Chapter Eight

     "Damn.", Barret commented, surveying the huge, smoking crater
that now stood in the middle of the desert, as the wind whipped
through his short black hair.  He laughed then, rearing back and
letting out a triumphant whoop, raising his gun arm to the sky. 
"We wupped that boy's ass!"

     "Ya think I put in enough explosive?", Cid asked, walking up
behind him, bringing a cigarette to his lips.  "I don't know.  I
was expecting a bigger crater."

     "Heh heh heh.", Barret laughed, slapping his friend heartily
on the back.  "Boom!  You weren't kiddin'!"  He laughed harder,
slapping his knee with his one remaining hand at his joke.

     "We have dealt Messiah a serious blow.", Red commented,
standing strong despite the bandages that still covered his body,
letting the wind ripple over his fur, an expression of satisfaction
on his face.  "But our campaign has only begun.  The lightning
monster still remains, and whatever else Messiah may decide to throw at
us.  And there still remains the matter of finding his base of

     "Man, I know we'll do it!", Barret returned, still grinning.
"It's just a matter of time.  Messiah goin' down, baby!"  He fell
into a fit of laughter once more.  "Boom!"

     "So do we head back to Kalm now, Red?", Vincent called as he
emerged from the Airship, Yuffie trailing.  Her face glowed with
victory.  "We now know for sure that Messiah has more spies there. 
If we catch one, we might be able to get him to tell us where he's

     "I do not know.", Red answered.  "Yet.  We need to figure out
what we are going to do next.  And that will require careful
planning.  We cannot let this early victory go to our heads."

     "Oh, cheer up Red!", Yuffie said, dropping to her knees beside
him and scratching his head, right behind the ear, just where he
liked it.  "We did it!  You planned it, I suckered him in, and Cid
blew 'em up!"  She grinned maniacally.

     "I am pleased with our victory, Yuffie.", Red admitted, baring
his teeth in a grin.  "It feels good to finally strike a decisive
blow against our still unknown enemy.  But I am merely looking
ahead to the next step.  Whatever that may be."

     "Whatever.", Yuffie said dismissively, falling back and laying
down on the desert ground, sliding her arms behind her head.  "You
just want to rain on our parade!"

     "So what's our next step?", Barret asked, sitting down indian
style at Red's side, his mirth dissipating.  "What you gonna' cook
up next, Red?"

     "I am not sure where we go from here.", Red admitted.  "That
is why I need your input."

     "We should still consider the possibility of capturing a
Messiah spy.", Vincent said, sitting down beside Barret, his claw
settling against the dirt as his other hand rested on his knee. 
"They could provide us a wealth of information if properly...", he
brought his claw up, and made a slicing motion across his neck,

     "We should also check back with Reeve and see if he's got
anything else for us.", Cid commented, settling on Barret's other
side, the smoke from his cigarette trailing away in the swift
desert wind.  "He's had some time to work on those records.  Maybe
he's found somethin' else."

     "What about you, Yuffie?", Red asked, turning to her.  "Do you
have any ideas?"

     "Kick ass.", Yuffie said with a grin.  "Take names."

     "Right.", Red agreed.  "So, we are agreed then?  First to
Midgar, to talk to Reeve.  Together.  I do not think it wise to
split up again, even though one threat to our welfare has just been
neutralized.  We should not be overly confident.  There is no
telling what Messiah may throw at us next.  I would feel better if
we stayed together."

     "No argument here.", Barret agreed.  "Anyone?"

     The rest of the party nodded in agreement.  They had already
seen the damage that spreading themselves too thin could do.

     "After talking with Reeve, I guess, we'll head to Kalm and try
to capture a spy.", Red continued.  "But that may be difficult. 
Kalm is a populated town.  I doubt more than a few of it's people
are under Messiah's influence.  At least, I hope so."

     "Well, we ain't got nothin' better to do.", Yuffie pointed

     "True.", Red agreed.  "So, let's rest a bit, and then get

     "Why rest?", Barret said with a grin.  "I'm rarin' ta go!"
Then he seemed to catch himself, looking sheepish, remembering
Red's condition.  "But, ya know, I could use some rest.  We can
hang out here for awhile and appreciate the scenery."  He glanced
at the crater once more, and chuckled.

     "Well...", Red said.  "If you are ready to go, then I am ready
to as well.  What say the rest of you?"

     "You sure you're up to this, Red?", Vincent asked.

     "I am ready.", Red said with bared teeth.  "I am already
healing.  It will not be much longer before I can fight again."

     "You look like you're pretty dangerous now.", Vincent said
with a rare grin.  "Well, then, let's get moving."

     The others rose, and together, they headed for the Airship.
Barret was the last in, but before walking up the ramp he took one
last look back at the crater, his face serious.

     "That one was for you, Tifa.", he growled.  "Wherever you

     Then he headed up the ramp, and hit the button to close it
behind him.

Once again, Tifa was floating in the void. She had been there for what seemed like an eternity. She thought of Cloud, laying on the floor of the coliseum, still. He had broken free! At the very last, he had broken free! He had refused to kill her. He had resisted Messiah. It gave her hope. Now if only she could save him! As her senses began to come back, recovering from Azure's potent magic, she felt someone carrying her, strong arms which held her close, and she felt the sensation of moving, as if the person was carrying her forward, walking towards some distant destination. "Messiah.", she thought angrily. "I was so close! So close to killing you!" She wondered if it was Cloud who held her. She prayed it was so. Cloud had come to his feet, fighting off Messiah's influence, and killed them all. And now he carried her limp body out of the cave towards the light, a triumphant hero rescuing his damsel in distress. Of course, she was no helpless damsel. But she would act like one for him. "Cloud.", she murmured, managing to speak, even though her sight had not yet returned. Her hearing was acute, however. She heard echoing footsteps, from booted feet. One pair, presumably those of the person carrying her. There was no response. "Cloud.", she said again, her hand rising to slide across his face, trying to determine his identity for sure without being able to see him. Her hand fell away, her hopes fading. "Frieze.", she said sadly. "So Cloud did not wake up?" "He is awake.", Frieze said, calmly. "But back in Messiah's control. He gave her his soul willingly. That is why he cannot break free." "Why?", Tifa asked in confusion, still blind. "Why would he do that?" "To save a friend.", Frieze replied. "At least, that's what I heard. He was going to break free. Break free of Mother's control. But he gave it up. He traded his friend's life for his soul. It was a noble choice, but my Mother should not have taken advantage of it." "Then there's no hope?", Tifa asked sadly. "He'll never be free of her?" "I do not know.", Frieze replied. Her vision began to return, slowly. They were walking through a dimly lit passage of rock, somewhere under the ground. It was not the same passage that led to her cell. The coloring of the rocks was different. "Where are we going?", Tifa asked, blinking, trying to focus on Frieze's face. "Where has she ordered you to take me now?" "She ordered me to take you to your cell.", Frieze said calmly. "But that is not where we are going." Tifa could not believe her ears. Could it be true? Had Frieze at last turned against his Mother? "I know what you are thinking.", Frieze said, his voice suddenly filled with grief. "It is true. Flaym tried to kill you, and Mother consented. And so I stopped them. I took you away. They do not know these caverns as well as I do, not even Mother. I explored them well in my youth. They are after us, of course, and will find us eventually. Hopefully not before we reach the exit. "You're taking me out of here?", Tifa asked, her voice filled with gratitude. "You're letting me go?" "It's the only thing I can do.", Frieze said, just as sadly. "I've betrayed her. Betrayed Mother. But I had no choice. Seeing you and Cloud, embracing, seeing your love, I suddenly believe that there is more to love than subservience. I still love Mother with all my heart. But that does not mean I have to do as she says. And letting her kill you is wrong. So I am freeing you. You can return to your friends." "Oh, Frieze, thank you!", Tifa exclaimed. Her vision was finally clear, and her face twisted in horror. "My god...", she whispered. Frieze's face was a mask of scars. It was as if livid flames had burst across his features. His armor was battered and broken, it's blue tint barely visible beneath charring and cracks. His helmet was gone, his short black hair slick with blood. His face was filled with pain. "Flaym and Azure.", he explained, simply. "They opposed me. But they could not stop me." "Frieze...", Tifa whispered. "Your face... your body. How can you walk?" "I walk because I must.", Frieze said simply. "They could not kill me. I could have killed them, but I did not. Even though they now hate me, as Mother does, I will not raise my hand against them." "Then you must come with me, Frieze!", Tifa said, pushing his arms away, breaking free and dropping to the floor in front of him. "I can walk.", she said gently. "Save your strength. Come with me, Frieze. I can heal you." Well, actually, all of her materia had been taken by the soldiers when they had brought her in, as well as her armor and weapons. But surely the others could help. And once they came back and destroyed Messiah, she would get it all back. "Keep moving.", he said strongly, pushing past her. "They are not far behind. Follow me." She did as instructed, following behind him because the passage was too narrow to walk side by side. "You're coming with me.", she said, simply. "You saved my life. You've taken your first step towards righteousness. I can help you take the rest." Frieze did not answer, and Tifa did not press him further. A few minutes later, she saw beauty. Daylight. Ahead, pouring in from a small opening in the rock. "We are here.", Frieze said, as he stepped out of the opening. Tifa followed him, stepping into the sunlight like walking into Heaven from the depths of Hell. She was still covered in dried mud, what hadn't been burned off by Azure, hungry, and tired. But wind whipped over her skin, and she treasured the feeling. She had not thought that she would ever feel it again. She was free. She looked around, trying to get her bearings. Yes. Just outside the Mythril Mines. So that's where she had been! The swamp stretched away before her, and she felt rather than saw the prowling Midgar Zolom that roamed it's length, but even he was welcome when compared to what lay back in the Mines. This was a different entrance, hidden off to the side of the main one, impossible to see from the air and almost impossible to find unless one stumbled upon it by accident. And Tifa knew it went far deeper into the Planet than the Mines did. A barely audible squawk came from the distance. Tifa squinted her eyes, not daring to believe it. Then Sally strode into view, her green feathers shining in the sunlight, a Midgar Zolom barely feet behind her. She put forth a last burst of speed, leaving it far behind, and screeched to a stop before Tifa, stretching out her neck and chirping in greeting. Tifa laughed, reaching out to massage the Chocobo's neck, and then turned to Frieze, but her joy disappeared as she surveyed him in the full glow of the sun. He was in terrible pain. The magic of Flaym and Azure had surely ravaged him like nothing had before. How he had managed to fight through the pain, carry her away and evade them as well as his Mother and the hundreds of soldiers that served her, Tifa could only guess. But she saw him in the new light as she had always wanted to see him. As a friend. "Sally... how?", she asked. "I released her two days ago.", Frieze managed, his lips charred, the words obviously hurting him. "Mother had her working as a beast of burden deeper in the ground, but I knew that she was useless to us. She could not be tamed, and the animal handler was about to have her killed. I countermanded his order, and had her released instead. Mother did not like that. It is amazing that she had stayed in the area, instead of running for home. "You were waiting for me, weren't you girl?", Tifa said adoringly. Sally chirped in response. "Wark!" "C'mon, Frieze.", Tifa said. "Do you think you can get up here? She can carry us both, if you hang onto me and don't let go." "I'm not going with you.", Frieze said. "I must get back." Tifa's jaw dropped. "You... you can't, Frieze!", she stuttered. "Messiah will kill you!" "No.", Frieze said, shaking his head. "She will not. I am her power. Think back, Tifa. When Trymor died. When your friends killed him. When she lost her control on Cloud." And suddenly Tifa understood. "You're a part of her.", she whispered in horror. "But that means..." "If I die, she dies.", Frieze agreed. "And that is the only way to kill her. Flaym, Azure and myself must die. Trymor is already dead, which is ironic because he is the only one who survived the first time. So she will not kill me." "The first time?", Tifa asked, not understanding. "When he took the first three.", Frieze said, simply. "Sephiroth. Only Trymor survived, by burrowing away into the rock. Messiah was no match for him, and neither were her minions. They worked to make us better." "You're...", Tifa said in sudden horror. "You're Sephiroth's son?" "After he cut out her eyes.", Frieze said, calmly, "he saw that she was a kindred spirit. So he spared her. He did not love her, I do not think. But I think he respected her. So, before he left, he made amends. They created Flaym and myself. And he brought Azure from somewhere." "But... there wasn't enough time!", Tifa exclaimed. "How old are you? You should be just a little kid! It couldn't have been that long ago!" "My age is indeterminate.", Frieze answered calmly. "I reached maturity very fast. We both did. Sephiroth and Messiah's magic saw to that. He left her stronger than she was before he came. And she loved him. She loved his twisted soul with all her heart. I never knew him. And I know he is dead." Tifa was amazed and horrified, taking all of this in. Sephiroth... with twins? They did not even resemble him! "Mother is waiting.", Frieze said. "Go, quickly. Find your friends. With Trymor dead, Mother will only have Azure and Flaym to send after you. She will not send Flaym. She holds him too close. So Azure will be the one. Be careful when you fight her, Tifa. She is strong." "You can't go back, Frieze.", Tifa insisted, stepping towards him. "Even if she can't kill you, she'll torture you! You have to come with us!" "No.", Frieze said. "I am sorry, Tifa. I would love to go with you. But Messiah is my mother, and I love her still. I will not raise my hand against her or betray her any further. I have too much blood on my hands to say that she is wrong. I will return to her and accept my punishment. And you will do what you must to stop her." "Frieze...", Tifa began again, but he stopped her with an upraised hand. "Speech is painful for me, Tifa.", Frieze said, his eyes flashing blue momentarily, "so I will say only one more thing. I know now that Mother is wrong. And I know that she must be stopped. You and your friends will have to kill me before you can reach her. You must not hesitate, Tifa. The pain she will put me through--it is not the first time I have been punished. So you will be doing me a favor by ending my suffering. But I ask you one other favor." "Anything.", Tifa said sadly, knowing that she could not change his mind. "When she dies.", Frieze asked, his eyes sad. "Bury me with her. Bury me beside my mother and brother. I do not want to be apart from them, even though they hate me." Tifa almost cried then, but held her emotions back. Cloud was still down there. And she would not hurt Frieze by breaking into tears in front of him. He had his mind made up, and she could not change it. If she tried to stop him he would just freeze her and depart, and she had to get moving as quickly as possible. Azure was sure to be after her. She had to find the others and get them back here before Messiah could escape. She walked forward, and hugged Frieze gently before releasing him. "You followed your heart, Frieze.", she said, letting one tear come to her eye before she brushed it away. "You are a true warrior, like Cloud. I think he would be proud to call you a friend. I know I am." "Thank you.", Frieze said with a nod. Then he turned. "Goodbye, Tifa Lockhart. Thank you for showing me the true way." Saying nothing else, having said what he felt he must, he disappeared quickly into the tunnel. Tifa stared after him for only a second, and then turned and leapt on Sally's back. She had no saddle, but Tifa was strong enough to ride bareback, and Sally knew how to handle a rider. "Let's go!", she cried, spurring the Chocobo into motion. "Straight for Midgar!" Sally turned and began to scale the tall mountains that barred her from Midgar immediately, her strong mountain legs eating up the distance between her and her destination. Midgar was the closest place that she knew of where she could get in touch with someone who could help. Reeve. He could notify her friends of her return, and quickly mobilize a force to destroy Messiah. If he could be persuaded to do it. But she had to try. Even the six of them, without their curative materia, could not take down the hundreds of soldiers who waited within those mountains. They would need help. But she had no doubt that they would find it. This was the beginning of the end for Messiah. She remembered the last time she had ridden on the back of a Chocobo, before her capture, when she had thought about redemption. Surely, Frieze had earned his today.

After landing the Highwind, Cid led them out towards the gates of Midgar, leaving his crew and Red with the ship, now that he had three other people to back him up. They headed towards the gates without pause, and then, just as before, one of the gate guards stepped forward to challenge them. This time, however, he was a bit more friendly. "Cid Highwind.", he greeted with a salute. Cid stopped, looking at the man curiously. "You're expected. Reeve said to extend any and all courtesy to you when you returned. If you'll wait here for a few moments, I'll summon my watch commander to escort you in. Reeve is in his office, but has been notified of your arrival." "Well then.", Cid said with a nod and a grin. "This is more like it." They waited for a few minutes, and as promised, the same Shinra watch commander that Cid remembered from before walked forward, much friendlier this time. "If you'll follow me, ladies and gentlemen.", he said with another salute, and then led them into the town of Midgar. "They treatin' us like heroes.", Barret said softly to Cid, not loud enough for the watch commander to overhear. "I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad one." Cid shrugged. He liked being treated with some respect by the Shinra, for once in his life. Barret still didn't trust them, obviously. But Cid was beginning to think the Shinra were alright again. And Reeve wasn't as bad as he was made out to be. Downright decent, in his opinion. A hovercraft met them and took them the rest of the way to the Shinra tower, and then they walked inside, the company groaning as they surveyed the stairwell, some for the first time, some all too familiar with it. "Here we go agin.", Barret grumbled. "Good thing Red didn't come. This climb woulda' killed 'em. Goddamn Shinra, buildin' these tall buildings without anything sides stairs to get up in 'em." They took the climb at a respectable pace, and Yuffie and Vincent seemed relatively unaffected. Cid was out of breath once again as they reached the 65th floor, as was Barret, but he guessed bitterly that this was because the others had youth on their side. With a grin, he walked toward Reeve's office. "Mr. Highwind!", a bodyguard acknowledged with a salute. "Reeve is inside. You're cleared to enter." "Thank ya'.", Cid acknowledged with a loose salute of his own, and led the party into Reeve's office. "Well!", Reeve said in greeting, rising to his feet, having been busy at work on his computer up until their appearance. "You're back! Vincent, Yuffie, it's good to see you again. What brings you to my humble abode this time?" "Just seein' if you've made any progress on those names you had fer Messiah.", Cid commented. "Not as such.", Reeve said with a shrug. Cid frowned. "However", Reeve continued, "we have had some other recent developments that might interest you. One of our outlying bases was attacked this morning." "Thought you said you didn't have any outlyin' bases.", Barret asked with a scowl. "This was one of the only ones we had remaining.", Reeve answered with a frown. "Please, sit down. Make yourselves comfortable." "Don't mind if I do.", Yuffie commented, settling herself into a plush chair opposite Reeve's desk. Cid did the same, but both Barret and Vincent chose to remain standing. "So, expand.", Cid commented. "Say, you don't mind if I smoke, do ya'?" Reeve grimaced, but shrugged. "I guess it's alright. I'll open the window. We don't have very good air circulation anymore." He walked over to a small window to the side of his desk, slid it halfway open, and then returned to his desk, plopping down into his massive seat. Only the best furniture for the Shinra president. Cid let up a cigarette and puffed contentedly. "Now, about this base.", Reeve continued, tapping his fingers on his desk absent-mindedly. "The way it was taken was very strange. From what remains of the base records of just before the incident, it was taken from inside, by it's own men. Most of them just transferred there recently from other bases that hadn't been as fortunate. Then, without warning, these men turned on their fellow officers, opened the gates, and let in an army that emerged out of nowhere. This is where it gets really strange." He paused for a second, gathering his thoughts, then continued. "The army, from what we could make of it, had Shinra personnel. Along with other soldiers, a mixture of uniforms that seemed to fit together rather poorly. Like a bunch of different soldiers from separate armies, banded together into one force. Except these men moved like a well-trained military machine. They soon ordered the surrender of everyone remaining at the base, and then once it was accepted had everyone executed. Then, they disappeared once again, leaving the base empty save for the men they'd killed. No clue as to why they'd attacked. Nothing taken. Just a base left full of dead men and unanswered questions." "Heavy.", Cid commented. "So why'd they do it? This invading army? You got enemies out there, Reeve?" "Without a doubt.", Reeve said with a shrug. "But we had no idea that anything opposed us on this scale. And the attack seemed random, almost spiteful. Why take a base and then abandon it? What do you gain from such a strike? It makes no sense." "Hmmm.", Vincent commented thoughtfully. "So, do you believe this strike was executed by Messiah? Do you believe that is his army you fought?" Reeve shook his head doubtfully. "Can't be sure. But if there was an army of that size roaming the continent, it seems like we'd have encountered it by now. They have to be based somewhere. Yet they just appeared from nowhere, took out our base, and vanished." "Where was this base?", Cid asked. "North Point was the name.", Reeve said. "It's almost directly west of here, on the very tip of this continent, facing the north continent. It was established at the beginning of last year, under the command of Captain Veric Masters, a man who'd distinguished himself quite well in several campaigns. He wasn't directly involved in the fight with Sephiroth, nor was his base, but they did aid us by providing intelligence and manpower." "Most of Messiah's big attacks have taken place on this continent.", Cid said. "Assuming that the attack on North Point was done by him as well. That means that Messiah is probably somewhere on this continent, unless he's just doin' this to throw us off." "We're relatively sure he must be based somewhere in the area near North Point.", Reeve said. "Our intelligence network may be crippled, but even we would have noticed a large army marching towards us before it attacked if it had traveled any considerable distance. They caught us completely off guard." "So your own men turned against ya'.", Barret commented. "That sounds like Messiah, alright." "So what's the history of this Masters?", Cid asked. "Maybe he sold his base out." "I don't think so.", Reeve said immediately. "I knew him, though not very well. He was a loyal soldier from the moment he joined the Shinra army, and his loyalty never wavered during the time it took him to rise to the rank of Captain. A brave and skilled fighter, that was Captain Masters. One of our best. Shame to see him dead." "But Messiah coulda' mind warped him.", Barret pointed out. "Right, but that implies that he wasn't involved with her before that point.", Reeve countered. "Which makes back-tracking his history pointless. No, we need to trace this brainwashing back to it's source. Here, let me show you some photos that one of the North Point security cameras took." He typed into his keyboard, and a large screen descended from the ceiling to rest against the wall. Typing a few more commands, a picture suddenly came up on the screen. It showed a large, walled fort, pictured in full color, guard towers at all four corners, the front almost abutting a large portion of the coast. A caption reading "North Point - Forward Post of the Shinra Army" was in the lower hand corner. "Um, wait a sec.", Reeve said. "That's just a promotional pic." He typed in a few more commands, and suddenly they were shown a shot from inside the gate, black and white. It was filled with soldiers, arranging in rigid lines, marching in through the open gates, a mixture of Shinra uniforms and many others. "So that's Messiah's army.", Barret said with a low whistle. "Maybe they don't have enough uniforms to go around, so they just take what they can get." "Possible.", Reeve said. "This shot was taken after they had already gotten the gates open, by remote. Captain Masters was sending us intelligence data on the enemy up until the point they captured and executed him. He also set the base computer to continue to take shots after he was killed. A press of a key brought up another shot, a still of several Shinra soldiers laying in pools of blood, more Shinra soldiers striding over them, along with men in other uniforms. "Pretty grisly stuff.", Reeve commented. "Haven't looked at this yet." The picture flicked forward, a shot down into the base courtyard, where about forty Shinra soldiers were surrounded by the invading army, hands on their heads. "This is after the surrender.", Reeve said. "These men were shot soon afterwards. Bastards didn't even give them a chance. These are some very cold customers we're dealing with, here." "Bummer.", Yuffie commented. "Yes, but we did find out several interesting things.", Reeve added, flicking forward through a couple more shots of bodies and soldiers to a shot of a Shinra Captain, standing in what appeared to be a small command room, his mouth opened as if he'd been talking when the picture had been taken. "This is Captain Masters' last transmission before he was captured.", Reeve explained. Then he typed a key and it began to play. "...base overrun.", Masters said, his face grim. "I've got about forty men left, and the enemy numbers over three hundred. They've asked for our surrender, and I'm going to give it." He grimaced, and then gritted his teeth. "My own men betrayed me.", he said angrily. "But they aren't the only ones. We managed to grab some unit numbers off of some of the invading Shinra, as instructed. These numbers are being uploaded to you as we speak. But I've already recognized a few. These are our men, alright. Turned against us somehow." Suddenly the sound of gunfire broke out, and a Shinra soldier burst into the room. "Captain!", he exclaimed. "They're coming." Masters turned and nodded to the man, then turned back to the camera. "I'm going to head out and give them our surrender.", he said, his mouth a grim line. "I hope the intelligence we've gathered will help you figure out who these bastards are and take them down." More gunfire. "I've got to go. Captain Veric Masters from North Point, out." He began to give a short salute and then the frame froze. "As I said, Captain Veric Masters and all of his remaining soldiers were shot soon afterwards.", Reeve said grimly. "Then the invaders left. Pulled back and disappeared. I cross-referenced the unit numbers Masters gave us to the list we compiled before, and we came up with some matches." He typed a few more keys, and the freeze frame of Masters' salute changing to a copy of Reeve's computer screen. "We got five matches off of the fifteen numbers we received.", Reeve said, as the list scrolled by. "And we got lucky. One is the same as one of the Commandos that we narrowed our search down to before, the ones who received arctic combat training and had gone MIA. The rest are all our MIAs, although a couple were KIAs, meaning their deaths were misinterpreted, or our enemy resurrected them somehow. Regardless, this links the men who attacked North Point with the ones who attacked Vincent." He paused for effect. "So, we're dealing with the same enemy here. Whoever it may be." "Interesting to know.", Cid commented. "But I'm not sure how this helps us." "Well, for one thing, it gives me a reason to help you.", Reeve pointed out. "These people have struck at us now, so we have a mutual enemy, as well as a mutual interest in seeing that enemy destroyed. I now have full authority to bolster your force with my own soldiers, what we can spare. So, give us somewhere to strike, and we'll hit it, and hit it hard." Cid nodded, satisfied. "That's good to hear, Reeve." He paused, about to say something else, when a shrill alarm suddenly shattered the air around them. "What's that?", Yuffie asked. "Bad news.", Reeve said immediately, typing quickly on his computer terminal. The screen that had been displaying the data from North Point slid back up into the ceiling, and Reeve's face turned grim. "Something is attacking us.", he said. "Four men down so far. It's...", he paused, confused. "We don't have it on file. It's attacking with lightning." "The lightning monster!", Barret exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "That thing is mean. Reeve, you better get us down there, now. Maybe we can help stop this thing." "Hold on...", he said, reaching for his radio, as he stared at his keyboard. "It's pulling back." He brought the radio to his lips. "Gate, report." "Private Dawson here, sir.", a soldier replied. "We fought it off, whatever it was. It took a few dozen rounds, shocked a couple of men, and then flew off. It was chasing someone, too. She rode in on a Chocobo just ahead of it, but she made it in alright. What do you want us to do with her?" Cid's heart jumped into his throat. "Description.", he said immediately. "Reeve, ask them for a description." Reeve did so. "Young woman, mid-twenties.", the soldier replied. "She's-- wait a minute--didn't recognize her with all that mud. Damn, she looks like she's been through hell--um, Tifa Lockhart, sir. Near as we can tell." Yuffie jumped up from her seat, Cid doing the same, as they all looked at each other, not daring to believe it. "Tifa's alright!", Yuffie yelled. "Course she is.", Barret said, relief flooding his features. "I knew that girl would make out alright." "What do you want us to do with her?", the soldier repeated. "Bring her in immediately!", Reeve exclaimed, smiling. "This is cause for celebration!" "Yes sir.", the soldier commented doubtfully. "Gate, out." They rushed out of the office, Reeve trailing behind, and headed up to the roof, to the helipad. A minute later, a helicopter landed, and Cid's eyes widened as two soldiers stepped out, and Tifa stepped out behind them. Covered in mud, considerably tired, looking bruised and battered, but alive. "Tifa!", Yuffie cried, as she rushed forward and swept the other woman into a hug. The others gathered around, eagerly exchanging greetings, which Tifa returned with sincere but tired thanks. "Damn girl, what happened to you?", Barret asked, punching her in the arm gently. "Where you been all this time?" "Prisoner.", Tifa said, her voice fatigued. "Messiah's prisoner. But I escaped. And I know where she's hiding. We have to go, now, and get her. She's got Cloud!" "You ain't goin' anywhere in your condition, Tifa, not until you've had some rest.", Cid warned. "You hungry?" "And thirsty.", Tifa said wearily. "I haven't eaten since they captured me." "Shit, girl!", Barret exclaimed. "Reeve, get this woman some food and water, on the double!" "On it.", Reeve nodded, raising his radio to his mouth and giving several crisp orders. "Let's head back to the sitting room beside my office. We can discuss everything there, as well as eat." "But we have to go, now...", Tifa protested, but Barret stopped her. "You look like you been through hell, girl.", he said. "Reeve has offered ta help us take Messiah down once we find out where he is, so it'll take 'im awhile to get his men mobilized to move, anyways. So you got some time to rest. Ain't that right, Reeve?" Reeve nodded. "I'll mobilize as many units as we have immediately. They'll be ready to go in thirty minutes or less. But that gives us a little time for food, rest and talk." Tifa nodded wearily, agreeing. "Alright.", she said. "But we have to move on this as soon as possible. Frieze--a friend--is probably being tortured by Messiah right now. Maybe Cloud too. And she may be moving out of her lair as we speak, 'cause she knows we're coming in after her." "Her?", Cid asked, as they helped Tifa off the roof and back down the stairwell. "It's a she?" "A twisted, evil woman.", Tifa said angrily. "She's as bad as Sephiroth. His ex-lover, in fact." "Sephiroth had a woman?", Barret exclaimed. "Damn! That's bad news. Sounds like you've got a lot to tell us, Tifa." "You don't know the half of it.", she said, grimly.

"So that's all of it?", Cid asked in amazement, settling back in a plush seat of Reeve's sitting room and staring at Tifa with newfound respect. She had been given time for a quick shower, enough time to wash off the mud that had caked her body for so long and change out of the clothes she'd been wearing the past few days. She was busily scarfing down a large sandwich and some chips, as well as drinking a large amount of water, both substances so delicious after being deprived of them for so long. It felt good to be clean, but with the mud gone the injuries she had sustained while in Messiah's grip were all too evident, her skin burned in several places from Azure's lightning, her eyes and face darkened and bruised from her repeated battering by Shinra soldiers and others, her hair torn and ragged. As Cid had commented, she looked like she'd been through hell. And that was practically the truth. "Messiah is gonna' die.", Barret said, lividly, from his seat. "That bitch don't deserve to die quick, either. She's been around a long time, it sounds like. Been doin' evil a long time. And doin' that shit to her kids, and Cloud, and that Captain--man, that ain't right either. None of it is right!" He smashed one hand on the arm rest angrily. "Not since Sephiroth have I heard of one so twisted.", Vincent commented, nodding at Barret's comments. "No wonder she hates us. We killed her lover. And Sephiroth, with children, twins even... it all blows the mind. She must have been around for quite a long time to have amassed the power that she seems to have. Yet she's never made a grab for power, never attacked the upper world, at least not in any reported case. What has she been doing down there all this time, before we killed Sephiroth and spurred her into action?" "Doesn't matter.", Yuffie added angrily. "She made the mistake of coming after us. So we're gonna' take her down once and for all. Like Tifa said, her power is in her servants. So we've already taken a fourth of that. We killed that worm thing. So we gotta' handle the rest, the other three. Well, two, since Ice is already on our side. Fire and Bolt then. And each one we kill is gonna' drive her bonkers. What did Frieze say 'bout that, Tifa? When the last one of them dies, will Messiah die too?" "I don't know.", Tifa answered between mouthfuls of food. "Frieze said that if he died, she died. But he also said that his death and the others would leave her vulnerable. So maybe what he meant is that", she paused for a long drink of water, "when we take the last of them out, Messiah won't have any more power. And then she's a sitting duck." "Frieze sounds like a tough sort.", Barret said sadly. "And I can respect 'em, going against all that condition' like he did to help you out. Goin' against family, man, that takes guts. It's too bad he has to die." "I wish there was some other way.", Tifa said sadly. "I really do. Maybe we'll find one. God, I hope so." She took another bite of her sandwich and shook her head. "But Frieze told me that we'd be doing him a favor. And I believe it. If Messiah was my mother... I don't know how'd I'd deal with that." "It's tragic.", Vincent agreed sadly. "But what about the Cloud factor? You said he came out of his mind control for awhile, when we killed Trymor. So if we kill Messiah, he'll revert, right?" "He has too.", Tifa agreed strongly. "I know he will." "But we'll have ta' face 'em down there.", Barret said grimly. "We'll have to fight 'em. And like he did to Red, he ain't gonna be pullin' any of his punches." "We can't kill him!", Tifa protested. "He's got no control over his actions." "Wouldn't think of it.", Barret agreed quickly. "He's my friend too, dammit. But we gotta figure out some way to take him out of the battle, and fast. We know how good he is with that sword a his. I think he could take any of us down, one on one, no sweat. So we gotta team up on him. And knockin' him out without killin' him ain't gonna be easy." "He's not as dangerous with just his fists, tho.", Cid said. "We gotta' concentrate on disarmin' him, like we did before. I caught him off guard and took his weapon away pretty easy, last time. He'll be on guard this time. But there has ta be a way. We disarm him, we take him out of the battle. For the most part." Reeve entered the room, having left to see about his men. "We're ready.", he said with a nod. "Six platoons of mobilized infantry. It's all we've got to spare. But they're good men, over one hundred strong. They'll fight well." "We up against three hundred, at least.", Barret said angrily. "And they the one's defendin'." "Right, but we'll be fighting in close quarters.", Reeve said. "Not many ways they can concentrate their forces in one big rush to knock us out. So, they'll have to fight us in small engagements. And they aren't all former Shinra. My men are the best at what they do. The former Shinra soldiers are our biggest threat, I think. The rest may be easier to take down. And, of course, we have you five at our side, with your considerable magic and weaponry to bolster our force. It comes out about even, I would think." Barret grimaced, but nodded. "You may be right, Reeve.", he said. "I hope so." "Oh, and Cid, I have something for you.", Reeve said, rummaging into a pocket of his sport coat and producing a folded document. "Here. I figure it's about time I gave this to you. Consider it a reward for your part in helping to save the world from Meteor." Cid opened it, and his eyes widened. "What is it?", Yuffie asked curiously. "An order signin' the Highwind over to my ownership.", Cid said with a grin. "And officially renamin' it." "That makes the transfer official.", Reeve nodded. "The Airship is yours now, as far as all legal matters are concerned. Also, this frees you to hire out your services to us, if you wish. We've been almost completely devoid of aerial transportation, besides our short range helicopters, since the Gelnika disappeared without a trace back during the war with Sephiroth. "Oh, yeah, I never told ya'.", Cid commented. "We found it." "Did you?", Reeve asked, raising an eyebrow. Cid nodded. "Underwater. Sunk. Filled with a mess of very nasty monsters." Reeve winced. "Man. So that's what happened to it. We never knew. Well, no use crying over past events, I guess. I do hope you'll consider working with us." Cid looked at him carefully, and pocketed the document entitling him to full ownership of the Highwind. "I'll definitely keep it under consideration.", he agreed. "Good.", Reeve said with a smile. He walked into the room, and stopped at Tifa's side. "How are you feeling, Tifa? Is there anything else we can get you? Medical supplies, food, clothes?" "I've got enough.", Tifa assured him, involuntarily tugging at the loose Shinra uniform she now wore, the only change of clothes they'd had available on such short notice. "We can worry about that later. If you're ready to go, then we are as well." She rose to her feet, the last of her food finished. "How 'bout it, guys? You ready to move out?" Barret nodded. "Are you sure you're up to combat, Tifa? You still look pretty..." She glared at him, hands on her hips. "Pretty.", Barret finished with a shrug. "You still look pretty." Tifa grinned. "We're with ya, Tifa.", Yuffie said, as she and Vincent rose as well. Cid gave her a loose salute. "You lead us to her hideout, and we'll all kick 'er ass.", he grinned. "Alright.", Tifa replied with a smile. It felt so good to be back with her friends once more. The nightmare of her imprisonment by Messiah seemed so far away, now, even though less than 24 hours ago she had been in that dank, dark cell. She was not sure how long it would take her to recover from her torturous experience. She might still be in shock. Still, she was ready to finish Messiah off, and soon. Then, she could sit back to lick her wounds.

Copyright November 1997

by Eric 'StarFury' Bakutis

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