Chapter Three: Arrival
Ever since she could remember, Tifa had been told that she had been born on an auspicious day. The old ladies of the village liked to tell her that a God had come to Nibelheim on the day she had been born, to bless her. While Tifa didn't truly believe the old biddies, she knew that something strange had happened on her birth date.
The records in the library had stated that the skies had been suspiciously clear in the morning, before a storm had blown in unexpectedly. It was a strange storm that no one had anticipated and had blanketed the village in darkness and cold white for three weeks. The superstitious had called it a test from the Heavens. The younger generation had thought of it as a freak storm.
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it abruptly ended. The thick clouds that had covered Nibelheim for weeks, cleared up without warning. That was also the first time that the infant Tifa had opened her eyes. Because of that, coincidence or not, Tifa was regarded as a special child. The elders adored her, and she was given special treatment by the adults, being treated with all the rights if she had been born a boy.
Even with that, the elders who clung to the older ways regarded her as something mystical. Few others did, but her family was pleased to have a 'son'. Girls born in winter were seen as bad luck. As long as she had the blessing of the Gods, then the stigma she was born with would be nullified. Her parents were grateful for that small fortunate thing, but that was all. Whatever else she may have been born with, abilities or potential, they cared little for.
But they couldn't hear the laughing.
During the day, on clear mornings or when the sun was high in the sky, Tifa could hear gentle laughing washing across from the snowy mountains. It was light and cheerful, and so very inviting that sometimes Tifa found herself wandering a mile out of the village, just to chase after it. No one had believed her when she told them about it. She had to explain it to her parents when they had found her nearly frozen on a snowdrift when she was seven.
The elderly had said that they were demons, calling her out to her death. Tifa doubted that. She wasn't sure why, but that pure laughter just felt too free to be something that meant harm to her.
...or that she was schizophrenic.
Cloud descended fast.
He hurtled to the Planet's surface on the back of Fenrir, his hands digging into the wolf's fur. "Faster." He murmured into the Guardian's ear. The wolf obliged, his powerful legs striding forth once. The wind whipped around them as they accelerated to near suicidal speeds.
The blonde could barely contain a whoop of joy.
They landed in hurried blast that was impossibly silent, Fenrir's paws barely sinking into the snow beneath them. Cloud hopped off, allowing his own boots to fall an inch through the crusted ice. Just a few feet away was the edge of melted snowfall encompassing a warm circle of green grass.
In the center stood a woman who appeared nearly plain against the vivid greenery. She looked wistful and waiting, but there was no mistaking the brightness in her eyes. From her core, she was a vibrant and strong woman.
Softly, Cloud approached, pausing at the edge of the snow. "Mother." He called out, almost shyly.
The woman turned around and smiled. "Cloud."
She beckoned him closer and he met her where she stood, mildly surprised to find himself standing a few inches taller than her. Smiling lovingly, she cupped her child's cheek with her palm and lowered his forehead to meet hers. Softly, Strife murmured words in a language Cloud had never heard before, but understood nonetheless. The words washed over him, warming him. Heat settled in his chest and on the skin of his forehead.
Slowly, Hugr Strife leaned back, admiring the symbol that glowed on the head of her child. He was most definitely her son. She brushed gentle fingers across his bangs.
"You grew too fast." She chastised teasingly, reaching up to ruffle his hair.
Cloud blushed winningly. "I wanted to meet you again, mother." He said shyly. "The director said I could after I finished this assignment."
"Such a good boy." The goddess murmured, kissing his cheeks. A little too good to be honest. He blindly and wholeheartedly believed what Lazard had told him. Her child still had to learn that not all people, no matter how good their intentions, were ever completely truthful. Although, she shot a side glance to the Ancient Guardian who hovered near Cloud's shoulder, he might have something to do with it. Fenrir preserved Cloud's innocence like it was the most precious treasure.
It brought a smile to her lips. Her boy was such a charmer.
Respectfully, Strife bowed her head toward the wolf and whispered her gratitude for watching over her child. Fenrir responded with a look that silently told her that it was something he intended to continue to do.
"Even in Midgar?" She asked, a touch of surprise coloring her tone.
The wolf snorted, of course.
"There will be other Guardians there." Strife pointed out.
Fenrir raised a brow, what do you think I'm protecting him from?
"Ah." The goddess nodded in understanding. She shared a smile with her son who seemed to not have followed the conversation. While her child had inherited her feminine looks and strong will, he had yet to grow into the broad frame of his father. She doubted if he ever would.
A brief protective streak flashed through her. If any of those other Guardians dared to lay an impure finger on her son, they would have to deal with the wrath of she who bore the name of Strife, just in case they had forgotten why it was their name to bear. The idle thought of making an example of it to Lazard before Cloud left lingered in her mind a moment longer than it should have.
A thought occurred to her then.
"Has he displayed any sign of his potential yet?" She asked, laying a hand on the forearm of her son. Cloud shot her a mildly quizzical look. Fenrir simply shook his massive head.
The wolf had done a splendid job of protecting her child. Her boy had not even yet scratched the well of power within him if his potential was still unknown. Though she was curious herself about what ability he would display, she was not willing to place her son in any amount of danger to find out. A small voice inside of her told her that no matter where on the Planet he would be, when his potential came out, everyone would know it.
As if reading her thoughts, Fenrir laughed suddenly.
His gleaming eyes told her, as long as I am there to protect him, his potential shall never be realized.
Somehow, the statement felt more like a threat than one that was meant to be reassuring.
"Mother?" Cloud's voice called out questioningly.
Hugr Strife turned to her child, a gentle smiling tilting her lips. She had almost forgotten that the ways of the Ancient Guardians were not the same as theirs. While Fenrir sought to watch over him, Cloud would only be as strong as he needed to be. Absolute power belonged to the Ancient Gods themselves.
"Fenrir was relating to me what a handful you are." She said playfully. "In fact, he mentioned an incident with a snowman…" She trailed off with a keen glance at her son's coloring face.
"That…that was…!" Cloud choked out a barely coherent sentence, recalling with horror, his attempts to produce a human sculpted from snow. He had not been completely sure what humans looked like beneath the several layers of clothing they typically wore, but had seen other children rolling snowmen together. He had incorrectly assumed that humans were made of balls. The innuendo was lost on him, but Fenrir would not forget it, especially after Cloud learned what testicles were.
The wolf turned his head slightly, to better view his charge's discomfort. If his mother knew about that, then she must have checked up on him at least once or twice while he had been on duty. A chuffing laugh broke from his throat.
"And the time where you assumed that the native Nibel wolves were Fenrir's children." She added in a thoughtful tone. "I do wonder how many wolves you checked in trying to find the 'mother' of them all."
Cloud's face turned a darker shade of red. "They weren't being very forthcoming about the answer, and neither was Fenrir." He said in his defense.
The goddess chose not to mention that it was because of the Ancient Guardian's amusement and the Nibel wolves' mortification that had allowed him to continue his curious endeavor for as long as it had gone.
She ran a hand gently through Cloud's hair. "You are a silly boy, but you are my silly boy, and I love you." She murmured, pressing another kiss onto his cheek. Pensively, she cupped her hand behind his head and leaned forward so their foreheads rested on one another.
"We've run out of time, Cloud. There is someone in Midgar you must meet, and I must return to my duties." She said regretfully. Stroking the soft hair beneath her fingers she sighed. "I'll miss you, my dearest child."
"I'll miss you too, mother." Cloud returned, snuggling into the warmth of his mother's hold while he still could.
Slowly, Hugr Strife pulled away, her clear blue eyes searching Cloud's. "Midgar is a very different place. It's a poisonous place where the Planet's Guardians perform their most difficult task. Be careful." She warned.
Cloud nodded, and behind him, Fenrir yawned.
"When you arrive, there will be someone waiting to meet you. Don't worry about whom, when you find her, you'll know." The words were coming out in a rush now. Fenrir was standing as well, ready to leave. "Don't forget what you've learned here." She whispered.
Then Fenrir had lowered his head tapping Cloud in the back with his snout. It was the only warning he had before the wolf had his teeth in Cloud's shirt and had tossed him over his back. With practiced ease, the young Guardian twisted in the air to land, comfortably sitting with his legs stretched around the wolf's neck.
"I won't forget. I promise." He replied. "I'll come back."
"I'll be waiting." With a last teasing smile, his mother waved farewell. "I'm glad that you found yourself a good mate." She said as Fenrir pushed off the ground, ascending before Cloud could sputter a response.
Tifa stared up in wonder as the massive wolf launched itself into the air. On its back rode a slender blonde that was somehow familiar. She watched them go with a touch loss, suddenly knowing that the source of that haunting laughter had been that blonde boy.
"It's been days." Zack grumbled.
"Of that, I am well aware." Sephiroth replied. "You've been reminding me for just as long as we've been waiting."
"Just how long does it take to cross continents? It shouldn't take this long." Zack muttered impatiently.
"Processing papers does." Sephiroth pointed out mildly.
"We're Guardians." The dark haired man complained, scratching his head. "We should be above paperwork."
"Bureaucracy stands still for no one, not even Guardians." Sephiroth said idly as he neatened a stack of files in his hands. "Speaking of which, Elena dropped by a while ago. Apparently someone had recently dropped in several reports which were two weeks overdue. Strangely though, there were no words written on them. Instead, there are drawings of stick figures in various situations."
Zack favored him with a look of innocence. "They say a picture's worth a thousand words."
Sephiroth remained unmoved. "Redo them." He said, handing him the files.
The younger Guardian groaned. "But they're all correct!"
"Reports are to convey information about current or recent situations."
"And my stick figures do that! See this one?" Zack pointed to a diagram of a man with a gun who had dark scribbles coming from his feet. Behind the gun-toting stick figure was another stick figure with a big sword stabbing the scribbles. "This is that crazy guy who was gonna shoot all those kids. And here I am, saving the day!"
"In words." Sephiroth said firmly.
Zack's face fell and he gathered up the remaining pages, muttering to himself. At hearing the vindictively mumbled "I'll show you words," Sephiroth sighed.
"Real words, in legible writing, that can be read and understood by humans of above baseline level." He rattled off in a flat tone.
Zack paused. "DAMMIT Sephiroth! You just have to go and ruin all my plans!"
"It's what I do." The man replied with a smile.
With Fenrir's speed, Cloud had arrived in Midgar in a matter of minutes. The wolf really knew how to ascend and descend, even if he had rarely done so the past few thousand years. The pair stood, Cloud's hand resting reassuringly on Fenrir's mane, hovering about a mile or so above Midgar. Their bodies were currently invisible to normal, human eyes. Guardians had the ability to make themselves seen and unseen at will, but Cloud had seldom used it. Nibelheim was safe enough and still tied enough to the Old Ways were the sight of Guardians would not cause a panic.
In the strange Midgar, however, the blonde had erred on the side of caution from Fenrir's prodding. He did as the wolf bade and hid himself from human eyes to observe their new home.
The city was… rank. Cloud wrinkled his nose in distaste.
There were black things all over the city. Worse, the black wiggles were inside people. He could see them infesting hearts and spreading out like little black roots. He had seen something similar in Nibelheim, but nothing as severe. In Nibelheim, there were gray shadows that sometimes attached themselves to people. Sometimes the grayness darkened, but it had never turned such a solid black as what was held in the Midgar.
Cloud saw a man sitting alone in a room. The black things had ensconced themselves so deeply inside his heart that they twined around his very core. The man looked sick, pale and sallow-skinned with hollow cheeks and dead eyes. His hands opened and closed spasmodically. Then, without warning, the man pitched forward, writhing. Black fluid spewed from his lips and oozed over him and onto the floor. From the fluid emerged hard-shelled creatures with sharp claws and large pincers. They raced out from the room, skittering along walls and down pipes, seeking out new hosts as their old one became consumed by the black poison.
Horrified, Cloud watched as the man transformed into a screaming, lumbering beast. The hand buried in Fenrir's fur tightened.
"We have to do something."
Standing, Reno dusted himself off. His descent had been a bit rough, and the place he had landed wasn't exactly up to his standards. Those guys needed to find a better place to hang out. The outskirts of Midgar's wasteland was a pretty boring place to set up home base. Though, it was probably also the freshest place while still keeping the city in range. With so few humans venturing into the wasteland, there were fewer shadows and wraiths out there too.
"Yo, update." The redhead said with a hand waved in greeting.
The two Guardians spared him an acknowledging wave before returning to their previous positions, Sephiroth hovering over Zack while he filled out his paperwork 'correctly.'
"No need to get all excited." Reno muttered dryly, flipping through a set of notes in his hand. "Anyways, a coupla things going on. One, your back-up is enroute. Two, some Ancients are meandering around the Planet. Three, someone's been doing your job for you. That's about it. See ya." He gave a half-assed salute with the notepad and prepared to jump.
A black gloved hand snaked around his wrist and held him in a viselike grip before Reno could ascend to the safety of the company office.
"What did you mean by that?" Sephiroth asked, his eyes glowing softly.
Not angry, just curious, Reno observed, relaxing slightly. He must have been wondering about the last comment. The first was just an update, and the second tended to happen every so often. It was a quirk of the Ancients. They loved to wander.
The Turk went back to the notes in his hand. "Says here that shadow and wraith activity for Midgar has been down three percent in the past two days. Eradication occured in bursts and were logged during times that you were currently occupied, or had gone unreported."
Sephiroth shot an annoyed glare in Zack's direction, to which the other Guardian feigned innocence.
"Hey, I reported all my cleanses." He said in his defense. "And I never took down anything big enough to cause a drop like that. It takes too long to extract shadows, and wraiths are even worse." Zack waved his pen to emphasize his point. "The last big job I did, we did together, and that hardly put a dent into things. It's hard enough to just keep up with the birth of wraiths, nevermind the shadows."
The silver-haired Guardian had to concede that Zack was correct on the matter. Still, that gave him an odd feeling about the cleanses which were not being performed by the assigned Guardians.
"Tell me," he said stiffly, "has our third Guardian arrived yet?"
Reno shrugged unhelpfully.
"Grand." Sephiroth muttered to himself. So, it was a possibility that the third Guardian had already arrived and preemptively began their work, without waiting for an explanation from them. Diligent, but unwise considering the complexity that cleansing required. They would have to track down their wayward Guardian as soon as possible, before something irreparable happened.
Summoning his sword to him, he strode forward, knowing Zack would quickly follow. They would need each other to scan Midgar for their absent Guardian.
Wisely, Reno stepped out of their way as they swept past him. He smirked to himself, thinking that Midgar was about to get that much more interesting. Not two minutes since being informed about their new Guardian and Sephiroth was on the warpath.
Done with Chapter Three on the last day of Nanowrimo. Failed this year (again) but it was fun anyways. Sorry that this chapter comes off as a bunch of filler. I was trying to answer some questions that were asked, and I'm hoping it worked out.
Ugh, and Cloud still hasn't met with Zack and Sephiroth. It was supposed to happen this chapter but it didn't. I have no idea how to pace stuff.
Thank you for all your reviews. For some reason, the site isn't letting me reply to them from my e-mail, but I've been reading them all. Hope everyone has had a great November.