Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and settings are all property of Square Enix so I can take no credit nor claim any ownership of that. I do take some credit for the story’s plot.
Artwork Disclaimer: The featured artwork for this chapter is entitled What Am I and was created by the very talented Deviant Artist TsukiNoKishi/Kali Mavromati who graciously granted me permission to use it here. All rights belong to the artist, and links are included for both her artist page and the work.
“Gott weiß ich will kein Engel sein.”
It was clean, far too clean to dwell below in the slums. They must’ve decided at the very last minute that it wasn’t worthy of being above, but the sector remembered and kept some of its pride to shine white light near bright as day. The lamps were high here though the plate was even higher ascending again after its dip. In the miasma of smoke and fog the lamplight spread along the strands. It almost created an overcast sense as though beyond the mist waited the sun.
The populace ignored her even the street sweepers. Aeris dwelled below even their care. As for her escort, he slid past their vision, stunning and better than they. The fact that he was with her didn’t matter. Slum girls were easy to buy. This sector was only a layer away from the true city above. Even the destitute and poor have hierarchy, and Aeris flinched at another harsh glare.
Sephiroth sniffed. “This place reeks of Mako. The reactor here is fully active.”
“You can tell that?” the Cetra jolted up. Her hands were still locked in his one. It seemed far safer despite the foul looks. She’d hate to get lost up here.
“Yes,” he replied his nose lifted high. “It’s not like it was deeper in. Below it’s just residual power, what trickles down from above.”
“Wh-What does it smell like?”
“You ask that a lot.” He almost half smiled. “It’s like heat coming off a cold stone. Molten metal somehow more frozen than the wastes beyond the far north.”
Aeris shivered and any smile was lost as he lowered his head into memory. His madness had found him in the heart of a reactor and shame shrouded him from crown to toe.
“It’s alright little one. Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to turn again…”
“No, it’s not that,” she assured seeing his rue. “I just hate what it does to the Planet. I hate this city. I hate the corruption…and now it doesn’t even have a face. They’re all dead. All the ones who caused it, and I hate that there’s nothing to fight.”
“Yet…you don’t hate me.”
“You were another victim. Like me, like my friends, like this world.”
He shook his head as the street widened to avenue and the light mimicked twilight at dusk. “You can always feel it, can’t you, little flower?” he asked, disliking her dismay.
“Yes…I suppose it comes from being a ‘daughter.’” She sighed before grinning up genuinely, and he tilted his head in surprise. “I’ll feel better once we’re out of the city. It’s the epicenter of the Planet’s grief.”
Aeris squeezed his hand as they passed an elegant structure that mocked a cathedral with its grace. The flower girl’s poor church could never compete, but she’d never deride that sanctuary no matter how decrepit it was.
“How do you suggest we find these ‘Followers?’” Sephiroth’s low voice interrupted her thoughts. A black post dangled white light over a shop where both maps and portraits were drawn. He could’ve burrowed through the minds of the people passing by, but that called the sharp twinge of wrong. Something else that wasn’t me. Something else distorted.
The flower girl was chewing her lip, and he raised a silver brow. “Well, ah, will you promise you won’t be angry?”
“Angry,” he restated. “With you? Child, I have no right.” Sighing, Sephiroth corrected himself. “Aeris, that would be absurd. You could do nothing to make me angry.”
“I hope not…” She looked up with huge eyes on his face, and he was tortured that she was scared. The once general pulled her beneath the awning beside a rusting rail. He laid his free hand to her smooth cheek, and the fear shivered out at his touch.
Aeris gazed up and couldn’t help her smile. He’s so tall, was her first thought. She shut her eyes but briefly and when she reopened his beauty radiated in summer green. All of her focus tangled away in hair spun from the threads of the moon, and the face it framed stole the breath from her throat as it quickened the pulse in her ears.
Sephiroth heard that and frowned confused, before sweeping the strands from his face. They tumbled to one side over epaulet and leather, and Aeris’s words wouldn’t come.
“Well, little one?” The low voice was patient. “What binds you to such a silence?”
It was so formal that in such a moment, Aeris could only laugh. A flicker on his face made her worry she’d been hurtful and she shook her head to dispel that at once.
“It’s just I know more about the Followers than I let on before. I wouldn’t want you to think that I lied.”
“If you kept it from me I’m sure there was reason. I murdered you after all.”
She glanced around worried, but no one had heard. None were paying them any attention.
“When I was revived,” she said, brushing her bang, “well I assumed it was for you. You were the world’s greatest enemy. What other reason could the Planet need me back?”
Sephiroth said nothing, but his eyes half closed, and the light shied away from her face.
“So I figured,” she continued squeezing his hand, “I would find out what I could. Midgar…well, it hates you…the people blame you for all their ills. They need a scapegoat for their grief and…you were more than fitting.” She forced herself see what pain this would cause, but his face held no expression. “But I heard rumors about groups that adored you-”
“They were mad as I…” he said.
“N-No,” she refuted, “not that at all. They believed that you’d been used.”
Emerald remained lowered and Aeris noticed his lashes enhanced the angelic look. Hiding the cat eyes helps, she thought, but then, it makes him look so sad…
“Well groups like that don’t last for long…” She shuddered and he cupped her shoulder. “They were…killed.” She swallowed as she drew nearer. “Very publicly in the central hub. Some were beaten to death. Some were shot. And a few were even burned alive. Remember I told you speaking your name could get your tongue torn out?”
Sephiroth nodded, resisting the urge to pull her closer in. She was an innocent forced to see horror all because of him.
“There are people who were silenced in just such a way even if they said it as curse.”
“And yet these ‘Followers’ still exist…” His low voice failed to hide its guilt.
“They kept themselves as rumor, but even rumor can bloom for a price.” Aeris allowed the slight half grin as she thanked her mother again.
“So you found out the truth, little one?” he asked as her hand shifted in his palm.
“Not completely,” she admitted, “but I know where to find them…at the very least.”
The shopkeeper frowned when they vacated their space and took hope of some business away. Sephiroth concentrated on hiding who he was behind the gleaming Mako eyes. Her little hand so trusting in his kept the once general peering down. She seemed neither ashamed nor alarmed and in truth it was helping his ruse. This tiny, stunning gem in enthusiasm leading the semblance of who he was. He let his mind flicker to these haughty slum-born, seeing no recognition there. It doesn’t work on her though. She’ll always see you… Beneath the shadow of elegance they passed. It dwarfed his height with its austere steps, and in shade a small shop gnawed on its domain.
Aeris grinned up as he opened the door, and Sephiroth ducked to follow her inside. He was forced to dim his sense of smell for the candles lining the walls. It overrode even the Mako reek and was more cloying than the flower girl’s blooms. The ceiling was as low as the shop was dim, and dust froze in Mako cold. Wooden beams crossed the top hung with knick-knacks, strange baubles, and macabre toys. Beneath the floor, though, there dwelled a large space, and his boots echoed silence below.
Aeris was pulling at her hand in his and he let her go to sorry soft. The warmth of his palm felt so empty now with no more use to give. At the counter the girl there wore porcelain face, but her dress was more fit for a funeral. She was leaning bored on a lacy, half glove as the little Cetra approached. Her hair was blacker than the false sky above, but the tips were as winter white. Neon green poured in hard scrutiny, but she saw neither that nor him. Sliding a finger beneath the counter, she inspected the dirt with brows held tight as though searching for some flaw.
After some moments she held her hand out, fingertip lifted high. “I doubt even this would be in your price range. Run along home, slum girl.” Then picked up a book, flipped carelessly through and ignored all else save those words.
Sephiroth approached as Aeris recoiled as though she’d been struck hard. The anger that boiled left terror in its wake, and his voice was the general’s.
“Have a care how you speak. You’re a slum girl, as well, and she’s not caked to the bone in makeup.”
The shopkeeper gasped jerking up glossy eyes under heavily painted lids.
“Do you know me?” Sephiroth asked staring down hard with neon cold as sleet.
“N-No…sir,” she swallowed. “No I don’t…I surely don’t know you.”
“Really.” He clasped his hands behind his back and looked down his nose with disdain. It was the first time Aeris had seen such an expression on his ever passive face. “You see me before you. You presume to judge her, and you can’t even tell me my name?” His hair burned silver as a sky full of moons as his bangs stirred forth for his breath. “I ask again…do-you-know-me?”
“I…” The shopkeeper trembled, working her words like a piece of overcooked meat. Great Mako eyes cut her as sharp as the slivers at their heart.
Sephiroth whirled to pace the floor throwing glares over his shoulder. Gone was the sorrow, the guilt and remorse. Gone was the endless despair. No not gone, Aeris thought, buried in arrogance. He could hide it. He could hide it all.
“I was told I would find my answers here, and you don’t even know my name.” His leather coat whipped as he turned again, and he held his gaze hard as he walked. A tear formed in the shopkeeper’s eyes, her sight smearing on sea-foam skin. “I was told that you were ‘Followers,” but you can’t even see what you seek.” His pupils turned thin as the Masamune’s edge as the air rushed from her lungs. He wouldn’t touch her mind, but the reaction to that word left him without any doubt. “Now, you who claim to owe allegiance. Tell. Me. Who. I. Am.” With the last word he cast the shroud aside and the shopkeeper collapsed to the floor.
The arrogant mask fell fast in grief as Sephiroth rushed forward. Aeris crouched over and felt for a pulse as the girl’s eyes rolled behind closed lids.
“Please child, get up,” the once general said, trading disdain for regret. He used no persuasion, but the girl still obeyed, opening her eyes before sitting up. She pushed lank, bi-colored strands from her vision and stared up at angelic face.
“H-How is this possible? How are you here? Did I-” Her nostrils flared at each breath that passed.
“Evil never dies…” He lowered his head in sorrow, and Aeris gave him a glare to shame the hidden sword. “I’m living proof of that.”
“Imminent darkness…” the shopkeeper whispered. “Imminent darkness will come.”
“What are you talking about?” he snapped with narrowed eyes as the girl pulled away from Aeris. The Cetra ignored the haughty glance and hoped Sephiroth would do the same.
The shopkeeper scanned the room fitfully, but there was no one but they three. She trembled to her feet and reached through the baubles to pull a switch that doused all the lights. Instant gloom bled only green, and they all shimmered in luminescence.
“We…we can’t talk here. Please come with me where the walls have less ears and no eyes.” She lurched around and locked the front door, staring briefly through the windows. Her black dress was bunched in sweaty hands, but she still stumbled to pass by his shade. In the back of the shop was a heavy black door bound and chased with silver. Nowhere in the slums should’ve boasted this luxury so it glimmered behind heavy curtains.
If the door was heavy their hostess didn’t show, pulling it free of its frame with no creak. The staircase beyond spiraled down to shadow, and Aeris’s heart near deafened his ears. “Don’t fear, little one,” Sephiroth assured, “I’m right here close behind.” He balked the minute those words left his lips, but she reached back for his hand. The click of the shopkeeper’s high heeled boots began to echo as the earth closed them round. Aeris’s shoes squeaked like trapped rats, but Sephiroth heard no scratching now. The moisture and soil mixed with the Mako, but it would take more than those to hide it.
When the wall receded Aeris noticed the carpet like a heavy, black sky without stars, but the first thing Sephiroth had to face was the image of himself. Above an obsidian mantle place between candles that burned without smoke hung a portrait overflowed with pride and disdain captured for all time.
Aeris gave a little squeak as he lifted her down to the floor. He jumped off the side and strode to the picture face to face with the distant past. No madness was there just arrogance and belief that he was the best of them all. A sigh escaped to summon regret, and silver shivered to shaken hair.
“It doesn’t do you justice.” He turned to stare at the shop girl over a pauldron. In the descent though, she’d cast off that role and her face held the pride his had lost. “And the artist is long dead.” His unblinking gaze froze her as he struggled not to seek if she’d killed him herself.
“I have nothing left but guilt.” He returned to his face. “But it does serve some purpose. I seek my mother’s lonely grave to acknowledge that once she was mine.”
Aeris held her silence hard as the grip between her small clasped hands. The girl in black attempted one word, and his hiss raised their hair like a scream.
“Don’t you ever speak that name.” Green eyes turned to shards to slice through the dark memory. “That horror did not birth me. I now know the truth, though I’m still a monster. My mother’s name was Lucrecia Crescent.” He glanced back to Aeris still clutching her hands as her old boots sank deep in the carpet.
“Very few people know that truth,” the once shop girl admitted.
That he agreed with. “It was kept tight by those who dwelled above.”
“Above, above, what’s above? We’re the ones who molder below…” Her smile had Aeris sidling closer to him, and Sephiroth frowned in the pall of her fear.
“Who are you?” he asked. There was more than silence beneath the shop, not even the candles crackled. Aeris opened her mind to find her dear friend, but the Planet was strangely still.
“My name is Phaedra Levanah and I’m the leader of the Followers of Seph.”
He walked away from the portrait slowly shaking his head. “No one should strive to follow me, child, a monster a hundred years dead.”
Phaedra faked calm as her hands shook in lace and her knees threatened to give way. “The other…the others will be here soon. They’ll never believe…will you sta-”
“No.” He shook his head and his hands clenched to fists as waves of past crashed against memory.
“In imminent darkness you’ll return and imminent darkness you’ll bring.” Phaedra wanted to approach, but her legs could not move and support her at the same time.
“That time is over.” The low voice rang. “Those days are dead and buried. I have only one wish to find my true mother and beg for her forgiveness.”
“Imminent darkness…black winged death. Angels can’t change their fate.”
“Then it’s lucky for all that I’m not.”
“Darkness follows wherever you go waiting for your command.”
Aeris raised folded hands in front of her face as panic threatened to descend. The Planet was direly trying to reach her, and its muteness left her blind.
“Let it wait.” Sephiroth turned away. “Let it wait forever and more.” He let his gaze fall on the little Cetra, stricken again to witness her prayers, but as remorse thinned, he held to her brightness and found in it slivers of hope. “Let it rot in the shadows until it finally decays into light.”
“You know darkness doesn’t work like that.” White tipped hair whipped Phaedra’s cheeks as the Follower shook her head.
Sephiroth shut his eyes tight, sighing hard as he stepped towards the stairs. Aeris reached and grabbed his hand, and grief swam through the skin of his palm. “I…thank you.” He hid defeat with courtesy. “None should stoop to worship me. This should end before you’re caught.”
They had not even reached the stairs when the whisper made silence its king. “Beneath the northern lights you’ll find her.”
Sephiroth froze just like the marble that mimicked his flawless skin. “What was that?”
“Beneath the northern lights she sleeps…”
Slowly he turned to face their strange hostess. “That is where my mother’s interred?”
“That is where you’ll find her.”
“North…” he whispered, as Aeris took his other hand with tears in her eyes trembling up. “The same direction I’ve always gone once to madness and twice to grief.”
Phaedra nodded and held his gaze as though they two shared a secret, but Sephiroth looked away uncaring what other darkness she had to impart. He glanced down and realized how he and Aeris were standing, clasping hand to hand with brief space. That made him so sad that he had to release her sweeping away and back to the stairs. The little Cetra put a knuckle to her lips as her skin twitched to the shopkeeper’s glare.
“Thank you for true this time,” the once general said for the girl was owed that respect.
“The kingdom lies beneath the foundation,” was her reply “and the foundation is rotting above.”
He narrowed his eyes to thinness as black lashes played in the light. “Forget me. Forget her. Play with your shadows, but hide from the night.”
Phaedra’s mouth hinged open, but her tongue was paralyzed. A dark miasma moved through her mind and swallowed up silver memory. Sea-foam skin was washed in dark seas, and the portrait became the only glory to flash cold Mako eyes.
Author’s Note: A shorter chapter this week, but two important things are revealed: why the title is what it is and who utters the quote on the banner. Hopefully, that information was worth the fewer words. The next chapter Urban Sprawl is substantially longer and will be posted next Friday May 1. Again I thank you all for your continued support!