Hello, everyone. Mengde here again, and do I have a story for you. Somewhere along the line, I said to myself, "I want to do a shonen-esque FFVII-meets-Trigun story with a dash of horror, both regular and psychological." Well, I churned out something like that, with a bit more than just a dash of horror, and with the help of my lovely betas Pen Against Sword and VulcanElf, we're whipping it into shape for your viewing pleasure.
A warning: this story is at times extremely violent and disturbing and will feature gratuitous amounts of death, both of friends and foes. Saying any more would start to spoil things, but let me assure you that this is not fluffy and it is not for the weak of heart. If you dislike being scared or find that horror writing isn't your cup of tea, it comprises quite a bit of the fic, so I suggest that you proceed with caution. I'm giving it a rating of T because I don't think it exactly treads on mature ground, but it does not pull its punches with the violence and creepy stuff.
For the first time in forever, I will be keeping to an update schedule! This fic will be updated twice every week, on Monday and Thursday. I deliberately left this first chapter short, at ~2200 words, so you can get a taste of what it's going to be like without having to get too deep. The rest of the chapters will be ~3k to ~4k. You will get plenty of material to whet your appetite, I assure you.
I think that's about it. Without further ado...
A jukebox sat in the corner of the bar, playing a tinny tune that nobody listened to. The interior of the bar was hot, nearly ninety degrees, but outside people still wore cloaks and hats. Here they could shed those accoutrements, but outside they needed protection from the sun, after all, and being hot was a small price to pay in exchange for avoiding excessive ultraviolet exposure and all the skin problems that accompanied it.
The bar smelled like cheap booze, sweat, and a hint of blood. The patrons were all large, tough-looking men, the typical sort. One had to be tough to survive in this hell, this new Gaea, after the Fall. All of them wore light colors to better deflect the sun while outside.
There was one notable exception. A man sat in the corner of the bar, feet up on a table, a single empty shot glass in front of him. His black hair was cut to shoulder-length in a nod to practicality in these dark days, and his old golden boots had long ago been replaced with large combat boots less prone to getting sand in them. Otherwise, everything else about him was the same as it had always been.
His red cloak was secured around his upper body by a series of belts, the high collar just hiding his mouth. He wore loose black clothing underneath it, as he wasn't susceptible to heat in the same way that most men were. On his left arm was a brass gauntlet adorned with wicked-looking talons, and at his side hung a holster with a massive, three-barreled gun in it.
His eyes, ruby red, were fixed on one man sitting at the bar, absorbing every detail of the target's face, every subtlety of his movements. His skin, in stark contrast to everyone else's, was pale.
His name was Vincent Valentine.
He was over a hundred years old.
At the End of All Things
Vincent had been sitting there for two hours, waiting for his target to come in. The bar was the only one in the small town of New Gongaga, and anyone who wanted a drink would have to come here. People he'd talked to had told him that the target had a habit of showing up at this bar at some point every day for a drink, and Vincent was counting on that. He could have dispatched the target anywhere else, but he needed a place to sit and think, and it would be convenient when the target delivered himself back into Vincent's mercy.
Now the man in question had finally showed up, and Vincent was busily scrutinizing his face and his body language, praying that he was mistaken even though he knew he wasn't. Depending on the nature of a Lost's symptoms, its facial features might be changing bit by bit, or its body language might be changing, or both. Since Vincent had begun observation a mere six hours ago, this man's cheekbones had started to protrude more and more, the jut of his brow had been increasing, and he walked with more and more of a hunch.
These changes would have been indistinguishable to most people over a span of only six hours, but Vincent was not most people. That was why this was his job.
There had been an outbreak of the disease here in New Gongaga a week ago. Apparently a scavenger had wandered into town, claiming to have struck it rich, and had rented the best room in the better of the town's two hotels. Less than a day later, he had turned out to be a Lost and had proceeded to slaughter or infect everyone in the hotel before the police could show up, enforce quarantine, and put him down.
Still, after a quarantine was put into effect, there was always a purge of the town in question. There were always hunts, people beaten to death for exhibiting even the slightest hint of a symptom, the slightest difference in detail or deviation from memory… And nobody protested. Nobody campaigned for the rights of the suspects, because if somebody was spared and they turned out to be a Lost, the results would be far worse than if they had just been killed in the first place.
It was generally agreed upon that the disease was spread through fluids – saliva, blood, other bodily excretions – and was thus only transmissible through direct contact, but the extent of the contact required was unknown. If a potential Lost spat on you, were you doomed? Would it have to bite you or have sex with you to infect you? Nobody knew for sure, and nobody cared to try to find out. All that could be done was find potential Losts, kill them, and move on. Finding them was sometimes difficult, and that was why Inquisitors existed.
Inquisitors technically were supposed to be dispatched in response to outbreak, to contain the situation and lead the follow-up hunt. However, due to the problems of traveling and how thin the Inquisitors were spread, they almost always showed up after hunts and ensured that no potential Losts slipped through the cracks.
Vincent finally got up from his seat and strode over to the bar. He'd known for sure that the target was infected from moment one. Changing facial features and body language were the most prominent symptoms that anyone could detect with a little luck. People who seemed even slightly different from normal – in their neighbors' judgments – were often killed during a Hunt due to the widespread prevalence of these symptoms.
The real way to tell, the way Inquisitors could identify a target with a moment's glance, was a closely guarded secret. He'd seen it in that first moment, and he'd just been stalling to salve what little conscience he had left, analyzing the man to make sure the other symptoms were present when there was really no need. It was time to act.
He cleared his throat while standing right behind the man, and the man jumped a little and turned to face him. "Can I do something for you?" he asked.
"Yes," Vincent replied. "I – wait. What's that on your leg?"
The man swiveled his head around to look down at his legs, and as he did so Vincent smoothly raised his arm, which began to glow with the power of Materia, and placed his fist against the man's temple.
Before the target even knew what was happening, he was dead. A massive gout of white-hot flame exploded from Vincent's fist as the Materia glow increased even more, incinerating the man's head, reducing it to nothing but ash. The cauterized stump of the dead man's neck began to smoke, and the bar now smelled like cheap alcohol and a lot of charred meat.
The patrons stared at Vincent in shock and confusion, some of them going for sidearms. Vincent held up a hand and withdrew a long syringe from the folds of his cloak. He jabbed the corpse with it and pulled back the plunger, withdrawing a sample of the man's blood.
The confusion and shock faded from the faces of the patrons and was replaced with relief. The sample was not the color that blood should be. It was a horribly deep red, not the vivid crimson of blood but instead a shade so dark that it was almost black. Vincent nodded and produced another flame with his Materia, centered it in his palm, and used it to completely incinerate the syringe. He grabbed the glass the man had been drinking from and dropped that into the flame as well. Then he bodily hauled the corpse outside, into the sunlight, tossed it down onto the dirt of the road, and began gathering his energies.
Incineration was the only truly safe way to dispose of a Lost, potential or otherwise. The problem was that, after the Fall, most settlements simply did not have the technology or the resources available to construct proper incinerators. That was the other duty of Inquisitors, and that was why they were all armed with mastered Fire Materia and taught to project a flame that rivaled the power of the breath of Bahamut.
A crowd had, by this point, begun to form, consisting of people following him out from the bar and other people stopping in the street to stare. Vincent thought he should take this opportunity to clarify the situation.
"I am Inquisitor Vincent Valentine," he said as the flames gathered around his arm, swirling and growing brighter and hotter. He had never liked the way it sounded, but his position had to be made known. "I've completed my post-hunt sweep, and this was the only remaining potential Lost in New Gongaga. How the scavenger managed to infect him I don't know, and it doesn't really matter."
He pointed a finger at the corpse and a burst of flame so hot that it was white – whiter than white, flame that had gone beyond flame and ascended into the realm of pure destructive force – rocketed from his outstretched digit and reduced the corpse to nothing. Not even ash was left, and there was a sizable hole in the ground where the corpse had been.
"This town is clean," he said after a moment. "Please return to your lives. If another outbreak occurs, make sure to notify the Protectorate." He turned away and started back to the other hotel in New Gongaga, the one that he hadn't reduced to less than ash after arriving in town.
Vincent hated his job.
Static crawled across the screen as the portable transmitter attempted to establish a signal lock with headquarters. The device looked to most people like a briefcase, but when opened, it contained an entire communications array, including a radio, visual transmitter, printer, and several other modes of sending information. It was one of the few pieces of old WRO tech the Protectorate had been able to duplicate and produce in large numbers if not en masse.
Finally it locked onto the proper carrier wave and the static was replaced with the black-and-white image of Yuffie's face.
The image might have been black and white, but the resolution was high and the picture very clear. Vincent studied the lines in his old friend's face, the streaks of grey in her hair, remembered how vibrant and alive she used to be. Not that she wasn't still Yuffie, but there was something about her that had faded with time, something he suspected he would never see again.
She gave him a smile and said, "Hello, Vince. How'd the Inquisition go?"
"Like it always does," Vincent replied. "Like it always will."
Her smile became a frown and her tone scolding. "Don't make me beat some sense into you again, Vince. You're doing what's necessary. We all are. This is no time to start being a crybaby about it."
"We've been doing what's necessary for more than forty years, and look where we are," Vincent deadpanned. "Still living in Hell on a world that's not alive anymore but won't have the decency to just die."
"Are you off your meds again, Vince?"
"Yuffie, don't joke."
She looked pained and shook her head. "Sorry." She glanced off-camera for a moment and then said, "I have your next assignment here, Vince. Reeve wants you to figure out exactly where this scavenger picked up his case of the disease."
Vincent sighed. "That order would have been nice to have six hours ago, before I reduced the place where he died to a burnt stain."
"We know that," Yuffie said, her tone a touch reproving. "We wouldn't have given you this if we didn't have a lead for you, remember? We did some database-searching with the assumption that this scavenger struck it rich and decided to head to town immediately. Did he say how?"
"No," Vincent replied. "Probably discovered a tech cache too large to move by himself, so he had to get to the nearest town to call in a team to help."
"That's what we assumed, too. Looking at old maps of the area, there were two WRO outposts that might have the kind of stuff he'd think could make him rich. Check them out and if they're a disease source, you know what to do." The printer in the portable transmitter buzzed and spat out a piece of paper bearing a map of the area with the places to investigate marked. "Any questions?"
"No," Vincent replied. "I'm sure I'll be able to handle it."
"I know you will, Vince," Yuffie said with a smile. "Take care. And watch your head."
"I intend to." Vincent thumbed the off switch on the transmitter and sat there in silence for a moment, contemplating.
He stretched out his left arm to its full length and began to slowly pull his gauntlet off. The arm beneath the metal was normal, gloved entirely in black leather. On his wrist, usually concealed by the gauntlet, were two faded red ribbons.
One of them was his. The other…
Vincent stared at the other ribbon. He stared at it and wondered what Cloud would have made of this world.