Four Mechadrakes mingled in Maverick Hunter Headquarters' visitor's lobby.
It runs through your mind like some horrific children's alliteration, Nytetrayn thought as he quietly joined his brothers. The visitor's lobby, devoid of staff at this late hour, was a single, huge area tiled with marble and furnished with prim potted ferns and oversized leather chairs.
"See that?" one dragon pointed at a chair. "Reploids were tearing up the human race, and babies were being born on rough, dirty blankets in the Refugee Camps during the first Maverick War, but God forbid Dr Cain ever had anything less than leather in his damned lobby."
The other Mechadrakes grunted in distracted agreement. They were concentrating on trying to keep their footing on the slippery marble floor, which did not cooperate with their long claws. One big Silver finally gave up and swept his wings to hover a few inches off the floor. The tempest blew over a fern, and the pot vomited black soil and water on the stark floor as the Mechadrake settled on top of the Receptionist's long oak desk. Magazines and brochures rattled and fell as his companions followed his example, lighting on chairs and tables, digging into them with steel talons. Nytetrayn chose a coffee table, and it groaned loudly under his weight. Eight eyes turned to him simultaneously and the Silver cocked his slim head. "Nytetrayn? You're here? I thought Asmodeus sent you on another mission."
"I finished it," Nyte said, praying inwardly that no one knew what Asmodeus had sent him to do.
"I don't remember you flying with us for this assault."
The table under Nytetrayn cracked in two, and he quickly spread his wings to keep from falling on his tail. He collected himself. "I only just finished, and Asmodeus sent word through Blackavar that I was to join you." Nyte paused, then took the risk. "In fact, I still need to be fully briefed."
All four Mechadrakes sat deadly still, and their eyes glistened savagely. Nyte's heart sank.
"I don't think I believe you," the Silver said slowly. "You always were a bit strange, Nytetrayn, what with hanging around that McTreggor boy and all. I don't see how Lord Asmodeus would trust you on a mission like this."
"It doesn't matter if you believe me or not." Nyte inwardly steeled himself for a fight to the death, but then came a mighty, collective stirring inside of MHHQ. No alarms blared, but the Hunters had definitely noticed intruders and were silently dispersing through the building like the flow of blood gradually speeding up through the veins of a waking animal. The dragons lost their immediate interest in Nytetrayn and turned their heads in different directions to pick up the minute sounds of the Hunters' movement in the rooms around them. They were obviously trying for some degree of stealth, at least until they determined what the immediate situation was. Relief washed over Nytetrayn, though he kept his face and body rigid. His mouth worked quickly. "You're still going to need my help."
The Silver threw Nyte an ugly glance and said in a low voice, "There is not much strategy involved here. We're simply to make ourselves known, and to retrieve Jody Loy and Celeste McTreggor, if it's possible. Asmodeus has decided that the war is best fought on our turf, so we're to get the Hunters interested in our movements."
"They'll be interested, all right," said a female Black amusedly and she tensed in anticipation as Hunters came spilling into the lobby. "Hey!" she cried as Nytetrayn threw himself into the air and arrowed through a cluster of the armed reploids. Some of them fell over, unhurt, but a couple fired plasma cannons at the fleeing Mechadrake as he slipped through an open door. Nyte gasped in pain and wavered as a white-hot bolt of energy caught the end of his streaming tail, but the Hunters were quickly engulfed in a battle with the lobby Mechadrakes and he was forgotten. Except by the silver Mechadrake, who bellowed curses about treachery that followed Nytetrayn in his flight down the hall.
A bare-walled room that was as windowless and friendly as the Death Star. Celeste stretched on her cot and smiled a little. She'd been here before. Maybe not this room specifically, but she'd been in the same situation; locked up tight for her own safety. When Torrent had called to her on one turbulent night during the era of the first Maverick War, it had proven impossible to resist his call to one-on-one battle. Though Celeste's mother didn't know anything about Torrent, she sensed that enough was off about her daughter that it would be better for her to be kept under observation. But Celeste had escaped ... by throwing her pet kitten, Matzah, down the hall, thereby distracting the guards.
Endless wondering about how she'd ever gotten away with an idea straight out of a ten-cent comic book still kept Celeste up at night. Matzah didn't visit her too often after that incident, but Celeste guessed his scarceness had less to do with a breech of trust and more to do with the fact that the cat grew up quickly and moved on to the important business of fathering about ten million kittens.
This isn't the way that my life is supposed to be, she thought to herself. She didn't feel any self-pity; it was just a fact. Her life to this point had been slightly troublesome.
She'd nearly died as a child and now, bizarrely, had a price on her head as a result. Her parents had been chilly towards each other until her father outright died after besmirching his name. She was injured in a Maverick attack, she was almost destroyed by Torrent when she tried to finish what her father couldn't, and when it looked as if she might have a chance at a peaceful life with Zero ... well, only God could really sort out what was immediately going wrong with that, but among other things, the Crimson Hunter didn't seem interested in having her as a mate, despite his proposal during the first Maverick War. No, he hadn't said as much to her, but Celeste figured that people who were keen on each other talked occasionally. Zero had barely said three words to her since this wretched, hot summer began. And communicating with him was impossible. The Hunter, when she did see him, was as approachable as a bear with distemper. Something was on his mind, something massive. And, of course, Iris was back. Maybe he'd made a new decision. After all, Genesis had warned her that a human could never successfully be with a Reploid. She'd taken the risk anyway, and lost the game in the end. Who could she blame but herself?
That was life, of course. Things changed. What was the use in feeling sorry for yourself?
Celeste's stomach turned green and flopped when she suddenly thought about what dawn would bring. Worrying about yourself was something else entirely.
This was probably destiny. No, she'd never been very lucky. Luck wasn't much of a McTreggor trait. She'd accepted that a long time ago. In fact, sometime after she communicated with Torrent Leviathan for the first time, he revealed to her that she was the reason for her parents' hastily thrown-together marriage; there had been a bit of a moonlight flit in the back room of the banquet hall that Jake worked in at the time, and Silvia's family decided that there was no matchmaker like a swollen belly. This ignoble bit of her lowborn heritage was probably supposed to shock and upset Celeste when she heard it, but Celeste found it more amusing than anything. Torrent was disappointed; he was a crafty lizard, but despite his fondness for lurking in other people's minds, he could prove a poor judge of their hearts. Mechadrakes were oddly obsessed with old traditions like heritage. In this day and age, most humans who are conceived beyond the blanket usually care less in their daily quest for survival.
But earlier that day, Celeste hadn't thought about Torrent's story with mirth. When she sat on the hard wooden bench with a grim-faced guard on either side of her and saw the look in her mother's eyes from across the interrogation room table, Celeste remembered what Torrent said, and knew her place in life.
"I read your medical records," her mother said.
Celeste said nothing. She looked at her hands spread on the table-top, and the grey jumpsuit sleeves that came halfway down to her wrists. It wasn't the uniform of a prisoner, but she knew the colour was supposed to keep her subdued, like soft blue walls in a nursery. She was disarmed; honour meant little at this point.
"I think..." Silvia shifted in her chair and gripped her purse with both hands. Her blonde hair was clasped neatly behind her neck, and she wore about a gallon of the same perfume that hung in the air of the apartment Celeste had lived in as a child. "I think ... they think ... that you have some troubles in your head, Celeste."
"Like your fa--yes." Silvia patted the ponytail behind her. "And I understand that you were given the option to remain with the Hunters, provided you underwent treatment ... but you've refused the treatment."
"I've refused to work with the doctor they offered me," Celeste said in a flat voice.
"Celeste, that's not your call. I've talked to Dr Klein. He's a good doctor."
"Dad didn't think so, when he met him." Celeste glanced up. "You weren't there, though."
Silvia dodged the dagger by not looking into her daughter's eyes. "You could be troublesome, Celeste. I let you join the Hunters because I thought it would give you some discipline. But it looks like you have a history here, too."
Celeste's defence died on her lips.
"I can't bring you home in this state. You need a doctor ... and observation. I can't watch you 24 hours a day. I have your brother to look after. I think you might need to be ... put someplace. For a time."
The Huntress scratched her nails across the table and started to say something. But then she lowered her head. "If it's good enough to get me out of your way."
"Don't be like that, Celeste," Silvia snapped. "You're my daughter. I want you to get better."
"Fine," Celeste almost whispered.
Silvia hesitated for a second, then put her hand over Celeste's. Ice clenched ice. "We'll make arrangements tomorrow."
So Celeste resigned herself to sitting quietly in her cell. She submitted to the grey uniform and the guards. She knew she was going to have to get used to it.
She wondered what the other Hunters would say when they found out. Especially Zero.
Night crawled across the hours like a black gun dog dragging its belly through the reeds.
"What's the score?" Zero asked X.
"I don't know. I don't like to keep scores."
"Well, that's a surprise."
A dart hit the wall with a whizz and a thud.
"I do know that you have to hit the dartboard to accumulate anything like a score, though," X said mildly.
"Score this, smartass!" Another dart glanced off X's armour and a couple of squiffed humans who were watching the game laughed jeeringly.
"For the love of Holy Saint Joseph, will you all get out of my establishment!" Cass roared from behind the bar. "If Cain finds out you're all still here at this hour, he'll destroy me."
X knew that drinking hours were long past, and he wasn't one to defy the rules. But when he looked at Zero standing beside him, cheerfully tossing darts at the pub's board, he knew he was doing the right thing. The Crimson Hunter seemed to have settled down a little over the past 24 hours. A bit of relaxation had cooled the feral glint in his eye, though worry pricked at X when he gathered the thrown darts and discovered that they were so firmly buried in the target that he almost had to wrench them free.
"You all think I don't mean it?" Cass continued. "Ten minutes is all you have, and then I start swinging a pool cue."
X resigned. "I think we better get going, Zero."
"Mm. Too bad. I was having fun." He took the well-worn darts that X handed to him, and then he hesitated. "Thanks, X."
"For what?" X said innocently.
"You know what. For everything. For standing by me. I've appreciated it."
"You're speaking in the past tense."
Zero didn't answer. He stared almost expectantly at the entrance of Salamandastron's Illusion.
Hawkmoon 269 filled the doorway. The doelike silver Mechadrake swung her head from side to side to pick up the smells and sounds. The few humans remaining in the pub slumped over as if to avoid her keen radar. Cass sighed.
"X and Zero?" Hawkmoon called out. It was only half a question.
"We're here, Hawkmoon." Zero's voice was leaden.
"As you shouldn't be. Cain has been trying to reach you in your rooms, and now we've wasted valuable time. I hope that you're at least armed."
"We are," Zero said, and X looked at him in surprise. He recalled the start of the night, when he'd decided to remain in armour simply because Zero had been. He'd barely been conscious of the decision at the time. "Is there an emergency?"
"Yes, a mildly fantastic one. Follow me, quickly. Cass, lock up the bar. Keep the humans safe in here, they're no good to anybody in their state."
X and Zero exited the pub with Hawkmoon, and Cass regrettably locked the heavy, old-fashioned oak doors behind them. He didn't like being left out of events. "I hate you," he informed the drunk humans who kept him behind. "Every single last one of you. Your sisters are pigs and dogs."
One human looked at his fellows. "Say, who could go for Cass frying up some pancakes right about now?"
While Cass was sealing up his bar, Lifesaver and Genesis were doing the same to their lairs. The Reploid Repair area was shut tight, and now the robot Medic was helping Genesis secure the Medical Unit.
"None of you are to set one hair outside these doors," Genesis said to the humans behind him as he unfastened one of the Medical Unit's huge double doors. The hinges groaned and scraped before the blue metal door clicked in place and Genesis started on the next one. "Do you all hear me? There's a bit of a situation outside, and I'm responsible for all of you. I don't feel like sweeping up any broken bits of your asses and mailing the pieces back to your families."
There weren't too many humans occupying the beds, and the few there had only been injured in minor training accidents. One tall Hunter with brown hair and a bandaged upper arm stood up. "Genesis, most of us are fine. What's going on? We can help fight."
"No you bloody well can't. Sit down."
"It's for your own safety," Lifesaver broke in more diplomatically as he secured a lock. Then he said to Genesis, "Is everybody accounted for?"
"I have this ugly, ugly, feeling that I'm missing something that should be right in front of my nose." Genesis scanned the room and his darkened eyes fell upon a rumpled bedspread in front of him. He dropped his head back and sighed. "Yeah, I knew it."
Lifesaver looked at the abandoned bed and tuned into Genesis' revelation. "Where's Tess and Paul?" he said in alarm.
"A better question is, where's Iris?"
"They're in the lobby. They're in the garage. It's an infestation, and they're spreading."
"Thank you Zero. I can always count on you for grim imagery."
Hawkmoon moved swiftly down the corridor that would take them to the lobby. X and Zero flanked her. Neither hunter knew what "they" were, and they waited for Hawkmoon to tell them. Instead, the silver Mechadrake said, "There's another platoon there, engaged in battle. We'll join them."
"Is Monroe okay without you?" X asked.
"Seven will protect him." She halted suddenly and her ears twitched back and forth. "Something's coming."
Something indeed, something with the grace of an elephant smashing through underbrush. All three Hunters tensed, unhappy in the knowledge that they were bottlenecked in the narrow corridor. A certain degree of arrogance had gone into the construction of the first storey of MHHQ; thin hallways dotted with doors to conference rooms and offices fingered from the lobby and led to the Hunter's barracks, the training areas, the garage, and other facilities. It was difficult for re-enforcements to travel from one area of the building to another, and only the garage was built with mass Hunter dispatch in mind. Erected in a simpler time when Mavericks were a sparse threat, MHHQ was not built with mass invasion in mind.
Especially not an invasion of--
"Good God, is that a Mechadrake?" Zero hissed.
The cybernetic dragon was black, and he half-stumbled, half-ran down the corridor. Black blood was striped on his gold claws like the hide of a hornet, and his tail was missing a piece. The wound was rimmed with plasma burn. Zero's sharp breath hit the Mechadrake's ears, and he glanced up and stopped in his tracks. Something in his soul seemed especially to freeze at the sight of Hawkmoon.
Zero charged, and X followed only after a second's hesitation. The black Mechadrake turned to flee. At that moment, another Mechadrake, a huge silver, ducked his segmented neck through the door at the other end of the corridor. He pointed the severed arm of a Reploid like a dripping, sparking baton in the direction of the trapped black Mechadrake.
"Stop him! He's supposed to die!"
Being a Reploid, Zero had never experienced anything like a fever, but from humans' descriptions, he knew that it had to be something like what followed the silver dragon's battlecry. Tangled in a sudden web of black wings, Zero's brain was doused in a thick haze. His body acted independently of his soul, unsheathing his lightsabre and slashing at the raven storm. Thick ropes of oily blood splashed on his face and washed over his hands, coating the handle of his lightsabre and turning it into butter. Zero's prey snarled in pain and a couple of times a sharp set of gnashing teeth clicked close to the Hunter's ear, but the attempt to fight back was feeble. His quarry was trying to escape, but Zero wasn't about to let him. Blood, blood. It squelched between his fingers as he gripped the hilt of his lightsabre, flecked his lips, and the fumes invaded his senses.
The storm lifted, and Zero looked up to see the black Mechadrake rear above him, mouth agape in a silent scream of pain, neck jerking wildly like a sea-bird trying to cough up a stuck fishbone. Zero scrambled to his feet and saw X behind him, his smoking arm cannon still aimed at the invader.
"Went down his throat," the blue Hunter said a little shakily. "He -- well, I didn't mean to cause him so much pain."
"A hot drink," Zero grinned.
Hawkmoon frowned. "He won't be able to talk to us for a while, if ever. Which is a shame, because I think--watch the other one."
The strange silver Mechadrake tried to pounce on the black one, but the black outsider gathered himself quickly and bounded past X and Zero. Zero intervened the silver's chase, uncoiling like a viper to spear his sabre in the middle of the silver's gleaming neck.
The Mechadrake struggled like a fish on a hook, working its slim jaws to try and pluck Zero from his grip. Blows glanced off Zero's helmet, and the silver cut its mouth and broke teeth on the sharp fins that adorned the Hunter's headpiece. A hailstorm of plasma suddenly leaped over Zero's shoulder and assaulted his enemy's shoulders and neck. The silver was obviously starting to feel fatigued as he tried to weave away from the attack without success. Finally, it swept its bladelike wings once and hovered just long enough to dislodge Zero by kicking him in the belly with his hinds legs. Zero thudded against the frosted glass door of a conference room, and a web of cracks skittered from the impact site like the trails of frightened bugs.
"Zero!" X cried.
"I'm fine," Zero gasped, shaking his head. The haze didn't clear, but he remembered a voice from a battle long past. "The stomach!"
"What?" X said, and understood before he finished saying the word. He fired a charge shot at the gut of the reeling Mechadrake ... and it glanced off heavy plate armour.
"I guess some of them are smarter than Red," Zero murmured, getting to his feet. He flung himself at the Mechadrake once more, who'd been distracted by X's fruitless attack. Instead of attacking from the front, the Hunter dug his sabre in a small patch of weaker metal plating under the drake's ribs, halfway to its hips. When the Mechadrake reeled around to attack Zero, the sabre wormed its way into its guts at a diagonal angle and the invader seemed to seize up in pain. Zero pushed the lodged sabre like a lever, and a deep trench burned into the Mechadrake's abdomen. Unworldly screams accompanied sizzling synthetic skin that barbequed like kebab. Blind swipes missed their target. Finally, the blade melted through the thick belly-plating and severed some of its clasps. The piece of armour swung on a bolt, and exposed soft flesh.
X fired the final bullet. The Mechadrake keeled over, arms outstretched, claws carving into the marble like soap. Its broken mouth opened slightly and dribbled black fluids on the elegant battleground. The spark drained from its eyes.
X drew in a breath. "For all the fighting I just did, I feel like I should know what's going on. But I don't."
"Nice shot, though," Zero complimented him. He was sore and dented. "Ach, look at my helmet."
"Vanity be damned," said Hawkmoon. "It's the Devil's jungle-gym." The slim silver Mechadrake had blood spattered on her front, and a few of her claws were chipped.
"Are you okay, Hawkmoon?"
"Fine," she said, sniffing at her soiled paws. "I tried to hold that black fellow, but he was like an eel with the way he was covered in blood. I'll go after him."
"What's happening here?" Zero almost barked. "You know something."
"I don't know any more than you do," Hawkmoon said cooly. Her milky eyes tinted her soul and made it impossible for Zero to detect if she was lying. "I do know that there were several other Mechadrakes in the lobby. If they didn't arrive to help this wretched fellow at my paws, they've probably moved on by now. Do you think you'll be okay, you two?"
"I'm not too bad off," Zero mumbled. "Just gotta aim for the belly."
"Aim for the belly," Hawkmoon repeated with a solemn nod.
X looked at the two as if they were sharing some ancient incantation that he had no part of.
Zero tugged at the blue Hunter's shoulder, and the two continued towards the lobby. Hawkmoon turned and swiftly followed the trail of the black Mechadrake.
Celeste's eyes flew open. For a terrifying instant, she was imprisoned once again during the thick of the first Maverick War, and Torrent was calling to her--
Celeste, where are you?
But it wasn't Torrent this time. The voice in her head, though stricken, was almost warm and wrapped her in a blanket of memories that she wanted to throw her arms around. Who was it? Her father, surely. A nagging voice in the pit of her stomach assured her that it certainly was not. Celeste swallowed her doubt.
You're tired, my girl, and once again you're in trouble. But I think I can help you again.
Celeste got up from her bed and, after groping her way through the dark, pressed her palms against the heavy steel door of her room. It'd been a long time since she'd used Mindspeak, and she feared she was weak at communicating.
Relax. I'm on my way.
Celeste pressed her cheek against the cool metal and closed her eyes. She began to wait.