[Shattered] Dreams 36

Chapter Thirty-Six: Girl Meets Boy. Boy Meets Gun

He felt a strange sort of nostalgia as he looked up at the old, broken church. It was a place he knew well; a building he had visited often when he was just starting in ShinRa. It was also when he had first set eyes on Ms. Aeris Gainsborough. That had been one of his better relationships.

The sweet flower-girl was like a ray of sunshine in his life, and the two had quickly become the best of friends, even though their relationship never went much further than the innocent explorations of curious teenagers. She was a good influence on Sephiroth as well, the few times she had met him. Aeris was one of the few people he had seen able to coax a smile out of the General.

Yes, the church was a place of memories for Zack Loire, and he wondered if he would be able to find Aeris inside.

When Fenrir had first transported him to Midgar, he had been shocked by the sheer amount of destruction in the once glorious city. It took him hours to find a weapons shop. Then he wasted more time trying to earn the money to buy the cheapest damn sword available, finally settling on something similar to the Buster Sword that he wielded as a member of SOLDIER.

With the weapon securely in his grasp, he had started to search for Aeris or Cloud, wanting to see a familiar face. Asking around, he had been first directed to the flower shop. However, the employees there had informed him that Aeris was taking some personal days and had given him directions to the home that she and Cloud shared.

Apparently, the two were married. Zack couldn’t help the smile that broke out on his face at that thought. His good friend Cloud was hooked up with his ex-girlfriend Aeris; it was too cute for words. He held no grudges, seeing the flower-girl as a good friend, and he hoped that they were treating each other right. Aeris would be good for his spiky-headed friend, or so Zack thought. He couldn’t wait to see them, eager to begin the teasing.

Although when he got to their house, he found it empty, no one home. After a few minutes of irritated knocking, a neighbor had stepped out of her house to tell him that Aeris was probably at the church if not at the flower shop. The kindly old and portly woman then pointed him in the general direction of the building from where he stood so that he would be able to find it easily before disappearing back inside her home.

He thanked her and started to head towards the religious establishment, wondering why everyone in Midgar was suddenly so damn helpful. When he was looking for a weapons shop it was like trying to pull teeth, but everyone seemed to want to tell him where Aeris could be found. He hadn’t understood it, nor had he wanted to waste the time pondering it either. He had realized, however, that no one seemed to know where Cloud was. In a way, it was somewhat amusing. Yet, after trekking back and forth across the broken slums of Midgar, he had started to lose his sense of humor.

Hours after his arrival in Midgar, Zack finally stood outside the church, looking at the building that apparently he had been for searching the entire time. He reveled in his nostalgia for a moment, allowing his characteristic grin to creep back up on his face as Fenrir suddenly appeared beside him, chuckling lightly.

“You know, you will never be able to find her if you do not go in,” teased the lupine-like demi-god.

Blue eyes flickered over to his anima. The ‘man’ had changed his outfit with their location, to something more suitable. Blue jeans, black boots and a loose shirt. He still didn’t appear much like a demi-god, however.

Zack grinned wolfishly, unfazed by the good natured teasing. “I’ve been dead for two years. I’m allowed this moment.”

“For twenty minutes? Humans are strange creatures,” idly commented Fenrir.

Twenty minutes? Had he really been standing there that long? Shaking his head to clear his errant thoughts, Zack pushed forward, opening the doors to the church and stepping inside.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the change in light as he slowly eased forward, watching for the broken pieces of flooring beneath his feet. The church was falling into such disrepair, much like the shattered city around him. There was a small pang of regret in his heart at the sight, and he suddenly longed to have the resources and strength to rebuild it.

His vision cleared, and he peered into the interior of the church. Beneath a small corona of light at the far end was a bed of flowers with two occupants kneeling among the colorful blooms.

He recognized Aeris almost immediately, her red-brown hair an instant giveaway. She was wearing pink, her favorite color, and her long locks were pulled back into a braid that trailed down the length of her back. He couldn’t see her face as her back was to him nor did he recognize her companion, a small boy probably around three or four years old.

The child had brown hair, and Zack couldn’t help but wonder if he was a relative to the flower-girl. They were speaking to each other in low tones, but the swordsman couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. The boy was smiling, however, so he took that as a good sign.

Grinning to himself at the pretty picture they made, Zack decided to make his presence known. “I knew I would find you here,” he called out, loudly enough for them to hear but not enough to startle or scare them.

There was a gasp at the sound of his voice, he could only assume that she recognized it as the auburn-haired female turned around, eyes widening in sudden acknowledgment. They were just as remembered, jade stone. Zack’s smile widened, anticipating a happy reunion.

That was, until he heard the sound of a gun cock seconds before a barrel was placed to the back of his head. His heart plummeted into his stomach for just a second as he contemplated if the Lifestream would send him back after his second death. However, he quickly reined in his emotions, assuming that whoever was trying to kill him was a friend of Aeris and only attempting to protect her.

“Put your hands where I can see them,” hissed a most definitely female voice. She pushed fiercely against the back of his head with her gun to emphasize that it was not a warning. She meant business.

Zack slowly started to raise his hands, trying to appear as if he was not a threat. A smirk appeared on his face as he was quite amused. So… the female thought she could take down a 1st Class SOLDIER, did she? He was itching to see if he could move faster than she could pull the trigger.

(Show some restraint,) warned Fenrir. (If she is an ally of Aeris, you don’t want to hurt her.)

‘Right,’ drawled Zack internally. ‘Never mind that she is the one that has a gun pointed to my head.’

Fenrir snorted in response but did not say another word. Taking the demi-god’s silence as meaning he was free to do as he wished, Zack put his rapidly formed plan into action.

He moved quickly, reaching up and grabbing the gun even as he twisted his body to avoid the reflexive squeezing of the trigger. The bullet whizzed by his head, slamming harmlessly into a less than stable wall in the same moment that he grabbed the body of the woman behind him, pulling her against his chest and restraining her with one muscular arm. The gun clattered to the floor, and he unconsciously kicked it away.

He caught sight of blonde hair and smelled a scent like that of air right before a dangerous thunder storm. It enveloped his senses, swirling about him almost as if it were tangible. It pushed and pulled at his body, tingling along his skin as if electricity were prickling at him. It was both unsettling and intriguing, though he had no time to ponder on it as he now had her in his grasp.

She snarled at him but miraculously remained cool. He grinned, thinking he had won, when she suddenly put up a fight. The blonde jabbed an elbow backwards, into his solar plexus, stomped against his shin with her thick boots and slipped out of his grasp, all in one smooth motion. He gasped for breath, seeing stars from the jab to his sensitive chest. A sharp stab of pain shot up his leg, which he forced himself to ignore for the moment.

She whipped around, turning to punch his face. He barely managed to block the blow but was not prepared for the lashing high kick brought about by her leg. It caught him in the ribs, and he doubled over in pain, still unable to catch a breath. He dimly heard Aeris yelling something in the background but was too distracted by the stars in his eyes to even understand what she was saying.

The blonde woman reached behind her, pulling up the cloth of her white dress shirt and pulled out another gun, one that she must have kept tucked into the hollow of her back. She pointed it at his head, cold intention behind her eyes as she cocked the handgun at him… even through his delirium he could see that it had been modified for Flare bullets, not an easy task.

“On your knees,” she ordered, and he could swear that a chill wind flowed through the area. He looked up at her, finding brown eyes that danced and fascinated him. She was unyielding in her stance, her gaze proving that she would not stand down and nor did she fear him. He found he was captivated and could not have looked away even if he tried.

Loud laughter interrupted their staring contest as his eyes flickered to Aeris having risen to her feet and not standing that far behind them. She had a hand on her belly and the young boy at her side; he was clutching her other hand.

The blonde, however, did not take her eyes off her foe. She had been taught well.

“I do so enjoy seeing you getting your ass kicked, Zack,” commented the pregnant woman warmly, amusement evident in her tone.

The former SOLDIER winced as Fenrir chuckled at him in his mind. He glared at the demi-god, daring him to taunt ‘I told you so’ even as he struggled to draw in a breath that was not ragged. It felt as if his lungs had been deflated, never to draw air again.

“I’m sorely out of practice,” he said by way of excuse. It was pathetic at best. “Being dead for more than a year will do that to you.”

The blonde’s eyes widened in surprise, though she refused to stand down or look away from her adversary. “You this know man?” she questioned Aeris, without glancing over her shoulder.

The flower-girl nodded as she moved to stand beside her, the small brunet child clinging to her side. “This is someone from our past, another that should be dead. Elena meet Zack. I suppose I can’t take anything for granted anymore, now that Sephiroth has returned as well.”

Elena frowned and put away her gun, checking it before slipping the pistol back into its secret place. “Not much of a SOLDIER, were you?” she questioned with a smirk, shooting the dark-haired man a glance before moving to reclaim her other weapon from the floor of the church.

Zack struggled to get to his feet as he gaped after her in surprise. Aeris laughed out loud and shook her head.

“Seph is alive?” he questioned, finally registering what Aeris had said not but a few seconds before Elena had spoken. He raised a brow in surprise even as he stretched, his lungs still protesting each breath as his shin screamed in pain. That woman had a fearsome fighter spirit within her.

The flower-girl nodded. “Yes, surprisingly enough. But now… I’m not so sure.”

“You are not making any sense,” complained Zack, somewhat limping his way to a creaking, rotting pew and sitting down on it; the wood groaned under his weight. He turned crystalline, blue eyes on to his former girlfriend and friend. “You’re not sure he’s alive?”

“Sephiroth showed up out of the blue early this morning,” answered Elena, coming up to join their discussion. She stood, cockily eyeing the man she had managed to best with a smirk. “Somewhat like you. Or at least, it was someone we believed to be him simply because Cloud immediately recognized him.”

Aeris shook her head, one hand patting a small brunet head next to her. “And to think, he had this little one with him, too,” she commented, smiling warmly down on the small boy. “Denzel, meet Zack.” But the boy hid behind her, only peeking out from the side to stare at the new stranger.

Zack choked, eyes darting over the brown-eyed child as his jaw gaped. “This is Seph’s son?” His mind was whirling with the implication.

“No, dumbass,” responded Elena, smacking him upside the head, more for her own amusement than trying to knock sense into him. “Sephiroth found him and saved him. Ask the kid, he’ll tell you, if you can get him to speak.”

The dark-haired man rubbed the back of his head with his hand as he shot the blonde woman a glare that seemed more playful than angry. It seemed he couldn’t pull off righteous pissiness as well as some that he knew.

He sighed and returned his gaze to Aeris. “Why did you sound hesitant earlier then?”

The flower-girl shifted uncomfortably before moving to sit in a pew across the aisle from him. The child, Denzel, refused to move from her side, clinging to her and peering at the dark-haired man with some measure of distrust. Unlike Zack’s seat, it accepted her weight easily, not making a sound in protest. He found himself glaring at the pew before he realized it and returned his attentions to her.

“The Planet has told me that, in the wake of the coming battles, I cannot fight,” began Aeris slowly as Elena took the chance to lean against a broken seat, feeling too restless to sit. “But she said that it had sent a replacement, someone to be its warrior in my wake. I had assumed that to be Sephiroth, that he had been given a chance.”

Zack grinned, pointing a thumb at himself. “That’s me! Or at least, that is what the Planet told me!” He scratched at his hair, soothing the ruffled spikes. “I don’t know really… sometimes it is hard to understand them.”

Aeris shook her head. “Then why has Sephiroth returned? That is why I was hesitant. If you are here, well, I can believe you are the warrior more than he… but what is his purpose? Could it be his intentions are not good?”

The former SOLDIER’s expression suddenly turned serious. “You knew him before Nibelheim, Aeris, can you tell me that was really him that tried to destroy the world?”

The flower-girl frowned and sighed. “No, you are right. I think the only ones who believed he was evil were those who never met him before the… incident. I know Cloud, despite his anger at this present moment, still wants to believe that he is the same cold General that he knew before the insanity.”

“Still hero-worshipping, eh?” questioned Zack with a small laugh. He narrowed his gaze on her belly with a grin. “But I see now that is has gotten over some of his earlier hang-ups… congratulations.”

Aeris blushed. “Only three more months,” she commented wistfully.

“Well,” interrupted Elena. “What are we going to do then? Tseng and Cloud still have Sephiroth up in that cell. When they learn that he might not be here because the Planet sent him, he may never get out of that cell.”

Zack seemed interested at the mention of the other two men as rose to his feet. “Can you take me to him?”

The flower-girl gingerly stood. “Of course. It seems the fates have been bringing about a reunion of sorts, haven’t they?”

“Though, not the type Hojo had in mind I think.” Zack laughed as Elena shot him a strange look.

“You have been dead, how do you know about that?” she demanded. “Or was your death another fake, too?”

The dark-haired man held his hands up in a placating gesture. “Just because you have joined the Lifestream, does not mean you cannot see what happens above. Besides, I was in that fuck’s tender care before I died. I heard all his rambled musings. Ow!” His eyes darted over to the flower-girl who was staring at him amused.

“Don’t curse!” she reprimanded. “There are children present.”

He rubbed the spot on his arm where she had punched him internally glaring at Fenrir who seemed to find the entire situation amusing. “Yes, ma’am,” he responded teasingly.

Aeris shook her head at her former friend’s antics and gestured for Denzel to come to her side. “We’ll take you to ShinRa headquarters, right Elena?” she turned a questioning gaze to the blonde woman who was still eyeing the man with a sort of suspicion.

“The sun’s gone down,” commented the Turk, idly checking her weapons. “We will probably have to fight our way there.”

Zack grinned cheekily, gesturing to the sword at his back. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

Elena smirked and eyed him disbelievingly. “What? With those amazing SOLDIER skills you showed me just a few minutes ago?” She turned her brown eyes towards Aeris. “Don’t worry. I can keep us safe.”

The man bristled as he gaped at the blonde Turk. “I may be a little out of practice, but I think I can handle whatever this place can dish out,” he retorted as the eclectic foursome began heading for the door of the church.

Denzel disappeared for a moment, returning seconds later with Aeris’ staff in his hands. She had left it in the small corona of flowers. With that taken care of, they left out the door with Elena leading the way to ShinRa headquarters.

“They are like children,” Aeris mused aloud, speaking to Denzel. He looked at her with wide, brown eyes before giggling and sneaking glances at the two bickering one time ShinRa employees that they were walking behind.

However, the flower-girl knew that it wasn’t that the two disliked each other. It was Zack’s way to tease and annoy just as it was Elena’s way to taunt and pick. They were going to be friends, Aeris just knew it. She smiled slightly at the thought even as she turned her eyes heaven ward.

Night had indeed fallen on Midgar, and when it did, it descended with a thick, inky blackness that was barely pierced by the street lights that survived the attacks on the city. Power was threaded through the surviving homes by three of the reactors since the plants that relied on the coal that was being shipped out of North Corel were not finished with their construction. As it was, the citizens of Midgar were required to conserve energy at all costs.

Reeve had found a way to give each home an allotment of power so that they were forced to preserve their energy. Aeris wasn’t sure entirely how it worked as it was a touch and go process, but she knew that he was trying his best not to rely on the Planet’s energy. She was hoping that everything would turn out all right, considering that it was ShinRa that caused EVERYTHING.

Aeris was pulled from her internal musings as both Zack and Elena had paused in the streets, senses alert for something she had not noticed. She stopped just behind them, pulling Denzel to her side as she cast about with her eyes and ears trying to discern what had caused them to pause. A skittering on the road ahead drew her attention.

“What is it?” she whispered, unconscious fear making an uncomfortable twinge in her belly. Beside her, Denzel whimpered and buried his face in her dress.

(Abominations,) came Hephaestion’s tired voice within her mind. The demi-god was still exhausted from the battles earlier and sustaining her strength so that she could help heal the wounded and dying. Aeris had her anima to thank for her vague feelings of weariness rather than full blown feet-dragging tiredness.

At the same moment that Hephaestion spoke, Zack had also answered. “Monsters… ahead of us. And big by the sound of them.”

“How many?” questioned the flower-girl, increasing her hold on her staff.

Elena shook her head, calmly reaching for her Flare-modified handgun. She mourned the fact that she could not use her high-powered rifle as she had left it behind when Tseng and she had decided to take a stroll through Midgar the day prior… when they had first run into the stranger Seraph, who had turned out to be the former General Sephiroth.

“Only three, but they are more than enough to give us some trouble.” No sooner had the words left her mouth than the air beside her shimmered briefly, small flashes of sudden lightning and swirling wind coalescing and collapsing to form a tall, regal masculine figure.

He had shining bright blue eyes and an age-lined face. His grey streaked brown hair was long and crested smoothly to about mid-back even as the sides were decorated with braids. He wore brown and white robes draped over his tall and thin form, while a metallic staff glinted in the harsh lamp light above. Aeris knew without question that he was an anima, and she took an educated guess to whom he belonged.

“Those abominations that are not natural,” responded the newcomer with a firming of his brow. “They are combinations of beasts that do not belong on Gaia.”

“Hai, Raijin,” commented Elena with a nod. It was then that the creatures chose to make their presence known.

A set of low, twin growls accompanied by the swish and clack of claw-like limbs skittered across the ground. A pair of monsters, looking a lot like a Tomera with a vague resemblance to Nanaki stepped out of the shadows. They hissed at the foursome, thick saliva dripping from their fangs as their eyes took on an unnatural gleam. Thick black, red, and gold mottled fur was very evident as their twin sets of tails and mouth feelers twitched restlessly.

Zack cursed under his breath and withdrew his sword, leveling the thick, huge blade at the oncoming monsters as they advanced ever so slowly, hissing as they came. The Torlions, as Aeris called them in her head, didn’t appear to be attacking… only scouting out their enemies to discern their danger.

“What the hell?” demanded the dark-haired man on the edge of a whisper. He did not recognize the creatures before him, only knowing that the sight of them sent a chill down his spine.

Elena frowned. “Hojo liked monster subjects as well as human. He was delving into cross-breeding before his demise.”

The third monster made his appearance even as she spoke. It was a very familiar sight to the blonde as was the sound of its feet clacking against the ground. Denzel whimpered, fingers tightening in Aeris’ dress as she unconsciously tightened her grip on his back and stared wide-eyed at the abomination.

It was a Stilva Dragon, just like the one Elena and Tseng had fought a few days ealier, only this time it seemed larger and meaner than before. Though, that might have had something to do with the small amount of fear that had settled in their hearts. While Elena knew the capabilities of the dragon, none of them knew anything of the Torama-clones.

(Ai, this is a battle you can not handle on your own,) said Fenrir to his animus.

“That much I could have told you,” responded Zack dryly, ignoring the odd look that Elena sent his way. Not but two seconds later and the demi-god appeared beside his anima.

“Aeris, you need to get Denzel somewhere safe,” intoned the dark-haired man, his voice sounding strange, as if he had slipped into his battle mode. The flower-girl nodded in response, looking around quickly for a place for them to hide. She spotted a small building with a door hanging slightly open and swiftly pulled the brunet boy with her. She didn’t look back as they ducked into the building and closed the door behind them, peering out through a dingy window at the fight that was about to take place.

“Why are they just watching us?” muttered Elena under her breath. “Why won’t they just attack?”

Zack shook his head. “I’ve a feeling we’re about to find out soon enough.” He would have to make do with his sword and whatever powers Fenrir had because he had no materia of his own. Not that he necessarily needed it.

The Torama-clones hissed angrily, which was the only warning they gave before springing in mighty leaps towards the foursome of mortal and immortal. The sound of a Flare-powered hand gun echoed through the air as Elena took her first shot, ripping through the shoulder of the first Torama-clone, spattering blood and bits of bone everywhere. However, it did not slow the creature down in the slightest; the beast kept coming, fiery tails twitching angrily as claws extended from all four of its feet.

Zack swung his sword in a huge arc, blocking the attack of the second and twisting to narrowly avoid getting slapped in the face by a fire tail. The Torama-clones were FAST, running and leaping around him more quickly than he could swing his sword. He and Elena stood back to back as the creatures circled them, occasionally darting in to attack. The Turk fired shot after shot as the ex-SOLDIER blocked each attack with the flat of his blade. Yet, it seemed the clones were either impervious to pain or didn’t care either way about it.

In the aftermath of the attack of the Toramas, the two mortals had nearly forgotten about their third opponent.

The sound of a quick indrawn breath called Elena to pale as she risked a glance at the Stilva Dragon, scuttle walking its way towards them and gathering up a breath of power in front of its body. She briefly recalled the attacks that she and Tseng had taken out first last time: Great Gale and Dragon Breath. Just then, the two Toramas leapt in sync, taking the moment of surprise as an opening.

Elena went down in a bundle of fur and limbs and claws, pushed against Zack’s back with the force of the monster’s attack and setting the dark-haired man off balance. He stumbled forward, twisting his body to avoid the attack of the second Torama and attempting to swing his blade one-handed in a wide-arc as he did so. He caught the left hind leg of the beast and lopped it off cleanly, blood spraying the ground as he fought to keep his balance. Still, the monster seemed unfazed and rushed at him again, fangs aiming for his throat.

Until a lightning bolt burst out of the dark and shoved into the belly of the beast, causing it to yelp in surprise and back off a moment, eyes glittering with intelligence and anger. Zack immediately turned to help Elena, who was struggling to fight off the Torama, her body already covered with small burns and slashes. He dove into the fray without a second thought, wrapping his arms around the clones neck and pulling back. The creature wriggled beneath him and snarled, fiery tail whipping around and trying to strike him.

The ground rumbled and shook as the Stilva Dragon released its pent up power, determined to set them all afire with its poisonous acidic breath. A dark purple and green miasma shot like a string of liquid towards the grappling foursome. The earth cracked and screeched, shuddering intently before a great wall of stone and soil shot up between the dragon and the fighting foursome. Fenrir stood at the top, building up the barrier until the breath struck it harmlessly, fizzling away underneath the solidarity of the stone and soil.

The demi-god watched it all with bemusement before pulling a weapon out of seemingly thin air, a dual bladed pole arm, and jumping down on the side of the wall that housed the Stilva Dragon.

Elena managed to free an arm and dug her hidden handgun from her back, pulling it out and shooting the Torama through the bottom of its head, narrowly missing Zack’s own. It yelped and went still in their grasp, body twitching almost uncontrollably. Before the two could take a breath, the remaining clone leapt at them.

Thinking quickly, Zack rolled and reached for his sword, bringing it up as he came to the balls of his feet and slicing the long, thick blade through the air. The Torama had no time to change its flight plan and succumbed to being sliced in two by the monstrous blade. The two pieces fell in a bloody heap to the ground, twitching just like its counterpart.

Elena’s nose wrinkled in disgust as she crawled out from under the carcass and its still twitching form. She would likely need a Cure materia, but other than that she would survive. The sounds of battle could be heard just on the other side of the barrier as Raijin, who disappeared in and out of battle like a shadow, and Fenrir took down the Stilva Dragon on their own. The earth rumbled and they could see lightning flashes but not much else.

Rolling her shoulders and casting the dark-haired man a glance, Elena tucked her gun back into its hiding place before making for the wall of stone, determined to climb it and aid her anima.

“Like they need our help,” grumbled the ex-SOLDIER good-naturedly as he moved to join her. He hadn’t felt so good in a long time. The one battle had awakening all of his dormant fighting instincts. Sure, he had fought a little before to earn money for his current weapon, but those were easy battles and were won within seconds. Something like the clones and the Stilva Dragon, however, were of an entirely different caliber.

“Zack!”

His attention was instantly pulled behind him, finding that Aeris and Denzel were running from the building where they hid, fear evident on their faces. He had very nearly forgotten about the two. His face furrowed in confusion as to why they were running, but it was quickly allayed as the sight of two more Torama-clones came bounding out of the building after them.

“Shit!” he cursed, taking off quickly towards the running duo. One of the clones made a leap for the two, Aeris pausing only to pull Denzel behind her before she whipped out the staff and swung it in a wide arc. It slammed into the creature’s head, and though it did not cause a lot of damage, it was painful and the monster paused in its track. She was six months pregnant but not at all helpless!

“Elena!” called out Zack, knowing he would need the Turk’s help.

“You rang?” came Fenrir’s somewhat amused voice, suddenly springing into existence behind him.

He didn’t have a moment to remark on that as they had finally caught up to Aeris and Denzel, the brunet boy immediately latching onto Zack and crying intently. The flower-girl was out of breath and had a pained expression on her face but seemed otherwise all right. She moved to stand beside the ex-SOLDIER even as he drew his blade again, still blood-stained from earlier and lowered it at the advancing Torama-clones, who were again regarding them with that strange intent look.

“Can you do anything other than make huge walls spring out of the ground?” questioned Zack, shooting his anima a glance.

Fenrir raised a brow. “Can you do anything other than swing that huge sword around?”

“Touché,” commented the dark-haired man as he again turned his attention to the advancing clones.

“Do not worry, Loire, I believe we can handle these abominations,” intoned the anima.

Zack didn’t respond, already forming a plan in his mind. It wasn’t really a battle tactic, but it was one of his favorites. Sephiroth had always told him that it had no class, but it got the job done. Cloud was proof of that. And with the Toramas’ speed and twin tails, he figured it worked perfectly for him. It even had a name: Hack-and-Slash.

He detached Denzel with a bit of difficulty from his side, pushing the boy towards Aeris before letting out a fierce battle cry and rushing the Torama with no warning. They hissed but stood their ground, convinced a manling would not be able to take them down.

Zack started swinging before he even got there, a series of intricate sword dances that would be difficult to block and even harder to ignore. One of the Toramas leapt away, but the other stood its ground, whiskers twitching at the sides of its mouth. His blade bit into a shoulder, but the clone danced out from beneath the next swing, sending a tail shooting his way. He dodged that and absorbed the lash from the second, knowing it would sting like a bitch later, before slashing viciously at the clone putting a gash along its side as it twisted its body in an almost sinuous manner.

Zack took several steps forward, determined to end the fight, and found that his ankles were wound about by the monster’s incredibly long whiskers. He tottered on his feet for a moment before tumbling over with a gasp of surprise, finding that the whiskers must have been coated with a poison because they burned through the fabric of his pants and seared at his skin.

He gritted his teeth against the pain and fought to reach for his sword, which had fallen from his hand as the Torama pounced, still restraining him with its whiskers. In desperation, Zack grabbed the closest thing he had to a weapon, a nearby stone, and brought it down over the creature’s body, wishing that it were more like a boulder and could crush the beast rather than distract it.

There was a flash of bright green light and before he knew it or could even blink, the creature had turned to stone before his eyes, the perfect statue of a Torama-clone. The rock was gone from Zack’s hands, but the monster was petrified. Amazing.

Extracting himself from the hefty weight of a stoned monster, Zack looked around, surprise still on his face. He barely registered when Fenrir dealt the killing blow to his opponent, so shocked he was by what he had done. In that very same moment, the wall that blocked them from the Stilva Dragon collapsed in a display of lightning and light, revealing a haggard Elena, a pleased Raijin, and a smoldering corpse of dragon behind them.

The group of six slowly gravitated towards each other, looking a little worse for wear, but nonetheless, all were alive. Aeris quickly cast a cure on them before anything further was done.

Zack gestured towards the Torama-clone that he had petrified before turning a glance onto his anima. “What was that?”

Fenrir shook his head. “I said we shared powers. I am an Earth and Growth, demi-god. What did you expect?”

“Elena’s impervious to Thunder and all electricity,” commented Aeris, smiling slightly at the look of shock on Zack’s face as he took it all in.

The dark-haired man shook his head. He wandered over to one of the Torama-clone’s bodies. It was still slightly twitching, and he looked down on it in disgust. “Fucking Hojo,” he commented. “Bastard needs to let things alone.” Frowning, he moved to return to the group when he caught something out of the corner of his eye.

It glinted in the harsh light of the street lamp above. He knelt down to get a closer look, reaching out to pluck the square object from the crest of the clone’s head. It was small, barely bigger than the pad of this thumb, and thin, almost certainly made of metal.

“What is this?” he questioned, bringing the object back to the group. “It was on the Torama-clone.”

Elena furrowed her brow as she took it, looking at them in all in surprise. “It’s a chip… a bio chip.”

“What was it doing on a monster?” questioned Aeris as Denzel clung to her side. The poor child was still shaking with fright. He had had to endure much the past few days, and it was no wonder he was scared.

The Turk shook her head, pocketing the bio chip. “I don’t know, but when we get to HQ, I aim to find out.”

“Good suggestion,” intoned Fenrir. “It is still dark, and I for one would prefer not to fight any longer.”

There was a general nod of agreement as the group of six turned and headed for the ShinRa building once more, leaving behind the scene of carnage and a few slightly twitching bodies.

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