Chapter 29

Everything around Sephiroth was darkness.

His senses felt numbed, and the part of his mind that was already analyzing the situation wondered if he’d been drugged. But no, that was not it. Something around him was doing this, the same almost palatable shadows that surrounded him.

The Cetra goggles were gone, but he had his doubts that they would have worked in this place, so complete was the darkness.

It was the same as when the Espers’ Master had spoken, in the great hall of the spire what seemed like a lifetime ago - except that this was a feeling a thousand times greater.

He tried to remember how he’d gotten here.

The walls had melted around him, revealing what seemed to be a whole army of Espers. With nowhere to flee, he had plunged into them, and his energy blade had cut them down. He’d been soaked in their black blood, heard the sharp clack of dozens of magicite striking the cold floor. And then...

Nothing.

Even if he’d been knocked unconscious, he should have been able to feel where he’d been taken, at least vaguely. But he did not remember an Esper striking a knockout blow, nor did his body give any clues about his journey to this... place.

He realized that none of the black blood still caked him. The battered clothing he’d purchased in Meribia was gone, replaced with a long robe of some coarse material that rubbed against his chest when he drew in a breath.

Why had they gone to such trouble?

Sephiroth tried to get to his feet. He willed his body to rise, look around the room, search for an exit.

But nothing happened.

He continued to kneel, unmoving except for his slow, steady breathing, on the smooth floor of the too-dark room.

No bonds restrained him. Nothing held him in place. He could feel his body, knew his nervous system still connected it to his mind - but not to the commands of his mind, for he could not so much as move his fingers.

The instinct to panic was strong, unfamiliar. He couldn’t move! He was at the mercy of anyone, anything that found him in this state. There was no way he could fight back.

But he fought the instinct, and won.

As long as he kept his head, there was no danger. He would find the cause of his affliction, no doubt some Esper sorcery, and remedy it. Somehow.

A voice came from the impossibly deep shadows around him. "Your abilities, your will are most impressive."

It was the voice of the one called ‘Master,’ the same voice that had made the dire announcement in the great hall. The voice seemed to come from all around Sephiroth, filling his ears, his mind, until there was nothing else in the world but that voice.

The voice was deep, almost gentle - and all the more horrible because of that gentleness.

Sephiroth could not speak. His mouth obeyed his mind no more than the rest of his body.

"Your strength, speed, perceptions, reactions, are unmatched. Even among the Destined Ones, you are the greatest. Though you are not the prophesied Leader, it is the role of leader that you have assumed. You are the first to enter each door, your commands direct the others..." The Master, though his voice still came from all around the room, felt closer now.

And his words rang true. The others would have fallen to petty squabbling long ago had Sephiroth not kept them moving, kept them doing. How easily he had slipped into his old SOLDIER role as squad leader, almost without realizing it.

How easily he could slip back into another role.

A hand pressed against Sephiroth’s shoulder, a cold, hard, gauntleted hand that froze his skin even through the thick cloth robe. "Yes, we are duly impressed, child of JENOVA."

Sephiroth knew that, behind him, the Master would be smiling, but he did not know why.

"Who would have thought it possible? That one such as you, a human, never having faced the tests of this cruel world, would have the strength to survive an infusion of -Menace- cells? That you would not die even before you were born, but instead grew strong and healthy with age!

"How many failures had to die, that you might live? Dozens? Hundreds? Till the weak were weeded out and only one, only you, survived? And your creators did not even know that with each death, you grew stronger."

The Master laughed, his cold laughter echoing around the chamber, piercing Sephiroth’s mind better than any magical assault.

"But I suspect they discovered, yes? They soon learned just how strong their perfect soldier was - too strong, strong enough to destroy them. It is always thus." The Master’s hand lifted from Sephiroth’s shoulder, a welcome relief from the terrible cold. "It will always be thus."

The shadows in front of Sephiroth’s face were parted, and a single ray of white light shone through, struck metal, and was reflected in a thousand directions by the polished surface.

Sephiroth stared in fascination, watching the light play off the metal. That there was any light at all seemed a miracle. Yet the shining surface attested to it.

The surface of a blade.

He got to his feet and strode to the blade, his eyes so fixated upon the dancing light that he did not even notice his own motion. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that his hand, an instant before held immobile, would stretch out, close around the hilt of the sword. Its weight was comfortable, more familiar in his hand than the energy blade would have been in a thousand years.

Unbidden, its name came to his lips. He whispered it, slowly, almost reverently.