Chapter 24

Sephiroth landed on one knee at the edge of Burg’s town square. Slowly, he looked up.

Lined up in the center of the square, Aeris and the villagers knelt, heads bowed low. Aeris cradled Nall’s body, once again that of a small winged cat, in her arms.

Looming behind them were strange, humanoid creatures - much like the monsters called forth by Red Materia, Sephiroth thought. However, unlike those summoned beasts that manifested in the physical world for mere moments, these were creatures of substance that appeared to act of their own volition.

"Welcome, Seeker." A voice, deep and strangely melodious, issued forth from one of the creatures, an unnaturally thin giant of at least eight feet in height clad in rich robes. "How good of you to come," it said, its aquiline green face twisting into a grin. "Allow me to introduce myself - I am called Zalbard."

Sephiroth rose to his full height. "Release them," he said, "or die."

The one called Zalbard stroked his long mustache. "I see that you prefer to get to the point. A virtue my people can appreciate."

Sephiroth drew his energy blade. He closed his fingers around its hilt, and it sprang to life.

"Then let us get to the point," Zalbard said. He waved his hand and the largest of the creatures - easily twice Zalbard’s height, hugely muscled with a leonine mane and face - brought its fists down on one of the villagers. The man never had a chance to cry out.

"As you can see, Seeker," said Zalbard, "we, too, get to the point. And we are extremely serious."

"So am I." Sephiroth stepped forward.

A long scythe appeared in Zalbard’s hand. He poised the blade at Aeris’ throat. "Shall we see just how serious?" he asked.

Sephiroth stopped.

Aeris raised her eyes to meet his. Do not do as he says, they pleaded. Only the -Heir- matters.

Yes. Only the -Heir-. His duty, his only duty, was to protect Althena. Even if it cost the lives of all these innocents. Failure in his appointed task would cost the lives of far more. He would not fail.

Even if it cost Aeris’ life.

"Drop your blade, Seeker," Zalbard said, raising the scythe ever so slightly. He drew it across Aeris’ throat. A thin line of red stained the white of her skin. "Or she dies."

Sephiroth’s eyes narrowed. Nothing, no one, could be allowed to stand in the way of his duty.

No one.

Not even Aeris.

He looked upon her. Although her slight body trembled with fear, her gaze did not waver.

He let the blade fall from his hand.

Zalbard raised his weapon. "Stupid," he said, "like all the Cetra and their children."

The scythe began its downward arc.

In the time it took Zalbard to bring it around for the killing blow, Sephiroth was across the square, blade in hand. With one slash, he knocked the scythe away. His second was met by a magical barrier.

"You are powerful," Zalbard said, his grin widening. "I am going to enjoy this."

Sephiroth vaulted over Aeris’ head, tackling Zalbard, but there was no time to finish the creature off - he must get Aeris to safety... He pushed himself up.

Zalbard’s hand shot out and grasped Sephiroth’s arm.

Despite his lean, almost sickly appearance, his grip was strong.

And it burned with black fire.

Sephiroth yanked his arm free. Almost unconsciously, he parried a blow from one of the other creatures. Twisting his blade around, he landed a blow which it could not parry.

Before its body hit the ground, it had disappeared, leaving only a small black crystal.

More of the creatures surrounded him.

His eyes flicked to Aeris. She still knelt, her head bent over Nall. Her voice, barely audible over the sounds of the creatures, fell upon his ears. She was... chanting? Praying, perhaps? Around her, a sphere of white light was forming. One of the creatures tried to grab her, but it was thrown back by her barrier.

For now, at least, she would be safe.

Sephiroth directed his attention back to his foes. The huge leonine monster that had first killed one of the villagers reached out for him.

He buried his energy blade in its palm, then pulled it free. Black blood poured from the wound, but the creature did not seem to mind. It took another step forward, and again the blade bit into it. Still, it gave no sign of pain.

Sephiroth backed away.

Where the hell was Atriedes?

The creature leapt forward, its powerfully muscled legs propelling it through the air farther and faster than Sephiroth would have imagined possible. Surely, there was magic in that leap.

But as fast as it was, it wasn’t nearly fast enough.

Sephiroth rolled aside, slicing a terrible gash in the creature’s side as it crashed mere inches from him. Its landing shook the ground. Still, it raised its massive head and roared. That was a roar of anger, not pain.

Sephiroth took the measure of his situation. More of the creatures had formed up around him. So many! He could not hold out against them all, not forever. If there were more as powerful as Zalbard, or as the leonine creature, the battle would be short.

Sephiroth took a deep breath.

It might be short. But for them, it would be costly.

Zalbard stepped from the circle. "The game is up, Seeker," he said. He raised his hand. The same black fire that had burned Sephiroth’s arm before began to gather around the creature’s outstretched fingers.

The air around the flames bent and twisted in strange patterns.

Sephiroth had never seen magic such as this. He had no way to judge if it was stronger than that granted by Materia, or weaker, or simply different. But whatever it was, he would be ready. He braced himself.

The flames darted forth.

He could feel the heat wash over him, searing his face and skin.

The flames themselves did not - they clawed ineffectually at the air as though alive. But the air, too, seemed to have come to life, wrapping around the flames. Alive or no, they receded as quickly as they had come.

Sephiroth whirled at the sound of a voice, so clear and lilting, it was almost like a song.

"These people are under my sacred protection." Althena stood behind him, her eyes blazing with a piercing red light. Wind, unnaturally strong, whipped about her feet. "You will not harm them any longer."

"Try to stop me, little -Heir-." Zalbard grinned.

"You should not have come here," Sephiroth snapped.

Althena’s eyes blazed brighter, and she began to sing. The wind that tore at the hem of her gown began to circle faster about her. She rose up, her long blue hair billowing about her like a cloak.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. This, too, was a sort of magic quite different from that of Materia.

Althena extended her hand, and the winds shot past Sephiroth, directly at Zalbard’s chest.

The creature held up his own hand, calling forth his magical fire. It rose up around him, scorching the ground at his feet. Even the other creatures around him shrank back. But Zalbard himself was unharmed by the dark conflagration.

Althena’s magic struck the flames. The magical wind whipped about them fast as a tornado, but they only blazed brighter.

And when both wind and fire had died down, Zalbard still stood, the same smug smile on his face.

Althena gasped.

"It seems your ‘sacred protection’ is not worth so very much, little -Heir-," Zalbard said. He gestured to the other creatures.

Although the bodies of the creatures encircling he and Althena blocked Sephiroth’s vision, he could hear the screams of the villagers.

Zalbard’s eyes locked with his.

Sephiroth leapt into action. One of the creatures, a tall, armored female, raised her long-handled mace to block his strike. He struck her aside, but there were more - simply too many of them. He lashed out again and again, but each time he struck, he either found his blow turned aside by another foe, or was forced to pull it back to deflect another attack.

Behind him, he could hear the sound of Althena’s voice. Her song was becoming increasingly desperate.

And then, abruptly, she fell silent.

Sephiroth turned.

If Althena had fallen-

Atriedes pulled his swords free from the body of one of the creatures that had almost reached her. "Sorry I’m late," he said.

Sephiroth nodded.

They stood, Althena between them, with the circle of creatures closing in.

Sephiroth did not favor the odds.