Another chapter is here!
Frost rolled out of from between Cloud's lips as he breathed out hard and heavy from behind the shelter of his blade, firmly planted in the solid stone and snow that was the mountainside ledge of the Gaea Cliff with one hand. The other was held around Tifa to prevent her from being blown off the side by the Great Gale that drowned out the all other sounds. The two survivors of Nibelheim were currently facing a Blue Dragon that stood in front of them, intruding on their frantic race to reach the top of the cliffs from the Third Ascent.
"TOSS ME!" Tifa shouted over the howling winds, her coat sporting tears and frayed strips from the close calls until now in their haste to reach the top within four hours. Then something slammed into the dragon's head, rocking it as blood burst from one of its eyes. An echoing, monstrous shriek rang out as the Great Gale ceased. Cloud obliged her request then, using the opening to flung her into the air above the dragon.
Once she reached the peak of her flight, she came down with the light of the Limit Break radiating incandescently off her body, while fire rode on her chambered fist. Converting the Limit Break into pure destructive power, her fist came down like a meteor that smashed the dragon's scales and forced its humongous body to the ground that rumbled beneath it. Then fire bloomed in the form of a towering pillar and seared its wings to charred stalks that warped under the flames.
Cloud followed up, throwing himself forward as the Blue Dragon's tail came around and lashed Tifa off its back before it stood back up once more. Its head shot straight for him, maw wide to reveal frost-coated fangs the length of swords. Triggering the Gravity Materia on the blade, Cloud swung it around and used the intensified weight to shatter the fangs that tried to snap shut.
He then used the additional momentum of the full swing as he span around to throw the large sword forward, while the dragon had reeled back onto its hind legs with frost rolling out of its maw in preparation for a freezing breath. Between all the strength his mako-tempered, corded muscles could afford, along with the additional weight, the blade sank through its underbelly and carried the body with it until the dragon was pinned to the broadside of the cliffside.
The dragon's wail reverberated, its pain given tangible form in how it assaulted their ears. However, it wasn't done. Having missed the heart, the Blue Dragon still had enough strength for a final attack and exhaled what would a killing wave of frost.
But flames shrouded it with a roar before the attack could finish and Cloud turned his head to see Tifa was responsible. She was panting, one arm extended towards the aflame dragon while her Fire Materia shone radiantly. And completely unaware of the threat creeping up on her unprotected back.
It was a Cuahl stalking the snow, drawn in by the battle. Cloud shouted to get the warning out, but the feline monster was already pouncing as she turned. That was when gunfire rang out, a spurt of blood spraying her coat from the metal slug that punched it square between the eyes and leaving it dead.
Both turned to Vincent, currently in the process of fending off over a dozen creatures that looked to be leeches crawling on talon-tipped legs that dug into the sheer face of the ascent. Vincent had his gauntleted hand piercing the rock to hold him in place as he shot them down, but numbers were a factor. Looking at how the rows of jagged teeth drew closer, corrosive poison dripping down and scarring the stone in anticipation of a feast, the two exchanged a look and gesture.
Cloud then rushed over to the Buster Sword before the flames finished immolating the dragon's corpse and pulled it out so that he could jump through the air and shove it into the rockface, getting halfway up to the next ledge. He then fell back down, where Tifa was waiting for a boost. Once she'd planted her feet into his cupped hands, he put his muscles into sending her further up so that she could use the embedded blade as a foothold.
Fire from her palms then scoured the rockface, tongues of searing heat crawling over the vertical surface to immolate the Zolokalters wholesale as a strange screech came from the ledge above them. What looked to be thick tendrils fell down over the edge in pieces a second afterwards, a large, dark-green mass of charred meat joining them in descending to the abyss below the white veil. Genesis then looked down at them from over the edge and gestured for them to come up.
The wordless message carried. Vincent holstered his gun and ascended with Tifa following, grabbing the rugged outcroppings and then pulling herself up as quickly as she could manage while the blizzard raged on around them. Cloud was the last to follow, having to pull the Buster Sword free in the process of his climb.
When he reached the mouth of the cavern, he was greeted with an eerily soft warmth that suffused the area. It was comforting, giving a sense of serenity and peace despite the hostile environment. In fact, it reminded him of one of Aerith's healing spells.
"Minerva foresaw the difficulties that await us and blessed this spring with her touch before she put herself into the Goddess Materia," Genesis explained as Cloud looked around and saw Tifa kneeling before the luminescent waters. "Merely touching it will heal your wounds and reinvigorate you before we continue our climb."
"Are we close to the top now?" Cloud asked, stepping forward with the intention of mirroring her. He could use the refresher given how many times they'd fought on their way to the top of the cliffs. If he never saw another exploding penguin, let alone one of those creatures that attacked them from the moment they'd entered, he'd be happy. "How much time do we have left?"
"Three hours and thirty-seven minutes have passed since we spoke to Cait Sith," Vincent said as he rapped at his coat with his fist, knocking the snow that clung to it loose and leaving the flakes to fall on the iced ground. "We've little time to spare on the final stretch of the climb."
He wasn't wrong. If the others were fighting to progress to the location where Minerva and Holy could be summoned, then they were likely being pressed as well. The longer Cloud's group took, the more risk they faced despite their numbers and the Summonings they had on hand.
"The final ascension is just beyond the passage ahead of us," Genesis assured them. "The end is in sight. All we need to do is head towards it and wait for Her searing light to come down and clear the path for us. Then comes the true challenge."
Tifa's lips pursed thin at that, eyes looking past the water's surface. "…I'm still not happy about this. Everyone else from our home is gone now."
"I know," Cloud said as he dipped his hands down into the water, next to hers. Despite the aches and pains in his body being soothed with a gentle warmth that spread throughout, the relief and comfort it provided did nothing to dull her words. The people of their hometown either died when Sephiroth attacked, from Hojo's experiments, or were they twisted into his thralls.
"They were just living their lives until one day all of this happened," she continued. "And now, the next time we see any of them, we'll have to put whatever they've become out of their misery."
"Yeah…" His throat grew tight at the admission. He hadn't been close to many of them, but they were his neighbors and people he'd grown up around. Yet, the world continued to spin after that tragedy. And now they were the only ones who even remember their names and faces. Or that they even existed.
Tifa looked over from the water towards him. "I looked for you when I arrived in Midgar. Even though I hated Shinra and you were a part of them as far as I knew, I wanted to at least see if you made it. To see if someone else from my past had at least managed to make it out. To see if you knew about what happened. But I couldn't find you no matter how hard I tried."
"…I should have told you that day I came back to visit," he said. "But I was ashamed of myself. I'd talked about becoming strong, yet I wasn't fit for being more than an Infantryman. Rank and file who they could brush away with the stroke of a pen and tap of a key. And the person I'd admired the most was responsible for everything."
"And now here we are to see it all through to the end," she finished.
"Yeah." To put an end to Sephiroth. To get revenge for the dead. To protect the future. Everything that he'd done to this point since he'd regained his memories was leading up to this. "If worst comes to worst, look after Crimson and Aerith for me, will you?"
"You don't think that you'll make it out alive, do you?" Even if he fought and prevailed over Sephiroth, the fact that his life was in the hands of an indiscriminate force was a sobering factor.
"I'll try my hardest to survive," he answered. "But, if I don't make it, they'll probably take it the hardest. That's why, no matter what happens to the rest of us here, you need to make sure that you live through this."
Crimson never really forgave herself for allowing Zack to go off to that last battle and being unable to reach them in time. Aerith carried on her shoulders the weight of not only her ancestors, but the ones she cared about dying to help her. One made the call to go forth with the vote for the operation, and the other was central to carrying it out. They would suffer the most for it.
"I don't you need to tell me that." Tifa sighed softly, looking down at the water again with melancholic eyes for a brief moment. "I'll make sure they get back on their feet if it comes to that."
"Thank—" His words died the moment he looked up to see the figure overlooking her. Draped in black with the impossibly long blade was Sephiroth, sporting a slight smile as he got ready to part her head from her shoulders. "Sephiroth!"
Time seemed to slow as the slash was unleashed and Cloud's body moved. He drew the Buster Sword and swung it above her head to intercept the blade as fast and hard as he could. His blade cut through empty space as the wind pressure of the swing scattered the water and forced Tifa to duck down and shield her eyes.
Sephiroth was nowhere to be found as the others took a stance with their weapons and looked around as well. Cloud swallowed the lump in his throat as the others then looked to him. "I saw him just now. He was standing behind us, getting ready to attack."
"…A telepathic illusion, most likely," Genesis reasoned with clear disdain in his voice.
"You mean like in the Temple of Ancients?" Tifa asked as she got back onto her feet.
"It was… solid," Cloud answered hesitantly as he recalled that time. "It didn't have the ghostly appearance that one did."
"But that was when you were further away from him, on the other side of the world," Genesis said. "He may not be able to influence your mind since you've steeled your sense of self and walled off his influence, but this close Jenova's telepathic powers have a stronger effect."
"And if it was directed, he's aware of exactly where we are," Vincent added. "We should proceed carefully."
"We can't waste anymore time then." Cloud's grip on his sword tightened as his head turned up towards the entrance opposite the one they'd entered, where he could feel Sephiroth's presence further ahead. It was intentional. Broadcasted to draw him out. Taunting him.
He sprinted towards it with the echoing of his footsteps against the frozen chamber ringing out until Sephiroth came into view again. It had a presence behind it, likely a clone that had been shapeshifted into his appearance. Someone else they couldn't save.
Cloud swung the Buster Sword in a strike that would cleave it in two. The sound of steel clashing rang out at a deafening pitch, bouncing off the ice-coated walls as the long blade intercepted the slash with contemptuous ease. Then Cloud triggered the Thunder Materia lodged into the slot of the Buster Sword to break the deadlock and electricity instantly, viciously sparked to split their blades apart.
Getting his feet under him in time to deflect the retaliatory slash with a sweep of his sword, Cloud then he twisted his body to bring the sword around once more. The severing strike tore through Sephiroth's body at the chest, leaving the two halves to fly separate.
Alien ichor then painted the canvas of ice surrounding them as, with a wet sound, the bottom-half then erupted into a mass of tendrils of differing hues. Twisting and writhing while covered in the visceral fluids, they swelled in size and lashed out, wrapping themselves around Cloud's throat and arms and wrists and legs with enough force that a lesser person would have had their bones snapped. Holding him in place, a crimson eye formed in the center and began to radiate a fierce glow—a point-blank laser meant to be a killing shot.
Before the light could spear out and sear a hole through his body, four Magic Blades shot out from behind him. They sliced through the appendages keeping him bound and cut into the abomination that the lower-section of the body had become in passing. They then embedded themselves into the top-half near the exit, which was mutating as well.
Freed, Cloud thrust the Buster Sword into the core and then triggered the Gravity Materia also wedged into the blade. A shroud of intensified gravity drew everything around it towards the blade as he then ripped it out along with the bulk of its mass, splattering it against the wall. He ignored the poignant scent of it all and charged forward again for the second one.
Tongues of lightning crawled along the blade as he disengaged the Gravity Materia and once more triggered the Lightning Materia. The heavy mass of steel then violated the writhing bundle of alien tissue with a forward thrust as he forced it out of the cavern with his charge until they were out of the mouth. Then he let loose a Bolt 3 spell, incinerating it from the inside out instantly in a blinding flash and crack of thunder so loud it overtook the howling winds.
"So quick to kill your former neighbor?" a calm, dispassionate voice asked from behind him. Cloud spun around with his sword at the ready to see Sephiroth standing there once more. No real presence though. An illusion. "Then again, you were never fond of the others in your little town, were you?"
"SEPHIROTH!" Tifa shouted, her clenched fist swinging for his unprotected head. The fist and her body went straight through the intangible figure that dissipated, leaving her to spin on her heels and come to a stop in front of Cloud. "STOP HIDING AND COME OUT!"
"I'm not hiding," his formless voice rang out as the corridor of ice they were in began to shake. Something was coming. "I'm merely waiting at the summit for those foolish enough to peer rashly at the future awaiting them. You need only to keep climbing."
The side of the wall exploded within the cavern. Fragments of ice and stone and frost gave way to a towering form that filled in most of the space, sealing off the way back to the spring. Another dragon, only one that dwarfed the previous one they'd slain before their ascent.
Its lower body was covered in scales that took on a greenish tint, craggy ridges lining it as the bulging legs cracked the ice underfoot. Dual heads oscillated as they faced the group, each attached to a long neck that met at the torso with a clear divide that they sprung up from. The one on the right was a pale serpent that held sharp, pointed teeth and bulbous yellow eyes that were fixed on them.
The one on the left was a chimera of some kind, the red head leading into a yellow beak with curving ram horns. It attacked with a screech, exhaling a cold breath of frost that came rushing for them. The ice encroached the space between them in a denser layer of crackling rime, intending to cover them up and freeze them in a flash.
"We don't have time for this!" Genesis brandished his Rapier as flames draped his blade and formed a wall of fire to offset the cold. "Head to the top. I'll take care of this and join you above."
They did so, Cloud ascending the remaining section of the cliffside with the others following him. All while an unsettling feeling resonated throughout the former's body. The source of that unsettling feeling became evident when they reached the top and found themselves looking down from the rim.
The center of the crater was calm. Even while shrouded in a whirling maelstrom of light that shot into the sky and churned the clouds and snow that had obscured their path. But the space that stretched from there to the rim… it was a nightmare made real.
The light of that spilled from the vortex to churn the storm glistened off pulsing, grey meat stretched over the intervening distance like an infection. It stretched from below their feet to the other side of the crater, one of the largest landmarks driven into the face of the Planet from the arrival of Jenova. Swollen sacs of meat bubbled up from the ground. Spores from a fungus that grew into stalks, the buds of which bloomed into Jenova Spawns of varying kinds.
It was a breeding ground that had begun spreading out to infect the world from pillars that circled around the nexus…
No, not pillars. Genesis had been right. The Sephiroth Clones here weren't even in human form anymore. Their bodies had burst, flesh swollen into massive hunks of meat until it burst free from their shells and stretched towards the sky. The outlines of their faces, the expressions they wore in their final moments before being turned into the source of the infection, were forever plastered at the broad base.
Sephiroth's voice rang out at that moment, as they basked in the horror of the sight before them. "I had intended to call forth the Planet's energy to me and have everyone in this world ascend as one with me when I took to the stars. But every step of the way, you've hindered me, puppets of an inferior Goddess. Even now, you attempt to use the last means of the Planet to oppose me. And so, I will repay your efforts by swallowing the world itself, drowning those within in regret and despair until they kneel down and beg me for mercy."
"What gives you the right to do any of this?" Tifa said out in defiance. "Do you think you're a god now?"
His illusion appeared in front of them once more at the question. "The one that you call Minerva was merely an Ancient who ascended and is now a forgotten Goddess. But was that act nothing more than a means of evolving to ever greater heights, to become the superior being of this world? If I take everything from this world into myself and become capable of crossing the bounds of the cosmos like Mother, would that not make me a God as well?"
"It makes you a parasite that's robbing the future of the Planet and everyone else," Cloud answered.
"Hmph. Is that not the perfect way to describe you, Cloud Strife?" Sephiroth asked in a tone that was almost pitying. "You, of all people, have no right to stand in defiance of my ambition when you've only made it this far because you've been leeching off the strength and lives of those stronger than you, instead of your own merit."
The words struck him as though they had a physical weight. The accusation playing off a deep-rooted fear he'd thought he'd come to terms with. No doubt taken from his mind back then, at the Temple of the Ancients.
"Everything you've gained was taken from someone else greater than you," he continued. "Mother's cells harvested from my body. Zack Fair's memories and training. Angeal Hewley's weapon and teachings. The Ancient's guidance and protection. Even now, the only reason you stand before me is because of Genesis Rhapsodos facing an enemy below for your sake."
"You're wrong," Cloud said firmly before he took a deep breath, letting the tension out of his body as he shot the accusations down. "Zack and Angeal bequeathed me with their beliefs in the hopes that I could see them through. Aerith and Genesis put their faith in us to secure the future of everyone else. None of it was taken for my own sake. It was for the hope of putting a stop to all of this."
That was why they were here. What everything had been leading up to. Every struggle and death to this point was for the sake of the future for those that lived on this world.
"…Let us test how well-placed their faith and hope were then," Sephiroth said, turning his back on them as the monsters below began to move. "Struggle and cling to life desperately in the hope that the Ancient will survive what awaits her. Then, when your hope has withered away as you perish, know the true meaning of despair in that the future your stolen power exists for will never come to pass. That will be my personal gift to you, Cloud."
That said, the illusion vanished into nothingness and the onslaught began.