I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.64


There was no time to waste. Once Vincent had ascended into the vent, he began a quick crawl forward. The gun felt comfortable in his rigid grip. Instinct had been whetted to peak sharpness, wary of every movement and sound around. 

Through this voracious void stretched the iron caverns of darkness. It took Vincent a moment to adjust his sight, and even then he could barely distinguish the grim surroundings. It was a nightmare of pipes and ducts, all interconnected like a web into each other. Some were oval, others square. Every few yards, Vincent chanced upon a peculiar gauge fitted to the thick wall. 

The cold air stung his hot face, more bitter than icy needles prickling his skin. He had to grimace at the putrid stench here, one of stale rust mixed with mako fumes. Once upon a time, these life-vessels had pumped green riches from the Planet's heart straight into the Reactor. Now, all that remained of that glorious era were the smells and this hollow system. Such a miserable waste. 

Paths led to more paths. Soon, he found himself in the main duct, where several side-pipes fed into it from both sides. As Vincent crawled deeper, he became increasingly aware of the silence. It slithered through the pipework like an evil serpent, spreading its eerie aura all around. 

Vincent stopped short when the aura became too strong. His suspicious eyes, two brillinat rubies, glared around this darkness. His senses hightened. Inside, pain boiled his torn lungs, yet somehow, he supressed his breaths to the barest minimum. He listened...listened out for the dreaded gunman. 

The suspense endured forever. He lingered patiently like a hunter awaiting his prey to appear, or a prey awaiting his hunter to attack. Right now, even he could not determine which anology described the situation. 

He suddenly heard a small clatter sound from behind. Quicker than lightening, Vincent swung his gun around at the source. But much to his confusion, he only found an empty bullet cartridge discarded upon the floor. 

Very strange. That object hadn't been there before. Then where had... 

The sudden realisation flashed danger. Vincent shot his eyes around to the front again, just as Davoren came rolling out of a side-vent, both guns bared for action. He blasted hell at Vincent, who miraculously reacted fast enough to dodge into another duct. 

The tactful gunman has almost ambushed him. By distracting him from behind, he had then snuck up through the network, and attacked from the front. Indeed, Vincent could only attribute his survival to devil's luck; he hadn't even discerned Davoren creep here. 

He hadn't time to praise his cunning foe; danger pressed upon the moment. Fierce bombardment battered his shelter, sputtering wild spark against metal. He could even feel the wall rattle behind him. Vincent waited for a brief lapse in gunfire, whereby he then thrust his arm around for brutal retaliation, at least to push Davoren back. 

Which proved no easy task. The gunman too had huddled behind a corner further up, with twin guns hard at work. Both sides exchanged a hearty barrage of bullets, each man in a race to overpower the other. 

In the end, however, they broke off into a mad scramble. Vincent glimpsed the phantom gunman whisk across the mainline into another side-pipe. He only took a split-moment to reload before persuing his enemy. He couldn't afford to lose him in this maze. 

The paths jumbled into a webwork of confusion. More side-vents; roads which slid downwards, others climbed upwards. Darkness hampered sight. Through such chaos, Vincent relied on his keen hearing for guidance. He persued Davoren's light scruffles up the complex network. Vincent crawled quickly after the enemy, gun held back for any confrontation, eyes narrowed down upon the the void up ahead. 

"Keep him occupied for a few minutes", Reno had instructed. Vincent frowned. He couldn't guess what plan that man had concocted. But he'd just have to maintain a hard defense to buy him enoguh time. 

That is, IF Davoren didn't kill him first. It seemed the longer that gunman fought, the more demonic he became. 

Vincent suddenly felt the tables turn against him. His sight just happened to stray aside to a black vent perpendicular to this path, where they glimpsed an evil pair of pink eyes twinkling behind the corner. All at once, Vincent rolled himself back, narrowly escaping the wild hailstorm. 

Another ambush failed. Vincent's anger rose; he couldn't depend on luck forever! He knew not when or how this shrewd madman had intercepted his path, but he would get the better of him yet: two could play that game. 

Therefore, Vincent returned a few shots just to occupy his enemy's attention. Shifting to a quick, noisless crawl, he then retraced his path back to some side-tunnel. Through darkness and more vents, until at last, he snuck around the final corner, thereby catching Davoren from behind. 

But not good enough to catch him unawares. The alarmed gunman reacted the same instant Vincent blasted full fire. He somehow tumbled through the madness for cover, protected all the way by his own devillish luck. This ambush had failed too. Vincent growled a soft curse. 

Again, they bartered a heavy bout of gunshots. Again, they broke off. Despite all attempts, neither man could win the upper hand. 

The situation escalated to a frenzy. Two demons in a mad scrimmage to destroy the other, darkness their sacred battle-grounds. Their energy sprung from black devils and unholy spirits cheering them onwards. Their bitter hostility flared sparks through the air. 

Time was obliterated amidst the insane cross-fire. Loud skirmishes and rough scruffles echoed throughout. The insane rat-tat-tat of those semi-automatics battled a deadly handgun. The two adversaries moved through the labyrinth at mind-boggling speeds. They chased each other around. They blasted at each other non-stop. 

Reason be damned. In this war, they fought based on one animal instinct: kill or be killed. 

Vincent heard his own loud heartbeats pound above this blitz. The fit swelled further inside its prison chest, howling for freedom against these tight muscles. Many long hair strands swayed across his sweaty face. Vincent knew there trailed blood behind him. Yet he never throught of counting his wounds and aches; nor would he be bothered now about his wretched pain or ruined appearance. That all would come later. Instead, he rivetted his rigid concenration upon this moment. 

His success depended on it. Aeris, the sole thing that kept his fury alive..she depended on it. 

He wished Reno would hurry up.

 ************************************************ 

"Dammit!" swore Reno for the fifth time. 

He flew through the madhouse of corridors, pressed hard for speed. Quite fast, even though harsh pain still gnawed his shoulder, and his stomach felt gutted clean. In the network overhead, there resounded the faint gunshots of war, sometimes so fierce, Reno would steal a quick glance up, and marvel how Vincent kept it up. 

Nevertheless, he rushed onwards. His angry eyes searched desperately for something in particular. Here nothing. There nothing. He had to swear a sixth time. 

At last came deliverance: a metal box fitted into the brick wall, with several impressive cablelines snaking up to the ceiling. Reno squatted down upon one knee. He tore open the cover to inspect the interior. It appeared to be some control console. There was one screen, numerous switches and control panels, with a complex assortment of wires. 

Reno tried a switch. Nothing stirred. There was no power. 

He frowned gravely, then hunched over further, at the same time flicking out a wicked jack-knife from his pocket. Without hesitation, the man delved into his task. 

His stern eyes proved he fully understood his actions. Reno flicked on a few more switches before tackling the array of wires. There, he tinkered through the connections, all the while using his nimble fingers and sharp knife. Reno worked with incredible dexterity through this jumbled mess. 

He owed much thanks to all those hard training sessions back in the old bomb-squad days. And of course, the long, gruelling hours endured to become an electro-technician specialist (though he still hated that grouchy instructor...may his miserable soul rot in Hell, amen). 

When the initial set-up was complete, Reno grabbed his nightstaff next. There was a small slit alongside this fine weapon, concealed behind a metal piece. Reno slid up the cover to reveal the wired interior. Using the very tip of his knife, he pulled out one end of some red wire, careful not to touch its flat prong. 

Through mumbled encouragements like "C'mon baby...c'mon..", Reno inserted the red wire into the socket of one panel. That done, he cranked the staff to maximum output. Immediately, the whole console lit to life with a sharp bleep of gratitude; just what Reno prayed for: he had used his own electrical weapon to revive the console. 

A self-assured nod was definately in order, "Reno, my boy... you are just TOO good!" 

The man punched in a quick series of buttons until a password was demanded for entry. He typed in the not-so-original response "MAKO", whereby a long scroll of texts and digits danced down his keen scrutiny. 

Not at all confused, he chose "activate" on the option screen, then pressed a special button encased in glass. His choice was confirmed twice. Finally, the screen obediently displayed a bar-graph loading different commands. At the bottom, there read a gradual count-up to 100%:..6.66%...10.07%..12.32%.. 

Reno looked up towards the ceiling again. Just a bit longer.. if only Vincent could keep it up a bit longer...

 ********************************************* 

Brutality had long posessed the body, bitter hatred the mind, but still this inferno raged on hot as ever. The insane bullets spared nothing. They riddled darkness to pieces. They battered the metalwork. Crazed shuffles filled the black tunnels, in constant motion to surpass the other. 

Here waged a war between two devils hellbent on sheer survival, Death the ultimate arbitrator. Around them swirled Satan's army, some cheering the ruby-eyed demon, others the white-haired phantom. It didn't really matter. Soon, one man would join their ranks. 

Vincent found it increasingly difficult to keep up this wild pace. He had sustained new injuries and escaped many fatal near-misses (too near to his liking). The fever felt like a furnace, buring his very core out to the skin. 

His grip was tight around the gun. His sharp hearing, probably his most important sense now, discerned every movement and sound around. He crawled quickly, sometimes even sped to a half-dash. Anything to stay alive in this madness. 

"Madness" described the battle perfectly. The labyrinth seemed to grow more convoluted, neither opponent pausing for a minute. Vincent persued Davoren through the network. He swept around the corner, where he spotted a black figure scuffling away down the tunnel. His gun went into automatic action. However, the fast figure had already dodged into a side-vent. Nor was it intimidated one bit. Much to Vincent's alarm, the enemy thrust out both guns, one above the other, for a deadly double blast. 

One blink later, and Vincent rolled for cover into another vent. He hid his face away as the crazed shots lashed this shelter apart. Their loud zings deafened his ears. Davoren gave no room to breathe, let alone return fire. 

Danger suddenly flashed clear across Vincent's mind: a suspicious movement rapidly approaching the corner. Indeed, on looking aside, Vincent was stunned blank to witness an arm swing out towards him, with one semi-automatic pointed ahead of bright pink eyes. They shone bloody murder. 

It happened in a second. During this chaos, the clever gunman had snuck straight up to Vincent's shelter. 

The fast reaction astounded one's comprehension, even Davoren's. With his hard claw, Vincent snagged the gunman's arm to divert the aim far up, just before several bullets rang loud. Now pinning the arm to the wall, Vincent then returned the surprise-attack tenfold. Every bullet hit Davoren point-blank. A brutal lead shower from head down to chest. 

He didn't stop until the angry gunman managed to bare out his other semi-automatic. But Vincent reacted faster. He released the arm as he shoved it hard against Davoren, thus pushing him back for a split-moment; enough time to beat a hasty retreat. 

A fresh halistorm of bullets screamed vengence after him. Their wild sparks flew all around. Yet Vincent somehow escaped into a side-vent, where the black path led him upwards. He scruffled up like a madman. Around more corners and through ducts..the nightmare simply had no end! 

When he finally realized the gunshots had ceased, Vincent gasped to an unsteady halt. He slumped against the thick iron wall. After tearing open his collar, the ruined man thrust back his head to gulp precious air, squeezing each breath past his parched throat. His inflamed lungs wailed in pain. A dull headache pounded his brains. 

That had been such a narrow escape, Vincent shuddered to remember it. His whole body ached from strain and injury. His long overcoat, alas, lay in miserable tatters, especially the hole-ridden hem. 

Vincent was surprised to discover one entire shoulder soaked in hot blood. He gaped a moment at it, yet still could not feel any pain. No doubt, a stray bullet had grazed deep during that retreat. In his desperation, he never noticed. 

Silence echoed through these hollow tunnels. Nothing stirred. He sat alone in darkness, listening to this unnatural tranquility while his senses gathered again. 

"Comical little fellow...that punk-friend of yours, Vincent," suddenly came a cool, dry voice from nowhere. 

Vincent tensed. He hadn't discerned the gunman sneak up here. Even now, he could not pin-point Davoren's location amdist this wretched maze. He seemed to surround him from every direction. Nevertheless, Vincent gripped his gun tight. 

"A bit cocky, but he's quite good with that magic wand of his. Huh! Though Heaven help me if he'd been under my command." 

Every sense was strained on high alert. Vincent anticipated an attack any second. 

Nor did Davoren disappoint his expectations. Danger came from the left side, at the junction of two tunnels. Vincent caught a quick shadow flinch there, in which he immediately scurried away. A torrent of savage bullets pelted metal and pierced air after him. 

Vincent swerved into a pipeline, slamming his bloody shoulder against the wall in the process. Down he scuffled, persued close behind by fire and fury. 

At last, he shoved himself aside into a vent. Safe there, Vincent thrust his gun around for hard retaliation. Both enemies exchanged a few bouts before breaking off again, neither side the victor. 

"But it doesn't matter, my firend," he heard Davoren's gentle voice float by, softer than a ghost's "We'll still shed more blood..." 

It errupted again. Vincent made an incredible dash out of his shelter for the vent across the tunnel, returning enemy gunfire all the way. He tumbled through, where he then crawled forward like a crazed maniac, well aware that Davoren had given persuit. 

The skirmish travelled further up the network until Vincent took a firm stand behind a side-vent. Only with full-scale fire frenzy did he shake Davoren off his tail. The gunman didn't retaliate, but instead took shelter inside a delivery pipe. Finally, when his gun clicked empty, Vincent pulled back. 

Another battle he survived, would he be so lucky next time? Gasping against the sweat, Vincent reloaded his gun, then drew it up to his hot face. He tried hard to ignore the savage pain mauling his chest inside. 

"..more blood...it's the only way to end this," whispered Davoren from his own shelter, now aroused to quiet insanity, "Can you hear them, Vincent? Can you hear Hell and all its fallen angels howl our names?" 

Vincent's grip tightened on his gun as he listened to this derrangement. The air reeked of mailce, its source a sisnter, murderous lunatic. 

"I don't know why...heheh," raved the amused madman to no one, "..it's just a crazy passion I have..to shed more blood. The more people I hurt..and anger I cause, the stronger the desire.." 

No reply; only a disgusted silence. 

"Blood...smear it in my hands until they drip red... let the rotten smell fill my nostrils...and the sight burn me blind.." 

His tone dropped to a gentle hush, so mysterious even Vincent was perplexed, "I only know I'm alive when I shed blood..it's the sight of it, Vincent...that's the only way..." 

Insane. Davoren was a demon crazed by brutality. He lived to torture and destroy..fuel hatred...just throw himself whole into blood shed. Death around him meant life for himself. 

This man...the very same who thirty-one years ago, had called human life "the most sacred gift from God". 

Why, Davoren? Where does this sadistic passion stem from? It's a fountain that spouts cruelty all around, but what is the source? 

Davoren...what happened to you? 

Something new suddenly occured to Vincent: never *once* had he asked himself that question before. 

And when he recalled the gunman's rave just now, Vincent discovered something strange. Past the insanity and evil, there huddled an emotion, crushed and abandonned. 

Vincent reached out to touch it. It almost felt like...utter despair...horrible, lonely pain... 

Behind those empty pink eyes, what did the gunman hide? 

Vincent violently shook off the reverie: time demanded another battle. 

As if reading each other's moves, both enemies skid out of their shelters for a brutal confrontaion, perhaps the last. The moment held them face to face. Their stern eyes locked hard upon each other, between them a bitter spark of hatred. All around, the invisible demonic crowd went wild. 

And then, the moment released them. Each man took aim of the other to fire. 

Yet God pounded down his divine fist of intervention: a furious rumble suddenly drowned the whole network. The frightened crowd dispersed. The battle stumbled to an instant halt, both enemies looking around in suspicious confusion. What meant that sound? 

Long ago, Vincent had been assigned to storm a Reactor. As he recalled, they had strictly instructed him to sneak in via the ventilation system, not the delivery system; the latter contained a deadly program. It effectively eliminated any intruder or security breach within the pipeworks. 

Vincent realized Reno had somehow activated the security program. Then himself and Davoren would be targetted as "intruders". 

The advice "Get yourself outta there AS FAST AS POSSIBLE" rang clear through his mind. 

He obeyed immediately. Vincent withdrew into a mad scurry, forgetting Davoren behind in desperate search for an exit. He scruffled upon all fours like a wild animal. All strength and concentration were exerted into escape. 

The thunderous rumble shook the delivery system end to end. Soon, every ominous gauge along the wall blared the alarm. Iron doors systemically sealed off every vent and pipe, with the rumble still growing louder. 

Vincent's speed reached frenzic proportions until he finally discovered a grate. From peril to safety, he slipped through at once, just as the program triggered its final stage.


-End of Chp.64