Chapter 21

Sephiroth’s hand paused, inches away from the cottage door.

He could no longer be held back.

True, Aeris would worry. She might even know what he planned to do. But that did not matter. He had allowed it to matter, and that had been a far greater mistake than any slip of his sword.

No longer.

There were two more -Heirs- to recover. He could give Althena no more time to make her decision.

He threw the door open.

The candle which had burned in the room had gone out.

He narrowed his eyes. Very little light spilled into the cottage from the open door, but if he concentrated, it was enough.

Althena was no longer in this chamber.

His hand dropped to his energy blade. If someone, or something, had already found her...

“Princess Althena!” he called.

There was movement, black cloth on black wall. Then, even to his enhanced eyesight, nothing.

He ran toward the back of the room. It was smaller than he’d thought. She had other chambers, small and cramped, behind the main room.

His eyes darted back and forth. Two doors. He opened one and stepped through.

Althena stood against the back wall of the tiny room. She still wore the same black gown, or one much like it, but her veil was gone. Even in the dim light, the stark white of her face caught his attention. “Why have you come here?” she demanded. “Why do you not leave me in peace?”

“Your peace,” Sephiroth said, “is not worth the price the world would pay for it.”

“I will not go with you,” she said.

Sephiroth reached out to grab her arm.

“Leave me be,” she said. Her voice was strangely calm. Soothing. Almost... musical.

Sephiroth’s hand drew back.

Althena was... humming, perhaps?

He forced his mind back to the task at hand. “Such tricks did not serve the Cetra against that which gives me power,” he said. “They will not serve against me.”

He grabbed her wrist.

She tried to pull away.

Sephiroth ignored her struggles. When she discovered that she could not escape his grip, she seemed to accept it as inevitable. He had no difficulty forcing her to emerge into the light of this world’s long day.

She flinched as the reflected sunlight, from her appearance long absent from her face, filled her eyes.

“Let her go, Seeker.”

Sephiroth looked up.

The man standing at the other end of the clearing was tall and lean. His pale brown hair almost, but not completely, covered the strange symbol tattooed on his forehead. “This is not the way,” he said.

“Who are you?” Sephiroth asked.

“I am Jowy Atriedes,” said the man. He drew back his cloak, revealing one hand resting on a broadsword which looked far too heavy for his slight frame. “Your colleague, the Bearer.”

Sephiroth frowned. Yes, the Prophecy did speak of one with that title, and the symbol on this Atriedes’ forehead could indeed be one of the Runes. “If you are the Bearer, then why do you oppose the completion of my task?”

“Most likely, I shouldn’t,” Atriedes said. “But I’m afraid I can’t allow you to force Althena to accompany you. She must decide of her own will.”

Sephiroth released Althena’s wrists. “I do not recall that being a part of the Prophecy.”

Atriedes nodded. “It isn’t. But I still will not allow you to do this.”

Sephiroth gave no warning. One moment, he stood, contemplating Atriedes’ words. The next, he was lashing out, energy blade in hand.

Atriedes’ sword moved just as swiftly. Its enchanted steel met the raw energy of Sephiroth’s blade. Neither gave.

Sephiroth forced his blade downwards. “I am tired of interference,” he snarled. “This is a task which must be completed.”

Atriedes stepped back and raised his hand. A glowing silver shield appeared in front of him. “Frankly,” he said, “I am just tired of people trying to kill me.”

Sephiroth lashed out, shattering the energy shield. But Atriedes’ blade was already poised to halt the slash and turn it aside. Sephiroth’s momentum had been spent on the initial lunge, and now he found himself off balance. He kicked out, catching Atriedes in the knee.

Before Atriedes could fall, a gust of wind caught his leg, holding him up. He rolled back.

Sephiroth followed him. The same wind which had kept Atriedes on his feet now tore at Sephiroth’s legs, but he ignored it. A split second too late, he saw the sword flying toward him. He spun into the air, blocking two ferocious slashes and landing on his feet.

Atriedes, and the sword which hovered beside him, circled around.

“Enough,” Althena said.

They both turned to her.

She drew herself up. With her fine, aristocratic features, her almost unnaturally flawless skin, and her long blue hair blowing in the wind behind her, it was hardly difficult to see how she had passed for a Goddess. Her voice, though gentle, needed no magic to be commanding. “There is no need for the two of you to fight. I will go with you, Seeker,” she said. “I wish to hear more of this Prophecy you follow.”

Sephiroth nodded. “I am glad to hear it,” he said.

He turned to Atriedes, who had held out his hand. Sephiroth shook it. “Your abilities are most impressive.”

“As are yours,” Atriedes said. “I’m happier that I didn’t have to finish that battle.”

Although he had no intention of saying so, Sephiroth felt the same.