Another Chapter is here!
Kazeshuriken: Thank you.
LirialRaito: Yes it is!
Nanaki beckoned three of his companions into the apparatus at the wish of his Grandfather, the Elder Bugenhagan. He called upon the Swordsman, the Shamaness, and the Fighter in particular, since it was those three who had the most of learn of the basics of the Study of Planet Life—of the Lifestream and how it encompassed the Planet, how the souls were ever-flowing in a continuing stream of spirit energy that nurtured all life. Those three returned to the bonfire at the Cosmo Candle afterwards told the others.
The Shamaness, most of all, seemed to have become disheartened on speaking with the other Elders of her heritage. Nanaki understood her feelings somewhat. As she was the last of her kind, he and Deneh were the last of their tribe. Their respective duties were something that few others could truly grasp the full weight of, even if they were aware.
The Gunman looked pensive at the flame while his daughter sat upon his lap. Nanaki knew little of the man, but it was clear heavy thoughts occupied his mind. Regardless, the moment the child yawned he departed to their dwelling to lay her to sleep.
The Thief merely used the firelight to gaze upon her growing collection of Materia. Though, as she did so, there was a deeper meaning within her eyes. There was a drive within them, a determination that matched any of the others despite her youth.
The two Swordsmen were off in the shadows, with the shades-wearing one handing the blonde-haired one a new sword from the weapon shop that had been on display since even before Nanaki had been taken by Shinra. He gave it a few test swings and then commented on it before they went off, no doubt to train. The Tactician followed after them shortly afterwards.
These were his companions until now and, though their time together was short, they had all at some point demonstrated bravery in the face of such odds that it would do his tribe proud. His mother was the same, her figure coming into view as he stared into the flame and remembered how brightly her tail blazed before she went out and met her end. But it also brought to mind his father, much to his discontent, and made a furious sound bubble up in his throat.
"What's wrong, Red?" asked the Fighter, apparently overhearing it.
"When I think of all we have been through while sitting around the fire, I am reminded of Mother and her efforts," he said after a moment of hesitation. "Even though you are not of my tribe, I can feel the same pride I do as I did with her. Alas, my thoughts then turn to Father and it fills me with anger at his cowardice. Even the youngest here has faced far worse threats without retreating."
"…You really can't forgive your father?" asked an unexpected voice, his Grandfather. Floating in on his green orb, Bugenhagen approached the bonfire and Nanaki.
"Of course not!" Nanaki took offense to the mere suggestion of doing so, though he tempered his response through sheer effort. "Father was a wastrel who fled while Mother and the people of Canyon were being attacked by the Gi Tribe."
"I see…." Bugenhagen took a deep breath. "Follow me, Nanaki. There's something you should see. And, if possible, would two of your companions accompany us? It'll likely be dangerous to go alone."
"I'll go with you," offered the Fighter almost immediately. "This sounds important and you've stuck with us to this point. We may as well see it through to the bitter end together."
The Shamaness stood up as well and dusted herself off. "If it's dangerous, then I want to be on hand to help."
Despite being told it was dangerous and with nothing further to gain, they offered their assistance without hesitation. He gave a slight bow of the head at their offer. "Thank you both."
The Thief yawned and lied down after putting away her ill-gained materia, arms behind her head. "Then I'll stay here and tell the others where you've gone when they show back up."
Crimson watched as the two swordsmen went at one another in what Kunsel claimed was an attempt to break-in the sword called the Butterfly Edge. According to him, the shop-owner had the blade for some time and was just eager to be rid of it. There were few people who could reasonably use such heavy and large swords around here, so they were passed up and left to gather dust. Once their spar came to an end, Kunsel directed Cloud to head back to the Inn so that the two of them were alone now.
"I'm leaving the group in the morning," Kunsel told her once Cloud was out of earshot, short and to the point. "You can keep the Buggy for the time being. I can make it back on foot."
Her brows closed in at the sudden news, though she couldn't say that she was surprised. "Is this about Gongaga?"
"The fact that you lied to me about Luxiere's death is a part of it," he admitted promptly. "But I don't like being blind like this. I need information on what's happening in Shinra and in Midgar, as well as Junon. I need to reestablish contact with my informants among other things."
She crossed her arms and stared unflinchingly into his eyes. "I can't stop you. All I ask is that you don't blame Cloud for any of it. He didn't have a choice."
"No matter how it ended, someone would have died," he reasoned, inclining his head in agreement. "Heidegger gave the order, so I blame him for the circumstances of the death. But my issue is that I asked you for the truth in exchange for my help in Midgar and you intentionally lied to me."
"I knew they fought, and I knew that Cloud was alive in the end and he wasn't," she admitted. "But for all I knew after that, the missile strike could have done him in just as easily as the Buster Sword. Neither would have happened if not for him leading the attack on Gongaga just to get to us."
"But you didn't say that because you were afraid you'd lose my help if I knew the truth," he added. "Am I wrong?"
Crimson let her silence give the answer to that question. It was true. She was working with limited contacts and resources. She had no intention of things getting out of hand to the point that he would ever find out the truth to begin with.
"… He was my friend, Crimson," Kunsel continued after a soft exhale. "He was Zack's friend too. You should have told me."
"He was our enemy." She looked up the sky and saw the bright stars above, shining. You couldn't get a sight like this in places like Junon or Midgar, but Gongaga also had a beautiful night sky. "He burned down Zack's home and tried to kill us. We fought back to save who we could and ourselves. I would have told you the truth under different circumstances, but I didn't want it to color your opinion of Cloud before you had even met him."
"You've known me longer, Crimson." He stepped forward until they were only a few feet apart. "You know my thoughts on the truth and how hiding terrible secrets cause more problems down the line when they fester in the dark. You also know that I am reasonable in the wake of facts, my personal feelings aside, and I would've understood. So why did you make that judgment call?"
"I couldn't risk it," she said. "It was a chance to help him that I couldn't pass up. I wasn't going to let something that had to be done interfere with that. I'm not asking you to forgive me, but couldn't you at least accept my answer for what it is?"
She could feel his eyes boring into her from behind his shades. "Before, I might have believed it because you're altruistic in your attempt at finding your own redemption, or because he was someone Zack protected. But in light of what has happened, I'm wondering if you don't have a more… personal interest."
A look of indignation came onto her face. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Then let me be blunt, Crimson. How much do you care for Cloud?" he asked. "Whether or not you've noticed, you've been a lot closer to him than someone in your former line of work should be comfortable with. If I've noticed it's only a matter of time before the others do, and I don't want it to cause problems later on—despite my current feelings, I do want you all to be successful in your endeavors."
Her eyes widened briefly as it clicked and then narrowed. "Even if what you're implying is the case, my feelings on the subject don't matter when there are bigger issues to handle at the moment," she said firmly. "You know I wouldn't do anything that would compromise our group further, especially not after that mess in Costa del Sol. I'm a professional."
"The entire reason you went against Shinra is because you placed your morals above being a professional," he said immediately, pointing out the flaw in that logic. "Reno, Rude, and Tseng are true professionals and can keep their emotions out of it, no matter how heinous the job. For you, that's a weak justification that will fail you in the long run and we both know it."
Crimson's expression softened. Her eyes reflected the way she felt, more disappointed than anything. "Have you really lost that much faith in me?"
"…Maybe I am just lashing out." His voice came out strained. "He was my friend for years, Crimson. I thought he'd been killed during the bombing, following orders, and made peace with it. Now… now, when I look at the Buster Sword I can't help but see his blood on it. It'll take time before I can come to terms with it and trust you, and even then I don't think it will be to the same extent."
"Tell Aerith you're leaving at the very least," Crimson said as he stepped past her. "She's the only one of us who has family in Midgar and they haven't talked to one another since we left. You can at least give her peace of mind by carrying a letter there for her."
He looked over his shoulder and nodded. Then he continued on, disappearing into the distant shadows and leaving Crimson to stew in her thoughts for a few minutes longer. His words lingered behind and gnawed away at her.
Even if it was just from lashing out at her, the damage had been done on both ends.
"Wait, you're leaving again?" asked Biggs in the wake of the news that their leader suddenly dropped on them after laying his daughter to sleep. He and Jessie sat close to one another, having been patched up by Aerith and good as new.
Upon the group arriving in Cosmo Canyon, they took up a single residence due to a lack of funding. The home was large enough for all of them, though not overly so, and it came pre-furnished as part of the deal that they had struck with the Elders. By acting as the first line of defense against monsters that came close to the town in the absence of the guardian tribe, they were allowed to use it as they pleased.
Barret nodded from his chair. "That's right. Not sure how long I'll be gone this time, but I'm goin' with Tifa and them when they leave soon."
Wedge slammed his fist on the table and rose from his seat in blatant defiance, sending Barret a challenging glare. "Marlene has been waiting ages for you to come back. Seeing you made her the happiest she's been since you left to chase rumors. Now you're going to leave not even a few days later for who knows how long?"
Of course Wedge would object the loudest. The death of his brother had been a hard event on him, something he lamented not being there for. So he took to Marlene like an older brother, looking out for her in Barret's place when he wasn't there.
"You heard what Cloud and Tifa said about the Spirit Energy and stuff," he said. "They been goin' against Shinra all this time and have been doin' their part to help the Planet. One of us should be there along with them. It's gotta be me."
"And why exactly does it have to be you?" Wedge demanded. "Don't you have a responsibility to look after Marlene as well? Do you know how much it'll hurt her when she finds out?"
Barret rose out of his chair and reached across the table with his good hand, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him in. "You think I don't know that? There's nothin' I'd like better than to be here for her and to see her grow up! But there has to be a world for her to grow up in, and I have to see it through to the end."
Silence lingered after his declaration, the two men breathing tensely. Once the moment of anger passed, he let Wedge go and sighed, taking a deep breath. "It's gotta be me," he said again, keeping his voice leveled this time. "I was the one callin' the shots in Midgar and ya'll are the ones payin' the price. The life you've all been buildin' here is a new chance to start again, so I'm not sendin' anyone else to their deaths."
Truthfully, he had been considering what he could do in light of what happened in Midgar when they arrived in Gongaga. Aerith had stated that Titan could sense the burden he held on his shoulders, the weight of everything that had transpired. It joined him to help him shoulder that responsibility and serve the Planet properly. That was why he was going with them—to save the Planet in earnest, without using it as a pretense to mask the desire for revenge that he burned with.
Wedge was reluctant to believe it. That much could be seen in his eyes. But he didn't contest it any further as he sat back down in his seat. "Fine."
Tifa couldn't help but wonder if they hadn't passed through the Gates of Hell the moment they went through the Sealed Gate. They had descended further into the shadows before they entered a chamber of caverns that had a deathly chill about it, despite the harsh glow of the magma in the distance and the soft green illumination from veins lining the walls. It was unnatural, and her first instincts were that she had no business being here.
Then she saw something shifting in the shadows, moving as though it swam in darkness. At the same time she felt dozens of maleficent gazes upon her, wanting nothing more than to spear through her heart. She swallowed and balled her fist tight, tensing for a fight.
"What is this place?" Nanaki whispered harshly, head low and fangs bared in anticipation. "There's bloodlust coming from all over… no, it's something even viler than that—AGGHH!"
Without warning, without preamble, Nanaki had been pierced by at least half-a-dozen spears being held by emaciated figures wearing tattered cloaks that obscured their faces in the shadows. There were no wounds being made as they stabbed him over and over, but his pained cries were real all the same. They were killing him.
"Red!" Tifa yelled. A jolt to the mind triggered the Fire Materia she had and she threw the sphere of flames towards the nearest one attacking him. "Get off of him!"
The flames caused it to shriek and it thrashed against another, causing it to suffer and cease attacking as well. Then one of the remaining ones turned their attention to Tifa, who was readying her Ice Materia next, and brandished its spear towards her. Foreign words emerged from it that wormed their way into her flesh and then deeper.
Whatever it had done latched onto her on a level that left her feeling as though a cold grip was embracing her very life. It squeezed, tightening with every passing second, and she feared it would continue to do so until it wrung the very life out of her. Not that the Death Sentence would come to pass as the two who had been caught by her Fire spell lunged for her with their spears in retaliation.
"That's enough!" Aerith said as she stood in front of Tifa, wreathed in the light of the Limit Break with her voice trembling. It wasn't in rage or fear, as Tifa would have expected given her current state. It sounded almost… sad. "Healing Wind."
The silvery breeze flowed through the cavern, whistling as it surged through the multitude of chambers. It rolled over all the ghosts and… eroded them, would be the best way to put it. The breeze grinded away at their forms, flecks and motes of pale green being caught in its wake and then dispersing until there were none left.
"What… just happened?" Tifa panted as the strangling sensation abruptly cut when the one who cast it vanished. "What were those monsters?"
"Those weren't monsters," Aerith said as she crouched down over Nanaki and devoted her attention to using her materias to heal him. "Those were angry spirits that weren't able to rest. The moment they saw Nanaki, they lost themselves in their anger enough to lash out at him blindly. They paralyzed his muscles, cursed him to death, and then attacked his very spirit with the intention of tearing it apart. Such loathing… it was unbearable to listen to."
"Such is the rancor of the Gi Tribe warriors who were killed in a battle here," Bugenhagan said as he floated down on his large sphere. "The Lifestream flows closely to the surface here, hence the veins that can be seen on the walls of the caverns. It is for this reason that even I, who does not possess the blessing of the Cetra, can hear the voices of the Planet. It also makes this place a bridging point, where those who cannot find peace and rejoin the Lifestream can interact with the world much more easily."
Tifa wheeled around on the old man, righteous indignation in her voice. "And you sent him down here knowing that? They could have killed him!"
"Please, do not yell at Grandfather," Nanaki pleaded as he rose to his feet. "He had his reasons. It is why he told me not to come alone."
The Elder nodded. "Nanaki, I believe what lies at the end of this path is necessary, for both your coming-of-age and bringing you closure. But know that the vengeful spirits will come after you, full of rancor and malice. If you do not wish to proceed, I will understand as well."
"I will continue," he declared. "If you believe it to be that important, then I must. However, the others—"
Tifa cut him off before he could finish. "We came with you of our own free will. You stay, we stay."
Aerith nodded in agreement as well, and Nanaki gave another grateful bow of his head before they continued on into the depths of the Cave of the Gi.