I Know What's Beneath
the Snow Fields -Chp.53
The paradox fascinated him: outside hellish hot, inside icy cold.
At the brink of where reality yielded to lunacy, Rufus lingered somewhere in between the two bitter extremes. He was numb to all surroundings except these raw sensations: heat and cold.
Though wide awake, his mind still groped through blind stupor, an inferno where lonely conscious lay shattered on the floor. It seemed doubtful whether he even retained an awareness of his own body, let alone the obscure world around. Indeed, he had strayed miles away from this spot.
The echo of approaching footsteps grew ever closer upon the dungeon, accompanied by some strange muffled voices. The young man, however, hardly flinched a muscle. Most probably, he didn't even hear anything.
Soon, a loud double "click" resounded. The heavy steel door belligerently swung open to admit visitors. Annoyed yet well-retsrained, Davoren marched straight into this dingy cell. Two other men followed close behind; the mercenaries who had called for his immediate assistance. The three were in the heat of some discussion.
"...he's been screaming away for at least an hour, Sir, pacing around the room non-stop!" declared one man nervously, "We tried to hold him down, but...."
"And how is he now?" Davoren cut short.
"That's why we called you, Sir. He's just been swinging between so many moods so fast!"
"Even with the sedatives?"
"Huh! We can't even manage this nutty kid anymore. One minute dead quiet, the next stone-crazy!" scoffed the other mercenary aloud to answer.
In other words, drugs only aggrevated the young man more.
The awkward silence fell almost immediately upon the company on halting. Davoren stopped in the middle of the cell, while the two men lingered behind. He glanced a moment at these two uneasy guards, then turned his attention the filthiest corner in sight.
There stood Rufus, with his whole back turned to the present visitors. He was locked in rigid stupor.
The dungeon appeared to be the tragic remnants of some surveillance room, now totally devestated by decay and neglect. All sorts of artifacts lay smashed along the walls: broken mainframe computers, their ravaged interiors on display; dead, dusty screen monitors, and abused electric equipment. An ominous darkness hung in the chilly air, challenged only by the bravery of a single gas lamp lynched overhead. The only furniture consisted of a low steel table and some beaten chair, both heaped near the wall.
The three silent visitors lingered in rather tense anticipation. Davoren stood at the head of the awkward company. Both gloved hands hung loose by his side. His face expressed pensive solemnity as he beheld Rufus' stubborn back. He wore no trench coat, only his suit.
Similarly, the two mercenaries waited. The nervous guard had a rather lean appearance, tan, with his woolly hair tucked under a grey skullcap. He fidgetted behind at the spectacle, always fingering his strapped assault rifle in evident discomfort. The other guard merely watched from the doorway. Both arms were folded across his wide chest, with a most contemptuous frown on his bristly face. He seemed to find this entire scene ridiculous.
All attention remained rivetted on the young man, yet no response ever came.
Absorbed into his lonely trance, Rufus stood rooted in this dingy corner. His head hung down as if shunning both light and sanity altogether. His hands dangled like dead weights by his side. He had been clothed in the shabbiest attire, which only accenuated the frality of his slim yet tense body: an old (but decent) pair of blue jeans; a wrinkled black turtle-neck sweater rolled up to the elbows, and beaten winter shoes. Despite his turned back, he still struck a pittifully ruined appearance.
The uneasiness endured another long minute. When it seemed that neither the two mercenaries nor the young man would act, Davoren finally ventured to break the silence.
He assumed the most relaxed, non-threatening demeanour possible. Very, very deliberately, he called, "...Rufus?"
His voice fell on dead ears. The boy did not flinch.
Davoren paused a moment, cleared his throat, then tried again, "Rufus, please turn around."
The gunman waited for some response. The guards witnessed the tense scene from afar. They dared not interfere, as if all hope hung on their leader alone.
It seemed uncertain whether Rufus could even hear. Indeed, he hadn't spoken or moved, not even for these three men who anticipated any reaction. A minute passed by. When still nothing came, Davoren slowly edged closer, obviously to draw the boy away from that corner.
"Don't come near me," ordered a curt, strained voice suddenly. Rufus had spoken at last.
Davoren stopped dead on the spot. His peaceful demeanour never wavered.
"...the fire...it'll burn you too...," mumbled the distraught young man in gentle derangement. He refused to lift his head or even face the visitors.
The strange warning certainly puzzled Davoren. He glanced behind at the two mercenaries for some explanation.
"He's been like that all damn night," commented the distempered guard about the lunatic, "he won't let anyone come near him...thinks he's standing in a fire."
Davoren frowned at the news. A deep troublesome expression overcast his face as he returned to the insane young man. Yet despite the warning, he edged another cautious step forward.
"Rufus," he repeated gently, "Boy, please turn around."
At long, long last, the second plea won a response. All movements slow and tired, Rufus lifted his head up, then brought himself around to face Davoren.
The insane tempest shone within those ocean-blue eyes. His unnaturally glazed look stared right through the silent gunman, and into empty space instead.
Rufus stood statue-still amidst the torment of this hellish hallucination. Many orange-brown hair strands dangled before his wan face, a dishevelled haircut which nevertheless suited him quite nicely. His haggard expression betrayed fatigue, resentment, but mostly pain: both physical and mental anguish.
"...it's so cold inside...," Rufus raved quietly. He hugged himself by clutching opposite sleeves, then withdrew further into the corner, "...but the fire's all around...it burns me up...burns me to pieces...."
Davoren, who had thus far stood silent witness, studied the boy's mad face quite keenly. His demeanour remained calm, his expression ever firm but tinted by some concern.
The young man's ordeal suddenly swung to intense anxiety. The wild signs contored his whole body, in particular his eyes. He seemed beleaguered by forces detectable to his senses alone. Gasps broke out.
"..I don't know...it...doesn't matter...," he muttered weakly, squeezing both eyes shut, "..it's so cold here, am I all alone?...there's a fire...it..."
Davoren tried to reason, "Rufus, there is no..."
"DON'T COME NEAR ME!!!" the lunatic suddenly exploded against an invisible enemy, "THEY TEAR ME UP!! ALL OF THEM!!"
It started again. Pain and insanity blinded all reason, fuelled onwards by his own traumatic derangement. Much to both Davoren and the guards alarm, Rufus suddenly clutched his head with a stiffled cry of agony. The next moment, he reeled over sideways at a total loss of balance.
The reaction came at once. Davoren managed to reach the madman just before he could collapse. On encircling Rufus' weak arm around his own neck, he forcefully dragged him away, at the same time angirly ordering the two ineffective mercenaries to bring over the table. The boy's ordeal worstened; his struggles grew more violent, his words more incoherent, and the pain more obvious.
Amidst the confusion that followed, the gunman kept a cool head, focussing all his efforts on just calming the delirious boy. With one of the guard's help, Davoren sat Rufus down on the steel table. He sat right by his side, then forced the madman to face him.
Rufus persisted to clutch his head as though to the last shred of reality. He writhed on the table in violent irritation, held in place only by the joint effort of the gunman and guard. He didn't respond to any plea.
Finally at his wits' end, the gunman tore Rufus' hands from his head, and began to vigorously massage both sides of his head in strong rhythmic movements.
The boy at first resisted. In vain, he tried to wrench off those unfamiliar hands, himself still flustered by blind anger. Yet Davoren continued on. All ten fingeretips heedlessly kneaded through the hair, with his calm voice trying to reach the disorientated young man. The two mercenaries merely watched the scene without a word. They let their skillful leader handle this trouble alone.
The last-ditch technique finally had the desirable effect. Drained of strength at last, Rufus gradually subdued to tired delirium. He stared emptily into his lap. His weary posture was hunched towards Davoren, letting him massage his head without any more protest. The spasm attack had eased off.
"...they're inside...they won't leave me...," Rufus whispered sadly to no one, "...they won't be silent...they won't be silent...and..the fire..it.."
"Sh.Sh.It's okay, son," comforted Davoren,"It's okay.Just take it easy."
He continued the repetitive task while Rufus' heavy head hung down in numb misery. The broad-chested mercenary silently indicated to Davoren whether to give Rufus another sedative (now that the situation was under control). The gunman, however, shook his head.
"Tell me, when was the last time this boy got some decent sleep?" he asked the two guadsmen.
"God knows, Sir," one man shrugged his shoulders, "He usually raves on 'till he drops. These attacks just come 'n go without warning."
"Seems to me they *come* more often than they go...this boy needs rest more than anything else," Davoren frowned, "What's the scan level on his brain?"
Both mercenaries exchanged a meaningful look before the lean one with the skullcap admitted, "...ten degress, full-scale power, Sir."
"Ten degrees?! That's the maximum level!" started Davoren in astonishment, glaring most significantly at the two.
"The...the Professor ordered us to keep it at ten."
Davoren thought a minute, if only to bring his rising displeasure under control. He hadn't liked that answer one bit.
"Shut it off," he commanded sternly.
"I said shut it off. Shut that damn machine off."
"B-but..the Professor...," protested the other man fearfully.
Yet Davoren would not bicker. He sprang up to confront the nervous mercenary, pink eyes ablaze in real vexation.
"I don't give a rat's ass what the Professor ordered. He's also left ME directly responsible for keeping this boy alive!" stated the gunman. A cold tightness strained his tone, "If he dies, *I* get all the blame. Do as I say. Shut that infernal scanner off, or you'll FRY his brains!!"
The mercenary fumbled between the two contradictory orders. So nervous under that harsh glare, he could only stutter, "..ah, well, S-Sir...I..."
"Argh! The kid's a damn half-wit retard!" thundered the foul-tempered guard instead. He hurtled another horrible oath at Rufus, then suggested contemptuously, "We oughtta just stuff him with a few more drugs 'n chain him up somewhere! That'll keep that bastard quiet! I say..."
"I say you'd best restrict such idiotic remarks to yourself before you wind up dead," Davoren advised. Though he didn't look at the brazen man, his icy countenance from the side was enough to win silence.
Remarkably, Rufus still sat slouched over on the table top, muttering soft nonsense to himself. One hand covered his wan face, with wild hair strands hanging over. He never took notice of this conversation. He didn't even seem aware of his surroundings.
The lean mercenary still lingered in uneasy hesitation until Davoren at last lost his patience; he'd settle the problem now. Therefore, he reached for his sidepocket, and tossed his precious cigarette pack, lighter, and a few gils over to the astonished guard.
"At least reduce the intensity," Davoren compromised, "Make it three degees."
The silent man examined these generous gifts for a moment. He peeked at the gunman's grave face, then softly said, "..y..yes, Sir."
At last, an agreement. The bribe had worked.
The corrupt mercenary acted immediately. Slipping these treasures into his own pockets, he marched straight out of the dingy dungeon, presumedly to fulfill his end of the bargain.
Davoren's cold eyes followed the man until he had departed, whereby he then turned over to the other guard.
"You wait outside," he dismissed with a curt nod, "I'll handle the kid."
The scornful mercenary grudgingly obeyed. He walked out, then slammed the heavy door behind, leaving the gunman alone to handle the bothersome task.
The instant the door shut, Davoren expelled one tired sigh, pressing his temples to disperse the irritation. He then turned to Rufus again. The prisoner's state hadn't changed; not even his weary posture, with his bowed head, and the position of his legs (one folded up on the table, the other supporting him from the floor).
"...there's a fire everywhere...," he whispered away to madness, "...it blasts through the sky...the glass...into my face...it burns me up until there's nothing more... but it's still so cold here...so cold..am I all alone?"
Davoren beheld the pitiful sight quite keenly. He walked back to Rufus, then bent over to inspect him. The young lunatic, however, raved on unaware and uniterrupted.
"...they're inside me...I don't want to listen...it hurts too much to listen...but they're so loud..and so many..."
"Rufus, there's no one here," the gunman persuaded very patiently. He placed one hand over his shoulder, "You were just having a bad dream, kid. It's okay."
The gentle prsuasion must have reached somewhere through the blind delirium. For the first time since this visit, Rufus brought his dazed eyes to look at the gunman. They fastened hard on his face.
Confusion never showed more than when those dull, vaccant eyes looked one straight. Deep weariness intermingled with the haziness inside, reducing his gaze to hopeless despair.
Yet gradually, reason pervailed. One sharp headache pierced clean through Rufus' skull, dispersing the mist away with a soft grunt. Indeed, when it had passed, the boy found himself thus seated on the table, in his black dungeon, with Davoren looking over him. He tiredly blinked back at the gunman as though just awakened from some troubled sleep.
The madness had stopped. Dull reality began to gather his torn senses together.
"How's your head now? Any better?" asked Davoren.
It took Rufus another moment before he found his voice.
"...D...Davo..re..n..," he identified after some difficulty.
"Ah, good!" beamed the man with a relieved laugh, "Heh, what with all that was going on, I was worried you'd forgotten me. It's been...what..two weeks since I last visited you?"
Silence came the reply. Though exhaustion lay bare on his face, Rufus could not hide his genuine bewilderment. He didn't seem to understand what events had dumped him here.
But Davoren nevertheless appeared quite pleased with this mental change. He gave the boy a friendly pat before he turned away again, "There now. You behave yourself."
Rufus said nothing. He cast his weary sight down to his lap, and waited for nothing. Davoren soon pulled up a chair for himself.
"I would've visited you sooner, but I've been swamped in work like mad this whole past week....unbelievable!" chatted Davoren to the mute prisoner. He propped the wooden chair nearby, then sat down so that both elbows leaned against its hard back, "So now that I've got some extra time, I may as well check up on ya, eh?"
Whether depressed or simply indifferent, Rufus did not flinch a response. His eyes, a blue pool of gloom, gazed down into nothingness. His withdrawn countenance looked so dejected, more so compared against his youth; quite contrary to his guest's easy-going demeanour.
Again, Davoren found himself lingering in hopes of some reaction. Though the wait soon proved futile, he never lost his good-humour.
"Oh! I got you something while I was out. You'll love it!" he suddenly remembered. Davoren began to grope inside his suit-jacket; Rufus watched him.
At last, the gunman pulled out some small, swollen paper-bag. He ripped the top open, then held it out to Rufus at arm's length.
The young man apparently did not understand this gesture. He peered into the mysterious bag to discover it filled with flat, round cakes, their texture grainy-white. He looked back at Davoren in slight puzzlement.
"They're rice-cakes, boy," the patient gunman explained, "Haven't you ever seen any before?"
From the tired blank look he received, Davoren guessed not.
"Well, go on. try one. They're really delicious," he encouraged, shaking the crinkly paper bag ahead, "At least better than that pig-slop they feed you here."
Rufus beheld the dainty cakes rather sourly, as though another disgusting taste had already clogged his throat. More tired than resentful, the prisoner turned his cheerless sight away.
"I'm not hungry," he muttered weakly.
"The guards tell me you haven't eaten anything in days. You MUST be hungry," insisted Davoren. The bag still hung wide open.
"I'm not hungry."
An awkward pause followed.
The curt refusal rather disappointed Davoren. He dropped his outstretched arm to the side.
"Alright. I'll just give them to the guards then," he sighed aloud, slyness detectable in his disheartened voice, "...and I roamed the whole city at 1 a.m to find a decent bakery that sold these....seems such a waste to buy them only to give 'em to those merceanary pigs..."
Rufus returned his dejected eyes back to the gunman.
"But I'd be really happy if you ate at least *one* rice-cake," Davoren admitted, "That way, it wouldn't be a total waste..........please?"
There was such childlike simplicity in the gunman's bearing; an incredible friendliness that disarmed any mistrust or doubt. He held out the humble paper-bag not ordering, but inviting the prisoner. Rufus reflected a moment upon this man (no doubt he thought him very strange), then down at the bag.
He took one cake.
The young man sat with both legs squared on the cold table top, quietly munching the crisp cake in his mouth. He swallowed it by force.
"...good?" smiled Davoren.
Rufus found the taste quite so. He nodded his head, then silently took another cake.
The once tense, rowdy scene had certainly subdued to some form of tranquility. Davoren watched the famished boy appease his hunger without a word. Rufus chewed the food in complete silence. He took one cake only after swallowing the first.
He stopped on his twelfth. When sure the boy did not want anymore, Davoren finished off the remainder, then tossed the crumpled bag away.
"...Davoren?" called Rufus in a hesitant undertone.
The stark anxiety on Rufus' face caught Davoren's notice more than those ominous words. He studied the boy's expression from the side, himself quite solemn.
Rufus' wan face darkened to fearful confusion as some shadow overcast his memory. Intense disgust stiffened his muscles. He sat hunched on the table top, both legs folded loosely and fists bare in his lap.
"..that man...he came again...," Rufus confided below an ominous murmur, "...his voice is so loud and rude...and when he looks at me, his eyes just drill into me...I don't know him, but he knows me...and everywhere I go, he follows me...he won't leave me alone..."
Davoren listened without interruption.
"...it gets so cold...I feel numb all over...it's always dark, but there's a fire...it covers me..and those voices...they..."
"Boy, listen to me," reassured the gunman gently, "I tell you, it was just a bad dream. There is no fire, no voices, no 'man' who follows you around. It wasn't real."
Rufus' face grew scornful, not at the kind comfort, but at the hot turmoil inside.
"..no...it *was* real..I felt it all...," he insisted, his quiet voice strained by resentment, "...the glass exploded in my face...the fire...the voices always danced around me...but I couldn't stop them...they tore me up to so many pieces...so many, I got lost..."
The gunman ran his fingers back through his snow-white hair, uneasily searching for something to say.
"...there was so much hatred there...I hate that place...those ghosts..all of them..."
"But it's just a nightmare, son," reasoned Davoren against this gloomy preoccupation, "You shouldn't let it upset you this much!"
Unfortunately, it did. Rufus sunk into his former seclusion. His deep-blue eyes wandered far into thoughtful morbidity. He spoke no more.
"Ah, I swear Rufus! Like it would kill you to maybe smile more often!" declared Davoren, himself dampened by this depression.
He wouldn't let the boy sink any further. Instead, Davoren reached for his breast pocket, and carefully pulled something out.
"Here," he offered Rufus his closed hand.
Rufus confusedly looked at him.
"It won't bite you. Just hold out your hand."
Rufus obeyed. To his great puzzlement, Davoren dropped some sort of trinket into his palm, then calmly said, "Now hold it up to the light. Go on."
A closer examination revealed the ornament to be some small,dull-green stone, chipped unevenly into a round piece. A narrow chain pierced it from one end. It looked quite faded and old.
Rufus sought some explanation from Davoren with a quizzical look. But the gunman only indicated the feeble gas lamp which hung overhead. At a loss, Rufus obeyed again. He fit the dirty piece between his thumb and index, then held it high up to the light.
His tired eyes widened in genuine wondrament at the beauty of this simple phenomenon. The hazy lamplight showered the entire stone. But incredibly, the colour had kindled from dirty-dull to a brilliant green glow. It resembled a pure emerald set ablaze in between his fingers.
Rufus turned his amazed sight back to the gunman.
"How...how does it do that?" he marvelled.
"Magic," smiled Davoren mysteriously, fixing his thoughtful gaze up on the glowing stone.
"..see, MANY years ago, back when I was a little kid, I didn't live in this city," he recounted to the silent prisoner, "My folks and I...we lived in another town far away. Now, this village was a bit run-down...y'know, on the poor side. There wasn't much to do, and I never had enough money to buy any toys. But there was this old Mako cavern nearby...just brimming with this stuff. So for fun, I used to sneak into that cave, and dig around."
Rufus listened in complete silence. In truth, the amicable, plain manner of Davoren's speech struck him as most strange.
"Heh! I guess I was pretending to be a famous archeologist...maybe uncover some hidden treasure, then I could buy myself lotsa toys!" the gunman chuckled at the childish fantasy, "Heh heh...but of course, all I found were those stones. They were all over the place in those days...so easy to find."
He looked at the prisoner rather cheerfully, "Well, one day, I stumbled across that piece in the dirt. It looked so different from all the rest...they don't usually come in that shape. Then I discovered that neat trick it did with light. So, I made it into a chain...sorta like a little lucky-charm."
Rufus reflected a moment upon the simple anecdote before returning to the beautiful stone piece. He began to roll it from side to side, marvelling at the green colour change shades in the light. He was certainly fascinated by this antique.
Davoren smiled at his success. Indeed, another depression bout had been averted. He sat elbows against the chair's back, with hands interlocked over his chin. He looked so carefree.
"...what is this stone?" inquired the curious Rufus at last.
The prisoner slowly lowered his hand away from the light. The green brilliance of the stone died at once.
"Oh, it can't do anything else besides glow in the light," laughed Davoren with a wave of the hand, "this thing is just a useless piece I picked off the ground...just for a little ornament. Nothing more!"
"...materia...," pronounced Rufus in a hushed undertone. His eyes riveted hard on the dirty stone.
The simple word bewildered his mind. He seemed, while churning it about, to discern some threat: an invisible presence sneak up from behind with a sharp dagger of pain; quick flashes of blurry nonsense, faces, words, all swirl into one hellish flame.
"Rufus? You alright, kid?" called Davoren in apprehension. The boy's face had paled quite noticeably.
However, whatever trouble pestered him, Davoren's voice had somehow dispersed it time. Startled out of his reverie, Rufus blinked confusedly at the dull stone, then back at the worried man.
"..it's..very beautiful," Rufus quietly admired the trinket. After a final look, he handed it back.
"Well actually, it's not mine *per say*," corrected the gunman as he slipped it into his pocket, "It's only mine for...safekeeping."
Davoren paused a moment, then answered, "....yes."
A heavy silence befell the two men, Davoren more in particular. Yet soon, the reopening of the dungeon door effectively shattered the peace. The tan-skinned, corrupt mercenary poked his head inside.
"Sir?" he called aloud.
"What is it?"
The guard couldn't help but marvel at the subdued Rufus, then hurriedly informed, "...the...uh...the Professor wants to see you. He says now."
A cold scowl darkened Davoren's face on hearing the command. Nevertheless, he shuffled out of the wooden chair.
"Right. Right. I'll be there at once," Davoren dismissed. He motioned the nervous guard outside, which the latter instantly obeyed.
Silence lingered another moment in the grim dungeon; Davoren still seemed bothered by some petty thought. However, he soon returned to Rufus.
"I'll make them keep the scanner down for a few hours," he muttered softly, as if reavealing some secret, "You're very tired. Get some sleep, alright?"
Rufus nodded his head in consent.
The gunman gave the boy one comforting pat on the shoulder before turning away. He marched out of the dungeon, where both mercenaries stood waiting for his final reappearance. The door slammed shut behind.
Rufus heard their footsteps die away, one stunned voice still exclaiming, "...dunno how you do it, Sir! This kid gets so outta hand, we can't even..."
Soon all was quiet again. Ghostly tranquility in perfect solitude.