The elevator doors opened and Aerith stepped out and stopped, overwhelmed at the side. "Deployment level" was a massive subway station deep below the Shinra building. Several train tracks spread out into darkened tunnels, the train platforms stocked with trains. The elevators opened on a platform over a wide staircase leading down to the large platforms.
"Yeah, the first time is impressive," Zack said, coming up behind her as the other SOLDIERs in the elevator descended the stairs.
"On these main trains, everyone! Whoever doesn't get on is left behind to wait for the second trip!" A First was shouting orders down on the platform, and Aerith regained her focus as she heard him. Grabbing Zack's hand she ran down the stairs past the others and looked between two trains that were being loaded up.
"Does it matter?" she asked.
"Nope," Zack shrugged. Aerith nodded and climbed into one. The train consisted of four cars, one of which looked different from the rest and was at the front of the train, followed by the engine. The inside of the car was a row of seats along both walls, straps to hold the riders in place laying against the seat backs. Aerith sat down in one and pulled the straps over her shoulders, clipping them together over her waist. Zack sat down behind her and followed suit.
"Excited?" he asked, looking over at her. Aerith nodded. She hoped her grin wasn't showing on her face too much. She'd get in trouble with someone if it was seen she was happy to be sent into an emergency, but she was. Finally she could get some real combat experience and put her skills to a real test.
"We have room for four more on this one, then send her off!" a voice called from outside the car. Four more SOLDIERs – two Thirds in teal uniforms, a Third in blue, and a Second in red – loaded into the car, and the door was slid shut from the outside. Aerith made a slight face as one of the teal Thirds sat down in the empty seat on the other side of her. She cast a slight glance over at him to see his helmet in his lap and his hands fumbling slightly with the straps. She rolled her eyes and turned them back forward. Rookie.
The train jerked slightly, and the Third lurched forward, his helmet falling on the car floor. The train began to grind down the rails, the car shaking, and the Third stayed hunched over. Zack looked down and picked up the helmet, extending his hand over Aerith's lap.
"Thanks," the Third said, taking it from him and holding it with one hand to hang between his legs.
"So what's going on anyway?" Aerith asked, turning to Zack. "When do we get a briefing?"
"Normally before we get on, but this is different," he said. Aerith nodded and leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She was nervous, anxious. Not only was it her first time in the field, but no one was quite sure what was going on. She tried to calm herself, took a few deep breaths. They didn't help. Her senses were on alert and would not be quelled.
"Everyone quiet!" Aerith opened her eyes and turned to the front of the car to see a First standing there. "Director Lazard is being patched through to the PA system to give us a briefing!" As he spoke the speakers in the train crackled, and soon the slightly distorted voice of the director filled the car.
"…at this time we do not know the identity of the assailants, but they are well-armed and well-organized. The attack has been swift and was done during a brief lapse in security during a guard turnaround, so they have planned this well in advance and can be assumed to be prepared for a response. Armaments are firearms and hand to hand weaponry, close-quarters combat is recommended."
"Good," Aerith whispered to herself, her eyes bright.
"We believe their target is President Shinra, who was at the city to christen the newly completed mako cannon built over the harbor. He was accompanied by the Turks, and while our radio communications with them have been cut, we are acting as though he is still alive and in their protection. Of the two trains that have been deployed, Track A is to contain the attackers and push them out of the city. Track B's task is to secure the president and get him to the helipad so he can be taken to safety."
"Which one are we?" Aerith asked, leaning towards Zack.
"B, I think," he replied. Aerith couldn't help but grin. A rescue operation, to save the President himself. She couldn't have planned anything better short of Sephiroth being incapacitated with him.
"He said mako cannon, that's Junon," Zack whispered back.
"I've heard of it," Aerith nodded. The massive harbor was Shinra's secondary base of operations, and held access to the harbor that let them send forces around the world. The mako cannon however was a show of arrogance. No one who would dare challenge Shinra would need a weapon like that to be defeated, and if they did then they would know better and go for Midgar where no such superweapon was planned.
"We do not have time to assign commanding officers, so in doubt defer to any SOLDIER of higher rank, or rely on your own judgment. At all times, the priority is to get the President to safety, disregard all else until he is clear of the city. We believe he is at the Presidential residence atop the mako cannon, but we cannot be sure. Search everywhere. Good luck, SOLDIER." Lazard's voice and the crackling died down, and Aerith took a deep breath. There was a sound of sliding metal as two Firsts near the back of the train slid up two steel doors to reveal two pull-out ranks lined with standard-issue SOLDIER blades. They began passing them down the line of sitting troops. The Third next to Aerith passed one to her, which she quickly moved on to Zack. She had her staff, that was enough.
"Pass the blades down to the next person, if they already have one, that blade is yours," the First from before announced. He was now walking down the aisle with an open case held with both hands. "Take whatever Materia you deem suitable," he lowered the case down, and as he passed by hands reached into the case and withdrew the glowing yellow and green orbs inside. Aerith ran through her head what Lazard had said.
"Close and long-range weapons, fighting in melee with ranged supporters," she recited. "And protecting the President…Barrier." The First reached her and Aerith reached into the case. She ghosted her fingertips over the orbs as she had been taunt, the tingling of energy identifying them to the trained combatant, and pulled out a Barrier Materia. She reached to her armband and pulled back the spring-loaded covering that concealed one of three Materia slots with her middle finger, and let the Barrier Materia fall into place and be covered as she let go of the cover.
"What'd you take?" Zack asked. The Third next to Aerith passed her a sword and she handed it over to Zack.
"Seal and Fire. Incapacitate and attack," he smiled, pressing the two hatches on the hilt of his sword that formed the two halves of the SOLDIER logo. The spring-loaded lids popped up and Zack pressed the two light green orbs in before pushing the lids back down.
"I want you with me," Aerith said. Zack looked up at her and grinned.
"Really now?" he asked.
"During the mission," Aerith continued, unfazed and partially expecting that reaction. "You know the city, and you've got field experience."
"Gotcha, if you need help, I'm your guy," Zack nodded. Aerith looked down at her armband and the slight green glow coming from it now. Having Zack with her was helping, he was used to this type of situation, more than her anyway. The train hit a bump, and the Third next to her fell to the side and put a hand on her knee to catch himself from falling into her lap. Aerith gave him an annoyed look as he looked up at her, embarrassed.
"Sorry," he mumbled, sitting upright.
"You okay? You don't look good," Zack asked. Aerith noted he was right, the Third's face was green and he was hunched over his helmet.
"I'm not good with trains…" the Third grumbled. "Or…any vehicle, really. I'll be fine when we get there."
"Nervous?" Zack prompted.
"First mission outside the city," the Third nodded.
"Relax, you'll be fine," Zack smiled. "I'm Zack. The cute one in between us who doesn't talk much is Aerith," Aerith snorted. The Third turned his head and smiled back.
"I'm Cloud," he replied.
"Well, Cloud, don't get used to the friendly treatment, when we get to the city, you're on your own," Aerith said. "Zack and I are trained to fight alongside each other, you'd just get in the way."
"I know," Cloud nodded. "You two are some of the most famous SOLDIERs in the ranks, the Thirds talk about you two a lot. I know how it works."
"Really? They talk about us?" Aerith asked, her interest perked.
"Yeah, they say you two are some of the best in Second. One of our instructors said that once you got promoted to First, you'd probably only be second in power to Sephiroth."
Aerith's hand suddenly clenched on her lap, and her eyes narrowed. Zack noticed and shook his head.
"Free tip Cloud – don't mention the "S" word around her," he warned.
"I don't mean it as an insult," Cloud protested. "But, he's Sephiroth, the Hero of Wutai, the strongest SOLDIER alive. Being second to him shouldn't be seen as a bad thing."
"On the trip back, we're switching seats," Aerith muttered, turning her eyes towards Zack. The train began to slow, and the First who had been giving orders before stood up at the front of the car.
"Remember, our priority is to locate President Shinra and get him to the helipad. All else is secondary to this objective!" He shouted. "SOLDIER, let's move!" The trained halted and the doors slid open, Aerith already unbuckled and standing up.
"Hurry up," she tossed back at Zack. The SOLDIER members filed out of the train onto another underground platform, smaller than the one at Midgar. Three elevators were at the end of the platform, and Aerith hurried to make sure she was on one. She pushed past two Seconds and looked over her shoulder and see Zack coming up behind her. She made it into an elevator, Zack and one of the two Seconds she had passed pushing in to fill it.
"You sure you're ready?" Zack whispered to her as the elevator doors slid closed and it began to ascend into the main city.
"No," Aerith thought. What she said aloud was "As ready as I'll ever be."
The elevator stopped, and the doors opened. Aerith emerged and looked around. Junon was a apparently long, linear street composed of a line of tall buildings on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Two cars, smoking from flames and one overturned on its side, blocked the street. The sounds of gunfire and clashing steel came from beyond them, and Aerith licked her lips.
"The city was built into a cliff, so it's a bunch of stepped streets. There's lifts and stairs along the length," Zack said, moving up beside her. The other SOLDIERs from the elevator began to move forward, a few with rifles taking up position behind one of the cars while the others leapt over.
"Know where the mako cannon is?" Aerith asked. Zack pointed and Aerith looked to the side to see a gigantic steel cannon emerging over the ocean below.
"Its mechanism spans the entire height, but the controls and Presidential residence are on the second-highest level," he said. "There's a staircase to the next level under the mechanism support, it should be a ways ahead."
"Then that's where we're going," Aerith nodded, running forward. She grabbed her staff from her belt and unfolded it with a metallic rush of wind, Zack following her with sword in hand. Aerith jumped onto the hood of the car in the street and leapt forward, the smoke clearing to reveal the battle scene.
Shinra security troops lay dead and wounded in the street. SOLDIER members and a few remaining security troops were engaging enemy forces in light brown uniforms with hoods and goggles. Most were wielding swords, but several, as reported, were hanging back and proving support fire with two-handed rifles.
Aerith spun her staff out to slam it into the back of an enemy troop's head and moved forward, attacking only those in her way as her eyes scanned for what Zack had meant. She saw the shadow of the cannon up ahead and picked up the pace. Two of the riflemen turned their aim towards her and she raised her hand, a light green barrier projecting from her gauntlet. The bullets bounced off harmlessly, the Barrier holding strong as Aerith reached them and swung her staff up to knock the guns out of their hands. The other gunmen on the other side of the road turned towards her, when Zack jumped forward, slicing his sword through the air to cleave their rifles in two.
"Thanks," Aerith called, spinning her staff round to slam into the shoulders of one rifleman and pitch him face-first into the ground. His friend drew a sword from his belt and swung, Aerith caught it and flipped his arm up, lifting a foot and landing a kick in his stomach to knock him back. Behind her Zack grabbed the collar of one of the attackers and flipped him backwards spinning through the air, then turned to dodge a punch from the other and slammed the hilt of his sword into the back of his neck, dropping him to the asphalt.
"They're not so tough," Zack muttered, moving his sword to his back.
"Yeah. Too bad. Was looking for a challenge," Aerith replied.
"We should move them to the side, they'll want a few alive for interrogation," Zack said.
"We don't have time," Aerith looked to the side and spotted two Thirds being backed up as an attacker with a sword was spinning to fend off both of them. Aerith ran between the two, cause his arm and flipped him through the air, his sword falling from his grasp. She slammed her staff into his head and turned to the two.
"You two, get these four out of the way and keep an eye on them, they're prisoners," Zack ordered, pointing to an alleyway. "Make sure they don't escape and aren't killed." The Thirds saluted.
"Yes sir!" they replied in unison, moving to the fallen gunmen.
"Fancy ourselves a commander?" Aerith asked.
"Just going by the book," Zack shrugged. "The stairs are here, come on." He ran towards a metal door under the shadow of the mako cannon structure and pressed his hand to a pad next to it. The door slid open to reveal a metal staircase within the support structure. The two ran up emerged on the next level. Here, there were still security forces alive and fighting. A blockade had been set up from a dumpster and two of them were firing while the others sheltered in an alleyway or behind the support structure.
"SOLDIER is here!" one of the troops called, a red scarf around his next. A few of his men turned to him as he ran up to Zack and saluted.
"You're the first security personal we've met alive, what's the situation?" Zack asked, Aerith noting he had slipped back into the same authoritative voice he had used with the Thirds.
"The President is in the residence above the cannon, but we can't get to him, the elevator the cannon controls is past this point, its security locked so they can't access it, but they're keeping us pinned down, we don't have the means to push them back," the leader recited. "I know the code, if we can get there."
"Where did they come from? Know who they are?" Aerith asked.
"Unknown ma'am, they're organized and well-trained but they're not of any group I recognize. There's an emblem on the armor of what appear to be higher ranking members in red uniforms, a skull with an "A" marking", but we don't know its source. A few appear to be using Wutai halberd-type firearms though, so they may be an insurgent group. They came from the slums below, somehow they got access to the elevator and moved into the city en masse."
"Do they know the President's location?" Zack said.
"Unknown, but once we get to the elevator we can hold our position there and fortify ourselves against further attacks."
"Alright, gather your best hand-to-hand fighters, we're going to push out, get the gunners to move up behind us. If we can push out of the cannon infrastructure with the element of surprise and get up to the first shops, we can begin moving through the alleyways and sneak behind them," he said, looking down the street. Aerith followed his gaze. The attackers had made their own blockade out of two cars and were pinning down the security forces with several gunners. Behind them, inactive, were what she assumed were hand to hand fighters. She did a quick mental tally.
"Too much work," she announced. "I'll take care of it."
"What?" Zack gasped as Aerith rotated her shoulders. "Aerith, no! We can't rush in against that many without a plan of attack."
"I have a plan of attack – doing it," she replied. "Just keep them busy from this end." With that she ran forward, arm raised and Barrier Materia glowing. A hail of gunfire turned on her and bounced off the Barrier. Behind her she heard Zack shout an order and footsteps as the security personal pushed forward. Aerith reached the line of enemy soldiers and lashed out her staff, knocking one in the head and pitching him to the side, and spun to jab the end of her staff in the stomach of another. She focused further on the Barrier and it projected larger, covering her from head to toe. Two of the soldiers that had been standing back rushed her with drawn swords. As the security leader had noted before, they were in red uniforms and had a white skull with a red "A" emblazoned on the armor covering their shoulders.
"Down with Shinra!" one of them roared, slashing. Aerith dodged and knocked the sword aside, spinning her staff with the momentum to block the second's blow. There was a flash out of the corner of Aerith's eye, and she turned her eyes towards the source. A third red-uniformed soldier standing in the shelter of an alleyway was raising a hand, a green aura glowing over his gauntlet as sparks of electricity ran over the rim. Her eyes widened – she knew what that aura was.
A blast of lightning shot out of the troop's hand, and Aerith pushed herself backwards, the Thunder spell missing her as she fell onto her back.
"They've got Materia!?" she seethed silently. Gunfire was one thing, magic was another. She wouldn't have charged in like this if she had known that. Too late to change her mind, and can't run away in front of an audience. The game had just changed then, that was all, she could handle this.
Aerith swept the legs of the two she had been fighting and ran towards the magic-user. Her raised his hand and fired another lightning bolt at her. Aerith raised her arm and projected a Barrier, it didn't work as well against magic but it was better than being exposed. The shield took the full force of the Thunder blast and shattered into wisps of energy, but it bought Aerith the time she needed. She reached the target and grabbed his collar, flipping him through the air to slam him into the ground. She looked up to see her two forgotten opponents running down the street, and wondered why. She quickly scanned the area, noticing that the others were falling back as well, the force of Zack and the security troops had broken through. Aerith smiled. She had done it after all – she had lead the charge and pushed the enemy back to a second blockade, as long as they could keep the momentum up before they took up proper positions, then–
"Blow them!" one of the retreaters called. Aerith heard a beep and spun around. Two pairs of small block boxes were strapped to the sides of the cars that had formed the blockade they were using for cover. Small red lights on them blinked green and began to flash.
The two cars exploded, and Aerith raised her hand in time to project a Barrier. The explosion hit the shield and crushed it in the same moment, throwing Aerith back through the air and into the alley. She hit the wall and fell forward, heat singeing her face.
"Zack…" Aerith thought, recognizing his voice through the confusion. At least he hadn't been near them. She pushed herself to her feet, her arm ached but she ignored it, it was her off-hand anyway, and walked to the edge of the alley. Several security troops lay dead in the street, large billowing black smoke rising from the flaming husks of the two cars. Bullets whizzed through the air from the right where the retreaters had moved back, the smoke would obscure aim from both sides, but the invaders had the advantage of numbers, more now than ever, and there may have been more Materia users.
"Gotta get out of here," Aerith thought. She raised her arm to project a Barrier, but the green glow on her gauntlet was gone. She cursed – she had drained its power. Aerith steeled herself and began to move into the street, but a wave of bullets tore into the brick on the opposite wall and she shrank back.
"The SOLDIER bitch is cornered, keep her pinned and move in!" someone shouted. Aerith cursed again, her chest heaving. Powered, weak, hurt, shot dead in an alley waiting for her killers to reach her. On her first outing, her first mission. And all she had to show for her recklessness was a group of dead soldiers.
"I can't die…not like this," she thought to herself. The gunfire on the opposite wall was keeping her pressed against the wall to stay as much out of sight as she could, but she could hear the footsteps of the approaching troops, pouncing in her ears. Her staff slipped from her grasp to lean against the wall.
"I wanted to prove myself…wanted to prove I could fight," she thought, clenching her eyes shut. Her hands shook, sweat rolled down her cheek. "This is it…this is the time, my chance, my one chance," she insisted mentally, gritting her teeth as her panting grew faster. Green sparks crackled along her hand, wisps of green energy floating from her fingertips. Aerith opened her eyes, her panting ceased, and she and took hold of her staff. The weapon lit up in a green aura for a moment, then subsided along with the energy coursing in her hand.
Aerith took a breath and spun out of the alley, raising her hand. Bullets fired at her and she raised her arm. The Barrier Materia lit up bright green as a shining white barrier rippled over her, the bullets deflected. Aerith held her staff out behind her, spinning it between her fingertips. Glowing red and orange orbs of light began to appear around the tip, leaving a trail in the air and growing larger. The three gunners advancing on her hesitated at the sight.
"Crimson…" Aerith whispered, stopping the spin as a large red fireball formed at the end of her staff. Her eyes flashed bright green. "Flare!" Aerith swung her staff up to point it forward, and the fireball launched forward. The three gunners dove aside as it shot past them and impacted the car the rest were using as a barricade. Green energy surged over its exterior for a moment before it exploded, the gunners behind it screaming as they were flown backwards, if they spoke at all. The second car of gunners turned their fire on her, and Aerith drew her hand over her shoulder to point the other end of her staff at them, a second fireball growing and shooting forward in an instant. They ran as the second car exploded as well.
The gunfire halted, the security troops poured out of the smoke-billowing cars behind Aerith. She lowered her hands to her sides, stunned.
"Hey!" Aerith turned her head, still confused, as Zack looked at her angrily.
"You told me to stick with you," he said, punching her gently on the arm. "Next time, you return the favor, got it?"
"…Right," Aerith said, nodding her head. "I didn't know they had Materia. Sorry."
"You were reckless, irresponsible and stubborn," Zack muttered, shaking his head. "But…you're alive."
"Yeah, for now," Aerith replied. Desperate for something to clear the air and make her feel like herself again, she added sarcastically "thanks Angeal."
"How'd you blast the cars, we couldn't see clearly," Zack asked. Aerith looked at them, the numerical advantage was reversed and the security troops were pushing back the enemy.
"…a Fire spell," she settled on, unsure of what else she could say for sure.
"Thought you only took Barrier."
"Slipped it when he was on the way back, you weren't watching," Aerith lied. Zack nodded.
"Good thing. You did what you said, anyway, you pushed us through. Be proud. It's the glory you wanted, right?"
"Right," Aerith agreed. "But…what was that power?" Zack ran down the street and Aerith looked down at her staff. "Those words I called…I've never heard them before…" She pushed her uncertainty away and steeled herself. "Forget it, not important," she said aloud. "Not now, can figure it out later. The mission." She ran after Zack as the security troops took up positions outside the large steel elevator door at the end of the street. The head of the troops was punching in an access code on a keypad to the right. It beeped several times and the doors slid open, revealing a large black platform in the shaft, a control console rising from the other side.
"Half of you with us, there might be some up top," Zack ordered. "You stay here and coordinate them, if more come and there's too many, retreat to the top, we can hold them easier with the elevator as a bottleneck."
"Yes sir. Good luck," the leader said, saluting. Aerith, Zack and the ordered security forces entered the elevator, and Zack walked to the console. He pressed a few buttons and the platform began to rise. Aerith looked up to see the dark, distant ceiling of the shaft begin growing closer.
"Nervous? You're gonna be protecting the President," Zack said, looking over at her.
"Nope. Because he's gonna see just how good I am," Aerith replied. The elevator rose for several more moments before grinding to a halt, the twin doors sliding open. The troops filtered out and Aerith looked around. The path in either direction was a wide steel catwalk now.
"It's the Shinra!" Aerith turned to see one enemy troop looking down from a staircase down one path, and he turned to wave his hand forward.
"They're up here too," she growled.
"You men, clear the path to the helipad," Zack said. "Aerith. Let's find the President." Aerith nodded with a wide smile, and the two took off at a run down the other direction as the security troops opened fire on a handful of attackers from the other. The wide steel catwalk ended at a railing overlooking a sloped series of tracks running down the edges of the city below, a large trolley car with the Shinra logo at the top. Aerith practically jumped on the steel stairwell leading up to the steel building at the top end of the tracks, taking the steps two at a time.
"About time!" Aerith looked up to see a red-haired man in a black suit watching them, his arms crossed. "They must not being paying SOLDIER that much anymore, that the response is this slow."
"Reno, is the President alright?" Zack asked as they continued climbing.
"He's fine, Rude and I kept him hidden. Kept the doors sealed, windows closed, mouths shut," Reno nodded. Another Turk with a shaved head and sunglasses stepped out the door. Aerith recognized him from a lone time she had met him speaking with Tseng, Rude.
"Are we ready to move him?" he asked.
"Security forces are clearing the path to the helipad now, we think they may send reinforcements down the path we took though, so we can't dally," Zack nodded. Rude nodded and turned his head.
"Mr. President, SOLDIER has arrived, we're moving," he said sternly. Aerith stooped and took a breath. A talk man in a dark red suit with short blond hair and a matching style mustache stepped out behind Rude. He looked annoyed and frazzled, but there was still an air of authority.
"What has been the cause of the delay? Drills are run for this sort of situation," he said gruffly.
"Sir, SOLDIER Second Class Aerith," Aerith said, saluting and speaking before someone else could. "The enemy was better organized and better equipped than we expected, sir. They even had Materia users in their numbers, and explosive devices."
"Really? And SOLDIER is scared off by a few Materia shards and grenades?" President Shinra muttered. "Better late than never. Let's go," Aerith nodded. She hadn't expected the President to be in the best of moods considering an army was moving through the city to kill him, but she had expected some show of gratitude.
"Don't let it get to you," Zack whispered over his shoulder as they turned back around. "He'll remember your name, trust me." Aerith nodded and the five began moving down the stairs to the catwalk. As they ran down and neared the fork at the elevator, Aerith noticed more security troops positioned on the elevator than had accompanied them.
"Sir," the troop leader approached Zack. "The enemy has routed us, we overheard talk that confirms they know the President's…" he stopped at he noticed President Shinra behind him and saluted. "President Shinra sir!" President Shinra ignored him.
"They know he's here," Zack finished. The leader nodded. "Is the route to the helipad clear?"
"Entirely sir, all enemy combatants are neutralized in this region."
"Then just hold the elevator until we can get the President there," Zack said. The five continued moving forward and hurried down the opposite catwalk. Aerith and Zack stopped and turned while the Turks and President Shinra continued forward. The elevator doors had opened and the battle had begun. There was a loud shout from them, and Aerith saw a man with shaggy dark brown hair in a dark green bandana and wearing a pale brown and grey uniform jump through the air to slam a fist into one of the troop's heads, knocking him to the ground. He looked towards Zack and Aerith and growled.
"Get the fuckin' President!" he roared, pointing. Aerith looked back to see Reno and Rude taking up positions to conceal the President's body ahead of them, moving swiftly. The man who had given the order before moved towards them.
"Go, stay with them," Zack said, drawing his sword. Aerith nodded and ran after Reno and Rude as the man aimed a punch at Zack, Zack jumping backwards to avoid it.
"Damn Shinra," the man hissed, cracking his knuckles. Behind Zack, Reno and Rude moved the President up the stairs to another catwalk, more narrow and leading to a large asphalt airway. At the end Aerith could see several aircraft parked, including a helicopter.
"We did it," she whispered, proud of herself. Reno, Rude and President Shinra reached the asphalt and broke into a run again. Aerith reached the runway some distance behind them, and looked up as she saw movement. She halted as a figure landed in a crouch in front of her, leapt off one of the two control towers on either side of the path. Ahead, Reno and Rude stopped to look back.
"Outta the way," Aerith snapped, gripping her staff. The figure rose, revealing herself in full. She had medium-length red-auburn and wore a green uniform with blue straps and a grey cape.
"We only want the President, and we're not here to kill him," the woman said sternly. "Do not interfere." She turned towards Reno and Rude and reached over her shoulder to grab the hilt of a sword.
"I don't think so," Aerith smirked. The woman drew a katana, holding it out to the side.
"One warning. Back off or perish," the woman warned, looking over her shoulder.
"Then you'd better take it," Aerith replied. The woman snorted, and Aerith charged. The woman spun as Aerith swung her staff, spinning it around to knock the woman's arm around. To her surprise though the woman was already on the attack again, sliding her arm down to bring her katana's blade into open air and slicing at Aerith's knees. Aerith jumped back as the woman advanced, swinging her katana. Aerith narrowly blocked it, but her attempts to deflect the blade were again met with failure as the woman moved faster than she could react.
"Shit, she's fast," Aerith thought as the two fought. She was holding her off easily enough, but she couldn't get in a strike of her own, the woman always blocked her or attacked too quickly and forced her to defend. And she was strong, her staff was ringing with the repeated impact of steel on steel. Aerith blocked another strike, and the woman flicked her wrist to twist the staff aside and cut into Aerith's arm. Aerith cried out and stumbled back, but the woman gave no reprieve. She struck around, and this time as Aerith raised her staff to deflect it, she grabbed the woman's wrist to pull her forward into a knee to the stomach. The woman grunted and doubled over, caught off guard, and swung her blade wide through the air. Aerith jumped back to avoid getting cut again, and the woman stood up.
"You can't win this," she said coldly. Aerith looked over the woman's shoulder and smirked.
"Didn't have to," she replied. The woman's eyes widened and she turned her head to see the helicopter lift off, Reno at the controls. She narrowed her eyes again as the helicopter flew away to the north, and turned back to Aerith.
"Looks like you lose," Aerith snickered. "And no matter how many troops you have, you know there's more than enough in SOLDIER to beat them back."
"Here, yes. This is not our full arm," the woman replied. "Today was a statement."
"Oh?" Aerith prompted. The woman looked down at Aerith's staff.
"What is your name?" she asked suddenly.
"Aerith. And you?" Aerith asked sarcastically.
"Elfé," the woman said. "Tell me Aerith. Why do you hate the sword?"
"What?" Aerith muttered.
"You wield the staff over the sword. Why?"
"None of your concern," Aerith replied.
"You do not fight to kill, you fight for glory. You wield the staff because it does not draw blood, but it does take arguably more skill to use than a blade," Elfé stated.
"Believe what you like. It doesn't change the fact this staff held off your blade long enough," Aerith snapped.
"Today, yes. But we will strike again. Shinra will pay for what they've done."
"Wutai? You lost, get over it."
"We do not fight for just Wutai," Elfé whispered. "We fight for every town, every person, every living creature that Shinra is killing in their pursuit of power. They kill others so they can expand their grasp as they squeeze to kill the planet. The cycle of killing will end with their downfall. We are here to save the planet, and we have agents and supporters in every city on it. Shinra's reign is coming to an end." Aerith blinked, surprised by the words. Save the planet?
"Who are you people?" she asked.
"We're Shinra's reckoning. We are Gaia's vengeance," Elfé answered. "We are AVALANCHE. And make sure you tell your president the word, because he'll be hearing it again." With that, Elfé ran forward. Aerith readied herself to block an attack, but Elfé instead ran past her to leap over the catwalk at the edge of the runway. Aerith ran up to them and looked down, but Elfé had vanished into a mess of steel structuring. She lifted her head to look over at the elevator landing where more SOLDIER members had arrived, and a familiar head of spiked black hair was among them as they saw to the surviving but incapacitated members of the enemy force.