Chapter 31

Aeris couldn’t believe what had happened.

The shaking of the Core had not ceased after those initial tremors. It had only grown worse, more terrible with each passing moment, until she was certain the whole facility would shake apart.

Bugenhagen, after he’d calmed her fears - or rather, after he’d made the attempt - had disappeared back into an antechamber, to complete whatever preparations he was engrossed in, leaving her with the admonition that she must complete her part of the task, and quickly.

And so, despite the terrible shaking that threatened to tear her from her seat, she’d continued, the data flowing into place with an ease that amazed her. Every instant, she thought her hand would be knocked aside, dispersing crucial seconds of work, but somehow she adjusted.

And then, the windows opened.

In the months she’d been trapped in the Core, in the weeks she’d helped Bugenhagen there, she’d never realized that the gigantic panels around every hallway could slide away.

Certainly she’d never realized what, when the time of the Convergence was near, those windows would open onto.

Space.

The shaking that had nearly torn her from her seat had torn the Core free of the ground, lifting it from deep beneath North Cave into the cold void of space. The atmosphere of the Core was held in by nothing but painfully thin electro-magical fields.

And the view was nothing short of astonishing.

Worlds, more worlds than Aeris had ever imagined, drifted past the Core’s windows, a riot of colors and textures on each of their surfaces. And in the center, still only half-visible, a world more vast by far than all the others - the world around which the others orbited.

Something inside Aeris stirred at the sight of the half-transparent sphere. Though she’d never seen it before, never been told of its existence, it was a part of her.

Homeworld.

The Core’s systems interrupted her thoughts, bringing her back to the present and the task at hand. "Input Runic encoding."

"It is done," Bugenhagen said.

Aeris nearly jumped out of her seat. She hadn’t heard the older Cetra approach. Then his words sunk in.

The preparation was complete.

Aeris turned to him, her eyes wide. "Then...?"

He nodded. "We await only the Destined Ones. And the -Heirs-, of course."

Each second dragged out into an eternity. The seemingly endless work that had kept her from worrying, fearing, was no comfort now. They had only to wait. But there was no way to know if those they were waiting for would ever come.

Cetra numerals, their elegant lines glowing bright white from the digital clocks that sat above each panel, counted away the seconds. Aeris could not believe that so few passed - surely it had been hours of silence and fear, and all too little hope.

But at last, the wait came to an end.

The glittering light that denoted the RTD’s power filled the Core chamber, then faded away to reveal nine figures.

Aeris recognized the four Destined Ones immediately, and had no trouble discerning the identity of the three -Heirs-. Then she realized what the other two newcomers were.

There was no time to scream a warning, and no need.

Bugenhagen, moving far faster than she would have thought possible for one his age, had pulled some sort of glowing weapon from his robes.

But he was not fast enough.

One who Aeris could only assume was an Esper, clad in strange black armor, was across the room in an instant, and he knocked the weapon from Bugenhagen’s hand. The Esper did not even glance at the fallen gun, his gaze remaining fixed on the old Cetra. "You are as pleased to see us again as we are you... creator," the Esper said.

"Darksol?" Bugenhagen whispered.

Aeris looked around frantically. Rufus, Jowy and Ghaleon were bound, yet Sephiroth stood, free. Why did he do nothing?

Bugenhagen took a step back from the Esper called Darksol. "But you’re-"

"Dead?" Darksol shook his head. "The name you gave ‘me’ died, old man, but not the meaning. It simply became... one of our names. But we remain. Always. You made ‘me’ too powerful, and even in your abject fear, you had not the will to put an end to your ‘children.’"

Bugenhagen shook his head. "I showed mercy-"

"You showed folly!" Darksol snapped. "There was no mercy in your actions. Only weakness. Liar, father of lies, you have deceived so many with your words. Your followers, even your foes, all have been deceived. All... except us. We know the truth you sought to hide, and just as that truth, your truth, has set ‘me’ free, so too will it set us free."

"No. Never!" Bugenhagen stretched out his hand, and magical power shot forth, the pure green of Lifestream.

Darksol laughed.

Aeris shuddered - his voice was terrible enough, but that laugh made her blood run cold.

One of Darksol’s black-gauntleted hands closed around Bugenhagen’s wrists, and, slowly, the Esper’s fist closed.

Bugenhagen gasped, and Aeris could hear the sound of bone shattering. She tried to move, but fear of the black-clad Esper held her better than any bond. Why did Sephiroth not stop him?

"The resurrection you planned, old fool," Darksol said, his echoing voice a harsh whisper, "will avail you nothing. It will be we who are resurrected. When our resurrection is complete, we will consume the carcass of a dead world that you have protected, and the pathetic remnants of all that you are will die. And we will feast, and grow strong, and all will be as it should have been... ten thousand years ago."

Darksol’s hand moved, too fast for Aeris to see what was happening, but when his black gauntlet fell back to his side, it was covered with red blood. Cetra blood.

"Bugenhagen!" she cried, her fear gone for an instant. She ran to him, just as he slumped to the floor.

The old Cetra shook his head, tried to wave her away.

She looked up.

Darksol loomed over her, the shadows of his cape flowing around her knees. And beside him stood...

Sephiroth.