Chapter Nine: Declarations of War
It was a most familiar scene; that of a darkened cavern buried deep within the mountains on a forgotten island. At first there was nothing visible save the impenetrable dark. Then, one by one, a series of torches began to light in a long line, until the entire cavern was illuminated. However, the scene this time was much more horrifying than before.
It was crowded, the cavern filled with the stench of unwashed demons and monsters, dried blood, and foul breath. The throne at one end was still inhabited by the shadow, but it seemed to have hardened some, forming into a shape now with the bottom coalescing into something reminiscent of legs. The crimson eyes still shone with ferocity, the malevolent evil in them apparent.
The cavern was filled with evil creatures; bloodlust and destruction were the most powerful emotion radiating through the room. There were many more of the larger demons than before, though there seemed to be a slight decrease in the number of lesser beasts.
A dark red and brown demon stood in one of the corners, an arm folded about his chest. His grayish cloak fluttered as he shifted to lean against the stone wall. Two horns, so long that they curved back down nearly to his shoulders, jutted from his forehead. It observed the antics of the other, lesser, demons with a perpetual scowl.
One the other side, there was a purplish-blue blob-like monster with large yellow eyes. It possessed a rather ridiculous looking head with an explosion of strange hair that was purple and tinged with yellow. Its wine-colored cloak shifted in the slight breeze.
Nearby, a pair of demons, which looked very much alike, was it not for the major size difference, stood next to each other, consistently elbowing one another in the sides and playing rock-paper-scissors.
There was a green-skinned creature wearing a brownish-yellow robe over much of its body. However, the garment couldn’t quite cover the stubbish tail that peeked stubbornly out the bottom. In its hands the monster clutched a swinging lantern and a rusty looking knife, which was covered in dried blood. Its large soulless eyes seemingly peered at nothing.
There were many others, as well. It would take days to describe the creatures all gathered there. Days it seemed, the world might not have.
Suddenly, a hush fell over the crowd of evil-doers. The group began to part ways as a small demon, one of the lower ones, limped its way through the crowd. One of its legs was twisted at an odd angle, causing the minor demon to wince with each step. The wings were tattered and didn’t appear to even be able to support any weight.
The room fell completely silent as the defeated looking demon limped its way to through the crowd until it managed to stand before the throne, wincing when the full power of the gaze of the crimson-eyed shadow fell upon him.
“Where is Azamat?” Balaam demanded angrily, his voice echoing through out the room. Many of the creatures present flinched. Balaam was the strongest of them and easily capable of flattening any there.
The beaten demon cowered on the floor, making itself prostrate before the shadow as it blubbered out its story. “He put up… resistance. The host is not as weak as we think…”
“You mean to tell me that you were beaten by one man?” Balaam roared angrily. Some of the weaker demons cried out in fear and ran from the room, unwilling to have to see his anger.
The cowed bat creature on the floor began to whimper softly, pressing its face to the floor as close as possible. “It wasn’t just him… there was HIM as well. The one who betrayed us.”
“Who?” Balaam demanded, his crimson eyes flashing furiously. “Speak now, or I will crush you where you lay!”
“Erebus!” the demon whined. “It was that foul traitor, Erebus!”
A murmur of recognition went through the crowd as something of the demons began to converse among themselves. Of the demi-gods that were to join their side, it was long assumed that both Erebus and Baal would join them. However, the two demi-gods had refused and sided with the humans.
The wave of pure fury that passed through the room was more than enough to send all gathered to their demons. The shadow on the throne rippled with its anger as eyes flared so brightly that they lit that part of the room in a crimson glow.
“The host lives then?” Balaam roared in question.
“Yes, sir,” continued the bat demon in a small voice. “We failed.”
The room went silent as all waited for their leader’s response to that. A stream of shadow shot from the throne and wrapped itself around the bat demon. The beast had no time to protest as the wisp coiled around its neck. The demon choked and protested feebly, but it was to no avail. After a few moments, the limp body of the strangled creature soared across the room like a limp rag.
Balaam chuckled darkly and retracted his limb of shadow. “That weak link has been disposed of properly.”
“But, sir,” Daunte questioned, coming forward. “What are we to do about the host now?”
Rage still flowed from Balaam in waves, despite his obvious attempt to ease his fury. “We go with the plan. The attacks will commence in a few hours. Erebus may think that he can thwart us, but he vastly underestimates my reach.”
“Are the targets still the same?” the purple-skinned creature lisped from the corner.
Balaam laughed manically, his dark voice sending ripples of fear throughout the crowd. “Make no mistake; I change my plans for nothing, and failure is not an option… lest you face the fate of that one.” He casually indicated the fallen monster.
The crimson eyes gazed out over the group, taking in his army that would soon overrun Gaia. Yet, first… certain towns had to fall in order to weaken the humans. And Balaam knew just where to begin.
The blonde Turk threw herself to the ground just as a stream of pointed yellow feathers flew by her head, tipped with green, acidic poison.
The yellow-feathered monster roared angrily at the miss and shot a pair of tentacles at Elena. However, before they could land, the appendages were sliced to bits by a pair of katanas.
Elena countered by throwing a Fire 3 spell at the Chocobo/Marlboro creature, an escaped example of Hojo’s lab from Midgar. The fire blazed on the monster, setting its feathers alight, and it keened in agony as parts of its skin scuffed off. The smell of blackened flesh wafted through the area causing the blonde to wrinkle her nose in disgust as she pushed herself up from the ground.
The dark-haired male took this opportunity to slash viciously at the lab-reject, slicking off its yellow-feathered wings and stabbing it through the mid-section. The shots of a sniper rifle filled the air as green blood gushed from many wounds.
Tseng backed off from the monster, blood dripping from his twin katanas and moved aside so that Elena could fire the killing blow. A boom resounded through the air, and the monster gave one last howl of agony before falling over to the ground with a wet squelch.
Shaking his head in disgust, Tseng wiped his silvery blades on the ground before returning them to their matching sheaths on his back. Instead of the traditional Turk uniform, he had taken to dressing like those in his home land. He now wore a hakama and gi in dark blue with silver trim. He had also given up the gun, instead opting for his favored weapons, the twin katanas.
Elena sauntered up to the corpse and kicked it in repulsion. She, too, had given up on the Turk ensemble, unlike Reno, who was still satisfied with his, and now wore a pair of loose fitting black Capri’s and a green long-sleeved but quite comfortable business shirt.
This latest creation of Hojo’s had escaped from the abandoned ShinRa building and into the tunnels that led out of Midgar. It was now in the open plains just outside of Kalm, determined to wreak havoc. The somewhat silly looking beast had been an attempt on crossing a Chocobo and Marlboro, which was apparent from its body that was covered in yellow feathers and a pair of flaccid wings sprouted from its back.
“Gah! We ought to just blow the damn place up!” Elena commented, patting her rifle lovingly.
“Elena,” Tseng began softly, intent on chiding her. “You know we cannot do that.”
“Well, it would sure save us a lot of trouble,” she grumbled once they were certain that the creature was dead. She started to reload her rifle, just in case they ran into any trouble on their way to Kalm, where they planned on taking a much needed break.
With the defeat of Sephiroth and subsequent Reeve-takeover of ShinRa, they had a choice in keeping their jobs. As Turks, their new assignments were to destroy all threats and help protect the president. Currently, the odd Chocoboro was their newest assignment.
“Then what would we do with all our free time?” Tseng questioned teasingly as he mentally went over the battle in his head. Their reaction time was slow at a few points, and one of those tentacles had gotten dangerously close. Next time he would have to be sure that they had a stronger materia. Who knows what would have happened if the Chocoboro had had enough sense to use its wings?
“Boss? Hello? Gaia to Tseng?” Elena was standing in front of him and watching him bemusedly. He looked up at her with a confused expression on his face. “Battle tactics, again?”
“Something like that,” he responded, waving a hand of dismissal. “Come on, I am dying for a drink.”
However, before he could get very far, the PHS in his pocket went off, causing both Turks to jump in surprise. Shrugging more to himself than to her, Tseng reached into his pocket and pulled out the slim, technological phone.
“Yes?” It was Archer, Tseng recognized the voice. He continued walking towards the cycle that Elena and he were sharing as their chase required speed and not style. The blonde walked at his side.
“Tseng? I need you and Elena to come back to Midgar,” Archer explained, his loud voice easily conveying to the woman, too.
The blonde frowned and took a step closer, so she could better hear.
“Is something wrong?” Tseng questioned with a business-like frown, toying with a thread on his gi.
“Reno’s gone missing, pal.”
“How the hell did that boy get lost?” Elena questioned out loud in disbelief. She rolled her eyes and threw her hands up in the air before mumbling something to herself about idiot red-heads that needed to grow up.
“Dammit!” the Wutaiian cursed, running an angry hand through his hair. “I told Reeve to take those threats more seriously!”
“It’s not as simple as that,” Archer stated slowly. “His helicopter went down in Gongaga, and he wasn’t found anywhere near it.”
“What was he doing there?” Tseng inquired, eyebrows twitching. “I thought he was on protection duty?”
Archer sighed, the exhale noisy through the phone. “He and Reeve had… a fight. Reno went to Rocket Town to cool down, and while he was there, he learned about Gongaga getting attacked. Worried about Rude’s mother, he was on his way to check it out when we got a distress call. Cid went to that area to find him but only found the wreckage.”
“What do you mean Gongaga has been attacked?” Tseng climbed onto the cycle but didn’t start it up until he got off the phone. Elena clambered up behind him, easily relaxing into the second seat, where she twisted her body, so that she could put her rifle in the storage compartment.
“Look, I will explain more when you get here.” Archer sighed once more. “I’ve got to go check on Reeve and call Cloud, as well.”
“Fine,” agreed Tseng. “See you in an hour.” He flipped the phone shut and stuffed it back into his pocket.
“Looks like that mini-break is off,” Elena commented softly, idly pushing back a lock of loose hair.
Tseng didn’t answer, mind already preoccupied with trying to figure out where his second-in-command could have disappeared to. He reached forward and started up the cycle. It snarled to life, and he turned it towards Midgar. Without another word spoken, he and Elena roared towards the Neo ShinRa corporate offices.
Raven tried to ignore the odd looks that he was given, he really tried. However, it was rather difficult. Every where he turned he was stared at by male and female alike, but he couldn’t understand why. He had cleaned up before he entered Cosmo Canyon and even wiped down his cloak so that it wasn’t so travel-stained. He held his scarred hand beneath the grey fabric and even managed a smile or two for the locals. Yet, they were all eyeing him as if he were the catch of the day, and it bothered him.
He had wandered around for an hour, touring aimlessly until he worked up the courage to ask a stranger where he could find Bugenhagen. Then he had been given a series of confusing directions that involved many stairs and doors until his head was spinning. After seeing the look of complete bewilderment on Raven’s face, the kindly old man had taken another approach.
“Just go up,” he had said. “When you can’t go any further, you know you are there.”
And so he had started to walk, in and out of the caverns carved into the mountains that formed Cosmo Canyon. He climbed stairs and ladders, occasionally asking for directions to make sure he was on the right path. One time he had nearly gotten waylaid by the lady from the weapons shop.
She was dying to hold the Hell Fire, but he was worried she might take off with it, judging by the sparkle in her eye. He had to politely excuse himself and extricate his arm from her grasp. In the back of his subconscious, he could vaguely hear Erebus chuckling at him, and he cursed the demi-god thoroughly.
Finally, one hour and many moments of sweating later, he stood at the top of the last ladder and looked upon a house with a giant observatory built into the top. This was the home of the oldest, wisest man, Bugenhagen.
He was a bit nervous, not even sure what he was going to say to the name. How exactly did one go about that type of thing? Just wander in and ask if he was recognizable or not? Raven scoffed at the idea.
He walked up to the door a bit hesitantly and briefly considered just turning back. Yet, the desire to find out who he was pumped strongly in his heart. Steeling his courage, Raven lifted a hand and knocked three times on the wooden door.
“Oh? Visitors?” a voice came from behind the door.
Raven shifted uncomfortably as he waited for someone to answer. When the door opened and a sliver of light fell on him, he was momentarily blinded. Once he had adjusted, he opened his eyes and found himself looking at what had to be one of the oldest humans on Gaia.
Bugenhagen had a long, snowy white beard that hung to nearly his ankles, but his head was completely bare on top. He wore long flowing robes, which completely covered his feet. His blue eyes were sparkling with kindness.
“Oh? Can I help you?” the man questioned with a raised eyebrow.
Raven stepped forward so that Bugenhagen could see him better. “My name is… well, for now it is Raven, and I was told that you could help me.”
The elderly sage cocked his head to the side as he took in the stranger’s appearance. His eyes widened slightly as if in recognition before he stepped aside. “Come in, Raven. I am not sure what you need but I will try to help.”
Raven allowed himself a small smile of gratitude and entered into the warm and gently lit house, completely missing the contemplative look on the older man’s face. He stood just inside the doorway for a moment, as if unsure what to do, before taking a seat on the couch. He sat stiffly, as if he wasn’t that sure of himself.
Bugenhagen floated in and took a seat in his normal chair. “So why come to an old man for help?”
(He looks familiar, no?) came a most recognized voice in his head.
The older man smiled at the words. Aye, but let’s not be hasty.’
The grey-eyed man flushed. “A friend told me that you could help me.”
The elder regarded him almost amused. “With what?”
“I don’t know who I am,” Raven began slowly, shifting in his seat. “I lost my memory, and I need to know who I am.”
Bugenhagen smiled then and rose from his seat. “I have a feeling this may take awhile. Would you like some tea?”
Raven nodded quietly. The elder moved into the kitchen, leaving him alone in the living room. The grey-eyed man took the opportunity to look around the living room, taking in the beautifully woven tapestry-like decorations and the few pictures that were scattered about.
Curious about the people, Raven stood up from the couch and moved to get a closer look. One picture had a red-headed male with surprisingly enough, a tail, smiling broadly at the camera as he sparred with a shorter dark-haired female. She wore very little clothing and seemed young, perhaps not yet twenty, not that Raven was a good judge of age.
He moved to the next one. It appeared to be at a celebration of some sort. There were two men in the picture, but they were also surrounded by a bunch of the others. The look of joy on the dark-headed one’s face was reflected by that of the red-head. The same demi-human from the previous picture was clapping the dark-haired man on the back as if in congratulations.
The next picture was of a regal looking lion-type wolf with shockingly bright orangish-red fur. He was posed on the edge of a cliff looking towards the ocean and seemed very sure of himself. Raven couldn’t help but wonder who these people were and couldn’t ignore the small stab of recognition that echoed through this heart. Somehow he knew them… but their names seemed to escape him.
“That is Seto, Nanaki’s father,” Bugenhagen’s voice came from the doorway. Raven looked up in surprise, stumbling a bit as he backed away and moved towards the chair.
“I am sorry. I was just…”
Bugenhagen cut him off with a smile and set the small tray of tea and such items on the table. “Quite alright. Though I must apologize for the taste of the tea. My grandson, who usually brews it for me, is away right now with his friend.” He gestured towards the pictures. “He was the one sparring with the girl.”
Raven nodded and reached for a cup, content to drink the liquid black. It was how he liked it. “Is he… Nanaki then?”
The elder smiled. “Yes. Something remarkable has happened to him, and now he is in a human-like form, though I can’t begin to imagine why. The girl, her name is Yuffie. They are good friends from the battle against Sephiroth.”
Raven frowned. There was that name again… Sephiroth. He felt as if he should know it or at least that person. He took a sip of the tea to disguise his eternal thoughts. It was then that he felt eyes on him. He looked up startled to find Bugenhagen watching him closely.
(Much has changed.)
That it has, Isis,’ confirmed the elder man in his head, agreeing with his anima.
“Yes?” Raven questioned.
The elder shook his head and mused into his cup. “You seem familiar to me… that is all. I was merely racking my brain, trying to figure out whom.”
A small bit of hope began to rise in Raven’s heart. If the old man could recognize him, then perhaps he could tell him who he was. “Did you figure it out?”
Bugenhagen shook his head sadly. “No, I am afraid not. He is long dead, or assumed so anyways. Can you tell me how you lost your memory?”
Raven frowned and stared into his cup. “I don’t know. Gra…” He choked for a moment as he thought about them and had to clamp down for a moment to rein in his emotions. “Granny and Gramps found me on the shore of Gongaga. They were very kind to have taken me in as their own.”
“They seem like good people. Were they the ones who told you about me?” the old sage asked, peering at him intently.
“They’re dead,” Raven responded flatly. For a moment he stared into his cup as Bugenhagen gave him a stricken look. Realizing that he may have been partially rude, he elaborated. “Gongaga was attacked by a band of demons and monsters, and they were killed. So I left to discover my identity.”
“I am sorry,” the elder softly replied. “I did not know that Gongaga had been attacked. I had thought that we were in a time of peace. Gaia certainly deserves it after that confrontation with Sephiroth. All of them do, especially Captain Highwind.”
Again, another name that sounded familiar to Raven. He looked away from Bugenhagen and stared into empty space as he contemplated things. He had a feeling that the elder knew something but wasn’t telling him. It was more the sage was trying to lead him into remembering or saying something.
“You know,” the elder began quietly. “I just might know someone who will recognize you.”
Raven’s heart skipped a beat despite the enormous yawn that erupted from his mouth. He embarrassedly covered his face with a hand. “Really?”
The old sage chuckled. “Yes. You look tired; why not rest in one of the guest rooms.” He set his cup down on the table and stood up.
“You wouldn’t mind?” the grey-eyed man questioned. “I did walk here all the way from Gongaga…”
The elder shook his head, laughing slightly. “Of course not. Ho, ho, ho. I will call him and have him come by to meet you, and in the mean time, you just rest.”
Raven allowed a small smile as he set down his tea cup and stood up from the couch. Bugenhagen led him towards a set of stairs. As they climbed, the dark-haired man couldn’t help but admire the weapons that decorated the hall of the stairs. There were all kinds, and even a gun that looked pretty powerful. He fingered the Hell Fire at his side, mind instantly returning to that quirk that was a hint into his identity.
The old sage was mostly silent as they walked. It seemed both men had much on their minds. The elder led him to a small room at the top of the stairs that housed a dresser and a bed but not much else.
“You can stay here,” said Bugenhagen, gesturing Raven just inside. The dark-haired man nodded in understanding and walked in, sitting down on the bed contemplatively.
“I appreciate your help,” he said softly, running a scarred left hand over the fabric before realizing what he was doing. He quickly shoved the hand back under his cloaks. However, the elder had caught it, though he said nothing.
“I’m in the habit of helping strangers, can’t say why,” Bugenhagen joked as he shook his head. “Get some rest. I will call him.”
He left the doorway, pulling the door behind him, though not shut all the way. He wasn’t sure what Raven would want. With contemplative steps, Bugenhagen headed back downstairs to where he had left the PHS that his grandson had given him not long ago.
He was sure that that man was Vincent. The hair and that face, though his eyes were different, and the elder knew he no longer had a claw, Bugenhagen was positive. It all fit. And Cid would be the first to know.
The voice in his head chuckled. (Doing things your own way from now on?)
“Is there any better way?” answered Bugenhagen aloud.
The elder wasn’t even going to call Reeve this time. He was going to decide what was right and let the pilot choose for himself. Unable to contain a smile of glee, Bugenhagen found his phone and found the pilot’s number that his grandson had inputted in there for him long ago.
Won’t they be surprised?