Disclaimer: The Final Fantasy VII Compilation belongs rightfully to Square-Enix. This amateur effort at fan-based fiction is in no way making profit off of the licensed characters described therein, nor is it associating any new original characters to Square-Enix either.

Chapter Fifteen

"How does it feel?" Sephiroth found himself asking. When there wasn't a response, he turned back around to face his companions, his gaze falling on the blonde who had chosen to hide his face from his old neighbors as soon as they entered the town. Sephiroth found that peculiar, as he had previously figured the boy would've wanted to let his family and friends know that he had arrived. Now the SOLDIER was genuinely curious as to the blonde's feelings on the matter. Perhaps not everyone regarded their hometown with as much fondness as Sephiroth previously imagined…

The blonde titled his helmeted head slightly in inquiry, as if unsure that Sephiroth had been addressing him in the first place.

"It's your first time back in your hometown in a long time, correct?" Sephiroth clarified. "So, how does it feel? I wouldn't know because I don't have a hometown," he admitted.

Zack joined the group, stopping just before Sephiroth at Nibelheim's entrance. "What about family?" he asked.

Sephiorth hid his surprise, as it wasn't often that people asked him about any of his relatives. "My mother's name is Jenova," he explained. "She died right after she gave birth to me. My father…"

He trailed off, unsure of what to say. Sephiroth hadn't previously wondered much as to the identity of his father, nor had he been exposed to many father figures in his life, save for Professor Farenis Gast. He remembered his last conversation with the man before the scientist disappeared off of the face of the Planet.

'I'm not certain if my work would ever give me the necessary time to devote to it, but I'd love to have a child of my own someday… If it isn't to be, I'm at least very glad that I watched you grow, Sephiroth. Very glad indeed.'

Sephiroth detected a familiar hallow feeling in his chest, one he hadn't felt since Gast's disappearance when he had been but a teenager. In order to banish the emotion he began to laugh, gesturing with a hand in dismissal of the conversation he had started. "Why am I talking about this?" he asked himself, as if it were a topic of little to no importance. "All right, let's go."

He didn't wait to see if the others would follow. Sephiroth entered the town, the entrance courtyard as silent as before, with the exception of the quiet swishing of water in the old well tower. Sephiroth looked around him at the country-style homes, spotting a face or two peeking in curiosity through the various windows. No one seemed intent on investigating Shin-Ra's presence in their town any further than that.

Is the outbreak really that bad? he wondered. Or was it because of Genesis? Sephiorth remembered Tseng's status reports on Banora, of how Zack and the Turk had found a ghost town by the time they arrived to investigate. Either way, he was grateful for the caution by the townsfolk. It would indeed be best to avoid as many civilian casualties as possible, and if they were voluntarily staying out of his way then his task in Nibelheim would follow through a lot more smoothly.

He stared up at Mount Nibel, contemplating its height. With noon nearing, they would barely make it to the peak before nightfall. No, he decided, it was best if he arranged for the hike to take place early next morning, perhaps even with a guide to bring some ease to their expedition. Their prolonged presence in the town might attract some unwanted attention, but Sephiroth was determined to insure that his men would not disturb the civilians.

He sensed Zack's approach. "The Mako smell is pretty bad here," he commented, his nostrils already full with the wet muskiness that came from harvesting the substance. The potency of the scent confirmed to him that the Mako reactor above must have indeed suffered damage after all if it was producing so much of it.

"Everyone must be staying in their houses," Zack said, "afraid to come out because of the monsters."

"Hmm…" came Sephiorth's distracted reply. He was still staring up at the mountain, as if waiting for their answers to appear from it.

"No," Zack decided. "Maybe they're afraid of us…"

Zack's words dragged Sephiroth out of his reverie. "We leave for the reactor at dawn," he informed them. Make sure you get to sleep early." Sephiroth started walking towards the local inn, a building conveniently located within the courtyard. He paused just before the entrance doors, feeling a pair of questioning eyes on him.

He turned to find the blonde, having momentarily forgotten he was there. "Oh, that's right," Sephiroth said to him. "You may visit your family and friends."

The nearly nauseating Mako smell from outside lessened a bit when he entered the building, replaced by the smoky and welcoming scent of a hearth. It burned somewhere in the back of the place, unseen. The innkeeper looked up from the counter in that genuinely shocked way that Sephiroth had long since grown accustomed to. He approached the aged man, saying, "I need lodging for my men tonight. We'll be investigating the reactor tomorrow."

The innkeeper seemed to think better than to continue gaping at him, instead clearing his throat and opening a ledger. "How many accommodations?"

"I need a room for myself, and one for four others," he explained. It probably would have been less costly for the company if Sephiroth simply ordered one room for all of them, but at this point he could care less about Shin-Ra's expenses. Arriving in Nibelheim also seemed to put him in a pensive mood, and he wanted nothing more than to be left alone with his thoughts for the day. He just hoped that the innkeeper had the space available for his request.

"My rooms aren't very large," the innkeeper explained, "but I think we can manage, sir. Now that winter is approaching we don't get very many travelers. With the exception of ol' Mr. Zangan back there, you'll pretty much have the entire inn to yourselves."

Sephiroth raised his silver eyebrows in genuine interest. "Zangan?"

"Yessir," said the old man, "he's back there in the parlor room if you wanna see 'im. Real exciting stuff going on today it seems. There's a famous fella like yerself, and then there's Zangan comin' here to train our own in the fine martial arts. I'm feeling a lot safer already."

Sephiroth signed the ledger and was given a pair of keys. He walked past the desk and through the door which led to a backroom. There he found the hearth he had smelled before, a fireplace in front of a pair of cushioned recliners. The room had a distinctly country feel about it, with its thick carpeting, lace curtains and wood paneling. The recliners however, had been pushed somewhat to the sides of the room, as well as the coffee table, to make way for the pair that were conversing in the very middle of the room. One of them was a man Sephiroth recognized, a middle-aged barrel-chested man with gray hair and a matching beard. The rust-colored cloak that was draped over his shoulder was the trademark that made him recognizable however, as one of the most distinguished martial artists in the world.

What was most intriguing about the scene however, was the individual with which Zangan was conversing. She couldn't have been any older than fifteen years of age, dressed in a typical country get up – a brown suede vest and riding boots. Though she was a petite and delicate-looking brunette, there was no mistaking the thin layer of sweat over her pale skin. With the furniture in the parlor pushed aside, Sephiroth could only guess that the girl had participated in some kind of impromptu sparring session.

Upon Sephiroth's entrance, the two turned to look at him. Zangan's eyes also betrayed recognition, as he said, "As I live and breathe, if it isn't the Great Sephiroth…"

The girl did a double-take between Zangan and Sephiroth. "Really? Wow!" In an almost self-conscious manner she hastily wiped the sweat from her brow and smoothed down the strands of brown hair that had gone astray.

Zangan approached and offered Sephiorth a familiar and hardy pat on the shoulder. "It's been too long, my friend! If only I had known you were coming to this neck of the woods. What a delightful turn of events!"

Sephiroth gestured dismissively with something akin to but not quite a shrug. "What can I say, it's a secret mission."

Zangan burst out with a laugh that was as hardy as his greeting. "Secret mission! Those are the best kind!" Then he gestured to the girl, beckoning her over. "Tifa, Tifa, come on over here, let me introduce you." The girl, Tifa, gathered her composure and joined the martial artist at his side, smiling pleasantly in a typically youthful way. "This is my newest student, Tifa Lockheart."

"How do you do?" she politely asked, and Sephiroth only nodded.

"She is my one-hundred and twenty-eighth student thus far," Zangan proudly explained, "and the first of her kind in the Nibel region. Quite talented this one, probably the best I've seen in years. "

Tifa blushed, turning her face away in embarrassment. "Thank you, sensei."

Sephiroth gave her an impassive glance, having anticipated that Zangan would spend a good portion of the conversation gushing about his student. "If Zangan's praise holds any weight whatsoever, you might try for acceptance into SOLDIER."

She looked up abruptly, the embarrassment immediately fading from her cheeks. "Oh no, I couldn't do that," she hastily replied. "Thank you, though, Mister Sephiroth."

Sephiroth turned back to Zangan. Tifa's reply was a common response from females. Though there were many physical benefits that came from the Mako exposure in SOLDIER recruits, they were not without significant setbacks. Very few women applied to SOLDIER, for it was well known that Mako treatments had a tendency to increase birth defects and health problems for women who might become pregnant after exposure. There weren't many who were willing to take such a risk with their bodies, and understandably so. As it was, Naomi Posada was the only female currently enlisted in SOLDIER, and she had faced no shortage of social scrutiny and judgment from her family members and peers for her choice to possibly sacrifice her reproductive capabilities.

Not that any of it mattered to Sephiroth. He had posed the suggestion to Tifa merely out of habit. These days he felt very little obligation to increase SOLDIER's ranks.

"I have to say, Sephiorth," started Zangan. "I really am surprised to see you out here. I mean, I figured that Shin-Ra would send some boys out here to deal with the monsters, but I didn't think the situation was this serious."

Sephiroth didn't react to the worry that appeared in Tifa's eyes, the same worry that probably motivated her neighbors to stay quarantined within their homes. "It's classified information, Zangan," he told him. "I can't say much else about the situation. I do, however, need a guide into the mountain, and since you've been here longer than I have, I thought you might have someone in mind that is capable and up to the task."

Zangan didn't seem to give it much thought, immediately answering, "Well, Tifa here is pretty knowledgeable about the mountain trails. Told me she used to explore 'em even as a kid. Isn't that right, Tifa?"

Tifa was agape for a moment. "Y-yes, I do know some of them, though I wouldn't want to be in your way."

Zangan laughed before Sephiroth had a chance to respond. "Nonsense! You're an excellent navigator, you showed me yourself! Not to mention, Sephiroth, she learned self-defense from the very best in the world, so in case there's any trouble, she could certainly hold her own in a fight. A lot less to worry about that way."

Sephiroth was reluctant to bring such a young civilian along, but they did need a guide, and there was too much time they would be wasting by exploring the trails on their own. Zangan made a good argument: having a self-sufficient guide would be less of liability to them.

"How well do you know them?" Sephiroth asked her.

"Be honest now," said Zangan.

Tifa closed her eyes momentarily and looked as if she was holding back some sort of burden within her. "I have them memorized," she admitted, releasing a breath.

"I won't force you to participate," Sephiroth said.

Tifa nodded. "No, this is important. The outbreak has gotten worse and friends have been hurt. You need to get to the reactor, and I'm the only one in this town who'll be able to get you up there."

"That'a girl!" Zangan triumphantly replied.

"Very well," Sephiroth said. "We'll meet tomorrow at dawn."

He didn't wait for them to respond. Sephiroth left the parlor room and proceeded up stairs to investigate the accommodations. He stopped in the middle of the corridor on the way to his room, the sight through the window to his right catching his attention. Just through some of the pine trees he saw the shape of a large building, one he had hadn't seen in the courtyard. It was entirely isolated, separated from Nibelheim by its own unkempt grounds. A mansion, from the looks of it, cast in the shadow of what could have only been years of abandonment. Vines of ivy had devoured most of its walls and most of the windows were boarded up. Weeds and shrubbery grew wild across the grounds, and even from the second floor of the inn Sephiroth could glimpse a piano through one of the only uncovered windows.

Something about the mansion called out in familiarity to him. Sephiroth had been to many places in the world in his lifetime, but he didn't recall ever having visited a place as remote as Nibelheim. Even so, he could almost imagine the smell of the grounds when fresh and regularly tended to, see the hustle and bustle of various personnel passing through each wing of the house… Impossible, he thought, for he had never been to this town in his entire life.

He sensed Zack approach him on the second floor landing but didn't look at him, his gaze still transfixed by the abandoned manor ahead.

"What are you looking at?" Zack eventually asked, the view having interested him for only a moment.

"This scenery," Sephiroth remarked, "I feel like I know this place." Another moment of silence passed between them, and when Sephiroth was sure Zack wasn't going to say anything, he turned to the SOLDIER and said, "We have an early start tomorrow. You should get some sleep soon."

Zack glanced at the window again. "It's still early," he said.

Sephiroth stared at him apathetically. "I'm not going to wake you up tomorrow." Part of him felt almost like a babysitter, obligated to tuck a child into bed. He turned away from Zack, hiding his annoyance and preferring to distract himself with the scenery again.

"Yeah," Zack eventually agreed, clearing his throat. "Let's get some sleep."

"I've hired a guide to the Mako reactor," Sephiroth informed him as Zack turned to head towards his room. "She's young. I hope we can rely on her."

"Cool," Zack replied, opening the door. "Goodnight, sir."

Sephiroth looked out the window again as Zack disappeared behind the door. Yes, it was still early. It would be a few hours until dusk. But Sephiroth preferred to lay low while in the town, attracting as little attention as possible in case Genesis was actually nearby. No one would think twice about the infantrymen he left outside, one of whom would probably be visiting old neighbors, but two First Class SOLDIERS couldn't possibly wander about such a small community without causing excitement or concern. He hoped for Genesis to never even expect that he'd come out this far into the country.

After another few minutes, he forced himself to look away from the abandoned manor at last. Sephiroth quickly went to look for his room, concerned with the strong feeling of déjà vu and familiarity that the abandoned building inspired within him.

"Ridiculous," he muttered to himself as he switched the lights on. There was no point in dwelling on the feeling, he decided, as it would only serve to distract him and make him lose focus on the more important matters at hand.

Sephiroth took to observing the modest space before him, a small but comfortable room with one bed and a writing desk. Someone had already come by and dispensed the supply bag he brought with him, probably the innkeeper, he guessed. In it he had packed a change of clothes, some of his materia, as well as technical schematics of the Mako reactor in the mountain. It was a much older model than what he was used to seeing, so Sephiroth anticipated some difficulty in repairing such dated equipment. Also, if they did happen to find the stolen cloning machinery, they would need to know how to deal with that as well.

He spent a few hours going over the technical records he brought along. Then, after a shower, Sephiroth climbed into the soft mattress of the bed. It took a while to adjust to, being that it was a little stiff from age. The pillows were stuffed with feathers, which he wasn't used to either. Many of the pillows back in the cities were very plump and filled with synthetic materials. This was comfortable in its own way but had a tendency to become flat after repeated use. It didn't feel as though the innkeepers had changed the bedding in a while. Still, Sephiroth had slept in more trying conditions before, and as a result of war-like conditions he found little reason to complain. Really, it was his mind that needed more adjusting to the environment than his body. For a long while he kept still but his thoughts remained active, thoughts of Genesis, of Angeal, of their parents who made the choices that would forever determine the fate of their sons. He wondered control and willpower, and if he also had any say in his own fate as well.

He wondered about his mother, about what kind of person she might have been. Did she mean for him to become a member of SOLDIER? Was she motivated for the same reasons Eva Rhapsodos and Gillian Hewley had been? Did she even have a choice in the matter?

Was it question worth learning the answer to?

When he did finally drift off to sleep, Sephiroth dreamed he was in a vast darkness, separated from his own body, as if his own consciousness had gone adrift in an endless void. He wandered until he found a stream, a river of light that flowed upwards into the void. He stopped to watch it and after a while he began to hear voices, indistinguishable and vaguely human. The closer he got to the stream the louder the noise became, as if he stood amidst a crowd in the street with traffic rushing by.

These aren't just voices, he decided. If he tried hard enough he could reach out and touch one in the stream…

Then the alarm clock went off, startling Sephiroth out of his sleep. He looked around, feeling as though he had only just gone to sleep a minute ago, but the clock proved that he had slept for almost nine hours. He silenced the alarm and got dressed before folding the schematic of the reactor into his coat pocket. Then he went through his supply bag, equipping himself with a small golden armlet on his left wrist which would carry the materia reserves he brought along, his normal reserves already placed within the hilt of Masamune.

Downstairs he found one of the infantrymen, sipping the freshly brewed coffee provided by the innkeeper. Sephiroth briefly wondered where the blonde one went, if he had chosen to stay with family for the night. The one sipping coffee appeared older than his comrade, with dark stubble giving him a slightly weary look. He gave Sephiroth a salute and then downed the rest of his drink before donning his helmet and following Sephiroth out of the inn.

The sun had not quite risen over Mount Nibel, and the town still appeared to be bathed in night. A layer of morning fog clung to the ground, circling around the old well. As Sephiroth passed it he spotted a pair in front of a door to a house, arguing amongst themselves. Upon further observation he realized that it was Tifa, their guide, in dispute with a middle aged man; no doubt the man she argued with was her father. Sephiroth approached them.

"I've told you how much I hate it when you go up there," her father pleaded. "Why would you make me worry, especially after that last time?"

"I was only a kid then," Tifa quietly replied, fiddling nervously with the cowboy hat in her hands. Her eyes were downcast, as if ashamed to meet her father's gaze.

"Tifa, please -,"

"She'll be all right," Sephiroth reassured, startling the both of them. "I don't anticipate that we'll face much of a combat situation, not if we fix the reactor promptly and efficiently."

"It's not the fighting I'm worried about," said Tifa's father. He had a prominent brown mustache that gave a mild layer of sophistication on top of his country fashion. His eyes were as dark as Tifa's and both parent and child shared the same sadness in them.

"What is it?" Sephiroth asked. Tifa turned away from him.

"The mountain…" Mr. Lockheart murmured. "We have a long history with that place. Tifa was hurt a long time ago while climbing its heights. This was just after my wife passed away."

"Papa…" Tifa hid her face, apparently embarrassed by the story.

"I see," Sephiroth answered. "Perhaps you know of someone else who can lead the way, then?"

This caused the other man to falter. "Ah… no. No, I'm sorry. Tifa…" He looked to his daughter with immense concern. "I just don't want her to be hurt again."

Somehow Sephiroth had the impression that Mr. Lockheart didn't mean physical hurt. "She won't be alone," Sephiroth assured him. "If we can repair the cause of the outbreak, your daughter will have been directly responsible for saving many lives in Nibelheim."

Suddenly, the teenage girl looked back at her father, her gaze becoming almost frighteningly determined. "I'm going," she decided, her tone leaving almost no room for debate. Her father appeared defeated as she put the cowboy hat back on her head and straightened it.

"The rest of the squad should be appearing shortly," Sephiroth said as she and Mr. Lockheart followed him. Tifa eventually began to lead the way once they were past the courtyard. After a few more blocks of houses they came across a wide and barren road, at the end of which stood a tall wrought iron gate. Tifa stopped before it to greet a young man holding a camera.

"You're up early," she said.

The cameraman beamed at her. "I nearly overslept. I heard Sephiroth was in town and I didn't want to miss this opportunity!"

Sephiroth ignored him, noticing the familiar building behind the gate. It was the mansion he saw through the window back at the inn. "This house," he began. "Who does it belong to?"

The cameraman looked behind him at the mansion and shrugged. "I think it used to belong to the Shinra family, but nobody's lived in it for years. Sometimes I come by to take pictures of it. They say it's haunted."

"It's all nonsense," Tifa's father added. "How else are we supposed to entertain the kids way out here?"

So it belonged to the President then, Sephiroth thought. Why would he need a home in such a remote place?

"Listen to me, Sephiroth," Mr. Lockheart commanded, unafraid to stare up at the SOLDIER. "If something happens to her…"

"Trust me," Sephiroth answered, staring coolly back at the man's challenging glare. The man's boldness was almost admirable, if a little foolish. How could putting himself in harm's way possibly benefit his daughter any more than allowing her traverse the mountains with them?

The blonde infantryman joined them just then, his helmet concealing his face just like his comrade's. They nodded to one another before the blonde formally saluted Sephiorth. Then there was Zack, appearing through the fog and rubbing his eyes tiredly. The sun was just beginning to peek through the mountain range as he joined the group.

"Mornin'," he greeted. Tifa smiled and waved at him, causing Zack to gape in surprise. "Tifa! You're the guide?" Sephiroth guessed that Zack met the girl sometime after they had first arrived.

"That's right," came Tifa's pleasant response. "I just happen to be the number one guide in this town."

"It's too dangerous!" Zack protested. "I can't let you get involved in something like this!"

Sephiroth held back the urge to roll his eyes, fairly certain that the girl was perfectly capable of making her own choices. He doubted a student of Zangan would appreciate being patronized by every man around her. Her father was one thing, but Zack was practically a stranger, and Sephiroth didn't want the mission to be delayed any further than it already was.

"Then there should be no problem if you protect her," Sephiroth chided, sounding mildly sarcastic. "Let's go."


Sephiroth turned to see the photographer timidly approach him.

"Mr. Sephiroth, will you please allow me to take a picture as a momento of your visit?" The young man glanced at Tifa imploringly. "Tifa, can you ask him for me too?"

Tifa smiled at him before also looking to Sephiroth. "One picture can't hurt the mission, right?"

"Sounds fun," Zack enthusiastically added, ever on the lookout for recognition. He immediately posed with his arms crossed over his chest while Tifa reached up to straighten her hat again. Sephiroth suppressed a sigh and simply stared blankly at the cameraman, waiting for him to shoot the picture. The three of them were lined up in front of the Shinra manor's gate as the flash went off, capturing an image of the only two First Class members in SOLDIER with their young and beautiful guide.

"Great!" Tifa's neighbor exclaimed. "Thank you so much! I'll give you each a copy once I get it developed."

Tifa approached her father and embraced him. "I'll be back before you know it, Papa."

"Just be careful," he whispered to her.

Then they were on their way, Tifa leading Sephiroth, Zack and the two infantrymen through the narrow path towards the mountain. The cliff faces to either side of them were mostly featureless, and the trail went steadily upwards. Finally, a clearing emerged at the top of the hill and they could see the whole of the mountain range before them, Mount Nibel standing imposingly off to the left.

"It'll take a few hours to get to the reactor, but I know the shortest way," Tifa explained, shielding her eyes a bit against the rising sun. "Back before I was born, the company built a rope bridge between one of the gaps. I guess they needed to get personnel back and forth to the reactor with a little more efficiency while they were building it."

Sephiroth nodded and then she led them down a winding trail that took them to the foot of the mountains. The peaks were hidden almost entirely by clouds, and every meter upwards came with another drop in temperature. At times he wondered how Tifa managed with her short skirt and revealing blouse, but he also supposed that the residents of Nibelheim had become quite acclimated to the cold weather.

There were also many trails, and now Sephiroth truly understood how easy it would've been for them to get lost. The paths were also very precarious at times. There were many instances in which they had to hug the side of a wall to keep themselves from tumbling over the mountainside. After about an hour or two they could no longer see the foot of the mountain range, the bottom of the terrain completely covered in fog. There was also a curious lack of vegetation in the area, and Sephiroth attributed it to both the climate and the harvesting of Mako. Older models tended to lack the efficiency of modern ones, and tended to absorb more energy and radiation than what was necessary, especially for a town as small as Nibelheim.

Sephiroth thought back to his schematic and suddenly realized how odd it was of Shin-Ra to have chosen such a robust model to harvest so much energy. Even thirty years ago there had been variations they could have chosen from, smaller reactors that would not drain as much from the Planet. Why would Nibelheim have needed so much power in the first place? What could necessitate the need for it?

Genesis, he thought, now almost entirely certain that the ex-SOLDIER had chosen Nibel as the place to hide Hollander's stolen equipment. Perhaps Nibelheim was even one of the original testing sites for Hollander's experimentation on both Genesis and Angeal…

"How much further?" Sephiroth asked, now anxious to reach the reactor.

"The hard part is just up ahead, after the bridge," Tifa answered.

Zack whistled in astonishment when they reached it. The rope bridge stretched across a huge expanse, the other side touching Mount Nibel. Sephiroth frowned at it, not entirely certain of its stability. Parts of the rope were frayed and worn with age. The wooden planks they would be walking across looked as though they had been bearing the elements for decades, and it was doubtful that anyone came by regularly to repair them.

"One at a time," Tifa suggested, "and not too quickly. You know, just in case…"

"Shouldn't we just take the alternate way around?" one of the infantrymen suggested.

"It would take a lot longer," Tifa replied. "Trust me, though. If we're careful, we should be fine."

Sephiroth went ahead first, with Zack just behind him. Their party was in a pretty vulnerable position for attack, and having seen Genesis' military strategies first hand, Sephiroth wanted to be across the bridge first in case there was an ambush waiting for them up ahead. He placed a careful foot on the first plank and it held. At a steady pace he started across, taking note of which planks were weaker than others. He heard Tifa behind him giving instructions to the others to follow her method of crossing.

Half way across she said to the infantrymen, "Steady… no, don't try to rush it."

Sephiroth gripped the rope when he felt the bridge shake. He stopped and looked back at the group, only to find that the officer at the back had completely come to a halt, with Tifa doing her best to encourage him to continue.

"It's okay," she reassured. "You're fine, we're fine. Just take it easy."

Sephiroth wasn't entirely sure which of the officers it was that was having trouble, but he chose to go on ahead, not wanting to continue burdening the structure with their weight. Perhaps on the trip back he would instruct Tifa to take them back on the alternative path.

"Uh… the bridge!" someone shouted.

Sephiroth felt the tension in the rope give way as a loud snap echoed across the canyon. He immediately clenched his hands around it as the planks gave way beneath his feet. He heard Tifa and some of the others scream, but he couldn't look back as he swung with the bridge into the side of Mount Nibel. He braced himself for the impact and gasped as the air was knocked out of his chest by the force. Reaffirming his hold on the bridge he looked down to see that Zack had caught Tifa by the wrist and the glimpse of one of the infantryman's bright blue uniforms.

Then there was the sudden g-force of a fall, the remainder of the bridge they were clinging to having unraveled at the other end. Sephiroth and the others fell through the mist, Tifa screaming for her life. He did his best to slow his own descent by positioning himself horizontally, but the ground appeared sooner than he anticipated. Sephiroth grunted from the pain that shot up through his calves but not before he forced himself into a roll to redistribute the impact, immediately grateful for the spaudlers on his shoulders that he had often thought of as bulky.

An ear-splitting squawk drew his attention to the creature ahead. It was winged but featherless, a giant reptile-like bird with leathery skin cutting through the air almost jet-like in his direction. As it drew closer two others joined it in flank in a perfect v-shape formation of attack. Sephiroth stood and held out his hand, a gathering of ice spikes materializing before his palm. They shot out at the flying creatures, piercing straight through them in rapid succession. Sephiroth watched them scream and tumble down the side of the mountain before turning around to see what had become of his party.

Zack was sitting on the ground, rubbing the back of his head while an infantryman helped Tifa to her feet. The girl suffered a few scrapes along her bare thigh, elbows and forearms, but save for that she was fine, better than he had expected any of them to be.

"Everyone seems to be fine," Sephiroth said as he looked up at the fog they fell through. It looked as though they had fallen onto one of the lower paths of Mount Nibel, by chance of luck alone. If they had gone any further on the bridge they would have missed it. "Can we get back to where we were?"

Tifa's delicate eyebrows furrowed in concentration. She also seemed to consider the fact that they happened to get lucky with their fall. "I think I know where we are… Mount Nibel is full of caves, and they're intertwined with the trails, almost like a giant ant farm."

Sephiroth nodded. "And you can navigate through them?"

Tifa nodded. "Yeah, I think so. Oh, and Sephiroth… there seems to be one person missing."

This gave Zack a start. He stood up and peered over the edge of the mountain side. "Damn it! I think he fell when the bridge snapped." Zack looked over at the remaining officer. "How're you doing?"

The other man swayed a bit, as if dizzy, and Sephiroth recognized those motion-sick mannerisms as belonging to the blonde one. After a moment he nodded, but said nothing in response to Zack.

Tifa's face contorted into sadness and worry. "What do we do?"

"It may sound cold, but we've got no time to search for him," Sephiroth decided, ignoring the alarm that crossed both Zack and Tifa's expressions, Tifa's more akin to outrage.

"We can't just leave him!" Tifa protested. "He could still be alive somewhere!"

Sephiroth looked down at the teenage girl, unfazed by her anger. "We have neither the man power nor the resources to search this wilderness. If we can make it to the reactor we can also return to the village to organize a search party." He sincerely doubted the infantryman had survived the fall in either case, so the best course of action in his opinion was to keep moving.

Tifa stormed past him without another word, leading the way across the trail that had served as a savior for their fall. It really wasn't so much of a trail as it was a very fortunate landing, for it was but a few yards before Tifa took them into the mouth of a small cave. They all crouched into the hole, the blonde Shin-Ra Security Officer preparing a flashlight for the dark, but they all quickly discovered that they didn't need it. The cavern was lit up by its own walls, colors of green and blue and pink shimmering throughout, as if someone had captured and aurora from the night sky and trapped it in a room.

"What is this?" Zack uttered, looking around in awe. The cave ceiling wasn't very high but it split off into dozens of other passages, just as Tifa said it would.

"The colors here amaze me every time," Tifa admitted in a soft voice, as if afraid to disturb the scenery.

"It must be the Mako energy," Sephiroth said, his voice echoing. "This mountain is especially abundant in it. That's why the Mako reactor was built here."

Tifa took a few minutes to gauge their surroundings. The cave was the ant-farm she had described, and for a moment it almost looked as though she didn't remember where to go. However, an idea struck her and then their guide enthusiastically pointed them in a new direction. "You're gonna love this," she promised, hurrying ahead in excitement.

Sephiroth had to crouch into the next tunnel, but it didn't go on for long. There was clear and apparent daylight on the other side, which he took to be a good sign. He met Tifa in a completely new area, a clearing somehow wedged into the mountain. Something akin to thick tree roots stretched across the area, converging into trunk-like shape in the very middle of the clearing. On top of the natural structure was a large shining crystal nudged within, but unlike ordinary crystal formations often found in caves, this one emitted a soft but very distinct glow. Liquid Mako was pooled all around the trunk beneath it, and to Sephiroth's surprise, it didn't have that musky smell that was typical of Mako when processed in a reactor. No, indeed, he couldn't quite describe the smell. It was grass, and dew, and the ocean, and even that peculiar but not entirely unpleasant scent that was exclusively found in the nursery of a hospital. Sephiroth was initially stunned by the sight of it all, surprised that such a thing could even exist, but as Tifa approached the fountain of light, prior knowledge and reason allowed him to logically determine what it was they were witnessing.

For the second time within a few minutes, Zack uttered, "What is this?" Sephiroth had a feeling it would turn out to be his catchphrase for the day.

"Isn't it so beautiful?" Tifa asked.

"This is a Mako fountain," Sephiroth explained, joining Tifa near it. "A miracle of nature."

"But if the Mako reactor continues to suck up the energy, won't this fountain eventually dry up too?" Tifa questioned.

Sephiroth nodded and then pointed at the abnormally shaped crystal in the middle. "Materia," he said. "When Mako energy is condensed, the remaining substance is hardened and produces materia. It's actually very rare to be able to see materia in its natural state." He pointed to his armlet to prove the point, at the perfectly spherical gems that were equipped within.

Zack also joined them at the fountain. "By the way…" he said. "Why is it that materia allows you to use magic, anyway?"

Sephiroth gave him an incredulous look. "You're in SOLDIER and don't even know the reason for this?" Zack shrugged as Sephiroth suppressed another sigh. "The knowledge of and wisdom of the Ancients is said to be held within the materia. Anyone with this knowledge can freely use the powers of the land and the Planet, summoning forces of nature with sheer willpower. That knowledge interacts between ourselves and the Planet, calling up these forces, or 'magic' as they say."

"Magic…" Zack breathed. "Such a mysterious power…"

Something about Zack's awed expression forced a chuckle out of Sephiroth. The other SOLDIER looked over at him in confusion.

"Did I say something funny?" he asked.

Sephiroth sobered up, recalling what it was that made him laugh in the first place. "A man once told me to never use a term as unscientific as 'mysterious power.' I still remember how angry he was just for referring to it as magic..."

"Who said that?" Zack wondered.

"Hojo," Sephiroth replied. "What an inexperienced man to have taken over the work of a great scientist… a walking mass of complexes…" It had always brought Sephiroth great entertainment and amusement to get under Hojo's skin, ever taunted by even the slightest notion that he might be inferior in any way to Professor Gast.

Zack shook his head. "Yeah, don't even get me started on that guy…"

"So this is where the knowledge of the Ancients is," Tifa mused, peering closely at the fountain while being careful not to touch it. "That gives this place an entirely new meaning for me."

Tifa led the way once more, taking them up a path that was a bit difficult to walk because of its steep incline. Once they reached level ground the area transitioned into a wide and featureless mountain peak, the polar opposite of the color and magnificence of what they found down below in the caves. Sephiroth could already feel the steady hum of machinery reverberating through the ground, a sign that the reactor was very close.

Zack slowed his stride after Tifa in order walk beside Sephiroth. "Hey, is everything cool?"

Sephiroth's silver eyebrows knitted together bit. "Yes, I suppose."

"Okay," Zack answered, trying to appear casual by stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Umm… about what happened back there, when we fell…"

"What about it?"

"Do you think we'll find him?" Zack said quietly, hiding his voice from Tifa who didn't appear to take notice of their conversation.

"It's a possibility," said Sephiroth, though he was still convinced that there was little to no chance that the man survived the fall.

"Good," Zack replied. He gave Sephiroth a small but rueful smile. "I just don't like the thought of leaving anyone behind, you know?"

"Mmm hmm," was Sephiroth's non-committal answer. Was there a point to this conversation?

"In case worst comes to worst though," Zack continued, "Jones had a family in Kalm so I'll go visit them if you want me to. You know, in case you were wondering." The younger SOLDIER then resumed his regular pace, the usual cheerful and care free attitude returning to his demeanor. Sephiroth stared blankly at his back as Zack walked on ahead to catch up with Tifa.

No, he hadn't been wondering.

Author's Note:Soooo... this is probably the first time in a VERY long time that it didn't take me like a year to update. I'm gonna try to keep up this pace especially now that we're gonna be getting into the meat and potatoes of Nibelheim. Hopefully there's a certain momentum that comes with writing Sephiroth's downward spiral into madness...

Also, thank you all for the very kind wishes that were sent in regards to my health. I may not have a lot of readers but I'm glad that the ones I do have are so compassionate. Really, thank you. =)

Now, as for this chapter, please please please don't hesitate to leave the constructive criticisms if you feel the need to. This if the foundation for the entire Nibelheim arc, and the climax of the story, so yeah, do let me know what you think can be improved if anything at all. I had some doubts about this chapter seeing as a lot of it was FFVII novelization, but I did my best to make it flow a little bit more naturally with some pieces here and there that are new. Hopefully the remaining chapters don't feel as we're though we're treading on in-game scenes you've probably seen a thousand times.

Another thing about this chapter... you'll notice it more closely resembles the FFVII version rather than Crisis Core. Even though this story is technically Crisis Core from Sephiroth's POV, there were many parts of Crisis Core during the Nibelheim arc that I thought were incredibly lacking in execution as well as outright missing from the original game, such as the scene at the mako fountain where Sephiroth explains how he feels about Hojo. I felt that CC sort of rushed Nibelheim at times, which was a real shame considering the time they put into Sephiroth's character development in previous scenes.

Next up, Sephiroth learns of the secrets Shin-Ra tried to hide within the old Mako reactor. This is it folks. The point of no return for our beloved "hero."

Shinz - I'm glad you're still following the story and I'm glad you enjoyed the update and that it still holds up to the quality of previous chapters for you. I hope Nibelheim delivers to your excitement and expectations! ^^