Chapter 30

Sephiroth’s gaze remained locked forward. He concentrated on each step he took, losing himself in the monotony of the path.

The mission was a failure.

Althena had been captured by those... creatures. He had no way of knowing where they had taken her, or even if the other -Heirs- were already in their possession.

He could only hope that such was not the case.

Without the -Heirs-, said the Prophecy, death would descend upon the world, and life itself would come to an end. But if their power were to fall into the wrong hands...

For fear of that, the Cetra had sealed the power away. They had split the key between three Princesses, hiding the nature of that key even from those who held it. They had separated the Princesses, sending them to three different worlds, lest they think to use the gift they had been given for their own ends. They had risked the utter destruction foretold in the Prophecy to keep that power away until it was needed. Such was the extent of their fear of themselves.

And these creatures that had taken Althena were no Cetra. They were the last ones Sephiroth would care to entrust the fate of the world to.

Somehow, he would get the -Heir- back. Find her sisters. Bring them to the Core as well.

Somehow.

Behind him, he could hear Aeris’ soft footsteps. She left him to his thoughts, for which he was grateful.

But those thoughts did not remain fixed upon the mission.

Why did he allow himself such feelings for her? It had already weakened him in battle. If he allowed that to happen again, the result might be even worse. Even a tiny hesitation could be fatal, not just to him, but to so many others.

She weakened his control.

He thought back to when he had fought the Bearer. That had become a battle between two monsters, but though he had been the weaker of the two, that made him no less a monster. Even now, if he gave into the madness, he could draw upon that power.

Had he merely thought his fingers claws as they dug into Atriedes’ flesh? Or had they truly become claws?

In the desperation of that moment, how far down the path to madness had he gone?

Even he could not say.

Any lapse in his control, and he would return to his nature. A monster. An aberration.

Why couldn’t she see that?!

He stopped suddenly - they had reached Althena’s cottage. Why had he even come here? There was nothing here, no clue. He must get control of himself. There was only one place they could go.

He turned to speak to Aeris.

She, gasping for breath from trying to keep up, stumbled into him.

He looked down at her hand on his chest. She raised her head and looked up at him. Though she was clearly still winded, she smiled.

Any lapse, he reminded himself.

"We must return to the Core," he said curtly.

She lowered her eyes. "I... of course."

Sephiroth continued, focusing all his concentration on the mission before him. As at countless SOLDIER briefings, he began to outline his intentions. "Perhaps there is some information there about these creatures. We have physical descriptions of them, perhaps that will be enough."

"They are called espers."

Sephiroth looked past Aeris.

The Bearer, Atriedes, stood on the path below him, his bloodstained swords sheathed. He met Sephiroth’s gaze. "Knowing that may help us find out about them."

So, he had decided to come after all.

"Good," Sephiroth said.

He wondered where the other man who had fought with them had gone. His sorcery had been extremely powerful, and his desire to protect Althena likewise.

Aeris had healed his wounds. But upon awakening, he had left without even a word of thanks - or explanation.

Sephiroth turned back to the cottage. He would have gone on without any help. If this other man chose not to involve himself further, that was his decision. "Do you have any farewells to say here?" he asked Atriedes.

The other man shook his head. "No. I’ve already said my farewells."

Sephiroth did not press him further. Whatever he left behind, here or elsewhere, was his business. "Aeris," he said, "we are ready."

"Wait!"

Sephiroth’s blade was in his hand in an instant, pointed at the owner of the voice.

The man who had helped them, the sorceror, stood in the cottage doorway. "You are going to find Althena," he said. It was not a question.

Sephiroth nodded.

The man smiled with his mouth, though his crimson eyes retained the same haunted, grim expression they had held when he had first awakened after the battle. "Then I am going with you."

This, too, was not a question.

"Just a minute," Atriedes said. He stepped in front of Sephiroth. "Why should we let you come along, Ghaleon?"

For just an instant, the smile of the man called Ghaleon reached his eyes. Then it faded entirely. "What gave you the impression that you have any choice in the matter, Atriedes? I will find her, one way or another"

"Zalbard called you ‘Player,’" Sephiroth said, recalling the green-skinned esper’s words. If this man was one of the Destined Ones, then...

"I take it that you are familiar with the Prophecy?" Ghaleon asked. From his tone, he did not think it likely.

"I am," Sephiroth said. "And if you are likewise, you should know that we do not have much time."

They certainly had no time for bickering. Before Atriedes could speak again, Sephiroth turned to Aeris. "We must return to the Core. Immediately."

If either of his companions disagreed, they kept it to themselves.

Aeris took the Remote Teleportation Device from a pocket of her tattered dress. Made of the same strange metal as Sephiroth’s energy blade, it was, fortunately, just as resilient.

She set it on the ground and took a step back.

A glowing portal sprang into being above it.

"Let’s go," Sephiroth said.

Atriedes, with a last, suspicious glance at the Player, stepped through the portal.

The sorceror started to follow.

"I’m going with you, too!" Nall, in his feline form once again, landed on the ground between Ghaleon and the portal.

"Absolutely not," the Player said.

"I agree," Sephiroth said. The White Dragon was powerful, but he was also young, impulsive. And his power was clearly no match for these espers. He would only be a hindrance.

"But it’s my duty to protect Althena!"

"I will protect Althena," Ghaleon said. "And I will bring her back to this world, her world. When I do, I expect it to be a proper abode for her."

Nall took wing, hovering in the air in front of Ghaleon‘s face. "But-"

"No ‘buts,’" snapped the Player. "This world is an abomination. I cannot remain here to bring this world back to its proper state, for my duty - my predestined duty, I might add - is with these others. But this place is unfit for Althena. It must be prepared for her return, Nall, and only you can do it."

The White Dragon looked frantically from the Player to Sephiroth, then to Aeris. "You promise you’ll bring her back?" he said, his voice suddenly as small as the form he had taken.

"I swear it," Ghaleon said. Then he brushed past Nall and stepped through the portal.

Nall hovered for a moment longer, then flapped his tiny wings and shot off into the Lunar sky.

"It is time," Sephiroth said.

Aeris knelt, picked up the RTD, and tucked it back into her pocket. She turned her eyes to him. "Sephiroth..."

"It is time," he repeated.

With a sigh, she nodded and got to her feet.

Together, they stepped through the portal.