were the powers in her, now? He had no way of knowing... Surrounded by his own power... It was as if he was under water, and trying to feel how much it was raining.
"Oh... Oh, okay! Just... just go check it out already! I'm gonna wait... right here. You just wake me up when you're done." She sat down with her back to the wall with the hole, sulking. Vincent would have sighed, had he been in human shape.
"Then wait. I will be back soon."
He did not wait for an answer, and Yuffie offered none.
The room was dark, but light filtered in through the mage-blasted hole, and through a small window on the other side. Vincent was not bothered by the darkness. He was using other senses than sight, now, anyway.
Fight... blood, he realised. Blood was spilled here... And then there was the magic... And magic used to spill it. That was about all he could sense...
But not truly all.
There was another trace, a very faint one, of another power... a slight difference. Not magic... but not too far from it, either. Where had he sensed it before...?
Yuffie had fallen asleep. He reverted to human shape before he attempted to wake her up; waking to see Chaos standing over her might give her a shock.
"Hmm?" she wondered as she opened her eyes.
"They were here... Cid and Tifa. Cloud in the temple," he rasped. "I cannot tell... more than that. But I know they were all here... and they all fought..."
"You're saying..." Yuffie tried not to, but had to yawn. "You mean Cloud staid down there and fought...? While Cid and Tifa were wandering around up here?"
"But that makes no sense!" she protested. "Cloud would never leave Tifa alone in a place like this! And Tifa wouldn't leave him down there!" She pointed to the ground, and the temple under it, for emphasis. "No sense at all!"
"So what does make sense?"
"Huh?" Yuffie scratched her head. "What-do-you-mean, 'Cloud'? What's he got to do with it?"
"I believe... he might have asked to be alone... with his memories."
Yuffie looked at him with a perplexed expression on her face. "Memories?" Then she understood, and looked down. "Oh. That."
"Yes... Unfortunately... I must go down again. The traces here... go back to the temple. There must be another trace for me to follow... you can stay if you wish."
"...no. I need... to go with you."
"Very well then. I will Change back..."
She looked away. This close, she felt the power... -
This close...? Even close... had she ever felt it before? She felt something, a kind of stirring deep inside...
and then it was gone, and she looked up. Chaos spread his wings.
"Get up. We must hurry."
Ten minutes and two Changes later, Vincent ran through the woods, the unconscious Yuffie strapped to his back. He had found the trace - including the energy signatures of the Ultima Weapon - and followed it to the edge of town... Then he had Changed, first back to human, then into Galian Beast. Yuffie, knowing well from the last time that the curse would cause her to pass out, had remodelled the 'saddle' they had used before, adjusting it to hold her in place on the purple-furred beast's back.
She could not have fallen off, of course. He would not allow it. Still, the device made her feel better... and he did not protest. He owed her that much, at least.
Now he made his way through the enchanted - cursed - woods, feeling the weight of the magic on his shoulders, much heavier than the young Shinobi he carried. Still, it was not heavy enough to discourage him.
He kept running.
Tifa fought to breathe slowly. Soon... has to be soon... She had been meditating for the last few hours, finally finding the strength to let go of her physical body, and the pain it felt. Meditating, building her strength for what she had to do... Must be... soon. She hadn't kept track of the time - not that she had any way to do it - that passed between the times her tormentor returned. She only knew that it had been a long time, now... a long time, and that meant he would return soon.
She had no idea why this was happening. The two she had fought - she had only seen the boy before, once, and they had only looked at each other. As for their mysterious 'master', she had no idea as to who he might be. Was there anyone who had a reason to do this? No...! Damn... She had almost lost her focus. She couldn't afford that... she would have far too little time to prepare for the next... lashing. It had to be now, and it had to be soon. It was getting harder to maintain her concentration... Dully, far in the distance, she could feel the throbbing of her heart, the pulse of pain in her wounds. Come on...! Come on! What was she going to do if all this had been for nothing? She might never be able to gather the strength again. No! I have to hold on... And why only five lashes at a time? It was almost as if they were taunting her... humiliating her. But why like this...? Damn it! Can't hold on... much longer!
Just then, a sound reached her.
It was the tapping of a hard boot against stone. Footsteps... and they were coming closer! She hoped...
They stopped, just outside her cell. Tifa tried to calm down. It was not an easy task. Somehow, however, she succeeded... finding calm just as she heard the key turn in the lock.
The door swung open. As always, all she saw was the brown boots and black trousers; the rest was in shadow. Calm down... Take it easy... slowly... you can do it.
He stepped closer. The door creaked and slammed shut, and the rasping laugh rang out in the cell.
Don't let it get to you... Just calm down...
She heard the crack of the whip. It was just a practice stroke, and never came close. She had to wait... until it hit.
The whip cracked again. Three strokes that hit nothing but air... and then a burning line over her forehead. Blood poured down into her eyes, and would have blinded her, had she been able to see in the first place. She had no idea why the lashes only struck her face... but there was not time to think of it, and now it served her purposes.
The first blow had landed.
The whip cracked again-
Her hand shot out, fingers closing over...
She felt the whip wind around her hand, and yanked it towards her. Her assailant was too confused to release the handle, or to fight against the pull, and stumbled in the direction of the pull, just as she had hoped. Quickly, before he had a chance to step away again, she lifted her legs and wrapped them around his waist, hoping she would be strong enough to keep the man from escaping, at the same time striking at the area where his face should be. She felt something like coarse fur against her bare skin... This thing was not human! No time to think... there! She finally found the man's throat. One punch from victory -
Can't - She hesitated -
Her fist connected. She felt something break under her knuckles... and the creature went rigid, then collapsed against her. Gods, the reek! It stunk of sweat, and what probably was some kind of alcohol... well, if the drink had dulled the creature's reactions, she was grateful for that. Still, it didn't make the smell more pleasant.
She couldn't let go just yet. That... creature still had the keys, hooked to its belt. She had to reach it... and hope that the right key was there. She didn't want to think about what might happen if she was wrong, if this guard, torturer or whatever its function was, did not carry the key to her bonds.
There... She had them! Careful now... Slowly, she got the keys loose from the guard's belt, and finally, she could release her hold on the filthy beast. It fell to the floor, and she breathed a sigh of relief. At least now she could breathe again... Fumbling with the heavy key-ring, she struggled to lean over to the right. By standing on the dead guard, she finally managed to get the first key into the hole and turn it...
Wrong key... It did not turn. She slowly pulled it out again, the metal band cutting into her side. Pain... but she could take it. It was either that or risk dropping the keys.
Three more keys. Still no luck. But the fifth one fit! She felt the key turn, heard the 'click' of the lock, and finally the shackle opened, swinging out to the left, dropping Tifa on the floor. The impact drew the last air from her lungs, and for several minutes, she just lay there, her strength spent. But, Can't lie around here... Someone might come looking... Have to move... Find Cloud. Find... Cid. She sat up slowly, back to the wall. Better bring the keys as well... It took time, but finally, she was able to stand without leaning on the wall. She took the keys and hooked them to her own belt. Then she opened the door, slowly, just a crack, and peeked out.
The light stung her eyes, and it took a few minutes before she adapted. She had been locked up in the darkness for so long...
She closed the door behind her, found the right key and locked it. That would keep people out of the cell... at least for a while. But that creature was the only one who had ever visited, and she had no reason to believe that someone else would be looking for her anytime soon.
She was standing in what appeared to be a natural corridor. There were torches on the walls, one every ten metres, and the dim light showed uneven stone walls and ceiling, while the floor was made from cut stone tiles. It seemed endless... There were a few more doors in the same wall as the one to her cell. There were more doors, all in the same wall as the one to her cell. There seemed to be a few more to her right than to her left; she went left, deciding to check the lesser number first.
There were four doors. The first three opened up to empty cells, just like her own, but the fourth room was bigger, and there was a table with four chairs, a small stove, and a bed. In one corner was a kind of fountain or washstand; water came out of a pipe in the wall, poured into a small, circular basin, and continued its trip through another pipe. Was this the guard's quarters? Perhaps... Tifa carefully touched the water in the basin. It was cold, and felt fresh. She splashed some in her face; it stung, but she poured more water over herself, trying to wash away some of the dried blood and sweat. That done, she adjusted her hair ribbon - for some reason, they had let her keep that - and arranged her hair to keep out of her face. That done, she started exploring the room more thoroughly, hoping to find some kind of clue as to where she was, or how to find Cid. There was nothing of the kind. She did find another, smaller, door, however, but was disappointed to find that it only led into a small privy. Well...
She made use of the facilities, and then went out into the corridor again, heading the other way, checking every door on the way.
The corridor was longer than she had thought possible, but it seemed to circle around; she would probably end up near the place she had been imprisoned, if she kept going. She had found a set of stairs behind one of the doors, but she knew she couldn't leave... not without first searching everywhere on this level for Cid. There was a possibility that he wouldn't even be here at all - he could be on the other side of the Planet for all Tifa knew - but she had to make sure.
In her weakened state, it took her a long time to get anywhere. She was well rewarded, however. As she opened a cell, blinking against the darkness, she heard a sound -
Something wet hit her face.
"Back for more, asshole?"
"Cid!" she exclaimed as she wiped the spit off her face. "Cid, is that you?" Of course it was him! She opened the door fully, allowing some of the light to fall in.
Cid was held to the wall in much the same way as Tifa had been. In the darkness, it was hard to tell, but he looked about as bad as she felt.
"Tifa?" he whispered. "Shit! Sorry... I thought... So you escaped them, huh?"
"Not quite..." She fumbled with the keys, finally finding the correct one. Cid fell to the floor, leaning on the wall he had been shackled to. "Cid... Are you okay?"
Cid shook his head. "Yeah, I'm fine... Hey... Would you hand me my damn spear? It's... in the corner, over there." He pointed; Tifa looked, and found that Venus Gospel was leaned against the wall. She no longer had her gloves, but Cid's spear was there... That was a relief, but a bit surprising as well. Why would they leave Cid's weapon here? Nevertheless, she handed the spear to the pilot, who accepted it with a nod.
"Don't mention it... Cid, we need to get out of here. Can you walk?"
"I'll be damned if I don't try. Just give me a hand..."
Tifa helped Cid stand. He was a bit unsteady at first, but soon recovered sufficiently to walk, at least slowly. Leaning on his spear, he headed for the door... and Tifa gasped. "Cid! What the hells happened to you?" He had not been whipped, but there were small, round burns on his face and chest. Cid made a grimace as he looked down, seeing the wounds in the light of the torches.
"Someone thought it would be fun to show me the hazards of smoking."
"We have to get those wounds healed - soon! Cid..."
"Like you're in a position to talk..." He froze. "Goodness, Tifa... They didn't do... anything else... to you... did they?"
Tifa hurriedly shook her head. "No, Cid, not that... Only what you see, thankfully. Oh, but this... these wounds can't be anything compared to..." She realised that she could not find the words. Instead, she just told him, "You look terrible!"
"Stop that," he said. She could hear a tone of relief in his voice. "You look like hell, you too. Worry about your own wounds, first." She shut her mouth. He had a point there... she must look almost as bad. "Let's concentrate on getting out of here..."
"Yeah... First I'm gonna find that creep who put me in there..."
"The children? Cid, I don't think we could-"
"I'm talking about that bastard who did this-" He indicated the burn wounds with his hand.
"Too late..." Tifa shook her head. "I killed him... well, it."
Cid's eyebrows rose. "Oh, really? Good for you..." He grinned. Even if it was a weak grin, it was still quite startling. "Now all we need to do is make shish-kebob out of them silver-haired kids, and go home and brag to our respective significant others about it... but first, I need to find a corner somewhere and take a leak."
Tifa smiled back. "There's a room a bit down this corridor where there's a toilet... and fresh water, too. At least, we can clean your wounds..." The one who had burned him had not been careful about it. Tifa winced at the thought of cleaning them... It wouldn't be easy. Cid winced, too.
"Shit. I need a smoke... bad. What's Cloud gonna say when you show up with your face messed up like that, anyway?"
Tifa blinked. What indeed...? A thought rose to her mind, and she put it to words: "He will be very disappointed to hear that the one who did this is already dead."
Cid let out a short, sharp laugh. "Yeah, figures..."
"Cid, please sit still. It only hurts more if you keep squirming like this..."
"Squirm?" Cid asked through clenched teeth. "I'm... not squirming!"
But he was. Not even the cigarette - he had found his pack in one of the guard's pockets, as well as his lighter - was enough to calm him down. Tifa could well understand why, but that did not mean she wouldn't prefer him sitting still. Cid had washed the worst dirt from his wounds, but there were ashes burned into his flesh, and unless they did something about that, Tifa was afraid the wounds might fester. It would be near impossible for Cid to remove them by himself, and so she tried to help... but it was very difficult. Under the circumstances, Cid managed to keep very still, but it still was not enough.
"This is hopeless," she sighed, placing the red-stained cloth in the basin. "I can't get this out... we have to find our Materia, somehow. Then we could heal this..."
"He didn't have... any Materia on him," Cid hissed. "I checked... Ah, damn!"
"What is it?"
"Nothing... Cid made a sour grimace and stood up shakily. "Where did I put my shirt..." Tifa handed it to him. "Thanks."
He put the shirt on, but left it unbuttoned. Then he washed his hands and face thoroughly, and finally shouldered the Venus Gospel. "Let's go, Tifa. The sooner the better."
"You... You really mean... that thing?" Tifa pointed to the blade of the spear. Impaled on the colourful weapon was the guard's head; half human, half dog, from the looks of it. It was a monster of a kind neither of them had ever seen before.
Cid nodded. "Oh yes, I mean it. Someone's going to find out that no one treats me like that... or any of my friends, for that matter... and gets away with it. This thing must have an employer..." Cid held the spear so that he could look straight at the head. The expression on his face would have frightened Tifa, had she not been so sure that he was her friend. Even knowing that, it made her feel uneasy. "And that person is going to learn a lesson he'll never forget."
Reno landed easily on the soft grass. Kai dismounted and patted the bird's neck. "Thanks, pal..."
"Warkk!" Reno insisted, nudging the black-robed man with his head. "Wark!"
"Yeah, I see... I know. Go on home, Reno... Do you understand? Go home. You know... Home."
Reno warked again, and headed for a patch of tall grass. Kai sighed. "I guess not. Well... I'll just leave you here, then, shall I?"
He removed the saddle, bridle and reins, rolled them in a blanket and hid it in a crack between some large rocks to keep water out. "I'll have to go on by myself from here, you know..."
"Waaak, krr," Reno said, snapping his beak loudly. Kai laughed.
"Yeah... take care, you too."
He shifted his backpack into place, adjusted the straps, and started walking. He was heading up into the mountains.
He would have to walk, because a chocobo flying over them would usually cause people to notice. He wasn't sure what would happen once he reached his goal...
But then, was he ever?
Vincent stopped. He raised his head and sniffed the air.
Not human... Whatever it was... and not here anymore.
It was harder to think in this shape. As always, part of him became the shape he was assuming, and the Beast was not very intelligent. That was not normally a problem... but the longer he stayed in this shape, the less 'human' his thoughts became. Sometimes, Vincent wondered if he would lose his humanity altogether if he staid in another shape too long.
But then... I lost my humanity long ago... Did I not?
On top of that, the curse was heavy on his shoulders. It was becoming a burden too great to ignore. There was something else, however, beyond the traces of the non-human thing that had passed here... Something more familiar. The trace of Cloud's Ultima Weapon? No, that was not it... although there was a trace of that, as well.
Materia... That was it. The thing he felt was the slight disturbance that was a piece of crystallised Mako, cut off from the Lifestream. But what... and where? Slowly, he turned in a circle. This way... He took a step forwards. The trace held. He took another step... then another...
He found what he was looking for on the other side of a great oak, a green glint in the shadows. It was a piece of Materia - healing in nature.
Although it was a risk, he decided to return to his human shape for a short while, to further study this Materia. Slowly, he knelt down, willing the Change to take effect.
The curse struck him like a hammer. He would have fallen, had he not already been lying down. And now the unconscious Yuffie felt very heavy... He ignored it, reaching out for the Materia. This is... The thoughts locked in the Materia, a memory of... Esuna. And this was probably Cloud's Materia. The other force he had felt... would not carry a Materia like this. Then, had Cloud dropped it? Or had he thrown it away? But the first seemed hardly likely; and the second seemed even less probable. Then... what? Vincent struggled against the ancient spell, finally pushing the power aside, if only for the moment. He must have lost it, he concluded. He would not throw it away... not like that. That went without saying, did it not? Cloud was a rather practical-minded person, and such Materia could always be useful. But could he just have dropped it? That was not easy to answer. Cloud had always been careful about how he handled his Materia - and Vincent knew for a fact that he had never dropped a single piece; during an argument over some missing Materia a while back, Cloud had told everybody so; Vincent did not believe he had been lying. Probably... this creature attacked him. But how... How could anything live here? Vincent absentmindedly put the Materia in his pack, reaching around Yuffie's back to do so, a rather uncomfortable move.
He had thought the word 'Esper'. Then he had changed it into 'non-human'. But maybe... Maybe, an Esper could overcome this spell? Yes, undoubtedly, if it was strong enough... But there were not many Espers strong enough to overcome such a curse - even Chaos felt it, and could not bear it for long. Which Esper...? He could only think three or four. Bahamut, certainly, and probably Odin; maybe Phoenix, as well, and possibly some of the Knights. Of course, there had to be other Espers, beyond the ones he knew of... Would Sephiroth count himself as an Esper? When he was alive, he had been able to pass through the forest. Or had that truly been Sephiroth? No one knew for sure what had been the man himself, and what had been thought-projections, clones under Sephiroth's control, or something completely different.
Sephiroth's control? No, Jenova's control.
Vincent was feeling the pressure of the curse again, and knew he was not strong enough to fight it off in this shape. Once more, he concentrated... flowing back into the Galian Beast's shape. Cloud was here...
He was about to continue, when he found something very startling.
The trail no longer existed beyond this point. It went up to a point not far from the place where the Materia had been, and then it... vanished. Shaking his head, he tried again, only to come to the same conclusion. Curse it all... The ones he was following... had teleported. There was no other explanation. They had simply translocated themselves, and that left no trace at all... or at least none that he could follow.
What he knew about teleportation could be placed at the point of a dagger and still have ample room.
He would need help, this time.
Tifa and Cid slowly crept up the narrow, winding staircase. It was dark and slippery, having no source of light and being cut out from the cliff itself. The steps were uneven and short, and hardly five seconds passed without someone stumbling. It took them almost five minutes to make it all the way to the top, but at least they had made it in one piece, without falling. Cid leaned his spear against a wall and wiped his forehead, then dabbed lightly at his chest with a damp cloth he had brought along; actually a piece of his own shirtsleeve. He grimaced at the pain, but it was better than waiting until the sweat started dripping into the wounds. Tifa was doing much the same, trying to wipe the sweat of her face before it got in the wounds. The two escapees looked at each other, and started laughing quietly.
"We meet anyone... we'll scare the shit outta them!" Cid said. "Serves 'em right, though..."
"Remember... we can't get into a fight right now," Tifa reminded him. "We have to get out.... heal up... then we can come back and beat these people senseless. But now..."
"Yeah, yeah, calm down already... Ain't no way I'm going to start a fight looking like this," Cid said around his cigarette. It was unlit, as they didn't want anyone to notice the smoke and discover them, but he felt better just having it there - it made him feel more free, somehow. "But just you wait until I'm all stitched back together again...!" He retrieved the Venus Gospel. "Shall we?"
"Already...?" She sighed. "Yes... I suppose we had better."
The staircase had ended in a small room, which was where they had stopped to catch their breath. Now Tifa opened the door carefully, peeking out into a corridor quite similar to the one they had just left. Seeing no one there, she opened the door and stepped out, followed closely by Cid.
They had walked for what felt like hours. In reality, it was closer to fifteen minutes. Tifa tried the doors on the left side of the corridor, Cid those on the right. They knew, of course, that it was not a good idea to open doors while they didn't know what lay behind, but somewhere, there had to be a way out... and it was probably behind one of those doors. But all they managed to find so far was small rooms; possibly more cells, or maybe storage areas.
After fifteen minutes of opening and shutting doors - and of course unlocking and locking doors that were not already open - they had finally found another staircase. This one was broader and not as steep, and went straight up. They stopped at the foot of this stairs and looked up.
"You think this leads to inhabited areas?" Cid had mumbled.
"So what do you suggest? We can't keep hidden forever..."
They had both known: this was not good. They needed to keep out of sight... because they were in no condition to fight or run.
Finally, Cid had sighed. "We have to keep going. We're not going to find the exit down here... Come on, Tifa. Let's go."
Tifa had nodded. She had known that this was probably their only chance anyway...
"Cid. Let's do our best... okay?"
"You got it." They had shaken hands. "Let's blow this joint and go home," Cid grinned.
Tifa had to smile, too.
Now they slowly advanced through the corridor. This level was man-made, floor, walls and ceiling made from cut and polished blocks of white stone - marble, possibly. There were windows in the walls, here, so there was no need for the torches mounted on the walls, at least not now; the sun was high in the sky, providing sufficient light. The windows, however, were very high up, and it was way too far to jump. Below the white stone wall, there was just a cliff, too steep to climb down. They were at least fifty metres above ground. Cid thought he might be able to survive the fall, but not unharmed... and not with Tifa. Even if a broken bone or three was a price he would be willing to pay to get out - after all, he could get that healed - there was the matter of their equipment... and Tifa. He couldn't leave her, and that was that.
"What is it, Cid?"
"If we ever get out of here... I'm gonna buy you a really expensive dinner."
Tifa giggled behind her hand, but had to stop because her wounds hurt. "And why is that?" she wondered.
Cid shrugged. "To piss Cloud off, I guess. Heh. Him and Shera both..."
"Cid," Tifa said softly, "if we ever get out of here... I think you should buy Shera a really expensive dinner."
Cid was quiet for a few seconds. "Yeah, maybe."
Tifa smiled - carefully - and said, "You're not going to admit it, are you?"
"Hell no. And I expect you to shut up about that, Tifa." He glowered at her... or tried to. "Just because I'm not complaining about what you just said don't mean nothing. I'm not admitting anything."
Tifa smiled. Bus she kept looking ahead, which was why they only almost were spotted by the white-clad man walking past through an corridor that crossed the one they were in.
"This... this ain't working," Cid wheezed as they ducked in behind a corner. This was the third time they had narrowly escaped notice in this way, but they both felt that they wouldn't be so lucky much longer. "Gotta find... some other way, somehow..."
Tifa, breathless, nodded. "These... These people... we keep running into... They... Their clothes... the same as... the ones in Wutai," she managed. "Those people... came from here."
Cid pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Really...?"
"Al...most.. certain of... it," she told him. "That's... strange, isn't... it?"
"It sure is... But what would they want us for? I mean, we aren't Wutai people, are we? So what are they up to, I wonder..."
Tifa tapped her nose. I wonder...? "Cid... That Materia Godo gave you... Did you think there was something strange about it? I mean... he told us never to use it. He said it would help Vincent."
"You're saying... Really?" Cid tried to scratch his chin out of habit, and jerked his hand away as he touched one of the burns. "Shit! That hurt... Anyway, Tifa... Shit! Shit! Of course, our Materia is gone... So where's that red piece? They got it, Tifa..."
Tifa saw a pained look on Cid's face. "You're saying... you think it's that important?"
"Hell yes!" Cid said in a loud whisper. "Why else would he be so reluctant about it... or tell us absolutely not to use it? He practically said 'die before you consider using this Summon'!"
Tifa blinked. "Yes... Now that you mention it..." she muttered. "Cid, do you know... at all... about the effects of that Materia?"
The pilot shook his head. "I promised Godo on my honour not to try and find out what the Materia contains, let anyone else try to find out, use the Materia myself, or let anyone else use it. Even if we get it back, I couldn't let you find out without his consent."
"That oath was very important to you, wasn't it?"
"Yeah." They sat in silence for a while. "The guard's probably gone by now."
Who are you?
You don't know me?
No... I don't know you! What would I be asking for if I already knew?
'I... see'? What kinda answer is that? Hello, I'm waiting here...
Simple enough... I am you.
Yes, I am.
Yes, I am...
"Yuffie... Wake up.
There was warmth, softness around her... She was lying in a bed? And there was someone right next to her... "No, not Vincent! You really ought to have learned by now... I'm... I'm..."
"The Chocobo Sage!" Yuffie sat bolt upright, almost hitting her head against the old man's. "Wha... Like, what am I doing here? Did Vince, like, dump me, or what?"
"Chocobo Sage! Yes, that's right... That's who I am," the purple-robed old man said, nodding in a way that he probably thought looked knowing. "Now... Now..."
"Oh! Yes, of course I remember you! What do you think I am, senile?"
Yuffie, uncharacteristically, chose not to make any sarcastic comments, perhaps because she knew it would be wasted on the old man; he would try to make a reply, and forget all about it before the words left his mouth.
"I did not 'dump you'," came Vincent's voice from a dark corner of the cabin. She looked in that direction, and saw him sitting in a large, padded chair.
But... Did I really have to look? Had she not known he was there all the time?
How stupid! Of course she hadn't. That was impossible.
"So, like... What are we doing here?" she asked. "I thought we were going after Cloud?"
"We are." Vincent fell silent, and Yuffie pressed,
"Someone teleported them out of the woods... I believe after a fight. I need help tracking them..."
"So you...?" Yuffie couldn't believe what she was hearing. Vincent - Chaos! - was seeking help from this, this, this dotard! This crazy old man who couldn't even remember his own name - even though it was 'Chocobo Sage'! "Vincent, are you out of your... mind?" She screamed the last word, throwing the pillow at him. Vincent caught it and calmly put it down on the floor. "What makes you think he could help? It took us weeks to get anything useful out of him the last time!"
"The Sage knows more than he wants to admit..."
"So? He's still not gonna remember squat! At least not in time to save Cloud and Tifa and Cid!"
"Yuffie... calm down." Vincent already seemed calm... as usual.
Yuffie was about to boil over.
"The hell I will!" she yelled. "I'm not gonna sit here and wait while he forgets everything we could have any use for!"
Vincent's red eyes flared, the light very obvious in the semi-darkness where he was sitting. "Calm down!" he snapped, an echo of Chaos' voice.
Yuffie recoiled as if he had struck her - which might in fact be the case. Chaos' voice, even a mere echo of it, when raised in anger, was like a slap in the face... or a punch in the gut. Maybe both. Or maybe it was more accurate to describe it as being hit over the head with something heavy. Yuffie's head ached, and she almost thought she was seeing double for a short while.
"Yeaow! Why'd you have to do that for?" she complained, rubbing her temples. "That hurt!"
"I am sorry. But you have to calm down and listen. This may well be our only chance to save Cloud and the others."
"But how?" Yuffie asked. "We... What can we do now? They just disappeared, you said so yourself! We can't follow them anymore... Can't..." She shook her head. "Vincent, tell me we haven't lost! I don't want to lose!"
Vincent regarded her with his strange Mako-red eyes. "I will tell you this much," he said finally, "that all hope is not lost. We still have a chance... and the one who has given us this chance, is standing by your side."
Yuffie looked to her left, but the only thing there was a wall. Then she looked to her right. The only thing there was the Sage.
"But-" she protested.
"No." He put no force in the word, but it effectively silenced Yuffie. "You must not jump to conclusions. This man may well be the wisest being alive on this world."
"No. That is only a mask." Vincent turned to the old man. "Would you please consider helping us again?"
The Sage chuckled; a dry, pleasant sound. "Well, you come visit me here... It's very lonely up in the mountains, with no one to talk to but my chocobo and his friends. Since you keep me company, I am happy to help if you need me."
Yuffie stared. That was the first coherent sentence she had ever heard from him... or was it? She seemed to remember... a time half a year earlier, right? She had been eavesdropping and...
Oh, she realised. I think I see... But that did not explain how Vincent knew... or why the old man would talk to him about it. Still...
"You really do remember everything I say, don't you?" she asked.
The Sage turned his clear, sky-blue eyes on her and nodded. "Yes. I remember pretty much everything I have ever heard."
Yuffie found it hard not to blush. And here she had been saying...! "Sorry."
"Hypocrite," he scolded her good-naturedly, winking slyly. "But don't feel bad about it, little Shinobi. You saw what I wanted you to see... You understand, when you know as much as I do, people come asking for advise all the time. Never a minute of calm! So I decided to play dumb... and it has worked brilliantly, until your tall demon-blooded friend here," He indicated Vincent by pointing with his bearded chin, "came here and asked me to help heal you about six months ago. I could never fool him..."
"Oh..." was all she could think to say. I'll be... I could'a sworn...! "So can you help us, then?"
He nodded, once, slowly. "I believe I can. I may be able to follow their spell... but only if they staid on this continent. My influence does not stretch further than this landmass. However," he added as Yuffie's face fell, "I can tell you that you would need to be an extremely powerful mage to transport anything that far... and to teleport more than yourself is even more difficult, and dangerous. I believe we can safely assume that the culprit is still on the continent."
"So what are you waiting for?" Yuffie exclaimed with her usual enthusiasm. "Like, get on with it already!"
"This demands some preparation. I will need at least an hour to find the traces I need... and another to follow it. In two hours, I can have an answer... I have already my begun search. I just wanted to make sure you woke up all right before proceeding."
"Well I'm up ain't I? So get it on with!"
The Sage smiled. "As you wish, princess," he said.
Yuffie could have sworn she heard Vincent chuckle.
Cloud was dimly aware of the world around him. Or was it the world around him? Well, it was something around him. A grey haze... seemed to obscure his vision, and he could hardly see anything... at all. The haze made it hard to think, as well... or maybe something else was causing that.
He could not move, but he felt no need to do so, either.
The greyness was warm, comfortable... Still he felt a strange urge to fight it, to break free... What was it? What was it he needed to do so badly?
Nothing seemed real. His memories... He could not remember anything.
There was something...
A small image...
He knew it was important...
It was... a woman?
Yes... Someone important to him?
He could not see her... But he could remember... Warm, hazel eyes... long, silky, brown hair... A smile that made him feel warm inside...
Who was she?
Why was she so important?
Cloud could not remember. And soon the image disappeared, leaving him once more floating in the warm, safe greyness... disturbed only by a slight stinging feeling in his chest.
And somewhere, something stretched... close to breaking...
They had found a door standing ajar, and, after peeking through the crack and finding the room empty, entered. The key was in the lock; Cid turned it. Tifa plopped down on a couch, sighing. "Ooh... I'm so tired..."
"Me too," Cid admitted. "Hey, I wonder who lives here? The room seems... like it's never been used."
They looked around. Apart from the couch, placed in the far right corner, there was a large bed in the corner to the left, closest to the door. A table was standing by the only window, in the far wall. There was a tall, but thin closet next to the table, to the left, and a chest of drawers to Cid's right, in the corner. A soft carpet covered the floor, and an old, slightly faded painting hung over the couch. There was a lamp hanging from the ceiling; an oil lamp, the only thing that was not of modern design. Everything seemed new, as if it had never been used, and everything was clean; there was not a speck of dust visible anywhere.
Cid sat down with his back to the door. "Oh well," he sighed. "Never mind that... I don't care. Then we probably won't be having anyone come here and disturb us while we rest, huh?"
Tifa nodded. "You're probably right... Hey, Cid... If we wait until it gets dark, there probably won't be as many people running around..."
"Nah. Think we should wait?"
"Let me know when you've made up your mind. I don't know what'd be best..." Cid got to his feet, then went over to the bed and lay down, leaning Venus Gospel against the wall next to the bed in case he needed it. He frowned at the dried blood at the haft of the weapon, then grinned as he looked up at the severed head impaled on its tip.
Tifa didn't like the sight much, and didn't understand why he insisted on keeping the head with him... but he had to have a reason, even if he didn't want to speak of it right now.
Never mind that. She'd probably find out soon enough.
Stifling a yawn, she swung her legs up into the sofa, putting her feet up on one armrest. "Cid... you wouldn't have a spare pillow over there, would you?"
"Sure..." He tossed her a fluffy, white pillow; Tifa caught it, and placed it under her head.
"Much better," she sighed. "Eh... would you mind taking the first watch?"
"Do we have to...?" Cid muttered. "Ah, forget it. Yeah, I'll take the watch... Mind if I smoke?"
Tifa shook her head. "No, go ahead... but please open the window."
Then she closed her eyes, and it wasn't long before sleep claimed her...
"I found it."
Yuffie jumped to her feet, dropping the shuriken she had been turning in her hand. It fell and stuck in the wooden floor. "What?" she exclaimed. "Where?"
"They are still on the continent. I followed the trace... it does not go very far. I believe they are hiding in the mountains east of Cetra."
"You know about that, too?" Yuffie asked, surprised. "I thought..." Wait. Cloud... "Like... Where in the mountains?"
"I believe, in an old fortress from before the War... Possibly built by the Cetra themselves, although I do not believe it is quite that old."
"However... There is something there that blocks my senses. There must be a very powerful force there... I can see nothing at all in that area. Are you going there...?"
"Of course!" Yuffie said, just as Vincent said,
The Sage nodded. "I guessed as much. You must be careful... Someone who can create such a shield must have access to very powerful magic... possibly true magic. Do you understand what I am saying?"
That sounded slightly ridiculous coming from the Sage, but Yuffie was in no mood to laugh. "Yeah," she said, "I get it."
"True magic..." Vincent mumbled. "So then... I was not wrong."
"What are you talking about?" Yuffie demanded.
"When we visited the City, I felt a very peculiar trace of magic in the house with the broken wall. It did not feel like Materia-based magic... but I only assumed it to be product of a Materia I had not seen before. I dismissed the idea that it would be true magic..." He shook his head. "You are certain, of course."
"Yes, in a way," the sage said. "I am certain that there is some very unusual magic there... However, I cannot tell if it is, indeed, true magic, or simply a Materia-based spell. I cannot find out from here - especially not since the shield prevents me from seeing anything in that area." He shrugged. "I am afraid you two will have to find out on your own."
"By... By true magic," Yuffie said, "you mean, like, magic... magic magic? Like... like what Aerith did?"
"Like Aerith..." Vincent replied slowly. "Yes... quite like Aerith. However, I believe we will find these mages more bent on destruction that the Cetra."
Yuffie blinked. "Yeah..."
"You do not have to go there."
She glared at him - she had lost count of how many times she had done that - and then poked her tongue out. "I'm going if you are!"
"As you wish," Vincent said. "I was merely trying -"
"Well stop thinking and start flying!" she commanded. "Let's go get Cloud and Tifa!"
"Tifa, wake up."
She turned slowly... and almost fell off the couch. "Cid!"
"It's dark! You let me sleep..."
"You needed it," he interrupted. "Since you don't have these..." he pointed to the wounds on his chest. "...I think it'd be better if you got to rest, so you could handle any... disturbances. If we get into a fight, I won't be of much use at the moment, so you're the one who needs to be fully rested." He grinned. "Besides, I'm not that sleepy. Tired, yes, but not sleepy."
Tifa doubted it. But he didn't look too bad... "Thank you, Cid."
"Cut the small talk," he said; sounding both irritated and embarrassed. "Let's get going. We need to find that Materia, and get out of here, in that order... so we better start now"
He unlocked the door, as quietly as he could, and peeked out. Then he opened the door fully, saying, "Coast's clear."
They closed the door behind them, Cid absentmindedly pocketing the key, and started walking again.
The torches had been lit, now, and cast their light over the stone. It was darker than it had been before, though, and that meant less risk for them to be discovered.
For about five minutes, they walked... then Tifa stopped, cupping her hand behind her ear, listening.
"Someone's talking... in there," she mumbled to Cid, pointing to a door. He nodded.
"I hear it..." he replied, his voice as low as hers. "We should eavesdrop."
She nodded. They sneaked closer to the door and listened closely.
"...what are you..." someone asked. It was a very powerful voice; low, but holding power. "...can you not answer me... Esper..."
Tifa saw Cid stiffen. "Shee... it!" he whispered.
"...Answer my Summons... Esper, I request... thy name." The voice became louder. "Esper... By the powers of Earth, Fire, Air, Water... I bind thee to answer my Summons... Come forth..."
"You think that is...?" Tifa asked.
Cid nodded. "A Summon. What else could it be? I'm going in."
"Wait!" Tifa said, but Cid had put his hand on the knob, and was turning it...
Kane was in a very foul mood. He had nearly thrown the Materia across the room when he felt the last reject. Reject! The Esper defied him!
An Esper must agree to help the Summoner. There was no such thing as forcing an Esper to appear. However, it was unheard of that one would refuse to give even its name when called - but this Materia... felt as if it was dead, and only the knowledge that there was an Esper there, one that was refusing to heed him, kept Kane from assuming that it was dead. He could feel the Esper, knew it was there, somewhere... Powerful, very powerful, perhaps stronger then any other being he had encountered, and with a great will. "Esper... By the powers of Earth, Fire, Air, Water, I bind thee... Come to me... Answer my Summons... Come forth..." He lowered the Materia, growling in anger. This was not working. His left hand gripped the sword so hard his knuckles whitened. "Obey me!" he hissed. "Answer the Summons! Or I shall find you, and wrest the soul from your body... and destroy your very essence of life!"
The Materia might suffice... His minions had failed in bringing him the sword. This sphere might just have enough power for what he had in mind, but still... he would prefer to know the Esper's name before attempting anything. What if... "Esper... By the powers of Earth, Fire, Air, Water, I bind thee... Come to me... Answer my Summons... Come -"
The door creaked.
Putting the Materia down on the table, Kane spun around to face the intruder.
Cid slammed the door open, grimacing at the pain from his wounds. "All right... Give me back that Materia." He aimed Venus Gospel at the man sitting there -
It was an old man, in a wheelchair. He was looking straight at Cid, but it was obvious that his eyes - coal black, without irises or whites - could not see him.
The man held a sparkling sword in his hands, point rested at the floor. The blade was silvery white, the hilt golden... The weapon was large, a knight's sword; seemingly impossible for such an old and frail man to handle. But that Materia... Cid's eyes narrowed. Yes, it was that Materia...
Tifa entered after Cid, keeping low, in fighting stance. She stopped and stared at the old man. "What...?"
Cid lowered the Venus Gospel's point to the ground, put a booted foot on the severed head, and pulled at the spear. It came loose with a wet, sucking sound, spilling blood and more on the white floor. The pilot kicked the head towards the old man, grinning. "You recognise this?" he rasped. "If you are the one responsible..."
The old man did not look down. "I am sorry," he said. His voice was still powerful, but rather mild, now. "I cannot see what you are showing me. As you may understand... I am blind." He seemed to lean closer to look at them, although 'look' was not the word for what he did; he rather felt them. "Oh, my. What has happened to you?" He reached out a hand towards Tifa, who was now closer to him than Cid. She flinched as she felt something touch her cheek.
"Wh - what are you doing! Get off me!" She slashed at the air with an open-hand chop, hitting nothing. The touch vanished, however, fading away slowly.
"Calm down, young lady. You are wounded. Let me... 'see' that. Here..."
Once more, the soft touch... Tifa backed away a step, but did not try to stop it. Her wounds... felt warm, but did not hurt, and now...
The touch was gone again. She raised one hand to her cheek, touching it... "You healed me!" she gasped in astonishment. The wounds were still there, true - but they were all closed, halfway healed! "But - you didn't use Materia!"
"No..." he admitted. "I did not." He turned to Cid. "And you are wounded, as well. Let me-"
Cid put Venus Gospel up in front of his face. "Don't try it," he advised. "Now, I want my things back - my pack and Materia. And then I want you to show us out of here."
The old man shrugged, putting the sword up, laying it across his knees. "I guess... I owe you two an apology," he sighed.
"You damn well owe us more than an apology!" Cid roared. "I've half a mind to run you through right here and now! What was that good for, huh? Why did you lock us up in that overgrown basement and have us tortured? Why?" The last word was almost a scream. He waved the sharp tip of his spear dangerously close to the man's face. "Give me one... one reason not to cut you to pieces where you sit!"
"Cid!" Tifa hissed. "Calm down! We can't just..."
"Oh yes I can! Talk, you old fart. Talk!"
"Very well, then," the old man said. "I will tell you... Oh, but first you must realise: I did not give the order to torture anyone. Pray tell... What became of Ghaediss, the creature who guarded you?"
"That 'creature' is left in the basement," Cid said. "Minus his head!" He prodded the gore-splattered thing lying on the floor. "Because its head is here! And yours will join it unless your answers are really good!" He lowered the spear. "So talk."
"I will tell you my story, them. As I said, I am blind," the old man began. "My name, by the way, is Kane... Oh, yes. I am blind, because of an accident involving magic. I am seeking a way to restore my eyesight... and I believe I have found one. However, this requires an immense amount of energy - magical energy.
"But magic, such as it once was, no longer exists. In order to realise my plan, I need a kind of power that ceased to exist long ago... true magic.
"I have rediscovered the power of magic. That was what cost me my eyes. However, I have not near enough power for what I must do. I require more... much more.
"I decided to make use of several ancient artefacts, that hold the necessary powers.
"This is where you come in. You have a friend who is in possession of one of these powerful artefacts."
"Cloud?" Tifa asked. "Where is he? Do you know?"
"He is here," Kane told her. "He is safe... resting, at the moment. I need only use his sword."
"The Ultima Weapon!" Tifa exclaimed. "But..."
"The 'Ultima Weapon' is very old. It was crafted long before even the Cetra existed," Kane said. "It holds a fair amount of raw magic power. This, I need to make use of in my spell."
"You're a wizard?" Cid asked sceptically. "Bull. There hasn't been a true mage on the Planet since Aerith died over a year ago! Don't take us for fools, old man..."
"Still, it is true."
"Yeah, right. Prove it!" Cid challenged.
"I already have." Kane pointed to Tifa. "I have healed your friend... without the aid of Materia."
Cid rubbed his chin. It still hurt, but he ignored it. "That could be a trick..."
"Please, Cid. I want to know where Cloud is," Tifa said. "Kane, tell me. Where is Cloud?"
"Here," Kane said. "In a room on this floor... resting, as I said. The reason why I had you brought here, was because I needed him to come here. As I was certain I could not force him here with might, I had to assume that bringing his friends here would do the trick..."
"You're trying to blackmail him!" Tifa accused.
"Not quite," Kane smiled. "You see, there was no need for that. Your friend has already agreed to help me. If you would please come with me..." His wheelchair started to move towards the door on its own accord. Cid thrust Venus Gospel into a crack in the floor, in front of the chair, effectively blocking the way.
"You're not going anywhere," he said. "Tifa... You walk a bit behind me. I'll stay behind him, and if he makes a false move..." Cid drew a finger over his throat. "You die," he told Kane.
"Sounds fair," the old man smiled. "Well then, young lady... young man... Will you be so good as to let me pass?"
Cid and Tifa reluctantly stepped aside. Kane passed them; Cid grabbed the red Materia from the table and stuffed it in a pocket, then readied his spear, walking right behind Kane. Tifa followed, a couple of seconds later, keeping watch behind them.
Kane took them down the corridor, made a couple of turns, and finally stopped behind another door. "Here it is," he said. "My laboratory. I thought I'd show it to you first, before we go any further."
Cid pressed the handle down with his spear. The door was locked, however, and did not open; Kane handed Cid a key. "This is the key you need," he said. "Go ahead."
"You open it," Cid said, pointing Venus Gospel at Kane's neck. "And I'll be right behind you. Remember that."
Kane smiled, inserted the key and turned it. The door slid open, and golden light spilled out into the corridor. Kane entered, followed closely by a watchful Cid.
"This... this is huge!" Tifa gasped.
It was. The room was almost twenty metres across, perfectly circular, and the distance between the floor and the delicately domed ceiling was probably twenty-five metres at the centre. There were strange diagrams on the floor and walls, but most notably, there was a pentagram covering the entire floor; made from black stone, laid into the white floor.
In this pentagram, in the point farthest from the door, Ultima Weapon stood embedded halfway in what seemed to be a block of pure gold. The pentagon in the centre of the pentagram held a strange machine, shaped to fit exactly inside the geometrical shape, golden in colour. There was a kind of chair on top of it, attached by wires and pipes.
Even if Ultimate Weapon caught their eyes, the chair - or maybe throne - was more than enough to tear them away from it. Sparkling blue and green... glittering in the strange light...
Cid spoke first: "Materia! That damn thing's made from Materia!"
"Yes, indeed," Kane said, smiling. "It is my throne... the focus for the spell. It, together with your friend's sword, and four other objects, will be enough to give me all the power I need - to restore my eyes! I have been building this for years... and now, finally, it is finished!" He laughed. It was a joyful sound. "I will be able to see again!"
"Where is Cloud?" Tifa insisted, obviously not impressed. "I demand to see him... now! I don't care about your machines, or your eyes... I want to see Cloud! Take us to him... now."
"Yeah," Cid agreed. "It's getting late. I want to see if Spike's all right... and then I want my stuff back, and get out of here. Aright, Kane... Take us to see Cloud."
"My, my... A little wanderer, hmm?"
Kai looked up. "Susanna," he acknowledged. "You've become stronger since we last met."
"So have you, little Kai... or should I say, big Kai?"
"I am not your brother."
"Oh, but some might say you are..." She smiled. "Then again, some might say you're an abomination, and that isn't true at all, now, is it?" She laughed again. Kai gritted his teeth.
"Don't push me. I've come to see... to see father."
Susanna laughed again. She seemed very amused. "'Father'?" she wondered. "I thought you had rejected him? You do not even use the name he gave you..."
"This is more important than you... or me," Kai growled angrily. "Let me pass... Novo. I know you are there..."
"Actually, he is not," Susanna said. "He is resting at the moment... but I shall tell him you are here. Very well, then, Kai" - she put extra emphasis on the word - "we shall speak again... soon."
And then, with a tinkle of silver laughter, she was gone again, her image burned away by a sooty-red flame.
Kai sighed. He had been discovered... Oh, he had known he would, but he had hoped to be a little closer before it happened...
There was no helping it, anyway. Sighing again, he adjusted his pack, and kept walking.
"It is... down there," Vincent announced. Yuffie craned her neck to see over his shoulder...
"That house down there? It doesn't look like a fortress." But it was dark, the moon hidden behind clouds, and she couldn't see very well.
"Still, it is where Cloud was taken."
"Ah... Ah, all right, let's go, then!" She took a good hold of Vincent's shoulders. There was a moment of giddiness as gravity disappeared, and they were falling towards the ground. Then Chaos' great leathery wings snapped open, bringing them in close to the cliffs, gliding silently. Yuffie was pressed hard into the saddle as the dive planed out.
They landed a good fifty metres from the white stone building. Yuffie got out of the saddle and removed the straps; Vincent returned to human shape. Yuffie rummaged through the backpack to find her own gear, then handed the pack to Vincent. He holstered his gun and slung the pack over his shoulders. "Let's go," he hissed.
"Yeah," Yuffie agreed, putting shurikens and various other weapons and gear into place. She was carrying a small arsenal of weapons and tools; it was best to be prepared for anything. "You ready?"
"Always," Vincent said, with the slightest smile on his lips. The rasping in his voice made him sound even more dangerous than usual, somehow. "Always..."
"Here it is," Kane said, stopping outside a door that looked like all the other doors on this floor. "It is open... unless he locked it, of course."
Tifa turned the knob, the door opened... and she looked in. The room was dark, and she couldn't see anything except for several dark shapes; furniture, she assumed. "Could we get some light in here?"
"You will find matches on the table to your right," Kane told her. "And there is a small lamp there, as well."
Tifa felt around for the matches, and soon her hand brushed something small, light... "Got them," she said. A dim light flared, casting fluttering shadows over the walls, doing little to illuminate the room. Tifa could see a small oil lamp, however, and put the match to the wick. It ignited without problems, and Tifa blew out the match, lowered the glass shade, and raised the lamp.
This room was quite similar to the one they had rested in, furnished in the same way. There was someone in the bed, though... Wrapped in a blanket, and with a pillow behind his head, so Tifa couldn't see him - or her; there was no way of knowing.
"Cloud?" she asked. There was no answer, no movement. "Cloud, it's me! Wake up." She went over to the bed and pulled the pillow away -
There was a crash behind her.
It was Cloud - but he had been turned to stone! She whirled around... only to see Cid picking himself up from the floor, shaking his head. The door was closed. "Bastard!" she yelled, running to the door, trying to open it. It did not budge. "Let me out! I'm going to kill you for this!"
Kane laughed. This time, it was a low, melodious laugh, but there were no traces of joy anywhere in it - just a dark satisfaction. "I do not believe you will," he said. "This door is sealed by magic -" The door shimmered white for a second "- as from now. Only I can open it..." He laughed again. "So I am afraid you are stuck!"
"You're not getting away with this!" Cid yelled. "Tifa, get away! I'm going to try and break the door down!"
Kane laughed. "You will hurt yourself. Only I can open that door... or someone with as much mystic power. But since the only other mages in the world are under my control..."
"Just you wait!" Cid roared. "I'll get out of here! Somehow I will get out... and the next time, Kane... I'll tear your heart out."
"Everything dies," Kane said softly. "I will die soon enough... even without you interfering."
"You won't get far!"
"Oh, but I believe I will." He was silent for a while, then said, "I need your friend's sword, and a few other things, to restore my sight. The reason I did not simply ask to borrow these things, is because there is a possibility, a rather great risk, that they will not survive the massive energy charges. I may have to use them up - destroy them. That is why I have to take them, not simply ask to use them... I will see to it that you are released once I am done casting this spell. Do not hate me for what I do..."
"Of course I hate you!" Tifa screamed. "You are a thief, a liar, and a murderer!"
"Like you'd be surprised," Cid growled. "You have no regard for other lives - even the Shinra weren't as casual as you are! Do you really think we could like you?"
"Then... I am sorry," Kane said in a subdued voice. "I am truly sorry... but I have been fighting for this day... far too long. I cannot give up now... But I see. Fare well, children..." They heard him moving away.
"Wait! You bastard!" Tifa pounded her fists on the rock-hard door. "Come back here!"
She backed away. "We'll see about that..." Raising her right hand, she gathered all her strength into this one punch... and struck-
She reeled backwards. The force had rebounded on her - power that would have crushed an ordinary wooden door. Gasping for breath, she sank to her knees.
"Tifa... you okay?" Cid asked worriedly. She nodded. Her hand... seemed okay, strangely, but she felt like one big bruise.
"I'm... all right," she said. "It's... hopeless. I can't break that door... can't even try that again, or I'll knock myself silly... Cid... what are we going to do?"
"Check on Cloud," Cid suggested. "I'll try the door... not that I'll have more luck than you, of course, but still..."
Tifa nodded. Slowly, she got to her feet, staggered over to the bed, and sat down. Cloud...
She tried to turn him over. He was far too heavy, and she just hurt her fingers. Damn... Instead, she leaned over him, and bent down to look at his face.
That expression... A worried, concentrated look. She looked down, noticing how his body was positioned. One arm was held out, palm up; he had probably been holding something when the spell hit him. He had been standing, she concluded, leaning slightly forwards. What had he been doing? Damn... Don't have any Materia left... Cloud's is gone, too... even his clothes turned into stone... Whatever was in his pockets, it's going to stay there... She eased herself back, and lay down by Cloud's side. "We'll get you back... don't you worry," she said, patting the statue's shoulder.
It felt quite stupid.
"How is he?" Cid asked. He was leaning on Venus Gospel, peering down at Cloud. "Petrifaction spell?" Tifa nodded.
"Yes, I think so... You don't have any Materia left, do you?" He shook his head. "I know... just had to ask... Why don't you try the door?"
"I was about to... but I wanted to know how Spike was feeling before I did anything else, in case I knock myself out like you nearly did."
She had to smile. "Just be careful, okay? That hurt pretty bad... there's no telling what will happen if you attack it with a spear."
He grinned. "I'm always careful."
Then he walked over to the far end of the room, aiming Venus Gospel straight at the door. "Okay, this is it...."
There was a burst of movement. Then Cid was flying backwards, away from the door, and struck the wall, just a few decimetres from the window. Tifa jumped to her feet. "Cid!" There was no reply. She knelt down by his side, touching his neck to feel for a pulse... There was one. She wiped her forehead. He had just been knocked out... but no one knew if he had sustained internal damage. His breath was a bit shallow, but regular... the pulse was regular, too, and normal. She would have to wait until he woke up...
Fortunately, Cid woke up almost immediately. He straightened up slightly, rubbed his head, and muttered something rude. Then he looked up and straight at the door. "Shi-i-it! That was something!"
"How are you?" Tifa asked. "That looked painful..."
He laughed. "It was... Oh, f... I need a smoke."
She could only smile. Cid went through his pockets until he found his much-abused pack of cigarettes and the lighter - a metal lighter, with a small rocket engraved on it; underneath the rocket, the words Congratulations Captain were written. Cid caught Tifa looking at the lighter and handed it to her, taking a pull on the freshly-lit cigarette. "Present. Got it from Shera... the day before the takeoff..." He coughed. "Damn... hell."
"From Shera?" Tifa said, turning the lighter over in her hand. The metal was shiny like a mirror; Cid had obviously kept it polished. The other side was blank... no, there was a line of text, very small, hard to read: Remember me in space -Shera
Tifa looked at Cid. His face was blank. She looked down again, reading the words - Remember me in space -Shera
"Don't 'Cid...' me!" He held out his hand; Tifa handed him the lighter. "I know... very well," he muttered, breathing out a large plume of smoke. "Know... all too well." He held up the half-smoked cigarette in front of his face. "All too well." He crushed the cigarette in his hand, not bothering to stub it out first. He sat there with his hand clenched for a few seconds, then opened it, allowing the tobacco to pour out, and dusted his hand off against his pants. There was a burn on his palm.
"Gods, Cid!" Tifa gasped, taking his hand and studying the burn. It wasn't too bad... but there was nothing she could do about now, anyway. "You're going to have to sort this out - soon!"
"Don't bother..." Cid muttered, putting another cigarette in his mouth. He lit it and put the lighter in his shirt pocket, taking care to button it. "It's nothing."
"You..." Tifa found no words. "Please, Cid... You have to talk to her. Really talk."
"Don't bother," he repeated, sighing around the cigarette.
Tifa sighed, as well. "I see... Well, see to it yourself, Cid. Promise me that."
"No. I can't promise you that... It is bad enough to break a promise to yourself." He fell silent. Tifa didn't know what so say, so she sat in silence, as well. "Shouldn't you be checking on Cloud?" Cid suggested, about halfway through his new cigarette. Tifa nodded and left him alone by the window. At least Cloud wasn't going to argue with her.
What was it now?
Cloud felt something... It felt... warm? Warm, warmer than the greyness around him... much warmer, and softer. A touch... a warm, soft touch...
Was it important?
Was anything important enough to disturb him through this familiar, comfortable greyness?
There it was again! The only colour in this even less than monochrome world. A face he remembered...
Never had seen...
He had never seen it before.
He knew it well! It was familiar.
Not familiar at all. A complete stranger.
A woman! Someone important to him!
No one was important.
Someone who cared for him! Someone he cared for!
There was no such thing as care.
There was! That was wrong, and he knew it! Care... trust... love! Yes, it was love! And he did know... did know... that woman... whoever she was...
Somewhere, something twisted and snapped.... but did not break... not just yet.
Wait... Who's that Was he imagining things...? No. "Vincent. Yuffie!"
The two shadows turned to face the speaker. "Show yourself." There was a glint... off metal. A gun... and a metal glove. And the voice... That had to be -
"Show yourself..." Vincent commanded again. "Slowly... come out with your hands up."
"It's me - Kai!" He stepped into the light, his hands held up in clear view, in front of his face. "What... How did you find this place?"
Vincent still did not holster his gun. Yuffie held a shuriken in each hand, keeping them hidden but ready to throw. Was this Kai a friend... or a foe?
"I am Chaos..." Vincent said slowly, forcefully. "What I seek... I find."
Kai felt quite surprised at this. "I thought... my father's... shields would keep any eyes out of this building."
"Maybe. Maybe not. What is your business here?"
"It's... But put that away! I'm not here to fight with you! It's to talk to... my father... Kane. I think he may be involved... Those soldiers who attacked Wutai wore uniforms similar to what his guards wear. And they were cloaked by magic, as well... I have a feeling my dear father will have many of the answers I am looking for... Maybe more than what I am looking for, seeing as you two are here... Tell me, Chaos. Why are you here?"
"I seek my friends..." Vincent said. "At least one of them was taken here. In case that was not of his own free will, we are here to help him."
Kai nodded. "Then it's pretty obvious, then," he sighed. "Kane is involved. I just wonder... what he would want with your friend... Who is it?"
"Cloud Strife? Oh... I wonder..." Something hit him. "Wait...! His sword... Kane seeks power! Cloud's sword has very strong magic... I wonder... could it be what Kane is after?" Then he thought better of it. "But Cloud wasn't in Wutai at the time of the attack... so there must be something else, too..."
"We should enter," Vincent interrupted. "Cloud could be in danger... if he still lives."
Kai nodded. "Then we should hurry..."
"Right!" Yuffie said. She pocketed one of the shurikens, but kept the other, just in case. "We're gonna kick their butts and save Cloud!"
"No kicking anything," Vincent corrected, "until we know about Cloud."
"Spoilsport..." she muttered, but she wasn't going to argue with him over that. "Let's go, Vince... I mean, like, the sooner we find out, the better, right?"
And Vincent put his hand on the door handle, turned it, and pulled. The door creaked mysteriously as it swung open.
"We are expected..." Kai said silently. "I ran into Susanna on the way... one of... father's... generals."
"Then we are prepared." Vincent held one hand close to his gun; he had holstered it, but could have it up and ready to fire in the blink of an eye.
Of course, bullets may not be the most effective weapons in this place. If the Sage had been right, this was a place of magic.
"You say... Kai?" Novo said incredulously. "Impossible... he'd never dare come back."
"I saw him with my own eyes," Susanna insisted. "I saw him, heard him... We talked. It was Kai, Novo. It was."
"All right... I believe you," he sighed. His youthful features twisted in a dry, humourless grin. "We had better alert our Master to his presence... Even if little Kai is not on par with us... he could still become a problem. I will go see the Master, Susanna... and you... Make sure we are prepared to receive him."
She smiled at him. "Yes, Novo."
"Then... it is time." He rose from his chair. "Go... I will see the Master."
"Already done," Susanna said, smiling, leaning over to kiss him on the lips. "It is already done."
"Can you, like, feel where Cloud is?" Yuffie asked.
"No..." Vincent replied. "I cannot sense Cloud... He does not have enough power to trace that way... At least not here. There is much other, stronger power here..."
"More so than I remember," Kai said, a bit worriedly. "It's... changed... since I last saw it."
"Of course it has...!" Susanna appeared in front of him, stepping out of a heatless sooty-red blaze. "It has been several years! Things change... we change." She looked into Kai's blue eyes. "Still fighting the inevitable?" she asked with a touch of dry humour. "Still refusing your birthright?"
"It... is my birthright. I can do as I chose with it," Kai replied angrily. "And that is my choice. Live with it."
"I'm not afraid... to 'live' with it," she laughed, a rich, silver-tinkling sound. "I'm wondering... can you... 'live'... without it?"
"It has worked just fine so far..." he told her. "Where's the... 'Master'?" He made a grimace as he pronounced the word 'Master'. Susanna smirked at him.
"Aren't we the impatient one? He is in his old quarters, Kai. See how much you remember... hmm?" She winked seductively at him, and was consumed by a hungry red flame. The fire blinked out... and nothing remained. Susanna was elsewhere.
"Wha... who was that bimbo?" Yuffie asked. "What does she think she is?" There was a note of uncertainty in her voice.
"That... was Susanna." Kai sighed. "She is powerful... very much so. I hope we will not have to fight her... But Novo is worse. Much worse..."
"I... I... I recognise... her?" Yuffie sounded thoroughly confused. "But, I, like... I've never seen her before!"
"Hush now." Vincent touched her shoulder gently. "Wait. This is not the time..."
"The hell for? I Know I recognise her... I have seen her... Have seen her before!" She looked straight at Vincent. "I know I've met her! I remember... lots of things... Can't remember..." She leaned against his arm. "This is all... do damn much! Like... Someone's turning my head inside out!"
"Easy, Yuffie. Easy. Breathe slowly... Calm yourself."
Slowly, she regained her composure. Shaking her head, she let go of Vincent's arm. "Don't know... don't know what this is all about," she sighed. "All I know... I gotta keep going. Keep going. Let's go."
Vincent looked down at the petite Shinobi, feeling slightly worried. What if her memories returned...? She had protected herself by locking them up... but the power inside of her, and the woman's appearing here... It could be enough to call them back.
He had no idea what the memories were, but they were bad, and she would need time to cope with them.
Time, they did not have. They would have to keep going... and hope.
"Damn... damn... damn!" Cid muttered. He had finished his last cigarette, and was in a rather bad mood. "Spike's not getting better, is he?"
"No, Cid," Tifa said patiently. "He's still petrified... We'll have to wait until we can find something to break the spell."
"Cid, why don't you sit down and relax? We can't do anything right now... Let's take it easy and think."
Cid harumphed. "Like that's going to help..." But he sat down. "So... Got any ideas?"
"Not yet... that's why I want you to help me. Tell me all your ideas!"
Cid sighed. "Well that's easily done... Here they are: squat!" He threw Venus Gospel across the room; it stuck in the closet door. "I just don't have one single idea!"
"The window is too high to jump out... but maybe we could use the sheets...?"
"Not enough," Cid sighed. "I can't make it... it's still too far. And what about you? You'd still be locked up in here... Plus, if I kill Kane, how are we gonna open the door to get you and Spike out? He won't fit through the window..."
"I know... I know," Tifa sighed. "It's just that I can't sit around here doing nothing... Have to do something! Can't we at least look... Tie the sheets together and drop them out the window and see how far they go? Maybe we can use the carpet as well, and there could be something in the closet or drawers..."
Cid shrugged. "Well... It can't hurt to try, can it? It's not like we got a lot of things to do up here, anyway..."
Tifa smiled at him. "That's right," she said. "You check the drawers and closet, okay? I'll take the sheets and blanket."
Cid saluted smartly. "Yes ma'am," he said, with an unmistakably Cid-ish grin.
Tifa started by trying to pull the bottom sheet out from under Cloud's petrified body. It succeeded, after some work, and she tied the two sheets and the blanket together, ending up with a 'rope' about five metres long. Meanwhile, Cid had gone through the closet, which was empty, and started with the drawers, which seemed to be empty, too. Finally, they tied the carpet to Tifa's 'rope' and ended up adding another two metres to it. Cid eyed the construction suspiciously.
"What's this, six, seven metres?" he asked. "I told you it wouldn't work, Tifa... That still leaves forty metres at best! I can't make it that far, at least not without serious wounds. Face it, Tifa... we're stuck.
"No! There's got to be something we can do!" Tifa threw the provisional rope on the floor and kicked it. "Damn him!" She wasn't going to cry, she told herself, but that was what she wanted to do - cry and hit things. "Fuck it all!" she exclaimed, kicking the carpet again for good measure.
Cid blinked. "I thought that was my line," he said. Tifa glared at him. "All right, all right, I'll shut up... But tell me, Tifa... What do you want to do now?"
"I... I just don't know," she said, shaking her head. "I don't know, damn it!"
Cid nodded. "Me neither."
"No, Tifa. I just don't know."
Sighing again, Tifa went to sit down on the bed, next to Cloud. But the cold stone did nothing to comfort her.
It's just a name. It means nothing.
Doesn't it? I know it... It shines... like a beacon! I know... know something...
You know nothing! What is a name? It is nothing!
You are wrong... again! Can I trust you... Me? You are me...
I am you! And I know... what you know... and it is nothing. Nothing!
Don't. I know... that name... has some meaning to me. A very important memory... If only I could see it...
It is not there. Stay here. It is safe... beautiful. Forget that other thing.
No! This is not beauty... it is nothing. She is beautiful...
But who is she?
She is... I don't remember. Please, let me remember her! If nothing else... Let me remember her!
But she is not important. She is nothing. Then only thing that is... is you.
But you are wrong. You are so wrong! I'm... the only thing that is not important!
Somewhere... Somewhere, something cracked... breaking? No, not yet... but almost.
"Hey... Tifa!" Cid fumbled in his pocket. "That Materia... burning hot!" He finally got it out, holding it in the palm of his hand. The stone was glowing, a soft, dim, ruby-red. Cid whistled. "Man! What's causing this?"
"I can't... Don't know - never heard of anything like this before!" Tifa gasped. "Here, let me see..."
Cid took a step closer - and as quickly stepped back again. "Shit!" he exclaimed. "It burned me!" He took another step back, almost dropping the stone. "And now it's cooler again! Shee-it! I wonder what the hell's causing it?"
"Wait..." Tifa went over to where Cid was standing and held out her hand. He gave her the orb, and she frowned. "Warm... but not that warm. I thought you said it was burning..."
"It was hot," he said. "But it cooled down again... Just all of a sudden, it started getting warm, and when I picked it up, it was glowing like this. Wonder... if that's an Esper inside... maybe it's trying to communicate?"
"You think we should try to Summon it?"
"No! Tifa, I gave him my word... we can't. Even if the Esper wants us to, the Materia belongs to Godo..."
"Yeah... I know." She handed the Materia back to him. "Let's just put it somewhere and wait. Maybe something will happen."
"Yeah... sure." Cid took a step forwards again... and again retracted to where he had been standing. "It became warmer... as I stepped that way."
"Let me -" Tifa took the Materia out of his hand and took a hesitant step away from Cid. The Materia glowed brighter, and, as Cid had said, it also became hotter. "How strange..." Even when a Materia was used, it didn't behave like this! There was usually a little light, but no heat... and not this much light! "I wonder what it's reacting to..."
"Let's walk around the room with it... Here, give it to me." Cid had pulled on a glove - he still had them in his belt - to protect his hand from the heat. Tifa handed the Materia back again, and Cid began walking. Starting in the corner closest to the right of the window, he walked counter-clockwise. As he approached the bed, the Materia glowed brighter.
"Cloud?" he asked. Tifa shrugged. "Let's try..." Cid leaned in and held the Materia next to Cloud. The red light flared brighter, and smoke arose from Cid's leather glove. "Shit!" he swore. "What are we going to do about this?
"Try... I don't know... but try touching him with the Materia." Tifa knelt down by the bed. "I think the Esper... wants to help him."
Cid looked at her quizzically. "Why do you think that? It could be the opposite! We don't know a thing about this Esper." Cid had to pull away from the bed, as the Materia was burning him even through the thick leather in his glove. "You're blinded by hope, Tifa..."
"No! I... I - I'm certain it's trying to help." She looked him in the eyes. "I don't know how... but I feel... like that's what it's trying to do."
"Ah... well.. If you're certain, Tifa..."
"I am." She was certain. She knew... just knew! It had to be true. "Please, Cid... do it."
Cid took a deep breath. "Oookay," he said. "Just hope this works..." He quickly leaned in and placed the red orb on Cloud's shoulder. A fold in his shirt served to keep the Materia in place, and Cid pulled his hand back. "So now what?" he wondered.
"I don't know," Tifa admitted. "Let's just wait..."
What am I doing?
What am I doing? I... remember.
Yes... I remember... a hand... held out to catch me... Ah... Tifa...
But that was never Tifa. Do you - do I - even remember that name?
There's a hand reaching out to me right now... To bring me back... just like that time...
That was not Tifa. It was-
Aerith. I know. I know... remember now... There is a hand! It is reaching for me! I can't reach it... barely touch... Aerith!
She is dead. I cannot be seeing her here... I am not dead... she is dead... cannot be with her... she cannot be with me...
Am I imagining? I feel it... I can touch it... a hand trying to bring me back... Strong... Stronger than Aerith ever was...
She is dead. She cannot help me.
She is dead... this is someone else... Tifa? Tifa! Is that you?
It cannot be Tifa! What am I thinking? She does not have the power... the strength! Yes, she is strong... You cannot break this prison on your own... or with her help... This is stronger...
Then what... who is it? I know this hand...
Remember... Yes. I remember...
You know, then? My name...
No... Your name... it is... It is... I don't know. Will you help me?
Yes... I will help you. Hold on to my hand... and follow...
No! This is wrong! This... an enemy. Cannot -
Tifa needs me.
Yes... She needs you. Tifa needs you. Come... Who are you?
I am... Cloud... Strife!
That's right... You no longer need me. Here... this is the way...
Thank you... I see it now... the light... -
Cloud sat up. "Tifa!" It was just a gasp.
She spun around to face him. "Cloud! H - how? You- you were-"
"I was... dead." Gone... His eyes were getting used to the light... His sight was still blurry... but it was getting better.
"No... Not dead! You were... petrified. They... Someone had cast a spell on you... Cloud... Are you... real?"
He smiled. "I am real. I live... The spell... it is broken. I broke it."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Cloud turned his head. "Cid?"
"Yeah, Cid!" Cid confirmed. "How the hell did you get out of that spell? It's supposed to be impossible to break without magic!"
"I..." Cloud thought for a second. "I didn't break it. I had... help... somehow..."
Tifa held up a red piece of Materia. "This... I think... is what helped you."
"An Esper?" Cloud asked, turning and putting his feet down on the floor. "What... which one is that? I don't recognise it."
"We don't know." Cid almost started rubbing his chin again. "It's one of Godo's... or maybe it was Yuffie's. He had us promise not to try and find out what it contains... so we have no idea."
Cloud rubbed his eyes. At first, Cid had been a blur, but now his features were getting sharper... Cloud couldn't believe what he saw, and before his sight recovered fully, he assumed it to be a trick of his eyes. But then....
"What happened to you?" That looked like... burn wounds?
And then he saw Tifa -
"Gods, you two! What has happened?"
Tifa and Cid looked at each other.
"Well..." Tifa started, settling down on the bed, next to Cloud.
"They are in the house? How could they slip past the wards?" Novo paced back and forth, his every move betraying anger. "I haven't felt a thing. Not a thing!" He stopped to lash out with his fist, striking an old, priceless porcelain vase. A silver blaze flared as his fist connected; the vase exploded into hundreds of pieces. Novo resumed his pacing. "Susanna... Are you sure you have not misjudged Kai? Are you certain he is not more powerful than he appears?"
Susanna, siting in a chair, nodded. "Yes, Novo. I am certain... But Novo, if he is truly that powerful... then he could easily hide his power, as well. I could not feel any indication that he was, but... Maybe... Maybe, if he is truly powerful, now..."
Novo cut her off. "I know! I asked you if you were certain! I cannot trust your senses on this..."
He turned and looked at her, his Mako-blue eyes flaring. "I will have to go and see him myself."
"Did you... hear anything?" Yuffie asked. "Like... a whistle?"
"No, Yuffie. I heard nothing." Vincent nevertheless drew his gun, and slowly turned around, just once. "There is no one here."
"I didn't say it was here! If it was, you'd hear it too... It was a whistle! I'm sure of it!"
"Very well," Kai said. "But that does us no good here, now, does it? Let's just move on."
"Tsk!" Yuffie turned her back on the mage, and addressed Vincent. "Like, what do you think?"
"I do not know," came his reply. "I find it hard to believe that you would hear something like that, while I would not notice... no matter what. You may have imagined... then again, you may not. I would advise caution." True to his advice, he did not holster the pistol. Yuffie, after a second of thought, plucked several shuriken from under her belt, ending up holding two of the star-shaped throwing knives in each hand. Kai, on the other hand, did not draw a weapon. If it came to violence - which he did not doubt, considering the... disagreement between himself and Susanna, Novo and Kane - his magic would be vastly superior to any normal weapon... Well, any normal weapon wielded by his hand, at any rate. Kai was acutely aware of the fact that he had no training whatsoever when it came to physical fighting.
He just hoped that his magic would prove as effective today as it had in the past.
"Novo!" Kane commanded. His voice was loud and clear, but he was not shouting. He did not need to. "Come to me at once!"
There was a rapidly fading flash of blue-white light, and Novo dropped to one knee, bowing to his master.
"What is your wish, Master?"
"You are aware of the... strangers in out home?"
"Then you also know who they are?"
"Yes, Master. The one who calls himself 'Kai'. A Shinobi of Wutai. And a man..." He took a breath, considering his options. That third man... was odd. "A man with a very powerful aura," he decided; as close to the truth as he could come. "They should be easily disposed of."
"They pose no threat. Do not attack them... I would rather not harm them. But keep them away from the laboratory... I must activate the machines soon, while the power is both stable and at the level I need. It is possible that I will need to do so within the hour..."
"Yes. I can feel the magic surge... It will be time soon. While I am handling the machines and my spells, however, I will need someone to protect me, should they decide to cause trouble..."
"I will do it," Novo swore.
Kane smiled evilly. "I knew you would," he told the boy.
It took her maybe fifteen minutes to give Cloud a short summary of what had happened since the three of them parted company. All the while, she felt his strong arm around her shoulders, and suddenly nothing seemed as horrible anymore; like a bad dream she was just wakening from.
When she was done, Cloud just cradled her in his arms. He did not speak, and there was no need for him to do so. Cid stood by the window looking out, giving them as much privacy as he could in this suddenly very small room.
Finally, after several minutes of silence, Cloud gently took Tifa by the shoulders and pushed her away, looking closer at the half-healed wounds in her face. Shaking his head, he put a hand in one of his pockets, and soon found a certain green Materia. "I hoped I would still have this," he whispered to her. "I'll heal those wounds... Hold on..." He raised the Materia and concentrated. Tifa closed her eyes as the familiar warmth of healing magic swept through her, leaving a tingling sensation in its wake... and vanished. She opened her eyes again to see Cloud lowering the Materia, and raised a hand to touch her face.
The wounds were fully healed. There were no scabs or scars... nothing. Before the healing, her entire body had ached; now, she felt reborn. A small but heartfelt smile on her lips, she embraced Cloud once more, resting her chin on his shoulder. I missed you... More than I can ever say... "...missed you so much," she whispered.
Cloud just put his arms around her again, and held her tight.
A few minutes later, Cloud had healed Cid's wounds as well, and the conversation automatically steered onto the nearest, most obvious topic: how to get out of the room.
Unfortunately, without Ultima Weapon, Cloud was of no help in this matter. A spell of cancelling did nothing to open the door; neither did the Ice, Lightning and Fire Materia he was carrying.
"So what do we do now?" Cid wondered as Cloud shrugged and sat down.
"I don't know," the ex-mercenary confessed. "We seem to be stuck..."
"Shit." Cid tried to re-light a cigarette stub; he only managed to take a small pull, but it did wonders for his nerves. "So we gotta sit here and wait for someone to come and let us out... great, just great. Who knows how long he's gonna keep us up here? Oh, shit."
Cloud had to agree with him on that. It wasn't looking any better.
Vincent stopped suddenly. Kai almost walked into his back, but managed to stop in time; Yuffie, however, walked into Kai, and muttered something rude before asking, "What are we stopping for?"
Vincent answered, "There was a surge of energy... magic."
"I felt it too," Kai added. "From... that direction, wasn't it?"
"I believe so, yes. Yuffie... did you feel anything?"
"Nope. Not a thing..."
"Oh. Either way... Cloud and the others may be in that direction... then again, it could be something completely different. I think we should take a look."
"You're the expert," Yuffie shrugged.
"Then we'll go that way. Kai..."
"What?" the black-robed man asked.
"Do you know the layout of this place?"
"Not any more... It has been rebuilt since the last time I was here. Sorry."
"We will manage. The corridor branches... then we should take the left branch."
"So soon?" Susanna gasped. "Novo, do you really think it's..."
"Don't," he said, cutting her off. "We cannot challenge him now... He has the knowledge. If he says it is time, then it is time."
"But still... He has changed so much..." She was feeling uncertain, and she didn't like that. "What if something happens?"
"I know you are attached to him..." Novo shrugged. "But if something happens to him now, it is beyond our powers to prevent it. It is his choice."
"Yeah... I know... But still, Novo, don't you think we should be with him now?"
He just looked at her disapprovingly. She sighed. "It's not easy, just sitting here doing nothing..."
"We are not doing nothing," Novo corrected. "Kane is doing what he has to... we must make sure no one disturbs him. And at the moment, our 'dear brother' is running around in these corridors, trying to find Kane. I doubt that he'll find anything... but just in case, we have to be prepared to fight him, Susanna. Can you do that?"
She snorted. "Of course. What do you think I am? Kai doesn't mean anything to me... not more than he does to you."
Novo shrugged. "That isn't saying much. At one time... Kai meant much to both of us."
"Are you sure?"
"...no. I hope... but if I can't, then... You can, right? You can fight him."
Novo sighed again. "Yes," he said. His voice sounded sad; even more so than it always did. "I can fight him... I can even kill him."
Susanna shook her head. "If we have to... I hope I'll be able to do it."
Novo raised his head and looked deep into her eyes. She felt she was looking straight into his soul at that moment; so beautiful, but almost torn apart. "So do I, Susanna. So do I."
"This is the place... but he is not here," Vincent said in a hushed voice. "There is a source of power beyond this door... but Cloud is not here. There is no living thing in there."
"Let's check it out then," Yuffie suggested. "Hey, there might be Materia that's radiating that 'power' in there! Let's take a look."
"I would say... there isn't any Materia in there," Kai told her. "It doesn't feel like that... but it is magic."
"How come everybody can feel that except me?" she complained. "Still, it might be worth taking a peek. Come on, Vince, move aside."
Vincent hesitated for a second, but then stepped away from the door. "Just be careful," he cautioned her. There shouldn't be any danger... The magic didn't feel fully... active, and there were no traces of life inside. Not that he could feel, at any rate.
Yuffie regarded him coolly. "What do you think I am," she huffed, "an amateur?"
She turned the handle, slowly and carefully. The door, however, remained closed. Yuffie pulled at the handle, then pushed, but soon had to give up; the door was locked.
"Ready to give up?" Kai asked her.
"Don't say that," Vincent told him.
Yuffie glared at them. "No way! Watch the master." She found her lockpicking tools, in a hidden pocket sewn into her shorts, and found a pick that seemed appropriate for this lock.
Yuffie hadn't bothered to pay much attention to the lockpicking classes, but she had attended. Luckily, Kane had never considered the fact that someone might want to break in - or if he had, he hadn't imagined them getting this far. The lock was something to keep a door shut when the room's owner wished privacy, or to tell people that this was not the time to enter that particular room. It was not specially made to keep less-than-honest persons away, and Yuffie - who did, after all, have some experience in that field - soon managed to force the bolt aside and open the door.
She whistled. "Holy smoke!" It wasn't one of Cid's oaths, but it was the first she could think of.
Kai and Vincent could only agree.
The room was circular, and the floor-stones had been laid out as a pentagram filled with mystic symbols. Other symbols had been painted on the stone; more temporary devices, Kai, who was the only one with any experience in this field, assumed. In the centre of the room was a strange, golden object, about half a metre high and fitting precisely inside the pentagon formed inside the pentagram. On top of the 'object', which was quite featureless except for some wires and pipes, stood a throne-like chair...
"That's Materia!" Yuffie gasped. "That whole damn thing is Materia!" Ignoring everything else, she ran over to the golden platform, but at least retained enough sense not to climb up. Instead, she leaned in and looked at the throne, as closely as she could. "Whew-ee! Will you look at that! I wonder what kind of magic this thing contains..."
"Yuffie. Look beyond the throne," Vincent ordered.
Yuffie took a step to the side and looked -
"Ultima Weapon!" Buried halfway in a golden cube, but she was certain - there was no other weapon like that.
"Yes... I thought so. Yuffie, see if you can take it... but step outside the pentagram when you approach that point."
"Why don't you do it yourself?" she wondered.
Vincent smiled. "I would rather not step inside that pentagram. I have no idea what spells I could trigger if I added my presence to it... but since you are already there, it seems you have no effect on it. Just don't smear any of the painted marks."
"Geesh, it's touchy, isn't it?" Yuffie said as she slowly walked towards the Ultima Weapon, stepping outside the pentagram as soon as she could.
"You could... say that, yes."
"That is an understatement," Kai cut in. "If we disturb this, it might all go boom in our faces."
"I didn't need to hear that!" came Yuffie's voice from the other side of the room. "Okay, I'll see if I can take it..." She took a good hold on the hilt and pulled as hard as she could. The sword didn't budge. "Nf... Damnit! I'll... get... Shit!" Her hands slipped, and she stumbled back, away from the sword.
"Don't step in the point of that pentagram!"
She managed to stop, putting a hand to the wall. "Why not, Vince? I mean, like, what could happen? It's just stone, anyway."
"That pentagram drains power away from whatever is in the points of the star... and transfers it to that thing in the middle. If you were to step in that area - I cannot tell you what would happen, but it could be dangerous. Be careful."
"You know, it would be a lot easier if you could, like, get your asses over here and help me," Yuffie pointed out as she grabbed the sword again, putting her arms around the blade. Unlike a katana, this weapon was not sharpened to an edge; it wouldn't cut her.
She took a deep breath. "Okay... come... ooon...!" She pulled, as hard as she could, using all her strength -
The blade flashed bright blue. Yuffie yelped in pain and surprise and fell again, sitting down on the floor. "That... hurt!" She looked down. The light, whatever it was, had burned her arms, and there was a small but possibly embarrassing hole in her T-shirt. The burns did not seem too serious; the light had vanished almost as soon as it appeared, and she couldn't have been in contact with it for more than half a second. Still, it would hurt unless she healed it -
"Stop!" Vincent sounded desperate. Yuffie lowered the Materia she had just been about to use, and spun around.
"What?" she wondered. "This hurts!"
"Not in there! Yuffie, no magic inside the pentagram! Anything could happen if you do! Get back here first." Vincent still sounded upset. Upset! She shivered. If something like that could upset Vincent...
"I'm on my way!"
She ran across the floor, deftly avoiding the painted symbols and stepping outside the pentagram as soon as she could. Panting slightly, she handed Vincent the Materia, and he nodded. Yuffie held out her arms, and the ex-Turk focused his mind on the Materia. Warm, healing light washed away the stinging pain, and Yuffie breathed a sigh of relief.
"What was that all about anyway?" she wondered. "It just started glowing! I've never seen that happen before!"
"Not even when Cloud uses it?" Vincent asked as he handed her the Materia, and she shook her head.
"Don't think so... Well, when he used magic, it always seemed to glow a little. But not like that! It wasn't half as bright..."
"The stronger the magic... the stronger the glow," Vincent said, speaking as if she wasn't there. Then he addressed her, "Right, Yuffie?"
"Well, yeah, think so," she said, slightly perplexed. "Like, what's that got to do with this?"
He did not reply immediately. "The presence of magic causes the sword to glow," he told her finally. "That means the spell in the pentagram is activating..." Or it means other power is awakening...
She gave him a blank look. "Is that bad?"
Vincent looked at Kai, who shrugged. "I don't know. Knowing Kane... it could be anything. It could be a spell to drive off mosquitoes... or one to blow up mountains. Maybe it is even another attempt to restore his sight. As I said, anything - anything. He has... many projects."
Vincent nodded. "Then we should leave," he said. "It does not matter what it does... but it is bound to attract attention. We need to find out about the others before we cause a commotion."
"Why don't we just grab someone and threaten to cut their... noses off if they don't tell us where they are?" Yuffie wondered as she jogged after Vincent. Seeing as he held her wrist in an iron grip, she could hardly do anything else but follow.
"No violence," he replied. "At least not before we find out what happened to Cloud. If we find out he was taken here against his will... but he might have come here because he wanted to, as well. Maybe he came here to find a cure for your illness."
"You believe that as much as I do," she told him as he dragged her around a corner, then let go of her arm. She rubbed her wrist while casting a disapproving look at Vincent. "You need to work on your grip. You almost pulled my hand off!"
"I am sorry." She could see he was. For some reason, she dropped it. At least it wasn't the hand with the claws on it... And she knew... more. "What are we going to do now, then?"
"Good question," Kai muttered. "It's possible that Kane had some kind of monitoring spell on that room. In that case, we might as well go back there and face him... but I doubt it. Let's keep looking for your friend... Sooner or later, we should find him."
"'Sooner or later'?" Yuffie said, in a tone that suggested that the phrase was very repulsive. "Like, as in, 'maybe, maybe not'? I hate maybe-maybe-not situations!"
"I think we all do, Yuffie," Vincent said softly. "I think we all do."
What... Already? Kane dropped the glass he had been holding, spilling its contents over the carpet. "Novo! Susanna!"
The silver-haired youths appeared within five seconds. "Master," they chorused.
"I have to get ready. You must keep the intruders out of the pentagram room - at all costs! Do not interfere with what they do... If they free their comrades, let them go... but do not allow them inside the pentagram room!"
"But Master," Novo protested.
"Silence! We need to act quickly! You two - go! I must go to my rooms and prepared the artefacts!"
"As you wish, Master."
There was a flash of bluish light, and a sooty red flame, visible to Kane only as pure magic. As they faded, Novo and Susanna were gone.
They had been walking for almost five minutes after leaving the room with the pentagram, when Vincent stopped again, and the usual pile-up ensured. "Will you watch it!" Yuffie spat as she pushed away from Kai. This time, the wizard had collided with Vincent, and Yuffie had collided with him. "This is so irritating!"
"Sst!" Vincent commanded. "There's another power here -"
"Really?" Kai wondered. "I can't feel a thing. You sure?"
Vincent glared at him. Kai hurriedly looked away; he, unlike Yuffie, had no protection against the shape-changer's gaze. "I would not speak of it otherwise. The power... It is coming from that room, over there. Can you detect anything?"
Kai concentrated. There was a faint sparkling sensation about that door. He nodded, and said, "Yeah, I feel it now. What about it? The place is packed with magic... could be anything, this one too."
"True. We should try to find out what it is, though."
"Yeah!" Yuffie agreed. She was almost starting to forget about Cloud... Almost. "Let's!"
"Be careful," Vincent said, sounding exactly the same as when he had said it the last time. She glared at him, but, of course, it didn't have any effect whatsoever.
"Of course I'll be careful!"
He turned the handle. As they had expected, the door was locked. Vincent stepped aside to give Yuffie space, and she knelt down and started picking the lock.
Several minutes passed. Finally, Kai asked, "Is it a different lock?"
"Of course it's different!" Yuffie fumed. "There isn't anything to pick! It's like it's all glass... soaped glass! Can't make the picks take hold... and even if I could, there isn't anything to turn in here!" She stood up and stretched, then brushed imaginary specks of dust from her knees. "Damn impossible!" Thoughtlessly, she thumped the door with her fist.
"Shit," Kai muttered.
Then, from the room behind the door, came a familiar voice.
"I know you're there, you old chicken-molester! You let us out of here right this very fucking instant, get it? Now!"
Yuffie and Vincent stared at each other. Then, as one, they exclaimed, "Cid!"
"What the...?" Cid asked. "Hey! Who's out there?"
"Cid... Cid!" someone shouted from the other side of the door. It was a woman's voice - or rather, a girl's. It sounded somehow familiar... "Cid, it's me! Yuffie!"
"Yuffie?" Cid exclaimed, Cloud and Tifa echoing him. "How did you get here? I thought you were gonna be out for weeks!"
"Vincent saved me!" Yuffie told them. "Hey, Cid! You okay in there? How did you get here? And where's Cloud and Tifa? And your plane! And how..."
She looked up at Vincent in surprise. "What?"
"He can't answer if you keep talking."
Yuffie realised he was right. "Oh," she said.
"We're fine," Cid told her. "And Cloud and Tifa are with me... Hell knows about the Bronco though. It's probably still parked outside Bone."
"Yuffie," Cloud said, "are you alone? And how did you find us?"
"Vincent is here! And Kai too! We... eh that is... Vincent found you! Yeah, that's it, Vincent found you. Can you, like, open the door or something?"
"It's locked form the outside," Cloud informed. "By magic."
"Magic? No wonder I couldn't pick that dam lock!" Yuffie kicked the door. "How are we gonna get you out of there now?"
"Let me try," Kai said. "Move over..."
Yuffie hesitantly did as he told her, and Kai took her place. "Move away from the door, you three," he called. "In case something happens..."
"We're gone," Cid informed from the other side. "Do your worst!"
Kai placed his hands on the door and seemed to push. This time, even Yuffie felt the magical currents as the sorcerer bent the world to his will, trying to break the lock...
Finally, he stepped away, wiping the sweat from his brow. "Can't... Too strong!" he gasped, leaning his back against the wall. He slid down to a sitting position, shaking his black-haired head. "Damn...! He's... gained a lot... of strength since... we last met."
"You can't open the door?" Yuffie asked. Kai simply shook is head. "What are we gonna do?" she wondered. "We can't, like, just leave them in there! Hey, Vincent... Can you...?"
"We shall see," Vincent replied. "I cannot promise anything."
"Never mind promising! Just get them outta there!"
Vincent smiled. "I will try," he promised. "And that is a promise." He did not raise his voice, but simply turned to the door: "You should take cover again."
"Were still hiding behind the damn bed!" came Cid's reply. "Just get that dumbass door open so we can get out of here!"
Vincent put one hand - his right, the one without the metal glove - on the door... and closed his eyes.
Once more, powerful waves of pure magic washed over Kai and Yuffie... but this time, she felt more than he did, the powers locked inside Vincent's thin and seemingly frail body calling out to the blood flowing through her veins. And for the first time, Yuffie realised that what he had done to save her life might not only be a blessing, after all.
Several minutes passed in silence. The magic surged, charging the air with electricity.
In Vincent's mind, time stood still. The only things that existed were Vincent himself and the spell-shielded door.
Something snapped. A limit had been passed; suddenly, he was trying to contain more magic than he could hold. To compromise, Vincent's body automatically took a shape that could wield that power. There was a loud tearing as Chaos' wings ripped through Vincent's shirt, and the demon's bulging muscles strained against the cloth. The gentle touch became a push... and Vincent's hand broke through the thick boards, shattering wood and magic alike. Slowly, he pulled his hand back...
He tried to Change back. It failed. Vincent clenched his hands and focused on calm, and slowly, Chaos' grip on him faded, and he gradually shrank back into human shape.
The pain hit him like a battering ram, and he fell to his knees. At the same time, the door slowly opened, revealing Cid standing just inside, holding his spear at ready. That was the last thing Vincent saw before his consciousness fled.
What is this... Kane thought as his wheelchair slowly floated over the floor, towards the Ultima Weapon. The spell it not activating...? How could this be? This was not good... I wonder...
The door had not been locked. He had assumed he had forgotten, improbable as that might seem... But now he was not so certain. Someone was here. Someone... powerful. But how could a single person almost activate the machines, not to mention the spells? "Susanna. Novo. Come."
They appeared almost as soon as he spoke their names, standing just outside the pentagram. Kane pointed to the Ultima Weapon. His two servants looked where he was pointing, but did not seem to recognise the significance of what they saw. "The magic is dead," he told them. "It never fully activated." That caught their attention.
"But Master-" Susanna started.
"Don't 'But Master' me! Someone was here - here, in this room! Someone tampered with the machines! You were supposed to keep them out of here!"
"We are... sorry, Master. We have not felt anything," Susanna said, bowing her head. "I..."
"Silence!" He stood up, doing by magic what he could not accomplish with his own body. The sword's tip clinked against the white stone floor. "You two have been a disappointment!" he snapped. "You have one more chance - one! The moment draws near, regardless of this false alarm. Keep the intruders out of this room, at all costs! If you fail, and they do not kill you... I will do it myself! Are we clear on that matter?"
Susanna and Novo bowed in submission. "Yes, Master," they mumbled.
Kane sat down again, slowly, carefully, laying his sword across his knees. "Good," he whispered. "Stay outside the door... and if you see anyone... kill them! I do not care how, but get rid of them! If they disturb me... you will both suffer for it. Now go! I need to prepare for the spell..."
Vincent was dimly aware of something slapping him in the face. As he resurfaced from his unexpected swim in the depths of unconsciousness, he opened his eyes... and looked up into a small, worried face.
"You can stop that now," he whispered.
"Ah! You're awake!" Yuffie exclaimed. "I thought you were, like, gonna be out for weeks!"
There was a short, muffled sound that was probably Cid trying (and failing) not to laugh at hearing his own words repeated. Vincent blinked and tried to sit up. He managed, after a few tries. "How... How long...?"
"Not even five minutes," Yuffie told him. "Did you, like, know your shirt is in pieces?"
"I am aware of that fact, yes," he said dryly. Looking down, he found that most the seams had split in places, and the cloth itself had suffered several tears. His left arm was left bare up to the shoulder, revealing several ugly scars over the metal glove.
Vincent was not pleased. He had spent much time and money on the clothes he was wearing - unstable molecules, capable of changing their shape on a mental command from the wearer, who, in this case, happened to be Vincent. However, even to unstable molecules, damage such as this... was not easy to repair. And this damage was, in fact, the reason why he wore these clothes. Before he got them, he either had to strip naked before Changing, or ruin whatever clothes he was wearing. This was almost enough to irritate him.
That would all have to wait, he knew. Before he could worry about clothes, he had to make sure they all got out of here... "Well... Shall we go?" He got to his knees... then stood up. Yuffie, wisely, did not try to help him.
"Is everyone able to walk?" Vincent wondered, looking at his companions.
"The only one who's been incapable of that in the past few hours would be you," Cid said. "You wouldn't happen to have a cig, would you?" Vincent did not answer, and Cid shrugged. "Forget I asked..."
"Yes, I think I will," Yuffie quipped, imitating Vincent's voice - and doing it quite well, too. Cid chuckled. That was something Vincent could say... that was, if he had been the kind of person who would bother to answer at all.
"Curse... it... all!" Kane brought his fist down hard on the tabletop. In defiance of all probability, the latter broke, although one would probably assume that if anything would be breaking, the old, scrawny man's hand would be a prime candidate.
That is, one would assume it, unless one knew of Kane's new-found power.
He could 'see' the place where the Materia had been lying... He could 'see' the energy it had left, as clearly as he could 'see' the Materia itself...
As he could have 'seen' that Materia, had it been there.
Those two... those two from the dungeons... How could they have taken it without him sensing it? How could they carry it around without him sensing it? Confound it all! Gripping the frame of the table, he pulled himself up, standing. Standing! His legs had been destroyed, irreparably destroyed, in his battles for the sword, and he could stand - he could walk! He had the power to make it so...
So why hadn't he felt the Materia being carried off?
He took a few seconds to curse Ghaediss for his incompetence. The creature's sadistic streak had probably been what caused the two to escape in the first place; indeed, what made it possible for them to escape. If the dumb beast had only had the sense to obey orders!
Never mind that now... I haven't got the time.
I shall have to use other methods.
Should he retrieve the pilot's spear? Could it be enough...
No. He must have another way; one that would certainly succeed. It wouldn't do to use inferior power... Yes... And in his head, the solution to this problem, this minor problem, was taking shape right now...
"Do you really think he'll make it?" Novo asked Susanna.
She started. "Me? But Novo, you-"
He didn't let her speak. "I can't tell. I want to know what you think. Think; Susanna, believe. Do you believe he'll make it? Have you any hope at all?"
Susanna was silent for a while. "Yes... no... Novo, I don't know! It's all... confusing. He's so much more powerful now than when we left... In only a few days... I honestly can't tell, Novo. I honestly can't tell."
He smiled. "Now you're thinking with your head, Susanna," he reprimanded. "What does your heart say?"
"It's... quiet," she sighed. "It doesn't... say anything at all, Novo, I... am scared. This feels bad..."
"You feel it too, huh..."
"I thought I was the only one!"
"I'm... scared... too."
They stood in silence for a while, Novo to the right of the door, Susanna to the left.
"We have to help him," Novo said finally. "He has been fighting for this a long time."
"We have been fighting too, for a long time..."
"I know. Oh, I know..."
Novo reached out into the space between them, without looking, and found Susanna's hand there. He took it, and held on hard to it.
"You sure this is smart?" Cid asked Yuffie as they walked. "I mean..."
"Well, mister, what would you suggest?" the Shinobi retorted. "I mean, like, what?"
Cid couldn't answer. He wanted to say, 'Let's get the hell out of here, pronto!', but couldn't. That crazy old man still had the Ultima Weapon. In the wrong hands, that sword could cause incredible destruction... and who knew what else he had? He had spoken of four other artefacts... and if they were anywhere near as powerful as Ultima Weapon, the world could be in deep shit. No, he knew, he could not say to get out of there.
"You're right," he sighed. "We probably have to take it back..."
"Atta boy," Yuffie grinned, winking mischievously. "And between you, me, Tifa and Vince, we oughtta be able to kick his ass - hard!"
"Don't count me out," Kai reminded her. "Or, for that matter, Novo and Susanna."
"That reminds me," Cloud said. "Who are these two? I have heard their names... but nothing more. It would help things if you could provide some information."
Kai thought about it for a moment. "Okay," he said, "I'll try... First of all, as you know, Kane has rediscovered magic, true magic. He commands it... and so do Novo and Susanna. It has been years since we last met... I assume their powers have grown in that time. When we last met, however, they were both primarily black mages - meaning they use mainly offensive spells. I believe Novo knows a few healing spells... and Susanna is more into, well, enchanting things. She has a spell that allows her to fly, for instance..."
"Fly!" Yuffie exclaimed. "Wow!"
"Something like that, yes," Kai replied dryly.
"However, we seem to be missing something," Vincent said. "Novo and Susanna... and you, Kai. Your relations to Kane seem to be rather similar..."
Kai stopped walking, turning his head to look straight at Vincent, actually managing to look him in the eyes. "What!" he hissed.
Vincent calmly looked back until the mage lowered his gaze. "It is quite obvious."
"Like, I don't get it!" Yuffie complained.
"There is no need for you to understand this. It is Kai's sake to speak of it... if he so chooses." Vincent kept walking, leaving both Kai and the others behind.
"Stop." Kai walked after the shape-shifter. "I'll tell you... while we walk.
"I am like them, yes... I am Kane's 'child'. He created me."
"You mean, you weren't, like, born?" This, of course, came from Yuffie. Kai shook his head.
"No. I was... created. A creature born from magic... holding part of Kane's power.
"As you can probably guess, I, too, am capable of using magic. Not as powerful as my... As Susanna and Novo. I rely on Materia for my magic, most of the time... whereas their powers are enough to rid them of the need for these stones..." Kai lifted one hand, the sleeve falling back to reveal a black iron bracelet with several orbs of Materia attached.
There was bitterness in his voice; no one could listen to his words and fail to hear this. As to why, no one could tell.
"I was Kane's firstborn," he continued. "A bit of a disappointment, I think." The last part was delivered with something resembling dry humour. "Both to myself and him, more's the pity." At this he seemed to suppress a laugh. "Anyway, I have a few years that they haven't had... but that's about it. I also have my Materia and a few semi-useful magic spells... but they are true mages."
"Exactly how good are they at magic?" Tifa wondered. "You can be a 'true mage' all you want... It's not the weapon that counts, Kai, but the hand that wields it. Even the Ultima Weapon would be near useless to someone who could not use it."
"That is true," Kai agreed, "but you cannot hope to beat them with superior knowledge. I know Kane has trained them himself... and they both studied on their own, as well. I can only assume that they have become rather stronger in these years."
"You're saying we don't have a chance?" Yuffie wanted to know.
"I never said that, Yuffie. I am merely suggesting that we proceed with caution... because, to all my knowledge, Novo is one of the most powerful mages to have lived on this Planet for a thousand years, second only to Kane himself. Susanna isn't far behind... She is weaker, or at any rate she was, the last time I saw them together, but not much."
"Sounds pretty hopeless," Tifa sighed. "We don't have much Materia, and fighting magic with the weapons we have now, well..."
"I have plenty to go around," Yuffie grinned. "Though I doubt any of you could use my stuff, so that's pretty much ruled out, huh."
"I have a throwing knife," Kai said. "Since I will probably be relying on my magic - such as it now is - you might as well use it, Cloud..." He handed Cloud a small, short-bladed knife. The former mercenary looked at it critically, doubting that it would do him much more good than his fists, but kept it; it might come in handy. "It isn't much," the mage excused himself as he saw Cloud's expression. "But I hardly ever use weapons..."
"It will do," Cloud said. "It will have to do."
"What the - I can't believe this!" Susanna's mental exclamation snapped Novo out of his reverie, and he turned his head -
"Kai!" And with him, the two, the girl and the pilot, they had captured in Cetra... and the man and the girl Kai had been with before; he recognised them from Susanna's description. And that man! How had they been able to break Susanna's spell? "Why would they come here...?" He knew the answer even before she replied,
"The sword we took from him..."
"Novo. Susanna," Kai greeted them, stopping a good ten metres from them; as far away as the corridor would allow him to be. "You haven't changed too much."
"In some ways, no... and yet, in other ways, we have all changed far too much," Novo replied, in his characteristically half-sad-half-mocking voice. "Kai, please... I ask you to leave. I do not want to fight, but unless you leave, we will have to kill you."
"I know..." Kai's voice, unlike Novo's, held only sadness. "But we have to enter."
"Then -" Novo blinked.
"Novo! Come inside... quickly!"
"What is it Novo?" Susanna asked worriedly. "Novo!"
"Ss... Susanna! I must go... Please take... care of this, and... Susanna... Make sure you survive." "Novo! But what... why?" She looked at him pleadingly. "Don't leave me!"
"I... must. Master... calls me." Novo hung his head.
"Yes. Farewell... Novo!"
Susanna knelt and embraced him. Novo calmly returned the embrace, stepped away... then drew closer again, and kissed her.
"Stop it!" Kai made an angry gesture, stepping closer. "Novo, she's you sister, for the Planet's sake!"
"His sister?" Yuffie exclaimed. "Grossness!" And still... I have seen her before, I know it! If only I could remember... Remember!
Novo slowly drew away from Susanna. Turning his head slightly, he smiled. "Yes... and no. Not any less, or any more, then you are my brother, Kai."
Kai looked down and into the floor, not replying. Novo continued; now addressing Kai's companions. "We were created at the same time... by the same man..." He paused. "Twins, you would say. Yet, our genetic patterns, our cells, our blood, are all different. We both share some of Kane... but that does not make us his children in the true meaning of that word. We are only... creations. I am not a man of woman born... I have no father. I have no mother. How could I have a sister?"
"Novo! At once!"
"What are you saying?" Kai asked.
"I must leave. Farewell... al of you!" Novo flashed bright blue-white, and when the light vanished, he was gone. Susanna stared at the place here he had been.
Then she wiped a tear from her cheek, and stood up. Fixing her eyes on Kai, she spoke slowly, carefully. "It seems... we have to take care of this... on our own, Kai. So..."
No one else existed. They looked into each others' eyes... remembering...
It had not always been like this.
Once upon a time...
Once upon a time, they had been friends...
"This doesn't have to happen..." Kai said finally. "We don't have to fight. Let us pass... Please, Susanna. I don't want... don't want to hurt you."
"I... don't want to hurt you either... Kai." Susanna shook her head slowly, silver hair falling down over her face, hiding it. Please... Novo! Why... "But I have to." She raised her head, shaking the hair from her face. Her Mako blue eyes blazed with determination. "I will fight you."
Kai nodded. "I think I knew that..." he said softly. "Then... forgive me... Susanna."
Susanna did not answer. Instead, she twisted powers... just like... that.
Her feet no longer had contact with the floor. She was floating in the air.
"Stay back," Kai warned the others. "This is my fight... I have to do this alone. Stay back."
Vincent held out his arms, blocking the corridor, and backed down, taking the others with him. "Go ahead," he whispered.
Kai touched an orb of Materia on his bracelet. From out of nowhere, a wind started blowing... His hair fluttered upwards, and suddenly, Kai was lifted off the ground, standing on a short pillar of compact air. He pulled off his pack, throwing it towards Vincent and the others to get it out of their way. "So..."
Susanna nodded. "All requirements met... "
"You're wrong. This is not a duel, Susanna. All requirements may be met, but the other things... no. But nevertheless, it must commence... for good... or for evil."
He launched the first attack.
"Yes, Master..." Novo bowed.
"Stand... in the point of the star!" Kane commanded. "I need your power! You must stabilise the spell... the fifth power, the Materia, is gone!" Kane had left his wheelchair, and was sitting on his Materia throne. "Do it! Otherwise the magic will overload... kill us all! Hurry!"
Novo sighed. "Yes, Master."
He stepped into the pentagram, feeling the currents of magic energy running through him. It was getting worse... He stepped out into the fifth arm of the star. Much worse... He stopped inside a painted circle, in the very outmost part of the point, and suddenly everything was pain. Power surged... flowing from him, sucked into the spinning vortex of magic surrounding the Materia throne. As the eye of the storm, Kane sat, untouched, a small but victorious smile on his lips. Novo thought he heard the sorcerer whisper, almost hiss, "Yess...!"
In the two star-points closest to Novo were golden boxes, plain, nondescript boxes with indeterminate contents. The other two points held golden boxes, as well, but through the lid of each box, a sword had been thrust. One of the weapons had a wide, semitransparent blue blade and plain, black hilt, and was emitting an eerie blue light; the other one was silver-bladed and golden-hilted, and was glowing almost white as magic coursed through it. Blinking away tears of pain, Novo tried to focus... tried to see that sword... but he failed, and soon the spell intensified, leaving him unable to move at all.
And in the middle of it all, Kane was smiling. Maybe now, after all this wait, he should finally realise his dream!
Kai crossed his forearms in front of his face, feeling heat as Susanna's fire spell washed over his protective shield. They were very evenly matched, much to his surprise - he had expected to be outclassed by the true mage. Not so. She was deflecting his attacks; he was deflecting hers, and they could go on until they both collapsed from exhaustion.
That was not an option. They would have to get this over with quickly... as he could, even now, feel Kane working inside that door, casting the spells to set off his strange machine The machine hooked up to the Ultima Weapon... and four other, unknown, artefacts...
Susanna could not be allowed to stand in the way. Much as he wished there was another way, he realised that to get in, he would have to take her out... no matter what.
He had just passed through her last spell. That should give him time enough... to do what he needed to do.
He concentrated his power inwards, into himself, then through himself, through the air above and around... and into then living earth below him, drawing the Planet's own powers up and into himself... at the same time reaching up, through the stone roof, through the air, and into the heavens above, binding the Planet's power to the force of the air. Summoning fire from within his soul completed his spell...
"Susanna... I'm sorry!"
Black soulfire crackled through the air between them...
Novo stiffened, his muscles tightening, as he not heard but rather felt the power flare outside the circular pentagram room, even through the spell Kane was weaving...
And he hoped, he wished...
Susanna screamed. Unknown power surged within her, and, acting only on instinct, she lashed out, striking, shattering, the onrushing flame of soulfire. The power died down, falling through infinity in a rapidly decreasing spiral.
For several seconds, Kai and Suanna stared at one another, both betraying disbelief, anger, and not a little fear.
"You... you truly used... that... against... me," Susanna whispered, the sound of her words filling the silence until it seemed as loud as a thunderclap. "You... Kai! You used the soulfire against me!"
Kai, his hands shaking, closed his eyes. "I knew... as soon as I let it go..." He never finished the sentence.
"Yes... I have no doubt you did..." Susanna's shock and disbelief were slowly turning into anger, pure and untainted rage. It was not visible in her face, but her words betrayed her feelings... that, and her eyes, which were blazing like twin stars. "You used soulfire... against me..." She slowly raised both hands. Pure darkness crackled around them. "I guess... this means all bets are off... Kai!"
"Yes... unfortunately..." He just looked at her. "One of us will have... have to die here, right." It was no question, and she did not answer.
She only pointed her hands at him and let the spell fly.
Kai watched as the darkness tumbled through the air, slowly, so slowly... It was almost standing still.
A scream brought him back to reality. He fulfilled the movement he had started just as he saw Susanna start to lower her hands, his reflexes throwing him to the side, out of harm's way, and the black cloud of soulfire passed only centimetres from his head; close enough for him to feel the nightmarish dark Art locked within its simple shape.
The scream did not end. He turned... and the world seemed to slow down again...
The spell travelling through the air... closing in on the others... Too fast, too far, impossible for him to stop...
He could see... Yuffie falling to her knees, screaming - in pain? Terror? He could not tell...
Vincent turning away from the ninja... seeing the spell... raising his gloved hand...
The spell touching the golden metal...
Time returned. Vincent was thrown back, slamming into Cid and Cloud, who were trying to catch him, and throwing them all to the floor.
Kai turned to Susanna. She was staring - not at him; past him. The pain, the shock, in her face was deeper, greater then he could ever describe.
Kai brought his hand up, acting like in a dream. A simple ball of force flickered and blinked, taking shape...
He threw it. The surprise barely had time to register in Susanna's mind as the ball struck her, throwing her head back. Again, the world slowed down to him, and he saw...
Susanna being thrown backwards...
a few ruby-bright drops of blood flying...
Susanna's eyes wide open in shock...
Blood splattered on the white stone. Susanna's still body struck the floor, the force propelling it away from him, sliding on the smooth stone.
Kai turned his back on her, his wind spell fading away, lowering him to the ground.
Slowly, he walked towards the still, black-clad and red-cloaked shape on the floor.
Kai knelt down. "Vincent..."
He touched the man's forehead. "You'll be remembered... as a hero, Vincent Valentine."
"Is he dead?" Tifa's voice was quavering.
"No one... nothing can survive that spell... He knew. He took it... for you."
He could not make himself feel sadness. All he felt was emptiness.
And Vincent stirred.
Kai was on his feet even before he realised it, a step away from the shape-changer. "Impossible!"
"To Chaos..." Vincent spoke, his voice barely audible, "...that was... nothing." He sat up. "Yuffie!"
As he spoke, her scream was cut off, replaced by silent, gasping sobs. Vincent stood up, turning his red eyes on the Shinobi.
"Go," he hissed. "Go! If you want to stop Kane... you must go. Now!" He pointed to the door.
They did not question his order - for it was an order, seemingly impossible to obey.
They headed for the door. Even before they started walking, Vincent dropped to his knees, enfolding the shaking girl in his arms, rocking her gently back and forth.
The door opened at Kai's touch.
"I remembered... I remembered!" Yuffie whispered as she clung to Vincent with strength born out of desperation. "Wutai... the killing! I remember her! Vincent... I don't want to remember this! I don't want to remember!" She started crying again, burying her head against Vincent's chest. "I don't want to remember this!"
I know... I know so well... He stroked her hair comfortingly, speaking softly. "Hush. You can make your way through this, Yuffie. You have the strength."
"But.. I don't... want to remember this! All this blood... all this death..." As if speaking of them made the memories clearer, she cried harder, her grip on him tightening.
Vincent knew that Yuffie's strength was not enough to hurt him. Seeing her broken like this did hurt, tearing up old wounds in his heart... or what was left of his heart. Tearing up old wounds, and cutting new ones. Deep wounds.
And they hurt. Oh, how they hurt.
"You will be strong," he told her. "You must. The strength is inside you... Find it. Use it."
The words were empty.
He fell silent.
Sometimes, one has to realise that it is what is beyond the words that is important.
Words have limits. Much as they can hurt, or heal, there will always be times when words reach their limit; when words become useless, leaden weights, holding you down.
The heart knows no such boundaries.
For Vincent, the words had reached their limit. All he could do now was to stay with her... stay, hold her, comfort her...
And hope that somewhere deep inside, she would know what was in his heart, beyond the confines of words.
"What is... happening in here?"
Tifa's question went unanswered. They all asked themselves the same question, and no one could answer it.
Kane was seated on the Materia throne in the absolute centre of the room, hands on the armrests, eyes closed, appearing to the world to be sleeping. Power swirled around him, the greenish blue of Lifestream mixed with something else, different but likewise powerful. Cloud's Ultima Weapon, half its blade encased in a golden block of metal, stood on the other side of the room, in one of the pentagram's points, glowing strangely blue; to its left, in the next point, was another sword, blazing pure white. Two of the other points held golden blocks like the ones supporting the swords, but empty. In the final point, the one closest to the door and to the right...
Kai spoke first. "Novo!"
Novo did not answer. A wind seemed to be blowing around him, tossing his clothes and silver hair about, hiding his face for the most of the time. They could see him looking at them, however; looking at them, with infinite sadness in his eyes. He knew, that much they could see; knew everything that had happened.
No one could feel pride or joy over their victory. They knew what he felt, and although he was their enemy, although he would most likely try to kill them if given a chance, they suffered with him.
He could hear the voice, but did not bother to answer.
Novo! The circle is completed... the power I need has gathered... Dispose of these intruders. Novo... obey me!
Something tugged at his consciousness...
Obey me, Novo... You must do as I say! Listen to my voice, Novo, and obey...
He fell. The world returned, and he saw his enemies standing there, so near that he could almost touch them...
"Novo, can you hear me?"
"Novo, Susanna is dead. Dead, do you understand? He can't hurt her anymore. You don't have to do as he says. Help me instead. Help me put an end to this... let's do it together, Novo."
Dead? You are indeed a fool... If she was not, I would know her life... but I don't. She is gone... I knew long before you did... Yes, Kane cannot harm her now... and his orders mean little to me... However... "I do not need an order to kill you, Kai. Yours was the hand that ended Susanna's life... and for that, you will die. Did you really believe that I would do otherwise?" Even though the storm of magic had died down, Novo's hair and clothes floated upwards, as if a wind was blowing from below. He was reaching for something that had always been there, as long as he could remember, always. It was a blinding ball of radiance, locked within his heart.
Now he released it.
His eyes closed, he could not see the looks of astonishment and fear on his opponents' faces; he could only hear their gasps, and a softly murmured curse.
He no longer looked human. Having shed the disguise he had been maintaining for so long, he was now taller by a head than most normal men; moving with a cat-like grace never meant for mortals. His features seemed elfin; eyes slanted, ears drawn back and pointy; cheekbones high, teeth longer and sharper.
He opened his eyes. The men called Kai and Cid were standing in front of the others, one with magic blazing at his fingertips; the other wielding a weapon the power of which rivalled even the artefacts Kane had gathered for his spell.
They were not a threat to him. Novo rose from the floor, levitating easily; the deed as natural to him as walking. Magic surged within him, and he channelled it - like thus. Pure force exploded from the ground, disturbing the carefully painted marks on the floor and throwing the two men off their feet like ragdolls. Kai stumbled and fell on his back; the pilot recovered, spun and landed on his feet, spear pointed at Novo's chest. Meanwhile, Cloud and Tifa were circling around to get behind him... Novo smiled. How foolish... A gesture, and fire flashed; a wall of flames blocking the two humans' way. They jumped back to avoid getting burned, and Novo turned his attention on the lancer.
Cid was going for the sorcerer's heart, his aim flawless. Had Novo been there, he would have died. However, the mage had vanished; Cid's weapon pierced only air, and the pilot slid on the smooth floor, the expected impact failing to happen. Before he could recover sufficiently, a blast slammed into his shoulder, spinning him around and throwing him into the wall. Coloured lights flashed before his eyes as his head struck the stone, and Cid slid down, struggling and failing to stay awake.
Novo turned around again, barely dodging a bolt of lightning from Kai's hand, shielding off another spell, a simple fireblast, from the spiky-haired mercenary.
He bared his teeth in a mirthless smile. "Kai..."
"Novo." Kai did not seem afraid, although he must surely know he was outmatched; that Novo had several times his strength.
Novo did not hesitate. His hand shot out; lightning crackled around the black-clad wizard. Kai gasped, falling to his knees, putting one hand to the ground to keep himself up. "Novo..."
"It is your turn now..." Seeing them advance towards him, Novo blocked Cloud and Tifa's advance with another wall of fire, locking the two sorcerers in a separate part of the great room. "I will end this now..."
"Novo... it was not... my wish to... fight," Kai managed, holding his chest. Blood dribbled down his chin as he spoke. "You... chose to fight. No... not me."
"You are deluding yourself!" Novo snapped. "It was your choice as well; yours, as much as mine! If you had not come here... If you had staid away from us! If you had staid away, nothing of this would have happened!" He almost shouted the last sentence. Now he lowered his voice again, almost to the point where Kai could not hear it. "You chose to come here. You chose to kill Susanna. It was your choice, Kai... Always your choice. I..."
But whatever Novo was going to say, he never got to say it. Suddenly, a strange wind pushed the wall of fire towards them, ripping it into pieces, and threw the two sorcerers against the wall; held them against the smooth stone surface. Try as they might, they could not break loose.
Once the firewall had collapsed, they could see that Cloud and Tifa were pushed against the wall as well, close to the box that held Ultima Weapon. Cloud must have tried to retrieve his sword, but the blade was still stuck inside the golden block.
"I think that is quite enough."
That was Kane's voice; calm and reasonable, as usual.
"I believe you have done quite enough."
Kane stood up. His gaze passed over the four intruders and Novo - and with it, a burning sensation, as if the man's eyes radiated intense heat.
"Your fight has thrown my spell out of balance. It was not an immediate failure... for I can see. Not completely, but some of my sight has returned to me..."
As he looked at them, they saw that his eyes were no longer black. They were blue; not Mako, but a very human kind of blue.
"I can see..."
There was a pause.
"Yes, I can see... But your interference may have deprived me of my last chance to fully restore my body. Therefore..." The wind suddenly increased in strength, pressing the five harder against the wall. "Therefore, I will kill you," he stated simply.
No one doubted that he could.
Kane smiled. He could see them - dark blurs, against the white of the marble walls. The artefacts had survived. He only had to kill these humans... and cast the spell again. It could be done.
He raised his right hand. One of the golden boxes split open, the sword inside spinning lazily in empty air. The silver blade shimmered with an inner light; the golden hilt reflected and enhanced the glow, encasing the weapon in a golden-silvery white cocoon.
Kane moved his hand slightly. The sword stopped spinning and shot towards him, the hilt slapping into the palm of his hand. His fingers closed around it...
"This sword... is Excalibur," he proclaimed. "By retrieving it from its ancient resting place, I gained more power than I believed possible. What could be more fitting... than destroying you all with this very blade?"
"Master..." Novo hissed, struggling against the magical wind.
Kane smiled at him. "Yes, my Novo. Death is coming to you, as well. You are no longer needed. Perhaps... you should go first?"
"You... you will destroy... yourself," the silver-haired sorcerer said slowly. "Master... cease this... at once!"
Kane closed his eyes. "Darkness..." He opened them again. "Light. I don't need you anymore. You would only get in my way... so I have to remove you. Easy to hear it, isn't it? I wonder if it's as easy to experience... Shall we find out, Novo?"
"You are insane!" Kai spat. Then he coughed. Think I'm... dying. "You can't think you'll get away with this!" Have to distract him... long enough...
Kane smiled again. "You are pitiful... my son. You were the first I created... and you turned against me. You, my firstborn! I will kill you last, Kai..."
He raised Excalibur. "But you, Novo... you are first. Look into my eyes, Novo... and see your death!"
The sword started its descent. Novo struggled in vain against the mage-wind holding him to the wall.
Kai's world slowed down again, for the last time.
So... I'm dying...
The sword glinted, almost frozen in motion. Novo's beautiful, alien-cast features betrayed no fear... only guilt, sorrow, and anger.
Maybe he has a chance...
I won't make it that far. That last spell... It had been more than simple lightning. He was badly wounded; worse than he could heal.
Then maybe... I can do one last thing...
"Novo! Finish it!"
Time returned. The sword was a blur, cutting through the air on its way to Novo's heart.
But the mind is faster then the hand.
To the other four, it looked as if Kai had turned into pure light.
The sword came closer...
The light-shape that had been Kai thinned... the light spiralling towards Kane...
The light flashed into a laser-like ray...
And closer... piercing skin, flesh...
The light struck. Kane screamed in pain and surprise as the air seemed to ignite around him, fiery explosions pummelling him mercilessly. Blood and bone fragments peppered Novo, who fell to the ground, the wind that had been holding him to the wall fading and disappearing. Kane, too, fell; his right arm a bloody stump, torn off just above the elbow.
Excalibur tumbled through the air...
Kane rose. He looked down at his severed arm, then at the place where Kai had been, and then laughed.
Everything seemed to freeze at that sound. The only one moving was Kane, standing there, just laughing.
"That young... fool."
He held up his left hand, fingers spread, in front of his face. "Young fool!" he repeated, and laughed again. "It seems... the more my body suffers... the stronger my mind. The fool! He could not have realised... the power he released... all I needed!" Kane was overcome by laughter again. "It was all I needed... to see!" Everything was clear - he could see colours, shapes... everything! How he had done it, he did not know... but Kai's dying spell had released an incredible amount of magical power, and some of it had drained into Kane himself.
And he could see.
He kept laughing, starting to levitate, higher and higher.
There was a clink! as Excalibur embedded itself in the floor. Kane floated higher... and higher...
"Stop!" Novo whispered. "Must... stop!" The spell, and the shock of losing his arm, must have destroyed what reason Kane had had left. Novo could feel the spark of reason fleeing him even as he spoke. "Mas... Kane! Stop!" Novo struggled to his feet. He was so weak... weak! The sword had cut his heart... barely scratched it, but strength was draining away from him. Still, he had the strength to levitate -
Kane gestured. Invisible force slammed into Novo's battered body, throwing him to the floor. Novo fell, and did not move again.
Tifa gasped. Cloud's knife fell on the floor, tinkling against the stone. Then all was silent.
The silence lasted for what seemed like hours. Cloud and Tifa stood helpless, looking up towards the mage. Kane looked back, a look of amusement on his face; the glint of madness in his eyes.
Then the door slammed open. Three pairs of eyes turned to see...
They had been expecting Vincent. Instead, Yuffie stood in the door, a boomerang ready in her hand. The expression on her face was no longer one of despair. All that was visible there now was rage. Vincent stood behind her, pistol in hand. His features were, as always, unreadable, but his red eyes glowed with what must be interpreted as anger.
"So..." he whispered. "You are Kane. You are the one behind all this."
Kane smirked. "Yes," he hissed, "I am Kane... I am the one behind all of this!"
"You ordered that attack on Wutai..." Yuffie said.
Kane nodded energetically. "Yes... I rather believe I did..."
"Bastard!" She had thrown the boomerang so fast that only Vincent had seen her hand move. The weapon was halfway through the air before Kane could react.
Raising a shield of pure mental force in the way of the spinning weapon, he laughed.
Then his laughter stopped abruptly as the screen shattered; the weapon bursting into pale, blue fire. Kane dispelled his levitation spell, allowing gravity to pull him down, but the boomerang reversed its direction, heading down. Kane tried to dodge again, re-casting the spell of flight, but the weapon clipped his shoulder, near his now-useless right arm. Yuffie's hand shot out to catch it as the boomerang returned to her, the pale flames licking her fingers but leaving no trace of their passing. Kane staggered backwards, sinking slowly towards the ground.
"You will... pay for that," he promised.
"You murderer!" Yuffie threw the boomerang again. Kane, now aware of the power coming towards him, snapped his fingers, and disappeared, only to reappear quite a bit to the right, out of the weapon's way. The boomerang spiralled to the ground, only to be caught by Yuffie. "Die!" She threw again, and Kane teleported out of the way again, smiling.
"Calm down, Yuffie." Vincent laid his hand on her shoulder. "Calm. Use the Materia I gave you..."
Yuffie snarled something wordless, bringing up a special green Materia orb. "This is for Wutai!" she shouted, thrusting the Materia at Kane. A green ball of flame sped towards the one-armed sorcerer, exploding into a raging inferno just as it reached him.
Kane was trapped in the middle. There was no way he could dodge an attack of that kind, and the magic slammed into his defensive shields like a battering-ram. Kane floated upwards, carried on the spell's force, his clothes and skin tearing.
As great as the spell's power was, however, it was not enough to finish him off. Too soon, it passed, the raging inferno of green fire smashing through the roof, showering everyone inside with stone fragments. Vincent hurriedly cast a shielding spell, deflecting most of the falling debris. Kane merely watched as his own shield pulverised everything that touched it.
"Cloud! Tifa!" Vincent hissed. "Look to Novo and Cid! We will try to keep him occupied!"
"Got it!" Cloud replied, running over to where the pilot and the silver-haired mage lay. "Tifa! Check Novo's wounds," he commanded, at the same time touching the healing Materia and sending a substantial pulse of healing energy into Cid. The pilot did not seem badly wounded, but Cloud needed to be certain.
"Look at this!" Tifa called. "He's... he's..."
Cloud picked up the sword Kane had called Excalibur on the way as he headed over to where Tifa was kneeling next to the unconscious Novo. "What is it?" he asked, holding the sword up. Behind him, a powerful spell lanced from above, only to be shattered by a magic shield.
"It's nothing like that! Look... look!"
Novo was turning back into a child. He had a few physical wounds - most notably, a deep but short cut over his heart.
"I'll..." Cloud raised the Materia, but hesitated. Tifa nodded; he nodded back, and completed the spell. Faint bluish-green light floated into the boy's wounds, seeming to merge with his flesh, regenerating it. Within seconds, Novo's wounds were healed... and Cloud turned to watch Cid. As the room shook from another burst of Ultima, the pilot slowly sat up, rubbing the back of his head.
"Shit!" he muttered. "What the hell happened?"
"We're fighting Kane!" Cloud said. "Kai... died to break Kane's spell... Kane's wounded, but he's still strong! We must help..."
Cid silenced him with a wave of his hand. The Venus Gospel had fallen near him; Cid now took it in his hands and used it as support to get to his feet. "Kane's up there, huh..." Kane cast some kind of fire spell, and Vincent countered it with ice; the two blasts cancelled each other out, fizzling and fading into nothing with a loud hiss.
"You're the only one who could get that far..." Cloud shouted over the noise. "Can you do it?"
"No way!" Cid shook his head. "That fucker's at least twenty metres up! I couldn't get that high if my life depended on it!"
"All our lives may depend on it!" Tifa told him. "Cid, you've got to try! No one else can reach him..."
Cid flinched as a violent explosion knocked a large part of the wall out. "Very well..."
"You'll do it?" she asked. He shrugged.
"Can't do more than try... but still - yeah, I will try."
Tifa and Cloud backed away as Cid squinted at the hovering sorcerer, took aim, and started gathering power for the jump.
Cid had tried to explain to them what he did. No one had ever understood what he was saying; except maybe for Red and Vincent, but they had not bothered to ask in the first place, so he had no way of knowing. In simple words, he reached out with his mind and gathered energy from the air and the earth beneath him, then projected himself away from that energy. It seemed simple enough to him, but the others seemed incapable of grasping the idea.
He had recently discovered that he did not need to use that power to go up. He could use it to project himself in any direction - which was what he had done in the Forgotten City, during the fight with Novo.
This time, however, he wanted to go up. And so, as soon as he had gathered all the power he could hold, he let it propel him upwards, towards his enemy...
Nothing else moved while the pilot shot towards the flying wizard; Vincent and Yuffie ceasing their attacks as to not hit Cid, and Kane not bothering to strike at this insignificant attacker, who he knew was no threat.
He was right. Cid reached high, higher than he had expected to reach - but that still was not enough to reach Kane. After ten metres, he felt the power fading; after fifteen, it was gone. He hung there for a split second before gravity understood what was happening and started to pull him down towards the ground again.
He saw Kane smiling at him as he started his descent.
He was well aware of the danger. He had spent a great part of his strength going up. That meant, he had almost nothing left to cushion his landing. However, Cid chose to ignore this fact for the time being, and instead of worrying about his own safety, he channelled his last power into his hands, and threw his spear.
Kane had no time to parry. The weapon, slightly off-balance since Cid had thrown it while falling, cut a deep furrow across his chest, scraping his ribs, and just barely missed his throat. Kane, surprised, lost hold of his levitation spell, fell, and recovered, starting to rise again. Cid, meanwhile, fell towards the floor... which looked very hard to him, seeing as he was falling with no way to slow down.
He hadn't needed to worry. As the spell-fight had stopped, Vincent had changed his shape, and now Chaos took flight. The demon expertly caught Cid in the air and returned to the ground, where he set the pilot down, and immediately took off again.
Kane watched him approach, with a small smile on his face.
"The legendary Chaos..." he said slowly. "So you think you are a match for me, demon?"
Vincent, of course, did not bother to answer. He had kept the Ultima Materia in his hand while he Changed; now he unleashed the spell at close range.
At close ranger, however, he could clearly see the bubble of calm, undisturbed air around the sorcerer. Outside it, a roaring inferno of greenish flame... and inside, nothing.
A shield... A very powerful one...
Still, he was not limited to magic. Dropping the Materia, letting it fall to the floor, he readied his claws... and Kane laughed, a sound even Vincent could not hear through the subsiding rage of the Ultima spell. The sorcerer rose higher through the air, floating out of the demolished tower.
Well outside, he stopped and turned to look at Vincent.
"So you've followed me this far, eh?"
Vincent remained silent, beating his wings and waiting.
"I am not a fool, whoever you are. Do you expect me to stay and fight you?" He grinned. "No, I'm not that stupid. Like this -" He indicated his right arm, or what was left of it "- and weaponless, I would stand no chance. So, if you don't mind, I think I'll let someone else do the fighting for me..." He dug in a pocket with his left hand, finally bringing up a red Materia orb. Vincent dove for his enemy... but it was already too late. "Come forth!" Kane commanded.
The air filled with mist. Vincent flapped his wings to stop his advance, and backed off, observing the mist.
It was already solidifying...
...into the shape of a dragon.
A white dragon... This must be the beast Godo spoke of. Then this dragon was weaker than Leviathan; not very much so, but still weaker. That was good... All Espers were powerful, certainly, but some were more so than others.
Now, all that remained was to find out whether his own powers were enough to defeat this dragon... while trying to survive the spells that Kane would no doubt be throwing in his direction during the fight.
"Destroy him, Dragon of Mist!" Kane commanded.
The dragon hesitated.
The command struck like a whiplash; even Vincent could feel it.
What... Who can have the power to control an Esper like this...?
He had never heard of a human actually controlling an Esper. The opposite had been known to happen, if exceedingly rarely so, but still...
His thoughts were interrupted as the dragon finally submitted to Kane's command and attacked. Vincent folded his wings and dropped towards the ground as a bolt of lightning burned through the air where he had been. Chaos' powers or not; he did not want to get in the way of something like that.
As soon as the attack passed him, he opened his wings again, gliding under the dragon. Before the Esper had a chance to react, he raked it across the chest and stomach with his knife-sharp claws; red blood splashed him, and the dragon roared in anger and pain, turning sharply to breathe another lightning bolt at him. Vincent dodged, but that brought him inside Kane's reach, and the sorcerer hurled a ball of ice at his back. The spell struck, and Vincent felt a sharp pain between his wings.
The next thing he knew, he was falling. Shaking himself, he brought his wings into order, catching the air to bring him higher again. The dragon dove towards him, spitting lightning and slashing with its claws. Chaos waited until the Esper was just a couple of metres away, then launched himself forwards, grabbing the dragon's snout and slashing at its eyes with his claws, but the dragon seemed to have anticipated something like that; it shook its head and snapped its jaws, almost catching Vincent's leg between its teeth. The ex-Turk let go and fell back, awaiting the dragon's next move.
It didn't come. Esper and demon looked each other in the eyes, and Vincent felt...
What? "Help... me..."
"Fight! Destroy him, you fool!" Kane shouted, and, as the dragon still hesitated, launched a Flare spell at Vincent. The demon's hide provided some protection from the flames, but the impact still hurt; too much for Vincent's taste. He turned slightly, trying to observe both the dragon and the mage at the same time. Too much here... Must fight them one at a time, he realised.
But then, there was no one there; no one except for the crazy old mage and his Esper slave.
Maybe then he could risk it...
Vincent turned around fully, ignoring the dragon for the moment, and raised his hand. "Kane... burn!"
Flames leapt from his hand, slamming into the mage's shield. Kane backed away, a look of surprise on his face. Vincent followed his attack up with another volley of flames, striking at the man's shield like hail against a roof. Kane staggered and sagged, sinking slowly towards the ground far below them. Allowing himself to sink lower, Vincent followed, throwing a third flame barrage towards the sorcerer. Kane stopped his descent and held out his hand; the shield seemed to focus into one point, a barrier only large enough to ward off Vincent's flame spell.
Chaos backed off. He is weakening... But that did not mean he was defeated. And there was still the matter of the dragon... Vincent looked up. But the dragon... It was just hovering in the same place, massive wings beating, watching the battle.
This clearly irritated Kane. He occasionally glared angrily at the Esper, but never for long; never long enough to give Vincent an opening.
Something happened in the air. Then, suddenly, Kane staggered backwards, and his slow descent speeded up somewhat. The dragon bared its fangs and growled, bright bluish light flickering behind the dagger-sharp teeth.
That meant Kane's control over the dragon was slipping... Maybe, if he waited long enough, the Esper would break free, and possibly help him... Vincent dismissed the thought as soon as it appeared. It was useless... since he did not know how long he would have to wait, or if the dragon would indeed turn on Kane... or if he could survive long enough by just waiting.
That last thought was a major problem, he realised as Kane clenched his fist, mumbled a few words, and thrust his hand, palm up, towards Chaos. A rainbow of colours exploded towards him, and Vincent dodged and ducked, but was too slow. The ray struck him a glancing blow on the shoulder, and he tumbled towards the ground, dazed... Inside him, Chaos' spirit fought to wrest the control of his body from Vincent as it felt its host weakening; Vincent fought it down with a supreme effort of will, at the same time breaking his fall by aligning Chaos' wings properly, and started to rise again, slowly and painfully. Dark blood trickled down his arm. The wound was too far down his back for him to be able to see it, but he could tell it was serious... but even a wound that would be fatal to a normal human might not be enough to slow Chaos down.
He ignored the pain. It was hard, but he was a master of the art. And slowly, the two combatants closed in on each other again...
"Do you think he'll make it?" Tifa asked.
No one answered. Cloud was helping Cid sit up; the pilot was cursing under his breath, and not paying heed to anything else. Yuffie was standing next to the Materia throne, her knuckles whitening as she gripped her boomerang; staring up into the sky, even though there was nothing there to see. Tifa sighed. "What are we going to do?" she tried.
"Not a whole bloody lot we freakin' can do, is there?" Cid spat. "Shit! Shit, shit and shit!" He held out his hand. Venus Gospel, which had fallen on the floor in the other end of the room, shuddered, and leaped to him, the haft of the spear slamming into the pilot's palm. At the same time, the long blade almost decapitated Cloud; he dove to the floor to avoid the edge, which whistled as it sped through the air.
He was not the only one who was surprised. "Fuck!" the pilot exclaimed, throwing the spear to the ground.
"When did you learn to do that?" Tifa asked as Cloud picked himself off the floor.
"Never knew I had learned it!" Cid blurted out. "I mean, I... Shit! we don't have time to do this!" He grabbed the spear again, and leaped to his feet, again using the weapon to steady himself. "Why are we sitting around here? Get a damn move on!"
"Cid, Vincent is flying. So is Kane. We can't follow them up there..." Tifa looked up and past he jagged remains of the marble walls. "So what else can we do?"
Yes, what else indeed? Cid slumped back against the wall, while Cloud shook his head sadly.
Tifa sighed again.
And Yuffie kept standing where she was, motionless, eyes boring deep into the blue sky over them.
Mist overlooked the battle below her with impassive green eyes - the only speck of colour on the otherwise white dragon.
She was worried. How long had it been since the last time?
Beneath her, one great evil faced another evil. This was all well - after all, if evil was necessary, what better way for this evil to occupy itself, than to fight other evil?
The problem was, she was uncertain. Uncertain about which of these evils was the most powerful one. Which one was the most evil.
She should destroy both of them. But that was far beyond her power; to fight both these evils would surely result in her defeat, her 'death'.
That meant, she would have to deal with the winner.
That presented yet another problem. If the mage won, the one who had held her captive... would she be able to escape his clutches this time?
But his power was nothing compared to the other one...
Mist felt fear - fear! - at the sight.
The demon's appearance was not, in itself, formidable. There were many beings in the world whose appearance was more awe-inspiring than Chaos.
It was not the appearance that frightened her.
Unlike the man who possessed the power at the moment, Mist knew the true power of Chaos.
Now, even being an Esper, even being a dragon, she did something as human as wish that she had never heard of this being.
Chaos was a being created from the powers of the elements. Earth, Fire, Air, and Water... All tainted by the evil of the first human who had ever wielded the power, Garland, whose name lived on in the Espers' memories; a constant reminder of what might happen if such power fell into the wrong hands.
Chaos was evil.
Mist's only consolation was the fact that although evil was the Chaos power' nature, it did not have to be the wielder's. And if the wielder was strong enough, if he was good, then even Chaos would have to submit to his wishes.
But the chances were slim, to say the least.
And so, Mist continued watching... and preparing.
Vincent dodged Kane's next attack, a rainbow-coloured ray similar to the last one. It passed so close he could feel the wind stir.
Enough was enough. He would have to do more... much more.
He muttered a short incantation. Kane's eyes seemed to grow larger as the demon finished its spell...
This was one of Vincent's most well-guarded secrets. Along with the power to change his body into Chaos', and he spirit of the demon inhabiting his heart, Vincent had also received something else.
This 'else' was the ability to control true magic.
It was a part of Chaos' power. When he inherited one, he got the other - there was no way around it. He rarely used the latter gift, though - even though it was, in fact, a gift, not - as he thought of the Chaos power - a curse. Still, he had the power - and now it might just be what he needed.
Red light flickered around his hands. Instinctively, he thrust them at the robed magician. Dark flames shot from his fingertips, radiating intense heat, and splashed against Kane's hastily-gathered shield, parting before the seemingly impenetrable mental barrier, and finally faded out into nothingness.
"So you are a mage, as well," Kane said conversationally. "Ah. I might have known."
Then he snapped his fingers and threw a bolt of lightning, apparently without even concentrating. Vincent, surprised, took the bolt in the chest, and was thrown back, but as it had been hastily constructed, the bolt was weak and did not cause him much trouble.
That did not mean it did not hurt. Again, he had to fight a battle inside his mind instead of outside it, as Chaos once more tried to take control, and Kane seized the opportunity to concentrate on his next spell. He launched it just as Vincent emerged victorious from his battle with Chaos' mind, forcing the ex-Turk to frantically try to dodge.
But for the first time, Vincent completely failed to avoid the spell. Kane had had the time to prepare fully, and the pain was excruciating as Kane's Ultima ignited the air around him. The green flames, so much more than normal fire, threatened to tear him to pieces; burning but not burning, clawing at both his mind and his body. He felt something break, and one wing suddenly hung limply by his side.
Kane's laughter followed him, and suddenly, all Vincent knew was darkness, as a power much older and stronger than either him or his opponent tore its way through his consciousness and seized control-
High above the battle, Mist's wings missed a beat. This power...? she wondered as she struggled to regain control. It must be... Chaos. But why is it that it surfaces now, after all that...
Sadly, she had no answer.
Yuffie gasped and fell to her knees. "V...vince...nt," she managed.
"Yuffie? What happened?" Tifa ran over to the shinobi and knelt down next to her. "Yuffie! Are you all right?"
"...no!" Yuffie whispered. "I'm... not!"
As if all this was not enough... "Cloud," Tifa commanded, "I need the healing Materia."
"Not... that. It's not... that." Yuffie struggled against the cloud of darkness that threatened to consume her, but could do nothing but halt its advance. "It's... Chaos!"
"Chaos? Vincent?" Tifa asked, bewildered. "Is this his doing? But why?"
Yuffie tried to answer. No, she wanted to say, and yes! It is Chaos... but not Vincent! Not Vincent - never, ever Vincent...
She owed him her life.
"Vincent!" she cried. "Vincent!"
But he did not answer.
Slowly, she sank deeper into the darkness... and knew that this time, if she let it swallow her, there would be no way out.
Who was that...?
He recognised this darkness... this un-light of evil.
He had carried it inside for a long time. Ever since that day...
No... Cannot... let it end like that. Chaos was in control. He would have known even without the darkness. Chaos... alive, under its own control...
It could destroy the Planet. Sephiroth had been nothing to what this, the most ancient of evils could do.
If he let this happen, he would have failed. He would have failed them all.
The light came from out of nowhere; suddenly it was just there. He gathered it about him, and it burned through the darkness, leaving tattered shreds of darkness hanging in its wake, reaching the surface... breaching it-
"He's awake! Tifa, Cid, ready..."
Momentarily forgetting about Yuffie, they turned to face their enemy. After all, if they ignored him to tend to their wounded, they could all end up needing healing. "Master... Kane..." Novo tried to open his eyes. Dried blood held them shut, and he clawed at his face, scraping the blood away.
Finally... He opened his eyes. "Kai..." He coughed. "Kane!" The memories struck him, and he sat up - only to feel a sharp blade against his chest.
"Not so fast," someone ordered. It was the bearded man with the spear... and that spear was what he had felt. Novo looked up at the two men and one woman standing around him. The men were holding weapons - the spear, Venus Gospel, and Excalibur. The woman held a piece of Materia, practically crackling with power.
"Please... let me..." He tried to rise. The spear stabbed painfully into his skin, and he fell back. "I am not a threat to you!" he pleaded. "Just let me get up."
The man with the spear sneered at him. "You wish. Give me half a reason to trust you."
"I know... my master has lost control," Novo whispered. "He drew more power than he could hold... it drove him insane! I must... help him."
"You're telling us you want to help our enemy?" It was the spiky-haired man. Novo could clearly hear the confusion in his voice. "We are threatening your life, and you tell us you intend to fight for our enemy? Who would do such a thing?"
"I would." Novo's voice sparkled with authority. "I do not intend to fight for my former Master. What he does now... what he is now... is not Kane."
Novo fixed the swordsman with his gaze. "I intend to bring him out of his madness," he stated, "even if it means I have to kill him to do it. I owe him that much."
Cloud looked down, at the boy who was not a boy. "Why should I trust you?" he asked finally; a simple question indeed, Novo thought, but oh so hard to answer.
"Because I tell you so," he said.
This was not a good answer, he knew, but it was the best he could find.
"That's not even half a reason," Cid said. He increased the pressure slightly, the spear cutting into Novo's skin. "I think we should just kill him..."
"That would make you worse than we have ever been," the silver-haired boy told him.
"Have I ever told you I'm doing this because you're bad?" Cid countered. "I could be doing this for fun for all you know!" To Cid's dismay, he was enjoying himself. This... creature... had caused him so much trouble... And now it was at his mercy. It would be easy, to just -
But he's right... damn him. Can't do it.
He lowered the spear. "Get up, damn you!" he shouted. Cloud and Tifa spun around, surprised, and Novo jumped back, equally surprised.
"Cid, what are you doing?" Tifa demanded, fumbling with her Materia. "We can't just let him go!"
"Then what?" the pilot counterdemanded. "What are we going to do? Stay here and point sharp things at him? Kill him? You go ahead, Tifa. I'm going to help Vincent... if I can." And with that, Cid headed for the door, kicked it open, and was gone.
Tifa and Cloud looked at each other, then stepped back. "Okay," Tifa sighed. "You can get up... but keep in sight, get it?"
"I understand completely," Novo replied as he rose to his feet. "However... I cannot comply." Before either Tifa or Cloud could react, he twisted reality around himself, and vanished in a flash of blue light.
Chaos roared. Its flight halted, it beat its wings furiously, clawing at the air as the mental duel climaxed. The roar intensified, and the stone building shook.
Novo almost fell as he landed on top of the broken tower walls. He stared at the scene in awe -
Kane had been fleeing, knowing he had no chance against the demon. Now he stopped and turned, looking at his adversary.
"Novo." The sorcerer turned to his former servant. "Have you, too, come to fight me?"
"No." The silver-haired man, once more having abandoned his childlike guise, shook his head. "I have come to help you."
"Help me... Help me?" He laughed. "I don't need help anymore, Novo! Never again!"
"You are dying, Master. Please, stop this."
Vincent heard the words as through a thick blanket. Chaos' will struggled against his, but now he knew he was going to win.
Chaos roared again, in wordless anger. Then, suddenly, the demon was gone; replaced by a man, pale and dark-haired, clad in black and red.
She had seen enough. The battles had told her everything she needed to know, and now Mist made her move. Her body, dissolved into mist, started to reform, and she dove...
The man was unconscious when she reached him, not fully ten metres above ground. Gravity tugging at her, she pulled back, rising again, carefully holding the dark-haired man in her claws.
"Damn!" Tifa spat. "What the hell..."
"I wonder if he lied... or if he told the truth," Cloud muttered. He lowered the sword, letting its point rest against the floor. "We..."
Suddenly, Tifa gasped. "Cloud!" she exclaimed. "Yuffie! She's... gone!"
"Gone?" He spun around. There was no trace of Yuffie anywhere. "Did he take her?"
"Novo? No, I don't think so..." She shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe he did. What are we going to do now?"
"Maybe we should follow Cid..."
"Do you know the way out?"
Unexpectedly, she smiled. "Me neither. Come on, Cloud... let's go."
"Cid... this way."
He whirled around, holding the Venus Gospel up do deflect an attack that he knew would not come. He recognised the voice. "Yuffie? What are you doing?"
"I'm going to help Vincent." She seemed strangely calm. "This is the way out. Follow me."
"You sure?" he asked as he jogged along.
Cid frowned. Not like her at all... Maybe...
Nah... But he would be careful, nevertheless. Very careful.
Yuffie ran. She could feel the exit - never mind how, but she felt it, and that was all she needed to know. This way... then that... now this way... and this... and finally, the open door. She slowed down, and heard Cid, behind her, do the same, panting and wheezing. Walking slowly towards the opening, she heard him mutter angrily, but paid it no heed; it was what was outside that mattered now.
She was just in time to see the white dragon swoop down from the sky, barely catch Vincent before he struck the ground, and vanish behind the building, probably landing somewhere to put the shape-changer down.
She breathed a sigh of relief. What she had felt... She wondered what would happen to her if he died.
Some things were probably better left unsaid.
She looked up... Novo? He had been in the tower... hadn't he? "Cid!"
"Yeah... what?" Cid asked.
"Get me up on the roof! Quickly!"
He wanted to ask, but something told him that this was not the time. Instead, he put one arm around her waist, gathered power for the jump, and leaped.
The wall was high, but he cleared it easily. However, they soon found that the roof was not one, single flat area, but something that looked rather akin to a labyrinth where one walked on top of the walls themselves; there was no wonder the interior passages were so complicated. Yuffie thought the entire setup seemed... familiar, somehow. But this was neither the time nor the place to think of that. "Can you get us across?" she asked Cid, just as he put her down.
He glared at her. "When this is over," he said, "I expect an explanation. But for now..." He shook his head. "Just hold on to something."
They landed, quite roughly, on the other side of the building some ten seconds later. Cid let go of Yuffie, leaned his spear against the wall, and sank down with his back to that very wall. In seconds, he seemed to have aged several years. "You go ahead... alone," he hissed. "I've got to... rest for a while. Go... ahead."
Yuffie looked down at him, with a serious expression on her face. "Thank you, Cid."
He waved her thanks away. "Get... going. Help him."
She nodded, and turned to leave.
"Be careful, all right?" he called after her.
She turned and nodded, then resumed walking.
"No. My name is not Lucrecia... nor has it ever been."
"I am... called Mist."
He opened his eyes. The sky, and a silhouette, swam into focus -
No, not Lucrecia. But she was every bit as beautiful. The woman was fair-skinned and green-eyed, and her hair was white, although not from age. She was dressed in a simple sky-blue robe, which did nothing to diminish her beauty.
"...Esper," he managed.
She nodded, and smiled. "Yes, that is true. I am... an Esper."
"You are... the one. The one who fought Leviathan at Wutai."
Another nod, but no smile, this time. "Yes," she said, sadly. "That is true."
Time slowed down. The question hung in the air.
"Because of my own weakness," she replied finally, and time returned to normal. "I was not strong enough to resist the mage, when he called me. Then he bound me to his magic, twisted my spirit to his desires. It is true that I attacked Wutai under his command. It was not, however, my own will to do so." She looked down. "By Bahamut's fire... He even controlled my allegiances... I was glad to serve him!" Her voice did not change, but Vincent could feel anger radiating from her.
"Then... you spoke to the sorcerer." He meant Kai, and she knew; she nodded.
"Yes. I tried to reach him, to warn him... To make him stop what was about to happen. I... failed." The luminous green eyes dimmed with unshed tears. "Most Espers care little for humans. I, also, do not hold humankind very dear... But to participate in meaningless slaughter..."
"...is wrong," he finished. "I know. Why did you save me?"
"I did not save you. All I did was prevent your death."
"I see." And he did; better than words could explain.
"But why? I do not know. I felt it was the right thing to do. I pray I am not mistaken..."
"I cannot tell."
Esper and human looked at each other for a few moments, and then, as one, they both averted their eyes.
"I see," she said, echoing his words. "What will you do now?"
"I do not know." Something -
He sat up. "Yuffie! Do not -"
Too late. The boomerang was in the air even before the words left his mouth.
Time slowed down again. Vincent's hand shot out, golden-gloved fingers closing around steel. Time resumed, and the force of the throw slammed into him, but his hand never budged. "Yuffie. This is not Susanna."
"Vincent!" came the ninja's voice from somewhere above and to his right. "Vincent! Are you all right?"
He did not even try to answer. What use was it? He did not know. What was 'all right' for him, these days? Alive? Under his own control, hanging on by a thread? "Kane..." he said instead. "Where is Kane?"
"Over the roof! He's talking to Novo... I don't know what's happening! He's... like..." She couldn't find any words.
"He may have gone insane," Mist whispered. "He attempted a spell of great potential, but lacked the strength... and released more power than he could bear. Or then... if he is really sane..." There was a short pause. "I do not know what would be worse," she finished.
"He is still... alive, at any rate," Vincent concluded, rising slowly, first to his knees, then to his feet.
"Stop!" The Esper stepped in front of him, holding out her arms. "You are not fighting him! You are too weak..."
He gently pushed her aside, effortlessly as if she had weighted less than a feather.
"It matters not," he said softly. "What matters... is Kane. Novo cannot fight him. I can."
"But..." she tried.
"No. I must go. I am grateful... lady Esper."
Novo fell to his knees. Coloured spots danced before his eyes; he was barely conscious. Kane spoke, near him but sounding very far away.
"You see, Novo... I do not need you. Your powers are nothing compared to mine! I've finally found what I'm looking for. I won't let you take it away from me!"
"Please..." The young mage hissed. "You are... dying! Please... let me... help! Your wounds..." His words were cut short as Kane lashed out with a spell, crashing down on his weakened shield. "P...lease..."
"Enough!" Kane snapped. "Be silent, or I will kill you! You don't understand anything! My dream - my greatest desire, fulfilled! I can see again! These wounds are nothing!" His voice became dangerously low as he continued. "If you, my dear 'son', had not decided to interfere... this would not have needed to happen." Then he laughed. "But it doesn't matter! Nothing matters. But now what, my dear Novo?"
Novo tried to raise his head. "M... Kane," he hissed.
"Now that I have all this," Kane continued, "what do you think I should do with it?"
Novo did not answer. He could not answer. The world spun in and out of focus... and Novo lapsed into unconsciousness.
Kane chuckled to himself as his former servant collapsed. "Ah... Novo... Novo," he said. "What would I have done without you?" The chuckle turned into laughter. "Maybe I should find out?" He raised his hand, preparing to destroy the silver-haired child... but changed his mind. What good would that do? The boy was not even awake to feel his last moments.
But there was something... something he wanted to do.
Someone he wanted to kill.
His powers were growing. Without doubt, he would soon be able to take on anything...
The dragon landed, surprisingly softly, on a portion of the roof that was comparatively large, allowing Vincent and Yuffie to slide off her back.
"Will you help us?" Vincent repeated the question he had asked only a short while earlier.
The dragon sighed, sending a thin tendril of blue smoke rising towards the heavens. "Yes," she said. "I will help you. But if Kane tries to control me again..."
"We will not let that happen." He laid a hand on her shoulder, then turned to the levitating sorcerer by the shattered tower. "Kane!" he called. "I am here."
He saw Kane turn to look at him. "Ah. So you are..." The magician did not raise his voice, and did not need to; they could hear him as clearly as if he had been standing next to them. "And your little friend as well... and the dragon. Well, well..."
"What have you done to the child?" Vincent demanded.
"The child? Oh, you mean Novo. Ah, I guess he is a child to you, no matter what else he is... Chaos."
Vincent shook his head. "I am not Chaos," he said. Just like Kane, he spoke softly. "Perhaps, I am not fully certain of what I am... but I know that much. I am not Chaos."
"Does it matter? You have the power. Use it! What use is power if you don't use it?" Kane lowered himself closer to the roof, coming to stand on a large block of stone that had fallen from the tower. "You have proven quite troublesome, my friend."
"You proved to be more than a match for me..." Kane continued. "Yes, very troublesome indeed. However... my magic grows. By the second, I draw more power from the Planet. Perhaps now, I have enough power to defeat you?"
"He does not seem mad."
"I know..." Mist seemed uncertain. "I may have... been mistaken. Maybe... he is just changing."
"There is no need for that," Kane sneered. "You can speak out loud." He barked out a short laugh, and added, "I can hear you anyway..."
"He cannot hear this," Mist assured Vincent. "He can only see the energy patterns. Not even the most powerful Espers are able to hear such speech..."
"He seems very powerful..." In spite of himself, Vincent was starting to feel worried. Kane was drawing power from the Planet; Vincent, or perhaps it was Chaos, could sense his strength growing even as they spoke.
Still... there was something odd about that power...
"Kane is dying..." Mist whispered in his mind. "He is keeping himself alive... with the power of the Planet. As soon as he stops drawing the magic..."
"He has already drawn more power than I thought possible. Can he hold much more?"
"I... do not know. But, Vincent -"
"Enough!" A wave of pressure rolled out from Kane, slamming into the three. "Are you going to fight me... or are you not? I wanted to kill you, Chaos... but what use is it? What could I possibly gain from it?"
"Kane." Vincent did not seem disturbed by the spell. "What is it you want? Tell me this. What is it that you want so much, you are prepared to sacrifice your life to get it?"
Kane remained silent for a while, but slowly floated upwards, stopping about a metre above the roof.
"I want... peace," he said finally. For a short moment he looked very old, as if all his years had suddenly caught up with him. The look vanished again, just as swiftly as it had come, and he laughed softly. "I wanted my sight to be restored... I wanted my broken body to be whole again. I could have had all that. I almost did have all that! So is it any wonder, now..."
He slowly levitated closer. Vincent and Mist, their eyes sharper than a human's, could see the enraged expression on his face. They saw him clench his fist, and they saw the Planet's power respond to the magician's call. "Is it any wonder that I hate you?" Kane raised his hand and pointed. Blue and green fire exploded around his adversaries; shattering Vincent's hastily raised shield as if it had been glass -
- and slamming into a second, stronger shield, hardly touching them. Vincent turned in surprise.
Mist, he realised, the surprise gone as soon as it had come. And sure enough; the dragon was positively glowing with magic, her green eyes shedding a light almost as strong as that of the cold fire raging outside her shield.
Without the shield, they would have died. Even with it, the spell was still noticeable, and when it ended, both Yuffie and Vincent were on their knees. Kane, floating safely above them, raised his eyebrows.
"Very good," he commended the dragon. "I see your power is considerably greater when you are not taken by surprise, my dear."
The dragon did not waste time or energy making a reply; instead, she opened her mouth and exhaled sharply. This time, she was not holding back, and the lightning was so intense its light blinded even Vincent.
Kane, however, gathered his bubble-like shield into a disc just large enough to prevent the bolt from reaching him. The shield was a formidable defence in its own right, but Mist's attack should have breached it. However, gathered into such a small area, the vast power of Kane's shielding spell created an almost impenetrable barrier. Lightning met what seemed to be empty air, and shattered into a myriad of sparks, pinpricks of light falling down to die on the smooth marble.
"Is that all you can do?" Kane asked.
Such power... If even an Esper could not hope to harm him... What could they do? "Yuffie... The Summon! Did you ever get it back?"
"No..." Her reply was faint; unskilled. "No... did not... get it... back."
Then... He would have to resort to Chaos' power. Had he seen any other way out, he would have used it; anything would be better than to call upon Chaos' strength, so soon after it had almost destroyed him.
But if he did not use that power, he had no options left.
He focused inwards, and Changed.
"It's falling apart!" Tifa gasped. Something rumbled, and she hastily pushed Cloud out of the way as a large chunk of rock fell from the wall. "What's happening up there?"
"I don't know!" Cloud shouted back over the noise. "This way! I think there's fresh air coming from over there!"
"Run! I'm right behind!"
Cloud ran. And she was right behind him.
He had been right, Cloud found. It had been fresh air. And, fortunately, it had come through the door. He had been afraid that it might be a window that let the air in, but no, this time he was lucky.
They both practically fell down, ignoring the fact that the ground was hard and stony; lying there for a few seconds, holding hands and staring up into the sky.
Then a bright ray of green light shot out, over the edge of the roof; practically over their heads. Cloud and Tifa jumped to their feet, Tifa going into combat stance and Cloud readying Excalibur. Behind them, a white-clad woman stumbled through the door, looked around, terror-struck, and started running away from the building. She was one of the last to leave; most of Kane's servants having left already, their sense of self-preservation getting the better of them. No one even considered attacking their master's enemies.
"That looked like Ultima..." Tifa said as the ray faded.
"You're probably right. They have to be up there..." Cloud looked around from something that could help them get up on the roof. "How are we going to get up? Vincent must have flown... and Kane too." Tifa shook her head, as if to indicate that she, to, had no idea.
Cloud sighed. "Let's check the other sides of the building... You take the left; I'll take the right. We meet on the other side. Okay?"
"Got it, Cloud. Good luck..."
She blew him a kiss, and was off.
Kane slowly let his levitation spell carry him upwards. Chaos... an Esper... and the girl, who had some power on her own, although Kane could not feel exactly what it was. Perhaps... he thought, I should retreat...
Of course, that was not an option. He could run, but Chaos and the dragon could chase after him. The Esper could easily carry the girl with her, and when they caught up with him, Kane knew, he would be weaker. Already, he felt his strength wavering.
He had to stay and fight.
So what? After this battle...
There wasn't much more left to do.
He reached down into the ever-present power of the Planet, and smiled. Even if they killed him here, he would make sure to take them with him.
And once more, he let the air explode with green fire, flames spiralling towards his three opponents.
Mist warded off the worst effects of the Ultima spell, but the flames burned much closer now; the shield was fading. Again, Vincent shielded the others with Chaos' near-indestructible body, but he knew that if Mist's shield ever vanished... it would hurt.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and heard Yuffie's voice, "Are you all right? We have to do something! Or we'll..."
"I and Mist... are trying to protect us from his magic," he told her. "If we are to strike back... you will have to launch the first attack. Once he stops attacking..."
"Understood. Well, then..."
Yuffie fumbled in her pockets, trying to find something that could be useful against Kane, but all she had seemed to be far too weak to have any effect on the sorcerer. Hell, he had even escaped an Ultima spell without seeming to feel anything! So what...
But he had not been able to shield himself from her boomerang. She stopped. The boomerang... She had forgotten all about that. But now that she thought of it-
She had no idea what had happened, but it had happened. Maybe it could work now...
She reached up and removed the boomerang she had been carrying strapped to her back. All right, then...
Kane saw the thin sliver of steel spin through the air, glinting in the light. Damn... He teleported out of the way, letting the weapon cut through the air where he had been only a second ago. How can that be possible...?
His thoughts were cut short by a lightning-like ray slamming into his shield, knocking him back several paces. What!
The Esper! Although she was in human shape now, she still seemed to have considerable control of lightning...
Not enough, though, he thought grimly. Not anywhere near enough.
He started to gather power for a final Ultima, one that would finish them all now that the she-dragon was no longer shielding them-
The lightning-ray had not faded, and was still pressing him backwards. The Esper was occupied. Chaos, however, was not. In rapid succession, five blood-red flames struck at his shield, each in a different place, and Kane reeled backwards, regaining his balance just in time to duck out of the way as a throwing star flew towards him. Curse it! He had to drop the spell... concentrate on his shield and strengthen it. Chaos threw more flames, but now he was prepared; the fire merely pushed him backwards a little, but did not harm him, this time. They are still weak... But he was weakening as well. He could not replenish his power fast enough; slowly, he was using it up, protecting against their attacks.
He would have to do something, and fast.
He started floating upwards again, towards the broken tower.
"Master... damn!" Novo struggled to lift his head. Can't fight him... even now... He couldn't make himself strike at Kane. Not even when the sorcerer was attacking him.
This was useless. He was the one whose power and knowledge could probably bring Kane down, and yet -
He owed it to the true Kane, the man he had been before his desire and obsession destroyed him.
Even Kai, the coward... Kai, who had run away, afraid of his destiny, afraid of the power he had been born with... Even Kai had found the courage to stand up against his old master.
His old master...
Yes, he had to admit... Kane was still his master. Until recently, Novo had not considered the man a superior; perhaps an equal, but not more than so. But after that day...
What had Kane done, that day he found Excalibur? What had happened to increase his power that much?
After that day, Kane had been Novo's master, and he still was.
He managed to pull himself up, and look down at the battle below...
There was no telling who was winning. Novo was too weak to see if Kane's defences were weakening under the dragon and demon's attacks, or if the attacks themselves showed any signs of fading. But Kane was levitating closer to the tower, now, seemingly headed in Novo's direction.
If only I could strike now... It could all be over. All he had to do was turn the Soulfire on his master... Kane would never be able to deflect it in time, not now, not with two other spells to ward against at the same time. The battle would end within seconds.
All he had to do was...
...to betray the man he called his master; the man he loved like a father - indeed, perhaps he was Novo's father.
He tried to raise his hands, to point at the sorcerer... to summon that accursed black fire...
Nothing. Not even the merest flicker of darkness.
Forgive me, Susanna...
I have failed.
"Nothing?" Tifa asked as she spotted Cloud. He shook his head, and her spirits sagged. "Damn!"
There had been flashes of coloured light above, but there was no telling where they came from.
"Don't get... involved," came a familiar voice from behind a large rock.
The ran over to have a look. The speaker was sitting on the ground, back against the stone and also against the house. A multicoloured spear lay beside him -
"Cid!" they exclaimed as one. "What are you doing here?" Cloud added.
"Long story," the pilot grinned. "Got a smoke? Ah, you don't smoke, forget I asked..."
"Cid, what's going on here?" Cloud sounded rather frustrated.
"Yuffie and Vincent are up there fighting that shithead wizard... and I'm down here doing nothing. I..." He quickly described how the roof looked, and how he had carried Yuffie across it. "Then they flew off with that dragon... think Kane controlled it for a while, and it's pissed and wants revenge... heh!" He laughed, and it turned into a cough. "Damn... I'm bust. Can't even think straight. Anyway..."
"Are you all right?" Tifa wondered worriedly. "Cid, are you..."
"Tired as hell," came the reply, "but no, there isn't really anything wrong."
"Nevertheless..." Cloud enclosed a piece of Materia in his hand, and reached out to touch Cid's forehead. Healing power flowed between them, and Cid gasped and blinked, then shook his head.
"Damn!" he exclaimed. "Whoa! Damn caffeine kick!"
"Can you get us up?" Tifa asked. "Just one jump... up, on the roof."
"Can I..." Cid sighed, shoulders sagging. "Look, Tifa, you don't know what you're asking... Two of you... and up there... Oh, shit. I'm gonna have to do it, ain't I?"
"No, Cid. Only of you feel you're up to it," Tifa assured him. "Don't do anything that could hurt you."
"I bloody well can't tell you... I'm 'not up to it', now, can I?" he grinned, and pulled himself upright. "Now come on... let's get over to the wall, there, and I'll jump the two of you up."
"Novo... I need your help."
Novo tried to push himself away from Kane, but he was too weak.
"Kane... I cannot. I will not fight you... but I will not help you."
"You will not fight me?" Kane asked silkily. "Oh, well... I guess that will do."
And he reached out, and took a hold of Novo's hair, lifting him effortlessly. "Because all I need is your power."
Novo gasped - or tried to gasp. But he didn't have enough strength to draw the air into his lungs. His last strength was flowing out of him, stolen by his former master.
"Not fight me, Novo... I will take that as a yes."
And everything went black.
"He's draining power from Novo!" Mist spoke quickly, urgently. "We have to stop him!"
"What?" Yuffie asked.
"He'll take Novo's magic! He'll be even more powerful if he succeeds -"
"I will take care of it." Chaos was flying towards Kane even as the words left his mouth. Now, Kane had ceased his attacks to steal Novo's strength - this was his chance. Kane...!
Kane did not seem to notice him. Vincent flew higher, higher... then dove towards the unsuspecting sorcerer, his claws poised to tear the man's throat out...
Kane spun around, grinning, and made a sweeping motion with his hand. Invisible energy slammed into Vincent's side, throwing him off balance, and he plummeted towards the ground, barely avoiding a crash landing.
"Did you really think I would fall for that trick?" Kane asked from above, as the demon flapped his wings to rise back into the air. "You fool! How could someone like you ever inherit such a great power?" He sneered, and turned back to his work. Novo stirred slightly as Kane once more started draining his energy.
"That is... quite enough, Kane." Vincent held up his hands. "Fire..."
Below, Yuffie and Mist heard that single word, and felt the air heat.
Kane turned his head in surprise, just in time to see the massive wall of flames falling over him. Letting go of Novo, letting his creation float in the air next to him, he gestured frantically, trying to disperse of the fire... to no avail. White-hot, the flames crashed into Kane's shield, battering it from all sides. The sorcerer sank towards the ground, his back bending under the pressure, but as soon as the fires passed, he started rising again.
"Fool..." he repeated. "My shield... cannot be breached by any of the elements. Not even... coming from you."
He reached out to grab Novo again...
No! Can't let him win... Vincent backed off slightly. Mist and Yuffie were not attacking; he was too close to Kane. But what they could do would not be enough... If not even Chaos' power was enough to bring Kane down... What was there to do?
He closed his eyes. Deep below him... in the heart of the Planet... slept a power that Chaos had never touched...
Vincent now drew upon that power. Eagerly, it flowed up to him... swirling and flaming in its pure, untainted light, filling his entire body -
Cid fell to his knees, exhausted. "There..." he breathed. "Got you... up."
"Yes, Cid. You did." Tifa put a hand on his shoulder. "Cloud, can you..."
"On it." He brought out the healing Materia, activating the spell. Cid shook his head.
"Gotta... rest... Just... need to rest Get... get going... now."
"We will... Thank you." Cloud pocketed the Materia.
"Over there..." Tifa frowned. "Why aren't they acting?"
"Chaos is up there... fighting Kane. I don't think they want to hurt him as well as Kane." Cloud unsheathed Excalibur, which had rattled in his far-too-large swordsheath. "Let's go, Tifa. Maybe we can help."
Tifa dubiously looked down at her hands. "Do you really think so, Cloud?" she asked.
He stopped and looked straight ahead. "I don't know, Tifa. I honestly don't know. Still..."
He turned to look at her. "We have to try, right?"
She nodded, and smiled. "Right," she agreed, and they advanced.
The power surged, threatened to tear him apart, but still the spell did not seem about to manifest. Vincent beat Chaos' wings furiously, but there was no need; the power kept him floating. Kane had stopped moving, and was looking straight at him, an expression much like surprise on his face. Surprise... and fear?
Vincent cried out as the pain became too great to bear. White light exploded from his eyes and mouth, shooting towards the heavens. Razors seemed to rake at his very soul, tearing him to pieces, and still, the power kept building.
I can't... take this!
He was rising through the air, his wings hanging limply at his sides. The spell was propelling him up, away from the earth.
And it was killing him. Slowly, it was burning him from the inside.
His body could not hold the power, and so Vincent reacted in the only way he could -
No longer confined in the demon's shape, the force burst through his skin, but caused no pain; no harm. He gasped in wonder -
Kane, several metres below, was staring at him. Now there was no doubt; the expression on his face was one of fear. Even now, he recognised what Vincent was doing.
He knew it was drawing to a conclusion.
And so, letting the radiant light wash away all his pain, fear, sorrow... letting it wash away all the guilt and anger he had been keeping pent up inside for so long....
Vincent cast Holy.
Cloud and Tifa had no time to react. The shockwave threw them to the ground, knocking the breath from their lungs.
The light, pure and white, had been blinding. The sound was deafening. It hit a second later, rolling over them slowly but unstoppably like a glacier.
Inside the white light... images danced; barely visible, but somehow warm, familiar...
Tifa could never be certain. But in the middle of the light and the sound, she thought she heard Cloud cry out a name.
What it was, she could not hear. But she knew one thing: It was not hers.
Mist threw her hands up, trying to erect a barrier, but it was too late, and too weak. The shield shattered, throwing both Esper and Shinobi to the ground. By Bahamut's name...!
But in the middle of the light and the sound, she thought she heard the ninja cry out a name.
He fell through an endless tunnel of light; through an endless, white softness.
Then, abruptly, it was gone, and he landed hard on a stone surface.
The next second, he remembered what had happened, and sat up -
Kane was lying next to him, on his back, his eyes closed and a peaceful expression on his face. The sorcerer was not dead, yet, but close; he knew this, Vincent sensed, and welcomed it.
Then he heard the sound of running feet, and looked up to see Yuffie and the Esper running towards him... and close behind them, Cloud and Tifa.
He was lying next to Kane; wounded, but not as seriously as Kane. The old mage seemed to have broken his fall; perhaps he would live.
Yuffie reached him first, and fell to her knees just beside him. "Vincent! Vincent! Are you..."
"I have... never felt better."
He was not feeling any pain. The light of Holy...
Had he committed yet another sin? Or was it... something different, this time?
Only time would tell.
Six warriors stood in a circle, looking down at their defeated enemy.
"Is he... dead?" Yuffie asked, finally breaking the silence.
"No," Vincent said softly. "But he is close... it will not be long now."
"...I..." Kane stirred. "I cannot see."
"The light of Holy," Vincent told him softly.
"I... understand." The mage tried to take a deep breath, but choked on blood. "I am... dying, am I not?"
"By your side."
"He lives. I have healed him."
The silver-haired youth seemed to react at the mention of his name. Once more, he had returned to his human, child-like shape. "Mmm... aster... Kane..."
"My child..." Kane whispered. "I have... one final... request."
"Name it..." Novo had opened his eyes, and now he sat up, slowly, trying to ignore the pain. "Master..."
"Destroy... the throne. The Materia throne." Kane turned his face to his child, as if he was looking at him. "I cannot ask... your forgiveness. Just... destroy the... throne."
Novo shook his head, silver hair falling down to hide his face. "No, Master. I cannot forgive you. There is nothing to forgive."
Kane's head fell back, and he sighed, then coughed. A drop of blood ran down his cheek like a teardrop. "You will destroy the throne?"
"I will... Master... No... Kane."
Kane smiled. "Good..." he breathed. "Lady... Lady Esper..."
"I can say nothing."
"I know. Listen to your son, Kane. There is nothing to forgive you for. Whatever happened in the past... was not you. Rest well." Mist turned, and silently walked away.
Five steps she walked...
And then she was gone.
"Master... Chaos," Kane continued. "A power like yours... a heavy burden, yes?"
"Very heavy," Vincent said silently.
"I know..." Kane coughed, and took a slow breath. "Lady... Shinobi. I destroyed your home... Please, I have a favour to ask of you."
Yuffie remained silent, looking down at him. The once-beautiful robes were in tatters, scorched and burned; his flesh in no better condition. His entire body was smeared with blood; his own blood.
"The Holy Sword... Excalibur," Kane whispered, sliding his hand up, laying it on his chest. "Here. My heart... please."
Yuffie gave a start. "You mean... kill... you?"
Kane did not answer. For a moment, it seemed that he was dead. Then he nodded, just once. "Yes. Please. I do not... deserve that blade... perhaps, but... it is my humble wish."
Yuffie did not move for a while. Then she wordlessly held out her hand.
Cloud said nothing, but just placed the golden sword-hilt in the ninja's slim hand.
She knew where to strike. She could kill him in a dozen different ways before he noticed what was happening. Still, she just put the point of the blade on his chest, directly over the heart.
"I... can't... forgive the one who destroyed my home," she said. "But that... was not... you, was it? I don't... want to... kill anyone... anymore."
"I... see. There is... nothing I can do... then."
Yuffie lifted the sword, holding it point-down, in both hands. "Promise me..." she said softly. "Promise me, Kane... that you'll be the last... that I have to kill. Promise me."
Kane did not answer.
"I cannot promise. That is up to fate... and to you... young Kisaragi." His head fell to the side, and his breathing slowed noticeably. "Now... it is time to... say farewell."
"Kane...?" Yuffie's hands trembled. The sword was so heavy, much heavier than normal steel... "Please... sleep... in... peace."
She let the sword fall.
Excalibur easily cut through skin, flesh and bone, and what lay below. Kane stiffened, his eyes blinking open, revealing only darkness, once more.
Then he seemed to relax, and the blackness in his eyes faded away with his life.
Yuffie released the sword. It stood on its own, embedded deeply in the stone under Kane.
Her world dimmed, and she threw her arms around Vincent and cried helplessly against his chest. Carefully, he turned, shielding her from the others' eyes...
...shielding himself from their eyes.
No one saw the tears trickling down his cheeks.
For a long time, no one spoke.
Victory always tastes bittersweet. Sometimes, more bitter than sweet.
And for a victory, this was a hollow one.
"Swords will not cut it. Only fire..." Novo stumbled, and caught himself against the armrest of the throne. "It will take a... very powerful fire. You cannot... do anything about it. I must... do this alone."
Cloud stepped back, lowering his sword. The Ultima Weapon had easily come loose from the golden box, now, and Excalibur lay by the throne, on Kane's chest. "Is there anything we can do to help?" he asked.
Novo shook his head. "No, Cloud. This is my... my duty. Please... leave. This room..." He slowly turned around, his gaze wandering over the walls, the floor, the four golden boxes, the rubble... "It should be destroyed."
"What about -"
"Do not worry about the artefacts."
Cloud opened his mouth to ask how Novo could know what he had been about to say, but shut it again. There was no use. "I see," he said finally. "Novo..."
"Farewell, Cloud. I do not believe we will meet again."
Yuffie, who had been standing just inside the door, stepped up to the silver-haired child. "You aren't going to do... what Kai did." It was an order, and Novo smiled sadly and shook his head.
"No. That would not be... what I need."
"Then how... will you..."
Novo sighed, and looked up into the sky. The sun was on its way up, now, and the dark blue was brightening. "Merton," he said finally.
"It will burn you as well." Vincent looked straight at the boy. "You know that."
"Yes," Novo said, "I suppose I do. Don't worry. I'll... No, never mind. Please, everybody..."
"You can't do that!" Yuffie protested. "You can't die! Not you too!"
"Forgive me, princess. I must... do this. It is what I want. Please, everybody... leave now. Leave me."
"Come, Yuffie. There is nothing we can do." Vincent took her by the shoulder and led her towards the door, and Yuffie did not protest. "Novo... take this." He turned and tossed a bracelet to the magician; a golden-red bracelet, the one he had been wearing himself. "Wear it. Please."
Novo nodded. "I will. Thank you, Vincent. And farewell. We are lucky... you are the one who carries Chaos' power."
Vincent wordlessly turned away and walked through the door. Cloud, Cid and Tifa followed him, and they closed the battered door behind them.
"So..." Tifa said, feeling the need to break the silence.
"We walk," Vincent said simply. "Come."
Novo smiled as he pulled on the bracelet. It wouldn't protect him; he and Vincent both knew that. Still...
He sat down on the throne. "Master... I hope... you'll find peace."
Then he gathered the power for this one, final spell, and, after one last look at his beloved father, he let the magic flow free.
The explosion rocked the entire building, throwing everybody except Vincent and Yuffie off their feet. As they picked themselves up, the ninja turned around and ran for the pentagram room; Vincent followed her, and, as soon as they got to their feet, so did the others.
The door was gone. They found Yuffie standing in the opening, the intense heat keeping her from entering.
The room was empty. The floor and walls had been turned to glass where the spell-flames had touched them, and everywhere, little pieces of Materia glittered, melted into the very stone.
"He's... gone." Her voice seemed hollow, empty. "Gone."
Vincent took her hand. "Come, Yuffie. It was his own decision."
"No. Not now. Let's go, Yuffie..."
And they did.
They walked for a couple of hours, and finally found the place where Novo had told them to go. And as he had said, they also found Cid's plane there.
"Right where he said it would be..." Cid muttered, running a hand over the Tiny Bronco's propeller. "Not a scratch, too... Guess he had no reason to lie to us, had he?"
"But we won't all fit in there," Cloud pointed out.
"No... I suppose not..."
"Do not worry," Vincent said. "I will carry Yuffie back to Wutai."
"What about the Chocobos?" Yuffie mumbled. "We can't just leave them there..."
"They will fly back home in a couple of days, when they realise no one is coming back for them," Vincent reassured her. "Cid, if you please..."
"Huh?" the pilot asked. "Oh, yeah, that's right - the Materia. Here..." He reached into a pocket, and handed the red crystal to Yuffie. "You won't tell us what it contains, will you?"
"No," Vincent said before Yuffie could answer. "Some things are better left unsaid."
Cid sighed. "Oh well... Guys... hop aboard."
Cloud and Tifa climbed into the back seat, and Cid started the engine, letting the plane roll forwards somewhat, positioning it for takeoff. "So, Vincent... we'll see you in Wutai, then."
"You should go home. Wutai can wait; go home first."
Cid nodded slowly. "Yeah... I suppose..."
Tifa cleared her throat. The pilot snorted. "Yeah, right... I still have to buy Shera a really expensive dinner."
"I... see," Vincent said, although, for once, he seemed a bit surprised. "Then..."
"For now," Cloud finished. "We'll see each other again."
For a second, Vincent seemed to smile. "Yes," he said softly. "I believe we will."
- A few hours earlier... -
High above the building, a man smiled sadly. He shook a few droplets of molten red metal from his left hand and wrist, and ran the fingers of his right hand over the burns. The damaged skin knitted back together, and he flexed his hands, finding them perfectly unharmed.
Silver hair fluttering in the breeze, he looked down at the white building for a while, and at the little figures leaving it.
Leaving the unmarked graves of the three persons he had respected most; three persons whose courage he would always remember.
For a second, his gaze lingered on the ruins...
Then he turned his back on them, and started walking, never looking back.
- One day later... -
The Tiny Bronco touched down on the water just outside Costa del Sol, and Cid steered it close to the pier. Cloud and Tifa carried their luggage ashore, and said their goodbyes to the pilot.
"Don't forget that dinner," Tifa said as she embraced him.
"I won't," Cid promised. "But now you'd better let go of me... before your boyfriend becomes jealous."
Tifa grinned, and let go of him. Cid made a mock salute, which Cloud returned, and then steered his plane away from the shore.
Cloud and Tifa watched until the 'Bronco was a tiny dot on the horizon.
"Home..." Tifa sighed, and put one arm around Cloud's waist.
"Home," he agreed, and hugged her back. "Tifa... let's go home."
They headed for the Villa Strifehart. On the way, however, they passed a newsstand, and Tifa spotted a headline. "Hey, Cloud -"
"New Shinra President leaves Midgar," he read. "Reopens 'New Junon' project...?"
"Let's buy the paper," Tifa suggested.
They did, and sat down on a convenient seat. Cloud opened the paper, and they started reading the article.
The new Shinra President, Reeve Santine, has decided to leave now-ruined Midgar City. In an exclusive interview, he told our correspondent that he intends to have the old Junon city blocks reopened. "Even without Mako energy", the president says, "we can still house many in the old Shinra buildings. With a long-term plan to restore the soil around Junon, we can have farming going on within ten years. If we keep building out the city, we may be able to accommodate up to eighty percent of the survivors from the Meteor incident within half that time...
They stopped reading and looked at each other in astonishment.
"Reeve's... really taking this President thing seriously, isn't he?" Tifa said after the initial shock subsided.
"He certainly is..."
"Cloud, let's finish the article when we get inside, okay?"
"Hmm... yeah," he agreed. "Let's."
And so, they picked up their bags, and headed towards the house that had become their home.
The door opened as Cloud laid his hand on the handle. "What...?"
Suddenly, something tore the door from his grasp, throwing it open. Cloud's hand went for the Ultima Weapon, but-
"Cloud!" Barret seemed genuinely surprised. "You're back!"
"What is this commotion...?" Something red with four legs and a glowing tail stepped around Barret, and a dog-like face turned towards Cloud.
"Nanaki!" Cloud exclaimed, now truly confused.
"But... what are you doing here?" Tifa asked, every bit as puzzled as Cloud.
"Well, Marlene said she wanned to see you people again, an' so we thought we'd come over an' say hello..." Barret scratched his head. Cloud and Tifa suddenly noticed that he was in full travel gear, and had a pack strapped to his back. Red, too, wore a backpack; a rather unusual model, specially designed for him. "But you weren't home, an' I figured we'd stay a couple'a days before goin' on. After all, you did invite us... and you gave me da key, so I figured it's all right."
"Yes... of course it is!" Tifa assured him. "But why the travel gear? Are you leaving?"
"Yeah, seein' as you were still gone, I figured we'd head over to Cid's place an' ask him if he'd seen you. B'sides, it's bin awhile since we saw 'im."
"Barret stopped by at Cosmo Canyon a while ago," Nanaki purred. "He asked if I would like to come with him and Marlene and visit you. That was... almost a month ago. We thought maybe you had decided to stay a while in Rocket Town or Wutai, so we intended to follow you... after all, we, too, have been lax in visiting our friends."
Cloud and Tifa looked at each other. Then they shook their heads, and started to laugh.
"You had better get back in," Tifa told the two guests, taking Barret by the arm and pulling him with her through the door. "We have so much to tell you."
She fell into Godo's arms.
"Yuffie, we have been worried! Look at you... What in the world happened?"
She turned her head to look at Vincent, who was standing a bit to the side, arms crossed and leaning his back against a large, ugly statue, depicting a famous warrior. He shrugged.
"Well..." she started. "I sort of..."
Words are limited. Yuffie knew she had run out of words, and so she just hugged her father tight, resting her chin against his shoulder. "Nothing," she murmured. "Nothing happened... at all."
Unseen, Vincent faded away into the shadows, and was gone, absorbed into the night.
Yuffie held on to Godo for dear life, while Shake, Gorky, Staniv and Chekov gathered around, all of them asking questions she did not hear. Still, the wounds she had sustained bled, but now she felt that maybe, somehow, sometime, they would heal.
She turned her head to look at Vincent, to ask him if he felt the same.
He had vanished. But from some reason, she didn't miss him; he didn't feel gone.
And at last, she smiled.
Of course he wasn't gone. None of them was gone.
She would carry them in her heart...
Afterword (or, "author's notes", or something like it)
...finally finished. This is my longest fic so far! O_o 108 (that number keeps popping up everywhere!) pages, and over 83000 words... ugh! Here are a few things I thought I should say before wrapping it all up for this time:
- I am assuming that the "Chaos" that Vincent turns into is the same "Chaos" as the one in the first Final Fantasy game. This is the reason why I made Vincent so powerful. The original Chaos, for those of you who still don't know, was a most vexing guy, and, as far as I know, the only Final Boss ever to know Fullcure! (Well, or Cure4, as it was called at the time...)
- I know I have altered a few things from how they looked in the game - especially the layout of houses and towns, since I'm too lazy to check every building that I'm writing about (and sometimes because it makes no sense with a town with only, like, five houses in it, four of which are various shops)... Just so you purists (the people who claim everything has to be taken straight from the game) know. :P
- I made up Reeve's last name; I can't seem to find any information about that anywhere. If someone has heard of an official last name for Reeve, please let me know.
- When Vincent casts Holy, it's not the "special FF7 version" of it; it's the "original" version (the one they call "holy" in FF8, "pearl" in FF6, and so on). Just so you know. But you probably figured it out already... (Am I the only one who's annoyed about the lack of Holy elemental spells in FFVII?)
- This fic was originally meant to "complete" Order and CHAOS, seeing as there were a few things left unsaid there... but I realise that even though this story turned out a lot longer than I imagined when I started writing it, there are still unanswered questions to be found... Argh. Maybe there will be a sequel... Argh! Put that pitchfork away, please!
Okay, that's basically all I had to say... Hey, what did you think? Was it good, was it bad, or was it somewhere in between? I'd really like to hear "it was definitely worth the time it took to read it", but even if you hated it, please tell me about it - and preferably why, as well... Hopefully, I'll be able to make the next one better. ;)
Oh, and: Any similarities between this story and Slayers is a coincidence! I started writing this before I saw the battles with Rezo and "Copy Rezo" (you wouldn't believe exactly how I watched Slayers)... I wouldn't have written Kane like that if I had known more about the Red Priest... >_<
Anyway... if there's anything you'd like to say to me, do so at email@example.com.
Lastly: Thanks for reading! :) I had fun writing this; I hope you had as much fun reading!
Jonatan L's Fanfiction