Venus Gospel Logos Part 1

By Princess Artemis

Two days later, a new visitor to Rocket Town walked quietly into the Shanghai-Tei. He was a tall man with silky black hair that hung to his waist; the top held back with a silver clasp, allowing the rest to fall loose. His skin was very pale, almost unnaturally so, but his eyes were black as jet. The coal color was reflected in the dark black clothing that he wore, which was similar to a monk’s robe but with crisper lines. He slowly looked around the small tavern, searching for the dragon’s son. His own father’s vapors would make a powerful servant out of the ruin left of the flyer’s dragon spirit. Glancing around once more, he spotted the one he sought. Shaking his head at the idea that such an average, ordinary looking man could ever have come from the line of Bahamut, he walked over and sat at the bar. Ignoring the bartender, he watched the dragon’s son and his companions. The flyer sat at a table near the door, chair leaning precariously back and feet propped up on the table. The dark man could feel this one was a flyer indeed, born for the heavens. It wasn’t just that he wore the garb of what others called a pilot; more to the point, it was the fact that the flyer had no part of him touching the ground. Even in such a plain, mundane setting as a bar in some old town, he still subconsciously attempted to keep himself in the air. The dark man felt in his gut that Bahamut’s blood was stronger in this one than in most. Yet it was still very weak; by all rights, the man’s dragon blood should have felt the dark one’s presence.

The stranger looked to the man’s companions. One was a blond man with wild hair, possibly the wildest he had ever laid eyes on, while the other was a fire red animal, every bit as much a wolf as it was a lion. Its tail fire flickered warmly, sending a few sparks into the air as it twitched it back and forth near the table, just like a cat. The spiky-haired one glanced toward the bar. The dark man caught his look, noting the glow of his Mako eyes. The dark man stood up, straightened his robe, and then walked over to the dragon son’s table. Grabbing a chair as he went, the man bowed deeply, causing his black hair to cascade down his shoulders. "May I join you, most worthy gentlemen?"

"Uh, sure," said the man with wild hair, motioning to an empty space with one gloved hand. He sat gracefully. The dark man noticed the dragon’s son grab a cigarette and light up. He smiled slightly. Fire breathing dragon, he thought in amusement.

The dark man’s smile widened. Bowing his head, he declared, "My name is Seir. I have come from the deep mount of the north to bring greetings from the line of Ancalagon the Black to the most honorable son of Bahamut." He held his pale hands out, palm up toward the dragon’s son.

The three companions stared at him for a moment, at a loss for words. Recovering quickly, Cid declared, "You’re a friggin’ nutcase." He blew smoke in the stranger’s face.

Red XIII, ever practical, turned to the man and asked calmly, "To whom are you speaking, sir?"

Waving the smoke from his face, Seir asked, "What are your names, gentlemen? Then I may answer." He turned to face Red XIII.

The fiery animal answered, nodding to each of his companions as he introduced them. "This is Cloud Strife and Cid Highwind. I am called Red XIII."

Seir acknowledged each in turn then bowed his head again. "It is to Mister Highwind, son of Bahamut, that I address my greeting."

Both Cloud and Cid exchanged a look, thinking, Is this guy for real? Cid chuckled slightly, taking a drag off his cigarette. "My old man could be a big pain in the $#@ sometimes, but he sure as hell wasn’t a dragon." His face clearly expressed the low opinion he held concerning Seir’s sanity.

"I met your parents once," Cloud stated. "I don’t remember them having wings and tails. Sure would explain your temper, though." Cloud barely dodged the half-used cigarette Cid flicked at him. He snickered at Cid’s reaction. Sometimes it sure felt good to bait friends.

"Ah, you have misunderstood me. You are separated from your father by many thousands of years. It is through your mother that your line is traced, back through the great Dragoons of old and on to the King of Monsters. Bahamut’s blood runs very thin in your veins," Seir replied.

"Well, dammit, if you had just said so the first time, I woulda believed you!" Cid retorted, voice thick with sarcasm. "Maybe I oughta summon Daddy and have him wipe the floor with your crazy $%#!" He grabbed another cigarette and lit it, blowing more smoke in Seir’s face.

Red XIII looked thoughtful. "Perhaps we could summon Bahamut and ask him about it."

Cid sat forward in his chair, removing his feet from the table. Both Cloud and Cid looked at their animal friend, incredulous. "You don’t actually think it’s possible that Cid is part dragon!" Cloud asked in shock.

"Some friggin’ Joe Blow nut comes in on off the street and feeds us some line of $#@%^$#* and now I’m a monster!!" Cid yelled, slamming one gloved fist on the table. Something must have been bothering him deeply for him to get so angry so fast. "Red, you’re nuttier than this loon!"

Looking slightly foolish, Red XIII hung his head, but still looked in their faces with his one good eye. "It’s possible. It’s happened before."

Seir dipped his head in gratitude toward Red XIII. He turned again to face Cid. "Does not your soul ache for the heavens? Is it not so strong a longing that at times you can leap into the air, to fly without your father’s wings?" He apparently was referring to Cid’s numerous jumping limits.

Cid muttered some foul curse. He knew the ancient Dragoons could jump as he did, except they could do so at will. This was really beginning to piss him off. He muttered something about always winning at the high jump in school, then went on to say in a louder voice, "Doesn’t mean I have any damn dragon blood in me. What does jumping have to do with anything?"

"You know it was the power of the Dragoons," Seir answered. "The passion to fly, but without the ability to truly do so. Yet they could leap as no other."

"Dragoons aren’t dragons, Seir," Cloud countered.

"My tribe has many legends handed down from the past concerning monsters and Ancients producing children. It was not a common practice, but several great monsters were known to have human children. Maduin’s daughter is the best-documented case, but it is known that Shiva and Bahamut also had children by the Ancients. They all carried some of their parent’s power." Red XIII explained.

"@#%$!! You ain’t helpin’, Red! Go chase a mouse or something," Cid yelled at the fiery animal. Red XIII growled a harumph, then curled up on the floor, setting his head on his paws.

Seir just shrugged. "It doesn’t matter if you believe me. Your own dragon spirit speaks against you. Nevertheless, I have a gift for you as well as a greeting from the children of Ancalagon the Black." Cloud leaned in close to Cid and whispered, "Isn’t Ancalagon a dragon in those hobbit stories?"

"Dunno," Cid answered under his breath. Cid had ignored the common knowledge that one must read Tolkien’s masterpiece before graduating from college.

Seir reached into his dark robe and pulled out what looked like a short black-bladed dagger mounted in a glass hilt. All three companions tensed, suddenly unsure of Seir’s intentions. Up to now, he seemed harmless, but that had become uncertain. Seir turned the blade over in his narrow hands, allowing the dim light of the tavern to illuminate its edges. "This," Seir explained, "is the least of Ancalagon’s scales. It is mounted in diamond. It is sharp and very powerful. The darkness of Ancalagon’s heart is contained within it. A relic of a long forgotten age." The dark man looked down at the blade, smiling almost fondly at it. He gazed at the weapon for a long moment, perhaps remembering a time when the owner of the scale terrorized the world. A slight movement, a twitch of Seir’s hand, and before anyone could react, the dagger neatly entered Cid’s throat, through his scarf, imbedding itself in his spine.

Cid blinked in shock. He heard his breath whistle around the scale, gurgling slightly. Apparently the blade was indeed sharp; it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as Cid would have expected a slit throat would.

Both Cloud and Red XIII got up quickly. Cloud reached out to take the dagger from his friend’s neck. Seir shot forth one pale hand and clasped Cloud’s wrist, preventing him from reaching the blade. "That would not be wise," Seir stated calmly. Cloud shot him a death glare then again moved to reach the blade. Seir’s hand restrained Cloud effortlessly. "The scale is extremely sharp. If you drew it from the throat of this dragon child, you may very likely cut him to ribbons. It will slice bone as easily as flesh. Are you so sure of your steadiness of hand?"

Red XIII growled. Seir was probably right. The blade that had neatly bisected Cid’s larynx had drawn little blood, indicative of its sharpness. If the edge was as keen as the dark man said, it would take remarkable reflexes or complete stillness to remove it without severely injuring Cid. His growl deepened. "Listen to him, Cloud," he hissed through exposed teeth.

Cloud withdrew his hand, fuming. Murder in his stare, he clenched his jaw and asked in fury, "What do you want."

Seir merely motioned for silence. He gazed intently at Cid as he struggled to breathe around the black object stuck in his throat. Cid gazed back, angry as hell. The blood from his wound trickled down his windpipe, choking him for a second. That was all it took. He coughed hard, causing the imbedded knife to further cut his flesh. He gasped, which only sucked in more choking blood. Coughing harder, he contorted in pain and fell out of his chair, landing hard on his side. He tried to grab the offensive blade, but Seir had somehow managed to take hold of both his arms. Blood trickled out of his mouth; each time he gagged and coughed the blade cut again. Something black and vile began to fume from the blade, dark and nauseating. Cid inhaled the evil fumes along with a sudden breath. The dank vapors turned his stomach. It was utterly revolting and it felt like it was trying to drown him. He thrashed violently, trying desperately to free his arms from Seir’s strong grasp.

As soon as Seir released his hand, Cloud leapt over the table and on to the dark man’s back. His arms closed around Seir’s neck in a viscous headlock, intending to choke the life out of him. Seir, however, was much stronger than he appeared. He couldn’t defend himself without letting go of Cid’s arms, but Cloud’s strength wasn’t sufficient to crush his throat so he was in no real danger. Whatever half-baked ideas he had about Cid, Cloud almost thought Seir might have been a dragon for his strength.

Seir yelped in pain as he felt the deadly quills that made up Red XIII’s feathered headdress rake across his arm, drawing blood. Seir lost his grip on Cid’s arm, but it didn’t matter now. The time had come. He reached down and freed the dagger with one swift, graceful motion. Black vapors curled around the blade then went out, but not before it assaulted Red XIII’s sensitive nose. He howled at the utter evil he smelled and cried for the vile stench to leave him.

The dagger disappeared inside Seir’s dark cloak. He watched dispassionately as Cid slowed his frantic struggling. He couldn’t breathe through the black fumes filling his lungs. Seir let go of his other arm, allowing it to fall limp over Cid’s chest. He turned his head in an attempt to face Cloud. "Tend to the dragon’s son. See? He is drowning."

Cloud was furious. The tavern had emptied quickly, apparently full of cowards who didn’t even have the guts to call for help, much less aid their Captain. He wanted so badly to take something, anything and run this madman through, but he realized if he took the time, Cid would probably die. With a cry of helpless frustration, Cloud jumped over to where Cid lay. "Red, watch that bastard," he growled through clenched teeth. Red XIII turned his one good eye on Seir while Cloud dragged Cid out into a straight position. It was obvious he had stopped breathing and his lips were fast turning blue, but his eyes were full of panic even as his consciousness slipped away. Cloud tilted Cid’s head back a little, then silently groaned at what he must do. It was completely irrational, but somehow he couldn’t shake the idiotic thought that he was about to full on kiss Cid. This was even worse than his trepidation concerning little Priscilla of Junon, but then as now, he had no other choice. Taking in a breath, he decided that after this, he would just have to get that stupid idea out of his head. Go into counseling or something. It was costing Cid precious time. So, before his resolve faltered, he placed a hand over the hole in Cid’s neck and tried to exhale the air into his chest. He couldn’t; perhaps Cid really was drowning.

Seir declared, "He’s drowning you idiot."

Cloud stared daggers at the dark haired man, then turned back to Cid. He moved down a bit and tried to force out whatever it was blocking his lungs. Some thick tarry substance spurted out of Cid’s mouth and throat. He pushed one more time, forcing out a good bit more of the gunk. He moved back up and quickly removed as much of the tar as he could, then blew in another breath for Cid. This time Cloud saw Cid’s chest rise and fall. After a few more tries, Cid sputtered and coughed. Relief washed over Cloud as Cid began breathing more normally. He coughed hard, wincing with pain as the force of it pushed his wound against Cloud’s hand. A few more productive hacks later, Cid roused himself, something approaching a normal color returning to his face. He looked up at Cloud who was grinning in relief and attempted to say something. No sound came out. He scowled in frustration after a second attempt to speak failed. Feeling something on his face, Cid moved one hand up to examine the stuff. He looked at the black sludge on his fingertips, then glanced a question at Cloud.

Cloud opened his mouth to respond, but Seir answered. "Nicotine," he stated simply.

Cid about threw a fit. He had had just about enough of this crazy son of a #$%@*^. Furious, he lifted his right arm and drew a cross in the air with a clenched fist. He then pointed his arm at the dark man, guiding the quickly materializing dragon to its target. It hissed in anger as it encircled Seir, sucking out much of his life and giving it to Cid. Seir stumbled back as the dragon faded, dizzy from the sudden weakness. He recovered quickly, however. Bowing low and holding his hands out much as he had before, he said graciously, "You have a fine dragon’s heart, stronger than I thought. May it serve you well, son of Bahamut." He turned to leave, but thought better of it when he met Red XIII’s dark stare.

Cid laid his head back against the hardwood floor, closing his eyes. Dragon…somehow Seir’s words suddenly rang true. It was madness, but his dragon spirit had indeed witnessed against him. It wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence that someone could summon a dragon without materia just because they were pissed off. The realization that some part of him, no matter how small, was not human, was unexpectedly painful. Darkness passed , clouding his vision for a moment. "Damn," he whispered.

Cloud looked down at Cid, realizing he had heard him speak without any touch of wind on his hand. He lifted his hand. The wound was gone, apparently healed by Cid’s Dragon limit. Cloud sat back against the wall, crossing his legs. "What in the hell do you want?" he yelled at Seir, anger thick in voice.

"For the truth to be known, to end the lies. Your friend isn’t human. His form may be human, but his soul is as much that of a beast as any dragon’s," Seir answered. He turned to look at Cid. "What have you done, dragon? Whom have you injured with your inhuman heart? Animal. You make me sick." Seir growled low, venom dripping from every word.

Cid made no response other than to grimace slightly.

Surprised by Seir’s words, Red XIII asked, "Why do you call Cid honorable and then only moments later an animal? How can you denounce him as such when you yourself admit you are the progeny of a dragon?"

Seir laughed, cold as ice. "The difference, worthy creature, is that I know what I am. And I act accordingly. It makes me ill to see creatures deny their true selves, acting human when they are not. I am a true son of my father. Perhaps your friend will realize his bestial roots. I hope so." With that, Seir’s form suddenly shifted to something monstrous, then to vapor, which dissipated quickly.

* * *

Red XIII walked out of the Shanghai-Tei, anxiously watching the shadows for the dark man Seir. He sniffed the air, sensing some malintent, but unable to place the source. The sensation was much like knowing there was a criminal breaking in to the home of someone who lived on the other side of town. It was not in any way a present threat.

He twitched his flaming tail once, then turned to his companions. "I believe he is gone. I don’t smell him anywhere."

Cloud helped Cid to his feet then supported him on the way out the door. Cid coughed again, grimacing at the tarry substance this produced. He lifted to his mouth the cloth napkin Cloud had "appropriated" on his behalf and wiped the dark slime away. He felt surprisingly weak; of course, some was to be expected, after all, he did just have his throat slip by an insane stranger. That took an emotional and physical toll, however this weakness was something else entirely. It was deeper than that. He felt as though his will had been fatally damaged; he didn’t want to put one foot before the other, to hold himself up, or even to breathe. He knew it was ludicrous to give in to such weakness of will, but whatever shaky cord it was that held him back was quickly disintegrating.

The three companions slowly made their way toward Cid’s house. Red XIII found himself drawn deeper and deeper in thought concerning the events of the evening. There certainly was something very strange about a seeming madman coming out of the blue and making an attempt on Cid’s life. That much was obvious. However, there was something more to it than just a homicidal man’s indulging himself. The fiery animal felt some explanation tickling the back of his mind. The fumes from the blade and the tarry stuff Cid kept coughing up were decidedly unusual. He smelled the evil in the fumes and he knew Cid could hardly have missed it; Red XIII thought it was perfectly understandable to get violently ill at the strength of the evil in the vapors. The tar however lacked that deep sense of evil, but they were obviously related; that was plain to smell. He would watch Cid carefully over the next few days to see how he reacted to the substances. It would provide valuable clues, as well as easing his anxious mind. He considered Cid a friend, and he had no wish to see him come to harm.

As they reached Cid’s doorstep, Red XIII looked up at the pilot and asked, "May I stay here a few days? I would not take up much space."

Cid blinked listlessly, seeming to rouse himself from some distant place, then nodded his head. "Ask Shera to be sure," he added in a voice less than a whisper.

Red XIII nodded while Cloud opened the door. He helped Cid over the doorstep then to the less than new couch that occupied much of the space in the front room. Cid sat down heavily and wiped more black tar and blood from his mouth.

The large animal padded quietly over to what he guessed was Shera’s room. He was reluctant to wake her, but felt she would like to know what happened. He carefully tapped his claws on her door until he heard Shera stirring. She opened the door, rubbing her eyes. She looked over Red XIII’s head, seeing no one. When she realized that it wasn’t Cid knocking on her door, she looked around more carefully until her tired eyes landed on the animal. "Hello, Red," she muttered as kindly as possible when one has just woke from a sound sleep.

"Hello, Shera," he said quietly, his voice almost a purr at that level. "Would you please come into the front room?"

Shera blinked as she stepped out of her room. "Is something wrong?" she asked groggily.

"Yes," Red XIII replied. "Cid has been attacked by a strange man at the Shanghai-Tei." When they reached the front room, Shera took in a surprised breath. As a rule, Shera was cool as a cucumber. The woman faced fifteen seconds before she would be fried by a rocket engine and still managed to keep enough wits about her to perform precise diagnostic tests. She was usually unflappable. But being intellectual and rational left her defenseless when something got under her skin. Cid did so with great élan, so she was prone to lose her cool when it came to him. She immediately moved to Cid’s side, sitting down on his right and gently turning his head to face her. She held his head tenderly.

"Oh, Captain…what happened to you?" she asked as she took the napkin out of his loose grasp and began removing the rest of the tar and dried blood from his face.

Eyes hooded and dull, Cid moved his jaw as if to say something, but no sound came out. His jaw remained slack and any spark of expression drained from his face. It was obvious he had completely retreated from reality. Shera looked toward Cloud and Red XIII anxiously, looking for help.

Cloud scratched his head with one gloved hand, causing his wild blond spikes to bob up and down. "I don’t know. Someone came in to the bar and attacked him. The guy was loonier than a ‘toon, a regular crackpot; kept calling Cid stuff like ‘dragon son’ and things like that. He disappeared before we could stop him."

Red XIII elaborated. "The man called himself Seir. He claimed to be the son of Ancalagon the Black. He also claimed that Cid was a descendant of a dragon, this time Bahamut."

Shera shook her head. "Ancalagon is a fictional dragon, and I thought Bahamut was just a summon. Hmmm, there is a lot of mithril in the world…makes me wonder about the history of our Planet…Well, anyway, it’s silly. The Captain can’t be part dragon." She stroked Cid’s blond hair, perhaps trying to comfort him, but he didn’t so much as blink.

"There is evidence to suggest that Ancalagon my indeed have lived on our world long ago before the seas were bent, as evidenced by the abundance of mithril among other things; and Bahamut is the King of Monsters. He doesn’t live on this world which is why we only know him as a summon. It is known that he had human children. However, any relationship to Cid is mere speculation." Red XIII replied. He licked one paw then washed an ear, prompting Shera to remove his Limited Moon headdress and clean Seir’s blood from the dagger-like Luna Raptor feathers. Red XIII blinked in surprise. She was a very kind human indeed. He washed his ear once more then continued on with his elaboration. "The dagger Seir had did indeed appear to be a small scale from a black dragon. It was with that knife that he attacked Cid." The animal very carefully traced a line with one claw along Cid’s neck, extending from just below his jaw to approximately halfway down his neck. "The dagger first entered here," he stated, pointing a claw. "Apparently the tip was imbedded in a vertebra. It neatly bisected his larynx, which only made it difficult for him to breathe. I believe this was Seir’s plan all along, for the blade began to fume. The smell of it was evil." At this point, Red XIII wrinkled his nose, almost snarling at the memory of that stench. "Cid became very ill. I believe the fumes condensed into that tarry substance he has been coughing up."

Shera looked under Cid’s chin at the spot Red XIII pointed out. She was relieved to find it had completely vanished.

"He summoned a dragon," Cloud stated, "and it healed him."

"A dragon…? That’s one of his limits. He told me about it, but I never saw it," Shera replied.

Cloud shrugged. "It seemed to really upset him. I think all of Seir’s dragon nonsense started to get to him. Anyway, Seir left after retrieving his dagger. When we got here, Cid was still with us. I mean, he was awake."

Shera frowned, looking carefully at Cid. "I wonder what really happened…" she whispered, more to herself than to anyone else. She carefully removed Cid’s ever-present flight goggles and laid them on the coffee table. He never moved; his eyes were still open somewhat, but he stared at nothing. "Cloud? We should get him to bed. Would you help me?"

"Yeah," Cloud answered. It took some doing; Cid was not a small man and his catatonic state made him especially unwieldy. The job did eventually get finished, with only minor bumps incurred from trying to negotiate the hall without dropping him. Red XIII curled up on the floor next to Cid’s bed. For some reason he could not fathom, Cloud and Shera both found it highly amusing that he insisted on circling the spot several times before settling down. Perhaps it was just late, or the stress of the evening. After Shera quietly closed the door, Red XIII wished, for a moment, that he could curl up on Cid’s feet, or better yet, in his hair, but that was something only tiny cubs did. He guessed he must just be afraid for his friend…at times like this, he felt just like a scared little cub. He laid his head on his paws and tried to sleep.

Out in the front room, Shera said, "You can stay here if you like, Cloud. You can take my room."

"I can just snag the couch. Thank you for the offer, though," Cloud responded.

"Good night, Cloud…and thank you for taking care of the Captain," Shera said, her words interrupted by a quiet yawn.

Cloud stretched his arms in front of him, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Shera? Can I ask you something?"

She turned toward Cloud, stifling another yawn. "Sure."

"Why do you always call Cid ‘Captain’?" he asked, then almost immediately regretted it. He had always been curious how this strange relationship came about, but he felt like he was being way too nosy, and at this hour?

Shera brushed a stray hair out of her face, a pensive look crossing her features. "I don’t always," she said, "but I guess it’s partly out of habit and partly to keep my distance. It’s hard sometimes to maintain this little world we’ve made. I don’t like it when things get unpredictable. Things get messy…," she paused, becoming uncomfortable with the subject. The truth of the matter was that it was one small thing she did to set a boundary over which she would not cross. She and Cid often brought out the best in each other, but it was a two way street. They knew things about one another only the best of friends could know, they could talk for hours about anything, or nothing…and they could fight like cats and dogs. Whenever that metaphorical line in the sand was crossed, whenever the Captain became Cid Highwind, someone inevitably got hurt. And despite Cid’s harsh words and contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t always Shera who got hurt. So as much as possible she lived with the Captain and not Cid Highwind.

"I’m sorry, Shera. I get too nosy for my own good sometimes. I didn’t mean to upset you," Cloud apologized.

Shera shook her head. "No, don’t worry about it. Just get some sleep." With that, she returned to her room and softly shut the door.

Lying down on the couch, Cloud thought about Shera’s words and her sad expression. He guessed that she didn’t trust Cid, but she probably didn’t have any reason to. But she obviously cared about him a great deal… Maintaining her distance. Things getting messy. He wondered why they didn’t just ‘fess up to what was plain to everyone else. The thought deepened, but he pushed it away before it really registered. Somewhere in the dark recesses Cloud carefully avoided, he knew he didn’t trust Tifa, either. He didn’t want to admit it, but it was true. No matter how close they had become in the Lifestream…there was something unnamed and ignored that he couldn’t let go of. He turned over on the couch, changing positions as much to rid himself of those nagging thoughts as to get more comfortable. With the truth firmly denied, Cloud fell asleep.

* * *

No, Cid.

It’s not time yet, this won’t do…don’t lose your will yet.

Leave Cid…You can’t continue like this, unforgiven.

Can’t be forgiven, dragon son, heartless beast.

She did it out of self-defense. Always hurting, always torn, she had to do it.

Some memory he shouldn’t have came unbidden to his mind. Some terrific pain, his flesh burning, seared by rage. He heard it, smelled it, liquid fire tearing up his senses. Couldn’t see, lost his hearing, then everything else was gone.

What was done to your face was done to her soul…but slower…she never faded away…felt it every time. It can never be forgiven. She had every right.

Cid jerked, tossing in his bed. He coughed up more tar, the black slime slithering down his face and onto his sheets. He groaned in his sleep, trying to hide, to flee his thoughts, but he couldn’t. Something wouldn’t allow him to retreat into the coward’s twilight he had fallen into earlier that night. He thrashed harder, moaning, fighting to escape insurmountable guilt and dark accusing thoughts.

Red XIII pricked his ears. He remained motionless, fighting the natural instinct to wake his friend from his nightmares. It was more important to gather evidence and observe Cid’s reaction so that a workable solution could be reached; either to cure or combat whatever it was causing his condition. That sense of nearby darkness tickled the animal’s mane, causing his hackles to stand on end.

Cid sat up with a start, chased back to the land of the living by something very dark. He coughed uncontrollably, the traces of the black tar trickling down his chin and onto his bedding. Red XIII brought him a damp towel from the restroom, which Cid accepted gratefully, holding it to his mouth while he coughed.

"Cid, are you feeling all right? Were you having a nightmare?" Red XIII asked calmly after Cid’s coughing subsided.

Still wiping up the tar, Cid glanced over at the fiery red animal. "Think I broke something…" he said weakly, holding his side with his free hand.

"It happens. How do you feel otherwise?"

"I don’t know, Red." Cid looked down at the dirty cloth. "What is this?"

Red XIII cocked his head. "I suspect it is some residue from the black fumes. Perhaps it has condensed to liquid."

All at once, Cid shivered. He hugged himself tightly, bowing his head. The memory of those fumes terrified him. Choking, black…not the black of night but the deepest dark of the pit of emptiness, whose walls closed in tight and rose so high no light could penetrate. It was the horror of utter despair.

"I smelled it, too," Red XIII commented, knowing what it was Cid recalled. "But it isn’t in the precipitate…perhaps the vapor was only a vehicle for the dark presence we felt."

Still trembling, Cid made an attempt to put a cigarette in his mouth, but he couldn’t keep a grip on it. After dropping it several times, he gave up.

Suddenly, Red XIII jumped to the window, setting his large paws on the sill. The shadow passed, whispering sinister secrets through the trees.

"What was that?" Cid asked, sensing some faint presence.

Red XIII shook his head, causing the small beads that decorated his mane to sway. "Perhaps we should investigate."

"Yeah…" Cid got up and slipped on a warm robe and slippers. Red XIII made some grunting noise that was his equivalent of a chuckle. Even if Jenova had been standing there in all her evil glory, Red XIII would still have to laugh.

Cid wore bunny slippers. Very old, worn, beat up bunny slippers.

"Oh, shut the hell up. I’ve had them for years." The owner of the battered slippers glared at Red XIII, but without his usual heat. Cid was still deeply terrified.

Out of a real need to relieve Cid’s tension Red XIII remarked, "Did Shera buy them for you?"

Cid quickly smacked Red XIII on the nose with one of the aforementioned bunny slippers. "Yes, dammit! Now are we going or not?" Red XIII was relieved to hear Cid’s ire up; he didn’t like seeing his brave friend so scared. He didn’t want that fear to have the mastery, and if it meant getting his nose royally stung, so be it.

The two quietly slipped out of the house, careful not to wake Cloud and Shera. It was almost dawn; the light of the sun barely illuminated a few high clouds. The circled around back, near the old rocket launch pad. Cid caught a dark form moving in his peripheral vision and quickly turned toward it. It had gone toward the fence that enclosed his yard. The two quietly moved in pursuit. That feeling of dread presence suddenly became very near. Cid blanched, feeling an ill weakness fill his body. Red XIII’s hackles lifted high, his tail becoming three times its normal diameter. His flame flared bright, illuminating the area and casting long shadows in all directions.

"There!" the fiery animal exclaimed, seeing a wavering shadow slowly crawling along the outside of Cid’s house. The shadow stopped, shifting toward them what looked like a thin snout, regarding them with empty eyes. The shadow was no larger than Red XIII.

"What are you doing here?" Red XIII called out. It shifted again, revealing nascent claws on the edges of vaporous wings.

In a preternatural voice that sounded as if it came from a great distance, the shadow said quietly, "I grow here."

Cid asked in a shaky voice, "Do you have anything to do with Seir?"

The creature laughed, its voice like a wind. "I am a seed of Ancalagon…I feed on destruction. Go in peace—it is not I who destroys."

"I don’t understand," Red XIII replied. He was surprised the shadow was even answering. As long as it was, the red beast would press his questions.

The darkness shifted again, scurrying higher up the wall. They could feel it gazing down at them. "I will never harm you. But the balance is tipped; the wind picks up and the jackal has been given teeth. All things that fall before the wind give me shape. Every drop of blood the jackal draws gives me strength. I merely wait." With that, the shadow withdrew, its body almost formless, as if it really were in the process of growing into a fully formed beast. The dark presence passed.

Cid rubbed his face, hands shaking. "You get any of that?" he asked.

"You didn’t understand it?" Red XIII questioned.

"Red, I’m a rocket scientist not a damn theologian," he replied with a note of irritation.

Red XIII glanced at Cid, a question in his eyes. "Theologian?"

"Well ain’t they the ones concerned with good and evil and stuff like that? Like I said, I don’t know $%^# about that sort of thing," Cid offered.

"Well…," Red XIII was deep in thought. A parasite perhaps…but was it connected to Seir and his assault on Cid? The smell in the shadow was familiar; he suspected it was the lost evil that the tarry substance missed. Did it have any connection to Cid? The shadowy beast itself didn’t seem to care to do anything but wait. Seir, however, had singled out Cid as a ‘dragon son’ and attacked him with a dragon scale. "I wonder," Red XIII said mostly to himself, "if that shadow is Ancalagon’s spirit that Seir said his dagger contained…I know at least it is the evil we sensed in the fumes."

Cid began walking back to his front door. "If it is, what does it have to do with me? That crackpot thought I was a dragon. Why would he attack me?"

Red XIII turned to follow. "I don’t know. Perhaps the connection will soon present itself. In the meantime, the only thing I can suggest is to watch that shadow carefully. I don’t like the idea of it running around, but we need to observe everything carefully if we are to solve this mystery."

"Yeah," Cid replied. They reached the door carefully so as not to wake the other occupants. Cloud was still sprawled out on the red checkered couch, snoring rather loudly. Red XIII padded in softly, his feline footfalls strangely silent.

A door closed in the back, and a moment later Shera emerged from the hall. She walked in to join the others. "I heard you go out. Are you better?" she asked Cid.

Something in Cid’s gut twisted, causing a sudden nervousness to which he wasn’t accustomed. He grimaced, putting a hand to his stomach. He tried to say something, but he couldn’t speak.

"Captain, is something wrong?" Shera inquired as she touched his cheek. He jerked away, unable to allow her to be so kind.

Shera looked stunned. She took a step back, confused. Red XIII glanced up at Cid, watching his expression and body language with a learned eye.

Cid shook his head, surprised at his own actions. Stabbing anxiety knotted his stomach, almost making him nauseous. He looked at Shera for a moment, but he couldn’t continue so he lowered his gaze. What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he even look at her?

"What is going on?" Shera asked sharply. It was making her quite angry that Cid was acting so strangely to her. No, it wasn’t strange, just uncharacteristic—he was giving every indication that he wanted to go as far away from her as possible.

He was hurting her again. Guilt held Cid tight.

Look at how angry Shera is. She doesn’t want anything to do with you.

Cid started to back away. The anxiety and now guilt building up inside him nearly made him cry. His face was twisted in what looked like pain. He tried to shake off the unpleasant feelings; he was partially successful. "Shera…I…don’t know. Don’t know. I can’t do this. I don’t want to hurt you anymore…"

"Captain, I know you don’t," Shera offered. She didn’t really want to get into this now, or ever, really, so she said, "It’s still a bit early to get up; why don’t you go lay down…we can talk about whatever it is later." Shera instinctively stepped toward Cid again, intending to offer some comfort. He looked like he needed it, but again he jerked away, obviously extremely uncomfortable. His expression was almost pleading, as if to beg that she leave him alone. It stung to see him react so badly to her kindness…she began to wonder if he could no longer stand being near her, or maybe that he hated her.

Cid saw her injured expression and knew he had caused it. The guilt he felt grew stronger; even after tank number eight had malfunctioned, proving Shera right after so many years, he had never felt so regretful. I’m a curse on her, he thought to himself, what have I done? I’ve been so cruel to her she had to burn me to express it. Callous, heartless… He let out a choked sob, unable to deal with this vision of himself, a man so injurious that others were driven to such rage. She must wish him dead…

Cid stumbled into his room, shutting the door behind him. Red XIII was silent as he watched Cid leave. The large beast looked up at Shera, his one yellow eye full of compassion. "Don’t be angry with him…something happened to him, I don’t know what, but it is hurting him."

Shera looked after Cid, gazing at the empty hall. Red XIII’s words caused her to ponder Cid’s actions a bit slower. "What did he do? He looks like he did something terrible." It never occurred to Shera that he might feel that way about how he had treated her over the years; overwhelming guilt was not something that had plagued Cid’s general outlook on life. She knew he had felt bad about his cold words, but it had never been a crippling regret, not as he obviously felt now.

Red XIII shook his head, unable to answer her question. Cloud just snored.


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