I Know What's Beneath
the Snow Fields -Chp.37
At the sight of Davoren, Aeris felt her whole heart sicken with fear and loathsome dread. A violent bout of trembling seized her cold limbs. She knew not how long he had been spying on her from up there. Had he just arrived, or been there all the time, hidden in the shadows? In either case, she hadn't even sensed his presence.
Aeris thought this terrible gunman would leap down from the tree branch. He would grab her, maybe strike her to quell any resistance, then carry her off...straight back to the hateful "Professor". Indeed, his physical strength far, far exceeded hers. And against such a ruthless men, what chance had Aeris of defending herself or even resisting?
But Davoren made no indication he would leap off his comfortable spot, let alone mishandle the girl in any unmannerly way. Far from it, he lounged carelessly on one of the high branches, his back still leaned against the main tree trunk. One leg dangled loosely in the air along with the hem of his thick trench coat. He held a half-finished cigarette to his lips.
Davoren's handsome face expressed great affability, almost affectionate warmth, towards the confused girl down below. One would have thought he was her closest friend in the world. Yet his strange eyes betrayed all the vicious malice hidden behind that friendly visage.
Such a sharp contrast between the two extremes gave Davoren a most cunning, sinister look. In truth, if he had gazed down on Aeris with a cold frown instead, she wouldn't have found him even half as frightening.
For a full minute, neither the callous gunman or the girl spoke a word.
Both could hear the bloody battle raging furiously on in the far distance. The wild, loud gunshots filled the air until Hell seemed to break loose. Rough, faint cries and heavy stomping of feet re-echoed through the bleak woods. At times, an unnatural silence would suddenly interrupt the insane gunfire; not a sound stirred during this awkward moment. But instantly, the bloody battle resumed.
Davoren lazily folded his arm across his chest, holding the cigarette between his graceful fingers. Amidst all the wild crossfire suffocating the air, he paid no heed to such loud noises.
Through miraculous efforts and forced calmness, Aeris at last managed to gather her scattered thoughts again. She stood near the stout tree trunk, her face turned up to see this ruthless gunman in full view. Her anguished heart ached with every gunshot she heard: the bullets were all aimed at Vincent...all intended to kill him. Her hands couldn't stop trembling, not with that hellish nightmare perched above her on that tree.
But besides all the fear which had accumulated into her anxious eyes, deep contempt for this man also shone brightly. *He* had robbed her sense of security, *he* had pitted all those men against Vincent, and *he* had returned to claim her for the "Professor".
For some reason, Davoren tore his eyes away from her face. He gazed thoughtfully at the black tree tops scattered across the distance; their branches, like thin sickly arms, reached in vain for the brilliant canopy of stars high above.
"The Professor is very angry right now....just fuming like a steamboat with rage," Davoren began calmly without looking at her, "He's already a month behind on your testing and analysis data. He storms all around the laboratory, blubbering about you and making everyone else's life Hell. But y'know, he's pretty mad at Vincent too..."
Aeris said nothing.
"Of course, he's also ticked off at me for failing to capture you two. Heh heh...he came this close to eating me as meat carcass and using my hair as coconut shavings."
Davoren turned his pink eyes down to the girl again. Though his face had grown expressionless, the evil gleam in his eyes still remained.
"You have no idea, my dear, how *badly* the Professor wants you back," Davoren stated, an ominous tone playing on his calm voice, "Every day, every night, he just yearns to have you again...."
Aeris recoiled a step in spite of herself. She felt disgusted and frightened at the thought of being so "badly" wanted by her tormentor. The cold-hearted gunman gazed down at her as he smoked his cigarette. He looked exactly as he had that miserable day Aeris first saw him.
The wild gunshots in the distance suddenly escalated to an all-out crossfire frenzy. Alarmed by the loud chaos, Aeris turned her head around: somewhere in these dark woods, Vincent was fighting those men. She gasped out loud when she heard a faint scream of agony (was it Vincent's??). Her heart swelled in anxiety. She desperately fought against a surge of tears.
Davoren, on the other hand, puffed out a cloud of smoke without the least care.
Aeris shot her angry eyes straight up at Davoren again. She clenched her two fists into tight fists, wishing she could punch this loathsome man off his high place.
"How did you survive?" Aeris asked.
Davoren lifted one eyebrow quizzically.
"Vincent dropped an entire wall on you. You were crushed underneath all the huge rubble...and then there was an explosion...and a fire! How could you have survived all that?!"
"I have....really, really, really tough skin," smiled Davoren with childlike simplicity.
Aeris scowled at the strange answer. Was he just kidding?
"...and I hardly feel any pain. So, I just dug out of the rubble and walked away," the man concluded, tickled with delight at his answer. Her anger seemed to amuse him greatly.
The mad battle behind turned into a wild war of hot bullets and confused skirmishes. The black woods re-echoed with fierce crossfire. It raged on for another moment, then suddenly ceased. With equal suddenness, one single shot rang out, followed by the most coarse scream Aeris had ever heard. Three more shots followed, and the battle erupted again, this time with redoubled fury.
Aeris clasped both hands over her heart as she beheld the dark woods before her: What if that was Vincent's scream? What if they had killed him? What if they were riddling his body with bullets?
Unable to contain her disturbing fears any longer, Aeris immediately rushed towards the battle zone. But she had only taken three steps when suddenly one loud bullet blasted right between her two feet. with a short scream, she stumbled forward, then darted her shocked eyes up the tree again.
She instantly spotted the silvery-grey gun in Davoren's hand, white smoke trailing up from the muzzle. He had fired that shot.
Aeris felt her blood run cold. That ruthless gunman could have killed her had he wanted to, or at least shot her legs.
"I wouldn't go in there if I were you, honey," Davoren warned with fatherly sternness, "Cute little girls like you don't belong in bloody battles between mercenaries and professional assassins."
He carelessly holstered his gun back into the depths of his trench coat. He sat in the same languid position, one leg dangling downwards and his arm folded across his chest. His evil eyes shone in mischievous delight.
Poor Aeris stood perfectly still in her spot, listening to the faint scuffles, wild gunfire, and distant cries tear through the cold air. She could no longer suppress her anger.
"Are you really that afraid to face Vincent by yourself?!" she cried, the rage seething inside of her, "All those horrible men..and all those guns..all against just ONE PERSON?!!"
A very sinister smile crossed Davoren's lips, as if relishing Vincent's unfair situation.
"Oh, I admit hiring twelve mercenaries to kill him was perhaps pushing it a bit too far," he laughed good-naturedly, "I know Vincent isn't his best in these all-out war fights. His strongest assets are his agility, sharp senses, and of course his aim. But no, not battle tactics."
Though Aeris' beautiful face expressed unforgiving anger for this shrewd man, anxious tears had welled up in her eyes. She did not speak for fear she might burst out crying.
"But, Vincent handles himself quite well when pushed into tight situations like these," Davoren praised, smoking his cigarette smugly, "Don't forget, he used to be an excellent professional Turk. I know he'll be okay. Save your sympathy for the poor slobs he's slaughtering instead."
The girl made no reply.
"If you were to go rushing into the battle like that, Vincent would lose a lot of his needed concentration. He'd have to protect you AND fight back. So, it's best you wait here where it's safe."
Aeris scoffed contemptuously at the word "safe", but otherwise, made no response. She noticed the once wild, raging battle had deteriorated to a hot exchange of fire. It sounded very close by.
When she heard a sharp bleep, Aeris looked suspiciously up at Davoren. In return, Davoren pulled out a radio transmitter from his trench coat pocket, and fitted it into his ear. With a polite "please excuse me" to the girl below, he tapped the device once.
"M-M-Mr.Davoren...Sir??" stammered a nervous voice the instant the receiver was opened.
"S-Sir, this bastard is taking us out one by one too damn fast!! He kills one of us, and disappears, then he pops outta nowhere and kills again!! He's too quick for us to keep up with! This...this FREAK just ain't human!!!"
"No kidding," answered Davoren, rolling his eyes at the stupid remark, "Tell me, where are you?"
"I'm..I mean, we're n-near the main road, moving through the west section."
"How many of you are left?"
No sooner had the frightened voice spoken, than a very loud shot gunshot resounded through the transmitter, followed by a piercing scream of pain.
"Whoops! Now it's only one," joked Davoren without the slightest annoyance.
Aeris listened to this conversation in complete silence. She felt slightly relieved: at least she knew Vincent was still alive.
Davoren tapped the transmitter again, then instructed in a very business-like tone, "He's in the west section, near the main road. I'm already there, and I have the little girl. Be careful, he's killed eight men so far. You three come over quickly."
"Yes Sir, Mr.Davoren. Right away!" obeyed a gruff voice.
Davoren yanked out the transmitter from his ear, then dumped it back into his deep pocket. He smoked his cigarette indifferently, listening to the gunfire in the near distance. The battle had finally quieted down to a simple exchange of fire, with many heavy pauses in between. The ruthless gunman was silent for a long time.
Aeris studied his lonesome figure perched high up there. Her green eyes darkened in hatred: God, how she loathed this man beyond description!
"You don't like me that much, do you, my dear?" Davoren smiled archly to himself, breaking into her thoughts.
She stared back in surprise. He hadn't even glanced at her, yet had sensed all her emotions so easily.
"Heh...nothing hurts more than the scorn of a woman," he commented sagaciously. He touched the back of his head as he added with playful humour, "..but mind you, getting your head shot is quite painful too."
Aeris regarded him as a complete lunatic, or a fiendish demon. Either description fitted him perfectly.
A heavy silence followed.
Aeris started violently when an ear-splitting gunshot suddenly rang out right behind her. Without warning, a mercenary literally flew past her, spinning wildly through the air, until his back slammed against the tree Davoren sat on. The mercenary slumped lifelessly down to the snowy ground, leaving a trail of dark blood on the tree trunk as he collapsed. He lay against the tree, his bloody head bent down sharply. He was dead.
"Boy, you sure wasted no time getting here," laughed Davoren, checking his watch impressively, "Hmmm...seven minutes. Not bad at all!"
As Davoren thus spoke so light-heartedly, he looked at someone behind Aeris. The girl quickly turned around to find Vincent standing some steps away, having just emerged victorious from the bloody battleground. Obviously, he had shot the last mercenary, then had ruthlessly hurled the corpse straight into the thicket.
His gun gripped tightly in his hot hand, Vincent glared up at Davoren. But while Davoren smiled and happily waved his hand, the former man expressed no emotion whatsoever.
"V..Vincent!!" Aeris cried in relief and alarm. She immediately dashed to his side.
"But man! Don't you look like a mess!" exclaimed the ruthless gunman with great amusement, "You must be exhausted from fighting all those morons and running around."
As much as Vincent hated to agree, Davoren was absolutely right: he was a mess and quite tired. He looked battered. His chest heaved deeply, fighting for precious air. Sweat trickled down his pale, feverish face. Tiny splotches of dark blood blotted his cheek. Several long black hair strands dangled before his face.
His clothes had also suffered from the battle. He had lost his scarf, and the hem of his long overcoat lay in tatters. One random bullet had grazed his body just above the waist, leaving a noticeable, blood-soaked tear. Another wild bullet had nearly hit his thigh. The many rips and cuts at the bottom part of his pants proved he had been racing through the brittle bushes.
Though the battle hadn't been too much a challenge for Vincent, the intensity had drained him. Indeed, he had eliminated his enemies so quickly and had ran at such an amazing speed, fatigue had finally caught up with him.
"Vincent! You..you're bleeding!" gasped Aeris on spotting his arm wound.
"..it's nothing. Don't worry about me," he lied softly. In truth, this wound had grown considerably worse during the last fight. He could feel the hot blood trickle down his arm and drip off his hand. Even the tight grip of the gun felt wet with his blood.
Vincent glanced tiredly at Aeris as he asked,"Are you alright?"
"Y-yes. He..he didn't try to catch me," she faltered out, turning her eyes up to Davoren.
The gunman gazed silently down at the two without moving.
When reassured of the girl's safety, Vincent glared intently at Davoren high above on that tree. Gently slipping his wounded arm out of Aeris' grip, he staggered a few steps forward, then halted again. His piercing eyes never dropped off the gunman's pleasant face. Davoren smoked his cigarette with perfect ease. He stared back at Vincent, but would not be the first to speak.
This was the second time they had met in thirty-one years.
"You're still here," Vincent remarked coolly.
"What do you mean?" asked Davoren. He sounded a bit confused.
"While I was distracted with those men, Aeris was completely helpless against you. You had plenty of opportunities to capture her and escape, even in the short time it took me to get here. But, you're still here."
"Why, Vincent! I am offended!" declared Davoren in feigned indignation, "You think I hired those men to distract you? And you think me such a heel that I would take advantage of a defenseless little girl in her distress? Tsk! now that wouldn't be very gentlemanly of me, would it?"
Davoren smoked his cigarette one last time, then flung it away.
"And besides," the ruthless man added coldly, "That lame plan would only work if I had wanted the girl alone. I'm supposed to catch you too, remember?"
Vincent narrowed his keen eyes in deep suspicion: if those men weren't sent to kill him, and weren't a distraction...then what was their true purpose?
Aeris lingered a few steps behind, the anxiety tearing her heart apart. She did not speak at all.
Davoren finally hopped off the tree branch. He landed on both feet right infront of the stout tree trunk, a short distance away from the two. After carelessly brushing the snow off his trench coat, he thrust both hands deep into his pockets. His pink eyes flickered with evil playfulness.
Contrastingly, Vincent remained stoic, concealing all his suspicions and burning questions behind a cold face. To his annoyance, the fever raged ever stronger inside his weary body, especially his forehead. The coughing fit nibbled at his soft lungs, as if savouring the flavour before devouring the whole thing. He hadn't much time left...
The two men stood face to face in perfect silence.
"I must apologize for underestimating you last time, Mr.Valentine," Davoren began in what sounded like sincere regret, "I didn't take you half as seriously as I should have. I was basing my estimation only on what I knew about you thirty-one years ago."
Vincent made no reply.
"Last time, I only disabled your metal arm. I thought I could kill you off easily with that handicap on you. Looking back on that, I have to say I feel ashamed of myself. You proved yourself more than able and ready to handle any problems you land in. Why, you still managed to defeat me, and quite impressively too! I'd just like to say I'm sorry for underestimating you, my friend."
Vincent mistrusted this man completely. He gazed searchingly at the gunman's face, trying to guess a double meaning to his apologetic words.
Davoren merely smiled at his "friend's" suspicious look, then glanced amusedly at the dead mercenary slumped against the tree. He tilted the corpse with the tip of his shoe until it fell to the snowy ground, and lay lifelessly there. Davoren still smiled.
As Vincent watched the gunman standing there, a quick image flashed past his mind: thirty-one years ago...Davoren had shot a terrorist in the Reactor...but he wasn't smiling at all...he was very sad... he was...praying...
Davoren suddenly turned to face the two again. He glanced at Aeris, who cringed a step away, then fixed his malicious eyes on Vincent.
"I won't make the same mistake twice. I held back a lot last time, because I underestimated you too much. But not this time," the callous gunman assured, his happy smile turning to a vicious sneer, "This time, Sir, I WILL take the girl back to the Professor...she'll be all his again. I'll tear her away from you while I watch you die slowly and painfully. That I promise you!"
Vincent could sense poor Aeris shiver violently behind him. However, he made no reply to the venomous threat.
"You see, Vincent," Davoren explained amusedly, "I'm not going to use your claw against you. No, I'm going to use a much more effective handicap against you... I'll use the *GIRL*. This time, when I shoot, it's at her."
Vincent stood rooted to his spot, his rigid gaze fixed on the insane man infront of him. He gripped his gun tighter, but did not raise it. He could sense Aeris' great distress turn to fearful alarm.
"I thought the 'Professor' wanted her alive," Vincent remarked calmly at last. His red eyes, however, darkened in unmistakable anger.
"Oh, he does. He won't have her otherwise," Davoren smiled back, delighted at the reaction, "And if I kill her, oh well. The Professor will just tear me to pieces (like I care). But, I'm still going to take the risk, Vincent. I know you've grown quite...protective of her, even more than before. I was just telling her that if she were to get caught in the crossfire, you'd lose a lot of concentration just to protect her."
Vincent's muscles tensed in redoubled anger. This man had predicted everything so accurately.
"So, you'll fight me on one hand, and guard the girl on the other. You have to be fresh, quick, and pretty alert to do BOTH tasks at the same time, right Mr.Valentine? Top form is the name of the game!"
No reply. Only a cutting, dirty look from Vincent.
"Oh, but you're tired, wounded, and ill!" Davoren sympathized mockingly, pretending he hadn't already noticed, "Aw, how unfortunate! Now what impact do you suppose THAT will have?"
It means I won't be as fast and sharp as I should be, Vincent replied angrily inside himself, he's right, I am exhausted after those two fights...and this damn coughing fit is getting worse....
He's forcing me to put the priority on Aeris' life instead of fighting him. He knows I'll take the bullet for her if I have to....but this time, he could kill me, not just disable my arm...
You're a cunning little bastard, Davoren. So *that's* why you hired all those mercenaries...to wear me down and exhaust me. Sure, then you won't have as much trouble fighting me...
"Stop it!! Why are you doing this??!!!" cried Aeris' tearful voice all of a sudden.
Both men looked at her in surprise.
The poor girl, with hot tears flooding down her eyes, stared straight at Davoren. Her limbs shook in agitation and twice as much anguish. She had listened to the relentless gunman, dumbstruck by his savage, almost sadistic, cruelty. The fear, distress, and anger had swelled inside her heart until it all burst forth with that desperate question.
Neither man interrupted her.
"You know what you're doing is wrong! Somewhere inside of you, you MUST know!! But why do you do all these horrible, evil things?! Vincent said you were a very, very good man...far better than he'll ever be!! He said that in the middle of all the crimes and bloodshed, you kept your soul alive!! And I...I'm sure you were a kind-hearted human being! So why are you doing all this?!! Why?! Why?!"
There was a heavy pause. Aeris gazed beseechingly at Davoren's expressionless face, expecting him to answer her anguished question. But Davoren made no reply. Vincent thoughtfully studied the tearful girl trembling some steps behind him. She looked so pitiful, sobbing and shaking all by herself.
Suddenly, Davoren burst out into wild, hysterical laughter.
"Oh, Vincent said all that about me, did he? Well, how generous of him! HA HA HA HA HA HA...."the maniacal man cried out. The lavish praise somehow seemed an excellent joke to him.
Aeris stared in absolute horror at Davoren as the merry laughter shook his very core. Vincent felt intense hatred boil his blood, but kept a stoic face. At long last, after many failed attempts, Davoren brought himself under reasonable control again.
"Ha ha..heh heh heh...don't think you know anything about me, honey," the cruel gunman forced out, breathless with his previous laughter, "If you think you do, then you should go to sleep. It's WAY past your bedtime, little girl."
Aeris was stunned into silence.
"Vincent has me confused with another Davoren," he added softly, addressing himself more than her, "That man he knew is gone...his 'soul', 'kind-heartedness' and 'goodness' all died a long time ago....such a long, long time ago. I can't even remember whether that man really existed at all..."
Vincent gazed at the insane gunman with peculiar scrutiny. For a split second, he thought he spotted pain flash across Davoren's eyes. But when Davoren finally recovered himself, Vincent found nothing but vicious malice and cunning ruthlessness in those pink eyes.
Gone the gentle compassion and righteous conscience of thirty-one years ago. Gone his veneration for any human life, his genuine pity for those who suffer, and his strict loathing of any injustice. It had all faded away like the colour of his hair.
"Now I'm just a slave to the almighty Professor," Davoren smiled weakly at the two, "I fulfill the commands of my master without question or moral judgment. My so-called 'soul', 'goodness', yadda yadda yadda is irrelevant to my duty. You WILL go back to the Professor tonight, and Vincent dies. It's all for the experiment. Everything else does not concern me."
The three stood still without a word. Realizing how futile her pitiful pleas had been, Aeris could only stare tearfully at Davoren. The smile remained frozen on the gunman's lips. His evil eyes gleamed lovingly at her, as if reassuring her he's keep his promise. He then turned to Vincent.
Vincent had nothing to say. He only gazed back at this cruel gunman...the once beloved leader of the Turks...his old best friend... and perhaps the kindest man he had ever met. The face, same as it had looked thirty-one years ago, slowly became cold again.
Davoren would definitely carry out his insane plan. He'll go all out, no mercy or hesitation in his brutal actions. All for this mysterious "experiment", he would kill Vincent tonight, and drag the poor girl away. That hadn't been an empty threat or any pompous bluff.
Indeed, it hadn't. Vincent gave a violent start when Davoren suddenly yanked out his own gun, and fired straight at Aeris.