Chapter 27: Stolen

She moved like a doe, Caillou decided as he set his chin on his folded arms, even when she was just sitting down for dinner. One of the does who lived in the Hollow by the Eden's river.

Caillou tried not to think about the untouched plate of venison beside him.

He was too distracted to eat, anyway. He could subsist on watching this girl and the long brown hair that she kept swept up high. Caillou had seen her let it down before. It cascaded to the middle of her back when it was free and lightened her green eyes.

Eyes that looked right through him, of course. They were both part of the Diamondbacks, and she didn't speak to him. Caillou grunted irritably. He'd dealt with loneliness before by keeping his mind clear, but lately his heart had been aching, and it was hard to ignore.

"Sit up straight," came a voice behind him, and Caillou instantly unfolded on the hard mess hall bench. His Captain put his own food on the table and sat down beside him.

Caillou pried his eyes away from the girl looked off in the other direction, but his Captain speared a piece of meat with his knife and said, "You have a better chance of flying."

Caillou shrugged. The Captain gulped a mouthful of tea and looked at him from the corner of his eye. "Been doing some ... thinking lately, have you?"

"Guess I have."

The Captain set his mug down and chuckled, not unkindly. "Passion can even run through the dead, I suppose."

"Dead, huh?" Caillou said blankly, staring straight ahead.

"That's what Eden considers you. In my eyes, you're a dead soldier. I'm supposed to regard you as canon fodder, if anything. But really, you're not a bad kid."

"Well, this is definitely the first time you've talked to me like I existed."

"Insubordination, boy, insubordination." The Captain said lazily before he polished off the last of his tea and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "But no matter. I'm going to have a talk with Asmodeus about you. You're obviously a bit of a late bloomer, but if you're starting to take notice of certain things in the world, we'd best be dealing with it before anything happens. Right?"

Caillou clenched his fork in his fist. "No! That's--"

"That's what?"

"That's ... not right."

"Hah!" The Captain barked heartily, leaning back from his empty cup. "What a childish thing to say. What bothers you?"

"I want someone," Caillou said in a low half-growl. "Like everybody else. I want a friend, a companion. I want someone to protect. I want a reason to serve Eden's purpose."

The Captain swept up his plate and patted Caillou on the shoulder. "You're a ghost. You walk by yourself. Sorry boy, I don't make the rules."

"Lord," Caillou hissed when he was alone. He slouched over his table and ran his fingers slowly through his thick black hair before he clenched at a handful. A ghost couldn't touch the world around it, but he could. A ghost could, however, use terror to make the living yield to it, and he could do that much. Nothing could be done to ease his loneliness. But he could strike from a shadow, pull his quarry into the darkness and sate his craving to hold somebody and feel a heart beat furiously against his own, even if that heart was hammering in terror--

Caillou's blood froze. What a thing to think.

"Better be careful," his mother's voice filled the mess hall. "The wolf's in your blood--"

Aiden looked down thoughtfully at his sleeping grandson. He knew that Kathleen had given him a mild sedative -- Aiden himself had received it a few times when he got badly injured during rougher training sessions or scouting missions -- but the boy still tossed and turned in his sleep.

"What's he dreaming about?"

Kathleen stopped her tidying up of the warren long enough to peer at Caillou over her husband's shoulder as casually as someone might scan the sky for rain. "Nothing good."

"Want to get specific?"

"You care about the boy?"

"After what you and I discussed, it might be a good idea to start," Aiden said in a low voice.

"Best leave him to his privacy. You don't need me to decide if you're going to help him."

"Lovely," Aiden murmured. He sat down hard on the edge of the bed he shared with Kathleen. Caillou, bundled carefully in the bed's blankets, grunted in his sleep as the resulting shockwave jolted his dreams.

"Wake up, boy."

Caillou's eyes flicked open and darkened at the sight of Aiden. Aiden stared back just as hard, and blue silently grappled with brown for a minute before the veteran broke away. He reached for Caillou's wrist and looked at it.

"So then," Aiden said at last, running his dark thumb over the tight, tarnished metal of Caillou's Ouroborus Band. "This is what comes of my bloodline, eh?"

"Looks like."

Aiden dropped his grandson's arm as if it were coated in disease. He looked down at his lap and drummed his fingers on his knee.

"Kathleen says that you can't help your lineage," he mumbled, "and that blood is blood, no matter what. Fair enough, but I can't help feeling a little upset at the fact that my only child is dead, and all that's left to carry on my name is a simpering outcast. Except that you won't even be able to carry on my name, because the band makes you sterile. My blood has dried up. Understand?"

"I do." Caillou pulled his arm back under his blanket. "And I hope that you understand my being a little upset at hitting rock bottom, being refused help at every turn, and having to depend on a grandfather who never wanted anything to do with me, and isn't about to start now."

"Of course I understand. This kind of thing runs two ways, after all. You're a bit wrong on one matter, though."

"What do you mean?"

Aiden rubbed his cold hands together. As he got older, the natural chill of Eden's warrens seemed to grip his re-mended bones with an increasingly severe hand. "Ange was our only child, Caillou. We tried for more, but it never happened. I guess it's some sort of flaw in our genes. Your mother was married once, you know. Before you were born. She never kindled during that time, either."

"She was married?" Caillou said in surprise. "What happened to her husband?"

"He was a viper. Metaphorically and literally. He was a cruel waste of life and he had no neck, besides." The warrior grinned. "Not Eden's finest example of breeding. But I'm noticing that a lot of flaws have wormed into the gene pool. Asmodeus has waited too long, I think."

Caillou's eyes widened further and he started to say something, but Aiden held up a hand.

"Just keep quiet and listen to me. Your mother's husband -- his name was Holden -- died. Died, and good riddance to him. A couple of years later, Ange met Jake, and as you've no doubt been made aware, certain things happened."

Caillou nodded slowly.

"Well, probably to her great surprise, Ange got pregnant. She tried to hide it for obvious reasons, but that sort of thing can only be hid for so long. After nine months in the oven, you were born in this same bed that you're lying in." Aiden wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve. "That was a bad time for all of us. Kathleen and I had never said anything to Ange about her being in a family way, and she never told us. In fact, she avoided us. I guess we all stupidly figured that if we didn't acknowledge the problem, it would go away. But when the moment arrived -- in the thick of the quiet hours, thankfully -- she came to us, begging for help. What am I supposed to do when my only child is in distress? Knock on Asmodeus' door and report her? He would've liked that. As a Warrior of Eden, I'm supposed to have nothing to do with anything that might upset the chemistry of the hive ... say, a woman who's about to deliver an unwanted visitor, regardless of whether or not she's my daughter."

Caillou sat up a little straighter, and Aiden regarded him for a second. He was a handsome boy, and there was no mistaking the potential that was coiled in his muscles and broad shoulders. Aiden rubbed his aching knees and sighed as he thought about the young, scared boy who used to cling to Ange's hand and stare at Eden with huge eyes. That boy had cried whenever Aiden looked at him. There was a different boy here, now, a boy who still cried, but not before he kneed Aiden and winded him quite badly.

"So we helped Ange. Took her in. But it was a problematic delivery, and Dr Ison had to get involved." Aiden nodded at Caillou's cropped ear. "As you've probably come to realise, the man is a good doctor, but he serves Eden first. Though Asmodeus would've found out about you sooner or later, Ison made sure it was sooner. Asmodeus sent Torrent Leviathan to fetch you."

"Torrent," Caillou repeated slowly.

"Do you know him? He was a Mechadrake, and Second in Command to Asmodeus. The two had an argument of some kind, and split off ages ago. It was for the best, I say. Torrent seemed to treat humans very dismissively. He was in charge of the Mechadrakes, and that's all he cared much about. Asmodeus works with care when he pairs up mates, for example, but it was Torrent who gave Ange to Holden after about two seconds of thought." Aiden grimaced. "Anyway. Torrent came to get you a few hours after you'd been born..."

Torrent Leviathan leisurely wound his way up the path like a cat on no particular business, his claws scratching and clinking on the metal with every slow step. The retired warriors who occupied the top floor of Eden stuck their heads out of their doors, saw what approached, and dropped their eyes before disappearing into their rooms again, sealing themselves against what was to come.

Torrent stopped outside of the one door that was still open. "Well now," he called out cheerfully. "Where ever is the warren of the Spar family?"

Aiden stepped up to the door, looked up at the Mechadrake and silently crossed his arms over his chest.

"Thank you, Aiden," Torrent said with a cutting grin as he seized the warrior's head in one paw and shoved him aside roughly, revealing a small room that held a girl in a bed who looked like she was about ready to take tea with the Reaper.

"Well now, something's missing." Torrent scratched the underside of his snout with a claw. "Two somethings, actually." He ducked into the warren and cursed loudly when the low doorway clipped the top of his head. Rubbing at the sore spot, his grin stalked across his face once more. "This place stinks of mammal birth. Where're you hiding the little burden?"

Aiden and Torrent both turned their eyes to Kathleen, who emerged seemingly out of nowhere. Her face was calm, but her arms were locked around the small bundle she held. "We're not hiding anything, milord. But you're not hurting a newborn baby."

"Come now, Kathleen. We can do this the easy way, or we can get knee-deep into the nasty, confrontational stuff."

Kathleen squared her shoulders, and Torrent made to move towards her, one claw outstretched. Aiden immediately fired his pistol, and a sharp sizzle and hiss preceded a curse of pain from Torrent. "Dad!" Ange screamed in a whisper from her bed. "You're crazy!" She struggled to sit up, but Aiden didn't take his eyes off the heaving, snarling Leviathan in front of him as he barked "Sit still, girl!"

"Stupid, stupid wastes of life," Torrent foamed, marking all of them and clutching his burnt arm. "Aiden! You should have kept still. You don't think I know? You don't think you're so damn clever that I couldn't figure out that you killed your daughter's husband?"

Aiden tensed and narrowed his eyes. Ange made a small sound, and Kathleen stood as still as a hunted rabbit.

"A hundred-year-old monkey gone senile with syphilis could've figured it out, you telephone pole!" Torrent cackled. His tail suddenly struck out and cracked Aiden in the shins. The warrior buckled in pain and the Mechadrake slammed his talons into Aiden's back.

"I don't think Asmodeus'll miss you too much. Your whole line's kind of sad and impotent, really." Torrent indicated the baby with his snout. "Except when it doesn't matter."

The Mechadrake ground his foot harder into Aiden's back and the warrior felt the air bleed out of his lungs. Feebly, he lifted one hand off the ground, then let it sink again.

"Too bad you can't breathe through your fingers, eh?" Torrent said amusedly before he suddenly buckled sideways. His head cracked on the corner of Ange's bedstead, and Ange seemed to tap into a hidden well of strength as she moved quickly to avoid the hideous serpentine face from landing in her lap. Torrent lay still, except for the hiss of air that rasped in and out of his wide-open mouth.

"What the hell?" Kathleen inquired three heavy seconds later.

Aiden's breathing was as voluminous as Torrent's. He clutched his ribs and managed to get up on one knee. "Thank God that friggin' lizard didn't fall on me."

Kathleen ran to her husband and shifted Ange's baby to one arm before she helped Aiden get on both his knees. "What did you do?"

Aiden panted and looked at Torrent, directing Kathleen's eyes to the small silver shard sticking out of the Leviathan's right foot.

"Is that part of a circuit-stinger?"

"I figured, the knives we all carry contain a virus that are able to take down a Reploid, right? Filthy Mechadrakes like Torrent wouldn't be immune. I couldn't reach my knife, but some time ago I made a few smaller needles in case of emergencies, and kept them in my wrist-pouch and managed to wedge one between the toes of Torrent's other foot."

"You used a circuit-stinger on Lord Torrent? Are you crazy?"

"'Lord Torrent' wants to kill our daughter and a baby that's not even three hours old." Aiden wobbled to his feet. "I'm surprised he collapsed so fast. The needles are more potent than the knife, but I hadn't tried them out much before now."

Silence blanketed the room once again.

"What now?" Kathleen wanted to know.

Aiden popped his neck and shoulders. "I have a sudden urge to kill some time in the Hollow. Kathleen, I bet you and Ange and the boy would like to visit Brynn for a while."

Kathleen looked at her daughter. "Feel like you can walk a little, Ange?"

"It might be for the best," Ange said, staring blankly at her newborn baby.

"Go on about your business, Aiden," Kathleen said. "I'll help Ange get dressed."

So Aiden left and Ange slowly slid out from between her sheets, and slumped against her mother with exhaustion.

"Funny how you're at your physical peak, but that birth was so rough on you, isn't it?" Kathleen said cheerfully, working to get Ange dressed and washed around the body of Torrent, still slung out on the floor, snoring like a man-eating drunk. "It was hard on me, too, when I had you. Don't cry. We're all together. Everything will be okay."

Caillou shrugged when Aiden paused in his story. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Torrent tried to kill me as soon as I was born."

"'Kill you?' Aiden grunted. "Too dignified. Chances are good that he actually would've tried to eat you. Wow, your eyes can sure get wide. Really, though, I've heard rumours. That's all they are, though, because even Torrent would have to hide his sick appetite from Asmodeus, who likely thinks that eating a baby is going beyond the beyonds."

"Oh." Caillou scratched at the back of his head. "Well."

"'Oh well' is right. Do you know what happened after that incident with Torrent?"

"I lived, obviously."

"Of course you did, clever boy. But what do you remember about your mother?"

Caillou clearly remembered his final days with his mother, sitting and talking at the table in the centre of their warren. But his childhood memories were cobwebby. One thing did remain constant: "She was faithful to Asmodeus. She supported his cause."

Aiden gave a laugh that sounded like a cough. "No, she certainly did not. She was covering her ass for as long as she could."

"What do you mean?"

"You didn't die. I stood and let Asmodeus break my arms and rip my back apart so that you wouldn't. That was my punishment for interfering with Eden's business. But Asmodeus did admire my actions to an extent -- another mistake. He told me that he'd let you live, but Ange would die ... on his own time. He would see to her death, maybe within a few hours or fifty years. Either way, I would be alive to see it, he assured me.

"It's not particularly fun to go through life with the constant reminder that your only child is going to die at any day. I didn't want you around because looking at you was another reminder. That, and you have the same empty eyes as your dog of a father, who started all this."

Caillou picked his head up. "Well, I don't think that Jake was the one who tried to kill me, to be fair. Nytetrayn said he was an okay person."

"Oh, sure, since when does a Mechadrake tell lies," Aiden snorted. "Let me tell you something else. Jake was a greedy pig. He brought his daughter here to be cured of some damnable disease that doctors on the overworld were obviously too stupid to puzzle out. The price wasn't pretty; in return for curing her, Asmodeus wanted both of them to stay in Eden and fight for the annihilation of robots. Jake agreed, and that's all there is to it. There's no excuse for what he did."

"Which was?"

"Running out! What else? A price agreed on is a price that has to be paid, and he didn't honour that. And when he was in Eden, instead of doing what he was asked, he'd sulk. Or start a fight. I don't know what kind of a life he lived, but he wasn't used to not having his own way, and he refused to try and fit in. Asmodeus bent over backwards to try and make him happy." Aiden leaned back and the mattress creaked. "In fact, when Asmodeus saw that Jake was obviously fond of Ange--and my girl was sort of fond of him for some reason I was never meant to understand--he immediately offered her as his wife."


"And you're too young for this conversation. All you need to know for now is that he did accept, but things didn't go the way he wanted them to, so he took what he needed and left before the ceremony actually happened. Guess who got the reap the rewards of his abandonment."

"Maybe ... he didn't want things to turn out this way?"

"Well, they did." Aiden stood up. "But Jake is irrelevant at this point. We need to talk about how we're going to keep you alive."

"You're going to help me?"

"Weren't you listening when I said that you were wrong about me not wanting to have anything to do with you? I guess Kathleen is right in saying that you can't help your blood, but I'm not going to risk my neck solely for you. There are other factors at stake, one of those being that I have reason to believe Eden isn't as glorious as it once was. Reploids whatever, robots whatever, all I know is that my only daughter is dead by Asmodeus's hand, and she didn't deserve it."

"Whatever we're going to do, we'd better do it quick. What quarter is it now?"

"Dawn's coming up about now, I figure. You were asleep for a few hours."

"Well, Asmodeus is going to kill me in four days unless Jake's daughter is returned to Eden by Nytetrayn the Mechadrake."

Aiden looked at him for a long minute. "Guess we have our work cut out for us, then."

Genesis trotted through the dewy grass on all fours, with his nose close to the ground. He stood back up and peered around MHHQ's enormous back lot, which was greying in the pale, cloudy sunrise. The old refugee cabins stood their usual sentry, but they couldn't tell any tales.

Good. Nobody saw me do that.

The foxhound act had proven useless anyway; the heavy, wet lawn was bare of scents, other than the stale smells of Mechadrakes and the curious humans who'd come knocking that night. Tess, Paul and Iris had seemingly vanished. Genesis put his ears back at the thought of the former Repliforce member. "Did that crazy so-and-so mount her My Little Pony and flitter off? I wouldn't put it beyond her, at this point. And what the hell is that?"

The lot was rapidly becoming lighter, and a large figure became an obvious presence beside one of the cabins several hundred metres away from where Genesis stood. In an eerie awakening of senses, the smell of battle and blood hit him at the same moment, and the fur on his neck flared. He dropped again and began to gallop towards the figure beside the cabin, cold dew spraying up in his wake.

Strabo the silver Mechadrake was not much good with technology. She tapped desperately at her earpiece.

"Hello? Strabo here. Does anybody copy?"

Silence. Birds roosted on the cabin roof behind her and twittered. On some far off highway, traffic roared quietly and carried easily in the still morning air. Strabo looked back at Maverick Hunter Headquarters, and even it seemed eerily still for a fortress that was supposed to be in an uproar.

The birds kicked up their chorus, caring nothing for the human dying at Strabo's feet. The Mechadrake pressed down hard with both her palms now, but the human's ripped chest wouldn't stop giving blood to the morning.

"Well, hell. This is a fine mess--"

Something heavy cannonballed into the back of Strabo's serpentine neck, and her paws slid across the stricken human's slippery chest. She reared back onto her heels and her wings flared out. She jumped and her wings cracked once, supporting her shakily until she tumbled back down, her knees sinking into the soft earth. The dead weight was still latched on the back of her neck, struggling and...biting? Her arms flew back and she sank her claws into something soft and warm. The thing growled and bit down harder on her neck. Strabo gasped in pain and for a tense second, she remembered that rabies were in season. Not that she had reason for concern, but if this animal smelled the bloody mess in front of her, it could surely compound the human's troubles. He didn't need that.

The Mechadrake rolled over and pried at her neck at the same time. A weight was literally lifted from her shoulders as she finally succeeded in shaking her attacker loose. She scrambled into a battle position immediately, hunching with her head low, ready to spring.

"Stay away from the human!" Strabo and her rival barked at each other simultaneously before lapsing into a second of confused silence.

Strabo's opponent was a fierce fox, presumably a Reploid, though he looked positively feral as he stared her down, panting, lips curled back to reveal white teeth. His eyes were indescribable, and Strabo shrank back a little, not knowing what to make of the situation.

"Give that human over, Maverick!"

Strabo collected herself and drew forward. "You're the one who's dripping foam from your mouth like some sick horse, and you're calling me a Maverick?"

"You've killed that human there--a Hunter, no less, by the looks of his uniform. What else do I need to call you a Maverick? Catch you eating the corpse?"

"You might want to catch me in the process of killing him, though I've heard you Hunters don't bother with anything as trifling as 'proof' when you condemn your own kind." Still crouching, Strabo made one hand ready on her katana sheath. "Makes me wonder how many innocent have died, seeing as how I didn't hurt this human, and never would hurt a human, but you're ready to kill me if I let you."

"Telling lies over a dead body." The fox set his shoulders back. "If there isn't some sort of eternal punishment for that, something involving devils sticking hot pitchforks in your butt, I hope the world burns."

"What 'lies' are you babbling about? This boy's alive! Though he won't be for much longer if he doesn't get medical attention!"

"Out of my way! I'm a goddamned doctor!" The fox roared and flung himself like a living weapon. Strabo felt hot teeth sink into her soft throat, and she gagged. The back of her neck could be chewed on without much trouble, but this was something else entirely. She flung her arm forward, and her katana sliced through the reploid's shoulder armour, and cleaved through a few inches of metal and flesh. Damn! Needs more sharpening...

Not only was she not very good with technology, she was not a prime warrior. Not Eden's best by a long shot, which is why she'd been left to patrol the perimeter of Maverick Hunter Headquarters. She hacked blindly at the fox, which hung on to her throat like a bulldog. His black blood and her black blood mingled on her armour, in his fur. Her katana slipped out of her hand, and she tore into the fox with her claws instead, but he didn't seem to feel it. She spread her thin wings, but her tormenter let go of her throat long enough only to fall to the ground, kick off in an instant, and sink his claws and teeth into the leathery membrane. Strabo was jerked violently, one wing pumping uselessly, stirring the morning haze. The fox's teeth grabbed her on the shoulder, and he kicked at her belly like a cat disemboweling a mouse. And like a mouse under a cat's paws, she fell apart as his claws tore into her stomach, ripped it apart, and released her life's blood. Strabo only let out a quiet gargling sound as she sank to the wet ground, curled beside the human.

Damn ... my visor got knocked off when I jumped that hooch. Too bright out here...

Genesis patted around in the wet grass, but his bloody paws didn't come into contact with his eyepiece. The stricken human moaned close to him, and he quickly abandoned his search.

"Hey, hang on now," Genesis appealed to the boy's soul, peeling open the shredded Hunting garb and looking in dismay at the mauled chest and belly beyond. "Holy pissing Lord. What the hell did that lizard do to you?"

The boy answered with a noise that was between a bark and a sob. His clean, light hair stood out brightly in the morning dim, an almost cruel representation of Heaven floating above the Hell that gripped his body below the neck.

"Listen. It's me, Genesis. I'm from the Medical Unit. Do you recognise me?"

The young Hunter opened his eyes. They were terrified, but the boy managed to answer, "Yeh..."

Genesis didn't recognise the wretched boy, but he imagined he'd come across him at some point during his short career ... maybe he'd administered the physical that he required to be a Hunter, or maybe he'd mended a broken arm or even dug out a nagging splinter for him ...

Genesis brushed his fingers over the boy's trembling hand. "Not much I can do for you. She got you in your gut. It's a marvelous age of medicine we live in, but when a Mechadrake tries to ... digest you, science doesn't have much say in your recovery."

The boy's eyes flew open again, and Genesis steeled himself for a long life-and-death bargaining session ... If it's your time, it's your time... But instead, the boy shook his head almost convulsively.

"Wasn' th' drake. She foun' me..."

Genesis felt his mind go blank. "What?"

"Not th' drake." He gasped suddenly and his lungs rattled with a wet, cold sound. He gripped Genesis' hand fit to break it. "Wolf."

"'Wolf?'" Genesis repeated in a mystified voice, but he got nothing more out of the human, who reared back his head on the grass, and, less like a wolf and more like a demented lunatic, screamed and thrashed as a spasm of pain gripped him.

Never hesitating, Genesis landed a heavy blow on the side of the boy's head. The screaming tapered off as his blue eyes clouded over in sedated confusion. One more punch, and they rolled back into his head before they closed. The medic then covered the Hunter's mouth and nose with one large hand, and he crouched silently, listening as the morning bird chorus swelled and the stricken boy's heartbeat slowed and finally stopped.

Genesis sat down hard in the slippery grass, put his hands on his knees and sighed. He looked at the ring of Refugee cabins and he felt his fur stand on his neck a little.

Been a long time since I've worked in the sun and wind. A long, long time. Been a 'specially long time since I had to do that....

Genesis closed up the Hunter's uniform best he could; the blood pasted it shut. He straightened the boy's lifeless arms beside him. He walked over to the nearest cabin and almost stepped on his visor on the way. He slipped it back on his eyes and felt a little better when the world darkened, even if flecks of dew and grass now hovered in front of him.

The Mechadrake hadn't killed the boy. She'd said as much, and it'd turned out to be true.

Maybe if he hadn't wasted time killing her...

No. The kid was too far gone. A quick end was all that was left.

Genesis felt something crunch underfoot, and after a quick prayer of thanks for the resilience of Reploid feet, he looked down and saw that he'd crushed the neck of some sort of glass bottle. He scooped up the remains and sniffed, then he grinned a little. Whiskey. Recently drained.

Well, at least he knew why the underage Hunter had come so far out in the wee hours of the morning.

Still. A wolf?

Genesis' stomach suddenly turned a little sick as his memory flicked back to the smoky warmth of MHHQ's garage.

Jackal. Bottle. Cuchulain.

"Cuchulain," Genesis muttered when he thought of Jackal's pet wolf. He dropped the bottle. "God, I warned you, Jackal. She's gone mad at the worst possible time, and now you're up a certain creek without a paddle." The fox grinned again. "And I'm probably going with you. I'm already off Cain's list of Birthday Friends for hiding Celeste's medical records; when he hears that I let you keep that mutt, he's going to make me take the pipe. Hard."

He couldn't let a mad wolf run through Maverick Hunter Headquarters, of course, especially not while the building was still under attack. Wouldn't that be hilarious, X and Zero valiantly battling invaders and then suddenly getting their ankles gnawed by a misplaced wolf?

No, actually, that wasn't funny.

Well, this is probably the end of my illustrious career. No more sewing up wounds or setting breaks in the comfort of four walls. It was back to treating coughs and runny noses and delivering babies in under-equipped, freezing tents.

"Oh, it won't be so bad," Genesis mumbled, allowing himself a quick, warm memory of newborns taking their first breaths and yelling like crazy as they were pulled into the frigid world. "I've done it before. Of course, no telling if the old crew is still around. No telling if humans even still wander on the Grasslands. They've probably all smartened up by now."

Genesis grunted and looked back at MHHQ. It was still eerily quiet. He couldn't carry the dead boy back without having him ... well, spill everywhere. He'd have to go back and tell somebody ... tell somebody that an illegal wolf had ripped some poor budding alcoholic's guts out, and was still at large.

Well, no time like the present.

"Tess, if you're in trouble, for the love of God, use your common sense. I can't help you just this minute."

Genesis bounded off in the direction of Headquarters.

Celeste felt her weapon grow warm and sweaty in her clenched fists and the furthestmost corner of her mind remarked, not for the first time, that something definitely had to be done about MHHQ's crummy security. Despite being considered a "danger" to herself and others, despite being locked up in the psycho ward or schitzo bin or wherever the hell she was, she'd still managed to wrench a solid iron leg from her cot with relatively little difficulty.

To say nothing of the thing that faced her now, long past security, filling the splintered doorjamb.

Oh Jeez Celeste, put that down. You're overreacting.

Celeste winced as the words arrowed through her brain. "None of this shit! Talk to me!"

I can't talk, girl. X took my tonsils out with a plasma scalpel.

Celeste's body tensed. "So the Hunters are after you? I'm not surprised. Get out, or you'll start hurting."

You still consider yourself allied with the Hunters? A fine job they've done, keeping you as a friend. You're about to be shipped off to some asylum because of a natural evolution that they fear. You're going to be locked up for the rest of your life, 'cept when they stir-fry your brain with shock therapy or cut your head open to watch your gears turn. Maybe Zero'll send flowers once in a while.

Shockwaves shivered up Celeste's arms as her heavy weapon contacted with the dark invader's arm. She felt a wicked gladness at the strangled sound he made; she guessed he wasn't lying about the throat wound, and the vocalisation seemed to hurt him as much as the blow.

Calm down! the stranger barked even as he reached for the girl. Celeste leaped back nimbly and her body jolted briefly as her back hit the wall of her small cell. She didn't let it distract her and she dodged her enemy's furious swipe.

"So I'm supposed to calm down while you try and gut me, huh?" She panted.

Automatic reaction, the stranger sent sullenly, rubbing his arm as he stepped into the cell and nearly filled it with his graceful bulk. He was a Mechadrake, but Celeste had known as much before getting a good look at him. So far, they were the only creatures capable of telepathic contact with her, and it hadn't led her to particularly love the beasts. I told you, I'm here to help--

The black Mechadrake made an ugly, birdlike sound as Celeste's iron bar cracked him on the side of his jaw, then got him on his shoulder while he was still reeling. A bubbling roar escaped the dragon and his eyes blazed as he wrapped one paw around the former Huntress' neck. LISTEN TO ME!

Celeste kicked and struggled and managed one more solid hit before the Mechadrake took her armed hand in his own and squeezed. Pain blazed up Celeste's arm as bones yielded, and she was forced to drop her weapon.

There, now maybe I can talk sense to you, the Mechadrake began as he squeezed, then cursed as the dropped bar landed on his toe. God damn it! Enough of this. Celeste, you're coming with me.

"You're not taking me anywhere," she hissed, clawing uselessly at the Mechadrake's hold with her unbroken hand. Her stomach lurched up into her thudding heart. She knew her opponent could sense her pain and fear and was using it to make himself stronger. That was the magic of Mindspeak.

Unless you want the life of your half-brother on your conscience, yes, you are.

"I don't have a half-brother!"

If you think that your father was the poster boy for strict monogamy, you're sadly mistaken. Now listen. I helped you when you were imprisoned by that psychopath Duskclaw during the first Maverick war; you owe this much to me.

"That was you?" Celeste's heart skipped as she recalled the mysterious voice that'd soothed her during her imprisonment and ultimately helped her escape. That voice had been benign, gentle, even ... nothing belonging to someone who mocked her and broke hands.

And you were once a sweet little girl with pigtails who'd never dream of attacking her guardian with a blunt object. I guess this crazy world has altered us both. Just slightly.


The black Mechadrake's arms stiffened and he rolled his eyes back when he heard the sharp salute behind him.

"Ohhhh Jesus," he rasped slowly, and with great difficulty. "It's you, isn't it, Hawkmoon."

"It is. Hello."

"Don't make me talk more than I have to."

"I won't. I am deadly curious, though. How's Eden doing?"

"Same as you left it, traitor."

"'Traitor?'" Hawkmoon made a sound somewhere between a larksong and a laugh. "Pot, kettle."

Celeste's head spun and she choked out a question of her own. "Eden?"

The black Mechadrake--Nytetrayn--swung his head back at her. "Now don't be afraid..."

"Actually, she has all the rights in the world to be afraid," Hawkmoon said mildly. "You always were a bad liar, Nightgown."


"I know your name. Didn't you say you wanted to stop talking?"

"Would appreciate it." Nytetrayn tightened his grip on Celeste and the girl began to have difficulty breathing beyond the restraint, the thudding of her own heart, the churning of her stomach and mind. Nytetrayn shifted a little, and Celeste could see over his broad shoulder and to the doorway, where Hawkmoon stood with her thin hands on her hips.

"Is Asmodeus still mad at me?" the silver Mechadrake sounded like a child who was in trouble with her parents.

"'course he is. He's mad at the world. That's why he does this thing."

"I'm sorry for the way things turned out. But Cain's boy needs me. He always has."

"Oh, get on with yourself," Nytetrayn snorted, then coughed. "If you're going to fight me, just get it over with."

But Hawkmoon moved with little urgency when she stepped into Celeste's cell, moving her head back and forth to pick up scents and judge the closeness of the walls. She reached out one paw, guided it over Nyte's shoulder, and the black Mechadrake shifted instinctively when her ghostly silver fingers brushed his own and rested on Celeste's pulse. Celeste gasped at the icy touch and renewed her struggle, but she was held fast.

"Tell Asmodeus I'm even with him now," was the last thing the Huntress heard before the female Mechadrake's claws stung her neck.

Previous | Next | Back to fanfics