I Know What's Beneath
the Snow Fields -Chp.73
Demon wars rage well beyond human imagination. They escape the confines of comprehension into the realm of nightmares. Not all take place in open space. Many burn inside, pitting self against self in heated combat, sometimes with no conclusion; just more scars and more devastation.
Their hearts are frozen dead. Some have never felt warmth. Instead they wander the wastelands alone. Some have let themselves wither long ago, simply because dragging a wounded soul caused too much grief, and it was easier to just forget it behind in the mud. Others don't care how far they stray as long as it satiated their inner hunger.
One cannot decide which is the worst kind. And in the end, it hardly matters. They are all Heaven's outcasts; "the Damned".
They may appear deformed. More insidiously, they may assume "human" guises. But no mask good enough can conceal their inner ugliness or the stench of crime upon their hands. To these children of Satan, the Gates of Paradise are always locked shut. And no one knows how to get in.
Tonight the storm centred around two demons. Over the span of thirty-one years, Mistress Fate had weaved a fine tapestry of events: greed, deceit, pain, and lunacy. No heroes. Just monsters. Which brought them to here and now.
Both men trailed a long streak of evil behind them... terror, and so much blood. Between their conflict there cowered a young, frightened girl. Their soiled, black interior contrasted sharply against her white purity. Of all eyes, hers Vincent wished most to hide. He wanted to embrace her into himself, even take on more dirt just to keep her clean.
And farther in the background, there lingered another woman; a wraith shaded to the barest tinge of grey. She watched the scene in wistful melancholia, as if she already lamented the sad outcome. Vincent felt her close by. So close it hurt.
He was here. But where dwelt his mind? In the present, or the distant past? Upon Aeris or upon *her*?
"Why won't you answer?" teased a guileful voice from within. It sounded like his own.
Vincent did not speak.
"I know why. It's because you're afraid."
"Yes. You're afraid of the answer."
With one leg stretched far back, Vincent dug his foot into the ground for control. He came skidding all way backwards, feeling friction scrape his knee, until finally he stopped at the wall. There he remained, still crouched in readiness. On the other end, Professor Hojo stood poised in refined grace. Arms casually folded, he waited for his battered opponent to steady his gasps.
Only one minute into the battle, and already Vincent had been thrashed and beaten back. The fact that he hadn't come close to even scratching the Professor added insult to injury.
Behind cool specs, Hojo's frigid visage expressed boredom at Vincent's shabby performance. Thus far, he'd wasted nil effort on this pest. He probably thought those two ex-Turns had put up a better struggle, and they were mere humans.
"Well?" he scoffed impatiently, "Is that all?"
No, most certainly not. Vincent had just wiped the blood from his mouth when he suddenly made a fresh lunge at Professor Hojo; gun gripped tight, velocity triple force. But multiplications mattered little to this wily creature. In face of two well-aimed gunshots, he playfully parried just a step for the bullets to zing by, then dashed right in to intersect Vincent slam in the midriff. Quality not quantity. And that single blow contained ample power to send the stunned man tumbling back in exquisite pain.
He would not surrender yet. Vincent somehow used to claw to flip himself into recovery. Just in time to anticipate a set of talons slash down upon him. No sooner on his feet than he sprang further back, one millisecond before Hojo missed his skull for the front of his shirt: one clean tear from collar straight down, almost to his double-belt.
Any later, and he would have shared his shirt's fate, which now flapped open to reveal his loose, black undershirt, all soaked in blood and sweat. Lucky, but he knew luck would not last.
With one twist of the foot, Vincent took another chance on attack. He darted straight in for the demon, who perceived Vincent suddenly hit the emergency brakes, at the same instant whipping up his gun to shoot him point-blank in the face.
Several bullets rang out, none fast enough. Vincent was astonished to see Hojo evade the blasts as quick as a blur unscathed: he'd never witnessed such incredible speed!
"Incredible" hardly did Hojo justice. He moved faster than sense itself could comprehend. By the time Vincent skid to a halt, the crafty enemy had already swerved around, which ultimately brought him right onto his open flank. All in a single heartbeat.
Alarmed threefold, Vincent reacted by swinging the butt of his gun for that wasted green face: If anything, he'd try to throw the bastard off guard!
Wishful thinking. The uninterested Professor simply blocked that desperate blow with one arm, nor did he wince a wrinkle.
Next came the rejection: Hojo rammed the heel of his hand sideways into Vincent's face harder than a brick wall. Once more, Vincent was sent back tumbleweed-fashion. And again, scruffled onto one knee.
All very fortunate. For then, he perceived Professor Hojo, poised in profile, sharply flick three fingers upwards. Hell obliged. At his gesture, a fiery energy wave instantly geysered its way through the stone floor right in for him. So loud. So fast.
Hojo simply refused to stop. It just came one attack after another after another!
Vincent mobilised every muscle fibre into one huge effort. He sprang as high up as gravity permitted. The uncontrollable wavefront ripped the floor beneath on a destructive joyride, gushing all its wrath up to toss him off balance.
Through this madness, his keen eyes shot behind. He saw it collide head-on into an old gas tank just up ahead, only to cause a massive explosion ten times more powerful. Vincent was still airborne when the volcanic gust of chaos, fire, and metal scrap swept him further upwards into total disorientation. High up there, he lost himself to an endless night sky.
Time slowed to an eternity. Vincent felt strangely detached from his physical body. He watched himself sail wild through the air as though it were another person.
He seemed weightless...
The ground... it spun meters below him...
Too many noises... the explosion... the raucous cheers of the crowd...
Something caught his attention. Through the roaring haze, Vincent perceived a black vulture dive in at him from higher above. Its eyes trailed murderous flames. Its wings, more like ropes, splayed out... shooting down... down right for him...
Suddenly, Vincent snapped wide into alarm as he realized that was no bird of prey. It was Professor Hojo.
That "eternity" Vincent spent in limbo hadn't lasted a minute in reality: he didn't see the Professor, having cleverly ambushed him in midair, leap onto some slanted girder, then springboard over to meet him. He barely anticipated this "vulture" soar down after him as he fell- yes, he was falling.
But what Vincent *did* see was Hojo bare his palms, when a dozen slithery tentacles literally ripped out of both forearms. They speared fast through air for their stunned target below.
The crazed roped attacked from different directions all at once. Vincent actually believed this web of whips was hacking him alive. They tossed his ragged body about between lashes and shears, splattering out more and more blood. Pain... he'd never tasted such physical pain as now...
Hojo could have killed him. But preferred to maul him in free fall for these slow five seconds; that is until he swooped down for the grand finale.
Aeris had watched on in ever-rising terror. Half the battle escaped her comprehension. The rest rattled her soul by the roots. Yet nothing could have prepared her for this sight. Indeed, the memory etched itself forever into her mind.
She witnessed the completely helpless Vincent plunge amidst a swirl of ropes. Down came Professor Hojo from above. With both hands clasped tight overhead, the savage monster bashed it hard upon Vincent's head; just like a hammer upon a nail.
The man crashed onto the ground in a rumpled mess. But it didn't end yet. Before Vincent even knew where he was, Hojo, now both hands in his pockets, landed directly infront of him for the second blow: he scruffed his foot away, then kicked Vincent to the full extent his leg could swing, making sure he hit the face.
No different than kicking a soccer ball. And all right before Aeris' horrified eyes.
Vincent spun clear across the hall into one of the support girders. His left shoulder slammed whole against the edge; brutal enough to actually dent the structure, and rouse Aeris to a mad shriek. She beheld the lifeless man slump flat to the stone floor. He lay there. Simply lay there face-down, torn and bloody.
Round one was over. The entire Reactor held its breath in silent wonder.
Professor Hojo stood poised as before at the centre of such awe. Beneath that scraggy, angular frame lurked a darker force just beginning to emerge. The features of his shrewd face seemed more pronounced... more fervid with obsession.
Again, Vincent had been beaten back. As he lingered over there, the sinister monstrosity studied that ravaged carcass. Soon, contempt sparked his narrow, reptilian eyes.
"Huh! Pathetic!" he pronounced his judgement crossly, "Can you really be that stupid? You would jump headlong into a fight with someone you know absolutely *nothing* about?"
Across the arena, Vincent heard Hojo's mockery cut through an inner fluster of numbness. By force, he pulled himself into a woozy awareness, then attempted to rise, but with little success. He couldn't feel his battered limb, nevermind twitch it. At first, he'd almost thought it had been ripped off.
Aeris needed another minute to collect her wits. Hitherto a petrified figure in the background, she suddenly sprinted forth to his aid. Hojo did not interfere. He watched the frantic girl, by now sprawled on both knees, help a very dazed Vincent sit up. He had to lean against her for support.
The Professor remained disdainful. Hands still in his pocket, he lifted his chin slightly, and with a stern voice snubbed down, "I need not remind you, Sir: you are no longer fighting Davoren. Whatever antic you used on that sentimental prat will not work on me. Nor am I the same as last time," he let one of the tentacles play by his foot to emphasize, "During this past year, JENOVA cells have mutated my body even further. But then, you were just too daft to realize that."
Point well taken. To Hojo, this battle was so out of balance, it wasn't even funny.
Ruined, tired, Vincent dropped his buzzing head into one hand to stop this pain gnawing his face. Too many blows... far more than he could absorb... so many in such a short period. Dizzy... he felt so...dizzy...
"Vincent! Ah God!" cried Aeris as the man almost relapsed aside. She secured him into both arms, at the same time whirled her tearful eyes towards Hojo, "Professor, stop it! If you've a speck of pity, STOP!! He can't fight you! He's hurt! He's too weak!!"
Vincent didn't know which was worse: Hojo pummelling him in the first three minutes, or Aeris calling him "weak".
The scientist however, unmoved by her plea, replied curtly: "Then he should transform."
The two word syllable immediately stiffened Vincent. Such a dramatic change, from giddiness to stone rigidity, rather frightened Aeris: through his fingers and dishevelled hair, she beheld a crimson fire glare bright at the callous creature. Hot, and quite hostile.
Hojo plucked another sensitive string in mischievous amusement, "Ho? You don't like that transformation, do you? Is it because you hate it, or are you... afraid of it?"
Vincent compressed his jaws, but kept himself in check.
"Well, no matter," he dismissed it after a pause, during which he adjusted his specs, "We both know the answer to that question. See, I know you a lot better than you think, Mr.Valetine."
Accept it or reject it, Vincent was Hojo's specimen, and Hojo his "owner"; the one who twisted his body into *this*. Between them existed a bond. Some instinctive enmity Time had whetted instead of dulled.
Their animosity, however, ran on a more insidious level. An invisible chain thirty years long fettered their minds together, perhaps tighter than Vincent cared to bear. In this surreal moment, as he glowered at the Professor, he saw a black void carved into that man's sanity. Nothing there but dogma, anger, and psychopathic obsessions.
And what could those yellow eyes see through him? Vincent felt an icy sensation tingle his spine. He was looking at *it*. Inside, there always raged a war on the subconscious front. Two psyches locked in one head; not him and yet also an inseparable part of him, tethered deep in darkness.
The beast personified the name itself. His mind was its prison; his body the means of escape to the outside world. It thrived on anger. It hungered for destruction. No purpose. Just wanton, senseless destruction to satisfy its voracious appetite.
No. Vincent refused to succumb to something like Chaos. If unbridled, it could blow the entire Reactor sky-high, along with Aeris, maybe himself too. He would not take that gamble.
Both he and Hojo knew it: he'd rather be weak and in control than powerful and out of control.
...are you afraid?...
...afraid of what?...
...being shackled alone in the dark?...
...becoming a muted voice in the back of that beast's mind?...
...She's seen half of it before... are you afraid of revealing your true form infront of her?...
Again, Vincent barred out these intrusive voices with a resolute barrier. By now, his left arm had regained sufficient function. He picked his gun off the floor, then tore himself away from Aeris' arms, totally ignoring her sudden alarm. Instead, he climbed onto both feet. There he stood slouched up for Hojo to view.
"Dear me. More?" hummed the Professor in feigned concern.
Vincent understood now. This demon played a very game than his underling. Davoren had always relied on wits first, strength second, and the invincibility shield for back-up. He was a tactician at heart. And while he doubted Professor Hojo possessed Davoren's keen sense for strategy, Vincent could not dismiss either his agility or power. He could match up to neither.
Regardless, he stepped forward to resume battle.
Just then, Vincent felt a weak grip catch his hand from behind. He dutifully stopped, nor did he attempt to break loose. But he also refused to look back at those perturbed green eyes, even if he had to shade his face under profound solemnity.
"..Vincent..," faltered the distressed Aeris, still upon her knees, "..I.. I beg you... don't.."
The rest got caught in her throat. Inside, her bosom swelled with misery. So many things she wished to say, if only she had a voice!
She didn't need one. Vincent understood it all through the squeeze of her hand. Without force, without the slightest hint of irritation, he calmly ordered her, "Please let go of me."
His frostiness struck Aeris stone-still. To her, Vincent's demeanour never appeared more dark or aloof than now, with her holding him back. His eyes were stoic; avoidant.
His resolve had shut her out too. Everything except this battle. Everything pushed out except this battle.
No choice. Aeris hesitated a long moment, feeling the tension of his grip upon the gun, until finally she conceded to loosen her grip, just enough for Vincent to slip away. From here, her anguished gaze followed him behind. He marched towards Professor Hojo, who waited neither impressed not amused.
The enemy had speed and strength. A deadly combo. Nevertheless, Vincent advanced undeterred. He emptied his gun, then mechanically shoved in a fresh cartridge, cocking it once for confirmation. Hojo did not react.
He had very little. Just a gun and some vague plan. He'd just have to improvise. The rest he trusted to whichever devil guarded over him.
And so it began. Vincent's pace quickened to a dash. Professor Hojo easily anticipated the attack. With one casual swoop, he whiplashed a bundle of tentacles at his rash assailant, wreaking widespread anarchy in the process.
Vincent didn't quite remember how, but somehow he managed to bypass the first wave intact. Unfortunately, he couldn't manoeuvre around the second in time. It swacked him away like a razor-sharp wind.
Hojo wouldn't let him crash to the ground again, not when he could deal a third decisive blow: he dived in with an outward swing of the arm, behind it all the strength four knuckles could produce.
On the receiving end, the jagged ridge of bone collided into Vincent's senses. Vision blurred to red. Floor and ceiling spun round. He heard someone scream his name. He groped for his gun, but found it no where. It must have been knocked out of his hand back there...back there...
Waking to a whirl of pain, Vincent realized that blow had literally sent him flying clear across to the opposite end of the arena, where stood the brick wall. Upside down, he caught a glimpse of Hojo, now seemingly miles away. He saw the arrogant scientist swagger away without any follow-up, having decided himself the victor, and Vincent on a fatal collision course into the wall; or better yet already dead.
Maybe so. Maybe not. Vincent wasn't one to let a chance slip by.
Harnessing this momentum to his own advantage required precise timing and a lot of effort. One second before impact, Vincent acrobatically flipped over, so that his feet touched onto the wall. He crouched in for an immediate rebound. All the fire pumped up his legs, giving him the extra boost he needed to ricochet off this springboard, airway express right back into Hojo, who realized his gross miscalculation too late.
Retribution came sweet. Scarcely had the incredulous Professor wheeled around, than in rammed Vincent's heel clean into his jawbone. The impressive blow knocked Hojo back and over in a clumsy stagger. No words could describe his shock.
Meanwhile, Vincent sailed overhead for a perfect landing. No time to lose. He spotted a second opportunity shine ahead. Once he touched down safe, he decelerated himself by skidding backwards across the floor, straight for his discarded gun. No sooner there, than Vincent stamped his heel against the handle, which effectively flipped it up into the air. He snatched it midway, only to take off like lightning back in for Hojo once more, low and fixed on target.
It had taken Vincent ten unbelievable seconds to turn the tide. Yet it was enough for the outraged scientist to not only recover his balance, but also retaliate with the belligerency of a madman twelve times over.
Be he brave or foolish, Vincent charged in on a dead-set path. No one could stop him, not even as Hojo hurtled a spume of energy at him, trailing green aura all the way. With no regrets, he took the blow full-force by shielding his face behind his metal arm.
The explosion rocked the battlegrounds and its amazed spectators, from the terrified Aeris to the shadows high above. They all witnessed the gust of madness blow both enemies back, but not enough to phase either.
Getting pushed against impact meant nothing to the determined Vincent. He simply whiffed to one side, at the same time casting the damaged foreplate off his claw, thereby revealing the metallic knuckles and hinged wrist beneath. He'd lost one third of its function, but it also meant he'd broken through Hojo's defences. From there, the two demons steered around a semicircle, each in the opposite direction. They resembled bloodhounds, ruthless eyes measuring up the opposition before lunging in to kill.
Strange how both took charge at the exact instant. Vincent, however, acted faster. Aimed like a true sniper, he fired one shot bullseye into Hojo's thigh, right through the main vascular bundle of the whole leg- artery, vein, nerve; everything was severed in a snarl. Before he realized it, the flabbergasted Hojo lurched over as his legs gave out beneath him. Vincent, still at top speed, came zipping by to deliver the second bullet, this time shattering Hojo's kneecap to pieces.
The creature roared with gruesome pain. As a bonus, Vincent scuffed to a sudden halt, then reversed gears to ram his metallic elbow back into its maker's nape (his way of expressing thanks, perhaps?) For the first time, Hojo crashed to the floor as a tumbled heap of stupefaction. Miraculously however, he rolled himself onto his feet again in a flash. Indignation drove him forth, despite pain, despite injury, straight at Vincent, who hadn't imagined this adversary could recover so quickly.
His attention then shot aside. A lash of tentacles cracked at him on the right flank. Though Vincent managed to block it, the brutal lash wobbled him off balance a bit with an arm gashed clean across. In that one moment of unsteadiness, Professor Hojo perceived an opening: one good kick. It more than caught Vincent by painful surprise. It stabbed against his side, right where Davoren had knifed in that piece of scrap previously.
In effect, the man spiralled sideways, both legs sprawled mad through the air, until he slammed to the ground. Vincent struggled to rise. He clutched the now re-opened wound, at least to control the bleeding.
Hojo too staggered a step back under his injured leg, if only to shake off this wretched giddiness. His glare instantly shot back to focus.
Indeed, Vincent had barely stood halfway up when he anticipated the battle resume full-force. With only a fraction of a second to react, he dived aside, after which those tentacles tore the floor instead. He used his body weight to roll forth onto both feet again, just in time to parry a down-swoop of dagger-nails. It hurt to move, but it would definitely kill to stand still.
They scruffled all around in this evasive game. One side led the attack, the other strove to keep up his defence, striking back whenever opportunity allowed, and even then he wasn't nearly as effective; Vincent simply hadn't enough physical power to match Hojo's. Those claws slashed at him from every angle. Some were near misses. Some gashed and grazed him.
Soon the tentacles joined the fun. Vincent found himself attacked on all fronts. He couldn't gain enough time or space to retaliate, only quick blows to leave an impression. Nor could Professor Hojo win the upper hand. Not that Vincent had become faster. Rather, he's become slower, no small thanks to his wounded leg: this sniper had chosen his target well.
The gridlock battle filled thirty seconds when they spontaneously broke off, but only for another second before the infuriated scientist lunged in again. There Hojo swept out a gesture which imperiously invited a fresh energy wave to precede him on a destruction spree. Together, they charged in at Vincent.
He did not think. Vincent simply reacted. He squatted down to spring high overhead, flipping forward as the anarchy blazed under, first the disappointed tidal wave, next Professor Hojo, who for the life of him could not believe his eyes.
At that frozen instant, the two demons flew in opposite directions; one gliding through mid-air; the other still charging forth behind a force fields of havoc. In that single mad moment, as they sailed across each other, Vincent looked down to find himself in view of Hojo's unprotected back. Perfect target range.
All he had to do was shoot.
Vincent broke out of this slow time frame into instant action. No sooner did he spin himself right-side up than he showered his hapless enemy in hot lead. He didn't hear Hojo's harsh wail, or see how the creature reeled over against this inescapable hailstorm. What mattered was pumping in as many bullets as possible. In a single sweep, he sprayed Hojo's back, shattered his shoulder blade, his other leg, and whatever arteries or nerves around. V
ery swift. Very brutal. However, the attack took its toll on all sides: the Professor, at a total loss for stability, came crashing and tumbling across the floor in a grizzly heap. Vincent landed safe on both feet, only to clumsily collapse aside onto his buttocks, frazzled to near unconsciousness. Aeris remained petrified in place. Two hard-core demons at war. She daren't cross their blood-streaked arena now.
Instead, the silent, anxious girl watched Vincent steady himself again. He seemed far more demonic now; as if those few strings which linked him to "humanity" had been loosened during this war. His chest, his entire frame in fact, heaved double hard under agony. But his eyes struck her as most unnatural. Such an intense, fervid-red glow.
She looked towards the other end of the ravaged battlefield. For the second time, Hojo had been knocked to the ground. There, he struggled amidst sickening vertigo to rise again. At no easy price. Every movement, even the slightest twitch, hurt excruciatingly. Twice he collapsed, his breathing like a cacophony of wheezes and spumes of purple saliva. Aeris couldn't bear to look at his bullet-ridden backside, which sprouted and oozed blood, or his broken lump of a body as it writhed despite himself.
After another futile attempt, Professor Hojo managed to climb onto his limp feet, though not to stand in any better shape than before. He dripped blood. Gone his specs, along with his haughtiness, replaced by a slouched up, unsteady posture. Aeris clasped both hands over her pounding heart: here the Professor was already standing, whereas Vincent still sat hunched over on the floor.
"Huh! Strange how somethings never change," grunted Hojo to his enemy, "You're still the same stubborn, meddling piece of cow dung you were thirty-one years ago."
Vincent spat some blood aside, then replied cuttingly, "I suppose I could say you're still the same asshole you were back then... but that would be a compliment, wouldn't it?"
Touché. The scientist acknowledged the retort with a crooked sneer. Gathering his shattered dignity further, he mocked outloud, "Oh yes! You may praise yourself for a battle well fought. Bravo!" With a peculiar air of mysticism, Hojo then archly placed one hand over the opposite side of his wrinkled face, and breathed, "But you will soon discover, my good Sir, all you've done is scratch the surface."
The riddle bore a sinister meaning. Neither Vincent nor the perturbed Aeris understood, though it certainly aroused their alarm.
As Hojo stood there, hand on face, a black swarm of evil gathered around his presence. The ground began to tremble. The walls shed their loose stones. Between those spindly fingers, they beheld his pupils disappear into a brighter flame. Some inner force rattled his skeletal frame. Something far greater than he could contain, pushing itself harder and harder through this lanky body.
He became distorted... beastly...
Suddenly, he acceded to its freedom. The scientist buckled over for several bony spikes to erupt clean through his back, and spread themselves as six pairs of serrated wings.
The terrible sight sent shockwaves all around as a glorious cocoon of aura instantly engulfed Hojo. Inside, the force twisted and mangled his body into higher evolution. The metamorphosis seemed to hurt him but delight his senses.
His size doubled...tripled. Those wasted muscles gained such bulk; they tightened his now dark leathery-green skin until one could trace every vein throbbing beneath.
Most horrifying was his face. Its human features faded to a remnant, remoulded into another as grotesque as a dragon, erratic hair billowing in madness. The monstrosity tossed its head far back for the last stretch. There his jaws snapped far out to display a jagged double-set of fangs.
No lie. JENOVA cells not only thrived on his body, but had ascented him to a new level of majesty: Holocaust Hojo.
Unshackled thus from its human form, the burly gargantua of a gargoyle announced itself with a grating scream which shook the Heavens above. Out splayed the tentacles. More bony blades and spines sheared through; twin pairs unsheathed from each elbow.
Free and fully armoured, Hojo crouched into a loose stance, like a predator ready to attack. Sadistic barbarity lurked behind those narrow eyes, but also intelligence. Intelligence and plenty of cunning. They seemed to ask Vincent "Well? What do you think?"
Vincent thought it disturbing to say the very least. He struggled to comprehend this twist: The Holocaust creature towered eight feet at full stretch, though crouched suited its posture just fine, especially with that arched, ridged back. Each gnarled claw could easily accommodate two skulls. And no doubt possessed the power to crush a hundred more.
All in all, not good.
It suddenly got worse when this hulk of a Hellspawn shot in at the astonished Vincent, aiming for nothing short of a carnage.