Disclaimer: Mystically not mine.
A/N: Started as a drabble, continued as catharsis. Yes, yes, I know, vampires are boring and everywhere at the moment. Consider this my addition to an overly-loved cliché. The dialogue from this first chapter is influenced (and sometimes quoted) from both the game Crisis Core and the OVA Last Order.
Feedback is appreciated, loved, cherished and begged for.
© Scribbler, September 2011.
1. First Blood
Zack's shout echoed across the chamber. He braced himself, both hands wrapped around the Buster Sword. Sephiroth was across the miniscule conduit-bridge, but Zack knew from years spent around him that the Silver General was fast. It didn't matter that Sephiroth didn't turn at his shout; it would take less than a blink for him to get over here. Last week that wouldn't have been a problem. He and Zack were colleagues – even friends. They had a healthy respect for each other and the world around them. A week ago, Zack would not have faced Sephiroth with blade drawn outside a sparring match.
A week ago Sephiroth wouldn't have killed en entire village and set fire to the remains.
"Why?" Zack demanded. "Why did you do it?"
Sephiroth still didn't turn. He ran a hand lovingly over the metalwork suspended on a platform in the middle of the chamber. Above him read the legend: JENOVA.
"What's wrong with you?" Zack insisted. His hair smelled of smoke and charred flesh. He could still hear the screams of the dying and see bodies sprawled throughout the streets they had walked down only days ago. "Why did you kill all those people? Why did you set fire to their homes?" He thought of the girl on the stairs only a few feet away. She had done nothing more heinous than show them around and try to help them in their investigation. "Why did you hurt Tifa? Tell me, Sephiroth. Tell me!"
"Mother," Sephiroth murmured. Anyone without SOLDIER-enhanced senses would not have been able to hear him.
Zack froze. Confusion rattled through him, along with a seed of dread. It was only one word, but the way Sephiroth said it gave him chills. "What?"
"Let's take this planet back together," Sephiroth said.
"Take back the planet? Sephiroth, what are you talking about? Sephiroth!"
"I wasn't talking to you. Mother was supposed to rule this world. She had the superior strength. She had the power and will to make it happen." Sephiroth bent forward, touching his forehead to the figure. "But those worthless fools were afraid of her."
Dismay rose in Zack like bile. No, he thought. It can't be. Not him.
With some of that legendary speed, Sephiroth grabbed the metalwork and tore it away. "Come with me!" He held out his arms to the glass cylinder it had concealed. Broken pipes belched steam and other noxious fumes. Hoses writhing around him like dying eels. Blue jolts of electricity spangled the air. Sephiroth didn't appear to notice any of it. He was totally focussed on the pale blue figure in the cylinder. "Mother …"
Zack adjusted his grip on his sword. Jenova's fangs were prominent. It was the work of a moment to cross the divide and level his blade at the side Sephiroth's neck, where the jugular pulsed. Zack could see it beneath Sephiroth's skin. He held onto a desperate hope that he was wrong, despite his friend's words.
He lowered his voice so he wasn't yelling. He tried to modulate his tone too. This was Sephiroth, hero to millions, all around good guy and rescuer of Zack's own miserable life. Once upon a time, Zack would have died on a lonely night in the woods outside Gongaga, or in the days afterward, if not for Sephiroth. He couldn't just write him off without investigating what was wrong. "What happened to you?"
The eyes that looked sideways at him were red, not green. When Sephiroth spoke, Zack could see his canines were elongated and sharp. "I'm awake," he said softly. "I've finally awakened to my birthright."
"No." Zack shook his head. "No, this isn't you."
Who in town could have done it? The vampire infestation was widespread, but Nibelheim was clean; all the reports said so. It was remote and far away from most cities, where close-quarters increased the likelihood of infection. Shinra had sent them out here with excessive documentation to say the little mountain town was human-only. Besides, even if a single vamp had made it in, Sephiroth could have stopped it biting him. He was trained for it. The virus was spread through saliva, which meant vamps had to get close enough to sink their teeth into you. With Masamune and his lightning reflexes, no way could they latch onto Sephiroth long enough to draw blood. He still had a pulse, for Ifrit's sake! He wasn't a vampire!
"This is me," Sephiroth said. "The real me. Her blood is my blood. Her strength is my strength. Her powers have always been inside me. Now they've awakened." He smiled. It was the single most terrifying thing Zack had ever seen. "I'm going to remake the world for her."
"You can't," Zack said.
He didn't know everything, but he knew enough: how Jenova was the original source of the virus; how it had been dormant for thousands of years until it resurfaced recently; how Shinra scientists were looking for a cure that wasn't sunlight, decapitation or a wooden stake through the heart. Zack hadn't known Jenova's corpse was here. He hadn't even known Shinra possessed it, though it made sense. A crude stake, constructed from what looked like a primitive spear, jutted from her chest. As if that wound wasn't enough, the rest of her pale blue body was also studded with broken off spears, javelins and arrows. Apparently the original was tougher than her descendants
"You don't have any bite marks."
"I wasn't bitten," Sephiroth said. "I wasn't made, I was born." He shifted his gaze back to the dead vampire. "I was born from her, for her, and now I'm going to do what I was born for. This is her world. Its people are her people. They just don't know it yet."
"Please, Sephiroth, don't do this." Zack's fingers cramped. "You know I'll have to fight you if you do. We're SOLDIERs. We fight vampires."
Sephiroth looked at him with disdain. It wasn't the look of the man Zack knew. "Traitor," Sephiroth said simply, and attacked.
The fight was short and brutal. Zack found himself on the defensive almost instantly. Partly he was reluctant to unleash fully on his friend, but that was quickly subsumed by the simple fact that Sephiroth was better than he was. He had always been the best the SOLDIER programme had to offer, but he and Zack had pretty much broken even in sparring matches. This was a new level of skill, speed and strength. The powers of the vampire added to Sephiroth's own innate abilities, plus the enhancements given by mako treatments, were astonishing. Soon Zack fought in earnest, holding nothing back. He remained on the back foot. Their acrobatics sent them around the chamber like pinballs in a machine, coming together with the clash of steel on steel, before shooting away again. Sparks strafed the air. Dents appeared in pipes ostensibly with nobody touching them.
A line of pain blazed across Zack's belly. Sephiroth had drawn first blood. Zack spiralled away, swinging his sword one-handed, but Sephiroth kept coming at him. The attack was quick-fire and relentless. Zack's left foot slipped and he somersaulted into empty air. He tried to turn the fall into a dive, aiming for the platform near the entrance. While he was still airborne Sephiroth appeared beside him. He batted so hard with his fist, Zack bounced right through the entrance and ploughed into one of the containment units outside. The force embedded him deep into the metal. He sat there, warped metal digging into his back and sides, stunned and reeling.
Boots landed and clomped towards him. His vision was full of flickering black and white dots. He struggled to get up, but something was wrong with his legs. They didn't respond the way they should. His lower back screamed and his ears hammered with his own pulse.
Did he do that much damage in just one strike? "Y-You're not … the Sephiroth … I know …" he wheezed.
The boots paused in their approach. "I am the chosen one," Sephiroth said with pride. "I have been chosen to rule this planet."
Zack wasn't afraid of many things. Once upon a time, one night in particular, he had felt fear enough to freeze his mind and shut down his body, but since joining SOLDIER the number of things he feared had shrunk. Fear of dying had dwindled most of all. You couldn't help feeling invincible when you were pumped full of mako.
Right now he was terrified – not for himself, but for his friend and what had happened to him. He blinked up at the man he had shared a meal with only the night before. Sephiroth had stolen his soda bread. Zack had hidden his spoon in retaliation so he couldn't eat his broth. The innkeeper had watched them with a smile, but Tifa, their guide, had laughed openly and given Sephiroth her spoon instead. They had been so happy. Sephiroth had been almost playful – something his enemies, plus half the people at Shinra, never would have believed. What had happened to change him? How had it come to this?
Sephiroth raised Masamune, but stopped. He lowered the katana with a shake of his head. "Killing you now would serve no purpose." He sheathed the blade and hunkered down next to Zack, either knowing he was incapacitated or not caring that he might strike out again. "Mother and I will need strong warriors to fight for us and spread her gift to every insignificant soul on this corrupt little world."
Zack saw what was coming and put on an extra burst of strength. For a moment he was sixteen years old again. He swung a punch, but Sephiroth pinned his arm against the crumpled metal. A shard jabbed right through Zack's bicep. He cried out in agony. It took a lot of force to puncture a SOLDIER's skin.
Sephiroth's eyes widened at the spurt of blood that hit him in the face. His canines lengthened even further and his eyes became so red they were almost black. Zack tried to kick out, but he couldn't feel anything below his waist. Sephiroth wrapped his glove around Zack's throat and made to hoist him up. He only stopped when his midriff exploded in a shower of blood and gore.
At least, that was what it looked like from Zack's point of view. He stared as the red spray resolved itself into a rectangular chunk of metal, which wedged in the walkway between them. Sephiroth stared down in genuine shock. He looked over his shoulder. Zack followed his gaze to the figure holding tight to the abandoned Buster Sword.
"C-Cloud …" Zack choked out.
He must have dropped the sword when Sephiroth sent him out here. Cloud had seen an opportunity while Sephiroth was distracted, picked it up and done what Zack could not. Sephiroth was impaled and anchored to the floor.
Zack found it difficult to breathe, but managed to say, "Cloud, r-run! He's … not … human …" Metal wouldn't stop a vampire until it was used to separate the head from the body. Cloud couldn't have seen Sephiroth's face from that angle, had not seen the red eyes or fangs and so couldn't have known that just stabbing him wouldn't stop him. "Run … Cloud …"
"He took away my village," Cloud said in a strangled voice. "He killed my mother and hurt Tifa. He burned everything – everyone! They weren't all dead. They burned to death because of him! They burned to death and they screamed –"
"Insignificant worm," Sephiroth snarled, cutting him off.
Impossibly fast for someone weighed down by a massive sword, he whipped out a fist and struck Cloud. Zack heard ribs crack as Cloud flew backwards. He cannoned into the doorframe of Jenova's chamber and slumped. Zack hoped he was just out cold. Cloud was an unenhanced human. His body could take much less punishment.
As if it was nothing, Sephiroth released Zack and stood, using the momentum of the movement to wrench the Buster Sword from the walkway. Unable to reach the hilt, he pressed the flats of both hands against the blade and forced it out backwards. It clanged to the floor behind him, followed by a wash of thick, reddish-black blood. Sephiroth turned and started walking towards Cloud.
Cloud, Zack thought, hazy with pain. "Cl …" He couldn't even get out the whole syllable.
Change, whispered a voice in the back of his mind. The order was implacable. The pain radiating through his body made it easy to ignore or write off as the delirium talking.
For the first time, Sephiroth wavered. He may have been far more than just human now, able to withstand far more damage, but even he could only take so much. Nearly being gutted was high on the list of Things That Might Actually Kill The Silver General. He stumbled and fell to one knee.
"Collaborator," he rasped at Cloud. "You don't deserve a place in our new world." He got to his feet with difficulty and stumbled forward. Cloud wasn't exactly a heavyweight, but Sephiroth picked him up with ridiculous ease. He clamped his hands on Cloud's elbows, pinning his arms to his sides and lifting him up.
Cloud's head flopped back, exposing his neck. He moved bonelessly but a groan showed he was still alive. He even tried to struggle a little. Zack's whole body went cold at the sight.
"But you can still serve a purpose," Sephiroth went on. "You can replace the blood you made me lose."
Enough lives had been lost today and enough blood had been spilled. Zack couldn't lose Cloud too. He wouldn't. He refused!
He had joined the SOLDIER programme to get stronger, so he could fight the vampires. He hadn't lied on the application forms. He hadn't lied to anyone. He hadn't knowingly concealed anything. Zack's secret didn't show up in any blood-work or aptitude tests. No scientist or psychologist had detected anything different about the eager boy who so wanted to join Shinra's elite.
He had lost control last time. When he realised what had happened, he had promised he would never do it again, and worked to become stronger so he never would. Angeal, Shinra and SOLDIER had taught him the self-discipline to keep his instincts in check. If Angeal had suspected something wasn't right about his pupil, he had never pushed the issue. Now, however, Zack had no choice. He had to save Cloud.
Greyish-black hair sprouted all over his body. Zack's back arched as bones reversed inside him. His musculature stretched and twisted into unnatural shapes. His clothing ripped. Internal organs slurped, rerouting, shrinking, expanding and disappearing altogether as his whole body changed. Zack spasmed like he was being repeatedly electro-shocked. The pain was nearly unbearable. Last time that had driven his conscious mind into hiding and left him nearly comatose afterwards.
But Zack had lived a whole life between that moment and this one.
Sephiroth jerked in shock at the howl, but didn't have time to react before a shape hurtled into his side, knocking Cloud out of his grasp. Sephiroth teetered on the edge of the walkway. With a grunt he righted himself and stared at the enormous black wolf now planted between him and the bleeding boy.
Can't have. Thethoughts came fragmentally. No. Brother. Kin. Go away. Bite you. Kill you. Make you dead.
"A … werewolf?" Sephiroth stammered.
His entire chest rumbled with warning. He was moving fine now – better than fine. Shifting healed him, but he paid the price by losing all but a few vestiges of rational thought. He clung to the reason he had transformed, hoping they would keep him connected with his humanity. He crouched low, the smell of blood thick in his nostrils. The enemy's mouth and chin were stained red.
Too late. Not fast enough.
"You're a werewolf?" Sephiroth echoed incredulously. Instead of fear, a wide smile spread across his face.
His higher brain functions weren't operating fully in this form, but he knew that wasn't a good thing.
"A traitor all around," Sephiroth said.
Cloud's neck was an open wound. Blood continued to pool around him, spreading and sinking into the grooves of the corrugated floor. The smell of fresh death made every strand of fur stand on end. This wasn't the death of prey; this was family. He took a step towards Sephiroth, still snarling.
Failedpack-brother. Punish. Enemy. Vengeance.
Sephiroth stared a moment longer, still wearing that alarming smile. It was as if he knew the punch-line to a joke nobody had told yet. He sprang to his feet, rejuvenated by the blood he had taken from Cloud, and bounded into Jenova's chamber. The jingle of breaking glass resounded through the door, followed by a hideous, acrid stench. The stink of rotting flesh and chemicals made a sensitive nose sting even at this distance. Sephiroth reappeared, Jenova's severed head dangling from his hand.
"You're both traitors to Mother's vision for this world. You're abominations, and you must be terminated!"
If Zack had been thinking clearly, or thinking at all, he may have countered that with a witty retort. In his current state, he just perceived the threat and launched himself at it. He was Alpha Wolf. He could take on a vampire. He had the bulk, teeth and claws to rip an enemy's head right off its body.
Brute strength was his specialty. Forward planning was not.
One moment Masamune was in its scabbard; the next, Sephiroth had the blade pointing at him. He twisted away, but still received a strike along his flank. He roared in pain and rage. His paws had barely touched down before he was jumping back into the fray. His jaws ached for Sephiroth's soft throat. He managed to strike so hard that Sephiroth was knocked onto his back. Strong jaws snapped, but Sephiroth twisted despite the awkward position. He slammed the butt of his katana into the wolf's soft gut hard enough to send him crashing against the wall.
It continued this way for several minutes, two predators dealing and taking damage that would have killed a regular human. Alpha's jaws became speckled with pink froth. Masamune glimmered scarlet.
Failed! Pack-brother! Punish! Enemy! Vengeance!
Finally, the wolf skimmed over the edge of the walkway. He dug his claws in, creating divots in the steel. No ordinary wolf could have stopped itself that way. It was the action of someone who remembered having arms and opposable thumbs. He clung there, hind legs pedalling empty air furiously.
Sephiroth towered over him. Unbelievably, he had kept hold of Jenova's head throughout their battle. An engorged purple tongue jutted between her blue lips. He panted, voice gargling as the furrows clawed across his collarbone and cheek tried to heal. His handsome face was now pitted and twisted with the battle-lines of hatred and cruelty.
He raised his katana. "There is … no place … for your kind … in the world … I'll build for –"
The wolf mind wasn't fully aware of what happened next. Zack guessed it from the sensations that followed: the swoosh of air, a body flying over him, a flare of something hitting the mako reactor's core, and the feel of hands gripping his forelegs. Someone hauled him back onto the platform, where he sprawled, panting and frantically scenting the air. His muscles trembled with exertion and adrenaline still flooding his system.
"We did it," Cloud whispered. He was on his hands and knees. "We actually did it."
Had Cloud pushed Sephiroth off the platform? Everything from ears to tail shuddered from pain and the certainty that here was another enemy. Cloud's scent was wrong. It made the wolf's hackles rise. One lip curled in a half-snarl, even as the bit that was Zack, not Alpha Wolf, protested that this was Cloud.
"Zack?" Cloud's voice was uncertain. "That … is you in there, isn't it?"
No! Zack thought. Enemy gone. This is … His fragmented mind searched for the right way to put it. Pack-brother. Safe.
Smells bad. Like enemy. Make enemy dead.
"Zack?" Cloud sounded even more uncertain, and also in pain. He raised a hand to his throat. "I don't … I don't feel so … good …"
Gratefully, he felt his muzzle begin the shrink away and his tail recede. His skin prickled where coarse hair retreated back into the follicles. His sense of smell dimmed as his ability to see a broader spectrum of colours returned.
"Za –" Cloud blinked his red eyes once and collapsed.
When he was still only halfway through his transformation, Zack had to stop. He couldn't move. He was healed, but so exhausted he literally couldn't move. Every nerve cell in him tingled and his mind whirred with a thousand unwelcome thoughts and recollections of the last time he felt like this. He could barely process everything that had happened, much less force his aching body to finish the change. His vision swirled and a creeping darkness stole away every sensation, one by one. He couldn't feel the cold metal beneath his bare skin. He couldn't hear the drone of the reactor. He couldn't even hear Cloud's breathing. Was Cloud breathing? Was Cloud … dead? Had he really risen up to save Zack and kill the Silver General, or had that just been a hallucination created by his own mind as it refused to accept his friend's death?
Too slow, Zack thought. I was … too slow … I'm sorry … Cloud …
And then there was only oblivion.
The sky burned purple and red with the flames left by the fireball. It had fallen to earth days ago, but the horizon had remained a boiling mass of flame and cloud ever since. The humans were all frightened and hiding in their caves and mud huts, leaving the magical races to defend them against the calamity that had fallen from the heavens but brought only hell. If you looked hard enough, you could convince yourself there were faces in the sky, watching their preparations and laughing.
The hills overlooking the crater were just far enough for the grass not to be scorched, but close enough that the hot air dried out your eyeballs and made your hair drift in the updraft. People continued to gather, but nobody moved forward. An expectant atmosphere pervaded them. Milling groups whispered and wondered about what they were doing.
"Do we have to?"
"Why not the humans?"
"We're stronger than them, that's why."
"They're nothing but savages."
"But we're not all warriors. Why should we all have to fight?"
"The call said everyone had to come."
"Everyone able-bodied and willing. I'm not willing!"
"Then why are you here?"
"Because … because I couldn't not be here."
"Isn't there another way? There has to be some other way!"
The crater simmered with dark energy. Coils and wisps leaked over the sides, reaching across the lifeless, charred ground. It was looking for food. It was looking for them. A few incautious youngsters had tried to attack it already, using their magic to get safely across the wasteland the impact had created, only to be caught and drained like flies in a spider's web when they got too close to the edge. Their shrivelled husks had turned to dust and blown away on the warm breeze. That memory seethes through everyone, feeding their fear. They don't want to be here.
The sky briefly lit up in a flash of brilliant white. It might have been a beam of sunlight cutting through the clouds, but it was night. Everyone looked up. Even the dark energy threaded upward, as if it could sense new sources of power to be drained and used as fuel.
As if on cue, smaller puffs of light and shadow erupted across the hillside. A few of the crowd squealed. Things took shape amongst them; a menagerie of feathers, paws, claws, snouts, tails, beaks and tufts of fur. Glittering smoke became tufted ears. Vapour reformed into wings. Green mist took on the contours of creatures that were familiar and yet not; solid but insubstantial. You could see through each one but you knew without doubt that they were really there.
A particularly large creature stepped forward. Whether by size, age or strength, it seemed to be the leader of the newcomers. At least, none of them contradicted on interrupted when it spoke.
"We have come."
The thing made of light from the sky landed in front of it. Like the creatures, the light reformed into figure, which stood taller and prouder than the other humanoids around it. A different kind of magic surrounded him; older and stronger. This was a proven warrior.
The creature held its gaze. "Not your fight."
"This is everyone's fight."
"This isn't an enemy like any you've fought before. You need all the help you can get."
"Spirits always enough before."
"Not this time. Too much is at stake."
"Speak for them?" The creature tipped its head at the trembling crowd.
"We're here to help save everyone and everything on this world."
"Answer without answering," it scoffed. "Should expect from you. Tricky. Not human. Not elf. Not trustworthy. Have no stake. Not from this world. Why care about it?"
"This world is my home now. I will fight to protect it."
The creature tipped its head to the other side, assessing. "Truth?"
"It's worth it." The figure drew a weapon that looked like something magic-blind humans would wield, but which glowed with power twice as strong as that of the elves around them. "This world is worth fighting for."
After a pregnant pause, the creature nodded. "Fight together."
The figure nodded back and turned to face the darkness.
"Rip you to pieces if fail."
"Perfect," muttered a voice above them. "Why did I let you talk me into this?"
To Be Continued …