Atonement Chapter 3

By Faye Locke

The figure is silent, still as the rocks around him. His breath is cool, not misting in the morning mountain chill. Slowly he draws a deep breath . . . and holds it. The rocks seem to grow tense as long minutes pass by without him taking another breath. Finally, he slowly exhales. Air is not an issue with his system anymore, he realizes sadly. The continued inhalation and exhalations are from habit, not need. But at least he can still smell. That, at least, requires that he breathes, and seems to justify his continuation of the needless exercise. He looks down at the travelers he has been following for the past several days, wondering if he should continue to hunt them. If not them, then someone - something else. He can't deny his hunger any longer.

A stirring in the brush behind him draws his attention away from the people below. A mountain cat has joined his hunt. He scowls, angry at the cat's transgression on his feeding grounds. . . then scowls deeper, when he realizes how animalistic he is acting. This was not his territory, people did not have territories, animals did. I am not an animal! he screams silently to the teasing voices he imagines.

Then what are you? asks the crueler part of his mind. Anything that humans will ever accept? She did not accept it. She rejected you. You aren't fit to live with humans, you are only fit to live with the animals, to feed off them, to feed like them… to die like them.

But I can't die. . . .

The people below have found the tracks of the mountain cat, and are now debating whether to head back or continue on.

"There's only one, I am sure it won't attack," a man in blue assures a slim blonde woman by his side. The other member of the party, a balding quiet man, shakes his head.

"It's there territory now. If we continue, we will only find more cats. They get hungrier and meaner the farther you go in." The watcher agrees with the man, but does not move, lest he give away his location. He has noticed from the beginning of his watch that the balding man is a guide, one that knows how to blend in with the environment without attracting attention to himself. Alone, he might make it through the cats' territory unscathed. . .but with his two employers. . .The watcher turns his attention to them. They are city-dwellers, tourists possible, some to seek out treasure in the hills. That they had got a guide spoke marginally of their intelligence, but everything else about them was completely idiotic. From the bright clothes to the synthetic food and scents, they had attracted the attention of every predator in the area. Including the watcher.

"I thought you said that the cats were furthur in," the man in blue asks the guide.

"They expand their territory every year," the guide explains with a slight shrug, "they have come farther that I thought they would this year."

"We will continue," the man in blue says, shouldering his rifle in a show of manly protection, meant for the woman's benefit. At that moment, the cat above the watcher chose to attack. The hunter watches the cat spring from hiding, coiled hunger and hate riding every line of the feline's body. The watcher pulls his gun and shoots the animal in mid-leap, saving the group below. The cat continues its leap, landing at the feet of the shocked tourists in a dead lump. The watcher rises from the rocks, allowing himself to be seen.

"I suggest you leave," he says just loud enough for the guide, who is closest to him, to hear. The guide swallows harshly, recognizing the watcher. He nods his bald head sharply once, then turns to leave.

"What are you doing?" The man in blue demands. The guide shrugs again, looks up at the watcher, and continues back down the trail. The woman starts to follow him, but the man in blue grabs her arm and pulls her back. "We don't need him anyway. Let's go." The person in the rocks does not say anything more. The man in blue ignores him as he walks by. The woman looks back, for one last glance at the mysterious savior, but he is gone. She stifles a scream, then crowds closer to the man. The watcher is still watching, knowing that it would only be a short matter of time before another cat attacks.

He doesn't have to wait long. That night, a cat attacks them while they are setting camp, killing the man in blue before he ever gets a chance to lift his rifle. The woman screams in terror, announcing her presence to every night predator within hearing distance, although her fear, which she has been radiating since the guide left, has already drawn all the predators in range. The hunter, no longer watching, has contested with the other predators, driving them all away but the one who has already attacked. The woman has stopped screaming, crouching against a rock with her fist stuffed in her mouth, watching in mute terror as the cat devours the man. The glazed look in her eyes tells the hunter that her mind has shut down. Now is his time to attack. He creeps silently to the camp, ignoring the feeding cat as it ignores him. For now, the cat will honor the hunter, allowing him half the kill - the woman - but the cat could change its mind at any instant.

The blonde sees the hunter approaching, but makes no move toward him. He kneels beside her, carefully but firmly taking her wrist and pulling her first from her mouth. She gives a small gasp, the throws herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and weeping silently against his chest. The hunter is still a long moment, stunned by the woman's trust. The he shakes himself from his reverie, knowing that the cat is likely to forgo its inattention very soon. He brushes a few strands of hair from her neck, revealing a rapidly beating vein. He wraps his arm firmly around her waist, then bends down and sinks his fangs into her neck.

It is hard for him not to get lost in feeding from her, her terror and blood equally intoxicating him. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, his conscience is screaming, but he can't hear it, for the hunger and need eclipses all reason. She fights him at first, trying futilely to pull away from him, but her efforts soon grow weaker, then stop altogether. Her heart begins to slow, then, finally, stops. Only then down the hunter release her. He lets her body fall back against the rock, not looking at it. He turns to see the cat watching him speculatively. He moves his cloak back a little, revealing his gun holstered at his hip, indicating that he was not prey. The cat bears its teeth, but backs down, not before raising its golden eyes to meet the hunter's red eyes for a moment in challenge. The hunter turns his back to the cat and leaves the campsite. He doesn't look at either body. He calls out to the predators he has chased off, calling them to take part in what he has left. He conscience is louder now, and all her wants is to sleep, so he can't hear the voices. . . so that he can't see the eyes of the blonde woman, filled for an instant with hope. . . .

"Vincent. . . "

The voice called him from his dreams, calling him to wakefulness.

"Vincent. . ."

That voice. . .he knew that voice! How could he be hearing it once more? He stirred, trying to get up, but he couldn't open up his eyes. . .couldn't move!

"Vincent. . ."

The voice was growing fainter. He tried to get up, screaming mentally in frustration at his body's mutiny. He had to get up! He had to see her! He strained his ears, trying to hear her voice once more. . .but he heard nothing. Only silence, black and full, silence that smothered him and brought back the dreams.

Vincent awoke with a bitter taste in his mouth. He reached for the glass he had left on the night table the night before without opening his eyes. His hand groped around, not finding the wooden table like he expected, but the cold firmness of rock and dirt. Jumping up, now wide awake, Vincent looked at the cave around him in stunned amazement. How had he gotten here? Hadn't he just gone to sleep the night before in his room in . . . an icy coldness began welling in his stomach, fearing he knew the reason. He placed his hand on his hip, reassured by the gun that was holstered there. At least he was still armed. He rose to his feet, shaking off bits of dirt and grass, trying to remember. . .anything. Anything that would explain how he had gotten in the cave with a bitter taste in his mouth - so familiar - other than the reason he feared. He felt as if he had left something behind, or he had forgotten something terribly important. He stepped to the cave edge, looking blankly at the valley the cave overlooked. Rocks were scattered around the entrance in such a way that any creature approaching would make a horrible racket scrambling up the slope - or down from above - that the habitant of the cave would be long alerted of their presence. Vincent recognized the tactic, knowing it was his own.

A faint noise form above caught his attention. He turned around and quickly located a large mountain cat high up the slope watching him. For a moment, his eyes looked with the golden eyes of the cat. . .

And time stopped. Memories came cascading across his mind in an avalanche that eclipsed all other senses. He remembered. All. Vincent blinked, and the cat was gone. He managed to stumble back into the cave before collapsing from the horror he had done.

He had been in the valley for months, he knew now, hunting like an animal. First, he hunted the mountain cats and similar prey, taking the blood his body demanded from them, but it was not enough. It was never enough to take from animals when he . . . went berserk. He had hunted the humans that came to the valley seeking riches or trophies. Only. . .he had never taken any, until. . . until last night. The memory of the woman with blonde hair and her companion. He had known that they could not survive, and he had done nothing to help them. The guide he had saved, for he knew the man - as the man knew of him, and, for some reason, kept Vincent's existence a secret. Vincent had allowed the cat to kill the man, so that he might take the woman unimpeded…

If only I had better control! he thought madly, raking his claw against the rocky cave floor. I don't have to kill to feed, I know that! I didn't used to kill when... this happened. Why so different now? He turned his mind to the question that had been lingering all along. What had caused him to his mind again, to submit to the worldly desires and forget what it was to be human? Before, it had been love or hate that had made the hunger so strong that he forgot all else… what could have made him go over the edge again? He hoped dearly none of Avalanche had been with him - he wasn't sure where he had been before… during the time they had been hunting Sephiroth, they had never known, never suspected, his true nature. That which Hojo had endowed him out of the sheer lunacy that gave birth of the scientist's horrible experiments. He had fed a few times, from animals, during their hunt for Sephiroth, but always in secret.

He shook his head. He didn't know why. His mind was still blurry from the unknown time he had spent in the cave, succumbing to madness. Last night, a voice had called to him, he thought it had been Lucrecia's voice. . . had it been she who had lifted the madness? Would he ever be able to live without her coming to him at his most desperate moments?

It was then that he felt a beckoning… a pulling. For some reason, he felt that he needed to go north… to the Northern continent, no less. Had Lucrecia done this as well, given him this strange compulsion? Perhaps she was going to show him how to die, for that was what the Northern continent was renowned for. A place to die, no matter how strong you were, the Northern continent - at least, the uppermost reaches of - usually won. After all, had the great Sephiroth not met his end there? Perhaps Lucrecia was finally going to give him a way out, a way to be free at last. There was only one way to find out.

Vincent stepped on the shore, glad to be on solid ground once more. Bone Village was a short walk to the north, but he didn't want to go there. Human contact was still uncomfortable for him. On the boat, he had pretended sea sickness to stay in his cabin most of the voyage. He took a deep breath, enjoying the full coolness in the air. He still felt that pulling to the north, but it wasn't so strong. He wished he had stopped by Billy's to get a black chocobo. Now he was going to have to go through the Ancient's City to get to the snowy lands. Too many bad memories still lingered there in the City, and he didn't want to relive them, but he had no choice. He had to go North. But not toward the frozen wastelands, he now realized, but toward the western end of the Dream Forest.

Author's Note: I am hoping that Vincent fans aren't going to kill me... This chapter kinda doesn't seem to fit in, I realize that, but, I promised the other characters would get to play too, so I have to go about doing the introductions... (Wait until you see Yuffie...*laugh*) Also, the writing style - present tense, is a little weird, and it is probably the only time you are going to see that from me. For some reason, I just started writing it that way, couldn't think of how to write it any other. I do not suggest you try writing in present tense unless you really want to go insane!


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