Chapter 32

Sephiroth took a step toward Aeris. In his hand, where it was always meant to be, the Masamune awaited his command.

She was Cetra. There could be no recognition of her as an individual, just as ‘Sephiroth’ was but a designation, a lie put upon him by others to hide his true nature from him.

The hand that grasped the Masamune rose, so instinctively that he barely had to consider it, bringing the sword back for a killing blow. A part of him screamed that he must stop, that this was not what he wanted. But that part, the ‘human’ side of his nature, was simply a vessel, a shell to contain him/them because he/they was imperfect. Meaningless.

Behind him, he could hear the shouts of the other Destined Ones, but the words were meaningless to him.

Aeris - no, Cetra! - looked up at him.

And smiled.

The same smile as before, when the same blade had plunged into her, had left her dying, immobile, to sink into the Lifestream.

His fingers trembled around the hilt of the Masamune.

His blade, the blade only he/they could wield, it thirsted for the blood of Cetra. He thirsted for her blood. It was as it had always been.

The blade whistled through the air, its perfectly sharp edge aligned with the soft skin of her neck, an extension of his hatred, his hunger.

Aeris never blinked. Her smile remained, unwavering.

The Masamune arced downwards.

.

"Begin," Zalbard said. The Master would deal with the two Cetra however he saw fit. Hopefully, the -Heirs- would be as easy to control as the Seeker had proved to be.

"Don’t do it!" Atriedes shouted. Zalbard’s hand clipped him on the back on the head, forcing him to the sterile metal floor.

The -Heirs- did not listen to the Bearer’s cry. Some unspoken communication seemed to have passed between them, for each in turn looked up at the ceiling of the Core.

How convenient.

Althena met Zalbard’s gaze, her eyes already glowing with red light. "We do this to fulfill the Prophecy," she said calmly. "No matter what your Master plans, good will come of it. This, I believe."

He opened his mouth to respond, then thought better of it. If his charges would perform their duty without his encouragement, all the better.

And they began to sing.

Zalbard had never heard, never even imagined, such a song. Each of the -Heirs-, their voices almost but not quite identical, sang in perfect harmony, filling the chamber. It was astonishing, the exact opposite of the Master’s terrible voice, everywhere and nowhere, calming where the other was horrifying. Even as the Master spoke to the Cetra, his voice was drowned out.

It would be simple to bow to that song - but Zalbard would not do so.

Behind him, there was another sound, the sound of the Bearer’s Runes activating, fulfilling their role. Each sounded a note, clear and precise, blending into the harmony of the -Heirs’- song. With the accompaniment of the Runes, it seemed as if a symphony of the divine had come to the Core.

But Zalbard would not bow to it.

He turned away from the beauty of the -Heirs-, focusing instead on the Master, the Seeker, and the two Cetra.

The Seeker’s blade was slicing down toward the neck of the Cetra girl. Zalbard watched, amused at the reversal that had taken place - less than a month before, the Seeker would have sacrificed much to save the life of this girl. Now he was about to end that life.

Zalbard smiled, the song around him forgotten.

Faster than he could see, far faster than he could move, the blade reversed its course. The girl was untouched, no line of red on her neck, and the Master...

Zalbard’s eyes widened. The Master slumped to the ground, black blood pouring from his back where the Seeker’s improbably long blade had sliced straight through his armor. He made not a sound as his helm struck the hard floor.

The Master was dead.

.

Jowy shook his head. Althena would not listen to him, and Ghaleon, the only one who might have changed her mind, said nothing. Did she really believe that good would come of what she was doing?

When he heard the song that came from the lips of the -Heirs-, he could almost believe it. Such music should not, he thought, be heard in the world. It was too fine a thing for mortal ears.

His Runes, dulled and bound by a power he didn’t understand, had begun to glow again. But this was not the steady aura of power that normally surrounded them - it was a pulsing light, moving in tune with the tempo of the -Heirs-’ song. And the sound... each of the twenty seven True Runes struck a different note, matching, accompanying, the ancient words of the -Heirs-.

Jowy still could not move, but now he was paralyzed by the song, the music that he, the Bearer, was helping to create. He dared not move. This was his Prophesied purpose, to unlock that which had been sealed. The rest... could wait.

And then, it was done.

The resonance of his Runes slowed, a last mournful note as they were separated from the song, and they were silent. Their glow once again faded.

Jowy slumped forward, drained by the experience as he had never been by anything else in his life. Even marching through the jungles of the Espers’ World had not been so exhausting.

And it had lasted, according to the clocks that ringed the room, only a few seconds. He could hardly believe his eyes.

A few seconds.

Still time.

He spun around. He must stop Sephiroth, before -

But there was no need.

The Master lay, unmoving, in a rapidly expanding pool of his own black blood. Slowly, Sephiroth lowered his katana, its length stained with that blood. Jowy’s bonds, the seal on his powers, fell away.

Perhaps Althena had been right.

Suddenly, good seemed awfully likely to triumph.

.

As the Espers’ ‘Master’ fell, Ghaleon felt the seal on his powers breaking. The bonds of dark energy shattered.

He stood.

His first thought was of Althena. Of running to her side, of making certain that she was well, of telling her that all would be well, of holding her in his arms. He started towards her.

His foot halted in mid-step.

It would be unthinkable, even blasphemous, to interrupt her song. She had chosen to sing it, and he would not deny her that.

Instead, Ghaleon’s eyes sought out Zalbard.

The green-skinned Esper stared at the body of his Master, seemingly in shock.

Ghaleon smiled. All the better.

Zalbard turned just as Ghaleon’s hand closed on his shoulder. He opened his mouth to speak, but Ghaleon’s spell hit him in the chest, forcing the air from his lungs in a desperate gasp.

A second blast sent him crashing to the floor.

Pathetically, he tried to crawl backwards. His eyes flashed with precisely the emotion Ghaleon wanted to see - fear.

"I told you I would kill you," Ghaleon said, smiling down on his enemy.

Quickly, Zalbard shook his head. He tried to back up further, but found himself against one of the solid magical fields that separated the Core from the void outside it. He scrambled to his feet as Ghaleon stalked toward him.

The black lightning nearly caught Ghaleon by surprise, licking at his barrier and almost punching through.

Almost.

In return, Ghaleon waved his hand. Zalbard was lifted into the air, then slammed against the barrier behind him. It crackled, and he howled in pain as he slid down its surface.

Another spell, and another, and another, lashed against Ghaleon’s barriers, but they had no effect. Zalbard was too desperate. Now it was his spells that were disarmed by his emotion. And where anger granted strength that might make up for the loss of focus, fear offered nothing.

His powers fading, the Esper met Ghaleon’s eyes. "I rule in the Spire now," he said. "Anything you want - power, immortality, anything! It will be in my power to grant. I have no reason to interfere with the Convergence. All, all was the Master’s doing -"

This pathetic creature had used Althena, threatened to do her harm? It was even more disgusting, Ghaleon thought, that such a thing should have touched her than that some great and terrible warlord had done so.

The Esper before him was almost not worth killing.

Almost.

Ghaleon shook his head.

"It is time," he said, "to die."

.

Rufus didn’t know what the hell was going on.

That Zalbard bastard had pressed the RTD into his hands and forced him to use the thing, bringing them all to the Core. The ‘Master’d’ said his piece - Rufus didn’t catch half of what he meant, or of what Bugenhagen was saying. Sephiroth was acting like a damn zombie, but that was no surprise. Aeris had run to Bugenhagen, Sephiroth had his damn sword back, the -Heirs- were singing and Jowy’s Runes were making music and Zalbard was on the move -

And then all hell had really broken lose.

Rufus didn’t know how, he sure as hell didn’t know why, but he could move. And when he’d looked back to Sephiroth and Aeris, the Masamune was in the ‘Master.’

Whether he knew what was happening or not, he knew where he had to be.

He half-ran, half-slid across the metal floor, already slick with the black Esper blood of the ‘Master,’ and came to a halting stop between Aeris and Sephiroth. Neither of them was moving, Aeris kneeling before him and Sephiroth standing, his gaze forward, the long blade hanging limply from his hand.

"Are you OK?" Rufus asked, trying to shake Aeris back to reality.

She started, then slowly nodded. "I... I’m all right. But Bugenhagen -"

Rufus followed her gaze.

The old Cetra was slumped against the machines that filled much of the Core chamber, his rheumy eyes glazed over. Blood poured from a jagged gash in his stomach, mingling with the black fluid on the floor.

Rufus could tell right off that he wasn’t going to make it.

A gut wound didn’t kill all that quick, but there wasn’t a damn thing technology or magic could do for one once it got bad. And this one was definitely bad.

Bugenhagen coughed, his eyes focusing on Rufus. "Leader..." he croaked. His weathered hand slowly raised, and he beckoned Rufus to him.

"Go to him," Aeris said.

Rufus nodded. He picked his way across the slick floor and knelt beside Bugenhagen. He’d never been too good at goodbyes, still wasn’t. But whatever the old man wanted to say, Rufus would let him say it.

Bugenhagen’s words were so quiet, Rufus could barely hear them, especially over the gentle song of the -Heirs- that seemed to fill the chamber. Despite the terrible bloody coughs, Rufus leaned closer, straining to hear.

And as he listened, his eyes widened.

Bugenhagen, his life slipping away, hid nothing. And when he was done, his secrets off his chest at last, the light in his eyes faded.

Rufus’ hand closed on the edge of the screen above him, and, shakily, he got to his feet.

He opened his mouth to speak.

And a black tentacle pierced his shoulder.