Chapter 2: Trail of Bullets

Sephiroth knew the location of the Temple, but the Keystone eluded him. The leads he had taken from the Lifestream had come up dry. He needed a network of the living to know through which hands the Keystone had passed since. His inquiries led him to Dio, a wealthy collector.

He was as irritating as any Shinra collaborator—men who believed the entire world existed for their own entertainment and that every desire had a price tag within their reach. As the face of Shinra's military success, Sephiroth had on multiple occasions been forced to interact with them. It was a task better left to Heidegger, who could match both their bombast and their utter lack of either talent or self-awareness.

It was a broken world where such men believed they'd earned what they had.

The seeds were planted to encourage Dio to search out the Keystone, but Sephiroth wondered if he might employ one of his puppets to deal with the man in the future. A few of them were lucid enough that they could manage a simple chore.

Shinra soldiers bustled about the amusement park, and to its patrons, this was nothing noteworthy. Shinra protected them and their wealth; its conquests made their world possible. They lived complacent to and complicit in the resulting suffering. To acknowledge the presence of soldiers as discordant was to acknowledge their world as imperfect.

But their movements did suggest a specific mission rather than routine security. So what were they after? Invisible, Sephiroth tailed them. Their search led them to the arena, and a man with a gun on his arm.

His left arm.

Sephiroth had never cared for guns, but there was still something exquisite in the way the gunman tore through the soldiers. They were young, recruits who had never seen real combat and weren't prepared to handle an opponent who did not value even his own life. They anticipated that as symbols of law and order, they would put fear into criminals.

The gunman did not care and did not hesitate. He left the arena strewn with bodies and limped on.

Curious, Sephiroth followed.

« What do you want with him? » Jenova wondered.

This is a place of entertainment, is it not? Let me be entertained.

It was likely a meaningless diversion in the end, but it would take time for Dio's contacts to turn up new leads. Sephiroth could afford to satisfy his curiosity.

Surprisingly, the gunman did not seek freedom. Instead he took an elevator hidden in the staff corridors down to the base of the tower. The fact that he knew where to find it meant that he knew it would lead him nowhere. The desert that surrounded Gold Saucer was impassable to a human on foot.

Why return to the place of his own incarceration? What had been the point of his excursion? Had there been any point at all?

Sephiroth followed the gunman through the wasted land. The burnt-out shells of buildings made him... nostalgic wasn't the word. Nibelheim should have looked something like this, after his rage had swept through it. He'd had no opportunity to see it.

Life clung to this place like a pestilence, offering nothing more than a refusal to die. The prisoners sought nothing, expected nothing.

They gave the gunman a wide berth. He had clout here, whatever that was worth, and they let him pass unassailed. He came to a solitary place at the edge of a ravine and finally stopped before two crude grave markers stabbed into the cracked earth.

Sephiroth had never been to Corel. He knew its location on a map, of course, and the voices of the Lifestream told him something of what had happened here. A tragedy, most would call it.

Was it a tragedy for humans to wipe out other humans?

Sephiroth watched the gunman, wondering if he felt grief or rage. Was it an anniversary of some kind? Had he felt called to do violence on behalf of the dead, to take some vengeance in their name when he could do nothing else?

Sephiroth could understand vengeance. He could understand rage.

« It's short-sighted, as they always are. »

I know. One almost pities them.

He would have left then, but Cloud and his friends bumbled their way into getting themselves arrested. He had to laugh, even if their capture was less than ideal. Could they not recognize the obvious Shinra plant in their midst? But then, how could they, when they were so busy refusing to notice Sephiroth's?

Cloud was a tool like all the rest, and Sephiroth had yet to decide whether his limited agency made him more or less useful. He had yet to learn anything worthwhile, but he could be used to keep tabs on the Cetra with him.

His companions did make him more interesting than the others. Of course his own actions were nothing more than a pantomime, but the way they were returned was genuine. Sephiroth had always been on the outside—indeed no one was even now aware of his presence—but he'd never been able to observe human friendship so closely. It was an aspect of humanity he'd always been denied.

Not that he had any cause for envy now. That was something of the past, before he'd realized there was a higher path open to him. He could ascend to a plane beyond their comprehension, so what did their petty connections matter?

It didn't matter if they refused to let one another face their demons alone.

In time, Cloud and the others found their way past the junkyard to the gunman. Dyne, his name was. A mirror, in some ways, of the man called Barret.

Among Cloud's companions, he had held the least interest for Sephiroth. He was not Cetra nor any other inhuman rarity. He was not an old acquaintance, nor did he hail from the nation Sephiroth had helped to conquer. He was just a man, loud and brash and with an ego bruised from being passed over for leadership. He was nothing special.

But something about his confrontation with his old friend... bothered Sephiroth.

Why ya wanna kill those that ain't even involved?

Are the people killed going to understand 'why'? Are the people of Corel going to understand just hearing Shinra's excuses? I don't care what the reason is! All they give us are artillery and stupid excuses... What's left is a world of despair and emptiness...

Was it familiar in some way? For some things, there was no explanation that mattered. After some things, the only path forward was one of destruction, to raze everything to the ground. But Dyne did not have the power to create anything from it; his ambitions ended there, in emptiness.

Why did Barret, whose mistakes had reaped him the same consequences, feel differently?

Perhaps he was naive, still. He clung to the idea that there was some other resolution, but had none to provide. Whatever he said he wanted, he remained powerless to prevent Dyne from dropping over the edge of the ravine.

For the first time, Sephiroth wondered if anyone had grieved after his fall into the depths of the reactor. Certainly, Shinra had regretted the loss of a useful tool. Its people may have lamented the loss of a symbol. But that was all he was to them. Of those who really knew him...

Zack had chosen to get in his way. He had hesitated, but in the end he hadn't insisted on their affinity. He had looked at Sephiroth as though his actions made him an entirely different person. He hadn't understood that it was the only rational choice when one understood the true state of the world.

No one seemed to understand that except for an impotent gunman who had taken his own life.

Sephiroth had power. Destruction was not where his path ended. It was an end for others, and he supposed he couldn't fault them for struggling against that. They knew nothing else, and so they couldn't imagine what he would create in its place.

And yet, there was something here that Sephiroth didn't understand either. Despite what Dyne sought, Barret had looked at him and seen the same man as before. No one had seen Sephiroth well enough before to look at him now and determine whether he had changed. There was no one to acknowledge... what?

Why did he need anything acknowledged?

« They've found their way out. There's no need for you to linger here. »

Of course.

It didn't matter how humans dealt with this world. Their lives were messy and ultimately tended on a path of ruin. Even without Sephiroth's intervention, they would destroy themselves in the end, and nothing would come of that.

What he had planned for them was not emptiness. It was rebirth. They could leave all of this behind.

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