I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.62


The labyrinth was far bigger, more eerie than Vincent had expected, so much like a barren graveyard. Paths intertwined into grim darkness. Pipes thronged the hallways; some formed arbours, others snaked along the brick walls. There were rusty gauges and empty gaskets; neglected control panels and moulded clamps. Vines of wrteched cable lines hung loose. Amidst such desolation, the ghosts of misery haunted their ruined territory. Their melancholy sighs echoed throughout these hollow halls before silence stiffled them again. A bitter coldness stung the dank air, the atmosphere too sinister to ignore.

Somewhere within this shadow-infested jungle, the gunman lay in wait.

The two stealthy men crept cautiously alongside opposite walls of the hallway. They never glanced at each other, nor had they uttered a word since venturing inside. The air was too quiet. Even their soft footsteps sounded loud against this stiff background.

Vincent snuck along, slightly stooped over with gun in hand, and senses
wary of every movement around. Reno kept up the pace. His nightstaff was gripped tight between steady hands. Like Vincent, he felt too conscious of their situation.

The slow minutes dragged by. Their path led around more black corners, through darker terriroty, but no gunman. At times, it seemed uncertain which side hunted and which was being hunted.

Perhaps in an attempt to disperse his paranoia, Reno muttered aside, "So clue me in here. Your assets are speed and sharp-shooting. What about Davoren?"

Vincent mused the question, then replied, "He is physically stronger than I am, but a bit slower. His main specialties are battle tactics and enemy-analysis."

"THAT old-timer?!"

"You'd be very wise not to underestimate Davoren," he warned significantly, glaring askance at Reno, "Regardless of his age, he is quite sharp and dangerous. He was my leader when I had been a Turk."

"Ah! I *thought* you two had a 'Turk streak' to ya!" exclaimed the man now that his suspicion had been confirmed, "The way you can sneak around undetected...the way he obeys the Professor...it takes a Turk to know a Turk."

They fell silent again. The journey extended further through this dark maze, but still no gunman. Their tension had long turned to dread. Indeed, this hunt strained their nerves to near break-down.

"So, you fought this guy before?" resumed Reno.

"Yes. Twice."
"And?"

"Let's just say I consider myself lucky to have survived both encounters."

"...beat the shit outta ya, huh?"

"To put it mildly, yes," Vincent admitted, not at all offended by the crude paraphrase.

Reno scoffed a soft curse, "I still can't believe Rufus was just defending that bastard, even after he threatened him...the kid's a loony alright."

Rather than comment, Vincent strayed a moment into private meditation: yes, the boy had firecely defended the gunman despite that vicious threat. From his view, Davoren was the sole source of warmth and protection he posessed in this nightmare. To everyone else, he was Professor Hojo's lowly puppet-slave. Vincent didn't think the boy "loony". Far from it, the longer he dwelt upon Rufus and his anecdotes, the deeper sunk his intrigue with the gunman.

Davoren...you are a mystery. You exist as a paradox, shifting between two extremes. But behind those pink eyes, what do you really hide?

Suddenly, Vincent alarm shot peak high, whereby he halted dead in his tracks: he sensed an odious presence nearby...*very* nearby.

No mistake. Davoren was close.

The man automatically bared his gun. Reno, who instantly understood Vincent's reaction, stopped short. His grip tightened further around the nightstaff until his knuckles turned white. Neither man dared move or breathe. Instead, they waited.

Nothing stirred. If Davoren lurked closeby, then he would not reveal himself...yet.

The silence endured a painful eternity. Vincent's sharp glare darted from corner to corner. Every muscle tensed as he discerned that evil aura draw closer, but from where? All his rigid concentration focussed on the stiff air around, searching... searching for the devil...

A quick flicker of a movement caught his instant alarm. On shooting his eyes behind, Vincent spotted a shadow flinch: the gunman had snuck up from behind.

"LOOK OUT!!" he shouted at once to Reno.

He hadn't finished the warning when Davoren suddenly swung around the corner, flashing out his cool semi-automatic. Each man barely parried aside
in time, just as the wild rain of bullets tore silence apart.

Vincent huddled behind a stiff throng of pipes, hiding his face from the furious sparks blitzing this shelter. He peeked over across the hall. There, he found a hard-gasping Reno glued behind some delivery tank. That had been a narrow escape for him.

Amidst this madness, Vincent gave Reno a quick set of gestures which translated "I will attack first, then you follow in". Reno nodded. Despite the generation difference, these two former Turks could still communicate with their special sign language.

No sooner had the plan been set, than Vincent thrust out his arm for heavy retaliation. An all-out war errupted, loud and furious. Both sides exchanged fire at once, neither one surrendering to the other.

In a sudden rush of blood, Vincent doubled his gunfire, thereby overpowering the enemy for a split moment. But Reno seized this opprtunity, just as Vincent backed off to reload. With one incredible twirl of the staff, he swung out a fierce ring of charged fire, then hurtled this energy straight at Davoren's shelter.

It blasted the upper support girders dead on, rocking the walls with a thunderous boom. The wretched supports groaned under the pipework's hefty weight. Soon, the entire delivery system above stormed to an uproarous collapse.

Amidst the flying debris and swirls of dust, they spotted the gunman roll out into the open, having just narrowly escaped the destruction. The next move followed at once. Both allies rolled out of their hideouts: Vincent resumed full fire at Davoren, while Reno lunged in for a swift attack.

The clever ambush astonished Davoren. Vincent's hailstorm of hot lead showered him whole, shoving him back without a chance to retaliate. At the same moment, he perceived Reno rush straight for him, head bent low, weapon sparking electric charge. He was trapped. Next blink, and Reno jabbed for the target.

The prong struck clean into Davoren's chest. Immediately, an insane surge of electricity ripped through his body top to bottom, jerking his head so far back one thought it would snap. It brutally rattled his core with raw charge until sparks crackled out.

Yet Reno suddenly broke off this attack for an instant follow-up. He assaulted the enemy with a quick series of mini-attacks, stabbing here, striking there, until he reeled aside for Vincent to take aim. Vincent sprayed the gunman a second time, then finished with a final shot point-blank in the forehead, so precise Davoren slammed back against the wall; he now stood thrashed up in place.

An awkward pause befell the air now that the attack had finished. The two allies beheld the gunman, Reno gasping in awe of such incredible resistance. Indeed, none of the fatal attacks had even scratched Davoren's good humour, let alone affected his body. The gunman steadied himself again. Both men tensed back in rigid anticipation.

"Hey, no fair! Two against one," beamed Davoren pleasantly, "And here I thought only 'bad guys' could cheat."

Vincent foresaw instant danger, whereby he pulled Reno away. His fast reaction coincided with the gunman's attack: Davoren suddenly yanked out a second semi-automatic from within his suit-jacket, and fired two guns at once.

Both men raced the wild gunfire down the hallway until they dodged around some corner. They bolted through the black maze as if chased behind by devils. Fortunately however, Davoren did not give persuit.

The rush took them deeper into this bleak jungle. Reno gasped out, "How long was that?"

"Just over three minutes."

"ONLY THREE MINUTES?!" he cried aloud, "Man, your watch's too slow!!"

Rather than bicker, Vincent coolly suggested, "It's best we split up and hunt Davoren down. The first to find him will alert the other."

"Right!"

"Be careful."

"Yeah. You too."

They diverged onto different paths. Reno disappeared down the grim corridor. Vincent took some side-hall, straight through the darkness.

Precious time was slipping by. This madness must end fast. He wanted to reach Aeris...before Professor Hojo did.

The long-winded path ended abruptly. Vincent found himself at the entrance of the North Wing Compressor Centre, as could be read from the sign fitted above. From his place at the threshold, he appeared a tall, black figure, with suspicious eyes scrutinising the interior: here was the upper deck hall. Dozens of compressor tanks stood in rows across the hall, like ancient tower-guardians wasted away by corrosion. Giant pipe lines fed into< their conical heads. Smaller ducts and wires interconnected the wasted system together. Misery and darkness had long reduced this once glorious kingdom to a hanted wasteland.

Vincent felt a horrible misgiving arise as he beheld such dead ruins. Above the shadows and musty air, there lingered a silence which meant only one thing: Davoren was here.

He snatched the conclusion, just as his keen sniper senses warned him someone had taken direct aim of his head.

All at once, Vincent swung aside to evade the treacherous gunshot. Yet the bombardment, enraged by that lucky miss, blasted away after the slippery target, who in a flash, had already dodged behind one of the compressor tanks.

He granted himself only a single breath to steady his nerves and pin-point his enemy's location before returning full fire. Vincent aimed at the tank positioned further back, more specifically, its conical head. Davoren had concealed himself there.

Neither side spared the other. At times, Vincent emptied his gun in one round. Other times, he huddled back as chaos pelted the iron off his shelter. His bullets battled the wrath of twin semi-automatics non-stop. Sparks flew, lead zinged, and rage swelled more.

When the stand-off grew too heated, Davoren suddenly broke away. He leapt off the battered tank, then dashed aside for another shelter, blasting at Vincent all the way. But Vincent would not be driven back. He shoved a fresh cartridge of bullets into his gun, then charged after this enemy.

The two men played the deadly game "shoot-and-dodge" again, this time with the ferocity of crazed demons. They chased each other across the isles of tanks, blasting, evading, and returning fire. Their loud skirmishes suffocated the air. Their black figures whizzed by at speeds incomprehensible to the mind. Both guns screamed murder until Heaven itself heard them.

Vincent never diverted his concentration off this battle; one stray thought could be fatal. He ignored the sweat pouring down his face. Nor dared he count the number of times Davoren had missed his flesh for his coat. From the bitter sting gnawing his left arm, he realized he had been wounded.

For his part, Vincent strained both speed and hearing to the very limits. He listened out for Davoren's quick footsteps, letting that be his "radar" amidst this crazy war. He knew for sure he had hit the gunman twice. But getting an effective blow at Davoren was no easy task, at least not this way.

Vincent almost stumbled over as a hot surge of pain boiled up his ravaged lungs; just a reminder that there also raged a bitter war inside. Only by stubborn force did he suppress this agony back. Not now. He could not afford a coughing fit now.

His alarm suddenly darted upwards, just in time to witness one precise bullet blast a clamp supporting three overhead pipes. The weak clamp shattered open, and the monstrous weights plunged down towards Vincent, raining iron debris in their path.

Vincent exerted all force into one desperate forward dash. The earth-shaking collapse missed him by a hair. But between the vicious dust and confusion, he slipped off his guard for one moment, enough for Davoren to attack.

Indeed, Vincent did not detect him until to late.

With one mighty swing upward, Davoren struck the butt of his gun hard against the underside of Vincent's chin; so powerful it sent him flying backwards in numb stupefaction.

Yet despite the violent pain, Vincent managed to anticipate Davoren move in for the kill. At once, his shattered senses recovered their shock, whereby he somehow tumbled back onto one knee. Vincent immediately opened rapid fire at Davoren, who still came charging forth like a mad bull.

Every bullet hit the bare-handed gunman; some deflected off his head and body, other tore through his suit, all to no avail. He lunged at a phenomenal speed straight for his target. In return, Vincent stood up, doubling his fire until the angry gun vibrated in his hand. Nothing could stop this demon, not even as he suddenly pounced forward!

Vincent saw Davoren yank out a jagged scrap of iron he had probably snatched from the debris. He perceived his thrust it at him. But his reaction came one milli-second too late.

It jabbed him like a sharp dagger. Vincent roared a hideous grunt as he felt a murderous pain pierce clean into the side of his abdomen: Davoren had stabbed him with the cruel metal piece.

Yet far from finished, the ruthless gunman wrenched Vincent aside by the iron piece, right over the balustrade. Poor Vincent spun wildly downwards until he crashed flat upon his back. The wretched man curled on his side at once, writhing amidst a whirl of fresh pain, with that blood-stained dagger still thrust in his side. A terrible buzz droned his ears.

He had plunged a considerable height onto the lower deck hall. Davoren, on the other hand, beheld the delightful sight from the balustrade above. Just like Vincent, the brutal battle had torn his clothes and messed up his white hair. His tie had even been loosened a bit to open his collar. But otherwise, he stood unaffected. Not even that evil, sadistic gaze had dulled a tinge.

For Vincent, it was a vicious struggle between consciousness and darkness. There he lay, helpless against such wild agony. It left him heaving hard, every gasp another stab to his lungs. His face, so contorted by pain, was half burried in his lustrous long hair, with teeth gnashed tight.

"You're still to weak in battle tactics," he heard Davoren's flat voice scold from above.

Vincent's rage flared up at that mockery. He darted his hateful glare far up to the gunman, "And you're still too confident!"

It all happened instantly. In a sudden wake of strength, Vincent fired one single bullet straight up at the astonsihed gunman, who barely evaded in time. But the unexpected bullet hadn't been intended for him. Instead, it hit the compressor tank right behind him; actually, the gas cylinder.

The blasted container hissed a soft warning before exploding at full force, spewing a wild hellstorm of fire and debris all around.

The violence swept Vincent backwards like a leaf caught in a hurricane. He tumbled wildly until he slammed against the wall, then hid his head as iron scraps and stone shrapnel flew about. . The impact had dizzied him further. The roar of fire deafened his ears

He had scored a hefty blow against the enemy. By sheer luck, Vincent had caught Davoren in the middle of the explosion. But still, he knew it hadn't killed him.

Indeed, It hadn't. On lifting his head again, Vincent spotted Davoren sprawled upon the floor some distance away. Apparently, the blast had sent him crashing hard upon the lower hall. But the invinsible gunman slowly struggled to rise, uninjured, perhaps a bit annoyed.

Above, the entire blasted compressor blazed in hot brilliance. It cast a bright red-orange hue upon the scene below. The flames crackled in cruel satisfaction as they beheld the damage and spume of debris around.

It hurt to move. Nevertheless, Vincent would not surrender. His trembling hand groped along his side for that iron dagger. He wrenched it out by force, wincing aside as the cold metal tore out of his hot flesh. Vincent contemptuously flung it away, then somehow climbed back to his wobbly feet. Despite gasps, pain, and buzzing headaches, the man stood up in place. This battle was far from over. He would fight on.

Davoren too had stood up by now: his once fine suit had been singed and torn. Two horrible rips marked where stray shrapnel had torn through his shoulder, another his thigh. Many hair strands hung loose infront of a stoic, dirty face. But his narrow pink eyes lingered on Vincent alone, their malice brighter than the fire above.

The gunman, after sweeping back his dishevelled hair, straightened his tattered jacket. He dwelt a moment over his burnt sleeve.

"Hm...you've ruined my good clothes. I'll give you that much," Davoren praised rather indifferently.

He wasn't impressed at all, not even as he beheld Vincent grip his gun in readiness, eyes glowing cool crimson. Davoren gladly obliged by producing one semi-automatic. For him, killing Vincent would be a pleasure.

They stood frozen in a moment of bitter hostility. Each man had dealt a severe blow to the other. It seemed inevitable they'd fight on forever until Death claimed one.

And then, the moment passed.

They lunged into action at the same time, both men swinging up their weapons for a fierce shoot-out. But before Davoren could even take aim, he found himself, much to his angry astonishment, prisoner inside a pyramid of electric energy.

The strange shield could have sprung up for Hell itself; it had materialized so fast without any warning. Vincent gaped wide as the flabbergasted Davoren struggled to budge free. All in vain. He was trapped.

Trapped and wide open. Davoren shot his alarmed eyes behind, just in time to witness Reno's surprise attack: with the accuracy of a marksman, Reno thrust his staff like a spear through the electric pyramid, straight into the gunman's spine. Direct hit, deadly consequences.

The attack dazzled the sight but horrified the mind. Surge after surge of electricity mangled Davoren to madness, so violent his body and head twisted in shock. It tore havoc through his spine across every limb. He was locked in place by that vicious prong, unable to escape, unable to scream. Nor would Reno spare him. The insane sparks flying about proved he had cranked the nightstaff to maximum output.

Next came the grand finale. No sooner had Reno yanked out the staff, than the entire pyramid exploded to a collapse, blasting its hapless prisoner through a swirl of charge and flames. Amazingly however, Davoren emerged alive. He stumbled forth amidst blind dizziness, with smoke trailing from his burnt back, but still on both feet.

Reno embraced his chance at once. He flanked Davoren's side, aiming to hammer in a volley of swift attacks. But much to his surprise, Davoren regained balance in time to parry. To Reno's further shock (and pain), the gunman rammed one powerful elbow clean into his face, hard enoguh to send him tumbling like a barrel across the hall.

This failure aroused Vincent to instant action. Taking a firm stand upfront, he fired a full round of bullets at Davoren; perhaps he could confuse him off guard again. No such luck. The gunman gracefully flipped out of harm's way.

However, he only returned a few shots before beating a hasty retreat. Davoren dashed away at such an incredible speed, over the balustrade onto the third deck down below. Soon, darkness swallowed him.

He was gone. A fortunate thing since Vincent could no longer repress this painful seizure. Between the wounds and vicious dizziness, he crumbled to a collapse. He sat hunched over amidst an outbreak of hacks and coughs, groping through this wretchedness for precious air. His lungs writhed inside his tight, hot chest. They howled outloud for mercy.

The attacks were worstening, nor could he supress this continuous flood of fits forever. He had finally abated this one, but would he be so lucky next time?

"Crap! Hey, Vinnie! Pull yourself together!" cried a muffled voice. He felt someone shake him by the shoulders.

Vincent forced his dazed senses back into focus. He found Reno squatted down infront of him, one cheek bruised from Davoren's elbow, but otherwise unharmed.

"..ah..I..I'm alright..," Vincent gapsed weakly, struggling to maintain some steady balance.

"Like Hell you are!" Good thing you guys fight loud, or I wouldn't have got here in time," retorted Reno. He beheld Vincent's battered state, "But man! He thrashed you good!"

No argument there. Vincent remained slouched upon the floor in tired misery. A hectic fever burned his ashen face, with hair strands dangling dead before haggard red eyes. Blood stained his wounds, bruises, cuts and raw aches ravaged every limb, all testimony of his incredible endurance and hard stubborness. Indeed, Vincent owed much thanks to his abnormal body.

Nevertheless, the intensity of the last battle had overworked him to illness. He needed at least a few moments to steady himself again.

"Okay. You sit this one out for a minute," Reno solemnly declared with a nod, "It's my turn. I'll take him on 'till you come."

The rash decision rather alarmed Vincent. He staggered up to his feet, about to protest, but by then, Reno had already dashed away to persure the enemy.

He stood there, lost amidst a flash of thoughts: most likely, Davoren now understood their clever plan; both allies would work together to destroy his invinsibility level. On realizing how many fatal attacks he had sustained, the gunman had wisely retreated. He knew they'd soon come hunting after him, hoping to eliminate him.

It was like trapping an animal. But didn't Reno know? Some animals turn vicious when forced into a corner.


-End of Chp.62