Chapter 38

The City of the Ancients

"So where is The City of the Ancients?"

Aerith looked at Naruto upon hearing his question, scrunched up her face for a moment, then tilted her head curiously to the side as though listening to someone else talking. Naruto cocked his head as well, but all he heard was the wind whistling by as they rode on their chocobo.

The two were riding a single chocobo together. Aerith sat side saddle while Naruto had his feet hanging over the edge. There were no stirrups or harness for them to sit on. They were going bareback.

"The City of the Ancients lies beyond the Sleeping Forest, far to the east of a place called the Icicle Inn. My… the lab where my mother and I used to be was located close to there. This was before Hojo took over the research project regarding the ancients. We were… treated much better back then." Aerith smiled sadly, mind locked in the past.

The chocobo they were riding had brilliant gold feathers and was strangely spirited, even for a chocobo. Naruto had rangled it not long ago in the Chocobo Forest. They had gone after this specific one because it could cross over shallows of water. Even now, its feet pounded against the water's surface, never sinking too deep as it raced across the ocean as though it was treading dry land.

"Tell me more about the City of the Ancients," Naruto said.

The strong scent of salt hung in the air. A large continent that looked to be made of numerous icy mountains rose into the distance, surrounded by flatlands and forests. Naruto remembered thinking the mountains near Nibelheim were large, but they had nothing on this monstrosity, which clawed its way beyond the clouds.

"It goes by many names. Most researchers call it the Forgotten City, but it's also been translated as the Forgotten Capital. I've only been there once. To reach it, we must first reach a place called Bone Village. The sleeping forest is beyond Bone Village and exits out into Corel Valley. That's where we will find the Forgotten City."

Naruto nodded as he listened to Aerith speak. Their destination and route sounded straightforward enough. He did wonder if the journey would be so easy. The area between Bone Village and the Forgotten City was likely rife with monsters of all manner. He could only hope they weren't as dangerous as the ones they had fought so far, but he knew such hopes were more than likely a delusion. When were he and the others not facing monsters of ridiculous strength and numbers?

It took a number of days to reach the continent called the Icicle Area—a rather dull name for a continent of such great importance. Naruto would have called something like Yuki no Kuni. It sounded much better and rolled off the tongue easier, but… well, he understood the people of this world did not have his awesome naming sense.

After setting down on the Icicle Area, they traveled through a small forest and reached Bone Village. Just like the name suggested, it was a village built around a massive pile of bones. He had never seen so many bones in one place before. The most notoriously obvious set of bones were the massive ones that traveled through the village and looked like they belonged to a gigantic monster. Naruto couldn't even begin to guess as to what it had been. A behemoth? A dragon? It had a large head and a long spine that traveled the entire length of the village, which was not very large, but it wasn't tiny either.

Because it was evening by the time they arrived, Naruto and Aerith found a small inn to stay the night. And when Naruto said small, he meant small. The room they were given was tiny. It couldn't have been more than maybe ten square meters in total. There was only enough room for a bed, a nightstand, and a dresser. They didn't have a shower or bathroom, which was located down the hall.

Of course, it wasn't like he and Aerith needed much. They laid down, Aerith on top of Naruto, and spent the night sleeping in the warmth of each other's embrace. The next morning saw them up bright and early. After taking a quick shower, they left the inn and continued on.

"In order to move past the Sleeping Forest, we need to find something called the Lunar Harp," Aerith told Naruto as they grabbed some breakfast at a small restaurant. "The Lunar Harp is a mysterious item that can only be used once before it disappears and has to be found again. This town was built by people researching the Ancients for that very purpose… though it seems to have taken on a life of its own since I've been away."

Naruto made a face at the food, which was just coffee and gruel with so little flavor it seemed to him like he was eating liquid cardboard. Couldn't they have added a few nuts and berries into this at least? He sighed as he shoved some of the food in his mouth and swallowed, considering her words.

"Let's talk to the workers and see if they can help us find it," he said at last.

"All right."

Naruto and Aerith finished their tasteless meal quickly and went to the foreman. He was a bulky man with a thick beard and graying hair. The miner hat on his head looked sturdy enough and came equipped with a flashlight. Naruto eyed the man's chest, which looked like it might tear his shirt clean off. The dude was ripped, but perhaps because he didn't do much cardio, he had a prominent gut hanging over his pants. He looked like your classic example of a construction worker.

"So you want us to help you find the Lunar Harp, huh? We can do that… for a price," the man said.

Naruto and Aerith would have to pay the man 1,000 gil per worker, then direct the workers to dig up specified areas. They used a bomb that caused tremors to shake the earth, then calculated where any buried treasure would be based on those tremors. According to him, areas with buried treasure had a different frequency than areas with nothing.

With ten miners in tow, Naruto and Aerith began directing them based on nothing more than random guesswork. They had no clue where the Lunar Harp might be. Aerith told him that the Lunar Harp would appear in random locations after each use, so even the miners wouldn't know where it was located. That was unfortunate. Naruto didn't want to spend more time than necessary looking for the blasted harp.

"Cloud and the others will probably follow us. We need to be gone before they arrive," he said to Aerith.

Their goal was to reach the Forgotten City and complete their task before Cloud could catch up to them. This was for Aerith's safety. Naruto didn't know exactly what was wrong with Cloud, but he recognized there was something dangerous about the man. No normal person would attack a comrade like Cloud had tried to do. Naruto's side still stung with the phantom pain of betrayal.

Naruto didn't think Cloud actually wanted to attack his friends. It seemed more to him like Cloud was doing the bidding of someone else, perhaps Sephiroth, but it was for that very reason that Naruto could not trust him right now. Until they figured out what was wrong or defeated Sephiroth, it would be best not to be around Cloud.

It took several tries before the miners finally found the Lunar Harp; each time they released a bomb, the earth would tremble beneath Naruto and Aerith's feet, and the miners would use some kind of equipment to calculate if there was treasure in the area. Sometimes there wouldn't be anything, but other times there'd be something like gil, maps, materia, and even equipment. They even found a weapon that would be perfect for Vincent. Too bad the man wasn't there to use it.

"Thank you for your help," Aerith said with a smile, bowing to the foreman, who blushed bright red upon receiving such an angelic expression of gratitude.

"It was no problem… ha ha ha. I'm glad we were able to help." The foreman rubbed the back of his head and looked away. Naruto understood. For an older, rough and tumble man like this, being on the receiving end of such a pretty woman's smile was embarrassing. It had probably been a few years since a woman had passed through here. Little wonder he was not used to the attention.

With Lunar Harp in hand, the two went on their way, traveling beyond the Bone Village and into the Sleeping Forest.

There was something mystical about the Sleeping Forest. Naruto couldn't explain it, but it felt far more alive than the forests they had traveled through thus far. The trees seemed to billow and sway with a sentience that normal trees lacked. It felt… yes, it felt almost like they were trying to speak to them.

"This forest has a very strong connection to the Lifestream," Aerith explained when Naruto said as much. "The power of the Lifestream is much stronger here than it is in other places. That's why the trees feel as though they are sentient."

"Hmmm. I see. That makes sense… I think," Naruto nodded several times. He was tempted to enter Sage Mode and commune with the trees, but he didn't think now was a good time. They had places to be and things to do, after all.

"Anyway, please give me a moment. I'd like to contact Cloud and let him know not to follow us," Aerith said as she sat down underneath the shade of a tree.

"Do you really think that's a good idea? I don't mean to put a rain on your parade, but I guarantee if you tell him not to follow us, he and the others are going to come running," Naruto said.

Aerith smiled at him. "They would come running anyway. At least this way, I can direct where and when they come."

"Fair enough, I suppose." Naruto shrugged, walked over to the same tree, and leaned against it while crossing his arms. He closed his eyes and slowly gathered the surrounding Lifestream essence. As he did, he could hear whispers within his ear. He furrowed his brow when he realized he couldn't understand them, but he got the sense they were trying to confer something important to him.

It's no use. I can touch and manipulate the Lifestream, but I'm not an Ancient, so I cannot understand what they are saying. Maybe I'll be able to understand them with more time. I wonder if I can become something like an Ancient if I do begin to understand them. Would that allow me to shoulder some of Aerith's burden?

"You will never be able to shoulder that girl's burdens," a voice said seconds before a figure materialized. A body of ice. A figure so beautiful it could cause hearts to boil. Shiva let her bare feet touch the ground and walked to him, leaving little trails of ice in her wake.

"So it's impossible?" Naruto asked. He glanced at Aerith, but she was still locked within a trance.

"Correct. That girl is an Ancient. You are not. It is impossible for you to carry her burdens." Shiva paused, then smiled as she caressed his cheek. "That does not mean there is nothing you can do. Yours is an ability that has not been seen on this planet for thousands of years. Given time, it should be possible for you to commune with the planet in ways even the Ancients cannot. When that happens, your role in this world will shift into something far more prominent. But that is for the future. For now, the most you can do is protect that girl from harm."

"You don't need to tell me that. I already plan to protect her with my life," Naruto said.

Shiva smiled at him, and Naruto was struck by how different her smile was this time. It seemed motherly instead of seductive.

"I know. Anyway, I shall leave you for now. Your girlfriend will get jealous if she sees me with you. While that does amuse me, you do not have the luxury of fooling around right now. We shall speak more later."

Shiva left, vanishing into wisps of fog that rose into the sky and dispersed. The second she did, Aerith opened her eyes, stood up, and stretched. Naruto briefly caught himself ogling her chest. He shook his head, however, and focused on the task at hand.

"All done?" Naruto asked.


Aerith lowered her arms and smiled at him… then paused. Naruto wondered if something was wrong as the woman looked around, eyes narrowed.

"Something up?" he asked.

"Was… someone here just now?" asked Aerith.

What sharp instincts, but now he was in a bind. Should he tell the truth? Aerith would probably pout, which would be cute as heck, but he didn't want to distract her.

"Just… a friend appeared for a bit to speak with me."

"Oh? A friend?"

Aerith narrowed her eyes. Naruto looked away. Several seconds passed. Then Aerith sighed and shrugged her shoulders.

"Well, that's fine. I'm not such a jealous lover that I'd get upset at one of our summons visiting you while I was occupied, but you tell Shiva that if she does that again, I will give her a purple nurple."

Naruto shuddered at the threat. That was like a woman's version of getting kicked in the balls. His girlfriend was cute, but she could be scary as heck when she wanted to be.

Cloud jerked awake, eyes snapping open like they had a mind of their own. He glanced at the patchwork ceiling seconds before a face appeared hovering over him.

"You looked like you were having a nightmare. Feeling all right?" asked Barret.

"Ugh… I've been better," Cloud muttered.

Barret wasn't alone. Standing alongside him, looking even more worried as she wrung her hands together, was Tifa. The look on her face filled Cloud with guilt, though he couldn't understand why.

"Well… at least you're alive. Man, I didn't know what was gonna happen when you suddenly went crazy like that," Barret said, huffing in relief.

"You know, Cloud. Aerith and Naruto are gone."

"Naruto too?" Cloud furrowed his brow. "But I didn't see him in my dreams."

"What?" asked Tifa.


Cloud shook his head as he realized he couldn't tell Tifa about the strange dream he just had, where Aerith had appeared before him and told him that she was going to the City of the Ancients and shouldn't follow him.

"Everyone's out looking for Aerith right now," Barret said.

Cloud sat up and pressed a hand to his forehead, hoping to forestall his coming headache. "Aerith is headed for the City of the Ancients."

"Huh? City of the Ancients? How do you know that?"

While he did briefly consider telling them about his dream, he knew they would probably think he was crazy. He needed to come up with another excuse.

"Sephiroth… he told me," Cloud said. Sephiroth had appeared in his dream too, so it wasn't a complete lie.

"And she went off by herself?! Why would she do that?!" Barret shouted.

"She's not by herself. Naruto is with her," Tifa pointed out.

"Grrrr. But even so… she has to know how dangerous it is to travel there with just two people," Barret did not want to admit that Naruto could probably protect Aerith just fine. "We need to go too."

"Only the Ancients, only Aerith can save us from Meteor," Cloud said.

"All the more reason for us to go and protect her!"

"Barret's right. We have to go. What'll we do if something happens to Aerith? What if Sephiroth finds her? Naruto might be strong, but I don't think even he is strong enough to fight Sephiroth on his own."

Tifa was right. Cloud knew better than anyone how powerful Sephiroth was. Naruto was strong. He was the strongest person in their party, but even Naruto was not powerful enough to take down someone of Sephiroth's caliber.

"Let's not sit around here anymore! We can't be resting on our laurels when our friends might be in danger!" Barret shouted.

"Let's go, Cloud," said Tifa.

Cloud trembled.

"No. I might lose it again, like I did before. Last time, I hurt Naruto. What if I attack Aerith this time?" Cloud grabbed his head and gritted his teeth. "If I lose control like that again, I might…"

Naruto was strong enough to handle him, but Aerith had no such strength. The last thing he wanted to do was harm someone again. He might actually hurt them this time. There was no way. He couldn't do it.

"Hmph. If you lose your shit like that again, I'll knock some sense into ya." Barret crossed his arms and glared down at Cloud. "I know you got problems… Hell, we all got problems. But ya can't let that stop you from doin' what's right. You feel me? There ain't no gettin' offa this train we're on, till we get to the end of the line."

"We've already come this far. Don't you want to settle things with Sephiroth?" asked Tifa.

"I do. Of course, I do. But I'm also afraid. I'm afraid that I'll go crazy if this keeps up."

"Never took you for a coward, Cloud. Plenty of people don't understand themselves. You think you're the only one? We all like that. But that doesn't stop us from livin'. We just gotta keep on goin'. You might as well be dead if you stand still. That's life."

Cloud said nothing as Barret turned around and stocked out of the room. He knew the man was right, but that didn't diminish the fear he felt. Maybe other people had trouble understanding themselves. Maybe everyone felt like this to some degree. But most normal people didn't harm their friends because of it. Normal people could function normally without the fear they might go mad.

Something warm landed on his hand. It was another hand. Cloud blinked several times as he looked up, into the smiling face of Tifa, the girl he'd known since childhood. His chest suddenly felt warm. It was like her smile gave him confidence.

"Cloud, I know you're scared right now, but I believe in you. Please don't let your uncertainty stop you. You're stronger than that."

After saying her piece, Tifa stood up and left the hut, leaving Cloud alone. He looked at the hand Tifa had been holding. It was still warm. Slowly lifting it to his face, he curled and uncurled his fingers, covered by a black glove, and watched as creases folded and straightened.

He didn't think Tifa understood how terrified he was of what he had done. It went beyond a simple lack of understanding… but even so, Cloud wanted to make sure the faith she placed in him wasn't misplaced. He wanted to prove that her trust in him was justified.

I guess that means I gotta go…

Yes, even if he was terrified, even if he understood nothing, even if he ended up hurting someone important to him, he needed to see this through to the end. Barret was right. Tifa was right.

Cloud stood up. His body was stiff. He must have been lying in that bed for a few days. After stretching out the kinks, he walked outside, where he found a small village composed of ramshackle huts. This was Gongagga. Barret and Tifa were waiting outside. While Tifa's eyes lit up at seeing him, Barret crossed his arms and glared.

"Ya feelin' better?"

"A little."

"So, what's it gonna be? You comin', or you stayin'?"

"I… I'm coming," Cloud said. He shuddered. "You're right. I have to see this through. I have to confront Sephiroth and find out what's wrong with me. Even if… even if something happens and I…"

"If somethin' happens and you go crazy again, I'll whack you upside your spiky head. Don't worry about it," Barret said.

"Come on, Cloud. Let's go find Aerith and Naruto… together," said Tifa.

Cloud agreed. It was all he could do.

Cid, Red XIII, Yuffie, and Vincent were all located around the village. Each one expressed some form of concern for him. Well, Yuffie mostly worried about her sensei. She complained loudly that it wasn't fair Aerith got Naruto all to herself, which seemed to lighten the mood and made the others laugh. That said, she did say it was good to see him back up and not crazy. At least, Red XIII and Vincent were more courteous.

Cid was as raucous as ever, though.

Once they had all gathered together, the group left the village and began searching for a way to reach the Forgotten City.

The monsters beyond the Sleeping Forest were all water-type monsters like flying seahorses and strangely bulbous beasts with spikes along their backs and yellow skin. Naruto believed the reason they encountered these kinds of monsters was because of the environment they lived in.

A glance up revealed what appeared to be a coral reef. It looked like this place had once been located under the sea. There were large chunks of red and yellow coral all along the canyon walls, which explained why this place was called Coral Canyon. The ground they walked on was smooth white sand, the kind you'd often find at the bottom of a seabed. Strange plants that reminded him of underwater flowers had become fossilized and now stood silently along the path they followed. As he glanced at their feet, Naruto saw something sparkle. He picked it up and discovered it was a seashell.

"Was the Forgotten City located under water?" he asked at last.

"I don't believe so," Aerith said. "Long ago, this area rose up from the ocean. The Ancients settled here after that."

"Yeah. That makes more sense. I don't know what I was thinking," Naruto said.

"You probably weren't thinking."

"Ouch. What a harsh thing for my girlfriend to say."

Their banter continued as they walked along the winding path, which branched off in several directions that led to nowhere. They stumbled upon numerous dead ends and had to backtrack. Sometimes they would be ambushed by monsters. As they wandered toward the edge of the canyon, they found more skeletons like the one from the village. Now that he realized this place had at one point been located underneath the ocean, Naruto understood that these skeletons were from giant sea serpents and not dragons like he first suspected.

After cresting a hill, a vast structure appeared before them, rising out of the ground like a colossal reef. The entire layout invoked an aquatic motif and the many buildings had shell-like appearances. While the ground resembled a sea floor, behind the strange bluish-green coral-like blossoms was what Naruto thought might be fossilized kelp rising far above the city like a giant tree.

"Is that it?" asked Naruto.

"Yup." Aerith stood beside him, hands on her hips. "That's the Forgotten City."

"It's not what I expected."

"What were you expecting?"

"I don't know… something more austere, I guess?"

"The Ancients were one with the planet. Their buildings were made from nature. It is only natural they would build a city like this."

"I suppose."

"Anyway, let's go inside."

Naruto followed Aerith as she led him into the city. It seemed there were multiple levels to the city, which could be accessed via ramps. They checked out some of the buildings, curious to see what they were like, and were shocked to discover many of the buildings were fully furnished. Sinks, a bed, and decorations remained within the buildings like they had been frozen in time. Most of them were still usable.

"What is this?" Naruto asked as he stared at a strange blue lamp… thing. He thought it was a lamp.

"That's a device the Ancients used to communicate with the planet." Aerith placed her hand on the device, which flashed with a bright light. She closed her eyes. "The words of the planet can be read through this device."

Naruto stared at the device, then sighed and shook his head. "I can't understand anything."

"Of course. You're not an Ancient," Aerith admonished with a tsk.

Naruto and Aerith continued to explore the city, finding several more perfectly intact buildings, a few treasure chests, and even a home with a soft bed. The shell-like building they discovered had two levels, the upper of which was accessed via a ladder. It contained polished wooden floorboards. The building was circular instead of square and there was a conical spire jutting from the house's center. It was quite unlike anything he had ever seen before.

"It's getting late. I think we should rest here," Naruto said after testing the bed. It didn't use springs but was made from a type of soft foam. He thought it might be even more comfortable than a normal bed.

"I agree. It's very late, and we don't know what will happen. We should rest while we can," Aerith said.

The two laid down side by side and snuggled together. Comforted by each other's warmth, the pair fell asleep.

Night passed. The sun rose. Naruto and Aerith woke up, searched the home for anything useful, then went outside and continued exploring the city. The air was rather crisp. At the same time, it possessed an ancient smell. He could sense the vicissitudes of the city in the air. One could tell this place was old simply by its musk.

"We're being followed," Naruto said.

"You noticed too?" asked Aerith.

"I'm a ninja. Of course I noticed. I'm more surprised you did," Naruto admitted with a glance her way.

Aerith puffed up her chest. "I might not be a ninja, but I am very perceptive."

"That you are."

After traveling through a coral reef hallway, Naruto and Aerith came upon a lake with a conch shell-like structure behind it. The inside contained a spiral ramp that they walked up. At the end of the ramp near the top was a small object. Materia.

"What's this?" asked Aerith as she picked it up.

"Oh, my. Looks like you found something good there."

Aerith spun around toward Naruto, who turned his head when a weight suddenly landed on his shoulders, to find Shiva leaning against him with her usual smile.

"Shiva… must you always get so close to my boyfriend?" asked Aerith with a grimace.

"I do not see the harm. Besides, it's not like he's going to remain exclusively yours forever."

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

"It means I'm sure that Shinra employee and the ninja girl will sink their claws into him sooner or later. In either event, that materia is called Comet. It's like a small, less destructive version of meteor. It calls a comet from the sky to slam into your enemies. Rather powerful. I do recommend you be careful when using it, however. You wouldn't want to get caught in the blast."

"That does sound rather useful. Thank you for the lesson. Now, please get your hands off my boyfriend," Aerith said with a smile so wide it split her face in half.

"All right. All right. Haaaaah. You really should fix that possessiveness of yours." Shiva let go of Naruto, but then she turned, leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek. "See you later, honey."

Aerith and Naruto began traveling back down, though the brunette of the two did not look very happy. The cross expression on her face was cute. If he was honest, Naruto enjoyed seeing her pout, but he didn't tell her that because he didn't want to wind up in the dog house.

"Come on, don't be mad."

"Why do you always let that woman do as she pleases?"

"It's not like I let her do anything. Shiva does what she wants. I just don't care enough to stop her."

"That's the same thing. Hmph. The least you could do was tell her not to get so close."

Well, he could do that, but Naruto didn't particularly care if Shiva got close to him or not. He appreciated the summon spirit. She was helpful and hot, a beautiful combination if there ever was one, though he knew Aerith would not appreciate his thoughts on the matter.

"You should equip that materia," Naruto recommended.

"Changing the subject?" Aerith asked, though she did as requested and equipped the materia into her staff.

They did not leave the building but instead discovered what appeared to be an ethereal staircase that led down. The two stood in front of it. Naruto tentatively tapped his foot against the staircase.

"Is this thing safe?" he asked.

"Should be. Are you scared?" Aerith leaned over and grinned at him.

"I'm not scared. Just cautious. This thing doesn't look like it's a very stable existence. What if we begin walking and it decides to disappear on us?"

"Oh, it'll be fine. Don't be such a baby."

"Ah? W-wait!"

Naruto reached out a hand to stop Aerith, but she stepped onto the staircase and began walking down, leaving him standing before the stairs. He clicked his tongue. Then he took a single step on the staircase, followed by another, then another. It seemed solid enough. Yet he still worried this thing might give out at any moment. A glance down revealed what looked like a never ending abyss. It would just suck to find themselves falling forever.

After those first few steps, Naruto became stunned. It was like he had entered another world. Sunlight poured down from above, scattered rays being filtered through water. A strange structure stood within this odd void. It was like nothing he had ever seen, a semi-translucent white monolith that was perfectly smooth. He thought maybe it was glass. The glass was connected to something that looked like a bowl, and sitting within the bowl was a structure that made him think of a castle. Several towers were connected together via ramps. It seemed like such an odd thing to have there, a familiar building trapped within an alien landscape.

Just what the heck was this place?

He followed Aerith into the castle, sighing in relief as his feet touched hard floor. Aerith looked smug. He ignored her and stepped through a doorway that led onto a veranda of some sort. The floor was made of marble. A soft mist clung to the air and light filtered through, giving the scenery a mystical aesthetic.

"What… is this place?"

"This is one of the places closest to the planet," Aerith said. "The Ancients built this place so they could more easily commune with the planet. Come on."

Grabbing his hand, Aerith pulled him along behind her. They took several flights of stairs and soon ended up standing near the water. Naruto looked down into the water, but he couldn't see anything. Several pillars jutted from the surface. They led to an altar of some sort. Aerith, without waiting for him, leapt onto the first pillar, then began hopping across. With a sigh, he followed the woman.

The altar was another work of art unlike anything seen in today's world, but it wasn't the altar's artistic value that Aerith seemed to care about. She walked over to one side, turned, and knelt down. In her hand was the materia her mother—her real mother—had given her before she died.

"I'm going to activate this materia," Aerith said, looking at him. "Protect me."

"I will," Naruto said.

Naruto watched as Aerith closed her eyes, then slowly walked over to the rail, leaned against it, and crossed his arms. He could sense a malicious presence near them. Yet he could not see them. It didn't seem like they intended to do anything yet. Were they waiting for something? Naruto grimaced.

He hated waiting.

Barret, Cloud, Tifa, Red XIII, Vincent, and Yuffie finally reached the Forgotten City, where they marveled at the structures and decided to spend the night in the same building that Aerith and Naruto had used the day before. Not that they were aware of this fact.

Later that night, Cloud woke up to the sound of a voice. It was a familiar voice. He couldn't explain how he had heard it. In fact, he was certain he wasn't hearing it so much as feeling it. This sound was coming from deep within him, resonating with him for reasons he couldn't explain.

"Cloud?" Tifa's voice came from behind him. "Is something wrong?"

Cloud turned back around to find Tifa sitting up in bed. There was only one bed, so Tifa and Yuffie were sharing it while the men slept on the floor. Barret was leaned up against the wall, snoring away. Cid and Vincent were separated by several meters. While Cid lay on the ground with his head in his hand, Vincent was standing. Red XIII was lying next to the pet like a loyal housepet.

Shaking his head, Cloud said, "nothing is wrong, but I can hear her voice. Aerith is here… and so is Sephiroth."

"What? Doesn't that mean Aerith is in danger?" Tifa practically leapt out of bed. "We have to help her!"


Cloud and Tifa roused the others and quickly resumed their journey, but Cloud began feeling strange the moment they set foot outside of the building. He kept this feeling to himself. He didn't want the others to notice. Yet the closer they came to where he sensed Aerith and Sephiroth, the less like himself he began to feel. It was like his mind was becoming submerged in a milky fog. By the time they reached the altar where Aerith and Naruto were, Cloud had become trapped within his own mind.

Naruto watched warily as Cloud wandered up to them. It was easy enough to tell the man was not himself.

He looked at the others, who stood on the platform before the altar. Why did they so readily let Cloud go alone after what happened? Did they really think that was safe? If Naruto had been with the group, he would have stopped Cloud from even coming near Aerith.

As things stood, Naruto stepped in front of Cloud before he could reach her.

"I figured you would come. There's no way you guys would be able to stay away, knowing Aerith was in danger."

Cloud didn't respond. His bluish-green mako eyes were completely blank. The man looked like a doll.

"Not gonna say anything?"

Cloud's response was to pull his buster sword from his back and raise it above his head.

Naruto clicked his tongue as he pulled out a kunai and blocked the strike. The clang of clashing metal rang out for all to hear. A squeal as buster sword ground against kunai resounded around them, and sparks flew from between their blades.

"What the hell are you doing, Cloud?! Snap out of it!" Naruto shouted, but Cloud didn't seem to respond. His eyes were still blank. "Tch!"

As Naruto began fighting with Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and the others quickly ran up the altar. Tifa was in the lead. The clear desperation and despair in her eyes would have tugged at Naruto's heartstrings if he wasn't busy defending himself against Cloud's relentless assault.

"Cloud! What are you doing?! Stop!"

Naruto felt almost put out when Cloud suddenly stopped attacking him and took several steps back, body shaking. So he'd stop because of Tifa but not him? How typical. Of course, Naruto couldn't blame him. He was much more liable to do what Aerith said over anyone else. Yes, it was the prerogative of men to only listen to the woman they were romantically interested in. It was instinct. Men listened to women in the hopes of getting laid. That's how this sort of thing worked.

I am getting way off track here. Focus, Naruto. Focus.

"I… I… what am I doing?" asked Cloud.

"Oh, are you finally back to your old self?" asked Naruto.

"Naruto… I…"

"Hold that thought."

Before anything else could be done, Naruto rushed over to Aerith and gave her a hard shove. The sudden push knocked the woman out of her concentration and caused her braids to come undone. The materia she'd been clutching in her hands fell to the ground, bounced once, and was sliced in half by something sharp but invisible. The two halves fell into the water below.

At the same time, a dark figure descended from above, and Naruto felt searing pain in his abdomen as something pierced through it. He grunted and fell to a knee. The figure before him had silver hair, bluish-green eyes that were slitted like a cat, and a long black coat. What pierced Naruto's stomach was a massive sword at least seven feet long.

"Oh… you managed to protect the Ancient. That's… unexpected." Sephiroth glanced at Cloud. "And my puppet didn't do as I said either."

"Puppet…?" Cloud murmured in shock.

"Ha. As if anyone would be stupid enough to not know what you were up to," Naruto said, blood leaking from his mouth.

"Naruto!? What… why did you…?"

Aerith looked at him in shock like she couldn't believe what he had done, but Naruto just smiled at her.

"What? Did you really expect me not to protect you?" Aerith could say nothing. She only shook her head in shock. Naruto glanced at Tifa and the others. "Tifa, take Aerith and get out of here. Protect her from everything."

He didn't know if Tifa understood that the "everything" Naruto referred to was Cloud, but the woman didn't hesitate to pick up Aerith and heft the girl over her shoulder. The young Ancient squawked in surprise as she was lifted like a sack of rice.

"Don't worry. I'll protect Aerith with my life," Tifa said.

"As will we," added Barret.

"We got this, sensei!" Yuffie said.

"Hmmm. Don't let us down," Vincent added.

Red XIII said nothing, but he did wag his tail.

Cid spoke for him. "Kick his ass, ya hear!"

"Naruto… I…"

"What are you doing, Cloud? Don't just stand there. Get moving!"

Cloud had taken a step forward like he wanted to say something, but Naruto's words stopped him. He furrowed his brow, then turned around with the others and ran off. Naruto could not see them as they rushed back toward where they had come, but that was because he was keeping most of his attention on Sephiroth, who was unsuccessfully attempting to pull the sword from Naruto's stomach.

"You have quite the grip," Sephiroth muttered.

"All the better to do this!"

With a heave and a ho, Naruto lifted Sephiroth off the ground, the man refusing to let go of his sword, and spun around, slamming Sephiroth into a pillar of the altar. The force of the blow was strong enough to crack the pillar. This structure was sturdier than Naruto expected. He had thought it would shatter.

Sephiroth fell to the ground, and Naruto pulled the sword from his gut. He hissed as the wound began steaming. Blood continued to leak from his stomach, but it became less as time went on, and it soon closed up.

"Great. Now I've got blood all over my outfit. Do you know how hard it is to get bloodstains out of this? Ugh, I knew I should have worn red today."

"You're very hardy," Sephiroth said as he stood to his feet. "And that healing ability of yours is very impressive. I've never met someone who can heal from wounds instantly like that."

"Yeah. Well, I'm pretty special, as you're about to find out."

Sephiroth looked peeved, like he wasn't sure what he should be doing. Naruto wanted to gloat. It was obvious Sephiroth had been hoping to kill Aerith with that last attack. There was probably some psychological reason he had waited until Cloud and the others were present, but none of that mattered. Naruto had been aware of him from the very beginning. This entire time, he had been preparing himself to protect Aerith no matter the cost.

"Well… I didn't kill the Ancient, but I did stop her from activating her materia. She won't be able to stop Meteor now. All that's left is to go North. The Promised Land waits for me over the snowy fields," Sephiroth said.

"You say that as if I plan to let you go," Naruto said, spinning the kunai around his finger.

Sephiroth grinned at him. "Do you think you can stop me?"

"There's only one way to find out," Naruto admitted.

Tension built between them, so thick Naruto thought he could actually see it—oh, wait. That was just the fog covering the area. It was quite thick. But he could still feel the tension building between them. Sephiroth was clutching the sword, Masamune, in his hand once more. Naruto slowly breathed out to ease the tightness building in his shoulder blades.

Then he burst forward.

Sephiroth met Naruto's attack with a powerful swing. Kunai and sword clashed together. Sephiroth was strong. He didn't budge an inch, even though Naruto had put a lot of strength into his attack. The two were almost nose to nose as sparks flew between them.

"You are quite strong," Sephiroth complimented. "But you're still not strong enough to stop me."

"We. Will. See. About. That!"

Enhancing his strength with chakra, Naruto shoved Sephiroth with enough force the man's feet left the ground and he was sent flying. Naruto raced after him, replacing the materia inside of his arm with another one. As he leapt into the air, Naruto used his most familiar jutsu.

"Shadow Clone Jutsu!"

Almost a dozen Narutos appeared in the sky around Sephiroth, who eyed them all with glacial calm, still smirking. His grip on the sword tightened. As the clones closed in, he swung his sword, bisecting several of them. He couldn't kill them all, however, and one got through, kicking him in the face. That clone was dispelled with another swing.

But they were all a distraction.

The real Naruto was already behind Sephiroth, a new materia embedded in his arm.



Not even Sephiroth could pretend he felt nothing as Naruto slammed a Rasengan into his back, but he was not as easy to defeat either. Naruto flinched and leapt back when Sephiroth spun around and swung his sword. He managed to avoid getting cut in half, but blood still flew, spilling into the water. Naruto placed a hand on his chest as he stood on the water's surface, sending chakra to the bottom of his feet. Oddly enough, Sephiroth was also perfectly capable of standing on the water.

"Don't tell me you're a shinobi too," Naruto complained.

"I do not know what that is." Sephiroth paused. "I'm surprised you can walk on water."

"Of course I can walk on water. I'm a shinobi."

"I see."

It was clear Sephiroth didn't see, but he was unwilling to say nothing.

The small lull in their battle ended and the two clashed again. Over and over. Naruto used two kunai to block Sephiroth's sword, which contained the strength of a thousand people behind it. Each attack rent the air. Water was split from a downward swing. The building behind him slid apart, the ends perfectly smooth where Sephiroth had sliced through it. The very sky itself seemed to get cut in half. Every attack blocked was powerful enough that Naruto felt the attacks all the way to his bones, and yet, he could not help but feel like these attacks lacked substance. There was something wrong with this man and his attacks.

But Naruto couldn't for the life of him figure out what.

After exiting the building, Tifa and the others continued on to the building where they had been staying. Their decision was to sit tight and wait for Naruto to return.

"Tifa… you can put me down now. I can run on my own," Aerith murmured.

"Oh. Yeah. Okay. Sorry about that, Aerith."

Tifa put Aerith back on her feet, an embarrassed blush spreading across her face.

"You sure it was a good idea to leave Naruto alone with that guy?" asked Barret.

"Yes," Aerith answered before anyone else could. "Naruto is strong. Very strong. But he can't use his full strength when he's fighting alongside others. You know how destructive his attacks can be. He would never use those when his comrades might get caught up in them."

"Ugh. Yeah, I know. I was just… you know, asking a rhetorical question," Barret grunted.

"It's better for us to get as far from Sephiroth as possible," Cloud added. "I can feel his influence over me fading the further we are."

"Do you think Sephiroth is somehow controlling you?" asked Yuffie, raising an eyebrow.

"I don't think he's controlling me, but it's like… like our wills are resonating when he's near," Cloud tried to explain, but it wasn't something any of them could understand.

"Whatever the case, I believe our best option is to sit tight for now," Red XIII added.


The group continued to move, but just before they could reach the building, something fell from the sky in front of them, shaking the earth. It was a massive monstrosity that looked so far beyond even a normal monster that Yuffie looked like she was going to be sick. Blistering red skin covered every inch of its flesh. It didn't have arms or hands. It had tentacles. A pair of what looked like wings jutted from its back, but they were thick and didn't seem capable of flight. Burning crimson eyes sat on a face so hideous even a mother couldn't love it.

It lashed at them with its tentacles. The group hopped backward to avoid them, letting the tentacles gouge chunks out of the ground.

"Damn! Another one of those Jenova monsters!" Barret raised his gun arm and unleashed a barrage of bullets that pelted the monster to little effect. They just bounced off its hide. "Looks like it's a strong fucker too. We ain't getting through that hide without some serious firepower on our side."

"Let me try."

Aerith stepped forward and raised her staff. Lightning crackled from the end of it before a bolt was fired off at extreme speed. It never touched Jenova. A bright barrier appeared in front of the monster, and the lightning spell was reflected back at them, several times more powerful than it had been before.

"Look out!"

Aerith was not fast enough to move out of the way, but Yuffie yanked the woman back by her jacket as the lightning bolt slammed into the ground. Smoke rose from the blackened earth. Aerith gulped.

"Thanks, Yuffie."

"You can thank me if we make it out of this alive," Yuffie said.

"It looks like magic is going to be useless against this," said Vincent.

"So we can only use physical attacks. Heh. That's just fine by me," Barret said.

"Aerith, focus on healing us instead of attacking," instructed Cloud.


Their plan was not what someone would call complicated. Aerith would support them with healing magic and buffs, while the rest of them would attack with physical attacks and special skills that weren't magical in nature.

Cloud raced forward alongside Red XIII and Tifa, attacking in a frontal assault. Blue flames spewed from Jenova's mouth, but Aerith cast Barrier around the trio to protect them from the attack. The barrier only lasted for a second before it shattered. That was enough, however, and the trio reached Jenova and attacked with all their power.

A gash appeared in Jenova's flesh as Cloud split its skin open with a swing from his buster sword. Blood spurted from the wound and splattered against the ground.

A tentacle tried to attack him, but Tifa thrust her fist forward, her punch sounding like a gun as she forced the tentacle back. She didn't just stop there. Leaping high into the air, she spun around and struck the tentacle with the bottom of her heel.

Meanwhile, Red XIII had leapt forward and was biting one of the tentacles. His teeth sunk into its flesh and refused to let go, no matter how much the tentacle swung around to dislodge him.

Cid was not much of a fighter, but he still ran over and began battling the tentacles, keeping them occupied so the others could attack at will. He slammed one of them with the tip of his staff. The attack wasn't much, but the impact forced the thing back. Then he spun around and began batting the other tentacles like a sports star trying to hit a homerun.

While they were going at it from the front, Barret and Vincent attacked from behind, firing off bullets into its flesh. Since its hide was so tough, they switched to armor piercing rounds, which proved effective in at least penetrating Jenova's tough skin, though it seemed to still be ignoring them.

"Damn. What's a guy gotta do to get some attention around here?" Barret grumbled as he continued to fire bullets into the monster's flank.

Almost as if Jenova had heard him, a tentacle whipped his way, striking him in the chest and sending him flying. He grunted and rolled across the ground.

Vincent had not stopped firing. When the tentacles attacked, he leapt into the air and continued to shoot his gun. He flipped around through the sky like an acrobat. At the same time, Yuffie descended from above, piercing Jenova's head with her massive shuriken.

That attack seemed to do damage. Jenova squealed and thrashed as though in pain. Yuffie was flung off, but she landed on the ground and raced forward once more.

Aerith remained off to the side, unable to do more than provide healing and support.

"Take this, mother fucker!"

A massive wellspring of energy gathered within Barret's gun arm. It was soon fired off with incredible power, smashing against Jenova and exploding. The attack threw the creature off balance and gouged huge chunks out of its flesh.

Not one to let such an opportunity go to waste, Cloud raced forward and began slashing to widen the wound. He swung his sword over and over. Then he also leapt away. By this point, the wound carved into Jenova's skin was several feet wide.

"Aerith! Try using a summon to attack right there!"

"Will a summon even work?!"

"Won't know if you don't try!"

While normal magic didn't work, that wasn't to say a summon's magic wouldn't. Aerith decided not to hesitate. She called Bahamut, which came forth on a blazing storm. It glanced at what was happening, snorted in disgust at seeing yet another monster like Jenova, and fired off a powerful Giga Flare. The beam of condensed destruction slammed into Jenova. The reflective barrier tried to protect it, but it was overpowered. The beam struck the wound, penetrating deep into its flesh, then exploding.

Gore flew every which way as Jenova was destroyed from the inside out. Aerith and the others hunkered down behind a building to protect themselves, until the rain of gore subsided.

"Well, that's one way to destroy him. Thanks, Bahamut," Aerith said.

Bahamut said nothing. He only snorted again before vanishing once more into the aether.

Naruto couldn't stop frowning as he and Sephiroth fought.

There was no denying that Sephiroth was strong. His swings were swift, his attacks fast, and his power undeniable. Yet at the same time, Naruto felt like this strength was fake somehow. He couldn't put his finger on it…

Aaaagh! I don't have time to think about this! I need to beat this jerkwad!

Naruto swiftly backpedaled across the water, his feet sending ripples over the surface, though the ripples were sliced in half by a sharp blade as Sephiroth came in, swinging Masamune with powerful yet sharp strikes.

Leaping into the air, Naruto landed on one of the buildings. Sephiroth soared above him, then came down, unleashing another powerful swing. Naruto blocked this one as well. His knees threatened to buckle as he only used one hand to block, arm groaning in protest, but that was fine. He was fine. Gritting his teeth, Naruto created a Rasengan in his other hand and slammed it into Sephiroth's side.


The surprised Sephiroth spun through the air and plowed through a wall. The wall crumbled as he burst out the other side. Cracks formed all along the building, which soon came crashing down, sending a huge splash of water skyward.

Naruto wondered how long this battle had been going on for now, but he had long since lost track. Keeping track of time was impossible when his life was on the line. Huffing and puffing as he tried to regain his breath, Naruto warily eyed what remained of the building Sephiroth had gone straight through like a ballistic missile. He couldn't see the man anywhere…



Naruto twisted his body as his instincts screamed at him. He just barely avoided a sword slicing through the spot where he'd been standing. The weapon carved straight through the marble floor as though it was butter. It seemed almost like the blade had an extended reach beyond its mere physical length, for the floor split for several dozen yards before stopping. It was like the mere force of this man's swings was enough to damage the environment.

"Careful with that thing. You could poke an eye out," Naruto said.

"It's amazing that you can still tell jokes at a time like this." Sephiroth smiled.

Naruto shrugged. "What can I say? I was a born jokester."

Sephiroth did not look seriously injured, but he was sporting a nasty bruise where Naruto's Rasengan had torn into him. He was seriously durable. How many people could withstand an attack like that? Most people would have been on the ground, their guts spilling from the hole he had carved into them. Just what the heck was this guy made of anyway?

This battle had been going on way too long for his tastes. Naruto had avoided bringing out the big guns for fear of damaging the environment, but at this point, he believed there was no more need to hold back.

Right. Time to go to work.

Naruto switched out his materia before engaging Sephiroth in close-combat. Kunai and longsword clashed again, and again, and again. Naruto's materia did not grant him any special strength bonuses, so he was on the losing side in their contests of strength. However, Sephiroth would be in for a rude awakening if he thought being able to push Naruto back like this meant anything.

"You seem to have grown weaker," Sephiroth said, grinning.

"That's only in your mind. In fact, I'm actually much stronger than you now," Naruto also grinned.


Naruto's grin widened as he removed his hand from behind his back. Sephiroth's eyes widened as he saw the attack. A loud, bell-like screech echoed all around them seconds before Naruto slammed the attack into him.


"What is that—?!"

Sephiroth leapt backward so quickly it was like he teleported. Not that it mattered. Naruto threw the Rasenshuriken after him, which caused the man's eyes to bulge from their sockets. Even so, this didn't stop Sephiroth from raising his sword above his head and bringing it down. A loud shrieking sound echoed around them as he tried to slice through Naruto's attack, but the Rasenshuriken would not be brought down so easily. It merely stalled as Sephiroth pushed his sword against it as though trying to cut through a block of cement.


Naruto had to give credit where it was due. The man was stronger than he thought. After about a minute of effort, Sephiroth cut the Rasenshuriken in half. Yet that meant very little. Naruto had already appeared behind the man, another Rasenshuriken in hand.



Sephiroth had no time to dodge this attack, and when it slammed into him, he screamed in agony as he was sent blasting away. He carved a path clean through the water, creating waves in his wake. Then he slammed into the altar that Aerith had been praying on not long ago.

The whole thing went up.

It didn't explode with fire or brimstone, but the fierce wind blades that were created from his attack tore through the entire building, slicing it apart, sending large chunks into the waters below. Sephiroth was no exception. The wind blades tore into him. There were millions of them. His clothing was ripped to shreds, blood spurted from wounds that began littering his body, and his mouth was open in a soundless scream of pain that was drowned out by the howling storm. He was trapped within a sphere of millions of microscopic blades of wind.

Naruto stood on the edge of the veranda, silently observing the attack as it died down. The howling stopped. The sphere dispersed. Sephiroth fell into the water below. Naruto waited, wondering if he would emerge, but he did not. Five minutes passed. Nothing. Ten minutes. Still nothing.

"Is he really dead? After everything I've heard about him, I find it hard to believe he'd die so easily…"

True, Naruto had slammed a Rasenshuriken into his back, and that jutsu was no joke, but a man of Sephiroth's caliber should not have been killed by something like that so easily.

Just as Naruto was turning around, splashing reached his ears. Sephiroth had finally emerged. His clothes were in tatters, his body littered with cuts, but he was whole and glaring at Naruto as if the blond had insulted his mother. Well, Naruto had insulted his mother several times, but it was all in his mind. Sephiroth had no way of knowing that.

"You… are strong. You might be the strongest person I have ever fought." Sephiroth looked down at himself and clicked his tongue. "Of course, this body is also weak. Were I not weakened like this, I'm sure that attack would have done nothing."

"So you say. I'll believe that when I see it," Naruto retorted.

Sephiroth snorted as he flew into the air. "I don't have time to play around with you anymore. I might not have killed the Ancient, but the ritual was stopped, so I'll be heading north. Come find me if you want to try and stop me."

"Do you really think I'll let you get away?!"

Naruto switched out materia and created another Rasengan. He then activated his Sage of Six Paths' powers, which he had not activated in a very long time. His body burst with power, so much so that even Sephiroth almost stopped moving. The man looked at Naruto. Then he took off. By that point, Naruto had already combined his Rasengan with Shukaku's Magnet Release.

"Let's see you withstand this!"

Naruto normally slammed this technique into his opponent like a normal Rasengan, but this time, he tossed it at Sephiroth. His hope was to catch Sephiroth in the magnetic attraction, thus pulling him into the attack and leaving him open to another attack. His hope was, unfortunately, dashed when Sephiroth continued to ascend higher and higher, until he vanished from sight. The Magnet Release Rasengan soon dispersed as it ran out of power.

"Haaah. He got away. Damn it all."

Kicking at the ground for a moment, Naruto decided to hurry and catch up with Aerith and the others. He was worried something might have happened to them while he was fighting Sephiroth. There was nothing left here anyway.

Nothing but the placid waves that had returned after the fierce battle.

Aerith sat on the bed with Tifa. She didn't wanted to admit that she was nervous. Naruto had still not returned, and while she wasn't afraid of Cloud, she was wary about what he might do.

Cloud had become an enigma to her, something alien. His actions ran counter to everything she thought she had known about him. She never would have expected him to attack her and Naruto like he had. Why had he tried to kill her? Not even Cloud seemed to know the reason, which made Aerith all the more nervous to be around him.

"Don't worry. I'm sure Naruto will return soon," Tifa said.

"Huh? Oh, yeah. I'm sure you're right," Aerith said, distracted.

"Sensei is way too powerful for someone like Sephiroth to take on. I'm sure he'll be back after kicking that silver-haired twatsicle's ass," Yuffie added. She was playing with Red XIII. It looked like they were playing a game that involved cards. Just how a creature with no fingers or opposable thumbs could play a card game was beyond her.

The other members of their party were spread across the building. Vincent was leaning against the wall, quiet as always. Barret and Cid were next to Cloud. While it looked like the two were just standing there, Aerith was certain the reason they were so close to the blond was to keep an eye on him in case he tried something. Given what happened, she appreciated their vigilance.

Hours seemed to pass, but Naruto eventually returned, climbing up the ladder and emerging onto the floor.


Aerith leapt from the bed and crashed into the blond, who stumbled several steps before catching himself. He placed one hand on her head and the other on her lower back. Those two spots felt hot as he touched them.

"I'm back," he said.

"What happened? Did you get Sephiroth?" asked Barret.

Naruto shook his head. "I had him on the ropes, but he escaped before I could finish him off."

After releasing Aerith, Naruto explained what happened during his battle. The others listened tentatively as he described the fight and what happened after.

"The fact that you managed to fight him back is, in and of itself, an impressive feat," Cloud said, arms crossed. "Sephiroth is known as the greatest SOLDIER of all time. There's not a single person alive who can do what you did."

"Maybe. In either event, we need to decide what we should do now that the ritual to stop Meteor has failed," Naruto said.

"Sephiroth said he was headin' up north, didn't he? Let's just follow him and kill him. If we can kill Sephiroth, we can stop Meteor," said Cid.

"Killing Sephiroth isn't going to be easy though," Tifa pointed out.

"Nothin' worth doin' is ever easy. It's just like trying to fly into space. You think I joined the Space Program because I thought it'd be easy? Course not. I joined because I thought it was worth doing."

Cid brought up a fine point, one Tifa couldn't deny.

"We have to kill Sephiroth anyway," Barret added.

Cloud nodded. "We can't just let Sephiroth roam free. Even if Aerith had managed to stop Meteor, we would still need to defeat him."

No one disagreed with Cloud. Sephiroth would remain a huge problem so long as they didn't deal with him. Letting him roam free was tantamount to giving him permission to destroy the world. The man was a menace in every sense of the word.

"We should rest here for the night. We're all tired, and the journey north is going to be perilous," Vincent said.

"Have you been up north?" asked Naruto.

Vincent shrugged. "Once or twice. I was sometimes called up to the lab in the north when I was a member of the Turks. It's been a while, but I should be able to lead us there."

"Good enough. In that case, let's get some sleep."


Everyone who had been about to get some rest stopped what they were doing and turned to Cloud. The blond man was looking at them all, gaze wavering with uncertainty. He took a deep breath and clutched his hands.

"Everyone, I want you… to listen for a moment. I have something to say." Cloud paused and closed his eyes. He only continued after opening them again. "I'm Cloud, ex-SOLDIER, born in Nibelheim."

"We already know that. What's this about?" asked Cid, crossing his arms.

"I came to settle things with Sephiroth. I did all this out of my own free will… or so I thought." Cloud shook his head. "But, to tell the truth, I'm afraid of myself. There's a part of me that I don't understand. That part made me give the Black Materia to Sephiroth, made me attack my friends and allies. If you guys hadn't been there to stop me, who knows what might have happened. There's something inside of me. A person who's not really me. That's why I should quit this journey. Aerith almost died because of me. I feel like I need to stop here before I do something terrible." Cloud clenched his hand, body shaking with emotion. "But I still plan to keep going. He destroyed my hometown five years ago, nearly made me kill Aerith, and now he's trying to destroy the Planet. I can never forgive Sephiroth for what he's done." He took a deep breath and looked at them all. "That's why I have a favor to ask all of you. Will you come with me? To save me from doing something terrible."

Everyone silently listened to Cloud as he spoke from the heart. Aerith felt his pain acutely, felt his fear and uncertainty, yet also his determination to keep going. Standing beside her, Naruto reached out and grabbed her hand. Perhaps he also felt the same things in Cloud that she did.

"Hmph. Do ya really need to ask. I already told you, didn't I? There ain't no gettin' off this train until it's reached its destination," said Barret.

"We've already come this far," Tifa added. "We can't leave even if we wanted to."

"Aerith, perhaps you should tell everyone how you planned on stopping Sephiroth. Now that our plan has failed, they'll need to know in order to make the best choice possible," Naruto said, giving her a nudge.

"Right." Aerith stepped forward and looked at each person in turn. "My original plan was to cast the magic, Holy. It's a powerful White Magic spell that can cleanse the Planet of all threats. With it, I could destroy Meteor before it can destroy the Planet." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "Though that's no longer possible now. Sephiroth's attack disrupted my concentration when I was trying to activate it, and I no longer have the materia required to use Holy."

No one spoke for the longest time as her words sank in. It was clear now they had just lost their greatest chance at stopping Sephiroth. Even Naruto, normally the most optimistic of them all, had nothing to say.

"Well, shit. That fucking sucks," Cid said at last.

"No kiddin'. What are we supposed to do now?" asked Barret.

"I think we can still stop Sephiroth," Naruto said after a moment. "He hasn't activated Meteor yet. So long as we keep him from activating it, we can stop him."

"Which means heading north," Vincent said at last.

Yuffie placed her hands behind her head and grinned. "Looks like our adventure is gonna continue."

With the conversation over, the group moved to get some rest. The bed was only big enough for three, so Aerith, Yuffie, and Tifa took it. Everyone else spread themselves out across the floor. Naruto, Barret, and Cid remained near Cloud just in case he went crazy again. Vincent and Red XIII stuck by the bed as a last line of defense. Fortunately, their fears that Cloud would go crazy proved unjustified. They all woke up the next morning and set out after breakfast.

"So, which way should we go?" asked Red XIII.

"Sephiroth said to head north, past the Snow Fields," Cloud said.

"The problem is figuring out which way is north. If only I had a compass. Vincent?" Naruto turned to Vincent, who merely nodded before taking point.

The group began traveling through the city, taking a turn they hadn't before, which led to what looked like a giant conch shell with a natural spiral staircase. According to Vincent, they needed to climb the natural staircase, which led to a cavern containing numerous cliff faces. It was a dangerous route that involved freestyle mountain climbing. None of them had equipment either.

Naruto was the only one who could climb this cliff with ease by channeling chakra into the bottom of his feet. Since he could climb like this, Naruto made multiple trips up and down, carrying the others safely up the cliff to save time and effort. There were numerous monsters within this cliff, which forced Naruto to split his attention between fighting and climbing. Most of the monsters looked like aquatic insects.

After helping everyone reach the top, they exited the cave. A wide field of pure white snow spread out before them. Mountains surrounded them on all but one side. A chill wind swept across the snowy field, causing everyone to shiver and rub their arms. The only one not shaking like a leaf was Naruto, whose body ran hot enough that he couldn't feel the cold.

"It's f-f-freezing!" Aerith complained. Beside her, Yuffie and Tifa, who both wore skimpy clothing, shivered.

"We should have packed for colder climates," Naruto murmured.

"Dammit, man! How're you not freezing to death?!" Barret demanded to know.

"Eh? I'm just awesome like that," Naruto said with a shrug.

"Come on. We should keep going. Staying out in this snow any longer than we have to will not be good for us," Vincent said as he began walking away.

While the snow field seemed devoid of life, that was only because the monsters hidden there used camouflage to hide themselves. Their party ran into several ambushes. The most common form of monster were snow rabbits whose white fur let them blend into the snow field. While they looked cute, the rabbits were the same size as a human and used their powerful hind-legs to kick their prey.

"Ambush!" Naruto shouted as several snow rabbits leapt from the white dunes and attacked. Naruto created a Shadow Clone and replaced himself with it just before a snow bunny could plow into him. The clone went up in a cloud of smoke. While the rabbit landed on the ground and looked around in confusion, he put a kunai through its brain.

There were about a dozen other snow rabbits attacking them. Aerith had backed away from a small group as Yuffie and Tifa charged forward to attack. She cast Regen and Barrier on the two, letting them heal constantly and protecting them from physical damage.

Tifa took on two of the monsters, using the back of her gloves to block the attacks, taking them on the steel plates. She backed away while blocking, then ducked low and came in. Her first punch caught one monster in the gut and sent it flying. Her second punch was a powerful uppercut that lifted the other snow rabbit off the ground.

Yuffie had a much easier time. Her shurikens were plenty sharp and able to cut through flesh with ease. Blood splattered across the snow as she swung the weapon like a windmill. One snow rabbit lost its head when it couldn't avoid her attack in time, but the other managed to leap out of the way.

Barret and Vincent were providing cover fire for Cloud, Cid, and Red XIII, who attacked the last group of snow rabbits. Red XIII launched a fireball at one of the monsters, igniting it's fur. He tore out the thing's throat while it was distracted by the fire. Cloud didn't even bother being subtle. His attack was a simple and straightforward swing that bisected one of the creatures. Its two bloody halves fell into the snow, spilling warm blood and organs onto the white surface. Unlike the other two, Cid had a harder time since his staff wasn't capable of penetrating flesh. However, he was able to swat one of the rabbit's into the air, where Barret and Vincent pumped it full of holes.

Snow rabbits weren't the only monsters they faced. There were also powerful wolves that attacked in packs. Of the two types of monsters, these wolves were the stronger, and they were vastly more intelligent as well. Not only did they set up ambushes, but they retreated when it was clear they couldn't win. It seemed they were capable of learning from their experiences because the next attack was a lot more well-planned and resulted in several members of their party being injured.

In the end, Naruto had no choice but to head out on his own and destroy the pack before they could become a problem.

The resulting battle had changed the landscape significantly and even forced the group to backtrack lest they get caught in the destruction.

This place was rife with strong monsters, and while none of them were a match for their party, the constant attacks drained and slowed them down. It took them several days and nights to travel across the snow fields. The nights were too cold to travel, so they created an igloo to sleep in. Naruto would clear out the ground of snow and use his fire materia to create a heat source that kept them from freezing to death. To further diminish the effects of the cold, everyone cuddled together instead of using their own sleeping bags. Even snuggled as they were, the cold seeped into their bones.

Some had it worse than others. Tifa and Yuffie were not dressed for cold weather. Both still wore their tank tops, which exposed their mid riffs and cleavage. No one had a change of clothes, so the two were unfortunately forced to remain like that in the cold. At one point, Yuffie had nearly frozen to death, her entire face turning white as a sheet and her lips turning blue. She looked like an icicle.

While the journey was dangerous, with both the weather and monsters fighting against them, the group eventually made it to Icicle Inn.

Hello, one and all.

It has been a very long time since I've been able to write any fan fiction, but here is another chapter. It's probably lacking in many ways since it's been so long that I don't remember what I've written, but I hope you enjoy it.

For the curious, my work has kept me busy. You may know that I write books for a living now. Last year, Amazon tried to kick me off their platform because someone was pirating my content online. Ever since then, I've begun putting my books on other platforms, so now you can kind my eBooks on Apple Books, Google Play, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, Scribed, and even libraries that are partnered with Overdrive. If anyone wants to check out my stuff, you can literally just type my name in your preferred reading platform.

In any case, I hope you had fun reading this chapter. I'm not sure when the next one will be. Have a great time and stay safe.