Chapter 9

Sephiroth reigned in his horse. The strange animal was temperamental and difficult to control, but from its build, he suspected it would be faster than a chocobo if set to full gallop.

Before him stretched out more of the seemingly ubiquitous forest, but beyond that, a shattered mountain rose. A volcano, perhaps?

“Why have we stopped?” he asked.

The guide, who they had hired along with their horses, shrugged. “This is as far as I can take you,” he said.

Sephiroth rode around in front of him. “You were hired to lead us to Althena’s Temple. We are not there yet.”

The guide shook his head. “I was hired to show you the way. Well, that mountain is what’s left of the temple. Go on.”

Sephiroth didn’t say anything. He made no perceptible move. But before the guide could react, the energy blade was poised a few scant inches from his neck.

The man gulped.

“No!” Aeris said. She came up alongside Sephiroth and put her hand on the loose sleeve of the tunic he had purchased.

Her horse, he noted, obeyed perfectly.

“Please,” she whispered.

Sephiroth sighed. He’d had no intention of killing the guide, or even harming him. But intimidation would be useless, now. He shut off the energy blade and returned it to its place at his belt.

When he recovered enough to speak, the guide said, “I... I still can’t take you there. No matter how dangerous you are, I’m more afraid of that place than I am of you.”

Sephiroth’s hand still rested on the energy blade’s hilt. He glanced down at it.

The guide gulped. “No. There’s dragons down there. I’ll take my chances with any man before I’ll become their food. And to go down there at night? No way.”

“We understand, sir,” Aeris said. From her tone, she was speaking more to Sephiroth. “Shall we leave the horses with you?”

The guide nodded.

Sephiroth scowled, but he swung free from his horse and helped Aeris do the same. She patted the animal’s back. “Go on back, now,” she said.

The horse trotted over to the guide, who grabbed its reigns and those of Sephiroth’s horse.

Sephiroth didn’t watch him leave. He turned toward the forest and started walking. “Do not interfere like that again. Ever.”

“You could have killed that man,” she said, running to stay alongside him.

“I had no intention of doing so.” Doing so would have defeated the purpose, after all. What use was a dead guide?

She refused to give it up, though she was nearly gasping for breath just keeping up with him. “But what if you’d hurt him by accident?”

Sephiroth stopped. He put his hand on Aeris’ shoulder and spun her to face him. “I do not, have not and will not make mistakes. I would not have hurt him by accident. And if you had not interfered, we would still be riding and you would not be half dead from the pace I set.”

She caught her breath.

“Is that clear?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Good.”

The rest of the walk to the mountain passed in silence. It also passed slower than Sephiroth would have liked. No matter what he thought of it, the pace Aeris could keep was slower than his.

What was more, she was going to need rest soon. He could go for days on the march without rest. Even common SOLDIERs could manage that. But among the Cetra’s abilities, endurance did not seem to rank high.

Perhaps there would be time to rest in the temple ahead.

Sephiroth stopped and raised his hand. “We have arrived,” he said.

There was no response.

He looked down at Aeris.

She had fallen onto her hands and knees in the grass. From the small rip which marred the hem of her newly bought local dress, he doubted that this time it was simply to appreciate the wonders of fresh air.

“Can you walk?” he asked.

After a moment, she nodded. But when she tried to rise, she lost her footing and stumbled again.

He caught her easily. “It isn’t much farther. You can rest while I investigate this temple.”

“I’m sorry,” she said weakly. “I’m just not used to going so long, that’s all. It’s all right now.”

Sephiroth didn’t listen. He picked her up. It would be easier, and faster, to carry her. If he’d thought of it before, he would have done so. Her weight was almost negligible, and she didn’t protest any further.

The entrance to what had once been Althena’s Temple had probably been spectacular, when it had been intact. Tall, elegant marble columns rose from a mosaic tile floor, managing even in the dim light to be both impressive and inviting. But several of the columns had crumbled to the ground, and the ceiling, once perhaps as ornate as the floor, had been shattered.

He stepped over the rubble and into the temple proper. The inside was in even worse condition. Here and there, moss and vines had begun to grow over the marble, and the floor was covered with shattered rubble.

It was dark inside. Easily shifting Aeris to one arm, he reached down and pulled out one of the lanterns they had brought from the facility. Its clean blue light was an uncomfortable reminder of that place, but it illuminated the room nicely.

This inner chamber must have been more impressive even than the outer facade. It rose high into the mountainside, and here and there parts of what must have been ornate reliefs still covered the walls. Several upper galleries, connected no doubt by hidden stairwells, rose toward the ceiling.

There was, however, no sign of Althena.

In that sense, it was just as the people of Meribia had said.

When he’d questioned them, all had told him that Althena was long since dead. Sephiroth could not afford to believe that, though. If it were true...

It was not worth thinking about. He had to act on the assumption that Althena was alive.

He gently set Aeris down on the mosaic floor. He hadn’t even noticed that she’d fallen asleep, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck. He slid free without awakening her and set the lantern down next to her.

Once he had another in hand, he started off into the temple itself.

Echoing around the chamber, a voice called, “who are you?”

Sephiroth stopped. He let the lantern drop from his hand - it hovered in midair.

“Who are you?” asked the same voice. It was so distorted by the acoustics of the chamber, Sephiroth could not say even if its owner was male or female.

“I am Sephiroth,” he said, pulling his energy blade free. He pressed his fingers close, and it sprung to life.

“What do you want?”

“I am looking for Althena.”

There was a pause. Sephiroth noticed a flash of white in one of the ruined upper galleries. He shot into the air, landing where he thought he’d seen it.

“You won’t find her here,” said the voice.

Sephiroth’s eyes darted back and forth. Had he been wrong? There was nothing here that could have moved. Perhaps he had simply noticed the white marble statue of what looked like a winged cat.

He smiled. His hand closed around the cat statue’s neck, and it screeched in protest.

“Where will I find her?” Sephiroth asked. He leapt down and landed easily on the floor of the chamber.

The cat wriggled around in his grasp until it faced him. “I’m not telling!”

“Really?” Sephiroth lifted his catch higher. “That would be unwise.”

The cat opened its mouth to say something.

Sephiroth realized what was about to happen, tightly shutting his eyes and looking away.

The cold which blasted his body was far greater than that which had been employed against him by the Meribian mage. Sephiroth could feel the dew and sweat on his tunic freeze into ice. The moisture in his body would not be long in following. He tossed the cat aside and rolled away.

When he spun to face it, it was a cat no longer.

“I see the guide was not lying about the dragons,” he said.

But this was like no dragon he’d ever seen - its powerfully muscled white body nearly filled the soaring chamber, even with its wings folded in. It’s head alone was four times as long as Sephiroth was tall. It lowered that massive head and fixed him with a baleful red eye.

Sephiroth held the energy blade out in front of him. “You are going to tell me where Althena is,” he said.

The dragon laughed. Even that sent a blast of frigid air at Sephiroth, but he ignored it. “Why should I possibly tell you?” it asked.

“You are one of Althena’s dragons, aren’t you?” Sephiroth asked.

“Yes,” it said - quietly, for a creature of its size.

Sephiroth nodded. “Then you will know that the time of Convergence is nearly upon us. I am the Seeker, come to restore the -Heirs- to their place.”

The dragon cocked its head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, pal.”

Somehow, Sephiroth hadn’t expected a dragon to be quite so... informal. Perhaps he had miscalculated in thinking it would listen. But the four dragons were Althena’s protectors. How could they not know?

Sephiroth felt a hand on his arm. His eyes flickered there for an instant, and he saw that Aeris had awakened. Perhaps a Cetra could talk sense into the dragon. “This one is a Cetra,” Sephiroth said. “One of Althena’s people.”

The dragon lowered its head until one of its massive eyes was level with Aeris. Her hand tightened around Sephiroth’s arm, but she did not shrink from its gaze. Then it reared back. “Impossible!” it said.

“Please, Dragon of Althena,” Aeris said, stepping forward. “We must speak with your lady. Sephiroth speaks truly - we don’t have much time left.”

The dragon lowered its eyes, perhaps lost in thought.

Sephiroth’s grip around the energy blade tightened. He was confident that he could deal with this dragon, but protecting Aeris from it would be difficult. If it did not agree to cooperate...

White light, icy cold rather than hot, filled the room. When it faded, the dragon was no more.

A small, white, winged cat was perched on Aeris shoulder. It grinned at Sephiroth. “OK. We’ll see if it’s true. The name’s Nall,” said the cat.

Aeris started at its voice and looked at it. She drew back, then regained her composure. “I am Aeris,” she said.

The cat nodded. “Pleased to meet you both. I think maybe you can tell me more than I can tell you. But before we do that, there’s something you need to see.”

Sephiroth raised his hand, but before he could protest, the three of them were enveloped in another flash.