Another chapter is here!

Mugen Kahemaru: Nope.

Exiled Soul Nomad: Yes it is.


Crimson steadied herself as the land became stable once again. The ziggurat had shrunken before their eyes, growing smaller until there was nothing left behind but a pitch-black stone. The Black Materia fell to the ground, at the deepest part of the pit. As Cloud went to get it, sliding down the slope towards the bottom, Crimson finished going over a plan of attack with the others.

Aerith looked solemn as she stood there with her eyes closed, a hand to her chest as she listened. Perhaps she was offering a silent prayer to the fallen Turk? It wasn't as though Crimson wanted to sentence him to death, and she found no joy in doing so, but they needed to come out ahead given the stakes.

Tifa, on the other hand, had been mildly hostile the entire time. That was probably due to her final suggestion, when it came down to either her or Crimson to make the sacrifice as the others weren't expendable. They didn't get along well, so it was natural that she presumed Crimson would have used that as an excuse to get rid of her. That wasn't the case, and she tried to explain her logic.

Nanaki didn't have thumbs, so he couldn't operate the puzzle in an efficient manner. Aerith was the sole reason they'd come there, but if she could successfully teleport then they would have gone with that option. Cloud… no, she wouldn't have let him sacrifice himself. Even leaving her personal feelings aside and his combat-worth, Cloud was as much a victim of the company as the others and shouldn't have died for it.

By that same logic, Tifa would be the same after losing her home and everything. Crimson recognized that. But when it came down to it, the two of them were the only reliable choices.

Tseng couldn't be trusted to her. Not after he betrayed her by trying to take the life he had once spared. But there was literally no other way at that time.

Aerith stirred from her silence, casting her emerald eyes up to the sky. "He's coming."

Following her gaze, they spotted to the figure in black and billowing silver hair descending. It was Sephiroth. The time for contemplation was over.

"Hold him off as long as you can!" Crimson ordered as she tapped into the All Materia and Time Materia. The combination allowed her to spread the effects of Haste around her to speed-up the personal time of Nanaki, Tifa, Aerith, and herself. Then she grabbed Aerith and they darted down the slope to where Cloud was as he held a hand to his head, attempting to shake off the influence of Sephiroth's presence.

While they did that, Tifa flung Fire spells one after another. Relying on numbers rather than pure power from a higher-tier spell, she bombarded Sephiroth with fireball after fireball to distract him. Undeterred when the long sword intercepted them before they could touch him, she gave the signal for their next attack. "Red, do it now!"

Nanaki then let loose a Trine spell. The inverted and upright pyramids encaged Sephiroth. Lightning struck him from all angles, pinning him into place as Tifa then launched a Fire 3 spell next. The explosion of flames bloomed in the bright sky, consuming Sephiroth within the fire and smoke.

Then it was parted with a mighty swing of his sword. His eyes fixed downwards on Aerith, Cloud, and Crimson. A follow-up swing released a crescent wave of power that sailed downwards in an attempt to snuff them out as easily as the flames.

Aerith brandished the Princess Guard in response and a dome woven of crystallized light encased them with its protection against all threats. According to Aerith, since she took in the memories of the past Cetra, she now knew how to use magic without materia and had the knowledge of the spells they used. The Shield spell she cast negated the attack and remained active as Nanaki's Beta spell lit up the sky as it connected with Sephiroth.

The scorching wind and blinding blaze of the strongest fire spell that they had at their disposal rattled the distant treetops and kicked up dust around them for tense seconds, until it settled enough for Crimson to look towards Tifa and Nanaki. The reason they didn't use that spell often was because of the sheer destructive power it caused and collateral damage. Fortunately, the pair was encased in a shell of ice that buffered the heat, courtesy of Shiva.

The combination of fearsome attacks, back-to-back, piled onto him at once. It should have been enough to finish Sephiroth off, or at least severely wound him. However, as the smoke cleared, what they saw was something else entirely than what they expected.

All of the fire and lightning damage, burned flesh and charred cloth, were quickly being replaced. It wasn't healing or regeneration, but rather it was as though everything that had been damaged was being shifted towards his arm as healthy flesh and untouched cloth took its place. No longer harmed, Sephiroth glared down at them…

No, not at them. Not as a whole. He didn't really see them as a threat. Instead, his gaze was fixed on Aerith until her brows folded inwards and she raised her staff. That act seemed to be the catalyst that made him decide to turn around and flee, rather than the damage they'd inflicted.

"We can't let him get away!" Cloud said, back on his feet as the Shield spell flickered out and an angry light flared from him. He grabbed the sword let loose a Blade Beam at Sephiroth's back. It cut through the air as a narrowed crescent of coalesced power, but only managed to sever the swollen arm due to Sephiroth shifting slightly to avoid it hitting the rest of his body. Cloud slammed his sword into the ground in fury at letting the man escape again. "Damn it!"

"We'll get him next time," Crimson said, hoping to reassure him as she set a hand on his shoulder. In truth, she had her doubts. They hit him with around half of their strongest spells and he still managed to recover before they could do anything. But they stopped Shinra from getting the Black Materia and got Aerith back, so it was a silver-lining. "We need to get back to the ot…"

The words died in her throat as the severed arm that fell to the ground with a wet sound began to move. The black sleeve and pale hand changed colors, morphing into a burgundy lump of meat. It bulged and bloated in front of them in a manner that reminded her of the Cargo Ship, only the meat swelled to greater proportions that threatened to crush them at the bottom of the crater they were in.

Cloud put his sword on his back and then grabbed Aerith and Crimson. With might bounds of his mako-strengthened legs, he carried them up to the top where Nanaki and Tifa were as the sack of meat ruptured like an overfilled water-balloon. The crater was flooded with liquid as another spawn of Jenova emerged from the depths, a different coloration from the other.

"I had my suspicions since I encountered two consciousnesses in the Temple, but now I'm certain," Aerith said firmly, tightening her grasp on her staff. "It was Jenova after all."

Surprise flickered on Crimson's face. But it was short-lived as the abomination's head released a bluish light. The attack hit Shiva hard enough that it sent the Summoning careening into the shell of ice that it created to protect Tifa and Nanaki. The shell shattered and Shiva dispersed into motes of light.

"Details later! Take it out now!" Crimson raised her arm and fired a Bolt 2 spell, seeking to electrocute it where it floated. Just the same, Tifa fired an Ice 2 spell and Nanaki let loosed a Fire 2 spell, opting for the balance between speed and power found in the mid-tier spell.

Neither spell reached in time before it conjured a greenish light that covered its frame. The coating rippled on impact with them, halting their advance for a brief moment. Then fire, ice, and lightning bounced right back towards their casters.

They braced themselves for impact, only for a prismatic shell to form around them at Aerith's beckoning. The Wall spell buffered them all against their reflected spells, before shattering into light that swaddled them as a second skin. Aerith let loose an exhausted sigh as shielding them a second time had put a strain on her mind and body, more so since she wasn't used to doing so without a materia.

"It put up a barrier that reflects magic the moment we fired," Crimson explained as Sense did its work. "I should be able to break it with the Destruct Materia."

That was as far as she got before spheres of water abruptly appeared around them and ruptured into a rushing torrent, carrying enough force that it knocked them all aside even with the protective spell around them. Wet and heavy, the sensation of being soaked was pushed to the back of their minds when they saw the azure flames that it launched afterwards. They broke to the left and right as the Blue Flame set the area they were in ablaze, forcibly split apart by a wall of fire.

The abomination then focused on Aerith, who was next to Nanaki after the split. It fired the Blue Light, one after another, as they ran. The shots were missing by what had to be pure luck, no doubt enhanced by the Luck Plus Materia aglow on her staff, but it would run out soon enough and she knew it.

"Everyone, buy me some time!" Aerith called out as a ferocious light radiated from her thin frame and she came to a stop. She hoisted the staff into the air as the light swelled from her body into the tip of her staff. "Fury Brand!"

That light then speared out towards the four others courtesy of her Limit Break. Strength flared within them, allowing them to fight back. Thus they began their counterattack.

Slotting the Destruct Materia into her Rekka, the weapon warped under the influence of the blood-red energy. It became as demonic as it did during the last time she faced one of Jenova's spawn. Though she disliked this Limit Break because of how it came about, Crimson couldn't deny the utility of it as she flung it at the creature.

As if sensing the threat it posed, the abomination that had been aiming at Aerith before twisted around to avoid being bisected. The empowered shuriken only managed to saw through the long and curving appendage that hung down its side, minimal damage at best. However, the Destruct Materia caused the Reflect spell to disperse, leaving it vulnerable to magic again.

A bestial snarl followed as Nanaki lunged for it, veiled within a spiraling shroud of crimson energy that shot him forward like a missile. His Blood Fang bore through part of its torso, dragging along with it visceral fluid and tissue that became nourishment and strength. He landed in a crouch and then darted away as it fired a stream of Blue Flame in retaliation.

Tifa put a stop to that by lobbing a ball of hoarfrost and rime over its face. The Ice 2 spell froze its head solid, blocking off the orifice to smother the flames. Nanaki, in turn, released a barrage of missile constructs that hammered at it and blew chunks out of its flesh.

Cloud, who'd circled around to the rear, then jumped towards the abomination. He delivered three vicious slashes that lopped off parts of Jenova's spawn into the muddy water. But before he could carve even more off, the abomination violently spun around to toss him into the air. He righted himself as he landed and brought the Buster Sword around to block the Blue Light it fired in a desperate attempt to buy time as it began absorbing the water at its base.

Even without Sense, Crimson could spot the fact that it was slowly regenerating the damaged tissue. "It's absorbing the water to heal itself!"

"Then we just need to get it out!" Tifa shouted back as she jumped towards Cloud. He caught her with the flat of the blade, leaving her to chamber her legs before he flung her. She rocketed towards the spawn and wrapped her arms around its elongated neck.

Then she kicked off its body and pulled as she threw herself back, using her Limit Break-enhanced strength to toss it over her head and through the air with a battle-cry before she let it go. The spawn of Jenova crash-landed over the rim of the artificial lake it made upon its creation, at the edge of the trees. "Now pin it down!"

"You're up, Odin!" Cloud called before it could rise up again. The Fell Knight appeared with its crimson lance in hand. It jumped into the air and then brought the tip down as it fell, staking the creature into the earth and then remaining atop it. That way it couldn't rise again or reach the water.

"I'm ready! Everyone gather around me!" She yelled as she raised the staff to the sky and the Summoning Materia flared. "Come forth, King of Dragons! Bahamut!"

She buckled under the mental weight as light speared towards the sky and parted the clouds. A spiraling black figure descended from the opening to the heavens for a scant few moments, before spreading its mighty pinions and hovering in the air with lazy flaps that riled the wind beneath them. A mass of muscle bundled beneath jet-black scales and haunting yellow eyes, the dragon king rippling with power craned its narrowed head towards its summoner.

"Hold nothing back," Aerith said, wearily but firmly as she pointed at the abomination still pinned under the Fell Knight's lance.

It let loose a snarl in acknowledgement, seeing no need for words, and flapped its wings harder to get some distance. It was intent on obliterating everything. Pale light began to swell in front of its gaping maw and the glow as power coalesced began to eclipse the light of the sun.

Before it could cut loose, Aerith slammed the Princess Guard onto the ground. In less than a second the group vanished from the area as the spell teleported them to the shoreline. From there they watched as the gathered power was unleashed, spearing down towards where the Temple of the Ancients once stood, and blossomed into an expanding dome that eradicated everything within the radius of the blast.

Blinded by the light, deafened by the rumble, Crimson braced herself as the displaced winds threatened to blow her away as easily as it rankled the waves behind them. She could only remain oblivious to everything else until the light faded and the wind settled. Opening her eyes, Crimson was left in both awe and fear at the devastation that had been wrought—she'd seen bombing runs that had done less damage.

"I couldn't risk letting… even a part of Jenova's spawn… get away," Aerith said in a weak voice, as though reading her mind. She was on her knees next to Crimson, supported by the staff that she clung to desperately in exhaustion. Blood was trickling down from her nose and her eyes were half-lidded. "I just… couldn't."

Pushing aside her shock at the destruction, Crimson kneeled down and lowered Aerith to the ground gently before she could collapse entirely once her grasp on the staff gave out. Sense was active and from it she could make out that Aerith had both elevated blood pressure and a frantic heart rate. "Aerith, you need to take deep breaths and focus on calming down. You've pushed yourself too far."

Aerith went on to the point of babbling. "It's not Sephiroth running around… it's Jenova. He's influencing it somehow and… and if we don't get rid of it, it'll keep coming… adapting like how its spawn managed to counter both magic and fire—"

"Okay, we'll listen later." Crimson pressed her hand to Aerith's forehead and found it was burning hot. "First we need to lower your heart rate before you have a heart attack or stroke. I'm going to put you to sleep to help."

"But I…" She trailed off as Sleepel was cast upon her. The strength to speak left her body as her consciousness sank beneath the spell. Aerith fell asleep quickly and soundly.

Crimson sighed in relief as her heart rate began to calm down. It wasn't perfect, but it was the only measure she could think of to tide her over. She pulled out her PHS and started dialing for the others to bring the plane back around, hoping that they did as she said and remained far enough out to sea so none of that caught them up in it.

Cloud walked up and crouched down next to her. "Is she going to be okay?"

"She should be, but we still need to get a doctor to look at her." If they made it back to the Gold Saucer then they could say the rescue mission was a success, even if not perfect.

They'd lost the Protomateria and there was no telling if or when Vincent would wake up. Or if that thing he changed into would be controllable without it. But they stopped Heidegger from getting the Black Materia and at least pushed back Sephiroth or Jenova, whichever it was. That had to count for something.

Now she could only hope that Kunsel did his part and rescued her mother. Whatever grievances that Crimson had with Tseng, she knew that his death had hit Aerith hard and that likely added to why she pushed herself to this point. She needed to have her mother back, otherwise there was no telling how she would cope long-term with it.