IV

CHAPTER FOUR

COSMO MEMORIES

Cloud spent much of the following day in his own company, avoiding unnecessary interaction so that he might brood over Bugah and Hargo's revelations about Professor Gast and the Jenova Project. While the others explored the village and grew acquainted with the local customs and wares, awaiting news of the Buggy's repair, he lay on the sofa in their room at the Shildra Inn, staring at the framed painting of Mount Nibel. The very sight of its dark, jagged spires stirred emotions he had tried so hard to quell, yet there was also an unwelcome sense of desire.

Sephiroth is there…I know it…

When he finally joined his comrades at the Cosmo Candle that evening, the glorious colours of dusk had filtered from the skies above the Valley of the Fallen Star onto the secluded settlement, swathing the plateau and huts in hues of deepest crimson and soft magenta. A mild breeze swept up through the canyon, warm and laced with the pleasant scent of roasting meat, casually spinning the turbines of the outcrop. The colossal sandstone formations surveyed the hamlet from their lofty surrounding promontories, themselves encased in shadow as the sun sank beneath the western massifs.

The small throng of attendees at Elder Hargo's lecture on the Promised Land had all but dissipated, and only the motley crew of travellers lingered around the eternal bonfire. Collecting his notes from the podium, the aging tribesman shuffled painstakingly round the edge of the sacred pyre, sharing a few kind words with Aerith before descending the rough-hewn ramp from the raised mound. He offered the ex-SOLDIER a friendly nod as he passed, retreating to the Starlet Tavern for his nightly drink with Elder Bugah.

Trudging up the incline, Cloud found the others in silence, lost to their own reflections on Hargo's talk. Tifa peered at him fleetingly, her glassy eyes ablaze as they mirrored the playful fire, but said nothing; he wondered if she was again recounting their childhood in Nibelheim. The mood was melancholy, and Nanaki and Aerith in particular bore troubled miens.

The elders' description of the Promised Land the previous evening had been no less confusing than Sephiroth's, Cloud pondered. What's wrong with them?

"This place's really boring," grumbled Yuffie as he drew near. She was sitting cross-legged and cuddling Cait Sith, her sulking expression matched by the cat's discomfort, though he showed no yearning to escape her juvenile clutches. "I wanna go somewhere else. Let's go somewhere else!"

Cloud exhaled, ignoring her petulance, and searched for a vacant space. Kicking aside some gravel, he dropped down between Barret and the lectern. A faint rhythm of music floated from the inn, its hypnotic beat a familiar part of the village's charm. He turned to glance at his gun-armed companion, whose features appeared to bear the weight of the world: learning that his philosophies as a revolutionary were so profoundly allied with the values of the intellectuals here, yet so reprehensibly skewed, had taken its toll. It was a number of minutes before Barret spoke.

"This's where AVALANCHE was born," he mumbled quietly. "Right here, 'round this bonfire."

"Not in Midgar?" Cloud frowned.

"The original AVALANCHE wasn't like ours," Barret began, captivated by the flames as cradled the silver pendant gifted to him by Dyne. "It was created 'bout forty years ago by Elder Mon Mos, the same scholar who established the Study o' Planetary Life. They wanted to protest peacefully 'gainst Shinra's Mako extraction 'cause they knew the damage it was doin', even then. But, they never got nowhere. The Corporation just laughed at their attempts.

"Around the time the Wutai War started, there was this guy who was a student here, a real smart kid named Fuhito. He couldn't take the way things were, so he left to form his own AVALANCHE. That was the militant wing, the ones who attacked Junon an' Midgar, an' messed up all sorts o' shit for the Shinra. After what happened in Corel, they were sorta role models for me."

"They killed a lot o' innocent folks, too," squeaked Cait Sith, wriggling free of Yuffie's grasp. "They were terrorists!"

"Yeah," conceded Barret, lowering his head, "but my guys understood it. They knew they gotta fight. They knew they gotta get their hands dirty to protect the Planet."

"Violence isnae the solution," snapped the little feline, so animated that his golden crown toppled off.

"I know that now," he sighed heavily. An agonised tear plunged down his cheek, and he could not prevent the accompanying sob. Nanaki stirred on his haunches. "But, Biggs…Wedge…Jessie…"

"I…I'm sorry," said Cait Sith, grimacing in the awkward pause that ensued.

"Y'know, I always wanted to visit this Valley," Barret changed the subject. He lifted his gaze, slowly moving it from the Cosmo Candle to the floodlit observatory, and eventually over the breathtaking landscape of grand silhouettes amid a spellbinding twilight. "I promised those three that someday when we'd saved the Planet from the Shinra, we'd all come 'ere to celebrate."

"Barret-" Tifa tried to console him.

"Now they're all gone!" he wept, pounding his fist on the rock. "They died for the Planet, but I…I survived. They were jus' kids, but it was me who made it here! This is where my pilgrimage ends. An' I dunno what's gonna happen now there ain't no AVALANCHE-"

"Why can't there be an AVALANCHE?" interjected Tifa, her manner as serious and as passionate as Cloud had ever witnessed. "We all hate the Shinra, right? We wanna do what's best for this world."

"Right now, it feels like we're on a train with no destination," shrugged Barret, hesitating momentarily as his demeanour transformed, his jaw clenching with determination. "My hatred…my vengeance…it scares me to my soul that my guys ain't ever gonna forgive me. But, it's like you told me, Tifa: I can't dishonour their memory by forgettin' what we stood for."

"Ain't that the truth!" whooped Yuffie.

"I do know one thing, though," he continued, his voice mounting. "If there's anythin' I can do to preserve the Planet, or the people livin' on it, I'm gonna do it! I don't care no more 'bout justice or revenge. I don't care 'bout what them folks think o' me. I don't care if I gotta die tryin'."

"We're with you," vowed Tifa, her dazzling brown eyes burning purposefully into Cloud's. "All of us. All the way."

"I'm gonna save the Planet!" Barret declared, climbing to his feet and thrusting his gatling-gun towards the boundless heavens as the tail of a shooting star twinkled against the darkening indigo. Cloud, Tifa, Yuffie, Cait Sith, and Aerith watched him with inspired fascination as he cried out into the night, for they each recognised that the course of their personal odyssey would be forever entwined with his. "We're gonna stop Shinra! We're gonna stop Sephiroth! For Marlene! For my friends! For everyone! Again…AVALANCHE is born again!"

"AVALANCHE…" Nanaki growled in disgust, his coat aflame in the flickering shadows of the mound. "You glorify the name as if it weren't already so tainted by blood. Don't you recall your predecessors were extremists…radicals? It was insanity that drove Fuhito, not righteousness. He had an utter disregard for human life, brainwashing men and women with the lure of salvation, then sending them to scorch the world to ash. Why cling to an ideology that won't ever bring peace?"

Dumbfounded by the beast's contempt, Barret's shoulders slumped once more. "What you sayin', old timer?"

"All these weeks you have known how deeply I distrust AVALANCHE," he replied haughtily. "We discussed as much when first we met, detained in the cells at Shinra Headquarters. Did you never consider why a native of Cosmo Canyon might despise such a closely-affiliated organisation?"

"I…I guess not," Barret admitted, sullen as he sat back down.

Cloud studied Nanaki, a tense atmosphere descending upon the party. Their large companion had been well cared for since his valiant return, welcomed home a hero, and treated as a prince. The shaggy locks of matted fur that had accumulated during their journey from Midgar was tamed at last, while his wild red mane had been trimmed and plaited, held in place by a new crystal barrette. A pair of eagle feathers were pinned behind his ears, embellishing his tribal tattoos and ornaments, but drawing attention to the canine attributes of his face, and the slender pink scar that covered his right eye.

"So?" Yuffie posed finally, the teen's impatience getting the better of her. "What happened?"

"They tried to take something precious from me."

"Will you tell us about it?" asked Tifa.

Nanaki looked at her, then around the circle. "I…no, it doesn't matter. Being here has simply awoken memories and past emotions. I have not raised them before, and I need not burden you with them now."

"We've come this far together," Tifa contested. "Sharing isn't a sign of weakness. Or immaturity. And you kinda owe us an explanation."

"But…"

"Oh, quit bein' such a baby!" hissed Yuffie. "You ain't the only one with AVALANCHE issues!"

"Well, if you're going to insist-"

"We are," said Tifa, firmly enough for Nanaki to yield.

"Long ago, when I was still just a cub," he began with a sigh, his husky voice low and sad, "we would sit around this pyre each evening. The Candle has burned for countless lifetimes, a holy fire that wards evil from the canyon. The villagers always came here to listen to the elders, or to reminisce on tales of bygone days, or to make offerings to my parents."

"Your parents?" Aerith was intrigued.

"They were Guardians of the Valley," he clarified. "That is how the warriors of my kin are known in the common tongue."

"Damn," Barret murmured, stroking his beard. "Way you behave, I jus' chalked your folks up as the philosopher type."

"You are not wrong," the beast answered with a gruff snort. "When I speak of my mother, I am filled with pride and joy. And that's fine. But, when I think of my father, my heart is rife with anger."

"Why?" pressed Tifa.

"Seto was a coward!" Nanaki shook his head, disgraced. "The night the Gi Tribe attacked, he fled the battle, abandoning the very people he was sworn to defend. He left my wounded mother to die, and me an orphaned infant. I am ashamed to be of his bloodline."

"No-one is defined by the actions of their parents," Aerith reassured him, leaning over to pat his huge paw.

"My father stole from me my courage, my resolve," he argued stubbornly, moving his leg away. "When the time came for me to protect this canyon and those important to me from the mindless tyranny of AVALANCHE, I was not equipped. It was little more than a year ago…"

[BREAK]

Nanaki was roused from his brooding by the dust cloud that chased a motorcycle along the desert highway, so far to the west that human eyes would not have detected it. The road trailed the periphery of Cosmo Canyon, the fastest route between Gehenna and the Nibel province to the north. It was by not unusual for vehicles to pass that way, or indeed through the Valley, but the bike followed sightings of a motorcade and a military helicopter earlier that afternoon, piquing his curiosity. What their appearance meant, though, he could only speculate.

Does it relate to the sudden commotion at Cosmo Village? Nanaki turned his gaze again to the hamlet, and resumed his scowl.

The settlement loomed a half-mile from his current vantage point, a broad, spiralling ridge on the eastern flank of Kumo Nagare. The column was his favourite of the Valley's mesas, a haunt of his for many years. It coiled from the rugged canyon floor like the shell of some gargantuan hermit crab, and its internal channels made the rushing wind sing the most poignant melodies. On the nights of the Blood Moon – or Howling Moon, as the locals called these spectacular lunar eclipses – Nanaki treasured scaling the mesa and yowling into the heavens the way his kin had for generations.

Kumo Nagare itself was one of the rare surviving names from his ancestors' language. In the common tongue, it loosely translated as "the Cry that Echoes"; wholly appropriate to those who claimed to hear the Planet's voice, or happened upon the Valley during the Howling Moon.

As he mused, Nanaki identified a distinct mechanical screech on the air, and watched the telescope atop Bugenhagen's Research Centre rise by four or five degrees. Stargazing had long been of cultural significance to the native clans and the nomads who had joined them here. So much so, in fact, that the region was named for their obsession with the wider cosmos. The Bugah Tribe and Nanaki's own had lived in harmony for centuries, with the Guardians of the latter destined to keep these lands safe from foreign threats.

But, the Guardians were gone now; so few of his race remained.

Still, I will not attend the Rite. Why should I? Grandfather is wrong to expect it of me.

Several weeks had passed since last he had visited Cosmo Canyon, yet Bugenhagen's summons had come as no surprise. Nanaki had considered declining the call, but it was not his intention to disrespect the old man; he would at least deliver his decision in person.

Skee and the other children had scampered alongside Nanaki as he ascended the red sandstone tunnels above the forum, giggling as they touched his brilliant fur for luck. At the Research Centre, he found the elder waiting for him in the gallery below the Planetarium. The room was dim and cool – a pleasant change to the dry heat of late October – and the rhythmic ticking of various instruments and apparatus calmed the beast just as it had done since his youth.

"Ho ho hoo," Bugenhagen had greeted him in his typically- jovial manner, bobbing on his anti-gravity ball. "So, you've come, Nanaki?"

Nanaki had been anxious as he stood before him, someone he loved dearly and had no wish to disappoint. He was all too aware of the symbolism behind this particular date, not only for his tribe, but for the entire Valley of the Fallen Star. He had caught sight of the village's residents making their preparations, hanging flower wreaths from their homes and erecting maypoles across the square, each garlanded in fifty coloured ribbons. Costumed locals and tourists alike were in awe of the display, captivated by its traditional association with fertility.

That had saddened Nanaki further. I did not ask for this burden

Tonight they planned to celebrate the Rite to Appease the Planet, a sacred ritual performed by the Guardians once every fifty years on the eve of the vernal equinox. People gathered from around the world to witness the spectacle and to worship the glory of nature, embodied in the holy flames of the Cosmo Candle. Upon the conclusion of the ceremony, the Guardians would retire to a hallowed cavern buried deep within the canyon, and there consummate their union.

It was from the previous Rite that Nanaki himself was conceived. Bugenhagen had reminded him as much, and how critical his role was to the endurance of his species. His pulse racing, his voice breaking, Nanaki had retreated slowly from the Planetarium, his eyes locked on the aged scholar's until the last possible second.

"Grandpa, I…I don't want to take part in the ceremony…"

He had escaped to Kumo Nagare after that, and paced beneath the blazing sun for hours, again contemplating his decision in the surroundings of his private sanctuary. What he felt then, he could not explain; he was trapped somewhere between shame and dread, with a dash of exhilaration for good measure. If truth be told, he was not ready for the commitment and sacrifice that accompanied the Rite. He had lost enough in his short forty-seven years.

Worse yet, he could not bear facing the reality that he was of Seto's ilk, that his brave mother had birthed a craven incapable of protecting anything.

They cannot force me to be an adult

The desert winds were as still as death today, and the intruder was far closer than he would have liked when their scent caressed his nostrils. It was a sweet smell, and one that caused his heart to skip a beat, his snout drawn along the tapered ridge of the mesa. He heard the muffled thud, thud of movement on dusty rock, nimble and delicate. Licking the back of his paw, he smoothed his mane as best he could, and assumed his proudest pose to await the imminent arrival.

"Nanaki!"

Deneh emerged from the sloping path in a trio of elegant but powerful bounds. She was just shy of six feet in length, a fraction smaller than himself, with a coat that shimmered as if it were molten amber. Like Nanaki, the tip of her slender tail was aflame to show she too had reached adolescence, though it seemed outshone to him by those enchanting sapphire eyes. But for his parents, Deneh was the only other Guardian he had ever encountered, and the most beautiful creature he had ever known.

"H…hello..." he welcomed her with a nervous bow, his jewelled plaits jangling as they fell aside his ears.

"So, this is where you've been hiding?" his companion purred teasingly.

"Hiding?"

"I've been looking for you." Deneh gave Nanaki an inquisitive glance as she approached, her tail dancing at her rear. "The Rite shall begin soon. I wondered if we might practice a little before the ceremony."

"I…I don't know," he mumbled, shifting uneasily on his haunches.

"What don't you know?" she asked suspiciously. "To carry out the Rite is the duty of our tribe, is it not?"

The words weighed heavily on Nanaki, suffocating him. There were a thousand things he longed to share with Deneh, yet a thousand reasons he held his tongue. The scale of his confliction was torturous: he could envision one future where he was a hero, a protector, a father; and another where he was consumed by insecurity, and fear, and everything he had inherited from Seto.

"Aren't you…frightened?" was all Nanaki managed in the end.

"Are you saying you are?" Deneh cocked her head, perplexed. "You're to be a warrior, entrusted with the safety of the Valley."

"Th…that's not it," he gulped, turning from her to mask his embarrassment. "There's no way you could understand how I feel."

"The ritual is an important birthright," she insisted. "As the only male and female Guardians in these lands, we must uphold and preserve our customs."

"Even so, I…" Nanaki trailed off, refusing to meet her stern gaze.

Just tell her

"But, we must," pleaded Deneh. "It is a betrothal of-"

"No!" he snapped, startling himself as much as his friend. "There's no way I'm going through with the Rite!"

"You cannot mean that?" she gasped, recoiling with hurt.

"I…"

A thick cloud of desperation enveloped Nanaki then. His thoughts were a haze, his actions beyond reason. Panicked by the outburst and the detriment it might have to his desires, he saw no option but to get away from this place as quickly as his legs would allow. Before Deneh could react, he launched himself from the ridge onto a protruding outcrop below and, hounded by a cry that echoed around Kumo Nagare, he fled from his responsibilities the way his father had done all those years ago.

"You're a coward, Nanaki!"

[BREAK]

"You loved her, didn't you?" Aerith determined, her tone soft as she broke the silence among the seven.

The Guardian's shoulders sagged pitifully, his wolf-like features a portrait of regret against the bonfire's radiance. "Yes…I yearned to have her for a mate."

Somewhere in the evening darkness, a lamenting birdsong resonated, its sound a stark contrast to the steady rhythm of the Starlet Tavern's drums and sitars. Shadows writhed amid the company, each of them a slave to the entrancing, ethereal tongues of the Candle. Cloud peered across at Tifa as she hugged her knees for comfort, and glimpsed a strange expression on her face; it reminded him again of their night at the Lature-Dano outpost.

What does she really see in the flames…?

"Why'd ya run, anyway?" Yuffie challenged him eventually, tossing back and forth a Materia orb that had miraculously appeared in her custody. Cloud made a mental note to have a chat with her about that later. "Aren't you a sucker for honour an' duty an' stuff?"

"At the time, I could not have said," confessed Nanaki. "I know now, though: only he who has nothing to lose can truly be free."

"You were afraid of losing Deneh," Aerith realised, bringing a hand to her mouth.

"The Rite to Appease the Planet requires great sacrifice," he went on, seeking to clarify his position. "It is no mere ceremony for us, but a pledge and devotion to solitude. After their holy union at the altar within the Guardians' Shrine, the pair will part. The male embarks upon his journey to become a warrior, while the female isolates herself in prayer for three years, finally emerging from the cavern to birth their cubs. This is the way of things. This has always been the way of things."

"I think I understand…" acknowledged the Cetra. "You didn't want to be abandoned by Deneh, right? Carrying out the Rite would separate you both for so long."

"I could not accept it…"

"Where are you going with all this?" Cloud interrupted bluntly, drawing shocked looks from the girls. "What does it have to do with AVALANCHE?"

"Cloud!" hissed Tifa, appalled.

"Forgive me," Nanaki responded in the ex-SOLDIER's defence, "I suppose the connection is not yet apparent."

"You said they tried to take somethin' precious," remembered Barret, propping himself up on the barrels of his gatling-gun. "You talkin' 'bout Deneh?"

Nanaki nodded solemnly. "AVALANCHE was born in Cosmo Canyon; their principals derive from the Study of Planetary Life. No doubt they were familiar with our traditions, of the significance of the Rite."

"AVALANCHE attended?" he spluttered.

"On the afternoon of the equinox, I was not alone in visiting the Research Centre," the beast told them, snarling as he spoke. "Fuhito, too, demanded an audience with Grandpa."

"Why Bugenhagen?" Yuffie grunted in bewilderment, dropping her orb.

"Fuhito was a student of Elder Mon Mos, and Grandpa was his mentor for many years when I was a cub."

"You jus' fulla secrets," Barret exhaled with a shake of the head. "There I was babblin' 'bout the leader of the old AVALANCHE, an' you forget to mention you knew him personally."

"I knew him a little, yes."

"What was he like?" Tifa asked curiously.

"From what I recall, he was very intelligent, very polite," revealed Nanaki. "A sharp mind for science, but dangerously obsessive, and his aura stank of callousness. Fuhito was committed to AVALANCHE, to the preservation of natural resources and the health of the Planet, even if it meant forfeiting his life. As such, he disapproved of the elders' diplomatic approach to Mako. He was a schemer, a strategist, and gathered support over time for his radical views, waiting patiently for the day when he could claim a weapon powerful enough to fight his war with Shinra."

Nanaki cleared his throat. "Then, one evening, Fuhito returned to Cosmo Canyon with a mysterious young woman he had found wandering in the Nibel Forest. Her mental state was fragile at best, but she was an extraordinarily gifted warrior. Fuhito and his cohorts embraced her as their own, and she assumed the name Elfé.

"When Elder Mon Mos passed into the Lifestream, AVALANCHE split in two. Elfé was given command of Fuhito's militant branch, striking blow after blow to the Company's facilities around the world."

"I've heard of her," added Cloud, reflecting on his early career in the Army. "If the accounts are true, she clashed with Sephiroth in Junon during the assassination attempt on President Shinra. And matched him."

"M…matched?" Aerith stammered, aghast. "It needed all seven of us and an Aeon just to slow him down."

"A feat few members of SOLDIER ever achieved," agreed Cloud.

"So, what happened to Elfé?" queried Tifa.

"It would seem she vanished," Nanaki replied with a shrug. "AVALANCHE's hunt for her was the subject of Fuhito's meeting with Grandfather."

Cloud was confused. "Why?"

"He sought information about some special Materia Elfé possessed. I am not privy to the details, but what I do know is that Fuhito threatened to obstruct the ceremony if Grandpa refused to comply…"

[BREAK]

I told Deneh there was no way she understood how I feel. How could she? Even I don't understand how I feel

Beyond the western sierras, the sun had turned the colour of molten rock, transforming the dry red landscape of the Valley into a crimson sea, disfigured by black silhouettes of crooked sandstone. Kumo Nagare was among them, towering high above the cliff to which Nanaki had withdrawn. He had settled on a secluded outcrop overlooking a canyon trail, as good a place as any to stay hidden from unwelcome eyes.

But for the quarrelling sahagins on an adjacent bluff, his refuge had remained undisturbed.

"You're a coward, Nanaki!"

Deneh's accusation chimed over and over in his mind. He was anxious to see his betrothed, to explain himself, but he was paralysed by the idea of losing her. Again, he sensed the darkness stirring within, like a seed preparing to sprout, with roots strong enough to one day strangle him if left unchecked. He wished to think no more of that fear, but it called to him softly, offering its name as if it were a whisper on the wind.

GilliganGilligan

A scurry of boots on the track below distracted Nanaki. He peered down to spy a triad of men clad in military-style uniforms. Each wore a greyish ensemble of shirt, combats and utility braces, their faces concealed beneath protective headgear. They were running in formation, their shadows long and formidable at this hour, radioing for backup as they closed in on their target.

Nanaki's heart stopped. They're chasing Deneh!

The female Guardian had paused to regain her breath in a cave entrance not eighty feet away. Scrambling clumsily from his lounged position, he tried to yell out to her, but the words caught in his throat. The fear tightened its grip on Nanaki, watching helplessly as the assailants bore down on his companion. Deneh glanced up as the three advanced, yelping with fright and disappearing from view. The soldiers pursued her into the tunnels, their angered shouts reverberating after them.

Is she alright? Nanaki's thoughts were frantic, trapped in a prison of his own making. What…what should I do?

Somewhere in the bowels of the mesa, Deneh let out a deep and worrying wail. Before he realised his intentions, Nanaki was airborne, soaring from the outcrop in a single mighty leap. He had agonised so much for so long that he was as craven as his father. It was necessity that drove him now, though, not courage; the wellbeing of his love suddenly superseded all apprehension.

Oh Gods, please let her be safe!

He landed hard on a spur that jutted from the precipice like a haggard claw, his feline instincts restoring his balance immediately.The ledge marked a secret access to the internal passages, an ancient labyrinth he had frequented as a cub. The shaded corridors twisted this way and that, illuminated by his blazing tail, and channelling Deneh's scent on the gusts that swept through them. She was headed northeast, he detected, bound for Cosmo Village and the relative haven of the native humans.

Hurtling along the tunnels, Nanaki took the right fork of a junction, scattering dust and dirt as he charged.Ancestral runes lined this route, carved from the rock at set intervals, glowing brilliantly as the lacquer painted in each groove reflected his flames. Whether they recounted a story or simply guided the way, Nanaki had never learned. His mother had once endeavoured to explain their meaning, but he was too young to appreciate it, and the language of his race was lost to him.

I cannot lose any more

Nanaki's shortcut soon brought him to a natural arcade that opened above a narrow ravine like the yawning maw of some terrible stone colossus. Between the gnarled stalagmite teeth, he saw the militants scuttling up the incline, agile and bullish as they navigated the scree. Deneh had already reached the ridge at its crest, but the trio had gained distance on her, and did not seem to be tiring.

Hatred coursed through his veins like wildfire, his muscles flooded by adrenaline. With a thunderous roar, Nanaki darted to the edge, and pounced from the overhang. Everything slowed to a crawl as he plunged into the gulch, his maddened eyes scanning the foes in those fleeting moments for weakness.

He collided with the first man, crushing him under his weight, and used his body to absorb the impact. In the same motion, he manipulated his momentum to lunge at the second, the silver barrette on his crown a makeshift battering ram. There was a sickening crunch as the combatant's ribcage shattered, but he showed no sign of pain as he collapsed to the ground.

What in seven hells…?

"Commander Kanos…" he croaked, slumping awkwardly when he drew his last breath.

The third soldier instantly forgot Deneh, instead turning to face Nanaki. He was an athletic specimen, sharp in the jaw and lean in the frame. Clearly the senior of the three, he was masked in heavy scarlet goggles, and had distinct insignias on his sleeves: ravens stitched in sable thread.

When he spoke, the commander's voice sounded abnormal, almost inorganic. "The male Guardian."

"Who are you?" demanded Nanaki, bearing his fangs.

"Nothing will stand in our way," Kanos answered with a leering grin. "For AVALANCHE! For the Planet! Down with Shinra!"

"AVALANCHE?" He was perplexed. "You're freedom fighters? What could you possibly want with Deneh?"

"It's not the female we seek," said the commander, raising a palm towards Nanaki. "Either Guardian will do."

A pale green haze formed around his arm, granting the briefest of warnings of what came next. Heaving back, he slammed his fist into the gravel, sending a blast of energy at the beast. It tore through the scree as easily as a fish through water, hurling stone chippings in every direction. Nanaki dived to one side, wincing under the onslaught, his thoughts a whirlwind.

He's using Quake Materia!

"You cannot stall us," Kanos repeated, unleashing another surge. "The Rite to Appease the Planet is the cost of your betrayal."

"What betrayal?" he barked, shielding himself. "The Guardians of the Valley have done you no wrong."

Amidst the cloud of dust his magic had generated, the helmeted figure loomed like a menacing wraith. "If you're not with us, you're against us. Eliminating you from the ceremony will guarantee cooperation. AVALANCHE will overcome."

"I refuse!" Nanaki declared, finally comprehending; there was only one way to ensure the protection of Deneh and Cosmo Canyon. "I must participate in the Rite!"

The commander sniggered in disdain. "We'll see if your kin is as stubborn."

"No!"

Nanaki sprang forward, his claws extended, slashing chaotically at the brazen human. Kanos dodged his attack effortlessly, landing a devastating retaliatory punch on his midriff. The Guardian's paws had barely touched the trail again when several follow-up blows pounded him in rapid succession. His world was an eruption of pain and disorientation, yet still Deneh's features flashed in his mind.

What's going to happen if they catch her? Will I ever see her again?

The prospect gave Nanaki the strength he needed to thrust his bulk into the AVALANCHE officer, causing him to stagger. Lashing out, he dragged his claws down Kanos' left cheek, spraying blood over the rock.

As he stumbled backwards, there was a crackle of radio static from the PHS on the operative's belt. "Commander, we have visual on the female target."

"Engage and capture," responded Kanos, his mouth a pool of dark crimson. "Down with Shinra!"

"Down with Shinra!" echoed the captain, terminating the transmission.

Kanos gazed at Nanaki and sneered. With a gloved hand, he wiped the gouges on his face, deliberately smearing the blood across his chin and grey shirt. A shiver cascaded the Guardian's spine as the wounds closed before his very eyes, healing themselves at a superhuman rate, faster even than the most advanced Materia. Horror-stricken, Nanaki retreated warily from the militant, but his enemy made no move to further his assault.

"Doesn't this impress you?" Kanos merely shouted after him, cackling. "Just imagine what our science will achieve with your precious friend in our possession."

Nanaki had no time to imagine; somewhere in the canyon, Deneh was calling his name. And her cries were filled with terror.

[BREAK]

"My recollection from then on is blurry at best," admitted Nanaki, battling to keep his demons at bay. His comrades listened in respectful silence as he scratched an ear with his hind paw, the jewels in his braids ringing softly. In the tavern, the tempo of the music had quickened, the mesmeric beat now mirroring the pace of the tale. Muttering to himself, the red-furred beast regained his composure. "I still have fragmented memories; remnants of what my fear could not erase."

"Godsdamn those AVALANCHE punks!" spat Yuffie. "Sounds like the same assholes that blew up my favourite pagoda in Wutai."

"Did you find Deneh?" Aerith asked eagerly.

"I tracked her through the caverns," Nanaki replied, "swift as the mountain wind. I was terrified; Deneh's safety was all that mattered to me. But the higher I climbed inside the mesas, the stranger things became."

Cloud frowned. "How so?"

"I encountered body upon body of fallen AVALANCHE soldiers in the tunnels, and evidence of a struggle. Despite my concerns, Deneh looked to be defending herself effectively. Even in the Cave of the Forefathers she had shown no mercy; many men lay defeated among the crumbling stone statues.

"The more I saw, the harder I ran, but what was waiting for me at the summit I did not expect…"

[BREAK]

He galloped along the gradient on tiring legs, his tribal bracelets grinding against his ankles. Slender and uneven was the path, treacherous to anyone that lacked his surefootedness. The sun was sinking into the west, dousing the sky in a thousand shades of red and purple, cooling the air as it went. From the distant village, a cacophony of drums could be heard; the festival had commenced.

Rounding a precarious bend, the ridge opened abruptly onto a rugged plateau, bare but for a few standing rocks near the verge of the shelf. Deneh was there, her tail whipping erratically as she arched her spine to make herself big, growling at the young woman who had cornered her.

"Stay back!" she ordered, charging her words with threat.

The lady was petite in stature, with a bob of dark hair that clung to one side of her sharp face. She wore a tailored black suit over a white blouse, and heeled brown boots that were camouflaged against the sandstone. She juggled a pair of throwing knives cockily, but Nanaki's vision was keen enough to notice the sluggishness of her left shoulder, as if she was nursing an old injury.

I…I can't allow my betrothedto be taken! I am not my father; I am not Seto. Deneh, I'll prove I'm no coward!

"Don't be afraid," insisted the woman, stepping forward, her blades poised. "I ain't here to hurt you."

"No!" bellowed Nanaki, bursting from the incline to position himself between Deneh and their adversary. "Get away from her!"

The girl recoiled slightly, losing her casual demeanour. "Whoa! Another one?"

"Neither of us will be going anywhere with you," Nanaki advised her. "We've got an important Rite to attend."

"Have you now?" chuckled the woman in black, her expression a mix of curiosity and bemusement.

"Nanaki…?" Deneh gasped. "Will you really take part?"

"Of course," he affirmed, eyes fixed on his opponent. "I'm much tougher than you think."

Behind him, he sensed his companion smile. "I know…"

"You must run," instructed Nanaki. "Hurry on to the village. I'll resolve things here."

"But…this human's dangerous," Deneh contested anxiously. "Didn't you see what she did to those men in the caves."

It was not my sweet Deneh who slayed the AVALANCHE militants?

"I'll be fine," he reassured her, snarling at the girl. "I'm a warrior, a Guardian of Cosmo Canyon."

"But-"

"Just go," he commanded firmly, glancing back. The look she gifted him in that moment was the one he had longed for since first he met Deneh, a blend of love and admiration, and one that would have given him the courage to confront an entire army. With a nod, she turned and sprinted off along the hilltop, soon vanishing from view. Only then did Nanaki address the woman again. "You're not a member of AVALANCHE, are you?"

"No," she answered bluntly.

"Who are you?"

"I'm with the Investigation Division of Shinra, Inc.'s General Affairs Department," she recited as if she had done so a million times before. Her accent was vaguely familiar in origin, probably from Corel.

"And why are you here?"

"Your species is of great interest to the Company." She shrugged indifferently. "The Turks have been assigned the task of escortin' one of you to Midgar. S'up to you if that's voluntary or involuntary."

"Go with you to Shinra Headquarters?" snapped Nanaki, edging closer. "To be a laboratory experiment? I think not."

The young girl stood her ground. "Let's remain calm, yeah? I don't wanna fight you."

"Silence!" he roared. "You're not taking us from our home!"

Rearing up, Nanaki howled louder and more ferociously than ever he had, a guttural sound to challenge her. He pushed off with untamed aggression, and tore towards her at speed, his paws pounding like sledgehammers on the dusty rock. Her reactions were lightning-quick, though, and she leapt aside with nimble ease, a flash of silver zooming by his snout. Skidding to a halt, Nanaki felt an intense sting on his foreleg, and looked down at where the thrown knife had grazed him.

"Consider it a warning shot," hissed the Turk, drawing replacement daggers from her belt. "Surrender now an' you won't get hurt."

"A warrior does not fear pain!" he retorted.

He charged again, zig-zagging across the plateau to evade her airborne weapons. She made no attempt to dodge, but countered with a low tumble, slashing at his shins as he careered past. Parrying what he could, Nanaki staggered, but managed to conceal his distress.

I will not give her the pleasure of enjoying this

Changing his tactics, he began to circle the woman like a stalking predator, his focus trained on the blades gripped in her white gloves; a single blunder and he would pounce. He wished no harm on the girl, but she could not be permitted to return with a larger force. Gnashing his fangs, Nanaki closed in on his foe, clawing at her to block her movements. Patiently, methodically, he drove her back, cutting her off between the stone erections and the cliff.

A few more paces and she'll be trapped

Suddenly, the Turk unleashed a volley of short knives. One pierced his leg, but the attack held another purpose: for him to falter just enough for her to thrust forward, slicing across his torso with the blades she had wedged between her knuckles. Nanaki screeched in agony, instinctively swiping out and tripping her.

As the girl stumbled, he lunged again, hurling all his might into what became a half-dive-half-somersault. They both landed hard on the floor, knocking the wind from the young Turk. She rolled over spluttering and wheezing as Nanaki clambered up, looming above her with borne teeth and pain screaming from a dozen lacerations beneath his fur.

Glaring upon her pleading eyes, he almost took pity on the cowering human, barely registering the green glow of Materia under her sleeve before he felt the Gravity magic launch him into the air. He struck a standing stone ten feet away, smashing his skull on its jagged face. His head swam with dizziness, but the adrenaline of the duel kept him sober enough to retain his balance, lumbering towards her with a determination not to accept defeat.

The enemy's final knife punctured his thigh, robbing him of his ability to advance any further, and with it all lingering hopes of victory.

Beaten, Nanaki slumped heavily to his haunches, weak from the blood loss and gashes on his muscles. The rough rock pressed on his lower belly, but his limbs could not bear his weight. He had fought robustly, yet the Turk was too skilled. His mother might have told him there was no shame in yielding to such an opponent; his mother was not here, though, and shame had long been an acquaintance of Nanaki's. The stab wounds on his legs would heal and scar, but the wounds to his pride would fester.

What counted, however, was that Deneh had escaped. Her freedom and safety were far more than mere consolation; they were worth the outcome of the battle.

The girl observed Nanaki as he panted for breath, grimacing with each motion. He noted a thin line of blood trickling from her forehead, but she was otherwise unscathed. Nevertheless, she kept her distance, clutching a dagger cautiously as the sound of hastened footsteps reached their ears. Nanaki peered around, anticipating another figure emerging from the incline.

AVALANCHE…?

Instead it was a lone man, clad in the same black suit uniform, with a shock of wild red hair pinned down at the front by thick-rimmed goggles. Unlike the professional appearance of his female counterpart, the man's clothes seemed to sag from his skinny frame, dishevelled and spattered with grime. He approached them with a swagger, tapping the electromagnetic rod he carried against his shoulder.

"Nice work, Violet," the male Turk called. "You caught it, yo!"

"So good of you to join us, Reno," the woman responded sardonically. "And, for your information, it is a he."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," scoffed the redhead, inspecting their target. "Let's just load him up and get back to base. It's a long flight to Midgar."

"Wait…" said Violet.

Nanaki watched her stare out across the Valley, her blouse absorbing the colours of the sunset. He was puzzled by her hesitation, as was Reno judging by the furrowed brows that had turned his gaunt face taut. A cool breeze danced over the plateau, tugging playfully at the girl's silken hair, and she slowly sheathed the knife she held.

"Wait for what?" her partner groaned impatiently.

"These animals, they…" Violet exhaled, gesturing to the Guardian. "There's somethin' about them. Somethin' unique. Our orders are to bring one back to HQ, but there's no reason to deny their involvement in the Rite to Appease the Planet. You said it yourself: witnessin' the ceremony is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why don't we let him participate?"

Nanaki searched her for an indication of deceit, but there was none. "I would be most grateful."

"So, you can talk?" Reno regarded him as if struggling to process that fact. "Gotta admit it…I didn't believe the brief."

"We should help him, yeah?" contended Violet.

"Haven't you just cut him to shreds?"

"Not by choice."

"Whatever," he grunted. "But, if he slips through our fingers, it's your ass that's gonna get hauled in, yo."

"If you allow us to fulfil our sacred duty, and Deneh to confine herself in the Guardians' Shrine," Nanaki named his terms, "I shall surrender myself to you. You have my word."

"Your word, huh?" Reno whistled incredulously. "Well, it only comes 'round once every fifty years, right?"

"Then, might I suggest we make our way to Cosmo Village," proposed Nanaki, cumbersomely rising to his feet, two of the blades still embedded in his leg. "The Rite will be starting soon."

"Go on ahead, yo." Reno gave a nonchalant wave. "I'll report in to the Chief…"

[BREAK]

"…and so the Turks honoured our arrangement," concluded Nanaki. "Deneh and I were reunited here, at the Cosmo Candle. Under the stars and gazes of five hundred celebrants, we offered up our prayers to appease the Planet, and led the procession to the Shrine. Afterward, I submitted to Shinra, Inc.'s custody."

"And they took you to Midgar?" asked Aerith.

"They did." In the radiant light, the brutality Nanaki had suffered was apparent, from old wounds to the branded 'XIII' on his left foreleg, and a missing eye. "Some of the scars on my body are the artistry of the female Turk. The rest is Hojo's doing. But, that's a story for another time. Either way, I brought disgrace on my ancestors."

"How?" Tifa questioned him. "You saved Deneh. You sacrificed yourself for her, for the ritual, for tradition."

"Because of Shinra…because of AVALANCHE…I could not be here to protect the village. Shame is why I have not spoken of this before now. For that, I am truly sorry, my friends. It is my desire to prove myself an adult and stalwart of this canyon, and atone if I can. I forsook my responsibilities as a Guardian, just as Seto did long ago…"

"Ho ho hoo, you really cannot forgive your father?"

The voice startled the group, each of them looking up sharply to see Bugenhagen drifting towards the mound. The elder was garbed in his usual robe of indigo, cross-legged on his ball, his spectacles aflame as they reflected the bonfire. He settled at last by the edge of the pyre, closest to his surrogate grandson.

"Seto does not deserve forgiveness," Nanaki replied eventually, his tone scornful. "He abandoned Mother when she needed him most. He abandoned those he was supposed to shield against invasion. He abandoned his only son to the anguish of the truth!"

"It is as I feared," the old man said softly, sighing as he lifted a dagged sleeve in the direction of the dark horizon. "Come, Nanaki, there is something you must see…"

72