I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.36

Vincent instantly hid behind a sturdy tree, and held his breath in restrained anticipation.

Cautiously and with great stealth, he had crept all the way from his dark hideout, stooping low along the frozen hedges, and dashing noiselessly from one tree to another. His heavy boots made no sound in the thick snow. The cold gun felt quite comfortable in his tight grip.

Vincent had snuck farther up the long black road, through a low, woody area, when he detected an enemy close by. With redoubled stealthness, he glued his back against the nearest tree, and was perfectly silent.

His keen eyes inspected the grim surroundings: this barren lowland snuggled comfortably along the foot of a hillock, separated by a crude wooden fence. The main gravel pathway extended over the hilltop, so that anyone wishing to descend into this low area needed to climb down a rocky slope first, then pass the fence.

Hundreds of black trees infested the land, their grappling roots buried under deep snow. Countless bushes and shrubberies, all thick and quite bare, scattered across the wasted lowland. They thronged around trees, or clustered together in silent misery.

Being thus so crowded with dead trees and brittle bushes, a heavy darkness loomed about this low woodland. It was an endless maze of black shadows, some twisting into the most grotesque shapes. The cold air was deathly calm.

From his hidden spot behind the tree, Vincent could sense one of the mercenaries shuffle about here and there in a thorough search. The man, with his gun undoubtedly ready to fire, cautiously examined any suspicious shrub and checked around all trees in his path. He made no indication, at least not audible, that he had heard Vincent sneak into this area.

A full five minutes dragged by. Vincent did not move a muscle. His back remained glued to the tree, his ears intently concentrated on the enemy's movements.

Vincent tensed as he heard the armed man wander near his hideout. Fortunately, the darkness seemed too ghostly, and the silence so heavy, the mercenary decided not to carry his search further into these bleak woods. Besides, they had combed the area just minutes ago; how could anyone possibly slip into here in such a short time unheard and unnoticed?

Thus assured, the man retreated back through the woody area. He walked with his back openly turned to the dark woodlands.

As the unsuspecting mercenary wandered away, Vincent stealthily peeked around the tree: it was the man with the blue kerchief and dirty, rugged face.

He's wearing a bullet-proof coat, Vincent reflected to himself, and I'm sure the others have bullet-proof vests too....

Vincent narrowed his cold eyes, then noiselessly dashed from his hideout to another tree close by. He huddled his side against the knotted bark, drawing his gun across his chest in wait of the "right moment".

A very faint, dull pain prickled his lungs. Vincent sensed a violent coughing fit not too far away. Already, his forehead felt a little feverish.

He peeked again, barely enough for one eye to look around the tree. The mercenary, still suspecting nothing, had halted at the foot of the hillock, right behind the simple wooden fence. His back completely faced Vincent. Another man stood on the hilltop, where the main road passed over. The two were talking loudly.

"Find anything?" asked the man on the hilltop. Vincent recognized him as the nervous, short mercenary with curly red hair.

"Naw, nothing here," assured the other man, "I checked the whole area...no freak with a claw or little girly."

"You sure you checked right?"

"Yep. If there WAS anyone, I would've heard it. My ears are pretty sharp, y'know."

Vincent slowly extended his arm out, and pointed his gun at the back of the unwary man's head.

"You checked those bushes over there?" the short mercenary on the hilltop questioned, "Mr. Davoren said this guy's supposed to be very fast and damn sneaky.."

"He just said that to watch you piss in yer pants. Geez, didn't you see that slick look on his face," interrupted the confident man arrogantly, "I tell ya, no one's here! I checked around real good and...."

Before the cocky mercenary could finish his sentence, Vincent suddenly opened fire. The loud bullet ripped straight through the man's skull, sending him tumbling clumsily over the wooden fence. He died instantly.

Vincent did not wait to hear the other mercenary shout at the top of his voice for his comrades, much less for them to rush over. Without looking back, he flew deeper into the black woods, hopping over bushes and racing past so many barren trees. He sensed heavy footsteps not too far behind him. Undoubtedly, the three remaining mercenaries, enraged by the brutal surprise attack, had decided to hunt him down through the woods.

Vincent suddenly dodged behind a tree, and was perfectly still. He glued his entire backside to the tree, pressing his gun against his heaving chest. In the near distance, he heard those men's shouts as they quickly drew nearer.

"Hurry! This way!! This way!!" roared a loud voice.

"You take that way, I'll go this way," commanded another angry voice, "Don't let your guard down...he's really dangerous!"

"I swear, I'll mutilate that goddamn asshole!"

Suddenly, all was still again. The entire woodland lay in darkness, its chilly air unnaturally calm.

Vincent basically understood their plan: they would surround him from three directions, then quickly close in on him to prevent his escape. That meant he had to somehow break through the deadly ring before being discovered. He also assumed these mercenaries had contacted the others for reinforcements, that is if the loud gunshot and commotion hadn't already attracted their attention.

The fact that Davoren hadn't personally attacked yet aroused Vincent's suspicion, almost to the point of alarm.

However, the approach of stealthy footsteps from behind immediately cut short all thoughts. Vincent held his breath as he sensed one of the mercenaries slowly creep along the tress, his gun most certainly ready to shoot any second. His sharp ears detected every movement of the approaching man: from his cautious steps in the snow, to the nervous twitch of his finger on the trigger. It was, as Vincent correctly guessed, the short mercenary with red hair.

The footsteps grew slowly closer. Vincent remained as still as a statue, his keen eyes fixed to the far corner. The darkness and shadows concealed him so completely, his tall figure appeared as part of the black tree. So much so that the red-haired man, though quite alert, snuck right past Vincent without even sensing his presence.

Instantly, Vincent grabbed the unwary man from behind. His hard metallic arm encircled the enemy's neck and crushed his windpipe. Frightened out of his wits, the mercenary screamed for help amidst wild chokes and fierce (but futile) struggling. In a flash, the other mercenaries rushed to the spot.

"THERE!!" thundered one man.

"SHOOT!! SHOOT!!!!!" roared the other man savagely. Vincent quickly bolted towards another tree, still holding the struggling mercenary around the neck. Insanely furious, the two men automatically opened fire on their target, thereby spraying the entire hostage with bullets instead. Vincent had used this mercenary as a human shield.

He released the bullet-ridden corpse just as he dodged around the tree. From his spot, Vincent could see the man lying face down in the snow over a pool of blood; he was dead.

An all-out war immediately erupted. The two remaining mercenaries, aroused to madness, blasted away at an entire throng of trees, one of which their clever enemy hid behind. The hot bullets tore at everything in their way; they overturned all sorts of twigs, bark chips, and bits of frozen dirt into the air.

Both sides exchanged several shots at once. Vincent's whole body huddled behind the sturdy shelter, while his arm extended out around the tree to shoot. Yet unlike the wild mercenaries who fired indiscriminately, Vincent shot with tactical caution. Above this mad crossfire, he sharpened all his senses to pin-point his enemies' positions.

Without peeking around the tree, he aimed slightly to the left, and fired; one of the men screamed violently in pain. Vincent fired again in the same exact position, and heard the man crash heavily to the ground. He had killed another mercenary.

The last man, blind with rage, redoubled the amount of gunfire. Vincent, however, only returned a couple of shots before suddenly breaking away from the bloody battle. He bolted straight through the dark woodland, heading for the hillock up ahead. Though he never looked behind, Vincent knew the last mercenary, the big muscular one, was madly rushing after him. Not too far back, he heard the angry man trample savagely over the bushes and swear non-stop.

At last, Vincent reached the foot of the hillock. He immediately sprang up the rocky slope, and landed onto the main gravel path once again. Gun in hand, Vincent darted across the road. He huddled behind one of the trees along the roadside, and was perfectly still.

For the first time since fighting, Vincent noticed himself gasping deeply for air. Indeed, his chest heaved in such unbearable pain as he fought for a precious breath. To add to his ordeal, the fever had grown worse. He felt the coughing fit edge closer.

Soon, he discovered his right upper arm had been wounded in the battle. Vincent was certainly surprised; he hadn't felt any pain up to now, not even the slightest twinge. He gazed blankly at his torn sleeve, marveling at the dark, hot blood soaking the wound. Luckily, the bullet had only grazed his arm, so Vincent found it easy (or at least possible) to bear the injury.

A stern frown darkened his face: this battle had lasted for nearly half an hour, far longer than expected. He wanted to return to Aeris at once.

"Where are ya, you damn freak?!!" thundered a loud, enraged voice suddenly. It was the muscular mercenary with the assault rifle. In perusing his enemy, the man had climbed the rocky hillside up to the main road.

Vincent huddled himself further against the tree, bringing the gun closer to his hot face. He heard the angry man storm about here and there in a desperate search for him; he kicked the hedges viciously, and poked his gun around every tree in his path: nothing.

Like so many previous times, Vincent had hidden himself in the shadows. The man simply had no clue where Vincent's hideout could be. Breathless with his own rage, the brawny mercenary stood in the middle of the black road. His suspicious eyes darted all around the ghostly place.

"Come out here and fight like a man, if that's what the hell you're supposed to be!!" the mercenary roared, "You sure got balls doing my buddies in like that! Come out!!!"

Vincent made no reply. His bloody-red eyes shone in unnaturally cool composure.

"I swear that Davoren's gonna pay me TRIPLE the original price fer catching you...especially after all the trouble you've caused me!!" threatened the man, brandishing his huge fist into the air.

No answer.

The mercenary stomped along the roadside, pointing his deadly gun in angry anticipation. He wandered past Vincent's hideout, then halted a short distance away. He glared suspiciously at the dark surroundings.

Vincent never flinched a muscle.

"Slick-assed business man with a hefty cheque book...," the man spat out contemptuously, "...yeah, Davoren sure offered us a damn nice price fer you and that little chick, but it's still too damn low!!"

Vincent made no comment. An awkward silence followed.

"WELL, WHERE ARE YA, FREAK?!!" shouted the enraged mercenary impatiently, "WE GONNA PLAY CAT 'N MOUSE ALL FRIGGIN' NIGHT?!! COME OUT BEFORE I....."

Without warning, Vincent suddenly dashed across the road at full speed, right behind the mercenary's back. On detecting the black figure whizz by, the brawny man immediately opened fire with a loud curse. Vincent, however, evaded the wild bullets by rolling behind another tree; he did not return fire.

The big mercenary rushed after Vincent towards that tree, shooting all the way. The instant he turned around the tree, the man redoubled the amount of gunfire to make sure he killed the enemy. But he suddenly stopped short in complete disbelief.

Nobody was behind the tree.

Baffled by this mysterious disappearance, the man scratched the back of his head stupidly: he could had sworn he saw "the freak" dodge behind *this* tree. The man looked around himself again, but found no trace of his enemy.

It all lasted a moment. The mercenary just happened to glance up the tree, up at one of the hard branches, when he spotted a tall black figure perched on top. Before he could even open his mouth, one clean bullet hit him right between the eyes. The brawny mercenary stumbled backwards, then crashed to the ground. He lay face up in the snow, his mouth wide open and eyes blood-shot with pain; he was dead.

After luring the last mercenary to this tree, Vincent had simply leapt up to one of the branches, and ambushed the man. The bloody battle thus concluded, Vincent gracefully hopped off the tree branch down to the ground. He re-loaded his gun quickly, casting only an indifferent glance at the dead man by his feet.

His sharp eyes narrowed in deep suspicion: to be sure, Davoren knew fully well Vincent could handle these men. Trained and experienced as most of them seemed, these mercenaries hadn't a chance against a professional Turk, let alone Vincent's "freaky" skills (thanks being to his abnormal body). Though Vincent certainly felt tired after the battle, those men hadn't caused him too much alarm or trouble.

Then why would Davoren bother hiring such men, if he knew none of them could kill Vincent? Only Davoren himself had a fair chance against him; both of them had underwent the same experiment, and knew each other's abilities, not to mention fighting skills.

But Davoren hadn't shown up at all.......why?

When he suddenly remembered Aeris, a possible answer popped into Vincent's mind: perhaps these mercenaries had simply been a distraction....a sort of diversion to busy him. In his care to keep Aeris out of danger, Vincent had left her *alone* in the safe thicket. So, if he wasn't there to protect her, then Davoren could just....

Before the ominous thought could complete itself, Vincent turned around to rush for the thicket. However, he stopped short on hearing many footsteps running straight towards him. Suddenly, five men emerged onto the road, all armed to the teeth. The reinforcements had finally arrived to avenge their fallen comrades.

"AH! THERE HE IS!!!" shouted one voice.

"SHOOT HIM!! NOW!!!!" cried another loud voice.

Vincent instantly dashed away from the angry men, just as they opened full fire on him. He flew up the winding pathway amidst the wild gunfire, then suddenly darted to the side, right into a heavily-forested area.

He heard the mercenaries rush after him. Their heavy boots trampled over everything in their path; their loud voices called to each other. It seemed these men would hunt Vincent down forever, if not to avenge their friends, then definitely for Davoren's generous reward.

Quite wisely, Vincent resisted the urge to simply turn around and fight his way through these men. On the other hand, he refused to drag out the battle like last time. He needed to reach the thicket immediately.

His brain drew up a dozen plans, recommending some and rejecting others. At last, Vincent decided his course of action: he'd fight these infuriated men while at the same time make his way to the thicket. He'd have to eliminate his enemies swiftly and move on, but also keep a cool head and his wits about him.

Therefore, without further debate, Vincent decidedly tightened his grip on his gun.

During all this time, Aeris had remained safely hidden behind the tree in the dark thicket. The girl had sat huddled up against the rough bark, listening anxiously to the heavy silence. She had, of course, given a violent start on hearing the very first shot, but somehow had forced herself to remain still.

As the loud battle raged on, stopping for a minute then restarting again, Aeris felt her heart sicken with anticipation. Her limbs hadn't stopped trembling, nor would the fearful thoughts spare her mind.

She heard many rough, faint cries re-echo in the far distance, and mad gunfire tear through the air. Yet to be honest, those noises didn't frighten her that much. The horrible image of Davoren caused her this distress; the ruthless gunman constantly haunted her, blocking out all other thoughts.

Even though Vincent had almost assured her that man wasn't there, Aeris could not rid herself of this one fear: being captured and dragged, against all struggling and tearful pleas, straight back to the "Professor"...back to torture, darkness, and endless nightmares.....

Aeris huddled herself further against the tree, as if it would somehow shelter her anguished mind from these nagging fears.

"..I..I want to go home..," she whispered inaudibly to herself, "..dear God..I just want to go home..."

A long, long silence followed.

"tsk tsk," answered a calm, playful voice out of nowhere, "Now isn't this a bad place to find a sweet little girl like you."

The familiar voice petrified Aeris beyond description.

She immediately sprang up, looking all around herself to find the dreaded speaker. Her nervous eyes darted from one corner to the other: nothing but shadows and bleak darkness, frozen trees and empty bushes. In her great fright, had she simply imagined the voice?

"Here. Up here," called the voice, sensing her confusion.

Aeris looked up the stout, knotted tree she had been hiding behind all this time. She spotted on one of the branches high up, Davoren seated quite comfortably. His back leaned against the main tree trunk, while one leg dangled down in the air. He gazed amusedly down at the astonished girl.

"Hello, my dear," he greeted with the politest smile, "Long time, no see. Did you miss me as much as I missed you?"

Poor Aeris could only stare back at him in speechless horror. If she had enough strength to describe the man's gleaming pink eyes, she would have probably just called them "evil".

-End of Chp.36