[Shattered] Ice 39

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Shadow Flare

The airship landed on the outskirts of the crater with a heavy thump, managing to dislodge a few random boulders and sending them skittering downwards into the abyss. A crewmember lowered a rope ladder from the deck since it was more convenient than trying to exit through the cargo bay.

AVALANCHE gathered at the lip of the crater, looking down into the dark depths. At the bottom, they could see the greenish glow of the mako pool that had gathered there, and though they couldn’t see him, they assumed that Sephiroth rested somewhere beyond, just patiently waiting.

Unconsciously, they checked their equipment and materia.

Cid looked up from Jade Tiger to find that Vincent had pulled Cloud over to the side. They appeared to be discussing something important, and he was insanely curious as to what, especially since the former Turk hadn’t mention he was going to talk to their leader.

Shrugging and filing away the information for later use, Cid tore his gaze away from them and concentrated on making sure his stock of ethers and potions was just enough. He could not be too careful when it concerned a battle of this magnitude.

Moments later, Cloud and Vincent rejoined the group, their eyes falling on the depths beneath them. No one seemed too eager to get started. The aura of power and danger that radiated from the crater was making them all uneasy.

Reno swallowed noisily and then stepped back. “After you, yo,” he said, gesturing towards Cloud.

Mako eyes rolled as Cloud reached behind him for the Ultima Weapon, drawing his new sword smoothly. He raked his gaze over those surrounding him, mentally configuring a strategy. Not that he had any real knowledge in such matters, but they worked with what they had. They were counting on him, after all.

“I’ll take Nanaki and Cid and head out first. The rest of you can follow after us in another group.”

“Sounds good to me.” The pilot shrugged. He hefted the Venus Gospel over his shoulders and stuck a cigarette in his mouth, though he didn’t light it.

Cloud nodded. “Let’s head out.”

Three levels down and several battles later, they found themselves gathered together once again, facing an impasse. Two paths stood before them, splitting in completely opposite directions. It made them question whether or not Fate and Luck were on their side.

Yuffie tilted her head to the side, wrinkling her nose. “Should we split up?” she asked hesitantly, craning her neck to look down both trails. The left appeared to require a hell of a lot more climbing, and the right appeared foreboding, a wet breeze briefly coming from its dark depths.

Cloud shifted uncomfortably and glanced from one path to the other. Neither seemed more promising, and really, he couldn’t just choose one and waste valuable time and energy in the process. He exhaled with much annoyance before looking to Reno and Vincent for help. They were the only two he suspected knew anything about tactical military maneuvers.

“Sephiroth probably already knows we are here, yo,” the Turk offered. “We should split up. Save time and stuff.”

Vincent frowned, though it was barely visible behind the cloak. “That would mean separating our strength,” he mused aloud.

A gloved hand rubbed at Cloud’s chin. “You don’t think we are strong enough to handle being divided?” he asked, a note of tension to his voice.

The gunman shook his head. “No, but what happens if only one path leads to Sephiroth. Then, one team will be forced to face him at only half power?” he explained logically.

Reno scrubbed a hand through his hair. “If we spend too much time running around this crater like a bunch of idiots just trying to find him, Meteor will crash before we even get a chance to face Sephiroth in battle,” he put in, also making a valid point.

Cloud bit back a sigh. They were only going to go in circles if they kept putting forth their own points.

“What would you suggest then?”

The two Turks exchanged a glance, but it was Vincent who nodded.

“Divide us,” the gunman answered. “It will be hard, but it is the best option.”

The ex-SOLDIER groaned and crossed his arms, thinking deeply. The leader of the other team was an easy choice for him. He would go to the left, and he would have Vincent lead the others to the right. Cid had already expressed his intentions to never be leader again, so he wasn’t going to force it on the pilot. And while Reeve could probably handle it, he tended to buckle somewhat under the pressure.

Cloud wasn’t even going to consider Yuffie or Reno, even if the Turk was second-in-command to Tseng. Frankly, he worried about the Wutaiian’s judgment on any matter, and despite his strength, Nanaki had little to no experience in leading anyone. Aeris, of course, much preferred to be a follower.

The hardest part would be dividing their strengths equally, and his gaze shifted to the two paths for a moment as he considered.

Yuffie would head to the right, he decided. It seemed to require a good deal of climbing and stamina, and of them all, Yuffie was probably the most agile. Also, her accuracy with the shuriken would be an excellent addition, the long-range a good compliment to his swordsmanship.

He eyed Reeve and decided that it would be best if the man went with Vincent. Cloud wasn’t sure if Reeve was really built for climbing. Besides, he was probably the best out of all of them for throwing out magic, and he always seemed to know what was useful and what wouldn’t have an effect without much difficulty. In addition, Reeve and Vincent got along well.

Nanaki would also go with the former Turk. Cloud wasn’t ashamed to admit it, ever since the demi-human had changed into his new form, he had probably become the most powerful member of their team. Physically, Nanaki could take them all down. Further, Cloud knew that since Vincent was not going to use his limit breaks at all, he would need the demi-human’s help. The gunman feared he wouldn’t be able to control them, and if something happened, Cloud trusted that Nanaki would know what to do.

And as much as he hated it, Aeris would have to go with Vincent as well. There was no way she could climb up a cliff in that dress, not to mention lug that long ass staff with her. She would balance out their team well, providing healing that would help keep the ex-Turk away from limit break range.

Cid would come with Cloud’s team. His dynamite would be a good weapon if they were attacked while climbing, and the pilot was a solid fighter. He would need the other blond to help control the energetic ninja as well since he was sending Reeve along with Vincent.

Last but not least, Reno would also join their merry band, completing the foursome. He carried some of the more unusual magics, which would come in handy. Of course, he was also one of the more agile and craftier members of their group, despite being a recent addition.

With that settled, going back over the set-up in his mind, Cloud suddenly blanched at a realization. He had inadvertently split up every couple in the group. It had been completely unintentional, and yet, when he considered it, also inevitable. It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “opposites attract.”

He nodded slowly. “Alright, we’ll split up,” he announced, sweeping his mako eyes over everyone. “I’ll take Yuffie, Reno, and Cid, and we will follow the left path. Vincent, I’m counting on you to lead the others.”

Crimson eyes widened with a subtle hint of surprise. He hadn’t expected Cloud to trust him that much or even the others, for that matter. It seemed things really had changed among their group.

He blinked. “I will make sure they come to no harm,” Vincent responded, knowing that it was the best vow he could make.

Cloud seemed pleased with it, however.

Reno’s gaze shifted to his lover. “Then, there’s nothing left to do except go, yo,” he said uncomfortably. He didn’t really like seeing Reeve beyond his protection, but the redhead knew that his lover would have had a fit if he had even thought to protest.

Besides, Cloud was right. It was the perfect formation for the circumstances, which surprised Reno. He didn’t think Cloud knew anything about what he was doing.

It wasn’t the time or place for heartfelt goodbyes, even if some felt they wanted to give them. Vincent took his team to the right. Cloud walked off with his to the left.

All that remained at the crossroads were the echoes of their presence.

“Somehow, I have a bad feeling about this,” Yuffie grumbled as she searched for another hand hold. The ninja clung tightly to the side of the cliff as they slowly made their way down the spiraling rock of the crater. Her fingers were aching, and her calves hurt, but she wasn’t complaining about it that much.

Ahead of her, Reno rolled his eyes. “About what?”

He had taken the lead, determined to map out the easiest route and handholds. Of course, that was only to find the task more daunting than he had originally assumed.

“Where to start in the list of things that I can’t stop feeling uneasy about?” she said, sounding dangerously close to a whine. “Hmm, us climbing down a huge cliff for one. Half our party gone in another direction for two. Sephiroth still unaccounted for three. I could go on and on.” She shook her head and tightened her grip on the hand hold, inching her feet down a bit more.

A rock skittered beneath her, clacking loudly on its way down.

It had been that way for over two hours. They were getting nearer to the bottom, and the ninja was more than glad to see that it would be smooth hiking from there.

Great.

“You could,” Cloud huffed from just above and to her left. “But I would prefer it if you didn’t.”

His stamina was greater than the others, but even he was having trouble simply clinging to the side of a rock face. Yuffie’s complaints were only making the situation worse, and he feared he might lose his cool and knock her off, just to see if she would make as much noise as all the rocks she kept knocking down.

A keening bestial cry echoed around them.

“Gargoyle at three o’ clock, yo!” Reno drawled, his ears picking up the sounds of the beating of rock-like wings.

They craned their necks to find the bluish-green creature heading their way, mouth open and hungry for their blood.

Cid smirked. “I got this!”

Moments later, a piece of lit dynamite flew out of nowhere and smacked the gargoyle in the face. A look of stunned stupidity filled its bestial features.

“Ice 3!” Cloud hissed, letting go of the cliff for only a moment to cast the spell.

Instantly, the monster was encased in a block of ice, effectively trapping the dynamite inside.

The gargoyle icicle hung for all of an instant before it rapidly pelted to the ground, only to land with unerring accuracy. It shattered, exploding into a half-dozen icy shards. And that was only to be followed by the detonation the dynamite, rendering it a problem no more.

“Gee,” Yuffie remarked gamely with a bit of sarcasm to her tone. “I wonder if the others are having as much fun as we are.”

Cid rolled his eyes. “Oh, shut up,” he snarled in return.

He had volunteered to go last, figuring if he fell the only person he would injure would be himself. Then again, the plan was flawed since it was likely he would take out Yuffie on his way down.

Hmm… decisions, decisions.

Ahead of them, Reno exclaimed loudly, “Hey, hey. Look what I found!”

“What is it?” Cloud inquired tiredly.

The Turk cocked his head to the side, rolling the item around in his hands. “It’s called the Mystile. Not really that powerful compared to what I got equipped, yo.”

Yuffie shrugged. “Keep it anyways. It might come in handy.”

She shifted her weight, reaching for another handhold and managing to transfer to it easily. The girl couldn’t help but wonder if the others had it any easier, not that she was lazy or anything, but compared to materia hunting, this wasn’t much fun.

“Dammit!” Cid cursed fluidly. “You, down in front! How much longer?”

Reno frowned, twisting his head to look below him. He blinked when he realized that he wasn’t far from solid ground. He could climb the rest of the way or take a faster approach. Shrugging, he smirked before simply dropping down, and Reno landed hard and rolled on his shoulder, coming to a stop before rising to his feet. He dusted some of the dirt from his suit but appeared otherwise uninjured.

“Just a stop, drop, and roll away, yo!”

“Damn! He just jumped right off the freakin’ cliff,” Yuffie exclaimed, her jaw dropping in awe.

Cloud snorted. “Little girls shouldn’t curse,” he admonished.

She rolled her eyes.

Cloud trying to be a father figure was amusing at best.

Eying her distance to the ground, she decided to see if she could outdo Reno. Taking a deep breath, the lithe ninja jumped off the side of the cliff and came to graceful landing next to the redhead, bending her knees slightly to absorb the shock. She smirked at him.

“I’m not a little girl.”

Reno simply shook his head. She was a cheeky little thing, not much different from him when he was younger.

The two waited for the others to finish their descent, the Turk making sure to keep a special eye on the ninja’s sticky hands. He had been a thief once, after all; he knew what to look for.

Less than five minutes later, all four members of their party were standing at the base of the spiral cliff, panting quietly at the exertion.

“Yuffie,” Cloud began, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. “Give me a five by five.”

In laymen’s terms, it basically involved both Haste and Shadow magic. It was a scouting technique that the two of them had been working on ever since Yuffie joined their party. Since she wouldn’t give up her Shadow materia, he relied on her.

The Wutaiian nodded and reached into her pocket where she kept her special materia, like the Shadow one. She wasn’t sure where she had picked it up or from whom, but it was one of her favorites. And it was rare as well, so she didn’t like anyone else using it.

People were so untrustworthy these days; they would just walk off with someone else’s materia.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t in her front or back pockets… or attached to her armlet or even in her Conformer.

“Umm,” she began slowly as she quickly did another search, patting her pockets fruitlessly.

Cid shot her an odd look. “Uh… what?” he demanded.

Brown eyes blinked, genuinely surprised. “I can’t find it,” she admitted, a faint blush staining her cheeks. “It’s gone.”

Beside her, Reno chuckled as he unfolded his arms and suddenly handed her the little, green ball. “Seems like the little thief can’t handle being thieved, yo.”

She snatched it from his hand. “How did you…?”

The Turk continued to chuckle as the others joined in. “At the same time I retrieved the Carbuncle that Reeve had given me from your pocket,” he replied knowingly, waving a hand at her to show the shiny, red materia in between two of his fingers.

She gaped him, simply unable to comprehend that someone else had faster hands.

“Don’t sweat it, kid.” Reno laughed, reaching out and ruffling her hair, just like she were a child. “I was doing this before you were born, yo.”

Cid laughed before waving his hand at her. “Got what was coming to you, brat. Now, go do the five by five.”

Yuffie blinked, still in awe. A second later, she promptly disappeared as the Shadow cast took form.

Ten seconds later, she returned, not even out of breath. “There is a small cave up ahead. It leads to a set of stairs that look like a spine. It’s going to be a rough road. But at the bottom, I caught a mako glow.”

Cloud inclined his head thoughtfully, already reaching to draw his sword since he had been forced to sheathe it earlier.

“No point in hanging around here. We should get going. For all, we know the others could have already found Sephiroth,” the Captain grumbled as he unconsciously reached up to his goggles and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it almost immediately. He didn’t admit it aloud, but he was worried about Vincent.

In fact, all of them were worried about the others but didn’t voice it aloud. That would imply that they didn’t think the other group was capable of taking care of themselves.

“Oh, by the way,” the ninja added, somewhat belatedly as they started down the path. “I found this.” She dug into her pocket, pulling out a silverish armlet and handing it over to Cloud.

He took it with a raised eyebrow. Obviously, he didn’t know what it was either.

“It’s a Tetra Elemental,” Reno filled in, recognizing the intricate runes on the outside from a book Reeve had. “Supposedly, the only way to get one of these is to morph a Cactuar, but it hasn’t even been proven that they exist, yo.”

“What’s it do?” Cloud frowned. He had never even heard of it before.

The Turk tapped his chin with one finger as he struggled to remember. “It absorbs all Fire, Ice, Thunder, and Earth magic and turns them into healing, yo,” Reno answered finally.

“Do you need it?”

Reno shook his head. “Naw, give it to Highwind. I’ve got a ribbon. I’d rather have that.”

“I don’t need it either,” responded Cid, suddenly joining them from where he had been rear guard. “Nanaki loaned me his Reflect Ring.”

“We are equipped to the gills,” Cloud sighed.

He flipped the accessory in his hand and then tossed it back to Yuffie. He knew she carried nothing more powerful than the Water Bracelet. At least, this would provide even more protection.

“You can keep it.”

She grinned and clipped the band around her upper arm.

Just then, a chill wind swept through an area where there should have been none, ironically causing them to halt just before they stepped into the tunnel that Yuffie had found. A dark shadow passed over them.

“Get down idiot!”

Cid crashed into Cloud, shoving the younger blond to the ground moments before a huge form swept over them. It narrowly missed taking off Cloud’s head, actually removing the tips of his tallest spikes. Its passing kicked up a huge breath of dust, which immediately filled the air.

“What the fuck!” Cid exclaimed, rolling to his feet as he laid eyes on their attacker.

There, blocking the entrance to the cave with the spiral stairs, was the ugliest monster he had ever seen. It had multiple limbs and a skeletal build, vaguely resembling a decayed dragon. The creature keened noisily and stamped its feet, the vague smell of death and decomposition wafting their way.

Reno pulled himself to his feet and immediately cast Sense, already hitting the button to charge his Electro Rod. “Dragon Zombie,” he called out. “And it’s got Shadow Flare.” The Turk blanched visibly, remembering all too well the effects of that particular magic. “And something else, too. Pandora’s box. I don’t know what that is, yo.”

“We’ll have to take it down,” Cloud announced, shaking dust from his blond spikes. The look on his face was grim.

Cid and Yuffie quickly flanked him, and moments later, the Dragon Zombie attacked.

With a keening and echoing cry of pain and loss, the monster started forward. Two of its skeletal forelimbs reached for the ninja as it prepared its first magical attack.

“I hate fighting the &!#$ undead!” Cid cursed, moving to intercept with his spear, while Yuffie nimbly danced out of the way.

A massive ball of fire roared towards the monster, courtesy of Cloud, and engulfed the head in a mass of flames.

With a roar, the zombie lashed out both violently and blindly.

One wing caught Cloud in the chest, while he was avoiding a forelimb, and he crashed backwards into a wall. Cid lopped off one of the limbs he had countered and hurriedly threw a Protect around himself before another of the creature’s many appendages slammed into his barrier. Yuffie had leapt to a higher position and threw her Conformer, lopping off one of the zombie’s decaying wings.

Reno did what anyone would do in such a situation. He summoned.

“Ruby light!”

A small hole appeared in the floor, and Carbuncle popped out his furry head. He leapt out with a back flip and hovered in the air, facing the party. He bubbled merrily as the ruby on his forehead glowed with a brilliant light, shining down on their group. Each member was embraced by a reflective and magical barrier, as well as imbued with Regen.

And not a moment too soon.

Seconds later, the dreaded Shadow Flare was cast. The world burst into a spiral of black and white.

They screamed, feeling like their bodies were being pulled in a million different directions at once, even as their worst fears were being brought to life in their own minds. Reflect could protect against the physical damage of the spell… but not from the feelings and not from the mental anguish it caused.

Reno gasped, hands coming to his head as all the nightmares that were far too real from his youth assailed him. They needed help; they needed something.

And then a word, a name, thought long forgotten but rising uncalled flitted through his mind along with a subtle push.

‘Call me!’

“Asclepius! Help!” The name burbled past his lips, in spite of not knowing the origin.

In that moment, Carbuncle whirled away from his hole and gave a feral growl, which still managed to be cute on the little summon.

His ear twitched, and he launched himself at the Dragon Zombie, effectively disturbing the creature’s concentration. Carbuncle was not a physical summon, but for the moment, he found himself trying to protect his humans more fiercely than usual.

Gasping, the friends were released from the spell. However, their heads were spinning, and they felt the distinct urge to vomit.

They had no time for rest, nevertheless.

The summon was no match against the undead monster. Although Carbuncle was strong, his powers were still more suited to protection, not physical attacks. The zombie had already managed to cut up Carbuncle with one of its many limbs and currently had a deathlike vise on the summon’s neck with its rotting and jagged teeth.

Reno growled angrily, grabbing his dropped Electro Rod from the ground and rushing angrily at the Dragon Zombie. He dimly heard Cid’s footsteps beside him as the pilot joined in the attack, and the Turk launched himself at the enemy, thrusting the electrically-charged stick into the fleshy core of the beast’s flank.

Dragon Zombie howled and released Carbuncle. The summon tore himself free and pulled away, breathing heavily as blood coursed down his soft, green fur.

Cid slashed into the zombie with fervor, revenge for the images that had risen unwanted in his mind. He didn’t want to be reminded of such things. They were no longer important!

“Meteor Rain!”

Above the Captain, Cloud let loose his limit, leaping high into the air above the creature. He whipped his sword around him, as if it were light as a feather.

Reno and Cid wisely backed away as large hunks of rocks appeared out of nowhere, pummeling the decaying skeleton. The zombie groaned and faltered but did not go down. It swept out with one of its forelimbs and grabbed Cid when Reno ducked out of the way.

The Turk crashed to the ground and felt his arm jar painfully beneath him at the same moment he felt a harsh snap. He heard Carbuncle give a small whine and looked up to see the little summon standing over him protectively.

Yuffie rushed to his side, a Cure already on her lips and worry in her eyes.

Reno smiled when he felt the gentle nuzzle of the summon and reached out to run an uninjured hand through the soft fur. Carbuncle keened musically at the touch, ignoring his own wounds. Garnet eyes gleamed with both worry and happiness, a strange contradiction.

“It’s okay, yo,” muttered Reno softly. “We can take it from here.”

Carbuncle nodded and bounded away, doing another backflip before disappearing. The hole immediately sealed up behind him.

Brown eyes blinked. “Weird,” Yuffie commented.

Cid’s growling curses suddenly caught their attention, and they immediately looked towards the battle.

“Fuckin’ dead ass! Put me the fuck down, #&$!” His arms were trapped uselessly at his sides as he twisted in the creature’s grip, legs dangling beneath him. “Cloud, you lazy ass, get over here and help me!”

“Just fix my arm, Yuffie,” Reno growled, feeling the subtle shift of a joint that had been knocked out of socket. It hurt like a bitch.

The ninja gulped openly. “Huh? I don’t know how to do that!”

“I can’t do it myself, yo!” Reno teased and, when she gaped at him, he sighed. “Look, just take my arm and pull real quick and hard. It will slip back into the socket if you do that, yo. You can’t cast the Cure until you do it.”

Yuffie nodded slowly and took hold of his left arm, swallowing thickly. He fought back the gasp of pain so that he wouldn’t frighten her off. Nodding at her, the Turk gestured that she continue, and taking a deep breath, the ninja did as he asked, cringing when she heard the sound of the snap. Reno winced but remained stoic as the bone slipped back into place.

He took in a deep breath. “Okay, now’s a good time for that Cure.” He smiled when he felt the cooling essence of the spell pass through his body, and the pain dissipated.

“Let’s see if we can give the old man a hand, ne?” The little ninja stuck out her hand to the Turk.

To their left, Cid slammed into the ground, the talons of the monster still locked around him as Cloud’s sword cleaved through the foreleg of the zombie. He cursed and spat, wriggling in the monster’s severed grip, hating how he was only able to watch as Cloud and Yuffie faced the Dragon Zombie. Luckily, however, Reno was already heading his way.

The redhead dropped to his knees beside Cid, jabbing the butt end of his Electro Rod into the zombie’s talons. “We need fuckin’ Alexander,” he cursed.

“Right,” Cid grumbled. “And wouldn’t you know the selfish bastard took all the good magic-users with him.”

No sooner had the words left his lips when Cloud suddenly went flying past them. He careened into the air after intercepting a strike from the creature’s tail, an appendage they hadn’t even realized the Dragon Zombie could utilize. The ex-SOLDIER hit the ground hard, grunting as blood streamed from a gash in his chest.

Cloud struggled to his feet, wobbling as his mako eyes widened in surprise. The Dragon Zombie was already preparing another spell.

“Cid! Ifrit! Hurry! Before it finishes the spell,” he panted.

“Got it!” Cid jerked to his feet, finally free from the talons. “Hellfire!”

The ground rumbled, nearly causing them all to topple over as Ifrit exploded from beneath in a translucent blaze, and his roars were loud enough to make their heads spin. The fire began to slowly disperse around him as he surveyed the scene, at once spying the Dragon Zombie. With flame dripping from his mouth, the demon grinned wickedly as flames erupted around its body once more.

Ifrit hurled himself at the monster, crashing into it with the force of a train and the blistering heat of an inferno. Almost immediately, the creature was alight, its skin burning with a disgusting odor; the Zombie keened in pain.

The summon slammed his fist into the zombie’s face, another fanged smirk spreading across his lips as a sickening crunch echoed. Satisfied, Ifrit disappeared in another flash of fire, going back to whatever dimension he had emerged from.

“Quick, Yuffie, an Ultima. Finish it off!” Cloud’s order rang across the battlefield, even as his face twisted in pain. One hand had gone to the wound on his chest, the edges already turning a tainted green… poison. Yet, he had nothing to disperse the venom and it would do him no good to cast a cure without an antidote.

Almost immediately, a ball of green flame appeared in Yuffie’s hand, growing bigger as it coalesced into something nearly solid. She threw it at the monster, watching as it soaked up energy and grew so large that it lit up the entire cavern. Instantly, fireball engulfed the Dragon Zombie in its eerie, green flame.

Yuffie smirked triumphantly.

It was then that Reno noticed Cloud slumping to the ground. The blond barely remained upright, clinging to the hilt of his sword.

“Cid! Antidote!” the redhead called out as he reached into his pockets and pulled out a X-potion.

The hairs on the back of their necks rose when the pained cries of the beast turned to garbled, scratchy laughter. Cid handed the antidote to Cloud before whirling around, discovering the flame cast by Ifrit had somehow been combined with the Ultima spell. Further, the Dragon Zombie was absorbing the energy as if it were a life-giving spell.

With a cry of delight, the zombie moved all too quickly and snatched Yuffie off the ground before the ninja could even dodge. She screamed at the burning touch, the fire searing through her skin and causing it to blister and bubble. The battle with Scorpios flashed through her mind. Only this time, Nanaki was not there to save her.

“Put her down!” Cid snarled, snatching up the Venus Gospel and darting towards the beast.

Yuffie’s screams echoed around them, and the monster howled sadistically. It pointed one of its few remaining limbs at Cid, and a stream of greenish fire shot out, engulfing the pilot. The reflect cast earlier was ineffective, and Cid’s entire body was now wrapped in a blazing cocoon. He couldn’t even breathe, his screams lodging in his throat.

It was then that the Dragon Zombie played its final number.

Pandora’s Box.

A shadow seemed to engulf the group, drawing them into a frightening abyss, and there seemed to be no escape. All sense of time and place disappeared into nothingness, and the battle was all but lost.

Unexpectedly, a watery light began to coalesce out of nowhere, drawing everyone’s attention. Leviathan burst from the blue bubble, despite having not been summoned, and roared angrily. A huge tidal wave appeared from nowhere as he curled himself protectively around Yuffie, effectively dousing her flames and pulling her from the deadly grip of the Dragon Zombie.

The massive summon lunged at the monster with the upper half of his body and snapped up the beast with his massive jaws. In one hearty gulp, he had swallowed the abomination, putting out the rest of the Ultima Fire with a wave of his majestic head.

The battle had been won.

Yuffie was curled in the embrace of the sea god’s smooth, blue, and scaly skin. She awoke when she felt the gentle tingle of being healed, and the ninja opened her eyes only to find herself staring into the ageless face of a real dragon.

“Levy…” she breathed softly.

He nudged her face delicately with one of his flippers and laid her gently on the ground. The serpent then disappeared in a flood of bluish sparkles and bubbles.

“Damn! How did you even concentrate enough to call for Leviathan?” Cloud asked as he moved to Yuffie’s side, kneeling next to the girl.

She shook her head, still dazed by the events. “I hadn’t,” Yuffie responded in a dreamy voice. “I don’t think that was Levy. It was more like Barinthus, a god we used to worship centuries ago in Wutai.”

Nearby, Reno was applying a small Cure to Cid’s burned skin. While Leviathan had healed Yuffie, he had left the others to their own devices.

“I wonder if the others are havin’ as much fun as us, yo,” the redhead commented flippantly.

Cloud’s face was grim. “I hope not,” he muttered, wincing as he shifted his weight, pulling at the healing wound on his chest. “Don’t make me worry any more than I have to.” He wasn’t sure if they could have handled something like the Dragon Zombie, and he only hoped that they didn’t have to.

Reno, normally a man who was rarely without a smile or smirk, was equally dour. He worried for the others as well. The Dragon Zombie had been a powerful piece of shit, and he couldn’t help the urge to run after Reeve and save him from every peril his mind was now conjuring.

But that was only until he felt a heavy hand clamp down on his shoulder.

The Turk was startled out of his reverie, blinking to find sky blue eyes regarding him intently.

“They’re fine,” Cid assured him, despite his own worry. “Vince is brilliant, Nanaki is the strongest of us all, Aeris can be a righteous bitch when she’s angry, and Reeve can throw magic faster than anyone I know.”

“I think I have a Knight-in-Shining-Armor complex, yo.” Reno sighed, scraping a hand through his hair and making a face when it came away with spatters of blood.

Cid chuckled as he shook his head. “The both of you do. It’s in your nature.”

He shrugged, eyes flickering to the darkened patch of ground and faintly twitching limbs that were all that remained of the Dragon Zombie.

“But relax; they probably would have had this monster defeated in five seconds flat while we struggled. They’re better off than we are.”

At least, that was what they hoped.

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