Though I call myself by a different name now, I am still and always will be, Thuka. I was born in the Year of Our Lady, 5430, the youngest of seven children. To say that I was poor would be the grossest of understatements. To be poor would be to have at least something, I had nothing. I was one of the Unclean.
My people are called the Alsy, descendants of the Great Betrayer. As such we have no rights, we are not even considered human. Every scrap of food or clothing had to be begged for or stolen. Most of us wandered the wilderness, trying to eke out a meager existence. Some of us, the truly unfortunate, were the property of landowners and did all the work considered unfit for people to perform. The average slave could expect to live to the ripe old age of twenty-five.
The Alsy were the lowest of the low, hated and shunned by all others. All others except Our Lady’s SeeD. Of all the people of the world, only those devoted to following the Way of the Lady treated the Alsy with any kindness.
The SeeD. It was so ironic considering that they had born the brunt of the Great Betrayer’s evil act. They often left bundles of food or clothing where itinerant Alsy could find them. And when the nobility protested, they only smiled and said that it was their way. I had grown up believing that they were my saviors.
Of all the Unclean, I was the most tainted of all. I was born with silvery hair, the mark of evil. Even as a child, I knew that I was different. How could one miss how the warrior priests of the SeeD always shook their heads when they saw me? Oh if only you could imagine how desperately I desired dark hair, normal hair. Ancient prophecy said that The Bringer of Chaos, the Ultemys, would one day come and she would be marked by her silvery hair. Most children born with hair that colour were killed in an attempt to prevent the prophecy from coming true.
Though I was born in 5430, my story only truly begins in 5445. My clan was one of the luckier ones, we were not slaves and were able to manage to survive in the wilderness. We always kept on the move, however, trying to avoid the slaver caravans. The high mortality rate of slaves meant that new slaves were in high demand. We lived in constant fear of capture, already I’d lost three of my brothers to the slavers. Little did I know that I would be next.
It was my fault, I realize that. I had not been paying as much attention as I should have been. Having lost two children to disease and three to slavery, my parents doted on my sister and I. Because they had only had two mouths to feed, the two of us were better fed and as a result, we were healthier. I was taller, prettier and smarter than most of the other girls my age. In the end, my active mind led to my capture.
I had been distracted by a butterfly, enjoying its fragile beauty, when suddenly a net appeared over my head. Slavers had snuck up on me and I had been too careless to pay attention. I never saw my family again but later I learned that they had also been captured. I can safely assume that they are dead by now.
I was taken to Balab, the center of the slave trade, guarded by women. My status as a virgin had made me valuable and I would fetch a high price for my captures so long as that status was maintained. The transport was filled with other Alsy girls like myself all destined for the worst kind of slavery.
Once in Balab, we were kept separate from the other Alsy and were bathed and groomed. In utter humiliation we were led to the auction block, naked and in chains, so that spoiled noblemen could see what it was they were going to purchase. One by one, sobbing girls were led off by their new owners to live a life I consider worse than death. Then it was my turn.
Of all the nobility there, one caught my attention. Terrified as I was, I couldn’t help but notice the shrouded figure in the back. I thought it might be a woman, veiled in layers of the finest lace, but I couldn’t be sure. Whoever it was, it was someone important. I do not know how, but we made eye contact through all that lace and in that moment, something passed between us.
The bidding had been getting higher and higher, apparently most of the noblemen thought me desirable. Two men in particular, were engaged in a bidding war. Even I was stunned, though, to hear the shrouded figure bid one million credits. Many years later, I would discover that I had earned the highest purchase price for any slave in all of history.
The entire room fell silent as the figure walked up to the platform. Lifting away the veils, we could see that my new owner was a woman. She had elaborately styled black hair and sky blue eyes. On her forehead was a mark, shaped like a pair of white angel’s wings. I watched as every noble bowed deeply to the tiny woman that stood before them.
It was the Queen of Heaven herself, Sorceress Arista. I had been bought by the ruler of the world. Though at first I did not know why she was interested in me, I soon learned. The Queen of Heaven, regardless of birth, had to be a sorceress. Arista had no daughters. It seemed that she had been searching the globe for a worthy successor. We were both surprised to learn that the only one capable of inheriting her power was one of the despised Alsy: me.
My station in life took a turn for the better, a change that I quickly came to enjoy. I was taught everything a princess was to know and, I am proud to say, I learned well. I first learned how to read and speak in the High Tongue, the language of the nobility. Next I was schooled in etiquette, dance, even how to eat. I was transformed from Unclean into Princess Royale by the time I was twenty-two.
Not everyone was pleased with my ascension, however. The nobles certainly did not like it. I was common, worse, I was a filthy Alsy. They hated the idea of one of the slave race becoming their ruler and being forced to bow to someone who, by all rights, should have been cleaning their homes, harvesting their crops, or providing a night’s entertainment. They were also afraid of what I would do once given power. They feared that I might ban slavery and ruin their ivelihoods.
The Queen of Heaven effectively silenced them by marrying off one of her sons to me, Prince Nerid. This act officially made me a member of the Royal Family and silenced all my critics. All except one.
The SeeD were outraged at my rise in social status. To them I had changed from being a poor, helpless Alsy girl to being a potential fulfillment of prophecy. They argued that I must not be allowed to inherit the power of a sorceress, that I must be killed. The SeeD, whom I had once considered friendly, had become a dangerous foe. They wanted me dead.
During my education, I learned a great deal about the SeeD, more than I think they would have liked. They had once been common mercenaries, soldiers for hire, not holy men as they were regarded now by the lower classes. I also learned that the blessed saint who had created SeeD was not an incarnation of Hyne as I had been taught, but only a woman who had run an orphanage thousands upon thousands of years ago. Her name had been Edea and she had been a sorceress. The focus of the prophecy, the warrior SeeD destined to destroy the Ultemys was one of her charges, a youth known to history only as Leonheart.
It was a name that was only slightly different than the ones I remember from childhood, when I’d sat around the fire listening to our shaman tell us about God and her saints. I fondly remember listening to tales of how Lion Heart the warrior fell in love with the archangel Rinoa. There had also been many stories about the other saints: Qis the wise, Seph the mistress of the dragons, Zell the strong and Vine the brave. I had spent my early years yearning to meet them.
It was all a lie. They had not been saints, angels or demigods, merely young mercenaries. Yet, prophecy was clear, they were destined to battle and destroy the Ultemys, the Chaos Angel. SeeD had spent thousands of years waiting for that evil to arrive. SeeD was convinced I was it.
I had become accustomed to luxury and was not about to give it up because SeeD clung to some ancient superstitions that they themselves had promoted. I had power within my grasp and I was not inclined to give it up. Let ignorant fools grovel before an imaginary Goddess and her false saints, I was no longer an illiterate Unclean animal. I believe in only myself and power.
My concern grew as the Queen of Heaven began to actually listen to SeeD. Everytime I saw her, some SeeD or another was whispering in her ear and they would look at me, at my silver hair. I began to fear for my life. The nobles, sensing that I was losing favour, began to openly speak out against me. If I did not act soon, I would be killed.
My consort gave me some sage advise. If I was in power, if I became the Queen of Heaven, neither SeeD nor nobleman could stand in my way. Over time, I had come to care for him deeply, even if I didn’t truly love him. I knew that he cared for me. He feared that sooner or later I would suffer a tragic accident at the hands of some assassin. Forced to make a choice between me and the mother he hardly knew, Nerid chose me. It was a choice that pushed my feelings from friendship into love and a choice that would be his undoing.
He was right, of course, Arista had become an obstacle to be removed. Oddly enough, once I had made up my mind to kill my benefactor, it was easy to accomplish. A childhood spent trying to avoid capture and trying to stay alive had honed my instincts. No one ever saw the poison that I slipped into her cup after the tasters had tested the wine. I selected my poison with care. It did not act immediately and expertly mimicked the effect of a stroke. I quietly knelt beside her and watched as the need to release her power struggled with the desperate desire to live. It was only as she released her magic to me that she seemed to understand what I had done. That knowledge came too late and she died before she could utter a word.
The assembled nobles had expressions of grief intermingled with horror as the truth slowly dawned on them. I was Queen of Heaven. Their fate hung on my every whim and they had made an enemy of me. Things did not bode well for them and we both knew it.
I never heard the shot. One of the SeeD had smuggled a weapon into the castle and had fired at me. Nerid had seen the SeeD take aim and had pushed me out of the way. He died in my place, his chest shattered. My rage knew no bounds. They had taken away from me the only family I had left. Of all the people I had met only he had shown me loyalty and love. I would avenge my murdered husband.
Power the likes of which I had never known coursed through me. I called down Apocalypse on them, time and time again. I was deaf to the screams of agony and terror, untouched by any of SeeD’s smuggled weapons. The expensive handmade rugs became saturated with blood and gore. I didn’t care.
By the end of it, only one person had survived, a SeeD. I allowed him to live. I wanted him to hear and spread the word. I wanted them to know what they had done. The prophecy had been fulfilled by their own superstition. If it was Ultemys they wanted, Ultemys they would have and to hell with all of them.
“Now and forever shall I be Ultemicia, Angel of Chaos.”
Author’s Note: This is my attempt to understand what might have driven Ultemicia. It came about as a result of my trying to figure out how that time compression thing worked.
(c) Astarte 2000 (included with permission as part of the Shattered Fate storyline)
Akiko looked quickly around as she scrambled over a large chunk of concrete that had once been part of Midgar’s plate. The raven-haired, teenaged girl was one of the squatters that had settled in the great city’s ruins after Meteor and the destruction of the mystic Barrier that once protected the lands of the Commonwealth.
The girl, with the straight hair and almond-shaped eyes that marked her as being of Wutaian ancestry, was running from one of the ruined city’s many gangs. This one, Hades’ Cauldron, had found her walking alone and decided to catch her. Akiko had seen before what happened to other girls that the Cauldron had gotten a hold of… She shuddered. The others had been gang-raped and targeted with various debilitating magics.
Almost as if her thoughts had invoked it, Akiko felt her body engulfed in the energies of a spell. The scarlet Ribbon she wore as a choker around her throat glowed briefly, neutralizing the Confuse spell before it could create synaptic static that would render Akiko incapacitated. She ran further into the ruins.
The fifteen-year-old girl quickly became lost in the labyrinthine twists and turns of the ruins. Soon, she left the familiar confines of the ruined Sectors 8 and 7, making her way into the crumbling passages of Wall Market. The sounds of her pursuers faded behind her, and she slowed down. She gave a huge sigh of relief.
Finally, she rounded a corner and stopped to look behind her. The ruins were overgrown with vines, as Nature moved in to reclaim the land that had been wrested from it generations before by ShinRa. Beams of late-afternoon sunlight brought color and vibrancy to the encroaching plant life, in stark contrast to the areas that remained dark, sheltered by fragments of the plate that once blotted out the sun overhead.
There was a loud crash-thump behind her, further into the Market. She whirled and was met with one of the strangest sights she had seen thus far.
“What in the world?” The remainder of her comment was lost, as she gaped.
Behind her rested a small house, largely intact. As Akiko’s disbelieving eyes watched, the building writhed, and arms snaked out its windows. The roof parted from the walls of the house like a mouth. Its foundation did not extend into the earth, instead providing the animate dwelling with very stumpy legs.
The building hopped from one short support to another, and the roof opened even wider. An object hurtled out of the opening, arcing away from the bizarre construct. Akiko watched in fascination as the spherical black object – a sputtering-fused bomb – reached the top of its arc and began its descent. Bemused, the girl felt the distant realization that the bomb was aimed at her.
Akiko was driven to the side by a bone-jarring shove. She overbalanced and then fell on her side. Looking back, she saw the bomb strike where she had been standing, hitting a short turtle-shelled creature – evidently the being that had shoved her.
The small creature drew a scimitar. The curved sword’s blade erupted into flame as soon as it was free of the scabbard. The creature challenged, “You are skilled at preying on the unprepared, demon. Let us see how well you can handle more dangerous prey!” Its voice was raspy and slightly sibilant, like the whisper of a snake or the wind on dunes.
In reply, the demon domicile lobbed another bomb at the creature – a Sahugin, Akiko remembered. The nimble Sahugin skittered to the side, avoiding the bomb’s strike, and then charged. The Sahugin slashed crosswise at the monstrous dwelling, cutting through its façade. A smoldering wound was left in the blow’s wake. The monster leapt into the air.
Amazed, Akiko watched the house’s ascent. How could something that bulky get off the ground, much less reach 50 feet in the air? The house traveled almost straight upwards, until its momentum had been leached away by .gravity’s pull. Then, it plummeted downwards.
The Sahugin threw himself to the side to avoid the falling monster, but was unable to completely avoid the building’s fall. It knocked the Sahugin down, pinning him beneath the house’s front porch. The scimitar was knocked out the creature’s hands. The flames winked out, as the weapon slid away from the Sahugin, towards Akiko.
Akiko was moving forward the moment the house landed. He saved my life – I can’t do less! She threw herself into a roll to avoid one of the demonic residence’s flailing arms. As she came out of her roll, she scooped up the scimitar. She screamed, “Leave him alone!” To accentuate her statement, the weapon burst into renewed flame.
The house recoiled from the Flame Saber, but Akiko gave it no chance to retreat. Awkwardly, she swung the sword, striking one of the demon dwelling’s arms with the burning flat of the scimitar’s blade. Relentlessly, she followed up with a couple of wild slashes that missed completely, and then a lunge that drove the scimitar into the monster, up to the hilt. The monster screamed and burst into flame.
The flames quickly spread across the monster’s façade. Akiko backed away from the heat, stopping to help free the Sahugin from beneath the demon house’s porch. As she cut at the demon’s flesh, the Sahugin pulled out a vial of sparkling green liguid, which he consumed quickly. The restorative healed enough of the damage for the Sahugin to hobble away from the dying monster.
When they were a few yards away from the monster, they turned to look at each other. “You saved my life,” the girl said.
The Sahugin shook his scaled head. “You returned the favor – no thanks are necessary.”
The two stood in an embarrassed silence. Finally, Akiko offered her hand in greeting. “My name is Akiko Matsuko.”
The Sahugin took her hand in one of his. The girl was surprised to find that his skin was leathery, as opposed to dry and scaly. “I’m Hieros.”
Akiko felt a shock of recognition as she realized who she was looking at. “You’re one of the members of –“
Hieros nodded. “Of AVALANCHE. Yes, I am.”
The Sahugin’s next announcement caught the teenaged girl completely by surprise, however. “Akiko, I have been waiting for you.”
* * * * * * *
About a half-hour later, the two stood outside of one of the few buildings that remained intact in spite of the cataclysm that devastated the great city. It had once been a place of worship for the residents of Midgar’s slums, until the oppressive gloom that used to dominate the seat of ShinRa’s power strangled the hopes of the congregants. At that point, the church had been abandoned, becoming the home of Aeris Gainsborough’s flower garden.
Somehow, the church had survived the cataclysms that had left the city around it in ruins. A few years ago, Frogmen came to the church and began restoring it to its former glory. Few humans went to the church, for the Frogmen were still feared and shunned. Akiko remembered a story told her a few weeks before by one of her friends.
The blonde-haired girl laughed nervously. “Have you heard about those Frog-people?”
Akiko shrugged. She had never seen the reclusive Frogmen that had started appearing after the collapse of the Barrier.
The girl noticed the shrug and giggled. “I heard that they look for people who are alone. If you are alone and a guy – they just turn you into one of them. But, if you are a girl…” Her voice trailed off into an ominous silence.
“You’re pulling my leg, right?” Akiko questioned. “Aren’t they people, just like we are?”
The blonde leaned closer. In a mock whisper, she said, “That’s why they look for girls. They use the same magic they use on others to take human form and –“
Akiko shoved her friend away. “Ick, Shandra! That’s gross.”
“That’s what Rochelle tells me they do – and her family was originally from Gongaga, so they should know.”
Akiko fought back a shudder of revulsion. What Shandra told her was probably full of half-truths and supposition. After all, the Sahugin had saved her life in the ruins of Wall Market.
“Why are we here?” she asked.
Hieros looked at the girl, meeting her brown eyes with his hazel ones. “I brought you here to meet someone.” The Sahugin gestured to the church. “Go on in. She is waiting for you, inside.”
Akiko looked at Hieros in alarm. “You’re not coming with me?”
He shook his leathery head. “I have duties that require my presence elsewhere.”
“But –“ Akiko began.
Hieros chuckled. “You are in no danger, child. I did not save you to abandon you to some foul beast’s clutches.” The Sahugin’s grin slipped and his voice became sober. “Go inside – the one who waits for you has been waiting for your arrival for a long time.”
Akiko froze in indecision. She was curious to find out who the Sahugin had brought her to meet, but the encounter with the monster in Wall Market was too fresh in her memory to ignore. She felt totally unprepared.
Hieros sensed her indecision, and clapped the girl on the shoulder reassuringly. “It will be fine. I will meet you later to escort you back to your home.” He started to walk away. “For now, I bid you farewell, young one.”
Akiko stood there for a few more minutes. Finally, curiosity won out over fear, and she slowly began to make her way into the old church.
The foyer within was darkened. Ahead of her, Akiko could see the doors to the sanctuary, standing slightly ajar. Light trickled between the massive doors, enough for her to see by.
The foyer was tidy, looking like it had been recently swept clean of dirt. The floor was made of reddish-brown cherry, and it looked as if it had been recently polished. The doors were made of some dark wood that Akiko had never seen before, with handles made of wrought silver.
Akiko walked forward and pushed the sanctuary doors open. What she saw beyond make her gasp in awe and surprise.
The sanctuary contained about a dozen rows of benches, six on either side of a central aisle. The altar was against the far wall, a block of rose quartz inlaid with flowing inscriptions in verdant jade. Surrounding the altar, and covering the area between altar and seats, was a garden.
The garden was a riot of color, with a trio of rosebushes in full bloom – one red, another white, and the third yellow. A small section of varicolored tulips was to the right of the altar. To the left, a profusion of wildflowers turned their petals towards the stained-glass windows of the sanctuary. Scattered throughout were sprays of begonias, violets, peonies and sunflowers. A young beech tree pushed itself up through a hole cut in the floor, spreading slender branches over the flowers of the garden. A small stone-walled pool lay at the foot of the beech, and a handful of lilies bloomed within.
A stone path passed through the center of the garden, encircling the beech tree and lily-pond before continuing to the altar. A woman knelt by the side of the path, pulling weeds from a patch of begonias and violets. Her black hair and pale skin marked the woman as of Wutaian descent.
The woman straightened, remaining on her knees, and turned towards Akiko. With a shock, Akiko recognized the face of Maiji Carpenter – another of the Planet’s saviors, AVALANCHE.
Maiji smiled and rose to her feet. “I am glad you are here, Akiko Matsuko.” The Wutaian artist bowed to her. Akiko, confused, returned the bow.
Akiko stammered, “H-how did you know I was going to be here? Hieros s-said he knew to look for me.”
Maiji nodded. “We were told you were in danger by the Guardian. She said that you should be brought here.” Maiji walked slowly to the girl. As she strode, Maiji continued to speak, trying to soothe the girl’s confusion and fear.
“The Guardian asked us to bring you to her. She said that it was very important, that she needed to tell you something about your family.”
Akiko’s family – the reason that the fifteen-year-old was squatting in Midgar’s ruins, instead of dwelling in Wallace City or Kalm. Akiko’s father was a treasure-hunter, who brought his wife and daughter to the ruins of Midgar to see what he could find of the wealth rumored to be hidden within ShinRa’s devastated Headquarters. Eight months before, her father went into the ruined ShinRa Tower and never came back out.
Akiko’s mother, Rosa, was never the same afterwards. She took to ever-longer walks into the ruins to try and find her husband. Finally, a month ago, she walked into the ruins and did not come back. Three days after her disappearance, Rosa’s mangled remains were found in the ruins, near the entrance to a sub-level of the ShinRa Tower.
Akiko was taken in by Shandra and her friends. Shandra’s friends called themselves the Returners, because the original members of the group were raised in Midgar, and they had come back to make a living in their old home. The group was about seventy people or so, large enough to stave off the attacks of any gang that tried to impose its will upon them. However, lone Returners were fair game, as Akiko could attest from the chase that led to her flight into the Wall Market.
My family? Akiko impatiently asked, “What about my family?”
Maiji shook her head. “Those are not my tidings to impart. Walk along the path to the altar and kneel down before it. When you have done so and I have left, the Guardian will make her presence known to you.”
Whatever, Akiko thought. She walked down the path, going past the middle-aged woman. As she passed Maiji, Akiko felt a soft pat of encouragement upon her left shoulder. She continued onwards, to the rose altar. There, she knelt.
The moments passed slowly. Akiko barely heard the footsteps of the older woman over the burbling of the lily pool. A hush descended upon the sanctuary.
The girl looked around in confusion. There was no one there.
“Akiko – look to the beech.”
Akiko twisted the upper half of her body to look at the young beech tree.
There, she could see the transparent image of a pretty woman in her early twenties. The woman stood in a floor-length dress of crimson and emerald, her brown hair tumbling lazily down beyond her shoulders. The woman’s eyes were like two pools of lambent flame that were as deep as the Lifestream itself.
“Be welcome, Akiko.”
“Who are you?” Akiko whispered, afraid that any speech louder than a whisper would break whatever spell she was under.
“I am what you might become, Akiko. I am Aeris Gainsborough.”
Akiko frowned in puzzlement. Aeris Gainsborough… Sudden triumph flashed on her face as she realized who was speaking to her, followed quickly by dread. “B-but, you’re –“
“Dead?” The spectre of the last Cetra smiled sadly.
“Well… yes,” Akiko finished, lamely.
“The Lifestream granted me the blessing of being able to see my successor, before I went back into the cycle of birth and death.”
Akiko shook her head. “Your successor?” This was impossible. “How can that be – you were the last of the Cetra.”
Aeris shook her head in negation. “Let us rather say that I was the last to bear even half-Cetra descent. There are many who bear Cetra blood from generations long past.”
As the implications of Aeris’ statement struck Akiko, she felt like she couldn’t breathe. All of the wind seemed to have been knocked out of her lungs by the flat of an Iron Giant’s sword.
Aeris continued. “Your maternal great-great-grandfather, Ramos, was the last Cetra living at the Temple of the Ancients. Upon his death, he joined with the other Cetra Guardians of the Black Materia. His charge passed on to me after the Black Materia was taken from the Temple of the Ancients.
“Before he had been called to his Guardianship, Ramos had loved a Wutaian girl. Your great-grandfather, born after Ramos left her, was the result of their brief union.”
Aeris sighed. “Ramos asked me to pass the Guardianship on to one of his descendants, after my time was up.”
Akiko blinked. “Why me?” she asked plaintively.
“Because the Planet cannot endure long without a Guardian. Someone must keep the most powerful of all Materia safe.”
Akiko shook her head negatively. “I don’t want this. I don’t know a thing about being a Guardian!”
Aeris frowned. “Few choose such duty, Akiko. You will grow into your responsibilities, as you learn the gifts that are your birthright.”
The black-haired girl sat down heavily. “How can I be a Guardian? I’m just a girl.”
“That didn’t stop you when Hieros needed your help in the Wall Market,” Aeris replied. “You could have fled while he fought the monster. Instead, you chose to take up his weapon when he was disarmed, and then defeated the Mako-twisted creature. You helped because you were the only one who could.
“Similarly, you have, by nature of who you are, gifts that you have never imagined. These gifts will allow you to be more than the mere girl you say you are.
“Great evils walk the Planet, seeking to break the very laws of our existence. Your gifts will give you the ability to oppose them, putting your life on the line to save others from their depredations. You are one of few who have the power, and the only one of the Guardians’ line remaining. The White and Black Materia have parts to play in the coming years – and you will hold the key to their power, and whether their power shall be used for good or ill.”
Akiko gulped nervously, and tried to smile. “I don’t know how much good I can do, but I will try.”
“That is all that anyone can do, child.” Aeris smiled sadly. “I am sorry that I cannot be by your side to teach you about your birthright. My time here is through, however.” Aeris faded slowly from Akiko’s view.
As the last Cetra vanished, Akiko felt stunned by the overwhelming implications of the charge she had just accepted. She put her head in her hands and wept. She wept for the sense that a normal life would never be hers. She grieved the passing of her troubled childhood.
Aeris’ last whisper hung in the air of the church.
“Ask Hieros to take you to see Tara. She will teach you of your gifts.”
Minutes passed, as the orphaned young woman wept. Slowly, her grieving ended, giving way to determination. She fluidly regained her feet. A fixed look of determination settled on her face as she looked around the Sanctuary of Life.
It is fitting that the garden is here, she thought. It will remind me of Aeris’ charge. I am one of few whose duty it is to uproot the evils that infest the Planet, much as weeds might infest this garden.
Akiko Matsuko walked out of the Sanctuary of Life to wait for Hieros’ return. She had a long journey ahead, and much to learn. The Ancients alone knew how long she would have to prepare herself for the coming storm…
(c) 2008, 2015 TacomaSquall
Barret slammed his prosthetic fist onto the table in front of him. “Dammit – a Sephiroth-clone surfaces in Kalm and puts my best surviving friend into critical condition. I don’t care what it takes, Elena – get your Turks on the job and find that bastard before he kills a bunch of other people!”
Elena shook her head in negation. “Don’t get me wrong, sir! I want to nail this guy, too.” She brushed a lock of her blonde hair away from her eyes. “There is just nothing we can do – we don’t know where he went!”
Barret threw his hands in the air. “You are the head of the Turks – the people that old bastard ShinRa turned to to get his dirty work done. Don’t tell me you can’t find him – you found that fat-assed pimp in Wutai, after all.”
“We’ll get on it, sir.” Elena couldn’t hide her lack of enthusiasm at the assignment, but she knew she would not be able to tell her boss no. The existence of a surviving Sephiroth-clone was something that couldn’t get out.
The best chance they had to contain the news was for ShinRa to hunt down and kill Umar Edriel.
* * * * * * *
After construction was completed on Wallace City, just after Reeve Citan’s funeral, one of the first public buildings to open for full operation was the Citan Memorial Hospital. Staffed with the best and brightest from ruined Midgar and El Junon, the hospital turned to attend to the needs of the rapidly-filling metropolis. Few cases admitted since then held the importance of this one. The patient, Tifa Strife, had just been flown in from Kalm.
The attending doctor in the emergency room was waiting at the entrance. “Has she shown any changes since your last message to us?” he asked the robotic moogle that jumped out of the helicopter in front of the stretcher. The Cait Sith shook its head slowly. “Damn,” the doctor muttered.
The Cait Sith and the doctor, Matthew Fredericks, accompanied the stretcher into the emergency room. As Doctor Fredericks passed the ER central desk, he spoke to the orderly. “Advise Doctor Cornell that her patient has arrived in the ER and is being transferred directly to OR 1.”
Doctor Fredericks grimaced as he continued towards the emergency room elevator. I suppose I should be honored to assist Devin Cornell in this situation. Right now, all I feel is fear for the life of one of the heroes who saved the world a year and a half ago.
After Doctor Fredericks, the Cait Sith and the stretcher entered the elevator, the doors closed, leaving the ER doctor alone with his thoughts.
* * * * * * *
Awareness gradually came to Tifa, as she felt the weight of a cotton blanket upon her legs. Faintly, she felt the gentle caress of the open air upon the distended skin of her abdomen, which was exposed to the air. The touch of the air’s movement was like it were happening to someone else, a sensation twice removed from her experience.
She was unable to see, as her mind had not completely escaped from all of the cobwebs of unconsciousness. Her mouth felt as dry as a desert.
“Water,” she croaked. Tifa was horrified to hear the rasping sound of her own voice.
Tifa heard the sound of someone walking to her right, and she turned her head to face in that direction. Returning awareness brought to her attention that there was cloth wound about her face and temples. Her inability to see was not only caused by her sluggish return to consciousness!
The person at her side spoke. “Tifa, I am glad to hear you have regained consciousness.” The soothing, measured voice identified the speaker as Devin Cornell, who had taken charge of Tifa’s pregnancy over the last few months.
Since before he left…
“I need something to drink,” Tifa managed to say.
The heroic martial artist heard the older woman sigh. “I’m sorry, Tifa. I cannot give you anything to drink. We need to talk.”
Tifa shook her head in exasperation. “I can barely talk.”
“Tifa, your baby’s life is in danger. While you were unconscious after the attack on your Inn, Aeris’ vital signs started fluctuating wildly. Her heart rate has been dropping to almost nothing and then returning to normal. When a baby’s heart rate decelerates like that, and as regularly as it has been – at least once every hour – it means that the baby is in serious trouble and needs to be born soon.”
Devin’s words were tinged with compassion for the younger woman, and Tifa heard the sorrow in the doctor’s voice.
“In order to bring Aeris into the world safely, it is necessary for us to operate on you. She is not where she needs to be to pass through the birth canal, so we need to cut into your womb and manually remove her.”
Tifa looked directly at Dr. Cornell. “If that’s what we need to -”
Devin interrupted her. “Tifa, I have worse news for you.” She took and a deep breath and continued. “Because of the injuries you sustained – I cannot guarantee that you will make it through the procedure. You could fail to regain consciousness and die during the procedure.”
Tifa spoke harshly. “I don’t care.” She turned her head away from Devin. “It doesn’t matter whether I make it or not. Save my baby.”
* * * * * * *
The three Devil Rides he encountered were all too easy to defeat, Umar realized, as he kicked the smoking form of the once-human rider off its ShinRa low-ride chopper. One simple Flare spell roasted them with no trouble.
After he had killed everyone in that inn in Kalm, someone would be looking for him. Most likely, it would be someone in ShinRa’s employ, or a member of AVALANCHE. He needed to find someplace where he could hide.
Umar looked at the ruins of Midgar, a few miles to the south, and then shook his head negatively. There were too many people wandering about in the ruins, trying to reclaim something from their old lives.
He could head to the west, towards El Junon – no, ShinRa moved its headquarters there after the big crisis a year and a half ago. After the failed Reunion.
Perhaps to the east? Would he be able to capture either a wild chocobo or steal one from a farm? Umar shook his head negatively. That wouldn’t work either – it was just too risky.
Umar mounted the chopper and kickstarted it. If I can get through the Mythril Mine, I will be able to go south towards the ruins of Condor Fort…
* * * * * * *
Maiji Carpenter walked into Barret’s office in the Highwind tower. Her brisk pace belied her concern for Tifa. She saw the massive head of ShinRa, slumped at his desk.
“I came as quickly as I could when I got your message. How are Tifa and the baby doing?” the artist asked.
“Aeris is just fine.” The big man looked exhausted. Maiji could tell from the bags under Barret’s eyes that he hadn’t slept since Tifa had been attacked. “She doesn’t look like her life was in danger just a couple days ago,” he added, wonderingly.
Barret thumped his flesh-and-bone hand onto the desk with a fraction of his usual strength. “Tifa hasn’t woke up.”
Maiji’s hand covered her mouth instinctively as her jaw dropped in shock. “She’s -”
Barret interrupted the Gongagan roughly. “She’s in a coma. The doctors don’t know how long it’ll be before she regains consciousness.” Barret turned in his leather chair and kicked the bottom of his desk. “Shit! They don’t even know if she’ll ever come out of it!”
Maiji nodded slowly and reassuringly. “She will, Barret.”
Barret looked at her. “Yeah, right.” He shrugged. “Anyways, we need some help.”
Maiji smiled. “I am more than willing to take care of the baby until her mother awakens, and I already spoke with Tara – she knows that I will need to be nearby until Tifa recovers.”
Barret blinked in shock. “That’s great, but that wasn’t what I was going to ask you about.”
“How else can I help you, Barret?” A perplexed frown crossed Maiji’s face for a brief instant, only to be replaced by a look of renewed concern.
“I’d like to ask you if you could have your Frog friends look for the man who did this.”
Barret described the Sephiroth-clone to Maiji.
* * * * * * *
Edriel stared at the now-motionless form of the gigantic serpent. It had taken considerably more killing than the assorted Devil Rides, Mus, and Levrikons he had run into on the way here.
He shrugged and turned away from the swamp. It was dead now.
Umar descended into the darkness of the Mythril Mine, abandoning his appropriated transportation alongside the corpse of the Zolom.
Now, nothing stands in my way. I am free to begin working towards my revenge. Everyone who stopped the Reunion shall pay!
Only the Beginning…
(c) TacomaSquall 2008, 2015
A rumbling of machinery, penetrating through a narcotic haze. A smear of colors that never quite forms into recognizeable shapes, red and blue and yellow all bleeding through into a confusing visual melange. The scalding rush of liquid circulating from artery into veins and back again, felt as though it were being felt through an insulating layer of rubber.
The world tilted around Umar, as he tried to somehow part the sensory fog he was surrounded in. Beyond the fog, he knew, lurked excruciating pain.
Part of Umar urged him to surrender, to succumb to the siren’s call of oblivion. What benefit have you gained from being aware of the world around you? It would be so easy – just let it pass you by. No one else cares – why should you?
Dimly, he was aware of a pinprick of pain as a needle penetrated his skin and pierced a vein. The pain burst into full-blown agony as a vitriolic substance was injected into Umar’s veins. The agony washed over the man, and he became aware of a high-pitched, keening noise.
The sound of his voice, screaming.
* * * * * * *
Umar Edriel surged forward, a scream tearing itself from his lips. He was surrounded in the darkness of a sleeping room in Kalm’s Desert Rose Inn, and it took a moment for his surroundings to register upon the thirty-two-year-old man.
The nightmares keep coming.
He shrugged and sat up, the coverlet sliding off of him and piling up on the bed. Cautiously, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, and then stood up. He scrubbed a hand through his close-cropped hair – hair that had turned prematurely white. Umar sighed. The slender man reached over and flicked on the light switch, illuminating the room, and himself, in the stark white light of a naked bulb.
Umar started pulling on his clothes. He dressed with the resignation of a man who attends to a bothersome chore. As he donned the faded dungarees and denim shirt that had become his travel garb over the last year and a half. Umar looked at himself in the mirror as he dressed.
He stood more than six feet tall, with the slender build that belied the years Umar had spent as a mid-level manager for ShinRa. His white hair was so fine that it almost appeared to be a thin layer of fuzz that covered his head. His gray eyes were sunken-in, as were the cheeks below them. His limbs were as gaunt as his face, with hardly any spare flesh over the muscle and bones.
Once again, Umar, you need to drink yourself to sleep. You’re pitiful.
His eye was drawn to the number “10”, tattooed on his right shoulder. He shuddered, and drew a loose-fitting leather jacket over his torso and arms. The tattoo was hidden from sight, which suited Umar just fine.
The last thing he needed was yet another reminder of the things he only remembered fully in his nightmares.
* * * * * * *
It was a busy night in the Desert Rose, a minor blessing for Tifa Strife. The last few months had been extremely difficult for the innkeeper and former adventurer, after her husband abandoned her. If it hadn’t been for Barret and Reno’s support, she would have never made it out of the initial depression that hit her when she realized that Cloud had really left her.
All in all, she was very fortunate. The demands of the often-busy inn required her to stay focused on the here-and-now, instead of dwelling on her loss. At the same time, she was forced to focus on taking care of herself by the increasing demands of the life she carried in her womb. This combination allowed her precious little chance to dwell on her situation.
She filled a glass of Figaro Lager and handed it over to a customer. The swarthy farmer took the frosted glass from her and wordlessly dropped a half-dozen gil on the counter to pay for the drink before walking back to the table where he sat, with three of his friends.
The usual end-of-day business was in, and it seemed like every farmer was taking advantage of this last gasp before the harvest went into full swing to get together with his friends. The beer had been flowing freely for the last couple hours, ever since the Davion brothers had come in, announcing to everyone that their sister was getting married to Kendall Polon, from WestShore Farms.
The Davions were both more than a little plastered now, and Tifa hoped that they weren’t going to start any trouble.
A crashing sound from the back of the inn sent Tifa’s hopes plummeting.
* * * * * * *
Umar started to take a long pull from the bottle of El Junon Clear in front of him. Another bottle of the sweet rice liquor lay upended on the table, emptied in the last half-hour. As the liquid coursed into his mouth, he was struck from behind by a chair leg. The impact forced him to drop the bottle and spray the potent beverage into the air around him.
Umar stood up and started to turn in the direction that the chair leg came from. Halfway through his pivot, a hairy fist met the point of his jaw. His head rocked backwards under the force of the blow and –
he was driven back by a flurry of blows from the long-legged woman who stood in front of him. The stark rocks of the Whirlwind Maze stood all around him, and around him lay the bodies of two of his brethren who had already fallen, their black cloaks being tugged by the savage winds that rose and fell endlessly within the Maze.
The woman ended her flurry with a powerful uppercut that drove him into the air. As he flew upwards from the blow, his disbelieving eyes registered the presence of a dolphin-like form that leapt upwards towards him.
His head struck against the rock of the Maze, and Umar fought to remain conscious. He heard the woman say to her companions that they needed to hurry, that they needed to stop the Reunion from taking place.
They will not!
Umar called upon power that was locked within the memories he sought to deny himself. Magical energy blasted forth from the white-haired man, rapidly burning the brawling farmers around him to ash.
“Fools, you cannot stop the Reunion from taking place,” he snarled.
Umar looked around for the woman who had struck him and saw her – standing near the front of this smoky room, her eyes wide with surprise.
Umar Edriel charged her.
* * * * * * *
How in the world did he use that powerful of a Fire spell? I don’t see any weapons or Materia… Tifa dove over the bar, rolling away from the charging man.
As he moved past her, Tifa stuck a leg out and tripped the white-haired man. His head smacked into the hardwood surface of the bar, and rebounded. Stunned, the spellcaster slumped against the bar, his leather jacket sliding off his shoulders.
Tifa’s eyes went wide with surprise. The number 10, tattooed on his shoulder, the white hair, his words about the Reunion – it can’t be!
Frozen with terror and disbelief, Tifa Strife stared at the Sephiroth-clone as he shook his head to clear it. She found herself unable to move as he steadily drew closer to her.
The Sephiroth-clone reached out with one hand and grabbed the front of her white blouse.
“Foolish woman. You thought you had succeeded in stopping me in the Whirlwind Maze. Nothing can stop the Reunion.”
He punctuated his last words with a blast of pyrotic fury that hammered Tifa from consciousness.
* * * * * * *
The Cait Sith hopped up to the doorway of the Desert Rose. Operating on its rudimentary artificial intelligence, the robotic moogle had been sent by ShinRa’s CEO, Barret Wallace, to this location in order to keep an eye on the inn’s owner, his close friend.
The moogle paused at the entrance to the inn, perplexed by the fact that the entrance to the building stood open and no one was inside during what its database indicated should be one of its busiest times. Then internal alarms started going off.
There were people within – almost all dead.
The robot stopped and scanned for survivors. There was one person that still lived, if only barely. The inn’s owner, Tifa Strife.
The moogle triggered its communicators to summon aid from ShinRa and hopped into the scorched Desert Rose to try and keep her alive.
There was no sign of the person who did this.
To Be Concluded…
(c) TacomaSquall 2008, 2015
The man walked into the pub, wincing as the smoke of a dozen cigarettes stung his eyes. This was the kind of bar he hated; no groups of friends out for a night on the town, no pretty waitresses with large breasts spilling out the top of the dresses, no laughter. Poor lighting and a bunch of sad, miserable bastards crying into their beers were all that this place had to offer. Anyone who wanted to hide away from reality would be hard pressed to find a better place. If he was going to find the guy anywhere, it’d be here.
“Hey, barkeep,” the man called out, strolling casually up to the bar, “I’m looking for a friend of mine.” The bartender just stared at him with palpable disinterest, the look of a man with only an hour left on his shift. “He’s a big guy,” the man continued, ignoring the bartender’s ennui, “Got a gun for a hand, you can’t miss him.” The bartender said nothing, merely pointed to a table in a dark corner before turning away.
The man walked over to the table, barely able to perceive anyone in the unlit corner. Drawing closer he was finally able to discern a definite shape, a scratched and dirty gatling gun, attached to a man’s wrist where a hand once was. Reaching up the man yanked the chain on the overhead lamp, filling the corner with unwelcome light. Sitting down the man smiled at the table’s occupant, “Hey, boss,” he said.
The man called Barret Wallace made no response, his eyes fixed on the amber liquid in his glass, staring intently at some vision that only he could see. After several moments Barret raised the glass and downed the contents in a single gulp, then slammed the now empty vessel back down on to the table. Reaching for the bottle to pour another round the big man’s bloodshot eyes finally took notice of his companion. “Fuck off, Reno,” he growled as he refilled his glass.
“Aw, c’mon,” the red-haired Turk grinned, “After I get Cait Sith to track down this little piss hole that’s how you say hello?”
Barret set down his still full glass and stared at Reno disdainfully, “Cait Sith’s dead, moron,” he said.
“No,” Reno corrected, taking hold of his employer’s bottle and downing a swig, “Reeve’s dead. There’s a difference. Cait Sith is still around. Actually ten Cait Sith’s are still around, extras in case Reeve broke more of ‘em. Someone back at ShinRa HQ had the bright idea of reprogramming them to serve as secretaries. They’re kinda lacking in the personality department, but they’re damned efficient. The stuffed bastards even managed to find you, despite your best efforts to disappear. Ugh,” he added, taking another drink from the bottle, “What the hell is this pig slop?”
“I know why you’re here,” the black man replied, “And you can forget about it, I ain’t going back with ya.”
“Listen, boss…” the Turk began.
“Don’t you dare fucking call me that!” the big man barked. “I never asked to be head of ShinRa, and you can be damn sure I ain’t gonna do it, to hell with what Reeve wanted!”
“Well, gee,” Reno retorted sarcastically, “If you don’t want to be president of ShinRa, then I guess you don’t have to. God knows life is all about getting whatever you want.”
Barret picked up his glass again and downed the contents, glowering darkly at the Turk all the while. “Didn’t I tell you to fuck off?” he asked.
“Yes you did,” Reno answered, “And I’m not gonna listen this time either.”
With a fierce growl the former head of AVALANCHE reached across the table, sending the whiskey bottle crashing to the floor as he grabbed Reno’s collar in his hand. Raising his gun-arm to the Turk’s chin Barret snarled out a warning. “Listen you son of a bitch, you can either walk away now and forget you ever saw me, or you can have your remains carried out in a Thermos. The choice is yours, but either way you’re gonna leave me the hell alone. Got it?”
Nonplussed Reno looked over his shoulder and called out to the bar. “Hey, bartender,” he said, “Another bottle of whiskey over here. And this time make it something that doesn’t taste like it’s passed through an elderly male Chocobo’s urinary tract.” Turning back to the one-time terrorist Reno smiled, “She told me you’d react like this,” he said.
“Who’s ‘she?’” Barret demanded.
“Tifa,” the Turk answered, “She told me you’d be threatening to kill me within ten minutes. Very perceptive, that girl.”
Barret lowered his gun-arm and pulled back, allowing the visibly terrified bartender to place a new bottle and two glasses on the table before quickly scampering back to the safety of his bar. Pulling the cork out of the bottle Barret filled a glass and downed the contents. “What does Tifa have to do with this?” he asked.
“When you didn’t show up for work after the funeral Elena and I started looking for you. We started off by asking Tifa for help, her being your oldest living friend and all,” the Turk answered, filling and quickly emptying his own glass. “Damn, that’s better. Still horrible, but better. She’s worried about you, ya know.”
“Tell her I’m fine,” Barret said, reaching again for the bottle.
“Liar,” Reno countered, “If you were fine you’d be at work, not holed up in some little cesspool of a bar in the middle of nowhere drinking yourself to death. I know becoming president of ShinRa wasn’t exactly something you wanted, but that’s no reason to run and hide in a bottle.”
Barret polished off another glass then looked Reno in the eyes, “Who says I’m hiding?” he asked.
The Turk poured a fresh shot and answered the big man’s question. “It’s more of an inference,” he said, “Based on the fact that you disappeared of the face off the Planet a couple of days after the funeral, not even bothering to tell your friends where you were going.”
“Yeah?” Barret replied, “Well you’re wrong. I ain’t hiding from anything. Has it ever occurred to anyone that I’m sick and tired of you all?”
“You’re lying again,” Reno observed, “You’re obviously hiding from something.”
“Really?” the big man asked, “And what leads you to that conclusion?”
“Like I said, it’s obvious,” the Turk answered, “You’ve just lost a bunch of friends, your home town, and your own daughter. If you didn’t have anything to run from you’d be with your friends. This is the kind of time when a person needs to be comforted by their loved ones.”
“Hmph,” Barret snorted, “Comfort. I don’t need comfort,” he said, pointing accusingly at Reno. The new president of ShinRa then poured yet another round, but instead of drinking it the big man sank back in his chair and sat silently, seemingly lost in thought. After a long pause Barret spoke again, this time in a soft, saddened voice. “I don’t need comfort, I’m the strong one.”
Reno put his own glass down and listened attentively as his new boss continued. “When things go wrong I don’t cry or get said about it,” the big man said, “I get angry. When ShinRa destroyed my home, I got angry. When Sephiroth drove his sword through Aeris’s gut, I got angry. I didn’t break down, I stayed strong. And in my own way I comforted the others, drowning their sorrow in my fury.”
“So that’s what this is about,” Reno said, “It has nothing to do with becoming president of ShinRa, it’s about you. Who comforts the comforter? That’s it, isn’t it?”
Barret said nothing for a long time, just gazing deeply into the amber liquid in his glass. After a few minutes he finally replied, his voice barely above a whisper. “She was supposed to be safe,” he said.
“You mean Marlene, don’t you?” Reno asked.
“Jenova was dead. Sephiroth was dead. Meteor was gone. She was supposed to be safe.” Barret set the glass down, the liquid inside untouched.
“We made a mistake,” Reno responded, “We all thought that all the world’s evil somehow vanished with Meteor. How were we supposed to know that Jenova wasn’t dead? Or that Tenarrus was going to free Chaos? We thought everyone was safe. There’s no way we could have foreseen what happened. No one could have.”
“But we should have known,” Barret answered, “We got careless. We spent all of our time rebuilding things, planning weddings, and acting like everything was okay. And look what that complacency got us. Cid’s dead. Reeve’s dead. Rude’s dead. Elmyra’s dead. Cloud may as well be dead, God knows we’ll never see that spikey-assed bastard again. And to top it off that bitch Jenova took away my little girl.”
Reno said nothing, aware that the big man was going through a necessary purge of the strong emotions that had been stewing silently inside him.
“Ya know what the worst part is?” Barret asked. “The last thing she ever said was that I didn’t love her. That she had killed Cid, and was going to kill the rest of us, because I never loved her.”
At that Reno spoke up, drawing the big man’s attention to an important fact. “That wasn’t your daughter, man, it was Jenova. And she was telling the truth, you never did love Jenova. Quite frankly we’d all be really worried if you had.”
“I know it wasn’t really Marlene,” Barret sighed, “But it still haunts me. How do I know that the reason Jenova said that because that’s how Marlene really felt? How do I know that Marlene didn’t actually think I didn’t love her?”
“It’s simple,” Reno answered, “You know it’s not true because Jenova’s the most evil, spiteful bitch the world’s ever known. With the possible exception of Elena before she’s had her coffee. She said you’d never really loved her because it hurt. Jenova really got off on causing pain, and the chance to wound you both physically and mentally would have been too great for her to pass up.”
“That may be true, but there’s always gonna be that seed of doubt. Whenever I think of Marlene I’ll hear those words. For the rest of my life.”
“And that’s what this is for, isn’t it?” Reno asked, tapping the whiskey bottle. “You’re trying to not only dull the pain but drown out those words while you’re at it. If that’s it I can tell you right now that it won’t work.”
“I know,” Barret sighed, “But right now it’s the only thing I can do.”
“Because you’re the strong one,” the Turk responded, “And you can’t ask anyone for help.”
Barret said nothing, simply raised his glass and poured the burning liquid down his throat.
“You do realize you’re an idiot, don’t you?” Reno asked.
The big man stared into the empty glass, not raising his eyes even to respond to the Turk’s question. “How’s that?” he quietly asked.
“You think you’re the only one who can be strong, and that everyone else has to lean on you for support. What you don’t realize is that people can’t live like that. If everyone leans up against you for support their weight will eventually push you over, and then what? People need to lean on each other, support each other. It’s like a house of cards; if one card is straight and another leans on it they’ll both eventually tip over. But if two cards lean up against each other they’ll stand.”
“Go home,” Reno continued, picking up the bottle and sticking the cork back in, “Right now you have a real good friend who needs someone to hold her up. Go see Tifa. If you can talk about this stuff with me then you can sure as hell talk about it with her. Don’t forget, you aren’t the only one who lost someone they love.”
Barret didn’t respond immediately, taking time to let the Turk’s words sink in. Finally he looked up at Reno and let a weak smile form on his face. “Thanks, Reno,” he said, “I’ll do that.”
“Good,” the Turk replied, “Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go find a nicer bar to drink off this case of philosophy I seem to have developed. Preferably somewhere with an atmosphere less conducive to suicide.”
As the Turk got up and began walking out of the bar Barret stood up and called out one final message to his employee. “Reno,” he yelled, “I want you and Elena in my office first thing Monday morning, we have a lot of work to do.”
Reno turned around and smiled, “Yes, sir,” he said.
(c) Switchblade 2005
(reprinted with permission)
The clouds hung low over the ruined city of Midgar. The late-spring winds were driving the clouds north from the Mythril Mountains, towards Midgar Bay. The massive formations of water vapor piled up on one another, as the zephyr from the south lost momentum, resulting in a foreboding sky over the once-proud home of ShinRa.
The ruins were not abandoned, however. Squatters eked out a living in the ruins, residing on portions of the upper plate that were still relatively intact, even after the collapse of the entire upper plate more than a year ago. Scavengers searched the ruins for anything of value, with the occasional treasure hunter looking for the rumored lost wealth of ShinRa or AVALANCHE.
In addition to the usual scavengers and squatters, a large party had gathered at the base of the ShinRa tower. They clustered near the entrance to HoJo’s underground laboratories. Two Turks, Elena and Reno, stood side-by-side with their former enemies. Scientists and support staff from the Research Center looked on, alongside ShinRa staff. Nanaki, the Kyrrawlen that HoJo dubbed Red XIII, was suspended in his sitting basket from one of Alexander’s arms. Bahamut’s least avatar perched upon a ruined portion of the plate, with chill Shiva and sulfurous Ifrit flanking it. Mako-twisted and human and Frogman stood side-by-side, for the first time ever, their hubbub bringing the ruined city to life.
In front of this assemblage stood three men. One was the one-armed founder of AVALANCHE, now the sole survivor of his home, Corel. Beside him stood the man responsible for slaying Sephiroth, the former ShinRa employee, Cloud Strife. Behind these two noteworthy heroes stood the one-eyed leader of the Mako-twisted, Lord Odin.
Cloud stepped in front of the other two, and gestured. Slowly, silence fell over the crowd in fits and starts. As the silence grew, the blond-haired warrior waited patiently for the moment when he could be heard. Finally, he gestured broadly to the gathered people and spoke.
“We are gathered today to mourn our fallen. In the last three years, our world has been wracked by catastrophe and war. Many have given their lives in the service of the Planet.”
He looked at Barret, standing slightly behind, and to the right. “We grieve the friends who we lost at the beginning, when we fought for the Planet in blind naiveté.” He turned and looked at his wife, and the remainder of AVALANCHE. Tifa smiled at him, encouragingly.
“We grieve for the people who recently gave their lives fighting against powers as great and terrible as those we faced during the coming of Meteor. Sahugin and Frogman, Turk and ShinRa trooper, Research Center staff and Mako-twisted – all of you will be missed.”
“We grieve for dear companions, who will no longer be with us.” Cloud’s gaze went to the flag-draped coffins for Reeve and Cid. “Our company is less for your absence.”
“However, on this day, we look into a future that shines ahead of us. Discovery awaits us, as the Barrier that once bounded our world is gone. Beyond are new horizons for us to explore.”
Cloud smiled. “Within, as well, there are discoveries to be cherished. In the recent days, we have discovered a capacity for cooperation that was unsuspected before. In opposing Chaos and Tenarrus, we found that old enmities could be set aside for the good of the Planet. We have discovered more of the nature of the summoned beings that we once used to fight our battles, and have gained, at least, an alliance with them.”
Cloud looked again at Barret. A sly smile crossed his face. “Reeve knew the chances of his death facing Lord Chaos in Nibelheim. Before that battle, he gave a letter to me, with instructions to read it to you after his death.” Cloud reached into a pocket and drew the letter forth. Slowly and clearly, he read it.
“Greetings, my friends and employees. Since Cloud is reading this letter to you, I must assume that I have given my life in the ongoing struggle to protect the Planet. I am sure that many of you have questions, and I will assay to answer them as best as I can.
“Some of you may be asking, why are we here? Why did old man Reeve want all of us to gather in the ruins of ShinRa’s capitol? Why would he bring together ShinRa and Wutaian and the Research Center, along with Kyrrawlen and Frogman and Mako-twisted? What purpose could he have for calling such us all together?
“The purpose is simple – to make a last request of you all.”
Cloud paused as he started to read the next line. He blinked away the tears that were forming in his eyes. “The fact of the matter is simple. AVALANCHE is not going to last forever. I do not know who else has died in our recent crisis, but I do know that we were facing a twin pair of evils, one seeking subjugation and the other bent on annihilating us all. We have survived these perils, but only at grave cost.
“At least one member of AVALANCHE has died, and another has had his most potent abilities stripped away from him, if he still lives. Our seeming invincibility has been proven to be just an illusion. In the days to come, others of us may fall to side, as time and attrition take their toll.
“So I have asked Cloud to bring you together for a simple purpose. I had him bring you to the ruins of ShinRa’s tower in Midgar, because you must never forget the horror we have escaped from. I brought you together because it is necessary for enemies to lay aside their old hatreds for the sake of the Planet. There will come a day when AVALANCHE is unable to protect you. When that day comes, it will be necessary for you to stand as one against the dangers that may threaten.” Cloud choked out the next words. “When we are gone, you must rescue yourselves.”
Cloud stopped, his voice too choked to continue. Reeve knew that we would not be able to escape death forever.
As the leader of AVALANCHE tried to regain his composure, the towering clouds above began to shed some of their moisture. It began to intermittently drizzle, a warn rain that tickled the skins of those who had been called forth. Cloud took a deep breath and pressed onwards.
“For that reason, I ask the executive board of ShinRa to accept my nomination of Barret Wallace for the position of Chief Executive Officer of ShinRa. He has proven himself during the post-Meteor reconstruction to be an able administrator, and he has the moral compass that my predecessors within ShinRa lacked. He will be able to transform ShinRa into the non-governing backbone of the Commonwealth, able to provide technical and military assistance to all.” Cloud looked at his burly friend. Barret was beet-red with shock and surprise.
Cloud continued. “Barret, you will not have an easy job. I started ShinRa down a hard road, and I need you to keep a firm hand on the wheel. It would be all too easy for ShinRa to resume its dictatorial position, which would lead to the same tragedies as before.”
Cloud turned and looked at Yuffie. “Yuffie Kisaragi, you are the daughter of Lord Godo. Please bring word to him that it is time for Wutai to take its rightful place as a proud member of the Commonwealth. With Wutai working alongside the members of the Commonwealth, perhaps we can withstand any attacks from Lord Tenebrius’ realm. Accordingly, I ask Lord Godo to consider the restrictions imposed upon Wutai at the end of the Wutai War, less than a decade ago, revoked.
“Also warn Godo that ShinRa will not permit any bids for empire within the Commonwealth.” Cloud’s tone became bleak. “AVALANCHE will stop Wutai, with the help of others, if Godo seeks to extend his sway.”
“Staff of the Research Center, I ask you to work in conjunction with AVALANCHE to maintain the order. Continue to maintain your independence, but also be open to cooperation with the other members of the Commonwealth, including ShinRa. You are the dreamers that can guide the Commonwealth into an age of prosperity, tempered with a concern for the Planet’s life that ShinRa cannot match.
“Correspondingly, I would like to announce what I had hoped to announce when Wallace City became open for settlers. I have begun a separate scientific division of ShinRa. This division, the Planetological Sciences Group, will work in conjunction with the communities of Cosmo Canyon and the scattered survivors from Condor Fort and Mideel. Their goal will be the continued exploration of the sciences of Materia through communion and cooperation with the Planet itself.
“I would like to announce that their headquarters, the Aeris Gainsborough Center of Planetary Studies, has had its foundation laid in the hills overlooking Cosmo Canyon.” Cloud stopped, his eyes tearing involuntary at the mention of the lost Cetra. “Maybe, in time, we will also be able to discover some of the secrets the Cetra used in their civilization.”
“Thank you for coming to my memorial. Reeve Citan, President of ShinRa.”
As Cloud’s words ended, a hush lingered over the assemblage. The silence was broken by the rushing noise of rain from the clouds above. The people assembled began to walk away.
They turned and stared as Odin drew himself up commandingly. Awestruck by the presence of one of the most powerful of the Mako-twisted, the assemblage paused in the act of dispersal.
“I will be brief. I have one simple announcement.
“We have heard the whispers that have already begun, since our return. My master, the Triune Bahamut, bids me tell you all that we have come to realize the wisdom of the Cetra’s actions in imprisoning us.
“Hence, we will seek a place in this world, where we can dwell separate from the realms of man, Kyrrawlen, and Frogman.
“Do not fear that we will forget you. If the time comes, we shall come to your aid. No longer, however, will we dwell amongst humankind, as counselors, rulers, or enforcers. We will have no part of quarrels between nations of mankind. Only should a threat appear that jeopardizes all of the Planet will we return.”
The one-eyed Seneschal of the Perpetual Court turned to Cloud Strife. “And it is time for you to take your place by our side, brother. No longer can you be just the human hero, Cloud Strife. It is time for you to join us in the role prophesied for you.”
“What?” Cloud was flabbergasted.
“You are the Thirteenth Knight. It is your quest to rescue the Knights of the Round, and return Arthur to life.”
Cloud shook his head in negation. “That’s impossible!”
Tifa sprinted forward, only to find her way blocked by one of Bahamut’s massive claws. “You cannot interfere with your mate’s destiny. We grieve that he is being taken from you, but it is necessary, before the taint he bears corrupts another generation.”
“I don’t care!” Tifa called upon the full power of her Limit Break, rage and desperation fueling her blows. They struck the flesh of the Lord of the Mako-twisted, and he roared in pain.
The other members of AVALANCHE drew weapons and charged to Tifa’s assistance. They were met by the Mako-twisted, who intercepted them before they could reach Tifa’s side.
Before things could degenerate into an all-out brawl, Cloud’s cry stopped the combatants. “Wait!” Mako-twisted, human, Kyrrawlen, and Sahugin alike looked at the spiky-haired leader of AVALANCHE. His face wracked with sorrow, he looked at his friends and companions.
“I will not allow anyone to destroy the peace we strove so hard to make. Even ourselves.” He turned to Odin. “I will go with you.”
Odin nodded soberly to the leader of AVALANCHE. He placed his index and ring fingers into his mouth and whistled. Sleipnir flew to his master’s side, the eight-legged stallion passing effortlessly through the building downpour.
In shock, the members of AVALANCHE watched as the Mako-twisted backed away, towards Odin and Cloud. Bahamut landed beside the two, and lowered its neck to the leader of AVALANCHE. “We must needs travel in haste to the Isle of Mists and Shadows. It will be necessary for you to fly with us, Thirteenth Knight. I would be honored to be your steed for our journey.”
Cloud forced himself to look away from his friends and companions as he mounted the great dragon. He focused his eyes on the multi-colored, scintillating hide of the Dragon Lord, looking at each hand- and foothold before reaching for them. After a few moments of scrambling, he perched himself on the Mako-twisted Lord’s back.
The Mako-twisted took to the air, ascending swiftly towards Atma, which floated beyond Midgar’s ruins. Not a word was spoken by the Mako-twisted as they departed.
Cloud succeeded in looking away. However, he could not stop up his ears. He could not prevent himself from hearing the despairing cry of the woman he loved, left behind forever.
“Cloud, don’t leave me. You promised –“ Tifa’s voice broke, and she began crying. “Cloud, don’t leave us?”
The note of despair in Tifa’s voice was a sound that he would carry with him until his dying day. Tears ran down Cloud’s face, mingling with the rain. In that moment, Cloud Strife hated the man he had become, the man that Tifa had helped him grow into.
(c) TacomaSquall 2001, 2015
Vincent Unleashed Outtakes
“The lattice is made of bones. Human bones.” Cait Sith’s voice was tinged with horror. “And, Cloud, Chaos left a message for us…”
Cait Sith turned perplexed eyes to AVALANCHE’s leader. He said, “It says, SURRENDER, DOROTHY.”
The members of AVALANCHE looked in amazement at the inscrutable message from Vincent’s alter-ego. “What the heck does Rosebud mean?” Cid demanded angrily.
Cait Sith did a double take. “The message says ‘so long, and thanks for all the fish.'” Two seconds later, the Planet turned into a bowl full of petunias, as the members of AVALANCHE turned into a bunch of otters.
Cait Sith’s voice became grim. “It says, ‘Ah’ll be bahck.”
In horror, Cloud read aloud Chaos’ message. “Stop chasing me or I’ll release photos of you having a good time with Don Corneo and President ShinRa in Wall Market. By the way, that dress made you look fat.”
“This message makes no sense,” Cloud said angrily. “‘Living or dead, you will serve me, Lews Therin.’ Who is Lews Therin?”
Cait Sith read the message. “I await your coming in the City of Endless Night, Bearer of the Orbs.”
Cloud turned his eyes up to the uncaring heavens and asked, “Why me?”
Vincent whirled to face toward the ruins of Midgar. A stooped, balding man stood behind him. The man was clothed in a tattered ShinRa Company maintenance overall that had likely seen better decades. Vincent realized he hadn’t heard the man walk up.
“What do you want, old man?” Vincent unholstered the Death Penalty and pointed at in the general direction of the stranger, but not at him. The first of rule of guns was to not point it at someone unless you intend to shoot them, and to not shoot them unless you intended to kill. However, Vincent knew he could have the man shot and killed in a split-second, should the need arise.
“Sorry, I ate a triple helping of beans earlier, and they are coming back to haunt me.”
“What’s up, doc?” The maintenance man pulled a carrot out of a back pocket and took a huge bite.
“You are Vincent Valentine! I’m your Number One Fan…”
The ninja pulled free of Tifa’s embrace. “”I just know that something’s wrong! He wouldn’t vanish like that on me!”
Cloud shook his head in sorrow. He had felt it would be best to not tell anyone else about the note that Vincent had left in his room in the Inn. It looked now like his judgment was wrong. He stepped from behind the bar. “Yuffie, I need to tell you something.”
“He left here, heading for Cosmo Canyon. He said something about a woman named Kali who was calling to him in his dreams.” Cloud patted the ninja’s arm awkwardly. “He said he would go to the ends of the Planet to find her, if necessary.”
“He left here in the company of a young woman who bore a remarkable resemblance to Aeris. Since they left, we have had four different groups of Turks try to pry his whereabouts from us.”
Unmoved, the Gigas arced the Livewire, a torrent of electrical power, into the robotic moogle. Systems started failing as the electricity overloaded Cait Sith’s systems. Cait Sith staggered and fell backwards, smoke drifting from the maintenance hatch in its back. Then, the Gigas leapt into the air, performing a Gigadunk on Cid just as he landed.
Cid had the presence of mind to set the Flayer to receive the Gigas’ charge. The unfortunate creature landed seat-first upon the weapon, driving the Flayer’s point deep within its posterior.
“Owie! That hurt!” The Death Gigas stuck one massive thumb in its mouth, while the other hand rubbed at the injured part of its body. Tears started to stream down the Mako-twisted creature’s face.
Boko stepped to the Pool of Souls and gazed into its depths, looking at its reflection. A beautiful full-grown chocobo looked back, notable for its snow-white plumage and golden eyes. “Wark!” The white chocobo mouthed a reply, but try as Boko might, the chocobo never could hear its reply.
Boko paused, and then pecked at the earth along the edge of the Pool. “Kweh.”
The chocobo paused, and then walked slowly away from the Pool, towards the shop that was owned by its former master. Again, it pecked at the hard earth. “Kweh.” Again, nothing.
Boko turned and ran to the opposite side of the Pool. It pecked a third time. “Kweehhh!” It was much closer now.
Boko took a couple of steps and pecked a fourth time. Its beak struck something other than the ground it was digging in. “K-KWEEHHHH!”
Boko disappeared in a flurry of dust, as it pecked frenziedly at the ground at its feet. Soon, a gleaming black crystal was revealed. The Black Materia.
One by one, each of the Knights came forth, releasing the fury of their mastery of arms or sorcery upon the Adamantine Weapon, staggering the gigantic monster with their puissance. After the last knight attacked, Arthur appeared above the head of the Weapon and swung downwards with all of his considerable might downwards. Arthur’s blade swept downwards into the Weapon’s skull.
The powerful magic of the golden Materia socketed in Yuffie’s Chocobracelet called to the Knights, bidding them renew their attack. Before they could begin, however,
The Adamantine Weapon spoke. “I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition!”
Arthur raised his sword in salute. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
The Adamantine Weapon spoke a single word. “Ni.” The Knight were swept away by the power of that most puissant of words.
The ruins of the Corel Reactor. A sharp cry. The flash of talons and a burst of feathers. A long despairing scream that was smothered suddenly.
Jenova was no more.
(contributed by Dark Jezter)
Phoenix reappeared. In its claws, it held the supine form of Aeris Gainsborough. As they watched, her eyes opened, and she gazed upon her companions. Tears welled in her eyes, as she spoke.
“Cloud, you will go to the Dagobah system…”
Epilogue – Emancipation
Vincent stood, looking down the side of Mount Nibel towards the town of Nibelheim. So many paid such a great cost, just to buy your freedom from the demons that have haunted you for so long… He grimaced, and took a sip from the mug of coffee he held in his human hand.
Behind him stood the graves of the high priest of the Frogmen, Grennek, who had died to give the Mako-twisted a chance to strike down Lord Chaos, and President Reeve, who had died inside the Highwind when Cait Sith’s robotic body was disintegrated by Chaos’ deathstrike. Friends and allies, along with old enemies. Earlier that morning, he heard that Rude had succumbed to the wounds he had sustained during the collapse of Lucresia’s cave.
Vincent heard the sound of gravel crunching beneath hard shoes, and he turned. Reno stood there, holding his shock-staff. In the Turk’s left hand, he held a steaming flask. Reno nodded to the gunslinger. “Mornin’, Vinnie.” Reno held the flask to his lips and took a swallow. “Nothing like a shot of brandy in your coffee to chase away the early Nibelheim morning chill.”
“You’ve come to call me out, haven’t you, Reno?”
Reno shrugged. “It would be a waste. Too many others have died. Rude believed that you needed our help, and that it was our responsibility to give assistance.” Reno sighed and took another slug of spiked coffee. “I disagreed, but it turned out that he was right.”
“And?” Vincent prompted. His hand drifted slowly towards the butt of the Twilight Scope.
“I realized that it didn’t matter whether I liked you or the other guys in AVALANCHE. You guys have twice stepped up and met the world’s need.” Reno set his shock-staff down and rubbed a hand through his rumpled red hair. He took another long swallow from his flask. “What I mean, is that I have no beef with you, Vinnie.”
“Good. In a lot of ways, Reno, you remind me of some of the Turks I used to work with, before Program Avatar. Most of us were pretty good guys, although we did what we had to, in order to make sure ShinRa was secure.”
Reno’s look of shock amused the gunslinger. He continued. “I spent the last twenty-four hours exploring the shards of my memory, looking for memories that I could be sure had not been tampered by Lucresia. In that time, I came to realize that there was a time when being a Turk was something a little more than what it has since become. The Turks were originally the cream of ShinRa’s Security Division. It wasn’t until the company gained Imperial pretensions that the Turks became ShinRa’s black ops division.”
“I don’t know how I would handle the memory of what you have been ordered to do as a Turk, Reno. I no longer hate you, however. You have done your duty to your employers.” Vincent relaxed slightly and looked the younger man in the eyes. “I cannot exonerate you for your deeds, but if anyone presses charges against you, I will speak in your defense.”
Reno nodded. “No one will ever be able to exonerate me.”
Vincent smiled softly at the Turk. “Perhaps. Do not forget that there is always a chance for redemption, however. The Turks are needed in the new ShinRa, to support the direction that President Reeve had started to take the company. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they ask Barret to be Reeve’s successor. He will need your help.”
* * * * *
Yuffie watched Reno walk away after his conversation with Vincent. The red-haired Turk held a flask to his lips and drained it in one long swallow. Then he started down the mountainside.
The Wutai-born ninja started towards the man she loved. Vincent did not turn as he heard her approach. “Yuffie, we need to talk.” She was brought up short by the note of sorrow in his voice.
The gunslinger turned towards her. He softly continued, “It won’t work, you know that…”
Yuffie shook her head in negation. “How can you say that? You are free from the shadows of your past -”
Vincent cut her off. “I will never be entirely free from the false memories that were implanted in me. I will never be free of the memory of how I felt with those four monsters buried within me. I will never be free of the guilt caused by their actions, once Tenarrus freed them.”
Yuffie interjected, “It wasn’t your fault! You cannot be held responsible for what they did!”
“But I do hold myself responsible. I walked willingly into Tenarrus’ trap – willingly! I leapt at the chance to finally be free that I never considered the repercussions of that freedom.” Vincent coughed into his hand. “I never thought for a moment that Tenarrus was just using me.”
“I don’t care! I love you!” Tears started flowing from Yuffie’s eyes.
Vincent thought, You are a fool, Yuffie. I am many years older that you, and will always bear the scars of my past, both real and programmed. You deserve someone who is a better match than an old, burned-out gunslinger. But he didn’t say a single word, as his resolve weakened at the sight of her tears. He considered the fondness he regarded her with. He knew it was not the all-consuming passion that he believed he had felt for Lucresia. In time, however, who knew?
He smiled at her. “Yuffie, I cannot promise forever. I do not know if I love you. What I can be is an earnest companion. You are a dear friend to me, and could grow to be more, even though I feel misgivings about you being with me.”
“However, I am willing to give things a try, if you are willing to put up with me.”
Yuffie whooped in joy. She ran to Vincent and threw her arms around the former Turk. Their lips met as the sun broke over the crest of Mount Nibel.
For the first time since Vincent had been imprisoned in the coffin by Lucresia, he looked at the future with something more than dread. He had been unleashed from the demons within, as well as those which came from a set of memories he now knew were not his.
Vincent pulled back from Yuffie. “With the Barrier down, there is a new world out there to explore. Would you join me in a voyage of exploration – both within and without?” Vincent was surprised at the intensity in his voice.
Wordlessly, tears of joy streaming down her face, Yuffie nodded.
(c) TacomaSquall 2000, 2004, 2015
Part Twenty-Three – Apotheosis
As the Highwind neared the summit of Mount Nibel, Cloud walked among his comrades. As he passed by each one, he handed them two items.
The first was a ShinRa Pharmaceuticals product, a methamphetamine derivative that was standard issue for ShinRa shock troops. The Hyper allowed the shock troops to reach Limits more easily, making the ShinRa shock squads a force to be feared. It was a Hyper-induced frenzy that figured prominently in the final battle of the Wutai War.
The second item was a small vial of translucent liquid. The liquid contained within the vial was bubbling, like a hyperactive bottle-full of Rufus Cola. When the imbiber drank the Speed Drink, his reaction time and quickness doubled.
After he had handed off the last of the items, he turned back to his companions. “I want you to take the Hyper and wash it down with the Speed Drink, before you jump off the airship. We don’t know how quickly we will be in a fight, and I want to make sure that we are ready.”
He turned to Yuffie. “Are you ready with Typoon?” Yuffie nodded. “Good.” He turned back to the others. “Typoon will carry us down to Lord Chaos. He is willing to take the risk that Chaos will end his existence, if we promise to defeat Vincent’s former Limit.”
“Each of you, keep your hand on your ripcord. If Typoon is noticed, he will let go and try to draw Chaos’ attention away from us. At that point, it will be necessary for us to regulate our descent.” He smiled at his friends. “This will be a cakewalk, compared to the drop on Midgar.”
Cloud continued. “We know that Chaos is going to try and break the Barrier. What effect that will have on the Planet is uncertain, but we do know that he believes it will grant him enough power to seize control of the entire world. According to Grennek, the Barrier is tied into the power of the Summon Materia. This means that breaking the Barrier could either free or destroy the Mako-twisted. We can’t let that happen, while the threat of reinvasion from Nessos exists.”
“That means that we have to hit Chaos hard and fast. I want to try and clear an opportunity for Grennek to use the Counter Null. Once he’s used it, we hit Chaos with every Summon we can throw at him. If you don’t have Summons, use support magic and items to keep the rest of us going.”
Cloud looked at his companions. “I want you to know that I am proud to have you as my friends and allies. If we just keep fighting, we cannot help but succeed!”
One by one, AVALANCHE used their items and leapt from the Highwind. They were all gathered up by Typoon. The weird Mako-twisted creature from the Ancient Forest bore them speedily downwards.
* * * * * *
Chaos stood before the Keystone. The amethyst-hued Materia was an irregular shard of crystal that thrust out of the rock underneath the former Mako reactor. He grinned. At last…
He placed one hand upon the crystal and called upon some of the elemental attacks in his arsenal. First, he used the Diamond Dust and then Hellfire. Following after that, he unleashed the might of the Judgment Bolt, and then called upon the power of the Tidal Wave. Finally, he unleashed the Mega Flare. In turn, he focused all of the puissant energies brought into existence from each attack upon the crystal.
The crystal shrunk slightly when frozen, and then rapidly expanded under the brunt of the subsequent heating attack. Microfissures formed, and the crystalline lattice was weakened. The electricity of the Judgment Bolt changed the charge of the molecules that formed the crystal – reducing its cohesiveness. Water from the Tidal Wave rushed into the fissures and widened them imperceptibly. The Mega Flare intensified the damage done to the Keystone, making the cracks visible to the naked eye.
Chaos brought the Chaos Saber down in an overhand chop that would have made Odin proud. The sword met the weakened crystal in a brief battle for which would give way first. In the end, hell-forged steel won out over crystallized Mako.
The Keystone exploded, hurling shards skyward, as AVALANCHE descended into the Nibel reactor. Amethyst and lavender bolts of energy arced away from the ruined site, streaking towards the Barrier.
* * * * * *
In seconds, the bolts of energy traveled the distance that separated Mount Nibel from the Barrier, striking it from north and south in rapid succession. As each bolt stuck, it clung, until the energy contained within was discharged. Each discharge was the equivalent of the Tera Flare in power.
With each strike, the Barrier glowed more and more fiercely. It went through the visible spectrum, flaring into brilliance, until it glowed in a blinding ultraviolet that extended well past the range of normal vision. Scores of seabirds were cooked on the spot by the hellish radiation pouring forth from the Barrier.
Finally the Barrier could not contain the energies it held. It exploded, in a concussion loud enough to be heard from Icicle Village in the North to ruined Mideel in the south.
* * * * * *
Cloud rolled as his body struck the cavern floor. In all of his trips into Mount Nibel and the Mako reactor, he had never seen a cavern like this one. The walls and ceiling of the cavern were bleached a brilliant violet hue, excluding where Lord Chaos had blasted through the ceiling – the aperture through which AVALANCHE had descended.
He looked around him and saw that his companions had all landed safely. Typoon had been with us until that massive Materia exploded. I hope that Typoon is okay…
Cloud shook his head to clear the extraneous worries from his mind. There was no time to worry about the fate of a single Mako-twisted one. Chaos had noticed them.
“Welcome, AVALANCHE,” Chaos boomed. His demonic visage was split by a wide smile. Lord Chaos’ smile faltered and slowly slipped from his face, however. Cloud turned and gaped in amazement.
Forms began to materialize inside of the cavern. Chillingly beautiful Shiva and hot-tempered Ifrit. The powerful Titan, flanked by the Galian and the Hellmasker. Righteous Ramuh, standing upon the mechanical shoulders of the Holy Wanzer, Alexander. Kjata, trumpeting a cry of relief after millennia of imprisonment. Hades and his bubbling black cauldron. More and more appeared in the huge cavern, as Cloud and his companions came to a stunned realization. The Mako-twisted had been freed!
Behind and above the massed might of the Mako-twisted, four massive forms appeared, filling the sky above the cavern. The gigantic sentient fortress known simply as Atma hulked in the sky, training its turrets upon Lord Chaos, as the triple avatars of Lord Bahamut screamed their rage to the skies.
At the forefront of the Mako-twisted army, Lord Odin dismounted from Sleipnir. He cracked his knuckles and gazed at Lord Chaos in naked hatred. His voice boomed at the last of Vincent’s avatars, “Chaos! You will pay for your crimes!”
Chaos laughed. “Fool! Bow before your master!”
Odin drew the Zantetsuken. “We will not concede your suzerainty. Like these humans, we will oppose you.”
Chaos snarled, “Very well. You can die alongside the humans you love so much!” The Mako-twisted lord unleashed the force of his magic, scattering human, Mako-twisted, Frogman, and Kyrrawlen alike.
As the members of AVALANCHE and the many Mako-twisted shrugged off the effects of Chaos’ spell, behind Lord Chaos, Typoon returned to view. The massive elemental tried to suck Chaos into its gaping jaws. Hurricane winds blasted into the treacherous master of Magic.
Chaos was staggered by the attack. He started to slide backwards towards the gigantic elemental. Inch by tortuous inch, Chaos slid, while his opponents recovered from his attack. Seeing his inability to shrug off Typoon’s pull, Chaos whirled and leapt at the Mako-twisted being. As he flew towards Typoon, Chaos whipped out the Chaos Saber.
Typoon was unable to react in time, as Chaos flew point-first towards the creature’s gullet. The Chaos Saber pierced flesh, sucked in by Typoon’s own breath. Chaos drove the blade deeper into the Mako-twisted thing’s flesh. Coursing bolts of midnight-black energy leapt from Chaos into the enemy that sought to devour him.
The black energy swept through Typoon, covering it in a crackling aura of night. When the aura had covered Typoon’s entire form, Typoon felt the disintegrative forces it commanded being unleashed upon itself. Cell by cell, Typoon’s flesh disintegrated.
Typoon’s sacrifice was not in vain, however, as a horde of attackers swarmed upon Chaos. Wave after wave of elemental attack struck, punctuated by physical blows from the members of AVALANCHE as each of them reached low-level Limit Breaks. Maiji summoned a two-dimensional reflection of Lord Chaos to join the fray, covering the slow and steady approach of Grennek.
Chaos stood equal to the task of repulsing the hordes that threatened to overwhelm him. For each attack that struck, Chaos launched a counter. Ramuh fell, his staff shattered, and eldritch energies coruscating through his being. A sweep from the Chaos Saber decapitated the Seeker, and its body collapsed into the void it contained within. Hades’ Black Cauldron was shattered, and the Lord of the Underworld was laid on top of the enchanted remains. Barret’s gun-arm was severed, spitting fire into his allies briefly before dying out. Nanaki fell, blasted into unconsciousness by the errant rounds from the Missing Score. Maiji’s duplicate was cleft in two by a single powerful chop from the Chaos Saber, and the resulting backlash felled the raven-haired artist.
Grennek finally reached Chaos’ side. The elderly Sahugin raised the Wizard Bracelet containing the Counter Null over his head, as he activated the golden Materia.
Chaos felt his power diminished. At that moment, Cloud struck with his Deathblow attack, leaching energy and vitality from his enemy. To Chaos’ surprise, he was no longer capable of counterattacking each enemy as they struck. In fury, he snaked a hand forth and grabbed Grennek. Chaos lifted the elder high, and then threw him across the cavern. When the Sahugin struck the far wall, his shell shattered, and his bones were crushed by the impact. Dead instantly, Grennek’s last thought was a hope that the Frogmen be judged worthy to stand alongside mankind in the aftermath of this battle.
Cait Sith cried aloud, “No more!” The robotic moogle charged Chaos, bringing him to the cavern floor with a bone-jarring tackle. Looking upwards, Cait Sith shouted to Atma, the Ki-Rin, and Bahamut’s avatars. “Hit him now! I will hold him as long as I can!”
The crackling energies of the Tera Flare, Mega Flare, and Giga Flare mingled with the beams of energy that ravened forth from Atma’s cannons. When the combined beam of energy struck, the concussion was strong enough to knock back the members of AVALANCHE who were nearby. Under the bombardment of such hellish energies, Cait Sith’s form glowed incandescent, as did Lord Chaos’.
Feedback from the damage being dealt to Cait Sith surged back through the control instrumentation worn by Reeve. It was too much to bear, and the President’s heart suffered a massive attack while his brain insisted that every cell of his being was transforming to plasma. By the time his heart stopped, Reeve was already dead.
When the beams winked out of existence, there was nothing left of the moogle or Lord Chaos.
* * * * * *
Odin and Cloud stood together. The other Mako-twisted had left, heading to the mountain’s summit, where they would survey the world that they had returned to. The members of AVALANCHE were gathering their wounded, and trying to deal with the enormity of what had happened.
“What lies beyond the Barrier, Odin?” Cloud felt himself consumed with curiosity to know why Chaos had insisted on breaking the Barrier.
“The rest of the world.”
“What?” Cloud couldn’t believe what he had just heard. “The rest of the world?”
“When the Cetra sealed us away, they found it necessary to confine us in a small portion of the world, to preserve the remainder. If any of us escaped, the Cetra knew we would be powerful enough to be a grave risk. In order to ensure we would remain under control, they focused the power of the Lifestream into a small portion of the world. This gave them the magical resources to effectively oppose us.”
“So they crafted the Barrier to provide power to oppose the Mako-twisted?”
“In part. They knew they had failed to capture Lord Chaos. So long as the Lifestream was concentrated, one of the Cetra could use its power when Chaos made his eventual play for power.”
Cloud nodded. “But they did not count on the arrival of Jenova.”
“And Chaos was patient.” Odin’s voice was sad. “Once, he was one of our greatest, before he betrayed us.”
“And now, he is gone, leaving us a new world to explore.” Cloud smiled.
Odin nodded briefly. He placed his fingers to his mouth and whistled. As Sleipnir swooped downwards to his side, the Mako-twisted lord looked at Cloud. “We still have business, Cloud Strife. You are one of us and, sooner or later, you will need to join us.”
Cloud blurted, “I’m one of you?”
The Mako-twisted Lord swung up into the saddle of his eight-legged steed. “That is a tale for another day, brother. Farewell, until the time comes.” The flying steed took off, bearing Odin to the others atop Mount Nibel.
Cloud watched the Mako-twisted depart, and sighed. It was time to pick up the pieces.
End of Part Twenty-Three
(c) TacomaSquall 2000, 2004, 2015
Part Twenty-Two – Reunited
Tenebrius’ search for AVALANCHE in the town of Nibelheim had been fruitless. He returned to the battlefield in time to see Lord Chaos bark his message to Vincent Valentine, before the gunman collapsed from exhaustion on the roof of the Research Center.
Tenebrius charged at the traitorous Mako-twisted lord, only to see him use his ever-present Vanish enchantment. As Tenebrius drew closer, he realized that his master lay on the ground beside where Chaos had stood. He paused for a moment in unbelief, and then ran to Tenarrus’ side.
Tenebrius scanned the Lord of Nessos for any signs of life. None.
He cradled the body of his lord in his massive arms and slowly walked towards the portal back to Nessos. Rest in peace, my master.
* * * * * *
AVALANCHE came running around the side of the Research Center, Barret and Yuffie in the lead. From an injured member of the Center’s staff, they had discovered that Vincent was there and that he had warned the Center of the impending assault by Jenova and her allies. As soon as they had discovered the news, the heroes hurried to find their missing teammate.
Barret aimed the Missing Score at Tenebrius, who was at the portal to Nessos. “Hold it right there, buddy!”
Tenebrius looked over his shoulder and paused momentarily. “I bear my master back to his realm. He is dead.”
Barret’s face contorted with rage. “Well, boo hoo. You guys came here and attacked us. Now, you get to pay the price!”
Cloud and Tifa walked up to Barret. “Not now, my friend,” Cloud insisted. Turning to the Horseman, Cloud stated, “If you close the portal behind you, we will permit your departure. There is no cause for further bloodshed.”
Tenebrius nodded. “I have much work ahead. It will not be done, and all my master’s life will come to nothing, if I extend our conflict.” The Horseman shook his head sadly. “For two millennia have I served him, only to see him die because of treachery and a sniper’s aim.”
Cloud looked at his companions. “Stand down. The battle for the Research Center is over.”
Tenebrius looked at the members of AVALANCHE. “You have been worthy adversaries. Perhaps, we shall meet another time.” He smiled ferally. “When stability has been gained…”
Cait Sith spoke. “If you come again, seeking conquest, we will throw you back through the portal. If you come in the name of peace, then we can talk.” Veiled within the moogle’s words was a simple message. We beat you before, and we will do it again, if necessary.
Unfazed by Cait Sith’s words, Tenebrius walked through the portal to Nessos. With a sudden twist, the rift closed behind him.
At that moment, Maiji spotted the semi-conscious form of Vincent upon the Research Center’s roof. “Is that your friend?” She pointed to where he slumped against the side of the roof.
Yuffie whooped with joy. “I knew he was okay!” She did a forward somersault in her exuberance.
Cloud looked around and saw no easy way to climb up to the roof. “There must be a way to get onto the roof from the inside.” He broke into a loping run for the entrance of the Research Center. His companions trailed along behind him.
The companions raced through the corridors of the Research Center, eventually, coming into the room that once contained the safe that served as the Lost Number’s prison. It had been converted into an employee break area when the Mansion was turned into the Research Center. After the retreat from the Horsemen, Dr. Cornell had ordered the break area further converted into a medical aid station. There, they found Vincent, being supported by two of the Center’s staff. He was speaking with Dr. Cornell.
“Dr. Cornell, do everything you can for these three. They helped me get through one of the toughest experiences in my life.” Vincent looked up and smiled at his friends. It was unexpected, like the sun breaking through a heavy overcast after a season of rain.
Yuffie ran up and threw herself at the former Turk. She wrapped her arms around him, as she murmured, “I thought I lost you…”
At the same time, Vincent spoke. “Yuffie, I’m so sorry…”
They both trailed off and looked at each other. The ninja blushed a bright crimson, while Vincent looked away, his mystique and cool lost for a moment.
Before either could speak again, Cloud softly coughed. They looked at him. “We need to go,” he said softly.
Vincent nodded. “You’re going after Chaos, right?”
“Yeah. He plans on destroying the Barrier.” Cloud’s tone was brusque. “Evidently, the Barrier has a greater purpose than just connecting the north and south. It has something to do with the Summon Materia.”
“Rather, the Barrier is an aftereffect of the Cetra magic that imprisoned the Mako-twisted in Materia in the first place,” Grennek interrupted.
Vincent looked at Cloud and raised an eyebrow quizzically. “He’s one of the Frogmen of the Apocalypse. His name is Grennek, and he is here with this Sahugin,” as he pointed at Hieros, “and Zack’s sister, Maiji, to help us stop Chaos.” Cloud shrugged. “The Frogmen had a prophecy about the events of today from over 2000 years ago.”
“I see.” Vincent looked at the other members of AVALANCHE. “I take it I have missed a lot.”
“Just Jenova’s return, a new WEAPON, the destruction of Mideel, Condor Fort and North Corel and, somehow, Sephiroth reaching from beyond the grave to help us destroy Jenova,” Yuffie summed up.
Vincent frowned at the Wutai-born ninja. “You speak lightly of extremely grave matters.” In response, the ninja stuck her tongue out briefly at Vincent. The moment Vincent saw her expression, he grinned. Yuffie turned beet-red.
“Cloud, you could use an extra hand in your fight against Chaos. Count me in.”
“It is good to have you back, my friend,” Nanaki purred. In reply, Vincent ruffled the fur on the back of the Kyrrawlen’s head.
* * * * * *
Lord Chaos stood on the summit of Mount Nibel. Below, he could see the Mako reactor that had figured so prominently in Cloud’s past, now abandoned to the mercies of the elements. The roof and walls were pitted by acidic rain from the fallout of Meteor. The outdoor ladders were corroded. What interested him, however, was what lay within the reactor’s core.
Chaos gestured, and Phoenix appeared. “I offer you a choice, firebird. This is your last chance. Serve me, or face oblivion.”
Phoenix screamed its defiance. “I will never serve you, betrayer!”
“Very well.” Chaos plunged a clawed hand deep into the Phoenix’s breast. His hand closed around something, and he twisted it. The Phoenix screamed in agony. Chaos drew forth his hand. Chaos’ arm was coated to the elbow in the glowing blood and flesh of the Phoenix, and he held its still-beating heart in his grasp. With a piercing cry, Phoenix fell to the mountainside and died.
Chaos sighed. It would have been nice to have someone else to do some of this work. He gathered his magic and lashed out at the reactor site. Rapidly, he pierced the manmade walls that sheltered that which he sought. A seemingly-natural piece of brilliant amethyst. At last, I have found it. The Keystone.
Chaos flew down to the reactor, ready to complete his plan of domination, unaware that the Highwind had taken off from the town below and was flying up the mountain.
* * * * * *
“You are going to do what?” Hieros was incredulous.
“We are going to fly the Highwind up to the summit of Mount Nibel, where we will, if possible, rappel down to the ground. If it is not possible, then we will jump.” Cloud was trying to be very patient with the Sahugin. “We don’t have time to make the climb, and even with the risks, we can pull this off. We made a HALO drop into Midgar just before Meteor that was far more difficult.”
“Listen, froggy. If you want to stay on the Highwind, be my guest.” Barret, on the other hand, was not feeling so charitable. “We need to get there as quickly as we can, and we don’t have time to coddle you.”
“It is too dangerous for Grennek,” Hieros protested.
“Let me be the judge of how dangerous something is, Hieros.” The elder Sahugin looked the resolute members of AVALANCHE. “The threat is severe enough that we need to do as they say. I appreciate that you wish to protect me. However, the choice is mine to make.”
Yuffie groaned. She hated flying, and the only thing about jumping from an aircraft that was worth it was the fact that, sooner or later, she’d be on the ground. Looking over at Vincent, she smiled. He seemed different, less withdrawn. She liked it.
Cloud spoke. “Everyone, get your chutes on if you are going. Get a partner and check each other’s straps. We reach the drop zone in five minutes.” He smiled. “Get moving!”
All the worries about the world’s fate had faded. He was going into combat with his friends by his side. Somehow, they would find a way to defeat Chaos. They had to…
End of Part Twenty-Two
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