Chapter Six: Fault Lies Within
Zack stumbled the last few steps to his home, never more excited to see the innocent white flower pots that normally decorated the pathway leading to the front entrance. However, the sight of seeing that protective home leaking thick black smoke out the back end of the house was what stirred him into action.
“Gramps! Granny!” the dark-haired man exclaimed as he burst in through the front door. He received no answers in return as he quickly scanned the living room. There was no one there. Grey eyes took in the shabby state of the living room, from the clawed up furniture and the soiled painting that hung in ragged shreds over the fireplace. Blood was splattered in small droplets here and there, but he still held hope. Gramps was a strong man; he could handle himself against any of these weak monsters.
He ran towards the kitchen, stopping only long enough in the doorway to determine that no one was present before heading for the den. Claw marks were dragged along the wall making him sink lower into depression, hope becoming a dim memory.
It was then that he heard it. The evil, cackling laughter and the now recognizable sound of flesh being pierced by something sharp and wet blood splattering. He even felt it, like a stirring in the back of his mind, an evil aura, significantly more powerful than the other creatures he had encountered. He put on a burst of speed as he raced down the hallway, skidding to a stop in the doorway of the den.
His face blanched and his stomach rolled immediately, nausea threatening to overcome him.
For there in the middle of the room lay the bodies of his caretakers, slashed to horrible bits. Granny’s kind blue eyes stared sightlessly up at the ceiling even as Gramps lay half over her, as if protecting his wife to the end.
Crouched over their corpses was one of the largest demons that Zack had seen invading his town. It was gleefully playing in the wounds on the bodies, idly licking blood of its clawed fingers.
“You finally showed,” the demon purred without looking up.
“Bastard!” Zack choked out, emotion tearing at his soul and grief exploding in his chest.
Scarlet red eyes looked at him intently, malice evident in their swirling madness. The demon chuckled as it stood to its full height, licking its claws in front of the emotionally shaken Zack and kicking at the bodies at his feet.
“I’ve been waiting for quite some time, host of the true king,” the demon hissed. “You treat me with great disrespect to take so long.”
“You… foul creature!” Zack spat, hands balling up into fists at his side. “They were good, innocent people who did not deserve this!”
“Oh?” questioned the demon, raising an eyebrow in question. “Then you only have yourself to blame.”
Zack cocked an eye at him and had no time to react before the demon moved so quickly, standing in front of him and gripping his chin tightly with clawed fingers. The grey-eyed man flinched as he felt the already blood-stained talons dig into his skin and create small punctures.
The demon’s breath was fetid on the raven-haired man’s face. “It is you we are here for. It is you that was the reason for the destruction of Gongaga,” the nameless demon cackled. “Their blood is on your hands.”
Her death will stain your soul even blacker than it is now! Her blood is on your hands!
Zack jerked in the demon’s grasp, the sudden memory echoing the sadistic creature’s words.
He growled angrily, no longer feeling apathetic in the demon’s grips. Rage and hurt flooded his vision; he was seeing everything through a crimson tint. The stench of fresh blood was heavy on the air and fueled his desire to destroy the abomination before him. He kicked blindly at it, smiling satisfactorily when his booted foot connected with a thin and bony leg.
The demon howled in agony before gripping Zack tightly and throwing him across the floor. The stone-eyed man went flying, crashing into a familiar brown case, shattering the display glass that covered the items inside. He fell to the ground in a limp pile of limbs, grunting with the force of his landing. He heard a distinct crack and knew that something had broken.
Something hard struck him in the head, little objects feeling like pebbles began to rain down on him as if they were hail. Grimacing, Zack pushed himself to his knees. Pain raced through his left arm and the dark-haired man realized he had dislocated his shoulder, possibly even fractured the bone. His hand landed on an object he instantly recognized by the feel. One of Gramps’ guns, a collectable that was affectionately nicknamed the Hell Fire.
A black blur quickly crossed the length of the room, suddenly appearing and towering above Zack. A taloned foot landed firmly on the injured man’s back and pushing him down into the debris. The dark-headed man gritted his teeth but stood his ground, fingers curling around the gun. It felt so right to be holding that weapon. Not like with the sword. The trigger seemed to fit his hand perfectly and knowing Gramps’ tendencies, the gun was more than likely loaded.
“Stupid human!” the demon hissed, grinding the spiked heel of its foot into Zack’s back causing the man to cry out in pain. “You and your anima have caused this upon yourselves.”
He lifted up his foot to kick at the granite-eyed man again, determined to inflict as much pain as possible on the bane of Balaam’s existence.
Yet, Zack surprised him by suddenly rolling over, even onto his injured shoulder and pointing the shotgun straight into the startled demon’s face.
“Go to hell!” hissed the stone-eyed man moments before he pulled the trigger. The sound of a shotgun blazed in the night even as warm, sticky blood splashed over the face of the dark-haired man. Zack had hardly flinched despite the gore that was now spread about the room.
The demon sunk to the floor, head no longer a part of its body.
Panting slightly, Zack pulled himself to his feet, wincing at the unbelievable pain racing through his shoulder. He looked to the weapon that felt comfortable in his hands. It was a simple double-barreled shotgun with six slots for materia and extensive coupling.
Grey eyes dully took in the state of the demon and misted with sadness at the fallen bodies of the two that had cared for him so diligently, despite what he didn’t know. And how had he repaid them? By bringing death to their door… if the words of the demon were to be trusted.
Yet, Zack knew beyond any doubt that the vile creature had not lied. The destruction and burning of Gongaga lay on his shoulders. It was in that moment that the man with no memory knew what he had to do. The demons would pay for what they had done, if Zack himself had to hunt down every last one of them.
The granite-eyed man turned and dug into the cabinet before producing a triple-belted holster that would wrap around his hip and then his upper thigh for better support. He shoved the gun into the holster before returning to his search for more ammo. He idly considered taking more than one weapon but quickly realized it might be more of a hindrance than a help. Zack took as much ammo as he could carry and stuffed it into the pockets of his cloak, which had miraculously survived many of the trials of the night, though now it was tattered and worn.
Stifling a sob, he swiftly crossed the room and headed for the small desk located near the fire place. He knew that Gramps always kept a few low level materia in the upper left drawer for emergencies.
He pulled open the drawer and was glad to find four small balls of magic roll towards him. Zack reached in and withdrew a small green orb. He peered at it closely, sensing on his own that it was a restore materia. He quickly pushed the orb into the weapon and cast a Cure spell. Immediately the tingle of magic passed through his body, and the pain in his shoulder faded. To completely heal it, he would need something stronger, but for now the low level cure would do.
He reached in and swiped up the other three materia, noting that they were Ice, HP Plus, and Exit. Great. If he ever needed to run from battle, at least he had an escape route. He quickly pressed the materia into the slots before crossing the room to look down sadly at the couple that had treated him so well.
Zack jerked the blanket off of the back of the couch. When the hunt was done… he had already made up his mind… as if he knew this day would come. But for now, the blanket would suffice to preserve their pride and honor.
He kneeled down before their bodies and gently closed their eyelids with shaking fingers. They were so kind… undeserving of such a fate. He draped the cloth over their still forms and sat for a moment in solemnity, giving them their due.
A hot anger began to settle within him as he knelt. Someone had to pay for their death… someone had to pay for the destruction of his home. His hands tightened into fists, stretching the scars of his left and paining him slightly. The sharp stab of hurt served to remind him what must be done.
Determination set in his features and Zack rose swiftly. The leader, the perpetrator of this attack, had to be somewhere. He wasn’t a hero or a fighter, but, by the gods, he was not going to stand and watch!
He moved quickly through the house, exiting through the front door. After so long, the scent of smoke no longer affected him as it did before. The screams seemed to be fading as he settled into a single mind. Find the one who had caused this!
Zack passed through the town, hardly noticing what was going on around him. What few demons dared approach him, he either froze or shot without a single thought. He didn’t have time to think on what he was doing, how easily he controlled the gun, or how simple it was to shoot without hesitation. He merely accepted the events as they were, determined to think about them later.
He pushed his back against the nearest building when he heard the sound of deep, garbled laughter. It was distinctly different from that of the other monsters he had encountered. Peeking around the corner of the building, he saw why his instincts had told him to hide.
In the town square, surrounded by at least a dozen of the monsters, stood a creature even taller than all the others. They were all gathered around a huge bonfire. It wore no clothing and was covered in deep purple hide. Two horns jutted from its forehead, and its maw was reminisced of a wolf, complete with huge fangs. It was laughing as it took in the destruction, licking his lips occasionally when he noted blood stains or the bodies of the fallen.
Zack’s body trembled with rage as he gripped the Hell Fire tightly. To take on so many would be suicide…
Surrounded on all sides… in the center of the world… so many there seems to be no end.
The grey-eyed man gasped and grasped his head, another memory assaulting his mind. However, they were so fragmented, he couldn’t even begin to understand the slightest thing about them.
Dark-brown hair… and a suit… deep blue?… a name… Ra..ven?
“Well, well, if it isn’t the host,” a voice sneered from behind him. He had been so caught up in his musings that he had failed to listen to what was going on around him!
Zack whirled around only to encounter a giant fist, landing heavily on his chest. His eyes flew shut for a moment as he stumbled backwards, unprepared for the sudden blow. He staggered into the firelight. That very movement gathered the attention of all those present.
Another fierce blow to the chest and his eyes snapped open again. He noted with dismay that two of the larger demons had managed to sneak up on him and were grinning maliciously as they slowly urged him towards the fire and those gathered behind him.
One of the two demons made another lunge at him, determined to strike yet once more. However, Zack was ready this time. Each breath feeling like he had inhaled fire, he quickly pulled up the Hell Fire and shot them both in the chests. The demons weren’t prepared for their prey to fight back and dropped like wet sacks, gaping holes in their torsos.
Zack had no time to gloat over his victory before more demons than he could hope to count piled on top of him. He tried to fight back, limbs flailing in every direction but there were far too many. One wrested his weapon free, another pulled his arms behind his back at rough angles, thereby aggravating the damaged shoulder. The scent of sulfur and fetid breath along with unwashed flesh crowded his senses. He could feel their rough, scaly skin brushing against his, and it sickened him.
One demon drug a blood-stained claw across his cheek, breaking the skin. Zack felt his warm life’s fluid dripping down his cheek and hissed with the pain.
Within seconds, he was hauled to his feet quite painfully as the demons whooped and hollered with their prize. He was dragged in front of the monster he assumed to be the leader, grimacing with the pain in his shoulder and weaponless.
“Well,” the demon leered, “if you aren’t someone to invoke some memories.” He growled and reached out with a long talon, cutting another deep slice into Zack’s other cheek. “And most of them unpleasant.”
“Why have you come here?” Zack demanded, giving another experimental tug on the arms that held him fast. They tightened in their grip and put more pressure on the injured shoulder. He was forced to grit his teeth and bear it.
(Call for me! Call my name!) The words, in the same voice as before, pounded in his mind and his grey eyes slid shut with the resulting headache. He sagged for just a moment in the arms of the demon.
“For you,” the leader hissed in response, though Zack barely heard him through the dim.
‘Call who? Who are you?’ he questioned internally.
Suddenly, his eyes flashed open, in soundless scream as he stared into hate-filled red orbs. Pain and hot fire raced through his abdomen. His neck seemed boneless as his head fell forward, and he looked down with horror to see the end of a razored tail jutting through his abdomen. Blood was already beginning to soak his clothing and drip down his skin beneath the cloth.
Tentacles… so many tentacles… aiming for his back… his unprotected back, and this time, the voices were calling and a name was ripped from his throat…
“Heh, heh, just like old times, ne?” With those words spoken, the demon proceeded to withdraw its spiked tail slowly, agonizingly painfully.
“Augh!” Zack screamed, his body arching with the pain as the monster extricated its tail from him. “Why?” he demanded in a broken tone, blood dribbling from where he had bitten his lip. “Why me?”
“I am sad that you don’t know me. I am Azamat, though even then you didn’t know me as thus.” The demon snorted. “All of you pathetic humans have forgotten the Old Ways. I am amazed Gaia didn’t erase you when it shattered Meteor.”
The last caused a faint stirring of echo in Zack’s pain-filled mind. Meteor… fighting Meteor… and Sephiroth? He arched forward instinctively as the name rippled through his subconscious, accompanied by feelings of guilt and dismay. Why… who was that man?
(Call me, you know my name! I am the chaos and the chains!)
“Nothing to say, have you?” Azamat questioned. He laughed as Zack ignored him, head hanging as dizzy spells erupted in his mind and a voice he didn’t recognize urged for him to call… call what?
“No matter,” waved the demon in dismissal. He turned and started to walk away. “Kill him.”
“Er…e…” Zack croaked out in a voice that seemed not of his own. Azamat stopped in his tracks, frowning as he glanced over his shoulder.
“What did you say?” he questioned, voice heavy with anger and the slightest edge of fear.
The name that had been on the top of his tongue again came to mind. Zack held his head up, grey eyes blazing with anger. “Ere… bus!” he called.
In that very same moment that he spoke the word, Azamat shivered with visible fear, the demons cried out in terror, and a terrible darkness fell over those present, cloaking everything in shadow. Not even the light of the fire could be seen. The hands on Zack’s arms loosened, and he instinctively kicked backwards and wrenched his way free, diving in a direction he hoped was without enemy.
He came to an abrupt halt at the base of a fire that had suddenly sprung to life in the midst of the darkness, glowing an eerie orange-yellow. Zack struggled to his feet as he gaped in awe at three other fires springing up, to form a square. He could hear the sound of Azamat trying to regain control and the herding of the demons around.
A circle, completely flat began to appear amidst the fires, mysterious incantations written on the round surface. It began to spin; a suspiciously-patterned stone disc rose from the ground. It was followed by four surrounding columns, forming a stage of sorts. A gothic chandelier, suspended in midair above the platform, completed the picture. A pillar of light jutted from the center of the platform and a form began to coalesce.
Zack watched with slack jaw as a heavily cloaked form appeared, the face indiscernible beneath the mask. In its hand was a sickle, the steel of the blade glinting wickedly in the firelight. Without another word, the form finished coalescing and was at once solid, stepping off the platform and swinging its blade in a wide arc. The grey-eyed man heard the strangled screams of demons as they met their end.
Suddenly, the darkness lifted, and the area had become a battlefield. Zack blinked at the sudden change. Azamat was still struggling to regain control as what Zack could only assume was Erebus turned his sickle on the demons.
He heard the growl of a demon and turned in horror to find one getting ready to pounce. It held a sword in one hand and its eyes had flashed crimson already, lost to the battle madness.
“Balaam has called for your death, human…” the demon hissed as it advanced on him.
Zack began to back up slowly, completely defenseless without the Hell Fire and no convenient logs in sight.
“Zack!” called out a voice, raspy with age and echoing of hollow tombs and scattered graveyards. It was a voice that he recognized from repeating in his head.
The dark-haired man turned just in time to see the Hell Fire flying at his face, a glimpse of bony-fingered hands having thrown the weapon. In the same moment he heard the crackling of grass as the demon threw itself at him.
He dove forward, leaping to catch the shot gun in the same moment that he twisted his body to face the nameless demon and pulling the trigger. Crazed eyes were in front of him, far larger than they should have been as the shotgun recoiled in his grasp.
Fetid blood splattered across his face as he crashed to the ground, the body of the demon landing on top of him. He gasped for breath at the weight of the heavier demon and struggled to gain some power over his spinning mind… too much to handle… and far too much blood had drained from his body.
The grey-eyed man had no time to react as he was roughly jerked out from under the body of the beaten beast. Clawed fingers dug into his shoulder and picked him up effortlessly. Zack scrabbled to retain his grip on the Hell Fire as he stumbled to his feet, tripping over his own limbs as rough talons dragged him.
One hand released his shoulder and tangled in his hair, roughly pulling his head back. He gasped and choked, feeling as if his neck was going to snap. He attempted to jab an elbow backwards, hoping to injure the being that held him tightly. The elbow struck hard unyielding chest but had no effect.
Spittle flecked on his face as the maw of Azamat came into view, hissing angrily as his eyes flashed yellow-bright. Earlier they had been crimson…
“I am going to devour you…” the demon growled. The grip on Zack’s neck loosened barely, and he was able to speak, sucking in huge gusts of air even as searing pain raced through his shoulder. The demon had come through on his promise, sinking its teeth into the tender skin of his already bruised shoulder.
With his mind dimming with pain, Zack did the only thing his fractured subconscious could think of… he cast.
“Ice!” he gasped out, grabbing onto the claw that held him with his only free hand.
Almost immediately the air around them chilled and a startling cool frost began to spread from the claw up Azamat’s body. The demon jerked away at the first touch of ice and released Zack.
The dark-haired man stumbled forward but didn’t waste any time in whipping around, pulling up his Hell Fire and pumping the demon so full of lead he wasn’t sure if the gun truly held that much ammo. His head spun; he began to shake, but his entire body had gone numb, as if in the battle, adrenaline had replaced pain.
Azamat jerked with each bullet that raced through his body, blood exploding outwards from each fire-filled shell. It wasn’t called Hell Fire for no reason.
“Ice!” Zack hissed yet again, casting the only magic he had on hand and watching as it engulfed the body of the demon, throwing shards of razor sharp ice in at Azamat.
Grey eyes watched Azamat’s soundless death through vision going blurry. The monster just collapsed to the ground, the silly arrogant smirk still evident on its face. Slowly the body began to dissipate, as if it had never been there to begin with, and in its wake, a small black orb.
He suddenly slipped to one knee, the Hell Fire slipping from his hands. He had lost far too much blood and exerted himself in the process. Eyes flickered over to the right, where Erebus was finishing off the last of the demons.
Perhaps he would die now, and the monsters would no longer come after him. No other innocent lives would be destroyed because of him. Yes, it was better that way.
His head slumped forward and he felt his body slowly falling as he slipped into darkness…
As the dark-haired man stood, he stared as the building he’d once called home burned to the ground, becoming an effective tomb for those that had cared for him. It symbolized many things for the rediscovered gunman. He was no longer Zack. He couldn’t be. It would be a dishonor to call himself by Granny and Gramps’ true son when he had brought their deaths upon them.
No. Things would never be the same again. He had to run now, keeping the beings chasing him away from all others… and still somehow manage to find his true identity. The one whose memories are riddled with blood and pain and feelings of self-loathing. Yet, before his heart could be consumed with sorrow and anger, there was a tiny spark of hope. Somewhere in his past he had learned to love…
The nameless man turned from the burning house and stared across the open expanse in front of him, heading in the general directions of the Gongaga Mountains.
He would take a new name and a new identity. He would be Zack no more. Until he discovered his true self… he would be…
“Then that is your decision, to go nameless?” a dry voice questioned from beside him, rasping as if very old.
Grey eyes flickered over to the side, taking in the appearance of the owner of the voice. It was Erebus. The demi-god had now started to appear and vanish as he saw fit.
“They shouldn’t have saved me…” muttered the dark-haired man. “They should have saved their elixirs for someone more worthy of their kindness. It is because of me that they no longer have any homes.” He turned and gazed at the remains of Gongaga, watching with dismay as the towns folk milled about, already rebuilding despite everything that had occurred yesterday.
After the battle with Azamat and after he had slipped into unconsciousness, he had been found by one of the surviving towns people, who had tipped an elixir down his throat, thereby saving his life.
The moment he had recovered he had left the small shelter that had been created and went to the house he had once called home. He could no longer stay in Gongaga… not with the guilt that lay heavy on his heart.
He had spent less than three hours in care of the Gongagans, the elixir healing him remarkably fast. During that time he had caught glimpses of Erebus watching him. Yet, it seemed the residents couldn’t see the heavily cloaked figure, so he assumed that only he could see him.
He reached into the pocket of his tattered grayish cloak and pulled out a small black orb. He rolled the ball in his hands, as if fascinated by the swirling convoluted mass of black and purple within it, seemingly like a hard bruise.
Erebus snorted. “Humans are remarkably flexible creatures. They have the ability to bounce back from anything.”
“Maybe so. But that doesn’t change the fact, that now they have to.” The grey-eyed man sighed and placed the marble back into his pocket. It was what remained of Azamat, and he had plans for the item. He would find whoever had directed the demon’s attack and demand answers. Maybe then he could find his memory.
He exhaled softly, checked to be sure the Hell Fire was still in its holster, and then turned away from what remained of Gongaga, setting off towards the far off mountains. Erebus fell into easy step beside him.
“You ought not speak aloud,” Erebus mused. He jerked his head towards the villagers. “They might think you’ve gone mad.”
The grey-eyed man snorted. “What do I care? Perhaps I already have… my mind is filled with scattered memories and dreams, none of them make sense.”
Erebus regarded him thoughtfully from beneath the dark black hood that covered his entire body. “I can’t call you human, so what name do you wish I use?”
He shrugged disinterested, until he recalled a memory from his mind. It was scattered as well, but one name did come out sharply. “Call me… Raven…” he suggested, a sardonic grin turning up the corners of his mouth.
“Raven, eh?” the demi-god questioned. His mouth formed a smile as he walked beside his animus. So the dark-haired man did remember some of his past… even if it wasn’t whole… perhaps his task would not be so difficult after all.
“Unless, of course, you would be willing to tell me who I am?” Raven questioned, with a raised eyebrow as he cast a sidelong glance at the cloaked man… thing… or whatever Erebus claimed he was.
Erebus shook his head, reaching up with a skeletal hand to pull his hood down further over his face. “I cannot do that. It is not up to me to tell you everything. You must find it on your own.”
“Not even my own name?”
Erebus didn’t answer, just shaking his head.
Raven growled angrily and stepped up the pace. “Who the hell are you anyway?”
“That, my dear animus, is a long story,” Erebus began.
Grey eyes darted towards the mountains that seemed so very far in the distance, and the city that lay beyond, Cosmo Canyon as one of the townspeople had called it. There was a man there who was well-learned, or so it was said.
“Its not like we haven’t got all day,” snorted Raven.
Erebus shrugged the movement almost imperceptible underneath the many flowing robes. “If you insist.”
He would have to be careful, to make sure he did not reveal too much before Raven was ready for it. For his sake… and that of Gaia’s as well…