Another Chapter is here!
Quathis: Read and find out.
Tifa fought to keep her balance as the earth quaked on her way to Nanaki, Barrett following in her steps at a distance. The massive fist slammed down onto the large man and threw up a plume of dust and dirt, swallowing them both up. She crouched low as she neared him. "Red, you okay?"
He growled with a fervor that spoke of resolve to fight, but his attempt at getting up left him buckling under his own weight. "I will be soon enough."
Heavy footfalls closed in. Kunsel came closer, Vincent's unconscious body over his shoulder. He panted as he kneeled down, set Vincent down, and then reached into his pouch for a Phoenix Down.
The moment that he pressed it against Vincent's flesh, an orange glow swaddled his body and he woke from his unconsciousness. Quickly he sat up and pressed his fingers to his forehead, shaking his head for a moment to clear it. He then took notice of the Nanaki and set towards healing him silently.
Barrett huffed as he finally reached them as well. "What's goin' on?"
"Ambush," Kunsel said, chest rising and falling as he forced himself to his feet. "Trained soldiers, modified hounds, and a man who claims to be from someplace called Deepground. He's SOLDIER, or something close to it."
"Well, he's dead… now…" Barrett trailed off as the dust cleared. The man that should have been crushed was still standing, straining his muscular arms to hold up the massive fist. "Hit'em again, Titan!"
The earth-borne giant pulled back his fist and then entwined his fingers to bring both fists down this time. The impact managed tosplinter the ground as far as the group had gotten this time. The train-tracks near and far were demolished from the force alone.
Yet, before the dust could settle, a blinding flare of cerulean light and raging wind blew back Titan. A monstrous howl shook them down to their bones as the dirty veil dissipated to reveal a Behemoth. Only rather than being a colossal beast of muscle and rage, this one was forged from metal plates, streaks of luminous blue running along them like fissures, with a matching mane that ran along its spine.
Murderous rage carried on its howl as it turned towards the summoning. It let loose a barrage of crystals forged from mako-energy that launched themselves through Titan's massive frame and punctured the summoning full of holes. Then it moved, slamming its heavy body against Titan to bring it to the ground. Merciless fangs dug into the flesh of its throat and then proceeded to pull and tear it out, leaving the summoning wailing as its body began to dissipate.
Tifa's blood froze at the sight of it. All of theirs did. What they faced now wasn't a monster, but a beast that eclipsed both Vincent in his Limit Break and Nanaki. The only reason they didn't die, as it fixed its gaze their way and stretched its maw out to roar before it pounced, was that Shiva sent a wave of biting cold from the materia to beckon her summoner from her stupor.
"SHIVA!" The jolt to her mind gave birth to the regal queen of the frost, who immediately imprisoned the Behemoth in a towering pillar of ice born of magic mid-lunge. It was trapped, but the ice was already riddled with splinters and fissures as it began to writhe and fight against the weight of the crushing cold.
"Flee now," Shiva ordered with her voice calm and cool as the snow, despite straining to maintain her icy prison. "I cannot hold him for long."
"She's right," Kunsel said as he held up an Exit Materia. "We can't find where the safe fell before whatever monster he's become escapes or reinforcements arrive, and if we die without passing word to the others, they'll be blindsided."
"We need to sacrifice the battle to win the war," Vincent summarized as he stared at the Behemoth. His fingers clenched. "For now."
"I am loathed to admit it, but I have to agree," Nanaki added. "As we are now we cannot prevail."
No sooner than they came to a consensus did the cerulean Behemoth break through the ice. It plowed through Shiva, who tried to erect a wall of ice between them and it, just as Kunsel triggered the materia. Tifa felt herself being displaced from the battlefield in a flash.
Re-materializing near the Gold Saucer, she could hear the Cerulean Tsviet roar in the distance.
Heidegger stood at the window of a room within the Deepground, gazing into the darkness with a sense of anticipation. He was awaiting the report from the unit that he had sent to retrieve the Huge Materia from the Corel Reactor. To his annoyance, both Hojo and Scarlet were there as well.
The scientist had attached some type of contraption to his head that had cables attached to some parts of his body. As far as Heidegger knew, they were supposed to regulate the muscular control or some nonsense to deal with the constant twitching and shaking from the electric torture he's been subjected to. Rufus had deemed to allow him to construct it on the premise that having him functional was essential for maintaining his usefulness.
After Sephiroth's rampage, they were the only three that remained who knew of Deepground. Not that bleeding-heart Reeve or Shinra's entitled brat. Only they knew of the den of elite soldiers that lay hidden beneath the main headquarters, along with Reactor 0.
The reactor had been built at the same time as the headquarters, acting as both a personal generator for the building and the facility. The mako that flowed through the reactor was used to experiment and empower fallen SOLDIERs, troops, and anyone they could disappear into an elite fighting force. Even after the Wutai War's end, the facility was still being used to ensure that they would have a fighting force that was unmatched.
However, with the former President's death and lack of personnel, they had been setback from utilizing the resources available to deal with both Sephiroth and the others rats that needed to be crushed under their heels. Now, with Hojo back, they'd been able to begin reconfiguring the control chips to ensure their loyalty from the Restrictors to Heidegger and Scarlet. He was done with operating through middle-men and proxies.
As for the Restrictors, they had been conditioned to serve the current President of Shinra so thoroughly that they could not be compromised with. Thus he had them lured into stasis until Rufus was inevitably removed from his post. That day would come soon enough, and he'd get rid of those meddling Turks too.
A knock on the door drew his eyes from the window. He pressed the button to unlock the door, causing it to slide open. A woman dressed in white while bearing an eye-patch entered, the Tsviet known as Argento. She presented the safe that had been placed on the train and set it down on the table.
Heidegger marched over and unlocked the safe with the proper combination. The moment he did, he was greeted to the sight of a magnificent block of materia. It brought a half-smile to his face before he turned back to the woman. "Give me the full report."
She nodded and began. "Upon receiving notice that the materia had been placed upon the train, the unit set out to intercept it in accordance to your plans. However, the train was stopped midway by the terrorists and the unit proceeded to carry out the secondary plan after confirming the absence of the Ancient. The ensuing battle resulted in the death of the soldiers and beasts, with the exception of Azul, who drove them into retreating while in his Arch form. All evidence of the battle has been removed and visual confirmation of the targets has been recorded through the cameras of the solders' helmet for future use, including one unknown."
Hojo proceeded to take a seat by a computer and went over the footage that had been recorded. He paused it when the unknown man came into view. "It would seem they've awoken an old project that should have been left in its coffin."
Heidegger turned to him. "Is this going to be a problem? We've already got enough work to do in cleaning up your messes."
"Oh no." Hojo chuckled as he pushed his glasses up by the frame. "Rather, this presents a unique opportunity depending on the circumstances."
Blood pounded at Crimson's ears as what broke the kiss wasn't resistance, or the desperate need for air in her burning lungs, but the ringing of her phone situated on the table by the map. The abrupt sound caused the seemingly timeless world to move again, jostling both of them out of their brief daze. On reflex, both split apart in surprise and reached for their absent weapons before they caught up with themselves.
Then came the awkwardness. "Uh, so that…." The words were lost amidst the turbulent sea of thoughts that seemed to churn with every beat of her heart. "I…."
The phone rang again, sparing her the need to try and put everything into words right away. She turned towards the phone so quickly that her hair was a half-spin behind before she grabbed it. "Hello?"
The hot, storming sensation in her body quickly cooled when she heard who was on the other end. Crimson sobered immediately, forcing the vestiges of those feelings within her down as she turned towards Cloud again.
"Go and get the others," she ordered, her tone lacking in the uncertainty and confusion from before. It was as if a switch had been flipped, noticeable enough that Cloud caught on instantly that there was trouble.
He ran up the stairs while Crimson paced the room, asking questions that would have to be answered again when the others arrived. Were they okay? Did anyone die? What happened to the Huge Materia?
The positives were that everyone was alive and accounted for. The injuries were manageable and they weren't being pursued at the moment. However, the Huge Materia was lost to the enemy.
That was as far as she got before the others had arrived, including Yuffie. The kunoichi was dressed in a kimono that would seemingly suit her, if not for the inelegant yawn she made. Crimson activated the PHS's loudspeaker function and told Kunsel to explain in detail.
"The operation to take the Corel Reactor Huge Materia was a failure," he said first, getting it out of the way. "Though we managed to board the train, deal with the security measures, and stop it in the middle of being transported, we noticed that there were unusual circumstances surrounding the situation and were forced to retreat."
"Did anyone get hurt?" Aerith asked.
"A few scratches comparatively, but we made it out alive," Kunsel told her. She breathed out a sigh of relief as he continued his debriefing. "There was a single troop aboard the train, a fresh recruit from the Sector 7 Slums. Apparently he and Lockhart know each other, so she's handling his questioning, but Heidegger arranged for him to transport the Huge Materia alone. No sooner than he stopped the train did it come under fire."
"This is the part where I was before everyone got here," Crimson added. "Men and women dressed in blue-and-grey uniforms with helmets and shoulder-mounted rocket-launchers destroyed the train without a second thought and then shot them down when they tried to get away on Phoenix."
"A unit of Shinra?" Cloud asked. When he looked to Crimson, she shook her head. She didn't know either.
"It would fit given the precautions, but it's not one that I'm familiar with," the former Second-Class said over the phone. "The soldiers were trained to the extent that they were far more competent than those in Costa del Sol, and their suits were circulating mako from what we could guess by Nanaki's sense of smell. I wouldn't say they were the biggest threats, not compared to their leader, but if their numbers were maybe twice as many as there had been, it's possible that we wouldn't have been able to get away. "
That proved worrisome. While the numbers at Costa del Sol had been an issue, they were manageable. And the group that went after the Huge Materia were experienced in combat to a high-degree—Nanaki as a hunter, Vincent as a marksman, and Kunsel as a former SOLDIER. The thought that Shinra had a hidden reserve of troops capable of pressing them with few in numbers was more than a little concerning when you factored that in.
"And then there was the one who led the assault—a man who called himself Azul the Cerulean of the Tsviets," he continued. "He claimed to have come from someplace called Deepground and towered over us at nine feet tall, at the very least. I'm certain he had some kind of treatment similar to that of SOLDIER, his durability and strength doesn't leave any doubt about that. But his eyes are a different hue compared to ours and he could perform some kind of transformation into a Behemoth made of steel."
Yuffie frowned at that. "You mean like Vincent can?"
"It feels slightly different, but something is definitely off." The one who answered that wasn't Kunsel, but Vincent himself. "I can't help but think that Hojo is involved in this somehow."
"The pieces fit," Crimson chimed in. "I mean, if they had an elite unit all this time then why didn't they deploy them to chase Sephiroth or kill us in Costa del Sol? The only thing that's really changed between then and now is that Hojo is back in their custody. He was the one responsible for the initial process with Jenova and Sephiroth."
Leaving him alive was a mistake in the end. At the very least, she should have cut his throat before she got shot. Now her mistake was coming back to haunt them.
"So what do we do about it?"
"You'll stay on Sephiroth's trail," Kunsel said, taking over the line again. "I was the one looking into the Huge Materia in the first place, not you. Dealing with Sephiroth and saving the Planet are what you're supposed to handle. How is it coming with that?"
Crimson stood in front of the map and looked upon the markings on it that she made. "Following what we learned in Nibelheim, the closest location on the northern continent is the Bone Village from your end, with Icicle Inn being the closest on ours. I guess we can check those two in search of clues once the plane is fixed."
"I'll fly to them with Phoenix to confirm it myself so that you don't waste time," Kunsel said. "You regroup in the Gold Saucer with the others. After I've confirmed it, I'll go looking into Shinra, Deepground, and the Tsviets personally."
"Are you sure you'll be safe on your own?" Aerith asked.
"I can manage," he said. "Besides, I do have a contact who would be interested in this sort of thing. They have as much of a reason to want to know this as me, so I might be able to wrangle help from them if necessary. Keep yourself safe, Aerith. There's no doubt they'll come after you too after driving us back here."
"We'll keep her safe," Cloud promised. The line went dead after that, leaving them to contemplate the new information.
Crimson's own thoughts of concern were that something like this could have been hidden from her, even during her tenure as a Turk. If Heidegger had been the one who set it up, based on their suspicions, then it could be explained by his lack of trust in them easily enough. However, there's no way that the former President was clueless about this as well—and he trusted Tseng as far as she knew.
More secrets kept by the company, it seems.
"I'm going back to bed," Yuffie said abruptly as she stretched her arms up to the ceiling. When she saw the look everyone was giving her in the wake of the new, concerning information, she shrugged. "How is this anything new? It doesn't change what we have to do, and worrying about it won't solve anything."
"Brat's right," Cid added. "You numbskulls all decided already to go against Shinra, so no point in gettin' pissy about it because of complications."
"… You're both right," Crimson said, after some thought. "We've come this far already, so there's no point in slowing down because of a surprise. We need to keep to the path we've taken."
Aerith agreed as well with a somewhat hesitant nod of her head. "I'll see if the Planet or Minerva can tell me something new. The Lifestream flows close to the surface here, so I should be able to hear it better."
They began to file out of the room, leaving Cloud and Crimson alone again. The mood prior to the phone call was gone now. It had dissipated and been replaced by a sense of tension that now filled the air.
Cloud was the first to speak. "Now's probably a bad time to talk about it?"
"Yeah, definitely." Crimson sighed as she crossed her arms and leaned against the table. "That's probably going to be the case for a while. I mean, we take one step forward only for another problem to crop up… I am sorry that I just sprung it on you like that. I wanted to clear things up, but I should've been less forward about it."
"It's not that I don't appreciate you clearing things up. It's better than thinking I did something wrong to make you mad. But…" He trailed off looking, for the proper words to say. "I just need some time to clear my head with everything going on."
"I understand," she said. "Whether or not you turn me down, it doesn't change what we need to do. If you say you just want things to go back to the way they were, then it'll be as if it never happened."
"I'll see you later then," he said, turning to go up the stairs.
Crimson watched until he was out the door. Then she brought her hands up to cover her eyes, wondering if that kiss had made things worse in the end. Only time would tell.