Further Fantasy 7 - Part 5
Tifa woke up and immediately knew something was wrong. She sat up in her bed and looked round the near-darkness of the shell-shaped Cetra dwelling that she, Cloud and Barret had bunked down in for the night, while Nanaki and Cid went back to Cosmo Canyon to fetch Sariva. From the bed beyond hers, Barret's snoring rumbled like distant thunder. It was then that she realised what was wrong. She pulled on her trousers, boots and gi jacket over her underwear, then crept across to where the massive black man slept. "Barret!" she hissed, "Barret, wake up!"
"Huh? Wha..?" Groggily, Barret opened his eyes and turned to look at her. "Wha's the matter, Tifa?"
"It's Cloud," she replied, glancing round to triple-check what she was already certain of, "He's gone!"
"Gone!?" Now more awake, Barret sat up, "We'd better go find him then!"
"If he's still him," Tifa said, her anxiety obvious in her tone.
"Oh shit!" Barret threw off the sleeping bag he was using for a blanket, grabbing for his clothes. Despite having only one hand, he dressed with alacrity, finally clipping the gun back into place on his other arm. "Let's go!"
Minutes later, the founder members of AVALANCHE were standing at the intersection of the path that lead into the city from the Sleeping Forest. Despite the summer sun, the city's position on the northern continent gave the night a bitter edge, leaving both of them shivering slightly.
Barret squinted into the darkness. Darker patches in the near blackness gave away the position of the paths and buildings, but any detail beyond that could not be made out. "Now what?" he asked.
Tifa scrutinised each of the three paths for any signs of Cloud's passage, but was equally unable to make out anything. "I don't know. I guess we'll just have to search as best we can." She sighed, "I should have been looking out for him. Red said that the city would call to Aeris. I should've."
"That's it!" Barret interrupted. He waited, but when no response came from Tifa, he continued: "If the city's callin' Aeris, then the call's gonna be comin' strongest from."
"The altar!" Tifa finished, staring into the gloom of the overhung path leading towards the place she and Barret had both thought of. With a nod to each other, they set out at a run.
Their suspicions were confirmed upon their arrival at the house where the entrance to the forgotten capital was concealed: the giant illusionary fish had gone, and the barrier removed, both revealing and allowing access to the stairs. It also, as Barret pointed out, was a sure sign that it would be Aeris they found, not Cloud.
Slowly, Tifa and Barret picked their way down the crystal stairs: the steps had an unnerving translucency to them, giving the feeling that they might vanish at any instant. However, about two thirds of the way down Tifa, who was leading, suddenly stopped for a moment, then bounded off down the remainder of the flight.
"Tifa!" Barret yelled after her, his voice sounding disturbingly loud in the near silence, "What is it!?"
Although not as quick as the young woman, Barret rapidly descended the last of the stairs, then made his way up the series of pillars leading to the altar. On the uppermost one stood Tifa, although as he approached, Barret realised that something was very wrong. The martial artist was standing as if frozen, he face pale and her eyes unblinking, as if unable to believe what she saw. "Hey!" Barret said as he arrived beside her, "You okay?"
Apart from her slight trembling, Tifa did not move. Barret turned and followed her gaze.
"Oh shit!" the massive black man breathed.
Cloud was kneeling on the far side of the altar, as if in a grotesque parody of Aeris's final moments. His hands were clasped round the white materia, and he was chanting a repetitive series of phrases over and over again, although the language he used was unlike anything either Tifa or Barret had ever heard in their many travels.
Barret forced himself to think straight. "Tifa?" he whispered. Then, upon receiving no response, he shook the young woman by the shoulder. "Tifa!"
Tifa shook her head, snapped out of the trance-like state the shock had induced. While still pale, her burgundy eyes were focused, and when she looked up, tears were threatening to spill down her cheeks. "Barret. we've got to do something."
"Hmm.. But what?" Barret replied, "I mean, we don't know what's goin' on at the moment. I think all we can do for now is watch and wait for Red to get back."
Tifa sighed, and the temple fell silent again, save for the continual quiet chanting in Cloud's voice.
"Eredorean kathtarol.. ton-te Sephiroth? Ton-te maktobe mikkalhan Sephiroth?"
Both Tifa and Barret's heads snapped up at the familiar syllables in Cloud's otherwise incomprehensible mutterings.
"Barret." Tifa put her hand on the arm of the original AVALANCHE leader. While not stunned as she had been seconds before, her distress was obvious through her shaking.
"I know Tifa, I heard it." Barret muttered grimly, "I'll go get him." He started forward, but as he stepped onto the altar, a wave of energy burst out from the centre, sending him tumbling backward.
"Shit!" Barret flailed his good hand, falling backwards. The sight jerked Tifa into action: she dropped to lie flat on the pillar and, bracing herself, caught Barret's hand. A cry escaped her lips as the full weight of the massive man jerked her shoulders painfully. For a moment Barret hung, swinging in Tifa's grasp before she managed to pull him up high enough to gain purchase on the pillar top, and she helped him scrabble up again. "I guess that's that idea out the window."
"So what do we do now?" Tifa asked.
"Seems there ain't much we can do. 'cept wait." Barret looked at Tifa, then they both turned to look at Cloud, who remained apparently oblivious, just continuing to mutter his words:
"Mikkalhan Ryo matame ni Sephiroth. S'armukai matame ni."
Dawn was breaking by the time the City of the Ancients had appeared on the horizon, and from the forward viewport of the Highwind, it was an awe-inspiring sight.
Standing in Barret's usual spot on the flight deck, Sariva looked out, watching the first rays of daylight flood the darkened landscape of the north continent with a dazzling array of colours, the Sleeping Forest an emerald at its heart. "Incredible," she breathed quietly.
At her side, Nanaki nodded. Although he had often witnessed similar scenes while flying, the beauty of sunrise was never lost on him. Despite her normally cool and collected demeanour, he was unsurprised at Sariva's amazed remark.
"Hey numbskulls!" Cid, at the pilot's console, yelled into the intercom, "We're coming up on landing in twenty minutes - better get ready!"
Immediately, the deck was filled with activity as the flight crew of the Highwind manned their stations. Sariva watched them bringing their terminals on line. "Is he always that rude?" she asked.
Nanaki nodded. "Always. It's just how he is."
"Sir?" one of the crew piped up. Nanaki looked round at the speaker - the Highwind's radio operator and secondary navigator.
"What?" Cid yelled, "We're getting ready to land, you know!"
"I'm getting some strange readings here."
The radio operator was silenced as Cait Sith's body jerked into life. Unusually, though, after straightening up, it did not move at all: instead, it gave a bark of noise from its vocal link, then fell silent.
"Well, I guess." Cid started, then was drowned out by a second burst of crackling and hissing, this time slightly longer. Once again, it fell silent, then gave another short static noise. Cid eyed the mog as it continued alternating between noise and silence, then flipped a number of switches on the flight panel. In response, the airship rapidly decelerated until it came to a hovering stop.
"Sir?" the radio operator queried.
For a moment, Cid remained motionless, his head on one side and an expression of concentration etched on his face as he listened to the noises coming from the robotic mog. Then he looked up. "Radio op!" he yelled.
"Keep hold of this signal as long as you can! See if you can get a lock on its source!" he glanced round rapidly, "And someone get me a pen and paper!"
"What is it?" Nanaki asked as the flight crew scrambled around carrying out Cid's orders.
"Shinra dot-dash code," Cid explained, his eyes once again fixed on Cait Sith, "Someone's trying to tell us something." One of the flight team offered the pad and pen he required, and Cid snatched them and began scrawling. "Missed the first couple o' letters," he muttered, making notes furiously, "It's been too long since I last used this!" he complained. Nanaki and Sariva watched as his hand flew over the page, and the notes gradually translated into common letters:
".N - G - E - R . C - J - D. R - E - E - V -"
Abruptly, Cait Sith fell silent.
"Damn!" Cid cursed, hurling the pad away.
"Sir?" the radio operator broke the silence that had fallen, "I've got an approximate location on the signal source."
"Where?" Cid demanded.
"Midgar?!" Cid yelled, "There's nobody in Midgar no more! Meteor wrecked the whole damn place."
Nanaki padded over to the notepad that still lay on the floor near the pilot's console. "R - E - E -V." he read aloud. He paused for a moment, and then suddenly two and two made four: "Reeve! He used to control Cait Sith!"
Cid stared at the feline guardian. "Yeah, that's true. But he was just one of the Shinra."
"Not like the others, though," Nanaki countered, "He wanted to save the city for the people living there."
"That's true." Cid nodded, "Too bad he was still there when Meteor hit." Suddenly, Cid's eyes widened as the penny dropped, "You don't suppose he survived, do you? And is trying to contact us?"
"Possibly. But we've got to help Cloud first."
"Dammit!" Cid punched the console.
"I have a suggestion," Sariva broke in, her quiet but authoritive voice having it's normal calming influence.
"Shoot," Cid said.
"It seems that much of the work in the City of Ancients is in the examination of artefacts and the translation of texts. While your skill as both pilot and engineer is obvious Cid, I dare say that the tasks at hand are not exactly your. forte."
"Not really," the pilot replied, a wry smile on his face.
"Then I suggest that my research team and I stay at the City, while you go and help your friend in Midgar."
"What makes you think he need help?"
"The first four letters you noted down, Cid. I believe that the two you missed before the 'N' were 'D' and 'A'."
Accompanied by Sariva and her cadre of researchers, Cid and Nanaki made their way through the Sleeping Forest, over the ridge and down into the City of the Ancients. Halfway down, Nanaki stopped.
"What is it?" Cid asked, glancing back and forth. They had encountered a few creatures during the two hour walk between the bone village and the City, and while Sariva could fight, her abilities were more suited to combat support, while none of her researchers had any combat training at all. Understandably, the pilot was edgy.
"Tifa and Barret."
Cid squinted down the hill. Sure enough, there were two figures at the intersection of the path. However, Cloud was absent. "This doesn't look good," he remarked.
Minutes later, Nanaki and Cid were reunited with their friends although, as the pilot had muttered under his breath, it seemed that Cid had made the understatement of the century. Barret looked tired and worried, while Tifa was pale and gaunt, her eyes red and the last smudged residue of tear marks visible on her cheeks. Rapidly, Barret explained the situation to the Keeper of Lore as he led them back towards the entrance to the temple.
Sariva paused at the cleared pathway Cid and Barret had found the previous day. "What's down there?" she asked.
"The war room," Barret replied, "I'll explain more later. We gotta help Cloud first."
For a second, Sariva remained facing down the other path. Barret thought for a moment that she intended to go straight to the war room, but before he could voice his thoughts, she had turned and was walking in the direction he led again. Relieved, Barret started out again for the temple.
As they walked, Nanaki fell into step alongside the Keeper of Lore. "You sensed something, didn't you?" he asked quietly.
Sariva nodded, "There's something else there. I can't quite place it."
The group trudged on in heavy silence, Barret still in the lead. In did not take long for them to reach and descend the stairs to the forgotten capital. Even from halfway up, it was obvious nothing had changed; Cloud still knelt at the far side of the altar, his lips moving in the strange chant as they had been hours before, although now his words were silent.
Sariva stepped up onto the first of the pillars leading to the altar, a puzzled expression on her face.
"You alright?" Barret asked.
"Can you sense something?" Nanaki followed a split second later.
Sariva looked round, obviously perplexed. "I don't know why but. I can sense great hope here."
"Hope?" Barret looked alarmed, "Listen, I dunno what's happenin' to Cloud, but the only word I could make while he was still speaking was 'Sephiroth'! I think we should try and get him outta there, now." His statement was followed by noises of agreement from Cid and Tifa.
Sariva looked down at the only AVALANCHE associate who had remained silent. "Nanaki?" she asked.
"I think we should try to release him, although I don't know how."
"Typical!" Cid said, selecting a materia from his armlet and stomping purposefully past the others and up the 'steps', "Once again, it's up to me to get things sorted."
"Cid, what you gonna do?" Barret called after him, his tone that of a warning.
"Yes, Cid." Nanaki began.
"Just relax, for crying out loud!" Cid hollered back, stopping on the penultimate pillar, "Trust me! I got everything under control!" He held up the materia he had chosen, "By the power of the planet."
Sariva looked down at Nanaki. "Don't tell me," the Canyon Guardian said, "You've got a bad feeling about this." The Lore Keeper nodded in reply.
".and let this barrier be broken!" Cid finished.
Cid turned back to the group, looking sheepish. "Okay, I guess that didn't." his words petered out as he saw the fearful expression on the faces of his comrades. "What?"
Nobody replied or even moved, except for Tifa, who raised a hand and pointed.
Cid looked over his shoulder as the human-sized Weapon that had materialised on the top pillar lunged for him.
Barret was the first to react. He swept the Lore Keeper up into his arms and jumped back across to the edge of the pool from which the pillars rose, then backed off until Nanaki stood between the Weapon and him. "Get your people out!" he growled, setting Sariva down, "If we don't make it, you're Cloud's only hope!"
Understanding the man's motives, Sariva nodded, and set off up the steps at a run, her team following.
Cid materialised at the edge of the pool, once again thankful for the linked warp and counter materia. He readied his spear, glaring at the Weapon. "All right you bastard, it's payback time!" He pulled a materia from the spear and held it aloft. "Element of air come to me and strike my enemy. lightning bolt!" At the command, the materia glowed and the chamber was lit by a near blinding flash as a third-level bolt spell blasted the Weapon. Cid snapped the materia back into place, keeping an eye on his target. "Shit! It ain't even scratched!"
The Weapon bounded down the pillars, its feet smashing a dent in each, testifying to its weight. Twin blades sprang from sheaths on each of its forearms, ready to slash at the first foe it encountered.
The four AVALANCHE members formed a loose semi-circle round the area into which the Weapon could jump from the lowest pillar. At the moment the creature hit the ground, Barret opened up with his gun.
Tifa extracted a red materia from her glove. "Great guardian spirit Odin, hear my prayer! I command you to appear!"
The materia shone and dark clouds seemed to fill the room, from which the warrior god appeared astride his eight-legged steed. The horse reared, it's scream deafening, and the lance left Odin's hand, flying up into the darkness, then coming down to strike the Weapon. Then the clouds faded, and Odin was gone.
In response, the Weapon turned and lashed out at Tifa. She screamed as the claws sliced deep into her, the force of the impact knocking her back. Drawing from her martial arts training, she forced herself to ignore the pain and pulled herself up in time to see Nanaki fling himself at the Weapon, and be batted aside by a backhand that landed like a ton of bricks.
"Shit! It's even more powerful than last time!" Barret yelled above the din of combat. The Weapon was advancing on him, and he was backing off, the gun on his arm blazing, but with little apparent effect.
Cid cursed, fumbling with his materia. He remembered how badly he and Barret had fared in their last fight with the Weapon - if it was the same one. This one, although similar, had a number of differences: it seemed to prefer direct combat, rather than to blast its opponents. He rapidly cast his mind back to that fight, trying to remember if that Weapon had shown any weakness, but nothing sprang to mind: he and Barret had been clobbered, and would have probably died if it hadn't been for. Cid looked up at the altar - Cloud was still there, totally oblivious to what was happening. "Cloud! Aeris! Whoever the hell you are!" Cid yelled, "Call this thing off!" He readied himself to run as the Weapon turned in his direction. "Oh shit!"
Aeris took a deep breath and swallowed to refresh her dried throat. As she had feared, there had been little response from her repeated requests to the planet, but then she wasn't even sure what she had been asking: the words seemed to come from nowhere. However, what she was almost certain of was that something or someone had been blocking her call, and she swore she had heard laughter at one point - sinister and contemptuous. She shuddered at the thought, then shook her head to help clear her mind.
Someone was yelling her name.
Aeris looked up. Her four friends were locked in combat with a guardian Weapon, but why it had appeared was anybody's guess. Maybe it had sensed some kind of harm directed towards her while she had been in prayer. Boldly, she advanced towards it. "Guardian dismiss!" she yelled as she approached.
To her utter horror, the Weapon did not bow and fade. Instead, it turned on her. Mercifully, Cloud's body still had Cloud's instinctive reflexes, and she dived aside. The Weapon turned, but before it could strike, Nanaki leapt onto its back, trying to get a grip with his teeth.
Aeris stared as the creature threw Nanaki off. Why had it not obeyed her? Then, just as the words had while she was praying, a long forgotten memory rose to the surface: There is another who commands a guardian.
Aeris gritted her teeth, wrestling with her doubts. If the creature before her was another guardian, then only her own Weapon could stand against it. but to call it would definitely be asserting her soul, which could impact badly on Cloud. But if she didn't. she closed her eyes. "Guardian, I command you, protect me and my friends!"
"Cloud, look out!" someone yelled. Then a blow connected with the side of her head, and Aeris felt herself slip into oblivion.
Not having heard the command from 'Aeris' over the noise of his gun, Barret felt his blood run cold when he saw the second man-sized Weapon materialise. He recognised it immediately: it was definitely the one he and Cid had fought at Cloud's villa. But before any of the still-standing members of AVALANCHE could react, the new Weapon lunged at the one they had been fighting, tackling it and bringing it down with a heavy thump as it smacked into the ground. For a second, the two creatures remained locked together before the second one ("Pods" Weapon as Barret began to think of it, due to the shoulder beam pods which differentiated it from the other) release its grip, and both it and "Claws" Weapon stood. To everyone's amazement, the two creatures acknowledged each other with slight bow, then slowly faded away, and before anyone had realised it, the fight was over.
A few seconds later they were joined by Sariva. Without a word, she began checking each of the group, using curative materia to heal the wounds they had taken.
"You all right?" Barret asked, watching the woman's obvious, though not blatant, expertise. "Where's the others?"
"They're waiting outside," Sariva replied. "I thought you might need an extra person to help with healing and besides," suddenly her voice took on a more emotional tone, "until today, I wasn't even sure that the Guardians existed. I had to see what they could do."
"Guardians?" Cid queried. Like Barret, he had been more cautious in the fight, and had taken only minor injuries, "Weren't those things Weapons?"
"Yes. Well, similar. Only one of my texts has a reference to them, and it's somewhat vague, and very old. If I understand it correctly, when the planet created Weapon to defend itself against Jenova, it also created the Guardians to protect the people who had helped nurture and cultivate it." Sariva looked whistful as she spoke of her research, a passionate tone in her voice. "I'm not certain, but I think only a few Cetra gained protection of these Weapons."
A groan interrupted her. As one, she and the AVALANCHE members turned to see Cloud slowly sit up. "Wha.?" The blond man slowly looked round, blinking, "What happened? Was I Aeris again?"
Immediately, Tifa and Sariva were either side of him, the brunette martial artist nearly crying with relief as the Keeper of Lore rapidly examined him.
"Oh Cloud!" Tifa threw her arms round him, hugging him tightly.
"Tifa?" Cloud hugged her back equally tightly, but his voice bore confusion in his tone, "What's happened? Why am I down here?" He met the brunette's gaze.
Almost immediately, she recoiled, her face pale and fear clouding her burgundy eyes.
"Tifa?" Cloud asked, concerned, "What's the matter?"
"Your... your eyes." Tifa's voice had an uncertain edge to it, giving away that she was desperately worried.
"My eyes?" Cloud queried.
"Your eyes... they're... green."
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