I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.23

The Nibel Mountain peaks pointed up to the blue sky, some daring to disrupt the puffy, sailing clouds. Those magnificent mountains, with their snowy caps, towered high above their rugged domain. Their hard, barren rocks surveyed the rolling hills below with a sneer, most contemptuous of their gentle, meek appearance. A biting, arctic wind incessantly huffed between the jagged peaks to discourage any life from thriving. Indeed, many had ominously described the Nibel Mountains as "the solid proof of Nature's mastery over the earth".

Yet despite the tyranny of those cold mountains, a small village had managed to snuggle up comfortably at its majestic feet. The mountain tops all scoffed at this insignificant village, but decided to spare its measly life, thinking itself far too mighty to crush it.

The sleepy village of Nibelheim, initially a camp for miners, betrayed every sign of rural life. The quaint, cozy cottages clustered around the stone square, while a timeworn, battered well marked the centre. A low fence surrounded the village, with a plain, wooden gateway to welcome visitors (which weren't that many). Lush green grass fringed the edges of the village, even though autumn had assumed control long ago.

At daybreak, the villagers would stumble out of their cottages to complete their daily tasks. The venerable innkeeper swept his doorstep every morning, then bustled inside to prepare breakfast for his guests. Hard-faced, sleepy miners would shuffle out their houses with picks, ready to dig in the mountains for materia. Their stout wives lingered by their doorways, gossiping about the news of the day. No sight warmed the heart more than these good villagers bustling about in the morning.

Unfortunately, these simple people bore an unreasonable terror of any stranger who stumbled into their quiet village. Most of them scurried back inside, yet peered through the windows to study the new-comer. Therefore, when the rumor about "ShinRa people" arriving here proved correct, everyone barred their doors in fear. The men lingered by the inn door, waiting for the "ShinRa people", while the more timid women peeked through the windows from time to time. The children, on the other hand, pressed their full faces against the window panes and waited impatiently. They seemed particularly excited at the idea of seeing "an actual Turk!".

Two lightly-armed soldiers were seen to march across the village square and stop at the wooden gateway. They still chatted in a subdued voice as they waited, but always kept their eyes fixed on the hills beyond. They too appeared anxious to greet these expected guests.

All of Nibelheim, in fact, braced itself for the anticipated arrival.

A low buzz echoed across the silent hills, gradually growing louder with each minute. Soon, a black, posh car was spotted zooming up the path towards the village. Everyone watched it approach until it finally halted at the humble gate.

Vincent, who had been the driver for the journey up to Nibelheim, silently dismounted the car. At the same time, a tall, middle-aged man with a moustache stepped out. The Turk opened the back door for Lucrecia and Professor Hojo, then signaled for the two soldiers to approach. They immediately marched over to the car.

After a sharp salute to the new company, one of the soldiers began to unload the luggage from the car. Meanwhile, the other soldier conducted the four new guests through the gate and across the village square.

A deathly silence fell on the village as the ShinRa visitors headed towards the stony staircase just beyond the square. Curious heads peeked through dim windows or half-opened doors; they marveled at each passing guest, but none dared breathe a word for fear of attracting undue attention.

Fortunately, none of the solemn guests expressed much interest in the quiet village, save Lucrecia who smiled in wonder at the charming surroundings. Professor Hojo only "humph"ed loudly and tied his hands behind his back as usual when unimpressed. They marched in a single file up the stony steps, still led by the soldier, until finally, they reached the ShinRa Mansion.

Nestled at the higher end of Nibelheim, the ShinRa Mansion overlooked this sleepy village with an air of arrogant superiority. ShinRa Inc. had purchased this grand mansion from some wealthy merchant (now dead), and renovated it into an outpost for "special uses". None of the simple villagers ever neared it without a foreboding. Perhaps the deathly silence that always hovered over the grey roof frightened them; or maybe those towering gables which stoically eyed their peaceful village filled their hearts with discomfort. Not surprisingly, the villagers avoided the mansion as best as possible, especially when occupied with "ShinRa people".

The mansion had snuggled itself comfortably along one edge of the humble village, surrounded by a high stone wall to ward off uninvited guests. An iron gate reluctantly admitted visitors along a winding cobblestone path up to the arched door, where two towers jealously guarded the entrance. A sequence of large, rectangular windows crammed the brick facade, while a corresponding series of gables peeked out along the roof.

Indeed, this eerie mansion bore a strange mixture of ominousness and beauty, further accentuated by the gentle sunlight shining between the cold gables.

The new guests marched past the iron gate, up to the impressive oak door. The soldier silently led them inside, then slammed the door shut behind himself.

They entered an extremely spacious hall, each wall with a door leading to a different room. A bronze chandelier dangled high up from the ceiling, showering the entire hall with a delicate, gentle light. At the landing of the broad staircase, three enormous stained windows overlooked the hall below. A huge oil painting of the mountains adorned the wall by the staircase, while a glass lantern hung over every door on the ground floor. One round carpet piece marked the centre.

The four guests waited patiently for a moment until Davoren appeared at the landing of the stairs.

"Ah, Professor Gast," he greeted respectfully, "Welcome to Nibelheim, Sir."

Davoren descended the staircase to welcome Professor Gast, the middle-aged man with the moustache. Though nicknamed "The Greatest Scientist on earth", Professor Gast's appearance failed to fit the prestigious description. He was an extremely tall man, with a thick moustache and freshly-cropped greying hair. His strong chin certainly expressed strict authority, but his fatherly eyes warmed up to anyone who approached him. Modest to almost a fault, he was, as Lucrecia had rightfully described him, very patient and friendly; traits which did not befit "The Greatest scientist on earth" (or so at least President ShinRa had declared).

After shaking hands with the three scientists, and a quick exchange of greetings with Vincent, Davoren conducted the guests up the broad steps. He guessed them to be quite fatigued with the journey across the countryside.

"I trust Mr. Valentine made sure you all had a comfortable trip, Professor Gast?" Davoren asked as they ascended the stairs to the second floor.

Professor Hojo only scoffed, but Gast graciously answered, "Oh, quite so, Mr. Davoren. We had a pleasant journey up to here, thank you."

"Is all the laboratory equipment ready, Sir?" interjected Hojo with forced politeness, "I want to start immediately."

"Of course, Professor," Davoren replied, "Everything has been prepared."

"No, I think it's better if we rest for a while," Gast suggested amicably to his colleague, "I'm sure poor Lucrecia is extremely exhausted with the long journey."

Davoren halted in the corridor as he turned around to face the dissentient visitors; he folded his arms, waiting for a final agreement. Lucrecia fidgeted very nervously in her spot while Vincent stood a few steps behind her. Professor Hojo's mean eyes glared back at the silent, timid woman, then at the two Turks most insolently. An awkward silence fell on the group.

"Fine! Fine!" the spiteful man spluttered, "I suppose we ALL need some rest."

"Very well, then," resumed Davoren, "I'll guide you to your rooms. Right this way, please."

Seven months had passed since that terrorist incident at the Reactor, yet Professor Gast had never stopped voicing his displeasure. He had been so brutally terrorized, so roughly mishandled, he had demanded President ShinRa find him a quiet place for research.

"Far away from the riff-raff of this crazy city, and all this gratuitous violence!" as Gast had angrily expressed.

Being in charge of the promising "JENOVA Project", and unquestionably the most important scientist in ShinRa Inc., Professor Gast's wishes were immediately taken into consideration: he wished to conduct further "investigations" into the alien life form as part of the overall research, yet refused to have an entire committee of scientists tagging along. This research required the presence of two scientists, three at most.

"You'd think he runs the place, the way he's ordering everyone around," President ShinRa had complained while reading the list of requests, "Who's the boss around here, anyway!"

Nevertheless, Professor Gast's wishes were obeyed. The President chose Nibelheim, a remote village near the rugged mountains of Nibel to be the research place. The villagers were kind-hearted, simple people ("stupid" was the President's expression), and would hardly interfere with the Project. The ShinRa Mansion could accommodate several scientists, all the necessary laboratory equipment, including a preservatory tank for JENOVA.

Therefore, the alien life form was carefully transported via the sea to the quaint village of Nibelheim. In the meantime, Davoren had been sent one month in advance to prepare the mansion for the arriving guests. He had dutifully overseen the delivery of JENOVA from the harbour to the preservatory tank; every room in the mansion had been impeccably prepared; he had even hired a servant, some middle-aged woman of homely appearance, to cook and clean for the honoured guests (however, she was strictly instructed NOT to near the library below).

Vincent, on the other hand, was ordered to escort Professor Gast and his entourage when they would actually leave Midgar. President ShinRa, furthermore, had informed the Turk he would be staying at Nibelheim, with Davoren, until the research was completed.

"Now that could range from one month to a full year," the President had laughed, puffing his dirty cigar, "So you be sure to bring along plenty of video games, magazines, or whatever else you like, Vincent. Nibelheim is the most boring place on earth..right after the Morgans', that is."

So, with a most friendly handshake, President ShinRa wished the Turk a "bon voyage", and dismissed him.

Since that fateful night one month ago, Vincent had never tried speaking to Lucrecia. Her repulsive action still baffled his senses, yet he patiently waited for her to forgive whatever offense he had committed against her. Unfortunately, Lucrecia never came to him; either the Project had completely won her attention, or she simply refused to see Vincent anymore. He knew she tried her best to avoid him, as though he intended to harm her, but still, Vincent would not impose himself.

His reaction had been ambivalent on learning that Lucrecia would be on the entourage to Nibelheim. Vincent, of course, missed her immensely, even yearned for her again. On the other hand, her reserved treatment of him had left a sharp pang in his heart. However, Vincent bore the blow as gracefully as he could, and maintained a stoic face.

She scarcely spoke to him during the entire trip, if only to say "excuse me" or "sorry". Much to his dismay, she preferred to discuss testing samples, data information, or other complicated details with Professor Hojo. Her eyes always avoided Vincent's, and she treated him with such stiffness, it pained him deeply.

Yet despite her caution, Vincent could see straight through her cold disguise. He detected an unnaturally nervous tremor in her voice whenever she spoke in his presence. If their eyes happened to meet, Vincent instantly discerned her frightened look. Lucrecia seemed so afraid of him; afraid he'd guess some dark secret of hers. Though she vigorously sought to conceal it, she knew Vincent had noticed her apprehension. He only pretended to notice nothing.

However, Vincent wasn't certain what exactly aroused such distress in Lucrecia. At first, the kiss had sprung to his mind: perhaps *that* still upset her? But his anxious heart insisted something else, far more serious, troubled the poor woman. But what?

Vincent battered his brains in search of a satisfactory answer, yet none justified her strange behavior.

Days passed. The three scientists bustled incessantly downstairs in the library, scribbling furiously or conducting mysterious "tests". In fact, they seldom emerged from the basement during the day, if only to grab a bite or take a quick nap. Neither Vincent nor Davoren dared disturb them; instead, they strolled around the village, or chatted idly over a game of poker. Though Vincent considered Davoren his best Turk friend, he never confided in him any of his personal concerns about Lucrecia. If Davoren asked him why he looked so wistful or glum, Vincent would automatically blame it on the autumn weather.

He kept all his thoughts, concerns, and worries bottled up in his own mind. A thousand little questions frustrated his senses: he *knew* Lucrecia concealed some heavy matter not meant for him to know. He saw it immediately whenever she passed or looked at him.

But what was it she tried so hard (and in vain) to hide from him?

Determined to set his mind at rest, Vincent decided to ask Lucrecia herself for a definite answer. Therefore, one afternoon, about two weeks since their arrival, Vincent wandered down to the library.

-End of Chp.23