Further Fantasy 7 - Part 3
The aging man, confined to his wheelchair, appeared in the doorway of his hut. The shaking was intensifying again, and this time buildings were beginning to collapse. All around, the people who had remained in their homes for fear of the invading monsters were now fleeing, abandoning the village and heading for the forest. The man watched as the group of fighters were slowly driven back. "Tifa!" he yelled above the rising din, "Get out of here! Hurry!"
Distracted for a split second, Tifa almost missed the creature she was fighting taking a swing at her. In the nick of time, she caught the massive, thickly-furred arm in a cross-block, jerked it across as she sidestepped and brought her freed arm round into the back of the creatures elbow, ending with a very final crunch of bone. A powerful snap kick smashed the things knee backwards and it dropped, unable to move or fight. She finished it off with a heel drop to its head, then turned. "No! I wont leave you!"
"Dont be a fool! Run!"
As Tifa started for the hut, the ground heaved. She struggled for balance, then dived aside as another of the vaguely humanoid creatures swung its massive claws at her. She rolled up onto her feet and tried to get past it, but to no avail. Beyond her opponent, the hut began to collapse. In desperation, she jabbed at the creatures throat with a spear-hand strike. The creature fell almost instantly, but before she could react, another violent tremor knocked her off her feet. Unable to do anything, she watched in horror as the ground under the hut gave way and the crude structure collapsed back into the expanding green pool. At the last second, she heard the mans voice yelling at her to run, and then it was silenced forever.
Tifa jerked awake, covered in a fine misting of cold sweat and gasping for breath. The roaring noise outside that had woken her filled her momentarily with terror at the thought that the nightmare she just suffered was starting all over again. It was only when she realised that the ground was not shaking that she relaxed a little. The grief of losing her sensei was still too raw; only a few tears showed her feelings of the events that had decimated Gongaga barely a day and a half before. She brushed the salty droplets from her eyes, and in the dimness of her tent struggled into her clothes. Pulling back the flap revealed that it was early morning; the sun was still low and the grass still damp, except for round the fire she had made to keep any creatures away. Trying to push any thoughts except for her immediate future from her mind, she crawled out into the cool morning air.
Barret, Cid and Nanaki stared at the huge crater in disbelief. Cloud had taken one look, the turned away, an expression of deep pain on his face.
"Damn!" Cid said at last, his voice sounding loud in the quiet of early dawn, "This is worse than Mideel!"
"Wed better be on our guard," Nanaki said, "There will probably be some spawn around, and they are usually hostile."
"Spawn?" the grizzled pilot queried.
"Creatures created randomly by a lifestream eruption." Nanaki looked up at Cid while replying, then spotted Cloud. "Cloud? Are you all right?"
"Im too late," the blond mercenarys sigh sounded almost like a sob. "I should have come straight here."
Cloud looked up to answer, his eyes watering. "Because "
"Heads up!" Cid interrupted, spotting movement in the bushes, "Here they come!"
Tifa stared at the bulk of the airship, not knowing how to feel. With the Highwind standing before her, she knew that at least Cid was somewhere close by; she would not have to risk travelling the plains to Cosmo Canyon alone, a prospect that had filled her with dread. But at the same time, sorrow and anger flooded through her at the unfairness of the situation: forty-eight hours earlier, and they might have saved some of the villagers might have saved
"Zangan " her voice broke and she slumped to her knees in the shadow of the airship. Burying her face in her hands she wept as, with thoughts for survival now no longer filling her mind, her grief came to the fore. She had known he was still alive when she had found his letter, almost two years previously, detailing the techniques for the Final Heaven attack. Originally, she had intended just to renew her ties and express her gratitude before moving to the Costa to be with Cloud, but that had gone by the board when she had found that he had been crippled and was wheelchair-bound and in constant pain, although he tried not to show it. And so she had stayed, and the days had become weeks, then months, then finally nearly two years. To her, he became a father figure, and she grew to love him as such. And now he was gone
Gunfire rattled in the distance, beyond the forest surrounding where Gongaga had once stood, snapping Tifa out of her sorrow. Tracks lead from the bottom of the airships ladder towards the trees; whoever had arrived in the Highwind had not seen her camouflaged tent and had probably run into some of the lifestream creatures while investigating the village. Tifa shuddered. There had been hundreds of those things. The chances were that Cid and whoever else was with him could use her aid. Suddenly, it dawned on her exactly how long it had been since she had been in contact with Cid, or any of the others - and they were old friends! With new determination, she stood and followed the tracks into the trees.
It took only a few minutes for Tifa to negotiate the woodland. Most of the creatures had disbursed, and her martial arts training allowed her to pass the few she saw with ease. Taking cover in the scrub that bordered the massive lifestream-filled crater that had consumed Gongaga, she looked out at the raging battle, immediately recognising the threesome locked in combat with the creatures. As she had expected, Cid was there, swinging his spear back and forth like a scythe, hacking off limbs and heads of creatures that came too near, and Barret was backing him up with a new gun-arm that fired so fast it was impossible to make out the individual shots. With them was Red, who was acting as a flanker, and using his materia whenever he could - every now and then, lightning zapped and arced, or fireballs roared and burst, often taking out two or three of the creatures at a time. Mercifully, it seemed Red did not have any Earth materia; despite her resolve, Tifa did not think she could face another quake! She tensed, checked her materia and readied herself to fight.
A blur of movement to her right caught her eye; a figure, dressed in dark purple combat gear, black boots and a black jacket was swinging a massive sword round like it were a childs toy, cleaving creatures with no regard for his own personal safety. For the first time in two days, Tifa felt a surge of happiness - he had remembered his promise! However, worry rapidly overtook her joy when she saw his face. The bright blue mako eyes were burning with an inner rage and grief that reminded her of her own sorrow for a second, and Clouds face was streaked with tears? Tifa shook her head. The way Cloud was carrying on, he was going to get himself killed and there was only one way that would happen - over her dead body! She stood and selected a materia.
Cloud didnt even see where the blow came from. All he knew was one minute, the Ragnarok had been in his hands as he had hacked one of the attacking spawn apart, and then it was knocked from his grasp as anothers claw caught him in the side and sent him flying. He stood, looking for a means of escape
"Element of fire, come unto me and burn my foe to dust!" a female voice cried from off to his left.
Cloud stared as the creature that had been about to rend him limb from limb was enveloped in a plume of flames for a split second before crumbling into blackened ash. He looked over to the where the voice had come from. "Tifa! Youre alive!"
The young woman, dressed in a black martial arts gi, smiled the smile of pure joy he had thought only minutes before when standing on the edge of the lifestream crater that he would never see again. Then her expression changed and she shouted: "Cloud! Look out!"
Cloud span round, snatching up the Ragnarok, but it was too late. The creatures blow connected with the flat of the blade, sending it flying away into the lifestream pool, and Cloud slammed into one of the trees, the world going black as he slumped.
As Cloud was knocked back, Tifa launched into the attack, rage flooding her from the very core of her soul. Even if it had been facing her, the spawn would have had no chance; as it was, the chances were that it never even knew what had hit it. Two fast punches and a snap kick that cracked bone were followed by a footsweep then, as the creature fell back, Tifa sprang up to meet it with an uppercut like a hammer blow, sending the creature crashing onto its face. She completed the combination by flipping over and using the height she had gained to come crashing down onto the fallen spawns neck, snapping it like a twig. For a second, she stared at the pulped mess, unable to help but wonder where the technique she had just used had come from - it was nothing like she had ever been taught, and possibly more devastating than even the Final Heaven strike. She made a note to work on it in the future, then pushed it to the back of her mind, hurrying to help the young man.
Groggily, and much to her relief, Cloud pulled himself to his feet as Tifa approached. She checked round for any more of the lifestream creatures - mercifully, it seemed that the brunt of the assault was over and Barret, Cid and Red were finishing of the few that had not fled - then looked him up and down, checking for injuries.
"Hello, Tifa!" Cloud said, a broad smile on his face, "Its good to see you again. Its been such a long time "
"I know," Tifa felt the beginnings of tears in her eyes, "Too long." She stepped forward, wrapping her arms round the young man. How had she stayed away so long? Why had she not told him where she was and how she felt? She leaned in towards him. "Cloud "
"Cloud?" the young mans head snapped up, "Is he here too?" He looked down at Tifa in some concern, "Are you all right, Tifa?"
"Huh?" Tifa released her grip and took a step back. Maybe that bang on the head had done Cloud a bit more damage than she had initially thought. She smiled. "Dont worry Cloud. You hit you head "
Cloud laughed, interrupting her. "Tifa, why do you keep calling me Cloud? Dont you recognise me?"
Barret finished off the last of the spawn he Cid and Red had been facing. Instinctively, he checked the ammo. counter on his gun - still a good number of rounds left in case any of the things came back - then looked round just in time to hear Tifas confusion at Clouds responses. Immediately, he guessed what was happening. "Yo, Aeris!" he yelled.
Aeris looked up at the sound of her name being called. Something very strange was going on - the last she could remember was falling asleep in a villa in Costa Del Sol, and now she was standing in what looked like the remains of a village, with Tifa clinging to her and calling her Cloud and strangest of all was that somewhere, deep in her mind, there were memories that werent right. At least she recognised the voice calling her, though. She turned.
"Hi Barret, whats " she stopped short. Although she knew it was her speaking, the voice saying her words was definitely not hers!
Barret suppressed an ironic smile at the reactions of both Tifa and "Aeris". It was inevitable that sooner or later this was going to happen, and he was glad that it was sooner, although for preference, he would have rather it were not in front of Tifa! "You ladies better come with me," he said, ignoring Cids rapidly failing attempts to avoid laughing, "Theres somethin that needs explainin."
Half an hour later, and with the addition of Tifa, the group was back aboard the Highwind, heading north towards the City of the Ancients.
" so you see, Aeris," Nanaki finished explaining, "we believe that your soul is now inhabiting Clouds body."
"Aeris" nodded, digesting the information she had just received. "I know " she said at length, "I can see no, I remember things. Like when Cloud was looking down at me while I was praying for Holy "
"Now thats gotta be a mind-scrambler," Barret muttered.
"Or when you and Cloud " Aeris looked round at Tifa met her gaze, then blushed, "Oh MY!"
Tifa turned bright red, all too well aware of what "Aeris" was referring to. Behind the controls of the airship, Cid spluttered with laughter. Barret kicked him and he shut up.
"I remember " Suddenly Aeris faltered, and tears began to well up in the mako-blue eyes, "Zack so thats what happened."
Nanaki turned to Barret, "So, she can see into his memory to some extent now," he stated.
"Is that bad?" Barret asked.
"It means that the merging has started. What we really have to worry about is when Cloud cant remember things that he should, but can remember things from Aeriss life. That means that her memories are replacing his." The feline guardian turned back to the young man through whose eyes Aeris soul cried. "Aeris," he said gently.
Aeris sniffed. Once again, Cid looked dangerously close to laughing before he caught Barrets grim expression and controlled himself.
Eventually, Aeris looked up. "Yes?"
"There may be a way to help you both you and Cloud." Nanaki said.
Aeris nodded. "Just dont send me back please."
"To the lifestream," Although it was Aeris speaking through him, Clouds face had gone white with fear, "Dont send me back to the planet I cant bear to see it that way "
"What way?" Barret stepped forward, concern on his face.
Aeris seemed not to hear, her face taking on a faraway expression. "So dark cold twisted," she shuddered, "Calling for help the cries of the planet its cries their cries "
Nanaki and Barret looked at each other. "Aeris," Nanaki said, using the same gentle but insistent tone he had a moment before.
Aeris shook her head. "Im sorry. Go on, Red."
"Cloud swore that he would carry your soul until we found a way to help you both, but you must help him. As a Cetra, your soul is stronger that his, and eventually, he will become more and more you in body and mind until the person we know as Cloud is lost forever."
Tifa opened her mouth to speak, but was silenced by a look from Barret.
"You can see his memories. Keep these in your sight. It is while you are in control that his memories will gradually fade," Nanaki explained. He paused, and Aeris indicated her understanding with a nod. "You must keep his soul alive, just as he swore to carry yours."
Aeris looked at the rest of the group. Nanakis expression was serious but otherwise unreadable, Barret and Cid both looked grim and determined and Tifa Aeris forced herself to meet the young womans worried gaze and addressed her as she spoke: "I will."
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