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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 16

 

The wastelanders had scattered. Back to their old ways of roving in bands small enough to avoid detection. And they were good at that, finding nooks and crannies in the dry lands beyond Midgar to dig into when it came down to hunting them down.

But there were still more of them out there than usually roamed this particular area and there were only so many hiding spots for men and vehicles to shelter, especially when they were high on recent destruction.

Whether they were working under Diablo's order or he'd left them to their own devices Cloud didn't hazard a guess, focused instead on the job. He'd been dwelling too much on whys and wherefores and all he needed now was simple, direct interaction.

They'd stolen a Shinra patrol vehicle and Vincent drove it, lights off in the darkness, night vision good enough to make Red XIII envious. Silent ride mostly, save for the creaks and jolts of the SUV bouncing over uneven terrain, but then Cloud was used to traveling alone and silence was no enemy.

They found the first group of wastelanders three miles to the south of Midgar, the faint glow of a celebratory fire reflecting off the walls of a narrow grotto giving away their hidey hole.

Vincent cut the engine a quarter mile distant and gave Cloud a silent nod. They'd fought together long enough to know each other's habits, know the tactics of the hunt. Vincent disappeared into the night while Cloud was sheathing his sword.

He took a breath, pushing back everything but the focus demanded for battle. The aches and pains that still lingered were hazy awareness in the background.

He took the low route, following the tire tracks into the mouth of a rocky crevice. Vincent would probably have already gone high, finding a good vantage to snipe. The vehicles were pulled in snug, a dozen of them cooling the darkness. Beyond the wastelanders celebrated around a fire, shrill laughter, the smell of gasoline and cheap booze, of urine and sweat and oil. Familiar scents and for a moment his head swam, unprecedented weakness that he shook off with a growl. There were twenty-five men maybe that he could see from the behind the shadow of a truck, cavorting in fire lengthened shadow.

There was a scream. High pitched and feminine and aborted and he zeroed in on a group at the other side of the fire. Men hovering around a heavy figure thrusting atop another on a blanket on the ground. Of course they hadn't just ripped into the city to raise their hell, they'd taken a trophy as well.

Cloud felt his vision go black around the edges, lurid flashes of himself on his back in the midst of them, of dirty faces leering down, of hands on his body inflicting shame and pain that he'd been helpless to stop - -

He snarled, drawing the sword even as he launched himself off the hood of the truck and into their midst. A shot from out of the blackness took out the back of the head of the man atop the faceless woman even as Cloud slashed into a startled wastelander twenty feet away. Any mercy he'd been inclined to show, simply evaporated.

Pandemonium erupted, men scattering, screaming in rage and surprise, snatching after weapons, the sound of gunshots, friendly fire and hostile, blending into the background. Everything slowed for him, as it did in the midst of battle, men's movements shallow and sluggish. The trail of a bullet headed towards him, so damned obvious. He brought the sword up and deflected it, almost carelessly, ducked under the swipe of a dagger and jammed the hilt into a man's windpipe, crushing it. He saw a man's face, twisted in rage and had a crystal clear recollection of it leaning over him, jamming the lip of a bottle into his mouth. Cloud cut him in two and kept going, the black around the edges flushing red with the sort of berserker rage he hadn't felt in years.

He'd never taken pleasure from killing before, never looked at it with anything but grim necessity, but he felt the trill of satisfaction now. The frenzied high of vengeance that came with a tang of copper at the back of his throat. He cut through them like they were dummies on a practice field. Saw the trace of one of Vincent's bullets heading for a man with rifle and beat it to the target, cutting through bone and flesh as if it were water.

Then they were all down, scattered about like rag dolls, save for one, who backed away, terrified and gibbering. Cloud stalked towards him with a purpose, aware peripherally of Vincent bounding down from the heights, heading for the woman, who huddled half naked, where she'd been when Cloud had rushed in maybe three - - four minutes ago max, next to a corpse on a blanket.

The man had a blade on the end of a stick, hand made and splotched with rusty places. Cloud knocked it aside with the flat of his sword, breaking a few bones in the process. The man howled curses, clutching hand to chest. He glared with dilated, bloodshot eyes when Cloud planted his sword and stepped in close. There was fear there. A great deal of fear. The man had a right to it, the things flitting behind Cloud's eyes still crying out for blood.

"Diablo. Where is he?" Softly asked.

"Fuck y - -" the man started, then stopped, seeing something in Cloud's eyes maybe that made the words choke in his throat. "Dunno. I dunno. Took off. Ain't seen him since - -"

The man faltered again, eyes gone speculative this time, back straightening as he maybe figured he didn't have much to lose that wasn't going to be taken from him anyway. " - - Not since we had your skinny ass down in the big grotto. He ain't much for sharing his itinerary."

"That's too bad," Cloud could almost feel the man's neck snap under his hands, could taste it before the fact. But a hole appeared between the man's eyes, followed by the crack of a bullet echoing off canyon walls, before he could do the deed himself.

He stood there as the body crumpled, teeth clenched, then turned to glare at Vincent, who had stolen his kill.

Vincent stared back, eyes nothing but shadow between the fall of midnight hair and the darkness - - across the clearing, a quietly sobbing woman half hidden by his cloak. He said nothing, just swept the woman up and disappeared in a flutter of cloak into the darkness.

Cloud let out his breath, pulling his sword out of the hard packed earth, turning in a slow circle to observe the carnage they had wrought. Mostly him. His blade was blood spattered, his clothes were. Bodies lay scattered, some in pieces, blood making the dry earth dark as it soaked in.

Ragged men, with tattoos and piece meal armor, scavenged weapons and the stench of the unwashed. The stench of the recently dead now as well. Memory assaulted him again - - himself chained and trying not to scream - - a dirty body pressed hard behind him arm around his throat, hand clutching his balls as another of them came at him from the front with a lighter, dozens of them gathered close, cutting off his air, laughing as skin burned.

He lashed out, slicing a materia powered arc in the air with the sword that sent a wave of energy into the dark walls of the grotto. Dismembering ghosts. Always fighting the ghosts one way or another. He laughed. And couldn't stop.

Couldn't breath for it, until Vincent said his name sharply. Just there again and alone and Cloud had no idea how long he'd been gone or how long he'd stood there in the midst of these corpses, not quite in his right mind.

Cloud blinked at Vincent, who simply stood, still as rock when he chose. Not offering anything or asking for it. A void of emotion when everything inside Cloud wanted to well up and erupt - - he hated the feeling. Always hated that lack of control, fought it, wrapped it up in chains and never let it see the light of day where it would be vulnerable. Where he would be vulnerable. Again.

Never again.

"I'm okay." He wasn't sure why he made the declaration.

"No," Vincent disagreed and Cloud flinched. They had deserved it. All of them predators that preyed on the weak. No telling how many innocent lives they'd snuffed out as a collective. Coming out here and stopping them - - inflicting justice of their own - - had been the plan from the get go.

Vincent kept staring and Cloud felt something stretch taut, close to the breaking point. He clenched his fists, looking up the dusk of the night sky above the black of grotto walls.

"What they did to me - -" The words raked up his throat, not wanting out. He had spoken of it to no one, his experience at the hands of the wastelanders and Diablo. A private thing. A terrible thing that ate at the core of him. "I couldn't stop it. I couldn't - -"

His mind flitted back to those hours and maybe that was the worse part, the most shameful part - -that he'd been unable till the very last to protect himself and the last time he'd felt so helpless, his mind had rebelled and wiped away parts of himself.

"No," Vincent agreed softly, nothing of condemnation in his voice or horror over the scattered bodies or the blood on Cloud's hands. "They made certain of that with the drug. It was no failing of yours." He was closer than he had been and Cloud hadn't even seen him move. Close enough to feel the brush of his cloak as the wind ruffled it.

Drugged and betrayed and manipulated. Rufus snug in his seat of power, pulling his strings, working towards his endgame. Diablo disappeared with the ghost of Sephiroth welling inside him and the both of them focused on him and not hesitant to destroy his friends in the process. He ground his teeth, tired and sore and angry to the point where wetness spiked his lashes.

Convenient to lean in just a fraction against the solidity of Vincent's shoulder. He hardly even realized he was doing it. Accepting comfort, whether it was covertly offered or not, was not a thing he was good at. He was damned bad at it, in fact. But Vincent's opinions were blunt and on the mark and he offered no sympathy or attempts at rationalization which made him as safe a zone as Cloud had available.

He took a breath, gathering calm in the face of something close to homicidal hysteria and took a step backwards no small bit embarrassed.

"What happened to the woman?" He could pretend very well at stone cold sanity, even when he was teetering on the edge of something else altogether.

"I sent her back to the city in the truck." Vincent didn't miss a beat, eyes as always, unreadable orange orbs.

Cloud wiped his hands on his pants, blood blending in seamlessly with the black. The sword he wiped clean on a canvas tarp near the fire.

"If we take two of their vehicles, we can cover twice the space," Vincent suggested.

He nodded, feeling control slip back, clear and focused.

They'd come out here to hunt and it was still early yet, hours before dawn.

 

 

 

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