Further Fantasy 7 - Part 6
Barret sat down at the long table that dominated the operations room. As he had expected, Nanaki and Sariva were the only two there, the Canyon Guardian having helped his opposite number and her group set up camp at the edge of the sleeping forest the previous evening before returning to the Highwind. Unsurprisingly, both Tifa and Cloud were absent; having been silent for the entire trip back to the Highwind, the blond mercenary had confined himself to his quarters aboard the Highwind and refused to let anyone in to see him. Tifa was little better - while she would still talk to those she saw, she too remained in her room. Cid too was missing, although Barret's suspicion that he was just running late was confirmed a few moments later when the door opened and the pilot strode in and plonked himself down in the nearest chair.
"Right. What we gonna do now?" Cid asked, inhaling deeply from his ever-present cigarette.
"Let's start off with where we stand and what we know," Nanaki opened up the discussion from the other end of the table. "In addition to the change in Cloud's condition, we now have the war room, the body and armlet we found there, and also what appears to be some kind of distress call from Reeve. Anyone care to comment?"
Sariva stood. "The physical change in Cloud confirms without a doubt that Aeris's soul now resides within him and is slowly gaining dominance. More intriguing is that as Aeris, he can summon a Guardian Weapon - from what little I have read about them, it seemed that only certain legendary Cetra were granted their protection. That was why until yesterday I wasn't sure that they even existed."
"Hey, wait a minute!" Barret interrupted, "If Aeris can rustle up that Weapon-thing at will, how come she didn't use it against Sephiroth?!"
"I don't know, Barret. But we learned from yesterday's encounter that two of these Guardians exist, which means that either one is bound to protect this place or "
"Or there's another Cetra alive somewhere."
For a moment, silence descended as the meaning of Sariva's words sunk in. Eventually, Barret spoke up: "Another Cetra? Could they help Cloud?"
"Possibly," Sariva replied, "If that's the case. Like I said, that Guardian may be bound to this place for some reason."
"Whatever he's doin' here, he sure did a number on that guy we found in the war room." Cid put in. When the others turned to look at him, he continued: "I mean, it's obvious. That thing fights with claws - our guy had two huge stab wounds. He sneaks in and tries to steal that armlet, and immediately that Weapon thing pops up outta nowhere and drops him - hence only one set of tracks leading in." He looked round at the nods of agreement, pleased to see his theory accepted.
"In that case, it sounds more like it's protectin' this place." Barret said at length. "Too bad. I just wanna know what that guy wanted with that armlet in the first place."
"'That's just as obvious," Cid replied, "That's a Cetra artifact - probably worth a bomb."
"Then why's he dressed like one o' them Jenova freaks?" Barret retorted.
"Jenova!" At the sound of Nanaki's voice, everyone looked up. The Canyon Guardian's eyes were wide with the shock of sudden realisation. "Sariva, can you draw the Cetra sigil for Jenova for me?"
The Keeper of Knowledge nodded. Her normally placid face creased in concentration as she sketched out the glyph Nanaki had requested, trying to remember all the shapes and angles. Eventually, she pushed her notepad across. "I think that's right."
Barret and Cid stood so they too could see what Sariva had drawn. Immediately, they lapsed into the same shocked silence as Nanaki, which seemed to extend forever.
At last, Nanaki spoke. "I didn't recognise it at first, but that's the second glyph of the tattoo on the body we found. Sariva, I think we should go and look at the war room Barret and Cid found. And we should get Cloud too - although it could be risky for him, we may need Aeris' Guardian again."
Cloud sat on his bed in the corner of his cabin, huddled up with his chin on his knees and his arms wrapped tightly round himself. The knuckles of his right hand were bloodied, bearing testament to the smashed mirror that overlooked the sink. The streaks of tears ran down his cheeks from eyes that were now green. For the first time since he had given the black materia to Sephiroth, he could not face the others, afraid that once again he would see the horrified recoil he had seen from Tifa only hours before. Finally, his rage and frustration had finished venting themselves, and he had retreated to the position in which he now sat, trying to lock out the world.
At the silent voice in his mind, Cloud snapped into alertness. "Who's there?" he called out.
<You know who I am,> the voice replied.
Aeris? Cloud's eyes widened. Then, without waiting for any kind of response, he lunged for his PHS that lay on one of the side tables.
<Cloud, please listen to me,> Aeris appealed silently, speaking directly through Cloud's consciousness, <You're only making this harder for both of us!>
For a second, Cloud hesitated, before putting the PHS down beside him. "Okay, I'm listening," he said. His voice sounded loud in the otherwise silent room, immediately making him feel foolish. He forced himself to relax a little. You can't stop this, can you? he said, directing his words internally, rather than vocalising them.
<No. I'm trying to hold back as much as I can but I cannot stop the transformation,> Aeris's soul replied, <And to be honest, you are not helping me or yourself.>
What do you mean?
<When you are around other people, everything you do builds up their idea of the person known as Cloud Strife, and how they react to those things allows you to not only do the same to them, but also to yourself. It is these memories that people define who they are - you of all people should know that. By staying in here, away from those who know who Cloud is, you do not have any support in defining who you are. Tifa, Barret, Red they're mirrors, Cloud - everyone around you is.>
Mirrors? Cloud frowned, I don't understand.
<Okay, try this. You see Tifa about to go into a dangerous situation, probably life-threatening. What do you do?>
I'd tell her so and try to stop her!
<But she insists that she has to go in >
I'd tell her that I would go with her.
<Okay, now suppose only one person could go in?>
I don't know I guess I'd try and talk her into letting me go instead.
Because Suddenly, Cloud's train of thought was derailed completely. Never before had he even thought about such a scenario, let alone why he would take the actions he said he would. Because I don't want to see her get hurt.
<And why don't you want that, Cloud?>
If Aeris's thoughts had been spoken, her tone would have carried some amusement: <Don't be embarrassed. Where I am, I know your thoughts, your feelings. But you have to be willing to admit them to yourself.>
Cloud took a deep breath. Because I love her. There, I've said it, he added, more for his own benefit than Aeris's. Now how do you feel about that?
For a moment, there was no reply. Then silent laughter filled his mind. <Oh, I see!> Aeris replied, <You were worried about how I'd take it!>
<Don't be concerned, Cloud - I already knew, probably before you did. I know you, inside and out. The light of your soul burns like an inferno when you are with her. When I was alive, I couldn't see that. But from where I am now, it's obvious.>
Cloud remained silent. Was there a hint of melancholy in Aeris's thoughts?
<I know you never wanted to hurt me, and back then, I wanted to believe that you and I were meant to be together,> Aeris continued, <But I can see that that was not meant to be. But,> abruptly her 'tone' became more positive, <you remember what I said that time at the Golden Saucer? I've finally met you, Cloud. And I'm glad. But now we must work together, in order to keep that 'you' - not just for your sake, or even mine, but for everyone's and especially Tifa's.>
Yeah, you're right. I'll tell her
A soft knock at the door interrupted Cloud's thoughts.
" But not yet," he concluded under his breath, his lips curving up into a smile.
Despite the determination she had gathered over several hours of seclusion, Tifa could feel herself becoming more and more downhearted as she approached Cloud's quarters. Although the time she had been around Cloud while Aeris's soul had held sway had been disturbing, seeing his own personality return had been a reassurance that this would be just another thing Cloud would eventually overcome. But when she had looked into his eyes and seen emerald green rather than mako blue, the sight had gone a long way towards shattering that certainty. Up until then, in her eyes, Cloud was still himself, albeit that he acted strangely due to Aeris' influence. The physical change however, had shaken her up badly.
She paused outside the door, dreading what she might find. Unbidden, an image of Cloud in the purple dress and wig he had worn to get into Don Corneo's sprang to mind, and she felt moisture seeping into the corners of her eyes.
Get a grip, woman! she scolded herself, shaking her head to clear it of the image. Then, before she could think further, she raised her hand and knocked.
"Come in," Cloud's voice responded from within.
Tifa opened the door and stepped inside. Cloud sat on the bed in front of her, winding a bandage round his hand. "Hi Teef," he said, his voice sounding suspiciously bright, "I don't suppose you're carrying a restore materia? I got a little upset earlier."
Tifa eyed the young man suspiciously. "You're not " she hesitated, unable to say the name.
Cloud shook his head. "No." He gestured at the mirror while still trying to hold the bandage in place. "Would Aeris do something like that? Damn!" He added the curse as the dressing slipped and came unraveled, exposing the wound.
Tifa stared for a moment, then knelt before him, pulling her curing materia from the armlet she wore with one hand, and taking the man's injured hand in the other. "Great Planet, I call forth your power to cure this man's wounds," she whispered and watched as the wound, illuminated by the green glow of the materia, reopened then sealed as though it never had existed. She looked up, and her gaze met his.
For a long moment they remained there, their hands clasped together.
Eventually, Cloud spoke, "You know, Teef, when this is all over "
"Yes?" Tifa felt her pulse racing. The last time she had felt so close to him was the night before their journey to the north crater to fight Sephiroth, two years before. It was then that she realised what she felt for him, but she had had no idea how to tell him and was scared of how he might react.
Cloud smiled, breaking the moment. "I'm sorry, Tifa. I've ah " Suddenly he looked awkward and embarrassed. "I've got a lot of things I want to talk with you about " he blurted out, then paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts, "But I can't yet. Not with someone watching over my shoulder." His smile picked up a bit, and he laughed quietly.
Suddenly giddy with hope, and also realising what he meant, Tifa joined him in laughter.
Barret jumped when the silence in the passageway was broken by a peel of laughter from Cloud's quarters. He stopped and listened for long enough to determine that Tifa was with him, then stepped up and knocked on the door. "Yo, Cloud!" he yelled.
"Door's open," the young man's voice came from inside.
Encouraged by the more positive tone in Cloud's voice, Barret opened the door and looked in. Tifa and Cloud were sitting next to each other on the bed, not so close as for the former AVALANCHE leader to have interrupted anything, but close enough to indicate that there was more than just friendship between them. Barret allowed himself a small smile at the thought of whether they realised how obvious his friends' feelings for each other were to everyone else. It was also a sure indication that Cloud was very much himself. "We's rollin' out," he said, "Red an' Sariva figured out that that body we found is related to Jenova in some way, and we may need your help if that Guardian's around."
The blond mercenary's expression rapidly turned serious, as did that of the woman beside him. "Guardian?" Cloud queried.
Barret slapped the side of his head with his good hand. "Course," he muttered, "you was Aeris when that all kicked off - you wouldn't remember."
"Right." Cloud replied, closing his eyes. For a few moments, he fell silent. Barret looked on in concern, noting that Tifa also looked anxious. Eventually, Cloud opened his eyes again and looked up. "So that's what happened."
"Aeris and I can communicate now, inside my mind." Cloud said simply.
"Shit!" Barret's worries, eased by the earlier laughter, now returned with a vengeance.
"Oh, I'm still me," Cloud continued, "but it's like I'm carrying her round with me - she knows everything I do and feel now."
"Everything?" Barret hid his concern behind a cocked eyebrow and a sly smile. As he had hoped, Tifa blushed bright red.
"Yeah, everything, so wipe that smirk off your face before I chop it off."
"Crap." Cloud cursed, suddenly remembering his empty scabbard. "Well, maybe the war room isn't such a bad idea - there might be something there I can use."
It was three hours later that the group of six finally arrived back in the city. Upon finding out about the link that had formed between Aeris and Cloud, both Sariva and Nanaki had insisted on examining the young man again, after which Sariva used another new materia known as "Link" to look directly into Cloud's thoughts. Only when satisfied that he was still fully in control of himself did they start out. Once they had reached the city, they stopped briefly in the Cosmo Camp to inform Sariva's research group of the situation.
Standing at the top of the steps leading down into the war room, Barret paused. "You don't think that Weapon-Guardian-thing's gonna show up again, do you?" he asked, looking at Sariva.
"I wish I knew," the Keeper of Knowledge replied, "but it's a chance we must take."
"We'll be all right." Cloud broke in.
"How do you know?" Cid asked, looking back and forth between the entrance and the young mercenary.
Cloud looked round the group; the question Cid had vocalised was etched on each face. "Aeris she says it'll be all right." He turned and started down the steps.
Barret grunted a reply, then looked at Cid. Followed by Sariva and Tifa, they made their way down into the subterranean passage, with Nanaki covering the rear.
The soft glow still illuminated the underground room, giving it an otherworldly feel. The amazement Sariva felt was obvious in her expression as the group crossed the room to where the body still lay. Nanaki moved up to walk alongside her, his expression a cross between his own awe and smug satisfaction at her reaction.
"It's like something out of a dream," the Keeper of Knowledge said at length, "I wish Bugenhagen could have seen this."
"So do I," Nanaki replied. While the pain of loss was still noticeable, he could not help but feel a surge of pride in the thought that in the discovery of this place he had lived up to the dreams of his adoptive grandfather. "Anyway, come and take a look at this."
The group disbursed as Nanaki lead Sariva to the body Barret and Cid had found, and Cloud took the opportunity to break away from the others, directing his own thoughts inward: So what do you make of this place?
<I I'm not sure,> Aeris's silent reply seemed hesitant, <It's like last night - I knew I was on the altar, praying, but I can't remember what I said, or what I was praying for. I've never been here before and yet I'm certain I know this place >
Are we safe here? Will that Weapon thing attack us again?
<I think we're safe as long as this place is not violated, the Guardian should not attack.>
How do you "Ow!" Wandering around, Cloud had not been watching his step, and his shin had scraped painfully across a wooden case that protruded from a recess in the wall. He scanned the area rapidly; a heavy sliding door that had once sealed the compartment had obviously been forced open, and the case dragged half out, then not put back properly.
Tifa left the others and rapidly crossed to him. "Are you okay, Cloud?" she asked, obviously concerned.
"Yeah, I just caught myself on this," he replied, gesturing.
"What is it?"
"Don't know. Let's take a look!" Gripping the heavy case firmly, he pulled hard. Slowly the case slid out and he lifted it carefully to the ground. It was about as long as he was tall, and about a foot wide, with a lid that was fastened by a catch at either end. For a moment, he struggled with the fastenings: they were difficult to open, and every time he got one undone, the other would spring back into place. After a second, Tifa took one end and together, they swung the lid up and immediately, their breath caught in wonder.
"Hey, what ya got there?" Barret stumped up and looked into the case. His eyes widened at what he saw. "Yo!" he called out to the others, causing them to look round, "Red, Sariva - you might wanna look at this!"
Between them, Barret and Cloud lifted the case onto one of the many tables, allowing everyone to see what had been found. Inside lay a sword, but unlike any even Cloud had seen before: it's blade seemed almost crystalline in nature, and was nearly transparent, save for a slight misting within that appeared to shimmer and swirl at its centre. At the hilt guard, the effect was also more pronounced, making the crystal almost opaque, but the movement of the mist inside was still obvious, and its extra thickness revealed that it was constantly changing colour, although through very subtle shades. Two golden bindings wrapped the top and bottom of the hilt, each with four embedded slots for materia in linked pairs. Jet black material made up the double handed grip, although the exact nature and origin of the fabric was impossible to determine; it felt like a very finely worked suede or leather, but of a quality beyond any they had previously seen. Beneath the second gold binding, the same crystal extended, indicating that it continued under the wrapping at the hilt and came to a rounded pommel, and here there was a difference; where the colours and misting within the blade had been very subtle, the pommel seemed to shine with its own light.
For a short eternity, there was silence. Then, with an almost dream-like expression on his face, Cloud leaned forward and reached out to grasp the black-wrapped hilt. Tifa looked at him in alarm. "Cloud? Cloud!" she called.
The sound of a voice broke the tension, but by this time, Cloud's seeking hands had closed on the material. Suddenly, almost everyone acted at once, Barret and Cid spinning and readying their weapons, thinking that Cloud's actions could provoke the Guardian they had fought the previous night, while Tifa and Nanaki both turned to the young mercenary. "Cloud, are you all right?" Nanaki asked, concerned, putting emphasis on the man's name.
"Yes, I'm fine," Cloud replied, lifting the sword clear of the case. "Something's bugging Aeris, though. But she seems to think we're in no danger."
At Cloud's words, Barret and Cid both relaxed and turned back to the find. Gripping the sword firmly, Cloud slowly twirled it above his head in his trademark flourish, then lowered it, holding it flat in front of him.
"Man, that thing looks like it's made of materia!" Barret remarked, his tone hushed with awe.
Cloud nodded. "It's amazingly light." He tested the edge against his thumb and flinched as it opened an incredibly fine cut. A drop of blood fell to the floor, and abruptly the mist inside the blade was shot through with streaks of blue, red and gold for a second.
"Shit!" Cid's cigarette fell from his lips. "Did you see that?"
Nanaki was the only one to voice an answer. "I did. What do you make of this, Sariva? Sariva ?" When no reply was forthcoming, the Canyon Guardian turned to his opposite number, and was amazed at the expression on her face.
"Sweet Cetra!" Sariva gasped. Nanaki blinked at the remark; normally, the Keeper of Knowledge seemed unflappable. He had expected her to be amazed at the war room, but her reaction to the sword made her previous surprise seem like total calmness in comparison.
Sariva sat on one of the dusty stools that surrounded one of the nearby tables, her eyes still wide and a hand over her mouth. "What have we stumbled into?" she breathed quietly.
The group crowded round. "What is it?" Nanaki asked the question that was etched on the faces on all the others.
For a few moments, Sariva continued her quiet whispering, almost as if oblivious to the concern of those around her: "First the Ribbon then one of the Trinity Armlets, and now the Emperor Klaive "
Cloud replaced the sword in its case and knelt before the Keeper of Knowledge. "Sariva?" he said, looking directly at her with his now-green eyes.
Abruptly Sariva snapped out of her trance-like state. "I believe this sword is known as the Emperor Klaive - one of the three sacred items of the Cetra's Eternal Warrior."
"Eternal Warrior?" Barret broke in, "What the hell is that?"
Still looking visibly shaken, Sariva looked up. "Like the Guardians, the Eternal Warrior is a figure in a Cetra legend. From what little I know, he was created to do battle with an evil of immeasurable power, the antithesis of the planet, and was armed with the most powerful artefacts the Cetra ever created."
"So what does this mean?" Tifa asked.
"I don't know," the dark-skinned woman paused, then continued, her tone more decisive, "But I believe that you should go to Midgar as soon as possible."
"Midgar?" Cloud looked puzzled.
"Yes. On our way here, Cid's men intercepted a signal from a man named Reeve, warning of danger, and with the letters 'C-J-D' as part of the message. The tattoo on the body has three parts; the first refers to a place of worship, such as a church, the second to Jenova, and the third means follower which, with the religious bearing of the first sigil, could well be interpreted as 'disciple'."
For a second, the group fell silent as the potential meaning of Sariva's words hit home. Cid was the first to react: "Church of Jenova Disciples?" he shouted in disbelief, "You're kidding, right? Nobody would be crazy enough to worship that thing!"
"Whether they revere it or not, our friend was undoubtedly one of them, and he was after that Cetra armlet." Nanaki noted.
"I think we should find out who they are and why they were after it." Tifa put in, "If it's as powerful as Sariva said, and they're more than just a group of lunatics, who knows what they could do?"
"Hang on! If we all rush off to Midgar, wha's gonna happen if that Guardian shows up again?" Barret protested, "How we gonna find a cure for Cloud if that thing hits while we're gone? I say we stay put an' let Reeve sort him own problems out."
Cloud turned to Sariva. "Barret's got a point, Sariva. What if that Guardian Weapon thing turns up and we're not here? You'll be vulnerable."
Sariva nodded. "I believe we'll be all right. As far as I can see, the Guardian only attacks when something tries to purposefully harm this place or something it is supposed to protect. These books alone will take some time to translate, even to work out what they're about, and as long as we don't try to remove anything, I can't see why we would be attacked."
"What do you think, Red?" Cloud asked.
"I have my misgivings, but I believe Sariva is right. The Weapon only attacked last night when Cid tried to force his way through the barrier protecting the altar.."
"Hey! How the hell was I supposed to know?!" the pilot protested.
" and I'm sure Sariva's empathic ability would alert her if anyone was about to cause it to appear. I think we should go and find out about these 'Jenova followers' - if for no other reason, to determine whether or not they pose a threat." Nanaki paused for a moment, then added; "Who knows what secrets Hojo died with?"
The Canyon Guardian's final remark made its point: the whole group made various noises of agreement. Cloud looked round, then back to Sariva, who nodded. "Okay. We go to Midgar."
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