Chapter Nineteen: Lost Number
A strange feeling gripped his heart as he stared at the gates to the small mountain town. Something about the place seemed familiar to him, as if he had been there before. Vincent frowned slightly and paused in his steps, for some reason, a strong foreboding sensation gripping him.
He also worried about Cosmo Canyon. He feared for the safety of the people there and wondered if Bugenhagen and Isis would be able to push back the creatures. The last time he had looked back, all he could see was the town lit up by the bright orange glow of flame. It had taken all of his will, and Erebus’ continuous prodding to keep him from turning back.
He sincerely hoped that it was all worth it because he felt the lowest of the low for fleeing to safety.
A low chuckle sounded from right beside him. “Hesitation? That’s a new one,” Erebus commented, his black robes swishing across the ground.
“This place gives me odd feelings,” retorted the dark-haired man without even sparing a glance at the demi-god.
Erebus chuckled once more but did not say anything else. Ignoring his anima, Vincent slowly began to walk into the town, the sign above the gate swinging in the breeze and reading Nibelheim. The moment he stepped through and beneath the archway, the memories smacked him the face with enough of a touch of reality to make him question his existence.
“You have no right!” she hissed, jerking her arm from his grasp. “This is my life!
“No!” She shook her head, promptly cutting off any protests he might have made, her brown hair swinging from side to side. He tried not to pay attention to the way the sun caught the light highlights in her hair, so enamored by her he was. “I love Hojo, not you, Vincent! We are friends, nothing more!”
“But he’s killing you!” the Turk replied in anguish, holding out his arms entreatingly.
Lucrecia frowned and took a step backwards. “Don’t play around with things you don’t understand.” Those were her last words before she ran away from him and fled back towards the mansion.
The grey-eyed man could do nothing but look after her arm outstretched, as if reaching for her, feeling as if his heart were breaking in two. His fists clenched at his side as hatred began to fill in the gaps… hatred for that damned scientist Hojo.
He had to protect Lucrecia. She had no idea what she was truly getting herself into. And the child… it needed his protection, as well. Someone had to stand up to that bastard!
His resolve strengthened, Vincent turned and headed out of the town. He needed to take some time to work off his anger before he attempted to go back into the mansion. He knew if he saw that smug face, he might not be able to restrain himself. Casting one more sorrowful glance at the path that Lucrecia had taken, the Turk drew his gun and prepared to take out his anger on some plains monsters, weak though they were…
Vincent gasped and reeled, his head spinning from the sudden onslaught of vivid memories. He felt abnormally dizzy and stumbled on his feet, hand flying out to grab a hold of something to steady himself. A bony hand snaked out and latched onto his arm, providing something solid for him to cling to. He stood stock still a moment, one hand going to his head as he waited for the world to stop spinning.
“Vincent?” the dry, raspy tone of Erebus questioned with concern.
The grey-eyed man shook his head slowly, blinking a few times to clear away the tears that had sprung to his eyes unbidden. “Nothing… just a memory.”
Erebus chuckled. “I’m not surprised,” he replied, pushing him back to his feet with one hand as he flicked the dark-haired man’s forehead with a bony finger. “Your mind has this uncanny ability to suddenly forget itself at a moment’s notice.”
Vincent pushed away his anima with an irritated hand and brushed hair out of his face, a strand having broken free from the loose ponytail that he was wearing it in. Without another word, he moved past Erebus and went into the small town of Nibelheim.
The first thing he noticed was how strangely quiet it was. There were no children playing outside nor could he hear any noise from any of the homes. A bird cawed softly from a roof and the sound of the wind blowing noisily were the only things he could hear. The dark-haired man looked to the sky and noticed the gathering storm clouds. It was going to rain soon and he wanted to be inside before then. Yet, he still had time, and he would spend that wandering around the town.
He walked past a few homes, peering nosily in a few windows. However, he found that both of them were abandoned, appearing as if they hadn’t been lived in quite a while. Layers of dust coated everything with a thick covering of age. Many of the windows were infested with spider webs, and the boards of the porches creaked noisily. He did notice that the few homes that held people were inhabited by recluses. He saw curtains shift slightly as he was observed, but other than that, they refused to answer the door or even leave their homes. The place was very odd, and it gave him an uncomfortable and unsettled feeling.
Everything in the town, surprisingly enough, seemed to be centered around a rusted and dilapidated water tower that looked as if it hadn’t been used in years.
He tried to go to the few stores that were present, bar included, to try and find out any information but was still sorely lacking. The shop was very under stocked with higher prices than he was willing to pay, and no one sold any materia. There was only one patron in the bar, and he was so utterly drunk already that it was to no point to talk to him. The bartender feigned ignorance, claiming he had only moved to the town a short while ago and had done it for the peace and quiet.
Hmph, peace and quiet indeed. It was as if the entire town had just up and died one day, and no one bothered enough to care.
He couldn’t help but wonder how he was supposed to find answers about his life in a dying town. There were very few inhabitants, none of whom recognized him.
Not to mention the odd feeling he had about the town. It didn’t scare him, but it did leave him constantly twitching anxious to leave, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to go wandering the mountains in the middle of the night and with an approaching thunderstorm. Erebus had disappeared; he wasn’t ever really sure where the demi-god went when he wasn’t annoying him.
However, it was probably the one place he had not yet visited that made him want to leave the most. The entire time he wandered and browsed, he felt an unexplainable pull towards the creepy mansion on the outskirts of town, surrounded by a rickety fence that was the epitome of horror movies everywhere. He tried to ignore the feeling, a bit unnerved by it but, in the end, succumbed to his senses.
Vincent paused just in front of the fence as he took one step towards the mansion that the Inn Master had explained was owned by the “ShinRa”. He claimed it had been abandoned for as long as he could remember, and so far, no one from the company had come to do anything about it. Most of the townspeople were afraid of it and didn’t go anywhere near. There were many ghost stories circulating around that particular building, and Vincent didn’t blame them. The place was creepy.
The dark-haired man looked at the sky once more, feeling the slight breath of moisture on the air and knew the storm was fast approaching. He faced a moment of indecision. Should he return to the inn and sleep until the storm passed or heed the strange pull towards the dilapidated building?
Erebus chuckled, suddenly appearing right beside him. “Wonderful vacation spot, do you not think? The air of suspicion and paranoia makes for rest and relaxation. Not to mention the dead flowers and browning shrubs… why it will provide the holiday of a lifetime.”
Vincent glared at the demi-god. “Why did you tell me to come here?” His eyes flickered to the ShinRa mansion for just a moment before returning to the demi-god. “This place might as well be dead.”
Erebus didn’t respond, instead shifting his gaze towards that of the mansion as if considering. “You seem to be avoiding this place. I wonder why?”
“Don’t play mind games with me,” the grey-eyed man snarled. “Do I need to go in there or not?”
“Ah, there goes that loss of patience once again. Has time really changed you that much?” questioned the demi-god as he shook his head and shrugged. “I cannot tell you what to do. You are the one who fears a building.”
Vincent irritated, pushed open the gate to the fence and moved past the demi-god into the front yard of the mansion. “I am not afraid,” he muttered, annoyed. “Just cautious…”
There was a squeak and a slam as the gate slid shut behind him, though he knew that Erebus was still there by the sound of robes swishing across the ground and the creaking of bones. The demi-god could be absolutely silent when he wished but at times didn’t particularly care.
The raven-haired man stood in front of the mansion and looked up at it, taking in the sloping of the porch and the broken windows in the face of the house. The front yard had been left untended for so long that it had overgrown and then collapsed with the weight of the weeds. There were many windows; everywhere he looked, shining dust-covered glass decorated the house face. It was a very old building, and looking at it sent shivers of trepidation down his spine, though he didn’t understand why.
Before the demi-god could accuse him of being afraid, Vincent moved towards the front door, easily pushing it open on creaking, rusty hinges until he stepped into the dim, dusty dark of the mansion. Thanks to all the windows he had some visibility, but other than that, he was forced to peer to see anything. He dimly registered a staircase and a high chandelier, as well as two or three doors on the lower floor. His ears picked up the low rumble of thunder from rather close by, but other than the creaking of the old house as it settled, it was silent.
He moved into the mansion, unable to shake the feeling that he somehow knew this place. Moving into the room to the left of the door, he found a piece of paper on the floor. Intrigued, he picked it up and glanced at the yellowed, faded parchment that appeared to be a piece of lab notes. There was something written on it and he strained to make it out.
(… for the lid of the box with the… Ivory’s short of tea… creek in the floor… up nine steps… and… six steps…)
The words were much too faded, and the paper crumpled in his grasp before he could understand any more. Shaking his head, he allowed the paper to flutter back towards the floor before turning his back on the otherwise empty room and moving into the rest of the house.
The rooms on the lower floor were mostly filled with junk and clutter, as if the building had been a dropping ground for furniture, all of it unwanted. There were no pictures or documents and very few books, making it difficult for him to discern anything of importance about the decaying mansion. Yet, he still could not shake the feeling that something was there… whether or not he could see it.
There was a piano in one of the rooms, two of the notes vastly off key and covered with thick layers of dust, though it appeared someone had recently been running their fingers over the ivory.
There were a few rooms with beds in them, uncomfortable looking ones at that, and even one wall that had strange scratches on it that he wasn’t sure he wanted to contemplate.
One room on the second floor had an opened safe within it, anything of value having already been taken by the previous inhabitants or common thieves, he really didn’t care which. The strangest thing; however, were the mysterious scores on the inside of the lid as if something had been trapped within…
However, it was the room in the northern part of the house that intrigued him. While all the other walls appeared to be made of the same material, for some reason, a corner of this room was made of carefully constructed stone glued together with a grey mortar. Vincent frowned and observed it carefully. It seemed so out of place, and he felt as if there were something behind the wall. Why else would it appear to be so different? No other rooms had anything that unique.
He moved up to the stone wall and ran his fingers over the cool rock. It was rough beneath his touch, not hewn to be smooth. He idly pushed on it, exerting a little strength and was surprised to find that it groaned beneath his touch and shifted slightly. Encouraged by this, Vincent placed both hands flat on the stone and pressed, hard. The door swung inwards at this, and a breath of cold stagnant air hit him in the face.
The dark-haired man wrinkled his nose at the decidedly vile odor and peered into the dusty dark. He could barely make out a set of wooden stairs that lead downwards. He stepped onto the first bit of plank and looked down, paling considerably. They spiraled downwards, occasional gaps in the wood and absolutely no handrails. If he fell… he couldn’t be sure he’d survive the fall.
Taking a deep breath, Vincent gingerly started to make his way down the steps, wincing at every small creak and groan of the decidedly ancient wood. He kept one hand on the mossy stone wall for balance as he descended. The further down he got, the chillier the air and more rank, as well. He wondered where it led… and why it seemed he was being pulled downwards.
Finally, he reached a ladder and climbed down it until he was standing at the very bottom of a rock tunnel, lit by small lights in the ceiling. He couldn’t help but wonder how it was being powered being as nothing upstairs seemed to work. He peered into the dim, the lights not being very strong, and saw that there seemed to be a tunnel that led straightforward.
Wrapping his cloak tighter about his body as protection against the outright cold and to keep himself from shivering, he pushed forward into the stone tunnel, idly noting the chains that hung from the ceilings or the weird purplish glow the entire place seemed to have.
He didn’t want to think about how creepy it really was beneath the ground. It was so dim that his mind was literally creating shapes out of nothing, and it was quiet, as well. He could near nothing save for the faint chinking of the chains or a breath of wind coming from somewhere. He strained his ears to listen, almost expecting something to appear which made his paranoia rise even higher. The darkness was cloaking all around him, grasping with phantasmal fingers…
Suddenly, a pair of hands latched on his shoulders and gripped tightly, appearing out of nowhere. He stiffened entirely, a shiver of stark fear running through his body as a cold wave of trepidation raced down his back. His eyes widened to the size of saucers, and he was forced to stifle a cry of fear. For the moment he forgot he had a weapon and only remembered that he had heard nothing, nothing at all and briefly considered passing out. His heart began to pound rapidly, every sense in his body urging him to run! His mind went utterly blank…
Until a dry, rasping chuckle from directly behind him caused him to flush with embarrassment. The hands left his shoulder, and Vincent whirled around only to come face to face with his anima.
“Not scared one bit, are we?” teased the demi-god. “Kami, I wish I could have seen your face but feeling that wash of fear, now that was classic.”
“Bastard,” hissed Vincent. “Why did you do that?”
Erebus waved a hand of dismissal. “You were creeping down this tunnel as if you expected something to jump out at you. I only heeded your expectations.” It was obvious the demi-god was trying to restrain his amusement.
The dark-haired man snorted and turned his back on his anima, not at all amused by what had just occurred. “That was not funny,” he growled, trying to hide his chagrin.
“I thought it was,” the demi-god snickered. When Vincent didn’t reply, Erebus shrugged to himself more than anyone else. “Fine then, I am gone. You know, I have other duties other than protecting your impatient self.”
The dark-haired man waved a hand of dismissal at the demi-god, still seething at having been embarrassed so and took a few steps forward. He glanced back only once glad to see that Erebus had indeed left. Breathing a sigh of relief he returned his attentions to the underground tunnel.
After a few moments, really not that long at all, he stopped and found himself confronted with two doors, one to the left and one just in front of him. Someone must have wanted this place to stay hidden for a reason, and he wondered if the doors would even open at all. There was another light here, one even brighter than the others, and it illuminated the ground. It was covered in dust and dirt of years, but he could see a few sets of tracks as if someone had come through recently. Yet, even those were covered with a thin layer of old age.
He pondered which door to investigate first before finally deciding on the one to the left. After all, usually the straight way was a continuance, while a side route was a deviance.
Vincent moved towards the average looking door and placed his hand on the cold knob, surprised to find it unlocked and turning easily in his grasp. He opened the door and stepped inside, wincing he was struck with even colder air that carried the faint stench of death and decay. It was not a pleasant odor, and it almost made him turn around completely. Yet, curiosity got the better of him, and he pushed forward, memories once more slapping him in the face. He closed his eyes with the sudden pounding of pain in his head.
When he was able to open them again, he found he was looking at a room that was brightly lit and filled with a few packing crates and, oddly enough, one lone coffin in the far end. There was no dirt or dust anywhere, and the dark-haired man understand that he was more or less experiencing a memory.
The mind worked in the oddest of ways.
There was a man dressed in a long white lab coat and wearing a pair of glasses, idly inspecting some sort of machine as he leaned over a coffin. From his position, Vincent couldn’t really see what was inside, so he took several steps forward. He vaguely registered the dirt and ground cracking beneath his feet but was concentrating on the scene before him.
As he moved forward he was surprised to find that there was a man lying in the coffin. He wore dark black clothing and had dark hair. His eyes were closed and Vincent could only assume he was dead… until he caught the subtle rise and fall of the man’s chest.
“I see the subjugation spell worked,” the bespectacled man tittered, idly pushing up on his glasses as he fiddled with a few more knobs. “Perhaps some time locked in this prison will cool those demons, no?”
Of course his victim did not respond. As Vincent drew closer, he realized with a startled gasp that the man in the coffin was himself. His eyes widened in surprise as the man in the lab coat laughed again before reaching up for the lid of the coffin.
“Sweet nightmares, Valentine.” The scientist sneered before he pushed the coffin lid down violently, the loud slam echoing throughout the room and effectively ending the minor vision/memory that Vincent was experiencing.
He blinked and suddenly found himself in the dim, cobwebbed tunnel beneath the mansion, staring at a dark room filled with crates and coffins. His eyes were unconsciously resting on the casket in the center of the room. He recognized the design on the lid as it hung haphazardly, similar to that in his memory. Taking a deep breath and trying to ignore the stagnant, chilly air around him, Vincent took a step forward and shoved the coffin lid aside, peering down at the surprisingly empty casket.
It looked and felt vaguely familiar. Whatever had happened in his memory, why he had been placed in the coffin and the talk of demons was all very confusing to him, but he knew to try and push his fragile mind to remember would be too much. He idly ran a hand on the lining of the coffin, surprised to find it felt rather soft to the touch.
Grey eyes looked about the rest of the room, finding nothing else of interest or noteworthy value, so he withdrew his hand and moved out of the room. There was nothing more to be seen in there.
Without hesitation he moved out into the tunnel and headed straight for the other door, reaching immediately for the handle. He frowned when he realized it was locked and would not open for him. He tried rattling the door, seeing if it would break, but unlike the rest of the house, it was actually quite sturdy and nowhere near as dilapidated.
Giving up, Vincent threw his hands up in the air and started back towards the upstairs. He was suddenly feeling very tired, very cold, and very hungry, wanting nothing more than to return to the inn for a night of rest. If he could, he would return in the morning and search for the key. He had a feeling that the answers were right behind him in that room, and as usual, they were eluding his every move.
That night he dreamed. Scattered images that seemed to flit back and forth between periods in his life when he was young, though those were fuzzier than others… and even of his time in Gongaga, brief flashes of the blonde Annalee and of Granny and Gramps sitting around the dining room table.
They always knew he wasn’t their son but treated him as such anyways. Granny always had a smile to offer for him and Gramps a satisfied smirk. He reveled in the feeling of family, somehow internally knowing that before he had been alone for a long time.
However, he dreamed of other things, too.
Fractured scenes of a past he couldn’t remember haunted every moment of his slumber. He saw himself in battle numerous times, always with a gun at his side. His appearance changed. At times he wore a dark blue suit and was accompanied by another man he did not recognize. Other times he wore a bright crimson cape covering dark black clothes with golden boots on his feet. Those times, his companions changed quite frequently, from a young spiky-headed blond with bright blue eyes to a large red-haired lion type creature, from an amber-eyed man in an executive suit to a Wutaiian looking teen girl, from a dark-headed scantily dressed female and even an auburn-haired woman, who wore pink and wielded a staff.
He also dreamed of blood… so much of it seemingly coating everything. He didn’t know why his thoughts were filled with such dark and ominous things but it almost seemed like a warning. He kept seeing thick dark black wings dripping blood and remembered the pain of something bursting through his back. Bright crimson eyes invaded his senses and mocking laughter burst through his subconscious causing him to whimper in sleep. It was like a nightmare come to fruition and it scared him.
He saw needles and light glinting darkly off a metal table and pale hands grabbing onto his flesh, grasping him so tightly it hurt. Green liquid flowed through and above him, leaving nothing but pain and agony in its wake.
Blood-stained claws reached for his very soul, determined to take him, own him forever. He opened his mouth to scream when suddenly a brilliant white and blue light appeared to push away the dark.
He was overwhelmed by the scent, that familiar erotic scent of tea and cigarettes, of engine grease and oil. He could feel those calloused hands on his skin once more and almost thought he could taste the man behind the scent, the one that loved him enough to battle his inner demons.
The voice, rough and gruff, so deep that it literally made him want to quake inside and set his skin and senses on fire spoke his name, the light pushing back all the dark. Hands brushed over his forehead, soothing him and quieting his fears. There was comfort there and love, an emotion so pure it almost seemed he was unworthy of it.
Blue eyes locked deep with his own, eyes like the sky on a bright summer day, only the purest of crystalline azure. He imagined he could see wings behind those eyes and felt as if he were soaring in the air. He didn’t understand the metaphor behind that then but somehow knew it was important.
Fingers ghosted over his skin, gentle caresses and touches that awakened a fire deep inside him, and Vincent just knew that he had find this person. He had to find the one man in his dreams, who truly loved him, if only to see if that feeling remained in real life…
Vincent turned once more to gaze on the more or less ghost town that was Nibelheim as he headed out towards the mountains of Nibel. He had been informed that there was a city on the other side of the range called Rocket Town, and for some reason, that name struck a chord within him. Having already transversed most of the continent, he decided that he might as well go on to that town also.
After all, his search in Nibelheim had proved entirely fruitless. After spending a night in the inn and having several disturbing and also pleasant dreams, Vincent had returned to the ShinRa mansion to search for the key to the other door in the basement. He had poked in every box, drawer, carton, and lifted up every loose board he could find. He sifted through dusty crates in the basement, opened the lid of every coffin, and still the key eluded him. He finally gave up after five hours of searching and listening to Erebus make snide comments.
It was then that he ventured over to the bar and heard about Rocket Town where the barkeeper had claimed he was born. He kept telling him that if he told the Captain about “Sammy” that the Captain could find him a job if he wanted one. He politely thanked the man and left from the bar. He had no interest in a job for the moment, his only interests lay in finding out who he was and the man in the dream as well, for that matter.
Grey eyes looked towards the town that was dying little by little each day and at the dilapidated ShinRa mansion still standing resolute against the world. He idly wondered if anyone would ever come to inhabit it again. Vincent still felt that many of the answers he was searching for were there but had conceded that for the moment they were beyond his reach.
He turned his back on Nibelheim and gazed with interest at the mountains in front of him. He had been told it was at least a day’s hike through the mountains, so that meant he would appear on the other side somewhere in the early hours of the morning which meant he would have to rest sometime between now and then.
Sighing his head, a bit weary of having walked nearly an entire damn continent in the past week or so, he wasn’t sure exactly how long, he headed into the mountains. He idly wondered how long he would have to travel before he found his way again or before he found any sort of answers.
The rain had fallen well through the evening and the night, and the afternoon was stifling as the midday sun worked on the water collected everywhere. He tried to ignore the wet heat that surrounded him but soon found he was sweating beneath his thick, grey cloak.
He heard the crunch of stones seconds before he felt the presence of the demi-god suddenly walking beside him. He was quiet, waiting for Erebus to speak first as he knew the demi-god would.
“On the road again.” Erebus sighed, shaking his head as his scythe struck the ground in staccato beside him.
Vincent frowned and glared at his anima. “As you are being as close to useless as one of your ability is able, I don’t see how you have a right to complain.”
The demi-god chuckled. “I was not complaining, just making an observation. This perpetual wandering, will it ever cease?”
Vincent shrugged. “I am going to find myself… and I’m going to find him.”
If he had a brow, Erebus was sure he would have cocked one at that statement. “Him?”
The grey-eyed man ignored the piercing gaze that was being directed at him, instead concentrating on the path before him. “Every night since I’ve had to leave Gongaga, and sporadically when I was there, I’ve dreamed of the same man. Whoever I’m going to find him because I know, if anyone knows me, it is that man.” His hand clenched into a fist at his words, his own solemn vow.
Erebus shook his head in amazement. “For such short lives… so much passion and strength… everyday you humans surprise me more.”
Vincent didn’t reply, having nothing to say to that as he continued to put one foot in front of the other, prepared for a long and arduous climb through the Mt. Nibel.