Nanaki awoke, every nerve in his body filled with pain. Numbly, he realized that his tail was slowly sliding across the ground, and amazed that he could actually move a part of his body, he slowly raised it into the air, taking a deep, shuddering breath against the pain in his chest. Forcing his good eye open, slowly, he waited calmly for it to focus, and found himself staring at the massive form of Barret, sitting Indian style a few feet away, his head tilted towards his chest, his eyes closed. The sky was dark, the moon midway through it's journey across the sky, the stars twinkling beautifully. He managed to lift his head, glancing around to find himself outside Bugenhagen's observatory, where he had fallen unconscious after watching that strange creature drag Cloud off, helpless to stop it. His broken leg was wrapped in bandages and held stiff with a splint, and bandages stretched across his other wounds, the glisten of cure salve on his body easily visible in the moonlight. "Barret.", he rasped, blinking quickly to try to further focus his vision. The other started, his head rising to a normal orientation as he rubbed his eyes, and stared at him curiously. "You awake, ya mangy mutt?", he said, concern hidden behind his rough words. "In a matter of speaking.", Nanaki answered, his voice low and hoarse. "What happened?" "That's what we was gonna' ask you.", Barret said with a rough grin. "How tha hell did you get busted up so bad?" His expression darkened. "It wasn't Cloud, was it?" Nanaki regarded him curiously, cocking his head to the side. "Not really.", he said after a second. "Now what's that mean?", Barret said, imitating the angle at which Nanaki had tilted his head. "Did he beat ya up or didn't he?" "Where are the others?", Nanaki asked, changing the subject. "Vincent and Cid are taking their half of the night on watch.", Barret answered. "Yuffie's catchin' some shut eye. So was I, till you woke my ass up." "Sorry.", Nanaki commented dryly. "I didn't mean to bother you." "Heh, ain't a bother.", Barret said quickly. "I'm just glad yer talkin'. We wasn't sure you was gonna' wake up there, for awhile." "How badly am I injured?", Nanaki asked, vainly trying to make a further survey of his body, but failing due to a cramped neck. Barret grimaced. "You want the truth?" "Of course.", Nanaki said calmly. "You almost died.", Barret told him, his face grim. "You was half-dead when we got here. Your leg all busted up, your skin fried like you'd been barbecued. Burnt dog hair, man. Smell was somethin' else." He grinned quickly, showing that his remark was intended as joke, albeit one in poor taste. "Will I walk again?", Nanaki asked calmly. "Oh, hell yeah.", Barret said quickly. Then he paused. "Um, in a couple of weeks." "Acceptable.", Nanaki agreed without thought. Then something occurred to him. "Tifa.", he said, blinking once. "How is Tifa?" Barret grimaced again. "That's the reason you still so busted up, Red. Tifa's gone. Ground opened up and swallowed 'er. Wouldn't ya know she had almost all of our decent cure materia when she went? Figures, don't it." "The dirt took Tifa.", Nanaki said thoughtfully. "What's that?", Barret asked. "Cloud said this.", Nanaki answered quickly. "Can you gather the others? I believe we have much to discuss." "You got it, buddy.", Barret agreed. He brought out his PHS and clicked it open, dialing a quick string of numbers. "Red's awake.", he said as the other end picked up. "Get your asses in here, he's got somethin' ta say. I'll wake up Yuffie." He paused, as the other person said something else. "Yah, I know how she's goes crazy when you wake her up without warning her.", he said. "I'll be careful. You worry 'bout your own ass out there, old man." He smiled. "Alright, see ya in a few." He rose to his feet and glanced at Nanaki. "Be right back, Red. Don't go anywhere." He chuckled at his joke and walked towards the observatory, where Yuffie was obviously sleeping. About fifteen seconds later there was a loud, indignant scream and the sound of something breaking. Then thirty seconds after that Barret emerged, holding his head, Yuffie right behind. "I said I was sorry!", she said again. "Dammit, I've told you not to sneak up on me like that when I'm gettin' my beauty sleep!" "You just tell Red what you did to his vase.", Barret griped as the two of them headed over. "Goddamn ninja kids.", he grumbled. "Red!", Yuffie exclaimed, rushing over and kneeling beside him, reaching back to scratch behind the ear that wasn't bandaged. "You're awake!" "Good to see you too, Yuffie.", Nanaki returned with a nod. A little while later Cid's head emerged from the ladder that led into the lower part of Cosmo Canyon, no sign of it's previous destruction evident. He climbed out and sat down at Red's side, Vincent right behind him. "He lives!", Cid commented wryly. "How you feelin', Red?" "Not well.", Nanaki answered. "But I am alive, so I consider myself lucky." He paused, surveying the group. "Good, you are all here. I fear that you are not going to like what I have to say." "This about Cloud?", Cid asked with a frown. "I swear, that boy needs to screw 'is head on straight." "Cloud saved my life.", Nanaki said calmly. "And I fear that he may pay with his." "Shit.", Barret said from his side. "You better tell us what happened from tha start, Red. Did Cloud wake up? Or did something attack you and take 'em?" "Both.", Nanaki answered, and then proceeded to relate to them everything that had happened from the point that Cloud had risen from the couch to when he had been dragged off by the nearly invisible, electrical monster. "Rains.", Yuffie said immediately. "We didn't find a suicide device on 'em, right Vincent?" "You found Rains?", Cid asked. "Vincent tracked him down.", Yuffie clarified. "That's why he ran off. He stashed him in the inn and came to get us, but when we got back Rains was dead. Electrocuted. Problem was he didn't have any suicide devices equipped, not that we could find, and from the expression on his face, it didn't look like he'd gone out willingly." "So you think that 'lectrical monster killed 'em?", Barret asked with a low whistle. "Damn, man. I wouldn't want that thing coming after me, 'specially if I was tied up." "I wonder if that thing is related to the way the ground came alive and attacked us.", Vincent mused, resting his chin on an upstretched fist and staring at the dark sky. "It does not seem likely.", Nanaki said. "Why not?", Vincent asked. "Perhaps that's Messiah. Who know's what he, or it, is capable off." Nanaki looked thoughtful for a second. "I do not think so.", he stated again. "The intelligence that we are up against is not, in my opinion, as powerful as Sephiroth was, though it may be close. I doubt it could be in Kalm to destroy Rains, attack you in the desert, and then come here to attack me, all the while controlling Cloud's mind." "All those events happened one after the other, though.", Cid pointed out. "The Highwind could get from Kalm to Midgar to Cosmo Canyon in less time than it took this thing, or things, to do. You said it could fly. Maybe it's just been trackin' us the entire way, waitin' ta strike." "You think it's here now?", Yuffie said, glancing around nervously, fingering the grip of her cross. "Cause if it is, I'm gonna rip it up." "Probably not.", Nanaki said. "From what we have seen so far Messiah, whatever it may be, has only acted against us when we were apart. It sent Shinra Commando squads after you, Vincent and Marlene, and attacked you and Tifa in the desert, and also struck at me here at the canyon. But it did not attack the Highwind, which presumably could easily escape or destroy it, nor did it act against us when we were at full strength, together as a group. I think that Messiah probably knows that it cannot take us all on, so is trying to separate us and pick us off individually." "'Cause if it came at us when we were ready for it, we'd bust it up.", Yuffie said with a nod. "So it's a chickenshit." "Basically.", Nanaki agreed with a barely discernable smile. "It knows we killed Sephiroth, so respects us, as well as hates us. I am still at a loss as to why the creature that came here did not finish me, however. Cloud was obviously still under in it's control, although he did attempt to stop it from killing me. What agreement could he have possibly made with that creature to persuade it to spare my life? Is it possible he has been in contact with Messiah this entire time, fighting or communicating with whatever intelligence has taken hold of him? His eyes only glowed red during the most fearsome phase of our confrontation, and that is when he hurt me the most." Red grimaced, remembering the feeling of Cloud's hands crushing his chest. "Perhaps he was not fully in it's control, but fighting to break free, and it could only take full hold of him for brief periods. Signified by the glowing eyes." "I still can't believe he busted ya' up like that, tho.", Barret said with a shake of his head. "I know he'd take a bullet for any of us without even thinkin' about it. That's why I respect 'em. The thought that he could ever come after any of us just ain't right." "It is not Cloud that I was dealing with.", Nanaki clarified. "Not fully. I felt rather that the being confronting me was the intelligence controlling Cloud's body, with Cloud doing his best to hinder it." "He is one tough mutha'.", Barret agreed. "So let's consider this.", Vincent said. "Suppose we have three forces after us instead of one. Messiah, for starters, the leader. Working on controlling Cloud's mind from wherever it is hiding. Then we have this thing that moves around in the ground, sucking things up, working for Messiah. As well as another creature, the lightning monster you told us about, working for it as well. So we may not even have encountered Messiah yet. Just it's employees." "Some employees.", Barret put in. "Wonder what kinda' pension you get for that job." "I believe Vincent has hit the nail right on the head.", Nanaki said with a nod. "This lighting monster, and this earth monster, are probably not the main force after us, merely it's soldiers. Their own level of intelligence is questionable. Messiah itself is attacking Cloud's mind. So, if we find Messiah and take it out, we should be able to free Cloud's mind from it's grip, as well as cut the earth monster and lightning monster off from their commander, making them easier to take out individually. Or, we could assume all three are intelligent, and are working together on an equal basis." "Damn, all this speculation is hurtin' my head.", Cid complained. "You don't mind if I have a smoke, do ya' Red?" "Fine by me.", Nanaki said. Cid lit up a cigarette and contentedly inhaled. "Okay, so we got some idea of what we're up against.", Barret said, leaning forward and looking around at the other party members. "So the next thing we gotta' figure out is how we take this bastard out. Not just Messiah. We gotta' face the fact that we're probably gonna' have to deal with it's monsters before we get to it. That's just the way it usually works out. So we need to come up with a way to take both of 'em out. Then Messiah is open and we can crush it like a bug." "I didn't see the lightning monster, so I'll leave speculation on that to Red.", Vincent put in, his eyes dropping from the sky. "But I've been thinking about that earth monster. The main reason we couldn't get at it is because it had the cover of the ground. One alternative is to avoid combat by staying out of it's reach entirely, via a float spell. However, that spell inhibits our movement, and I for one do not like floating around waiting for something to wack me. So, the other alternative is to figure out some way to strike back at it. That means we either have to draw it's body into the open somehow, or figure out some way to attack it under the ground." "Huh.", Cid commented. "Stick a dynamite. It likes to suck stuff up. Give it some bait, and rig it up with explosive. When it sucks it in, bait goes off. Boom. Splattered earth monster." "That could work.", Vincent agreed. "But how are we supposed to know how long to make the fuse? We would first have to know how close it has to be to the surface to attack." "Huh.", Cid said again. "And if you miss the first time, it might get wise to what you were doin' and not swallow up any more dynamite. Damn. Thought I had something there." "You may still.", Yuffie added. "Use the Highwind's scanners to locate it. If they can detect it, you'll know how far under it is, and then have some idea of how long a fuse you'll need." "Good call.", Cid agreed. "How I'd love to just have my boys drop an air strike on it's sorry ass." "What about a drill of some sort?", Barret said suddenly. "Or a really long pike. Figure out where it's suckin' from, and then just stab straight down at it. Maybe you'll get lucky and stab right through it." "Earth monster on a stick.", Cid said with a chuckle. "I like that idea, too." "Go with both.", Nanaki suggested. "First thing to do, if we encounter the earth monster again, is to try and locate it with the Highwind's scanners. Then, we can attempt to blow it up, or skewer it. Or both." "Alright, we'll make that my job then.", Cid agreed. "Me and my men will cover you guys in the Airship when we move in. Me and my pilot are good enough to stay low to the ground and attack this thing. Actually, that float spell might work to our advantage. If someone on the ground gets it to attack 'em, and then casts a float spell, me 'n my boys can swoop down and bust it up, and meanwhile the wake from the engines will blow whoever it attacked out of harm's way." "Or into a mountainside.", Yuffie commented darkly. "Well, yeah, that too.", Cid said with a shrug. "So we put Cid on earth monster killin' duty.", Barret said. "Sounds good to me. Now how do we deal with this lightning creature? Think normal weapons can even damage it?" "I doubt it.", Nanaki said. "From what I saw, it was mostly invisible, and if you struck it with a metal weapon you would probably just get electrocuted. I could be wrong, however. It could be a flesh and blood being surrounded by an electrical field, meaning you could kill it if you could get your weapon past it's field. But that could be difficult." "Difficult sounds like an understatement.", Barret contended. "Why not just blast tha hell out of it? Use a spell to attack it, like Ice or Quake. I wouldn't even need to be close to hit it, and I wouldn't have to worry about getting electrocuted unless it got close enough to touch me. Bullets work just as well as a sword, 'cep long range." "True.", Nanaki agreed. "So, since you're the best equipped to attack it, we'll put you in charge of taking out the lightning monster." Barret paused for a second, and then shrugged. "Sure, works for me." "And the rest of us will be ready to assist both of you as well as we can, with defensive and curative spells." He paused, glancing at his wrapped leg. "Although we are woefully short on those." "Cool, so when we go after this freak, we'll put you in the defensive department, Red.", Yuffie said. "Keep us shielded with Wall and Haste, and stay out of direct combat. Damn, I wish we had Regen and Fullcure. Sure Tifa's the most experienced with 'em, but still, it sucks having it all disappear with her." No one mentioned the fact that Tifa might be dead. They refused to even think it. "I'll take the curative spells then, what's left.", Vincent agreed. "And assist Barret with the lightning monster. Even though the earth monster took Deathblow from me, I still have some very deadly ranged weapons I'd love to introduce it too. That'll leave Yuffie with the offensive magic." "Yeah.", Yuffie agreed eagerly. "Okay.", Nanaki said approvingly. "We have a game plan. Now, all we need is a place to strike." "It woulda' been nice if the Highwind had been nearby when that thing took Cloud.", Cid said wistfully. "We coulda just tracked it back to it's layer and blown it to kingdom come." "Messiah surely considered the fact that, if anyone escaped the earth monster's attack, it would be because they had reached the Highwind, which would guarantee you were nowhere near Cosmo Canyon when the lightning monster struck.", Nanaki pointed out. "It had no way of knowing we had other means of evading the earth monster, via a float spell." He paused, glancing at Yuffie. "I have never heard of that spell or that materia, Yuffie. Where did you find it?" "Hey, trade secret.", Yuffie said with a grin. "As far as where to strike", Nanaki continued without missing a beat, "we should start by laying a trap for Messiah. If we can get it to strike at us, believing us vulnerable, we can counterattack and possibly take out one of it's servants in one quick strike." "Well then, we got anything else to figger out?", Cid asked, stretching. "'Cause if not, I think I'm gonna' head back to the Highwind and wake my boys up. I got some bitchin' ideas that I want to start workin' on for dealin' with that earth monster. I already got enough sleep tonight. And we'll keep the Highwind's scanners on full alert, so I'll PHS ya if we pick up anything." "Have Yuffie escort you there.", Nanaki said. "That way you can float if the earth monster attacks on the way back to the Airship, short distance that may be." "Then let's go, ninja girl.", Cid said, rising to his feet. Yuffie grinned and nodded, then the pair headed over to descend the ladder back into Cosmo Canyon. "You should get some rest, Red.", Barret said. "You ain't fully recovered yet." "I am a bit tired.", Nanaki agreed, noticing again the dull ache all over his body. "Vincent, you are on watch, correct?" The other nodded and rose. "Guess I'd better get back on watch." "I'll go with ya'.", Barret said. "You've already taken your watch.", Vincent pointed out. "Yah, well, so's Yuffie, and she's the only other person available.", Barret grumbled. "I don't think none of us should be out there alone, not with these things runnin' around. Sides, my head still hurts from where Yuffie cracked that vase on it." "Cid warned you about that.", Vincent said with a shrug. "Yeah, sure.", Barret spit. "Red, can you make it inside? We didn't want ta move ya, when you was passed out, but the open air ain't all it's cracked up ta be, not with lightning monsters flying around. Still, it's safer than out here. Just as long as you don't wake up Yuffie." Nanaki struggled, and managed to rise to his feet. Barret raised his eyebrows, surprised to see him walking, and leaned over to help, but Nanaki shook his head negatively and limped over to the house. "I can make it on my own.", he said through gritted teeth. Barret nodded, understanding. Nanaki wanted to walk back to his house on his own. "Get some rest, mutt.", he called before heading after Vincent, who had already started off. "Tomorrow, we begin our counterattack, and start kickin' ass." He smiled at the thought, but his attitude mellowed as he followed Vincent and the two of them settled onto the edge of the plateau to keep watch. "Tifa.", he thought sadly. "I know yer out there somewhere, girl. You got ta be. Goddamn, I hope yer alright."
Even thought the sting of the soldier's hand smashed across her face hurt like all hell, Tifa Lockhart refused to cry out, struggling vainly against the bonds that held her arms behind her back, and the two Shinra soldiers that held her still for the third to strike. Her face burning, her body and clothes covered in dried mud from the thing that had carried her here, she stared angrily at the Shinra Captain who leered at her, an evil grin on his face. "That'll teach ya ta insult an officer of the Messiah!", he retorted. "Now shut yer damn trap before I shut it for ya." "Go blow yourself.", Tifa commented sweetly. The soldier's eyes widened, and his mouth shook with rage. "Why you little...", he began, bringing back his hand to smack her again. Tifa felt the soldier holding her left arm stiffen, to keep the blow from knocking her down. However, this time she was ready. As the Captain's fist came for her face, she swung her head back, cracking the back of her skull into the nose of the soldier holding her left arm, his shock and excruciating pain freeing her enough to dodge the Shinra Captain's punch and wrap her legs around the knee of the other soldier. Jerking her legs sharply, she took both of them down, breaking his hold and lashing out at the other man with a swift backwards kick, which crashed into his midsection and sent him to the ground, clutching his stomach and gasping for air. "What tha hell...", the Shinra Captain said in surprise, and then Tifa came for him. She began by sending a high kick straight into the bottom of his chin, rocking his head back and nearly snapping his neck. As he stumbled back, disoriented, she launched another kick at the side of his leg which neatly broke his knee. He howled in pain and fell to the ground, clutching his twisted leg. Tifa kicked him in the stomach hard enough to cause him to cough up some blood, and would have done worse had the voice that came from behind her not stopped her. "He's learned his lesson.", the voice said calmly, it's tone cool and professional. "I would have stopped him, but I see you have the situation well in hand. I cannot allow you to kill him, however. We need every man we have." Slowly, Tifa turned to face the man behind her, her eyes livid with rage. He was unaffected by her anger. Standing at just over 6 feet, he had a strong, wiry build that reminded her of Cloud, as did the bluish tint of the armor which he wore. His face, however, was markedly different, younger and more square, with a strong chin and sharp nose. A sword that Tifa easily recognized hung in a scabbard at his side. The Ultima Weapon, stolen from Cloud. Two cool blue eyes stared her down from under the thick helmet on his head, and Tifa might have considered him handsome had he not been the enemy, and had her affections not lain elsewhere. He couldn't be older than 18, making Tifa two years his senior "What do you care, Frieze?", she asked angrily, taking a step towards him. "You're a brain puppet of Messiah like the rest of these poor goons." Frieze shrugged, seemingly unaffected by her insult. "Messiah is my mother.", he said simply. "I serve her because I must." "You have free will!", Tifa exclaimed angrily. "You don't have to do anything you don't want too!" "You don't understand.", Frieze said disapprovingly. "You don't understand what Mother knows. I serve her because it is right." "If you serve her, then why do you care if those Shinra goons beat me up?", Tifa asked angrily, gesturing at the three downed soldiers behind her with a flick of her head, since her hands were tied behind her back. "Mother did not tell me to have you beat up.", Frieze said simply. "She said you were to be put in a cell and kept there. Had you not insulted the man who's leg you just broke, you would not have been touched." "He got a little too friendly.", Tifa spit angrily. "Do I need to make it clearer than that?" "Of course not.", Frieze answered. "He will be disciplined, of course. Going against the wishes of the Messiah is not wise. My mother knows all. He should have had more control over himself." "She controls them all.", Tifa insisted angrily. "They don't have free will." "That's not true!", Frieze protested. "She merely used her powers to make them understand the true glory of what we are doing here. They serve because they understand the cause. She does not own their minds." "That's bullshit.", Tifa spit. "She's a cowardly, back- stabbing whore that needs to do her own fighting instead of forcing other people to do it for her." "Do not talk about Mother that way.", Frieze said immediately, his voice chill with anger, his eyes flashing bright blue. "I tire of your ridicule, Tifa. I attempt a simple conversation, and you insult my family. Get back in your cell." "No.", Tifa said. With that, she rushed him, even though she knew that she had no chance of stopping him. She was right, of course. A gesture of his hand froze her in her tracks, a thin but incredibly strong layer of ice suddenly covering her entire body. She struggled in vain against it, but despite her efforts she began to fall forward, and she braced herself for a painful smack into the hard rock floor of the cave in which she had been imprisoned, after she had been pulled from the mouth of the giant worm thing that had carried her here, barely conscious. She had seen Sally as well, briefly, but the Chocobo had been dragged away before she could check on her condition. Frieze caught her before she fell, and calmly carried her back into her cell. The ice that covered her chilled her to the bone, but Tifa refused to let her pain show on her face. Frieze set her down cautiously, stepped back, and flicked his finger again. The ice melted away, and Tifa pulled herself to her feet, struggling against her freezing muscles. Her teeth chattering, she made one last appeal. "You're not like these others, Frieze.", she said, her eyes suddenly hopeful. "I've seen how you work. You don't like killing or hurting others. They do. They enjoy it." "True.", Frieze nodded. "But I do what is necessary, what Mother requires of me. It is my duty, regardless of my emotions about my task." He paused, reaching for a thick blanket outside her cell, and threw it to her. "Use this until you warm up. And try to behave yourself." "I'm going to get out of here, you know.", Tifa taunted, since her last appeal had fallen on deaf ears. "My friends will come for me and they will destroy you." Frieze shook his head. "Nonsense. Mother is invincible. I am not, but if I have to die to protect her, so be it. I am not afraid." "You should be.", Tifa said with an evil smile. Frieze closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. "Goodbye, Tifa Lockhart." And then he stepped backwards and shut the door, locking her in the darkness once more. She settled back against the wall, cold, wrapping herself in the blanket that Frieze had thrown her despite the fact that her gratitude to him disgusted her. She had not known what to think of him when they had first met. She had feigned unconsciousness as several soldiers dragged her from the mouth of the worm thing, and then leapt into action, taking them all out and breaking for an exit. She had been balked, of course, by the fact that there was no exit. Then she had fallen, afflicted with a horrible burning over her entire body, screaming in agony. She had seen a figure walking toward her, a figure who looked exactly like Frieze, clad in the same armor, though his was tinted red. His eyes had flashed with fire as he had poured wave after wave of pain upon her, punishing her for her resistance, and then the pain had stopped, and she had gasped for breath and looked up to find Frieze holding his twin brother's shoulder, restraining him from doing her further damage. "Mother said she was not to be harmed.", he had said. "She has been disabled, Flaym. There is no point in continuing to torture her. Mother did not order it." "So what.", Flaym had said, turning on his brother and pushing him back sharply. "Just because you're a few minutes older doesn't make you my superior. We're equal here, Frieze. And I think I remember Mother saying to disable her", he pointed angrily at Tifa, who was slowly struggling to her feet, "in whatever way necessary." "I will handle it.", Frieze said coldly. "You are the head of security here. I handle the imprisonment. She is in my jurisdiction." He had flicked a finger, and Tifa had fallen back to the earth, stricken with a sheet of ice that had frozen her down as quickly as Flaym's power had burned her up. "Tie her arms.", he ordered two Shinra soldiers who had managed to get to their feet, bruised and battered. "And be quick about it." The men had tied her arms behind her, roughly, but something in Frieze's eyes had kept them from striking her, even though they must have ached to do so. She had beat them up pretty badly before Flaym had intervened. "But that's all over.", Tifa thought angrily, closing her eyes and reflecting with sudden humor that the darkness made it impossible to tell if her eyes were open or not. "Frieze may have seemed like a possible ally to help me escape, but he's too devoted to that goddamn bitch of a mother to help me." She knew without doubt that Frieze's mother was Messiah, because he had told her so. She had never seen the woman, not yet, but she knew that would soon change. Because Frieze had told her so. She cursed her reliance on him, but he was the only friend she had in this prison, even though he wasn't much of one. She had no choice. Not unless she somehow found a way to free her hands and escape this horrible place. "Not likely.", she thought sadly. "The others probably don't even know where I am. They probably think I'm dead. Dammit! I wish I were dead!" But she didn't, not really. She was too strong-willed to just roll over and die. Messiah had to pay for what she had done to Cloud and tried to do to the rest of her friends. She just had to find a way to make her pay. "If that's even possible.", Tifa thought. "If I can even find her." Suddenly, she decided the way to Messiah might lay through Frieze. He was young, and gullible. Although it felt wrong to her to trick him, she thought that it might be the only way to reach Messiah. "And then, if I took her out, even though I might die in the attempt, Cloud would be free.", she thought hopefully. "And then he and the others could kill this worthless pack of losers. And avenge me." But the darkness pressed against her like a living thing, refusing to let any of these thoughts comfort her. All she knew now was that she was cold, alone, and hungry. The last thing she had eaten had been that salad at the Kalm tavern. She hoped they fed her soon, and then despised herself for hoping for anything from her captors. They were puppets, all of them, even Frieze, although he refused to admit it. Puppets of Messiah. "You're goin' down, Messiah.", she thought angrily. "You're goin' down." The darkness, however, continued to argue against her.
The man that had once been Cloud Strife stood numbly before her shadowed throne, his eyes blank, his body someone else's to control. Hers to control. She let him remain aware of his actions, if only to torment him. He had almost broken free, back in Cosmo Canyon. He had been fighting her ever since he had fallen outside of Kalm, fighting to break her grip on his mind, fighting to free himself from her control. It was an eerie battle, her thoughts so close to his own that they seemed like his own. He had been with her when she had directed her monster to attack his friends in the desert, even been forced to use his thoughts to assist her, knowing how his friends would react. Yuffie's sudden use of the flight materia had surprised and elated him, and he had felt Messiah's anger at the sudden turnabout. And so she had concentrated the whole of her attack on Tifa, knowing that would hurt Cloud the most. He had been responsible for her capture. And that insult had made him angry enough to pull further from her grip, almost break free. Almost. "But your efforts were all for nothing, weren't they boy?", she asked from the shadows, her beautiful voice low and haunting. "You gave up everything you had gained so that I would spare the life of your dog. Sacrificed all the ground you had taken to me so I would let him live. It was foolish, foolish, boy. You could have broken free to destroy me, yet you gave up. You gave your will to me in exchange for his life. Compassion blinded you and made you weak." "But Red is alive.", he thought desperately, refusing to accept her words. "You didn't kill him." "I honored my word.", Messiah agreed. "But that profits you nothing. Red will die, as will the others, only later. You gained nothing but a stay of execution with your foolish act. And now I will not have to kill them, my puppet. For I hold you now, and you will do the killing for me. You will destroy your friends, and then I will keep you as my slave. Forever." "You are wrong.", Cloud thought, acid in his words. "My friends are stronger than I. They will form together and destroy me, and then they will destroy you. You will lose, Messiah." "You know so little.", Messiah said soothingly, laughing musically. "Your friends will not kill you. They will try to disable you, yes, but just as your dog did, they will refuse to hurt you, and they will die by your hand. Compassion is what makes you weak. It is what makes all of you weak!" "How can you belittle compassion when you once had so much of it yourself?", Cloud thought, taunting her with his knowledge of her past, knowledge that he had gained in his fight to break free of her grip. "You took that from me, boy.", Messiah growled, her beautiful voice turning deadly. "Took it from me with your hate and your sword." "You have always hated, Messiah.", Cloud thought back. "You never had true compassion. Not for anyone or anything. You live to kill. You only thought you loved him, because you are incapable of love." "Blasphemy.", Messiah said dismissively. "From a foolish mind. Oh, I loved Sephiroth, and he loved me. And you took him from me." "It was a sick love, a love born of your mutual joy of killing.", Cloud thought angrily. "You disgust me, Messiah." She laughed, mirthful, enjoying his anger. "You words sting me so, Cloud Strife! I am hurt, mortally wounded by your sharp wits. And oh, how I will twist your anger. How I will twist that anger of yours, as one by one you kill your friends, slowly, painfully. You will feel every instant of their death, yet be helpless to stop it. You will know pain, Cloud Strife. You will know fear. And you will know grief. And then you will know nothing, because the horror of these things will have driven you insane. Oh, I will enjoy writing your play, Cloud Strife. A tragedy of epic proportions. The orchestration of your descent into evil shall be the masterwork of my life!" "I thought that was Sephiroth.", Cloud thought, again hoping to wound her with his thoughts. "Ha.", Messiah said, and Cloud knew she was smiling even though he could not see her face. "No, I had nothing to do with Sephiroth. He was a masterwork already written, a product of his own wonderful mind. Oh, how he hurt me! Yet he loved me still. He understood me. At last, I had found an equal. And then you, with your petty jealousies and hollow regrets, destroyed him. It was a waste, Cloud Strife. A waste of epic proportions." "He died like a coward.", Cloud thought, though both he and she knew his words were a lie. "I have seen your final battle in my head, many times.", Messiah said, her voice calm. "I find it pathetic that you would attempt such a transparent deception, on me, me who owns your very soul! Sephiroth fought to the end like the true warrior he was." "True warrior.", Cloud thought angrily. "Nothing like a true warrior. Once, yes. Before he went insane. Before he began to murder innocent women and children, burn entire towns, slaughter helpless people. What kind of a warrior is that, preying on those weaker than himself? No, Sephiroth was a coward. And both of us know it." "You see his conquests as weakness.", Messiah returned. "I see them as strength. Each death added to his strength, each pain he caused magnifying his power. How they feared him, my puppet! All of you! Your entire world, scared to death of one man. You were below his contempt. It was wonderful, and I enjoyed every minute of it." "You are sick and depraved.", Cloud thought. "You deserve to die many times over for the pain you have caused others." "But I will never die, Cloud Strife.", Messiah replied, laughing again. "Others will die, the puppets, but not I. I am immortal." "That's what Sephiroth said.", Cloud thought. "And then I cut out his heart." "I tire of your discussion, boy.", Messiah said sharply, suddenly. "You no longer amuse me. When next I let you wake, it will be so that you can witness the death of the first of your friends. A friend whom you will kill. The woman who loved you so much, who you have forever refused to acknowledge. She is here, waiting for you. Waiting to love you. Waiting to die by your hand." "No.", Cloud thought vengefully. Not Tifa. "You cannot do this, Messiah. I will fight you. She will fight you!" "Goodnight, Cloud Strife.", Messiah laughed. "Pleasant dreams."
Copyright November 1997
by Eric 'StarFury' Bakutis
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