Another chapter is here!
Bone white claws scrapped against the stone surface as bestial monsters that strode on all fours prowled the passageway of stone. Their prehensile and claw-tipped tails wavered as they searched for any signs of life. What monsters had been there before had been consumed, flesh and fur torn asunder as their numbers grew.
Of the four Shadow Creepers that moved separately, one came to a stop on the top of a petrified tree trunk that had been hollowed. It shifted its skull-clad head at the sound of the air simmering and churning, only to have it violently torn from its shoulders. The burning fire-wheel that was the Conformer, enhanced by a Fire Materia and Long-Ranged Materia, separated and cauterized the wound as it began to boomerang around.
Not that the loss of its head was any obstruction. Even separated from its body, both remained active and acted independently. The head began shrieking to alert the others of its kind, while its body leapt down from the petrified wood and began to sprint towards the former Turk as she held her arm up and caught the thrown weapon.
The woman met its charge with a blinding bolt of lightning from her other outstretched arm. Electricity arced across the gap and slammed into it with a deafening crack. The searing heat of the Bolt 3 spell consumed it within a moment of direct contact, immolating it entirely.
One had fallen, but the three others continued their gait towards the woman. She pulled back behind cover and an imposingly large man took her place. His outstretched prosthetic arm shifted and morphed until it was a Gatling Gun with a smooth, metallic polish. The four nodes near the attachment point each had a materia attached to them, of which the Ice Materia shone.
He roared before he fired, the spinning barrel sending streaking bullets through the air. Whether they hit the earth or shadow-toned flesh, the bullets tore pieces free and shored up the gap with invasive ice that stabbed into them with every move. Muscles were ripped apart under their own force as another fell in its charge, only to be overwhelmed under the focused fire.
Two remained, bounding onto the vertical cliffsides thanks to their claws. They dug into the stone and continued their gait until they were in lunging distance. Then they pounced towards the Gunman for a kill, only to be met with crushing force.
The air itself trembled as a well of intensified gravity left them earthbound and with their heads against the ground. The Leonine warrior took the Gunman's place, fire pooling between his maw and licking the edges before he opened wide. A massive, throbbing sphere of flames eclipsed them and they ceased to be.
Crimson emerged from behind cover with the others as the flames consumed the last of the Shadow Creepers that had tried to close the distance. All that was left was the head of the one that had been shrieking. She remedied that with a Bolt spell, shattering it on impact and watching it dissipate.
It was roughly three days since they were in Reeve's headquarters. The party had rejoined upon reaching the Icicle Inn, only to find that the weather had gone from mildly discomforting to outright terrible. The barrier that had gone up over the North Crater was likely responsible, due to the whirling torrent of Lifestream that spun out of it.
Since flight was impossible they had to travel over land. Now, outside of their destination, they ran into these monsters they'd never seen before. That merited caution so that they could at least figure out what they were dealing with this time.
"These things could be a problem." Crimson exhaled a puff of frost from her mouth and adjusted the fur-lined collar of her winter coat. The north was cold, so they had to dress up appropriately for the battlefield. "It looks like even dismembering or decapitating them isn't enough to get rid of them. They have to be destroyed entirely by a strong enough attack."
"They are quite agile as well," a monotoned voice added. "Allowing them to get close was an ill-advised risk."
Her hair shifted as she turned to the source. Shelke stood next to giant, animatronic Moogle that Reeve's Cait Sith doll was sitting on top of. Even if she was fragile as far as SOLDIER went, she was still a combatant that could at least keep up provided the upgraded systems in her suit held. And the animatronic Reeve was controlling at least held the case containing the Huge Materias, which freed the rest of them up to fight.
"And they are not the only ones of these new breed." Nanaki raised his head and sniffed the air. "I smell many ahead."
Crimson frowned when she considered whether or not it was done in anticipation for their arrival. Sephiroth didn't have many options left, so it wasn't surprising he'd have a force ready to deal with them if they came this way. After all, who else but them would go here?
Her eyes shifted over to Aerith, who was sitting on top of a Chocobo with Mog. Nestled in her arms was the so-called Goddess Materia that Genesis had brought with him when they regrouped in the mountain resort. There was a vibrant glow nestled within it that resembled the Lifestream at its purest—like she'd seen in her nightmare at the Gold Saucer.
"We need better surveillance if we are to assess how perilous the situation is," Shelke said.
"We should reach a ridge that will allow us to overlook the entirety of the Forgotten Capital ahead," Aerith said. "I can sense Jenova Spawn beyond it, but the path should be clear for now."
"If it's clear then let's move," Crimson said. "Everyone keep your eyes open and stay in formation."
Their boots stamped out the lingering flames as they stepped across the scorched stone and continued on, using the hollowed-out tree long as a bridge to get across the gap in the chasm. The formation had Barret and Nanaki at the front to minimize the risk of friendly fire from the former and utilize the senses of the latter. Aerith was in the center, flanked by both Yuffie and Crimson to the left, while Cid and Shelke were to the right. Cait Sith would remain in the rear for support.
As they kept their eyes open for any signs of danger, Crimson couldn't help but notice the coral-like structures and the shape of the stones reminded her of the landscape beneath the sea while they were in the undersea tunnel. It felt like it was out of place. As if it was raised from the seabed to serve as the home of the Cetra.
That feeling was further reinforced when they finished their hike to the peak of the rocky formation and laid eyes on the Forgotten Capital. The stretch of land was laden with buildings that were hollowed-out conch shells, spiraling into the sky with a stem of coral serving as their support. Curved pathways twisted around jutting stone and the buildings, obviously developed around nature rather than tearing through the stone and enforcing uniformity.
"There!" Yuffie pointed to the structure in the center, a little further past the point where the different roads converged. It was made of shelves of reefs in bloom and twisted ivory spines that jutted up from the ground like bare trees. "I'm guessing that's where we have to go."
"The issue is gettin' there," Cid pointed out. For as beautiful and scenic the abandoned ruins were, they were overrun with not only the monsters from before, but also several others that prowled below and dotted the air above. Even copies of the Jenova Spawns they'd dealt with in Deepground could be spotted.
To that, Aerith pointed further down to the right with her staff. "It's too risky to fly, but that tunnel will lead into the city. From there we need to head to the Lake Altar in the center."
Crimson exhaled a deep breath in thought before she turned to the doll. "Can you see how Cloud and the others are doing? If they've gotten further ahead of us, then we may have to take a bigger risk in prioritizing speed over stealth. But if not, then we'll approach with caution."
Cait Sith nodded. Then the doll went limp and the animatronic went still.
Whereas Aerith's group had a shorter jaunt to the Forgotten Capital, Cloud's had to cross the Great Glacier and then scale the cliffs before they could reach where Sephiroth was waiting. Time was not on their side and they were opposed by nature itself in a land that took poorly to all those who trespassed upon it.
The frigid cold gnawed them down to their bones even through the winter wear they'd donned. The howling winds wailed with a fervor that drowned out even the pounding of hearts. And the fiercest of creatures that could survive in this land would tear apart any easy prey they set their sights on.
Needless to say, they had their work cut out for them and were pretty tired by the time they'd begun scaling Gaea's Cliff. The only reason they weren't freezing to death as they braved sheer cliff face was because of the Fire Materia they'd all taken from Yuffie's stash to use as a heat source. But it still didn't do anything for the exertion that had begun to eat away at Tifa's muscles as she struggled to pull herself up.
"Come on!" Cloud shouted as he reached down and extended his gloved hand for her to take from the mouth of the first cave they'd come across. After she grasped tight, he pulled her up and out of the blizzard. "You doing okay?"
"Y-Yeah." Tifa noticed the slight echo surrounding her as she pulled her fur-trimmed hood down, and then freed her dominant hand of its glove before she triggered her Fire Materia. The conjured flame danced in her palm as she eyed the cavern they'd taken refuge within from the howling winds.
Ice had completely encased the stone walls, refracting the little light that reached it like a mirror world. Then she felt some movement along her waist. She looked down to see that the Cait Sith doll hanging from the belt that kept the coat wrapped tight at her waist was moving now.
"How's it going over here?" it asked while brushing the snow and frost that had accumulated off its fur.
"We've made it to the First Ascent of Gaea's Cliff," Cloud said. "How far have the others gotten?"
"They're at the Forgotten Capital. It's overrun by different monsters that we haven't run across before, and Jenova Spawn are wandering about. Right now, they're deciding on how we should progress depending on how long it'll take for you to reach the Crater's edge."
"That discussion will have to wait a moment." Genesis' words were punctuated by his Rapier suddenly blazing to life as he held it out in front of him. "I believe that the residents of the cave system aren't exactly willing to let us talk so freely."
His words make the atmosphere freeze despite the two different sources of heat softly burning the air. Tifa strained her ears and made out a near-inaudible tapping sound that steadily grew closer. Multiple ones drawn to the flames that illuminated the darkness for the first time in what must've been years.
She snuffed her flame in order arm herself with the Powersoul gauntlets. Cloud unslung his Buster Sword from the magnetic holster on his back. They both barely managed to get armed before an orange blur darted for them with a shriek and they were forced to dodge.
What passed over their heads reminded Tifa of the Materia Keeper they'd fought around Mt. Nibel. It twisted its body in the air before it could fall out of the entrance and lashed out with its six-legs, impaling the ice and stone with the points to brace itself. Its head looked towards them and its maw opened to reveal clear fluid running from between its fangs. It was hungry, and thus much less inclined to let them flee.
Tifa triggered the unlocked Barrier Materia that she'd gotten from Yuffie, slamming her hands together and then holding them out to raise a Wall. It was in time to shield them against the breath attack that followed. The chromatic bubbles that hammered against it melted patches of ice around them, frost formed on the solidified magic between them, and the scent of ozone joined a prickling sensation that caused strands of her hair to rise.
"Everyone jump!" Genesis' warning came out as the attack ceased and the Wall dropped.
Tifa jumped as a flare of heat raced along the floor from behind. The wave of fire rolled over the stone's surface towards the Stilva, forcing the monster to pull up the legs that were anchored into the ground or be incinerated. The sound of hot water splashing followed as the rest landed on the heated stone floor while it began to crawl along the ceiling to find another avenue of attack.
A near-silent grunt left Vincent's mouth that caught her ears. She turned to see that his eyes now shone in the dark like burning stars that eclipsed the gleam of the lingering flames, and darkness seeped from his body like stygian steam. The power of Chaos internalized.
Using that power, he kicked off the ground into a somersault that allowed him to get to the ceiling. There he delivered a kick with the pointed tip of his footwear into the monster. The blow tore into its carapace, violet visceral fluids cascading from the air as it was launched into the wall and then collapsed into a heap at the base.
Cloud followed up for the kill. The Buster Sword was powered by a Gravity Materia and a spin to deliver the maximum amount of force possible with a diagonal slash. Backed by his muscles, the insectoid creature with claws that could shred steel was splattered across the melted ice and stone.
One monster was down, but the fight in itself drew in more. A wave of flames from Genesis' sword scorched the bat-like monsters, only for him to use the blade as a shield to block a strike from another Stilva that was trying to use its claws to tear into him. He put forth effort in intensifying the flames, the runes blazing as more magic was driven into them, and the hungry fire spread to consume it entirely. Vincent then came down upon it from above with a stomp that crushed its head to finish it off.
Tifa then spotted something smaller moving about on the fringes of the wavering shadows. Some kind of creature with exposed fangs, from which an acidic green fluid dripped onto the ground. Her Fire Materia filled her hand with a fireball that she flung towards the monster before it could attempt anything, incinerating it as Cloud slew what looked like penguin covered with spikes.
The group then stood at the ready. They were looking for anything else trying to sneak up on them. When nothing else was forthcoming, they allowed some of the tension to leave their bodies.
"We're lucky that those orange things aren't at the same level of strength as the one outside of Mt. Nibel," Cloud said, lowering the Buster Sword. "Still, if we have to fight along the way that might cause more delays."
"Malboro and Dragons are also known to reside on these cliffs," Genesis added as the flames on his sword flickered out and the runes became inert once more. He then looked to Cait Sith. "However, I suspect that we'll be able to make it to the summit within four hours. Inform them of that."
"Four hours will be pushing it," Vincent said once the doll went inactive again. "For ordinary people, it could take days to get to the top. Even if we have a means of keeping warm and can handle the altitude extremes with relative ease, we'll be lucky to make it in such a narrow timeframe if we have to fight."
Genesis acknowledged the fact with an incline of his head. "True. But Sephiroth will not wait for us to take our time and there will be challenges far worse than these monsters ahead of us. We can only steel ourselves and keep our wits about us as we press on quickly."
That said, he began to move. The rest did so as well. Since there was a timetable, they'd have to resort to navigating the cavern hastily.
But while they moved quickly, Tifa couldn't brush off a thought that was occupying her mind. "Cloud?"
He looked over to her at the prompt. "Yeah?"
"You know that we haven't run into any of the Sephiroth Clones since the Temple of the Ancients, right?" she asked. "Since this is the site where the Reunion was being held, wouldn't he have them all here?"
From how his expression shifted, he caught on quickly. "You think he'll try to use them against us."
"I hate to say it, but they're probably no longer even human-shaped," Genesis said from ahead. A SOLDIER's sense of hearing was sharp after all. "Jenova Spawn require a large amount of cells to come into existence. Hojo injected himself with them in a manner similar that he did to the people of Nibelheim, only restrained enough to keep something of his mind intact. But considering what we've just learned, for there to be so many of them in the Forgotten Capital and probably within the Crater means he's turned them into a means to propagate them."
The words were a weight that clamped around her heart like a vice as it carried a cruel message. If they ran into them, they would have to be eliminated. It wasn't a matter of simply subduing them, but eliminating what they'd became. No matter what happened it was likely they would not be saved.
She bit down on her lip, but her footsteps never faltered. It would have been too much of a miracle to save them after everything else. That was a fact that she had to accept from the moment that she heard about the operation and they'd agreed to it.
"It'll be a mercy at this point," Genesis said. "It brings none of us of joy to do so, but it must be done."
"I know that." It was part of why she'd come to settle things with Sephiroth. She wasn't superhuman like the three others, but this was something she had to do as the one who lived when the others hadn't.
There were no more words left to say after that as they proceeded to the Second Ascent.