Chapter 15

Sephiroth closed his eyes and let the warm sea breeze flow over him.

Down in the town below, Aeris would already be asleep.

But sleep was not for him. Part of his training had involved a more efficient means of recovering his strength. He never needed actual sleep, and a few hours of meditation would keep him going for days.

He had a feeling he might need it, soon.

So far, finding Althena had been simple. But that was not likely to last. Nall had spoken of losing pursuers, but declined to elaborate on the point.

Sephiroth did not need Nall to tell him that there would be others searching for Althena. The great power she held the key to would, over ten thousand years, have been discovered by many. And anyone who knew of it would no doubt try to use it.

And any who made that attempt would almost certainly become Sephiroth’s enemies.

He must be ready.

He took a deep breath. His thoughts must be clear if he was to rest properly.

That had never been a problem before his madness. He’d never lost his calm, then, no matter what. He had been able to meditate in even the most uncomfortable ShinRa transports, surrounded by noisy soldiers.

So why was it a problem now?

His eyes snapped open.

He could not afford any distraction. Even if Althena could be safely returned to the facility without further difficulty, there were her two sisters to find. Without them, Althena’s return would be meaningless. He could not believe that none of them had drawn the attention of powerful forces.

But something continued to block his concentration.

No, someone.

Aeris.

He got to his feet.

Ridiculous. He had more important things to consider than that. He allowed her to come along only because he needed her Cetra genetics to use many of the devices of her people. That was all. If anything, he was simply annoyed that she was a hindrance. A necessary evil.

“That is all,” he said aloud.

Yes. He had never had to deal with such a situation before. It was simply another challenge to overcome.

He drew his energy blade and grasped it tightly.

Perhaps his exercises would relax him more.

He leapt forward, slashing at imaginary foes with the shimmering blade, spinning it about in every stance he knew. He flipped over in mid-leap, landing on his feet several yards back.

He lashed out at the air with the energy blade, watching its magical edge trace a pattern before him.

Then he shut it off and pulled back.

He reached up and touched the side of his face. When he pulled his hand away, there was a small red stain.

He had made a mistake.

He slid the energy blade back to its place on his belt, and seated himself again.

What was happening to him? He’d never done anything like that before - even in the throws of madness, his technique had never faltered. It was ingrained on the very core of his being.

He had never allowed anything to intrude on that.

Until now.

To err is human.

Until now, he had never allowed himself to make a mistake.

What did that mean?

He shook his head. It didn’t mean anything. He was no more and no less human than he had ever been. He was simply allowing himself to become distracted by trivialities. If that was a human trait, it was one he would have to suppress.

At least the pain from the cut gave him something on which to focus. He closed his eyes once more, blocking anything but thoughts of that pain from his mind. At last, he was able to rest.

Sephiroth awoke from his meditations. Although it was impossible to judge the passage of time by the movement of the sun on this strange world, his internal clock told him that five hours had passed.

He scowled. That was too long. His concentration must still have been lacking. Still, no time had truly been lost. Aeris should be well enough rested by now.

He got to his feet.

The wound on the side of his face had already healed over, of course. That was for the best. He did not care to dwell on it, nor to explain it to anyone else.

Without Aeris along, he could take the cliff face much easier. He half-floated, half-climbed down it, nearly as fast as he could run. He reached the tiny village of Burg within minutes, and the inn where he had left Aeris in little more.

He had rented two rooms, and not told her that he would be going. She’d fallen asleep almost before she’d reached the bed, so he doubted there would be any questions.

Unlike the sprawling city of Meribia where he and Aeris had first arrived, this village looked entirely peaceful. It also looked as though it had changed little in centuries. The people were, as far as he could see, almost all farmers. The homes were simple wood-and-thatch constructs, although a few sported terra-cotta shingles instead.

One of the buildings that had splurged for that last luxury was the inn, which he approached from the rear. He walked up to the back door of the room where he’d left Aeris and knocked.

When there was no answer, he opened the door and stepped inside. He looked around.

The room was in the same pristine state it had been when he’d left her there. Even the reflected light which streamed through the open window was in the same position.

And Aeris was still asleep.

He strode over to her bed and reached down to awaken her.

She was curled up atop the covers, her Meribia-bought dress rumpled from travel and sleep. The only change was the quiet smile she wore, no doubt at something she was dreaming.

Sephiroth’s meditations left no room for dreams. Even when he had nearly died, he had possessed only memories to form a reality. He could not remember the dreams of his youth, if any.

What did she see, behind closed eyes?

He put his hand on her shoulder and roughly shook her awake.

She blinked her eyes open and looked up at him.

“Enough rest,” he said. “Get your things and come outside. We have wasted enough time here.”

He left without another word, shutting the door behind him.

A few moments later, she stepped out. She’d changed into the other dress that she’d bought in Meribia, but at least it had been quick. She turned to him and smiled.

He shook his head.

“Did something happen?” she asked.

Yes. Something happened. Something which had never happened to him before, and must never again. “No,” he said.

From her expression, she knew he was lying. But, mercifully, she didn’t press the matter. She looked around. “Where is Nall?” she asked.

“Right here,” said the white dragon, still in his feline guise. He landed on Aeris’ shoulder. “You guys ready to go see Althena?”

“Yes,” Sephiroth said.

“Just follow me, then.” Nall took flight once again, hovering in the air before them. “It isn’t more than an hour’s walk.”

It would no doubt have been much less than an hour’s walk for Sephiroth. As it was, their pace was slow. The ‘path’ Nall led them up was hardly deserving of the title. It’s only real distinction from the surrounding forest was the rarity of actual trees.

Why would an -Heir-, a Princess of the Cetra, live in such a place?

Soon, he would find out.

A few times during their ascent, he thought he saw something moving in the trees, but he could not be certain. And, after all, there was no shortage of animals anywhere on this world.

Still, he kept one hand on his energy blade.

Caution was always the best choice.

“Well, we’re here,” Nall said.

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes. If the overgrown path had seemed improbable, the simple wooden cottage before him was unbelievable. The shutters were tightly closed, and the stone smokestack which rose from the back bore no signs of being recently used.

“What are you waiting for?” the white dragon asked. “This is Althena’s home.”

“It’s very charming,” Aeris said. She stepped forward.

Sephiroth held out his arm to block her path. He looked the house over. He could see no signs that anyone lived here, much less one who had claimed a divine mantle for herself. “I find this difficult to believe.”

“Why would Nall lie to us, Sephiroth?” Aeris asked. She reached up to put her hand on his shoulder.

He flinched.

She slowly pulled her hand back. “I am sure Althena will explain everything.”

Sephiroth could not shake his suspicion, but he nodded and lowered his arm. “Let’s go.”

He strode through the clearing and grasped the handle of the cottage door.

A muffled voice from inside called, “Nall, is that you? I do not want to see anyone today.”

Sephiroth opened the door.

The room inside was lit only by a small candle which sat on a table. Sitting beside it was a woman, wearing a long black gown and veil. Strands of blue hair spilled out from behind the veil, the only color amongst the blackness of her garb. She looked up. “Who are you?” she asked.

He stepped inside. “I am the one who is to return Princess Althena to her home,” he said.

She shook her head. “There is no Althena. Only Luna. I am she, and this is my home.”

So she had decided to take another name? That was not important, but... He frowned. He had not known what to expect from an -Heir-, but certainly not this.

She fixed her gaze on his face. Sephiroth shifted uncomfortably. He could not see her face behind the veil, but he was certain that she could see his. “Please leave, sir. I am in mourning, and will not be receiving visitors.” Her voice was youthful, but the words were old.

Nall flew past Sephiroth and landed on the arm of her chair. “I think you should listen to what he has to say,” he said.

She turned to the white dragon. For an instant, before her long blue hair fell into place, Sephiroth could see that her skin was nearly as marble-white as Nall’s fur. “It would not be right,” she said.

“It is important, Highness,” said Aeris. She curtseyed - perhaps, Sephiroth thought, she’d worn the unwrinkled dress out of respect for the royalty of her people. “Please excuse our intrusion.”

Althena looked to Aeris. She sounded almost as if she were amused. “I am not a ‘Highness,’ young one. Nothing of the sort.”

“The time of Convergence draws near,” Sephiroth said. “Your power will-”

“I have no power!” Althena shouted. She stood abruptly. Her composure shattered, she pointed a black-gloved hand at the door. “Leave me now. I will see no more visitors today.”

Nall began to say something, but she shook her head.

“There will be no exceptions, even for you, Nall. Good day.”

Aeris bowed.

A moment later, Sephiroth did the same. “We will return soon,” he said.

“Leave me be!” Althena said.

When they had left the cottage, Sephiroth shut the door. He looked up at the Blue Star. He had anticipated many difficulties.

But he had never imagined anything like this.

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