Chapter 5: Dark Aeon
Aerith turned in time to catch the flash of a blade – she squealed – ducked – and fell as the blade missed, whizzing over her with the sound of impending death. Catching her breath, she scrambled backwards, hindered by her dress, as her hands slipped on the rocky ground. Sephiroth laughed, raising his sword like an executioner.
Cloud had dashed forward; he slashed wildly at Sephiroth, knocking the blade aside. Sephiroth sprang into the air and floated backwards smoothly, to land at the edge of the cliff.
"Get back, both of you!" Cloud cried.
Tifa had appeared at Aerith's side to help her up; Aerith took her hand gratefully, and both girls retreated. Tifa looked at her in concern as she noticed a bruise on Aerith's arm.
"I'm fine," Aerith panted.
"Ready?" Tifa adopted a battle stance again. She started forward, but Aerith yanked her back.
Tifa stared at her. "We can't just stand here and not help him!"
"You saw what happened. Our light hurt Cloud – I don't understand, it shouldn't have done that…"
Tifa slumped against the wall. "Nothing works. I tried with my light; we tried with both, but maybe we're just not strong enough."
Aerith looked at Sephiroth and Cloud, who were facing each other once again, preparing for another battle in their endless struggle. It shouldn't be endless, Aerith thought. There's something we're missing, something we don't know. But what?
Word had spread across the town. Leon would have been amazed at how it had travelled so quickly, but he knew the pixies well enough by now to realise that this was their doing. All the inhabitants gathered in the square to gasp in wonder at the icy aeon staring at them with icier eyes, and at the spirited young summoner standing beside her.
"Well, if it ain't little Rinny!" Cid exclaimed. "We thought you were a goner long ago."
Rinoa dismissed the aeon with a click of her fingers, and at once the townspeople rushed forward to embrace her. The three pixies hovered around her protectively.
"Hey! Hands off the summoner!"
"One at a time, people, one at a time!"
Rinoa laughed. "It's been a long time."
As she began to tell her story, Leon looked around, wondering. Cloud, Aerith and Tifa were the only people missing. Where were they? Slipping aside from the crowd for a moment, he caught Yuna's eye and she flew over to him at once.
"Do you know where Cloud, Tifa and Aerith are?" he asked in a low voice.
Yuna's eyes clouded. "Oh. I'm sorry to break this to you now, Leon… Paine told me that Sephiroth reappeared again. They went to confront him."
All the warmth seemed to leave Leon's body. "Where?"
"The crystal cliff."
Sephiroth wasn't a danger to others, in general. His target was always Cloud. But if Tifa and Aerith had gone to help him, Sephiroth might hurt them in order to make Cloud suffer. Leon couldn't allow that; it was bad enough that Cloud had allowed his own darkness to haunt him for so long without it harming his friends too.
"I'm going after him," Leon said. He turned away, ready to stride off, but he hadn't anticipated that Rinoa would appear at his shoulder. She was almost pixie-like in her suddenness.
"Where're you going, Squall? I thought we were going to catch up."
He explained the situation to her briefly, and she smiled. "I can get you there a lot faster."
Before he could protest, she had clicked her fingers again, and a familiar frost surrounded them.
Sephiroth stood with his back to the crystal cliff, his long hair and the ends of his coat flapping in the breeze. With every reappearance, he seemed to become more menacing; the glint of his Masamune brighter and sharper, his black wings more forbidding. He began to prowl across the cliff, as he and Cloud circled each other.
"Look at those shadows under your eyes," said Sephiroth. "Lack of sleep makes you weak, Cloud."
"I haven't slept because of you!"
Sephiroth chuckled – a cold, deep sound that sent chills of fear through Cloud's body. "It's been worse since you remembered, hasn't it? You know your nightmares are real. Can you face your past?"
Piles of bodies… The faces of his friends, all twisted and bloody and broken. They didn't look peaceful in death. They looked as though they had died in pain, in horror, in battle.
Cloud's eyes swam. He took a deep breath as he steadied his sword, back in the present.
"You did that," Cloud muttered. "You killed them. Why did you kill them? They were on your side!"
"Even now, you are still far from the truth."
"Then tell me!" Cloud yelled. Anger ran through him like fire; he raised his sword–
Only for two figures to appear on the rock between him and his foe. A cold mist surrounded them, but as soon as the air cleared, Cloud recognised Leon, and with him an unfamiliar girl wearing blue.
"Oops!" said the girl. "When I said take us to Cloud and Sephiroth, I didn't mean right in the middle of them, Shiva!"
"Who are you?" Sephiroth asked.
The girl turned to Sephiroth – she tried to take a step forward, but Leon prevented her. Cloud didn't blame him.
"Stay back!" Cloud called. "Get out of the way."
"Hang on," said the girl. "Who summoned this aeon?"
"What aeon?" said Leon and Cloud at the same time.
The girl pointed at Sephiroth. "That aeon."
Back in the town square, the townspeople were bewildered by Leon and Rinoa's disappearance.
"Where did they go?" Yuffie asked, waving her arms at nobody in particular.
Merlin seemed to think her question was directed at him; he answered her from beneath bushy eyebrows. "Yes, it is most mysterious. Goodness, I haven't seen our summoners in years!"
"You're a wizard; can't you do something?"
"Oh, no," he said amicably. "Aeons are untraceable. They have a deeper magic than mine."
Yuffie was just beginning to get frustrated, when the three pixies flew over her head.
"We know where they are!" Rikku announced.
"Spill then, bug!" Yuffie still hadn't forgiven the pixies for stealing her ice cream.
"They've gone to the crystal cliff," said Yuna.
Yuffie peered up at the pixie and remembered what Aerith had told her about Yuna. "Hey, didn't you used to be a summoner? Can you still do that?"
Yuna darted towards her, alarmed. "Shh! Don't say it out loud! I'm happy being a Gullwing, thank you very much."
"Suit yourself," Yuffie muttered. She filed the information away as future blackmail material. The crowd had dissipated, leaving just her and Cid, who had been talking to Merlin, and the three pixies.
"Hey, Yuna," said Cid. "You can teleport – if you know where they are, you can go over and see what's going on!"
Yuna put her hands on her hips. "What is it with everyone wanting our help lately?"
"There's an ice cream in it for you," said Yuffie.
Yuna's eyes lit up. "Ooh, all right!"
Rikku high-fived Paine. "We're gonna be raking in treasure for the Gullwings!"
"He's an aeon?" said Leon. His limbs seemed to have frozen in shock.
"I am not!" Sephiroth snarled, his voice full of vicious fury.
"Aeon or not, you should get back!" said Cloud. "Leave him to me."
"He is!" Rinoa insisted, even as Leon pulled her away. They were joined by Tifa and Aerith, who had both run up to them.
"What did you say?" Tifa cried.
"Who are you?" Aerith asked, their voices melding together.
"This is Rinoa," said Leon. "She's the one who sent the message to-"
Rinoa elbowed him. "I can speak for myself! I'm Rinoa, a summoner. Nice to meet you! Now which one of you is controlling that aeon?"
Tifa shook her head. "None of us! We're all Cloud's friends; we wouldn't summon an aeon to attack him!"
They turned to look at Cloud and Sephiroth, who had indeed started battling; their swords clashed in blurs of silver.
Leon lifted his gunblade. "Stay here, Rinoa. I'm going to help him."
Rinoa clutched his arm. "No!" She was staring at the battle, entranced. "It's Cloud."
Only Aerith seemed to have understood; she looked sharply at Rinoa, her green eyes full of dismay. "You don't mean…"
"Cloud is the summoner," said Rinoa. "Cloud summoned Sephiroth."
Cloud wasn't sure, but it felt like Sephiroth was stronger since the last time they had fought. He dealt vicious, quicksilver strikes, never relenting, never slowing, never weakening, and Cloud parried, and countered, and fell back under the barrage of blows, his blond spikes slick with perspiration, his muscles straining as he pushed himself to the limit. He was distracted too: all he could think was, how? How? How could Sephiroth be an aeon? What did it mean?
Sephiroth swept aside Cloud's blade with a clever twist, and kicked him hard in the chest, sending Cloud flying against the crystal wall. Cloud staggered, sure that he had felt a bone crack somewhere. He felt dizzy with pain; he couldn't get up. He slumped against the wall, breathing heavily, as Sephiroth advanced upon him.
"Does it hurt, Cloud?" Sephiroth mocked.
Cloud didn't reply; he was finding it hard to breathe. Then a bright sphere of magic bubbled around him: healing magic. His chest unconstricted; his muscles regained their vitality, and he could move again. He stood up, as Sephiroth looked around, to see that Aerith had healed him. She, Tifa, Leon and the mysterious girl in blue were all standing together.
"Cloud!" the girl in blue shouted. "You're the summoner! You summoned Sephiroth – you can dismiss him too! Take control!"
Cloud shook his head, utterly bewildered. "I haven't summoned anyone; I don't even know how!"
"Who are you, girl?" Sephiroth asked, his mouth twisting. He strode forward. Leon and Tifa stood in front of the other two girls protectively, their faces grim.
"Rinoa," said the girl. "I'm a summoner. I know an aeon when I see one."
"A summoner." Sephiroth paused, as if digesting this information. "I can't have that."
He lunged at Rinoa; she shrieked, and Leon yelled, "No!" Leon parried the strike, as Cloud ran at Sephiroth, forcing Sephiroth to turn around and engage him again.
Their blades twisted; locked together, Cloud stared into Sephiroth's face, his cold green eyes.
"Are you really an aeon?" Cloud whispered.
Sephiroth chuckled. "You know that's not the question you really want to ask, Cloud."
He pressed forward, breaking the lock with sheer force, and knocked Cloud to the ground before pointing the Masamune to his throat.
"Ask me what you really want to know," said Sephiroth.
Cloud swallowed. "Did I summon you?"
"Yes." And Sephiroth smiled – because he knew, he must know, the boiling whirlpool of emotions that simple word provoked.
I summoned Sephiroth. I made my darkness come to life. I made him attack Tifa, and Aerith, and Rinoa…
"How?" Cloud croaked.
When Sephiroth stood over Cloud, the tip of his blade lightly resting against Cloud's throat, Leon and Tifa had both let out cries of dismay, and started forward, but once again Rinoa stopped them.
"He won't kill him," she said. "An aeon can't kill its summoner."
"How do you know Cloud really is the summoner?" Tifa demanded.
"I can tell," said Rinoa simply. "As easily as I could tell that you're a fighter, and you're not," she went on, indicating Tifa and Aerith respectively. "Just by the way you move."
"But Sephiroth has injured and nearly killed Cloud more than once," said Leon. "You can't be saying that Cloud made that hap-"
He broke off mid-sentence as cold realisation struck him. Self harm. All this time, Cloud had literally been punishing himself.
"Listen," said Aerith.
"I died," said Sephiroth. "I died fighting the Heartless, and I chose to become an aeon. But I didn't realise how bad things were. There were no summoners around; they were all dead, or trapped, or lost. The only living person left on that battlefield was you. I saved your miserable life; I gave you the strength to move when you would have given up. You should thank me. My darkness makes you stronger. But your mind was untrained, cracked after what you had witnessed. You saw my Heartless destroying all your friends. It was so very easy for me to become what I am now. But remember, Cloud – I am what you make me."
Cloud was shaking. He couldn't process it – it was too much. As Sephiroth spoke, memories of his nightmares flashed before his eyes again, but this time, he understood.
Sephiroth stared down at him with an insane light in his eyes. His life, his humanity, his heart, had gone. He was a Heartless now, like the horde of shadows behind him, and he had the hunger of all Heartless. He piled the battlefield with the dead, and Cloud ran, staggered, limped across the field as Sephiroth's Heartless stood back, not bothering to finish off this last wounded soldier, content to let the shadows hunt and tear him to pieces.
He was dying, like the rest, all dead. Pain and blackness blocked everything out. He closed his eyes, gave up.
Then… A will to live – the world came back into focus; his head cleared. The will was not his own, but it urged him on. A new magic brimmed inside him. That was the first time he summoned an aeon, and Sephiroth-the-aeon defeated Sephiroth-the-Heartless and–
"And I forgot it all," Cloud whispered. "The darkness came, and then I started hearing your voice in my head…"
"And you thought you were going mad."
"I thought, if I could only find the light…" He glanced sideways, at Aerith and Tifa, and Leon and Rinoa, who were all watching him hopefully. Leon had found his light. Cloud had been searching for much longer, yet he had always failed. Because, he thought, my light has been staring me in the face all the time, but…
"But I'm standing in your way," said Sephiroth. "And the shadow I cast… you stay there willingly."
Cloud looked over at Aerith and Tifa again. The two girls had stepped forward.
"Don't listen to him!" Tifa cried. "You can get rid of him – you can step out of the darkness."
Aerith nodded. "You're stronger than him."
And Cloud remembered Rinoa's words, and his eyes narrowed, and he looked at the aeon standing before him – his aeon.
"If you're an aeon, then I can dismiss you. Go back where you came from!"
Sephiroth raised his eyebrows. The whole world seemed to hold its breath for a second; even the wind died down, the onlookers frozen, but hopeful, Cloud determined. Nothing happened, and Sephiroth laughed, raising his sword again.
Then the wind rose and Sephiroth stumbled. A whirlwind surrounded him; his black wings wrapped around him; his Masamune vanished. He struggled, stray feathers rippling into the air, before his dark form dissolved altogether. Cloud had dismissed him.
There was a collective sigh, as everyone on the cliff let out the breaths they had been holding.
"You did it!" said Tifa, as Cloud slowly got to his feet. She and Aerith both ran over and hugged him, and Rinoa cheered, while Cloud looked bemused.
In a flurry of golden sparkles, the Gullwings appeared above them.
Yuna looked around. "Hey, where's Sephiroth? What did we miss?"
Merlin's house was crowded that evening. But the good thing about staying in a wizard's house, Leon thought, was that the house changed to suit its inhabitants' needs, rather than the other way round. The kitchen table had expanded into a dining table with ten seats, and Merlin had cooked them his own special recipe, which he called Magician's Surprise. The pixies shared a cushion-stacked seat, but they all had their own miniature dishes, and they tucked in enthusiastically. Piles of munny surrounded them; they had accumulated rather a lot since Aerith had presented to them their promised payment. Paine had consented to allowing Leon to 'borrow' her gunblade for the moment, having been bribed with more hot chocolate.
"I'd say this quest was a big success!" said Yuna.
"You betcha!" said Rikku. "We got us a whole load of the good stuff!"
"And an old friend," Yuna added, smiling at Rinoa.
Rinoa laughed. "I still have to get used to everything. You've all changed so much."
"Ah, yes!" said Merlin, sitting down after stirring more broth. "I propose a toast! To Rinoa, our long lost summoner!"
He lifted his glass.
Everyone else followed suit. "To Rinoa!"
"And to Cloud," said Aerith, "for defeating his darkness at last."
Cloud smiled, a faint blush tingeing his cheeks. He looked awkward seated in the middle of the table, with Tifa and Aerith vying for his attention on either side of him. He did seem lighter, Leon thought. But it was a big shock, and one that he wouldn't get over instantly.
"Don't forget, you only dismissed him," said Leon. "That means…"
Cloud nodded. "Yeah. He's still in me. The darkness is still there."
"But now you understand, you can learn how to control it, right?" Aerith asked, glancing over at Rinoa.
"I can teach you," she said. "Or… I could take him for you. I'm a trained summoner; I know how to control aeons."
Cloud shook his head. "Not Sephiroth. You don't know him. His will is too strong."
"But he hasn't defeated you," said Rinoa softly. "You're not broken beyond repair. You must be stronger than you think."
"Then it's my job to contain him," said Cloud.
His eyes were determined, but Leon understood just what a heavy burden Cloud was carrying.
"We're always here to help you, remember that," said Leon. Rinoa held onto his arm, and he smiled. "I'm not alone, and neither are you."
Cloud smiled back. "I know."
"You'll stay, won't you?" Tifa asked, a little anxiously.
"Yes, I'll stay." Cloud turned his smile to Tifa, and all the little worry lines in her face melted away. "I promise."
"Score!" Rikku whooped. "We're like one big, happy family!"
Everyone laughed. Then, Rinoa stood up, her eyes shining. "I'd like to propose one final toast." She lifted her glass. "To the future of Radiant Garden!"
"To the future!"
When she sat down again, she squeezed Leon's hand, and it felt as though she had squeezed his heart too. He smiled freely, because for once he knew that the world was changing for the better. Everything will be different now. And that's good.
(A/N: The end! Yep, pretty short. This was never meant to be an epic. I still have some issues with this story because it is essentially two stories rolled into one, which created a few structural problems that I don't think I've been able to solve. I do like the ideas. I suppose they're the easy part, though. The hard part is always the writing! Well, as always, reviews are very welcome. Thanks for reading!)