Chapter Twenty-Six: That Which Was Lost
A most familiar cavern on the other side of the world still filled with demons, numbers greater than ever before it seemed. The monsters, the creatures, the nightmares were multiplying so quickly that before one died three were there to take its place. Some had never even been seen before on the face of Gaia, the produce of one scientist’s sick mind; they were rebuilt, mutated, and reproduced.
The creatures clung to every surface: ceiling, wall, floor, and occasionally each other, slithering and sliding across the barren rock, touch like poison to even the strongest rock. They hissed and cackled, yellow and crimson eyes flashing with brutality. Mouths full of fangs bit and snapped as blood-stained claws scratched marks in the walls and occasionally each other.
The stench that rose from such a gathering of creatures was unbearable, not that they minded. Occasional fights would break out among them, leaving broken, bloody bodies on the floor, though some didn’t last long due to the hungry creatures. Altogether, it was a place no human would dare tread.
The monsters were celebrating.
Victory was at hand! The humans were beneath their taloned feet. Soon they would be free to burn and destroy with no opposition. The Planet would crumble, the world becoming a wasteland. Indeed, it would be glorious. Only a short time now… only a matter of steps before the humans were so completely beaten and cowering in fear… only…
“Silence!” the loud voice boomed through every corridor, every nook, and every cranny, reaching the ear of every monster and repeating the command. The demons immediately fells silent, none able to push down the fear that rose within them at the voice.
Balaam was powerful, terrifying, methodic and relentless in his anger, murderous in his fury. His power was greater than any gathered, even in his weakened state, and his thirst for blood was unmatched.
He craved the destruction of the humans and their ilk and desired the fall of the demi-gods, especially those traitors Erebus and Baal. He sneered at their names and vowed for blood shed, eyes glinting in madness. His hatred was unquenchable and only served to fuel his drive to see the world destroyed, dead at his hands. He would be Lord and Master of a desolate world, and it would be perfect… the ultimate “fuck you” to Kami for locking him away.
All eyes fell to the throne, where the pulsating shadow was located. More time had passed, and Balaam was becoming even stronger. Limbs were slowly starting to form, and his basic shape was beginning to define. His eyes had more fire, more fury, and of course, the aura of power was so thick in the room that it was difficult to even breathe or think especially beneath the penetrating glare.
“Status report!” he demanded, glaring down at his minions. “I want to know how it went.”
“Junon was completely destroyed,” spoke up one creature with large soulless eyes and a prickly exterior. It had a big mouth and constantly fidgeted as if filled with boundless energy. “Survivors are being picked off one by one by a small contingency even as we speak.” His voice was rather high-pitched and squeaky, very grating on the ears.
The purple blob-like monster stepped forward, robes swishing across the ground. “Isis put up a fight, for a time, but Cosmo Canyon was nonetheless crushed beneath my fist.” He chuckled darkly before adding one more detail. “I even killed her animus.”
“Though much of Midgar was damaged, the attack failed,” mumbled a small demon, yellow lizard eyes wide with fear as it covered on the floor. “Hephaestion, that foul demi-god, protected the city, while Mabuz was defeated by two humans, Seiryu, and Tiamet.”
His words sent a murmur of surprise through those gathered. Mabuz, defeated? The humans were connecting with their anima? Was a resistance forming?
Balaam growled, shadow convulsing on the throne. The entire cavern fell silent and the lone demon whimpered before lying prostrate on the ground. The demi-god on the throne ignored the cowering creature.
“And what of Wutai?” demanded Balaam. “Was it crushed?”
“Mostly,” lisped Daunte. “The town was obliterated, but most of the humans survived. As you well know, Aclepious’ shield is the strongest defense of the pantheon.”
The gathered shadows flexed. “No matter. The fear is what is important. And right now, the humans are frightened.”
“It is the perfect time to crush them then, while they are weak and insecure,” hissed a large red-scaled lizard draped in thick brown robes.
“I don’t want them to just die; I want them to suffer as well,” hissed Balaam. “Everything is going according to plan. For now, we back off, build our forces, raise my army, and let them think it’s all over. Let them believe in peace. And once the time is right…” he paused, eyes glittering with madness,” … we destroy their dreams and raze the land to the ground!”
A cheer rose up from those gathered. It seemed nothing could stop them. The humans were on the run, and there was naught they could do.
“And what of the knights?” questioned a random demon from the crowd. Almost immediately, the group fell quiet in respect as they waited for Balaam to respond.
The demon king growled angrily. “What of them?”
“Forgive our questioning, but have they submitted to our rule yet?” questioned Daunte, idly flipping an edge of his cloak over his shoulder. “Are their power ours to have?”
The shadow on the throne flexed angrily, the entire room darkening. Balaam prepared to respond when another voice resounded through the area.
“I believe I shall be the one to answer that,” the definitively female voice said. The ranks of demons and monsters began to part as a woman with shocking red hair and a white lab coat walked through, booted feet clomping noisily against the stone scattered ground. She had thick black glasses and her messy kinked hair was swept back with a tattered brown scarf, to match the dull brown of her eyes. Her hands were in her pockets and she wasn’t the most attractive of humans.
Balaam growled and flexed his ghostly body once more. “You’d better have good news to be risking death by walking in here, Hojo.”
The woman waved a hand of dismissal. “I thought I told you. Hojo is dead. Just call me Alice.”
“Get on with it!” demanded the angry king of monsters.
She sighed unattractively and shifted in her position, performing something that would have been seductive if there was anything attractive about her. The red-head snorted and idly flicked a piece of hair out of her face.
“I have finished the last of the control chips. Implanting has been marginally successful, but for all intents and purposes, the knights are no longer a nuisance.”
A small cheer resonated throughout the crowd. They had all been eagerly awaiting the turnover of the knights, knowing that their powers would make their side nearly unstoppable. The humans would be able to do nothing against the magic and strength of the knights.
Controlling them had been an issue, especially Arthur. The king was very strong-minded and fought them to the last second, but none of the knights were prepared for the scientific and evil genius of Alice Hojo and the last remnants of research by her husband. In the end, there was nothing they could do.
“How soon before I can use them against the humans?” hissed Balaam, interrupting the cheers of the creatures.
She frowned and inspected the dirt beneath her fingernails. “They are ready now, I suppose. I’m eager to see if the chips will eat their minds like I think they will.”
Balaam laughed, the low sound hoarse and mocking. “I’ve always appreciated the work of Hojo. From the stunning results of your husband upon the host to what you’ve done now. You’re humans that ought to have been demons.”
Alice smirked as she smoothed down the front of her blood-stained lab coat. “Nice to know the genius has been appreciated. I’m off to test this newest enhancer, something to do with mako and such, highly technical, I won’t bore you with the details.” With that said, she swept from the room, the demons again making room for her to pass.
The shadowed hand of Balaam waved at the gathered demons and monsters. “Carrying on with your celebration.”
Cackles of laughter and cheers resounded quickly and the volume level fast climbing. The monsters were beside themselves with glee, convinced that they were on the path to victory.
Daunte shook his head at their stupidity and wove through the careening creatures, approaching Balaam. He could see the crimson eyes of his king watching him warily and had to suppress the urge to shudder. The demi-god king was a true menace, and he could feel no sympathy for the humans that would dare take him on in his completed form.
“With the knights within our control, nothing can stop us,” hissed Daunte, “But unless we can find the host, there is still the chance we can be resealed. He still has Azamat’s orb, and my minion is still looking to reclaim Mabuz…” he trailed off as Balaam held out a shadowed hand to stop him.
“We will raze every town on this planet to the ground. Even rats come out when fire threatens. The host will be found, and he will be destroyed.”
“Might I suggest the Sahuagin?”
Balaam eyed Daunte. “I wasn’t aware they were complete.”
The demi-god sighed and lifted a hand of annoyance. “Alice left that little tidbit out. They’ve been complete for awhile now. They should be able to find and destroy the host within a week.”
If his face was visible, Daunte was sure that Balaam would have frowned, so evident was his frustration by the angry exhale of air. “Very well then. Give the order. The Sahuagin are to track down and destroy the host.”
Daunte bowed and excused himself from Balaam’s presence, leaving the demon king to brood on his own while hordes of monsters celebrated around him.
Crimson-stained claws scraped around in the dirt as bright orange eyes carefully scrutinized the ground. Its wings fluttered against its back, eager to take to the skies as it occasionally gave nervous glances over its shoulder. The demon was in enemy territory but it had also been given an order, and this creature was nothing if not obedient.
It had been told to search for a specific item. One small black marble, clouded with a dark grey interior and barely bigger than the pad of his thumb. It would be unobtrusive, it would be small, but the little demon should be able to sense out the small pulse of dark power. At least, that was what it had been told.
He growled frustrated and fluttered to another spot, swiping at the dusty ground with an irritated paw and glancing once more over its shoulder, convinced an axe or dagger would be heading for its unprotected back at any moment.
Something pulsed beneath a claw and the creature yelped, drawing back for a moment in fear, eyes falling on the spot where he had just been standing. There was a glint as some item caught the light of the fading suns. It crouched and crept closer, poking once at the mysterious object. It rolled out of the small cubby hole it had accommodated, covered in thick brown dirt.
Curious, the demon picked it up and examined it, idly rubbing off the dirt. He was pleased to find that the object was small and round, and beneath the soil, it was black with a dark grey interior. He had found it.
Chuckling darkly to itself, the monster spread its wings and took to the sky. Wouldn’t his master be pleased?
Rude was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, arms folded over his chest as he watched his wife hum softly while distractedly cleaning the kitchen. He could easily make out her rounded belly and couldn’t help his smile of happiness. She was so beautiful, and he knew how astoundingly lucky he was to have her.
He remembered the first time he saw her, following Cid Highwind like a little lost puppy. She was beautiful even then, with her big brown eyes and long hair. He used to joke with Reno about how he always had a thing for brunettes; including the short crush he had on Tifa… that bitch.
He recalled his first mission to Rocket Town when he ran into her once more. She was flustered by his attentions, surprised by his interest and still completely head over heels for Highwind. However, he had faith in his own ability to win her over.
And win her, he had. She was his wife now and Rude found Shera was entirely worth the wait.
Chuckling quietly to himself, Rude stole quietly into the kitchen and caught his wife from behind, wrapping his arms around her and placing his chin on her shoulder.
“Mmm,” she made a pleased sound in the back of her throat as she closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. “I knew you were there,” the brunette commented.
He smiled. “Was it that obvious?”
“I can always tell when I’m being ogled,” she teased in return, patting a hand on his arm.
He didn’t respond, only nuzzled her neck gently, content to hold her in his arms. Until her stomach growled noisily, interrupting the moment.
Shera laughed. “I guess I’d better cook dinner, huh?”
“Hmm,” contemplated Rude. “Why don’t we go out to eat? You know Varin built a restaurant conjoined with the inn. We could go there.”
The brunette went quiet for a moment. “I though we were going to cut back on unnecessary costs?”
Rude quirked an eyebrow. “Taking you out to dinner is most assuredly a necessary cost. Besides, remember that job with the business man? I know its going to work out.”
“Well,” began Shera. “So long as you are offering, and I am eating for two now…”
The bald man chuckled and kissed the top of her head. “Go get your stuff, and we’ll go.”
She squeezed his hand and stepped out of his embrace. “Might I consider this a date?”
Rude winked in response. “Be careful, we can’t let my wife know.” Shera laughed and darted away to go get her jacket, shaking a finger at him.
A few minutes later, the two locked up their home and headed for the new restaurant attached to the inn. They were greeted as they traveled the streets of Rocket Town, the both of them pretty well known in town. Rude had an arm around his wife, and she in turn had an arm wrapped around him. There was a smile on Shera’s face, and the two looked completely in love.
Shera smiled up at Rude contentedly as she placed a hand on her belly. It was not long before they found themselves standing outside the newly redone inn with its brand new elegant sign.
Rude moved forward and opened the door for his wife, allowing her to enter before him. She smiled at her husband and walked in, noting with surprise at the changed décor. What had once been a plain and rather boring entranceway to the small inn was now decorated with stunning landscapes and entrancing tapestries. The plain light bulb had been replaced with a simple yet elegant chandelier, and the reception desk had been upgraded. There were a small number of people milling about and talking as they waited to be seated at the upper class restaurant, which Shera could just barely see through the door to her left.
It was at the reservation desk that she caught a glimpse of a man wearing a dark, grey cloak with his long, black hair tied back. Shera was jealous of the outsider’s hair as it was prettier than any females she had seen, including her own. From behind, he seemed very travel weary with his mud splattered cloak and slumped shoulders. The stranger was talking with the clerk, apparently trying to get a room. Insanely curious, Shera listened in on the conversation. Rude stepped up beside her, idly scanning the room as well. They would have to wait like the others to be seated, so there was no rush.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we are all booked up for the evening. We’ve not that many rooms to begin with, and tourists are becoming more frequent,” the desk clerk explained, shaking his head. Shera could hear the man’s soft spoken reply, finding it very pleasing to her ears.
“That’s unfortunate,” came the quiet tone, smooth and sultry with a slight Gongagan accent not unlike Rude’s. He only spoke with it when he wasn’t paying enough attention, such as when he was having a heated ‘discussion’ with her. “I was interested in sleeping within four walls. Is there another town beyond here?”
The clerk frowned slightly. “Yes, sir, but they are quite a ways away, at the far coast. You’d probably do better to go to Nibelheim, just over the mountains to the south.”
The man sighed, looking faintly off to the right, allowing Shera a brief glimpse of the side of his face. She gasped quietly, believing he looked very familiar. Rude frowned slightly, looking to his wife in concern as she nudged him to look at the man as well. Her eyes were wide with hope, almost missing what the stranger said next.
The outsider continued, “I’ve just come from there. You are telling me I have to turn around the way I came to find another town, retracing all of my steps?”
The clerk nodded, glancing once more at the registration book on the desk in front of him and eyeing the line of customers behind the stranger.
“I think that’s Vincent,” Shera explained in a whisper, not taking her eyes off of the dark-haired man. “We have to do something.”
Rude nodded. He wasn’t very good at recognizing faces, that was always Reno’s job, so he relied on Shera. “Invite him to stay with us. Tell him about Highwind’s airship. I think he’s lost his memory, if he is indeed Valentine.” He was already reaching for his pocket, where he kept his PHS.
Shera smiled just as the dark-haired man sighed and turned from the desk, allowing her a full view of his features.
Gone were the haunting scarlet eyes and the frightening golden claw, but the man was unmistakably Vincent Valentine. She would know his face anywhere, even though she hadn’t spent much time around him. She often remembered Vincent as being one of the most beautiful men she had ever seen; he was obviously masculine but also very beautiful. She also caught a glimpse of a gun beneath the folds of his cloak. Before he could walk past her and disappear again, she spoke up.
“Excuse me,” she called out, catching his eye. He paused in his steps, inclining his head in her direction.
“Yes?” he questioned with a raised brow.
Shera smiled, idly rubbing her belly. “I couldn’t help but overhear…” she began. “My husband and I have a spare room, and my brother owns an airship. He’s coming here tomorrow and would be more than happy to give you a lift somewhere.”
He furrowed his brow, a look of surprise registering on his face. “You would do that… for a stranger?” he questioned.
The brunette stuck out her hand in greeting. He took it slowly. “I’m Shera Alexander,” she gestured towards Rude. “This is my husband, Rude.”
His eyes widened at the sound of her name. It was familiar to him somehow. A brief flash of memory sparked in his mind, going by so fast he could not catch it. All he saw was brown hair and a vague sparkle of the number eight.
“I’m Vincent…” he returned, trailing off. That was the most he knew.
Shera smiled. “Now, we are no longer strangers. Our offer is still open…?”
“I appreciate the kindness,” he responded, bowing his head slightly. Just then, Shera’s stomach growled. They still had not eaten.
She laughed, a bit embarrassed. “I guess I am a bit hungry.”
“We can go home,” Rude intruded. “I’ll cook for us all.”
The brunette smiled. “Sounds good to me. Coming, Vincent?”
He nodded, following the odd couple out the door. He was glad to be going somewhere warm and soft for the night. After camping out the night before in the Nibelheim Mountains, constantly alert for monster attacks and trying to get comfortable, he was willing to risk the kindness of strangers. Erebus had excused himself at some point, disappearing to Kami-sama knows where.
He walked only slightly behind the couple, casually observing their behavior. They were so plainly in love, which was clearly obvious from the shared glances to the soft touches. He knew the female was pregnant; she positively glowed with happiness. He couldn’t help but feel envious of their feelings, wanting something like that for himself, even as he knew somewhere inside that there was someone out there for him.
“So… where are you from?”
The question caught him off guard. Vincent hadn’t been expecting it. He looked up to find Shera gazing at him, as though she already knew the answer to the question. Her husband and she paused in their movements, allowing him time to catch up. He stepped up his pace so they wouldn’t have to wait.
“I’m not entirely sure, though I last remember being in Gongaga,” he replied honestly, waiting for their startled reactions. He was surprised when none came. Instead Shera nodded politely.
She gestured towards her husband. “Rude was born and raised in Gongaga. His mother still lives there now. I heard they had some trouble down there…”
Vincent paled but struggled to maintain his composure. His guilt hit him full force, nearly causing him to stagger with the sudden attack of his conscience.
“Aye…” he said slowly. “A band of demons ransacked the town.”
Rude nodded. “My mother called to tell me she was fine. She made mention of a man named Zack who killed them all. Did you know him?”
The dark-haired man shook his head negatively. “No one named Zack exists anymore,” he responded gravely.
The couple exchanged glances but didn’t say anything more on the subject. They continued on their walk in silence for several more moments before Rude spoke.
“You walked here from Gongaga?” the bald man questioned. “That’s quite a distance. Searching for anything in particular?”
His back twinged painfully but he ignored it. “Something very important,” the other male answered enigmatically. “I lost it, and now, I am trying to find it.” He shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts, and absentmindedly rubbed his scarred hand. “You said you had a friend that could give me transport?”
Shera nodded as they approached the house, dropping back a few feet to wrap her arm in Vincent’s. “His name is Captain Highwind, surely you’ve heard of him?” Her brown eyes searched his face beseechingly as Rude opened the door to their home and gestured them inside.
“Hm… what is there for me now? Having seen the stars…”
“”I always thought this planet was so huge. But looking down on it from space, I realized it is so small. We are just floating in the dark… it made me feel powerless. On top of all that, it has Sephiroth festerin’ inside it like a damn sickness.” A smile broke out on his face as he revealed the fruit of his ponderings. He rubbed his face, hand trailing across the stubble that seemed always present. His voice was rough yet soothing…
Vincent shook his head. His memory was nearly useless as were the scattered fragments. The sky? A rocket? Seeing the stars? He knew nothing of any of it. He ignored the sparks of pain in his shoulder blades and returned his attention to the pregnant brunette, leading him through her home.
“It sounds vaguely familiar,” the dark-haired commented man. “I believe someone in Nibelheim might have mentioned him.”
Rude turned around startled from where he had been flipping on lights as he led them through the house. “You were in Nibelheim?” He knew of the town’s significance for Vincent Valentine.
The grey-eyed man frowned. “Isn’t it necessary to travel through there to get here?”
The dark-skinned nodded. “Yes, but… never mind. What would the two of you like to eat?” He changed subjects as they emerged into the kitchen, Shera and their guest taking a seat at the table.
“Something simple,” Shera commented. “I think we are both to hungry to wait for something that would take awhile.” She smiled up at her husband.
He nodded in understanding and set some water to boil. Shera started talking to Vincent, and he took that as his cue.
Rude excused himself for a moment from the kitchen, grabbing his phone from his pocket. He dialed the Captain’s number, now that Vincent was distracted by Shera. The phone rang three times before it was answered.
“Highwind,” Cid responded, voice only slightly angry and annoyed.
“It’s Rude,” the dark-skinned man responded simply, idly running hand over his bald head. It was a nervous habit.
Cid coughed, and Rude could hear some noise going on in the background. “Yeah?” the Captain questioned. “What’s up? Shera finish those figures?”
The former Turk cleared his throat. “No. We’ve found him, Cid.”
For a moment, the pilot couldn’t breathe. He knew without asking who the dark-skinned man meant. “Are you sure?” he asked.
“Shera believes so. I’m not that good with faces, but I trust her. His looks have changed somewhat, I don’t quite know what happened and neither does he. Vincent doesn’t remember anything, especially not who he really is. Shera and I haven’t told him either. We wanted to leave that to you.”
The blond couldn’t stop his heart from pounding. “Look, Rude, I’m in Wutai. I can be there in less than forty-five minutes. Whatever you do, don’t let him leave.”
Rude nodded although the Captain couldn’t see him. “I know. See you soon.” The pilot didn’t even say good bye before hanging up. The phone went dead in Rude’s hands.
He smiled faintly before shoving the phone into his pocket and returning to the kitchen. Shera looked up as he did so, a question in her brown eyes. He nodded once in explanation. She smiled and returned to her conversation with Vincent.
Rude went back to his cooking, believing that the world would now return to some semblance of normal. Perhaps Cid could be happy again…