Disclaimer: All Characters are the property of Square. No profit is made from this work, but note: IT IS MINE.
In accordance with a lifetime of rigid military training, Sephiroth made his way out of the cave hours before the sun rose. Sleep had evaded him as usual. His unmatched endurance allowed him to go for weeks on end without rest, but even a short nap would have been welcome respite from last night's pounding headache. He stood motionless in the darkness, allowing the crisp air to clear his head. Just a short way south was Fort Condor. Already he could see, as clear as day, the shell of the inoperative reactor, standing high on its hill like the stone towers of old.
Granted no old fortress had ever been topped by a giant bird's nest. Tales of the last living gigantic condor had been old when he was young. Even now, as a man on a mission, he could still remember the first time he had seen her, sitting high above a frenzied battle that would have resulted in her untimely demise, or worse, a lifetime of captivity in a laboratory, had Shinra been victorious. He was grateful now that he had been Third Class then and had not led the failed battle against this creature of legend. Unable to stop himself, Sephiroth spoke softly into the night, allowing the wind to carry his words, "I am glad to see you, old friend. You had not yet built that nest when I last saw you."
Two pinpricks of mellow light appeared over the reactor. The condor seemed to have heard the gentle words of the silver haired stranger in the distance and was now staring at him with wary interest. Subdued images flashed in Sephiroth's mind, images of a large round object, the color of milk, accompanied by the awareness that life lay within. The SOLDIER's eyes widened in wonder, "Congratulations!"
"Sephiroth! Enough of this nonsense!" Mother was back, finally, and thanks to this last spontaneous act of his, hardly one whit less angry.
Sephiroth felt a mixture of fear and relief. He was not alone any more, but would Mother inflict further punishment for this infraction? Communing with lower life forms ranked fairly high on her list of punishable offences. It was something he did no more than was absolutely necessary. Hesitation was proof of guilt, however, so he answered her firmly, " As you wish, Mother."
Mother was not yet finished. " I suppose you are determined to carry out this plan of yours no matter what I say. Did a mother ever have such a willful, disobedient child!"
The surge of guilt he felt at causing his mother pain was irrepressible, but Sephiroth could not help his stubborn nature. "I am sorry you feel that way, Mother, but it will bring unimaginable power to our cause. You will see." His almost childish eagerness to please Mother warred with an adolescent need to prove himself to her.
Mother exuded a dismissive aura in his mind, "I doubt it. We shall see how interested your little sweetheart is when she sees that present you left her. I hardly think the girl's taste runs to entrails."
The silver head shot up, the green eyes wide with shock at the memory of the carcass. Its flesh decayed and stinking almost before breath had left the body, the misshapen victim of a cold-blooded response to frustration lay speared upon a pine tree as a warning to Strife, but the girl Sephiroth intended to ensnare could not help but see it as well. Rapid analysis of the situation soon changed his expression to one of smug satisfaction. "Who knows, Mother? Perhaps such a show of strength might impress the girl. It hardly upsets my plans. Given my ...reputation, she would not expect anything else."
"We shall see."
As his mother lapsed into a silent presence in his mind, Sephiroth turned away from the condor and walked onward through the dewy grass. His plan lay northward.
At precisely twenty-three minutes past ten in the morning, Barret Wallace came to a conclusion; chocobo hunting was hard. He began protesting loud and long until he was sure that Cloud Strife had gotten the idea into his spiky head. "Goddamnit, Cloud! We been hunting these freaking turkeys since the crack a dawn and we only got one flipping bird to show for it! I mean, the minute you try to rope one down a bunch of damn monsters jump outta nowhere and start attacking! Then when you take your eyes off the bird to keep your ass alive, the goddamned bird runs away! How come all these shinra mutants are always near the chocobos, huh? And why did you have to make the girls and the cat go off as a separate hunting team, anyway? They don't even have a chocobo lure materia! How come it's taking you so damned long to track the chickens down? Are you sure that materia's not broken?"
Cloud, who had not even bothered to look up, kept examining the grass for tracks. Barret continued to rant, "Hell, boy, why do we even have to look for more chocobos. We got that one in the corral. We can run it a few trips back and forth across the swamp. Hey, has your spiky ass heard a word I said?"
An exasperated Cloud spun around to face Barret and began to rail at him, " I heard you! The materia isn't broken because the chocobos have been staying still for a little while when we approach! That's what the materia's supposed to do! The monsters are always around because they're hunting chocobos too! They're attacking us because we're a threat to their food source! The birds run because they're skittish! Tifa, Aeris and Red are hunting without materia because we could only afford one, small parties stand less chance of scaring the birds and Red thinks his hunting skills will help them corner one!" Cloud gasped for air and continued at full speed, "We can't make multiple trips on one chocobo because the zolom will feel the vibrations and wait for us to cross again! I wouldn't take so long to track them down if you weren't yelling and tramping so hard all over the place and you only have one flipping bird because you only have one flipping hand!"
"Oh, you trying to insult me now, Spike?" Fortunately, the PHS rang, disrupting the argument. Barret huffed as Cloud answered.
"Hi Cloud! We got one!" Tifa's voice was filled with excitement.
Cloud grinned triumphantly. He clapped his hand over the mouthpiece and crowed to Barret, "They got one!" Barret turned his back on Cloud as the blond spoke to Tifa, "That's great! Red was right about his hunting skills, huh?"
"Yeah, he's got a good nose for tracks. It would have been easier with the lure materia, though. I think the chocobos must be able to smell approaching humans from a pretty big distance. Half the time they were running away before we even got in sight of them."
"Oh? So how did you finally catch one?" Cloud asked, frowning at Barret who was poking his head around the shrubbery.
"Aeris and I fanned out while Red drove the bird in our direction. Then Aeris threw it some greens and roped it in while I took care of the levrikons," Tifa chirped, obviously proud of her team's accomplishment. Catching chocobos without a lure materia was no mean feat.
Cloud noticed that something seemed to have caught Barret's attention but kept talking, "So, you want to get the next one?"
"What, are you nuts? We're all beat here! Are you saying that two strong men with a chocobo lure materia can't catch a chocobo?" Tifa teased, "We're waiting at the ranch for you guys."
"Hey, Cloud," Barret whispered, staring deep into the bush.
Cloud ignored him, "It's going to be a while yet, Tifa."
"Cloud, shut up!"
Cloud whirled on Barret, but the intense concentration with which the huge man was staring into the bush made him stop in his tracks. "Tifa, hang on a second," he whispered into the phone and then asked Barret, "What is it? A chocobo?"
Barret answered without looking away, "Yeah. A big fat one."
Sephiroth fumed as he stormed across the plain. The dew had long vanished and the sun beat down with a force to scorch the earth, offering no mercy to a figure clothed entirely in black. Sephiroth was not one to be distracted from a mission by mere physical discomfort, however. Single-mindedly absorbed in his mission, he was unconcerned with who or what lay between him and his destination. The problem was straggling behind. "This is ludicrous! How long can that boy possibly take to catch a few lazy birds?"
Mother was hardly sympathetic, "He would not take so long if he only had to catch one, but you were the one who decided to let his friends live." Sephiroth did not answer, but she could tell that anger was tearing away at him. "Even if you want that girl, you did not have to let the puppet's other friends live."
"No!" Sephiroth was adamant, "I do not want her alone with him!"
Mother seemed amused, "Jealousy now, is it? You don't want to run the risk of anyone getting her before you do?"
"Don't say it like that!" Sephiroth shuddered, struggling to hold down a rage tinged with guilt. Mother had once again seen something in him that he had not dared to look for.
"That's what draws you to her, isn't it? She seems so pure and innocent, so harmless. You want that all for yourself and so you make this pretense at luring her in for her power," Mother's voice grew cold enough to make Sephiroth shiver despite the heat.
He took a deep breath and answered as steadily as he could, " I want Aeris, as would any man, but that is only the pathway to getting her to obey me. Her ability is what I truly desire."
Mother remained cold, "Do you deny, then, that the sight of her makes your heart flutter? That you fell to your knees when you first saw her? I warn you, Sephiroth, I know her kind. They are never what they seem. This one has not yet seen you and already her claws are tightening around your mind, so slowly that you cannot even see it. You may quite likely find yourself serving her every whim, instead of having her as a slave. You should have killed her at the first instant I told you."
Sephiroth bit down his response, breathing deeply to ease the tightness in his chest. The slow throb of Mother's favorite punishment formed in his head. It was some time before he could answer calmly, "My mission will proceed as planned, Mother, and Aeris will come to obey me. She will give her power to our cause. You are wrong in thinking that anyone on this planet, no matter how powerful, could endanger the mission."
"It is not the magic which she wields consciously that you need fear," as if worn from trying to speak to the stubborn young man, the entity in his mind retreated into silence.
Sephiroth retreated behind his own walls, continuing his march. The questions his mother's words had raised were uncomfortable to deal with and he struggled, as he walked, to find a way to sort the feelings that lay hopelessly snarled in his mind. Could he possibly be feeling more for Aeris than a simple physical attraction? He shook his head in annoyance.
Power was what he had always lusted after and Aeris had much of it. That she was young and beautiful was only coincidence and he absolutely did not feel anything even remotely resembling protectiveness for her. He had a man's desire for her body and needed her heart only because it would bind her to his will. His first feelings had been purely physical, only desire, only lust, nothing more...
"I don't know. Those fat ones can be real slow. And they're lazy," Chole offered her expert opinion on the third chocobo the ranch's guests had roped in.
Tifa grinned, "Hey, maybe it's for the best. I don't see how one of the smaller ones could hold up under Barret, much less walk with him."
"Tifa!" Aeris feigned outrage, giggling. Red's tongue was flapping out as he laughed in the way of his kind.
"You ready to go?" Cloud hollered, leading one of the smaller birds over by its makeshift rope reins. Tifa nodded. "Good. Tifa, you and Aeris can travel on one chocobo, I'll get Red up on mine and I guess Barret will be on his own." His brow furrowed as he noticed that Tifa, Aeris and even Chole seemed to be holding back laughter. "Did I miss something?"
The hot mist that steamed from the swamp enveloped Avalanche before the swamp was even in sight. Its rank odor seeped into the smallest twist of fabric, clinging to hairs and threads and fibers, making its targets feel miserably filthy. The little chocobo train trooped out into the sodden earth in single file, determined to cross, to escape the heat and that cloying stench.
Aeris looked around timidly from behind Tifa. Her senses were under assault. This place was unnatural. It was no wetland of the planet's making, but the result of toxins being dumped there for decades. The aura of the earth's valiant, failed effort to replenish itself under the onslaught pulsated through her. The echo of long gone screams of life twisted almost beyond breaking, into that which was no child of the planet and thus utterly obscene chilled her blood, setting icy fingers around her heart. Her friends were all unawares.
Dimly, she heard Tifa asking her if she was all right. She could not find voice to answer. Somewhere beneath, behind, a terrible force was rushing towards her, viciously hungry. A faint but urgent voice stirred in her mind, "Child, you must warn them!"
Aeris glanced up as if just waking. Then she realized the nature of the warning. "Cloud! Run!"
"What?" The rider of the lead chocobo looked back to see a dark shadow disturbing the water and heading swiftly towards his group, "Zolom! Move it! Full speed!" He spurred his bird forward, cutting across the viscous swamp with Tifa and Aeris riding close behind. The water surged beneath the riders as an unearthly shriek rent the air, announcing that the Zolom was rearing to attack, ready to feed.
"Hang on, Aeris!" Tifa dug her heels into the chocobo's sides, making a mad dash for solid ground. Aeris felt dizzy, a faint precursor to sickness that was not caused by the speed of motion. If anything, she would have moved faster to get away from the abomination streaming up behind them. The race to the other side took only seconds, seeming longer to the ancient whose blood pounded in her ears in time with the swishing of the danger in the water. Dread lifted like a curtain as the splash of water beneath the chocobo's feet was replace by the solid thud of hard ground. It was some time before she regained some semblance of control of her senses, before Tifa whirled the bird around to face the water, before she realized that they had not all made it.
"Barret's still out there!" Red did not protest as Cloud heaved him off the chocobo's back like a potato sack. In the shadow of the zolom, Barret's chocobo struggled to keep its footing. The Zolom reared up and let out a deafening screech, its tails flickering. Aeris saw more dark shadows streaking towards the floundering bird and rider. Unable to bear the forces battering her senses, she sank to the grass, gasping for air.
"Cloud!" Tifa cried out, frozen with fear. The blond spun his chocobo around and shot back across the water towards Barret.
Barret was struggling to get his hefty chocobo to move, "Come on, you dumb bird! This aint the time to be lazy! Maybe you haven't noticed the giant snake that wants chocobo drumsticks with human on the side for lunch. Come on bird, time to get moving." Barret did not even realize that he was babbling. The nerve that had helped face countless missions against a human enemy shattered before the great hungry animal that had no thought beside filling its belly with the closest moving thing. Barret's large chocobo was hardly faring any better, letting out soft, fearful chirps, unable to will its bulk to move. It did not help matters when several of the dark shadows rose out of the water, leaving the pair trapped between a trio of deadly, ravenous monsters. "Goddamn, can't a brother ever get a break?"
The snakes hissed at each other, gearing up for a fight. Barret was just about to dig his heels in to make a mad dash for safety when the soft thumping of a chocobo's feet on wet ground reached him. The sight of the blond leader riding into the midst of what was shaping up to be a massacre was no comfort. "Cloud, you damn fool! Go back! I can handle it!" Barret barely dared to whisper. The Zolom were sensitive to the slightest sound, that much he had learned.
Cloud paid no mind to the danger, spurring his chocobo right into the middle of the cage of monsters, drawing their attention. "Come on!" he yelled, grabbing the other bird's reins. Jerked from its paralysis, Barret's chocobo could do little but gather its bulk and run. There was a terrible roar as the snakes dived after their fleeing meal. Barret thought that he would finally have the heart attack Marlene always warned him about.
Cloud's bird was fast, more than fast enough to escape the monsters that dived down in chase, but Barret's bird was too heavy, too slow. Just as Cloud was beginning to think they would make it, the big chocobo's reins were yanked from his grasp. He turned back in time to see Barret fall face down in shallow water and the big yellow chocobo bounce along the swamp, faster without its burden, shedding a trail of yellow feathers as one of the zolom dove after it. The water surged where the snake had splashed its forked tail, trying to bring down its prey. Cloud turned back, racing against the remaining two to reach Barret.
Barret pulled himself out of the shallow mud with desperate speed, swearing a blue streak, then broke out running for the shore, hoping to all the saints above that the golden headed rider coming towards him would reach him before the murky green shadows did. His heart lurched as he lost his footing, stumbling into the deep channels through which the zolom swum. He sputtered for a while, up to his shoulders in the slime and scum of the marsh. He twisted uselessly in the water, trying to see where the zolom were, where Cloud was, and where his fat chocobo had run. Through the water in his eyes, he saw a bright yellow blur heading in his direction. He felt the ripple of the approaching snakes in the water. "Turn back, you damn fool. Too late now," Barret closed his eyes.
Something gripped his collar and yanked hard. Barret's eyes flew open. Cloud was hanging on to his chocobo by sheer strength and acrobatics. His hand was latched onto Barret's jacket as he forced the bird to make a fast about turn. "Come on, Barret! I can't pull you out of the water if you don't help me!" Without even thinking, Barret grasped the swordsman's arm and wrenched himself upwards. Cloud flung him in the general direction of the bird's back. Somehow, Barret twisted his large frame midair to land properly behind the blond leader. The chocobo warked in protest at the sudden weight on its back, but Cloud forced it forward, running. Barret turned his head, still barely able to breathe. There was no trace of his mount and the ripples in the water were speeding closer. He turned to look over Cloud's head. The shore was so close and everyone else was watching anxiously
The chocobo wobbled as the water surged beneath its feet. A dark shadow fell over it. The hideous shriek that pierced the air left no doubt. Barret turned again to see the Zolom that towered over them. "Damn, I'm not just gonna sit here!" he roared and fired a round at it, a direct hit. The snake did not seem to feel it. Instead, it reared back to strike. "Shit! Cloud, move it!"
Cloud wordlessly turned halfway round and stretched out an arm in a potent gesture. Behind, the zolom screamed in outrage, shaking off the ice around its head all too easily. It was a desperate attempt to gain time, giving them mere seconds at the most. "Yah!" Cloud leaned forward, cutting the wind. Barret felt the shift in the wind as the snake resumed chase. He was sure for a moment that the steady thudding he heard was his heart about to explode. Time slowed down in the strange way it does for the dieing. Then, without warning, Cloud brought the chocobo to a halt. Barret lurched forward in his seat, almost pushing the blond rider off his mount. Red bounded up from the side, "You made it."
Cloud was too busy trying to breathe to reply. Barret stared around dumbly for a few moments before the words sunk in. "Yeah, we did, didn't we?" Barret slid off the chocobo and looked around. Nothing had ever looked as good as the green, green grass and blue sky above did now. "Damn, Cloud, you one screwed up little shit, but you got some big ass balls!"
Cloud looked over at Barret. He was not quite sure how to respond to that, so he simply slid off the chocobo to stand on shaky legs before giving his bird a good rub on the head. "Good girl," he whispered, before letting the bird go. "Cloud, get over here!" Tifa called out from close to the water. The men turned to see her kneeling beside Aeris, holding the trembling girl.
"What happened to her?" Cloud rushed over.
Tifa shook her head, "I don't know. She started whimpering something about 'unnatural' and then she just sank down. I can't get her to stop shaking." Red padded over and rubbed the top of his head against the Ancient's shoulder.
"Hey, girl, are you okay?" Barret leaned over, "Ain't no reason to worry bout me an' Cloud. We're right here." He glanced over at Cloud, who stood watching the scene with a strangely detached look on his face.
On the grass, Aeris shivered and tried to catch her breath. Awareness replaced the glassy look in her eyes. She slowly looked around as if seeing the terrain for the first time. With surprising swiftness for one who had moments ago been nearly comatose, Aeris whipped her head around and looked at the swamp. Of the mutant snakes whose vicious auras had distressed her, there was no sign. She tried to get to her feet but was so unsteady that Barret and Tifa had to hold her up. "I'm alright now, really. It was just the marsh air. I'm fine," she reassured them.
Her friends drew back once she seemed stable enough, but Barret kept an eye on her. After what she had risked for his daughter, there was no way he would let Aeris come to harm once he lived. "Hm, this way, people," Cloud began to walk deeper into the forest and slowly, the rest of the group began to follow, anxious to leave the stench of mako and snake behind.
Only they did not. Somehow, the stench grew stronger, more putrid, as they walked closer to the sparse wood. Just when Red was complaining that his nose would be out of shape for a week they came upon the reason. Speared on a towering pine tree was one of the zolom, dead, decaying, strung out on the giant tree like bait. "Oh my!" Tifa could hardly speak.
Cloud knew exactly who was responsible, muttering the name of his enemy under his breath, "Sephiroth!"
"Now hold up! Sephiroth did this?" Barret fumed, halfway between anger and awe. To kill one of those things, drag it so far, and hang it on a tree, on a hundred-foot pine no less...it was not humanly possible. He would not believe it, not after what he had just been through.
Behind him, Aeris was staring at the monstrous display of strength and cruelty, her face a stone mask. Red rubbed his head on her knee as if asking if she was all right. She stared in silence for a few moments more, then spoke, her voice harsh and bitter, "I'm glad its dead."
Out on the plains just southeast of the Great Crater Lake, a silver haired man raised his fist to the sky in triumph. "I win this round, Mother. My plan proceeds without setback."
"So the object of your infatuation actually has the stomach for your work. Apparently the girl has more ice in her than I thought," despite the impression of admiration in her words, Mother remained cold with regards to Sephiroth's chosen woman, "You had best be careful she does not turn that against you. You expect her to be the willing object of your affection, but her heart may prove unassailable. With the magic at her disposal, you may find yourself facing more than spurned desire."
Sephiroth was pensive, "So noted, Mother. I really should do something for her, something just for her, to make her smile."
"Oh, you're hopeless!" Mother quietly fumed, hiding the burning intensity of her rage. Sephiroth was being far too hardheaded for her usual round of migraines to affect him. Her hold on his mind was tenuous at best when his thoughts were on that scrawny little Cetra.
"Do you remember what you were saying about presents?" Sephiroth continued blithely, "Perhaps I should get her something special. What do you think she will like?"
Mother refused to answer, but for once Sephiroth was happily beyond caring. So far beyond, in fact, that he almost stepped upon a trooper lying in the grass before he realized it. As the former General covered his surprise, the hapless trooper squeaked in fear, fumbling with his radio in an attempt to alert Shinra. Sephiroth grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, lifting him aloft to fix him with an angry glare.
The young trooper squirmed and spluttered, a half step away from begging for his life but still reaching with shaking fingers for his radio. Sephiroth glanced down at the boy's side, where the radio was hooked, then looked the trooper straight in the eye. The poor boy held the gaze for only a few seconds, unable to bear the intensity of the Mako glare, even in broad daylight.
"Hmph!" Sephiroth was pleased by his power to terrify, "Tell them I am going to Junon." With not another word, he let the trooper fall to earth and began marching northward, while the shaken boy behind him struggled to remember how to work his radio.
Ardwynna Morrigu's Fanfiction
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