I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.75

Under the arched entrance, the path stretched down a long, broad corridor. Vincent made his way through a thick drapery of darkness. He crept along the wall as stealthily as a cat, too wary of this tomb-like tranquillity. It made his cautious footsteps sound quite loud.

The laboratory struck him as a curious blend between a hospital and factory. ShinRa Inc. had clearly invested considerable capital into this centre. One only had to appreciate the vastness of this multiplex, with its chambers, doorways, and endless halls, each one more bleak than the last. Not to mention all the idle machinery lying around, from computers to preservation tanks twice his size.

Vincent found himself a lonely drifter amidst a haunted labyrinth, unsure where the next turn would lead, or when his cunning adversary might strike. Time dragged by. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Half an hour. Nothing.

He passed so many grotesque shadows. None offered any directions out of this maze. They silently watched the lost intruder venture through uncharted territory: who knew? His path could lead to the end of the laboratory, or his life.

Deeper he wandered. Vincent soon emerged into another atrium, far grander than the first. He had to pause a moment just to absorb it all. His gaze floated across the huge round hall, then turned high up until his head thrust back: the sheer height of this place!

Looking up, five semi-circular platforms curved along the brick wall, decked over each other like shelves. Vincent stood in awe of this extraordinary architecture. High above him hung a webwork of supports, trestles, and bridges, interconnected by steel stairwells. They all arched across the air from one side of the atrium to the other.

Most impressively though was that colossal black screen. It sat embedded within the wall just opposite the five-platform system. No one would dare dispute its majesty. Height by width, the screen practically spanned the entire upper wall. From the floor upwards, cablelines and conductor tubes fed into the computer network framed around the screen. It overlooked the simple world below in certain haughtiness.

Vincent guessed this to be the core data-banks of all ShinRa's science files, be they public or private. He could only imagine how much information such a mammoth computer system had processed in its days of glory. But dead or alive, it remained a wonder among wonders.

Just then, Vincent discerned a movement flicker behind.

He reached for the trigger faster than he had whirled around. But much to his puzzlement, Vincent found no one there. Strange. Had he really detected a presence, or simply imagined it? He stood strained on edge, torn between doubts, waiting for something to settle the matter.

All remained still. He must have imagined it.

After a brief deliberation, Vincent decided to continue. He pursued the entrance farthest to the side. It led upwards into some dome-shaped observation facility, or so he surmised from the ominous equipment and operation tables scattered around, like relics of a lost civilization.

The man prowled amongst these ruins. Several times, he stopped short to listen, thinking he'd heard footsteps nearby. Instead, the same stiff silence answered back.

A dreadful premonition permeated the air. As he advanced, Vincent felt eyes watching him from every angle. Misshapen ghosts clustered around him. They tugged at him. They laughed and blubbered nonsense. Everywhere he looked, he spotted Hojo's gargoyle figure in the crowd. Everywhere, he saw those narrow, detestable eyes.

...she's crying...

...Fear. Are you afraid, Vincent?...

Inside, he felt them rip his reason apart. Vincent almost fell under the mob but luckily, grabbed the table for support, just as the erratic mental spasm became a piercing headache. At once, the wretched man pressed his temples in painful agitation.

It only meant one thing: his mind had begun to crack under the fever's weight. Whilst precious time slipped by, the fit ravaged him, strength first, now his logic. All Professor Hojo had to do was finish him off whenever he pleased. That could be the next minute, or perhaps in an hour.

Vincent had to commend the Professor for how beautifully he played with other people's nerves (one of his most distinguished talents) In any case, he remained lurched against the table a few more minutes until the killer headache dissipated. Again, he shook his head clear. He must rivet his concentration on here and now, while there was still some sanity to control.

He surveyed the hall a second time. For some odd reason, Vincent noticed his attention drawn towards an electronic sliding-door. More specifically, its smashed glass fašade. It seemed quiet there...a little too quiet.

Vincent's expression gravened. Swiftly, he dashed over and glued his back to the wall next to the doorway. He stood rigid for one full minute. When sure nothing lurked around, he slipped through the shattered door, and down the corridor.

The path opened onto an impressive exhibition hall. As Vincent entered, he noted all those aisles of proud specimen showcases lined up. He couldn't help but wonder (rather morosely) in which one had poor Aeris endured her torture. Never before had he beheld so much technology in one place. It resembled a stalactite cavern of machines and metal: computer consoles and dusty black monitors filled the skyline. Switchboards, panels of buttons and levers. Overcrowded workbenches, and such sinister-looking apparatuses Vincent shunned to entertain their purposes.

The suspense felt like waiting for a timebomb to explode beneath one's feet. He crept among the specimen tanks, taking care not to trip over the cablelines which snaked across the floor. There were shelves crammed with ragged journals and files. Microscopes. Medical instruments, from syringes to scalpels. Above towered battlements of control booths. Indeed, all these incredible sights thoroughly intrigued him.

The jungle grew darker, thicker. The atmosphere reeked of horrible foreboding. Vincent could not stop his finger from twitching on the trigger, or subdue his quickened breaths. His tense glare darted from side to side. All shadows resembled Hojo. There he was. Over there too. And there. All his shadows. Which was the real one?

He didn't know when or how, but Vincent suddenly became aware of a presence looming right behind him.

All at once, the alarmed man swung round with gun pointed straight out. Instead of firing, however, Vincent himself was smitten point-blank into rigid stupor by the sight; to such an intensity he felt his heart crash down. Beyond the muzzle, he gaped at the enemy before him.

She stood there solitary, a young woman, her face as stoic as cold stone. To him, her slender figure seemed conjured up from an ethereal mist which surrounded them both. She showed no emotion. To contrast, Vincent's aim and logic wavered into stark anxiety, every sign furrowed deep upon his own face.

If he forgot the entire world, he could never forget those eyes, or that beloved face, whose beauty radiated light upon the darkness around. Only *she* could stir him up like this, from complete stillness to violent passion. Only her...

"..L..Lucrecia...," Vincent whispered her name hoarsely, almost deliriously.

The woman did not flinch. Nor could he squeeze his voice past his parched throat. There they stood in plain view of each other, between them an agony of three decades.

He raged inside. He repeated a thousand times over this was not real. A nightmare! Not real! The fever had opened crevices for derangement to seep through- this could NOT be real!!

Yet argue as he tried, the dazed madman couldn't wrench himself free of this hallucinatory spell, or the fervid urge to reach out for her again.

Around her lurked danger. He saw it swarm about in larger and larger circles. Its drone hammered his ears. He wanted to hide her, where nothing and no one could harm her.

... She's frightened. She's alone...

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

The unmerciful tumult swept him away without moving him at all. Amidst crashing waves, Vincent saw a most painful sorrow strain the woman's face. So much suffering, all wrung into one rueful look. She watched him drown under.

...blood suits you...


...are you afraid?...

...afraid of what?...

In those hollow eyes, he saw his true reflection: ugly and vacant.


...no. It's too late now...

...this is your punishment...

...your sin...

Something else drew her away. Her figure began to fade again. With no ties to bind her, she turned to flee, just as the crazed Vincent practically screamed after her, "LUCRECIA!!"

No. Not even he could hold her back. Lucrecia had already vanished into thin air.

...your punishment...

He stood there shivering all alone, breathless, like someone had splashed cold water into his face. Just moments ago, she was there. Nothing now but black space. The same void she left in him the day she died.

Her sadness, his fault. Her pain, his damnation. But where did that leave him? An outcast, always yearning for a past left in desolation. Let him roam the wastelands, search and search again for atonement, until he rot there.

...this is your punishment...


Yet Aeris had smiled so gently at him. To this blood-soaked demon sitting ragged next to her innocence, she had smiled at him. She said she knew what's beneath the Snow Fields.

He saw nothing. Memories frozen under ice. Crimes against people he did not know... against people he'd cared most about. Guilt and bitter self-hate. What else lay beneath there?

...look down...

Roused out of his reverie, the confused man obeyed. He discovered some sneaky cable wire slithering around his ankle.

No actually, it looked more like... a tentacle.

Vincent realized the danger too late: hitherto concealed behind another tank, Professor Hojo belligerently swept out louder than a typhoon, lassoing his alarmed victim by the foot, upside down for a wild ride.

The wily Professor could not have chosen a better time to strike. Topsy-turvy flew Vincent like a ragdoll, smashing round through every unfortunate piece of machinery in his way, until he slammed at full force into the concrete wall. He heard something crack over his own hideous cry, yet couldn't determine whether the wall or his shoulder joint had sustained damage. The sudden pain which inflamed his entire limb sure answered that question.

Hojo didn't give his battered victim a chance to think. In his callous delight, he tore him off the wall and whirled him clear across the air by the same foot. Vincent rammed back-first into a gigantic valve; stiff steel against all thirty-one segments of his spine, then total anaesthesia. Even his vocal chords hadn't the strength to scream.

Again, Vincent was helplessly reeled back. As he dashed forth, the ruthless demon took him flying across the tops of computer screens. Then he swung Vincent overhead in a wide arch, making sure he hit that support buttress at the sharpest angle. But Vincent felt nothing. If the blow had torn him in two, he wouldn't have known.

Professor Hojo whipped him aside, only to relinquish his hold at mid-swing. In effect, Vincent was sent spinning off the expressway, tumbled across the floor, where he collided hard against a hapless workbench. The impact not only fractured through wood, jabbing his raw flesh full of splinters. It also rattled the racks of empty flasks on top, which brought them crashing down. A few shards slashed his face; one glass bomb shattered against his side, followed by the racks onto his back. Just one shambolic mess.

He floundered in a blind daze. Every part of his body felt detached from the rest. Pain finally caught up to him, from a dull awareness to nauseating agony. Vincent remained thrashed in a bloody heap. He struggled to steady himself. Alas, he barely managed to writhe a few muscles, at least to dislodge his shoulder from the broken table.

Of all bashings he'd ever endured, this one qualified as the very worst. Compared to Professor Hojo, even Davoren seemed like the gentlest saint now, and his grievous blows mere scratches.

"What, still alive?" he heard the creature's voice jeer. It sounded miles away, though in fact he knew Hojo hovered right infront of him.

Indeed, Vincent too was amazed to be alive at all; if one could call his ruined state such.

The poor man. He could not even face his own death. Hojo, feeling particularly charitable, decided to help: he kicked Vincent full against his injuired side, enough to send him skidding sideways across the floor. All the way trailed dust and blood until he crashed into another workbench with a sharp "Oomph!" and collapsed flat onto the floor.

Still, Vincent writhed to steady himself again. But the sheer effort caused him to double up in fresh pain: physically, he just couldn't do it anymore.

From afar, Professor Hojo stood pompously poised. Through a crown of insane hair fringes, his glare burned utter scorn upon this tenacious enemy. Across the distance their eyes met: Vincent's blurry red; Hojo's impenetrable yellow. It was then that the scientist unfurled his claws and marched forward.

This was one thorn he'd love to pluck out and squash dead.

One step after another. There was, however, a slight wobble to Hojo's gait. His left eyes too seemed a bit off centered. No surprise. For as he approached even closer, Vincent beheld the extent of that acid attack: the corrosive tarnation still remained splattered like a plague across his face, eye, and upper torso; through skin onto flesh and abraised nerves beneath. Yet it only added more magnificence to his macabre appearance.

From macabre to outright murderous, Hojo instantly burst straight into full charge, whipping up a force which quaked the entire laboratory end to end. Devils and angels dispersed. They left Vincent alone to face this incoming menace.

Desperate men take desperate actions; Vincent was no exception as he felt that last rush of adrenaline pump hot across his veins: he wouldn't foresake the girl. And if he were half-alive, then he'd fight on until he was all dead!

The frantic man scrambled like mad to the left, at the same moment in which Professor Hojo foresaw that attempt, and scooped five scythe-daggers upwards to cut him dead.

Fast, but Vincent was faster: those claws just missed him for the workbench instead. They literally ripped the table out by the very roots high into midair, where it disintegrated to utter wreckage. Hojo didn't even notice the destruction. All he saw was Vincent still moving. Automatically, he whirled himself round a pivot point, by which he cranked his assault to the bloody max.

The narrow escape compared to hair's breadth. Too close for comfort, but then Vincent couldn't complain. He broke away into a scuffle to buy himself some space.

Down rained the table debris, clanging and clattering around him, along with a multitude of furious, well-aimed tentacles he detected only too readily. Again, he rolled aside, and the appendages cracked the floor to pieces instead.

Vincent had less than a blink to clamber onto his feet and retaliate, especially as he perceived this holocaust of a creature fly at him for a third attack. Immediately, he launched an unrepentant hailstorm of bullets. He fired at Hojo's burnt side. Yet far from deterred, Hojo came in at double velocity. One bullet exploded against a major chest vein. Still the demented monstrosity charged on full-steam ahead until Vincent, quite overwhelmed, had to fall back; quickly before..

But the thought hadn't completed itself when Hojo delved in, only to ram his bone-spiked leg against Vincent's stomach, gutting him backwards. Vincent collided into a stiff showcase. The glass wall crackled from impact, which of course did not benefit his spine. Yet his attention shot upfront again. There danger, already whole upon him, took a hefty slash at his life.

Hojo's elbow blade smashed clear across the glass showcase, the connection wires, yet no Vincent could be found. Indeed, the flabbergasted Professor immediately spotted his slippery enemy parry aside, having somehow dodged that Death-blow intact.

Not for long. At once, Hojo whiffed his serrated wings around; they swept an unbelievable ripple of havoc within a five meter radius. Vincent, however, had already flipped high over, whereby he landed on top of some observatory tank. Safe again.

This time, the roaring scientist vented all his frustration with one thick rope of tentacles. But no sooner had Vincent touched down, than he leapt high up. The thorny whips lacerated the tank to metal shards, still no flesh.

Only a millisecond to act. Vincent instantly reversed modes to all-out offense. The high jump brought him flipping aside, where he landed both feet down by Hojo's open flank. Before the latter even noticed him there, Vincent twirled his gun, then effectively jammed its edge upwards into Hojo's throat. The astounded monster grunted some frothy sputum as the blow buckled him under pain.

Vincent utilized his own momentum to its full potential. He wheeled around to slam the back of his heel against Hojo's injuired elbow, which threw the scientist more off balance. In the follow-up to that spin, Vincent steadied himself -ready- then mercilessly blasted Hojo's side point-blank; two gunshots in a trail of hazy smoke.

He heard Hojo's thunderous wail pierce his eardrums. Rich, dark blood spurted out. The demon stumbled aside, almost collapsed, but amazingly recovered, faster than Vincent expected. He just barely managed to pull back as those jagged claws slashed across, and tore the floor apart with their razor aura.

Unfortunately, he didn't realize he'd stepped into an ambush far worse. Not until Hojo raised a hidden net of tentacles up beneath Vincent's feet. The astonished man was tossed head over through this entanglement. Once again, he couldn't distinguish the ceiling from the floor.

No worries; Hojo would restore his orientation, and quite savagely too. As Vincent spiralled over, the ruthless Professor cracked a wave of tentacles across his torso, stunning him blind, at such force it spiked him clear across the laboratory.

Pain had long lost its novelty. Vincent did not feel it when those vicious tentacles whipped him. Or as he sailed across one of the table tops, scattering dusty papers, vials, and other surgical tools into disarray.

Inbetween these two moments, Hojo charged in for a follow-up attack. Vincent couldn't see. Nor could he anticipate the demon thrust out one shearing claw to meet him. Indeed, Vincent had just crashed onto the ground when all of a sudden Hojo swept him forth, and drove him back-first into the computer system up ahead.

His massive palm compressed Vincent's entire chest. All five nails dug deep into the computer console just to make sure his victim could not escape. From there, the vindicitive madman steadily pushed on Vincent's ribcage. He'd either crush his chest or snap his spine against the jagged edge of the console.

Vincent writhed, tried to break free, but found himself utterly overpowered. His eyesight blurred to greyness. He couldn't breathe. Nor would Hojo stop. His muscles strained past his own wounds; the longer this pest lived, the more he wanted him dead!

It happened by pure chance. Vincent, on glancing aside for help, noticed some wires sprawled out of an electricity box nearby. In fact, the console next to them seemed alive, for it hummed a low-pitched drone from inside: it was a voltage generator. An *operational* voltage generator.

He'd try anything. Vincent immediately tore out the bundle of live wires by the socket, and applied it to Hojo's forearm. Out erupted a surge of raw electricity. Though only a jolt, it stunned the demon far back with a sharp snarl, as if it had shocked his very interior into spasms. He clutched his arm tight upon himself, growling as the pain spread up the rest of his limb.

Meanwhile, Vincent had collapsed onto all fours. His gasps escalated to loud, coarse coughs. He heaved hard to refill his lungs with precious oxygen. Then again, everytime his chest expanded, pain stabbed him anew. He had to press claw against ribcage for support.

This was their first pause in ten minutes.

Both sides had sustained severe damage. Vincent now walked a thin line between Death and insanity; one tugged at his body, the other pounded voices and gibberish against his brain.

Hojo stood staggered some distance away. For the first time, he had become acutely aware of his own battered state; his majesty tarnished under broken armour, injuries, and the pain, especially that gnawing his electrocuted limb. Nor appeared he too please by it.

The Professor had all the physical power and hungry obsession. Vincent had an unbreakable resilience and just as much determination, almost an obsession in itself. Their bodies were degraded, the war long exhausted. Still, neither force would yield to the other.

No, by no means. The awkward interlude lasted but a whiff when suddenly shattered by an all-out crescendo of violence. Having already hinged himself into position, the maniacal creature lunged headlong with a spectacular array of tentacles flared all around. No less immediately, Vincent gathered himself into a scramble towards the far side. Through the madness he scuttled out. At the right moment, he then pivotted his foot round to propel himself straight back into the fray as the gun, now fully prepped, fired into action overtime.

This was it. Whoever won this battle, won the war.

-End of Chp.75