I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.69

Time froze in the dead of silence.

One sentence. Five words, yet they pierced clean to the inner most core. Davoren stood there solid, too petrified to even breathe. Around him swirled a whirlwind of raw emotions no mind could grasp.

That man was your brother.

His eyes gaped wide. The words still echoed through his stunned ears. Across the bridge, Vincent stood stone-rigid. The unexpected blow had struck him dumb, rendering him unable to gather his scattered thoughts. Rufus lingered behind no less shocked. Of all bombshells, this one caused the most horror.

That man was your brother.

"..you lie," Davoren's voive rasped out dryly.

"No," insisted Hojo, "Your full name is Davoren J. Murdock, correct? That man was a Turk too. His name was Donal J. Murdock."

"You lie!!" he thundered back. Anger and fear strained his face tight. "My brother disappeared on an escort mission to Wutai! They never found his body, but-"

"Oh, is that what they told you? Here, let me enlighten you!" exclaimed the professor with such mockery, it scathed Davoren back to silence. "Yes, your brother was sent to Wutai. However, it was planned on a certain night, he would be abducted, and smuggled back to Midgar. He was brought to another lab facility, actually. There, I conducted all neccessay experiments on him."

Davoren could have denied it..shut his ears and ran far away. But the ugly eyes of truth gaped into his, and he could not budge. Terror slowly tangled his mind. The story awakened him from one nightmare to a reality far worse.

He faltered anxiously, "..and President ShinRa..knew of this all along..?"

"Of course!" Hojo brushed the stupid question aside, "He sent him to Wutai and masterminded the whole set-up."

Davoren did not need to hear the answer. He already understood: President ShinRa had played him for a fool, and he never realized it until this moment.

In the background, Vincent stood suppressed under stern anger, listening to this infamy. The conspiracy all wove into one cloth: Professor Hojo had required two male human test subjects. The President complied, and his choice fell on his two best Turks. But first, Hojo requested a "dummy" specimen for practice (as if this were a game!) Any female specimen would have been inappropriate, so Cindy was overlooked. That foreigner Turk, Gerald, was excluded too. Probably, the President feared his disappearance might spark some international investigation, and that would jeapordize their plans.

So, he gave Donal to Professor Hojo. And once Vincent was accepted into the ranks, The President decided to give both him and Davoren to the experiment.

"He was quite young as I recall!...around the boy's age, hm?" declared Hojo, nodding once towards a very troubled Rufus.

Davoren emplity stared back. He could barely keep steady anymore, let alone find the strength to speak.

Which pleased the Professor quite well. He rubbed his chin, all the while sneering at the speechless Davoren. "I remember him because he raved so much during the tests...it was quite incredible. Yes, he became hysterical and cried. He struggled non-stop. I even had to keep him drugged the whole time. But despite that, he always screamed out some name...probably yours."

The joke was too delicious. Hojo gave one insolent guffaw. "But of course, you never knew that! You still thought he was somewhere in Wutai!! HA HA!!"

Vincent grit his teeth. Inside, he seethed on the verge of strangling this creature, if only to silence him: he had revealed many outrageous truths, but *this* was simply going too far!

Davoren had endured many, many attacks. They battered his body and tore his clothes, but none of them pained him as much as this one detail: that his brother had cried out for him, and he did not know.

He had been blind to not see the truth. He had been deaf for not hearing Donal's wail. Now he stood there in a stupor; the ridicule of Professor Hojo and every ghost around, including President ShinRa's.

"Then..is..is Donal alive?" the desperate man asked hoarsly.

Hojo measured up Davoren bottom to top, just a final look before he'd quash him flat. He couldn't wipe that insufferable grin off his wrinkled face.

"Answer me, damn you! Is my brother ALIVE?!"

"No. When I finsihed the tests and gathered the results, I killed him. His body was destroyed."

Silence again. Davoren's ghastly-pale face showed how deep the words had stabbed him: straight into an open wound. Pain and grief gushed out until it flooded his entire soul. He began to tremble. His eyes, haggard and wide, gazed beyond the Professor, beyond the darkness. What did he see?

Could he see Donal there, looking back at him? In that glazed stare, what horrors were recounted?

Donal...you are a restless soul that forever haunts your brother. Were you abducted from your bed in the dead of the night? While you lay on the operation table, under the tortures of a black demon, how often did you cry for your brother? You must have been cold, frightened, and so alone. You must have suffered terribly...it showed in your sad eyes.

And what could Davoren hear in this deathly stillness? His brother's painful screams, calling out him name? Hojo's cackle, or President ShinRa stuffing his head with lies?

He knew everything. But what did that matter now? The truth had emerged thirty-one years too late.

"..y-y'know..," Davoren faltered, "..I..I raised Donal..ever since he was a little child. He was more than my family...he was literally my whole life."

His tremulous voice dropped to a bitter whisper coiled in heartache, "And I did love him...I loved him *so* much. There was nothing I wouldn't do, even sacrifice myself a thousand times for him."

The man spoke in a daze, more to himself than anyone else. Hojo was totally uninterested in this display. Vincent, on the other hand, listened in tense thoughtfullness; he sensed Davoren's turmoil rise within himself, growing sharper by the moment.

"I served President ShinRa all those years...took his orders-kill, threaten-anything! And you..," he turned to Professor Hojo, bewildered, "..you were under my nose all along..and t-then..after you altered my body, I became your slave.."

Hojo only squared his shoulders in cold scorn. The boy, overcome by anxiety, watched this tragedy without a word.

"And now..after all these years..you tell me it was you?" In all his life, Davoren never looked more crushed as he asked "You took my brother..m..murdered him for an experiment. All this time I served you both, I was actually serving his murderers?"

There was no need to reply. For a moment, Davoren lost himself in a tempest. The fierce winds tossed him around so many emotions. They strained his eyes to an unnatural pink brillinace.

Maybe he still saw Donal there. Maybe he felt the mockery shred him to pieces. But this truth, the simplest one of all, hurt the most: all this time, he had been serving his brother's murderers.

The strain tightened and tightened until suddenly, the chord snapped. Davoren's face uplifted to a weak, derranged smile.

"Heh..heheh..I..heheh..," he simpered in madness, "..I find that v-very.. funny... heheheh.."

He began to chuckle. Soon, the chuckle erupted into loud, delirious laughter. It rattled his frame until tears streamed down. The demented man couldn't stop. He laughed harder and harder, even staggered back from the intenisty.

Sense was lost. Davoren didn't even seem aware of his surroundings anymore.

They all beheld the madman from afar. Hojo hardly flinched a reaction. Poor Rufus seemed ready to rush forward, but Davoren's crazed appearance kept him well behind. Vincent's face darkened to solemnity. If anyone, he felt that anguish best behind Davoren's laughter. It was so similar to his own: something horrible carved into their consciousness. A burden without release.

The burden suddenly became too heavy. Davoren collapsed hard to his knees and hunched over, where the maniacal laughter dissolved into bitter, hard-grit sobs. Here sat the most pitiful sight of all: the sight of a helpless man reduced to tears.

He had served his brother's murderers. He had served his brother's murderers. Donal had screamed out for him...

..and Davoren had served both his murderers.

Everyone saw the truth tear him inside out. Over and over it stabbed him until all grief exploded to the Heavens above. "MY GOD, DONAL!! WHAT HAVE I DONE?!! WHAT HAVE I-UGH!!"

It struck dead-on. The attack pierced straight through Davoren's lungs, catching that desperate wail midway in his throat. Much to Vincent's and Rufus' alarm, the man instantly doubled over against a severe coughing fit. In truth, Professor Hojo had grown weary of this woeful scene.

"Tsk! for shame, Davoren," he scolded with arms crossed, "A grown man over sixty, throwing a tantrum like a six year old child."

Vincent's muscles stiffened. An imminent disaster rang through the air.

Davoren struggled to breathe, but hacked out a spume of blood instead. He convulsed at a loss for voice and strength, pinned prisoner beneath Hojo's glare. It seemed Hojo posessed greater power over the gunman. Indeed, his fit reached such ferocity, Vincent even felt it nibble at his own chest.

"This is the thanks I get for saving your measly life," regretted the callous scientist, "Ungrateful git! If it wasn't for me, you'd have-"

No more degredation. Davoren angirly cut him short by slamming his hand against the floor, all in a feeble attempt to rise. Despite the agony and through his tears, he growled out forcefully "I would rather...burn in Hell..than owe my life to YOU!!"

The spiteful declaration won the monster's contempt. He scoffed back, "Then you can consider your wish granted!"

The punishment was gruesome death, no heistation or mercy. In one swift movement, Hojo swung round one arm in deadly grace. A fiery-green blaze immediately swallowed his whole hand, sparking wild flames all about. His glare caught the target in sight. Next blink, and he hurtled this massive alien energy straight at the helpless gunman, just as Rufus cried, "DAVOREN!!" in wild alarm.

Davoren simply blanked out.

Vincent, however, reacted on sheer impulse. One split-moment before Hojo fired, he shoved the boy far back out of danger, at the same time dashing forth at a phenomenal speed, past the scientist, straight down the bridge. He forgot his wounds and weakness for demonic momentum. Right now, all focus riveted on reaching Davoren in time.

The mega-blast wreaked havoc hot upon Vincent's heels, roaring destruction as it tore the floor apart. Still, Vincent led the race. Faster and faster, until at last he dove head-in for the stunned gunman. He miraculously swept Davoren aside, just before the chaos screamed by in disappointment. Instead, it collided into the slope of debris just ahead.

Vincent suddenly lost hold of events. A thunderous boom deafened his ears. He felt a hurricane force blow him away, where his shoulder broke through a hard barrier. Nevertheless, he held tightly onto Davoren. They seemed to plunge down in slow motion. A rain of debris surrounded them. Dazed, Vincent somehow looked up. He saw the bridge grow farther and farther.

He understood: that explosion had blasted them both through the balustrade, right off the bridge.

Rufus had witnessed the disaster from afar. He could not contain his deep-shaken terror. At once, he scrambled to his feet again and rushed aside to the balustrade, almost tumbling as he leaned far over the rail. There, he caught a brief glimpse of the two figures plummet like dead weights down into the abyss. Darkness swallowed them, and they were gone.

The explosion died to an echo. Soon, an uneasy silence befell the air again. The end of the bridge groaned in devestation, its unfortunate floor driven apart all way downwards. A break in the now mangled balustrade marked where Vincent had crashed through just moments ago, along with Davoren.

Rufus stood lost in frantic perturbation. He still stared wide into the black pit. He waited for a miracle, but the hollow wind of nothingness only answered back. All hopes sunk until at last, his head bowed to the worst. His loose hair fell infront of his face.

Hojo lingered some distance ahead. He only graced the abyss with one contemptuous glance. He was not too pleased with this twist, much less with Vincent's herosim (or stupidity). Rather, he viewed matters the practical way: he had lost two specimens, and could not retieve them.

His shrewd gaze eventually fell on Rufus. "Well, boy. Looks like it is just you and me."

The boy heard him. His jaw tightened as both hands gripped the railing harder. Inside, Rufus seemed to battle a surge of hot anger.

"..you'll pay for that," he hissed out.

The scientist only lifted one quizzical eyebrow.

Rufus wheeled around to confront Hojo eye-to-eye, himself so enraged by what this man had done. "I..I don't know how..but I swear, Professor, I'll make you pay DEARLY for that!"

"You're hardly in any postion to threaten ME, boy," rebuffed Hojo, not at all amsused by such boldness. "Huh! My, how the mighty have fallen. You're just a harmless insect now."

Rufus' face darkened to hateful scowl. Those words, though jeering, made him too aware of his present situation: he was alone against this monster. A lot of good anger would do if he could not act. So, he awaited his fate under silent tension.

"I saved you from that explosion, but you don't even know *why* I bothered," Hojo spoke coolly. "You hold..or rather, held the key to the experiment's success. But still, you don't know why I needed you."

Rufus glared back in suspicion. Indeed, he did not know.

"I needed you...for this."

In announcing that, the Professor reached for his labcoat pocket, and carefully pulled out a small orb. It shimmered a hazy aquatic-blue. A treasure smaller than his palm, Hojo held it out for Rufus to wonder at.

The boy gazed upon this strange orb in a whirl of confusion and dread. But somehow, the glow seemed familiar, like a magical light he had met before.

"..ma..teria..?" Rufus faltered amazedly. He looked to Hojo for an immediate explanation.

Too bad Hojo would not provide any. He retracted the orb back into his long, curled fingers.

"It's a waste explaining anything to a miserable runt like you," slowly, Hojo began to advance forward. "Now then, I could kill you," he checked that thought, "..on the other hand, I will be needing new test subjects since the original two have been lost."

The evil words chilled Rufus to paleness; they held only one meaning. He could not move, not even as Professor Hojo suddenly lunged in like a cobra for its prey. In this madness, all he could do was raise both arms infront of his face, and squeeze his eyes shut.

Something fast whiffed infront of him. Rufus heard a rough grunt as two bodies collided into each other, one strength against another. But it wasn't him. On opening his confused eyes again, Rufus found a man, tall and quite muscular, had intercepted the attack.

"R-Rude?!" he gasped in astonsihment.

"Get outta here!" the man forced through gnashed teeth.

Rude held off the flabbergasted Hojo as if holding back a crushing wall. He focused all his main power into one shoulder. Sweat poured down. If he could not push Hojo back, he'd certainly not let him advance another inch.

In the end, Hojo broke off, more exasperated by this unexpected interference than anything else. He skid back a short distance, glaring straight at this stern-faced man. Though obviously outmatched, Rude took his stand firm infront of the bewildered boy, ready for another confrontation if need be.

However, the next attack came from behind. Professor Hojo suddenly discerned a presence sneak up, but not fast enough as the charged nightstaff hammered in three mighty jabs across his back. Reno did not wait. At once, he slipped the staff around Hojo's neck, and shoved it up his throat like a crossbar. He used both hands to hold the monster back against himself.

"Go on, kid! Run for it!!" Reno yelled as Hojo began a violent struggle.

Rufus was double stunned, "But..!"

"Urgh! Dammit!! I can't hold him back like this forev-"

No, indeed. Hojo had tolerated enough nonsense: infuriated beyond words, he grabbed Reno hard by the head, then literally flung him clear across the bridge, if only to be rid of him. The poor man tumbled over, but somehow recovered again; just in time to anticipate an angry Hojo lunge in at him for a follow-up.

Inbetween these wild moments, Rude managed to forcefully push the boy away with a loud "JUST GO!!". Before Rufus even realized it, he found himself rushing at top speed, through the main entrance, and into the shadows. Far behind, he heard the clash of a desperate battle errupt.

It seemed Lady Luck had protected these two ex-Turks after all. During that collapse, they had managed to flee a long way, almost to the end of the labyrinth, when they fell prisoners. By miracle, the walls and ceiling buckled together in such a way, it left them trapped alive in a pocket of air. From there onwards, they had dug their way to freedom: tore at stone, crawled through tight crevices (with Reno using every curse known), until at last, they emerged into the open.

Unfortunately, they had to make their way around the destroyed Delivery Centre in search of the other two men. On hearing that explosion, they had rushed here, Rude in time to save the boy, and Reno to initiate the offense. They jumped from one disaster into an all-out war; from the frying pan straight into the fire.

No one could deny their bravery or loyalty. But soon..very soon...they'd discover neither quality, just like themselves, could stand up much against Hojo.

-End of Chp.69