I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.74

The gusty winds and loose stone whipped past Vincent. Next the disfigured monster flew in at a velocity which literally shred the floor in flaming-white aura. All of Hell's fire shone bright through those eyes. In slow motion, he seemed to ride the very wings of Satan.

But in reality, Hojo was there faster than lightning. From her place, Aeris gave a horrified "AH!" as the charging Professor, claws now fully contracted, took one swipe at his shocked enemy. Perhaps her cry awakened him. Somehow, Vincent broke free of paralysis to roll aside, escaping those five daggers with just a nicked sleeve.

Very, very close.

Vincent had to move even quicker now. By sheer reflex, he somersaulted backwards onto both feet, then sprang high up, one heartbeat before Hojo's other fist smashed full force upon the spot. Another close call.

But not one to be commended. Airborne through a gross oversight, Vincent realized that by avoiding one attack, he'd now opened himself to worse attacks from below. A blunder Hojo used only too readily.

He swung all weight round to deliver one brutal uppercut clean into Vincent's stomach. In return, Vincent retched a froth of blood. It felt like four sharp nails had gutted him clean through, jolting his skull down whilst his spine snapped upwards. Sensation was lost. He hardly felt Hojo launch the second blow: this time hard across his face. It sent him spiralling mad across the air, head so twisted aside, one wondered how his neck hadn't dislocated yet.

Vincent bounced off the stone floor like a rubber ball. He collided back-first into the balustrade at the edge of the arena with a resonant slam. Only then did the savage pain flood his nervous system. He fumbled dazedly. Everything swam around. Inside, he could hear the blood throbbing against his eardrums.

His instincts, however, remained strained alert. They blared warning of danger on a collision course... a collision he would not survive unless he acted NOW. Vincent obeyed without argument. He automatically gripped the railing behind, then flipped over this pivot point, just as the Professor came mowing through madder than a runaway bull.

Vincent lost his hold. Hojo didn't even try to dampen his own insane momentum. Over the brink both enemies tumbled at a complete loss for balance, into open space. As he whirled in mid-air, Vincent caught glimpse of a horror-stricken Aeris rush up towards the balustrade. Too late. He lost sight of her to the pit below, which yawned wide to welcome him. All sorts of structures arched across its magnificent diameter: pipelines, support girders roped in cables, and massive conduit systems.

Gravity reeled both demons straight through this metal network. But of the two, Vincent possessed better control thanks to his light weight. He spun himself right-side up, just in time to land safe upon the nearest pipeline. From there, he immediately hopped off onto a slanted girder below, slid along its length to another one further down, and so on; all with the perfect grace of a monkey. When far enough, Vincent landed on a stiff transport duct, and squatted in place.

He quickly scanned the terrain (or what little he could distinguish) Vincent soon deemed himself the only breathing soul here. In the darkness, this place resembled a floating graveyard of metal and entangled shadows.

He guessed he'd fallen quite some distance. Looking up, the platform seemed miles away. Down, the abyss stretched a thousand miles more. Far across on the opposite side, he noticed a vertical series of broad windows. They lined the pit's height all way downwards, between each pair an impudent ledge protruded out. A rather putrid yet familiar odour permeated the air. They must be near the Mako refinery centre.

Which raised a very important question: where was Professor Hojo?

He'd lost sight of him too during the fall. Nevertheless, Vincent stayed crouched in position. His suspicious glare searched around for any movement. The gun waited close by his sweaty face, ready to fire at the slightest provocation.

Nothing stirred.

It was the enemy's move. He knew Hojo lurked nearby. He could feel his skin crawl from the sheer presence this creature evoked.

The eerie tranquillity could have unnerved anyone. Longer and longer it extended. Vincent kept his focus cool, every sense sharpened to a knife's edge. Still nothing.

And supposing Hojo did attack. How would he retaliate? He wasn't exactly on even ground here. One slip and God knows where this void would end. Vincent reassessed the situation: he was marooned between earth and hell. Not good. Hojo had exchanged agility for size and strength. Even worse. Bullets had an effect on his "human" form. In fact, Vincent had wounded him at several vital points. But "Holocaust"? Vincent wasn't too sure.

Wonderful: all *he* had was this gun, a battered body with claw to match, and a stifling fever.

His thoughts returned to Aeris. During the entire battle, he'd avoided eye contact for fear of distraction. Not that he'd never sensed her turmoil. On the contrary. He's always felt it peck him from behind, most keenly when she begged him so pitifully not to continue.

Now the war had moved to lower grounds. Vincent didn't like leaving her alone. Then again, better her safe up there than down here. Last thing he needed was the double task of protecting her *and* fighting back. Experience had taught him well.

"But you know what I find even stranger, Mr. Valentine?" suddenly boomed a coarse, garbled voice from nowhere, "It's how passionate you've become about retrieving that Cetra-clone."

Vincent tensed: he hadn't expected the beast could actually speak as well as think.

"Heheh... but then, no surprise. We always seem to fight over the same woman, eh?"

Or indulge his sick humour. Vincent said nothing, nor was he the least bit amused. Instead, his stern eyes darted around this infernal webwork. Still, he could not determine Hojo's location, who after a long wait, finally snorted "Hmph! I hate it when you give me that 'silent treatment'. It is quite irritating."

At once, Vincent detected incoming at twelve o'clock sharp: down speared a swarm of long tentacles from high above. Each one saundered the girder more and more as their light-footed target manoeuvred in-between them. All until the hapless structure shattered to pieces.

Vincent leapt away onto some other beam before the duct collapsed, then landed on an entanglement of joists further below. His attention turned upwards: there he spotted a shapeless phantom whiz across from post to post.

Instinctively, he blasted full-fire at the enemy. The acoustics here made every gunshot sound triple loud, to the extent that he thought he'd go deaf. Yet for all the rounds wasted, only hollow echoes struck Professor Hojo. The nimble creature moved faster than Vincent could follow!

His alarm peaked maximum when Hojo, whilst dodging the gunfire, severed the supports off a heavy transport duct, thereby liberating it of all restraints. Vincent flipped to the next beam. The mangled piece of scrap smashed through, only to get lynched in more garbage and cablelines.

Another miss, but the diversion was perfect. Before Vincent could catch a single breath, Hojo eagerly clawed his way down the trunk of one girder, then dropped in for a personal visit.

Most unwelcome, to be sure. Trapped under, Vincent frantically sprang aside onto the oscillating mess of metal, after which the monster crashed feet-first on the spot. Vincent swung off, then landed safe on another girder below, only to make a break for it. The relentless monster immediately followed suit, unleashing a fresh battery of tentacles in the process.

The action spiralled downwards. Vincent found himself overwhelmed and outnumbered one to twenty: him against these tireless whips. Together, they played a deadly game. Worse, the stealthy Professor had used this opportunity to swoop in on Vincent's unprotected flank.

He didn't know *how* Hojo got there or how he even anticipated the incoming blow, but somehow Vincent managed to block those razor-sharp nails with his metal claw. Not the smartest move; Hojo's diabolical daggers easily shred five marks through that "shield", their brutality almost whiffing Vincent off both feet alongway.

At least he was still in one piece. Something Hojo would soon change unless he kept alert. Already, the scientist swished both elbow blades together like shears. Vincent ducked, then skittered away as those same blades, having failed, slashed straight down. Missed again. In desperation, Vincent kicked the lynched girder off balance. It violently teetered sideways, knocking the enemy backwards, but only enough to distract him. By then, Vincent had leapt still further down this jungle-gym. Exasperated, the Professor whisked after him.

Vincent's mind raced far ahead of him: what to do? Against Davoren, he could hold out his own for a good while. But Hojo? NOW? He wouldn't last one minute!

No indeed. Rather than continue this irksome farce, the insidious demon chose a more interesting alternative: aerial assault. Quickly, Hojo dropped onto a strategic beam-joist. He locked dead on the fleeing target below. With a mere flick of the wrist, a fiery torpedo of alien energy ignited out from his palm, whereby he spiked it downwards full-force.

The glaring comet wreaked havoc through the pit. Vincent heard its thunderous clamour, felt its heat burn upon his back, but knew better than to look up. He hopped down and down this metallic webwork in a race against time. Finally, when the countdown reached zero, he made a leap of faith high across the abyss... towards one of the stoic window ledges on the opposite side.

The chain of explosions sent vibration ten meters around. It spewed charred scrap and flames ten meters more. Vincent used this outward gust to fly him the rest of the way across. First came the shrapnel to blitz holy Hell through every glass pane. Next Vincent slammed against the ledge, right across the midgut with a hideous grunt.

The pit never appeared more terrifying than at that instant. He struggled, almost slipped, but clumsily vaulted onto the ledge again, breathless and dripping sweat.

Hojo of course realized his prey had eluded Death yet again. From his view high, high above, his harsh glare followed Vincent as he gathered himself up to safety. Nor was the latter oblivious to that fact. However, the blast had destroyed the duct network. Between them gaped a distance at least fifty feet long. It would take the enemy some time to find stable passage down the wreckage.

Meanwhile, Vincent beat a hasty retreat.

He clambered in through one of the broken windows. He tumbled back-over into a narrow corridor, upon a tile floor strewn in glass shards and debris. But he was too flustered to notice pain right now. The wounded man scuffled away to find shelter. Anything that could conceal him would do!

He knew not where he was or went. He didn't care. Vincent arbitrarily dodged around one entrance. He fumbled his way past a room crowded with crates and delivery parcels, down the next passageway, then onto a haunted atrium. He searched around, dizzy, lost. First thing he saw was some large modern sculpture posed in one corner.

Good enough. Vincent took immediate refuge behind this dusty piece of art. There, he dropped down, and slumped aside against its steel base, not just for support, but to hold his scattered thoughts together.

So what now? The Professor was on the hunt for him. His power exceeded far beyond Davoren's, beyond anything Vincent had ever encountered. And here he sat huddled up, alone, like a trapped rat.

With each gulp of air, he winced in agony. It hurt to think. It hurt to breathe. Vincent clutched his tight chest, and hunched over to further ease respiration. More sweat trickled down. Thus far, he'd managed to repress the fit. But he was losing this battle too. Inside, he could feel it gaining ground. Time was running out.

What now? Any ideas? At least a dozen sprouted up, all useless or unsatisfactory. Transform? Surrender his mind Chaos? No. Too dangerous. More dangerous than *now*? He wouldn't risk it in closed space, not with Aeris somewhere in the Reactor. Yes, Chaos was THAT destructive.

Well then, Vincent mocked himself, you'd better think up something fast. Otherwise, we're screwed.

Spoken plain and true. The options chased each other in ceaseless circles, which only brought a scowl to his face: what *could* he do? Just how long did he think he could hide before the Professor found him? So, what to do?

I don't know, dammit! he snapped.

Then what? Rot here until Hojo finds you? Fight? What should we do?

So what now, Vincent?

She's crying for you...can you hear her?

No. You never came... when she was crying...you never came..

What now? ....are you afraid?....

Vincent forcefully, almost angrily, shook off this nonsensical flutter. No. He would not panic. He would not submit to fear. That was one advantage he's never grant the enemy.

Rather than dwell on internal matters, Vincent looked around; perhaps to discover something of use. Nothing outstanding presented itself, at least nothing he could find.

Wherever he was, it sure was not Reactor premises. It appeared to be the reception hall to some sort of multiplex. An enormous multiplex. From this central area, several wings spread out towards obscurity. Vincent looked up. The atrium reached high up, past three floors of glazed windows, into the void above.

Just then, Vincent noticed a very, very familiar sign emblazoned like a star on the front wall. Yes, he certainly remembered ShinRa Inc.'s impressive trademark logo. But what captured his interest was the rectangular gold plaque fitted smugly beneath.

It read: ShinRa Incorporated Advanced Science and Technology Research Centre. Then in smaller inscription: AdM306-security ID card required- unauthorised personnel strictly forbidden.

He recognized "AdM306". It was the standard code ShinRa Inc. bestowed on high-class places of restricted access. Vincent studied that plaque again, this time quite morbidly.

No mistake. He'd taken the "express route" into ShinRa's secret laboratory.

He felt a peculiar chill tingle his spine. Here stood one of ShinRa's buried legacies. Here it was meant to happen; the genesis of a God... a new, perfected Sephiroth.

A vision burnt in smoke. Only a wasted madman remained alive, twisted inside out from love of a life-long dream.

Vincent lingered upon a particular realisation: himself, Davoren, the lunatic Rufus and the Professor. Strange how each man seemed shackled to the past. Their bodies were here, but their minds always drifted behind... so fixated upon a face, an emotion, or an ambition. They lived within their own shells. To them, the world inside was more real than outside. In a way, Vincent could even empathize with Hojo's desperation.

The present, however, yanked him back to keen awareness: he'd distinctly detected something slink its way towards this hall.

It hadn't taken Hojo long to sniff out his trail. And no doubt would take him less time to find him. After all, this was *his* turf.

Such a dire emergency mobilised Vincent to action. He scrambled away from the sculpture to hide behind that broad reception desk on the other end of the atrium. Maybe he could throw Hojo off the scent a while longer, at least until he devised some plan!

He huddled in the blackest corner, next to a heap of abandoned crates. Here darkness obscured him to shadow. Vincent kept himself low and on full alert.

Silence weighed a ton upon the air. Time languished second by second, tick by tock, still nothing emerged. From afar though, if one pricked up his ears sharp enough, faint shuffles could be heard to approach. Soon, they evolved into heavy, slow footsteps.

Just listening to them wound Vincent's nerves tighter. Much to his annoyance, he noticed the gun shaking slightly within his grip- like some damn rookie, he frowned.

Closer and louder until at long last, the ominous footsteps reached the hall. There was a brief pause of movement. Vincent daren't twitch a single muscle fibre, never mind take a peak. He could just imagine the silhouette of Hojo poised at the entrance, glaring around in deep mistrust. Vincent heard a low-pitched growl float overhead, then the footsteps entered, this time deliberate.

Breathing was stifled mute. From his place behind the desk, Vincent discerned the shrewd predator prowl about for a fresh trace. He tensed further as he saw Hojo's irregular shadow slide across the marble floor. Luckily, he wandered away again.

So Vincent would wait... then what? Every minute passed brought him closer to discovery. He had to do *something*! But what? If he was physically outmatched, how on earth could he fight when...

Amidst this futile debate, his eyes happened to stray towards the boxes dumped nearby. One such container sat wide open. Inside there huddled some dusty flasks, each one filled with liquid and sealed. Vincent just barely made out the label on the crate.

He was no chemist, but he definitely recognized hazardous acid; concentrated no less. These delivery boxes must have been left unprocessed shortly before the Reactor's closure.

It all depended on his own gun skills. Since he hadn't much else to trust in right now, Vincent accepted the gamble. Quickly yet very, very cautiously, the desperate man slipped three flasks out of the shipment box. He secured them in-between his claw-fingers, and drew up the gun in rigid anticipation.

All set.

Timing. Timing mattered most. He heard the Professor give a snort, and probe towards one corner. Only then did Vincent steal a peak over the tabletop. He perceived Hojo over there, busy inspecting the sculpture, or rather the curious trail of blood on the floor. For one moment, his attention was diverted aside.


Vincent suddenly sprang up to both feet again, at the same time hurtling the chemical arsenal full-swing towards the astounded Professor. Hojo instantly whirled round to encounter this brazen attack; but not before Vincent aimed his gun upwards: he blasted the flasks one-two-three as they came spinning high over Hojo's head.

Perfect sharp-shooting. For a second, the shocked scientist did not realize, did not even feel the acid and glass fragments shower his torso, face, and limbs. He was still midway around when it splashed full into his left eye. Only then did he awaken to a pain grisly beyond any possible description.

The wrathful creature wailed outloud to shake the Heaven's above. He staggered aside in feral disorientation, snarling, rubbing his eye whilst his burnt flesh began to fume. By instinct, the enraged demon unleashed an indiscriminate barrage of energy blasts; if not to kill his assailant, then push him far back.

Madness flew about. Vincent, no less alarmed, rolled out into the open, after which a stray missile blitzed his shelter apart. Shaken but unharmed, he bolted towards one of the giant pillars across the battlefield. From there, he readily returned fire with the exact intentions as Hojo. One bullet after another, no pause in-between. The ruthless hailstorm pelted Hojo back and back again. He couldn't fight Vincent and the pain at the same time.

Flummoxed, overwhelmed, Professor Hojo swung one arm all-way back to deliver a massive counter-offence. Energy particles immediately gathered in his broad palm, whereby he sent this charged trajectory in the direction of his adversary. Vincent deemed it best to huddle away. Just as well. He'd run out of ammo.

In spiralled an energy wave on an uncontrollable destruction spree. It collided head-on into the front wall, against the ShinRa logo with an earth-shaking explosion. Vincent protected his head as rubble and iron scrap came crashing around.

He remained thus another minute or so; that is until he realized the bombardment had ceased. Vincent raised his head again, slightly puzzled. He waited just to make sure all had settled, then peaked around the devastated pillar: no sign of Hojo anywhere.

He staggered out into the silent warzone. From the looks of things, Professor Hojo must have retreated during the anarchy, probably to tend his wounds, or reassess his strategy. At least that gave him some breathing space.

In any case, Vincent was stuck here. Unlike the Professor, he knew nothing of this laboratory's layout. And he obviously could not retrace his original route. So, he'd just have to find his own way out, and back to Aeris.

By random choice, Vincent selected the East Wing. It didn't really matter. The lab was interconnected. If he didn't meet Hojo first, then Hojo would surely find him. Either way, their paths would clash again before the night was through. The question was: when?

Vincent reloaded his gun, when he noticed the bloody gash across his arm. But then, he hadn't time for that. Onwards he limped into the lion's den.

-End of Chp.74