Characters: Cloud, Zack, Sephiroth
Disclaimer: The usual- not mine, no silver crosses my palm. XD
Summary: Events at Nibelheim take a trip into the surreal, and old myths become more than legend.
Cloud was sitting on the edge of the bed with one knee bent, his other foot resting on the floor. His forearms were braced on his thighs, and he was rolling a strangely-colored materia back and forth between his hands when Zack came back upstairs from the mansion’s basement.
Zack paused at the hidden entrance, his gaze settling on the materia Cloud held, its colors dimmed and faded save for a single, small spark that still winked from its depths as it moved. Zack’s eyes traveled from there to Cloud’s face as he sat staring off into some vague middle distance. A curl of smoke from the basement followed Zack into the room as he approached Cloud and leaned against the bed’s footboard, his arms crossed upon his chest.
Cloud continued to stare ahead as if not noticing Zack’s arrival, until he finally asked in a voice devoid of emotion: “Did you get it all?”
Zack nodded, his reply subdued as he gazed at the bed’s other occupant, one who lay as still and silent as he had been when Zack had carried him down the mountain from the reactor. “Yeah. It’s all gone now. Any change yet?” he added hopefully.
Zack finally moved from where he’d been standing and carefully sat on the edge of the bed at Sephiroth’s shoulder. Zack removed one glove, then gently reached out and brushed a strand of silver hair from Sephiroth’s face. The touch brought no response. If not for the steady rise and fall of his chest, shallow as it was, it would have been difficult to tell if Sephiroth still breathed. Zack gazed at Sephiroth’s face for several long moments before his eyes returned to the sphere in Cloud’s hands. “Cloud, where did you get that thing…and what happened back there?”
Cloud visibly flinched at Zack’s question and he stopped rolling the materia between his hands, clenching it in one fist instead. He reminded himself that this was Zack asking…and Zack was a friend. After everything that had happened, Zack deserved to know. With his thoughts still in turmoil, Cloud hardly knew where to begin.
“I… it was at home. When I went to see my mother…” Cloud paused, took a deep breath and released it, at last raising his eyes from his hands to Zack’s worried face. “I…don’t know. It’s a Summon…I think.”
“Yeah, from what I saw, that would pretty much describe it,” Zack replied, bringing up his gloved hand and dragging it through his hair, his eyes widening with the memory of what had happened only a few hours before. “I never would have thought of releasing one inside a reactor, though…it’s a wonder the place is still standing.”
“What did you see?” Cloud asked. His recall of what had happened after he saw Zack and Sephiroth battling and the thing that had been behind them… Cloud couldn’t truthfully say that he had Summoned… it seemed instead that whatever was inside the materia had summoned itself.
“There was…” Zack shook his head, not surprised that their conversation seemed to be as disjointed as what he had seen...or thought he had seen. “There was…a woman? Or at least I think that’s what it was. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before.” All Zack really knew was that when the Summon had disappeared again, where the strange sarcophagus and its occupant had been was only a scorched, smoking depression in the wall, Sephiroth was down and only inches from tumbling into the reactor core, and every alarm in the place seemed to be blaring at once. Only Zack’s frantic dive and his SOLDIER strength as he grabbed a tangled fistful of Sephiroth’s hair and leather coat, then wrapped his legs around one of the conduits had saved them both from a long fall into raw mako.
In light of it all, the fact that Sephiroth had not lost his grip on Masamune was almost absurd enough to make Zack laugh as he struggled against the weight of them both plus that of their swords. Cloud, at least, had been safe at the foot of the stairs, his back braced against the wall, with only the wind knocked out of him from the force of whatever he’d unleashed. As soon as Cloud had realized what was happening, he’d picked himself up, pocketed the strange materia and rushed to Zack’s aid.
Cloud glanced down at the materia again before meeting Zack’s eyes. “She...” Cloud cleared his throat and started over. “She’s Skadi…or maybe Hel. Maybe she’s both. She’s Nibelheim’s goddess.”
Zack stared at Cloud in open-mouthed amazement. “Holy shit,” he finally replied. “With what happened to Seph, I didn’t think…” Zack paused, swallowing roughly. “Maybe you’d better start at the beginning, Spiky… I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around all this.”
Zack. This is Zack. Cloud reminded himself. He needs to know. Cloud fixed his eyes on Sephiroth’s unconscious form. They both deserve to know.
“There’s a shrine on top of Mount Nibel,” Cloud began haltingly. “Built out of chunks of black stone. It belongs to her...or them. I went there when I was ten years old… after my dad died.”
Zack held up his hands in a warding gesture and shook his head hard as if to dispel the images of a child doing such a thing. “Whoa…wait a minute. You went up there after everything you told me about what its like?” The summit of Mount Nibel was, even on the brightest days, hidden by clouds, only visible for a handful of days in each year. Bitter cold beyond imagining, unforgiving and forever locked in ice. What was it Cloud had called it? the Dead Zone. “People die up there, Cloud. They don’t come back.
“I know,” Cloud replied, and even within the enclosed room where they sat, he turned his head instinctively toward that hidden peak. “It’s our duty. Skadi is the goddess of the hunt…and when one of us makes our first kill, we take the heart to her altar as an offering. If we make the journey with a pure heart, she protects us. Its only people who go there without respect who don’t come back. There’s some old made-up story about treasure being hidden in her shrine and some people are stupid enough to believe it…so Hel gets her due, too.”
Zack took a deep breath and released it explosively, then raked his hands through his hair again before pressing the heels of them to his temples as if warding off a headache. In everything Cloud had said, his voice was almost emotionless, but there was something indefinable that flickered behind the blue eyes. What had Cloud seen up there? Zack’s gaze was drawn once more to the materia in Cloud’s hands. “That’s where you got it, isn’t it?”
Cloud looked down at his hands again, as if he’d forgotten the materia’s presence, even though he’d begun rolling it gently between his hands again. Cloud stilled the motion and nodded. “There’s a statue, I’d guess you’d call it…in the shrine. One half…” Cloud paused, swallowing roughly. “One half is like the translucent blue ice of those glaciers you showed me on the way to Modeoheim…so very beautiful. The other is…” Cloud squeezed his eyes closed, as if shutting away the memory of horror. “The other is…black. Black bones and dry, ragged flesh and a grinning skull with no eye. In her hands…” Cloud opened his eyes and looked down at the small sphere he held. Its colors swirled like moving water in a gentle stream, ice white and blue and black.
Zack shuddered as if it was himself who had stood on that peak. “Tell me you didn’t-“
“No. If I had, I wouldn’t still be here.” Cloud almost snarled, his eyes flashing. “She… gave it to me.”
“I’m sorry, Spiky,” Zack countered. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. But…how does a statue give someone something?”
“I don’t know,” Cloud replied, mollified. “I didn’t do anything. I laid the deer’s heart on a stone in front of the shrine. The materia was in her hands, and then it just…rolled to my feet. I tried to put it back, but...”
Zack turned his attention back to Sephiroth, lying almost as still as death. His shoulders slumped in helplessness. “Did she do this?” he asked at last.
“I don’t think so,” Cloud replied, watching the rise and fall of Sephiroth’s chest. “If she had…” Cloud’s voice trailed off again.
Zack scrubbed his hands across his face before raising weary eyes to Cloud. “Maybe you’d better tell me all of it.”
Cloud sighed heavily, his gaze never leaving Sephiroth. Zack settled back against the headboard at Sephiroth’s shoulder, determined not to interrupt again.
“There’s a story…” Cloud began, “one handed down from generation to generation further back than anybody can remember. We didn’t have a written language then, just the bards, who taught us the things we needed to remember. Their stories say that Skadi didn’t always live here. The ice and snow at the top of the world were hers, and she and her sister Hel ruled there until a star fell from the skies. Inside it was a demon, and when the star broke open, it was released.
Skadi and Hel gathered their people and fought a terrible battle, but almost everyone was killed and their once-beautiful land all but destroyed. Skadi and Hel were terribly wounded, but they managed to trap the demon in ice and bury it, even though they could not kill it. Saddened and too weak for either to survive alone, the sisters joined and became one. Then they left their home and came here, swearing an oath of vengeance for all they had lost and hiding themselves away until they were strong again. The faithful of their people who had lived, and were strong enough, followed, promising Skadi and Hel that they would remember, and when the time came-“
Caught up in the tale, neither Cloud nor Zack were aware of anything else until the bedroom’s door burst open. Even as they scrambled to their feet, they were surrounded by Turks and Shinra troopers, all with weapons trained upon them at point-blank range. Through the center of these, Hojo shouldered and elbowed his way until he stood glaring down at the bed and its silent occupant.
“Dispose of them,” Hojo ordered in a tone of blatant disgust, “and bring that with you. Perhaps I can still manage to find some use for it.” Hojo waved an imperious hand at Sephiroth, but the sudden flash of the materia Cloud held caught his attention and Hojo snatched it from Cloud’s hand. “Oho…what’s this?” Hojo brought the materia to eye level, peering at it in fascination.
And then Hojo screamed; a sound that was strangled into gurgling silence. His grasping fingers tried to open, but as the room’s occupants looked on in frozen horror, the hand that held the materia blackened and turned to stone. Hojo’s eyes were locked upon the small sphere in terror, as if he were unable to look away. The materia flared again, blinding in its brilliance as the blackness spread to encompass Hojo’s entire body, and everyone in the room save for Sephiroth, forgot their weapons and flung up their arms to shield their faces.
When the light within the room had faded to normal and they could all see again, no one spoke. Where Hojo had stood, all that remained was a statue of black stone, of a type only found at the summit of Nibelheim’s great mountain.
Sephiroth opened his eyes. He blinked rapidly and sat up, swinging his feet over the edge of the bed in a single, smooth motion. The materia Hojo had held slipped from between stone fingers and rolled to Sephiroth’s feet. Before anyone could intervene, Sephiroth leaned over and picked the materia up from the floor, studying it closely with open curiosity.
Sephiroth looked from the materia to Hojo and back again while the other occupants of the room regained their composure. Then Sephiroth began to laugh, a sound none within the room had ever heard before, and passed the materia to Cloud, who was still staring at him open-mouthed.
“I don’t get it,” Reno said from behind Rude’s shoulder. “Why didn’t-“
“Because Sephiroth was born here.” Zack responded in dawning comprehension. “It said so in Hojo’s notebooks.”
Allowing a faint smile to curl his lips, Tseng reholstered his weapon and gave the formal order to stand down.
Zack and Sephiroth stood upon Mount Nibel’s summit, waiting for Cloud to finish what he had come there to do. Around them the day was as bright and clear as if early spring had come, the village of Nibelheim still sleeping at this early hour, and with their enhanced sight, the view was incredible. Zack wasn’t certain, but it seemed to him that the smudge of green on the southern horizon could possibly be the jungles of Gongaga. He turned to look east, and in doing so, his foot nudged a small black boulder. It rolled, and when it came to rest, Zack realized he was staring at what remained of someone’s head.
Zack clenched his eyes shut and swallowed hard, remembering how they’d left Hojo’s remains where they were because no one had been willing to touch them…or at least they hadn’t until Sephiroth ordered everyone from the room and with Masamune in hand, began reducing the stone statue to chunks no larger than a man’s fist.
Later, when the Turks found someone else in the basement, things became even more bizarre.
“You may want to watch where you step,” Sephiroth advised dryly from beside Zack, startling him back to awareness of his surroundings.
Zack made himself focus on his friend’s voice and raised his head, determined not to look down again unless he absolutely had to. “Yeah…I’ll do that.” Instead, he joined Sephiroth in watching Cloud as he raised himself from his knees before Skadi’s empty shrine. For lack of being able to return her materia to its proper place, Cloud had left it on Skadi’s altar. Somehow, Zack didn’t think it would be disturbed.
Cloud was smiling as he returned to them, his peaceful expression a mirror of the one Sephiroth had worn on their journey to this dizzying height. “She would have let you keep it,” Cloud said to Sephiroth when he stood before them again.
Sephiroth thought about that in silence for several moments. “Though I am thankful for her absolution,” he finally replied, “This is her chosen home now. It would be wrong to take her away from it…and from her people.” Turning to face the shrine, Sephiroth bowed in deep respect. “Should she need me,” he vowed, “I will return.” The materia flared in response from its resting place and then settled back to a soft glow; dreaming beneath the sun.