Chapter Nine

     "It's gone.", Tifa said, confused and betrayed.  "The
passageway.  It's gone."

     "Are you sure you've led us back to the right place?", Vincent
asked, refusing to give up hope.  "You were probably a bit
disoriented when you left the Mines.  Maybe if we search up and
down a bit more, we'll find it."

     "Negative on that, Valentine.", Captain Grissom Hawk commented
as he walked up to Vincent's side, his assault rifle held easily in
one hand, his massive arm holding it up with barely an effort.  At
first glance, Captain Hawk's close cut, graying hair might have
suggested that he was over the hill.  The fire in
his cool blue eyes, however, and his hard, chiseled face, tan and
toughened from many years in the field, told otherwise.  His build
rivaled Barret's, although he was about an inch shorter.  Still,
Captain Hawk was obviously not a man to be taken lightly.  The
heavy duty assault rifle held in his hand and the coiled, lethal
readiness in his stance attested to that.  "My men have searched up
and down these mountains for at least a mile in each direction. 
Unless she's farther off then that, the only entrance within
spitting distance is that one over there."  He pointed at the
large, gaping cave entrance leading into the Mythril mines, barely
visible in the distance.  

     "It was right here, dammit!", Tifa said angrily.  "I'm sure of

     Vincent ran a hand through his long black hair, thinking
carefully as he examined their surroundings.  Slowly, he advanced
on the sloping mountainside, his sharp eyes scanning it's surface
for anything out of the ordinary.  The surface was broken and
irregular, wind erosion having done little to smooth out it's rocky

     "Tifa.", he said.  "Can you remember exactly where this
entrance was?"

     "I can try.", Tifa said immediately, walking up beside him and
joining his examination of the rock face.  She closed her eyes for
a second, thinking back, and then slowly moved a bit to the left,
before she laid her hands on the surface of the rock face, nodding

     "It was here.", she said, no trace of doubt in her voice.  The
spot she had chosen was a narrow divot cut into the rock between
two larger rocky ridges, looking no different then the rest of the
windblown rock face that stretched off to their left and right. 
Vincent advanced, analyzing the spot carefully.  Kneeling beside
the rock, he silently motioned Tifa aside and ran his hands gently
across the surface, concentrating.  Cold, irregular rock greeted
his highly sensitive fingertips, as he methodically examined the
unbroken rock face.  Not unnatural, then.  A hidden switch,

     "What's he doing?", Captain Hawk asked as he walked up to join

     "Shhh.", Tifa said, pushing him back a bit.  Vincent
appreciated her gesture.  The last thing he needed right now was

     Yes.  There it was.  A barely detectable difference in the
texture of the rock face.  A division.  To the left, solid,
hardened rock which surely stretched into the mountain for miles. 
To the right--less sure.  Vincent couldn't place it immediately,
but something about the rock just seemed... different.  No catch or
switch, though.  A secret door?  Most likely not.  More likely, a
newly built rock wall erected to cover the entrance.  Masterfully
done, most likely by magic, but not masterfully enough to escape
Vincent's keen senses.  Still, he had to be sure.

     "I need absolute silence.", he said.  "Captain Hawk.  Have
your men quiet down for a second.  Tifa, tell the rest of our party
to be quiet as well."

     "You got it.", Tifa said immediately.  "I think he's on to
something.  Hawk, tell your men to quiet down."

     Hawk glanced at her doubtfully, but only hesitated a second
before passing her order on to the rest of his men via radio.  His
army stretched away behind them, over one hundred strong, all
highly trained, highly motivated Shinra troopers, twenty five of
their number elite Shinra Commandos like the ones that had attacked
Yuffie and Vincent, at the forefront of the massive body that Tifa
had led to stand before this blank stretch of rock.  Cid, Barret,
Yuffie and Red all stood there as well, waiting.

     Satisfied that he had his quiet, Vincent concentrated,
expanding his senses.  Slowly, he increased his hearing range, his
augmented ears following the impulses of his keen mind, as he
literally turned up the volume in his head, exposing more of his
highly sensitive eardrums to the surroundings.  Most of the time,
he kept his hearing low, just about twice the range of a normal
human, because expanding it farther could make normal speech quite
painful.  Hence, his request for silence.  He could hear--almost
everything.  The nearly silent glide of a Midgar Zolom, prowling
about just outside of the army's reach, afraid to attack such a
large body of men.  The shuffle of one hundred and three different
uniforms, the impatient shifting of weight from the enlisted men,
all save the twenty five commandos.  The breathing of the closer
ones, mostly regular, although eleven seemed to be breathing a bit
fast, soldiers, most likely nervous about the upcoming encounter. 
Green troops, then.  So, Reeve had been slightly off the mark when
he had said that he was sending nothing but his best.  Well,
Vincent couldn't fault him.  Someone had to protect Midgar.  The
sound of a flock of birds flying by overhead, out of the visual
range of most of those gathered about him.  He was grateful that
the Shinra soldiers took their orders seriously.  The last thing he
needed was their magnified voices echoing painfully off of his
exposed eardrums.

     He curled his hand into a fist and brought it back, then
rapped sharply on the rock, three times, the dull sound of his fist
striking the rock sounding like a large bass drum being beat about
five feet away.  But that was not what he was interested in.  He
followed the audio vibrations from his raps into the rock, and
realized with satisfaction that they ended barely a foot in,
revealing empty space beyond.  Hollow.  This was the entrance. 
Tifa was right.

     He brought his hearing back to a more bearable level, turned,
and brought his gaze to rest on Hawk.

     "Have your men bring up some heavy drills, or explosive if you
have it.", he informed the Captain.  "The tunnel that Tifa
remembers is just beyond the rock.  It appears that Messiah has
capped it to balk our entrance.  It's about a foot thick."

     "You sure about that?", Captain Hawk asked, raising an eyebrow

     Vincent merely continued to stare at him, his face cool and

     "Alright then.", Hawk agreed.  He brought the radio to his
lips.  "PFC Haze, come up and join us here at the front.  And bring
your rocket launcher."

     Vincent's eyes turned to watch as the troops behind Hawk
parted, and about thirty seconds later a Shinra soldier appeared,
a patch on his uniform designating him as one of the few Shinra elites
who had been trained to use their highly volatile rocket launchers. 
Only five of these men had been sent with the detachment Shinra had
sent to strike at Messiah, because it was expected that rockets
would be too dangerous in the close quarters of a tunnel, and would
damage their bearers as much as the enemy.

     "So you want him to blast that wall?", Hawk asked, still
doubtful.  Reeve had told him that he would be under the party's
command during this mission, with Tifa his main superior, and so
far his only resistance to this had been occasional doubt when
confronted with an order he found strange.  

     "Right here.", Vincent said, laying his hand softly on the
center of the thin rock wall.  

     "Alright Haze, you heard the man.", Hawk said sharply, turning
to his soldier.  "Valentine, get clear.  We need to back off a bit
before he fires.  The blast should blow most of the rock inward, if
what you say is true.  Still, if it's solid, the blast could send
rubble back at us.  I don't fancy being taken out by a rock."

     They backed off nearly thirty feet before Hawk cleared them to
stop.  "Haze, ready up.", Hawk said sharply.  The rocket soldier
fell to one knee, bringing his launcher up to rest on his shoulder.

     "Aim.", Hawk said crisply.  Haze tightened his grip on his
grip and trigger, carefully adjusting the angle and orientation of
his launcher through the sight he had pressed against his left eye.

     "Fire.", Hawk finished sharply.

     Haze lightly squeezed the trigger, only his intensive
training, skill and muscle power keeping his launcher steady as
flame tore from the back of it, and a thin, pointed projectile
roared from it's business end on a tail of fire and a stream of
smoke.  The rocket spiraled from it's launcher, blazing towards the
rock wall in the distance, which remained steady, defiant, unafraid
of the massive warhead rocketing towards it.  A half second later
and the rocket hit, and there was a bright flash and a massive
explosion.  Smoke obscured the afflicted portion of the
mountainside for a brief second.  Then, the smoke began to clear,
revealing the edge of a darkened opening, just becoming visible
through the rapidly dissipating smoke.  Tiny chunks of rock
peppered them even at this distance, but the blast had carried most
of the tunnel's concealment deeper into the mountain.

     "I'll be damned.", Hawk said.

     A loud battle cry tore through the air suddenly, and without
warning a lone soldier rushed into view through the smoke, his
brown armor and helmet clanking as he stumbled forward, blinded,
trying to bring up the rifle in his hand to fire.  Then others
became visible past him, more armored, brown soldiers, pouring from
the rock like ants from a suddenly disturbed hive.

     "Cover!", Hawk cried loudly, bringing his own weapon up to aim
at the advancing soldiers.  "Fire at will!", he roared.  There was
a bright flash of magical energy in front of them, and Vincent
realized with satisfaction that Red had just thrown a Wall spell up
before them.  He must have begun before the smoke even cleared,
hearing the advance of the soldiers inside before they cleared the
smoke.  Vincent would have heard it too, had he not nearly deafened
himself to avoid being hurt by the sound of the rocket's

     Coolly, efficiently, the foremost rank of Shinra soldiers,
along with Captain Hawk and Barret, sent a deadly barrage of
bullets into the advancing enemy, even as the enemy's return fire
panged harmlessly against the wall, slowly weakening it's
effectiveness.  Vincent calmly popped off shots with his Sniper
Rifle, piercing each soldier he brought into his sights straight
between the eyes, killing them instantly.  Together with Barret and
Vincent, the Shinra army mowed their opposition down quickly and
mercilessly.  The entirety of the advancing soldiers were cut down
before their own weapons had even destroyed a third of the wall's

     "Company!", Captain Hawk called loudly, bringing his hand up,
unruffled by the sudden attack.  "Advance and secure the area!"  He
broke into a run, his men right behind, their rifles covering the
area ahead, ready to instantly destroy anything that barred their
path.  Vincent jogged beside them, Tifa at his left, Barret at his
right, the others behind them, Red at the rear of their formation,
easily keeping up despite his injuries.  The wall faded away, it's
power extinguished as they left it's area of effect.  Red had thrown
up a large stationary obstruction instead of the individual
personal defense walls they normally used in combat, as it would
have been impossible to cast that type of wall onto this many men. 
Vincent silently found himself agreeing with Reeve's earlier words. 
Bolstered by their considerable magic, the Shinra army would be
much more deadly that it's smaller numbers would cause one to
expect.  They might just have a chance at pulling this off.

     Shinra soldiers moved carefully but fearlessly into the dark
tunnel ahead, activating the lights on the end of their rifles as
they examined the area.  It took only a few seconds to determine
that the entrance to the tunnel was theirs.  Vincent stepped over
the massed bodies of several corpses, right behind Captain Hawk,
right ahead of his friends.  The brown armor of the dead soldiers
was broken and charred, their bodies lacerated with the force of
the explosion which had blown the entrance open.  They must have
been waiting inside to ambush anyone who tried to drill their way
inside.  If they had survived, they surely would have thought twice
before standing so close to a covered tunnel entrance again.

     "My commandos will form the head of our invasion party.",
Captain Hawk explained quickly.  "This tunnel is not very big, so
until it widens we'll have to walk in single file.  This can kill
us very quickly, if we come up against a large force of hostiles
waiting to mow us down as we come out of the tunnel.  In that case,
we'll have to advance as quickly as possible and try to secure an

     "Captain, that's gonna' hurt us.", a nearby Commando said. 
His words were merely an observation, not an objection.  It was
obvious that he would lead the army without question, even though
he would almost surely be killed immediately if they encountered an

     "It is also unnecessary.", Vincent commented.  "I'll lead."

     Captain Hawk glanced at Tifa questioningly.  She nodded.

     "With a wall up to protect him, and his enhanced senses, he's
the best choice to lead us in.", she explained without batting an
eyelash.  "He'll probably hear anyone waiting ahead before they
hear us."

     Captain Hawk turned his gaze back to Vincent, his eyes
evaluative.  "Alright, then.", he agreed without further comment. 
He turned to his men.  "For now, you're under this man's command.",
he said sharply, pointing at Vincent.  "He's gonna' head us up. 
Follow his orders as quickly as you would follow mine.  We're
operating in operational silence from this point on till I say
otherwise.  Understood?"

     "Yes sir!", the nearest troopers chorused.

     "Five of my commandos will follow Vincent.", Captain Hawk
said, laying their formation out.  "This is a damned small
entrance, but it's the only one we've got.  I'll want to be near
the head of the group so I know what's going on.  What about the
rest of you?"

     "Vincent?, Tifa questioned.

     "Yuffie next.", Vincent said.  "Then Captain Hawk, yourself,
Red, Barret, Cid.  Followed by the rest of Hawk's commandos, and
then the rest of his soldiers, until this tunnel widens out."

     Captain Hawk passed his orders back to the rest of his army,
and then they moved into order, the effort difficult in the narrow
confines of the tunnel, requiring a host of tight squeezes. 
Vincent, now at the head of the line, stared down the dark tunnel
ahead, his Sniper Rifle strapped to his back, the sleek form of his
Outsider grasped in his fist.  It was his most powerful weapon,
with the Deathblow lost, and therefore the best choice for his
primary long range weapon.  For close range, his claw would do

     A flash of energy momentarily illuminated the area just ahead,
and he felt the comforting security of a personal wall flash into
being around his body.  Silently, he raised his arm and began to
walk forward, then dropping his hand to motion the Commando behind
him into motion, who passed the order onto the rest of the line. 
At a brisk but careful pace, they began to advance.  The shuffle of
the men and women behind him, with the exception of Red and Yuffie,
who's soft paws and ninja training kept their footsteps largely
muted, was almost painful to his expanding hearing.  Only the
Shinra Commandos and Captain Hawk seemed to have any grasp of how
to move in any measure of silence.

     "Messiah is going to hear us coming a mile away.", he thought

     The tunnel continued into the rock for quite a distance, it's
narrow confines unchanging.  It was obviously engineered, it's
length too consistent to have been naturally formed.  It seemed to
snake to the left and right without any clear purpose, almost at
random, and even Vincent's keen senses had to strain to keep track
of which direction they were heading.  The only thing that was
easily discernable is that they were heading, slowly but surely,

     Red had renewed the power of the wall four times before
Vincent raised his hand in warning, bringing them to a stop.  He
had detected men ahead, the shuffle of armor against skin echoing
into his enhanced ears from about fifty feet ahead, just around a
sharp fork in the tunnel, the first of it's kind they had seen yet,
almost ninety degrees.  A perfect ambush spot.  Vincent had ordered
the Commandos to keep their lights shining just behind him, the
illumination bouncing from the floor under his feet more than
sufficient for his keen eyes to make out the area ahead for about
the fifty foot distance it would take to reach the corner.  The
perfect spot for an ambush.  Hence the five enemy soldiers crouched
ahead, ready, but obviously impatient, as one of their numbers
nervous movement had implied.  Surely, that meant the tunnel
widened.  Good.  Enough of this single file advance.

     He turned to face the commando directly behind him, keeping
his voice to a low whisper, too low to carry to the men waiting for
them fifty feet down the hallway.

     "You.", he said, his gaze meeting that of the lead Commando,
only the area immediately around his eyes and the top of his nose
visible under the thick black helmet that covered his head and
face, a pair of night-vision goggles affixed to it's top.  "Name?"

     "Trevor.", the man replied.  "Why?"

     "Trevor, there is an ambush party of enemy soldiers crouched
and ready about fifty feet ahead, as well as a sharp fork in the
tunnel which will give them cover.", Vincent whispered calmly. 
"They probably hope to ambush us, assuming that the glare of the
lights that we must surely use to see in this tunnel will give them
plenty of advance warning.  We need to take them out, without
lights, and quickly.  No telling how many wait behind them."

     "Easy.", Trevor replied, tapping his night vision goggles
lightly with one finger.  "Do we take them out with weapons or

     "Knifes.", Vincent replied.  "We do not want the sound of
gunfire to give us away.  Chances are these men are stationed here
to warn the main body when the tunnel has been penetrated.  If we
take them out, quickly, they may not get a chance to warn the

     "Good.", Trevor said.  "How many do you want me to take?"

     "The four behind you, plus the two of us.", Vincent said. 
"Let's go."  He began to turn, but Commando Trevor lightly grabbed
his shoulder.

     "You got a pair of goggles?", he asked with a raised eyebrow.

     "No need.", Vincent said calmly. 

     Trevor regarded him for a second, and then shrugged.  "You're
the boss.", he whispered, turning to his men and quickly laying out
what was ahead.  Then he nodded at Vincent, signaling his
readiness.  The foremost of the men behind them extinguished their
lights, just before Trevor and the rest of the Shinra Commandos
dropped the night-vision goggles down over their faces, completely
obscuring any remaining trace of humanity.

     They advanced then, and Vincent noticed with satisfaction that
the Shinra commandos moved forward as silently as he did.  Good. 
His eyes magnified the darkness of the tunnel, the lights behind
them giving him enough scattered illumination to see.  His eyes
were a pair of night-vision goggles, when he wished them to be. 
The soldiers ahead were in complete darkness, and that was an
obvious cause for their nervousness.  They surely believed that the
lights of an invading party would warn them to ready themselves. 
That belief would cause their deaths.

     Barely a minute later they had reached the fork in the tunnel,
where it widened, much larger, wide enough for five men to walk
abreast.  The increase was sudden, indicating the end of the
tortuous entrance tunnel through which they had thus far travelled. 
Vincent turned and brought three fingers up, nodding to the men
behind him, who crouched in readiness.  Silently, he counted down.

     "Two, one, go!"  He signaled go by clasping his fist,
remembering Shinra Commando hand signals all too clearly from his
training before joining the Turks, and then leapt into action,
Trevor and another man right behind them.  He had a half second to
observe the first soldier standing in the darkness ahead, his rifle
held wearily at his side, though his expression was ready, as he
had obviously heard the sound of the hundred soldiers advancing on
his position echoing down the length of tunnel.  Only a deaf man
wouldn't, as Vincent had thought earlier.  Still, the sound had
stopped far enough off that he didn't yet feel threatened.

     Vincent's claw finished him instantly, as the knifes of the
rest of the Commandos took down the four men closest to him, two to
his left and right.  Then they leapt upon the rest of the small
enemy group, numbering only ten more, the enemy soldiers jumping as
the sound of the short, strangled cries of their comrades suddenly
came to their ears.  As the last one fell to the ground, his
sightless eyes wide open in shock, his hand gently opened to reveal
a small radio.  He hadn't even had time to use it.  He had surely
reported that the enemy was advancing.  Still, he hadn't had time
to report that the enemy was here.

     Vincent motioned to two of the Commandos to return and bring
the rest of the party, as he, Trevor and two others moved forward
silently to scout ahead.  The tunnel got steadily wider, and
continued on for about two hundred feet, curving back and forth as
the entrance tunnel had done.  They stopped short of the light that
became visible ahead, taking in the large knot of soldiers who were
marching towards them from farther into the tunnel, far too many
for the four of them to handle.  Silently, they doubled back to
reach the rest of the advancing army before being detected, the
curves of the larger tunnel surely enough to hide their army from
Messiah's for a few minutes longer.

     They reached the forefront of the Shinra army without
incident, and Vincent quickly made his report.  Captain Hawk
organized his men into a spearhead, a large portion having already
moved into the blessedly wider terrain.  Just as it had been
outside, they began to advance.

     They heard battle cries from the darkness ahead, as the sound
of hundreds of booted feet met the sound of a hundred in
opposition, and the enemy knew for certain that they were coming. 
So much for catching them off guard, but what could be expected of
such a large force?  The first of their lights came into view
around a gentle curve in the tunnel.

     "Now!", Vincent cried, dropping to one knee and bringing up
his Sniper Rifle, which he had once again brought into play.  

     "For Messiah!", the leader of the enemy men yelled, an altered
Shinra captain.  His men fired as they charged into view, and the
Shinra force backing Vincent up replied in kind.  This time, the
enemy barrage was much more severe, and it took all of Red's
magical energy to keep it up.  However, he managed to hold it firm,
and Messiah's soldiers died in waves.  Noticing a satisfied smile
on Captain Hawk's face, Vincent wondered momentarily if he had
known Captain Masters.

     "Fall back!", an enemy soldier cried.  The enemy was having
trouble advancing because of the carpet of bodies from the men
already taken by Shinra fire.  It was a slaughter.  Faced with such
fearsome opposition, unable to even hit their opponents, even men
controlled by Messiah were smart enough to realize that they were
only throwing their lives away here.  The enemy soldiers began to
fall back in disarray, and that was what Captain Hawk had been
waiting for.

     "Charge!", he roared.

     And so they did.  Not flinching at leaving the protection of
Red's wall, they bravely ran ahead, firing steadily and quickly
taking the ground that the disorganized and frightened enemy was
giving up.  Vincent, Barret, and the rest of the party ran forward,
Red throwing up personal walls about all of them, as well as
Captain Masters and anyone else who came within range.  He was
surely quickly exhausting his magical power, but the turbo ether
clasped in his teeth would quickly renew it.  Like titans among
ants, the Shinra warriors and the party tore through Messiah's men
like they were nothing.

     But all good things eventually come to an end.  Lightning
leapt from the darkness ahead, and there was a terrifying,
animalistic scream as Azure tore her way through her own retreating
soldiers, her power quickly destroying the foremost of the Shinra
invaders, ending the one-sidedness of the conflict.  Barret,
Vincent and Hawk, the closest to her, laid into her with their
weapons, as other soldiers joined in as well.  To no avail.  Azure
fought like the devil herself, her lightning burning the bullets
flying towards her from the air and striking back at her
tormenters.  Barret cried out as a blast of lightning smashed into
him, the wall blocking most of it's effect, but even so he was
knocked off his feet.  Was Azure invulnerable?  Surely not! 
Vincent analyzed her calmly, even as the rounds from his weapon
burned away into her magic.  Then Hawk, too, was blown off his feet
along with the soldier behind him, though both were fortunate to be
among the Shinra soldiers who had been blessed with Red's magic.

     "Fire 3!", Yuffie cried, pushing her way to the foremost rank
of soldiers and joining the battle, the rest of the party right
with her.  Magic to fight magic.  Azure screamed in agony as an
intense blast of fire washed over her, returning the strike with
lightning of her own.  Vincent rolled to the side to evade her
strike, but a Shinra commando was not as quick.  By freak chance,
Red had not had time to give him a wall.  He was blown apart

     Then spells from Tifa and Cid tore into Azure as well.  Ice
and Bio, as they had decided quickly that Bolt would do little to
slow one of Azure's nature.  Vincent leapt ahead as the spells
cleared, his ears deafened by Azure's tortured shriek of pain.  He
saw her ahead, falling backwards, her burned body frosted with ice,
her mouth opened in a terrible cry of pain.  Her field began to
dissipate as she fell into unconsciousness, beaten at last. 
Vincent leapt towards her, claw readied, and neatly decapitated her
as the last of her magical field disappeared.  One down.  One to

     More soldiers fell, on both sides, as Tifa dragged Barret to
his feet, and others helped Hawk and their fellow soldiers as well. 
None of the walled men had been injured too badly, and were still
in fighting shape.  Though the bloody conflict raged on for almost
five minutes more before they reached one last sharp curve in the
rock, the battle was soon won by Shinra and the party.  Messiah's
soldiers, at least those who had been sent after them, had been
destroyed to the last, falling quickly after Azure was taken down. 
Vincent judged that over two hundred and fifty had fallen already,
plus about forty back at the entrance.  A grisly death toll. 
Still, he knew that they were doing Messiah's soldiers a favor by
freeing them of her grip.  At least, that's what surely allowed the
more conscientious members of his group to participate in the
slaughter.  Vincent himself didn't care either way. 

     As they turned the corner, they were suddenly confronted with
a different kind of opposition.  And Vincent knew that it was far
stronger than anything they had yet faced.

     "What the hell is that?", Captain Hawk asked, ordering his
victorious soldiers to a halt.  They had lost but seventeen men, in
comparison to the hundreds of enemy they had killed.  More than

     Captain Hawk's question was due to the large, glowing blue
field which blocked the tunnel ahead, crackling with intense magic. 
Vincent advanced as close as he was felt was safe, and then reached
down and removed the helmet from a dead enemy soldier.  He tossed
it at the field.  The helmet flared and died as it came in contact
with the bluish energy.

     "Wonderful.", he commented.

     "How do we get past that?", Captain Hawk asked, his armor and
face blackened by the impact of Azure's lightning.  He seemed to
have developed a rather healthy respect for the uses of magic in a
combat situation.  Tifa came to his side, having made it through
the conflict with Messiah's army with barely a scratch.  

     "I don't know.", she said angrily.  To have advanced so far,
to be balked now... it was almost unfair.

     The rest of the party joined into their quick strategy
session, and as the Shinra commandos and soldiers set up a
defensive perimeter around them, they analyzed the obstruction

     "Magic.", Yuffie said simply.  "I've never seen something that
powerful before.  It'll burn us up if we even touch it."

     Red set the turbo ether clasped in his teeth on the ground,
freeing himself to speak.  "Messiah has obviously thrown this
barrier up to prevent us from reaching her.  That is reassuring,
because it means she probably hasn't run away.  Perhaps she has
nowhere else to go.  So, we need to figure out a way past this

     Barret, also looking a bit worse for wear, grimaced.  "Think
a wall would do it?", he said immediately.

     Red pondered.  "Maybe.  Any other thoughts?"

     No one provided any.  It appeared they were stuck with the
wall theory.

     "So who's gonna test it?", Tifa asked uncertainly.  "Can a
wall hold something of that magnitude back?"

     "We will find out.", Red said with a grimace, advancing
towards the glow.  "Wall.", he growled, renewing his protection. 
The others, seeing no better alternative, did not stop him.

     "Be careful Red!", Tifa said.  For his part, Vincent hoped Red
knew what he was walking into.

     There was a loud hissing sound and a shimmer of angry magic as
Red put a paw into the field, his wall collapsing inward, held barely
an inch from his skin.  Then he leapt forward, disappearing into
the energy with a loud crackle.

     They waited breathlessly for him to emerge, praying for his
safety.  A second later he walked back out, the energy balked by
his magic, held safely away from his skin.  His face was drawn,
exhaustion in his eyes, as he calmly walked over to the turbo ether,
cracking it open and sighing deeply as it's power flowed into his
body, renewing his magic.

     "We can get through.", Red said calmly.  "But not all of us. 
Our success depends on how far the energy goes.  I walked in ten
feet before I turned around, and barely made it out before I
exhausted the last of my magic.  The energy requires almost
constant force to hold off.  I believe, at full strength, I now
have enough power to keep myself and two others safe for a distance
of fifty feet.  That is, both ways, as we'd have to double back if
it extends farther than fifty feet to avoid being killed.  With
three, the distance would shrink to twenty five.  Four, and we
would have less than thirteen, and I know from how far I went in
that five is not an option.

     "Damn!", Barret cursed.  "So we got this whole army lined up,
and only a few of us can get past this!  That ain't right."

     "How many men do you believe Messiah has left, Tifa?", Red
asked, turning to her.

     Tifa looked around, glancing sadly at the corpses that
surrounded them.  "Not many more than this.", she said.  "We must
have killed nearly all of the men that I saw in the coliseum.  I
think Messiah is too vain to let any of her men out of their
nightly worship ceremony.  So, chances are the only people
remaining between us and her are Flaym, and...", she paused,
grimacing.  "Cloud."

     "So, who goes in?", Hawk asked uncertainly.  "Can't you
destroy this field somehow?"

     "There is no other way.", Red insisted calmly.  "Messiah has
balked us through magic, even though physical force has failed. 
But I do not intend to let her escape.  I am going in.  Who will
come with me?"

     "I'm going.", Tifa said vengefully.  "I owe her big time."

     "What about the rest of you?", Red asked.

     "I know we'd all like a piece of her sorry hide.", Cid said. 
"So I say we draw straws.  Whoever gets the shortest two straws
goes in with Tifa and Red to kick Messiah's ass."

     "You're going to take her on alone?", Hawk asked in disbelief.

     "After Sephiroth?", Tifa returned.  "Easily.  You've been a
great help, Captain Hawk.  But from here on in, I think it's going
to be up to us."

     "Well, you saved the world once already.", Captain Hawk said
with a shrug.  "Guess you might as well go for two."

     Without further discussion, they set up the drawing, and Tifa
held the four straws in her fist, as the remaining members of the
party drew one apiece.

     "Well.", Vincent said, evaluating the considerable length of
his straw calmly.

     "Looks like I'm out too.", Barret said with a shrug, dropping
his to the ground in disgust.  Then he grinned.  "Well, I'm still
achin' from that lightnin' strike, anyways.  Guess you luck out
this time, Cid.  You and Yuffie go get 'er."

     "Captain Hawk, stay here until we return.", Tifa ordered. 
"And the rest of you, wish us luck."

     "Good luck.", Vincent said calmly, disappointed.  He wanted
Deathblow back.

     "Kick 'er ass.", Barret added.

     "Good luck.", Hawk agreed.  "You'll need it."

     "Alright.", Red said.  "Four of us are going in.  I'll tell
you if I want us to start doubling back.  Depends on how thick this
thing is.  If it's more than twenty-five, I'll take another turbo
ether and we'll go in again with less.

     "Are you sure you're up to that, Red?", Tifa asked cautiously. 
"It's not healthy to expend this much magic, even with the ethers. 
You could burn yourself out."

     "Then I'll give you the Barrier materia for next time.", Red
replied.  "If there is a next time."

     "Let's do it.", Cid said.

     "Here we go.", Red said through gritted teeth, as he brought
his protection up around himself and his three charges.  Then, they
advanced into the field.  With a crackle of protesting magic, they
were gone.

     Vincent waited, calmly.  He hoped they would make it.  A
minute later, he was disappointed.  Tifa, Cid, Yuffie and Red
emerged from the field back into the tunnel, dejected looks on
their faces.

     Red was breathing heavily, exhausted.  Silently, Tifa crouched
at his side, removing the Barrier materia from his headdress and
giving him a concerned, nervous grin as she attached it to her
glove.  He did not smile back, but instead slowly sunk to the
ground, exhausted.

     "That's it for me.", he managed.  Vincent raised an eyebrow. 
Red, using a contraction?  It was a wonder they had made it out at
all.  "I guess I'll have to sit the rest of this out."

     "Then we're down to three.", Tifa said with false bravado. 
"Well, that's the way we've usually done it before.  So much for
having Messiah outnumbered.  At least it'll be an even fight."

     "We don't got no other choice.", Cid said with a shake of his
head.  "Looks like that bitch don't want us gangin' up on her."

     "Well, it can't go on much longer.", Tifa said, glancing
around at her friends defiantly.

     Vincent watched the exchange in detachment.  He was already
out of this fight.  How many more, he thought, would join him?

     "Let's try it again.", Cid said.  "Tifa, you ready?"

     "Ready.", Tifa replied more confidently.  She walked over and
calmly withdrew their remaining two turbo ethers, affixing each of
them to her belt.  "No turning back, this time.", she said grimly. 

     "Two?", Cid asked in dismay.  "What did you just say to Red?"

     "I can do it.", Tifa said, her eyes flashing.  "Messiah won't
escape.  She's ours.  I won't accept failure."

     "Chickenshit!", Yuffie cursed in frustration.  "Messiah is
such a chickenshit!"

     Vincent evaluated her calmly.  Even a very skilled magician
would be hard pressed to attempt what Tifa was about to do.  Even
with the ethers, burning so much magic without any rest could
seriously damage her body.  Even kill her.

     "I've endured worse.", she said softly.

     That settled it.  No further conversation was necessary.  Cid
nodded, as did Yuffie.  Barret laid a hand on her shoulder, his
face grim.  "I know you can do it, girl."  She smiled at him and
nodded.  Then, she advanced to the field, glancing at the others. 
Together, the three of them turned, and disappeared into the
field.  Vincent waited.  Five minutes passed.  So he sat down,
crossing his legs and staring at the field contemplatively.  

     "They ain't comin' back.", Barret said with a grimace.  "So
they made it through.  They had too."

     "Perhaps.", Vincent replied.

Copyright November 1997

by Eric 'StarFury' Bakutis

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