Further Fantasy 7 - Part 10
The Highwind lifted into the night. From the pilot's console, Cid watched the ground fall away, glad to have a good altitude between himself and Midgar. Reeve was at the comunications desk, determined to mobilise every resource he could to retake Midgar. Nanaki was curled up in one corner, meditating and unwinding after their recent battle. Tifa stood in her usual position, silently staring out of the bridge windows, looking down at the reactor as they slowly approached. Her expression showed all too clearly the fears she was harbouring.
"Hey!" Cid called, "You okay?"
The young woman jumped at the sound, then looked up. "Yes," she sighed, "I guess so."
"Listen, that Cloud may be a dumb-ass, spikey-headed numbskull," Cid noted a slight smile from Tifa at his typical deriding, "but he ain't so stupid as to get caught. If it gets too bad, he'll hole up somewhere and let us know."
"I hope so. But I can't help thinking..."
"Look, he ain't gonna get himself killed. And he's got Aeris working with him, too."
Tifa gave a deep sigh. "That's what I'm worried about, Cid. Suppose she's trying to take him back to the planet with her this time? You know what they were like when... when she was still alive..."
Cid grinned. "Lady, what you and he have got is so obvious that you're the only two that don't see it. He's just worried about how you would react. And Aeris won't let him die either - that's for certain."
To stave off her embarressment, Tifa jumped on the pilot's final remark: "What make you think that?"
"That stuff she's been sayin' through him: 'Don't send me back' and all that "
"Yes, I don't get that." Tifa's face took on an intrigued expression. "Why's she so afraid of returning to the planet now, considering that she accepted it before?"
"Hell, she even embraced it, and for our sakes too," Cid commented, rifling the pockets of his jacket. As ever, a cigarette carton and a lighter appeared in his free hand. "Although I can't say I blame her for feeling this way now. Once you actually face something, it sure changes any perceptions you started out with," he added as he lit up.
"Huh?" Tifa stared at him.
"Wasn't always a pilot," Cid took a long pull on the cigarette, making up his mind on exactly how much to say. "Not many people know this, but originally I was a lot like that spiky numbskull: I wanted to join SOLDIER. So I joined up with the Shinra guard. Months later, the war with Wutai started. Now, I don't mind spillin' blood for the right cause, but when my unit was ordered to torch a settlement with the family inside young kids and all well, I realised that I ain't a murderer." He shook his head. "I remember them screaming and begging us for mercy, and I tell you this: when I got out of sight, I puked so hard I thought I was gonna turn inside out. All I knew was that I never wanted to witness that again. So I transferred into the air force, then got into the space program " he sighed again, "and here I am." He glanced across at the brunette martial artist, who was now staring at him with an expression of shock.
"And that's why you shut down the engines on the rocket when you found out Shera was still in there?" she asked at length. Cid nodded, but made no further comment.
Before the silence could grow too awkward, Reeve broke in from the communication desk: "I've spoke to my colleagues in Shinra, and they're trying to get the military on a full scale alert - but it'll take time."
"How long?" Tifa asked.
"I don't know. Things are different now; the army is controlled through a board of sponsor corporations, and an agreement must be reached before action can be taken." Reeve shook his head, "It sounds like a lot of our supporters had abandoned the Midgar regeneration project and at best, it will take time to convince them that the Church pose a serious threat."
"By which time, from what you're saying, it'll be too late."
"I'm afraid so." Reeve's look of defeat was echoed in his tone. "I just hope Cloud and the others can do something."
Two levels above the core of the sector four reactor, four dark figures slowly crawled through a ventilation duct, silently leaving behind the carnage from moments before. Second in the line, Barret squinted into the darkness, watching the silhouette of the person that was in part still Cloud, who was some distance ahead. There was something about Cloud's movements that was unnerving; the air ducts formed a massive and labyrinthine network, but never once did the dark figure in front falter or hesitate where the narrow conduits split, and no words were forthcoming.
"Does he know where he's going?" Elena whispered from the back of the group.
"Beats me," Barret muttered in response, "You's the Turk - you tell me where the hell we're at!"
"Couldn't say - we never did any training for this. At a rough guess, I'd say we're near the core."
Elena's guess was confirmed when, after another left then a right into a wider, taller conduit, their leader stopped by a wire mesh grill. Both Barret and Elena immediately recognised their location; they were directly above the seething pool of mako which formed the reactor's core. Off to one side and some distance below them, Barret could see the gantry leading to the flow regulation system which was vital to preventing a fatal overload, and his favoured target when AVALANCHE had been in the business of destroying the Midgar reactors. "Dammit!" he cursed, "Anyone got a rope?!"
"Cloud" turned to the grating and latched his fingers through it. With a single, hard tug, it was wrenched from its mountings. The purple-clad figure gave an Aeris-like giggle. "Thank goodness for Cloud's strength!"
Barret eyed him suspiciously. "Okay, that's it!" he growled, "Who's runnin' the show up there?" He tapped on his head, "Cloud or Aeris?"
"I... I don't know..." Suddenly, Cloud's face took on a vacant expression, and he stared into space. His hands clasped round his head and he curled up.
"Dammit man... get a grip!" Barret whispered harshly.
"Mr. Barret!" Abruptly, Barret became aware of Amy tugging on his jacket. "Look!"
A platform had been created, suspended by girders over the bubbling mako heart of the reactor, and at regular intervals round the side stood seven machines, from each which a tube ran down into the mako below. To begin with, he had not given it a second glance. But now, a number of the Jenova Disciples were crossing the ramp from some entrance out of view from the duct; Barret counted fifteen in total. The leader's robes were trimmed with a silver hood, the material for which dangled in several elongated tassles down his back, and also extended silver shoulders, making him look broader than he was. Between his hands was a round-bottomed flask, containing a pale green liquid, which he took a swig from as he stepped up onto the platform. One by one, the others stepped up; each was given a measured portion of the liquid so that none remained when all fifteen had drunk. Every second one carried a small wooden box. In pairs, they took up positions by each of the machines, the silver hooded one moving to the centre of the platform.
"What the?" Barret muttered.
"It's the ritual!" Elena breathed, "It has to be!"
As one, the seven unladened Disciples turned to their box-bearing counterparts. Simultaneously, they lifted the lids, and both Barret and Elena's eyes widened at the contents; on each of the inner cushions lay a materia. All five of the mundane varieties were present, along with black and white. Each one was loaded into a slot in the top of one of the machines.
"Oh shit!" Barret heard Elena mutter under her breath. "What the hell they doin'?" he whispered.
"How should I know! But they've got the black materia!"
"It's not the Black Materia." The pair looked round at Cloud's hollow intonation. He was sitting against the duct wall, still staring off into space with the same far-away look. "They strive so hard to be more powerful than the Cetra, but they are still only human."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?!" Barret snarled, shaking Cloud by the shoulders. The young man's emerald eyes closed and he slumped.
"Shit!" Barret shook the prone man by the shoulders again, "C'mon, don't do this! Wake up!"
From outside on the platform, the whine of the machines started, followed by a low chant. Barret glanced back over his shoulder; the Disciples had formed a ring around the leader; their heads bowed and hands clasped together as if in prayer and, although he could not understand the language, it sounded strangely familiar. Unable to take his eyes off the scene, he watched as the lead Disciple raised his arms, gesturing for attention, and began to speak: "Great Malondara!" his voice boomed out above the combined noise of the machines, chanting and reactor.
Elena raised her gun, taking careful aim. "I can cap the leader from here."
"No!" Suddenly, Cloud's eyes opened and focused, and he shoved himself forward, knocking Elena's aim off. "They'll hear us and then we're done for!"
"But we've gotta stop the ritual!" the Turk argued, "You said so yourself!"
"Just wait!" Cloud settled down, watching the Disciples like a hawk, his eyes seeming to sparkle with light from within, mouthing words along with the Disciples. Elena looked at him. "You know what they're saying?" she asked at length.
"Yes... no... I don't know!" Cloud shook his head.
"Is it anything to do with Aeris?" Barret asked. Cloud nodded in response. "It's what was getting to me when we first got here... mother, please!... please, don't let me go back!"
" Great Lord of Oblivion and Corruption, True Form of the Planet " the lead Disciple continued, "send the Seventh Angel, he who fell "
Barret took Cloud's body by the shoulders and looked squarely into the sparkling emerald eyes. "Aeris, wha's happenin' here? Why you so scared? Is it this Malon...thing they's talkin' 'bout?"
Cloud stared into the distance again, seemingly oblivious. "So dark, so cold... life without life... it can't return... you're right, mother, I mustn't fail... I mustn't go back!"
Elena eyed the platform below; the materia were now glowing brightly in their slots in each machine. "If I take out that machine that stands over the support gantry " she began.
"No!" Cloud snapped back again, his eyes once more on the ritual leader, who seemed to be working up to some crescendo: " and let his coming be a sign to all! Great Malondara, True Form of the Planet, I beseech you, send the Seventh Angel, the fallen Cetra, the one named Sephiroth unto us!" He raised his hands above his head and, as he did so, the materia in the seven machines shone brightly.
At the name "Sephiroth", Barret came to an instant decision and raised the Grim Reaper. But before he could fire, Cloud or Aeris, or whoever the hell they had become had thrown themselves at him, knocking him aside. On the platform, beams of light sprang from each of the machines, converging at the leader's feet. Abruptly, Cloud jumped from the opening he had made in the duct to land on the platform edge some eight feet below, drawing the Emperor Klaive on the way.
"Aeris!" Barret yelled.
Aeris felt the awkwardness of Cloud's body as she jumped: she had hoped enough of Cloud's soul would remain to control her body's actions, but the warping effect of the mako he had been pulled into had accelerated the transformation and although she could feel the light of his soul within the body they shared, it was rapidly becoming dormant. Moreover, she had become aware of a third soul's light, a voice that somehow told her what she needed to do. As she closed in on her goal, she heard a commotion break out, but the Disciples were not looking at her - their attention was focused on the centre of the circle. The materia in the machines were still glowing, but the beams had faded, revealing a prone form at the point at which they had converged
Two of the Disciples turned to face her as she hit the platform; wishing she still could access Cloud's knowledge and experience with swords, she swung the Emperor Klaive in a wild arc. The first stepped back out of the way but tripped and fell headlong into the bubbling mako below; the second caught the backswing in his guts, bringing him down in a pool of blood.
The confusion was peaking; shouts of rage and disbelief were all around her. Abruptly, realisation sank in: They can't transform! Aeris pulled the time materia she knew Cloud always carried from the sword before sheathing the weapon, and darted into the centre of the ring. Around her, the scattering Disciples began to fall; looking back, she saw Barret, Amy and Elena charging to her aid. Rapidly, she focused on the time magic materia she held in her hands, casting the most powerful stop spell she could on the body before scooping it up into her arms: at although partially transformed, Cloud's body was still stronger than her own had been. She turned, heading back the way she had come, towards her friends.
Event in the midst of combat, Barret made a double-take as Cloud turned around, revealing the burden he had scooped up. Cradled in the his arms was the body of Aeris! Only the complete lack of movement gave away her lifelessness; even the horrific wound inflicted by Sephiroth had disappeared, and the only mark on her body was the sigil on her forehead that indicated she was under the influence of a stop spell.
Seeing Aeris's body gave Barret's memory a jog; with Sariva's words in mind, he grabbed the white materia out of it's machine. Taking it as a cue, Amy quickly gathered up the others.
"Let's get out of here!" the Aeris/Cloud voice called above the din of combat.
"No, wait!" Elena climbed down over the edge of the platform, hung for a second by her fingers, then dropped onto the gantry below. "I'll get the flow valve - you get going!"
Barret looked back and forth between the Turk and the half-transformed Cloud, then made up his mind. "C'mon Cloud, or Aeris - whichever the hell you are," he called, then dropped down. Seconds later, Aeris's body, then Amy were lowered to him, before Cloud/Aeris dropped down. Barret ran up to cover the Turk. "I thought I said to get outta here!" she yelled at him.
"We got ten minutes to get out once tha's shut off," Barret retorted, "an' we ain't gonna make it if we use the ducts! Besides, I'm too big for those pokey holes anyway! We'll take the lift an' get out at plate level!" He gave the Turk a grin and stepped back to where the gantry opened out onto the service platform. "Git that valve sorted - I'll cover you." Elena returned the expression, then began working over the controls.
Amy appeared at Barret's side. "Mr. Barret? What's going on?" she asked, causing Barret to smile even as the emergency klaxons began to blare, "Who's that lady who appeared? She's very cold. I tried to using a phoenix down on her, but it didn't work."
"Jes you stay next to me, Amy. We's about to make this place go up with a bang, an' they's probably gonna try and stop us. You see them controls over there?" Barret gestured with his thumb, "Once Elena sets 'em, we got ten minutes to get outta here."
"An' we'll have to fight the devil people?"
"Yeah." Suddenly, Barret felt a stab of guilt and he hunkered down next to the little girl. "Amy, I'm real sorry. I should never brought ya here."
The child nodded. "I don't care. I know Av'lansh will get the devil-people now!"
"They're afraid..." the voice that was half Cloud, half Aeris broke in, using the same faraway tone. Barret turned to look at him. "Whassat, Cloud?"
"They're scared... they're running away..."
"There! We're set!" Elena announced. "I set the valve to open slowly up to the max - it should give us an extra five minutes." Abruptly, she noticed Cloud, gazing into space, with the eyes of the other two on him. "Is he freaking out again?"
"Like rats who know their ship is sinking... mother..." Suddenly, Cloud's eyes refocused. "Let's go!" he commanded and, still bearing the prone form of Aeris, he started across the gantry.
"Hey!" Elena protested as Barret swept Amy up onto his shoulders and turned to follow, "What the hell's going on?" She ran a few steps to catch up.
"I dunno," Barret replied as the Turk came alongside him, "All I know is Cloud thinks them Jenova freaks are running for it, an' nuthin's come to try an' sort out the flow valve, so I think he's right!"
Elena bit off her retort as a thought struck her: Although under normal conditions the reactor ran itself under computer control, if an emergency situation such as the one they had just caused arose, qualified technicians were required to stablise the system - technicians the Church probably did not have. Quickly she pushed her sudden optimism aside and continued to run, keeping pace with the others; they were not out of the woods yet!
A cloud of luminous green vapour burst from the top of the reactor, immediately spotted by Tifa and Reeve on the bridge of the Highwind. "What was that?" the martial artist asked.
"Superheated mako being vented," the Shinra executive replied, "An emergency measure to stall critical overload."
"How would that be caused?"
Reeve grinned. "You should know at least one way - how else did AVALANCHE manage to blow up the reactors before?"
"You mean it's gonna to blow?" Cid butted in from behind the controls.
"Whaddya mean, probably?!"
"If they can bring it under control within the next..." Reeve looked up as the ceiling briefly as he estimated, "eight minutes, it should re-stablise. Otherwise..." he moved his hands apart in gesture of an explosion.
"Cid, take us down." Tifa said, her eyes still on the reactor, far below.
"Shit, are you crazy!" Cid demanded, "That thing's gonna blow!"
"Yes, and Cloud and the others could still be in there."
Immediately the pilot calmed down. "Okay. I'll take her in close. But if we ain't seen any sign within five minutes, I'm getting us outta there."
Riding up in the service elevator amid the strident blare of the sirens gave Barret an overwhelming sensation of deja vu, and also reminded him of his former comrades from the original AVALANCHE that he had led. Time had dulled the pain, but Barret knew he would never forget them; not them, nor Dyne or anyone else he had known and fought alongside in his battle against Shinra. To his left, Elena was checking her gun, replacing the ammunition in her used clips; he was now sure he could trust on her assistance in combat and while in no way did he want her involved in a fight, Amy had proved invaluable support in their attack on the platform, blasting away with her earth and fire materia, and healing them as needed. Barret frowned. Much as he hated the fact, it was now Cloud that was the weakest link in their team when it came to combat and he hoped that no surprises were waiting at the exit above.
The purple-clad figure standing over the lifeless form of Aeris shifted slightly, a frown furrowing his forehead. Barret could not help but notice that "Cloud" was definitely shorter, and although the now baggy uniform hid any sign of the shape of his body changing, the features of the face were softer, more feminine. "You okay?" Barret asked.
For a second, there was no response. "Huh?"
The figure looked up, sadness now showing in the emerald eyes. "Barret..." The voice was now almost Aeris's too - only a whisper of Cloud's slight raspiness remained. "If we get out, use this on me... both of me." Aeris held out a materia, which Barret recognised as time. "It's the only way we can stop this now - the mako did too much damage and I can feel his soul fading inside me. Promise me, Barret... for his sake."
Solomnly, Barret nodded, unable to speak.
"Why don't we just use it now?" Elena broke in, eyeing the materia.
"I'll be too much of a liability."
Barret nodded. "He... she's right. We've gotta get clear."
"Not only that," Aeris added.
Before Aeris could explain, the elevator ground to a halt and the doors slid open on a straight, wide hallway, along the sides of which, doors opened into various other rooms. At the far end of the hall, the twin security gates were up. Between the two ends, however, stood a human shape, draped in a black cloak with a tasselled silver hood and silver shoulders, from which the baleful red of the emergency lights reflected.
"Oh shit," Elena breathed.
Realising that the lift was a deathtrap, Barret threw himself through the doors and out to one side, allowing the others space to escape, and brought the Grim Reaper to bear. Immediately, in a flash of magic, a barrier formed around the Disciple.
Elena was the second to clear the lift, taking the opposite side of the doors to Barret. She rolled up onto one knee, gun in hand, and squeezed off a shot. The bullet hit the barrier and slowed to such an extent that the Disciple was barely scratched. However, seconds later, a fire spell from Amy enveloped the shadowy figure, causing it to stagger back.
Without waiting for Amy's fireball to fade, Barret pulled Bahamut ZERO, the most powerful of his summon materia, from the clip on his gun arm. "Mother planet, I call..." he started.
"Hello, Barret." From within the conflagration, the disciple spoke, insanity tinging his tone.
The words of the summon spell died on Barret's lips. That voice... but... no that ain't possible!
Last flaming remains of the cloak dropped to the ground, revealing the Disciple, still in human form. One of his eyes was now covered by a metal plate, and the left leg was now artificial, but there was no mistaking the gun grafted into the place of the left forearm.
An explosion somewhere in the lower levels rocked the reactor, causing the emergency lights to flicker.
Barret gaped, the single word barely more than a whisper. "Dyne?!"
Although the tremor could not be felt on the Highwind, it's effects were immediately obvious; several of the surrounding superstructures that had still been standing despite the best efforts of Weapon, Meteor, Holy and time collapsed, raising a cloud of dust. A moment or so later a segment of the plate detatched itself in a screech of torn metal, opening a gaping new hole where what had once been a small plaza had stood.
Alarmed, Cid turned to the controls. "Time to get outta here!" he muttered.
"Cid, wait!" Tifa demanded. Without waiting for the pilot to offer any reply, she turned to Reeve. "How much longer before it goes?"
"Couldn't say." Reeve shook his head, eyeing the reactor through the bridge windows. "Depends exactly what's been done and where."
Suddenly, another gout of superheated mako vapour blasted out of the top of the reactor, buffetting the hovering airship. Reeve fell, grunting when he hit the deck hard, while Tifa, dropping into a low stance from her training, rode out the shock. She looked round to check on the others; Cid was clinging to the pilot's console, Nanaki had been unaffected due to his walking on four limbs and lower centre of gravity.
"Right, that's fuckin' it!" Cid growled, reaching for the controls. "I'm taking us up!"
"Touch those controls, and I'll knock you out!" Tifa yelled, marching towards him.
Cid stared, half amazed at the woman's unusual rage, and half furious at her stubbornness. "You goddamn fuckin' stupid..." he shouted back, his face red, "We stay here, we're all gonna die!"
"I lost my parents, my town, even my instructor!" Tifa screamed, "I'm not losing my friends! Now wait!" Tears were welling up in her eyes.
Cid glance across at Reeve, who nodded, then took a deep breath, forcing his anger to subside and swallowing his pride. "Okay. We'll give them a little longer."
Stunned, Barret could do little more than stare. "But... but you's dead!" he burst out after second or so of shocked silence, "You fell into that ravine out in Corel Desert!"
The thing that had once been Dyne laughed, an giggling bray that spiralled into madness. "That I did! And for a long time it was dark - I thought I was dead. But then He came, and drove away the darkness. And in exchange for spreading his truth, I was returned, but not as Dyne. Dyne is dead. Before you now is Diomite, the Seraph of Jenova, His sixth Angel. And through Him, I shall have my desire! I will destroy it all!" As the man reached his final triumphant cry, his body began to grow and twist, the skin hardening into insect-like segmented chitin plates. His body elongated and curved, growing an extra pair of legs, while the one good arm became a viciously clawed pincer. The head seemed almost to turn inside out as curved mandibles erupted from the jaws, adding to the insectoid appearence, as did the multi-faceted eye that took the place of the remaining good one, adding to the two new ones that sprouted on antenna from the forehead. In contrast to Diomite's insect-like form, a single, feathered wing spread from under the plates of his back. "Take a good look!" his voice, while distorted by both madness and the bestial form, was understandable. "This is the ultimate power! The true power! The power of Malondara!" With unbelievable speed, the creature lunged at Barret.
"Magic Mega-Earthquake!" Amy's voice yelled from within the lift. A split-second before Diomite reached Barret, the mastered materia's spell effect went off, knocking the Seraph off balance so that the massive claws sank into the wall. But the gun-arm came up and fired as Barret threw himself aside, nailing him squarely in the chest. He yelled in pain, blood flying from the wound.
Elena reached for her materia, desperately trying to recall the immunities of the Disciples she had encountered at the same time as remembering what she had been loaned by AVALANCHE. The red glisten of a summon caught her eye. "See how you like this!" she muttered, extracting the orb. "Power of devinity, power of Alexander!" she yelled.
The blast of holy power from the devine machine hit Diomite like a sledgehammer, knocking him down. Seizing the opportunity, Barret and Elena spread out, surrounding the Seraph to minimise the possibility of his using anything that could affect multiple targets. Leaving summoned body in the lift, Aeris and Amy ran to take up a position off to one side. Diomite spotted the pair and heaved itself back to its feet, turning to face them. Barret took advantage of the distraction, nailing the Seraph in the back.
"Keep it busy!" Aeris yelled across the din of gunfire and the screaching cries of the creature.
Diomite turned again, this time lunging at Elena. The speed of the attack seemed almost impossible for a creature of its size, and the Turk barely had time to register the threat before the pincer closed on her, lifting her up and squeezing. She screamed in pain as three ribs broke under the pressure and red began to stain the front of her combat gear.
"Bastard!" Barret snarled, trying to think of the best action to take. With Elena in the way, magic would need to be specifically targetted, and summons were out of the question. Three targets presented themselves to the former AVALANCHE leader - the upper body and head, the pincer-claw and the back section of the creature. Taking rapid but careful aim, he sighted on the pincer and let rip a short burst. Chitin chipped and shattered, bringing another inhuman howl from the Seraph. At the same time, he felt a tingling sensation spreading through his chest, intensifying around where he had been shot. Glancing down, Barret saw the green sparks of healing magic dancing around the wound; although unable to close it completely, the pain had subsided greatly, and the bleeding slowed to a slow seep. Looking up again, he spotted Amy standing with Aeris beyond the creature, her restore materia raised and shining.
In response to the attack, Diomite turned on Barret, bringing yet another weapon into play. The Seraph's gun arm raised again, and this time, instead of a shot, a viscous orange liquid spayed out, covering the massive black man. Barret barely had time to scream before he slumped, unconscious and poisoned.
Trying to control her fears, Amy tried to sneak round behind the creature, pulling a healing potion from her knapsack. But before she could throw it, the Seraph had turned and struck out with a foreleg, sending the little girl flying. Mercifully, the magical field of the HP-Plus materia took most of the blow, but the pain still seared through her.
Aeris opened her eyes, concluding her prayer, feeling a rush of power. In front of her, her Guardian Weapon materialised in a flash of light, bowing reverentially, then turned to face the Seraph. No command was needed; as surely as she knew who the enemy was, so did the Guardian. The Weapon launched itself at the Diomite, latching onto one of the back legs and crushed it. Black fluid squirted out, spraying the white of the Weapon's armour.
Diomite convulsed in pain as its leg was destroyed, crushing Elena. Feeling her go limp, the Seraph threw the body in its pincer to one side and turned round, lashing out with the clawed pincer. The blow slammed Aeris back, a deep wound across her body, then smashed into the Weapon, knocking it over. Seeing its chance, Diomite pushed forward, grabbing the Guardian's hulking form and trying to crush it.
Pulling herself to her feet, Amy tried not to look at the two fallen adults. Her head span slightly and her side, where Diomite's blow had connected, felt bruised and sore. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her head and as she did so, she spotted the red materia on the armlet Cloud had given her; it was the one she had not yet used. She remembered Cloud saying how to use it, and that it was powerful - surely now was the time to try it! She held the materia up. "Magic Phoenix Bird," she shouted, "Help me!" The chill of vast magical energy washed over her - to her, it felt like when she used her other materia, but a thousand times stronger. A golden light suddenly illuminated the hallway, and she looked up to see the mystical Phoenix hovering over the Seraph, its fire searing the creature's body. At the same time, she saw Barret lift his head, then groggily pull himself to his feet. Hardly able to believe it, she glanced over her shoulder and saw that Elena too was back up. For a second, all her pain and fear was wiped out in a single moment of total elation. Then the light was gone, leaving the Seraph - injured but still dangerous - screeching in pain. A moment later, with the crunch of breaking chitin, the Weapon tore off the bottom half of the pincer, freeing itself.
Without waiting for Diomite to recover and counter, Barret fired off the spell to summon Bahamut ZERO. The strongest of the dragon-kin summons, its magic blast tore gaping wounds throughout the Seraph's body. Aeris followed up with the same Holy-Cleansing-Fire that she had used to destroy the three Disciples when she had still been Cloud, completing what her Guardian had started; when the flames had subsided, the Seraph was barely still upright, dragging the mangled remains of its pincer and back section, its black blood running freely from numerous wounds. It managed to get off a medium-power cure spell, but a further fireball at full strength from Amy and a salvo of shots from Elena's gun neutralised the effect almost immediately. Falling to its knees, Diomite got out a final plea of "Malondara, help me!" in its distorted voice before an Ultima blast from Barret silenced the Seraph forever.
Thanks to her Turk training, Elena was the first to snap out of the post-combat haziness. Aeris was dismissing her Guardian, while Amy tended to her wounds. Barret was standing over the body of the Seraph, an expression of disbelief etched across his face. Elena moved to stand by the massive black man. "I guess he was someone you knew..." she hazarded.
Barret nodded. "Me an' him... we wuz almost brothers at one point. We wuz the same, operation an' all," he mumbled eventually, not event looking up to acknowledge the Turk.
Another explosion rocked the reactor; this time it was louder, and accompanied by the screeching sound of metal tearing. The alarms suddenly became more strident, galvanising Barret back into action. "I'll figure this out later," he muttered. Then, shouting: "Let's git outta here!" He looked round to see Aeris struggling with the unmoving double of herself. "Here, lemme!" he said, sweeping the prone form up into his arms. "Now move!"
Tifa was the first to spot the group pounding for safety along the T-shaped entrance ramp. "There they are!" she called, relief and joy flooding through her, "Cid! Take her down! Reeve, let's get up on deck and drop them some ropes!"
Fighting the unseen swirls and updrafts caused by the dying reactor, Cid wrestled with the controls, his teeth gritted and sweat beading his brow as he eased the Highwind in closer. Nanaki moved up to stand by the front windows, watching the group. "How're they lookin'?" the pilot asked.
"They're moving surely enough," Nanaki replied, "So I guess they're not injured."
"Good," Cid grunted.
"Looks like Barret's carrying someone..." the Canyon Guardian strained his one good eye, trying to make out the burden the former AVALANCHE leader carried.
The airship that dominated the view from the reactor's main entyway was the most welcome sight Barret could have wished for. "Sunnuva bitch!" he said, grinning, "our ride's here!"
"We're not clear yet." Elena replied. She was running alongside him, carrying Amy on her back. Closely following, Aeris brought up the rear.
As the Highwind slowly edged closer, two figures appeared on the upper deck. "Hey, Tifa!" Barret yelled.
"Reeve!" Elena shouted.
As if in response, rope ladders unrolled from over the railing. Behind them, another dull roar came from the reactor and the "ground" of the plate shook. Barret forced himself to increase his pace. Turning first left along the T-shaped bridge, then right at the end of the gantry, the group pounded towards the airship that it seemed Cid would be fighting to hold steady. Barret reached the first ladder and held it steady. "Git goin'!" he yelled at the Turk, waving her on.
"How about you?" Elena said, hesitating. "How're you going to get up?" She gestured to the body that Barret carried.
"Um..." Barret thought for a moment before lowering the prone Aeris to the ground. When they had first recovered the body, Cloud/Aeris had wrapped it in a cloak from one of the Disciples they had killed: now Barret tore a strip from the bottom and with it, bound the cold, still wrists together. Carefully, he lifted the unmoving Aeris onto his back, while the living copy that Cloud had become grabbed the second ladder and began to climb. Looking up, Barret saw that Elena had already begun her ascent. He threw himself onto the ladder and scrambled upwards.
Nanaki arrived on the deck in time to see Elena and Amy being helped over the railing by Reeve. Tifa was waiting by the other ladder; obviously the one Cloud was climbing, Nanaki decided. He crossed to where the Shinra manager and Turk were waiting to assist Barret on board. The hulking man, despite lacking a hand and being heavily burdened, was almost at the top of the ladder, but when Nanaki saw the face of the unmoving form tied to Barret's back, his eyes widened in a perfect stunned double-take. "Sweet Cetra!" he muttered, his mind whirling. He turned just in time to see Tifa backing away from the seond ladder, her eyes wide with dread. A moment later, someone pulled themself over the railing; although their clothes, sword and spikes of hair were Cloud's, the person was definitely not the man who had started out on the mission to the reactor - they were smaller in height, and the figure seemed more curved under the baggy purple SOLDIER gear. The face had changed almost beyond recognition, softened and with the lines and scars removed. Brown showed at the roots of the hair. The person that Nanaki was sure was no longer Cloud looked sorrowfully for a moment at Tifa, then turned to the other ladder, where Barret had just got over the rail and onto the deck. "Barret," Nanaki called, "What happened? What's going on?"
"Tell ya in a moment," Barret grunted, lowering the lifeless Aeris to the deck. A subtle shift in the angle of the deck and a breeze indicated that down on the bridge, Cid had got them underway. "Aeris," Barret's tone was grave, confirming many of the Canyon Guardian's fears.
The purple-clad figure turned, nodded. Barret pulled out a materia, and after a second of concentration, invoked its power. The stop spell froze the purple-clad figure in an expression and pose of resigned acceptance.
Barret turned to Tifa, who was trembling, tears in her eyes. "It ain't over," he said gently, trying to sound reassuring. "Aeris has got control, but she says Cloud's still there. The stop spell was her idea - it'll preserve the both of 'em till we can get them fixed. We got somethin' to work with now, too -" he gestured towards the other Aeris with his good hand. "Just a matter of figurin' how to get her outta Cloud an' back into her own body." Tifa gritted her teeth and nodded, obviously still upset, but grabbing the thread of hope she had been offered. Barret handed her the time materia. "Now let's get Aeris an' Cloud below."
With the Highwind accelerating away, the group carried the two under the effect of stop spells into the hold of the airship. Moments later, a flash and the roar of detonation signalled the final demise of the sector four reactor, the blast buffetting the Highwind. Reeve, Barret, Elena and Nanaki returned to the bridge as Cid brought the airship back under control.
Reeve gave a loud sigh, running a hand through his hair. "It's over."
"Don't think so." Barret grunted.
Much to the former AVALANCHE leader's surprise, the Turk beside him immediately spoke up in agreement: "Barret's right. I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg, sir." Reeve's brow furrowed; the Shinra manager was considering his next move.
"Where we goin', Cid?" Barret asked.
"Junon. We mugged a Disciple for this flask of stuff that Reeve's gonna get analysed."
"We can't wait around for the results, though," Nanaki broke in, "I want to get Cloud and Aeris back to the City of Ancients as soon as possible, where someone can look after them."
"Just drop me off, and I'll PHS you with the results, if I get anything" Reeve said.
Swinging round, the Highwind made a final pass over the decimated city of Midgar, heading south towards Junon.
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