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The Company of Demons

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It is always cold in Mt. Nibel. Cold weather, cold hearts, cold light reflected off of the dark forests' phosphorescent eyes. And for the people living in the sparse villages in these mountains, winter is the most dangerous time of all. For this is the time when daylight is weak and short-lived, easily swallowed by the impatient night, and unwary travelers often find themselves quickly surrounded in darkness, stranded by the sun.

Most of the forest creatures have then either long fled the winter, finding better pastures in the south, or have hidden themselves away in deep burrows buried under three feet of snow, silent and dormant until the warmth of spring. And the desolate predators left behind, their fur pelts scarcely hiding the ribs above their starved bellies, will then wander the forests, red-eyed and savage, inching closer and closer to that magical boundary that marked the separation between the wild trees of the forests and the neatly thatched roofs of the human villages.

Life is harsh in Mt. Nibel. The people of the villages dedicate their brief childhoods and short, hard lives to land and livestock that are not their own. For in these mountains, all belong to Old Man ShinRa. Still, none ever complained, for they are lucky to have ShinRa's special breed of goats and sheep that grow large though they need less feed, and cold-resistant seeds that can grow well into winter when everything else have long withered and died. And do not forget the demon-warding ShinRa charms that every household hangs on their door. For these charms constantly glow a cold blue-green to reflect the devil's light right back at the hungry eyes of the forest. And any fool who leave their house wanting of these charms are sure to be gobbled up by demons right in their very own kitchen. Life is hard, but it is safe and predictable behind the straight edges and right-angles of the charms, the square pens of the livestock, the neat rows of the farms — the regularity and order of humanity to keep away the chaos of the feral forests, nature's clock of the seasons marked by regular payments of taxes to the Old Man who owns them all.

Strange tales are told around hearth fires as people huddled by their tiny, man-made light. Tales of bears and wolves, monsters and ghouls, witches and goblins. But ask anyone around these parts and they will tell you: the most dangerous of them all is not the ones that are beastly on the outside; it is those that can hide their beastly natures within the shape of man. All knew to fear the sight of a naked man between the trees. There are many tales of demons around these parts. They are cunning, they are clever, and they are more savage than any other creature that have spilled forth from the bowels of night. They will come to you, disguised, trick and wheedle their way past your wreathes of garlic, your holy scriptures, and all your prayers, and snatch you up right out of the safety of your own bed. But it is said that before they can shed their human disguises and assume their beastly forms, they must first rid themselves of all clothing — that final barrier that stands between beast and man. And thus in addition to wreathes of garlic, holy scriptures — and of course, the ShinRa charms — all the village houses are decorated at all times with hanging articles of clothing such as aprons and stockings, for it is believed that they may protect you if you toss them onto a creature of the night.

There is a story that in this very village, not long ago, a young woman's husband vanished clean away on All Hallow's Eve. It was the last day of the month, the supper was set and the bed freshly made, but the husband was summoned away to the Old Man's mansion for they had fallen short on this season's taxes. The husband was sure that it was but a mistake for they had paid their taxes in full earlier that month, so he kissed his young wife goodbye and promised to be back before midnight. The young woman supped and bathed and lay down in the bed. She waited and waited, and then waited some more. The clock struck twelve, then struck one, then two, then three, then four. But the husband never returned. The next morning the young woman's brothers searched everywhere they could, the haystacks, the outhouses, and all along the forest path, but the husband was no where to be found. According to the Old Man, he never even made it to the mansion, but in condolence to the young woman — now by all accounts a poor widow — the issue with the season's taxes will no longer be pursued. And so many seasons passed, the young woman dried her eyes and found herself a new husband, a man of learning who was sure to not make calculation mistakes with the taxes, and one who was in good relations with Old Man ShinRa to boot.

And so more seasons passed, the young woman gave her new husband a fair-haired, bright-eyed babe, and life ticked along in the routine, orderly fashion as it should, marked by regular payments of taxes to the Old Man in the forest — until one Hallow's Eve, before the clock struck twelve, her first man came home again. A great thump at the door roused the young woman from her warm bed, and she recognized him the moment she saw him, though his clothes were naught but dirty rags and his hair was as wild as the tangled forest growths. He kissed her on the forehead as he always did and asked for his supper, but then her second husband also roused from the bed and came to see what was the matter. Red eyes fixed themselves upon the rosy couple, and worse, the sleeping, fair-haired babe in the cradle, and such a great roar came forth that surely it could not have come from a man, but a wounded, anguished, blood-thirsty beast. And a beast it was, that stood in her kitchen, inside her door, past all the wreathes of garlic and the holy scriptures and all her prayers. Its fur was a midnight black that gleamed an evil, unnatural purple in the flicker of man-made light, its teeth were as big and sharp and as savage as its claws. The huge demon lunged at the woman and would have had her too, if not for her second husband's rifle that put a bullet clean through its heart. And then the black fur melted away and it was once again a man that lay bleeding and dying on the kitchen floor. A man who looked exactly as he had been years ago, as she had last seem him before he disappeared on All Hallow's Eve. And so the young woman wept and her second husband beat her.

Many tales are told around the hearth fires of the village as the people huddled from the hungry howls edging closer and closer from behind the screen of trees. Many tales are whispered about the Old Man too. He is most certainly older than anyone else they had ever known, and likely will ever know. And for all his wealth, he lives alone in a mansion deep in the woods. Some say he has a large basement dug deep into the earth, where he descends every night to count his wealth. Some say that he lives alone for he did not trust servants — or anyone — with his secrets and his coins. Some say that he is a sorcerer who turns those who do not pay their taxes into undead servants, doomed to pay their debt with eternity. Some say that he himself is a demon lord who summons his minions to sit in a circle around him and howl their exiled misery to the moon.

It is the end of the season, and the payment to the Old Man is due. Yet a sudden blizzard has trapped the father of the house in a faraway town, and a summon has already arrived at their door. Winter has come early this year. It is cold and the predators that roamed the village outskirts are but skin and bones under their pelts of fur. Yet this strong-willed youth insists upon going to the ShinRa Mansion in the forest alone. The Old Man is sick, the summon said, and he wishes for his favourite lad to visit him — and oh, don't forget, bring the season's payment too.

Old wives in the village whispered that the lad had been touched by the devil, for his hair was so fair it gleamed white in the snow, and his eyes were the same bright blue-green as the phosphorescent eyes that winked from behind the dark trees — the same colour as the ShinRa charm's glow. Yet when he was presented — as all children of the mountain were — before Old Man ShinRa, the Old Man who owned everything instantly took a liking to the lad. And so the parents were given gifts and much praise for bringing such a fine child to the Old Man's domain, and the child was given an angelic name: Sephiroth, and grew up handsome and strong, peerless amongst the other, ragged, snotty-nosed children of the village.

Now he straddles the boundary between boy and man. A fresh youth, his skin pale and rosy from the winter chill, his eyes clear and green, reflecting the waning sun. His stature already rivals that of his sire, yet there is not a shadow of a beard upon his youthful jaw. Protected, penned all his young life in this mountain village of Nibelheim, he has not yet learnt how to shiver. He has his trusty knife and is the best and strongest of all the boys, and is safe in his own confidence that he has nothing to fear.

And so the lad packed in the basket: Old Man ShinRa's favourite brandy, this year's best cheese, and hot cakes fresh from the oven. His knife went in next and then a rustic red-and-white cloth to top it all off. Warm and protected in his hooded winter coat — a gift from the Old Man, his leather boots, and his youthful invincibility, he stepped out of the picket fence that was the village's boundary, and entered the forbidden space between the trees. Had his father been home then he would never have allowed it, but his mother could not deny him. He was no stranger to the forest; he knew the trees, the bushes, the fungi and the lichen, he knew the birds, the hares, the wolves and the bears. He knew the cautionary tales of monsters and ghouls, witches and goblins, he knew of demons and of naked men between the trees. He knew, like the back of his hand, the little man-made path that cut through the forest and led to Old Man ShinRa's mansion. And he knew how to use his knife.

Howls of distant predators sounded an ominous warning. Sephiroth kept his senses alert and his footsteps sure, but no fear ever entered his youthful countenance. No awareness ever entered his thoughts that he was walking upon All Hallow's Eve's door.

At the first whisper of a rustle his practiced hand went to the hilt of his knife, hidden in his basket, and out onto the path, sprang a man. A fully clothed man. A handsome man. Young, though not quite as young as Sephiroth. He was dressed in the hat and coat of a hunter, and on his back was a hunter's rifle. When he caught sight of Sephiroth, he gave the youth a small smile of greeting and a polite bow.

Sephiroth had never seen such a fine-looking fellow, and certainly not one as polite. The boys and young men of his village were always too busy with clownish shows of their pomp and machismo, put on for the freckled, giggling village girls, and they either routinely challenged the Old Man's angelic favourite to pointless contests, or shunned him altogether.

The strange hunter's name was Vincent, and though he seemed quiet by nature, the spirited youth coaxed from him, as they walked together along the winding forest path, fascinating tales of faraway towns and cities, strange birds and beasts. When they came to a clearing by the forest river, the young man couldn't resist asking this newcomer for a friendly spar. And so they danced in the pristine snow, wit against wit, steel against steel. When they finally both collapsed on the exposed dirt, under the tiny curious eyes of plump robins and little brown mice, they were both breathless and laughing, delighted in finally finding an agile partner for this intricate martial dance.

What's in your basket there? Asked the hunter, suddenly curious about this bright-eyed youth.

Brandy, cheese, and hot cakes fresh from the oven. And this season's payment to Old Man ShinRa. He is sick and bedridden, and has summoned me for company.

It is getting dark, will you be able to find your way there? Do you need a chaperone?

The youth realized with a start that it was indeed getting late. The pale shadow of the moon was already decorating the twilight horizon. But then his youthful pride bristled at the hunter's choice of words.

But of course! The Old Man's mansion is just at the end of the path, a half-hour away. I have found my way there a thousand times — in worse weather. I do not need a chaperone, thank you very much for your kindness.

The hunter then chuckled — a deep, rich sound. A half-hour, perhaps, if you drudge along that old, crooked path.

He then reached into his pocket and took out a strange little object. He said it was a compass, that its tiny needle always points north and had guided him true on all his travels. With it, he has nothing to fear from the densest, most treacherous forest. Sephiroth stared at the little round object in wonder, but he did not believe the hunter. Anyone but the youngest babes know to never leave the path or you will be swallowed up by the forest instantly.

Want to make a bet? Asked the hunter, a shadow of a smirk tugging at his handsome lips as he deftly picked up Sephiroth's basket. He boasted that if he abandoned the path and plunged between the darkening trees with nothing but his compass to guide him, he would have delivered the basket to the Old Man — and finished his supper, all long before Sephiroth ever arrived at the door.

I don't believe you. Besides, aren't you afraid of the monster and the demons?

He only chuckled again and tapped the gleaming butt of his rifle.

What will you give me if I win this bet?

What would you like? The youth asked artlessly.

A kiss.

Colour blossomed on Sephiroth's pale cheeks and those bright blue-green eyes flashed, and yet he did not protest.

And so the hunter disappeared into the forest, taking Sephiroth's basket — and his knife with it. But Sephiroth did not deign to be afraid, not of the snow, the darkness, nor of the beasts. In fact he dawdled on his way, as if wanting the handsome hunter to win his bet.

Old Man Shinra sat alone in his lavish couch by the hearth fire, in the center of the hollow mansion's empty hall. Fat and plump from the toils of his subjects, he reclined himself among lush pillows and blankets, holy scriptures laid piously beside him, blue-green charms gently swaying above, patiently awaiting the arrival of his favourite boy.

Rat-a-tap-tap.

Who's there?

It is Sephiroth, come to bring you brandy and cheese and fresh cakes. And this season's payment of course.

Lift up the latch and walk in, my lad.

In walked the hunter, the harbinger of death, chasing away the firelight with the night in his steps. A specter of vengeance come to claim his due; eyes afire in diabolic red, and hair as wild as the tangled forest growths.

You can hurl your holy scriptures at him, old man, your charms, your trinkets, and all your clothes. But it won't do you any good.

Off came the disguise, the hat and the coat. He stripped off the shirt and the trousers, and the old man could see that his legs were covered with purple-black fur, and getting hairier by the second. His genitals, huge. Ah! huge.

Sephiroth's basket went casually on top of the ornate table by the door. Oh Gaia, what have you done with the boy?

But his Grim Reaper never gave him the time.

When Vincent had finished, he licked the blood from his lips and shook out his mane and quickly dressed himself again, returning to exactly as he was when he walked in. He burned the inedible hair in the fireplace and wrapped the bones up in a napkin that he hid away under the couch in the silver chest in which he found clean blankets and sheets. These he carefully put on the couch instead of the tell-tale stained ones he stowed away in the laundry basket. He plumped up the goose down pillows and shook out the silk blankets and sheets. He picked up the pelted charms from the floor and tossed them into the silver chest also. And he rolled up the flung scriptures and placed them on the ornate table. All was as it had been before except that the old man was gone. The sticks twitched in the grate, the clock ticked and the hunter sat patiently, deceitfully amongst the blankets on the couch in the old man's nightcap.

Rat-a-tap-tap.

Who's there, he quavers in the old man's antique falsetto.

Only Sephiroth.

So he came in, droplets of snowflakes falling off his almost-white hair like a winter spirit, and perhaps a little disappointed to see only the Old Man sitting beside the fire. He closed the door behind him and as he turned, noticed with furrowed brows, no blue-green charms hanging about the halls, and the scriptures, rolled up and placed on the table by the door — the first time he'd seen them so. But then his hunter flung off the blankets and sprang to the door, pressing his back against it so that he could not get out again. A gust of unholy wind moaned through the mansion, and in its wake was the sound of a thousand windows closing on their own accord.

Sephiroth's eyes darted to his basket, but he did not dare reach for his knife, for the hunter's eyes were fixed upon him, blood red and spun gold, and now seemed to shine with a unique, interior light. Eyes full of demon fire, hungry, vengeful phosphorescence.

What big eyes you have.

All the better to see you with.

No trace at all of the old man except for a tuft of white-blond hair that had caught in the bark of an unburned log. When the youth saw that, he knew he was in danger of death.

Where is Old Man Shinra?

There's nobody here but we two, my silver fledgling.

Now a great, otherworldly howling rose up all around them, near, very near, as close as the mansion garden, the howling of a multitude of demons, of all shapes and sizes; Sephiroth knew the worst demons are ones in the shape of man and he shivered.

Who has come to sing us carols, he said.

Those are the voices of my brothers, fledgling; I love the company of demons. Look out of the window and you'll see them.

Snow half-caked the lattice and Sephiroth opened it to look into the garden. It was a white night of moon and snow; the blizzard whirled round the horned beasts, the hulking giants, the featureless white masks who raised their beastly visages to the moon and howled as if their hearts would break. Ten; twenty — so many he could not count them, howling in concert as if demented or deranged. Their eyes reflected the light from the kitchen and shone like a hundred candles.

It is very cold, pitiful things, he said; no wonder they howl so.

He closed the window on the demons' threnody and took off his hooded winter coat, and since his fear did him no good, he ceased to be afraid.

What shall I do with my coat?

Throw it on the fire, dear one. You won't need it again.

Sephiroth bundled up his coat and threw it on the blaze, which instantly consumed it. Then he drew his shirt over his head; his youthful body lithe and pale, gleaming under the fire light as if the snow had invaded the room.

What shall I do with my shirt?

Into the fire with it, too, my pet.

The thin muslin went flaring up the chimney like a magic bird and now off came his trousers, his woolen stockings, his boots, and on to the fire they went, too, and were gone for good. The firelight shone through the edges of his skin; now he was clothed only in his untouched integument of flesh. This dazzling, naked youth combed out his long hair with his fingers; his hair looked white as the snow outside and shone silver in the moonlight. Then went directly to the man with red-and-gold eyes whose wild unkempt mane moved as if alive; he stood up to his full height and unbuttoned the collar of his hunter's shirt.

What big arms you have.

All the better to hug you with.

Every demon in the snow now howled a prothalamion outside the window as Sephiroth freely gave the kiss he owed. The demon lord's purple lips were surprisingly soft despite the sharp fangs they hid.

What big teeth you have!

He saw how those lips pulled back to reveal sharp white teeth dripping with slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest's Liebestod but the wise youth never flinched, even when the hunter answered:

All the better to eat you with.

Sephiroth burst out laughing; he knew he was nobody's meat. He laughed at him full in the face, he ripped off Vincent's shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of his own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead souls on Walpurgisnacht and the old bones under the couch set up a terrible clattering but Sephiroth did not pay them any heed.

He will put his hands on the demon's fearsome torso and find that it is covered by a fine down of sleek purple-black hair smooth and velvet-like to the touch. And the demon will run his talons through the silky silver hair and pull the head back, part the pale thighs, and feast on the virgin blood in a savage marriage ceremony.

The blizzard will die down.

The blizzard died down, leaving the mountains as randomly covered with snow as if a blind woman had thrown a sheet over them, the upper branches of the forest pines limed, creaking, swollen with the fall.

Snowlight, moonlight, a confusion of large, strange paw-prints.

All silent, all still.

Midnight; and the clock strikes. It is All Saint's Day, the demons' birthday. The heavy door of the ShinRa Mansion stood wide open, the wild scent of pines and the musk of beasts wafted freely through its halls.

See! Sweet and sound he sleeps in Old Man ShinRa's bed, between the gentle claws of the tender demon lord.

 

 


Additional Notes: For this story, Chaos is in his original FF7 form (with a dash of Galian Beast thrown in), since it fits better with the story than his Dirge Of Cerberus form.

A suuuper early "Happy Halloween" to you all~ =D