I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.40

As noiselessly as a cat, Vincent snuck along the many black trees and frozen hedges. He kept his head low; his back stooped over in cautious alertness. Despite the vicious pain tearing at his feverish chest, he had somehow managed to suppress his gasps into light breaths. His hot hand gripped the gun very tightly.

A mild dizziness still clung to him. Tiny blood droplets trailed after him as he trudged through the white snow. Indeed, he was bleeding badly.

He made his way through the black forest, sneaking hurriedly but quite cautiously. Every few steps, Vincent paused behind a tree to listen out for any suspicious noise or unnatural movement. When sure no mercenary lurked around, he resumed his stealthy path.

He caught himself worrying about Aeris again. Annoyed, he immediately pushed her out of his thoughts. The poor girl had been so distressed when he sent he away, especially after losing his temper. But it was for the best. She was safe, and without her weighing him down, Vincent had a better chance of fighting.

He had to buy Aeris enough time to escape this hectic park. Very "chivalrous", to use Davoren's mocking words. But what about *himself*? How will he escape this deathtrap, his condition so miserable, his ammo dwindling, and the fit already rattling his chest? Would he think up "something" during the battle, or did he intend to escape at all?

Again he shoved those morbid thoughts aside. Instead, he forced a most cool-minded concentration on the task at hand. Undoubtedly, those mercenaries had scattered themselves through the woods, probably with Davoren in lead of the final manhunt. Vincent had to fully keep his wits about him, and be careful how he fought: he only had ten bullets left.

He stealthily slipped amongst the trees and bushes, choosing the darkest paths possible. Though battered and a bit limp, he moved quickly. All his senses sharpened in readiness; he expected to encounter an enemy any moment.

A most unnatural silence loomed about these black woods. The dead tree branches hung in perfect desolation, not stirred by a breath of wind. The snow-laden bushes timidly watched this lonesome intruder prowl about. The still air stung with such bitter coldness. Everything was calm; the sort of calm that precedes violent storms.

To Vincent's suspicious mind, this peace seemed only a premonition to another brutal attack. He stopped dead in his tracks, and pricked up his ears to listen. His hot fingers tensed against the gun; his mistrustful eyes darted from one corner to the other.

He sensed a pair of evil, pink eyes staring at him from behind.

With deadly swiftness, he turned around and pointed his gun straight at Davoren. The gunman, indeed, stood some distance away from him. Davoren made no move to attack (at least not yet), but stood in his place, his semi-automatic gun gripped by his side. In the bleak darkness, he appeared as a tall, black shadow with two gleaming pink eyes. They flickered amusedly at Vincent's cold glare.

In all anticipation, Vincent awaited this man's next move. He did not lower his gun.

"I'm impressed. You actually managed to tear yourself away from the little girl," the gunman chuckled balefully, "Where did you hide her? Up a tree with the hibernating squirrels, or in some bushes all by herself?"

Vincent, of course, would not reveal anything. However, he took comfort in one fact: Davoren did not know where Aeris had went. Hopefully, by the time he would search for her, she'd have already fled this park.

"It would have been so much easier if you surrendered her to me, then just let me kill you. All this hassle and squabbling is really unnecessary," Davoren sighed, peering fixedly at his enemy, "At least your carcass would look presentable instead of getting it all beat-up like that."

No answer.

Ignoring the gun so rigidly pointed at him, Davoren looked his enemy bottom to top, then rested his piercing pink eyes on Vincent's cold, stoic face. The latter did not flinch a muscle at the contemptuous gaze.

Slowly but quite confidently, Davoren ventured towards Vincent, then stopped again, this time only ten steps away.

"Don't you know it's useless, o' dear friend of mine? No amount of fighting will make a difference. Hide that girl anywhere, I'll find her again. Kill me, I'll return three times more brutal.

Still no reply.

"There is nothing you, me, or anyone else can do to stop him. The Professor refuses to be deterred, no matter what the obstacles be, no matter what the consequences are. He MUST finish this experiment. This one, single experiment must be completed."

"What 'experiment', Davoren?" demanded Vincent sharply. His voice strained with tired vexation, but also a touch of desperation, "What does this 'Professor' of yours want? You and I...Aeris..everything... what's the connection??"

Though a thick veil of darkness separated the two men, Vincent could still see that vicious sneer playing on Davoren's lips.

"Hmph!" the gunman scoffed, "And what's the point wasting my breath explaining, when you'll die tonight anyway?"

Vincent's cold face darkened at the scornful reply. In return, Davoren's bright pink eyes only narrowed with further mockery; they betrayed nothing save cunning brutality. For an awkward moment, neither man moved, but glared at each other fixedly.

Without warning, Vincent suddenly leapt back, at the same instant opening fire on Davoren. As expected, the gunman dodged behind a nearby tree just in time, then heartily returned the attack tenfold. He sprayed the entire forest, sparing no tree or bush to kill his target.

Amidst all this insane gunfire, Vincent immediately fled the scene. Rather than waste any more bullets, he bolted towards the other side of these dismal woods. The bullets flew after him. They ripped the bark off trees, snatched twigs from bushes, and overthrew dirt into the air; anything to reach him.

Davoren had obviously decided to give chase through the forest. The gunshots came twice as savagely, each hot piece of lead screaming for Vincent's blood. This was the final shoot-out.

His speed a mad rush, Vincent darted through this forest without even glimpsing behind, never mind shooting back. The deadly rain mercilessly perused him wherever he went. At times, the wild bullets zinged by his ears, other times blasted right between his feet.

The woods stretched into a confusing maze of endless shadows and shapeless figures, all rushing past him with no meaning. His eyesight still bleared, Vincent could only rely on his sharp hearing to survive this madness. The light scuffling of Davoren's shoes in the snow, his rapid movements amongst the trees, all warned Vincent which direction to run, more importantly where to dodge.

Despite the chaos, he could feel the fit chew on his ravaged lungs. A bitter hot taste, much like blood, teased his throat.

Barely in time, Vincent sensed Davoren suddenly flank to his left. He instantly flew into an obscure thicket of trees, just before the maddest shower of bullets blasted at him. Vincent broke off in another direction, cutting his way through a tight throng of knotted trees. The angry bullets came after him.

Vincent grit his teeth: the gunman was beginning to catch up with him. Soon, he'd be able to easily outrun him and shoot from any direction he pleased. Not that Davoren had become any faster, rather Vincent had grown extremely slower, even after removing Aeris and focusing all his efforts on escape.

His wounds must have been far more grievous than believed.

Vincent's senses instantly forewarned him of danger up ahead. Much to his alarm, a mercenary suddenly jumped out from the bushes, thereby cutting off this escape route. With one big effort, Vincent swung sharply to the side, just as the man opened full fire. He rolled through some entangled hedges, where he somehow returned to his feet again and bolted away at top speed. The gunshots chased him.

He hadn't run too long when the two other mercenaries ran like madmen into the path. On catching sight of their target, they automatically sprayed the entire surroundings with hot bullets, as well as wild shouts and swears.

Ambushed this way too, Vincent scuffled to an abrupt halt, then instantly backtracked his path. He sought refuge behind the trees again. Though he fired twice to push them back, the two mercenaries persistently chased him. They returned his meek shots with torrents of bullets. The more Vincent dodged the bombardment, the angrier it grew.

Obviously, the three remaining mercenaries had rushed over on hearing the loud commotion. They would spare no bullet to kill Vincent first and attain the generous bounty on his head. "Free-competition", as they termed it.

Davoren had cleverly surrounded him from three sides, knowing well Vincent lacked the ammunition or strength to fight four men at once. Yet if Vincent did not escape this crazy deathtrap NOW, surely he wouldn't survive another minute.

The question was : how?

The first mercenary suddenly made his appearance again, this time right infront of Vincent. The path had been cut off from both ends: front and back.

But before the mercenary could open fire, Vincent lunged sideways, straight into some thick backwoods. He dashed past the crowded trees, followed behind by stray bullets and gruff bellows. No matter what, the mercenaries would hunt him down.

Vincent could hardly distinguish his path in such suffocating darkness, but heedlessly raced on. The voices of the three men gradually receded into the background the farther he plunged into the woods.

He knew for certain two bullets had seriously wounded his leg, one his arm, another his waist; that is of course besides the cuts and bruises. He did not bother noticing the wretched pain.

All of a sudden, Vincent detected a familiar presence close in on him from the far side. The ruthless gunman had found him again, and instantly moved in for the kill.

With a rough scuffle of the foot, Vincent darted away from his brutal assailant, just as a wild surge of bullets tore at the clustered trees. He kept his head low as the madness raged after him, blasting overhead and all around him.

A sickly sensation clogged his throat. His battered, beaten body could not keep up with this madness any longer.

The black woods ended abruptly. It immediately opened onto a rocky slope which led to the main gravel path down below. Far too distracted by the vicious gunfire, poor Vincent did not notice anything until he slipped. Before realizing it, he found himself tumbling very roughly downhill. Every jagged rock and brittle shrub in his path either poked, jabbed, or tore at him. Dirty snow and sharp pebbles flew into his face.

He spotted the gunman quickly skidding downhill right after him, one foot angled as a brake, the other applied for balance. Without a doubt, Davoren would not cease the hard attack until he had achieved his goal.

The rough journey finally ended at the foot of the hillside. Vincent rolled straight onto the stony road, where he somehow recovered his balance again. He instantly made a forceful lunge for one of the trees across the road, at the same time dodging a mad rain of bullets. The attack came so fiercely, with hot lead flying everywhere, Vincent had to finish his run for cover by scurrying on all fours.

He somehow managed to reach the sanctuary through all the crazy bombardment. Vincent tumbled behind the sturdy tree, then huddled against the bark. During the entire shoot-out, he hadn't stopped running until this moment.

Nearly an hour had passed since Vincent had forced Aeris away. The girl had probably cleared the hectic park by now. Perhaps she had somehow found assistance, maybe even phoned Tifa and Cloud. In any case, he had succeeded: he had distracted Davoren and his men long enough for her to escape (and saved as many bullets as possible). Nobody would know she had fled until too late.

The question struck him so bluntly: now what?

He had no more strength to run around, too little ammo to fight four men, and a murderous coughing fit squeezing his lungs.

Miserable hardly described his state. Hot blood soaked his wounds. His sleeves were torn, pants ripped, and long overcoat tattered from bullets and smudged in filth. A stinging fever burned his limbs, from the roots of his hair down to his toes. Every breath invited a fresh surge of pain. He felt drained, the very life beaten out of him; even blinking his eyes hurt.

So what should he do? Fight the gunman with...what...five bullets left and blurry eyesight? Run away, his agility so wretchedly reduced? Surely Davoren would not magically revert to his former kindness and spare Vincent's life. And those mercenaries would soon catch up to this place; he could already hear them approaching the edge of the woods. In all honesty, Vincent could barely fight unconsciousness, let alone three blood-thirsty thugs.

If he knew any solution out of this deadly dilemma, NOW was the time to act.

He wrangled his mind for an answer. Of all the little plans and desperate strategies he schemed out, Vincent chose what sounded the best one: disarm Davoren *somehow* before those men arrived. Five bullets of fifty, battered body or not, he simply had no other option.

Although seemingly an eternity, all this intense deliberation had only lasted a mere twenty seconds. Even the wild bullets hadn't calmed down during this brief time lapse.

Vincent decidedly shoved his gun into the holster. Disregarding the deadly bombardment, he rolled out into the open, where he immediately recovered to his feet again. Vincent lunged forward at top speed, straight for the ruthless gunman who stood some distance away. He had dived back into the battle.

Surprised by the unexpected move, Davoren changed the attack mode to a full-scale shooting frenzy. The gun vibrated angrily in his hands as he fired non-stop at this daring enemy.

However, Vincent rushed forward in such an incredible zig-zag path, feet scuffling sideways to direct him through this crazy madness. He strained his hearing to dodge the violent bullets. Every fiber in his muscles fought to keep up the momentum.

His speed and vigor, WELL beyond normal, resembled a demon's. He darted down the road so quickly, dashing here then there and back again, even the bullets could not keep up with such an insane pace (or rather, the gunman could not sway his aim that fast). Davoren grew more fierce in his attack, Vincent more determined in his charge.

Suddenly, Vincent was only two yards away, not just alive, but still charging at full force. The gunman could not conceal his shocked astonishment.

In the blink of an eye, Vincent sprang at his amazed enemy. With all his might, he forcefully rammed his metallic forearm right into Davoren's throat. The violent impact sent Davoren hurtling backwards through the air, until he crashed into a tree on the roadside. His whole back and head absorbed the brutal shock.

On the other hand, Vincent tumbled over several times to brake his mad speed, then somehow returned to his feet.

This last-ditch attack had only lasted a minute.

More stunned by the hard iron blow than anything else, Davoren slumped down against the tree, then hunched over. He rubbed his battered throat as his teeth grit themselves to repress a curse.

Suddenly, Davoren realized his gun had slipped out of his hands during the violent collision. Indeed, it lay rudely discarded in the wild shrubs some distance away. He instantly reached for his other gun (the silvery-grey one he had holstered inside his coat at the very beginning).

However, the gunman stopped short on noticing a gun pointed directly at his forehead. On looking up, Davoren met Vincent's cold, crimson eyes gazing emotionlessly down at him. The defeated man mechanically withdrew his arm from his trench coat down to his side.

Neither man spoke or flinched a muscle. One stood towering over his prisoner, the other sat humbly hunched over in submission.

A miracle. In one amazing sweep, Vincent had turned the tide to his favor. He himself scarcely understood how had managed such an insane feat, his body in such a battered state. Most likely, a devil had taken pity on him, and flew to his aid.

Now he had the enemy at gunpoint. Unlike last time, the weapon had bullets. Vincent certainly felt no hesitation or a twinge of compassion for his vanquished enemy. One shot would end this long, hectic battle. One shot, and this ghost would return to the dark past where he belonged.

Yes, one shot. However, Vincent had a better idea.

A wild stampeding of heavy boots and loud shouts quickly filled the air. At long last, Davoren's followers had arrived. Nevertheless, Vincent did not take his eyes off the prisoner or waver in his aim.

The three mercenaries soon emerged out of the black woodlands, having finally found the end to that arborous maze. With guns flashing, they skidded down the rocky slope until they reached the foot of the hillside.

On spotting their target standing some distance away, they all aimed their weapons, ready to open full fire with a string of curses. But instantly, they fell into an alarmed silence, and no man shot a single bullet. Their eyes widened in horrified disbelief.

And for a good reason too. They had noticed their leader slumped down infront of the enemy, disarmed, and at his total mercy.

Vincent cast an indifferent glance at the three men, who stupidly gawked back at him, unsure what to do. Davoren sat motionlessly without a word. He stared at the ground, his face devoid of any expression.

With such an unexpected turn of events, nobody breathed a word. Vincent now had the ace. He would decide the next move.

-End of Chp.40