Not that you're missing much yet, but I AM still plugging away at it. It will be finished someday. Just, uh, don't hold your breath. I apologize if the writing style changes along the way, it's very difficult to come back to something after so long. You'd think that would motivate me not to leave it hanging. *sighs*
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.
The heavy sound of booted feet on the wooden branch above them split, one of the Crusaders presumably going after the requested reinforcements. Zack looked back over his shoulder at Cloud. "Can you get the one running off before he reaches anyone else? Without attracting anyone else?" his guardian asked, voice a low whisper that barely reached Cloud.
A little helplessly, Cloud shrugged. Could he manage to stop someone he couldn't see, moving away from him at speed, without doing anything obvious and flashy enough to draw every Crusader for a league around? Well, he wouldn't know until he tried. He'd done other things with his Aeons that should have been impossible, largely because he didn't know they should be impossible. What was one more?
Zack seemed to feel that was good enough, or maybe it was just that he also realized the futility of the question, because he nodded sharply and moved swiftly into the trees near the entrance. He was so quiet that if Cloud hadn't been watching him he'd never have known the man was moving, somehow passing through the leaves and thick branches without making a sound.
Reaching inside himself for the power of his aeons, Cloud rapidly considered his choices. Jymavun and Eqeuh both had flashy summonings that were impossible to miss and would be visible to every Crusader in the area, leading the whole army straight down on top of them. This close to Lake Macalania, he had to assume the Crusaders would be outfitted with cold weather gear and fire spells, so Crejy probably wasn't the best choice.
That left one option, the aeon he was only marginally more willing to deal with than Eqeuh. Cloud swore he could hear the aeon laughing at him as he merged himself with its power.
Fire raced through his veins, and there was a deep rumbling that should have sounded like thunder but in no way could be mistaken for the signs of Eqeuh's summoning. Firmly Cloud held the image of what he wanted in his mind as he pulled on the energy, and though the ground shook subtly beneath him it didn't burst open to reveal Evned as it usually would have.
Instead the tremors raced away from him, heading for the path out of the glade. Zack had already engaged one of the Crusaders just a few feet up the first branch, swords ringing as they crashed together. An extra hard shake of the ground caused the branch to sway beneath the combatants, and somehow Zack managed to keep his feet as though he'd expected it, giving him a brief advantage over his opponent.
Then Cloud's consciousness flashed past them, rushing onwards to catch up to the Crusader who had run for help. The heavy metal armour the man wore was obviously slowing him down, and Evned caught him not too far along the branch. The rumbling increased and the earth beneath the tree shook, but instead of the usual explosion of rocks this time the aeon rose smoothly up, like a diver surfacing from water as the earth spilled away from his body.
The Crusader must have felt the tremors because he glanced over his shoulder and shouted in fright. Through the strange double vision Cloud shared with his aeons when he was controlling them directly, he saw the man's face go pale and his eyes widen, the knowledge of his own defeat shining in them even as he swept his sword around in a futile attempt to defend himself.
Evned's regular fire spells were far stronger than the equivalent spell cast by even the most powerful black mage, but his unique fire attack was absolutely devastating. Cloud didn't realize how devastating until the aeon unleashed it and the Crusader was literally incinerated, turning to ash before his eyes as the sparkles of pyreflies rose from the place where his body had been a moment before.
Vaguely Cloud heard a scream of terror and denial, and even more vaguely he was aware that the sound had come from his own throat, but most of his awareness was still tangled with the aeon's and so he felt a surge of satisfaction and triumph as well. The combination made him sick to his stomach, and some of that must have resonated through their bond because Evned grumbled at him in irritation.
Worse, although the massive branch that formed the path had withstood the attack better than fragile human flesh, there was a huge charred patch and the edges had burst into flame. Smaller branches and leaves nearby were withering in the heat as the moisture was sucked out of them, and a few began to catch fire as well. Horrified, Cloud realized that the entire forest might just burn to the ground if the result of Evned's attack was left to run unchecked.
He didn't even consciously dismiss the aeon, just reached instead for Crejy's power within himself. There was a brief struggle for dominance, and then ice crackled into being around Evned's body, encasing him in a split second. When the giant crystal burst again a moment later, it was Crejy who stood there in frozen splendour.
She took in the situation at a glance, her brow creasing in annoyance that Cloud felt through their bond, and snapped her fingers. Just as it had in the fire pit in Kilika's temple, more ice formed abruptly all over the burning branch, dousing the fires instantly. They both waited a moment to see if any of the surrounding dried branches would smoulder into flame, but when nothing further happened Crejy nodded once, satisfied, and dissipated into pyreflies.
Cloud was slammed back into full awareness of his own body, and the churning nausea in his gut tripled in strength as he became fully conscious of it. He just barely had time to lean over before he was violently ill, stomach heaving again and again as the memory of the look on the Crusader's face in the instant before the flame hit played over and over again in his mind's eye.
When he'd thought that Eqeuh had killed Zack he'd still been caught mostly in the grip of the aeon's power, and even afterwards the shock and grief had been overpowering. This was different, less personal but more horrifying in its very impersonality. He had just killed a man, a Spiran, ripped him apart down to the very core and scattered his soul in bright sparkles across the forest. Somewhere out there was probably someone, maybe several someones, who would mourn the man as intensely as Cloud had mourned for Zack, who would be just as heartbroken and shattered as he had felt then. He had done that, in the flash of an instant, in the briefest burst of his aeon's power.
Small wonder the priests and maesters of Yevon condemned any Summoner who turned on the peoples of Spira instead of the fiends. It was an abomination, a disgusting horror. And yet, what choice had he had?
Two things slowly made it through the nausea and shock. The first was a quiet sense of warmth deep inside him, which he identified after a moment as Jymavun and Crejy attempting to comfort him. He could feel their puzzlement at his reaction and their indifference to the death, so the attempt fell somewhat flat even as it made him shiver at the reminder that the aeons - and the fayth - were utterly alien and didn't view life and reality in the same way as corporeal beings.
The second thing was a cool sensation against the heat of his face and a soft voice murmuring in his ears. "Hey, it's okay, everything is all right," the voice said - Zack's voice, but gentler than Cloud could remember hearing it. "Just breathe, c'mon, deep breath in, there you go, now out again, that's it. And another, through the nose, it'll calm you down, I promise."
Reaching up with one trembling hand, Cloud discovered that the coolness was due to a bundle of cloth-wrapped snow that was being pressed against his cheeks and forehead. He took the snowpack from Zack and slid it around to the back of his neck instead, allowing him to look up at his guardian without losing the soothing sensation entirely.
Zack was looking back at him with sympathy written large on his expressive face. "Really, it's okay," his guardian said again. "No, don't be ashamed," he added, reaching out with strong fingers to catch Cloud's chin and prevent him from lowering his eyes. "There's no shame in reacting to death. More shame if you don't react, especially the first time. That was your first kill, wasn't it? First non-fiend, I mean."
Miserably Cloud nodded, unable to form words yet. Zack seemed to read the emotions in his expression anyway. He patted Cloud on the shoulder. "Most people are sick, the first time they kill someone," the older man told him. "Or if not actually sick, at least badly shaken. I was, you know. Threw up all over my partner, too. He was a Crusader on his third tour of duty, I can tell you, he wasn't exactly impressed by me. Said afterwards that it wasn't because I'd thrown up, just because I'd done it all over the only uniform he had that didn't need mending."
"You never did," Cloud croaked, disbelieving. Zack? Throwing up all over someone? Cloud couldn't picture it at all. Even in the worst situations, his guardian always seemed to be calm and cool and in control. Maybe not to Seph's level... and he certainly couldn't imagine Lord General Sephiroth being sick at his first kill, either.
"May Sin take me and turn me into a fiend if I lie," Zack swore solemnly. "It gets better, as horrible as that is to say. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe if we all got sick with the horror of it every time, there would be less strife and chaos in the world. But it does, so try to remember this moment. Don't forget how it felt this first time, and try not to ever let it become easy even if it does get easier. That's what separates the good men who are doing what is necessary from the killers, or at least, that's what Angeal told me. And I believe it."
"You've... killed a lot of people?" Cloud asked, surprised. Given Zack's reaction to the thought of Cloud turning his aeons against the mob of Spirans that had attacked them, he'd thought for sure that Zack had never killed anyone before. Granted, he hadn't hesitated to attack the Al Bhed on the ship, and now that Cloud thought about it some of them had doubtless been killed in the fighting, though he hadn't been aware of it in the chaos at the time. "But these were Spirans," he added, just in case that was the distinction.
"I've killed people from every race, including Spirans," Zack told him, shocking him. "What, did you think the Crusaders were only for fighting fiends? In the Calm, there aren't really many monsters to fight, you know. A squad or two in each city could handle things, if it were only that. They serve as law enforcement as well. I've fought raiders and highwayman, robbers and killers. It's true that you've shown me I'm not as good at being upset about other races as I am about Spirans," he added, clearly ashamed by the admission. "But even so, that first kill, the one I threw up over, that was a Ronso."
Taking Cloud by the upper arm, Zack helped him to his feet and urged him away from the mess he'd made, pushing him against a tree trunk to rest for a moment. Then Zack went back and started kicking dirt over the small puddle, covering the scent and sight of it. "I have to admit I got over that first kill pretty quickly, but then again, the Ronso was a rogue who had slaughtered a mixed Guado and Spiran travelling group that had passed through his territory the month before, so I could only feel so bad. This... this is the kind of killing that sticks with you a long time in your nightmares, though. These guys hadn't done anything to deserve this; they were just doing their job, in the wrong place at the wrong time."
He sighed and glanced to one side, and only then did Cloud realize there was a bloody, mangled body lying in a heap at the side of the entrance. He swallowed hard as his gorge threatened to rise again, and hastily turned away from the sight of it.
"You stay there and recover," Zack told him, probably seeing the way he'd turned green again. "I'll bury this poor bastard. He deserves better, but it's the least we can do. Thankfully they were way off their patrol route, so when they vanish nobody will be looking in this area for them. Doesn't seem like the battle attracted anyone else, either, so you'll have a chance to rest."
"No, I'll help," Cloud insisted, a little hoarsely but as firm as he could manage. He was unsteady on his feet when he pushed away from the tree, but not so much that he wouldn't be able to dig. "You're right, it's the least we can do. No, wait, shouldn't we Send him? The... the other one, he... well, there's nothing to bury. I saw the pyreflies, at least, so he's moved on to the Farplane."
"I can't Send anybody," Zack said, shrugging. "And it could be a while before Seph gets back, we can't leave him out in the open that long, it'll attract the fiends. Do you think you could do it?"
"Uh..." Cloud looked doubtfully at the body, and around at the tiny space available in the clearing. He didn't think he could manage anything close to the graceful dance of blade and body Sephiroth had used to Send the dead in Besaid. But maybe he didn't have to. Maybe it was just a matter of releasing the soul from the body, so it could travel on to the Farplane before it had a chance to fester and become resentful of the living.
If that was the case, then what had worked for the Crusader he'd killed should work for this one as well, even though he was already dead. "Stand back," Cloud cautioned Zack, and reached inside himself once more.
Evned surged to the forefront, eager to be released again. Cloud would have preferred Jymavun's gentler power of light, but her summoning would still draw too much attention to them. Reluctantly he called on Evned, and the ground shook once more as the aeon burst through it to stand beside him.
Cloud consulted briefly with his aeon through their wordless mental connection. Evned hadn't had time to regenerate enough power for the same attack that had vaporized the other Crusader, it turned out. But a third level fire spell worked well enough, burning the body to ash and releasing the pyreflies.
"Huh," Zack said, looking bemused as he watched the fire. "In Kilika we burn our dead during the Calm if there isn't a Summoner around to perform a Sending, sort of a way of dedicating the souls to the fayth and keeping the bodies from rotting at the same time. I don't think I've ever seen pyreflies, though. Maybe it has to be done by a Summoner. Or maybe this is just your way of doing the Sending. Seph did say it's different for every Summoner."
"Great. One more way fire can be inextricably linked to my life," Cloud sighed. "At least it means I have a way of doing it. Not that I think anybody will be asking me, but something tells me this may not be the last dead Crusader or priest I have to deal with. Now what?"
"Now we rest and do our best to recover," Zack said, clapping him on the shoulder once more and tugging him away from the ashes that were all that was left of the body. "I know you don't think you want to, but you should eat and sleep, you need the energy and it will help with the shock."
"How long should we wait for Seph?" Cloud asked as they headed back towards their own, completely ordinary and un-supernatural fire. His stomach churned at the thought of food and he couldn't imagine he'd ever be able to sleep again without dreaming of the look on the Crusader's face as he'd died, but Zack seemed to know what he was talking about when it came to this sort of thing, so he supposed he'd just have to try.
"If he's not back by mid-morning, we should head out," Zack said after a long moment of silence. "If he hasn't managed to convince Angeal by then, he's not going to. We can take the trail around Bevelle and head straight for the Calm Lands, and then you know your way around well enough from there to avoid the well travelled - and patrolled - routes, right?"
Cloud nodded, but his thoughts weren't on the Calm Lands just yet. "Do you really think he'll be able to convince the head of the Crusaders to help us?" he asked, settling gingerly back into a hollow near the fire. "I mean, the Crusaders aren't exactly our friends at this point. We've done an awful lot to alienate them, specifically. Beyond just what we've done to make all of Spira mad at me, I mean."
"Angeal's a good guy," Zack said softly, his eyes distant as he sat as well. "Sometimes he gets a little too caught up in his honour, but he's one of the best people I know. And Seph's important to him, they're really close, despite everything that's happened in the ten years since Angeal guarded Seph. If anyone in Bevelle will help us, it's Angeal... and if anyone can convince him to do it, it's Seph."
"I'm trying to decide if that's actually reassuring or not," Cloud said wryly. "Since it also means if this doesn't work out, we have no other options."
"No point in worrying about an opposing goal before it's scored," Zack insisted. "Eat up, and then get some rest. I'll take first watch; you're still exhausted from everything earlier."
"And you're not?" Cloud retorted. Zack was right, though, he was completely exhausted. As always, it seemed, visiting one of the fayth left him absolutely shattered afterwards, and that was without even accounting for the energy drain of summoning three times in a short space. Nightmares or not, sleep was probably inevitable at this point. And if everything went according to plan, he was going to have to face Bevelle's Trial tomorrow.
What would Bevelle's fayth have in store for him? Spirit, courage, control, resolve... what else could they test?
He was more than a little afraid to find out.
The clattering of armour woke him in the early hours of the morning. Disoriented, Cloud flailed, trying to remember where he was and why it was bad that he'd been asleep. He could see the faint light of false dawn through the trees. Had Zack not woken him for his turn on watch? But Zack was just as exhausted as he was...
Too late he remembered that Zack had woken him, just as a pair of armour-clad Crusaders slid down the last of the branches into their campsite. Apparently Cloud had fallen asleep again, dozing off sitting up against a tree trunk, and now they were both going to be captured for his inattention. "Zack," he shouted, franticly snatching at his sword. "Zack! Wake up!"
His short blade wasn't going to do much against trained and armoured Crusaders, he realized. He reached for the power inside him, but all of his aeons slid away from him in a way they'd never done before, refusing to allow him to summon them.
He had just one moment to panic before he understood why, as one of the 'Crusaders' flipped up his helmet visor and revealed himself to be none other than Sephiroth. "It's all right, Cloud," his guardian assured him. "You're not under attack."
On the other side of the clearing, Zack sighed and slung his sword across his back again. "Geez, Seph. Way to give me a heart attack. Angeal, is that you?"
"Who else would it be?" a deep voice asked, and the second Crusader pulled off his helmet to reveal a man roughly Sephiroth's age. He had dark hair and a grizzled face that looked like it had seen plenty of battles. He actually looked like Zack a bit, though Cloud thought it was more a similarity of colouring and stance than any family resemblance.
The stranger was studying him just as intently, he realized with a blush. "So," Sir Angeal, head of the Crusaders, said. "This is the Summoner who has all of Spira in an uproar? You didn't mention he was just a boy, Seph."
"Not so very much younger than we were, when we set off on our journey," Sephiroth murmured, moving forward to stir up the dying embers of the fire. "A fair bit less sheltered than I had been, it could be argued, though admittedly less trained."
"And with two powerful guardians utterly devoted to him despite all protests," Angeal murmured, an oddly haunted look in his eyes. "One a trained Crusader, and the other a Summoner candidate himself. I'd almost accuse you of setting it up, except I know you've never been the sort for pranks or cruel jokes."
"The similarities had not escaped me," Sephiroth said, and Cloud had never heard him sound so dry. "You needn't point them out, thank you. Regardless, his journey is far more than just a reflection of my own. We certainly never needed to deal with anything approaching this level of hostility and prejudice from the populace, let alone the temples."
"That much is true. Forgive me, Lord Cloud... I don't mean to suggest that I doubt Lord Sephiroth's word, but may I see you summon for myself?" Angeal addressed Cloud, suddenly formal. "If you need to, we can hunt a fiend, I'm sure there are some about..."
"That's not necessary," Cloud murmured, and held out his hand. This time when he reached inside him, the aeons came immediately to his call. He tried to pretend he wasn't relieved, even as he let Crejy's icy power flow through him and out through his extended hand.
The ice crystal formed just past the tips of his fingers, growing rapidly in size as the facets cleared to reveal the woman slumbering within. The sound of it shattering rang in the clearing, and when Cloud blinked frost from his lashes he saw the aeon standing next to him.
He hadn't realized until that moment just how tall she was. Inhuman in every sense of the word, for all that she was shaped like one, she towered over even Sephiroth. He could feel waves of cold coming from her blue skin, as if all the coldness in the world was trapped inside her and radiated outwards as it leaked from her pores.
"Well. You haven't lost a fragment of your beauty, Tiphereth," Angeal said, making the bow towards her. She smiled down at him, the crackle of her laughter ringing in the small space like the tinkle of falling icicles. "Ah, forgive me, I suppose you have another name...?" he glanced at Cloud, one eyebrow raised in inquiry.
Cloud had to stifle a laugh of his own. The expression was exactly the same as the one Sephiroth used for the same purpose. He wondered which of them had picked it up from the other, or if they'd developed it at the same time. "Her name is Crejy," he said, and released her with a wave of his hand. She blew him a kiss, then vanished in another shower of ice and snow.
"Crejy?" Angeal barked a laugh. "Al Bhed for Shiva. You're just determined to be heretical at every turn, aren't you?"
Blushing, Cloud ducked his head. Sephiroth had never said anything about the names of his aeons, so it hadn't actually occurred to him that other people would realize what they meant. "I don't exactly name them myself, Sir Angeal. Their names just... are inside me, somehow, when I gain their power. But yes, I figure if I'm going to be a heretic, I might as well be as much of one as I can be. There won't be much point in an Al Bhed becoming High Summoner if the priests can pretend that I was Spiran, afterwards."
"Is that why you're doing it? To end the conflict between our peoples?" Angeal asked him, his voice mild, but his eyes sharp.
"Between my peoples... I'm half Spiran," Cloud corrected him. He hesitated, then admitted, "I have a lot of reasons for doing it. Most of them aren't exactly noble. A lot of them don't really feel very important any more. At this point I just... have to. I have to finish what I started." He looked at Sephiroth and Zack, then touched his chest where he could feel the power of the aeons glowing within him. "A lot of people believe in me, and I won't let them down."
"Spoken like a true Summoner," Angeal said, apparently satisfied. "Stupidly selfless and aggravatingly cryptic all at once. For the record, I am here as Seph's former guardian, not as the head of the Crusaders. Although the Crusaders don't technically report to the temple, in all honesty I think I'd have a riot on my hands if I tried to go against the temple's orders right now. They've quite thoroughly vilified you."
"Great. Just what I needed to hear. So what are we doing?" Cloud looked at Sephiroth's uniform."I was right about stealing the uniforms and sneaking in, wasn't I?"
"Not at all," Angeal assured him. "I have every right to requisition these uniforms. It's not stealing in any way."
"Sneaking, however, is probably the correct verb," Sephiroth added, completely blank faced.
Zack snickered, and Cloud shook his head and threw up his hands. At the same time, he had to bite his lip on a snicker of his own. Angeal seemed so serious, he hadn't expected the man to have a sense of humour. Then again he'd been equally surprised the first time Sephiroth had teased him, and it was very much a similar sort of humour.
By the time they had all the gear on, the sun was fully up and the frosty air was starting to warm. Zack and Sephiroth were completely at ease in the armour, of course. Cloud was used to wearing lots of layers, but not to clothes that refused to bend in certain ways. He felt like he was clanking around and looked like a total imposter.
It didn't help that Zack was quietly trying not to laugh at him, one gauntleted hand over his mouth and his eyes sparkling over it. "Well, we'll just say you're a new recruit," he said quickly when he saw Cloud glaring at him. "There's always plenty of them clomping around, and I'd imagine recruitment is way up with Sin coming back."
"Yes, and there are large concentrations of them in Bevelle for training," Angeal confirmed. "Just keep your helmets on and visors down. You're all too recognizable for your own reasons. Stay close to me as we go through the gates, but once you're in the city you're on your own. Remember, if you're caught after we separate, there is little I'll be able to do to help you in an official capacity, so don't take any risks. Let's go."
They scrambled back up the branches to get out of the clearing. Cloud was embarrassed that he needed help from his guardians, unable to easily climb the trees with all the heavy metal on him. Once on relatively level ground he did a little better, but he found that he tired quickly.
By the time Bevelle's gates came into view, he was panting and sweating hard. The close confines of the helmet felt suffocating, and the air inside stank of old sweat and blood and less appealing things that he was trying not to identify. He desperately wished he could lift the visor and get just a brief gulp of fresh air, but he didn't dare.
With Angeal at the head of the group they were passed through the gates with no problems. They found themselves faced with a long corridor that, incongruously enough, had a river running along the center of it. Cloud understood why when he saw a shallow boat filled with people being poled along it, moving much faster than the scattered people walking along either side. He had to mentally shake his head. Trust the followers of Yevon to construct an entrance to the city so ridiculously grandiose that it required special transportation to make it feasible for use on a regular basis. He would never understand their apparent driving need to constantly prove how great and mighty they were to everyone around them.
After the second set of gates Angeal stepped aside, and Sephiroth paused to salute him by banging one fist to his breastplate, as Cloud had seen other Crusaders do. Zack followed suit and Cloud scrambled to do the same, and he thought he'd managed to at least do a half-credible job of echoing the gesture.
Angeal returned the salute with a solemn nod. "You three, head for the temple," he ordered them in a no-nonsense tone of command. "You're to relieve the squad stationed inside. Keep a sharp eye out for anything out of place. The rogue Summoner was last seen leaving Macalania Temple, and he's undoubtedly headed this way."
"Understood, sir," Sephiroth said, his deep voice muffled by the helmet. "Squad, move out." He made one of those gestures with his hand that was obviously meant to be a visual command, fist raised beside his head and then gesturing forward, and set off at a trot. Zack followed in perfect step with him, and Cloud clattered along behind them, trying his best to keep pace and failing miserably most of the time.
As the enormously vast city swallowed them up, Cloud glanced around surreptitiously. He tried hard not to gawk openly at the city around him, but it was difficult. Bevelle was huge, much bigger than Luca, and the buildings were both older and more ornate. There was hardly a square inch of undecorated surface that he could see, be it street, wall or rooftop. Crusaders and temple guards and priests were everywhere, in fact he didn't see a single person who didn't fall into one of those categories.
Swallowing hard, he edged a little closer to Sephiroth, determined not to get lost. If he was caught here, impersonating a Crusader, he had a feeling it would go very, very badly for him.