Further Fantasy 7 - Part 7
Moving in a rough V-shape, the group of five made their way through the seemingly deserted ruin that had once been Midgar. In the lead was Cloud, with Tifa to his left and Nanaki on his right, Cid and Barret taking the flanks. None of them had been back to Midgar since Sephiroth had been put down; in fact, only Barret had been to the eastern continent at all, for despite having lost its capital and having fragmented into its component corporations, Shinra still effectively held power over the continent. Only the rivalries that had grown as the newly freed subsidiaries began to expand beyond their original roles in their former parent company had prevented another powerful conglomerate arising. From the air, it appeared that the sprawling mass had been abandoned - probably, Tifa had reasoned, because none of the smaller companies had to money to restore it. Time had continued what first Weapon, then Meteor and Holy, had started; two more sections of the plate had fallen completely, along with smaller portions from most of the others. The Sister Ray's gargantuan barrel now lay twisted and mangled, its base having fallen to the ground when the scaffolds collapsed leaving it propped up on the northern wall, the muzzle pointing towards the sky. Behind the cannon, the skeletal remains of the Shinra building loomed up into the twilight, a monumental headstone to the company's grave.
Getting inside had been difficult; while the inner constructions had succumbed to the ravages of the cosmic forces, the walls and reactors built into them were made of sterner stuff, and fallen debris only further impeded progress. Eventually, Cid had dynamited the sector four gate - the least damaged looking of the eight - and with weapons ready, AVALANCHE had tentatively advanced into the ruins, eyes peering into the shadows, ears straining for any sign of life other than themselves. As Cloud had pointed out, anything of value would have been taken within weeks of the city's collapse - the only reason anyone would come to Midgar now would be to hide.
After half an hour of slow progress through the remnants of the warehouses and slums, and having encountered nothing more threatening that a pack of wolf-like creatures, the group began to relax a little; weapons were lowered, and movements became more casual. Cid stepped inside Nanaki to talk to Cloud: "So how we gonna find Reeve?"
"I dare say he'll have seen the Highwind, so he'll know we're here. And if he can power Cait Sith's transmitter, he's got to have electricity." Cloud's expression furrowed, "I just wonder what he'd be doing in a place like this?"
"That's if he's here," Barret said grimly.
Abruptly, Nanaki stopped, almost so sharply that Cid fell over him.
"What's up, Red?" Cloud asked.
"There's a scent round here," the Canyon Guardian replied, his nose lifted to the air, sniffing at the slight breeze, "It's strange. It smells human, but there's something else. It's quite old, but not more than a week or so. We'd better be on our guard."
"What's that?" Tifa said, pointing. Then, without waiting for any suggestions, she darted across the square they had entered and stooped over what she had seen. The others joined her immediately around the reddish-brown stain that had dried onto the dirt-road.
"Blood." Cloud grimaced.
"There's more over here," Cid called, walking towards another, smaller patch on another of the roads leading into the square. Their guards back up, the group followed the trail round a corner and onto a wider road stained with numerous patches of dried blood.
"Whatever happened, it started here," Tifa mused, looking round the ruined buildings and crumbling alleys.
"Yeah." Cloud replied as he rejoined the group. He had split off to examine something he had noticed, which he held up. "And I think we can guess one of the sides involved." Hanging from his hand was a slightly shredded black cloak.
With almost theatrical timing, as Cloud finished speaking, the few intact street lamps abruptly lit up. Immediately, the entire group fell into combat stance, but no attack came; just the steady glow of the remaining lights.
Cursing, Cid reached for a cigarette. "What the hell just happened?"
Tifa's eyes widened in shock as she spotted something. "Look!" she called, pointing. One by one, the others turned to face the direction she indicated. From the direction of the wall, a sickly green glow added its presence to the pockets of light where the street lights were still working, emanating from the summit of the sector four reactor.
Barret was the first one to react. "Shit! So that's where the bastard's gettin' his power from!" he yelled, spitting the words out to express his disgust, "Once a Shinra, always a Shinra!"
"He might not have any alternative, Barret," Tifa pointed out.
"Yeah, well if he's gonna keep usin' mako then he can sort out his own problems." Barret turned and started back the way they had come from. "C'mon Cloud, let's get outta here "
No reply came. Immediately the attention of the group, that had been focused on Barret, swung back to the young mercenary. Cloud was down on one knee, stooped over as if in pain. Slowly, Tifa approached, followed by Nanaki. "Cloud?" she asked, kneeling beside him, "What's the matter?"
"It's it's Aeris," Cloud replied through gritted teeth, clutching at his head, "She's terrified. Something big's about to happen here, and that reactor's something to do with it."
"All the more reason to trash it!" Barret snarled from further off.
Tifa felt Nanaki's wet nose nudge at her arm. The Canyon Guardian was looking over Cloud's shoulder and down one of the alleys leading off the square. "There's someone down there," he said quietly, "hiding in the shadows."
Tifa nodded slowly, then stood and started walking towards the alleyway, purposefully looking beyond the spot the Nanaki had pointed out, the Canyon Guardian himself following a short distance behind. Then, just after she passed the spot, she turned on her heel and snatched for a grip. The small figure dodged back against the wall, evading her grasp and split second later something hit her hard over the head, sending her staggering, pain shooting through her.
Seeing Tifa drop immediately snapped Cloud back to awareness. With Barret and Cid close behind him, he pounded into the alleyway, eyes darting left and right, anticipating an assault. But no attack came. As he reached Tifa, who was giddily pulling herself back upright, he noticed a pair of legs just sticking out from a narrow tunnel down into the debris - certainly it was too narrow for any of them to fit down - wriggling to push a body forward, and also flailing kicks at Nanaki's muzzle. He lunged for the feet and, despite taking several kicks to his hands, got a good grip and pulled. Slowly, he pulled the small, struggling body back out into the near-darkness of the alley as the rest of the group caught up.
"A kid?" Cid exclaimed, "What's a goddamn kid doin' here?"
Cloud paused before replying, long enough to hear Aeris' silent voice in his mind: <Treat her gently.> The little girl was covered in dirt and grime, her clothing tatty. On her back, held by a strap round her shoulder, was a wooden mallet with an oversized head and two pieces of materia bound to the base of the handle with a long strip of cloth - obviously what Tifa had been hit with. He looked up at Cid, and replied: "Let's find out, shall we?", then turned back to the girl. "Don't be scared," he said, keeping his voice as calm and soothing as he could, "We don't want to hurt you. We just want to know who you are and what happened here."
No reply was forthcoming. Instead, the girl just stayed where she was, cowering and trying to hide her face. Cloud glanced across to Tifa. "You okay?"
Gingerly, Tifa rubbed at where the mallet had connected, a wry smile now creasing her face. "I'll live." She looked over to Barret, Cid and Nanaki. "Why don't you guys go check around that square again and leave this to me and Cloud?" she suggested, keeping her voice friendly, but gesturing that the other three should leave. The hint rapidly dropped.
"Yeah Barret," Cid adopted a similarly light tone, although with overtones of sarcasm, "Why don't we go back to the square an' leave these two to babysit?!" Forcing himself not to laugh, the pilot led the way back up the alley, the former AVALANCHE leader in tow with an equally strained expression, and with Nanaki bringing up the rear, glaring at the pair in irritation.
Tifa joined Cloud who was still crouched down by the girl, who herself seemed more relaxed without so many huge people staring down at her. She glared down the alley until Barret, Cid and Nanaki had gone, then planted her hands on her childish hips. "'m not a baby!" she muttered after them in defiance.
Tifa and Cloud exchanged an amused glance, then turned back to the girl. Tifa spoke first: "We know that. You must be a very strong girl to live in this place. What's your name?"
"Not sayin'!" the girl retorted, "You might be devil-people!"
"Devil people?" Cloud asked before he could stop himself.
"Devil-people!" The girl gave him a pained look as if she was talking to someone of low intelligence: "They come out at night from the big green light. They look like people, but they're monsters really."
"Do they wear black cloaks?" Tifa asked.
"Yeah, 's right!" the girl nodded, "Some people were fighting one down there two nights ago." She gestured down the alley, towards the square where they had come from. "They didn't do very well," she continued, shaking her head sadly, "it became a devil an' killed most of them."
"Do you know the people who this devil-person was fighting?" Cloud asked. The child shook her head, no. "What did they look like? Have you seen them here before?"
"They all wear posh clothes, all blue an' smart. An' one of them had dark skin, like that big man with you with the funny arm."
Once again, Cloud and Tifa's eyes met, this time in surprise. "Rude?" Tifa mouthed.
"I think he got away, an' so did a lady with yellow hair," the girl added, interpreting the silence as a cue to continue, "but the devil got them, mostly."
This final remark eliminated all remaining doubts that the two AVALANCHE members had, and if the Turks were in town then there was a good chance they would know where Reeve was. Tifa leaned forward, towards the girl. "Do you know where they went to, or where they came from?"
The child shrank back, suddenly afraid again. "Why should I tell you?" she demanded.
Cloud knelt so he was at eye level with the girl. "A friend of mine is in trouble, and I think that the devil-people are a part of it," he said, keeping his voice as soft as he could, "I want to help my friend and stop the devil-people."
The girl shook her head sadly. "Nobody can stop the devil-people," she said in a small voice.
"Did you ever hear of a man called Sephiroth?" Cloud watched the girl nod slowly, then continued, encouraged, "They said that nobody could stop him, but my friends and I did two years ago. He was trying to use magic to make a big rock crash down, but we stopped him."
The girl's eyes suddenly widened in surprise, and she looked back and forth between Tifa and Cloud. "Are you Av'lansh?" she asked, her tone and expression part hope and part disbelief.
Following the young man's lead, Tifa hunkered down next to Cloud. "Yes, we're from AVALANCHE. I'm Tifa, and this is Cloud."
Her eyes sparkling with tears of joy, the girl threw herself forward, wrapping an arm round each of the adults crouched before her. "Av'lansh is back!" she cried, "I knew you would come back!"
Five minutes later, the group had reformed in the square where Cloud related what he had learned from the girl, who now stood in their midst, gazing up at the adults with adoring eyes. Her name was Amy, and she had learned of the group from her grandfather, a one-time veteran of the Shinra army in its early years, while the company had still been a weapons manufacturer. He had been crippled in the line of duty, losing both his legs, and when the company gave only a pittance of compensation, he was forced to move down into the slums. His resentment towards him former employees was only compounded at his inability to take action against them and so when AVALANCHE had emerged, he had followed the groups progress in doing what he only wished he could; openly challenging and defying Shinra. He had taught Amy what he could and given her both the restore and fire materia he had been issued with, and she had done her best to look after him. As he had expected, about six months after meteor, a repair crew had arrived, from whom Amy stole food and other necessary supplies. Shortly afterwards, however, the "devil-people" appeared, attacking first the repair crew, then anyone else still living in the city. Amy and her grandfather had lived in hiding for just over another year before they had been found; the old man had given his life in stalling them so she could escape.
"An' you've lived here since then?" Barret asked, looking down at the girl. She nodded. "Wow, you're a tough little girl!" He ruffled her hair affectionately and everyone smiled; for all his cursing, moody outbursts and grim determination while fighting, the massive man's love of children was a well known side to the others. From her size and mannerisms, Amy could not have been much older that Marlene, Barret's own adopted daughter, but her fight to survive gave her a look and posture well beyond her years. Her movements were always silent, her speech quiet, and her awareness of her surroundings absolute. Aside from her earlier outburst, her emotions had been held well in check; although she was still a child, her childhood was long over.
Cloud watched the interplay, then continued: "Amy said that she saw the fight happen here. Apparently the Jenova Disciples have the power of transformation; the cloak we found belonged to one who turned into some kind of monster -" he glanced at Amy, who nodded vigorously - "and killed most of its attackers."
"So they ain't just some bunch of nuts who think that worshipping that monstrosity is cool." Cid commented.
"It may have started that way. But apparently, they now control Midgar."
"Lucky we didn't run into them when we came in." Tifa said.
"Yes," Nanaki picked up, nodding thoughtfully, "We must have made plenty of noise dynamiting that gate - it makes me wonder why they didn't come and see what had happened."
"Good point," Cloud agreed. "I figure there's two possible reasons; either there's so few of them that they didn't hear or couldn't come looking, or they're doing something major. My guess is the latter, considering that we found one in the City of the Ancients, and shortly after getting here the reactor came online. Also, I'm pretty sure that they are what's worrying Aeris, which is in itself reason enough to take some kind of action." He paused, noting Barret's grim nod and smile. "One last thing to consider is that from what Amy saw, the Jenova Cultist creature was fighting members of the Turks."
"Which says that if Reeve isn't here himself, he's at least got people here for him." Tifa added.
"Exactly. Any thoughts?" Cloud asked.
Before anyone could reply, the quiet of the night was split by the thunder of an explosion, and the few working street lamps flickered, then went out. Immediately, all thoughts of planning and discussion were cast aside as the group braced themselves for a surprise attack, Barret pushing Amy into the centre of the circle the others formed. Once again, however, no attack came, but this time something was definitely happening: from the direction of the reactor came the distinct rattle of gunfire and every now and then, a human scream of pain.
"What the hell was that?!?" Cid demanded, aiming his question at the general surroundings.
"Sounds like war broke out!" Barret grimaced.
Tifa dropped back into the circle and crouched down next to Amy. The girl looked nervous, but was still composed and had untied her mallet from round her shoulders. "Amy, do you know what that was?" she asked. The girl shook her head.
"I think we'd better find out, before whatever's happening over there comes and finds us," Cloud said. "We'll split up. Cid and Red, stick up front with me. Keep to whatever cover there is. Tifa, you and Barret look after Amy, and Barret, you watch our backs as well. Don't move up unless we do, and stay a couple of steps back from us. Everyone ready?" He looked round at the confirming nods. "Then let's move!"
At first, the group moved slowly, the knowledge of what their opponents were capable of making them very cautious. In the distance, the sound of gunfire became more sporadic as the fight continued - one side was obviously losing. After two or three minutes though, Amy managed to escape from Tifa's attention and ran up to join Cloud's group, and with her guidance through the wreckage, their progress became quicker.
Tifa looked out from behind the corner of the burned out, half collapsed building that she and Barret had taken cover in. However, instead of the expected wave for them to move up, she saw Cloud close his fist and draw it down, followed by a show of two fingers.
"Whassup?" Barret, standing at her shoulder, hissed.
"Jenova Disciples. Two of them," she replied.
"Shit." Barret spat, checking his gun arm and releasing the safety lock.
Tifa looked back out and caught Cloud's eye again. This time, the young mercenary moved his hand in a circular motion, then brought both his fists together, and finally held up three fingers.
"We're to circle round and hit them from both sides," Tifa relayed to Barret, "We've got thirty seconds to get into place."
Barret nodded. "Let's move it!"
Keeping low, the pair ran for the next place of cover, moving away from Cloud's group and beginning their circle round.
Hiding behind a pile of rubble, Cloud saw Tifa and Barret start their move. He turned to his team. "Amy, I think you should stay here," he said gently.
"No! I wanna stay with you!" the girl objected.
Cloud dropped to one knee in order to look the child in the eyes. "Now listen, Amy. We're about to try and fight two devil-people, and you know what they can do better than any of us. You'll be safer here. I'll come get you as soon as we've beaten them."
Now shaking slightly, the girl nodded. Then, as Cloud stood, she tugged on his sleeve. "When they're devils, some of them breath this green stuff into the air that hurts you on the insides," she said urgently, "I found a man once that they'd left. I tried to use my 'teria on him to make him better an' it wouldn't work!"
Cloud stared at her, then glances round the rest of his group. He heard Cid mutter; "Oh shit" under his breath, and Nanaki looked worried. "In that case, we've gotta hit them fast and hard, and try to get them before they transform." He turned back to the girl. "Amy what else do you know about them?"
Before the girl could answer, the explosive report of a gunshot split the air. Cloud glanced down at his watch; the thirty seconds he had given Barret and Tifa was virtually up. "Shit, outta time!" he muttered, straightening and shrugging off the pack he wore. "Amy, stay here!" he instructed, "We gotta go!"
Tifa and Barret had just taken up a position to attack from when a shot rang out, separate from the main battle, and alarmingly close by. Dirt sprayed from where the bullet had hit just in front of the two black-cloaked figures blocking the intersection. "Shit!" Barret cursed, "Where the hell did that come from!?"
Tifa spotted Cloud, Cid and Nanaki spring from their hiding place as the two disciples moved into cover, looking away from the direction the AVALANCHE group was rushing them from, trying to spot the unseen person who had just fired on them. "Let's go!" she hissed and, not waiting for a response, jumped the low wall they had hidden behind and charged down the slope, pulling a materia from its slot in her glove. "By the power of the planet, I call upon the Dragon Kin Star to strike my foe!" she commanded, feeling the magic flowing through her and into the materia, "Come unto me now, Bahamut!"
The air darkened as the powerful summon spell was unleashed. From above the rapidly gathered clouds came a shriek of hellish rage, and then the bat-like form of Bahamut plunged through, unfurling its wings and coming to a hovering stop above the two disciples. Time seemed to stop momentarily for everything else, while the light of magical energy grew and converged at the dragon's mouth, forming an orb of raw power which was then unleashed, smashing down and exploding between the frozen pair as Bahamut faded away along with the darkness and clouds that the summon spell had gathered.
In response to the massive blast, the bodies of the two disciples began to twist and bulge, transforming even as Cloud's group moved to attack. Tifa continued her charge while Barret opened up with the "Grim Reaper" - the name he had given the super-fast firing gun arm he and Cid had created. The extended salvo cost him a magazine and tore into one of the two half-men-half-creatures, obviously wounding, but not seeming to slow it.
Nanaki was the first of Cloud's group to reach their two targets. He sprang, avoiding using his teeth and bringing his limited moon weapon to bear. The blades cut into the creature's skin, but a thickly muscled arm swung round and batted him away, sending him smashing into a pile of debris. Their transformation now complete and their cloaks shed, the two disciples faced their attackers. The one Nanaki had attacked had doubled in mass and weight due to the massive musculature that was obvious under its pink, scaled skin, its head having become more flat with slitted eyes either side of a round mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth, and also armed with talons on the end of each of its four thick fingers. The other's limbs had retracted into its body, which had taken on a slug-like appearance and now floated about three feet above the ground, a mass of whipping tentacles flailing around above gill-like structures on its side. Pock-marks riddled its body, testament to Barret's shots.
Cloud reached the muscular creature, swinging the Emperor Klaive in a low, flat arc, intending to open up its belly. Although its movement was awkward, the creature dodged with a sidestep and counterattacked with its claws which Cloud managed to take on the backswing of his crystalline blade which was now glowing with red and white streaks of light, although the sheer force of the impact sent him staggering.
Wasting no time, but not wanting to get too close to the creatures, Tifa pulled up short and swapped her Bahamut materia for a linked Ice-All pair and let loose the most powerful spell she could. Subzero shards formed, stabbing into the disciples and encasing them, but where the muscled one howled in pain and collapsed momentarily before hauling itself to its feet, the slug-creature's wounds seemed to close; the puncture marks of Barret's round disappeared, and even some of the burns and charring inflicted by Bahamut had gone. To her right, Tifa heard Cid yelling out a summon spell and, to her horror, the name "Shiva". "No Cid!" she yelled, but it was too late; the Ice Goddess had manifested and sent her diamond dust blasting into the pair. The pink, muscular creature fell again, this time with no sign of rising, but the slug-creature reared up, its wounds totally healed. A moment later, the gills on its side opened and a cloud of thick green gas exploded from them, enveloping her and Cid.
Cloud saw the vapour burst from their remaining adversary, surrounding Tifa so thickly he could no longer see her, and also reaching Cid, who had moved out onto the flank to cast his Shiva summon. The pilot gave a choking gasp, then stumbled and fell backwards out of the thick fog. Rage and anguish seared through Cloud, and the Emperor Klaive flashed a brilliant, blinding white. Not caring for his own safety, he charged headlong at the remaining disciple-creature. He was steps away when, without warning, Tifa exploded out of the gas cloud, her fists a blur as they slammed into the creature. Without realising what he was doing, Cloud jumped up into his "Braver" limit strike, reaching the top of his leap as Tifa reached the "Meteodrive" move of her own limit sequence, but instead of slamming the creature into the ground behind her, she put a foot into its belly and kicked, launching it into the air. The creature accelerated upwards as Cloud descended, swinging the dazzlingly bright blade of the Emperor Klaive down in an overhead arc. The razor-sharp edge connected with the creature and kept going, effortlessly slicing the thing in two.
Cloud landed as Tifa rolled up onto her feet, and for a second, they stared at each other. "What did we just do?" the brunette martial artist said at length.
Her voice snapped Cloud back to attention. "Are you okay?"
"I think so what was that stuff?"
"Something I wish I'd known about before I told you and Barret to move in. The gas causes internal wounding that restore materia can't heal." Cloud hung his head. "I feel so stupid we knew nothing about them Cid, Barret and I beat the lifestream spawn so easily I never thought " Suddenly he looked up again. "How come you're okay?"
Tifa laughed and lifted her head in such a way that her hair fell away from her neck. "Don't you remember giving this to me?" she said, showing him the ribbon she wore as a choker, "That night before we went into the Northern Cave to face Sephiroth?" Cloud smiled and nodded.
A childish voice broke in from one side: "Come on, wake up! Good good now drink this down there " Cloud and Tifa turned to see Amy, one hand supporting Cid's head, the other gently tilting a healing potion to his lips. The girl helped the pilot drink the contents of the vial, then turned to the rest of the group. "I found it in the bag you left behind - it should make him better."
"You mean potions work on the gas?" Cloud asked, amazed.
"Oh yes!" Amy replied, delighted she had surprised him, "It's only 'teria that doesn't work!"
Cid groaned and coughed, then reached into his pocket, extracting a carton of cigarettes and a lighter. "Amy, I'm never gonna call you a baby again," he stated, provoking a laugh from the others as the group moved to reform.
The rattle of disturbed rubble abruptly broke the cheerful mood that permeated the group. "Barret!" Cloud called, drawing his sword again. With their weapons ready, the pair took up defensive positions while the others moved back into cover.
Slowly, the noises moved closer, easily audible above the now very occasional gunfire, moving towards the AVALANCHE group. Cloud tensed himself, ready to spring, and Barret released the Grim Reaper's safety once more. Slowly the noise moved towards them, now distinct enough to make out that it was someone dragging something. Cloud pulled the Emperor Klaive back and sprang forward then stopped short in the nick of time.
Rounding the pile of rubble was a familiar figure; a woman with bob-cut blonde hair dressed in what had once been a sharp blue suit and white blouse. Blood spattered her clothes; in one hand, she carried a Shinra issue heavy calibre pistol, and other arm was round someone else who she was half helping to walk, half dragging. Cloud sheathed his sword and rushed to help, followed quickly by Barret. Tifa also ran forward, rummaging in her bag and extracting an elixir, which she put to the lips of the red-suited, bearded man that Cloud helped lay down in the clear intersection.
Reeve's eyes regained focus momentarily as the life-giving liquid coursed into his body. "Help us " he murmured, his voice barely a whisper, "Must stop ritual reactor." The effort of speaking abruptly overcame him and he passed out.
Cloud looked up, aghast. "What happened?"
Elena of the Turks shook her head sorrowfully. "They wiped us out."
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