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The Devil's Own

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter five

 

Barret hadn't been pleased, letting her go off by herself with Reno and Rude. It was only fear for the kids being left alone and not knowing if the wastelanders would be back, that kept him on the street in sector 7 when Tifa drove away with the two Turks.

She was dressed at any rate, having ignored the fire fighter warning to venture back into the building before they okayed it. Reno made disappointed sounds, but she ignored him, tired of the game, and maybe Rude was too, because one big shoulder glanced off Reno in mid-complaint about her change of attire as he was getting into the back seat of the car with her and he fell into the seat more awkwardly than he might have.

Rude, of course, radiated complete innocence of any pre-meditated clumsiness as he got behind the wheel to drive them uptown.

Uptown was Sector 1. There had been a lot more rebuilding and revitalization here where there was private money to back it, than in the rest of Midgar. It was hard to tell, driving through the wealthiest part of town, that Meteor had ever ripped through the city. They'd built out instead of up, not even bothering with the reconstruction of the plates. The new Sector 1 sprawled to the walls of Midgar and without. New walls had been erected, to encompass the spread. The buildings were graffiti free. The roads were wide and clean, the sidewalks and alleyways lacking the ever-present homeless and lurking gangbangers that were an everyday commodity in the poorer sectors.

ShinRa didn't have a new official building yet that she knew of. At least not in Midgar. The company was keeping a low profile these days, working behind the scenes in its efforts to rebuild.

They pulled into the underground parking area of an apartment building and into a reserved space near a bank of elevators. Rude opened the door for her and she stepped out warily.

"Don't look so worried," Reno assured her, sounding amused, ushering her to the elevator. Rude inserted a key that allowed access to the top floor buttons. He pushed the penthouse and the elevator rose, the doors opening not upon a hallway lined with doors, but directly into a very large, very tastefully decorated great room. A bank of windows looked out over the city. A collection comfortable leather furniture was arranged before a big, wall entertainment system.

Reno headed for the mini-bar and Rude held out a hand, indicating she should proceed the other way. There was a glass-topped desk with a laptop computer open upon it, along with a neat stack of papers and folders. A cup of coffee, black and half-empty, sat on a coaster. The leather chair was empty.

"We're back, boss.," Reno called, padding around the bar with a tumbler of amber liquid.

"I see." A man limped through the arched open doorway behind the desk. Rufus Shinra, who'd been confined to a wheelchair up to six months ago, due to the twin impacts of injuries inflicted during the destruction of the old ShinRa headquarters and the contraction of geostigma. The geostigma had been washed away by that miraculous lifestream-induced rain half a year ago, curing rich and poor alike. He walked with a cane now.

He was of medium height, pale silver blonde hair, thin, but not so thin that he didn't wear his expensive suit well. He'd ordered her execution once.

Tifa lifted her chin and waited for him to say whatever it was he'd brought her here to say.

"Miss Lockheart. It's been a long time."

Not long enough, she wanted to say, but held her tongue, inclining her head in forced politeness instead. She was aware of Reno and Rude settling themselves behind her, Reno on the couch, Rude taking up a place by the potted plant at the elevator door.

Rufus sat down behind the desk, leaning the silver-headed cane by the chair arm. He opened the folder and pulled out a picture. Slid it across the desk top towards her and waited while she decided whether to step up and take a look at it.

There was no helping it. Not if she wished to get out of here and back to the bar as quickly as possible. She moved forward, pulling the photograph towards her with her fingertips, turning it around so that the man in the picture faced her right side up. It looked like a security camera shot of a lean-faced, dark-haired man in the midst of a crowd of casually dressed people. She had a vague recognition of the face. It was not an easy one to forget, even though she'd only seen the man in passing and he hadn't been one of the vocal ones that had caused trouble in 7th Heaven that night that Annie had been killed in retribution for Cloud pissing them off.

"I've seen him," she said warily. It was no coincidence that she was being shown this man's picture after friends of his attacked her in her own bedroom.

"He wasn't there this morning." She pushed the picture back towards him.

"I know." He let it lie, more interested in watching her.

"Then what do you want?"

Rufus steepled his fingers, considering. "This man was a Soldier and though I am relatively certain he never had any association with Cloud Strife either in or out of the service . . . well, I'm interested in discovering if he mentioned any contact or memory of this man to you after the incident last month with the dead prostitute?"

She opened her mouth, then shut it, frustration and concern starting to make her skin crawl. If Rufus Shinra knew even a fraction about Cloud, he'd know that Cloud didn't just mention pertinent facts about his past. Cloud didn't mention current problems unless he was cornered and coerced into doing so, so how was she supposed to know if he were in trouble or if he was worried about even the little things? Frustrating, infuriating man!

"No," she said softly. "He never mentioned anything to me. Were those men at my bar this morning after him?"

"Doubtful," Rufus said and glanced down at the stack of other photos in the folder. She followed his gaze and drew a breath. Under another shot of the lean faced man, she saw the sliver of a familiar figure. She leaned forward and snatched it out of the pile. Rufus didn't move to stop her.

It was indeed Cloud, in the midst of trading blows with the same man in the other pictures. She recognized the setting now, one of the Gold Saucer amusement squares. Where Cloud was supposed to be right now.

"What's going on?" she demanded, slamming the picture down upon the desk. "Is Cloud okay?"

"I honestly wouldn't know." Rufus shrugged. "But, if you're sure he never mentioned knowing this man to you, then there's no further need to keep you from dealing with the mess back at your bar. I'll have someone take you back."

"The hell you will!" she cried. "You tell me what's going on."

He seemed to think it over, then shrugged and admitted. "I've only conjecture to go on. That and reasonable assumption based on past events. I always understood science better than mysticism and this falls so much more in that category. Let me start from the beginning. When we first started our experiments with the Jenova element, our scientists were working blind, so to speak. The success with Sephiroth was a landfall that spawned a flurry of . . . shall we say, unwise . . . experiments. There was quite a bit of . . . raw material . . . to go around in those early days and some of our researchers were liberal in its usage. Diablo was one of those early test subjects, one of the few that didn't mutate into an abomination."

"So he's a super-Soldier, like Sephiroth was?" She shivered at her own words. Sephiroth was not a topic that prompted feelings of comfort.

"Not quite like Sephiroth. Sephiroth's connection to the Jenova . . . intellect . . . was on the most basic level, from before conception, while all the other subjects had the element forcibly melded with their own genetic make up."

Like Cloud, she thought, forcibly taken and used as a test subject, turned into something beyond mundane. She tightened her lips and looked out the window for a moment while she gathered her composure.

"So what are you saying?"

"Kadaj was a byproduct of one, maybe two parents with enough of the Jenova element in their DNA to pass it on to their offspring. And through that tenuous connection, whatever is left of Sephiroth out there in the lifestream managed to influence him and through him, others with the same . . . stigma.

"That piece of Jenova that Kadaj was after, the piece he used to liberate Sephiroth from the lifestream . . . it wasn't much, let me assure you. Hardly enough to perform a decent experiment if I were so inclined to let my researchers have a go at it. Which I'm not. This Diablo, this early test subject that my father indoctrinated into the ranks of Soldier and let loose into the shadows to do his dirty work, he had as much or more of Jenvova's DNA mixed with his own as Kadaj ever had access to. It only makes me wonder why Sephiroth chose Kadaj as a portal back into this world when there were more fertile pastures."

"Because Kadaj was only slightly off his rocker, not crazy as a loon," Reno suggested from his position on the couch.

Rufus shrugged, accepting that theory as good as the next.

"You think Sephiroth . . . you think whatever's left of him is influencing this man?" She felt sick. That hollow nausea in the pit of her gut that preempted disaster.

"Why not? You think he surrendered to the lifestream last year when Cloud sent him into it for a second time?"

"Why go after Cloud?"

"Why not go after Cloud? What greater threat?"

"If it were me and he'd kicked my ass twice, he'd be my first target," Reno commented.

"Why send people after me . . . and Barret too?" she knew the answer to her question the moment she asked it. Because they were Cloud's support system, those of them that had fought side by side with him to put Sephiroth's insanity to an end.

Rufus just watched her, a slight, dour smile playing upon his lips.

"When does it stop?" she asked softly.

"There's a point when there's no one left with enough of the Jenova Element for him to use. Then he's just one more floating leaf in the stream so to speak, that can only fight so long before he's sucked down. We went a long ways to making that a reality with the spring in the cathedral."

"We? You had nothing to do with it," Tifa said bitterly.

Rufus shrugged again, waving a hand. "As you wish. Regardless, the planet, the lifestream itself, provided a means to rid the Jenova element from those with minor taints. Geostigma and then the healing spring. We may have to leave it to more . . . violent means . . . to get rid of the rest."


There were certain instances when unconsciousness was preferable to waking up, especially when consciousness came hand in hand with the awareness of every stabbing ache, every stinging gash and every bone-deep bruise.

Cloud opened his eyes and stared blankly at the loose weave of the dirty blanket his cheek was pressed against. He lay on his side, arms pulled up tight behind him, wrist to elbow with the chain securing them looped once around his throat to discourage too much testing of their security. He rotated his shoulders the minimal amount he could to relieve the ache of cramped muscles, but the effort only seemed to spur more discomfort. He shut his eyes again, gathering stamina, then lifted his lashes again to take in more of his surroundings than the blanket in front of his nose.

He was in a small cell, with iron walls dulled with dust and patches of rust. There was a battered locker, doors long gone, that boasted nothing inside. No bunk, no window, filled only with the stark belongings of a man that moved from place to place like a nomad.

Diablo sat in the far corner, attention elsewhere, mouth moving silently as if he held a conversation with himself. Dried blood streaked his jaw and neck, but the slice Cloud had scored had already crusted over. The fact that the man hadn't bothered to clean the wound was disturbing.

Cloud watched him for a while, the nervous ticks, the abrupt movements of a man that held deep seated troubles, and remembered what Rude had told him. That Diablo had been unbalanced before ShinRa had ever gotten their claws into him. A man like that, a man used to voices in his head, might not have recognized the whisperings of a real outside source. Not until someone pointed it out to him.

"He's inside your head, isn't he?" Cloud asked softly.

Diablo's head jerked up, eyes wild and angry. He rose, fast as a wolf on the hunt, and crossed the small room in two strides to crouch over Cloud. He grasped Cloud's sweater, pulling him up off the floor and there was nothing to do but go limp and let it happen, anticipating pain at the hands of Diablo's irrational rage.

"What do you know of it?" He shook Cloud hard enough to rattle teeth, then slammed him onto his back on the floor, driving chains into bound arms.

"Because he was in mine," Cloud gasped. Because he knew what it was like to have that irresistible will forcing his hand and he'd gone a little mad from it himself.

Diablo's hands loosened on his collar, eyes gone narrow and speculative. He leaned down, close to Cloud's throat and inhaled. Idly, he pulled the zipper on Cloud's sweater down, pushed the edges of it aside like a surgeon preparing for business and ran one hand up the center of Cloud's stomach. "I bet that's not all he was in, eh? Bad as I want you . . .." He pressed his mouth to the protruding bulge of collar bone and bit down. "No. No, you're not MY type. I like a little pussy with my ass. He wants you. HE WANTS YOU!!" He pushed himself up and off, striding three paces to the wall, then spinning and stalking back. "That motherfucker. That sneakin' bastard putting worms in my head. The dead inside my head." He laughed at that, scraping fingers through his short hair.

Cloud watched him warily. There was no predicting how to deal with a madman. Even if he'd possessed the talent for negotiation, there was no safe path to reason that wouldn't backfire with a man like Diablo, pulled in so many directions that he'd become aimless. No. Not aimless, drawn to a path not his own and fighting it. Fighting Sephiroth's influence and sometimes winning out and sometimes not. Not weak-minded at all, this madman, simply deranged.

"You killed him, didn't you?" Diablo stopped his pacing to stare down.

"Twice," Cloud admitted warily. "I can do three, if push comes to shove."

Diablo canted his head, considering. Then he laughed, cackling so hard tears formed in the corners of his eyes. Finally he sank down to his knees next to Cloud, close enough that his thigh pressed against his side. Diablo placed fingertips on his skin, touching the sensitive area around the wound he'd made in Gold Saucer. Cloud drew in breath, muscles quivering as the man put pressure on the barely-closed injury. But then his interest moved on, finding the next purpling bruise or crusting gash.

Forced to lie there and endure it was appalling. Passivity had never been a trait he'd found reason to practice. Submission was a foreign concept.

"I wonder," Diablo mused, "if I fuck you, he'll leave me alone?"

"No," he whispered. "You'll just open the door for him." What choice but admit that he was scared, that he didn't want this man's hands on him, that he doubly didn't want this man's attention when his eyes glowed green with the light of mako energy and Sephiroth's influences. Not when he wasn't in a position to fight back.

He was scared and Diablo inhaled the scent of it and grinned.

"You knew him, didn't you?" Anything to ward off the predator, to wrest Diablo's mind away from the insidious sway of a worse madman. "In Soldier?"

"I knew him." Diablo's grin turned bitter, and something more human and more sane crossed his face. "They treated him like a fucking prince, while the rest of us . . . the rest of us . . ." He fingered the dangling array of dogtags around his neck like they were talismans. The muscles in his face spasmed, things going on behind his eyes that maybe Cloud didn't want to know. Memories that couldn't have been pleasant, if they involved ShinRa experimentation.

"They were good men," he said, more to the air at lodge than Cloud. "All of 'em were damned good men. Betrayed. Hunted down like dogs . . . Goddamned ShinRa!"

He slammed a fist into the floor by Cloud's head and the echoes vibrated outward from the impact. He had something in common with Sephiroth after all, a hatred of the megalithic cooperate monster that had played god with all of them.

He latched onto Cloud's jaw, fingers biting into flesh and bone, leaned down close with a growl issuing from his throat and no words to express the feeling behind it. He forced Cloud's head back, with a rigid forefinger under the tip of his chin and Cloud had to arch his back to keep the chain from cutting off his air, had to fight against the strain that threatened to snap his neck. Diablo threw a leg over his hips, straddling him, vise-like grip still on his jaw. The nails of his other hand scraped across Cloud's chest, raising welts at the very least, maybe drawing blood.

"You trying to play me, boy?" Diablo leaned down, following the trail of welts with his tongue. "Tryin' to get into my head. One too many already." He laughed at that, resting his forehead on Cloud's shoulder, while his body shook, fingers straining so hard on Cloud's jaw that bone threatened to crack.

He spread his palm out flat above Cloud's thudding heart, left it there for a moment, taking in the rapid tempo, then pushed himself up, loosening his hold on Cloud's jaw.

"I like that you're afraid. You don't stink of it, like some, but you can't hide it from me."

"I'm not afraid of you," Cloud snarled, more for his own benefit than Diablo's.

"Maybe not when you had a weapon in hand, but you're scared now. Your body betrays you and I know the feel . . . I know the scent of your fear. Remember the taste like . . . fine wine."

"You don't remember," Cloud reminded him, desperate now, because part of Diablo seemed to be fraying at the edges, something calmer and colder seeping in to mend the torn edges.

"I remember. Do you think she's dead by now? Your little friend, Lockheart? And that buffoon with the gunarm? Men were sent to see to it, you know? The pilot as well."

"Son of a BITCH!!" Spurred by a fury-fueled surge of adrenaline, Cloud arched his body, trying to rid himself of Diablo's unwanted weight. It didn't matter that the chain bit into his throat, it didn't matter that his shoulders felt as if they were about to dislocate in his struggle, he needed the bastard off!

And failed. Too badly disadvantaged in his present position, chained and debilitated, to win out over a man who hadn't been systematically beaten down over the course of a day. Diablo let him work himself into exhaustion, half conscious from the chain about his neck, then he leaned down and whispered against his ear. "The others are harder to find, but I will, eventually. I'll take them all from you. Your allies. The tools this world used to disrupt my . . . his . . . my . . . purpose."

All the ice blue was gone and only green was left surrounding the pin point pupils of Diablo's eyes. Cloud squeezed his own lids closed to shut it out. To shut out the nightmare visions of the only things he cared about in the world dead and mangled and bloody. But they came anyway, having played out in his dreams so many times in the past.

Cloud clenched his jaw, slitting his eyes open to glare up into the oddly composed countenance above him. Maybe not so odd at all, if Sephiroth was mixed in with his consciousness now. Even at the heights of his madness Sephiroth never raged. He had always been calm and cold as ice in his atrocities.

"Get off me," he said, voice hoarse from self-inflicted strangulation.

"All right." Diablo rose to a crouch, and flung Cloud away from him, spinning to follow like a predator playing with crippled prey. Cloud hit the wall next to the battered locker and it went over with a crash. His left shoulder took the brunt of the impact, forced out of joint by the blow and he ground his teeth to keep from screaming out at the bone-deep pain.

That discomfort took back seat to the greater threat of Diablo pouncing on him, grasping his ankle and jerking him away from the support of the wall. His head hit the floor with a thump and his shoulder burned agony, displaced ball grating against socket. Diablo's fingers tore at his trousers, nails raking into the flesh at his hips as he yanked them down.

Fine. Let him do what he wanted. It would be no less pain that that radiating up from his shoulder, no less than being beaten senseless by the bastard when he couldn't raise an arm to defend himself. And if it was Sephiroth's desires driving the actions of a madman . . . well, it wasn't like he hadn't caved under Sephiroth's desires in the past as well.

Cold, metal floor on his skin, body jerked over and face pressed against the floor, a hard knee jamming between his legs, wedging his thighs apart . . .

It wasn't like a sixteen year old's hero worship hadn't had him basking in the attention, no more thinking of the consequences, of who he might hurt, of the guilts he would feel about the betrayal of someone who truly did care about him, until it was too late and the deed was done. All that had mattered was that the great, the ingenious General of ShinRa's military forces had expressed an interest in him, a nobody, a grunt of the lowest rank, and he'd no more been able to refuse than he could stop the beating of his heart. It had only dawned on him later, that it hadn't really been him Sephiroth had held the interest in, not then at any rate, but Zack, who'd been Sephiroth's friend and confidant and sometimes rival. And Cloud had been Zack's. Simple as that.

Intrusion, sharp and quick, a minor little tearing burn compared to the other hurts, but it held impact in other ways, that shook him to the core. Made him grind his teeth and squeeze his eyes shut, enduring the thrusts less stoically that he'd endured the beatings . . .

Whether Zack had ever known, Cloud didn't know. Sephiroth hadn't bragged of it, he'd never been that crass, never needed more than the knowledge. He hadn't ever been cruel back then. Hadn't ever been anything but driven, and efficient and loyal to the cause. But Cloud knew and it had eaten him up until the day he simply forgot, memories scraped away by ShinRa atrocities. He hadn't thought about it in a very, very long time. That betrayal of Zack's trust, way back when.

Fingers bit into his skin, nails tearing flesh. New blood mingled with old, dried stains. The chain that bound his arms and looped about his throat was grasped, pulled tight and air intake bled to a stop. Red-tinged blackness crowded in at the edges of his vision . . . Something trembled in the air, like the pulsing energy that raised the hair on the back of your arms the moment before lightning struck ground nearby. Like the lifestream surging up to purge itself of something that tainted its purity . . .

What a fool he'd been.

Weak, selfish.

It wasn't your fault, idiot. It was never your fault.

The energy faded, a wave not able to reach its crest and Cloud's eyes snapped open, but there was nothing but hard metal floor under his cheek and Diablo's harsh breath from behind him, Diablo's body, going heavy and lax for a moment over his. He lay there, simply pulling breath in past a bruised throat, waiting for Diablo to either get off or do whatever the hell else he needed to do to satisfy his Sephiroth-driven needs.

The weight on him shifted, a trembling began, and the soft rumble of laughter. Diablo sprang off him, laughter gone shrill, a madman's howling defiance of sanity. Cloud rolled onto his good shoulder, drawing in a wary breath as Diablo snatched the armblades from their place among his scant possessions.

Had he purged the Sephiroth-driven obsession? But his eyes were still green as a pool of raw mako, so perhaps not. The only thing missing was the Sephiroth-calm. There was only frenzy there now. Diablo screamed and slashed an armblade towards the wall with the door and power rippled outwards, tearing through metal like it was soft butter. Cloud flinched, catching the radiating backwash of that massive release, curled his body a little in the reflexive attempt to protect himself from flying shards of metal and falling dust and debris. Diablo didn't give him a second glance, stalking out instead through his ragged opening. There were queries from beyond, the echoes of feet pounding on metal flooring as his men ran to see what had happened.

And then screams and the echoing hiss of a materia-fueled destruction that made the floor quake. He was killing his own men. Slaughtering whatever and whoever was unlucky enough to get in his path.

Cloud lay there listening to the sounds of it, the gut-wrenching sounds of butchery. The tell-tale flashes of materia unleashed. And then it stopped and only the occasional creaking groan of an old bunker that wasn't up to this sort of abuse pierced the silence.

And eventually, the soft sounds of movement, the shifting of debris, the scurrying of men who'd had their world rocked, their loyalties betrayed. There was movement outside the ravaged doorway of Diablo's cell, a furtive figure creeping through the rubble. A small, wiry man peering in to see what was left in Diablo's wake. The sharp, familiar features of a man that must have had the devil's own luck to have survived both Cloud and Diablo's attentions. He still had the curved saber with its weak materia in the hilt, that he'd had that night in 7th Heaven.

A chunk of ceiling fell near the shattered doorway and Rat-face started, scrambling into the cell, then snarled and postured, needing to boast his bravado in the face of witnessed skittishness. Cloud didn't bother to try and push himself up, just lay there on his good side and waited for whatever the little man might try.

"'Spected to find you gutted and left for dead. Guess he liked the piece of ass he got enough to want to save some for later, eh, bitch?" Rat-face prodded Cloud with the toe of his boot, gaze traveling over his nakedness. "Maybe me and some of the boys will get our own taste, 'fore we spill your guts. Yeah, maybe we will."

"Are there enough of you left alive to make it worth my while?" he asked softly and Rat-face flinched, knuckles tightening on his saber.

"You got a deathwish," Rat-face snarled.

"No. Do you? When he comes back here, and starts killing the rest of you? What then? You gonna stop him?"

"Shut up!" Rat-face cried, his small eyes darting around the room, as if Diablo might emerge from the shadow. "He - - he's one of us. He won't."

"You think? How many of you did he kill out there?"

The little man went to his knees next to Cloud, pulling him half up by the loose edges of his sweater. "Bastard! He wasn't like this 'fore he started hunting you."

Cloud met his frustration levelly and made an offer. "Not my problem. . . . Unless you want it to be."

Rat-face let him, go, hands shaking. There was blood on his arms, across his leathers. It didn't look like his own. This was a scared man. A deeply spooked one. "What're you gonna do?" he asked shakily. " You been chewed up and spit out."

Cloud narrowed his eyes and stared at the little man. Rat face flinched, looking away, little dog backed down by a more dangerous animal, that he'd no doubt watched off and on throughout the previous afternoon and night, take down beast after beast in that bloody killing bay under the grate. He looked back towards the mangled doorway and the bunker beyond it, face white, mouth pinched.

"Tyree . . . he deserved it. Boss told us not to lay a hand to you . . . an' . . an' the boss, he don't like to be disobeyed. But what he did out there . . . there weren't no sense to it."

"He's mad," Cloud said quietly. "Let me go and I'll deal with it."

Rat-face looked away, torn.

"They'll need another boss, once he's gone," Cloud reminded him and that seemed to tip the scales.

The little bandit went for the chains, picking the lock when the key turned up missing and stepping back warily when Cloud pushed himself up, letting the heavy links slid off. His arm was dead weight, the shoulder a grating agony that needed tending before anything else. He rose shaky, and steeled himself for the misery of jamming it back into place. He slammed it once, hard, against the wall and bone popped back into the position it ought to be in. It hurt like hell and he leaned there a moment, arm limp at his side while the lights faded from his vision. It was like someone had flipped a switch, the pain melting away fast and leaving a damned sore shoulder that would be weak for a while until muscles and tendons mended. A day or two and it would be back to full strength. If he had that long. At the very least, it wasn't his favored arm.

He pulled on pants and boots, while Rat-face stood there with his saber out, trying to decide how bad of a mistake he'd made. Cloud walked up to him, close enough to take a hit from the saber if he chose to stand there and let it happen and the little man started to say something obnoxious that Cloud wasn't in the mood to hear. He cut him off with a hand on his throat and pushed him back against the wall, relieving him of the sword in the same motion.

"Where's the rest of my stuff?"

Rat-face lifted an arm, gesturing down the narrow hall. Cloud propelled him ahead of him out the mangled doorway, past bodies that were little more than smears of pulp against twisted metal.

Diablo hadn't been hesitant about unleashing destruction on the main bunker bay either. There was sunlight coming in that hadn't been before, through a tear in the ceiling that ran two thirds the length of the building. Massive support beams had collapsed, crushing bodies. There was no shortage of blood, or scattered bodies and parts of bodies. It reminded Cloud of the killing pit, only larger scale. They hardly noticed him, the survivors too busy picking through the wreckage, searching out the living, or scavenging from the dead. Still, even counting the corpses and the pieces of copses Diablo had left in the path of his insanity, there were a lot fewer of them than Cloud recalled.

"Where are the rest?"

"What?" Rat-face blinked at him, caught in the act of staring dumbly at the bloodbath. Cloud felt no pity for him. For any of them. They were killers, all. He thought of Annie's tortured body left behind as a token for him by the likes of these people and figured karma had come around and left its mark.

"This isn't all of you. Where are the others?"

"uh - - took off after the boss. Figured . . . I dunno what they figured."

Rat-face led him to a corner only partially sprinkled with debris and he found his shoulder guard and sheath, covered in dust and stained no small bit with blood, most of it dried and probably his own. There were a few things from his pockets, but most of the little stuff was gone, and short of searching the pockets of every thief here, he'd probably never see it again. He took a breath, shutting his eyes for a moment as composure unexpectedly teetered. He pushed the weakness back and looked up at the little bandit.

"My sword?" he asked.

Rat-face shrugged. "Not here. I swear."

Cloud cursed silently and started towards the big doors.

"Hey, what's he doing loose?" somebody cried. Cloud ignored them, until one of them made a go at him, then sidestepped the charge and helped propel the man into the door frame. He stood looking out at desert then. A lot of desert. Heat and sand and slow death out there. He glanced back at the wastelanders, narrowing his eyes in speculation. They hadn't walked out here, which meant . . .

He caught Rat-face by the collar as the man was skulking up behind him. "Where are the rides?"


Cid had systematically been scouring the desert for half the day. Grid by grid fly overs that turned up nothing but hard-packed, cracked ground, sand covered seas and craggy protrusions of rock thrust up out of a barren earth. It was a damned miserable place and a damned miserable way to spend a day, hot, dust-coated and sunburned. He'd jammed a broad rimmed cap on his head to help protect from a sun a man didn't feel the true strength of with the wind blowing all the time in his face. He'd brought a couple galleons of drinking water with him from the little desert village, and had gone through over half. How Vincent was coping wherever the hell he was on the ground, was beyond Cid.

He was still pissed. Most of the curses that passed his lips during the morning had had Vincent's name attached. He was as much on the lookout for a speck of red down there as sign of an old military installation. Probably a waste of eyesight, since even in the midst of a featureless wasteland, if Vincent didn't want to be seen, he wouldn't be seen.

Noon had come and gone, when Cid finally did catch a glimpse of something that wasn't dull and dusty. A glint of something reflecting the afternoon sun. He turned the plane on its wing, reducing altitude for a flyby. He squinted, leaning over the side of the cockpit to try and find the source of the reflection.

His eyes were used to the brightness after a morning of it, but the flare that erupted below was enough to make him jerk back, blinking the white spots out of his vision. He missed all but the tail end of the rippling energy surge that lanced skyward, ripping through the Little Bronco's right wing.

He cursed, control becoming a perilous thing. The plane took a distinctly southward dive. He fought it with everything he had, but skill and strength meant nothing when one of your wings had been torn half off. He managed to get the nose up with the help of a damned strong updraft, which kept him from crashing head-on into the hard desert earth.

The crash was inevitable though. And as the right wing finally gave up the ghost and ripped away from the body of the plane, he could only think of one thing as the ground rushed up.

Two planes. Two fucking planes damaged in the span of a few days. He didn't know what he'd done to offend the gods of fate, but his luck had spiraled down to non-existent.

Well, maybe not completely gone. The impact of the plane hitting ground beat the shit out of him, but it didn't kill him, which was as big a favor as fate had ever done him, all things considered. He lay there, sprawled in a coc-pit that had ended up 40 degrees clockwise, the nose of the plane buried in the sand, the right side crumpled to hell and back, the left propeller still rotating lazily, up in the air over his head. He had blood in his mouth and a god-awful pain in his right arm. His knee felt like it had been jammed something good up under the cocpit dash. The rest of him ached like he'd gone ten rounds with a heavy weight, but not so bad that he figured there was damage on the inside. He tried to reach for the harness latch and his forearm howled bloody murder. He hissed, clutching it to his chest, figuring by the feel of it that there was a bone broken somewhere between wrist and elbow.

Son of a bitch. He used his left hand to unbuckle the harness, and with a great deal of cursing and pain, managed to pull himself out of the cockpit and down onto the ground. There was sand here instead of sun baked earth, which had probably gone a long way to saving his hide. The Little Bronco was toast though, the right wing God knew where and the rest of her, mangled beyond reasonable repair.

He leaned against the fuselage and the shade the remnants of the plane offered, arm cradled against his chest, legs sprawled and cussed. Long and inventively.

Whatever had taken him down, he'd overflown it a good distance. The wasteland wasn't giving up any movement out there. He shut his eyes and breathed.

After a while the throbbing of his arm began to tell, and he pushed back his dust smeared goggles to take a look. Gingerly he felt along the line of the arm, dreading the discovery of splintered bone thrusting outwards against flesh and skin. He didn't feel anything that severe, which he hoped against hope meant that the break was a clean one. He found a piece of broken strut about the length he needed and tore off another dangling piece from the jagged stump of the right wing to make a splint. There was a med-kit in the plane, which he managed to get to without causing himself too much hurt. He used the gauze to fasten the splint into place, and then downed a couple of pain killers for good measure.

He had half a jug of water left, a few packages of dried rations, the med-kit, and a radio that just blared static at him when he crawled back to the cocpit to try and raise help. He lay there, half in half out of the cocpit after that dismal failure, feeling the vague sense of irony that he'd been worried about Vincent, when he was the one that ended up with his life on the line. On the other hand, Vincent being down on the ground, in the general area, might have noticed the blast of energy that had surged up out of nowhere and taken out the plane. Hell, anybody within a ten mile radius ought to have seen it, which begged the debate on whether he should sit here for a while and wait and see if help showed up or try and figure out what direction the little wasteland village was in and attempt the trek back there. With half a jug of water left, either option seemed bleak.

Something chittered by his boot and he looked down to find the shiny black form of a scorpion sidling up to him curiously. He drew a startled breath and rose, crunching his boot heel down on the thing, then kicking the mashed bug away. He scanned the immediate area for any of its buddies, remembering from his one and only venture out into this damned miserable wasteland before this, that there were quite a few things, larger and harder to deal with than a scorpion prowling about.

He limped back to the storage hatch near the rear of the fuselage and had to fight to get the dented panel to open one handed. As he was rummaging about for his lance the low, distant hum of a motor caught his attention. He hauled himself and his seven foot lance out and climbed the slight rise in front of the plane's crumpled nose. He squinted his eyes against the sun, the vastness of the wasteland making the direction from which the sound originated hard to discern.

There. He saw a faint stirring of dust to the west. As the sound grew louder, he thought he picked up the distinctly different sounds of more than one engine. He leaned the lance against his shoulder and lifted his good hand to shade his eyes. There were more than one. Half a dozen, maybe more, but it was hard to tell exact at the distance they were. He heard the distant pop of what might have been an engine backfiring, then changed his mind on that count when it happened again, rapid fire. Some fool was shooting a gun into the air. Problem was, the same fool and his cronies were headed dead at Cid and the wreck of the Little Bronco.

Well, shit. Out of the desert fueled fryin' pan and into the fire. Some days it just didn't pay to get up.

 

 

 

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