Further Fantasy 7 - Part 4
The journey to the City of the Ancients was uneventful. Cid had landed the Highwind near the cost of the northern continent, and the group of five had made their way to Bone Village, where they had stayed for the night. By morning, Cloud seemed back to his normal self, albeit worried by the length of time Aeris's soul had been dominant within his body and by strange dreams that he could not recall fully. The loss of his sword also irritated him, and he had spent a good hour arguing with the chief of the archaeological team over whether any of their finds would make a suitable weapon. Eventually, and with great reluctance, he had settled for an empty scabbard, using the Princess Guard to carry materia. As Barret and Cid were the more used to fighting alongside Cloud, they stayed with him on the path through the Sleeping Forest, while Tifa and Nanaki went on ahead to scout out the route.
"There aren't as many monsters around as there used to be," Tifa remarked, dusting herself off. Around her and Nanaki, the bodies of various creatures lay still and lifeless, save for the last involuntary spasms of muscles that had yet to realise that they were dead. They were the first that she and Nanaki had encountered in nearly two hours of walking, and she had been glad of the distraction - for the first time in twenty four hours, she had not had the time to worry about Cloud.
"It's from the after-effects of Holy," Nanaki explained, falling in by her side as they set off again, picking their way up the incline, "The spawn used to fear the light of the Cetra, as they were random creatures, where the Cetra took the chaos of the lifestream and gave it order. In the centuries after the Cetra died, the spawn overcame much of their fear, but it is still there, and something the scale of Holy would definitely resurrect that."
Tifa nodded, thinking about Bugenhagen, and how proud he would have been at how his grandson's knowledge had increased. She had soon learned of how the old man had died, and had immediately realised that she and Nanaki had something in common now - the death of someone they had at least considered family. But also, they both had things to live for - in his case, the people of Cosmo Canyon, while in hers. "How long." she started, swallowing nervously, "How long do you think it will be before. Cloud."
"I don't know," Nanaki answered, "At present it seems that Aeris's soul only comes to the fore when Cloud's cannot be in control."
"Like when he was knocked out yesterday?"
"Exactly. It seems that if consciousness is lost unexpectedly then the switch happens. When he sleeps, that is the critical time. While he wakes up as Cloud, we know that his soul still has overall control."
Tifa nodded, then braced herself, forcing herself to ask the question she feared most: "What are his chances?"
"I wish I knew. To establish his soul's dominance and purge Aeris's from his body I imagine would be difficult enough. The fact that he has undertaken to carry her soul and try and return her in addition to keeping his own identity only compounds the matter. But I promise you this, Tifa," the feline guardian stopped and looked her in the face, "If it comes down to a choice between losing Aeris's soul and losing Cloud then I will do everything in my power to ensure Cloud is the one who survives."
Without further exchange of words, the pair reached the crest of the rise and began the walk down into the city.
"Back up! Back up!" Cid shouted above the din of Barret's gun. About ten minutes behind Nanaki and Tifa, they had run into a group of spawn and, before they knew it, their route was blocked. There were two types of creature in the group they were now facing - one was some form of red blob with arms and legs, while the other flew - somehow - and its scales made it look as if it belonged more in water that on land. At least the numbers were slowly moving towards their favour - originally outnumbering them two to one, only four of the creatures now remained, one having met its maker on the end of Cid's spear, and the second being caught in a crossfire between Barret's gun and an impressively strong fire spell from Cloud.
Cloud was getting frustrated. All the combat training he had received, both in the initial stages of the SOLDIER training program, then later as a Shinra guard, taught him that skirmishing tactics were best in this situation - wait for an opening, get in, hit hard then get out before the enemy (if they were still alive) had realised. Without a sword, he felt naked and vulnerable, despite being armed to the teeth with materia, and refreshed from a night's sleep.
Two of the spawn saw that one of the three they were facing did not seem to be armed, and took advantage. Before Cid or Barret could react, they charged in a vicious two-pronged assault that left Cloud on the floor.
Hurting, Cloud pulled himself to his feet. His body ached, and a sticky wetness inside his shirt sleeve gave away the presence of a cut, which sent searing pain up his arm. He growled in anger, readying himself for an assault, then stopped short, remembering his lack of weaponry. "Damn it!" he cursed to himself, "I could hardly take a swing at one of them now, let alone use a limit technique! Why now?!" Abruptly, he stopped, his thoughts clear and racing like lightning. Maybe, if he couldn't use his own techniques.
Barret had just evaded another attack when he heard Cloud's voice ring out: "Seal evil!" Magic flowed through the air, surrounding their four remaining foes, surrounding and enveloping them. With the creatures unable to move, Barret and Cid made short work of them.
As usual, Barret checked his gun, then scanned the area for more enemies. Only when he was satisfied there was no possibility of a second wave did he look across to Cloud, who was strapping the Princess Guard back across his back. "Aeris?" he called.
"Relax, I'm still me, you great oaf," Cloud drawled back, a smile on his face.
Barret eyed the young man suspiciously. "You sure?"
"But you just. that was." Barret scratched his head, then gave up, "Aw, forget it!"
"I know, " Cloud said, strolling over to him, "I don't know exactly how I did it, but. I think she's trying to help me, Barret."
"Yeah. She said she was gonna." In his mind's eye, Barret pictured Nanaki's explanation of the day before, and the promise Aeris had made.
"I dunno. Can't remember anything between Gongaga and this morning."
Barret grinned broadly. "That's a good sign."
"Red said that if you can't remember things she's done then you're still good!" Barret clapped Cloud on the shoulder, then turned to Cid. "Yo, Cid! You ready to roll?"
"Ready," the pilot replied.
Cloud grinned. "Let's get moving."
Only one more group of creatures tried opposing them on the remainder of the journey, and those that were not reduced to cinders by Cloud's fire spell made a prompt escape back into the scrub. The city itself had hardly changed, which was not a surprise when Cloud explained the events of his previous journey there to recover the Holy material, soon after they had defeated Sephiroth. Realising that the city could inadvertently be ruined if it were left open for all to enter, Cloud had used the Lunar Harp to seal the Sleeping Forest, then left the instrument in the care of the head archaeologist at Bone Village, so that they could carefully excavate the site. So far, little work had been done - the trees and overgrown scrub had been cut back in places, revealing a couple of new buildings and entrances, but the majority of the City still remained hidden.
Barret, Cid and Cloud arrived at the intersection at the edge of the city to find Tifa and Nanaki waiting for them.
"Ah, here they are!" Nanaki said as they approached, "How are you? No troubles, I trust?"
"We're fine, Red," Cloud replied.
"And who's with us at the moment?"
"Don't worry, Red," Cloud said with a grin, "I'm still me. Geez, the way you say it, it sounds like you're expecting Aeris to pop up every time your back's turned."
"Well, you did use her limit technique," Cid put in.
"What?" Nanaki looked at Cloud, concern on his face.
"We were in a fight," Cloud said at length, "and I'd just taken a pounding. I couldn't kick off without my sword. It just. felt like the right thing to do. It was like she knew what I needed and handed it to me. I think my magic is getting stronger, too."
Nanaki looked at Cloud in silence, his expression telling the young man that he had more to say, but would not speak further on the matter in the present company. "Well, I think you should be careful, Cloud," he answered after a moment's silence, "This is the place of the Ancients. It will call to Aeris's soul." He looked up and addressed the group, "I think we should split up. Cloud, Tifa and I will make a sweep of the structures we've been to before, to see if there's anything we might have missed, or any Cetra script I can decipher. Barret and Cid, you investigate the newly exposed passages and buildings. Look for books, scripts, items and materia. See what you can find in there."
Barret and Cid both nodded, looked at each other, then started off towards one of the unknown structures.
Nanaki turned back to Tifa and Cloud. "Well? Shall we?"
The occasional drip of water on rock was all that broke the silence of the underground room, as it had for many years. However, a sounds soon broke in; voices and footsteps, gradually getting closer.
Cid's voice was the first to become clear; he was complaining: ". see what you can find, hah! What the hell are we supposed to be looking for?"
"You tell me," Barret replied, his tone showing his temper was becoming strained, "Anyway, we got a few things, right?"
"Yeah, a couple of old books an' a lousy ice materia that's only been used a couple of times." He broke off and spat, "What good is. huh?"
Moments later, the pair were in the underground chamber. Both held torches, but the dancing flames did little to illuminate the room.
"I don't like this," Cid said, squinting into the darkness.
"What's with you?" Barret asked.
"You saw the prints going in, right?"
"See any coming back out again?"
"Could lead through to some place."
"Don't feel any through-draft."
"Well, we can't just turn back. We just need more light."
"Oh," Cid's tone turned sarcastic, "And I what am I supposed to do? Say 'Let there be light!' or some. thing." His voice trailed off as a ghostly glimmer appeared above and some distance in front of them. It spread across the ceiling, expanding and brightening until the whole room was illuminated.
Barret and Cid stood and stared. The walls of the room were lined with shelves weighed down with volume after volume of ancient tomes. The outer floorspace seemed to be divided between workbenches and glass cabinets, giving the impression that the place was some kind of hybrid between a laboratory, a library and a museum. At the centre of the room was a large table, with a great deal of space around it which would allow a large number of people to stand around and see whatever was on it.
"Would you look at that?!" Barret breathed softly.
Slowly, the pair made their way through the maze of tables and display cases, following the footprints, unable to do much but stare in amazement at the trove they had stumbled upon. However, after a few moments of looking round, Barret spotted one thing in particular that caught his attention. "Cid," he said slowly, "I think we'd better go get the others."
"Yeah," Cid, a few steps behind Barret, was still looking round in awe, "Who knows what could be in this lot."
"That ain't what I'm worrying about right now."
"No? What's the matter then?"
Barret pointed to the body, wrapped in a black cloak, lying slumped against the smashed remains of a display case. "That is."
It took a few minutes for Barret and Cid to find the others, but it was not too long before all five of them, led by Cid, had made their way back to the entrance of the room.
"Sweet Cetra!" Nanaki breathed, causing the others to all give him a look of surprise. The guardian was normally so placid and thoughtful that his spontaneous outburst was totally unexpected.
Slowly, they crossed the underground chamber, looking round in wonder. Tifa stopped by the central table. "What do you make of this?"
Nanaki put his forepaws up on the tabletop to take a look. An image had been etched across the entire surface, and groups of gemstones had been placed at various points. "This looks like some kind of map or chart," he said.
"Yeah. A battle plan." Cloud cut in. The others turned to look at him as he continued. "This is the coastline of the northern continent," he said, indicating, "and knowing the lie of the land here, these points here would be very strong defensively, where these groups are." He paused and shook his head. "Either each of these stones only represents a couple of people, or whoever was planning this was getting ready for one hell of a fight."
"A war room." Nanaki's whisper was barely audible.
"Whassat, Red?" Barret queried from the other side of the map.
"This is an incredible find," Nanaki said, raising his voice so all could hear. "If what I believe is correct, then we are standing in a war-room of the Ancients. I read about them in one of the books we found back home. When the Cetra retreated to the City of the Ancients, it was here they would have made their plans for their last desperate assault to against Jenova."
"Wow." Cid said, looking over the map once again.
Nanaki turned to Cloud. "I think that if there is anything that can help you and Aeris, Cloud, we'll find it here."
"But where do we start?" Tifa asked, looking round the shelves of books and the numerous items.
"Over there," Barret replied, pointing.
Nanaki, Cloud and Tifa followed Cid round to where Barret stood. "What d'ya make of this?" he asked, gesturing at the body he had found.
"Phew!" Tifa covered her mouth and nose at the smell.
"Looks like one of those people from the Jenova reunion," Cloud said.
"Don't think so," Barret answered, "He's too fresh."
"One way to be sure." Steeling himself, Cloud hunkered down next to the corpse and tugged the cloak aside. The smell immediately intensified, but it was the object that was flung from the cloak that caught their attention.
"What was that?" Cid said, moving to pick up the object.
"Careful, Cid!" Tifa cautioned, "We don't know how he died yet!"
Cloud stood. "Whatever that thing is, I don't think it killed him. Look." He pointed at the corpse's chest. Two deep punctures were obvious in the flesh at the centre of a festering wound which added its stench to the general odour of decay. "I think he's only been down here a few days."
"He's got a tattoo, though," Nanaki said.
Once more, Cloud crouched by the body, twisting the left arm over so the tattoo was visible. "It's not a number."
"No. It's Cetra script by the looks of it. I'm not sure exactly what it says - that final glyph looks like 'servant' or 'worker', but that's all I can make out."
"What about this then?" Cid broke in. He had retrieved the item that had been in the cloak, and held it out. It looked like a variation on the armour bangles that they all wore, except for the materia slots: where most had an even number, and some slots were linked in pairs, the armlet Cid held had three slots, all linked to each other.
"Why'd anyone wanna link three materia?" Barret asked, scratching his head.
"Don't know," Cloud replied. "Maybe you could link 'Added Effect' and 'All' to a magic materia and gain both protection and the ability to hit a number of enemies at once." he suggested after a moment's thought.
Tifa took the armlet from Cid and turned it between her hands. "Or," she offered, "you could use it to link Holy to Genius and Goliath."
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