* * *
“You loved her, didn’t you?” Aerith determined, her tone soft as she broke the silence among the seven.
The Guardian’s shoulders sagged pitifully, his wolf-like features a portrait of regret against the bonfire’s radiance. “Yes…I yearned to have her for a mate.”
Somewhere in the evening darkness, a lamenting birdsong resonated, its sound a stark contrast to the steady rhythm of the Starlet Tavern’s drums and sitars. Shadows writhed amid the company, each of them a slave to the entrancing, ethereal tongues of the Candle. Cloud peered across at Tifa as she hugged her knees for comfort, and glimpsed a strange expression on her face; it reminded him again of their night at the Lature-Dano outpost.
What does she really see in the flames…?
“Why’d ya run, anyway?” Yuffie challenged him eventually, tossing back and forth a Materia orb that had miraculously appeared in her custody. Cloud made a mental note to have a chat with her about that later. “Aren’t you a sucker for honour an’ duty an’ stuff?”
“At the time, I could not have said,” confessed Nanaki. “I know now, though: only he who has nothing to lose can truly be free.”
“You were afraid of losing Deneh,” Aerith realised, bringing a hand to her mouth.
“The Rite to Appease the Planet requires great sacrifice,” he went on, seeking to clarify his position. “It is no mere ceremony for us, but a pledge and devotion to solitude. After their holy union at the altar within the Guardians’ Shrine, the pair will part. The male embarks upon his journey to become a warrior, while the female isolates herself in prayer for three years, finally emerging from the cavern to birth their cubs. This is the way of things. This has always been the way of things.”
“I think I understand…” acknowledged the Cetra. “You didn’t want to be abandoned by Deneh, right? Carrying out the Rite would separate you both for so long.”
“I could not accept it…”
“Where are you going with all this?” Cloud interrupted bluntly, drawing shocked looks from the girls. “What does it have to do with AVALANCHE?”
“Cloud!” hissed Tifa, appalled.
“Forgive me,” Nanaki responded in the ex-SOLDIER’s defence, “I suppose the connection is not yet apparent.”
“You said they tried to take somethin’ precious,” remembered Barret, propping himself up on the barrels of his gatling-gun. “You talkin’ ‘bout Deneh?”
Nanaki nodded solemnly. “AVALANCHE was born in Cosmo Canyon; their principals derive from the Study of Planetary Life. No doubt they were well acquainted with our traditions, of the significance of the Rite.”
“AVALANCHE attended?” he spluttered.
“On the afternoon of the equinox, I was not alone in visiting the Research Centre,” the beast told them, snarling as he spoke. “Fuhito, too, demanded an audience with Grandpa.”
“Why Bugenhagen?” Yuffie grunted in bewilderment, dropping her orb.
“Fuhito was a student of Elder Mon Mos, and Grandpa was his mentor for many years when I was a cub.”
“You jus’ fulla secrets,” Barret exhaled with a shake of the head. “There I was babblin’ ‘bout the leader of the old AVALANCHE, an’ you forget to mention you knew him personally.”
“I knew him a little, yes.”
“What was he like?” Tifa asked curiously.
“From what I recall, he was very intelligent, very polite,” revealed Nanaki. “A sharp mind for science, but dangerously obsessive, and his aura stank of callousness. Fuhito was committed to AVALANCHE, to the preservation of natural resources and the health of the Planet, even if it meant forfeiting his life. As such, he disapproved of the elders’ diplomatic approach to Mako. He was a schemer, a strategist, and gathered support over time for his radical views, waiting patiently for the day when he could claim a weapon powerful enough to fight his war with Shinra.”
Nanaki cleared his throat. “Then, one evening, Fuhito returned to Cosmo Canyon with a mysterious young woman he had found wandering in the Nibel Forest. Her mental state was fragile at best, but she was an extraordinarily gifted warrior. Fuhito and his cohorts embraced her as their own, and gave her the name Elfé.
“When Elder Mon Mos passed into the Lifestream, AVALANCHE split in two. Elfé was given command of Fuhito’s militant branch, striking blow after blow to the Company’s facilities around the world.”
“I’ve heard of her,” added Cloud, reflecting on his early career in the Army. “If the accounts are true, she clashed with Sephiroth in Junon during the assassination attempt on President Shinra. And matched him.”
“M…matched?” Aerith stammered, aghast. “It needed all seven of us and an Aeon just to slow him down.”
“A feat few members of SOLDIER ever achieved,” agreed Cloud.
“So, what happened to Elfé?” queried Tifa.
“It would seem she vanished,” Nanaki replied with a shrug. “AVALANCHE’s hunt for her was the subject of Fuhito’s meeting with Grandfather.”
Cloud was confused. “Why?”
“He sought information about some special Materia Elfé possessed. I am not privy to the details, but what I do know is that Fuhito threatened to obstruct the ceremony if Grandpa refused to comply…”
And why not also download for free the first two volumes in the series, A New Threat and The Man in the Black Cloak or check out the web serial for my new superhero-fantasy saga, Axtelera Ray: The Chronicles of Astrone?