The Thief of Hell Section 3

By Princess Artemis

The weather had turned; it was very unusual for Rocket Town. It was windy during the spring, usually; a nice, cool wind that carried rain clouds as often as not. The spring showers were gentle as could be. Today, however, the unusually forceful wind was far too dry. In other parts of the world, it might be known as a Santa Ana. It was a fast, dry, and strangely silent wind. Ni’esla began walking down the mountainside toward Rocket Town. She remembered the weather when she became an air elemental—it was identical. It had blown like this the last few days before she had changed completely; perhaps her alterations to Sri’s experiment had indeed sped things up. When she reached a part of the terrain that she could not cross normally, she gathered the air about her and floated over. She wanted to see how the subject was doing and help him along. Nothing would stand in her way, especially not a strong will. She had no idea if that man had a strong will or not, but she had taken great care to break it or at least damage it as much as possible, just to be sure. The wind would harbor no resistance; she had and would make the ground as slippery as possible for the developing elemental.

It took her a little while to reach the Rocket Town. When she did, she wandered around the town, examining the place. It wasn’t much to look at; but that was of no consequence. She stood and examined the direction the wind traveled, then followed it to the nascent wind dragon’s residence. Ni’esla stepped lightly to the door; she could feel him somewhere nearby. That sickening light she felt in him, the one that seeped its claws into every crack, pulling and tearing…she hated it. She had made the empty darkness her home; the stinging, burning light tried to destroy it. She hissed, trying to ignore the ugly things that hateful, vengeful brightness revealed. But she felt it had dimmed and was still growing dimmer. Her darkness would swallow it up. She knocked heavily on the door, then stepped away, waiting for an answer.

Inside his house, the Captain slept fitfully, disturbed by dreams of violence and murder, still fighting to maintain his grasp on his humanity. He tossed and turned, his muscles tensed; the instincts and the nature of his changing form rebelled against his attempts to deny it the supremacy by twisting him. It felt just like the day after every time he’d overexerted himself; he was sore all over. The only relief was to give in to the dragon he was becoming; every time he had in his sleep the soreness subsided a little but the dreams became terrible nightmares of ravening bloodlust. An inch or two here, a little there; in his sleep he slowly lost his ground to the dragon…eventually the nightmares returned to dreams. They didn’t bother him anymore, and he slept a little easier.

A little while after he began sleeping better, Shera stepped quietly into his room to check on him. It was hard to sleep when the person next door was moaning and groaning all night, so she was tired. And worried. She padded over to his side, trying not to think too hard about what she saw. Thick, peeling gray scales had formed on him over that night, and she saw the beginnings of a little black horn in one of the bald spots on his head.

Suddenly, his eyes flew open and he pinned her with an intense and frightening stare. She took a step back, horrified at the expression on her companion’s face.

It took a few seconds for Cid to realize what was going on and regain the ground he had lost as he slept. It was a difficult, almost schizophrenic experience; his mind and his body were totally at odds. He winced as the battle caused his arms to curl up to his chest and his fingers to tense. With effort, he got up and shuffled to his closet to get a robe. He wished he had a hooded cloak; it was clear that all Shera wanted to do was run away from him. She tried to hide it, but he could see the revulsion in her eyes. It hurt to see…but he could hardly blame her.

"You want something for breakfast…? Um, uh…sorry…," Shera muttered. She looked at her feet and beat a hasty retreat. She hated thinking it about him, but as she asked, all she could imagine was another pet dying in his clawed hands. She wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. She left his room and went into the kitchen, disgusted with herself. Leaning on the kitchen counter and hanging her head, she tried to take hold of what she knew was true, the same way Cid had. It eluded her for the moment.

A moment later, Shera heard a strong, quick knock on the front door. She straightened her robe and walked over to the door. She opened it and was taken slightly aback at what she saw. It was a short woman, one with a dark presence and an icy stare. The woman drew her lips from her needle-like teeth in an expression of surprised distaste, then quickly smoothed her features. She was beautiful, in a haunting and discomforting way.

Before Shera could say anything, the woman asked, "Is the Dragoon here? I wish to speak to him." A shiver went down Shera’s back; something about the woman set off every alarm and red flag she had.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Shera answered warily. It was a half-truth; she knew the pale woman wanted to see Cid, but he wasn’t really a Dragoon, now was he?

The visitor bared her teeth. "Tell him Ni’esla is in town to see him," she said slowly, biting off each word. "This is a gift," she continued as she produced a long, pointed instrument and handed it to Shera. The engineer took it and examined it in her palm. It was a hollow needle; little bits of dried blood flaked off the steel and onto her hand. Shera looked up in shock. The connection presented itself immediately; this was the needle that had caused Cid’s fear…which meant Ni’esla was involved in his poisoning. Shera scowled and slammed the door in Ni’esla’s face, her heart pounding in her chest. She was livid…and she was horrified. She dropped the bloody needle, letting it fall to the ground.

She backed away a step, then spun around when she heard Cid gasp behind her. He leaned against the wall in the front room; the same look of helpless terror she had seen in him before marred his suddenly pale face. He held his hands up, as if to ward off some ghost, as he slid down the wall to a sitting position. Shera went over to him, forgetting for the moment her own fear, but he didn’t see her. One tear made its way down his cheek as he watched something that wasn’t there. For the moment, he was lost.

As soon as Cid heard Ni’esla’s voice, saw that damned needle, the darkness of memory blinded him—what he had forgotten came over him and it was as if he were experiencing it anew. With a flash of incoherent panic, he tried to hold on to the here and now—there was a reason to forget—but it was too late; the elusive and vague events of the last two weeks would be now known. Vertigo pulled him down and the black claimed him.

…The door of the Shanghai-Tei swung shut, closing quietly behind him. He placed a cigarette in his mouth and lit it, guarding the flame from the wind. After a drag on the cigarette, he looked back at the inn for a moment. His friend, the man who had been in the Shinra Air Force with him so long ago, had accomplished so much with his life. A wife, a whole damn nest-full of rugrats, a satisfying job…it was difficult for him to admit to himself that he envied the man. He had, from time to time over the years wished for a family of his own, but he had wasted every second of his life after the damn Shinra 26 fell back to the earth; wasted every ounce of his strength hating and blaming himself. As he turned toward his house, he thought about those things; yeah, he blamed himself, but he had always been so weak, such a poor excuse for a man, that he couldn’t face it so he took it all out on Shera…who for some reason of her own was willing to take it. He wondered briefly what might have happened if Shera had had the backbone to dump it all back on him, where it belonged, and forced him to take it. Would it have ruined him or saved him? He thought it would have ruined him; there was nothing she could do to force him to look at it with open eyes. He didn’t know…but it didn’t really matter now. That strange spear of his, the life of the Venus Gospel, had taken the initiative. When he thought about it, he realized that it could be no other way. If he had the strength to face the mountain of carefully constructed delusions he had foisted on himself on his own then he would have done it long ago. But it didn’t work that way; there was a reason he had shifted the blame, a reason he taken all his anger out on someone else. He didn’t want to face it, so he would not and could not without help. Something else, something that started in the deepest places, was the only thing that could help. Fortresses had to be broken from the inside, and he was grateful to the one who broke it.

Now he looked back at what was and knew there was nothing he could do to change it. Which was fine by him; it was such a bloody mess it would take a thousand years to sort it all out. Life was now, today; he had to live now or never. He remembered the pictures his friend had shown him of his mess of kids. A family someday…well, there were still many ‘somedays’ to come, now that he could see them clearly. When he reached the gate on his picket fence, he was smiling a little. For some reason, the thought of his own brood of Highwinds brought him a great joy. He wondered what Shera would think of that; someday he was gonna marry her—there wasn’t another soul on the whole damn Planet that would put up with one big Highwind and a bunch of little Highwinds runnin’ all around. He loved her about as much as he could love anything; for reasons quite unknown and mysterious to him, she’d stayed with him and become a friend closer than a sister. He shook his head, still grinning; he was going to have to stop daydreaming if he was going to go dispatch of more of those monsters and expect to be paid for it.

He opened the gate and stepped into his over-grown backyard, then to the door of the garage, which he entered. He walked over to the corner where he kept his pole-arms and looked through them. He wasn’t exactly going out to beat the %^#@ outta Jenova-SYNTHESIS, so he didn’t need to take one of his stronger weapons. The Dragoon Lance would be more than adequate. After taking a Slash-All and placing it in one of the materia slots on his bracelet, he went back outside and started off for the fields around Rocket Town, carrying his lance on his shoulder. After a few minutes walk, he was outside the town and standing among the trees and grass that characterized the landscape. He flicked some ash off the end of his cigarette just as a strong wind came up from behind him, causing him to stumble. There was a darkness and a voice carrying in the wind, so he turned around to look for the source of it. Standing behind him was a woman with the biggest damn hair he’d ever seen. Her feet barely touched the ground and her dress floated in a way reminiscent of cloth in water. Her pale hair was much the same. Cid opened his mouth to say something, but as soon as he did, he felt his breath snatched out of him. It felt just like he had the wind knocked out of him. He dropped his lance and gasped for air, but for some reason, there was none to be had. It only took a few seconds for him to fall to the ground unconscious.

Some indeterminate amount of time later, he stirred. He felt woozy, as if he had been drugged. After a few seconds of lying there clearing his head, he tried to look around to see where he was. It didn’t do him any good; he was blindfolded. That was certainly a cause for concern. After that intensely annoying discovery, he tried to figure out his situation as best he could. He was lying on a cold floor, probably cement, on his stomach. He silently breathed several choice curses when he realized his hands and his feet were tightly bound. Well, hell, I’m in a %^&*%$#^ of trouble, ain’t I? Now what?

Cid lay there muttering and cursing his luck to himself for easily a half-hour; he hadn’t even bothered trying to sit up. It was hardly the most comfortable place he’d ever been and his hands and feet were going numb. It was fortunate he had his gloves on; whoever had bound him sure tied him up tight enough. He knew he would have been bleeding by now if his hands had been bare. His ankles weren’t so fortunate; whatever it was that bound him was hard plastic, and it had cut through his old, worn-out socks and into his skin. Whoever did this could have tied his feet over his pant legs, which came right down to the top of his shoes and were buckled half-way down his calf so they fit exactly, but they insisted on making it as tight as possible.

Finally, he heard two people enter the room, talking normally. One, a man with an average sounding voice asked, "How did you find one so fast? I thought it would take forever."

A second man with a much quieter and almost whispering voice answered, "Don’t worry about that, I just did, OK?"

"Find one what?!" Cid shouted, angry. It didn’t seem to him that it would matter one way or the other how he acted; he was helpless to escape at the moment and they could do whatever it was they wanted to do without any hassle from him.

"Oh!" the first man exclaimed, "I guess that means you’re awake."

"Find a human chimera," the second man added. "There aren’t many of you around, you know."

"Ah, &*$#!" Cid swore. He couldn’t say they had made a mistake; it wasn’t that long ago that he had found out he was a descendent of Bahamut, the bloody King of Monsters. The proof of it was in his jumping and his Dragon limit, although he could wield a mop, too, and he didn’t think that made him some descendent of any damn janitors of yore. Anyway, it seemed to be getting him in a mess of trouble as of late. Thirty-two years and only now did anyone seem to care; he’d spent a lifetime thinking he was as normal as the next John Q. Public and now some ^&*^$%^’s decide to kidnap him over it. It pissed him off in the extreme. "What the hell is it to you?"

"We just want to try something. A little experiment," the man with the soft voice answered.

The man’s quiet voice had a note of menace in it. A shiver ran down Cid’s spine and a chill gripped him. Human experimentation was the province of the Shinra freaks—Shinra was gone, but that didn’t mean the same fate had met the freaks. He swallowed hard and asked, "You don’t have anything ta do with Hojo, do you?" His friend Vincent had said little about him, but he knew enough to fear that name.

The first man cleared his throat and answered tersely, "The hypothesis was Hojo’s, but I’ve altered the actual experiment. It’s quite painless and quick. But to answer your question: no, we have nothing to do with Hojo."

The second man added, "I’m actually gonna do the work; my brother is very sensitive that way. We did the same sort of experiment on my sister, and it didn’t adversely affect her. Don’t worry about it; you’ll be fine."

Cid felt the two men pick him up and quickly set him on what felt like a stretcher. After they began moving, he asked, "If yer all so sensitive about this stuff, why’re ya doin’ it at all? I don’t remember you askin’ me how I felt about it!" His words were strong, but his voice was shaking. A deep sense of dread crept up on him; he had no wish to learn the nightmares Vincent and Cloud knew.

"You’ll be fine; like I said, we did the same to Ni’esla, my sister. You’ll be sedated. We wouldn’t hurt our own blood." The first man’s voice betrayed a prick of conscience, but not enough, apparently, to stop this. Cid heard the first man stride away as a large door hissed shut. Something smelled familiar in the room, but he couldn’t place it. Shortly he felt himself stop moving. The most sickening sense of evil twisted through his gut and made his skin crawl. It was just like being in the same room as someone who’s hate and malice was so intense one could feel it.

Another voice, one like the voice he heard in the wind, said, "Come, let us begin." Footsteps came near and suddenly the blindfold was removed, allowing Cid to get a glimpse of his surroundings. The room was dark, except for a strange green glow and a bright light, which he guessed was somewhere overhead. The woman knelt down and looked him in the face. She smiled thinly; it surprised Cid to see the dagger-like points of her translucent teeth. It was not a comforting sight; the evil he felt in his bones found its source in her.

"Do not resist us; if you do, I will take your breath from you and keep it forever. I have taken it before and I can do it again," she said with a quiet menace. It was by far more frightening than anything he had ever heard; it was the voice of one who truly has no qualms with murder, one who has, in fact, knowingly chosen her path. Cid made no answer; what could he say to such a one? Apparently, she was satisfied, so she took a small scalpel from a table near by and cut the plastic tie from his wrists. Cid winced when the circulation to his hands was restored; they began throbbing rather painfully.

"Have we decided to do anything differently, Ni’e?" the man asked. He took one of Cid’s arms, and with help from his sister, carried him a short distance to what looked like an operating table. The touch of that evil woman nearly made him sick, but she let go quickly and with her own expression of disgust as soon as the two laid him on the table. Cid watched the man without expression. He was rather thin and small, with pale skin and dark eyes. And he didn’t look like he ever brushed his hair. "What do you think?" he asked, looking down at Cid as he started taking his leather glove off. He returned the gaze, still expressionless; only his blue eyes revealed his dread. He was afraid of what they were going to do, but it was an expectant fear that didn’t reach his face. "Heh, I guess you don’t need to answer that," he added with a mirthless smile as he tossed the glove in a corner and started on the blue jacket.

Cid allowed it in silence; he knew that the woman would kill him without a second thought. For a moment he wondered which would be worse, to live at the mercy of Ni’esla or to die right now. It was a sobering thought, but he knew there was nothing they could do that could take from him those things that truly mattered. If he lived through this, and he thought that was likely, he would just go on as he had. His immediate future would be his distant past someday, no matter how dark it looked now; that outlook helped him deal with his fear. When the two had removed his shirt, they put one of those gowns with the little blue polka dots on him then used some velcro straps to hold his arms down to two extensions on the table made for that purpose. He’d never been in an OR, so he didn’t know if it was normal to restrain patients…but he had been to enough doctors to form an opinion on the gown. He smiled slightly in spite of his growing terror and cracked nervously, "I always hated these damn backless dresses." He needed to see some humor in this situation, if only to keep the dread at bay.

The man snickered. "Keep that attitude; I think it’ll help you survive in the long run. It’s a good outlook." A few moments later Ni’esla cut the plastic binding Cid’s feet and proceeded to remove his shoes. "Huh," the man said, "looks like I pulled it a little tight. Sorry about that." It didn’t take the two long to finish undressing him and restrain his legs. Ni’esla took a cloth of some sort and laid it over Cid.

The man walked over to a monitor and flipped a few switches. Then he returned to the side of the table and directed his voice to some point on the wall. "This is the official documentation of experimental trial number 23: viral genetic manipulation and wind elemental—subject: human/dragon chimera. Sri-Danat will not be performing this experiment; in his stead, I, Djin-Fe, and our sister Ni’esla will. Some alteration to Sri-Danat’s original procedure has been made in an effort to speed up the process. It is the hypothesis of Ni’esla and I that a massive introduction of the virus created by Sri-Danat will prevent the subject’s immune system from fighting it. In effect, we believe overwhelming the subject’s immune system will allow the genetic manipulation to occur faster. We also believe a longer stay in the Mako mixture will allow the genetic alterations a safer environment and thus speed up the process. The mixture has been—"

Cid interrupted Djin-Fe’s monologue by shouting, "What the hell are you talking about?! What’re ya gonna do to me?!" He struggled against the cloth restraints, the fear temporarily overriding any rational thought; for fear wanted to save him but didn’t know it might just get him killed in the process. Ni’esla glanced down and raised a finger; her cold eyes and the slight breeze across Cid’s face reminded him of her threat. With that reminder of the greater immediate danger, Cid ceased his struggling and tried to hold himself very still. After what Djin-Fe had said, he knew that all of that other man’s assurances were wasted. And Ni’esla’s cruelty was so evident just by his being in her sickening presence that Cid was certain this would be a most unpleasant experience.

Djin-Fe brushed some of his black hair back as he glanced down at Cid. He looked back toward the unseen recorder and continued his explanation. "As I was saying, the mixture has been prepared as the outline of the experiment proscribes: three mastered Elemental materia and three Choco/Mog materia have been melted down and mixed with processed Mako. This mixture will soak into the subject and remake him as a wind elemental. To increase the speed of this process we will make several more incisions so that the mixture soaks in faster. Well," he said, turning to a table and picking up an IV needle, "shall we?" As Djin-Fe was preparing to put the needle in Cid’s arm, Ni’esla raised her hand and shook her head.

"What?" Djin-Fe asked, confused. "We’re not gonna put him under?"

"No…I want to be sure this experiment is a success. To that end I will do everything in my power to stop any resistance to the wind," Ni’esla explained quietly.

"So, what’re we gonna do? You wanna do it different?" the unkempt man asked, still unsure of what his sister had planned. Cid was damn certain he at least didn’t like the sound of it.

"Oh, yes, I think we will. You see, the wind requires something in order to bear one’s spirit. I want this one to be unable to resist that requirement. The more pain we inflict on his soul, the harder it will be to find the strength to fight the wind. Or to even want to. I doubt anyone could fight it, but I want to be sure," the pale woman added.

Djin-Fe gave her a sidelong glance and shrugged. "OK, we’ll do it your way," he said after a moment. He looked down at Cid and added, "Sorry. I guess in the interest of science, my dear sister has decided to make things difficult for you. I suppose, since she is what you will be, she has an insight we lack."

Cid shook his head a little, anxiety having been replaced by a dull certainty that that evil woman was going to hurt him badly. In her voice was the utter darkness, a consuming blackness that wanted nothing but to share its misery with the world. In his soul he now knew her to be a demon, or at least a person so wholly given over to the dark that it made little difference. He knew that Ni’esla was more interested in satisfying her sadism than she was in the results of any experiment. He saw the same knowledge in Djin-Fe’s expression; it was a sort of mild disgust at his sister’s behavior mingled with a willingness to let it slide. "Djin-Fe," Cid asked, his voice almost a whisper, "why are you going to let her do this?"

The dark-haired man grimaced a little, apparently feeling uncomfortable. Then he blew the question off and said, "I don’t care what she does. Don’t worry, you’ll live. You just won’t enjoy it." Djin-Fe turned back to face the invisible recorder and explained, "There has been another slight change in plans. We’re gonna start right off with the introduction of the virus, beginning with an injection into the bloodstream, then through forced respiration…and after that, we’ll begin the massive infection by injecting small amounts of the virus in every separate structure until Ni’esla’s satisfied this poor man’s been hurt as much as possible." The last was said with a pointed glance at Ni’esla. Neither Cid nor Djin-Fe missed the fact that the comment didn’t faze her one bit. Djin-Fe shook his head. "And Sri thinks it’s just a mean streak."

Djin-Fe handed Ni’esla a needle and stepped away for a moment. She took it and stabbed it into a vein in Cid’s arm. He jerked a little and sucked in a quick gasp; she was being none too gentle with it. Whatever was in the syringe was cold. There was something in it that caused Cid’s head to swim almost immediately. For a few minutes, he blinked his eyes trying to focus his blurry vision, too out of it to realize it was a hopeless task. He was dimly aware of something gagging him.

Not long after the fog in his head lifted; he heard the man say in an almost reassuring tone, "Don’t fight it; just let it breathe for you. The quicker you go with it, the easier it’ll be on you." For a second, the pilot wasn’t sure what he meant. When he tried to inhale, though, he found he couldn’t. He panicked and struggled for a few minutes with what he shortly realized was a tube stuffed down his throat that was doing the breathing for him. He tried to relax, as much as was possible, given the circumstance, and listen for the soft whisper of the machine. It took a little work, but eventually he was able to keep his breathing in time with the machine’s. Once he did, Djin-Fe diddled with the controls on the machine, letting some stuff into the air that felt hazy and made Cid want to cough. It must have been the stupid virus they had been yammering about.

After a few more minutes of preparation, the woman took the same needle she had used before and began systematically injecting tiny amounts of fluid into Cid’s body. She started at his head and stabbed the large needle into every different bone in his face, then every muscle. The first time he jerked his head involuntarily at the pain, but this only served to make it worse. After that he tried to stay very still as she twisted and pushed the tip of the needle into him. She was intentionally rough; it was clear she wanted to make this as hard and as painful as possible. Eventually, as every time Ni’esla hurt him with that needle became more intolerable than the last, as tears began streaking down his face and his cries of pain and later screams were choked off by that machine, Cid sank back into some dim place in his mind and started to drown in it. He slowly became aware of nothing with surprising intensity. He heard their voices, but didn’t understand them. He still felt the pain, but he couldn’t comprehend it. His vision was equally meaningless. For some time, he stayed under the surface of the strange depths of that place.

Suddenly, he had to leave that shadowy state; he felt like he really was drowning. He tried to sit up, but when he was unable to, he remembered that his arms were strapped down. His head hurt and he felt like he needed more air, but he couldn’t get any more. Djin-Fe looked down at him with black eyes and commented, "Shoulda stayed where ever it was you went. Ni’e’s still got a ways to go."

Ni’esla hissed a little at her brother; it was a cruel sound. Cid glanced in her direction just in time to see her terrible grin and watch her stick the needle in the palm of his hand. He squeezed his eyes shut tight and tried to scream when the needle scraped against a bone then was jerked out, leaving a long tear on his hand. But somehow the feel of her cold hand on his, keeping it still, was a worse torment than anything she had done with that needle. It was a spiritual revulsion at the evil that he felt in Ni’esla and it was by far the more maddening.

Several minutes later, Cid fell again into a shadowy state when he could no longer stand the pain Ni’esla was inflicting on him. Time seemed not to pass there, under the dark, but it was not somewhere he could stay long. It too was difficult, in its own way, and perhaps more dangerous. For many hours he passed in and out of the shadows, driven to and fro from one to another when the other place became too painful to stay. The stints in the dark grew shorter with each trip, as did the time he could endure Ni’esla’s needle.

The shadows passed away slowly this time, for he had not been among them long when he came back. Cid found himself alone, the disgusting presence gone for the moment, and she had taken the needle with her. Alone… He cried silently, knowing it wouldn’t last long. He had no way of knowing how long he’d been here; it seemed to have been a strange forever, sleeping in shadows and waking in darkness, with nothing to see but the demon and her steel needle. And her brother, who just sat there running his mouth and twiddling his thumbs, occasionally taking the hypodermic and letting Ni’esla rest for a bit, while he stabbed it and twisted it into Cid’s flesh. How long had he been here?

Approximately ten minutes later, the door hissed open and Djin-Fe walked up to the operating table. He ran a hand through the shock of black hair he never seemed to brush and pursed his lips in thought. "If I let you up for a little bit, would you promise not to try to escape?" he asked in his whispery voice. Cid looked away; a few slow tears trickled down his face. Even if he could make such a promise, he wouldn’t; how could he promise to stay in this place? How could he let them continue torturing him if they let him loose? He closed his eyes and shook his head, a barely perceptible movement. "Hmmm," the man responded, "at least you’re honest about it…. Does your word mean that much to you that you wouldn’t lie to me and take this opportunity to escape?"

The pilot nodded slightly; it seemed strange to him sometimes, but his word did mean that much to him. Even given to such cruel people he would not break his word. However, he didn’t think he could escape even if given the opportunity. He was still in a lot of pain; he wasn’t sure how far he could go and he had no idea where he was. Maybe he was just succumbing to hopelessness; perhaps he should have taken the chance. No, it wasn’t that…he knew he would live through this, and he didn’t want to take the chance of being killed. If he were going to die here, he should have tried something earlier and saved himself a lot of suffering. He wanted to see Shera again…and he couldn’t give up on the life he had been given.

Djin-Fe shook his head. "That’s not it, is it. You’re a strange breed, Highwind. What do you have that’s worth living through this for?" He paused for a long moment, his expression troubled. "Ah, well. I doubt it’s worth as much as you think, but whatever floats yer boat, I guess," he added, having apparently gotten over his spate of conscience.

Not long after, Ni’esla entered the room. Cid instinctively turned his head away from that evil creature and began trembling uncontrollably. In his soul, he feared her, but in his body, he was plain terrified. He didn’t want to see her and her cold eyes and cruel smile. The twisted sense of evil returned, crawling up his spine and chilling him like some slimy, cold, godforsaken thing; he tried to pull away from her, but he was helpless to escape…still helpless. How long could he stay in her horrifying presence and still retain his sanity? The cold, decaying fingers of her unclean spirit encircled his heart and constricted, covering whatever they could with their deathly gray miasma. It was driving him mad.

She chuckled lightly, seemingly amused at Cid’s reaction. She laughed harder when she saw him twist his face in disgust at the sound of her voice. "Look to me," she commanded. Cid hesitated, but then complied, not wishing her to force the issue. She held up something that vaguely resembled a short, wide comb. The top had a handle that went over the back of the hand so it could be held in the palm, while the bottom had a small row of short razors arranged like tiny teeth. Cid tensed and looked away from her; he knew it wouldn’t be long before he found out what that was for. "For the purpose of the next phase of this experiment, we need to make a few incisions," she explained, then set the blades on his temple. With a quick swipe, the comb-like instrument left a trail of long, parallel cuts to bleed on his face. The wind elemental hissed in unexpected anger and continued to viciously rake the comb over Cid’s body. Blood trickled in his eyes and he heard it dripping on the ground. Very quickly he went into shock from the assault and sudden and great blood-loss.

Faintly, as if from a great distance, he heard someone shout, "That’s enough, Ni’e! You’re gonna kill him!" There was a scuffle for a second, then the same man said, "That was too much…c’mon, let’s finish this…." Cid recovered slightly and blinked the blood out of his eyes, while Djin-Fe carefully pulled the tube out of his throat. It took a few seconds and a near faint before he was able to breathe normally, albeit shallowly. Djin-Fe quickly undid the cloth straps and picked up Cid as carefully as he could; still, he cried out softly, too weak now for anything else. "Lift the lid, Ni’e," he commanded. He heard the faint sound of something shifting, then the strange familiar smell got stronger. Mako…

Djin-Fe slowly lowered Cid into a large metal container. Cid caught a glimpse of the man’s clothes; they appeared to be soaked with blood. The man’s expression was one of distaste. "I think you might have killed him, Ni’e," he said as finished setting Cid in the container, which he closed quickly after. The Mako was hot, but it almost immediately clouded his mind to the point where he didn’t notice it. It barely registered when he inhaled a lung-full of the hot liquid. Something whispered…

In a daze, he remembered Tifa (…tifa…?) had said she heard voices accusing her in the Lifestream… No voices…no words…no broken minds to put together…but there were accusers, a hundred thousand questions, insane gibbering blaming him for every crime committed from the time Bahamut walked upon the ground. My existence was a crime…his mother should have killed him before he was born. They should have killed her for her crimes. They all should have destroyed that terrible dragon before he could have such misbegotten freaks, before he could pollute their blood. (…he was my father…?) Why else would they mention him…sideshow freak. They should kill me for my crimes.

Cid tried to speak, to answer the accusers, but no words would come out. Soon the accusers’ questions became too jumbled to understand, mixing with his memories and bleeding into his thoughts until he could no longer separate them. Time slowed until every breath he took of that hot Mako lasted for years. Slowly, incredibly slowly, the Mako and materia ate into his mind, dissolving it and poisoning it. He ceased to be aware of much of anything except the dull sense of time crawling by ponderously and the microscopically increasing sickness invading his bones….

"…It’s taking him forever! What’s wrong with him?" Cid looked up, trying to see the source of the voice, but he couldn’t really see anything. His vision was so jumbled it made him sick to even think about. He coughed hard, expelling the most god-awful colored liquid…if he never saw that green again he would die a happy man. He shook his head and rubbed his face, trying to make sense of the six centuries he remembered of nothing else but that green hell. All that ended up doing was making him throw up on the chair he was leaning on.

"You worry too much, probably just shocked. I mean, think about it, it’s gotta be a shock. We just infected him with a virus that’s gonna wreak havoc on him and then dumped him in Mako. It’s understandable!" a familiar voice answered.

For what might have been the first or fiftieth time, the pilot looked back at his shirt, which he was supposed to be putting on. He picked it up then dropped it again, falling forward and landing on his side in a near faint. "But Ni’esla didn’t come out like this! It’s taken him two hours to put his pants on! I don’t even want to know how long it’s going to take for him to tie his shoes!" the first voice exclaimed.

That name, Ni’esla…Cid covered his mouth, barely containing the scream that tried to escape his lips. He closed his eyes and began crying, assailed by panic and the memory of her terrible presence. He cringed, remembering the sensation of that needle scraping bone in his hand. The tear was gone, along with all the lacerations and other injuries, but the memory was still powerful and fresh in his mind.

"Sri, you worry too much! Maybe he’s allergic to Mako? You ever thought of that?" Cid finally recognized the voice as belonging to Djin-Fe.

"Well…," Sri-Danat muttered. Cid heard the two walking away from the door. At least, he thought that was what he heard. His mind was working extremely slowly, so he had a hard time processing what he sensed. He had almost entirely given up on his sight; there was just too much to sort through. Everything was being drowned in green; every minute that passed made it worse. After several minutes of lying on the tile floor, he remembered again that he was supposed to be getting dressed, so he picked up his shirt again and managed to slip it over his head and one arm before falling to the ground, vomiting and semi-conscious. He was certain he had never felt so damn sick in his entire life. The next time he remembered he was trying to get dressed, which was about ten minutes later, he decided not to get up and risk fainting again. That worked a little better, and over the next hour he managed to finish the job with only a minimum of trouble, but it exhausted him. Lying very still and trying to ignore the green shadows that were slowly consuming what he had left of his mind, he fell asleep.

"Hey, get up. Time to go," Djin-Fe called as he shook Cid’s shoulder, trying to rouse him. The sickly green had become a warm, comfortable black. He opened his eyes a slit and looked up at the dark haired man. He wanted to say something, but as soon as the desire came, it was swallowed up in the darkness clouding his mind. "You look like hell," Djin-Fe muttered as he grabbed the sick pilot’s arm and pulled him to his feet. After a few minutes fighting dizziness and nausea, he was able to stand on his own, barely.

"Yeah, wonder why? He really shouldn’t be this sick," Sri-Danat asked no one in particular. Then he faced Cid and wondered, "I never caught your name."

Djin-Fe touched Cid’s elbow, directing him to walk with them. He shuffled along between the two brothers, for the moment unsure where he was or how he got there. Several seconds went by while he tried to remember his name. He had one, or at least he thought he did, but whatever it was, it was lost to him now. "Don’t know," he murmured.

Sri-Danat just wrinkled his brow. Shortly the three reached a small stable with several mountain Chocobos lodged inside. Ni’esla was standing outside waiting for them. Sri-Danat went in to get three Chocobos while the rest stayed outside. Cid leaned against the wooden wall of the stables and slid down until he was sitting with his head against the wall and lolling to one side. "I wish you would have told me when you finished, Djin," Sri-Danat called from inside the stables.

"Hey, you were out buying materia. I didn’t want to bother you. Besides, he’s been sleeping for three days; it’s not like you could have done anything," Djin-Fe answered.

"Yeah…I just wish I could have done something. I feel bad that he reacted so badly."

Ni’esla muttered under her breath, "Sri, you are such an idiot, such a fool." Cid grimaced at the sound of her voice and began shivering, but he had no idea why. He wasn’t sure he had ever met her before, but the gut-level terror he felt must have been caused by something.

"Ni’e, be quiet," Djin-Fe admonished.

Cid heard the other man shuffling things around and carrying tack to the birds. "How are we going to do this? He can’t ride by himself," Sri-Danat asked loudly from inside the tack shed.

"Uh, I’ll take him," Djin-Fe answered, after looking toward his sister and getting an emphatic no. "We’re gonna have to go slow, though. I don’t want him puking his guts out on my bird," he added, brushing some black hair out of his eyes. A few moments later, he continued, "Let’s get this show on the road. We only have a few hours of daylight left and I’m gonna be back here by nightfall."

Sri-Danat came out of the shed, riding one and leading two other Chocobos out. He then handed the reins to Ni’esla and Djin-Fe. The two men picked up Cid and set him on Djin-Fe’s green mount while Ni’esla climbed into the saddle of her bird. Djin-Fe jumped up and sat on the saddle behind Cid, wrapping one arm around his waist and pulling him back so that he was leaning on his chest. The pilot was limp as a rag doll. After looking at Cid for a second, Sri shook his head and said, "I wonder if everything’s gonna be OK, I mean, he looks terrible."

"He’ll be fine, sure, it’ll be fine," Djin-Fe answered, an edge in his voice. He whispered in Cid’s ear, "Don’t worry, you’ll be fine." Unexpectedly, his voice was tinged with regret. "Now let’s get going." The three Chocobos slowly descended the Nibel mountainside and headed south toward the Silver Mountains. Djin-Fe rode his Chocobo gently, but it helped little. Cid still got sick several times; although the Chocobo was spared, the man’s coat sleeve was not. He just grumbled about it, apparently not as irritated as others might have been. About an hour out of the Nibel Mountains and a half riding on the foothills west of the Silver mountain range, the three riders halted their Chocobos. It was late afternoon.

"Sky’s awful bright," Sri-Danat commented.

"It is the wind preparing itself," Ni’esla said, her tone dark.

Through half closed eyes, Cid gazed up at the cobalt expanse above him. It was bright, and exceptionally beautiful. It looked to be the same color as it was at the height of day. It was a welcome sight to look up at the unbroken sky; it was all the same, no confusing mess to sort through or images tilting drunkenly to make him sick. A little gust of wind ruffled his hair and he nearly cried in relief to feel the air again. He loved the open air, the sky, the wind. He didn’t remember the nightmare he was leaving, only that it was over.

Djin-Fe turned his head and looked at the pilot leaning against him. He muttered an uneasy curse under his breath, then said in a loud, contemptuous tone, "Well, off you go; you know your way home, doncha?" He unceremoniously dumped his ill passenger onto the grass below. Cid landed on his back and groaned, turning on to his side and curling up slightly.

"Djin, what did you do that for? He’s not taking it well as it is!" Sri-Danat cried in disapproval.

"What do you care, Sri?" Djin-Fe shouted back. "I don’t remember you asking him how he felt about it!"

The other man jerked back in shock. "It’s for science!" Sri-Danat countered after a brief pause. Djin-Fe just hollered in frustration and kicked his Chocobo, setting off toward home. Sri-Danat followed angrily.

Ni’esla looked up toward the sky for a moment and smiled. "What a lovely day…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sky so blue." With that, she set off as well, leaving Cid alone in a field of short grass and spring wildflowers. Dusk fell, then night; Cid never moved from that spot. Night gave way to morning; in its turn it also gave place to a midday graced with a starling azure unblemished by any cloud, one so bright Cid had to cover his eyes.

These memories faded slowly, their edges tattering like thin clouds in a stiff breeze, returning him once again to the front room of his house. His heart was pounding and his breath ragged; soon, the terror he felt reluctantly released its grip. Cid held up his clawed and scaly hands, looking at them as if for the first time. The claws were dark as ebony and sharper than before, and light played on the grayish plates as it might on brushed steel. In another time, on another’s hands, they would have been beautiful.

This was an experiment, then.

Could he fight it?

Ni’esla thought not.

But she had thought it necessary to hurt him in order to drive any fight out of him. So again: could he fight it? He didn’t know, but he would, if for no other reason than he liked who he was in truth and thought that truth was worth fighting to keep. It didn’t matter if it was a hopeless cause. He refused to forfeit his soul to end his pain. Cid hugged his arms to his chest and hung his head, knowing there was no way for this to end well. His life could not and would not ever be the same.

* * *

Vincent flung open the door to the makeshift stables on the mountainside. The stiff wind caught it, throwing it to the wall and making a loud crack. Cloud shoved Sri-Danat into the stable and strode in after him. With a dark stare, Cloud growled, "Get them saddled up, and quick."

Sri-Danat went into the tack shed immediately. He was still green around the gills after seeing the recording of his last experiment. He could hardly fathom what Ni’esla and Djin-Fe had done. He felt like a complete fool for not seeing his sister’s evil before. He had spent too long with his head in books to realize his sister was a sadist. And how had Djin-Fe allowed it? How could he? He even helped her! If they had just followed his instructions, none of this would have happened. Next time, he would just do it himself. That way, he wouldn’t have any blood on his hands.

While they waited, Vincent crossed his arms and stared out at the horizon. After a moment of silence, he asked tonelessly, "Can you reverse it?"

After some shifting and muttering, Sri-Danat answered, "No. I won’t. I can’t do what they did, and that’s what would have to happen."

"You mean to tell me, you would refuse to do something to repair the damage you’ve done?" Cloud replied, incredulous.

"I haven’t done anything wrong! It was Djin-Fe and Ni’esla!" Sri shouted back as he saddled up the three Chocobos.

"I can’t believe him!" Cloud muttered to Vincent. "How can he sit there and say he did nothing?" He reached up and fingered the hilt of his sword, fidgeting and trying to resist the urge to take the bald scientist’s head off. The man apparently thought it was all good as long as no one got physically hurt, never mind the results. Wind dragon…Cloud shook his head; he couldn’t imagine what that would be like, to see Cid altered like that.

Vincent said nothing. He had been around enough scientists to develop a healthy distaste for their ilk. It was a common fallacy among them that their work was greater than the people it hurt; many, in fact, gave no heed to the ramifications. If they could be brought to see it, most would be shocked…but others still wouldn’t care, like Hojo. He narrowed is red eyes at the name. Would his friend now share in his agony, the torment of trying to keep internal monsters under tight control so they wouldn’t take over? Is that what it would be for him? Most people had their ‘demons’, the skeletons in their closet, the little internal monsters that harassed their souls, but Vincent’s demons were very real; the hidden lab was left in flames because of them. Would the same be now said for Cid?

The two warriors turned toward a sudden sound coming from a short distance up the mountain path. A few rocks fell as another person scrabbled down the steep slope. He wore a dark leather jacket and blue jeans; his black hair fell in his face, partly blocking his dark eyes. He had a young look and the same type of face as Cloud. He took a few more steps then stopped short when he saw Vincent and Cloud staring darkly at him.

"Djin-Fe, I presume," the blond swordsman hissed.

"Yeah…Cloud Strife, is that it?" Djin-Fe answered slowly as he took a few wary steps toward them.

It was Cloud’s turn to be surprised. "How did you know my name?"

"I must confess, I’ve been spying on you all ever since I was in the Shanghai-Tei and that Seir creep showed up. So, how is Cid doing?"

Cloud bared his teeth and backhanded Djin-Fe, knocking him to the ground. He scrambled up and rubbed his jaw while a trail of blood trickled down his chin. There were a few teeth loose, but nothing missing. He shook the stars from his eyes and ventured, "Not good, I take it…."

"We saw the recording," Vincent stated emotionlessly. Only his eyes flashed with the anger he felt.

Djin-Fe looked at the dark man, but could not maintain eye contact for more than a second. Sri-Danat led the Chocobos out at that moment. When he saw his brother, he shouted, "How could you! How could you do something like that?"

Djin-Fe glared at Sri-Danat, almost in disbelief. "You can stand there and accuse me when it was you who thought the whole thing up in the first place?!"

Cloud turned a dark stare on the two brothers. "I can blame you both. I think you should come with us too, Djin-Fe."

"Huh? Where are you going?" the man asked.

"Back to Rocket Town. Maybe we can convince you to reverse what you’ve done on the way," Cloud replied.

Djin-Fe thought for a moment, realizing that whatever these two men had planned, it would not be in his best interests to resist. He nodded slightly and backed down a bit, his face expressing resignation. After a short pause, he asked sincerely, "Really, how is he doing?" He wasn’t sure why he wanted to know, but he hadn’t been able to ignore what he thought was a slight concern.

"He is not well," Vincent answered. "When we last saw him two days ago, he was unable to get up or do more than whisper. He had spent several days previous unconscious."

"Why do you care?" Cloud growled, "You were the one who put him in that condition."

"I don’t care," Djin-Fe snapped hastily. "Why should I?"

"Let’s go now," Vincent stated, "We can ‘discuss’ this on the way. The trip will take a few hours." He jumped up and floated slowly onto his borrowed mount, his cape flicking up behind him. The Chocobo seemed uncomfortable with its new rider, but didn’t complain much. It was an easy-going Chocobo; it had already been spooked by the wind and Vincent was surprised it didn’t get more anxious as it was. Cloud nodded and climbed up on the second Chocobo, leaving the third for Sri-Danat and Djin-Fe to share. The two warring brothers looked at each other in contempt, but both knew Djin-Fe was the better rider, so Djin-Fe climbed up front with the reins and Sri-Danat sat behind him. As they set off for Rocket Town, Djin-Fe considered his actions. Whatever else he should have considered, it was stupid of him not to take Cid’s powerful friends into account at least. Cid himself was a dangerous man; but he had wanted that and it was no trouble to deal with it…but these two, he should have thought of what havoc they could ruin on his sibling’s dreams.

Maybe he had, in the back of his mind…maybe he had.


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