Chapter 17: Anchored
"Wait here." Torrent pressed his paws against a wall of bedrock. The material was seamless, but the leviaithan vanished as the wall swallowed him in one quick gulp.
Jake wondered what choice he had. Torrent's "lab" was among the thick foliage at the bottom of the tree. He could hear the hiss of the river quite close by, the banks of which he'd nearly died beside a lifetime ago. Sure, the Inheritors of Eden had their water. Jake idly wondered where their food came from. There were no animals running around the Tree, best as he could tell. And he doubted that their supplies came from the local friendly grocer. It was definately a question worth chewing over, so to speak; Jake was fed well in Eden, although his portions were controlled depending on how many training excercises he participated in. Since he'd done a lot of sulking since arriving, he hadn't eaten a great deal. But when he did, it was a grand experience. Plenty of meat. Wild game, although Jake was sure his taste buds were mistaken. Game was extremely rare on the dinner table; most food was synthetic, and what wasn't was domestically raised. Cows, chickens, the usual. But he'd tasted venison a few times before being trapped by the Inheritors ... before he got married ... during happier days. He recognised it when he tasted it.
The hidden door shifted again, and Jake tensed up. Torrent alone walked through it. Celeste wasn't with him. For a crazy second, Jake thought that maybe the mechadrake had performed some experiment on his daughter to turn her invisible.
Torrent raised a bony flipper-hand. "Horses Jake, horses. Hold 'em. You'll see your daughter soon. Maybe. I have a propostion for you. It's about ... making that 'attempt on your life,' as Asmodeus elegantly worded it. Damn lizard has to fatten up every sentence that comes out of his wretched beak. I really am sorry for trying to kill you. No hard feelings, eh?"
"You poisoned me. It was pretty painful."
"I imagine it was. So please consider my peace offering." Torrent drew his other hand from behind his back. He pinched a small vial between his thumb and foreclaw.
Jake cocked his head. "What ... "
"Don't talk yet. Just think. You were once a wanderer, owing your life to no one, drifting from city to city. Not an honourable lifestyle, some argued, but you didn't care; you were free. Hunting, fishing, performing odd jobs when money was necessary. You were happy. Then you met Silvia. Ah, young lust. She wanted you and she pulled you in neatly. Female creatures have their male counterparts on a leash, Jacob, but you're familiar with that cold hard fact of nature. Next thing you knew, you were up the aisle with your head on backwards.
"Life became miserable. Your wife was the Queen of the Harpies, and you were merely irresponsible. You couldn't hold down a job. You weren't mature enough to settle down and commit to her."
" 'It takes a cold bed to prompt lechery,' " Jake murmured.
"Then Celeste came along," Torrent continued, "and you just about loved her to death. She had your eyes, but what's more, she had your mindspeak; the affliction that makes you feel like an outcast. The reason you seperated yourself from society. Such an affliction upon your defenceless spawn made you feel all the more protective of her, especially since you and I were already aquainted by the means, and you knew what she'd be put through. You stopped drinking and tomcatting. You put on a suit and tie and went to work every day. Working under some brainless schmoe was perfectly bearable as long as you had your daughter to come home to, and who'd begrudge you the longing glance you'd steal out of your office window once every so often?
"Silvia eventually skipped town, and although you're technically still married, I don't think your heart broke any. But shortly after her departure, Celeste fell sick. She burned with fever and couldn't catch her breath. No doctor could pin a name on what was racking her with such pain, the pain, why won't it stop daddy?"
Jake's mouth jumped.
"You were so desperate, you came to me. You fell on your knees at my feet, weeping like a two year old, runny nose and all. I took Celeste from your arms, I cured her. Now I own you two. But I'm willing to drop my debt."
Jake couldn't have been more stunned if he saw Asmodeus 12 in a ruffly pink tutu.
Torrent shook the vial. "This," he explained, "Is something I've been working on. We have outsiders stumble into Eden on occasion, and common practice was to kill them. Given the objective behind our organisation, Asmodeus couldn't swallow the irony any longer and asked me to come up with an alternative. A mere dose blanks out the short-term memory, and selective bits of the long term ... namely, memories of this scummy hive. Jacob, I offer you your release. Take this, and I'll be happy to guide you to the front door and let you get back to the wandering that made you so happy. No more Eden, no more Asmodeus, no more Silvia, no more responsibility. No more me."
"You'd ... leave me alone? No more mindspeak?"
"What's the point of tormenting someone with no memory?"
Jake stared at the little glass tube and the clear liquid that oozed about as Torrent twisted his wrist. His mouth watered and he swallowed. "Celeste?"
Torrent curled his lip. "Well, she'd stay here, of course. What kind of a question is that?"
Jake's heart turned to lead. His head ached badly. "I'm not going anywhere without her."
"Oh, McTreggor!" Torrent threw back his head and cackled. "Such a noble facade. Go on and pretend you have a sinless heart, but I can taste how badly you want this! Here." Torrent grabbed Jake's hand and placed the vial in his palm. It burned with cold. "Take it anyway. My gift to you. Use it whenever you choose."
"Or choose not to use it at all. I don't care."
Jake stared at the vial, which sat like a lump of ice. It didn't warm up with his body heat. He wanted badly -- very badly -- to proclaim his warrior soul and hurl it back at Torrent like a bullet, watch it break and spatter glass on the drake's blue breastplate. He couldn't.
"Of course not. You're only human. Here, I promised you Celeste, didn't I? One minute, please." The mechadrake disappeared into the wall again.
So, my daughter was practically by my side while I died. What a joke. Jake smiled with good humour and pocketed Torrent's vial. He could feel it against his thigh, foreign.
Rock scraped against rock once more, and Torrent reappeared. His arms were full. Jake stepped up to him slowly, almost timidly.
Something was wrong. Celeste wore the same red woolen sweater and small pair of blue jeans that she'd worn on their arrival to Eden, and they seemed clean. Her hair was neatly done, but the scenario was off. She barely stirred when Jake called her name. One leg swung feebly, draped over Torrent's scaly arm. Her runners were untied.
"Well then, here." Torrent transferred Celeste to Jake.
Her weight felt dead in his embrace. She opened her eyes slightly and looked at him, unfocused, uncomprehending. Briefly, Jake was taken back to his boyhood, and the speeding car that killed his Retriever mutt. The dog's final hours were reflected in Celeste's cloudy gaze ... the feeble movements of her limbs, the doughy, toneless muscles. A small scar was nicked mysteriously above her right eye, neat as you please.
"Torrent, what have you inflicted upon my child?"
"The treatment for urathax is experimental," the mechadrake said. "Happily, she's passed the first test; she hasn't gone blind. I don't think."
Celeste shifted and cried feebly. Peppery tears pricked Jake's eyes. He closed them and rubbed his cheek, bristled with a few days' growth, into his daughter's dark hair. "Lord," he whispered. "What have I done to you?"
He gently lowered Celeste to the ground and propped her in a sitting position against the wall next to Torrent's door. She responded unobjectingly, like a doll. A puppet. Blank eyes. Jake's heartbeat rolled. His breath quickened.
"Oh oh, here come the waterworks again." Torrent jeered. "I -- Awk!"
The leviathan squawked like an ugly bird and giggled back a few steps, slamming his armoured back against a thick tree-trunk. Opened-mouthed, his forked tongue dangling, he lifted his right arm. A lightdagger hilt jutted out of the upper muscle like a shard of splintered black bone. It jumped and jiggled as the tortured muscle contracted and convulsed.
Torrent drew his breath sharply and yanked the dagger out, unable to surpress a faint howl. He lumbered a few steps from his tree and whipped the weapon to the ground. The blade extinguished itself upon the thudding impact with the thin layer of topsoil covering rock. "What the hell was that! Jake? Jacob, show yourself! What's not good for me isn't good for your daughter!"
Jake's reply was a stinging plunge at the base of Torrent's neck. He left the dagger in its bed, retrieved the one Torrent had thrown, and stared at the creature, his left foot rattling against the hard ground as adrinaline washed his world red. Torrent's breath came quick, hot and hateful on his face.
"I'm going to kill you now." Torrent lunged for Jake, and a dense sound exploded in the lagoon, like one giant footstomp, as Jake cracked the leviathan's jaw with the handle of his Wyvern-Walker. Torrent roared and clutched the offended side of his face with both paws. Black fluid dribbled from the corners of his lips.
Jake smiled crookedly. "See? I use it."
"You ditch-delivered son of a whore!"
"I'm leaving this place, Torrent. And I'm taking Celeste."
"You are not."
"I am so. You won't be stopping me."
Torrent smeared a trail of black blood over his snout as he wiped at his mouth. Warpaint. "I'm giving you exactly ten seconds to grow some common sense, Jacob."
"I can kill you in less." Jake flicked his eyes to where he'd left Celeste. "I -- Atticus!"
"What are you mouthing off about?" Torrent said, but Jake didn't look at him. Something emerged from Torrent's lab, something black and reptilian that skulked towards his daughter on stocky legs.
"That's not Atticus, you fool," Torrent began, but Jake wasn't interested. He intercepted the creature, who watched with glittering golden eyes as the young warrior threw back his foot and booted the lizard in its chest. It rolled head over tail and cried out.
"Oh really now Jake," Torrent barked, akwardly fishing blind for the blade stuck in the back of his neck. "We in Eden didn't go kicking around your offspring while she was in our care. Don't go whalloping the plaything we made for her."
"That's another baby mechadrake you're punting. Almost every child in Eden recieves one to grow alongside and become inseperable partners with. Why should Celeste be any different? And while we're on the subject of your daughter, you were just making a great big noisy fuss about taking her and leaving. Well, if that's still your desire, I'd move quickly if I were you. Oops, too slow!"
The air suddenly seemed to crash several degrees. It pressed down on Jake like an icy fog and grew thick with shadows. Animal-unease gripped him with the drop in air pressure and the soft rustlings that whispered in the lagoon's greenery. His instincts overloaded; he was surrounded, and his foes showed themselves at that moment as if they knew it.
There were six adult humans, lithe, and armoured sparsely. Blade weapons dangled from the belt of each one, giving Jake the impression of deadly tinkers. One warrior caught Jake's eye in particular; a silver haired man, tall and commanding, with a little boy by his knee. The boy, no older than Celeste, Jake guessed, was practically a clone of the man he stood beside, straight and stiff and at attention.
Torrent had succeeded in removing Jake's second dagger from his neck at some point, and he waved it around like a bloody baton as he gestured from behind the tall man and his son. "Jacob, these are Eden's elite. Leathal fighters, even better trackers. The Mechanical Hounds. You're good, but you can't lay flat six members from this unit at once. Even little Jody here might give you a run for your money, so the odds would be six and a half to one. Sorry, seven and a half."
Torrent made a rotating motion with the dagger.
Jake turned. The first thing he noticed was Celeste missing from the spot he'd parked her in. The second thing he noticed, she was a few feet off the ground, in the arms of a stranger. Third, the stranger was an android.
The android, a male, was quite tall. His armour was a little bulkier than his human teammates', black, with smoky trimming. His hair was shorn close to his head, and his eyes were chilly, mean drops of blue, constantly jumping. Sentries.
Jake was stunned. "You're a robot."
"Give yourself a prize."
"What ... are you doing here? You know what the people here live for, right?"
The robot smiled nastily. Torrent broke out into another bout of ugly birdlike laughter that set Jake's teeth on edge. "Jake, you tunnel-peering half-wit. Do you think Eden is the only voice in the anti robot movement? Do you think its only leader is that shriveled old piece of fruit Asmodeus, who sits all day preening and squawking like a mad canary? Do you think there won't be select androids spared when Judgement Day comes, automations who swear to dedicate their life to humanity?"
The warrior opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
The robot spoke again. "So, your name is Jacob."
"Somehow it doesn't suit you."
Jake paused akwardly, his thoughts a thick, huddled mass that filtered through his mouth far slower than he would've liked. He had questions, oh, he had questions, but all he could do was point.
"That's my daughter you're holding."
"I'd like you to give her back to me."
Jacob's hand tightened around the handle of his remaining lightdagger, but the robot shook his head in a manner that made the warrior hesitate.
"One move, and the Mechanical Hounds will swarm you. You'll never get a chance to even swing at me. Anyway, yer still jittery from the dregs of that poison in ya. Your daughter won't be fed to the dogs as long as you behave yourself for more than ten minutes at a time."
Jake chewed on his lower lip. A scale of skin ripped free and he tasted blood. He absently reached up and squeezed the wound to staunch it.
"The drake is right," the robot continued. "The Inheritors of Eden are just a small part of something much bigger. Y'got no love for robots, am I right?"
Jake rubbed his pink-smeared fingers together. "I have no love for mechadrakes, either. Do you work for Eden?"
"No," the robot said. "I'm under contract with another organisation, but they're allies with Eden, and trade work on occasion."
"Another organisation," Jake echoed hollowly.
"It's not as old as Eden. Still a baby of a thing, but it's growing. Won't likely cut its teeth in your time, or your daughter's time. But maybe her young'uns will live to see it. Hell, maybe they'll lead the charge that'll snuff out the renegades forever."
"Oh sweet dancing sisters," Jake murmured, pressing his fingertips against his forehead in an attempt to knead away the vision of his blue-eyed grandchildren running around in Eden, ready to throw their lives away for a wanky mechadrake. "I should friggin' hope not."
The robot shrugged his broad shoulders. "Who knows what the future holds. You won't live long enough to see much more of it, anyway."
"We'll be crossing paths sooner than later."
"Is that so."
"Yep." The reploid shifted Celeste. "Circumstances favour it, I reckon. I'll be taking care of Celeste while I'm here, rearing her as one of the Mechanical Hounds. If y'want her back, you'll have to fight me. See how easy it all fits together?"
"As long as we hear each other. My name is Alren "Cold" Steel. I can tell by the way yer gob hangs open as wide as a boot that's a bit of a brain buster for a trooper like yourself, so just call me Arlen and throw yerself a party." Arlen gave Jake his shoulder and vanished back into the thick blanket of lagoon greenery. The Mechanical Hounds followed.
"Well then," Torrent Leviathan said, not necessarily addressing Jake who stood gazing after Arlen, stunned. The mechadrake scooped up the forgotten black-scaled juvenile that'd been kicked earlier and slammed the door of his lab, which stood ajar. "Shall we catch up to Celeste, Nytetrayn?" He tailed the Mechanical Hounds and vanished.
Celeste was gone, the lagoon was empty, and Jake was sore and exhausted. He started to plunge into the greenery where Arlen led his parade, but he knew it was useless; the book was closed on this chapter. Some sadistic narrator was pecking out his life page by page, and chasing Arlen, he knew, would turn up nothing. He needed rest, besides; he'd spent up what little energy he'd reserved lashing at Torrent.
"We're not done yet." Jake peered up and the impossible spiral of Eden loomed above. The trace of poison remaining in his body seemed to thicken his bones and fill them with cement; the climb back to his warren was an impossibility (did he even have one, since being evicted from Ange's?). He slid his back down the rock wall beside Torrent's lab. It was marvelously cool, soothing. He closed his eyes and began to drift off to sleep.
"No ... we're not done yet."