I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.43

In his moment of triumph, Davoren smiled to himself in delicious self-satisfaction. Playful malice lit up his pink, evil eyes.

"Ah! So there you are, my dear!" he greeted amicably.

Aeris stood some distance away from these men, rooted by a stout, knotted tree along the roadside. The feeble lamp light fell on her face and figure, while the surroundings remained in pitch darkness.

She did not speak, but gasped hard for air, at the same time trying to repress her tears. Evidently, she had flown here at top speed; small beads of perspiration gently trickled down her forehead; her bosom heaved up and down.

Her whole face expressed painful distress, if not tumultuous horror, as she stood witness to this brutal scene. Both fear and alarm had gathered into her green, tearful eyes. A pink flush coloured her cheeks, making her appear quite distraught but all the more beautiful. She trembled non-stop.

Without a doubt, this horrible gunman terrorized her to the bottom of her heart. Nevertheless, she faced him fully, eyes anxiously fixed on his.

It took Vincent a long moment to realize that Aeris had actually returned instead of escaping as believed. Still pinned flat under Davoren's foot, he stared in disbelief at the shaking girl. All his muscles had frozen solid. He hardly noticed the terrible pain clawing his lungs. Indeed, this new shock had struck him dumb.

Davoren, on the other hand, stood triumphant over his prize catch, one foot riveted into Vincent's back, the gun unmistakably aimed at the man's head. The calm yet smug look on his face gave him a most sinister appearance, especially with his black trench coat dirtied and tattered from the previous battle.

The three mercenaries, much impressed with their leader's incredible foresight, lingered behind in a forced silence. Each man eyed the distressed girl too curiously, with an inane smirk or meaningful nudge to his comrade. Their guns were lowered, their demeanor at total ease.

The heavy silence endured for a whole, painful minute.

"Heh! All this time, you had the perfect opportunity to escape. Now if you had run away, I wouldn't have been able to find you again," Davoren laughed. He lifted his foot from Vincent's back, then scraped the dirty sole of his shoe into the man's head, "But then, I knew you'd never tear yourself away from Mr. Valentine. Well, I'm not complaining! You sure saved me the trouble of searching for you all over again."

Aeris clasped her hands over her heart, but said nothing.

"Now then. Let's get down to business, shall we?" invited the cruel gunman. He stepped away from his fallen victim.

Grabbing Vincent by the collar, Davoren roughly yanked him off the stony ground. He held him upright from behind, so that poor Aeris could behold "her guardian" in his worst state.

Vincent had no choice but to succumb to this rough treatment. The fever, dizziness, injuries, and nausea had wrecked him to the brink of unconsciousness. If Davoren had released him at that moment, he would have undoubtedly collapsed down like a rock. Coarse gasps escaped his raging chest. He felt so weak, so heavy.

Yet Vincent still stared fixedly at Aeris as though she were a ghost. The girl, however, avoided his look at any cost. It seemed all her painful misery might explode if she ever met his eyes.

Davoren waited another moment before suddenly yanking Vincent slightly to the side, so that Aeris could now see him too. The gunman still kept a tight grip on his prisoner, holding him close from behind to prevent any escape.

Vincent hung by the collar without a breath of resistance; he had none to offer.

"Y'know, I've just about had to with this guy," Davoren remarked playfully, "I've been trying to kill him all night, and haven't quite succeeded yet. I certainly didn't expect Mr. Valentine to survive this long, especially in his sick condition."

Saying that, Davoren shoved his gun into the back of Vincent's head, then cocked it loudly. Aeris gave a horrified start, nearly crying out something.

"I suppose now that I have the chance, I should just finish off this tedious business. It'll only take one bullet," the gunman joked, all the more amused by her frightened reaction.

Aeris' ordeal only grew worse.

"But instead, we'll compromise and save each other the heartache: if you surrender without any fuss or tears, I'll spare Vincent's life. I won't release him; the Professor still wants him, but I will not kill him."

The proposal frightened the poor girl. She cringed a step back in spite of herself.

"You come over here quietly, everything will be nicey-nice. You refuse, we'll shed more blood, and it'll only be Vincent's," Davoren warned sternly on noticing her hesitation. He pressed the muzzle further into Vincent's head, "Trust me, girl. If I shed his blood, it'll be all over this park in one long, messy streak."

Vincent angrily scoffed under his breath at this "compromise". Aeris could not speak.

"His precious life rests in your hands, my dear," concluded the gunman icily, "It's all up to you now. You decide."

A long, stiff silence followed.

All eyes rested on poor, tearful Aeris. The girl stood alone, overwhelmed by fear and wretched anguish. She stared so imploringly at the gunman. She silently begged for pity, even a tinge of compassion, in her distress.

Yet she found nothing save ruthless cruelty in those gleaming pink eyes. Davoren gazed back at her with icy sternness, unmoved by her pleading look. He had dictated the terms, and would not on any account have them otherwise.

He held Vincent upright, the gun stubbornly fixed against the man's numb head. His finger twitched on the trigger: that threat had been no idle bluff; he would shoot if need be.

Aeris dropped her miserable green eyes to the ground. She still made no reply, nor did anyone interrupt her lonely moment of despair. Here she stood at the crossroads, which path to choose? Her freedom, or his life?

Trapped in this choking grip, Vincent could only await Aeris' choice in anxious anticipation. He found it impossible to breathe. The fit mercilessly tore his ravaged chest from one side, this prolonged silence from another.

He didn't want to hear her say it. Whatever happened, he did not want to hear her say.....

"...if I surrender...you...you won't kill him..?" Aeris asked quietly all of a sudden.

On hearing her, a painfully intense emotion seized Vincent by the heart. His eyes froze on the girl's face. To contrast, Davoren smiled victoriously.

"I won't," he reassured.

"You swear...*swear* you won't kill him?" insisted the suspicious girl, looking him straight in the eye, but herself looking so frightened, "You'll just...stop all of this...you won't kill him... if I let you take me?"

Davoren's wry smile twisted into an evil grin.

"You have my word of honour as a gentleman. I will not kill him," he promised. The malice blazed ever so viciously in his bright eyes.

For one moment, the two dealers gazed intently at each other. Aeris stared at the gunman, who kept a firm hold on Vincent while patiently awaiting her final consent. The three mercenaries still lingered behind. They chuckled under their breath or smacked their lips in delight: the victory grew sweeter every minute!

Vincent only stared at her in suppressed silence, as a prisoner awaiting his death sentence.

At last, the girl decided.

Crushed to total desperation, Aeris heaved a most pitiful sigh to the heavens above, then hung her head. Slowly, she stepped towards the gunman. She had surrendered.

The violent emotion swelled further inside of Vincent. He tore his eyes away, then bowed his head down in silent resentment. The dangling hair strands obscured his face in shadow.

Aeris walked straight to captivity. She crossed the gravel road without looking at anyone. Both hands rested on her bosom.

Davoren watched her approach until she stopped only three steps away, exactly infront of him. He looked her top to bottom, then let his evil pink eyes linger on her tearful but lovely face.

"There now. You're a good girl," he praised, quite pleased with her choice. He did not lower his gun or release his victim.

Aeris stood petrified in her spot. Her eyes, a green ocean of sorrow, remained lowered. The gunman had her now, trembling, helpless, and completely under his control.

Vincent neither spoke nor lifted his head. He was silent.

The victorious Davoren nodded behind towards one of the men, to the one with the rather large, muscular build. Instantly, the mercenary marched over behind Aeris, and dropped both heavy paws on her shaking shoulders. The poor girl only squeezed her eyes shut. She did not resist.

After a long, hard battle, the mission was done. The two had finally been captured without a hope of escape.

"I'm touched by your sacrifice, my dear," Davoren admired, his voice dripping in venomous mockery, "You've fought so hard to escape the Professor. And all this time, you've managed to stay out of his reach."

A bitter sob escaped the hapless girl, but she immediately pressed her hands over her mouth to suppress it.

"And yet, she'd return to all of that just for *you*," marveled Davoren amusedly. He jerked the morose Vincent closer, "Ah! What a soft-hearted little darling she is to trade herself for your life, Mr. Valentine."

No reply; only a contemptuous silence.

The three mercenaries burst into coarse laughter. They praised Lady Luck to the skies, and cheered themselves for a victory well-earned (even though Davoren had fought the most). Nevertheless, the gunman chuckled in with them, far more composed but equally as pleased at the outcome. After all, they had won.

Aeris kept her head bowed in total submission amidst this rowdy rejoicing. However, on sensing a pair of burning eyes pierce into her, she peeked up. She discovered Vincent gazing so fixedly at her face. He had lifted his head again.

A most peculiar fire set his deep crimson eyes ablaze. His expression was hard and ice-cold, as if chiseled from marble.

He had dived straight back into this desperate battle for her sake. He had fought all night long against so many enemies, himself sinking into this weak, wasted state. All his strength and concentration had been expended to buy her time to escape, even at the risk of his own life.

And after all of that, she still returns? After all that sweat and blood, she openly surrenders herself, and right infront of him no less?

Suddenly, the red flame in Vincent's eyes burst into rage.

"...forgive me, Aeris," he apologized coldly, "but....I don't want your sacrifice!!"

A demonic power exploded inside of him, far too fast for anyone to even expect it. Even Davoren was caught off guard.

Regardless of the gun or this tight captivity, Vincent forcefully rammed his whole elbow back into Davoren's stomach. The gunman instantly doubled over in sharp pain, stunned by the powerful (and most unexpected) blow. Vincent immediately followed up the attack. In one violent motion, he swung his full metal claw around, right against the side of Davoren's head.

The astonished gunman staggered sideways against the heavy blow. With one forceful yank, Vincent tore himself free of the grip, at the same time snatching Davoren's gun from his own hand. So swiftly, without hesitation, he swung around, and opened fire.

Vincent shot Davoren's head, neck, and heart point blank in one deadly sweep. The entire breakout, start to finish, had only lasted an unbelievable five seconds.

Vincent did not bother to see Davoren stumble violently backwards then crash to the ground, nor would he wait for the thunderstruck mercenaries to react. In the blink of an eye, he reached for the astonished Aeris, who shrieked on being so roughly yanked forward. At the very same instant the girl was snatched, the mercenary behind her was shot twice, both times through the skull.

"AARGH!!! YOU DAMN BASTARD!!!" roared one mercenary wildly. The two men opened full fire in a mad frenzy.

As quickly as he had pulled her forth, Vincent ruthlessly shoved Aeris far away from himself. He instantly dodged the crazy gunfire by rolling over to the opposite side. His agility was unreal, as if possessed by the maddest demon. Vincent immediately recovered his balance, and returned fire before either enemy realized it.

He killed another mercenary on the second shot, but hit the last man's arm when suddenly, the gun ran out of bullets. Vincent spat out an angry curse: not only had the ammo finished, but his eyesight had deteriorated; he had initially aimed for that mercenary's head, not arm.

Vincent instantly reacted without even thinking. Mustering all his strength into one final effort, he hurtled the useless weapon straight at the screaming, wounded mercenary. The gun spun wildly through the air, where it flew like a bullet into the man's face, right against his forhead. The violent blow sent the last enemy sprawling onto the ground. He tumbled over, then lay face down on the ground. He did not move anymore.

It had all happened so quickly.

Aeris, who had huddled down on the ground during this brutal shoot-out, lifted her head again. She found four dead bodies scattered around, with Vincent the victor of this bloodbath.

Yet he didn't wait a moment to catch his breath, not even to wipe the sweat off his face. After killing the last mercenary, Vincent immediately dashed towards the girl. Without stopping, he swept Aeris off the ground, then slung her over his shoulder. He happened to spot his own gun discarded on the way. He snatched it up while running at top speed.

Vincent rushed through the park. Black shadows, twisted and horrible, zipped by. The roads wound into an endless maze, under arbors or snaking around thick undergrowths.

Nevertheless, he kept up the mad pace without thought or heed. Vincent dived through the darkest paths possible, trampling straight through brittle bushes or staggering over sharp stones. He never slowed down, not even a step.

Slung thus over his shoulder, Aeris could hear the fit inside ravage his wasted lungs to pieces. On the other hand, Vincent hardly took notice of the violent pain. He seemed to derive all his furious strength and speed from a demon within. Hard stubbornness, if not sheer anger, separated him from unconsciousness. He only saw the escape route, and would not be thwarted.

The run lasted an unbearable eternity, down narrow pathways, through a labyrinth of forests, until suddenly it all ended. Vincent fled through the main gateway straight across the empty street, where he dodged into the blackest, dingiest alley he found.

They had escaped the park at last.

-End of Chp.43