THEN I discovered Homestuck, which is the fandom that eats all other fandoms, and it consumed my soul for a while. At least it meant I got some practice writing again before I came back to this, so I'm not as horribly rusty as I would otherwise have been.
I want to thank every single person who has posted on my story in the last year and a half. You've all been so remarkably patient and supportive. Not a single one of you ever nagged, or got angry at me; you've only given me encouragement and assured me that you're still out there, waiting and hoping. Without all of you, I would have abandoned this long ago, but I was determined not to let you all down. Thank you so much.
So, where am I at? This chapter is done, the next is about 3/4 done. I've completely revamped my story outline, tightened it up and improved the ending a LOT. It's not going to come hard and fast, but I WILL get at least one chapter out per month, probably more. I'll do my best not to let it slide again. I owe you all that much.
Because I know so many of the readers for this story are here in my LJ, I will continue posting the chapters for this story here. Nothing else is getting posted here, and when this is done I'll be abandoning LJ completely, though I won't remove what's already here. All of my new works are being posted at Archive of Our Own, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Feel free to hop over there to follow this story as well!
ETA: oh my god the new format for LJ is awful, this is the first time I've posted something and looked at it since it changed. And also I lost all my icons since I don't want a paid account anymore and can't use the one I made for this story T_T
TL;DR - let the story continue!
Title: A Long Road to Destiny
Series: FFVII/FFX fusion
Pairing: Cloud, Zack & Sephiroth
Warnings: violence, angst, swearing, the usual
Chapter length: 5934
Total length: 83,181
The summoner's journey is a long, hard path to walk. Having guardians you trust makes all the difference in the world.
Cloud's breath misted in front of his face as he flailed, obscuring his view and forming tiny ice crystals on his eyelashes. "Why do you struggle so?" the fayth asked him. He'd half expected her to become angry, but her expression held only concern. As if he was a child fighting against taking the medicine that would cure him from a deadly illness. "Does it pain you? I can take that too, if you like."
Just that fast Cloud's body went completely numb. He could no longer feel the weight of the ice or the burn of cold air in his lungs. The only reason he knew he was still breathing at all was the vapour puffs in the air. Those were rapidly diminishing, a sign that his body temperature was dropping to match the ambient cold. If he didn't get out now, it would be too late. He'd nearly frozen to death once before, and though the fayth was making it a far less painful experience this time, he wasn't enjoying it any more the second go around.
He fought against the weariness that tried to drag him into deadly lethargy. The ice that coated him cracked and refroze and cracked again as he struggled to move his limbs. If he didn't start moving, didn't get warm blood flowing in his body again, he would be dead in minutes.
"Why do you resist?" the fayth asked him sadly. "This is your fate. I am only trying to make it as painless as possible. We owe you that much, for all you have done for us."
"I'm not done yet," Cloud grated out through lips that didn't want to move. "I can't die here."
"You kept your promise," she said, stroking her fingers over the frozen strands of his hair. "You've done everything you can. It's not your fault that the unrest in the world has created impossible odds against you. We do not blame you for the actions of the Al Bhed and the Spirans. You cannot win; you will only cause more strife and discord." She sighed. "It is not yet time for us to be free. They will kill you, or worse, if you persist. Let me take your burdens from you now, quickly and as painlessly as possible. Sleep, child of two worlds. I will watch over you."
Her words were seductive, calling out to the part of him that wailed that it was all hopeless, that he was struggling for nothing and would only make everything worse. Everything Rufus and the Crusaders had said came back to haunt him. Every taunt and jeer he'd suffered from the Spirans in Nibelheim before he'd learned to shut up about his dream ran through his mind. The Al Bhed hated him, the Spirans reviled him. Why was he still doing this?
Why was he fighting?
To keep a promise made to the fayth who had saved his life... but this fayth was telling him that they were releasing him from that promise, and his aeons weren't making any objections.
To prove to the people of Nibelheim that he was worth something... but they would react the same way every other Spiran had, calling him a heretic and saying he was coercing the fayth.
To make the Spirans realize that the Al Bhed were not the enemy... but his very existence had led to the beginning of a war between the two races.
To live up to Zack and Sephiroth's belief in him...
And there his mind stuck, because his guardians did believe in him, and they would never stop doing so. Giving up now would be throwing their belief back in their faces, would be rejecting all the help and support and yes, even friendship they had offered him.
"No," he insisted, struggling harder. "I don't care if it's doomed. I don't care if I suffer more in the end. I can't give up now. I can't!"
"Even if it means they will suffer more along with you?" she asked, as if she could read his mind. "Even if it means they will die, or worse?"
"I will find a way to protect them," Cloud growled. "So what if it's impossible? It's impossible for an Al Bhed to be a Summoner, too, but here I am. I'll break all the rules if I have to. I will do it, I will show everyone that I can do it, and I'll do it without sacrificing anyone!"
To his astonishment she started to laugh, a silvery sound like the wind through the icicles. "Such spirit. I honestly did not think you had it in you. Very well, then. With that much determination, it should not be all that difficult for you to escape my trap." Her eyes glittered at him with mischief and an edge of challenge.
Then she vanished, leaving him alone in the freezing stone room. Freezing, because the cold didn't vanish with her. Groaning, Cloud braced his feet against the floor and heaved his body, trying to break the ice that encased him.
It was unbelievable how thick it had already grown in just the few moments he'd been wrestling with his motivation. He couldn't budge it, couldn't move his limbs even a fraction of an inch, his muscles bunching and releasing in vain.
Panic was as lethal an enemy as the cold itself, he reminded himself grimly. He needed to think, to use his brain while it was still working. There had to be a way out, he was certain the fayth wouldn't have challenged him to find it if it didn't exist.
When realization finally struck him, he would have kicked himself if he could have. The elemental opposite to ice was fire. He had fire at his disposal, and for once the thought of using it didn't make his panic worse.
Reaching deep inside himself, he found the blazing spot near his heart where Evned lived. The aeon came roaring up inside him, and Cloud could sense his eagerness to get back at the queen of ice for the way she'd quenched the flames in his temple. It was all Cloud could do to hold him back, sharply reminding the aeon that he could not survive in the middle of a fireball, however quickly it might melt the ice.
Heat raced through his body, sweeping over him like an impossibly fast fever. It burned especially in the extremities of his limbs, where he was no doubt already suffering frost bite. Immediately he felt trickles of water running over his exposed skin, and it was almost unbearably warm.
Finally the distinctive sharp crack of breaking ice echoed in the room. He'd never thought he would be grateful to hear that noise, but this time he wasn't worried about falling through it into a half-frozen lake. Heaving again, this time he managed to breach the icy shell that threatened to become his tomb. Once he could move his arms he clawed at it, scrabbling over the smooth stone beyond for a handhold to pull himself free.
In a surprisingly short amount of time he found himself lying in a steaming puddle of water. As the puddle spread over the stone he could already see the edges starting to re-freeze, and he took that as a warning, forcing himself to his hands and knees and crawling away from the glyph that held the fayth.
The heat under his skin thankfully kept his soaking wetsuit from freezing again. His hands and feet still felt like numb blocks and would probably need healing, but considering the state he'd been left in at the Kilika temple, he counted himself pretty damned lucky.
When he reached the door he stretched out a shaking hand to touch it, and looked inside himself. Had he passed her test? Would she grant him her aeon, and release from the room?
Nestled beside Jymavun's gentle energy – as far from the heat of Evned and crackle of Eqeuh as it could be – he found a spot of frozen cold, hard as a diamond. "Crejy," he whispered through cracked and bleeding lips, and the door slid open.
Immediately hands grabbed at his arms, and he heard Zack's voice. "Well, you're moving under your own power, I suppose that's a plus. I take it from the look of agony on your face it's not going to be attacking me to make you prove yourself?" The older man was trying to make it into a joke, but when Cloud looked up at him, he could see the concern in his guardian's eyes. Worry for him, not for Zack's own well-being, despite the fact that Zack had nearly died last time.
"No, I already passed this one," Cloud croaked, letting Zack help him to his feet. "And hey, I'm only about a quarter dead, so that's a huge improvement over Kilika."
"Yeah, let's get you to Seph anyway... holy shit, Cloud, you're burning up!" Zack interrupted himself, eyes wide.
"It's Evned, not a fever," Cloud assured him hastily. "She tried to freeze me to death, I had to fight back. I think it would be better to keep the heat up until we get back to Seph."
"Well, I'm not gonna complain about having a living heater while we walk through the ice again," Zack said with his customary cheer as he slung Cloud's arm over his shoulder. If it was at all forced, Cloud couldn't detect it. "Four down, one to go! We're nearly there."
"The hardest part is still coming," Cloud reminded him, even as he clung to Zack more for the emotional support than the physical. This was the reason he was still fighting. No matter what happened, he couldn't let himself forget that.
"Nah, you already did the hardest part when you got to Besaid on your own," Zack said. "Now you've got help, so by definition it has to be easier. Right?"
"There's... something flawed in your logic," Cloud muttered, but his head was spinning with both cold and fever at once, and it was still far too difficult to think.
"I'll tell you what isn't easier, though," Zack said, sighing as they entered the Trial again. "Going through the damned Trial a second time, backwards, with a half-dead summoner hanging off you. Why do they make us do this? We've already been through it once to prove ourselves. This is just sadistic, is what it is."
"The fayth don't get much entertainment, I suppose," Cloud said, stumbling and sliding on the icy surface. "It would be cruel to deny them... ow!" he exclaimed as they both slipped and went down, and he bit his tongue.
It wasn't the last time they landed flat on their asses. Cloud's balance was off, and Zack had never learned the trick of walking over ice and snow. By the time they got out, they were both thoroughly bruised and winded, and the heat inside Cloud was threatening to scorch him alive. He was nervous that he might suffer real damage if he didn't release Evned soon - wasn't it possible for a bad fever to cook the patient's brain until there was nothing left but a vegetable? But cold could do just as much damage in its own way, and if frostbite actually killed his fingers and toes, a healer would be able to do nothing but remove the dead flesh in order to preserve what was left.
An acolyte in the main room of the temple reluctantly directed them to one of the back rooms when Zack asked where their third party member was. It didn't escape Cloud that though the man's robe was bloody, he was moving with no pain. Presumably Sephiroth had healed him. And still he was reluctant to help them?
"Seph!" Zack called the moment the former summoner was in sight. Sephiroth was kneeling at the side of a bed, and the room was stuffed full of wounded people. It seemed he'd demanded they be brought to him, probably so he wouldn't have to go too far from Cloud. "Come and heal him, will you? He's freezing and burning up at the same time."
"I'd say 'impressive' if I hadn't half expected something of the sort," Sephiroth said wryly as he moved to meet them, hands already outstretched and filled with healing magic. Cloud gasped as the spell settled over him and feeling returned to his damaged extremities. Gratefully he released Evned's heat, and by the time the spell was finished he was left feeling almost normal again.
Almost. Frowning, he pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and it still hurt where he'd bitten it. He could feel the bruises and aches from falling on the ice, too. "Are you that exhausted, or are you holding back to deal with the rest of the wounded?" he asked, concerned. If Sephiroth had drained his magic to nothing again, they would need to rest before continuing, and Cloud was fairly certain they didn't have the time. There didn't seem to be a restoration point in the temple, or if there was the priests hadn't bothered pointing it out to them.
"The latter," Sephiroth assured him. "Forgive me, I've been healing people just enough for them to be able to heal the rest of the way on their own with no difficulties, I suppose I automatically did the same with you. I can heal you completely..."
He reached out again, but Cloud shook his head and pushed his hands away. "No, you did the right thing. Bruises aren't going to make any difference to me right now, and it looks like there's a lot of people who need help." Glancing around again, he saw that all of the people in the room were blond. Well, that explained why they'd been gathered together like this - it wasn't for Sephiroth's convenience, it was so the priests could stand guard on the Al Bhed. He supposed he should be grateful they'd allowed Sephiroth to heal them at all, he thought bitterly.
"Cloud, you've learned the second level white magic now, haven't you?" Sephiroth asked him, and Cloud nodded. "If you're not too exhausted from your Trial, why don't you take over healing the less injured? We can do more that way - and it will be good for the priests to see you helping Spirans, just as it is good for the Al Bhed to see a Spiran helping them. Zack, stay with him."
For just a moment, Cloud wanted to object, to ask Sephiroth to let him heal the Al Bhed instead. He was still so angry at the priests, at the Spirans in general, for what they were doing to the Al Bhed. When he met Sephiroth's eyes, though, the older man simply looked back at him levelly, and Cloud finally hung his head in shame. Sephiroth was right. If they wanted this disaster between the races to ever end, he had to put his prejudices aside just as much as anyone else.
He wasn't sure if the priests outside were more scandalized or horrified when he went out and asked to be taken to the rest of the wounded. There was a whispered conference between three of them as Cloud shifted impatiently from foot to foot, and Zack grumbled under his breath. In the end sense seemed to prevail, because an acolyte led the two of them to a different back room.
This one was larger, and even more packed with bodies. Of course, Cloud realized, feeling a little sick. The Al Bhed would have taken as many of their injured with them as they could. Only the dying would be left behind, because they wouldn't want anyone to be captured. No wonder Sephiroth had insisted on starting with the Al Bhed.
The priests were less injured, probably because their own healers had already tended the worst of the wounds. Cloud tried to push up his sleeves automatically, but the skin-tight wetsuit wouldn't go anywhere. Shrugging, he moved in and reached out to the first person he came to, hands already glowing with energy. If his suit got bloody, he supposed it would be easy enough to wash it.
Soon enough the parade of injuries became a blur in his mind, as he healed one person after another. He tried to keep in mind what Sephiroth was doing, healing only the worst parts and leaving bruises and minor cuts to heal on their own, but it was hard. He didn't have Sephiroth's experience, and the magic just wanted to keep pouring out of him until there was nothing left for it to fix. Zack helped, pulling him away and steering him to the next person long before Cloud would have been able to back off.
He wasn't sure how many he'd healed, his head swimming with exhaustion and the after-effects of his Trial, when Zack blocked him from moving to the next one. "Zack?" Cloud mumbled, trying not to sway on his feet as he looked up at his guardian, who was frowning back at him in concern. "What is it?"
"Well, first of all, you're pretty much done in and I don't think you should try to heal anymore until we find a restore point or you can sleep to get your energy back," Zack said firmly.
"Yes... you shouldn't have pushed yourself so hard," Sephiroth's deep voice spoke from behind unexpectedly, and Cloud jumped. When he turned he found his other guardian in the doorway, accompanied by a young woman in acolyte's clothes. "I didn't mean for you to exhaust yourself."
"He's still a new healer, Seph, you know how they are," Zack said. "I've had to pull him away from everyone to stop him from draining himself until they're perfect."
To Cloud's astonishment, Sephiroth blushed, ever so faintly. "Yes, of course. Forgive me," he said. "It's been so long since my early days, and you have such control over your aeons, sometimes I forget that you're still nowhere near properly trained. However, we have another problem."
"The Crusaders are gathering on the lake outside the temple," the acolyte spoke for the first time. Her voice was soft, and she wouldn't meet Cloud's eyes, his gaze locked firmly on the floor. "The Maester ordered everyone to stay silent and let you leave; he said he didn't want any more conflict in the temple, but the Crusaders were welcome to you once you were off sacred ground."
Her eyes flicked up briefly to Cloud's, then down again miserably as she made the Bow to Cloud. "Lord Cloud, Lord Sephiroth, Sir Zack, please, forgive them. They are frightened, not thinking straight. People are afraid of change, of anything that is different. When I saw you working so hard to heal the injured, I knew that the stories about you couldn't be true. You are a true Summoner, Lord Cloud."
Startled, Cloud realized that it was shame that kept her from meeting his gaze, not a reluctance to look at his Al Bhed eyes. She made him feel bad for his earlier reluctance to heal the priests, and he hunched his shoulders and mumbled something she would hopefully take as thanks as he returned the Bow.
"If you will trust me, I know another way out of the temple," she said as he straightened. "There's another door near the Chamber of the Fayth, that leads outside. Only the priests know of it, of course. It was meant as an escape route in case something happened, the ice caved in or the path to the surface was otherwise blocked. They can't stop you from going back to the Trial, and once inside the Crusaders can't follow you. They'll have no reason to suspect that you know about the exit, so they won't be guarding the other end of the path."
"But how can we go down?" Zack protested, clearly baffled. "The Chamber of the Fayth must be way below the surface of the lake, we'd come out under water."
"Presumably not, since an emergency exit would not be of much value if everyone using it inevitably drowned," Sephiroth said. "Standing about discussing it will not get us anywhere. The sooner we begin, the sooner we will get through the Trial. Come. And thank you, Shelinda."
She bowed again. "It is my great honour to assist a Summoner in any way possible," she said humbly. "Please, accept it as a token that not all Spirans are against you, Lord Cloud."
Before Cloud could come up with something halfway intelligent to say in reply to that, she'd slipped out of the room. Through the door he heard her calling to the acolytes outside, saying something about needing more bandages and healing salve, drawing them away from the main room. After a moment Sephiroth nodded and opened the door, and the three of them hurried through the empty main room and back up to the Trial entrance.
For a third time Cloud and Zack made their way back through the Trial. At least it got easier every time, as they remembered the mistakes they'd made before. Zack was shivering again by the time they reached the heated room outside the Chamber, but otherwise they had no problems.
Once they made it that far, it wasn't difficult to find the smaller, undecorated door that was tucked off in one corner. On the other side was a short icy tunnel, and then...
Or, almost nothing. The tunnel turned a corner and suddenly the walls and ceiling were gone, leaving only a narrow path of ice that wound its way back up around the outside of the temple. All around them was nothing, a vast empty space with just a few massive ice pillars stretching up here and there in the distance.
Inching forward, Cloud looked up and saw the solid-looking roof of ice, far above them. Looking down showed him a relatively short drop to what looked like shallow water over stone beneath... and ruins.
Like the ruins buried beneath the waters of the Moonflow, they were clearly from the ancient days of Spira, when great cities had covered the planet. Most of these were so encased in ice they were almost unrecognizable as buildings. With a sense of awe, he wondered how many of those 'ice pillars' actually had stone towers at their hearts that had once housed people inside them.
"What... what is this place?" Zack asked, awe clear in his expression as he stared all around.
"One of the Lost Great Cities, from the looks of it," Sephiroth said, and even his voice was a little unsteady. "I'd never so much as heard rumours of this. How much knowledge is lost in this tomb of ice? Nobody even knows it exists."
"The priests do," Cloud pointed out quietly. He didn't think he'd sounded odd, but something in his voice apparently made both his guardians turn to look back at him. Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, and Zack looked unusually grim. "They must. This is their escape route, after all, it wouldn't do them much good if they didn't know it was here."
He took a step forward onto the icy path, staring at the isolated splendour all around him, trying to imagine what it might once have looked like as a city. "Besaid temple is surrounded by ruins. D'jose's temple is a relic. Obviously everyone knows that Zanarkand is a ruin. Does Kilika...?"
He looked at Zack, who nodded slowly. "Between the forest and the volcano they've been almost entirely buried, but everyone knows they're there," Zack said quietly.
"And now this." Cloud looked out around the frozen space of the lake again. There was a funny feeling in his chest, like something was binding him too tightly and preventing him from taking a deep breath. "What lies buried beneath Bevelle's temple, I wonder? Somehow I can't bring myself to believe it's the only exception. They've just hidden the ruins by building the city on top of them."
He wasn't surprised when Sephiroth looked troubled, but said nothing. So there was something there, and Sephiroth perhaps felt disloyal to his religion if he said anything about it? Cloud decided not to push the issue. He didn't want to trap his guardian in a conflict of beliefs.
The truth would be revealed soon enough, he had a feeling.
"Let's go," was all he said. "We won't accomplish anything by standing around here." Thankfully the path was roughened and not slippery at all, and also wider than it had first looked. It was a long way up to the top... and a longer way to fall from there.
He tried not to think about that as a possible metaphor for his entire life right now. Crejy's fayth had been right about one thing. It was only going to get harder from here, and it might very well be impossible for him to succeed.
Too bad he had to try anyway.
"The problem with the fact that you're a Summoner is that everyone in all of fucking Spira knows that you have to come to Bevelle at some point," Zack sighed mournfully. Lying on the branch path beside him, Cloud stared down at the only pass that led into Bevelle. It was barred by a high, thick wall of stone and metal, with massive metal doors guarded by Crusaders and temple guards both.
They were stopping everyone who approached, checking over some sort of papers the travellers carried and thoroughly searching both the people and any wagons or carts they had with them. Once or twice they seized someone, usually a blond though it was difficult to tell any more at that distance, and hustled them off under guard. Anyone suspected of having Al Bhed blood, presumably.
"Too bad we didn't know about that escape tunnel before we got to Macalania temple," Cloud grumbled. "We could've used it to get in without anyone realizing we'd been there, and then they'd be guarding that temple like this."
"Unfortunately I doubt the passage can be opened from the outside," Sephiroth pointed out. "Otherwise it would be foolish to have the entrance near the Chamber of the Fayth, lest outsiders discover it and sneak in. Regardless, I believe Bevelle would still be guarded this well. It is the seat of Yevon's power, after all."
"Yeah, you're probably right," Zack admitted. "Are you two sure he has to go in there? I mean, he's got all the other aeons. Isn't there a story that there used to be an extra one, a temple somewhere in the Calm Lands, that got destroyed?"
"The Lost Fayth, yes," Sephiroth nodded. "Records do indicate that hundreds of years ago there was another stop on the Summoner's Journey, but the temple was desecrated and the statue was either stolen or damaged beyond repair, stories vary. Either way, the aeon was lost and is no longer part of the journey."
"Let me guess," Cloud said, sighing. "Al Bhed destroyed it."
"That is the most common theory, yes," Sephiroth said. "I believe it was during another of their attempts to stop the Summoners from making their journeys. It does seem to be a common theme among their beliefs."
"And they wonder why the Spirans resent and fear them so much." Cloud shook his head, a little disgusted at both halves of his heritage at the moment. Not that it meant he thought the Spirans had the right to be rounding up the Al Bhed at swordpoint, but still. The Al Bhed couldn't claim to be entirely blameless in this mess.
The problem really was that plenty of individual Al Bhed were, in fact, completely blameless. But they were suffering for the actions of a few fanatics. Actions that might not even have been entirely in the wrong to start with.
Was there really no end to this disaster at all? Were they all doomed to just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, a never-ending rain of blood and suffering pouring over the world?
Grimacing, Cloud shook off his rapidly darkening thoughts. He was starting to get morbid. He'd already come up with one potential way of stopping all of this - becoming the High Summoner and proving that not all Al Bhed were evil. He needed to focus on that, not on how bad things were getting.
Unfortunately none of that had given him a brilliant idea about how to get through those well-guarded gates. "I kind of get the feeling that I really don't want to skip this part," he said. "Not going to a fayth that doesn't exist anymore is one thing. Deliberately not going to one just because it's a little difficult isn't going to go over well when I try to get the final aeon. Where is the temple, exactly? Could I, I don't know, get Jymavun to carry me over the city and drop me inside?"
"Unlikely. Physically possible, yes, but Bevelle has a guardian, a great flying worm called Evrae," Sephiroth said. "Even if Jymavun could carry all three of us, there is no way I can see that we could fight our way past it. And we would doubtless land in the centre of a troop of Crusaders and temple guards."
"Given the way they're searching people down there, Seph, I don't think we're going to be able to sneak in," Zack pointed out.
"They're searching civilians," Sephiroth agreed. "But not Crusaders and temple staff."
Zack's face lit up like Sephiroth had just described an absolutely genius plan to get them inside, but Cloud was still confused. And feeling a little left out, honestly, as he often did when his guardians seemed able to communicate without words. "What, you think we should steal uniforms and try to get in that way?" he hazarded a guess. "Do you really think that would work?"
"Not exactly," Sephiroth shook his head. "Stealing the uniforms runs the risk of someone finding those we stole them from, or noticing when they don't report in. But I do still have a few friends left in Bevelle, I believe."
"You think you can get Angeal to help, though?" Zack asked. "I mean, he is the head of the Crusaders, and they are kinda hunting us down at the moment, if you hadn't noticed. How are you even planning to get close to him?"
"Walk down there and give myself up, of course," Sephiroth said with no little humour, as Cloud gaped at him in horror. "Angeal has heard only the temple's side of the story. I am confident that I can get him to listen to me... and fairly certain that, having heard the entire story, he will be on our side. If not, you and Cloud will be free to continue on. And if this doesn't work, I do suggest that you continue past Bevelle, Cloud. I believe the fayth will understand and forgive you, given that you tried every plausible method to gain entry. Perhaps that has been the purpose of them testing you so harshly, to prepare you for the fact that you will not have carried out the full journey."
That hadn't occurred to Cloud, but it was certainly a possible explanation for the way the fayth had treated him each time. "All right," he agreed. "I feel like we have to make at least the one attempt, but I'll promise to keep going as long as you promise to do everything in your power to catch up with us."
Sephiroth gave him a tiny, crooked smile. "I could in good conscience do no less. Safe journey and may the blessings of Yevon go with you, Lord Cloud, Sir Zack. In case I do not manage to return."
"Hey, wait..." Zack protested, but Sephiroth was already gone, pushing himself over the edge of the ridge and sliding down the steeper side, rapidly approaching the guards on the trail below. "Damn it, he's as bad as you are," Zack swore as he watched the other guardian go. "Suddenly I feel sorry for Angeal and Sir Genesis. He must have been just as much of a handful as you are, if not more. C'mon, we need to get out of here before they send troops up to investigate where he came from."
They quickly made their way back down the trail towards Lake Macalania, turning off into the campsite they'd used the night before. It was a little clearing, sheltered from the main path by a thick screen of trees and bushes, accessible only from the tree path above. Crusaders looking for them could pass right by on the main trail a hundred feet away and never know they were there.
To pass the time as they waited for Sephiroth to return, Zack taught Cloud some of the basic Blitzball drills, coaching him until Cloud could kick the ball back and forth between them with relative ease. In return Cloud tried to expand Zack's limited Al Bhed vocabulary, since his guardian had repeatedly complained about not being able to understand conversations going on around him.
He was in the middle of attempting to correct Zack's truly horrible pronunciation, biting the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing, when Zack suddenly held up a hand and his eyes went grim. His other hand went to the hilt of his sword, and Cloud's laughter evaporated as his heart pounded in his chest.
A moment later he heard what had drawn Zack's attention - the sound of metal boots tramping along the path above them. "I'm telling you, there's a place near here where they could be hiding," he heard a male voice say faintly. "My cousin and I used to come out here to play, and there's a little space we turned into a kind of fort. There's only one way to get in, and no way to see it from the main path."
"What are the odds they'd have found the place, though?" another voice argued. "I mean, come on, we're way off our patrol route. We're gonna get in trouble if the sergeant finds out."
"Not if we catch the heretics first," the first voice said. "Now, where was the entrance? It was around here somewhere..."
Carefully Zack inched his sword out of its scabbard, easing it out so it wouldn't make any noise. Cloud fought the urge to hold his breath, forcing himself to breathe slowly and as quietly as possible instead, reaching inside for the power of his aeons and holding them at the ready. Maybe the Crusaders wouldn't find the entrance. Maybe their sergeant would come and get them in trouble before they made it this far. Maybe...
Too late, he realized their little fire was still burning, the light flickering brightly as night fell. He heard Zack's sharp intake of breath at the same time, and they both scrambled as quietly as possible to shove snow at it.
Too late. "Over here!" the second voice called urgently, from far too close above them. "I think I see light! Quick, call the Summoners!"
Grimly Zack and Cloud met each other's eyes, and then Zack moved to stand between Cloud and the entrance, sword raised. The moment the battle began, the noise would probably call a dozen other Crusaders and guards from all around. If there were other Summoners involved in the hunt, then Cloud's aeons wouldn't give them the edge they needed to escape.
But Cloud was damned if he wouldn't go down fighting.