Once More, With Feeling... – Chapter 59: Paranormal Activity.

Summary: Vincent is making some waves.

Author: Illusor Meaneld

Rated T: for Descriptive violence and injuries, No Adult Situations, No Cussing.

Disclaimer: I did not create, and do not own the characters from Final Fantasy 7. They are owned by Square-Enix, and I am simply borrowing them for my own (and hopefully your) enjoyment.

It had been surprisingly easy to emerge from Midgar unnoticed. A non-descript cloak, his headband removed to leave unruly hair shadowing distinctive eyes, and no one looked twice at his lanky form. Thanks to Hojo's obscene meddling, he always knew when he was being watched or followed, but the whispers at the back of his mind had remained indistinct. Now he was surrounded by nothing but trees and sky. It felt so strange to be alone with his thoughts in the open. He remembered days-long stints as a Shinra Turk sniper, perched and awaiting his quarry, he used to love the quiet and solitude, but then he'd been moved to bodyguard detail, Nibelheim was a small close-nit town, tucked snugly into the curve of the mountain. The interior of the Shinra Mansion had been stuffy, despite the buildings generous size. Air flow was minimal which let the walls feel close despite the vaulted ceilings of the upper floors. Of course, even before Hojo had shot him, he'd spent much of his assignment in the underground laboratories, where the weight of the mountain over them seemed to press down. and then after... to be enclosed in a coffin for decades… lacking even the space to shift position... after all of that the tight quarters of Midgar's slums was had nearly struck him with agoraphobia, he'd spent a few very uncomfortable days in the rafters of Aerith's church while he tried to acclimate. Now he was grateful for the slightly gentler transition, he had thankfully been so stunned by his bizarre rescuers that hed not had time to really think about it on the route from Nibelheim to Midgar. As it stood now, he itched with the open space surrounding him, and found himself mourning for the times past of when such a situation would have been relaxing, and peaceful.

He tried to suppress his discomfort as he set up his campsite. It was a fairly remote location tucked into the cup of the far side of Midgar's southeast mountain range. He was settling high enough up the mountain to have a few cave systems if needed, but not at such an elevation that the trees weren't still thick enough to cover him from areal view, a brief upward glance confirmed this. In the unlikely event that a helicopter did pass overhead, they wouldn't spot him or his camp through this foliage. Once his covert base was assembled to his preference, Vincent paused to peruse the list of suggestions and information he'd received. The letters he'd acquired from his future self had mentioned specific methods he could practice to better control his demonic forms, among a great many other things, but perhaps Galian Beast would be a good place to start... Thinking of the beast (demon?) seemed to bring him to the foreground, and Vincent could have sworn that he (it?) could sense the gunman's intention to allow the shift soon. A rumbling purr (growl?) vibrated through the ex-Turk's ribcage. It kind of tickled or itched, the red-eyed man decided, rubbing his sternum at the disconcerting sensation. He sighed quietly to himself, this was going to be a rather long day.

Fort Condor was a military stronghold and staging area. Or at least, that's what it had started as anyway, as any outpost was wont to do when in place long enough, it had acquired civilians. First the construction workers, who constantly updated and repaired its facilities, then their families, and of course amenities for those families, and those of the stationed military. As it stood now, the bustle was akin to a middling sized town. Like any town, it had shops, people had to buy things didn't they? Arrok's shop was popular enough, he sold potions and weapons. Supplies fairly common for the local clientele. But he had a leg up on his competition, because Arrok also bought monster parts. The military was always bringing in things like that, and he'd gotten quite a pretty profit turning those parts into usable weapons, and potions, and other odds and assortments. Whatever he could think of that people might want to buy. Not everything was a hit… he still had a string of monster teeth on a necklace that was collecting dust, but you never knew until you tried.

As Fort Condor's population expanded, so did his business. What had started as a small shack, had expanded into a bustling trading post. As such, it was actually decently busy when the Stranger came in the first time. It had been the metallic clang of his footsteps that first caught Arrok's attention, the high pitched sound cutting through the general rumble of conversation. The shopkeeper looked up briefly from his current transaction to identify the noise. It was the outlandish appearance of the newcomer that held his gaze. Brightly colored clothing wasn't too unusual, but the full sized red cloak, tattered at the ends from hard use, tight fitting black undergarb, and the glinting gold on his hand and feet were startling, but only half so much as those glowing red eyes, the harsh indoor lighting seemed to catch a flash in those eyes, much like you'd expect from a cat. The customer in front of the shop owner's counter, one of his regulars, glanced back at the sudden quiet of the shop, spotted the stranger and finished his purchase expeditiously. As soon as he was out of the way, the outlandish figure approached with measured clinking steps. Arrok gulped.

"Ah, … welcome, what can I do for you?" He asked, trying to quell his nervousness. He'd seen SOLDIERs before, but they didn't inspire quite the same disquiet. The sharp chime of his gauntleted hand on the stone counter echoed almost painfully in the sudden hush.

"I understand you purchase monster parts?" Came the surprisingly deep baritone. Arrok blinked as he tried to reroute his thoughts.

"Y-yes?" Suddenly a large canvas sack was hefted onto the counter, though Arrok would have sworn the stranger's hands had both been empty just a moment before. A quick glance in the bag proved the freaky looking man had been quite busy, must have killed half the monsters from here to Junon. He stared blankly for a moment, before trying to meet the crimson gaze. "Ya want to sell all of it?"

"I'm willing to trade if that is preferable." The rumbling voice, almost a growl the shopkeeper thought, seemed to emenate from the cloak, pulled high as it was to cover the man's mouth.

Whaddya want in trade?"

"Potions, mostly." Came the reply, though the eyes darted briefly to the store's Materia display.

"A'ight, we can do that." Arrok sighed as he began to tally the gruesome prizes, well at least he'd have plenty of ingredients to replace all those potions…

Escort detail was not what it used to be, Trooper Dailon reflected as his squad plodded along the dim and dusty forest road with their supply transport, a sluggish six-wheeled vehicle with heavy armor. Guard details for any shipments had tripled, and the easy comradery of a small group had become a snappish affair with the rise in tensions. There were currently twelve of them aside from the driver, six pacing outside the slow moving transport, and six stationed inside with guns ready. There had been rising reports of raids and ambushes, and it made everyone edgy. Despite knowing it was possible, the first rapport of gunshot, startled Dailon so badly he nearly shot his own foot off. The second and third crack came almost immediately after the first, and was followed by a loud hissing noise. Shouting broke out among the troopers as their captain tried to rally them, but no one knew where the shots were coming from! Dailon backed up against the truck as he glanced wildly around at the trees, seeing nothing but shadows. He froze as he felt an odd tickling pressure against his pants, glancing back and down in time to realize the 'hissing' sound had been air rushing from punctures in the massive tires of their supply transport. Someone just shot the tires! He thought dully. Dailon raised his head to shout as much when three more shots rang out, and the whistle of air redoubled on the other side of the vehicle.

"The tires!" Dailon finally shouted, "They've shot out the tires!" Cussing followed this pronouncement. They kept a couple spare tires, but not a full set! What kind of caliber bullets were they using? These tires could bounce off rifle fire with barely a scratch! The shouts descended into confusion, as still no one could see where the shots were coming from, or how many people were even shooting!

Crack. Crack. Crack.

It was like Thunder! Three more shots, and it was only as he whirled to point where he thought the echoes might have come from that he heard the cries of the troopers on the far side. Were they hit? Was someone dead? The six troopers inside the transport were piling out, guns ready.

Crack. Crack. Crack.

Dailon felt his arms jerk with the force, pain racing through his shoulders. Someone shot me! He thought desperately for a second, but the pain faded, and when he unclenched his eyes and looked down he gaped at the half of a rifle remaining in his arms. The weapon now flowered into a twist of blackened metal. He dropped the useless twisted heap and patting his hands frantically over his torso. When he found nothing he gaped stupidly, they had… shot his gun… right in his hands. He stared in abject horror, even as another triple set of gunshots reverberated through the air, followed by more terrified cries. A glance around showed the same bewilderment on his fellows, their firearms destroyed just as precisely and efficiently as his own. Another trio of cracks and his blood ran cold. That was twelve… if they were shooting guns… that was all of them. His frantic gaze confirmed his fears, they were disarmed, and their cargo immobile… helpless… his brain quibbled. He turned to their captain. Who was staring open mouthed at his own destroyed weapon. The officer whipped his gaze to the ruined tires, and back to his firearm, then to the still empty looking trees looming over head. Finally glancing around at his men, most of whom were looking at him desperately for directions.

"Retreat!" The Captain yelled.

"But the Cargo!" Another trooper cried,

"Leave it! Retreat now!" They scrambled to obey, Dailon hadn't needed to be told twice and was racing back down the road the way they'd come, he dropped the remains of his rifle, pulling out a small backup pistol as he went. Not that he thought it would do any good. Whoever was out there, they had Dailon's squad seriously outgunned, but Shinra would make sure they came back with backup, then they'd see how well their ambushers liked SOLDIER.

It took several hours to run back to base, and almost another half a day to rustle up enough SOLDIER 3rds to return to the abandoned transport. Armed with new rifles and new muscle in the form of a solid dozen Thirds, Dailon followed his new group cautiously through the forest, there wasn't much hope that the cargo had gone untouched, but if any of their attackers had stayed behind they'd be in for a rough surprise.

Though as it turned out, the real shock would come to Shinra.

The transport's cargo was missing as expected. But the vehicle had been tossed like some kind of toy. The trees around it were smashed and toppled, and massive claw like rents covered the armored automotive. At least, what was left of it … It had been positively shredded. … Debris was strewn everywhere! Were those teeth marks? Some pieces were even hanging forlornly from the upper tree branches. Where they using monsters? Even the SOLDIERs were staring in horror at the carnage. Dailon's captain began cursing fluently, and after hearing him utter the name "Heideggar" Dailon was right there with him. No one was looking forward to talking to the Director about this.

In the rather cut-throat politics of Shinra Electric Company, Young Vice President Rufus found that the best way to keep the knife out of your back, was to stay at least two steps ahead of the competition. In light of unforeseen complications however, the next best alternative was to fake it.

"Is it not your job as Head of Public Safety, to anticipate such problems?" Rufus inquired calmly as the massive bearded man in question sputtered furiously.

"How could anyone have anticipated this? Those idiot grunts keep reporting that their attackers are some kinds of ghosts or demons!"

"Highly unlikely." The Vice President intoned drolly, "Was there perhaps a Marlboro nearby?"

"Gya Ha Ha Ha Ha!" Heideggar's laughter bellowed. "I wouldn't be surprised."

Rufus shook his head in negation. "The statistical odds are simply absurd."

The larger man snorted agreeably, "Of course it's absurd! It's probably some of those pathetic Eco-Terrorists or something, or Wutaian insurgents... spooking the troops with a pathetic cloak and dagger act." Cloak was an accurate description, Rufus mused, looking over the scant intel on their quarry. A red cloak or cape had been mentioned once or twice, but most of the reports mentioned somethings more amorphous or even bestial.

"How secure was this prototype Vehicle these ... people... took?"

Heideggar snarled, "Ten inch thick steel, hydraulic locks, the works! A squad of SOLDIERs would not have been able to enter! It was secure!" Rufus doubted any of the First Class would have much issue with 10 inch steel... at least not according to the reports from Junon.

"Obviously not secure enough. Since it has been stolen." The Vice President drawled.

"When I get my hands on theses insects, I will crush them!" the Director scoffed.

"Apparently the troops have started to call them 'Red Devils', a catchy moniker." Rufus mused, intentionally riling the larger man, who growled in rage. Clipped to the stack of reports and debriefs from the various sightings of these 'devils' were photographs of the damage, and one blurry CCTV photo of something red, nothing distinct enough to be of help... the Red Devils must have been able to move incredibly fast, or they had some kind of electronic disrupting technology. Another photo showed the 'secure' door in question with a series of jagged gouges raked across its surface. The young blond had to resist the urge to match his hand over the photo, the placement… four fingers and a thumb? But they seemed far too large for anything human.

"Even if they somehow control some kind of beast, I will not allow these people to make a mockery of Shinra this way." Heideggar sneered. "I'll destroy AVALANCHE and Wutai both if I have to."

"We're currently under peaceful negotiations with Wutai, in large part due to the increasing domestic disruptions." Rufus reminded him stoically, "The President would not be pleased with an untimely interruption, even for the great Shinra, a war on two fronts would be costly."

"I would never counter the President's wishes." The bearded man assured just a little hastily, the frown on his face indicating the rebuke had struck home. After all, domestic disputes, or 'Public Safety' was directly under Heideggar's purview. This was, in a way, his failing, a point Rufus would be sure to bring up to his father.

"So we will have to investigate this new presence circumspectly." Rufus finished for him promptingly.

"It could be AVALANCHE I suppose." The larger man mused, stroking his thick beard as he thought. "Or possibly some new group with a chip on their shoulder."

"I think Shinra would be very interested to know how they are controlling that monster they have." The blond smirked, "That kind of advantage is not something to take lightly."

"It would do well if the army could duplicate the feat," Heideggar agreed, "Such power would make us unstoppable!"

The Vice president agreed with an encouraging smile, waiting until the director had turned to begin plans to 'capture' this new rebellious element before allowing his own gaze to drift back to the surveillance caught images. The aftermath photos were particularly interesting. All of them displayed the signature claw marks of this unidentified monster, capable of tearing through the secure steel. Terribly impressive strength! Rufus hid a smile, he could make use of something like that.

Shears was not feeling very charitable when Fuhito called him in to a meeting. In his opinion, that man's insistence on trying to raid supplies slated for Shinra's science department was most of the reason they'd struggled to make any progress in freeing the planet. His promised upgrades had not been forthcoming with the bungled thefts of key elements. Junon had been an absolute disaster and as a result the promised super-soldiers to combat Shinra's elite were no where to be found. They had no viable Ravens at least, not yet, as Fuhito would frequently argue. He only needed a few more stolen supplies from Shinra's Science Department and they would be a force to be reckoned with! Well, Shears hoped they finally had better news on that front. Which was why he opened his greeting to Fuhito with:

"How're the Ravens coming?"

The tidily dressed scientist sighed, pushing his glasses up his nose with one finger. "You know that project has been delayed with the lack of resources."

Shears grunted and barely withheld an eyeroll. Of course, still delayed, so much for those promises. "What are we going to do against SOLDIER then? Were no match for Shinra as it stands."

Elfe stood a little to the side, looking uncomfortable, Shears didn't blame her for this... He knew she was good, amazing even! And before he'd personally seen otherwise he'd have said she could match anything Shinra could throw at them! But... well, he had seen otherwise, in Junon shed been good, and maybe she could have kept going against just one of the First Class, but once the General had appeared to bolster his Lieutenant there was no chance. Don't forget there's three of them... He reminded himself ruefully. The massive Lieutenant Hewley was no slouch either, judging by Fuhito's encounter with him in the Mythril mines. Things were not going well for Avalanche.

Fuhito curled his lip slightly in response, but quickly smoothed his features. "That is precisely why I requested a meeting." He murmured in his carefully cultured tones. "We have just received new intelligence from our contacts within the Company."

Shears couldn't help perking up at that. It was no surprise to the mercenary that someone or (or someones?) in that cesspool was willing to pass information to help their adversaries. It was also unsurprising that whoever it was took great pains to remain anonymous. After all, the President would have the head of anyone he caught committing such treason. Their mysterious benefactor had told them about the shipment to Junon, which should have given them their much needed break in creating their own super soldiers, but, well... The best laid plans and all that.

Fuhito produced some paperwork which he passed around. "It seems we have a little - competition."

"The Red Devils?" Shears read aloud, then he whistled as he perused the lists of damages, though he sighed internally as well, a lot of the marks these guys had taken were things AVALANCHE had been trying to get ahold of. Weapons, Materia, raw supplies… though perhaps this explained why the protection details on the caravans had ramped up so impossibly fast… if Shinra was fighting off these guys and AVALANCHE… "These guys are nothin' to sneeze at." He finally said aloud.

"Impressive." Elfe murmured softly, her eyes flickering over the lists rapidly, a brief shared glance and Shears figured she'd noticed the same details he had.

"Indeed." the scientist agreed, no outward sign that he'd picked up on their revelation. "The Red Devils as Shinra is currently calling them, seem to have found something exceedingly potent. What exactly that is remains a mystery for now, but if we can determine the source of that power..." he trailed off suggestively. Ah, so Fuhito had found something else to focus on in the reports. Another glance over his own sheaves of information, and Shears found himself nodding in agreement... They could duplicate it, or take it, power like that, however they got their hands on it, would possibly be a game changer, at the very least, it would give them another recourse while they worked on the Ravens. Perhaps if they finally had something to show for it, they could calm the growing discontent with Wutai… the nation was increasingly unhappy with the lack of promised supplies. While Shinra was still in supposed 'peace talks' who knew how long that farce would last? Wutai had said they planned to strike back, but AVALANCHE had yet to make good on their promises… They needed the power these Red Devils had!

"I'll get some guys on it." He said firmly, turning away to start immediately. It was a new plan, maybe things were finally looking up!

((Author's Note:

Geh! Heideggar! Ugh!

Actually had the most problem with Rufus' section of this chapter, (even though I've done Rufus before.)

It's not my longest chapter, but I'm hoping it sufficiently sets up what I need it to.

On a different note, on the art side of my creative projects, I've got my first Kickstarter for cute mythical creature enamel pins if anyone is interested.

[kickstarter dotcom slash] projects/jianrem/myth-babies-enamel-pin-collection?ref=user_menu

-Jianre M. A.K.A … Illusor Meaneld.))