The Thief of Hell

By Princess Artemis

Square stuff © copyright Square, yada, yada, yada, everything else © copyright S.D.Green, 1998, 1999

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There was above such a blue sky as he never remembered seeing before. Deep, startling azure unblemished and clear. The brightness hurt him so he shut his eyes and covered them with his hands. Short grass crinkled with the movement and tickled his cheek. A breeze gently bent the grass, ruffling his hair and bringing with it the scent of wildflowers. He thought vaguely about getting up, but the soft turf and the whisper of leaves in the wind invited him to stay. The warm rays of the spring sun blanketed him, teasing the cool wind and grass. He felt now a part of the earth and the wind, part of some distant eternity. Forever would come and go over him; he had been here for as long as he could remember and he would never leave. It never occurred to him to wonder why he was lying out in the grass, far from town, on the rolling foothills below the Silver Mountains. For a moment, a memory pricked him, of some other place, darkness glaring green, the stench of Mako mixed with blood. He felt suddenly very cold, but he was too comfortable, too weak, to do anything about it. Too tired now to hold his gloved hands over his eyes, he let them fall away slowly, to rest on the cool earth. He opened his eyes just a slit and looked back up at the blueness above through dark lashes. It was so bright, too bright; the sky hurt him still, causing his own blue eyes to water. He didn't know that the turquoise of his eyes now robbed the canopy above him of its glory, that from now on, others would feel the same brightness of the blue sky when they looked on him. All he knew now was the consuming weakness that held him tenderly in its hands and the darkness that dulled his mind. Again, he closed his eyes, blocking the pain in the sky. He didn't even know his name. He didn't react when he heard one sound that should have been as familiar to him as his own breath, for he did not recognize it as the sound of the Highwind's propellers cutting through the wind. It was so dim and far away, like a faltering vision he had long ago, clouded by the darkness of spent memory. So far away. The voices all melted together with the beating of the props and it seemed almost a non-event when he felt himself lifted up, one that flowed into and merged with the hands of the earth and the soft flowing wind. Now this movement was eternity until it merged again into a silent darkness that covered all there ever was. Cid Highwind was aware of nothing but that warm, quiet darkness for a long time.

* * *

"Djin-Fe, are you sure this will work?" the tall man asked. His thin body was covered in a long white coat with buttons up the left side. He had no hair, but that was by choice.

"Yeah, Sri-Danat, I'm positive. It worked on Ni'esla didn't it? What could go wrong? I followed your directions exactly," Djin-Fe answered with a brash confidence, blowing off the question as if it were of no consequence. He had a quiet voice and a thin face partly hidden by a shock of unruly black hair. Ni'esla shrugged, her incredibly long, almost colorless hair flying out in so many directions and taking up so much space that it was slightly larger than she was. But that was the hallmark of a wind elemental.

"Then it should be fine. Let us wait, and watch. If it does not work, we will have lost nothing," Ni'esla intoned in her whispering voice. Her thin lips parted slightly, exposing the tips of translucent, needle-like teeth. "We will just try again, with a more suitable subject." She walked lightly back into the cave in the Nibel Mountains, her gossamer dress floating behind her.

Djin-Fe and Sri-Danat followed after the wind elemental. What a stroke of luck they had when they found this cave; if their little experiment worked, the delicate balance of power that ruled the Planet and the elements would be irrevocably altered. The kingdom of the air would again be the kingdom of the world.

* * *

Slowly, so slowly, the gentle darkness began to give way to a dim awareness that he existed apart from the dark. He opened his eyes slightly; any more seemed far beyond his grasp. The sky wasn't blazing bright as it had been before; it now appeared dark and a rather rich brown. It didn't hurt his eyes, anyway. A sweet scent, that of chamomile and not the wildflowers he half expected, finally elicited a spark of familiarity. It took him several more minutes to climb far enough out of the dense fog that he could place where he was. It wasn't a dark sky he saw, but rather his own ceiling.

This realization shocked Cid just a little farther back into reality. Last time he checked, he had been wandering home from the Shanghai-Tei after visiting with a friend. The soft breeze and the warm sun tickled his thoughts, causing him to wonder why those sensations were so strong in his mind. The quiet black blanketed him for a moment then again gave way to reality. He was lying in his foldout easy chair in the front room. He made an effort to sit up, but he found himself too weak. Turning his head proved beyond his limits as well. He sighed a little; even that was an exertion. This was unfamiliar territory; he had never suffered from such a profound weakness. Even so, he felt content and peaceful in a way, as though he were just at that edge of sleep where all was right with the world.

A moment later he heard soft footfalls, causing the palest ghost of a smile to tug at his lips. That sound he knew very well, indeed; he recognized the sound of Shera's movements immediately. He knew that she was worried, however. He knew that as well as he knew his name; he supposed it was that subtle perception that people acquired about another they had lived with for a long time, the very same talent that let every five year old in the known universe sense and avoid an irritated parent by listening to the way they coughed across a crowded department store.

Cid listened as Shera sat on the couch next to him. He wished he could just look at her, but so deep was his malaise that even glancing around was almost too difficult. He hoped that wouldn't last very long. It might get damn irritating after a while. He didn't feel quite strong enough to be irritated now.

Shera sipped her tea in worried silence. Cid tried to speak after a long moment, but he was only able to make the faintest of sounds, not even a whisper. Shera turned her head toward him; she heard the difference in his breathing and knew he had come around. Setting her tea aside, she leaned over to look at his face. She set one hand over his short blond hair and stroked it very softly while she watched him. He had a long face and a straight nose; most of the time it was extremely expressive, as evidenced by the equal number of smile lines and scowl marks on his light skin. Right now, he wore no expression except perhaps a faint drawn look, one of extreme illness. His turquoise eyes were barely open, but she could see the glare of Mako easily enough through his black eyelashes. She wasn't surprised; Cid had been unconscious for five days straight since she and Vincent had found him on that hill, and the kind doctor from Mideel had already come and looked him over. She knew he had a bad case of Mako poisoning; hardly the worst the Planet had ever known, but still pretty bad. "Hey," she said quietly, brushing back a few light brown hairs that were perpetually in her face.

Cid looked toward her very slowly and tried to take a breath to say something, but he could do no more than minimal breathing. A very faint change in his expression caused Shera to smile slightly; she could just tell he was frustrated and cursing in there. "Do you want me to say it for you?" she asked. A ghost of a smile played on his face as he closed his eyes. Not long after, he was asleep; this time a natural one. Shera sighed and stood, hoping he wouldn't be so sick for long.

She picked up her teacup and walked into the kitchen where Vincent Valentine and Cloud Strife were sitting. Cloud wore a navy SOLDIER uniform minus a shoulder guard, and his wild spiked blond hair framed his young face. No one knew for certain if he styled his hair like that or if it just grew that way. His large black sword, the Ragnarok, was perched against the kitchen counter. (The kitchen had taken seven years of Cid's slower-than-molasses carpentry to finish. A rocket scientist he was, but not a carpenter; and he complained about how long she took to do things?) Vincent was in his usual black attire, complete with tall, pointed boots and a dark red cape. A headband of the same color kept his long black hair partly out of his face and hooded his blood red eyes while a tall, buckled collar on the cape obscured his long, sallow features and thin lips. They sat in wooden chairs around the small table; Cloud had his booted feet propped up on the table while Vincent had his arms crossed in front of him, the brushed brass of his artificial arm glinting. Shera shot Cloud a look and he promptly removed his feet from the table. He looked up at Shera and raised his eyebrows, silently asking if anything had changed.

"Yeah, he came around for a bit, then went to sleep," she answered, "He's really weak, and his eyes are still glowing."

Cloud nodded and said, "That's good; at least he's back in the land of the living." He motioned to his own Mako eyes and added, "That's probably permanent."

"Did you find anything today?" Shera asked. When Cid had turned up missing, she and Vincent used the Highwind to search the land near Rocket Town. They had found him four days later near the foot of the Silver Mountains, close to where they joined the twisted and dark Nibel mountain range. When Cloud had come by a few hours later, he and Vincent had combed the area, trying to find out where Cid had been and where he could have been exposed to enough Mako to poison him. The old Nibel Reactor had been an obvious starting place, but they found nothing; even the pods where Hojo had made monsters were empty. After that they had used Vincent's heightened senses to follow a scent trail, but after a while, the Mako smell became too weak and they were forced to give up. (Vincent had, of course, shot Cloud a baleful glare after he made some crack about him turning into a bloodhound.) They had gone out searching for answers every day since.

"Naw, nothing new today. I think we're just going to have to wait for Cid to tell us," Cloud responded with a shrug. There was no telling what could have happened.

* * *

Sri-Danat sat in his borrowed lab twiddling his thumbs. His booted feet sat on the top of a large desk covered with stacks of paper and a few test tube racks. All of the last six months had been spent studying some mad scientist's research and decoding his frantic notes. It was all very interesting, to be sure, but it had taken a long time to finally work out what this Hojo had only begun thinking about. And it had been difficult for other reasons; Sri-Danat, despite being raised in an atmosphere of hate and mad desires for control, had developed something of a compassion for the weak ones' his mother had said they would some day rule. This Hojo, whom had originally used this hidden lab deep in Mount Nibel, had shared none of those tender feelings. Sri-Danat was appalled at the wanton lack of respect and even disdain that madman had demonstrated in his research. It took a great deal of work to sift through and separate necessary processes from ones that could be redeveloped into less invasive techniques and then to completely throw out things that seemed to serve no purpose other than satisfying Hojo's sadism. Hojo was one sick puppy, that was for sure. He never even took the time to find out if his experiments would work before he started inflicting them on humans, not even sparing his own son. But Sri-Danat, Ni'esla, and Djin-Fe, Sri's older siblings, had found all this research and discovered within it a means to re-create their mother's dream of a kingdom of the air'.

It was a simple idea, and as it turned out it had an elegant solution, one that Hojo had completely missed. Hojo had postulated that it would be possible to make elementals out of humans by saturating them in near-frozen Mako for long periods of time. All he had ended up producing were twisted and horrific monsters of every sort. Apparently, Hojo was satisfied with that, because he never pursued the idea to its logical conclusion. Djin-Fe had found the volume of notes dedicated to that process and given them to Sri-Danat to figure out. Sri discovered that the notes were hardly complete, and it took months of reading to track down the rest, but in the end, he had the entire experiment laid out before him. It took very little time to see why it had not worked and alter it so it would. The alterations were thus: liquefy several materia containing the desired element, liquefy an equal number of mastered Elemental materia, and add both to some heated Mako. Make a small number of incisions into the skin of the subject so the Mako mixture would soak in faster—this eliminated the danger of poisoning—and set the subject into the mixture for about twelve hours. These modifications to Hojo's original experiment worked beautifully. All that was left was an approximate three-week wait for the subjects to change. Sri-Danat had produced several small elemental creatures, including fire mice, wind fish, three varieties of water trees, and even earth birds. These were perfect elementals; the only odd thing about it was the dramatic change in the wind fish—they became absolutely viscous little animals, despite the fact that they were produced from friendly guppies.

As Sri-Danat's experiment was a rousing success, Ni'esla and Djin-Fe had concluded that a human experiment was in order. Djin-Fe had declared that a kingdom of the air needed wind elementals to govern it, and his siblings had agreed. Ni'esla volunteered to be the first scientifically produced wind elemental, and the process had worked beautifully. Sri-Danat was not present for the actual experiment; he just couldn't stomach making the necessary handful of incisions on his sister, so Djin-Fe had performed it for him and videotaped it so Sri could see how it went. She had suffered no ill effects except for perhaps the slight mean streak she had developed. Sri-Danat had been ecstatic to see his own experiment work so well. It brought to his dreams new visions of creating even better elementals—powerful ones created from the chimeras of the world. His vision of creating human chimeras and then making them into wind elementals was intoxicating. So back to Hojo's notes he went, searching for ways to alter the genetic make-up of various creatures.

He found what he was looking for rather quickly; a simple virus would work. It had taken Sri-Danat a rather long time to produce the proper virus, but eventually he did. His first genetic experiments were on creatures that were chimeras from birth: he simply extracted their DNA, removed everything that did not pertain to the animal he wished to make, and then infected the chimera with the virus. Using a normal infant chimera, one that was a third goat, lion, and snake, respectively, Sri-Danat had produced a perfectly normal snake by editing out the goat and lion genes, injecting the custom virus into its bloodstream, and using some normal Mako. He still had that snake in a glass tank in his room. It was, in every respect, a normal, garden-variety python. When he performed both the virus and elemental processes on another baby chimera, he had produced an elemental snake. Later, he took the chimera's genetics and introduced them into a baby snake; after a few failures and some alterations, he had produced a perfect new chimera.

It had all worked so well; Sri-Danat could hardly wait to perform both experiments on a human. In his excitement he had temporarily forgotten his scruples; the process was as non-invasive as possible, and Ni'esla had made it through entirely uninjured. Why should it be different for anyone else? To begin with, he wanted to use a human who was a chimera from birth, just to be sure the virus process would work using non-foreign genetic material. The process that introduced total foreign genetic material was much harder; Sri-Danat certainly didn't want the blood of a failed experiment on his hands. He had thought it would be very difficult to find a human chimera; it was extremely uncommon for a human to have children with another species, partly because suitably intelligent mates were hard to come by, but mostly because it was just plain weird. But somehow Djin-Fe had found one, and quickly too. Again, Djin-Fe had performed the actual experiment. Now all they had to do was wait.

Hence Sri-Danat's twiddling of his thumbs. He was excited to find out how it all would turn out; he was even tempted to look the subject up and see how he was faring. Three weeks seemed like such a long time. But, alas, there was nothing better for him to do but sit in this dark lab and wait—if the experiment was a success, the new wind dragon would very likely come to him.

* * *

The next morning, Cid woke up relieved that he could at least move a little. Not damn much, but a little. He lifted his head slightly and looked into the kitchen. Shera, Cloud, and Vincent were milling around, making breakfast. Apparently, he had houseguests. Laying his head back, he briefly wondered if Cloud was going to forget for the umpteenth time and scramble Setzer's eggs again. He did every single time, and every single time he got all grossed out by the black yolks her eggs had. Setzer was a black Chocobo; it came with the territory. A startled eww!' confirmed it; Cloud forgot again. He heard Shera laugh at him; it was getting to be a regular joke—ironically, Cloud was the only person in the house who really cared if his eggs were the right color. Vincent asked tonelessly, "Why don't you let someone else make the eggs from now on?"

"Because one of these days I'm gonna remember, all right?!" the blond swordsman shouted. Cid smiled faintly; he was certain that despite all his emotional distance, Vincent had a wickedly dry sense of humor. At least, he was known to needle people in the most sarcastic way from time to time. Vincent was one of his best friends; he wasn't sure why, but they just clicked. He guessed it was because he let Vincent be his distant self without any judgment or expectation.

After a moment, the smell of the cooking Chocobo eggs filled the house. For a brief instant, Cid thought it smelled down right tasty, until his weak body decided that just that little hint of eggs was enough to necessitate it making it quite clear that food was most unwelcome. His stomach felt it was important to reiterate that point by trying to expel its contents. He squeezed his eyes shut, tears leaking out as he gagged and coughed on the acid, which was all he had in his gut. He turned over a little, trying to spit out the burning acid with little success. Muttering a few choice oaths when he could, he suffered through several minutes of the dry heaves. At some point, he knew Shera had come over; he was as relieved as was possible at the time that she kept her distance. She knew that he needed some space when he was in pain like this; it just made it harder when someone was too close. After a while it subsided, but it left him hurting. It had taken most of the little strength he had gained from his sleep.

Shera lifted his head and set a small glass of water mixed with soda to his lips. Cid took a tentative sip; it tasted like hell but it calmed the burning in his throat, so he took a longer drink. After he was finished, Shera set his head back and dipped a rag into the soda water. She used it to mop up the little bit of acid left. Cloud and Vincent were standing near by. Cloud's face was a nasty color, green and pasty white at the same time; even his spiky blond hair looked slightly ill. Cid thought it was a bit ironic that Cloud was such an accomplished fighter with the weak stomach he had. Everything made him queasy. He would not be a bit surprised if he had all ready tossed his cookies over this.

"Well, welcome back. I'd ask you how you feel, but I've got a pretty clear ideabesides, it's obvious how you feel about my cooking!" Cloud said with a weak grin.

Cid looked sideways at the younger man, without moving anything more than he had to. After a moment he found the strength to speak, albeit very quietly. "YeahLooks like youfeel the same way," he whispered, smiling faintly as well. It was very clear to all three that Cid was extremely sick; they knew it before, but seeing him awake and yet still so motionless made it all the more real. After his nausea had passed, he hadn't so much as twitched a finger. That in itself would be a sure sign of illness in anyone; in one as naturally expressive and animated as Cid, it was extremely disconcerting and alarming.

Cloud blushed slightly. The Captain knew as well as he did about his constant struggle with Setzer's stupid eggs. "I'll take that to mean you aren't feeling that bad," he responded kindly. He examined the glow in Cid's blue eyes; he never got used to seeing that glow, even though he saw it in himself every time he looked in a mirror. It represented events best not remembered in his past as well as his own weakness; every time he saw his own blue eyes it reminded him of things he had spent a long time trying to forget. He wondered what that glare would represent to Cid. The three stood in silence for a long moment.

"Can you tell us what happened?" Vincent asked quietly, breaking the silence as he sat across from his friend, folding his scarlet cape beneath him. Cloud took a seat on the couch next to Shera, who in turn was nearest to Cid.

He tried to think back, to recall the last thing he saw before he had found himself at home. There was no point of reference for him to move back, however; everything was in such a dense fog and consuming blackness that whatever he might have remembered may have been a dream. As that process wasn't working, Cid decided to think forward from something he knew had happened, which was his hanging out with a friend he hadn't seen since the before the end of the war. They had spent several hours catching up over lunch at the Shanghai-Tei; Cid was amazed at what had happened with his friend in the eleven years since he had last seen him. The guy was married, had something like four kids, and made a decent living as a fisherman of all things; it all made Cid feel like he had been standing still for all that time, doing nothing but waste his life on broken dreams. Sure, he had started going somewhere; for two years he had continued work with Shin-Ra R&D on the space program and the Highwind, but for the remaining eight he had basically rotted in a rusted out tin-can of a rocket and lived in a town that was never supposed to be anything more than temporary housing for mechanics. Of course, last year had been better, what with going off and saving the Planet and all, but that didn't prevent him from looking back and regretting the waste he had made of those ten years before. Anyway, he decided, he would just start over; so what if he was ten years late on living his life? He couldn't let that stop him for another ten years. After that, he took his leave of his friend, seeing as how both had work to do.

Cid had then walked out of the local tavern and lit up a cigarette as he wandered off toward his house to pick up a weapon then left toward the fields around Rocket Town. For a while, he had been working as an exterminator of sorts, killing nearby monsters; it was better money than one would expect—for some reason he could not at all fathom, monsters carried gil, and the people who hired him paid him as well. It kept food on the table and work going on the Highwind's repairs, anyway. And it left plenty of time to play with his Tiny Bronco, too. All in all, it wasn't a bad way of making a temporary living.

It was right about then that things became a little fuzzy. Someone whispering, the wind was blowing hard all of a sudden, and then memory failed, being drowned out by blinding panic and fear. Nothing remained but slippery visions he couldn't grasp, the cloying smell of green Mako and red blood, hinting at something worse but evading his every attempt to pin it down. Wildflowers and blood, soft wind, hot Mako, and a sky bluer than anything he had ever seen.

After several minutes of thought, Cid finally answered, "I don't knowI left theafter that, I don't know." He paused for a moment, then added, "There was somethingsomething in my eyesblood, and flowers"

Shera said, "You were at the Shanghai-Tei almost ten days ago. We found you four days later, in a field full of wildflowers and grass. Physically, you were fine, except for the Mako poisoning. You don't remember anything before that?"

"Ten days," Cid whispered. What had he done for ten days that he couldn't remember? Something that got him damn sick, that's what. "No, I don't," he answered finally.

"That's understandable, I mean, Mako isn't real good for making the memory sharp," Cloud added with a wry smile. It had taken some work to get his own head screwed back on straight, anyway. "I hate to think it, but someone must have poisoned you on purpose; there isn't anywhere even close to here that has enough exposed Lifestream to fall in. There's just that Mako fountain on Mount Nibel, but that couldn't hurt anyone."

An uncomfortable silence followed. The idea that Cid had been poisoned intentionally was always a possibility, but it became increasingly more so as more and more searches proved fruitless and leads turned up false. The worst part was the fact that Mako was only ever used by humans for experimentation and energy. It was commonly held that no one used it at all now; this whole incident had therefore opened up some frightening possibilities. If someone had just wanted to poison Cid, there were far easier and less dangerous ways to do it.

After a while, the three heard a quick rapping at the front door. Shera got up to see who was there. She opened the door and was greeted by James Anderson, the doctor from Mideel; he was wearing a blue dress shirt and carrying the fabled doctor's little black bag. He had a pleasant look, tiny round glasses and a small, gray mustache. "May I come in?" he asked in his kind voice.

"Of course," Shera nodded, backing out of the way.

James came in, sniffed the air, and said, "Mmm! Chocobo eggs! Did I interrupt your breakfast?"

"Oh, no, not really. We were distracted, so we never finished," Shera said with a shrug. She had forgotten all about it. Now that she thought about it, she was pretty hungry.

Cloud winced. "I hope I turned the eggs offnot that burning them would make them any uglier"

"I turned them off," Vincent said matter-of-factly. Cloud gave a little sheepish grin after standing up. Then he walked into the kitchen, holding a hand over his suddenly growling stomach, as the doctor walked into the front room.

"Do you want anything?" Shera asked the doctor as she returned to the batter she had half-prepared.

"Oh, no thank you. I think I'll just come in here and visit with Mr. Highwind for a minute," James answered as he sat in the spot Shera had been occupying on the couch. He set the bag down at his feet and turned to face Cid.

"Hey, Vinny? Aren't you going to come eat? I made delicious black eggs for you," Cloud asked tauntingly from the kitchen. The dark man turned to get up, but caught sight of Cid's rather panicked expression. Apparently, the pilot didn't relish the idea of being left alone with a doctor. Vincent didn't quite understand; after all, all of them had met this particular doctor before, and he was certainly one of the best and most compassionate medical practitioners in the world. He supposed it must be an irrational fear, or an ego thing; he knew very few men who would willingly visit a doctor, erroneously believing this somehow lowered their macho' quotient. But he would pass on breakfast if his friend was that uncomfortable with the doctor's presence, so he stayed seated. Cid was one of the very few people the mysterious man considered a friend.

"Well, it's good to see you, Mr. Highwind," Dr. Anderson said.

Cid looked toward the doctor after finding, much to his relief, that someone had decided not to abandon him. He just didn't like doctors all that much; even proven ones like James here made him nervous. It was silly, he knew, but still true. "Cid" he said, almost silent. He wasn't about to sit here and listen to some damn doctor call him that aside from the fact that it wasn't the proper way to address a Captain!

"Cid, then. How are you feeling?" the doctor asked. He knew the answer already; Cid was unnaturally still and had hardly even moved his mouth to speak. He lay on the chair completely limp.

"Like #$%&," Cid responded with a slight smile. He had far past the point of illness where one feels absolutely miserable and finds it necessary to make sure everyone else knows it. He was extremely sick, so he didn't have the energy to be irritated about it and thus lose his sense of humor. It was either let it go or get upset about it at this point, and he didn't really feel well enough to getting upset.

The doctor smiled in return. "I would have worried if you said anything else. You've been out for five days; you must be hungry." When Cid visibly blanched, sickened by the very thought of eating, the doctor sat back and adjusted his glasses in thought. "I'll take that as a hell no,' then. Well, we can't leave you to starve. Malpractice suits, you know, that sort of thing."

Cid decided that he liked this doctor better than most; usually doctors took everything so seriously and couldn't help a dead man feel relaxed. This one seemed different; anyway, he didn't feel quite as nervous as he had before. "Suppose notwhat can you do?" he wondered.

"Well," the doctor replied as he unzipped his black bag, "the only thing I can say is to start an IV. There's the blue bag special, there's cream of drip with a side of clear stuff, and then there's the house special. What'll you have?"

The sick pilot made a sort of wheezing sound that was the closest he could come to laughing at the moment. He was feeling pretty good about this whole doctor thing until he saw Dr. Anderson pull the IV needle out of his bag. The doctor noticed this caused Cid to go white and break out into a cold sweat.

Cid wasn't the squeamish type, and he usually wasn't afraid of little things like needles, but for some reason today the sight of the sharp point made his heart stop. He was suddenly very cold. When the doctor picked up his limp hand, he felt what could only be described as absolute terror. He tried to jerk his hand away, but he couldn't. He was breathing very fast and shallow in mind-numbing panic.

Vincent saw Cid's unusual reaction and walked over next to his chair. He leaned down over his terrified friend and asked very quietly, "What is it?"

Cid closed his eyes. He said something, just under his breath, so quietly even Vincent's sharp ears could barely make it out, "please nono moreplease stop." A tear trickled down his face as he continued to plead in near silence.

The dark man's emotions were, as always, deeply buried and even deeper denied, but the sound of his friend's voice and the words he spoke twisted his gut. Somewhere inside his fortress where he dare not let it loose for fear of what it would do, he remembered the sort of event that could tear sanity apart like that, what could in memory come with such force as to encompass one's whole reality, if only for a little while. Something had hurt Cid far worse than the pilot had strength enough to comprehend. In a twisted sympathy, the Galian beast that drew power from the same sort of incoherent pain roared within, and it took a mighty effort on Vincent's part to prevent it from taking over and venting his anger. Vincent glanced over at the doctor and held up his one gloved hand, motioning to him to set the needle down, at least for the moment.

The doctor complied and said, "This is most unusual."

Vincent nodded slightly and asked, "Is this necessary?"

The doctor nodded with a quick movement and added, "He's much too sick to eat anything. We need to calm him down; forcing the issue wouldn't do anyone any good. I would give him a sedative, but that has a needle, too."

Vincent turned his red eyes away in thought. He could find no reason to give that would cut through Cid's terror and convince him of what was obviously both harmless and necessary. Neither could he think of anything that would relax him; surely comforting others was not his strong suit. He turned his head to face the kitchen, causing his long, raven dark hair to spill over his shoulder. "Shera," he called out in his carefully controlled voice, "would you come here?"

"Sure," Shera answered as she set the last pancake on the stack. She turned and walked into the front room. "What is it?"

"Something has terrified Cid to the point where he is experiencing it again. The doctor needs to start an IV, but the needle triggered this flashback," Vincent explained coolly. "He needs to calm down."

Shera moved to stand over Vincent and looked down at her companion. She bit her lip and shuddered when she saw him; it made her ill to see him that distressed. She touched Vincent's shoulder and he moved out of the way so she could take his place. Leaning over, she shook Cid's shoulder and said softly, "James isn't going to do anything to hurt you, Cid. I can see it will be hard for you, but you have to let him do what he needs to do."

He glanced up at her for a moment, then closed his eyes again. "please, no," he whispered in desperation, trembling.

Shera looked over at the doctor, then stood up and walked over next to him. She kneeled down next to him and asked quietly, "Will you show me how to do it?" When the doctor gave her a questioning glance, she explained, "I think he'll let me."

"Are you sure?" James asked.

Shera nodded slowly; she was certain Cid would hate every second of it, but she knew he would trust her even if he would trust no one else. Doctor Anderson shrugged then proceeded to explain very carefully how to insert the needle and how to remove it from the IV when it was in place. When she thought she had it, she took the thin needle and said to Cid, "I'm going to do it, okay?"

Cid looked over at her again; his dread was so clearly expressed in his glowing blue eyes that Shera had to force back a sudden rush of tears. But such was his trust in her that he would allow her to do something that evoked in him abject terror, because the knowledge, no, the truth that he could trust her was deeper than his deepest fears. That trust was the fruit of a deep and permanent innocence, a gift given by the true Venus Gospel. He closed his eyes again and moved his head down in the faintest of nods. If possible, however, his face paled even more. He was still desperately afraid.

Shera sighed; she could think of at least a thousand other things that she would rather be doing right now other than this. She picked up Cid's hand and pricked a vein with the needle, trying very hard to ignore the tears and the fright this caused him. He cried out weakly when she threaded the IV into his vein, but he didn't react when she undid the needle the way James had shown her. "I'm done," she said shakily, but Cid was lost in whatever horrible memories had scared him in the first place and tears were streaming down his face. A few tears of her own escaped in sympathy and dull horror at whatever had caused Cid such pain. She moved back and let the doctor finish setting up the IV.

Cid calmed visibly after the doctor was finished. Shera looked over at James and he held up a small syringe, which he had emptied into the IV tube. It was apparently a sedative. She was thankful for it; she didn't exactly like the idea, but she would much rather see Cid drugged up at the moment than gripped with terror. She stood still for a moment, watching her Captain, until Vincent silently motioned to her with his clawed hand, indicating that he wanted her to follow him out of the room. She did so, looking back over her shoulder at Cid, who was now thoroughly out of it, as she walked after him.

Vincent sat at the table after Shera took her seat and said tersely, a note of anger coloring his voice, "It is plain that Cid has been tortured. Thus we may safely assume he was poisoned intentionally as well." Shera put her hand over her mouth, shocked. Things like that were not supposed to happen here; Rocket Town was just a small community where everyone knew everyone elsethere had never been such depravity here. Her Captain wasn't supposed to get so sick, he wasn't supposed to be hurt like that. She hugged herself with one arm, trying with all her might not to think about what terrible things might have happened to scare Cid so much.

Cloud shot Vincent a surprised look, a fork-full of the pancake he was eating suspended in mid-flight. "Tortured? How do you know? That's a serious conclusion to come to." He trusted the ex-Turk's judgment, of course; he had been trained to pick up and interpret such signs after all, but the idea of it stretched belief. Cloud was not unfamiliar with such cruelty; he had spent far to long in the company of Hojo not tobut he could hardly imagine why anyone would do such a thing to Cid. He felt the beginnings of a dull rage build in him—who ever had done this would not go without a reckoning. Cloud set the fork down. So much for enjoying breakfast.

Vincent looked at Cloud, his blood red eyes flashing. "His reactions," he stated evenly.

He narrowed his eyes, the fire of his anger fanned by Vincent's simple explanation. "I'm going to find out who did this. They will not get away with it," Cloud growled through clenched teeth. He had seen enough such anguish in his own life; no one else should have to experience it. He stood slowly and stalked to where his Ragnarok leaned against the sink. Quickly taking the massive sword in hand, light reflecting darkly along its ebony blade, the young warrior swung it into the scabbard on his back and turned to face Vincent. "Come on. We have some slime to hunt."

The dark man stood as well, carefully controlled as always. It was difficult to see, but both Cloud and Shera had known Vincent long enough to sense the contained fury radiating off him. Silently, he reached for his rifle, the Death Penalty, which fed on the bloodshed and death its user caused. It was a grim weapon, perfectly suited for Vincent.

Shera looked at the two fighters, her shock giving way to an instinctive anger that no one would seek to face. She wanted to go with them, to strike back in rage at the one responsible, but by far more she wanted to stay in her house, right next to her long-time companion, to protect him as a she-bear does her cubs. She turned away from them in silence, holding on to that anger, using it to ward off the grief she felt creeping up on her.

Vincent and Cloud walked out the door and stood for a moment outside Cid's house. They had decided in silence and of one accord to go to Nibelheim, the source of all nightmares. They had both met up with Hojo, their devil, in Nibelheim, and both knew instinctively that it was that devil's ghost that now haunted Cid. They would destroy that ghost with passion born from their own pain. The two strode toward the Nibel Mountains.

* * *

Ni'esla stood outside, arms outstretched and a cruel grin twisting her delicate features. The wind was coming, coming to drive out all before it and claim the world. She could feel it whipping about her, tugging at her fine hair and dress, giving her power. She was the wind; the wind given form and a spiritspirit indeedthe very word meant the wind. The wind with a mind, containing a living force, the wind made alive. She took some of the air in her hand, twisting it about, giving it force. The wind picked up speed, growing ever faster as the wind elemental directed her fierce hate into it.

Once, Ni'esla had been human, the sister of Djin-Fe and Sri-Danat. She was the eldest, the first-born daughter of a woman who was hate incarnate. Ni'esla grimaced at the memory of her. Her mother had hated the world, who knows why, and had instilled that hate into her children. We will rule them some day, she had said, we will found the new kingdom of the air, to recall the glory of the first. Mother had known something that only now was Ni'esla beginning to appreciate. That fool Sri, that weak fool, had no idea. He had developed the process that made Ni'esla what she was nowmade her into the wind. Sri would never have started if he had known what she knew. She hadn't known when she volunteered, when she let Djin-Fe perform that experiment. It was such an easy process, hardly any pain involved, but it had twisted her into a being of very evil. Air was corrupt, that spirit' element, and it corrupted. The wind in and of itself was not evil, merely broken, as were all things under the moon, upon this Planet. But it was corrupt nonetheless. Only a spirit of evil could wear the pure air as its clothes; somehow, the wind was more akin to the spirit, allowing pure spirit to have formbut the fallen and broken air would only clothe the unholy. Becoming a wind elemental had purged anything true out of Ni'esla. She was broken twice over, once by birth into a broken world and twice by the air. If Sri-Danat had known, if he had done his homework, none of this would have happened. He was too soft to allow, knowingly, anyone to become a demon by his hobby. But stupid Sri was too caught up in the wonders of science' to stop and think about what he was doing. He was responsible for the creation of demons and he didn't even know it. Little demon guppies, oh, that made her laugh, evil guppies! And his science had destroyed all the good in his own sister.

That didn't bother Ni'esla; she would just use Sri to make more wind elementals. She would be their queen, fulfill her destiny that her vengeful mother had given her. She would be their queen, the queen over all the weak ones of the Planet, the queen of the Planet itself. She grinned wide, her dagger-like teeth exposed. The wind was gathering, readying itself to form a new elemental even as she stood there on the mountain. She was the first of all the kingdom of the air.

Her grin turned quickly to a snarl. She tried not to think about it, but she knew deep down that in becoming the queen of that kingdom, she had abandon all hope. It was not a misery of despair, not as humans understood itthe loss of hope was not profound in her, but total. She was not confused. She knew what she was doing. She was Misery. She had become Despair. It was a taste of Hell. The blackness that blighted her as she accepted the conditions forced on her by her new existence was total, without even the tiniest glimmer of light. She knew something of evil now. Human despair rarely consumes othersbut she would consume them all. If she were to be in Hell, she would bring the universe with her. She would be the queen of Hell.

The hole in her heart would not be sated. There would be no end to her hunger. And she knew it.

The wind howled her fury.


End Section 1