They faced each other.
Black and red.
Blade and gun.
SOLDIER and Turk.
Sephiroth held Masamune in a two-handed grip at his shoulder, point-forward. Vincent kept Cerberus trained on a point between silver-white forelocks.
The sky was a black cloak above them, and they stood in a ring of fire-- which had once been a town square.
Now it was littered with corpses: men, women, children. A few still groaned where they lay-- Sephiroth having chosen a slower, more painful end for them. Smoke boiled up from the buildings, rank with the smell of burning flesh.
I have awoken in the seventh circle of hell, the ragged gunman thought. It was more amazing that he had awoken at all. No sound reached him, and no fire disturbed the dust of the Shinra basement. Yet he had known something was wrong: his dreams, usually filled with his own strangled screams, had changed to visions of an inferno, and his howling was chorused by a thousand voices. Gold fingers slid around the edge of a coffin lid and Vincent rose, staggering free of his vault, to find and fight the nightmare in the city beneath.
He was too late to save anyone.
But not too late to find who was responsible.
Sephiroth moved first, leaping lightly and high, closing the distance between them. A shot deflected off Masamune, and then blade met gun with a clang. You look familiar. Have we met? the silver-haired man asked, his face mere inches from Vincents.
I knew your mother. Blood red eyes stared into burning mako.
And seeing you like this means more nightmares will come to me now. More than I previously had.
I suppose it would be hoping too much for you to mean Jenova, Sephiroth replied. Using both will and magic, he forced the gun free of his sword, hurtling Vincent backward into the remains of a house.
The house, which had already been burning, exploded. For an instant, Sephiroth thought there might have been a chemical line hidden underneath-- Shinra occasionally piped chemicals under the villages that maintained mako reactors-- but as the building crumbled, he saw that where the red-cloaked man had fallen, there was now a purple-skinned beast with thick, curving claws and yellow quills sprouting from its spine.
The beast hurled blazing orbs at him, which Sephiroth evaded easily, feeling only warmth and a rush of air whipping his silver-white hair-- until a rending explosion sounded behind him.
Apparently there was a pipeline under one of these buildings, and a fresh column of black smoke rolled upward, blotting out the starry darkness. The general turned just in time to slash through a twisted metal shard that came whirring through the air toward his head.
When he looked up again, the purple creature was gone.
Ah, yes, I remember now, he said to the burning town square. You were the experiment in observation room five. Ive read your file.
A black shadow rolled between flames. A flash of fire. Sephiroth saw the bullet coming directly toward his left eye. Glowing eyes were not always an advantage, particularly when fighting a sharpshooter as skilled as this one. He jumped, twisting out of the way and pivoting in the air to land on the roof of a burning house. Vincent appeared a moment later, his red cape leaping like the fire that surrounded them. The two figures faced each other: shadow and flame.
It would seem Lucrecias experiments were successful after all, then, Sephiroth said. More or less.
Red eyes narrowed, reflecting the light of the inferno. I know your story as well, Sephiroth. You are the sin I could have prevented-- the child I failed. I could have saved you.
You Turks, he replied. Always giving yourselves too much credit.
Flames licked between holes in the shingling of the house. Vincent kept the triple-barreled shotgun level with Sephiroths head and Sephiroth kept his sword ready before him, mako-bright eyes gleaming on either side of Masamunes edge. They began to circle one another slowly, finding footing amid the dancing fires. To one side, smoke boiled upward, on the other, the side of the building dropped away.
Vincent gauged the general before him. Why have you done this? His words were slow, bloodless lips painstakingly enunciating each one.
I would think that you, of all people, would know the answer to that.
Is it because of what Hojo did to you?
I know what they were planning for you: mako injections, inhalations, psych batteries, starvation . . . aside from Hojos beatings.
An expression akin to a flinch flickered across Sephiroths cool features, like a hairline crack appearing in porcelain. Dont be absurd, Valentine. He spoke without inflection. I wasnt helpless, not even there. I learned a great deal from Hojo: how to be impervious to pain, how to be-- objective-- about death, what to say and how to say it-- good practice for leadership. So theres no need to trouble your beleaguered conscience on that account. Im quite grateful for my upbringing. His voice was clinical and detached, cutting like slivers of obsidian.
Because I am hells dark harbinger. The calamity from your midst . . . Because I have orders to take this planet back from you worthless fools for the Cetra. That is what gives all my life to this point meaning.
As he spoke he swung his blade up over his head and brought it down hard in a downward slash. The edge drove straight through the roof, and fire burst up from the new breach, but Vincent was already gone, leaping across an alley to a shops rooftop.
He spun around to face the general. The Cetra? What are you talking about?
Ah, you think that because my parents were Hojo and Lucrecia-- yes, I read that, too-- that I am no true Ancient. The alley formed a chasm between them. The long, slim blade rested in Sephiroths grasp; he was a silver-haired reaper, Masamune sickle-sharp in his hand. There was no tension in Sephiroths stance, but Vincent knew his opponent was ready for action.
Valentine, Sephiroth explained, for fourteen years I listened to Lucrecia blubber to Hojo to let her see her son. He would laugh. Now I know what was so damn funny-- I was right in front of her the whole time, and she didnt even recognize me. A good mother would have known-- even if they did change my birthday on the records, even if I did grow unnaturally fast, even if I didnt happen to look like her . . . And my real mother does know me for what I am: a power beyond anything you can imagine. She has adopted me, saved me from the death that awaits you all. With an effortless leap, the general sprang from his perch. Vincent fired, but Sephiroth twisted between the bullets-- almost as an afterthought. The roof crunched at the impact of his landing, but did not give way. The former general turned toward the former Turk, red fire casting lurid shadows over pale features. They faced-off again: red and gold, silver and black. Vincent waited in a tense crouch; Sephiroths coat swirled around him in waves of liquid darkness, like hot tar. Mother has shown me her vision for the world-- a world empty of life-- a fit chariot for a queen. Now I see: all the codes of honor I obeyed in Wutai are nonsense-- rules made up by children to make their war games less frightening. This-- what Mother was says-- is the only thing that makes sense. I will cleanse this world of the festering disease of human life. Destroy all the Hojos and the Lucrecias until there is nothing left: only Mother and I-- and I will be the dark god of a dead world.
Then its true what I dreamed about you: you have gone insane.
Insane? Hardly. Why would you call it insane? Werent you one of those who protested the use of mako-energy? Said it was time to stop the Planets wound. What could be wrong with draining the wound and cauterizing it? If I dont destroy you all, Vincent, there will eventually be another Shinra. Humans wont give up their precious mako-technology just because it wounds the Planet. I will make sure you never have the chance. Wipe this world clean-- of you, of your dead souls in the Lifestream-- and start again. You have nothing to fear. You will all be reborn-- as part of me.
You are talking about destroying the world.
Im talking about remaking the world. Now get out of my way. Im going to see my mother.
The blade swung toward him again, and this time Vincent leapt to meet it. He dodged the slash and gold talons flashed out, but Sephiroth parried, the edge clashing on the gold forearm. Two pairs of experiment-enhanced eyes glared at each other over the edge of the blade.
Vincent raised Cerberus, but Sephiroth seized him by the wrist, still holding Masamune steady between them.
Hes keeping me at bay with one hand, Vincent thought. This is-- bad.
Again their faces were only inches away, and again Sephiroth spoke, lower this time-- not needing to raise his voice over the crash of crumbling timbers-- and the softness accentuated the contempt in his voice.
Shinra made me and feared their creation-- and they did well to fear. Their experiment succeeded: they created a true Cetra. But you
what are you, Valentine? A sorry patchwork of undead flesh-- flesh that cannot survive without technology. And just beneath the surface I see a blind, brute beast waiting to surface. His lip curled. They made you more human than ever. He spoke the word like a curse.
I have no wish to fight you, Vincent said, twisting his arm in an attempt to aim. What would I gain by defeating the son of that beloved woman?
Yes, I loved your mother.
Vincent didnt answer, but the corner of his lip ticed and his grip on Cerberus tightened. It was not the contempt in Sephiroths voice that angered him, but the perfect sincerity. This was not a taunt, but rather a disdainful, imperious, Whatever for?
Ah, of course, Sephiroth answered his own question. Youre both cowards. She spent her whole life terrified of Hojo, of me, of herself. And you are a coward, too, Vincent. You fight with a cowards weapon. Weakness, not my creation, is your sin. Had you been a little less craven, and a little more-- inclined to vice-- you could have killed Hojo and taken Lucrecia for yourself, Sephiroth said. Or at least killed Lucrecia for spurning you. But no. Your brilliant solution was to lock yourself in lead for thirty years. You were made for each other. Sephiroth brought his knee up and drove it into Vincents stomach, even as he released the human wrist. Vincent reeled backwards and landed heavily on the shingles.
The roof caved under his feet.
He twisted as he fell, evading flames, and kicked off a roof beam-- propelling himself through a blazing wall. He tucked and rolled, like a ball of fire himself, tumbling into the street.
The beam crunched under the force of his kick, and the roof collapsed, but Sephiroth was already running, running down the vertical side of the wall, spilling down the wall like ink. He swung Masamune up and around, and the blade descended toward the ragged gunmans head. Vincent blocked with his metal forearm-- silver and gold clanged together. They faced each other at an odd angle, Sephiroth still standing on the wall, Vincent holding back death with his gold arm.
Vincent brought Cerberus up and fired, but Sephiroth saw the motion and twisted so the bullet bounced off his metal shoulder pauldron. Get out of my sight, he said, changing the angle of his force and using the blade to pitch Vincent backwards. The man in red tumbled twice in the air and crashed through the window of a burning shop.
Sephiroth was behind him in a flash, clearing the doorway in two steps.
He paused once inside, standing amid the flames with his silver head inclined to one side, listening to the dark voice drumming in his brain.
You have to kill them now. You have to kill them now. You have to kill them now.
Again and again, like steady rain, like a faucet dripping blood. Mothers voice slithered gracefully through his mind and made him smile to himself. She did make it difficult to concentrate sometimes, particularly over the last days, while he had been trying to read the Ancients manuscripts. Always the same phrase: You have to kill them now. You have to kill them now. You have to kill them now.
She had startled him at first. More than startled him. The sensation was something beyond simple fear. For a moment, he-- trained SOLDIER and General of SOLDIERS that he was-- was aware only of the shallowness of his breath, and of the cold spiders crawling up his spine. A literal chill going up his back.
You have to kill them now.
It had happened so suddenly. Just a single look at those bloated, twisted monstrosities, denied even death -- and he heard her. Some human was talking to him, and he was responding, but all he could hear was: You have to kill them now.
Hours turned into days, and he sat among the dusty tomes arranged like little headstones in the Shinra library, and the soft voice became less and less an affliction and more and more a soothing melody. Mother sang to him like the whispering of flames, a lullaby from a true mother.
You have to kill them now. You have to kill them now. You have to kill them now.
Yes, Mother. Thank you. I will.
A crash sounded to his left, but it was nothing-- only weakened beams collapsing in on themselves. Sephiroths eye caught the more important movement to his right: Vincent springing through a paneless window and into the street behind the shop. He needed neither door nor window to pursue him. Instead, he cut a slash through the wall, and rushed after him into the night.
Vincent was waiting for him.
Ting. Ting. Tang!
Three bullets deflected off the thin blade. Sephiroth raced along the houses walls, running on vertical wood and stone as if it were a floor. Even so, this gave him only a slight advantage, because Vincent found footing effortlessly and bounded from foothold to foothold-- firing as leaped. The two figures dodged and rolled through the air, their movements limited only by the purchase they found on burning buildings and, occasionally, the ground. They sprang off flaming wood and blood-slick pavement, dancing a fatal ballet.
The sharpshooters robe snapped around him like a ragged standard: a blood-colored weight on his head and shoulders. Sephiroths trench coat fluttered like ravens wings and a black X secured his heart.
And his face . . .
The Sephiroth who stood before Vincent now was like a blade himself, each perfect, icy feature curving gently into the next. So calmly cold, so unperturbably, unselfconsciously wicked. His features were locked in a soldiers scowl-- a white death mask.
But for a moment, just a moment, even as he dodged a hail of blows, Vincent saw him in his minds eye: a child huddled in a corner, hugging his knees.
The gunmans bloodless features bore a sad, remote expression, almost-- preoccupied-- although his aim was sure and true as ever.
Sephiroth had never liked guns-- too many moving parts. A sword is always still, even as it slices through the air. The silver-haired generals combat was characterized by a deep, silent menace, an inner repose that neither hurried nor missed its chance.
They reached the city water tower, and the angle of their battle changed from horizontal to vertical as they fought amid the towers support-framework. Vincent landed on a joist, and blocked Masamune with the palm of his gold hand.
You dont seem to understand how merciful I am. Fire and steel make for clean, quick deaths.
Vincent replied with a blast from Cerberus, which Sephiroth had to sidestep to avoid. They broke apart, and Sephiroth pursued, raining down a flurry of sword strokes from all angles. One of the swings went wide, and sliced through a structural support. The tower gave a screeching groan, shuddering so violently that Vincent nearly lost his footing.
Sephiroths eyes glowed ghost green, and the right corner of his mouth twisted up in the parody of a smile. Vincent jumped backward and away, feeling a rush of air as the sword sang past. Masamune bit through fabric and into the beam behind him. As the man in red jumped free, he created a fresh tear in his tattered cloak. He swung Cerberus around as he jumped, but too late-- the blade was free. Sephiroth lunged, and Vincent leapt away again-- but this time, steel was waiting for him.
The smooth blade sliced through Vincents side, passing easily through two ribs and pinning him to a girder.
Vincent, let me tell you a little something about your Lucrecia, Sephiroth spoke almost gently as his shadow fell over the gunman. I could always tell if a treatment was going to be painful, because she would look away. Every time I was injected with mako, she stood off to the side, looking at her hands . . . As much as I hated Hojo, I hated her more. But now Mother is calling to me-- my real mother who loves me, Valentine, and understands me. She wants me to be everything I'm capable of being. Lucrecia could never dream of doing that.
Thats because she wanted something better for you! Vincent snapped, clutching the blade in his side with his metal hand.
Something better? Or something you can tame. His words twisted bitterly, and Vincent saw that this was a boy no longer, but a Shinra cutthroat with lizardine eyes and bone-white hair-- a drows hair. At last I know-- for a certainty-- I am not human. That is my greatest triumph, because every human has the capacity to become Hojo. But most are content to be Lucrecias. They shuffle through their lives, letting governments, or societies, or gods take responsibility for their actions-- letting others choose their destinies, choose who is valuable and who should be killed. They huddle together in their cowardice just as their ancestors did. He sneered. And they believe themselves innocent.
Vincent gripped his wound with his gold claw and red-- liquid, not cloth-- showed between the talons. He aimed, his hand shaking slightly, and fired again, but Sephiroth saw the gesture and jumped back, twisting Masamune as he did-- so that pain flooded the gunmans side. Sparks exploded in Vincents vision.
And his body began to change.
Something was waking in him. Something that could not, must not, be woken.
But his body was changing to the demon that lived within him.
A violent tremble wracked the man in the shredded cloak as his pallid face went--impossibly-- whiter. Then Vincents eyes snapped open. They were red no longer, but a burning yellow-green.
The tattered cloak swept up around him-- changing into enormous, tattered wings-- and the cloth of his turban wound into his black hair, becoming a series of raging, horn-like spikes.
The face remained the same, except for the eyes and teeth-- which were longer and sharper. But the facial expression was distorted: unrecognizable and unrecognizing.
Sephiroth held his position above him, crouched on one knee-- Masamune point forward, level with his shoulder. The creature gave a roar that sent Sephiroths white hair flying behind him.
Hmmph, Sephiroth replied, and he leaped to meet the creature in the air.
He jumped not a moment too soon, because even as he did so, the structural support where he had stood began to change, crumbling and shifting until it formed-- a face.
A hideous, blood-red demon face with eyes that flashed violet.
Skulls leaped up around it-- burning skulls that followed him as he tried to evade.
Any normal human would have been crushed by them instantly, but Sephiroth had an advantage: he could fly.
So could Chaos.
They met-- blade clanging on claws. Leather coat and leather wings flapped, and around them the burning skulls shrieked as they attacked.
Higher and higher they rose in a flurry of blows. The burning city grew smaller beneath them, becoming only a model village engulfed in flames. Nothing but sky and the smoke from the dying town surrounded them.
For Sephiroth, it was like fighting four enemies at once-- three of which were gallingly fast. He scored a glancing slash across Chaos chest, but had no chance to press the advantage because a burning head saw the opening and attacked.
He spun around just in time to slice the skull in half, and Chaos took advantage of his distraction and swiped at him with a heavy claw, tearing deep gashes in his chest. Sephiroth twisted out of the way of the blow, but as he did so, something struck him, solidly, in the back, stunning him and knocking the breath from his body.
The last skull hit his sword arm and pain lanced through him. It took him a moment to realize why.
Im on fire.
This was no natural fire-- it burned even him, blistering and blackening the skin.
Chaos dove for him again, but Sephiroth was ready this time and he swept the blade around in a flat sidearm slash with all his force behind it. A horizontal rent swept through Chaos wing.
But the blow took both hands, and the wings were tougher than they looked. The flames scorching his sword arm flared fiercely as they went out and Sephiroth screamed-- not in pain, but in rage, as Masamune fell from seared fingers.
The blade dropped end over end and wedged itself in the cobblestone street beneath.
Vincent, meanwhile, was changing. The wound to his wing, plus the completion of the skulls attack, weakened the Chaos form and it was shrinking, flapping its injured wing uselessly. Vincent seemed to have no control over the change, because he was turning back into his human shape-- a hundred feet in the air.
Both men were badly wounded, but Sephiroth knew himself to be stronger, and Vincent-- though he could leap like a gazelle-- could not fly.
Sephiroth collided with the other man in midair, driving his armored shoulder into Vincents chest, knocking the breath from him.
They tumbled together through the air-- black and red, streaming white hair tangling with cropped black.
Vincent kicked free, hurling himself away from Sephiroth. His back struck a cornice and he bounced, landing on his face on a cobbled road, cracking the stones beneath him.
Sephiroth turned in the air and landed on his feet on the water tower, but the impact smashed the tower's resevoir and the entire structure toppled with a metallic scream. Sephiroth rode the collapsing tower all the way to the ground, jumping away just before impact. He landed in a puddle of blood. As the tower struck the ground, water rushed out into the city square, dousing nearby flames, flowing over his boots and bathing the ex-Turk in blood and water, washing him with a dark baptism.
Sephiroths eyes swept the burning town, and he saw the place where Masamune had wedged itself in the street. Before he could make a move, however, a bloody red dragon leapt from the shadows and blocked his path.
Sephiroth laughed shortly. After all those experiments, and everything they took from you, you still manage to keep your Turkish pride. He considered his opponent. The other man still looked capable of jumping high and fast, even though his stance indicated pain on his left side, and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. Its a pity for you, really. If you were less self-absorbed, youd be less appalled by your own failings.
Even as he spoke, Mother began her healing ministrations. His charred fingers regrew bone and flesh, and the gashes on his chest knit together. In moments, he was whole again.
Vincent was not so lucky. But if Sephiroths display of unnatural healing cowed him, he never showed it. A faint smile twisted Sephiroths lips as he rushed Vincent, and the red-cloaked man met him in the air. The swordsmans hand flashed out and he seized Vincent by the front of his cloak and flung him to the ground, knocking Cerberus from his grasp. All in one swift motion, Sephiroth landed, wrenched his sword free, and swept his blade through Vincents side: a deep cut that went all the way to the stomach.
The blood at the corner of his mouth trailed in good earnest now, and Vincent fought to stand, or at least to keep himself upright. He crumpled to his knees. With a nudge from his boot, the silver-haired general laid Vincent out on his back.
Ego te absolvo, Valentine. You could not have prevented my creation any more than you could have prevented your own. He grasped Masamunes handle and forced it deeper into the ground, pinning Vincent through the gut like an insect on display.
Sephiroth sat down on the broken remains of a water towers support beam, resting for a moment. He closed his eyes languidly, like a comfortable cat, a slow, smug expression creeping over his face.
You have to kill them now.
Even with his eyes closed, he could see the purple afterimages of the town in flames, of Vincent gasping as he died, skewered by Masamune.
Have I done well, Mother?
A memory flashed into his mind of himself as a boy of thirteen, when he had snuck a look at one of his combat trainers reports. This particular trainer had been his favorite, pushing for his early inclusion in SOLDIER. The report read: Test subject Sephiroth combines an observant, serpentine cunning with the recklessness found in small children who have too-long been bullied. Then, penciled into the margin: For Gods sake, Shinra, end this madness. If you dont, you are training your own executioner.
How true. How very true, indeed.
Getting to his feet, he turned toward the reactor. He left his sword in the other Shinra experiment, not even glancing down as he stepped over him. Sephiroth seemed not to walk so much as glide as Mother guided him with her invisible arms. She would raise him aloft: a tall black candle lit with silver flame.
And now its time. Time to kill them now.
Vincent was drowning in his own blood, and the pain was so searingly intense he came near to fainting several times. Only Hojos experiments had been more painful, making him beg for death.
But now, as then, the gods were not finished with him.
He discovered he could mutate only slightly, letting the Galian beast purple his skin and rearrange his organs to a less-painful position. Inch by inch, he worked three feet of steel out of the ground behind him and through his bleeding body. When he finally freed his flesh from Masamune, he rolled over and buried the blade in the ground. Gasping and shaking, he climbed up the sword, using it to drag himself upright.
Have I failed? I have done all I can . . . Have I failed?
He tottered precariously on his feet, the ground swimming beneath him. His strength was gone, he had no materia, and he was closer to death than he had been in thirty years.
Perhaps . . . my delaying him helped someone else . . . Surely there are others seeking him.
He prayed that there were.
And acted as if there werent.
Using Masamune as a staff, Vincent dragged himself over to Cerberus and retrieved the gun. Each step was a fire in his gut, but he kept on. His gold-shod feet dragged in the dust as he turned his face toward the mako reactor.
A young, black-haired woman raced through the burning wreckage. Feverishly, she searched the faces of the dead and dying, calling for her father. She found him just outside the mako reactor, lying in a pool of blood and ash, a stained sword not far away.
She did not notice the line of oddly-shaped footprints that stopped beside her father, where someone had paused to aid the aged man. She did not notice the trail of blood drops leading to Masamune-- buried in stone. She did not notice the disturbance in the dust, where someone had crawled away on his hands and knees.
It would not have mattered if she had.
By the time he roused the aged man to the edge of consciousness, Vincent was more beast than man. And, like all beasts do when death is near, he crawled away to die.
A gold hand slid the lead coffin-lid closed and Vincent lay back in the cool darkness, waiting for an oblivion that never came.