Further Fantasy 7 - Part 1
Barret Wallace leaned on the rails of the Highwinds upper deck, contentment in his heart. The glorious sun of early evening in the summer was still warm and bathed the plains surrounding the Costa Del Sol with life-giving light; far below, herds of small grazing animals were visible, feasting on the bounty of the grasslands, and in the distance, the costal town could just be made out. Yes, things couldnt get much better. It was moments like this that made Barret certain that he had made the correct decision when he had formed Avalanche and started the fight for the planet. He turned to face the coast, looking into the breeze. The picture was perfect, bar one thing; the young, fair-haired man also leaning on the deck rails with a two-handed sword strapped across his back and an expression of deep gloom etched across his face. Cloud had seemed withdrawn all day; Barret had noticed almost as soon as he had got up that morning, but had attributed the young mercenarys mood to their impending mission. But now, with the end of the return journey in sight, their seemed to be no change in Clouds mood.
Barret moved along the rail until he stood beside his battle-comrade. "Whassup, Cloud? Youve hardly opened that jackass mouth o yours all day!"
Cloud sighed and nodded slightly, but still remained silent. Barret let it go, thinking. Cloud had changed greatly in the two years since their fight with Sephiroth and, while still occasionally still sullen and withdrawn, was much easier to get along with. He hasnt been this bad for a long time, Barret thought, not since
Realisation rapidly dawned. On this day, two years ago "Youre thinking about her, arent you?" Barret said, looking out across the fields.
Cloud sighed again, and finally spoke: "Im sorry. I cant help thinking about it. If Id have been stronger, could I have saved her?"
"Man, dont even think like that!" Barret spat in reply, "You was strong! It was Sephiroth that killed her, not you!"
"But still if I had "
"But still nuthin! Yeah, its right we remember her, but if you dont stop kickin yerself, Ill kick you for real."
"Easy for you to say. What if it had been you standing there with that gun arm of yours aimed and Sephiroth whispering in your head to pull the trigger?" Cloud growled back.
Barret suddenly realised he had stepped over the line. "Sorry man. Didnt think." He straightened up and stepped back away from the rail. "Ill be below."
It was difficult to believe it had only been two years since their battle with Sephiroth and their race to stop the extinction of their world at the hands of Meteor: to Barret, it seemed like a lifetime ago, so much had changed. The massive lifestream eruption Holy had caused had left its mark across the face of the planet, altering the shape of the continents themselves, sinking many islands and raising new ones. Many new towns and villages had sprung up, ranging from Chocobo ranches and mining settlements to large towns, bustling with life and driving towards the future under the power of coal; Mako energy, along with the Shinra Corporation, had been completely extinguished. The group had split up and gone their separate ways; Barret had returned to Corel, where he had played a major role in transforming the once run-down shanty town into a prosperous village, supplying most of the western continent with coal. Even now, people were flocking to the town for employment, either as miners or transportation engineers to maintain the railroad that now linked Corel with Gongaga and Cosmo Canyon, and there was talk of extending it to reach the Costa and Rocket Town. Once the town was back on its feet, Barret had declined the position of Mayor, and had instead set about organising the now highly reputed Corel Guard, who not only were law enforcers for the town, but also put down any monsters that threatened the area, the latter duty taking most of their time. It seemed that after the titanic upheaval of Holy manifesting, the lifestream was taking time to settle and while nothing anywhere near that scale had been seen since, eruptions were still a common occurrence around the world, often bringing with them new randomly spawned, and often hostile, creatures. After eighteen months, Barret had run into Cloud while escorting a supply caravan to the Costa, and had stayed for a while. Cloud had organised a similar defensive force in Costa, and it was decided that the two units should work together. A few months later, Rocket Town had nearly been overrun during an eruption that had gone unchecked for two days. Cloud, Barret and a number of volunteers from both Costa and Correl had gone out to put down the threat, and it was here that they met up with Cid once more: using the Highwind, the pilot had been helping with the total evacuation of the town. United in battle once again, the three began to operate as a unit: When a particularly dangerous outbreak, such as the one they had just put down near Wutai, was reported, Cid would fly them out in the rebuilt Highwind, usually with some of the Guard force for backup, and they would then proceed to exterminate the monsters and seal the rift, or at least contain the spread of the lifestream.
Cid had just taken the over at the controls of the airship when Barret entered the bridge. As usual, the pilot was brow-beating one of his three subordinates, although both he and they knew there was nothing personal in it; it was just a trait of his. Barret crossed the bridge and settled in his normal place, looking out of the forward viewport.
"Hows Cloud?" Cid asked as his current "victim" scurried back to his console.
"Hes got the mood on, but I cant say I blame him," Barret replied, turning to face the pilot, "After all, it is Aeriss anniversary today."
"So thats it." Cid grimaced, "Id forgotten. Explains a lot."
The conversation was interrupted by a loud crackling noise from the corner where Cait Siths stuffed body stood. Normally lifeless, the mog shuddered and jerked, barks of static issuing from the vocal hookups. Barret eyed it warily.
"Relax," Cid cut in, not even looking up, "it does that every once in a while."
"I still dont trust that thing. Whyd you keep it?"
"Dunno. Originally I was gonna dismantle it and figure out how the link worked, but I guess I never got round to it "
"fzzt danger "
"What the hell?!!" Both Cid and Barret looked up at the mog. "Did you hear that?" the hulking black man asked.
"I heard. Someone must be broadcasting on that things frequency." For a long moment, the two men stared at the mog in stunned silence. Then Cid spoke again: "Ah, its probably nothing - could have been anyone. And theres no way to figure out where the signal came from."
Barret grunted an acknowledgement, still staring at the crumpled form of Cait Sith. Cid returned to his console and began the landing sequence.
"Here you go, Captain!"
Cid and Barret looked up to see one of the Highwinds support crew standing in the kitchen doorway, clutching a number of bags from which appetising aromas were coming. Cid grinned at Barret, then looked back to his subordinate. "Didya get the beer?"
"Yes sir! But only one case, Im afraid."
Cid nodded, and the engineer put the bags on the table then backed out of the room. The pilot extracted three bottles, handed one to Barret, put the second on the far side of the table and popped the cap off his own. "Whered Cloud get to?"
"Hes out back," Barret stood as he spoke, "Ill get him."
Not seeing Cloud in the main part of the garden, Barret followed the path up to the back and round behind a screen of trees. It had taken him by surprise when he had first seen the garden with its well-maintained grass, flowers and hedges; certainly, he had never thought Cloud capable of creating such a thing. He rounded the trees to be confronted by a simple wooden structure, build in the style of the Wutai pagodas. The wood had been stained to protect it from the tropical storms of the Costa, but otherwise there was no decoration, save for a red trim round the base of the roof, a lantern standing beside the door, and above the door two hooks, from which hung a staff - the Princess Guard, Aeriss weapon. Suddenly, Barret was almost overcome with the feelings of loss. Aeris had given them hope, she had stood bravely, smiling until the last. But more than that, she had been a good friend who, in the short time she was with them, had changed their lives. He could identify with Cloud now, Barret decided. When Aeris died, she had taken with her a piece of each of them. She had let herself be captured for Marlene The massive black man reached up with his one good hand and brushed the moisture from his eyes, taking a moment to just stand and remember.
The inside was similarly sparse. A tiered altar standing at one end, was almost the only furniture, covered with a deep red cloth with a pink trim. The top tier was occupied by a figurine, hand carved and painted, of Aeris, flanked by a pair of holders in which incense burned, giving the whole place a strong scent. The lower layers were occupied with reminders of the young womans life: Cetra artefacts, a vase of flowers of the same kind as she had once sold in Midgar, pieces of Materia. Even the white materia was there, although when Cloud had retrieved it, Barret did not know. In front of the altar, Cloud knelt in seiza posture, silent and unmoving. Feeling it was the right thing to do Barret dropped to his knees and sat back, and for a long time, the only noises were the breaking of waves on the shore and the cries of the birds.
Eventually, Clouds eyes opened. He clapped twice as he finished meditating, then stood. Barret rose to his feet too, and turned to the young man. "You okay?"
Cloud sighed, "I guess. I never told anyone before, but this is my tribute to her - this shrine and the garden."
Barret nodded, surprised. "Man, I should do somethin like this back at Corel. She saved Marlenes life."
"She saved all of us."
For another long moment, there was silence, which Barret eventually broke: "We got the food in, so lets get moving."
"You go on ahead - Ive got to clean up in here first."
Cloud watched as the former leader of Avalanche left the shrine, then turned back to the altar. Slowly, the interior of the shrine descended into darkness as he blew out the candles, until the only source of light was the lantern he had left just inside the door. He glanced back before stooping to pick it up.
Cloud whirled as a silent voice echoed through his mind. For a moment, he felt fear creeping up his spine, before reprimanding himself. Sephiroth was dead. He had to be imagining things.
Cloud! Hear me! Go to Gongaga!
Once again, Cloud bolted upright, staring left and right in the gloom of the shrine. It couldnt be happening again! He had killed Sephiroth, so why was there this voice in his head?
Go now! Hurry!
Suddenly, the interior of the shrine was lit brightly by a soft blue light. Immediately, Cloud looked to the source of the illumination; on its cushion on the altar, the Holy materia was glowing. For a few seconds, he stared, not knowing what to think. Then, almost as if he were not controlling his own body, Cloud stepped up to the altar and closed his hand over the white materia.
Barret had just got back into the kitchen when the ground shuddered, causing Cids beer to fall from the table. "What the hell!!" the pilot cursed.
The two men looked at each other, almost immediately realising what was coming. They had both been first-hand witnesses to it on many occasions. Barret was the first to react, diving back out of the door, closely followed by Cid. Most of the casualties in a lifestream eruption occurred because people got buried when the buildings they were in collapsed
They had barely got outside when a second tremor hit, this time so violently it knocked them both off their feet. Swearing and cursing, Barret and Cid pulled themselves up, only to be knocked down again by a third shockwave. From behind the line of trees came a groaning and splintering noise, that made by wood under tension. Barely seconds later, accompanied by the most powerful tremor yet, the shrine exploded, sending bits of wood and splodges of the viscous green as a geyser of the lifestream burst forth.
"Shit! Cloud!" Barret quickly rounded the trees, only to stop dead - Cid almost ran into the back of him.
"Dammit, Barret!" the pilot cursed, "Watch where "
Cids voice petered out as his eyes came to rest on what Barret was staring at. The shrine was gone - only the scattered woodwork and items attested to it ever having existed. In the newly cleared space, Cloud lay face down on the ground, covered in lifestream from head to toe, and over him stood a creature, the size of a man, but otherwise identical to
"Holy fuckin shit!" Cid yelled, "Thats Weapon!"
The exclamation seemed to have an effect on Barret, who snapped back to the events that had just unfolded, "We took it before, we can do it again! Now lets get Cloud!" He raised his gun-arm and opened up with a volley that split the tranquil air like a thunderclap. Immediately, the creature responded. Lurching forward, it opened up pods on its shoulders, from which a multitude of blasts launched in quick succession. Barret dived and rolled, but was unable to avoid them all, and a direct hit to his chest sent him staggering back.
With the Weapon-creature distracted, Cid selected a materia on his armlet; although unarmed, he still had enough magic and summon materia to at least help run distractions, if not finish off the enemy. But Clouds safety came first: the materia he selected was a new one, formed by the massive magical backlash of Holys summoning, and it granted the power of short range teleportation. A moments concentration caused the yellow crystal to shine, and a split second later, Cid was standing next to Cloud and behind the creature. Cid grabbed his fallen comrade and pulled him back against the tree line, but before he could even assess Clouds condition, the Weapon had turned back to him and had lashed out with a murderous swipe. Mercifully, Cid had linked the Warp materia to a Counter materia, and the combined effect teleported him out of range of the strike. But Cloud was still in danger; there was no time to get his spear. Cid changed to his offensive materia. Although he had no idea how, he knew that the Weapon had to be stopped.
Slowly, Aeris opened her eyes. The daylight was almost blinding, and it took some time before her eyes adjusted. Her entire body felt strange. Leaning on the tree she had been sitting against, she pulled herself to her feet. Was this what it felt like? Was it normal to come back after returning to the planet? Dozens of questions assailed her mind, which was still fuzzy from what felt like a long sleep.
Abruptly, a single noise cut through her thoughts; the cry of someone in pain. Aeris looked round to see two men, one of whom had just hit the ground, hard. The other, a hulking man with dark skin, was wounded too; obviously, they were engaged in combat Wait! I recognise them! Memory struggled for a moment, then asserted itself. The massive black mans name was Barret, but the other, a grizzled, slightly older-looking man, she could not place. But one thing was certain; they were her friends, and in trouble. Aeris looked round and spotted her staff, stuck in the lower branches of the tree next to her. She tugged the weapon free. Turning back to the fight, she was stunned for a second when she saw the creature opposing the two men - it made no sense! Why were they fighting? Almost immediately, she shrugged it off. The first thing was to see to their wounds and stop the fight. Feeling somewhat clumsy, Aeris twirled the Princess Guard round, bringing it up against her shoulder and invoking her limit technique. "Healing WIND!" she cried, then stopped short. Something was wrong with her voice!
Cid knew he was too slow almost the moment the Weapon lashed out. The claw flicked him away like an unwanted doll, sending him crashing painfully to the ground some distance back. Winded, he tried to pull himself back up as the creature moved to engage Barret once more. The pilot knew that they couldnt take much more of this. Both he and Barret had expended a great deal of their magic during the mission earlier that day, and all their recovery items were either inside the house, or onboard the Highwind. With nothing to heal themselves, they were losing, and badly, despite their best efforts.
"Healing WIND!" a voice cried out.
Cids head snapped up. Behind the Weapon, Cloud was on his feet. Clasped tightly to his shoulder was the Princess Guard, and from him, lifegiving magic flowed, swirling round all three combatants.
Barret stared in disbelief as the wound on his chest closed as if it had never existed. Stunned, he could only watch and stare as Cloud marched up to the Weapon that had broken off its attack, and was now standing quite still and looking, almost guiltily Barret thought, at the floor.
"Bad Guardian!" Cloud burst out, then launched into a tirade of scolding. Had the situation been different, it would have been hysterically funny. Eventually Cloud drew to a close, ending with a command of "Guardian dismiss!", at which the Weapon creature bowed, then slowly faded until it had completely vanished. Then Cloud turned to Barret. "Barret! Its so good to see you!"
Barret and Cid exchanged glances. While it was a relief that the threat was gone, there was obviously a lot more to this than they realised. Both were so engrossed in trying to figure out what had happened that Clouds next question took them totally by surprise:
"Is Cloud with you?"
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