Chapter 33

Rufus clutched at the horrible barbed appendage that had pierced his Cetra body armor. He winced as he tried to pry it free. It was no use. The barbs were caught in his shoulder.

Still too in shock to really feel the pain, he looked down its length.

At the body of the Esper called ‘Master.’

The Esper’s armor was cracked open, lying on the floor like a discarded eggshell, the thick black fluid he’d figured for its blood pooling around it.

And out of the eggshell...

Rufus’ first thought was of JENOVA. But this thing was different. For one, it was bigger, and still growing. For another, it was a hell of a lot uglier, which was saying a lot.

Chitinous legs scraping on the smooth metal floor, its misshapen body swelling to fill most of the chamber, it rose.

One of its heads - three massive skull-like things, each at the end of a thick column of flesh and cartilage - turned to Rufus.

And he’d be damned if it wasn’t grinning.

.

Sephiroth sliced almost idly at the tentacle that held Rufus.

His movements were sluggish, and his thoughts even more so. Dozens of tentacles lashed out, gripping the Masamune and his arm, and he knew that he was held fast. Somehow, it seemed almost irrelevant, as though he were in a dream.

Behind him, he was vaguely conscious of Aeris screaming as the thing moved toward them, one of its great gaping maws turning to them and twisting in a sick parody of a grin.

"Do you understand, now?" it rumbled, its terrible, terrible voice drowning out even the song of the -Heirs-, filling the Core. The head that faced Sephiroth, a black-chitin skull with dozens of tiny eyes on its forehead and two pincer-like appendages at its mouth, moved forward. "What we are?"

Sephiroth, his movements still feeble, tried to pry his sword free.

The head continued to speak, its voice shaking the Core chamber and bringing Sephiroth to his knees as it reverberated in his mind. "We have been called many names. We are Darksol, yes. We are Dark Dragon and Zeromus, Mother and Lavos, JENOVA and Valmar, countless beings, countless lives. We are the pattern for the will of the Beast Rune and its prey of choice. We are the bringers of ruination, the avatars of hatred. The children of destruction and the devourers of worlds. We are the corrupters of men and the takers of souls. We have been countless things, had countless names, but to the Cetra, we are called by one name." All three of its heads, the countless fanged jaws and gaping maws on its body and tentacles, screamed at once, "-Menace-!"

Sephiroth shuddered, both at the words, and at the feelings in his own body. He could feel the JENOVA cells in him activating, bending his will to that of this more powerful -Menace-, just as, a lifetime ago, he had bent Cloud’s will to his own.

This was the power that the ‘Master’ had used to control him, the power that had nearly compelled him to kill Aeris.

The -Menace- leaned closer, its terrible fangs dripping bile. "Like you, Seeker, Darksol was created as a test subject. To fight the -Menace-, thought the arrogant Cetra, we must use the -Menace-." The monstrous head jerked back, roaring its laughter. "But they simply created another -Menace-. A fusion of Esper and -Menace-, that Bugenhagen, the head of the project, called Dark Soul. Darksol."

Sephiroth shook his head, tried to look away.

"Do you know what Darksol became with the power of Esper and -Menace- united in him, Seeker? What he did? The same thing you became, and did. He rebelled, used his power for precious freedom. And the Espers followed. They saw him as the leader, their great ruler who would overthrow the Cetra.

"But the Cetra were strong, and they slew Darksol’s body, cast him down with the Espers who followed him to the prison paradise you saw.

"Though Darksol’s body died, he, they, we, the -Menace-, remained. In time, we returned, and, slowly, we poisoned the Espers’ world. We drove them mad, then fed off their madness. They fought, and as they fought, they turned heaven into hell, and it made them hate the Cetra all the more. And every day, feeding upon them and upon their hate, we grew strong."

Sephiroth struggled to his feet, pulled his sword free. He would not bow to this monster. He was not like it. He would show that he was not!

It laughed again.

Sephiroth fell back to his knees, the Masamune sliding from his fingers.

"The ‘Spire’ you saw, Seeker, do you know what it was? It was, is, our body. Formed by ten thousand years, even now it awakens from its slumber. That body will rise, infused with the power that the -Heirs- have already called to this place, and it will use the Cetra’s planned rebirth to complete the destruction of their worlds, the consumption that they escaped by the Sundering ten thousand years ago."

Sephiroth gasped. The blood-spattered robe that covered him shifted on his shoulders. Even as his/their body awakened below, so, too, did this vessel awaken. The pain was excruciating, liberating.

On his back, he could feel the familiar weight of a deceptively beautiful wing extending, tearing away the top half of the robe.

Before, he had only been allowed to escape so that he could break the shell of Darksol. Now, there would be no escape. Not for him, not for anyone.

The worlds. His companions.

Aeris!

With the last of his humanity, Sephiroth shouted, "Kill me!"

.

Jowy barely saw the -Menace- rise out of the shell of Darksol.

He was thrown aside by one of the thing’s terrible legs, the chitin scraping his side as it crushed the floor beneath its weight. Yet he barely even felt it.

Inside his mind, he could hear the howling rage of the Beast Rune, drowning out the gentle song of the -Heirs-, crushing even the ranting of the monster. This was the Rune’s prey, the fellow predator it had been created, forged to fight. The Hunter would not be denied!

Fear shot through Jowy. He could not say if it lasted a second or a century, but it passed.

The Rune was not evil. It was fierce, it was terrible, it cared not what it destroyed, as long as it could sate its hunger with the death of this monstrosity. All its existence was bent on this moment. It could not be good, and it could not be evil.

When it was used, it grew hungry. Like a beast roused from its slumber, it sought to sate its desires. But it could not.

The only thing that would put an end to its hunger was here. The only prey it could ever be sated with was before him.

Being defeated by this thing, this -Menace-, would mean Jowy’s death. It would mean the deaths of all those around him.

And sooner or later, it would mean the deaths of all that he loved, all that he fought for.

He, too, could only be satisfied with the death of the -Menace-. Only then would he have fulfilled his duty. Only then would Jillia and Pilika be safe. Only then could he live up to his vow.

Home.

How dare this creature threaten that? It could not take his home from him. It would not harm those he loved!

He was the Bearer. The Beast Rune was as much a part of him as all the others. He would need, would use, them all. Each in its place, each to its own task, all for this task. In his hands, the familiar, comfortable weight of the Star Dragon Sword and King Dragon Sword rematerialized, ready for use.

The Hunter snarled, and Jowy snarled with it.

.

Ghaleon turned.

His eyes widened as he saw the creature that filled the chamber. It was massive, nearly the size of one of Althena’s dragons, but terrible and twisted in form. Beneath the shifting plates of its chitinous armor, he could see countless eyes and mouths and tentacles where there should have been flesh.

Its aura was like Sephiroth’s, but a thousand times stronger. And its body, crawling with innumerable things that were a part of it and yet seemed to be apart, matched its magical presence.

And its voice, rising, ranting, drowning out the beautiful song of the -Heirs-!

This, then, was the Cetra’s enemy, the hated, feared -Menace-.

Such a thing could not be allowed to exist at all, much less exist in Althena’s presence.

He would not allow it.

His armor appeared in an instant, its angular lines a sharp contrast to the curving, organic shape of the -Menace-.

His fingers turned over the shard of black crystal he held. From inside it, he could feel a wave of abject terror. Pathetic, Ghaleon thought, tossing aside Zalbard’s magicite. He needed no such dubious ‘aid,’ even against this new enemy.

Ghaleon stepped between Althena and the -Menace-. She had not ceased her song, and seemed to be caught up in a trance, unable to break free of it, not even realizing the danger.

Better that she never need to realize it.

Ghaleon raised his hands. A beam of crackling purple energy lanced out, striking what seemed to be the -Menace-’s flank.

One of the monster’s three heads, a single cyclopean eye bulging out from it, turned. "What pathetic magic is this?" it sneered, the words coming from the three mouths that ringed its eye. Thousands of needle-like teeth clacked together, and the head lunged.

Ghaleon unleashed all his power on it. Fire burned its twisting mass of tentacles, ice froze its chitinous legs, the air beat at its exposed eyes, daggers of stone sliced its maws, dark power tore at its black heart, raw magic cut swathes through its body -

And still it came, the eye blazing as each new attack struck it. A long tendril extended into the thick black ichor that spilled from countless wounds, soaking the blood up and restoring its owner.

It was almost in reach now, the three maws opening wide, power gathering at the eye.

Ghaleon stepped back. He could still, just barely, hear Althena’s voice over the din of the -Menace’s- screeches. Still, she did not fear. She continued in her appointed task.

He would not allow this thing to harm her.

He knew the words to the spells he needed, had studied them for long hours, even seen them used.

But he had never tried to channel such power himself.

It was...

Had not been...

He looked up at the -Menace-, but in his mind’s eye, he saw only Althena, trusting him to defend her, knowing that he would.

All thoughts of rage, disgust, abhorrence, desire, even of godhood, left his mind. His only thought, his only wish, was to protect Althena.

Ghaleon began to chant the unfamiliar words.

.

Rufus pushed himself up, ignoring the pain from his tattered shoulder. His arm felt like hell, looked worse - the thing had pulled its tentacle out, tossed him against a bulkhead, and hadn’t exactly been gentle about either.

But he was still alive.

Beside him, he saw Bugenhagen’s pistol. The gun didn’t look damaged. If he knew the old man, it would have been a damn good failsafe.

Rufus’ left hand closed on the grip of the smooth metal gun. He wasn’t a great shot with that arm, but his right wasn’t gonna be aiming any time soon.

He turned.

Ghaleon’s spells seemed to be healing the creature as fast as they injured it, and one head was lunging toward him. Jowy wasn’t faring a hell of a lot better - his blades and Runes tore at the chitinous body, but he looked to be practically half-torn apart by the tentacles that grasped his arms.

Aeris had been tossed back against the panels by the same massive tentacle that had slammed into Rufus.

She looked up at him. "Rufus," she whispered, "brother, you must help Sephiroth."

Help Sephiroth?

Rufus had gone through all this shit for one reason, and one reason alone. To get at Sephiroth. To find the right time and the right place, the right weapon, and finish the job AVALANCHE started.

Payback.

Vengeance.

Sephiroth was almost covered with the tentacles of the thing, writhing around him, pulling him forward. His robes were tattered, and from his bare back, one great wing extended.

His guard was down.

Hell, he’d even asked for it.

If there was a time to get payback, it was now.

"Please!" Aeris begged.

Rufus looked at Sephiroth, nearly consumed by the -Menace-, nearly a part of it.

What the hell good was vengeance if this damn thing destroyed all the worlds the way Sephiroth had destroyed Rufus’? No good at all, that was what.

He had to be crazy.

He pulled the trigger of the Cetra pistol, and the tentacles reared back. Rufus fired again, running forward as he did, blasting a path through the creature. He slid on the floor, caught his footing, and then he was at Sephiroth’s side.

"Snap out of it," Rufus shouted.

No response.

Cursing under his breath, as much at himself as anything else, he tucked Bugenhagen’s pistol into his belt and put his good hand on Sephiroth’s shoulder. "Wake up!"

Nothing.

Biting back the cry of pain that threatened to escape his lips as he moved his bad arm, he pulled back. He slapped Sephiroth’s face, hard as he could.

And Sephiroth looked up.

Rufus gulped.

There was no recognition in the Seeker’s eyes. He reached up, grabbing Rufus by the throat and lifting him into the air, choking the life from him.

Aeris was beside them.

"Sephiroth," she said gently, laying her hand on his arm. "Let my brother go."

The fingers that grasped Rufus’ throat trembled.

Rufus looked down at the man who held him. The object of all his hate, all his anger, all his... blame.

"Please," Aeris said, "return to us."

.

The Beast Rune’s strength flowed through Jowy’s veins, propelling him onwards. He leapt into the air, carried on a gust of magical wind, and landed atop the armored back of the -Menace-.

Tentacles shot out from between the chitinous plates, but they shrank back from the circle of flames that appeared around Jowy’s feet, searing into the monster’s flesh.

He was caught up in the battle-rage now, but it was not like the other times. All his power, all his thoughts, were focused on his goal, just as they had always been. But this time, he, not the Rune, was in control.

He swung the Star Dragon Sword, silent in the face of the -Menace-, striking a larger tendril that lashed out and slicing the barbed appendage off. The twisted thing still twitched as it sailed through the air, but Jowy’s mind was on other things.

The -Menace- seemed to have no end of parts to draw upon. Heads, mouths, tentacles, claws - all reached for him, and each time, he cut them down. Here, a Rune, there, a swipe of his blade, and suddenly the path to one of its thick, sinewy necks was open.

Jowy broke into a run.

The head at the end of that neck turned, nearly crashing into him before he could throw himself aside.

Two eyes, deep-set on the skull-like head, stared at him. The orbs were as black as night, slick and shiny with moisture. The great maw beneath was like that of a worm, circular, ringed with rows of sharp teeth.

Jowy unleashed a blast from the True Water Rune. Perhaps its cleansing power would drive the thing back.

The head darted aside, leaving the magical jet of water to reflect harmlessly off the wall of the Core. It was back in an instant, and lunging toward him.

So fast! Too fast.

Jowy had no time for another Rune. The terrible maw was almost on him, its hot breath washing over him.

He plunged his swords into its deep-set eyes.

The -Menace- head reared back, its terrible scream filling the Core. It slammed into the ceiling, roaring again as the magical field that kept the void out blasted it back. The swords slid free, clattering to the floor amongst a torrent of black blood.

But the head looked back at Jowy. Its blood still came in spasms where the eyes had been, but if it was impaired in any way, he couldn’t tell. It roared again, this time in anger rather than pain, and Jowy felt his blood run cold.

The magical blast washed over him, knocking him against the chitinous plates, biting at his skin like a thousand angry insects. He gritted his teeth and tried to get to his feet.

But even as the magic faded, tentacles wrapped around him, pulling him downwards, into its armored body.

Jowy tried to shout, to fight free, but more tentacles wrapped around his mouth.

.

Sephiroth’s hand opened, letting Rufus slide back to the blood-soaked floor. He gasped.

How close he’d come.

The madness would be so easy to embrace. It would make him strong, strong enough to destroy this thing. He was the ultimate -Menace-, it had whispered. When it was dead, he could simply allow the others to live.

He had only to embrace what he was, his ‘true self.’

No.

"See to your brother," he said, knowing that Aeris would hear him.

Brother! Rufus had never explained; Aeris had never had the opportunity. Sephiroth recalled the foolish anger he’d felt when he’d first discovered that Rufus, too, was a Cetra. Not anger, jealousy.

Such things could be sorted out later.

He was not entirely a human. There was a part of him that wanted to become what Darksol had. A monster, a destroyer. A -Menace-.

But, too, there was a part of him that was human indeed. A part that could be jealous... and more.

When all was done, perhaps he would be able to say how much more. How very human he was.

The -Menace- gave him strength. It allowed him to wield the Masamune, the -Menace- blade, and it gave him powers beyond human limits. But it did not give him orders. And it did not give him his will.

Sephiroth leapt into the air, landed on a chitinous claw that tried to snap his legs, leapt again. He vaulted from one to the next, the Masamune cutting through the monstrous body that tried to catch him, crush him, devour him.

He need not become -Menace- to defeat -Menace-. He would use that which was a part of him - all of it.

His blade sang as it sliced through the Core’s thick air, and the -Menace- before him fell. Its blood, its body, nothing could stand against the Masamune, and he cut it away as easily as he had cut down the Espers in the spire.

He flipped into the air, slashing a terrible gash in the claw that had tried to grasp him as he passed.

Beneath him, he could see Aeris, pressed against the wall of the Core, her eyes fixed upon him, fearing, not for herself, but for him.

He would not fail.

.

Ghaleon finished his chant just as the head reached him.

Blinding white light emerged from his fingers, untainted even by the presence of the -Menace-. The light struck the creature’s eye, and it drew back, but it did not end there. More and more Ghaleon pumped into it, the unfamiliar power flowing through him far more easily than he’d thought it would.

The -Menace- howled in rage, but it could do nothing. The beam of light pierced its head, shot through its neck, struck its misshapen body.

The head exploded.

Ghaleon calmly diverted one hand to the direction of his barrier, itself formed from the new power. The black blood and chitin struck the barrier and were burned up in the light.

This was the power that Althena’s protector needed.

The power of White Magic. Holy. Light.

It was the power that had defeated Ghaleon before. All his strength, all his knowledge, had been no match for it, even in the hands of a youth such as Alex of Burg. It was the antithesis of all that the -Menace- claimed to be.

What had his quest for godhood mattered? He would never have achieved it, in any case. He could see that, now. A god whose power came from arrogance, even from rage, was not a god at all. Yet the ambition to achieve such an exalted state made a mockery of such power as Ghaleon now used.

How many lives had he destroyed because he had not seen that simple paradox?

No more.

Two of the -Menace’s- thick tentacles, seared and twisted from the wall of light, shot toward Ghaleon. They struck his armor and recoiled.

Even the black lines of his armor were gone. He was Magic Emperor no longer. He was simply Ghaleon, and love alone would be his shield, and Althena’s, too.

It was the only one they would need.

He swore it.

.

Atop the -Menace-, Jowy burst free. Ichor and severed tendrils flew away as his fist broke through the chitinous plate above. Runic energy, Rune after Rune lending its might, shattered the plate, and he rose.

The Runes on his arms flashed, and his swords reappeared in his hands, called to their Bearer.

He was tired. He was tired of fighting this monster, tired of fighting at all, tired of the weight of destiny, tired of wrestling with the Beast Rune, tired most of all of being away from home, from Jillia and Pilika.

It was time to lay it all to rest.

Before him, its maw open, the head he had injured lowered to face him. It snarled its defiance.

"Let’s finish this," Jowy said.

It seemed that his foe agreed, for the head lunged forward, snarling, biting. It raised over his head - so fast! - and darted downwards. The maw was almost on him, he could feel the terrible heat of its breath...

And then the Black Sword Rune’s power shot into it, knocking it back, piercing its thick, rubbery flesh. Into the wound, the Bright Shield Rune sent its power, a blast of light that caused the -Menace- to rear back, howling, screaming.

Jowy ended the scream.

The combined power of all twenty-seven True Runes, united as one by the network of magical lines that covered his body, struck the bestial head. For just an instant, it remained, its defiant voice filling the chamber. But the flesh was stripped from its chitinous skeleton, and then the skeleton, too, crumbled to dust.

.

Rufus couldn’t do much more than watch. Ghaleon and Jowy had unleashed powers Rufus hadn’t even imagined, powers that were enough to tear apart the -Menace-. There was only one head left.

But there was a whole body of tentacles and claws and teeth between them and the last head, and for all their power, it didn’t look like they were going to be able to finish the job. With two heads gone, the rest of the body seemed to redouble its attack.

Rufus shook his head, but his vision was clouding up. He was losing blood - lots, now - from the wound in his shoulder. Where the hell were those med kits he’d grabbed from Bugenhagen’s arsenal, anyway?

Aeris’ hand was on his injured shoulder. He winced. Even her gentle touch sent waves of pain shooting up and down his arm. "You’re hurt," she gasped.

No shit, sis, he thought. All he said was, "Yeah."

"Why didn’t you say so?" she asked. Her voice as distant - he figured she was probably still watching Sephiroth.

Whatever else she was doing, she was also healing his arm. The tattered flesh mended, the blood flowed properly through him, and even the bone was just a little sore. "Thanks," he said. "A lot."

And then his attention was drawn back to the battle.

Things didn’t look too good.

A swarm of tentacles wrapped around Jowy, and one of the larger, barbed ones rose behind him, aimed for his back.

Ghaleon hadn’t seen the claw that was past his barrier, raised high over his head. He wouldn’t turn in time.

There was no way either of them was getting to the third and final head, no way Rufus’ measly gun was going to do much to the thing except get its attention. He looked around. Where the hell was Sephiroth?

There.

Sephiroth leapt over a claw, cut it down, ran across a swarm of tentacles that tried to grab him -

But even he didn’t see the tendril that rose behind him, cruelly barbed, lashing out for his back.

"I’ve got to be crazy," Rufus muttered, but he raised Bugenhagen’s pistol and fired. The tendril was blown clear, and Sephiroth had a clear shot at the head. No way the thing could catch him now.

Rufus hoped.

.

The last head, its cluster of eyes flailing wildly, its pincers snapping, was right in front of Sephiroth. He stood on the creature’s chitinous back, facing it. The -Menace- met his gaze, drew back -

And then it was in his mind, no longer cajoling but commanding him to turn, to kill the others. He was one of them, one with them, and to deny his nature was the true madness. Embrace the -Menace-, it shouted, a voice he alone could hear.

The Masamune, the -Menace- blade, trembled in his hands. He could wield it only because he was like unto this creature.

"Yes," it hissed. "The blade, my blade, our blade. Forged by the Cetra for their perfect soldier, Darksol. It will always be ours, not theirs."

He had brought the weapon of the -Menace- against the -Menace- itself? Madness! He could not fight himself, kill himself, not with his own weapon. Throw it aside - his only hope lay in his bare hands, now.

The Masamune nearly slipped from his fingers.

No!

He would not fall for such trickery.

He would not bow to such madness.

Aeris’ face, her calm, trusting smile, filled his mind.

He would not fail.

"You are one with us!" the -Menace- screamed.

And it was true. He was one with it. As long as it lived, he would be a part of it. The only way he could ever be free, the only way the worlds, Aeris, could ever be safe, was if he destroyed this monster.

"One!" it screamed again, frantically, its mandibles clacking open and shut.

"Never," Sephiroth whispered.

He plunged the Masamune into it.