THE CRAVE GAMING CHANNEL
V'lanna
 

Paths Not Taken
 Christopher Ng
Screamer14@xoommail.com
 

Three words: Think Alternate Universe.

Please note that I use my own names for these characters. You see Red XIIIs every day, so how about a Bogardan? I will try to make it pretty obvious who everyone is; most of my names don't differ too much anyway, but if you have a problem with the names, ask me.

Also, the finishing touch: Thanks, Justin Bielawa, for the inspiration for this story. Mine and his don't quite go in the same direction, but the start is there.

 

 

It's working, she thought. I can feel it working.

Aeris closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling her spiritual energy slowly coax her White Materia into life, sensing the lifeblood of the Planet slowly thudding and dying, feeding its last pulses into her and through her to the White Materia, feeling the energy and power of the Cetra slowly emerging, cascading through her in a rainbow velvet shower of life, love, and concern for the Planet.

She had come here against Ash's wishes. She had known, in her heart, as she set out for the Forgotten City of shells, that he would forbid her from going. So she'd gone as he slept, unconscious and unaware.

Ash· Just the thought of his quirky spike-haired visage made her melt. It was funny--no one, not even Zack, had made her feel this way. Not just because he was she bodyguard and she felt protected with him, not just because he was only the second man to actually return her slight, tentative advances, not just because they went on a date together· It was something more. A smile curved her lips; the White Materia in her hairbow pulsed as more magical power, fueled by love, funneled into it.

A tingling at the back of her neck directed her thoughts to the outside of the village, where Ash, Barrett and Katrine were approaching.

Aeris smiled again. It would figure he'd bring them. Barrett, stalwart and angry, yet more tender towards Marlene than anyone had thought possible, his frowns coming as quickly as his bullets. And Katrine, long-black hair plus the strength of an Iron Man plus a figure that any sane human would die for (I wish I looked like that· Maybe Ash would notice me more), running a bar, fighting in AVALANCHE and always managing to keep an eye out for her friends in the meantime. His two best companions, the perfect foils for the strange, haunted ex-SOLDIER.

Here they come.

She felt, even from this distance, Ash's discomfort, his worry. He was concerned for her, not just as a member of his insane quest to kill Sephiroth and save the Planet, but as a friend. As more than a friend.

She smiled again, that same enigmatic smile that had drawn him to her in the first place.

She watched them, in her mind's eye, tracing the same path she had, heading down, always down.

Down into the depths of the Planet.

There is someone else here.

Aeris' eyes snapped open. Her first impulse was to rise; the White Materia, whose glow had been growing steadily brighter, flickered and sputtered, blasting her with alarm. Hastily, she dropped to her knees and continued to charge the orb.

Who?

The strange voice at the back of her mind, the tingling at the back of her neck, refused to subside, but did not answer. Someone is here.

You know who.

She frowned. The voices always spoke in riddles. She could feel the person's lifeforce, burgeoning at the back of her mind, much like the voice did· Both had appeared only presently, around the beginning of the adventure.

It wasn't Bogardan. She knew the red-furred beast's presence, and this wasn't it.

It wasn't Yufi either. Yufi was too friendly for this presence.

In fact, the only one it might fit was Vincent, but he had always been·tender, if that was the right word, towards her.

Then she knew.

Sephiroth.

Quite right, my dear Ancient. Sephiroth.

Her mind burst into frenzied panic; the White Materia strobed like a live wire. Where? She cried silently. How? Why?

Do you really think I'm going to tell you? Leaving an enigmatic trail of laughter, the voice was gone.

In the resounding silence, she thought, Well, that explains why the voice only appears when I'm in close proximity to Sephiroth.

She could only wait, and pray.

Don't forget why you came here. Meteor is coming, and you have to stop it.

That explains why Sephiroth is here. He'll try to stop me.

She could only wait, and pray.

The White Materia beamed, and slowly she collected her shredded concentration to charge it some more.

 

 

What happened next was a blur to her. She was concentrating far too much.

There were voices and murmurs; Ash and Barrett and Katrine had arrived.

Footsteps, echoing 'plick-plick-plick's as Ash jumped the pathway to her little balcony.

Silence.

A whoosh of air, yells and cries. Something cold and thin scraped the back of her neck.

Desperately, Aeris tried to blot it out of her mind. She needed to concentrate, even though the sounds of the outside world were growing more insistent. She needed to suppress her curiosity: she was dying to know what had happened.

Finally, the White Materia pulsed to life, glowing with an intense green glare.

Aeris sighed, looking up to see Ash standing before her.

Englulfing darkness.

Ash was smiling.

Aeris smiled back.

Swirling evil, of a tone and timbre so angry--

Aeris recoiled. "What?"

--it blotted out the stars and moon and sun, leaving her bereft--

Ash strode forward. "What?"

--and in utter blackness, swaying eternal edge of an evil--.

"Stay back," Aeris cried, holding one hand out in a 'halt' gesture. The other flashed to her temple.

--so great it would swallow her forever, without a second thought, and never let her go. Clutched forever in limbo, a never-ending rictus of agony.

This voice, she realized, this sensation, was different than Sephiroth's grating mind-contacts. This felt kinder, more benevolent, though no less intrusive.

Forms resolved out of the blackness.

Aeris' eyes snapped open.

Sephiroth streaked out of the sky.

He held his sword outward, the eight foot blade of the Masamune curved and glistening in the watery lighting. His hair fanned out in white-gray ropes, waving wildly in the uncontrolled wind of descent. Downwards, like an avenging angel he plunged.

Fear throbbed in her, like she had grown several dozen extra hearts that were beating madly. She realized suddenly that this was no random vision: this was a portent--the future being predicted.

Flashing light: He struck. Lights glittered off the razor-sharp blade, reflecting light and dark and love and hate and the pink and red silhouette of one young woman trying to save the Planet.

She had heard of these kinds of longsights. Some Cetra, in flashes of insight or in times of great stress or concentration, experienced these visions. Now that the Cetra were gone, they were all but legend.

Flashing light: the sword blade sailed through her abdomen like so much butter. Ripping her asunder. Entrails shredded, bodily functions disrupted, fluids gushing wildly. Working order disrupted.

Aeris felt ghostly, cold steel slide through her body, even though no one was there save Ash. Her eyes squeezed closed involuntarily, fighting the nonexistent pain.

No sword.

No Masamune.

No·

Aeris toppled over, her eyes blazed wide with surprise and confusion and shock, as though to say, 'Damn. That's it? That's how I die? So much work and love to do and give to the Planet, so much sacrifice to be made and I die with a stick of metal in my back? That's it?'

This wasn't real. She wasn't being brutally murdered by Sephiroth.

I am ALIVE.

Am I?

Her eyes darted round the temple structure, questing vainly for the source of the waning assault.

Ash stepped forward again. "Aeris, are you okay?"

Her own heartbeat--hers, and that of the phantom double leaning blankly over the blade of the Masamune--thudded in her ears, slowly fading to nothing.. "I· I think so·"

Casually, smiling, Sephiroth pushed Aeris' body off the blade of his sword. Blood dripped and oozed. Her corpse, no more than a husk, a meaningless chunk of material to be discarded, slithered to the floor in a graceless spiraling mass of limbs and blood. A brave, glorious, honorable death for the last of the Cetra--skewered in the back like a shish kebab.

The White Materia, glowing green and pulsing madly, drifted out of her hairbow, levitating effortlessly, floating gracefully out of her and Sephiroth's and Ash's and Barrett's and Katrine's grasp and dink!-dink!-dink! bounced down the platforms into the water below.

Brief illumination of pillars and water as the White Materia sunk to the depths, lost to time forever.

She knew not where these images were coming from, only that they were a warning, an important one, one she must heed, and that the mental fingerprints smudged over the warning felt suspiciously like her own--

Ash screamed, a scream of hate and horror and betrayal and he shoved forward, grabbing her body as--.

Aeris' eyes opened again, alight, bulging with horror.

"What--" Ash began, but her gaze snapped upwards.

Sephiroth streaked out of the sky.

He held his sword outward, the eight-foot blade of the Masamune curved and glistening in the watery lighting. His hair fanned out in white-gray ropes, waving wildly in the uncontrolled wind of descent. Downwards, like an avenging angel he plunged.

An angel of Death. Of hate. A madman trying to destroy the world, for no other reason but that he wanted to destroy and it was a convenient target, and so there. A tortured man, one who had been driven to the edge of insanity--and beyond--against his own will, but a madman nonetheless.

Wildly, Aeris wondered if they could turn the cargo bay of the Highwind into some sort of padded cell for him.

She catapulted out of her kneeling stance, scrabbling madly to get out from under the plunging figure.

Gasps of surprise from Katrine and Barrett. From the slithering scrape of metal, she guessed Ash was drawing his sword.

Sephiroth, evil villain though he was, summoner of Meteor though he was, man-who-was-trying-and-apparently-succeeding to destroy the world.

·Could not change direction in midair. He slammed ingloriously to the stone floor with a curse and a thud, the long blade of the Masamune ripped from his grip to clank to the ground.

Aeris, still within his reach, stared, wide-eyed, immobilized by fear. She groped for her Princess Guard, but the staff lay across the stone platform, with Sephiroth between her and it.

Sephiroth raised his head, his eyes blazing mad, wild fury.

Aeris scrambled backwards. Her soul throbbed: This is the end.

In the same instant, Ash and Sephiroth struck.

Sephiroth lunged like a snake, seizing hold of her in a single lightning movement. His face curled into a vicious smile of triumph.

Then his eyes widened momentarily, in surprise: he had forgotten Ash.

Then Ash's sword thudded downwards, and Sephiroth's head lolled three feet away, eyes gaping in slowly dulling shock.

Ash, breathing heavily, wiped his sword on Sephiroth's outstretched body.

Aeris could only stare. She had blinked at the critical moment; her eyes were fastened on the stump of Sephiroth's neck. Revulsed, she looked away, finding his head instead, eyes dim and lifeless.

She wrenched her eyes away, meeting Ash's instead.

Gasping, panting, he drew her into his arms. She held him back, too stunned to do anything else.

Katrine and Barrett arrived, heaving breaths, too late.

"My God, what happened?" Katrine cried.

Barrett prodded Sephiroth's corpse with a single booted toe. "Damn. He's dead, Ash."

Ash nodded, his eyes closed, panting. Aeris felt his heart, hammering against his ribs. "I know, Barrett."

"You killed him, Ash! We saved the Planet!" Katrine cried.

"From Sephiroth, at least," Ash said. He tried to control the tremor in his voice, failed miserably; Aeris realized their close encounter had shaken him up much more than he wanted them to believe.

I see right through you, she thought with a smile.

The PHS system shrilled. "Guys, you're not going to believe this," Barrett said, speaking into the phone system, "but Sephiroth's dead."

Katrine shook her head. "My God, that was fast, Ash. How do you react so quickly?"

A squawk of disbelief from the PHS, audible even as Barrett drifted away.

"SOLDIER training," Ash gasped out.

"And· Aeris· What happened?" Aeris didn't miss the moment of hesistation in Katrine's voice; dully, she wondered if Ash had caught it. "I didn't even notice Sephiroth until he was right on top of you!"

Aeris shook her head--no mean feat, considering her head was flat against Ash's chest. "I don't know. I received a warning· I think it came from the Lifestream." She shuddered, and clutched Ash closer. "What if· What if I had died? Would Holy have stopped Meteor?"

"What?" Katrine asked. "Is that why you came here? To stop Meteor?"

Aeris nodded. "At least, I tried. I· I don't know if it'll work."

"You risked your life for a half-assed chance like that?" Barrett said. He shook his head, glaring at her either admiringly or with total disgust. Probably both.

"It was the only thing I could think of," Aeris said.

Ash let her go. "Even if it doesn't, at least we saved you."

Aeris smiled and held him again.

Barrett was back. With characteristic bluntness, he said, "Hey Ash! What're you gonna do with this guy's corpse?"

Ash looked up. From the look on his face--mystified astonishment, mixed with a bit of astonishment--his thought processes hadn't gotten that far.

Barrett fingered his Fire Materia. "We can just burn him. Better'n he'd do for us."

Ash shook his head, standing up. "No. He was a warrior. He deserves at least that much honor in death."

Barrett huffed. "Yeah: a warrior who was tryin' to kill us, and kill the Planet to boot!"

Ash, characteristically, shrugged and scratched his head. "Well, you don't have to watch." Making his way over to Sephiroth's headless corpse, he lifted the body--gingerly avoiding bloodstains and other, unidentified blotches--and respectfully levered it over the edge of the platform, into the water.

Aeris stared, hit with another mental vision.

Ash waded into the water, bearing Aeris' cold, limp, defiled body. Tears slipped unheeded from his eyes, baptizing her in his love.

Slowly, respectfully, sadly, he stepped away, and her body sank into the water, floating ever downwards, ever downwards·

Carefully, Ash dropped Sephiroth's gaping head after his mortal body, letting both sink to the depths below.

Mechanically, Aeris joined him at the platform's edge. She clenched the stone railing tightly, her other arm wrapping around Ash's waist. She stared down into the clear, dark water, tracing Sephiroth's body's passage--tracing her own body, in her mind.

Ash turned to look at her. "What's wrong?"

Aeris looked up from a spray of flashing green sparks, her hands clasped together.

Smiling.

The world spun around her, slowly swallowed by the enigmatic smile. She could not feel the railing in her hand.

"Whoa!" Ash cried as though from a great distance, grabbing her. "Donât follow him in there!"

Aeris smiled, weakly. His touch dispelled the dizziness, bringing instead a new weakness that made her knees melt. She leaned into his embrace. "Thank you, Ash."

Ash smiled back.


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