Further Fantasy 7 - Part 9
Alone in the shelter, save for the unconscious Shinra manager, Tifa fretted. Half an hour earlier, Cloud, Elena, Barret and Amy had left in an attempt to gain access to the reactor, and less than ten minutes after their departure, she was kicking herself for not voicing the doubts she harboured. Things had become even more unbearable after she had agreed to stay with Reeve while Cid and Nanaki went to ensure that the underground section of their route to the sector four gate was clear. Now, almost three quarters of an hour after seeing Cloud leave for what she was now almost certain would be his final mission, the claustrophobia of the the underground hideout was getting unbearable, and try as she might, she could not help but keep returning to the same thought: was Aeris trying to return to the planet once more, and this time take Cloud with her too?
Just when she felt she was on the point of snapping, the silence was broken; Reeve groaned and twitched several times, then suddenly sat bolt upright, his eyes wide open. For a second he stared round, his face panic-stricken, before he realised where he was and relaxed slightly.
"How're you feeling?" Tifa asked, picking up the open water canteen and offering it to him. The Shinra manager took two or three gulps of water, then took a deep breath and looked at her. Tifa looked back, comparing his face to the photos she remembered from the newspapers and TV broadcasts from back when she had run the Seventh Heaven bar - although they had talked through Cait Sith during AVALANCHE's quest against Sephiroth, she had never actually met the man behind the mog. He looked much older and more careworn than she had expected but this was not really a surprise after what Elena had told them of his team's forced imprisonment in Midgar and the battles they had fought, and on top of that, the burden of having sent the first two teams to their death.
"So, Ms. Lockhart, we meet at last," Reeve said. His voice had a similar worn quality to his looks. "I wish it was under better circumstances. What brings you to Midgar?"
"Your message. We received part of it through Cait Sith. We got the "danger" and "C-J-D" parts, and your name, and that was about it. Then we traced the signal back here."
Reeve shook his head. "The Church caught us in a surprise attack shortly after we arrived; we lost over half our combat personnel and most of our equipment, including our PHS transmitters. We went to ground and salvaged a couple from what we could find in the ruins, but it seemed that the Church had found a way to trace standard PHS signals; even more were killed when they tracked us down. Cait's was the only transmitter I knew of that didn't use a standard Shinra frequency - we finished repairs about three weeks ago, and have been trying to contact you ever since." He sighed, looking down. "I never meant for you to come here - if you had got the whole message, you would have known that I needed you to take my message to Junon and come back with an army. This is my problem. I didn't want to drag you into it."
"We were involved before then though. We found the body of a Disciple in the City of Ancients and when Red translated the tattoo, we knew something was going on."
"The City of Ancients? Is that where AVALANCHE is based now?"
Tifa shook her head. "It started about a week ago, two years to the day since Aeris... was murdered. I'm not sure how it happened, but her soul has returned from the lifestream, and is now trapped in Cloud's body."
Reeve stared at her, astonished. "You'd better tell me everything from the beginning," he said.
"I'll try - I wasn't there when it actually happened." With Reeve listening closely, the brunette martial artist explained what she had seen of the events. Just as she was reaching her conclusion, an unseen bell rang quietly. Reeve held up an hand to silence her.
"Someone's coming down the tunnel," he whispered.
"It's probably Red and Cid."
"Even so, we can't be too careful," Reeve crossed the room and pulled the cover off the third of the narrow tunnels leading away from the shelter. "So Red and Cid are here too, " he said, setting the cover to one side, "What about the others? And where's Elena?"
"They went to the reactor, to stop the ritual." Tifa looked down, the sinking feeling of depression welling up in her again.
Reeve slumped, obviously devastated. "Tifa, I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault. I should never have let them go."
"Tifa?" Nanaki's voice whispered from the darkness of the second of the tunnels, "Are you okay?"
Cid and Nanaki extracted themselves from the mouth of the tunnel, the pilot folding the map Elena had given him and putting it away in a pocket. "Damn, it's tight down there!" he exclaimed.
"If the Disciples got into the tunnels, they wouldn't have the space to transform," Reeve explained. "Tifa just told me that Cloud, Elena and Barret went to try and stop Church's ritual," he added.
"Yeah, I been thinkin' about that. Chances are that their only chance of getting away after is if we can get to the Highwind and get them out," Cid replied, "Ain't nobody looking for 'em yet, but as soon as those Disciple nuts figure out they're there all hell's gonna break loose." He took out a cigarette and with a brief curse of "To hell with it!", lit up.
Reeve turned to the stores and re-armed himself. "We should get going then," he stated. "Hopefully, they'll have had the sense to hole up, rather than fight their way through the Church's territory into the reactor."
"They should already be inside," Nanaki replied.
"What? That's impossible!"
"We found a little girl shortly after we got here," the Canyon Guardian explained, "She's been living in the ruins of Midgar ever since Meteor fell. And she said she knew a way of reaching the reactor. Elena said that if they could reach a secret access hatch, she would be able to get them into the reactor, and hopefully to a place where they could shut it down."
Reeve stared at the feline creature in disbelief. Then determination took over his expression. "Right, let's go," he said, "If they're in there, they're going to need all the help we can give them."
With Amy sitting on his shoulders, Barret watched the surrounding area for any signs of activity, while Elena worked over a panel concealed in the one of the many alcoves in the base of the reactor, muttering under his breath for the Turk to hurry whatever she had to do to open the secret entrance. The ladder had led up to a manhole less than fifty feet away from the base of the reactor, right in the middle of a space cleared in the piles of rubble which extended around the circumference of the structure, allowing a watcher to see anyone approaching. In the alcove, they were slightly better off - nobody could see them from above - but their position still felt dangerously naked to the former AVALANCHE leader. The loss of Cloud was beginning to sink in too, but he forced himself to put his grief on hold and get on with what he was becoming sure was the last AVALANCHE mission; he had already resigned himself to the fact that he probably would not escape alive, while the loss of Cloud meant that Tifa, the only remaining member of the original team, would probably be too devastated to carry on. It was all he could hope that even if he failed to destroy the reactor and the Jenova Church, his actions would create enough of a diversion to let the others escape, and the Reeve would come back and finish the job off. He smiled a mirthless grin at this last thought - the irony of him depending on a Shinra manager to take out a reactor.
Amy tapped on his head; she had been watching the other way. "Someone's coming!" she whispered urgently.
Barret nodded. "Come on Elena, hurry up!" he muttered.
As if in answer to his plea, the door slid almost noiselessly aside. "Got it!" Elena whispered. As the sound of footsteps became audible, the threesome slipped inside the reactor. Once within, the Turk immediately entered the override code and the door sealed again. A third code locked it.
Barret stared up corridor, peering into the gloom which was broken only by dull emergency lighting. "Where the hell are we?" he grunted.
"Sub-level twenty-five," Elena replied. "Hidden walkway for emergencies. Not even Shinra reactor staff knew about these. We should be able to use these to get up to plate level with little chance of being detected - as long as the intersections with the main walkways are clear."
"We access on of the sub-control rooms. I'll simulate a fire in one of the other areas and see what else I can do from there. But to blow this thing, we're gonna have to go all the way to the top."
Barret nodded, picking up the female Turk's hidden meaning; she too was ready to die in order to give her boss the chance to escape.
Determined to succeed, the unlikely comrades started into the dimness that led to the heart of the enemy stronghold.
Nanaki, some distance ahead of Tifa, Reeve and Cid, stopped in the shadows of an overhang that allowed him to look out across what remained of the sector four gate. The area of ground before the gate had been clear before their arrival, but now was strewn with rubble and twisted metal from Cid's dynamite blast that had got them inside the city. The exit was blocked - three of the Jenova Disciples were standing in a loose combat ready formation, but mercifully, they were not transformed. Instead, they seemed somewhat relaxed; they were talking and passing a flask of some nature between them, from which they were drinking. After a moment of studying the group, the Canyon Guardian came to a decision; he turned back to the others, shook his head to indicate that they were to remain where they were then stepped out into the space in front of the gate and the Disciples.
Cid watched the feline-like form slip out of sight. "What the hell's that numbskull think he's playin' at?" he hissed angrily.
"I guess there's something up ahead that needs a closer look," Tifa whispered back.
Reeve's plan for getting out of Midgar was embarrasingly simple. By taking advantage of the fact that to those who did not know better Nanaki looked like just a dumb wild animal, they could scout the route to the gate once they could no longer use the network of tunnels that connected the shelters. It had taken about an hour of travelling both above and below ground, but now they were within a stone's throw of the gate. The only question now was how to slip past the guards; Reeve knew that with the gate closed and blockaded, and at least five Disciples on watch, getting out was almost impossible. But with the gate now down they had a chance, and the Shinra manager was confident that between the ritual they were performing and the belief that they had wiped out their foe, the Disciples would probably lower their guard. However, seeing the Canyon Guardian leave their sight was still unnerving.
After a few minutes, which seemed a lot longer than they actually were, Nanaki reappeared through the wreckage of the slums behind them. "Sorry I took so long," he said quietly as he reached the place where Reeve, Tifa and Cid had hidden, "I took the long way round, so I didn't have to walk back past them."
"Them?" Tifa asked, crouching down next to to the crimson beast.
"How many?" Reeve asked.
"Three by the gate. They're in human form and from the sounds of it, they're celebrating."
"Probably their victory over us," Reeve muttered, "But it'll still be difficult getting past them," he added.
"They've got what looks like a lab flask with a greenish liquid in it, which they're all drinking from and referring to as 'Jenova's Bounty'. Aside from them, everything's quiet round here."
"A flask of liquid?" Suddenly, Reeve sounded intrigued. Nanaki nodded.
"What d'ya think?" Cid broke in, "Surprise attack?"
Reeve broke out of his sudden contemplation. "It's the only real option - we need to hit them before they can transform if possible. Can we get close enough to use magic? Also, if we can, I'd like to keep that flask intact - when I get back to Junon, I'll have it analysed."
"It's open ground - we'll need long range materia," Nanaki replied, "I know I don't have any, and I'm pretty sure Tifa and Cid don't either." He looked at his two comrades, who both shook their heads. "What about you?"
"Best way to fight the Disciples is to keep them at a distance and keep that away from that poison gas of theirs - " Reeve nodded - "I've got one. I've also got a restore and a linked fire-all, but that's about it. Like I told Tifa, we lost a lot of our equipment to them early on, including materi.. What about you?" He glanced round the other three, "What have you got?"
In turn, each member of the group went through the materia they carried. Reeve was obviously impressed at the number and power, but when Cid showed him the linked warp-counter pair, he gaped in disbelief.
"So this "Warp" can just zap you to where you need to be?"
"Yep! And the counter means that it'll dodge for me," the pilot smirked.
"Couldn't we just link it to an "All" instead and just warp out of here?" Tifa broke in.
Cid shook his head. "Only works over open ground - can't be anything in the way, so it won't get us through the wall and from what Red's said about the area round the gate, chances are that we'd pop up right next to them, rather than outside the gate."
"Too bad we don't have that trinity armlet we found," Tifa said, sighing, "Warp-all-long range might have done it."
"Yeah. Looks like we're gonna have to fight. Anybody got any bright ideas?"
Reeve popped the long range materia from his armlet. "I've got a plan. And we should be able to salvage that flask too, with a little luck."
Five minutes later, Nanaki walked back into the cleared area in front of the gate, again relying on the "dumb beast" disguise. In his mouth was the remnants of a carcass he had spotted on the way; although the smell and taste were making him feel ill, it helped heighten the illusion.
One of the Disciples spotted him, "That weird animal's back - any idea what it might be?"
"Who knows, Adrius?" another replied, turning to look his way, "It probably saw that the gate was down and came in from the plains to forrage. Successfully too - look." a pale hand extended from the robe and pointed.
"I still feel uneasy about this," the third put in. "The rats had no explosives - we took them all. How did they managed to break down the gate?"
"Brother Cerend, you shouldn't worry!" the one called Adrius replied, "Have some more and relax! Our animal here was not the only successful hunter tonight - the rats were crushed when they tried to intrude earlier!" He held out the flask, offering it...
In a flash of light, Tifa materialised in front of the Disciple called Adrius. Caught completely off guard, he was unable to react as she snatched the flask from him with her left hand and lashed out with her right, punching the Premium Heart into his throat with lethal force. The black cloaked figure fell without a sound.
Nanaki spat out the rotten remains and cast a haste spell on himself and Tifa as he charged in. As he leapt, he saw Cid leave his hiding place, and Reeve popped up, snapping off a shot from the converted mako gun he used. The Disciple Cerend was hit by the flaming blast and reeled back screeching, his cloak on fire. Nanaki landed on the back of the third, digging his claws in and raking upwards with his head-dress weapon across the back of the third Disciple's neck before clamping down with his teeth. Under his paws, he could feel the rippling of the man's muscles as he began to transform. Despite the foul taste in his mouth, he forced himself to bite down harder.
Seeing the initial assault going off exactly as Reeve had planned, Cid leapt over the mound of dirt he had hidden behind and ran headlong towards the melee. He heard his own wheezing breath and mentally cursed himself for his smoking habit. Tifa had dropped her target and was now teleporting out, but the one Nanaki was still struggling with and the other one that remained were now on guard and beginning to transform. Cid pulled out the long range materia, now coupled with a seal magic materia and came to a halt, trying to catch his breath enough to invoke the magic within the green orb. "Planets... power..." he puffed, "make... my enemy... sleep!" He watched as the third Disciple looked up, and wretched as the hood of the cloak fell away, revealing the half transformed face. Then the spell effect went off - stars flew and the Disciple collapsed in slumber.
In his hiding place, Reeve turned his attention to the Disciple Nanaki had engaged. He flipped his gun to lightning mode and fired a powerful bolt spell that made the black cloaked figure's body jerk under the massive electrical current. It gave the Canyon Guardian the opening he needed; he bit down hard and with a horrible gurgle, the half-man half-creature collapsed, blood spraying from a severed artery.
The four warriors surrounded their one remaining foe, each extracting a materia. "No ice!" Tifa warned.
"Earth of the Great Planet..." Nanaki began.
"Power of Lighting..." Cid joined in.
"Element of Fire..." Tifa called.
"Wandering Comets of space..." Reeve held up the materia he had borrowed.
The magical assault did not undo the effects of Cid's first spell - despite the wounds the fourfold attack caused, the Disciple remained asleep. The second wave of spells, however, ensured that that sleep would last for eternity.
A few paces behind Elena, Barret reached the end of the passageway concealed within the skin of the reactor. It was the third such walkway they had used since entering the reactor, and by Barret's estimation, they were about half-way between the ground and plate levels - roughly the same height as the reactor core - and so far, things had been easier than he had dreamed possible, with no sign of any opposition. More than once on the way up, he had wryly thought back to when AVALANCHE had been attacking the reactors before, and how much easier it would have been if they had known about the secret walkways.
Elena was working over the control panel, as she had when they had reached the two previous intersections between the hidden and standard walkways. Not only would it open the door in front of them, it also operated a hidden camera just above the door, allowing them to see what was going on outside. "Okay, we're clear," she stated, hitting a final control that caused the door to side up. Without waiting for a reply, she stepped out, flattening herself against the wall. Barret followed, still carrying Amy, and the door slid shut behind them. "The entrance to the next walkway is four panels this way," the Turk whispered, gesturing with her left thumb and drawing her gun with the other. Barret nodded, and they set off at a run towards the concealed entrance. But before they had covered half the distance, the dull background rumble of the reactor was split by the two-tone howl of the security klaxons, and dozens of red warning lights flashed into life.
"Shit!" Barret cursed, readying his gun. No longer concerned for staying close to the wall, they ran for where Elena said the door was. Barret turned to cover their backs, while Elena tugged open the panel behind which the controls were hidden. "C'mon Elena!" he growled.
"Oh shit!" the Turk cursed a second later.
"What?" Barret demanded.
"Oh fuck!" Barret turned to the entrance; it had slid back barely enough for his to slide his good hand through the gap. "Ain't there no 'mergency release?!"
"There's no time! Run!"
Side by side, the ex-AVALANCHE leader and the Turk pounded away the corridor. "Ain't there a lift somewhere up this way?" Barret demanded.
"Yes! Keep going, and it's just after that pressure door!" Elena yelled back, gesturing wildly at the archway ahead of them.
They kept running, trying not to think about their aching limbs or the noises behind them that were slowly closing them down; human voices had given way to the animal snarls and howls of the Disciples' bestial forms. Just a few more seconds, Barret pleaded grimly to himself.
"It's closing!" Amy yelled above the din.
Barret and Elena looked up. To their horror, Amy was right; the pressure doors were slowly sliding closed. The massive black man raised his gun-arm and fired wildly, desperately trying to hit some critical mechanism, but it was to no avail; with the finality of a coffin lid slamming down, the doors met and sealed, seconds before they could reach them.
AVALANCHE member and Turk turned to face their fate - six of the Jenova Disciples in transformed state were closing them down, moving slowly now they knew their prey could not escape. Barret reached up and helped Amy to the ground, where she took up a position behind him, readying her materia. He crouched on one knee, bringing himself down to the girl's level. "Amy, I'm sorry," he said, his face bereft of its normal defiant glare. She nodded and hugged him.
"I'm sorry too, Barret." Barret looked up to see Elena gazing down at him. "If we all attack the same one, we'll take at least one of 'em with us," he replied, "I ain't goin' out without no fight." The Turk nodded in response.
The monster forms of the Disciples continued to close. Barret raised the Grim Reaper and clicked the safety system off. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Elena take aim, and from behind he heard Amy's voice preparing an earth spell. Shit... never thought it was gonna be like this...
A sickening shriek of torn metal screamed out from behind them. Barret whirled to see the massive pressure doors being peeled open by a thick, armoured, white arm and a three-fingered hand. A split second later, the squat, hulking form of the Guardian Weapon strode through the archway, its shoulder pods opening to engage the Disciples.
"Cloud?" Barret heard Amy's voice call in disbelief.
Someone had followed the Guardian through the archway; his general appearence and build was similar to that of the young mercenary, but he were shorter in height, and where Cloud had had blond hair and a weatherbeaten complexion, his skin was almost ivory white, and his spikey hair was tinted with brown. The sword he wielded, however, was unmistakeable; the Emperor Klaive shone brightly as he followed the Guardian into battle. On his arm, instead of the Escort Guard, was the trinity armlet, and in its materia slots, Barret recognised a magic materia linked to and All, and also to Holy.
"What the hell?!" Barret muttered under his breath.
The man continued his advance as the Guardian, seemingly unfazed by their poison gas, closed with the Disciples in hand-to-hand combat. He stopped short and raised the triple-linked materia high. "Cleansing fire, purge this place of the filth that dares contaminate it!" he bellowed, and in response fires brighter than any sun lit up the corridor, instantly reducing three of the creatures to dust. As the Guardian brought down a forth, the young man charged a fifth, the Emperor Klaive flashing in a vicious arc that hacked a mass of tentacles from the monsterous body. The backswing cut deep into the Disciple's side, sending viscous green ooze splattering up the side of the corridor. Barret continued to gape; although the accent in the man's voice was similar to Cloud's, the tone and pitch was almost feminine...
The sudden explosion of Elena's gun snapped Barret back to awareness - the Turk had seen the opportunity when the remaining Disciple - one of the scaley muscled variety that seemed to be on a par with the Guardian in terms of strength - threw the Weapon-like creature. Although it did comparatively little damage, it distracted the Disciple long enough for the man to run it through with the Emperor Klaive, and before it could recover, the Guardian was up again, seizing its head in one hand and shoulders in the other, and giving a twist with unimaginable force. There was a sickening crunch of shattered bone, and the last Disciple fell.
For a few seconds, Guardian and human stood side by side, regarding the remnants, making sure none would rise again. Then they turned to face each other. "Guardian, dismiss." the man commanded and, with a bow, the Weapon-creature faded away.
As one, the three stared as their rescuer turned to face them, sheathing his sword. "Cloud?" Amy and Elena asked, gaping.
"Aeris?" Barret asked simultaneously, equally astonished.
The man smiled slightly. "I'm afraid that all of you are right," he answered, "But we can explain things later. Right now, we must stop the Disciples."
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