The Thief of Hell Section 2

By Princess Artemis

Two days after Cloud and Vincent had left for Nibelheim, Cid awoke, unspeakably relieved that he could actually get his ^*& out of that damn recliner and move around a little. He stretched with the thoroughness of a cat; ‘sleeping’ for a little over a week in a recliner made for some interesting cramps. He was very slow about trying to remove them; he still felt sick and lightheaded and he didn’t really want to faint right then and there.

After a few moments of basking in the glory of what was standing upright, Cid ran a hand through his blond hair and quickly decided he need a shower really, really bad. I must look like hell, he thought to himself, worse than I feel at least. He slowly wandered through his room into the bathroom and turned the hot water on, letting it heat up as he removed the flannel night clothes he had worn for he didn’t want to know how long. He didn’t want to think real hard about the logistics involved, so he just left it at that. Some things were better left alone and unknown. He glanced at himself in the mirror, not quite sure as to what he should expect, but what he saw really wasn’t all that bad…. Well, okay, so he did look like death warmed over, but it could have been worse. It could have been better, too. His eyes were glowing; he blinked a moment, trying to block out a little of that glare in his eyes. The sky’s stinging blue…he shook his head, trying to dislodge some haunting memory he couldn’t quite grasp. Other than that, he didn’t look half as scruffy as he expected; apparently his stubble had decided not to grow at all. He ran a hand over his chin, wondering why he didn’t have the beginnings of a beard yet. What the hell’s that…? he thought after catching sight of the IV taped to the back of his hand. Pulling his hand down, he examined it closely, poking the plastic tube thingy that was taped on his arm. When did that get there? He had a vague recollection of the doctor pulling something like that out of his black bag, but anything after that was just fog and dull panic. He shrugged a little and decided to put off thinking about it until after he was clean and dressed. So, in pursuit of that goal, he stepped into the shower and proceeded to wash himself and scrub what felt like two years’ worth of ick out of his hair. Damn natural resource…

Several minutes later, Cid shut off the water and looked at his hands again. $^%#, I’m fallin’ apart! There was a ton of hair tangled up in his fingers. This little bout with Mako poisoning had left him in pretty bad shape. He gathered it up into one hand and grimaced at it. He couldn’t shake the disgusting feeling that he had a drain-clog all wadded up in his hand. So what if he knew it had to have come off his head just now, it was still gross. He took the wad of blond hair and dropped it into the trash, flicking the last few strands that clung to his wet hands. He grabbed a towel and dried off, a little wary of drying his hair for fear of dislodging more of it.

He wandered back into his room and slowly put on his regular get up. Before he got his jacket on, he slumped heavily onto his bed, feeling a little dizzy and his vision swimming. Too much standin’ for a while, he supposed as he lay back on the comforter. Well, his bed felt a damn sight more comfortable than the recliner anyway. After several minutes, he sat up, trying to fight off a sudden drowsiness. Slept too much already…how long had he slept? He rubbed his head, having trouble thinking.

how did you find…don’t worry about that, i just did, ok?

Voices…Cid shook his head, sure he must be on the edge of sleep…didn’t feel like it though…

so what’re we gonna do…you wanna do it different…?oh, yes, i think we will…it’s taking him forever!you worry too much, probably just shocked…i mean, think about it…it’s gotta be a shock

The sounds were so faint, but so real, heard with a strange clarity although they were only memories. Is that what it is? Cid thought, could those voices be memories?

look like hell.yeah, wonder why…such an idiot, you are such a fool.i wonder if everything’s gonna be ok, i mean… …be fine, sure, it’ll be fine. don’t worry, you’ll be fine

He knew there was something he couldn’t recall, some reason he had Mako poisoning, and he wondered if this was part of it; too bad those remembered words didn’t mean anything to him. The room had begun taking on a very uncomfortable tilt, making him nauseous. He closed his eyes and leaned heavily into his bare hands, resting his elbows on his knees. He wanted to lie down, but he didn’t trust himself to do it without either falling or throwing up, so he sat very still and tried to ignore the dizziness spinning through his head.

sky’s awful bright it is the wind preparing itself…well, off you go, you know your way home, doncha?not taking it well. what a lovely day…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sky so blue.

After a few more minutes of vertigo, the nausea began to subside. Just to be sure, Cid sat a little longer, not wanting to agitate an already weak stomach. The sky was blue and bright…why did that keep coming back to him? Very slowly he stood and took a tentative step. He didn’t feel dizzy anymore, so he guessed it was okay. He walked out into the front room then into the kitchen and sat down.

After several minutes of just sitting and trying to make sense of the words he remembered, Cid heard Shera’s footsteps on the stairs to the porch on the front of the house. Again, he knew just by listening to her movements how she felt. She was tired, worn out, but somehow he knew it wasn’t for lack of sleep. He felt bad for her; he wished she wouldn’t worry about him so much, but he supposed he would be right there with her if the situation were reversed. He smiled slightly; his worryin’ and Shera’s worryin’ were two different animals, that was for sure. The door opened and Shera stepped in, then quickly closed it. He felt a breeze come through the kitchen just as the door closed. He looked over at Shera; judging by her appearance, the wind was rough out there. Her longish brown hair was in an advanced state of disarray, even more hair than usual hanging in her face and escaping her ponytail, and one lapel on her white coat stood on end, flipped up by the wind. She was carrying a few bags of groceries and her purse, which had made it’s way down her arm and hung by her feet. She kicked it a few times as she walked into the kitchen with the bags; they looked heavy, but she wasn’t bothered by the weight. Shera was a bit taller than Cid was and the form of her body was in proportion to her height; she was a lot stronger than one would expect from the somewhat timid way she carried herself. He winced at the memory of the first time he had realized how strong she was; he’d had a black eye for a week due to her forcefully demonstrating how pissed she was that day. She was a big girl, and he owed his life to that fact; when tank number eight had failed, he would have been Meteor fodder if she hadn’t been there to help lift it off his leg.

After Shera set the bags down, she went over and gave Cid a hug then sat down in the chair next to him. She looked him over; he looked pretty bad. He had lost too much weight and he was still very pale; there were dark circles under his glowing blue eyes and he looked weak. She could tell he was still extremely sick, but it was equally obvious that he felt much better than he had for the last several days. Ever since Doctor Anderson had set up the IV, Cid had been asleep. She noticed he had lost some hair, too. "It’s about time you got up, Captain. I was getting tired of dusting off the cobwebs," she said with a smile.

"Very funny. I see how it is; I’m surprised ya didn’t put me in the garage. Don’t be expectin’ nuthin’ outta me when you get sick!" Cid replied, his face stern but his voice laughing. "Speakin’ of cobwebs, is that what you decided ta do ta yer hair? Put those cobwebs in it? Or did Cait Sith sleep in it?"

Shera gave him a glare of mock-menace, her brown eyes flashing with mirth. "Look who’s talking, baldy-locks," she said, "What did you do, get frustrated when you couldn’t find the remote? Or did you run out of tea again?"

Cid rolled his eyes theatrically, grinning wide. He enjoyed such playful sparring, especially with Shera. He loved her so much, more than he could say and more than he could ever show in a lifetime. It had taken him too damn long to pull his head out of his *^# and realize it, though, and they both had hurt because of it. But that was water under the bridge; if for ten years he had mistreated Shera, it was certainly a profound loss, but he could not let that injured past stop him from loving her now. He wondered sometimes what it would have been like if he had been less prideful and more honest with himself for all of those years…. He knew he could not love her any more then or in the future as he did now, but he also knew that it wasn’t a matter of more or less so much as it was a matter of maturity. It had been approximately seven months since the Venus Gospel had forced him to face the emotions and thoughts of his heart, seven months since he had finally realized how he truly felt, seven months since his spear had shown him the truth. Today his love was no less and no more, but it was immeasurably richer, like a pattern that never leaves a set boundary but as time goes on becomes increasingly complex and unimaginably beautiful. What would it be in ten years? Thirty? He longed for it.

Shera noticed a change in Cid’s demeanor so she asked, "Penny for your thoughts?"

Cid looked down at the table, still smiling. After a moment he looked up at Shera and said, "I was just thinking about how much I love you. And how I can hardly wait to know what it’s like to love you in thirty years." Leaning over closer, he touched her hair and kissed her softly.

After they parted, Shera smiled and stroked his hair above those flight goggles he always wore. She wasn’t too alarmed when some of it fell out; it was to be expected, even if it wasn’t very pleasant. "This was worth the wait, Cid," she answered quietly, "If the last ten years were necessary just so I could love you like this, then I would do it all over again." It was a precious gift the spirit in Cid’s spear had given her, the ability to truly love and forgive him, to be able to call ten years of such pain and strife good. But she truly would not want anything changed; that was a gift worth dying for.

Shera’s smile grew mischievous. "Thirty years…is that how long I have to wait before you marry me?"

The pilot snickered and turned away for a moment. He looked back at Shera sidelong and said, "No, I won’t make ya wait that long. I know if I do, you ain’t gonna be here when I finally get my lazy *^& around ta askin’, an’ I don’t want that…or else you’ll knock my head off fer takin’ too damn long." After a moment’s thought, his expression turned serious. "You really wanna marry me?"

Shera nodded. "Yeah, of course I do." A few minutes of silence followed, with the two just enjoying each other’s company for a while. This was such a beautiful thing, to sit, silent and content, without all the discomfort and uneasiness one would expect after speaking of marriage, to be still like this.

Shera got up and started putting the groceries away. "Are you feeling up to eating something? I’m going to fix myself a sandwich; do you want one?"

Cid thought about it for a second, rubbing the back of his hand where the IV was. That thing…it gave him the creeps. He did feel a little hungry, though. "Yeah, I guess I can try. First though, I’m goin’ outside and havin’ a smoke." He stood slowly, holding his head to ward off a slight dizziness, then walked outside, grabbing his pack of cigarettes on the way. He lit up and took a deep drag off the cigarette. He sighed contentedly and blew the smoke out his mouth, gazing absently at the horizon. The wind was a little rough, but not as bad as it was when Shera came in.

The neighbor’s orange tabby cat wandered up to the white picket fence and hoped up on a post. It set its wide-eyed gaze on Cid and flicked its ears back. Cid watched the cat for a moment, unknowingly returning the unblinking feral stare with one of his own. He did feel a little hungry. The cat reared up and exposed its sharp canines, hissing and bristling its tail. I can’t do this… The cat was scared; it sensed something dangerous, and Cid saw in its dark blue eyes a silent wish it had never come this way.

Without thinking, the pilot launched himself toward the cat, easily reaching the post where it had stood in one jump. Normally, he was extremely agile, but today there was a grace in him that only those made for the hunt possessed. Wild blue electricity formed around his right hand, spitting animal fury. The feline bolted, darting toward a nearby oak. It never made it to the tree. With fluid grace and surprising speed, Cid cleared the fence and caught the frightened cat in one leap. The dragon energy crackling about his fist killed it instantly. This isn’t right…

Quickly, Cid carried the cat around to the Tiny Bronco and sat down under one of the wings with his back to the fuselage, in a relatively protected spot. He felt an instinctive need for privacy as he began very carefully tearing strips of flesh off the deceased animal and eating them. This isn’t right…

He finished quickly, and there was nothing recognizable left except the blood on his hands and bits of gore and fur on the ground. He wasted nothing, not even the marrow. What in the hell am I doing?! And as the feline he had just consumed might have on a more fortunate day, he began licking his hands clean in a very methodical and precise way.

He heard Shera open the door and call for him. "I’m over here," he said calmly as he stretched his arms and shifted a little to get more comfortable. It was only right to take a little nap after eating such a tasty meal. He wished that nagging feeling that something was wrong would go away.

Shera walked over to the Tiny Bronco and leaned over to peer under its wing. She saw Cid resting there, content as could be, hands stained red and mouth bloodied, crimson liquid dripping on his white scarf and a few tufts of wiry orange hair stuck to his chin and clothes. For a brief second, her face was impassive; the level of shock she felt was impossible to express. Then her jaw dropped and she covered her mouth with one hand, holding on to the metal wing with the other. Cid narrowed his eyes in confusion; why was she so surprised? Dammit, this isn’t right! It was perfectly natural for a predatory creature such as himself to kill.

Predatory creature? Cid turned his head away, his blue eyes searching the empty air. When had he ever been a predator? It was so natural! Squinting his eyes shut and holding his head at a sudden and deep pain that twisted through his gut, he let loose a long, low wail, an inhuman sound. Since when did he kill and eat his neighbor’s pets? A gust of wind buffeted the small airplane, causing it to shudder slightly. But it was so natural, so right! I know this isn’t right!

Shera was at a total loss. She didn’t want to begin to think about what that slick of gore and bits of bone on the dirt had once been. Something was very wrong with Cid. After what felt like an eternity of standing and gaping, she found her voice and squeaked, "Wh-what happened?! Cid, what happened?!"

What is wrong with me? With a mighty mental effort, Cid took hold of the still and silent words, grabbing tightly to that deep light that whispered the truth, for somehow he knew that no matter how natural and easy it seemed to be a predator, it wasn’t that way at all. He found himself possessing of a whole new set of powerful, strange, and yet very comfortable instincts; he now knew that those predatory instincts had driven him to kill the tabby cat. It was second nature, as if he had always been a hunter. It confused him, and it was difficult to hold on to the truth, so difficult that it even caused him physical pain. He was fighting his nature, red in tooth and claw; but why was it his nature now when it never had been before? It hadn’t been, had it? He looked up into Shera’s face, seeing her shock, wondering why it took so long to feel it himself. "I-I killed Devon’s cat…," he finally said, his voice small and quiet.

Shera shook her head; the evidence was plain to see, but the concept was nearly impossible to grasp. Cid had more than killed the cat. "But…but why? I don’t understand…." She looked back at his bloody hands, her eyes widening. "Captain, look at your hands…!" she exclaimed in incredulity.

Cid pulled his hands away from his temples and examined them. His own eyes widened at what he saw. He had no fingernails; instead, the tip of each finger, right after the last joint, curved and tapered into a hard, ebony claw, a cross between a cat’s and a bird’s. He flexed his fingers; they felt strange now, almost unnatural. He tried to get rid of the strange feeling by clenching and unclenching his fists, but as he did, his grasp on the truth began to slip. The more comfortable he became with those curving fingertips, the harder it was to remember that he wasn’t an animal, that he wasn’t a predator. That I’m not a dragon…I know it isn’t true! It scared him. As he tightened his grip on what was truly human in him, his hands tensed painfully. "Damn, this is bad," he whispered to himself. He looked back up at Shera, trying to ignore the increasing pain in his hands. She hadn’t recovered from her shock much at all. Cid stumbled to his feet, whatever graced he normally had deserting him.

Shera tentatively took his arm and walked with him back into the house. They both went into the bathroom. While Shera got a towel and wet it at the sink, Cid looked at himself in the mirror. The first thing he saw was the blood on his mouth and chin. It was strange how little it seemed to bother him; it disgusted him deeply, but in less deep ways it seemed as normal as getting peanut butter on one’s fingers. He sighed and shook his head, worried because the sight didn’t affect him the way it should. He could only wish it would turn his stomach, make him sick; then he would be able to get rid of the poor cat…he didn’t want to know that his continued nourishment cost the life of his neighbor’s favorite pet. He shed a tear, resigning himself for the moment to his lack of emotion.

Shera twisted the towel to remove the excess water then started wiping the gore from Cid’s face. As she cleaned his chin, she caught a glance at his teeth. Stopping for a moment, she took a longer look; she shook her head at what she saw because she was too numb already to feel any more shock. They were pointed and serrated much like a shark’s tooth, but thin and narrow. She sighed and continued cleaning, wondering in silence who could have done such a thing to her Captain.

But as the shock wore off, denial and disgust set in. As hard as she tried to ignore it, all she could think about was seeing the ruined remains of a defenseless cat smeared across Cid’s face and hands. It began to get harder and harder to look at him and remember that he wasn’t a monster, that he was still the Cid Highwind she loved. As she began wiping the blood from his hands, she turned to look up at him, an unwelcome sensation settling in her stomach. He was still staring at himself in the mirror, his expression devoid of remorse or any other emotion. Maybe the poisoning and this new change had affected his spirit…maybe he was no longer the one she knew…

She dropped the cloth and ran out of the room, unwilling to spend another moment in his presence.

Cid turned to see her go; when he caught a split-second view of her expression, he hung his head and cried.

* * *

Djin-Fe wandered around a small hillside, doing nothing in particular. He had never been a patient man; waiting for that stupid experiment to work was no exception. Not that he expected much; Ni’esla had nearly killed that Highwind dragoon whatever, and he didn’t think he would recover. It would be nice if he did; then Ni’esla’s little kingdom could get on to a nice start. He didn’t care; he didn’t care about much of anything. Hadn’t for a long, long time. Ni’esla was vengeful, Sri-Danat was deluded, but he, Djin-Fe, was above all that. He cared not at all for the people his mother hated and not one bit for the ‘kingdom of the air’ she thought was the remedy for whatever it was they had done to wrong her. Why should he? It only made everything complicated.

It was much easier this way.

He had no ties but the blood of his family, but even that tie he maintained only because it made life easier. He lived with them and they all supported each other: if he was lonely, there was someone to talk to, and if he was bored, he had people to hang with. It was enough.

He’d help them, of course…Ni’esla wanted her kingdom and Sri wanted to play science, so he helped them out. It meant nothing; Sri-Danat’s worries that ‘everything will go wrong’ and Ni’esla’s cruel nature were just something he played along with. None of it mattered to him.

He could care less if Sri-Danat ruined lives in his blindness.

It didn’t matter to him if Ni’esla tried to feed her hate with the agony of others. It didn’t bother him much. He didn’t care if that Highwind left so sick he didn’t even knowing his name. What was it to him if his sister had hurt him so badly it almost killed him? What did it matter?

If his late mother wanted to oppress the world…so be it.

None of it affected Djin-Fe. In fact, it would be easier that way. All the world at his feet and nothing to tie him down. If Sri’s new experiment worked, it would be the beginning of Ni’esla’s dreams…and those dreams would make everything smooth and effortless for him.

That’s all he cared about, after all.

* * *

"I hate this place," Cloud muttered for the umpteenth time. Vincent understood fully his sentiments, but silently wished he would keep them to himself. Vincent hated this place as well; it was the library beneath the Shinra mansion. The glass tube that held Cloud as Hojo performed his experiments, the table where Vincent’s body had been mutilated; these were perpetual reminders of the nightmares that began here and plagued them both still. Every time Cloud vented his anger, it pricked Vincent’s studied indifference, his carefully constructed walls that he erected to protect himself. The taller man just wanted to search the books without interference from all the bad memories this place evoked. He just wanted to concentrate.

Cloud glared around the room, wanting so bad to take his sword and destroy the whole place, to give his rage at what had happened here free reign, but he knew that would be a waist of time. The empty tubes and scientific apparatus mocked him now; how much more would they grin and leer, teeth made of broken glass, if he destroyed them? Now they laughed at him, whispering, you can’t escape, you can’t… If he shattered the glass, swinging the Ragnarok with all his might, they would only laugh the more. See? You can’t escape…you can’t break us enough, you can’t grind us fine enough…why don’t you try? Scatter us, crush us, destroy us…but you still can’t escape… Cloud turned away from them in disgust. He knew it was his mind playing tricks; breaking those things wouldn’t unmake the past. He stomped over to a bookshelf, trying to swallow his anger and the frustration at his inability to escape it. "I hate this place," he hissed under his breath. He grabbed a book off the shelf, dusting off the cover quickly and roughly turning the pages. It was one of Professor Gast’s journals. Just a place to record notes about various things. He was glad he hadn’t picked up one of Hojo’s, and he wished there were none to find. Sephiroth had once asked why Gast had to die…for once in his life, Cloud had to agree with his late arch-foe. Gast would never have done what Hojo did.

They had been here nearly a day and a half, searching through the stacks of books scattered in every direction, trying to find any reference to a lab nearby that had access to Mako. It was an obvious jump to figure that whomever had poisoned Cid had done it nearby using a made-made hidden source of Mako. Mako usually had to be processed from the Planet’s natural Spirit energy; it was exceedingly rare to find a source of natural Mako—only in three places was it known to come to the surface, and two, Mideel and the Northern Crater, were too far away, and the third, the Mako fountain in the Nibel Mountains, was too small. The most likely option left was a hidden Shinra lab. But so far, they had found nothing hinting at the existence of any hidden structures. They had both given up hope hours ago; the only reason they still looked was for their vengeance and the sake of their friend.

Vincent carefully set down one book and picked up another. This one turned out to be a notebook of Hojo’s. Vincent grimaced slightly; the prospect of reading any more of Hojo’s twisted thoughts made him sick. He opened the book anyway, looking at the scrawled handwriting in extreme distaste. It detailed in Hojo’s arrogant and neurotic way how he had discovered the process of mutating humans by exposing them to near-frozen Mako for long periods. He seemed to have delighted in his discovery, not caring at all about the people he destroyed. Vincent was disgusted by what he read; there were detailed descriptions of the different mutations and how long was necessary to achieve them, photographs of the subjects, and a number of write-ups of how the experiments proceeded. However, there was also a small map to find the laboratory in which some of these experiments had been conducted. Apparently, it was some distance down the mountainside; it was near the reactor but far from all the intertwining caves that lead to it. He found himself as much upset by the discovery as he was relieved by it. Now they could find out what had happened to Cid almost two weeks ago…but it also drove out any glimmer of hope that it was all just an accident. It meant that someone had poisoned and tortured Cid, most likely in an attempt to repeat one of Hojo’s sick experiments. Vincent closed his eyes and allowed for a moment the Galian beast to growl deep in his throat. That purple and red monstrosity, with its black horns and yellow claws, was a result of Hojo’s experiments. Vincent was no longer human because of it; the Galian beast knew that in a slight, animal way, and both were enraged to learn that their friend might share the same fate. Cid had enough of his own bad luck; he didn’t need to be drawn into the hell Hojo had made.

"You find anything yet?" Cloud asked as he set Gast’s book down. Vincent nodded slightly and pointed one golden claw at the page with the map. He said nothing, but his eyes betrayed his thoughts; the blood red irises flickered with pent up anger while his eyes pinched with despair. Cloud took a few steps and looked over Vincent’s cape enshrouded shoulder. The path to the lab looked easy enough; it was a bit of a hike down the mountain, but nothing truly difficult. "Well," he said, fingering the hilt of his dark Ragnarok, "I guess we go for a little hike."

Several hours later, Vincent and Cloud made their way down the last few feet of mountainside before the entrance to the hidden lab. A few pebbles skittered down as the two hopped down to the narrow path below them. They looked around for the entrance and when they saw it a few yards to the right, they started off quickly in that direction. Shortly they reached the door, which was painted to blend in with the surrounding rock; from a distance it might be difficult to see, but from close quarters, it was quite obvious. Nevertheless, it was well hidden; few people would think to look on this side of the mountain for such a structure. All the rest were built much closer to the main paths and caves. Cloud glanced at Vincent then tried the door handle. It was unlocked.

Cautiously, the two stepped into the darkened room and looked around. They were in a short hallway with two doors on each side and one at the end. The door at the end was much larger and appeared to open automatically. Vincent walked over to the large door and looked through a small window while Cloud examined one of the side doors. Vincent turned and motioned to Cloud, so he left the door he had been looking at and walked to his side. Vincent pointed at the window and Cloud stood on his tiptoes to look through it. It appeared to be what they were looking for, so the swordsman found the controls for the door and opened it. With a slight hiss the large door opened and a few dim lights came up. Cloud shook his head, wondering what it was with Shin-Ra that they always had to make everything so dark. There was never enough light. Cloud followed Vincent as he entered the large room.

The darker man wrinkled his nose at the smell in the room. The odor was faint, but one side effect of Vincent’s altered form was that all his senses were much more acute than an ordinary person’s was, so he had no trouble detecting it. He turned to glance at Cloud, his red eyes flashing. He smelled blood and Mako.

"We have the right place, huh," Cloud whispered. Vincent nodded then went to look around the room. Cloud went in the opposite direction, toward a desk stacked with small monitors, machines, and screens. Every sort of wire and tube ran from the small pieces of equipment. Cloud scratched his head then shrugged. He decided not to bother trying to figure out what in the world all the machines did. Instead, he examined some of the things on other tables nearby. There was a fish tank with one guppy swimming frantically back and forth amongst the stripped remains of several other little fish. Every once in a while it would leap out of the water and float around in an extremely disconcerting way, like it was possessed or something. Another tank contained a little wheel, some charred remains of what were probably wood chips, and a rather large mouse whose fur glowed with tiny red embers. A thin stream of smoke curled up from its small nostrils as it slept.

Vincent stepped over to a large steel container that had a cover complete with latches along the sides and a few monitors on the top. There was one for pressure, temperature, and a counter. The steel contraption was eight feet long by four feet wide by four feet tall. All along one side, he saw several drip marks, all a dry and a dull crimson; he could smell that it was old blood. On the floor, there was a trail of large drops and bloody shoe-prints leading to the steel container from a larger red area; it appeared to be several small puddles of the same dried blood. He turned from the sight, trying very hard to maintain his composure; soon he would have to let the Galian beast out, otherwise it might take another, more dangerous internal monster to vent his rage. After several seconds, he succeeded in subduing the beast. He then turned back to the steel contraption and examined the latches; all were undone, so he carefully lifted the cover and set it aside. The inside of the container reeked of Mako; he could still see some of the green liquid puddling around the edges of it. The walls were smooth; once the cover was in place there was no way for anything to get in or out. A valve and red tube marked ‘Mako’ stood near the container, as was a thin vacuum tube, apparently there to drain the used Mako. Vincent looked back toward where the large red mark was; there was nothing there other than the dried blood.

Cloud knelt down to get a better look at the strange rodent. It seemed to sense his presence for it opened its eyes; they glowed as if they were tiny globes of liquid fire. It stood up on its hind legs and pawed at the glass while fire began licking up its glowing fur. A few wood chips began smoldering. Cloud straightened and turned to what looked like a computer screen. There were several small discs scattered around, each carefully labeled with descriptive titles. He picked one up, reading the label. Experimental trial documentation #5: fire elemental—subject: mouse. Procedure and outcome. He looked back at the glowing mouse, then inserted the disc in a slot to the side of the monitor. The monitor clicked on, glowing to life. He sat down at the computer and watched as a tall bald man explained in very precise detail how the experiment would go and what he hoped to achieve. "Hey, Vincent, come look at this," Cloud called to his companion. Vincent came over and leaned his good hand on the table over Cloud’s shoulder while resting his claw on the back of his chair. They watched as the tall man on the screen sedated the mouse then made a handful of tiny cuts on its body. He was extremely precise and careful about it, making sure he did no more than was necessary. After that, he set it in a small tub of green liquid, which he explained was melted Elemental and Fire materia mixed with Mako. After a few minutes of watching a sleeping mouse in Mako, Cloud advanced the recording until the bald man showed up again. A counter in the corner of the screen indicated that approximately twelve hours had passed. The man donned thick gloves and removed the mouse, placing it in a tank with all the proper accouterments any rodent would need to live a satisfying life. The small incisions the man had made were all healed and after a short bout of coughing up Mako, the mouse quickly got up and began drinking some water from a water bottle. It seemed fine. The recording sped up, the counter indicating the passage of around twenty-one days, then slowed again. Over the course of the segment, the mouse gradually became larger and fiery—it had become a full-fledged fire elemental. The only thing different about the mouse’s behavior was it avoided the water bottle like the plague and it seemed somewhat concerned when it accidentally charred its nesting material. The recording ended with the bald man declaring the experiment a success.

"Huh," Cloud said as he removed the disc, "That didn’t look like one of Hojo’s experiments…."

"No…That man seemed to take great pains to spare his subject any undue suffering," Vincent replied. "It was an elegant experiment; I doubt Hojo would have been capable of it. He was not a brilliant man by any means. What do the other discs say?"

"Hmmm," Cloud muttered as he shuffled through the discs. "Looks like there’s a few on other elemental experiments…here’s one on some virus thing…Heh, there’s even one on The creative misuse of Bunsen burners: How to make S’mores in the lab. Ah, here’s one: Experimental trial documentation #19: Wind elemental—subject: human. Procedure and outcome." He held it up for Vincent’s inspection. Vincent took it carefully in his brass claw and placed it in the slot. Shortly the video came up. It showed two people, a woman with short black hair and a man who apparently didn’t take great care of his appearance. The bald man wasn’t there. The unkempt man explained the purpose of the experiment and why he was performing it; some man, Cloud figured the bald one, named Sri-Danat had bowed out, as he felt uncomfortable actually doing the work. The man proceeded to sedate the woman and, much as had occurred with the mouse, made no more than ten cuts on her, although he wasn’t nearly as careful as the bald man had been. He then took her to the large steel container, which was filled with glowing green Mako, and after setting her in it, replaced the cover and sealed it. First, he explained that the fluid was Choco/Mog and Elemental materia mixed in with Mako, then how he was setting the dials to heat up the fluid. Cloud advanced the recording again another twelve hours. The man came back and undid the cover, releasing the woman. She climbed out on her own; she didn’t appear to be sick or anything. The counter suddenly read twenty-one days later, and the woman was again shown. She looked much the same, but also radically different. Her now colorless hair had grown out to her heels and seemed to float about in fine wisps, while her skin had also paled. Her face was the same, but her expression was darker, colder. Then the recording stopped.

"She was a wind elemental? How weird…," Cloud responded. He looked through the discs again. "Altering chimeras…," he read aloud, "More elemental stuff…hmmm, something about recorded notes…."

Vincent tapped his claw on the plastic backing of the chair. "Are there any others with human subjects? I wonder if they did the same thing to Cid and he just reacted badly? They are strange experiments, but not as extreme as I expected."

"He would have reacted pretty damn bad. That lady didn’t look like she got sick at all," Cloud replied as he looked through a few more discs. He picked one up and read the title to Vincent. "Experimental trial documentation #23: viral genetic manipulation and wind elemental—subject: human/dragon chimera. Procedure. Huh, I guess that’s the one we want."

Vincent looked a question at the swordsman. "Since when is Cid a chimera?"

"Oh, since forever I guess…some crackpot told us he was a descendant of the Dragoons and Bahamut. I didn’t believe it for a while, but I guess it’s true; aren’t Dragoons the ones that could jump all hither and yon? Cid never told you that?" Cloud answered matter-of-factly.

"No. I suppose, however, it would explain why he uses pole-arms instead of guns like any other ex-military in their right mind would," Vincent responded coolly. "Put in the disc," he added after a short pause, pointing his claw toward the slot. Cloud nodded and removed the first disc then inserted the new one.

Just as recording began to load, Vincent turned toward the door, sensing another’s presence. Someone stepped through the open door. The newcomer would have said something, but Vincent skewered him with a glance and so the bald man quickly shut his mouth. The man quickly shut the automatic door, having decided that trying to leave would perhaps not be his best course of action, judging by the glare that Vincent continued to give him. "Who are you?" he asked quietly, anxiety evident in his voice.

"Come here," Vincent commanded, his tone declaring he would harbor no defiance. The bald man obeyed, slowly walking over to the desk that the two strangers occupied. "Tell me, what is your name?" the dark man asked tonelessly.

The bald man fidgeted nervously. "Um, Sri-Danat," he answered, tugging at a button on his tunic. He glanced over at the monitor and asked, "Why are you watching that? I haven’t had a chance to see it yet."

"Well," Cloud added darkly, "You can watch it with us." He got up and directed Sri-Danat into the chair. Sri-Danat glanced nervously up at the blond man as he sat, not quite sure he liked the glare in his eyes or the way he fingered the hilt of his large sword. All three turned to the screen.

Sri-Danat pointed at the screen and said, "That’s my brother, Djin-Fe," indicating the man with the unkempt hair. "Huh," he muttered in surprise when he saw the woman wind elemental, "I didn’t know Ni’esla was there. She wasn’t supposed to be…."

"Who is Ni’esla?" Cloud asked harshly.

"Oh, uh, my sister. Djin-Fe was supposed to do this alone," Sri-Danat explained. On the recording, Djin-Fe again explained what he was going to do, this time adding the process involved in the viral genetic manipulation. It sounded rather simple: just a few injections of a specially produced virus and the incisions for the elemental process. "Who are you two, anyway?"

Cloud narrowed his eyes at the man. Something about his nervous manner and the recordings of his experiments didn’t add up with the evidence concerning Cid. "You didn’t actually do the experiment on Cid, did you?"

"Um, no…Cid was his name? Are you friends of his?" Sri-Danat asked, turning from the monitor to face Cloud. Vincent watched the recording in silence. On the screen, Ni’esla and Djin-Fe discussed something in hushed tones.

"You didn’t even know his name?" Cloud shouted. Then he narrowed his eyes, anger burning within them. "You don’t know what happened to him, do you?" he snapped.

Sri-Danat shrunk back and said, "I-I assumed, uh, that it was the same thing as with Ni’esla…but he took it badly…he looked sick when he left. I figured it was just him."

"Let’s see what it was in truth," Vincent intoned. Sri-Danat glanced up at him then looked back at the screen. A stunned silence descended on the three. What they saw was nothing like the other recordings; the processes were the same, but carried far past the realm of what was necessary, surpassing any rational justification, and then going much farther. Cloud slowly reached a finger out to advance the recording; it was too long, too much to watch. At the end of four day’s worth of recording, one documenting the insane and brutal twisting of a relatively benign experiment and three recording Mako exposure, Cloud pressed a button to resume regular playback. The recording ended after Djin-Fe opened the steel container instead of after another three-week wait. Sri-Danat began to weep, promptly leaning over and throwing up.

Cloud was speechless. Chaos spread its wings and destroyed the recording equipment as its hellish rage engulfed the room in flames.


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