I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.38

It all happened in a flash, far too fast for Aeris to comprehend. The very same instant Davoren opened fire, Vincent immediately lunged for the girl. Grabbing her with his claw, he sprang forward, just as a hot bullet whizzed past his head. It all happened in a flash.

Still holding onto Aeris, Vincent tumbled over once in the snow, but instantly recovered his balance. He gracefully flipped backwards, then landed on both feet again, his body crouched down in alert readiness.

He expected the insane gunman to automatically bombard them with wild, indiscriminate bullets. The expectation had been so strong, that when Davoren lowered his gun instead of firing, Vincent narrowed his keen eyes suspiciously. He remained crouched down. All his senses sharpened in anticipation of the enemy's next move.

For an awkward moment, neither man spoke or flinched a muscle.

A hateful scowl darkened Vincent's face as he beheld this gunman in front of him. He held Aeris tightly under his armpit, his whole claw encircled around her waist.

The poor girl, who stared in horrified shock, clung weakly to Vincent's coat. She scarcely understood what gruesome fate she had just narrowly escaped. Indeed, if Vincent hadn't reacted in time, that bullet would have undoubtedly ripped straight through her skull.

Davoren carelessly holstered his gun, which baffled Vincent further but also intensified his suspicions. Though Davoren returned the distrustful glare with a most pleasant smile, Vincent saw straight through that false visage. The bright gleam in those pink eyes betrayed all the evil amusement and baleful cruelty hidden inside.

Very slowly, Davoren began to advance towards the two. He didn't seem to mind being unarmed while Vincent gripped his own gun with stern rigidness.

"Oohhh...very impressive reflexes!" the callous gunman praised good-humouredly but with slight mockery, "Even when you're sick, battered, and weighed down with a handicap, you still manage to stay fully alert."

Vincent's muscles tensed at the playful words, but he would not be the first to attack. Davoren drew closer.

"But I wonder, Mr. Valentine," the man added as he deliberately reached for something inside his trench coat, "Hmmm....I wonder just how long you can keep it up before you let your guard down?"

Vincent instantly grasped his sinister meaning.

Davoren took another step before suddenly lunging forward at top speed, yanking out a cold semi-automatic gun from inside his coat. Vincent barely had time to react. He sprang back, then narrowly avoided the torrent of wild bullets by dashing to the side. He took shelter in the thick woods again.

He understood this ruthless gunman's strategy: a hard, non-stop shoot-out until Vincent would slip off his guard. It would be swift, and brutal. Only in this fight, every shot was aimed at Aeris.

Vincent knew Davoren had decided to chase them through the black woods. He could detect the enemy's unnaturally quick, light footsteps rushing after him. Vincent diverted to the side, then bolted forward at double speed: Davoren may be fast, but he was still much faster.

Black trees and shapeless bushes whizzed by as Vincent flew through the dark woods. The insane gunfire, thirsty for blood, angrily persued its target.

He held Aeris very tightly under his armpit as he ran through this crazy gunfire. In return, the girl hid her whole face against his body. Her trembling hands clutched his overcoat. Surprisingly, poor Aeris made no sound, not even one muffled sob. Perhaps in her terror, she simply lacked the strength to cry out.

A crazy game of "shoot and dodge" followed, the offense firing openly, and the defense miraculously avoiding the deadly shots. To confuse their path, Vincent darted amongst the trees, hopped over bushes, and very often changed direction. But the wild bullets followed him everywhere. They savagely pelted the poor trees, and pierced the unfortunate hedges. The two men raced through the endless woodlands at an incredible speed, with loud gunfire filling the air wherever they went.

The mad bullets rapidly closed in on Vincent. He forcefully mustered his dwindling strength, repressed his illness, and sharpened all his senses to full alert. He needed a sturdy shelter good enough for a counter-attack position. It would be a lot safer than fighting in the open, especially with Aeris involved.

Vincent bolted behind a throng of slender trees, stooping low as the crazy bullets tore at this feeble barrier. He tumbled forward a few times to avoid the gunshots raging after him. He dashed here and there; tripped but somehow recovered his balance. He returned fire only when his persistent enemy got too close.

Somehow, he could hear Aeris' frantic heartbeat pounding like crazy. Yes...she was frightened, her precious safety having been so cruelly shattered... he was quite surprised she hadn't burst out crying yet...

A stray bullet suddenly ripped through the side of his left leg. Vincent stumbled against a tree in suppressed pain, but instantly ducked down, just before more wild bullets (intended for his head) blasted the tree instead. He returned a couple of shots, then scurried back up to his feet to find cover.

Vincent zoomed through the woods faster than before. He never bothered inspecting his wounds or moaning about the agonizing pain. If he stopped for even a millisecond, the brutal gunfire would tear him apart.

His chest ached miserably. His entire body burned with fever. He sensed the coughing fit only a short time away.

I either fight back NOW or wait for the blasted seizure to get me, Vincent argued inside his battered mind, that Davoren sure picked the right time to attack...bastard of a strategist!

Suddenly, Vincent rolled to the side, then scuffled behind a stout tree. Outraged by this daring barrier, the violent bullets redoubled their attack. Each loud shot screamed for the two refugees. However, the brave tree stood undaunted by the savage gunfire.

The instant Vincent reached this sturdy shelter, he huddled down against the tree, his back glued to the tough bark. He protectively nestled Aeris against his chest, so that she sat huddled up between his legs. Her face remained buried in his coat.

Hot bullets whizzed through the air like sharp knives. They tore at the tree, sending bits of rotten bark and frozen dirt hurtling about. Vincent roughly concealed the trembling girl under one open end of his overcoat.

"Aeris, cover your ears," he ordered gently, protecting her head with his metallic claw.

She automatically obeyed. Without hesitation, Vincent shot out his arm around the tree, and opened full fire.

An all-out war instantly erupted.

The two sides exchanged fire at once. Vincent never dared peek around the tree (not with THIS insane crossfire raging on). At times, he emptied his entire gun in one round, other times, hid completely to avoid Davoren's crazy bombardment. He reloaded his gun with incredible quickness, and strained every nerve to hit the enemy.

Aeris sat still, hidden under Vincent's coat from wild bullets, bark chips, and flying dirt. She covered, or rather clutched her ears to shut out the cruel gunfire. Her heart pounded so frantically. A sickly faintness overpowered her.

She passively noticed Vincent's muscles grow more tense with each bullet. She felt his feverish chest heave in great repressed pain. His hard breaths had turned to gasps. Perhaps twice, he had to pause the fight and struggle violently against an internal agony. But in her overwhelming fright, poor Aeris could not grasp what these ominous signs meant.

She peered hesitantly at the wound in his left leg: a horrible tear through the side of his black pants, with a deep, ugly gash bleeding profusely. So far, this was Vincent's worst wound.

She wanted this madness to be another nightmare. She wanted to wake up safe in a warm, soft bed and say "it was just another bad dream". The girl wanted it so badly, hot tears streamed down her cheeks.

The brutal battle raged on for around fifteen long minutes, neither side giving in to the other. Vincent could sense Davoren dash amongst the trees, probably to confuse his aim. The gunman moved with such an incredible speed, and the crossfire grew so fierce, Vincent could barely detect which direction to shoot.

The wild torrent of bullets suddenly tripled their intensity against the tree, forcing Vincent to draw back his entire arm. As the gunfire continued, he quickly reloaded his gun, then prepared to rebuff this savage attack. This time, he had pin-pointed Davoren's position: rapidly closing in, firing away but still wide open.

But before Vincent could shoot, he heard Aeris scream tearfully, then clutch the front of his shirt with all her feeble might.

"Aeris! Aeris, are you hurt?!" he asked in alarm.

The girl had no strength to answer, not even to lift her head.

Vincent grit his teeth in anger: he had to somehow push back this ruthless enemy, if only to buy himself a couple of minutes.

Therefore, Vincent furiously fired non-stop at the bleak darkness, most of his body huddled behind the sturdy tree. He gave Davoren no chance to retaliate or get any closer. He wrangled all his senses just to lock onto the enemy's movements.

On catching a glimpse of a black shadow dashing nearby, he doubled his fire in that direction until the gun emptied. Immediately, Vincent dodged behind the tree again, and reloaded his gun. The brutal gunman had been forced back.

For the moment, Vincent ignored the battle. Instead, he fell to quickly checking Aeris for any injury. Desperately trying to repress her tears, Aeris clung to the man's coat during the brief inspection. At last, Vincent discovered a stray bullet had grazed the very tip of her boot. Most likely, she must have thought it actually hit her.

He began soothing the tearful girl, whose efforts to control her terror were crumbling.

"Sh! Sh! Look, Aeris. It just hit your boot," Vincent comforted, wiping her tears with the palm of his hand, "You're all right. He didn't hit you."

"M-make it stop...," she begged through suppressed sobs.

Vincent gazed down at her, but found himself unable to reply. His face expressed no emotion.

"I don't want to go back there!! How many times do I have to tell them?! Why won't they leave me alone?!" poor Aeris raved, beside herself with angry despair, "..Davoren...Davoren says he'll kill you..he'll tear me away and t-take me back there....to the Professor! Torture...pain...so much pain...I don't want to go back!! But now..now he'll..I..I can't..and this crazy gunfire..it's just ripping my mind apart! Make it stop, Vincent! Please, make it stop! Make it stop!!!"

A heavy silence forced itself upon the two. Vincent stoically gazed down at the distraught girl. He did not move or speak, but studied her slender figure so pitifully huddled against his chest. Her shoulders shook violently. She covered her tearful eyes with both hands, as if to stop seeing this hectic fight.

He gently began stroking her hair, like parents do when their little children wake up crying from a scary nightmare.

For a brief moment, Vincent's mind strayed off: no doubt all her fears and torturous sufferings had exploded with that desperate outburst; who could blame her? Davoren had ruthlessly shoved the poor girl into the fight just to win the upper hand. She didn't want to return with the gunman. She didn't want to witness this battle either.

She wanted to be left alone...to be "safe", even if that little precious wish sounded so "stupid" to her.

Why should such an impossible, fantastic wish be called so? Every person had some pain, some fear, some anger to run away from. Why should it be so "stupid" to wish one could be safe from those emotions?

But Vincent suddenly cut short his gloomy reverie on sensing an unnatural movement in the bushes to the far left side. In that one moment of distraction, Davoren had snuck straight up to the two's shelter.

Instantly, Vincent grabbed Aeris and leapt away, just as a crazy torrent of bullets showered the spot to bits. One bullet aimed at Aeris grazed clean through his arm instead, several others blasted against his claw. He tumbled roughly to his side, but somehow scuffled back to his knees and returned full fire at Davoren. Vincent forced Aeris to keep her head down with his claw, while his other hand busied itself shooting.

He was much alarmed to find Davoren had crept so close, more annoyed with himself for almost slipping off his guard like that. Indeed, poor Aeris' violent ordeal had unintentionally distracted him.

The two exchanged a short but heavy bout of shooting. Davoren dashed quickly amongst the trees, firing away but hiding whenever the fight got too intense. Vincent, on the other hand, stood his ground in the open. He fired so fiercely at the enemy, sometimes driving Davoren back for a moment. His claw protectively covered Aeris' head as she lay flat on the snowy ground.

Vincent fired just as the gunman dodged behind a tree. Davoren heartily returned a couple of shots, then hid completely behind the barrier again.

All was silent, far too silent.

Vincent suspected some "trick" behind this unnatural stillness, so kept his gun rigidly fixed on that tree. He slowly forced himself up to his two feet (one felt a bit limp). He pulled Aeris up with him. She was pushed as far behind his back as possible, his metal claw keeping her in tact.

He waited for the enemy's next move.

"Don't you think it's strange...all this that we're doing right now?" asked Davoren's calm voice from behind the tree, "I mean, we used to be best friends. We shook hands the first day we met; we talked together all the time. I looked out for you, and you respectfully called me 'Sir'. I never would have dreamed, thirty-one years later, we'd be trying to kill each other like two life-long, bitter enemies."

Davoren suddenly emerged from around the battered tree. He stood a short distance away from the two. His semi-automatic gun, still smoking from the intense shoot-out, hung idly by his side. His face looked a bit dirty. His clothes, the trench coat in particular, had been tattered from bullets and bushes. He smiled very pleasantly, almost kindly, at the two.

Though Vincent did not shoot, he glared suspiciously back at the friendly gunman.

"We look exactly like we did back then (well, eye colour and my hair being the obvious exception)," Davoren joked, pushing back his snow-white hair, "But Vincent, look at us! The world around us changes, days come and go, people grow old, but we're frozen in our place. We're in a time our faces don't even belong in."

No reply. Far from being annoyed by Vincent's scornful silence, Davoren thrust his empty hand into his pocket, and chuckled to himself.

"Heh heh heh...y'know, we should be wrinkly old geezers in some resting home, reminiscing about 'the good ol' days', just like two aging buddies always do. Yup, we'd have a couple of false teeth, grey hair (or maybe bald?), and walking canes too. You'd have weak eyesight from all that sharp-shooting, and lemme see...heh heh...I'd definitely have lung cancer from all the smoking I've done......'Blind-eye Vincent' and 'Davoren coughin'-hack', that'd be our nicknames!!"

Not at all amused, Vincent narrowed his red eyes on the gunman's happy face. His instincts warned him of some upcoming attack, but could not specify what this man intended.

"But instead of that mundane, pointless little existence, here we are!" Davoren announced jokingly, "Here we are, in our strong young bodies of thirty-one years ago, killing each other, with a little girl stuck in the middle, and a crazy old coot using us for an experiment!"

With such carefree easiness, Davoren pulled out a small timer bomb from his pocket. The number read "5".

"Wha-hey! Talk about an alternate course to your life!" Davoren smiled innocently, flinging the bomb at the two. He instantly dashed away.

Vincent had immediately recognized the object before Davoren had even tossed it. Grabbing Aeris with both arm and claw, he flew beyond top speed through the black woods. The violent pain in his legs was forgotten, all giddiness and exhaustion temporarily discarded. He never looked back.

A thunderous explosion suddenly blasted Vincent right off his feet just before he could clear the woods. He felt a mad force hurl him violently through the air, with both him and Aeris spinning out of control.

-End of Chp.38