Chapter 27

Sephiroth parried a slash from Zalbard’s scythe and retaliated with one of his own. But the creature, far from being off balance, was ready for the blow and turned it aside with a deft swing. The crackle of energy and the screech of magically enhanced metal flooded the battlefield.

Sephiroth‘s eyes locked with Zalbard‘s. "Your troops are dying about you," he said, pushing forward with his energy blade.

"Unfortunate," Zalbard said, "but necessary."

Sephiroth‘s muscles tensed as he tried to force Zalbard‘s weapon back. He gritted his teeth against the effort. "Knowing when you’re beaten is the first lesson a soldier learns."

Zalbard forced a grin, but he, too, was sweating.

"I intend to remind you of that lesson," Sephiroth said. He sprang back, and Zalbard stumbled, the pressure against his scythe suddenly gone.

Unable to get a foothold in the muddy ground, the creature slipped and fell to his knees.

Sephiroth brought his blade about for a killing blow.

Aeris knelt before him.

He halted the blade a hair from her throat. What in the world?

She raised her eyes to his.

An illusion. It had to be. There was no other explanation. No teleportation was so smooth, unaccompanied by any surge in magical forces. Illusion was the only explanation.

"S... Sephiroth?" Aeris’ big green eyes shone with fear.

It must be an illusion. A trick of Zalbard’s.

But if he were wrong...

No. Aeris would not fear him now.

His blade came up just as Zalbard sprang to his feet, his scythe whipping toward Sephiroth’s head.

"Quite a weakness you have there, Seeker," Zalbard said. For an instant, his face disappeared, and Aeris stood before Sephiroth again. The image flickered away, and Zalbard laughed. "A weakness unbecoming one in your position."

Sephiroth lashed out.

The anger that fuelled the blow was directed not at Zalbard, but at himself. Yes, he was weak. His feelings, those ‘human’ emotions, made him such.

But that anger, regardless of its real object, was enough to shatter the magic-laced blade of the creature’s scythe.

Sephiroth’s energy blade came back around.

The magical barrier that protected Zalbard faltered, and he slid back into the mud. Still, his calm was not shattered. He shook his head. "You almost had me."

"I still do," Sephiroth said coldly, bringing his blade down.

He was knocked from his feet.

He rolled aside just before a broadsword slammed into the ground where he had fallen, only to face a second mere inches from his face. He looked up.

Atriedes stared down at him, a bestial grin spread across his face.

"What the hell are you doing?" Sephiroth demanded.

"You’ve got to stop him," the sword buried in the ground beside Sephiroth said. "He’s used the Beast Rune-"

"Shut up, you," Atriedes snarled. "This is between him and me."

Sephiroth kicked at Atriedes’ stomach, sending him into the air, and leapt to his feet.

Atriedes was on him in an instant, his swords beating on Sephiroth’s raised blade. The weapon that had spoken hit the blade and forced it down, while the other sword arced through the air toward Sephiroth’s head.

Sephiroth lunged under it, smashing his shoulder into Atriedes’ chest.

But Atriedes did not fall. Instead, he drove the hilts of his swords into Sephiroth’s back, an impact that shattered bone and tore flesh alike.

Sephiroth gasped back the pain.

He wasn’t going to be able to stop Atriedes, not like this. Not holding back.

What would happen to the world without one of the Destined Ones? Sephiroth didn’t know. But if he didn’t kill the Bearer, he would be killed - and from the rage in his colleague’s eyes, so would everyone and everything else in the village.

Sephiroth’s arm shot forth, burying his energy blade to the hilt in Atriedes shoulder.

Atriedes laughed. "Finally," he said, "we can begin."

Sephiroth twisted the blade free and lashed out again. This time the weapon was met by one of Atriedes’ swords, while the other came up, slicing a jagged gash in Sephiroth’s side.

The wound began to mend, as his broken shoulder-blades already had. But the Bearer did not let up. Atriedes’ second sword plunged into Sephiroth‘s other side, and he felt himself being lifted into the air.

Sephiroth’s hand covered the Bearer’s face.

No holding back, Destined One or no.

So Atriedes had made himself a monster, eh? He should have thought better of attacking a greater monster than he could ever become.

Sephiroth’s fingers dug into Atriedes’ face.

Atriedes flung him away.

Even as he tumbled through the air, Sephiroth’s wounds closed. He hit the ground feet first, raising his sword to meet Atriedes’ charge.

The other man, ignoring the energy blade that pierced his chest, bowled Sephiroth over and knocked him flat on his back. The blood-stained swords were raised.

Sephiroth shut off the energy blade. It was useless. A construct such as that was no good against this foe.

He was becoming something much like Atriedes had. A beast, a monster. Just as it had been in the days of his madness, when he’d had all the power he’d ever needed. Why had he turned his back on that? What good was the rational mind?

Emotion did not make him weak.

His feeble attempts to control it did.

He grabbed Atriedes by the throat. His fingernails, no, his claws, tore at the man’s neck.

Atriedes’ swords came down, pinning Sephiroth’s arms to the ground. He threw back his head and let out a sound that was almost a laugh, but more a growl.

Ignoring the pain, Sephiroth forced himself up, pushing his arms higher up the blades until he could reach Atriedes. He grabbed the Bearer’s arms and twisted them back.

Atriedes released one of his swords and pulled the other out with both hands. He lashed out again, smashing aside Sephiroth‘s feeble attempt to block the blow.

The cold, logical mind that Sephiroth had cultivated, anathema to this existence that he had freed within himself, shouted that there was a limit to his regenerative ability. One more blow such as this, two at most, would be the death of him.

Atriedes struck again.

Monster, man, whatever he was, he was simply too strong.

Sephiroth could feel the wound closing up, just as the others had. But this one was closing more slowly. And the next...

The next would not close at all.

Atriedes’ laughter rang through the square.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sephiroth could see someone approaching them. He was half-blinded by pain, but he blinked the sweat and blood away and forced his eyes to focus on the new arrival’s face.

Aeris!

"No!" he rasped. He raised his hand. "Aeris, you must flee."

Atriedes’ head snapped around, and his grin widened. He stepped toward her, pulling back the sword he still held.

Aeris closed her eyes.

Sephiroth forced himself up, pulling the blade free. He groped for the energy blade.

The clouds above had begun to break, and the sunlight that poured through them caught Atriedes’ upraised sword.

Sephiroth’s hand closed around the energy blade‘s hilt.

Atriedes’ sword began its downward arc.

Sephiroth sprang up.

Aeris’ eyes opened.

Atriedes slumped to the ground, his sword falling from his grasp.

Sephiroth looked between the Bearer’s fallen body and Aeris, who stood, gulping down a breath. She turned to him and nodded, a nervous smile on her face.

"He’ll... be alright now," she said.

"And you?" he asked.

She nodded again.

It was time to attend to his duty.