Yuffie awoke quickly with the crack of dawn, and sat up on the couch that she had fallen asleep on, yawning and quickly stretching out muscles cramped from sleep. She rose to her feet and began her morning workout, stretching, running in place, shadow-boxing, all to wake her up and get her blood pumping. Barret walked into the room, his eyes bleary with sleep, looking relieved to see her up. "Glad you woke your own self up this time.", Barret grumbled through half-closed eyes. "Red woulda' lost another vase, otherwise." "Ha.", Yuffie responded, launching a vicious punch to her shadow's throat. "I told ya I was sorry about that." She spun, delivering a roundhouse kick to the shadow's stomach. "Ooh.", she thought. "That one would have hurt!" "Yah, well just do yer damn warm ups away from me.", Barret grumbled, walking past her to fix himself a cup of coffee. Yuffie grinned, thinking momentarily about tripping him, accidentally of course, but decided against it. He probably wouldn't think it was as funny as she would, especially after the vase thing. The smell of coffee drew Vincent into the room, already wide awake. Yuffie wondered momentarily if he ever slept. "Yeah, in a coffin.", she thought mirthfully. "Rest in peace! Hehe." She launched a punch at her shadow's face, stopped it at the last possible second, and made a quick grab for it's neck. Then, launching one final lightning quick kick at her opponent, she dropped her guard and turned to get a cup of coffee. "Catch.", Barret said, throwing a glass at her. She caught it deftly, threw it up in the air, and then caught it again. "Whew, I'm awake now.", she announced. "We goin' yet?" "After I get my coffee.", Barret said, his eyes still half- closed. Yuffie couldn't blame him for being tired. He'd gotten, what, two hours of sleep yesterday night? She almost felt guilty for being wide awake. She'd have taken the watch if he'd asked. He was just stubborn, that was all. "Cid and his men were banging and hammering on something all night.", Vincent said. "I wonder what they were working on." "What do you mean?", Yuffie asked. "I didn't hear nothin'." Vincent shrugged, not replying. Yuffie envied his enhanced senses sometimes. Nose like a wolf, ears like a bat, he could probably walk about with his eyes closed if he wanted, working on sonar. She found that thought funny for a moment, but quickly forgot it. Barret finished his cup of coffee, and Vincent had one as well. Yuffie decided to abstain at the last second, making one last check to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything. Then she went to check on Red. "Good morning.", he commented, as she descended the ladder to the front room of the observatory, where Red lay by the couch, covered in bandages. He'd looked so weak when they'd first found him, a still, burned up husk. She'd never seen Red looking that weak before, and that scared her. He was a tough... whatever, and she liked him. Whatever had ripped him up must have been fearsome indeed. "How ya feelin' today, Red?", she asked, settling down beside him. "Better.", he replied. "Though I am still sore. I believe I am healing, though." Yuffie thought it was strange the way he talked now. When they'd first met him, he'd seemed more--open, younger. He'd actually used contractions. Since Bugenhagen's death, he'd become more reserved, stoic. Perhaps he felt it was improper to act like a kid, even though that's what he was, by the standards of his race. Among humans, he could act like an adult, and his maturity level was surely equal to theirs. Still, his stiffness bothered Yuffie sometimes, and she wished he'd just loosen up and live a little, like he used too. "I wish we had that blasted Fullcure materia!", Yuffie said. "Then we wouldn't have to bother with these splints and bandages and cure potions." "It is inconvenient.", Red agreed. "But we got along without those, before we found the more powerful magics. We can do so again." "Can you walk yet?", Yuffie asked. "The doctor we had look at you said you wouldn't be able to walk for a couple of weeks." "I can walk already, though it is painful and I cannot go far.", Red asserted. "But I cannot run or leap. I will probably be of little use in a combat situation except as a magic bolster, but if that's the only role that I can fill in my weakened state, I will do it." He growled. "Anything to get back at the people that took Cloud." "Damn straight.", Yuffie agreed. "So what do you think of this plan to trap the earth monster? You think it will work?" "I do not know.", Red said with his equivalent of a shrug. "But there is a good chance. Given the opportunity to catch one of us alone, in the open, I doubt Messiah will pass it up. Assuming it falls for our ruse at all." "It has ta.", Yuffie insisted. "We've outfoxed it before. We can do it again." Red nodded. "'Lright, let's get movin'.", Barret said, as he and Vincent walked into the room, each shouldering their packs. "It's a long walk to the Airship, Red. Think you can make it?" "I must.", Red said, rising to his feet and grinning, the effect almost threatening as he bared his razor sharp teeth. "I am not staying here alone again." "Heh, that's the spirit.", Barret said. "Hey, ya know, I could just float you out.", Yuffie said brightly. "It'd be easier than walking." "Not a good idea.", Red said with a shake of his head. "It's possible Messiah still hasn't figured out how you escaped it's first trap. We are attempting to get it to observe us and note our actions, so if it sees me floating it may decide to send something else after us besides the earth monster." "Hmm.", Yuffie pondered. "Well, alright. If you're sure." Red nodded again. "Let's go." They set out immediately for the Airship, slowed by Red's pace, but he moved quite fast in his damaged condition, and the others could see the pain clearly evident in his strained features. However, he continued on, refusing to slow, and by the time they got to the bottom of Cosmo Canyon he was moving along quite well, evidently getting some of his stride back with exercise. "Those cure potions must be helping.", Yuffie thought. It was a five minute walk to the spot where the Airship hung like a spider in a web above the canyon floor. Yuffie glanced up curiously, looking for any immediate changes that might have been the result of whatever that hammering and banging was that Vincent had heard, but the Highwind looked as it always did. Red was considerably tired when they reached it, and finally agreed to let Barret carry him up, admitting that a fall from the rope ladder would finish his usefulness to the party for good. As they reached the flight deck, they found Cid asleep, snoring with his head in his hands at the observation station. Mitch the pilot was already making his pre-flight checks, and gave them a loose salute as they walked in. "Don't wake him.", he mouthed. "He's been up all night." The others settled in at various points on the flight deck, and Red collapsed before the forward window, obviously exhausted. He closed his eye and quickly joined Cid in peaceful slumber. Yuffie walked over to Mitch and caught his attention. "What have you been workin' on all night?", she whispered. "Oh, nothin'.", he whispered back with a shrug. "Just a little surprise for that earth monster." "Be more specific.", Yuffie whispered in return. Mitch grinned. "Let's just say we took the best of both ideas." He refused to say anything else on the subject, and Yuffie finally gave up, frustrated, and returned to her seat. "Pilots.", she mouthed to Vincent, who grinned. Cid woke with a start as Mitch begin to throttle up the engines, and the rest of the flight crew came in the door, each sitting down at their assigned stations. "Wha... oh.", Cid commented, looking blearily eyed at the rest of the party. "Time ta go?" "Yessir, Cap'n.", Jerry called from his station. "You finish everything up?", Cid asked, opening his eyes wider. His men nodded, and Cid grinned. "Good.", he said with that evil glint in his eye. "Just what did you do?", Yuffie asked in frustration. "Secret.", Cid said smugly. "Oh c'mon, Cid!", Yuffie exclaimed. "I'm gonna' be the one down there as bait for that monster! So if you don't tell me, I'm gonna bring it up here and let it swallow you!" Cid shrugged and pulled a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket. "Fine, if ya want to ruin the surprise.", he said as he lit up. After a minute of contented smoking, he spoke again. "Engines warmed up? Pre-flight checks complete?" "Yes sir.", Mitch nodded. "We're ready to go." "Alright then.", Cid acknowledged. "Lift off." "Cutting tow cables in 3, 2, 1...", Mitch intoned, and then with a sharp hiss the Airship bucked, the cables detaching from the rock of Cosmo Canyon and the engines making a rather nasty sound. There was a terrifying moment where the Airship swung straight towards one of the rock walls, which loomed up threateningly, and then Mitch lifted up and away, and Cid exhaled a long stream of smoke. "Gotta' account for that kickback next time.", he commented. "Hadn't thought it would be that fierce." "Live and learn.", Mitch commented, the drop of sudden sweat that ran down his forehead the only clue that the near collision hadn't been routine. "So what about it, Cid?", Yuffie asked, managed to unclasp her white knuckles from their death grip on the guardrail. "We took the best of both ideas.", Cid said, a grin appearing on his face as he contemplated his handiwork. "I can virtually guarantee you that we'll hit that ugly sucker on the first try." "And how are you gonna' do that?", Barret asked. Cid told them, quickly, and the end result was the description of something so simple and completely diabolical that Yuffie couldn't help but grin. "Boom!", Cid said with a wide hand gesture, as he finished his quick explanation. "Bitchin'.", Barret commented. "We still have to draw the thing to us, though.", Vincent pointed out. "How do we plan to do that?" "That's what I'm stumped on.", Cid said. "I thought you were gonna' think of that." "I'm gonna' ride a Chocobo around, right?", Yuffie said eagerly. "And then when it attacks me, you take it out." "Right.", Red said, having approached without anyone noticing. "But I doubt Messiah will attack you after your escape last time, unless she believes you are vulnerable to the earth monster's magic. And so we have to give her a convincing reason for you to be riding through the desert alone, as well as convince her that you don't expect an attack, and so will not be prepared to avoid it. And for that, we're going to have to rely on Messiah." "And how are we gonna' do that?", Barret asked curiously. "Simple.", Red said. "It seems obvious to me, in retrospect, that Messiah must be getting information about what we are doing somehow. We know that she had one spy in Kalm, Wallace Rains, who worked on poisoning Cloud. However, he was not in the town when we arrived, and so would have no way of knowing that Tifa, Vincent and Yuffie would be heading to Midgar on Chocobos instead of in the Highwind. So she must have found out some other way. That would imply that Rains was not the only spy she had in Kalm." "Uh oh.", Yuffie said with a frown. "So Messiah interpreted what we were doing in Kalm, perhaps overhead some bit of conversation that tipped her off to our plans, and used that to take us out?", Vincent said. "That's the only thing that I can think of.", Red agreed. "This is where we need your help, Vincent. I need you to think back to your visit to Kalm. Can you remember anyone that might have been close enough to hear us discussing our plans, or acting suspiciously, following us, perhaps?" "Hmm.", Vincent answered cautiously. "That was a while ago. Let me think back." He closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms over his chest and breathing deeply, slowly. About a minute later, he seemed to reach a conclusion. "I cannot help you much.", he said with a shake of his head. "Looking back, there were nine different people that could have all overheard any part of our planning. We could go back and question those nine people, perhaps, but that would tip Messiah off to the fact that we are on to her." "Me and Tifa ate at the Tavern before we left.", Yuffie said with a shudder. "That place was packed, even though it was off hours. Anyone could have overheard something that might have tipped them off. Dammit, I get so loose lipped after a few drinks." "Still, we shouldn't give up.", Red pointed out. "I believe if we canvas the town once more, perhaps have a few of us eat in the tavern and discuss our 'plans', another few drop some hints around the town as to what we're doing, someone is bound to let something leak out. We didn't even have to give them much to go on, last time." "So then.", Yuffie said. "What's our plan?" "The best story I can think of is to discuss the fact that we think we have found where Messiah is hiding.", Red said with a half smile. "However, we don't want to tip her off to that fact, and we're not even sure that we known where her hideout is. We figured out that her last spy was heading for the Mythril Mines, and have decided to check the place out. That's Yuffie's job. She'll go around town buying all the provisions for a long journey by herself, while the rest of us fly around in the Airship to cover her, pretending to look for Messiah's hideout." "Naw.", Barret said. "You think that'll work? "I don't see why it wouldn't.", Red said. "At least, assuming that my conclusions in this matter aren't flawed." "It sounds good, Red.", Yuffie agreed. "Though it makes me feel like even more of a dumbass." "As Barret said, there's no way that any of us could known what Messiah was up too.", Red said dismissively. "We'll just have to hope that she's consistent in her intelligence gathering methods. Otherwise, we're back to square one."
The door to her cell opened, causing Tifa to wake and squint her eyes against the blinding dimness outside. "I brought you some company.", Frieze commented. "Play nice." He threw someone roughly into the cell, and then shut the door before she could speak. "Frieze!", she called, but he was gone. The darkness was eerie, and she heard the breath of an unknown person next to her, breathing heavily. "Are you hurt?", she asked, getting to her feet and stumbling towards the sound. She had no idea what type of person that Frieze had decided to throw in here with her. Still, he was operating under his orders not to hurt her, so he wouldn't have thrown anyone dangerous in here with her. Or would he? A cough guided her to a body, laying still on the ground. As she knelt by it the figure suddenly grabbed her arm, and she twisted away immediately, leaping back and falling into a ready stance, keeping her ears open for any sounds of an attack. "Didn't mean... to scare you.", a voice said, an older, male voice, scratchy like Cid's. "You startled me." "Who are you?", Tifa asked guardedly. "Who are you?", the voice countered. "A prisoner.", Tifa said. "Like yourself. And I've been in this cell longer than you. So I've got seniority. So you go first." She heard a short chuckle. "Can't argue with that logic. Captain Veric Masters, former employee of the Shinra Corporation. Recently relieved of command." "Shinra.", Tifa said, shaking her head. "You probably don't want to know who I am, then." "Tifa Lockhart.", Masters commented dryly. Tifa flinched. "How'd you know my name?", she asked in dismay. "I didn't, not till now.", Masters said with another chuckle. "I was just guessing. The sound of your voice sorta' matched the one from the files they drilled into all of us, but I couldn't tell if it was you or Yuffie Kisaragi. Thanks for the help." "Ha.", Tifa commented, sitting back against the wall. "You're welcome. So what are you doing here, Captain? I thought Shinra was working with these guys." "Hell no.", Masters said angrily. "You haven't seen much, have you? Those are our men, alright. But they AREN'T our men. Something is wrong with them, some sort of mind control. I knew several of them. They were stationed at my base. They're nothing like the men I once knew." "You got that right.", Tifa agreed, but suddenly fell silent, feeling uneasy that she was being drawn into such a seemingly innocent conversation. Was this one of Messiah's tricks? "Bastards stormed my base today.", Masters said, venom in his voice. "My own damn men. Took us from inside. We sent a morning patrol out, and when it came back in they'd all been warped. Took out the guards and opened the gates right up for those bastards to march in. We were caught with our pants down, and slaughtered. My men, what was left of 'em, didn't stand a chance. Hell of a way to go out. We held out through Sephiroth and Meteor, and then we fall victim to these bastards." Tifa grunted noncommittally, but said nothing else. "Well, anyways, I'm still trying to figure out why I'm not dead.", Masters said, seeming to enjoy the sound of his own voice in the absence of Tifa's. "They offered to accept our surrender, but when we did, they shot us all. All except me." His last few words were filled with hate. "Traitorous dogs." Tifa sat in silence, thinking. Why would Messiah throw this Shinra Captain in here with her? What purpose did it serve? What was her game? Was this man's story real, or was he just one of Messiah's puppets, saying what she wanted him to say, in some half- hearted attempt to gain her trust? "It doesn't matter.", she decided, finally. "I don't have a chance in hell of figuring out what she's up too, but I doubt she can hurt me any worse than she already has. What's the worst she can do? Kill me? Ha. That's it. That bitch has no power over me whatsoever." For a second, she wondered if she really believed that. "So what's your story?", Masters asked, with another cough. Tifa was silent. "Why so shy?", Masters asked again. "Afraid I'll give your secrets away to my boss?" He chuckled again, and Tifa heard him shift his weight, perhaps rising to a sitting position. "I'm afraid I can't give much away to anyone, not now. Still, you don't have to tell me. I'm curious about how the hell a former Avalanche member got crosswise with these bastards, but my curiosity won't kill me. Not before something else does." She heard him settle against the opposite wall, breathing deeply. "I was captured.", Tifa said suddenly, deciding that she wasn't telling Messiah anything she didn't already know, if the bitch was listening. "The earth attacked my group, swallowed me up. They have some kind of worm that digs around in the ground, sucking stuff in from the surface. So, it sucked me in, and then it spit me out here. So here I am." "Huh.", said Masters. "So their leader went straight out to capture you, huh? That's what I don't get. Why capture, not kill? What's he up too?" "She.", Tifa clarified. "Her name is Messiah. She's the one controlling your men. With her mind." "Well don't that beat all.", Masters commented. "Of course, you could be telling me that just to spread misinformation. Maybe you're supposed to share some of these wonderful secrets with me, and then I'll miraculously escape, and return to spread those lies to my boss." He was silent for a second, and Tifa realized that he was having the same thoughts as she. That made him almost too convincing. "Still", he said, "it doesn't hurt anything believing you. So this Messiah controls people with her mind, huh? That would explain the warping of my men. That still doesn't tell me why she didn't do the same to me, however." "That I can't answer.", Tifa admitted. "Maybe she can't. Maybe she won't. Maybe it amuses her to let us keep our free will so she can break us." "That's a morbid thought for someone so young.", Masters said with a laugh. "I think I like you, Tifa Lockhart. You aren't that bad for an Avalanche terrorist." "You aren't that bad for a Shinra goon.", Tifa retorted, grinning despite their horrible predicament. Maybe that's why Frieze had thrown this man in here with her. To make her captivity less stressful by giving her someone to talk to. Although he seemed cold on the exterior, she wouldn't put it past him. The more she thought about it, the more she was sure that she could use him to get to Messiah. Without warning the door to her cell swung open, and Tifa squinted at an outline. "What do you want, Frieze?", she asked. "Time to go.", he said, something strange in his voice. It sounded like... excitement? "What?", Masters asked, rising to his feet. She could see him for the first time, a vague outline. A strong man, with short graying hair and a stark profile. Still wearing his Shinra uniform. "I was just getting comfortable." "You won't be for long.", the figure said threateningly, grabbing his collar and pulling him forward. Masters stumbled, then retaliated, trying to push Frieze off him. The other easily evaded his attack, and the Masters screamed in pain. "Don't resist.", the figure at the door ordered, pleasure in his voice. It was then that Tifa realized she had the wrong twin. Flaym! What was he doing here? Masters' cry of pain was cut off as he fell limp, rendered mercifully unconscious by the pain of Flaym's magic, and the armored warrior threw the Shinra Captain over his shoulder as if he weighed nothing. "I'll be back for you, Tifa.", he said, his eyes flashing red, the light glinting off of his bared, white teeth. "You've been granted an audience with Messiah. You will prostrate yourself before her and beg her forgiveness for your rash actions. I look forward to seeing that." "Sure, Flaym.", Tifa answered, her voice as chill as ice. "On a cold day in Hell!" "Funny you should mention that.", Flaym said with a grin as he began to close the door. "The last time that happened, Frieze and I were born." Then the door slammed, and Tifa was alone.
As the sound of the door creaking open woke her, Tifa cursed herself for falling asleep. They had taken Masters, after barely five minutes in her cell, and they'd said they'd be back. Tifa had waited, chilled and expectant, for... how long? An hour? Three hours? It was impossible to tell, in this dark. Was it night or day? Underground, there was no sun. The disorientation hurt her head. That was surely what Messiah intended. "It's time to go, Tifa.", a calm voice said, and the lack of malice there told her it was Frieze. "Mother has requested to see you. You will come. I do not wish to force you, but I will if necessary. You know this, so do not resist." Tifa rose to her feet with a weary nod, and slowly headed for the door, where Frieze stood, waiting. Her wrists ached from the ropes that had been pulled taut around them, what seemed like days ago. They were raw and scratched. "Stop.", Frieze ordered as she walked out of the cell, and she grudgingly complied. She felt his hands reach for hers, as he began to loosen her bonds. "Frieze...?", she began, but then he stopped, having loosened her bonds enough to assuage a bit of the pain, but still tight enough to hold her. To hold a normal woman, anyway. Frieze's gesture of kindness might just save her. "Thanks.", she said, meaning it. "Follow me.", he said, no emotion recognizable in his voice. "Cold, like his namesake.", Tifa thought as she followed him out of the cave. It was the first time she could remember leaving it. They walked down a long, rock tunnel, twisting and turning with no exits or connecting passageways, and then suddenly they emerged into a vast underground chamber, the ceiling so high up that Tifa could barely make it out. Giant stalactites hung from the rocky ceiling, but the floor had been smoothed out, and as Tifa looked around she realized that a massive circular area had been fenced in by tall cement walls, more than two stories tall. Rows and rows of seats were tiled up from the walls, but all were empty. Frieze motioned her past him and fell into step behind her, watching her every move. "Mother's coliseum.", Frieze said softly from behind her. "Turn, to your right. March." Tifa turned, finding her legs climbing a set of steps cut into the rock, and soon they had gained the top of the walls. She glanced around, and suddenly her attention was riveted on the area several seats up. The rows ended to make room for a vast dias, with a large altar in front of it, and a massive throne behind. The throne sat empty, but Flaym stood at it's left side, and a strikingly thin woman stood on it's right. Her face was pinched and sharp, with completely white hair which rose from her head as if electrified. She was clothed in pure white, but Tifa doubted it signified purity. Then her eyes flashed, bolts of electricity flashing across her pupils as her gaze met Tifa's, and she suddenly remembered Rains, his horrified body curled and burned on the bed. Somehow, she knew that this was the thing that had killed him. "March.", Frieze ordered sharply, now that they were under the speculation of his peers. "Straight up. Move!" Tifa moved, seeing no point in resisting. She was almost to the dais when Frieze ordered her to halt. "Turn left.", he barked. "Walk to the center of the row." She glanced at him, and tossed him a smug smile which barely fazed him. She had one for Flaym too, one filled with malice. His eyes flashed, and a smile came to his own face at seeing her hate. She reached the center of the row of seats and stopped, waiting for Frieze's next command. Desperately searching her surroundings for anything that could aid her escape, even though she knew there was nothing. "Mother.", Frieze said reverently, dropping to one knee and bowing his head. "I had done as you have ordered. Please, bless us with your presence." "Mother.", Flaym intoned, imitating Frieze's posture and bowing his head. "I stand ready to defend you with my life. Bless us with your presence." "Great one.", the woman in white proclaimed loudly, which at least told Tifa that she wasn't Frieze's sister, "I stand ready to smite all who would oppose you. Bless us with your presence." Tifa looked back at the dais expectantly, but nothing happened. Frieze, Flame and the white woman remained in their subservient poses, not moving a muscle. The ground began to rumble, and Tifa spun to see something emerge from the ground of the coliseum, which she immediately recognized. The worm that had swallowed her up and brought her here. "Great one.", it stated, it's voice reverbating throughout the coliseum, putting the statements of it's peers to shame. "I stand ready to offer you sacrifice. Bless us with your presence." And that was it, Tifa thought. The four strongest magics, all under Messiah's control. Fire, Ice, Bolt and Quake. It was almost poetic. "My children.", a voice intoned, deep and musical, beautiful. "Surely not.", Tifa thought in surprise. "Can that be the voice of my enemy?" "I accept your gifts.", the voice continued. "The summoning is complete. Let the peons enter." Flaym rose immediately, and shouted loudly. "Company!", he called. "Form up!" Without warning, Tifa heard the rumbles of hundreds of pairs of boots. As she watched in dismay, soldiers began to file into the coliseum, row after row, all marching in perfect unison, a mix of Shinra troopers and many other men and uniforms that she did not recognize. A large group wore distinctive brown armor and rounded helmets, and yet another large group wore crimson robes and strange hoods. The rest were too differentiated to classify, but all moved together. It was a terrifying sign of the potency of Messiah's control. In unison, they filed into the rows of seats on either side, filling almost half of the coliseum before the flow stopped. "So many...", Tifa thought in dismay. "How can she have so many?" "Company!", Flaym called, his voice reverbating as the voice of the worm had, it's air of potent command all too evident. "Present arms!" There was a strange sound then, the sound of hundreds of men drawing swords and twirling rifles, a strange mixture of sounds that blended together in perfection, yet more evidence of Messiah's potent control over her men. "How can she control all these...", Tifa though in horror, "and still control Cloud? What kind of a monster is she?" "We are the soldiers of Messiah.", the group of soldiers began to chant then, hundreds of voices all speaking in perfect unison, the effect terrifying. Tifa was afraid that the reverbations of so many voices would cause the ceiling to cave in. "We live to serve only her. We fight when she wills it. We die when she wills it. We are the soldiers of Messiah. Great master, bless us with your presence." "Finally!", Tifa thought, suddenly angry. "Is this show of force meant to impress me? I cannot be intimidated. All of these poor men and women, every one, is nothing more than the same person, copied over and over, all sharing the same intelligence, like a hive of ants. This is Messiah. This grouping of diversified soldiers, magics and worms. All one person." "So we meet, face to face, Tifa Lockhart.", the voice said from behind her, the deep and musical voice that was too beautiful to belong to a woman as twisted as Messiah. Tifa turned to face her, and could not hide her horror. She was beautiful. Strikingly so. Her perfect skin and figure, flawless in all respects, was clothed in a gown of shimmering white, putting the uniform worn by the woman with the spiked hair to shame. Long, white hair flowed from her head down onto her shoulders, braided all the way down to her waist. Her face was perfection, like the visage of the Madonna. Only her eyes spoiled the illusion. Her eyes, closed forever. In their place were deep, twisted scars that even her perfect features could not conceal, easily visible where eyes had once rested. She was blind. And somehow that only added to her stunning image. A blind martyr. The Messiah. The sight made Tifa want to retch. "You seem at a loss.", Messiah said with a short laugh, her smile radiant. "What were you expecting, Tifa Lockhart? A hag? A twisted, spider-like creature with slavering jaws?" She laughed again, shaking her head slowly, her perfect hair sliding against her perfect shoulders. "Does my beauty frighten you, Tifa Lockhart? It should not. I am your savior." "No.", Tifa managed, suddenly finding her voice. "You resist.", Messiah said, feigning surprise, raising a perfect hand to a perfect mouth in a gesture of innocent alarm. "I am shocked. Why do you not worship me?" "Because you do not deserve it.", Tifa whispered angrily. "Because you deserve to die!" "Blasphemer!", Flaym cried, striding towards her, but Messiah's upstretched hand stopped him. He fell to one knee, bowing his head. Cowed like a dog. "What say we ask my disciples?", Messiah said with a beautiful smile. "What of you, Flaym? Do you think I am worthy of worship?" "My heart and my soul belong to only you, Mother.", Flaym said immediately. "You are the blood in my veins and the air in my lungs. You are my world." "And you, Azure?", Messiah asked, turning to the woman in white, as Tifa finally learned her name. "You are the one.", Azure said gently, falling to one knee as Flaym had done. "You are my life, great master. Say the word and I will burn myself to cinders to please you. I am yours to command, for eternity." "And you, Frieze?", Messiah asked again, turning to her other son. "What do you say?" "Words cannot express my feelings for the one who gave me life.", Frieze said reverently, falling to one knee and bowing his head as Flaym and Azure had done. The posturing of the others was pathetic. But seeing Frieze, forced to bow to such an evil, twisted creature, made Tifa want to rush over to him, force him to his feet, force him to cry out how much he hated her, how evil she was. But she knew that he would never say any of those things. He loved Messiah with all his heart. "I can say only that I am yours to command, forever and to eternity.", Frieze said reverently. "All that my siblings have stated and infinitely more." "This is good.", Messiah said, smiling. "Now, Tifa Lockhart. What say you now? Can you doubt such reverent words?" Tifa was about to lash out with a stinging retort, but stopped it as it came to her lips, glancing once more at Frieze, still bowed in his reverent position, his eyes closed in supplication. "I can only say that there are some who know no better.", Tifa said, her voice low. "And I will never bow before you, Messiah." "So be it.", Messiah said calmly, seemingly unperturbed by Tifa's refusal to worship her. "Since you have refused to accept the word, as I had known you would, we shall bring on the night's entertainment." Flaym rose, his eyes burning with fire. "Company!", he called. "At ease!" The sound of hundreds of rifles and swords being sheathed and settled echoed throughout the auditorium, and then the cheering began. "Hail to Messiah!", someone yelled. "Long live the Messiah!", another cried, enthused by the feelings of his fellow soldiers. Soon they were all chanting, the disparity so different from the unison that had come before. "You see, Tifa.", Messiah whispered, the voice so close to her ear that she spun in horror, but Messiah sat still on her throne, with only her voice close enough for Tifa to reach. "I only made them see the way. They accept it with all their hearts. This is my true strength." Tifa spun away, livid, refusing to be baited. She would punish Messiah with silence. It was the only way she could now think of to resist. "Flaym.", Messiah said softly, her beautiful voice somehow everywhere at once. "Bring forth tonight's game." "I live to serve.", Flaym said humbly. He turned to face the assembled soldiers. "Bring forth the challenger!" A grating sound brought Tifa's attention back to the arena floor. The worm had disappeared, no trace of it's entrance into the coliseum visible any longer. Magic. Her eyes fell on the porticullus at the far end of the arena, straight across from her, as it rose, to reveal a dark tunnel twisting back into the rock. A figure emerged slowly, wearily, clad in a red uniform, a sword weakly clasped in his hands. He took a faltering step forward and fell to one knee, and then the porticullus closed behind him. "The challenger has arrived!", Flaym intoned. "Release his bonds!" And with that the red-clothed man shot up, suddenly invigorated, as if whatever had been dragging him down had suddenly been pulled away. It was a Shinra uniform. A Shinra Captain's uniform. And in sudden horror Tifa knew who the man was. "Frieze, what is this?", Tifa asked suddenly, turning to him, refusing to meet Messiah's gaze. Frieze said nothing, staring out over the arena, a trace of sadness on his face. "Bring forth the champion!", Flaym cried. Tifa heard the porticullus below her sliding open, and had to bite back her fear for Captain Veric Masters, standing so bravely out in the middle of that vast stretch of flat earth, his sword held ready, his stance calm. What horrible monstrosity was Messiah going to unleash upon him? A man walked into sight, and cheers immediately arose from the assembled soldiers, as they began to chant a name with raised fists, over and over. Tifa could not believe her ears. "Cloud!", the voices chanted in unison. "Cloud! Cloud! Cloud!" And there he was. His blond hair ruffled just as she remembered it, his muscles flexing with catlike grace as he stepped forward, a tremendous sword strapped to his back. It couldn't be the Ultima Weapon, Tifa thought suddenly, her eyes darting to the sword at Frieze's side and then back to the scene before her, watching it as if in a dream. Then she recognized the sword. Ragnarok. Masters stepped forward, making a quick flourish with his sword and bowing to the assembled crowd. "So this is your strength!", he cried as loud as he could, even though his voice was barely audible at the tremendous distance. It was amazing they could hear him at all, as he possessed none of the magic that seemed to make public speaking so easy for Messiah and her servants. "I laugh at the sight of this pathetic collection of rabble! Puppets, all of you! Traitorous dogs who slaughter their prisoners! I, Captain Veric Masters of Shinra, hereby challenge you! You will fall, one by one, at my hand!" Tifa blinked, immersed in a nightmare. Was that really Masters speaking? The speech was so eloquent, so noble. So brave for a man facing certain death. It was the perfect drama, she reflected with horror. Just as Messiah would have wanted it. "Champion!", Flaym cried, his voice loud and filled with righteous indignation. "Dare you take these words from one so unworthy?" Cloud turned to face her, and Tifa searched desperately for some trace of recognition in his clear blue eyes. Nothing. Nothing but Messiah's power, staring back at her in it's awful brilliance. "The blasphemer will die by my blade.", Cloud yelled angrily, unsheathing his sword and raising it in the air. "Messiah!", he cried, and Tifa almost expected him to rush up towards her, jump the two story wall and leap to Messiah's throat, so powerful was the anger in his voice. And then he finished. "I worship only you!" Tifa fell to her knees, suddenly crying, unable to hold back her tears at the sight of one she loved so much reduced to such an awful state. She had no doubt any longer. Cloud Strife was dead. And now Messiah defiled his body as easily as the rest. She did not see the short fight that followed, did not watch as Cloud tore through Veric Masters like a knife through paper, disarming him in one quick stroke, masterfully inflicted the most painful wounds while doing the least amount of damage. Masters' screams reached to the dais and deafened Tifa's ears, as he desperately fought for his life, blocking each strike with his arms, and then his shoulders, when those were cut off. Finally, he collapsed in a shower of blood, somehow still alive, Cloud having seen to that. "Messiah!", Cloud cried again, raising his bloody sword in the air. "I await your command!" "The blasphemer must die.", Messiah said softly, her beautiful voice filled with pleasure. "Perform your holy duty in my name, Cloud Strife." "I live only to serve!", Cloud cried. "Messiah!" And then his sword landed and at last ended Veric Masters' suffering. Her eyes filled with tears that she could not seem to stop, Tifa turned to see Frieze looking out over the arena, his face twisted and sickened. He turned to face her, and they shared something in that moment that gave them a deeper understanding of each other, an understanding that transcended sex or religion or affiliation. She could see it in his eyes just as he saw it in hers. "This is wrong." Then he turned away and his face was cold once more. "And so it was written, Tifa Lockhart.", Messiah's voice whispered at her ear, cold and triumphant. "You did not worship me, and so Masters died. He is one. Tomorrow I will bring in two. Children perhaps, brother and sister. And I will ask you for your allegiance again. And you will give it, or they will die. As will the three after them, and the four after that, and the five that follow. And on until the blood of millions stains your hands and you understand what it is to defy me. Think on that tonight, Tifa Lockhart. And pray. Pray that I let Cloud kill you quickly once you pledge yourself to my side." Tifa stopped crying then, staunching the last of her tears and rising to her feet. She turned to face the dais, and saw Messiah sitting triumphantly, her beautiful face disgusting in it's smugness. "You...", she began, softly, and then leapt for the dais. "BITCH!", she cried, before Azure's lightning tore into her body and Flaym's pain tore into her soul.
Copyright November 1997
by Eric 'StarFury' Bakutis
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