Title: A Long Road to Destiny
Series: FFVII/FFX fusion
Pairing: Cloud, Zack & Sephiroth
Warnings: violence, angst, swearing, the usual
Chapter length: 5714
Total length: 77,247
The summoner's journey is a long, hard path to walk. Having guardians you trust makes all the difference in the world.
The Crusader who had charge of Cloud pushed him again, forcing him to his knees at the end of a line of other Al Bhed who'd been tied the same way he had. It was odd to see so many Al Bhed without their trademark clothes or the goggles they almost all wore. The girl next to him was hardly any older than Cloud, and she was crying quietly, tears running over her cheeks and her hair mussed from sleep.
"Hey, let him go," Cloud heard a familiar voice protest from the other side of the room. "Don't you touch him!"
He looked up hopefully, and scanned the room until he found both his guardians. It looked like they'd been sitting at a table near the door, probably assuming that since nobody would be able to get past them to reach the room where Cloud was sleeping, it was safe enough to leave him alone for a little while. They weren't tied up, nor were the few other Spirans in the room, though they were clearly under guard.
Sephiroth appeared to be in a heated discussion with one of the Crusaders, while another had a firm hand on Zack's arm and the other hand on his sword hilt, keeping Zack in place. Zack didn't look the least bit happy about the situation, especially when he saw Cloud.
"Zack," Cloud called back. "I'm okay, it's..."
Something hard struck him in the side of the face, and he choked on the rest of what he'd intended to say. "No talking," another Crusader ordered. Dazed, feeling like the whole side of his face was on fire, Cloud didn't realize what had happened until he saw the man draw his sword back. He'd backhanded Cloud with the pommel.
"You son of a..." Zack was pulling at the hold on his arm now, uncaring of the weapons being turned in his direction, eyes blazing as he glared at the Crusader that had struck Cloud. "How dare you?"
"Zack," Sephiroth said sharply. "You are making the situation worse. Calm down." Despite his cautionary words, the look in his eyes was icy as he glanced at the guard. "Strike him again, and there will be consequences. There was no call for that."
"I'll tell you just one more time," the woman he'd been talking to said, her tone impatient. "I cannot permit any interference from civilians. If you will just stay quiet and out of the way, you will be free to go with the other Spirans as soon as we're done."
"Yeah, well you're getting a little overzealous there, captain," Zack retorted. "The guy your lieutenant just knocked the teeth out of is half Spiran, and he's with us."
She glanced back at Cloud, her gaze cool and disdainful as she looked him over. He hadn't worn the wetsuit to sleep in, of course, and that left him dressed in just the thin, close-fitting shorts that they'd given him to wear beneath it. "Looks like an Al Bhed to me," she said dismissively. "He can argue his case with the magistrates when we reach the detention area. My orders are clear."
"You still have not told us precisely what those orders are, captain," Sephiroth rumbled, his voice low and dangerous. "I assume they do not include permission to interfere with a summoner on pilgrimage?"
She looked shocked. "Of course not. That would be sacrilege. Your pardon, my lord," she bowed to him briefly. "I didn't realize you were a summoner. You're free to go immediately, then. However, I still cannot permit you to obstruct my men in performing their duties."
"Which are...?" Sephiroth prompted her again.
She drew herself up stiffly. "My orders are to round up all the Al Bhed in the area and bring them to a secure location. They're being held for questioning, and for their own protection." She shook her head. "There are nasty rumours spreading that the Al Bhed have been kidnapping and killing summoners, and Bevelle Temple is afraid there may be riots if we don't get them out of reach quickly. I suggest you take care on your journey; we haven't caught all of them yet."
'For their own protection'. It sounded good on the surface, but it left a sour taste in Cloud's mouth. Why the restraints and the brutality, if it was for their own good?
"I am a guardian," Sephiroth corrected her, eyes narrowed. "Our summoner is the man your lieutenant just struck. You will release him at once, or I will not speak for the consequences."
"A summoner?" She turned to look at him again, disbelieving and just a little uncertain. "Surely not... you can't expect me to believe that. He's Al Bhed, just look at his eyes!"
"Captain, wasn't there some message from headquarters about an Al Bhed imposter running around claiming to be a summoner?" one of the other Crusaders asked.
Cloud ground his teeth, ignoring the resulting increased throbbing in his jaw. He'd have argued the point, or better yet just called one of his aeons and rendered the whole thing moot, but the lieutenant was still standing over him and looked like he was just waiting for an excuse to strike him again. Cloud didn't want to risk being knocked unconscious.
Besides, Zack was doing it for him, ever ready to jump fiercely to Cloud's defence. "He's not an imposter. Why would anybody even be stupid enough to claim that? Let alone someone with Al Bhed blood, nobody would believe it if he couldn't prove it. Fuck, all you have to do is ask him to summon an aeon, and you'll know for sure."
"In point of fact, the notice wasn't about an imposter," she said, now giving Cloud a distinctly unfriendly look. "It was about an Al Bhed who had coerced the fayth and assaulted Lord Rufus."
Cloud felt his heart stop for a moment, and he groaned. Fayth, he'd known that was going to come back to bite him in the ass.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Zack swore, the words heartfelt. "That arrogant little prick. Nobody assaulted anybody, Rufus is blowing it out of proportion because he got his pride hurt!"
"Zack," Sephiroth said sharply. "You're not helping."
"So you are the ones he meant," the captain said, her unfriendly look transferring to Zack. "We tried to reply and request more information, but were only able to contact his guardians, who said he'd gone missing immediately after encountering you." Her face hardened. "By the authority of Bevelle temple, I am placing you under arrest on suspicion of assaulting a summoner. You will be taken back to Bevelle and tried."
"Yeah, like that'll be a fair trial," Zack muttered. He looked as sick as Cloud felt. "The word of the son of Maester Shinra against a half Al Bhed summoner, a disgraced former summoner, and a discharged Crusader."
"Lieutenant, get the rest of them up and moving, single file," the captain ordered, reaching for two more pieces of rope, presumably for Zack and Sephiroth. "I'll take personal charge of these three. We'll take them all across to Bevelle."
"You cannot mean to march us across the length of the Plains at night," Rin objected. Cloud looked for him, and found him kneeling in another line, looking mussed but holding on to his dignity despite that. "If the fiends do not kill us, the lightning will."
"You should have thought of that before you disabled the towers," the captain replied ruthlessly. "On your feet."
Someone cried out, probably prodded by a Crusader when they weren't moving fast enough, and Rin's mouth tightened. "If I offer to send someone ahead to repair the towers, escorted by your men, will you cease to use physical force on us?" he asked quietly. "We are not resisting you, they simply do not understand the orders your men are giving them. There is no call for violence."
"So you are the ones that sabotaged them," she said with grim satisfaction. "Between that and harbouring these wanted men, I'd say you've pretty much given me the proof I need that you're all part of the terrorist group."
The Crusaders had the first line of Al Bhed on their feet now, tied together in a long chain by the ropes around their wrists. They prodded the man at the head of the line to move toward the door, and the rest of the line followed slowly.
A little girl, perhaps all of ten years old, cried out and lunged abruptly against the restraints. "Sysy," she sobbed, straining to reach a woman who was part of another line. "Sysy, E's clynat..."
"Back in place," a Crusader snapped, and boxed her across the ears. Not as hard as the lieutenant had struck Cloud earlier, and without the butt of his weapon weighting the blow, but it was enough to make her scream and cringe back from him.
"Stop it," Cloud shouted, not caring if he was earning himself another strike. "Stop it, she just wants her mother! They're scared, they don't even understand what you're saying." Sure enough the lieutenant swatted at him again, but Cloud was ready for it and he ducked beneath the strike, hearing the sword whistle through the air above his head. The man had been aiming to hit with the flat of his blade, this time - hard enough to knock him flat, from the sound of it.
"All right, that's it," Zack snarled, and there was a startled shout of pain from his side of the room. Cloud assumed it had come from the Crusader who'd been holding him.
The Al Bhed were crying out to each other and panicking again, some trying to fight the restraints and others just trying to hide from the wrath of the Crusaders. Cloud was struggling to remember what Sephiroth had told him about the consequences of summoning in anger, and the only reason he was able to hold his temper at all was the memory of the first time Eqeuh had appeared. If he summoned now, he didn't think he'd be able to control the contrary aeon, and he might well end up hurting or even killing the Al Bhed he was trying to protect.
"Netzach," Sephiroth snapped, thrusting one fist into the air before the captain could restrain him.
There was a roar from outside, and the ground shook beneath their feet as something landed heavily in front of the travel agency. Cloud couldn't see anything through the open doorway, but he could hear the shouts and even screams from the Crusaders outside, along with the high-pitched warking of panicked chocobos.
Wood and plaster groaned, reminding Cloud sickeningly of the sound the ship had made just before the mast had fallen. Dust and grit showered down all through the room, and then the ceiling was suddenly lifted away, exposing them all to the pounding rain. Looming over them was a massive creature with gleaming black and gold scales, and giant wings that looked like they were made of metal feathers. A wheel spun on its back, and the ground shook again as it roared.
Nearly all of the Crusaders made the bow of respect, many of them dropping to their knees in the process. The Al Bhed one and all cowered beneath whatever scant cover they could find. Awed, Cloud rose slowly to his feet and looked up into the eyes of the dragon. "Is that Bevelle's aeon?" he asked softly. He could feel the raw power the aeon radiated, even from this distance. How could anyone contain that?
"Bahamut, the oldest and most powerful of all the temple aeons," Zack confirmed. He bowed as well, and nudged the captain who had been standing beside him, staring with her mouth open.
Hastily the captain bowed, then turned to look at Sephiroth with wide eyes. "You said you weren't a summoner," she said, almost accusing.
"I said I was a guardian, and I am," Sephiroth replied. "There is no rule that says a former summoner cannot be guardian to a new one. That I have given up my pilgrimage does not mean I have relinquished my aeons."
Now that things were a little calmer and his temper wasn't quite so uncertain, Cloud felt more confident in his own ability to summon without it ending in bloody destruction. "Eqeuh," he called, more so the Crusaders would know he was the one who had summoned it than out of any need to speak aloud. He heard an answering neigh high in the clouds. A moment later the huge unicorn trotted down through the sky, tossing his head and sparking more lightning wherever his hooves rested. Beside the giant Netzach he looked much smaller, but still threatening.
Without any orders from Cloud, he trotted over to his summoner's side and lowered his horn. With careful precision he sliced through the ropes binding Cloud, setting his hands free. Wincing at the painful feeling of pins and needles as circulation returned, Cloud rubbed his hand and looked straight at the captain. "Let them go," he said. "All of them, let them go, and take your Crusaders somewhere far away from here. None of these people are involved with kidnapping the summoners. The only thing you're accomplishing by taking them prisoner is making certain the Spirans and the Al Bhed will never make peace!"
"I suggest you do as he says," Sephiroth said mildly, and Netzach's rumbling agreement echoed even over the thunder. "And perhaps you might like to reconsider the wisdom of following orders that might well result in the first outright war Spira has seen since the conception of Sin. At the very least, you ought to make certain you are attacking the correct people next time, and not just rounding up anyone who might have been involved."
"You can't be everywhere," she told them, seeming resigned more than angry. "And they'll catch you sooner or later. At the temples if nowhere else, unless you're planning to abandon your journey."
"No," Cloud shook his head stubbornly. "I'm going all the way to Zanarkand. I'll prove that an Al Bhed can do it, and maybe that will be enough to make people come to their senses. I won't let anything stop me."
"And neither will we," Zack agreed. Showing no sign of fear of the aeon that had tried to kill him less than a day before, he walked over and slung his arm around Cloud's neck, hefting his sword to rest in implied threat on his shoulder. "Let anything stop him, that is. So maybe you'd better warn your Crusader buddies not to make the attempt, because we'd rather not hurt anyone."
"Ask yourself this," Sephiroth said. "Why would the aeons serve two of us, if we were not on the path they wished us to take? Now go, before one or both of us lose our temper."
The threat made Cloud look at him, surprised, but it was hard to read past Sephiroth's closed expression. Was it a bluff? He'd never seen Sephiroth even come close to losing his temper, and Sephiroth was the one who'd lectured him about summoning in anger.
Then again, Sephiroth seemed uncommonly close to the Al Bhed, and Cloud already knew he hated to see anyone being bullied. That was how Cloud had met him, after all. Even he must have limits to his control.
"We'll go," the captain confirmed, turning to gesture for her men to release the Al Bhed. "Call off your aeons, please. They're going to stampede the chocobos in another minute."
Sephiroth gave Cloud a significant look. "Netzach," he murmured, and the massive dragon reared up on his hind legs and roared once more before vanishing into pyreflies.
"Eqeuh is staying," Cloud said, hoping he'd understood the meaning of that glance. He was reassured when Sephiroth nodded slightly. Probably Sephiroth wouldn't have been able to keep Netzach with him much longer, since they were no longer in danger, but it was better for it to seem otherwise.
Eqeuh snorted over his head and pawed the floor, striking more sparks. Having him there certainly seemed to encourage the Crusaders to pack up and leave quickly. Cloud followed them outside just to make sure they weren't trying to take anyone with them, and Eqeuh leaped over the wall to stay with him, unable to fit through the door.
The captain was now seated on a very nervous chocobo. It eyed Eqeuh and seemed to be considering bolting, but she controlled it with a firm hand. "Having resisted arrest and turned your aeons on my men here is not going to look good for you when you do come to trial," she told him, her chin still held high despite the fact that she was retreating. "It only reinforces Lord Rufus' claims that you are a rogue summoner."
"I'll deal with that when I come to it," Cloud said. "If it comes to it. Now, go."
She wheeled her bird around and spurred it into a run, and the rest of her squad followed close behind her. Eqeuh stamped the ground and whinnied, a challenging noise that made several of the birds wark and run faster, breaking formation. The aeon gave his laughing neigh and shook his head.
Cool energy flowed over Cloud's face, and he felt a little dizzy with relief as the throbbing ache in his jaw and cheek faded. He looked up to see Sephiroth standing next to him, frowning. "Brutes," the older man said, his tone scathing. "The bone was cracked. There was absolutely no call for such violence."
"They will be back," Rin said grimly, coming up beside them. The older Al Bhed was staring after the Crusaders, rubbing the marks where his wrists had been bound. "With reinforcements, and they will be angry. I did not take your warning about how fast they might move seriously enough," he added, inclining his head to Zack.
"Yeah, well, I didn't expect them to just attack without warning while most of us were sleeping, so we're even," Zack replied wryly. "Cloud, I'm sorry, I couldn't stop that asshole from going to search the rest of the inn. If we'd started fighting, they'd have killed the Al Bhed."
"It's okay," Cloud assured him. "Really, it is. They didn't hurt me, just scared the crap out of me." He yawned hard enough to crack his newly-healed jaw, and rubbed at his burning eyes. "Eqeuh, you can probably go, now. Thank you."
Snorting softly, Eqeuh nuzzled him nearly hard enough to knock him over, then vanished. "Does anyone else need healing?" Cloud asked Rin, worried. He wasn't the only one those Crusaders had been striking.
"Save your energy, my friends," Rin told them, though he nodded his thanks for the offer. "We can use the travel sphere to heal and give us the strength to make the journey. I think we will not be waiting for morning to leave, after all. If there is anything you would like to purchase, I suggest you do so now." He managed a thin smile. "At my usual rates, of course."
"Pff, even now he doesn't give us a discount," Zack said, shaking his head with mock disbelief. "Unbelievable."
Rin raised an eyebrow at him. "By all rights, I should be charging you for the repair of the roof," he pointed out with grim amusement. "Consider yourselves lucky."
"How are you going to get across the Plains in the middle of the night, with the towers broken?" Cloud wanted to know.
"I've already sent men ahead to repair them," Rin said. "And despite what I said earlier, the fiends will usually not attack such a large group. You are free to travel with us, of course, at least to the edge of the Thunder Plains."
"I think we'd better get moving sooner rather than later," Cloud said, thinking about how long it would take all these people to organize themselves, heal, and pack everything they wanted to take. "We won't be moving fast enough to run into those Crusaders, unless they stop at the edge of the Plains and wait for us. I want to get to Macalania temple before the rumours spread any further, if I can. I'd rather avoid a fight."
"Knowing how the Crusaders work, I don't think they'll lie in wait for us," Zack said, sheathing his sword. "They'll head to a base camp to make a report, then wait for orders. We should have enough time to squeak through, though I don't know what kind of reception might be waiting for us at Lake Macalania. The temples have their own guards, they don't just rely on the Crusaders, and they'll probably have been given that same notice from Rufus."
"Then by all means, do not wait on us," Rin said. He bowed formally, first to Cloud and then to Sephiroth. "Good journey, my friends. I hope it will be less eventful in the future than it has been until now."
"You and me both," Cloud said fervently.
Macalania Wood was just as beautiful as Cloud had remembered, and it was a relief to finally be out of the rain. They climbed one of the winding paths formed by the branches of the giant trees, and found a little niche where they could tuck themselves away to sleep for a few hours. Much as Cloud would have liked to keep going, they badly needed the rest. He tried not to mourn the loss of that nice, comfortable bed he'd enjoyed so briefly in the travel agency.
They were all stiff and still weary as they trudged up the path towards Lake Macalania. At least the air was fresh and invigorating, with a breeze that was just cool enough to counteract the heat of the sun peeking through the trees. It was hard for Cloud to believe that just a few days ago, he'd been sweltering in the smothering heat of the islands.
"Man it's freezing," Zack complained, shivering. He was still dressed in his islander clothes, the shorts and sleeveless shirt doing nothing to protect him from the chill. Cloud could see the goosebumps standing up over all of his exposed skin.
He couldn't resist teasing his guardian a little. "Are you kidding me? This is gorgeous. When it gets this warm, Calm Landers finally strip off the last of their jacket layers. Wait until we hit the snow, then it will be a little chilly."
Zack gave him a horrified look. "This feels warm to you? That wetsuit hardly covers any more than I'm wearing, and you're used to a lot more clothes."
Cloud grinned. "I did warn you, back when you were teasing me about the heat," he reminded the older man. "This is the height of summer, in the Calm Lands."
"Perhaps not quite," Sephiroth murmured with a smile of his own. "Early autumn, more like. I can smell the snow from here, we must be nearing the boundaries of the lake."
"Maybe it would be fall in the valley, but this is summer where I'm from," Cloud retorted. "It's colder up in the mountains." Sephiroth inclined his head, acknowledging the point.
"I'm glad it's not winter, then," Zack said, shivering again and rubbing his arms. "How can you smell snow? It's freshwater, not salt, isn't it?"
"Can't you smell it?" Cloud asked, surprised. He inhaled deeply, and the familiar stringent scent teased at his nose. "Seph's right, we must be getting close."
Closer than he had realized - they turned a corner, and found themselves at the end of the forest path, facing a large open valley. In the distance at the centre of the valley was the temple, the cool blue stone of the spire giving the illusion that it had been carved out of the ice. The whole area was blanketed in snow, almost right up to where they stood, though he could see it was thinner here. The sun still shone down with the bright warmth of summer, but it seemed to have no effect on the chill of the valley.
"Where's the lake?" Zack asked, looking around in confusion. "I thought it was near the temple. Is it on the other side?"
"That is the lake," Cloud told him, laughing. "The temple was built right in the middle of it. Even I know that."
"Macalania's fayth prefers the cold of winter, and has the power to ensure the waters never melt, even in the hottest summer," Sephiroth confirmed. "The ice is meters thick, and there are vast caverns below it. Many believe there are ruins down there as impressive as those hidden beneath the waters of the Moonflow, one of the lost cities of Spira."
"Unbelievable," Zack said, shaking his head. "What a horrible thing to do to perfectly good water. I'm so happy I live in the tropics."
It took them another hour to reach the temple, Zack's teeth chattering the whole way. He didn't complain, though, which impressed Cloud. Then again, he'd just crossed through the Thunder Plains despite being afraid of lightning, so maybe a little cold didn't seem all that bad as an alternative. Cloud made a mental note to be certain they purchased warm clothing and lots of blankets before they tackled Mount Gagazet. The ice and snow there was deadly cold even to a Calm Lander, and Zack would freeze before he'd gone three steps.
A little to his surprise, there were no signs of temple guards as they descended the icy steps to the entrance. Even more to his surprise, the door was hanging askew on its hinges, and showed signs of having been scorched recently. "Oh, that can't be good," he said, his heart sinking as he noted the distinctive pockmarks left behind by bullets from a gun.
Zack and Sephiroth traded grim looks, and Zack drew his sword as Sephiroth readied a spell. With Cloud between them, they cautiously went down the last few stairs and peered through the broken doorway.
Inside the air was smoky and there were more scorch marks on the stone. Dead and wounded priests and temple guards were everywhere - and here and there among the bodies were a few dressed in Al Bhed gear.
"Shit," Zack swore, eyes narrowed. "What were they thinking? How could they attack a temple?"
"Perhaps in retaliation for the way innocent Al Bhed are being herded off to a concentration camp," Sephiroth pointed out darkly. "Or perhaps it is just part of their mad quest to stop the summoners. Either way, this will not bode well for the treatment of those innocents being detained."
"This is ridiculous, it's getting completely out of control," Cloud groaned. "It's been less than two days!"
"There were probably already summoners going missing on their way to Besaid, before we ever encountered trouble," Zack pointed out unhappily. "And then there was that storm, and the rumours that the Al Bhed deliberately didn't warn us it was coming. Not to mention that disaster a few years ago, where the Al Bhed convinced the Crusaders to try their weapons and just about everybody died. Honestly, this has been brewing for a long, long time."
"My lord summoner," one of the priests said, approaching them and bowing. "Please, forgive us. As you can see, we are..." He caught sight of Cloud and stopped, his expression turning ugly.
"Don't," Cloud said wearily. "Please. We don't want to fight, or hurt anyone. I just want to take the Trial."
"If you allow us to proceed without difficulty, I will remain behind and help to heal everyone," Sephiroth added. "That is, with your permission?" He glanced at Cloud.
"Yes, of course," Cloud said gratefully. As little as he liked the priests of Yevon at the moment, he wouldn't wish this kind of suffering on anyone. And he knew Sephiroth would heal everyone, including any injured Al Bhed, where the priests might ignore them or even finish them off.
The priest glanced around, as if assessing his chances of driving them off if he did protest. There were only three of them and a great many priests and guards, but very few of the latter were able to stand, let alone fight. Even the priest talking to them was injured, the sleeve of his robe bloody.
"Very well," he said stiffly, apparently bowing to the inevitable. "You know the way." He gestured at the stairway leading up to the Trial door.
"Wanna lay odds on there being a full squad of Crusaders or fresh temple guards waiting by the time we come out?" Zack asked under his breath, sighing.
"Having me remain out here serves another purpose," Sephiroth pointed out, just as quietly. "I can keep watch for trouble. Guard him well, Zack. We already know the priests are not above sabotaging their own Trial."
Zack nodded, and Sephiroth turned away to help heal the worst of the wounded. With Zack solidly at his back, Cloud made his way up the steps and entered the Trial.
The Trial room seemed to have been carved of solid ice, which shouldn't have surprised him. Zack grumbled quietly, and slipped several times before he got the hang of the gliding walk needed to cross the icy surface. Thankfully the puzzle wasn't too difficult, and the room with the door to the Chamber of the Fayth was free of even a hint of ice and snow.
"Huh. I would've figured this would be the worst part," Zack commented, sighing with relief as they entered the marginally warmer room.
"Well, Seph did say that some summoners pray for a day or more," Cloud pointed out. "I suppose the fayth doesn't want the guardians getting frostbite."
"You ready?" Zack asked, clasping his shoulder.
Cloud tried not to imagine what this fayth might put him through. "As ready as I'll ever be. And Zack... thanks. I don't say it often enough."
Zack smiled, but swatted him lightly across the back of his head. "You don't thank your friends for being friends, stupid. Go on, get going."
You did if you were a half-breed outcast who'd never had a friend before, Cloud thought to himself, but he didn't say it. Gathering his courage, he stepped up to the door and waited for it to open.
Inside the air was cooler again, but still not frozen. The hymn ringing in his ears was beautiful, a rich woman's voice that carried even the highest notes sweetly. To his surprise, the fayth was already waiting for him, hovering over the statue in the centre of the tiny chamber.
She was dressed like a Calm Lander, in layers and layers of robes. Perhaps that was why she kept things so cold around her, so she wouldn't stifle in the heat, Cloud thought in amusement. She might have been a priestess; her robes looked a bit like those of the priests outside. But her expression was warm, and she had a hand outstretched to him in welcome.
"You have come so far, and seen such pain, child of two peoples," she said, her speaking voice just as beautiful as the singing that still continued. "Come, and rest for a moment with me. I will shelter you, and ease your cares."
He blinked, startled by the seemingly easy offer. "Um. Aren't you going to test me or something, first?" he asked cautiously.
Her smile turned sad. "So jaded and suspicious. I cannot blame you. My brethren have hurt you so badly."
Cloud bit his lip on a protest. They had hurt him, but he still believed it had been for his own good, somehow. Certainly it hadn't been out of any kind of malice. Even now he could feel Jymavun's love and Evned's respect, and the lesson of control Eqeuh had taught him would stay with him forever. Still, he didn't want to argue with her.
"Come, and sit at my feet," she coaxed him. "Let me cool the fires of your suffering."
There didn't seem to be any reason to continue hesitating. Her body was insubstantial, but he curled up against the crystal mound that protected her statue. She sank down to sit beside him, and he felt the ghostly touch of her hands threading through his hair. She petted him like a cat, short soothing strokes that made him feel cherished.
"Forget the cares of your journey," she said, her voice a soft lilt that blended with the hymn. "Forget the ugliness of anger and hatred and prejudice. Forget the battles and the bloodshed."
Despite himself, Cloud was growing drowsy. He was still exhausted after days of deprivation and fighting, drained despite the brief rests and the healing of the travel spheres. Other summoners took hours or even days in the chamber; was this why? Because the fayth soothed them and eased their cares, instead of testing them and pushing them far past their limits?
Surely it wouldn't hurt anything if he didn't emerge from the chamber in record time, for once.
"Yes, that's it," she crooned, her voice reminding him of the way his mother had sounded, when she'd rocked him to sleep as a little boy. "Let the ice numb the hurts. Let me take it all away."
Something was burning in his chest, a fiery sensation distinctly at odds with the cool touch of her hands. He tried to shift to get more comfortable, and was surprised to find it was difficult to move. A strange crackling noise reached his ears.
With an effort he opened his eyes again, and tried to lift his hand. It resisted, then seemed to break free of whatever was restraining him with another crackling sound. It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing.
Tiny ice crystals traced over his hand, the skin beneath white and waxy-looking. He could hardly feel anything, he realized, and he couldn't move his fingers at all. Looking down, he saw more ice crystals creeping over his body, growing over the slick surface of his wetsuit, tinkling softly with each breath he took.
Too late, he remembered why you weren't ever supposed to fall asleep in the snow, and saw the trap for what it was.
ETA: Chapter 16! Yes I'm updating again, thank you all for your patience!