Juvinea was getting a headache. “How the hell have you put up with Marge for all of these years? I mean, I was stuck with her for most of a lifetime and that was more than enough for me.”
Juvinea was following Tash through the Shalthar science and research division headquarters. Tash had been regaling Juvinea on the history of the world; needless to say she wasn’t overly impressed. Tash was leading her to the shipyard; they needed to get away from the Citadel and to the salt flats.
Tash juggled their words. “Marge has been… Hmm… trying. Up until recently we were unable to remove her from the equation as she remained the integrated computer system. A new system has been erected in her place, completely devoid of an attitude; even the military has approached us in thanks.”
“Quite an achievement?” She had to dodge out of the way as a Shalthar pushing a trolley covered in various odd beakers scooted past.
Tash chuckled bitterly. “You wouldn’t believe… There are two branches of Shalthar development with two small overlaps. There is science and military. We here in the science branch work mainly to improve and refine the technology used by the Shalthar in day-to-day activities, feeding, memory uploads, cloning procedures. Since the introduction of the science branch in the forty-seventh cycle the average Shalthar lifespan has increased by seventy-five percent. Then there is the military with its own science team but they focus more on the kinetic sciences and how best to use the materials of this world to destroy the world. There is some minor overlap with the military scientists reaching out to us on occasion for assistance but we’re usually pretty separate.”
She tried to catch up with them to walk alongside. “And what’s the other overlap, you said there were two.”
Their small smile curdled into a sneer. “Ah, that’s the Monarch himself, whatever he says goes, even if that means working together.”
“So is the science branch in on your scheme?”
Tash shook their head. “No, loyalty to the Monarch is absolute, and it must not be questioned!” Their tone turned stern as a distracted Shalthar scientist wandered past nearly running Juvinea over.
She looked at all of the scientists; they seemed so engrossed in their work, not even bothering to look up at the human woman walking amongst them. “Y’know, from the way you spoke of me I would have thought your colleagues would have been a bit more… I dunno, excited, amazed, astounded at the recovery of my memories.”
“They all think you’re Marge, back again after another banishment, they’re keeping their heads down. They fear your ire.”
Juvinea crossed her arms and scoffed, “I’m sure I behave nothing like Marge.”
“You don’t, that’s why I’m astounded that we haven’t been confronted yet.”
Juvinea felt a scrutinizing gaze pierce her sixth sense. “Be amazed no longer.” She wilted.
A rough hand sun her around, she was faced with a small troupe of Shalthar scientists. Despite all looking the same they were a remarkably eclectic group. A Shalthar with an odd magnification device grafted over its left eye leaned uncomfortably close to Juvinea’s face.
It frowned as it scrutinized her, its exposed eye flicked over to Tash. “You did it?” The accent was harsher than Tash’s but its grasp of the Common Language was strong. “You’ve restored her memories?”
Tash waved dismissively. “For the most part, her early life has been lost forever but the memory graft was successful, she simply needs more stimuli to fully jog her later life.”
“Oh,” the scientist droned as it peered closer. “See the eyes, how they glimmer with life? You have restored her soul.” There was a wave of grumbling from the scientists.
The knot of scientists hovered closer. Juvinea felt a rough hand turn her face to the side, she swatted them away. “Back, back! I’m not a toy for your amusement!” Her flurry of slaps sent the Shalthar scientists scurrying.
“I think the correct word is amazement.” Tash placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Come we must go, we cannot recover the rest of your memories here.”
Juvinea turned back, eyebrow raised. Tash placed a finger to their lips. They kept moving back down the corridor, as they walked they offered her a small bundle of cloth.
“I almost forgot, these used to be yours.”
She unwrapped the roughspun cloth revealing her old glasses. She popped them onto her face. That which was once blurry seemed to harden and gain substance. She couldn’t repress a smile.
“Your husband, and later the Monarch took the liberty of keeping them in hopes of you one day needing them again.”
She squinted in confusion. “If this is a robotic body why isn’t my eyesight perfect?”
“For the sake of consistency your eyes were adjusted to the prescription of the glasses, I must say, your eyesight is remarkably terrible.”
“Thank the glasses,” she mumbled.
The narrow corridor opened up into a large hangar. The structure was positively enormous, with the ceiling hidden by a cloak of red fog and the far edge obscured by the same haze. Myriad ships crowded the ground while seemingly as many whizzed through the air. Juvinea looked up in amazement; she had a hard time keeping her jaw from dropping.
“How’d you keep the ceiling from falling in?”
They smiled. “The magic of science, come let’s go to my personal ship.”
“You have your own ship?”
“I’m the lead of one of the two branches of the Shalthar hierarchy; of course I get my own ship. It’s modest but it’ll be more than adequate.”
They wove through the tightly knit army of ships until a small sized, somewhat boxy, ship was revealed, it was in remarkably better shape than the others.
Juvinea nodded. “Mmm yes, modest.”
Tash chuckled. “I could have had one of those,” they pointed to a massive flying slab of metal, easily five hundred meters across. “That’s belongs to my equal in the military branch, High Commander Brekka. But… that takes about fifty Shalthar to pilot and I’m rather antisocial. This little beauty takes one to fly and has enough space for all the samples I’d ever need. And…” They slapped one of the twin Vulcan Cannons jutting from the front. “It’s more than capable of dealing with any obstruction.”
Juvinea eyed up the cannons. “Nifty.”
“That’s what I though.” They keyed in a combination on a small pad near the side door.
The door slid open with a quiet hiss and the hum of power began thrumming through the ship as the engines spooled up. Tash slid into the pilot’s seat while Juvinea got into the passenger’s. A complicated array of buttons sprawled before her but Tash’s hand jumped deftly across the panel. The interior lights dimmed as the craft slowly lifted from the ground. With a few taps of the flight stick the craft spun about and sped from the hangar.
The mass of complexes blurred as the little ship sped overhead. Juvinea felt a small sadness well up in her, the city she had once known was little more than dust beneath the Shalthar’s avalanche of destruction.
“I’ve only seen Alcadon in pictures and what few models exist don’t show the whole city. I’m sure the memories of your old home still feel fresh. But that’s why I want to end this; I want to bring things back to how they used to be, this time with everybody being wiser on the other side.”
Juvinea kept her eyes forward as the red mist began to lighten; they were approaching the edge of the Citadel. “That’s what Schultz wanted too, that’s the problem with visionaries like the two of you, the vision rarely ever bridges the generations.”
“We can only try.”
Tash pressed a few more buttons and Juvinea felt herself press further into the cushioned seat as the increase in speed pushed her back.
Tash quickly looked at the small nav screen. “There is a human settlement at the fork of the Shalti River; we can stop there for a while if you want to. It might do you well to be among your own people again.”
She sighed and resisted the temptation. “Let’s just do a flyby; we need to get the Horsemen.”
Tash nodded, understanding. “Very well. It’ll save me time explaining to the Shalthar officials who are stationed there. It’s getting difficult keeping my story straight. We Shalthar weren’t bred to be so overly creative.”
“You’re a scientist.”
“This is a different form of creativity. Science while being both rigid and fluid follows a certain logic, telling stories and lying follows no set guidelines, such blatant freedom is difficult to handle.”
“Soon all of your people will have to learn how to deal with those freedoms, you’re going to have to get used to it.”
He smiled; she was such better conversation than their peers. “Alright we’re coming up on the settlement.” He peered out of the window, a frown dashed across his face. “Something’s going on; I’m taking us in closer.”
Juvinea looked through the window, her eyes widened.
Bolt spoke up, having to almost yell over the sound of the rushing river. “How many of you forgot that towns existed!”
They all raised their hands.
“Alright, I was worried it was just me!”
Wulf pointed down the bank, a timber and stone bridge stretched across the river. “I think that’ll save us quite a bit of time!”
The Indra nodded in agreement and made their way to the structure. As they drew upon it they saw a road of cobbled stones and beaten earth stretching into the grassy plains. Pixia let out a defeated wail; Xypia almost dropped her in surprise.
“If I had my wings I could have flown up and spotted that!”
Bolt squeezed what she hoped was Pixia’s shoulder, she was wound up too tight to really tell. “Don’t blame yourself for things that were out of your control.”
“Please don’t squeeze my ass,” Pixia muttered.
Bolt pulled her hand sharply away. Pestilence, somehow hearing Pixia’s mutter, turned around and glared at her. Bolt looked between Pestilence and Pixia, she tried to say something but she was too flustered. She sighed and resigned herself to a talking to later. She cast a quick glance over at the town; there was a small crowd of humans forming along the bank, following them to the bridge where already a separate crowd had formed.
“Heads up, we have quite the welcoming committee!”
The others cast quick glances over.
Wulf shrugged. “Let’s hope they’re friendly!”
They assembled at the end of the bridge, the crowd at the other end was massive, seemingly the entire populace had gathered. Bolt was fussing over Pixia, getting her back onto her feet.
“We’re a religion here, we need to make a good impression, just a few minutes of suffering and you can go back into your panic attack. You just need to bear it for a little while and we’re home free.”
Pixia nodded as she stood up, stretching her arms and neck.
Wulf’s tone was cautious. “Remember, don’t let your guard down, those two could be anywhere. Try to stay together. We don’t want to get anybody killed.”
They began across the bridge. A ragged line of deities. The sounds of the river seemed to fade as they crossed the midway point of the bridge, and the sounds of the crowd chattering grew in volume. The chattering turned to cheers as the Indra drew closer. They crossed the threshold of the town and were swamped in a wave of joyful humans. Grasping hands reached out, seeking to touch the skin of their gods. Despite their best efforts the group couldn’t get through, they were completely stuck.
The tone of the crowd shifted a commotion at the back drove the attention away from the Indra and onto a new disturbance.
“We’ve got trouble!” called Wall.
A column of at least fifty heavily armed Shalthar streamed through the crowd. Using the butts of their rifles the part the masses they dispelled the group. The crowd around the Indra dispersed, fleeing into nearby buildings and hurrying down alleyways.
A Shalthar, presumably the leader of the squadron called out in broken English. “This town belong to Shalthar, surrender and live!”
The Indra fanned out, even Pixia’s cloud of negativity dispelled at the prospect of thrashing the Shalthar. They carefully put their bags of supplies on the ground. Pestilence stood next to Bolt, her hand reaching for and intertwining with hers. She gave a reassuring squeeze.
Wulf looked along their ragged ranks. “Well… try to keep property damage to a minimum.”
Bolt scoffed. “You do know who you’re talking to right?”
He chuckled. “I said try.”
“Good, ‘cause that’s the best you’ll get.”
Wulf looked at the Shalthar commander and bellowed in response. “We’re gonna come over and kill you now!”
The Shalthar commander took a surprised step back. “Da Boch!” it cried in the language of the Shalthar, it looked back to its troops. “Boch!”
The Shalthar raised their rifles and began firing. The Indra scattered. Bullets scattered and ricocheted across the ground.
Wall bolted straight for the commander; planting his foot into the earth he dislodged a massive paving stone, easily four feet square. The far edge of the massive stone flipped up into his waiting hands; wrapping his fingers around it he hefted it above his head and rushed forward, dozens of bullets bounced from his body. With a yell of exertion he slammed it down on the commander. The ground shook and an explosion of red blossomed from underneath the shattered boulder. The Shalthar on either side of him retreated back, regrouping with the others who were being harried by the other Indra. Wulf and Pixia shot past Wall, going after the left group. Wulf bowled the Shalthar over while Pixia dispatched them with sharp twists of the neck or a stout foot to the spine. Wall rushed to back them up, followed by Anon.
The rest of the group was left to deal with the right group of Shalthar; they were rushing back into one of the alleys hoping to grab the townsfolk to use as human shields. As the first of the Shalthar streamed into the alley they found themselves blocked by Xypia. An aura of rage emanated from him, a tangible white cloud rose from his body as he pushed them back with a flurry of punches and kicks. A long steel sword rattled past him, he looked back and saw a ragged looking youth standing apart from the cowering people.
“Cut them down!” the youth cried.
Xypia leaned down and snagged the sword by the hilt. He gave it a few cursory swings. He nodded, satisfied. Bracing himself he rushed into the knot of Shalthar. As Xypia hacked away at one end of the Shalthar, Pestilence and Bolt chipped away at the other.
Bolt shielded her head from a vicious swing by a Shalthar. “Sweetie I’m about to be violent.” Her voice was frighteningly calm.
“Normally I’d be against it but this time…? Get ‘em!”
Bolt lashed out and dug her hand into the nearest Shalthar’s stomach, her fingers burying into its flesh. She tore it from the group and snapped its spine in a rough bear hug. She pulled the Cutter from its hand and with a scream of rage, threw herself into the fray. Bolt and Xypia slashed and cut their way to the center of the group and turned outwards, creating a devastating windmill of death. Scorn skirted around the edge and into the alley, picking off any Shalthar foolish enough to try and run while Pestilence did the same on the other side.
The Shalthar didn’t last two minutes. Soon the final Shalthar hit the bloody ground with a sickening wet thud. Bolt stuck the Cutter into a crack in the stones, steam rose from her body as she tried to calm herself down, she lashed out and snapped the blade with a vicious kick. Pestilence kept her distance while Bolt simmered. Xypia turned back to the group cowering at the end of the alley. Much like Bolt he stuck his borrowed sword it in a break in the cobbled stones; he nodded appreciatively and gave the youth a thumbs up. The Indra regrouped by the bridge and grabbed their supplies.
Wulf stretched his neck and twisted his back. “Call me crazy but I think we’ve worn out our welcome. The Shalthar probably won’t retaliate against the humans since we did all the damage.”
Pixia scoffed. “That’s if there are any left to report what happened.”
Wall stiffened and pointed down the road, a solitary Shalthar was sprinting away. “Little bastard! I’ll get him!” He broke from the group in pursuit.
“Wait! Wall, we can’t split up!” Wulf rushed after Wall. “Get across the river! I’ll follow you!” he called over his shoulder. “Wall you stubborn bastard! Get back here!” He and Wall disappeared around a corner after the Shalthar.
Pestilence slouched slightly. “Can’t even take his own advice, c’mon no loitering.” She grabbed Wulf’s bag and jogged down the street to the next bridge.
Wulf was thrown from the alleyway, rolling in front of the Indra he was stopped when her smashed into a door, shattering the wood. He was back on his feet immediately. “It’s those shrimpy bastards! Watch yourselves!”
Woe launched itself from the shadows of the alley, for the first time the Indra could get a good look at it. It was short, barely even five feet, and was dark grey in coloration with a plain unadorned body; compared to the others it was rather unremarkable. Its head was unlike any other Indra, it was almost like a separate creature has affixed itself across the facial region, wrapping thick tendrils across the back of the head.
It cocked its head to the side. “Tag… You’re it!” It rushed the group and leapt over them.
It arced gracefully through the air its arms outstretched, its grasping fingers wrapped around the dazed Wulf’s shoulders. It smashed through the door pulling Wulf with it like a ragdoll. A geyser of dust and debris showered the shocked Indra.
“Run! Get out of here!” Wulf’s voice faded as he was pulled deeper into the building, a sickening cracking filled the air.
The Indra took his advice and ran. Woe shot across the street followed by a lighter grey blur that must have been Fear. The two disappeared into another alleyway. The Indra ignored them, they had to get across the bridge and into the open plains where the two had no choice but to stand and fight. The group ducked down as a thick wooden door spun towards them followed by a wicked cackle. They kept going; they couldn’t afford to get stuck in the town. Woe exploded from a nearby building, shrapnel flew into the street, and bowled over Xypia and Pixia. He was quick to get back to his feet but Pixia stayed down, she didn’t have much left and the blow left her unconscious.
Bolt dumped her bag in Pestilence’ arms and turned back to grab Pixia. “We’ve already lost two; we’re not losing one more. C’mon you tall bastard!” She scooped Pixia up, swiftly ducking a passing strike from the blur that was Fear, and sprinted after the others. She realized that due to their height discrepancy she was probably the worst one to try and carry Pixia, her knees kept smacking into Pixia’s rear.
The juddering knocked Pixia into a semblance of wakefulness, her voice was tired. “First you squeeze it, and now you’re kicking it… Leave my ass alone Bolt or I’m telling your girlfriend.”
Bolt smirked internally. “I’ll tell your wife that you let me, we’ll see who lives longer.”
There was a familiar sensation of strong fingers wrapping around Bolt’s ankles. She knew what was about to happen.
“Sorry!” she yelled as she threw Pixia.
The grip tightened painfully and suddenly Bolt was being dragged down an alleyway, tall buildings rose up on either side of her. She could hear the excited chittering of Woe, or was it Fear, Bolt didn’t particularly care. She lashed out with her legs, breaking free of the stout grip and making a glancing blow on the thing’s midsection. It let out a grunt of pain and its grip on her other ankle loosened; with another sharp movement she was free.
She scrambled to her feet. She wished she had a mouth so she could spit dramatically. “You picked the wrong Indra, fool!”
Fear stood at the end of the alleyway, partially obscured by the deep shadows. It stared at her, head crooked, a guttural trilling emanating from it. A blast of wind blew down the alley almost knocking Bolt down, the other didn’t even shift.
“Friends…” it whined.
Bolt looked up, a small Shalthar ship was hovering at the entrance to the alley, it was smaller than any of the others Bolt had seen, it could easily squeeze down the corridor with them.
A voice crackled over the loudhailer, a woman’s voice, a distressingly familiar woman’s voice. “Hit the deck!”
Bolt dropped as the front mounted guns on the ship spun to life sending a stream of near molten lead showering into Fear’s chest. It squealed in pain and surprise and launched itself through the wall behind it. The guns slowed to a stop and the craft sharply pulled up and sped across the town and into the sea of grass.
Bolt rushed back into the street, watching the craft fly off; vague memories sprang to the surface. She shook her head, pushing the thoughts to the back of her mind; she had bigger things to worry about. She sprinted down the street, the others had already crossed the bridge and were waiting, the towering shape of Wall standing amongst them, Wulf was noticeably absent. Heavy footfalls drew up behind her, she threw a glance and it was Wulf desperately sprinting up behind her.
“Run, run, run, run, run,” he was yelling, visceral fear tainting his voice, he blitzed past Bolt.
As he passed her by she saw him leaving black footprints, her gaze drew higher, his entire back was torn open and streaming his black blood down his legs. His feet caught on the slight lip of the bridge and he fell heavily, he gasped in terror as he scrabbled to his feet and kept up his wild sprint. He didn’t stop running when he got to the others; he kept going, into the plains.
Bolt poured on the speed, if whatever they did to Wulf had him that scared she didn’t want to stick around and experience it herself. Her feet pounded across the bridge, Pestilence lobbed her bag into her arms and she kept running past the others, after Wulf. The others fell in behind her, sprinting into the flat, grassy, plains.
After what would be classified as a generous amount of coaxing, the Indra were finally convinced to vacate Ellie’s psyche. Ghost was blackout drunk, Lethe was on the verge of tears, Kid was mostly unconscious, and Ari was chattering incessantly, Cass was just confused. Mithra sat on the futon in mild awe as the Indra filed from the doorway to the rest of the complex. Both Ghost and Kid, who decided to join them after her nap, were being carried by Katrine and Vee.
“Did I miss the party?” she asked as Ghost was hefted onto the futon beside her, she absolutely reeked.
Cass pursed her lips as she looked down at Ghost. “A party of one, it seems she went around and hid bottles of liquor throughout the entire area.”
Katrine huffed in mild annoyance. “I could have sworn I found them all.”
Cass shook her head and rolled her eyes. “I’m going to have to give her a stern talking to regarding her alcohol intake; I don’t care how much of a fun drunk she is.”
Vee readjusted her hold on Kid as she began to wake up. “At least it was only the hard stuff; you don’t want to see her red wine drunk.”
Cass’ face went slack. “She has different personalities based on the alcohol type?”
Lethe nodded, he looked into the far distance as he remembered. “Vodka Ghost is the most fun, red wine Ghost is scary, that’s a whole day gone right there.”
Vee couldn’t hold onto Kid much longer she was squirming too much. She began slapping at Vee’s head.
“Gah, what the heck Kid!?” She let go of Kid’s legs as she tried to protect her head.
Kid fell back from her shoulders and slammed into the ground headfirst. All attention turned to her. She looked ridiculous, body and legs stuck vertically, swaying in the air. She slowly keeled back and the rest of her finally hit the ground. She laid there silently.
“I think she fell asleep again.” Mithra got up from the futon and sat down beside Kid.
The Indra nodded and began making their ways to the door.
Ari called back. “I’m gonna get started, just to get some practice in.” She looked over at the glowering Medusa. “You feel free to explore on your own volition.
“I intend to,” Medusa spat, she wasn’t at all enamored with Katrine’s ideas of comfortable and cozy.
Lethe dragged Ghost through the door while muttering various things about how heavy she was. Soon only Cass, Vee, Mithra and Katrine were still in the apartment. Katrine began rifling around in the kitchen and Vee settled on the futon and let her head fall back.
Mithra stroked the back of Kid’s head, and smiled sadly, such a weird little girl.
Cass sighed. “Oh Kid, why did you have to be the way you are?”
Mithra looked over.
“She’s too pure for this world, for what she was forced to do under the ever watchful eye of the military. Of all of my children she is probably the least equipped for what she did.”
“She was a soldier like the rest of them?”
“Forced to kill, forced to murder noncombatants, they made her and all of my children into war criminals. She used to be so happy, so carefree in the beginning. Slowly she became more and more cynical, angrier, as her innocence was whittled away. Then she snapped. All of my children snapped, they are too human for their own good.”
Cass chuckled. “All of my kids are crazy to an extent, even the ones who never saw combat felt it later in life. You’ll feel it too, if you live long enough. That’s the problem with living so long it eventually becomes too much.”
“You all hide it very well.”
“Time as made actors of us all, bar one.” She looked down at Kid.
Kid shuddered slightly; the two could hear a small sniffle. She curled up, burying her head in her knees.
“I’m so tired,” she whispered through her sobs.
Katrine stopped clattering in the kitchen and Vee perked up slightly.
Cass moved closer to Kid, she began stroking her side reassuringly. “Why are you tired Kid?” Her tone was quiet.
“I’m going to die,” she whispered, dread filled her voice as she hid her face deeper.
Cass kept her tone quiet and level, a silky purr. “Oh, no Kid we aren’t going to let that happen, it will be alright, you have us here to protect you.”
Kid shot to her feet, pushing away Cass and Mithra. “No! You don’t understand! I’m tired! I want it! Death, to finally stop feeling this! To stop being someone I’m not.” She shuddered slightly, her eyes filled with fear. “This is not me! It’s not me!” The shuddering was more violent. She pointed at Katrine and almost screamed, “Don’t tell them! Don’t say a word!” Kid’s face went slack and her defensive stance loosened. She stood swaying slightly.
The four cautiously approached her, she didn’t move. They tossed glances at Katrine eyes asking silent questions. She simply shrugged and shook her head in response. Kid looked up, tears still wetting the edges of her eyes but her entire demeanor changed. She giggled and pointed at them and rushed through them.
“Woo!” she did a flying somersault through the open door.
The four all exchanged glances.
Cass sighed. “Laverne was right, she does have multiple personalities. And I was too stubborn to listen.”
Mithra still had her eyes on the door. “So now we have Kid and morbidly depressed suicidal Kid.”
“Can you fix her?”
Cass shook her head. “There’s nothing to fix, everything that’s happening is taking place on a sliver of rock the size of your fingernail. I can’t do anything.”
Mithra sighed. “It looks like our responsibilities have grown; now we have to make sure Kid doesn’t go and get herself killed.”
“C’mon, I get the feeling it’s gonna be a full-time job and we’re already slacking.” Cass jogged to the door followed by Mithra.
Silence descended on the apartment.
Vee turned to Katrine her eyes narrowing. “Spit it out.”
Katrine turned around and made her way back to her snack in the kitchen. “I know just as much as you do, nothing.” She picked up a knife and continued sawing away at a loaf of bread, she intended on constructing a monster sandwich.
“That was a deliberate point, she looked right at you. We agreed Katrine, no secrets, not now, not ever.”
She slammed the knife down on the counter. “I don’t know anything! I’m just as confused as you!”
Vee took a step back, her eyes wide.
Katrine sighed. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me.”
Vee shook her head. “No it was rude of me.” She made her way to the back door and left the apartment, she closed the door quietly behind her.
Katrine sighed and went back to making her sandwich. She threw the pile of ingredients onto a plate and went to the closet. She quietly slid the door open and shifted aside a large amount of clutter. Set into the floor was a small door, she opened it carefully. The light from the apartment spilled into the small secret room. It was handsomely furnished with all the amenities one would need to live comfortably. Somebody was sitting on the bed watching Ellie’s vision on a small screen recessed into the wall.
Closing the closet door behind her, Katrine lowered her voice to a harsh whisper as she dropped down. “What was that? You almost gave us away?”
The small figure shifted uncomfortably. “I was afraid, I’m afraid every time I regain control, I never know when I’ll lose it again.”
Katrine placed the sandwich on the table by the bed. “So at the end?”
Kid turned around to look at Katrine. “No, it wasn’t me… that was somebody else. That’s the one who will kill me.” She sniffed and covered her nose. “You didn’t put tomato on that did you?”
“Wulf! Slow down!” Bolt sprinted after Wulf.
He had kept up his dead sprint for almost ten miles but he was finally beginning to flag, the others were specks in the distance. Bolt was slowly gaining ground. Fifty feet turned to forty then thirty; soon he was in grabbing distance. He might be slowing but he was still four hundred pounds of speeding muscle. She bit the bullet and braced herself. Coming up behind him she wrapped her arms around his waist and wedged her legs in between his, snarling up his rhythm. His legs went out and he slammed into the ground like a quarter ton boulder, carving a trench across the grassy earth. She kept herself wrapped around him, keeping him from getting back up and starting again.
She tightened her grip as he kept struggling. “C’mon buddy, you’re pulling an Ellie, calm down. They’re gone, they can’t hurt you anymore, you’re safe. Let’s just sit here a while and wait for the others, we’ll patch you up and we can take a nice relaxing walk.” Wulf’s struggling was weakening. “See? That’s it. Let that fright just drain away, there’s nothing to be afraid of out here, you’re safe bud.”
Wulf finally relaxed.
Bolt sighed. “Why am I becoming the responsible one?” She didn’t let go of Wulf, she didn’t want to risk it until the others arrived. She let her mind wander. She thought back to the alley with the ship. The voice, it sounded just like Marge but the inflection was different, she sounded human. She chuckled bitterly, “I think we’re haunted bud, I could have sworn Juvinea Fitsch just saved my life.”
“That’s impossible,” Wulf muttered.
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Hey! Where’d you go!?” Pestilence’ voice rolled across the plains.
“Over here!” Bolt yelled in response, not loosening her hold.
Wulf winced slightly.
She could hear pounding footsteps drawing closer. There was a cry of alarm as they spotted her and Wulf. The rattling and clanking of their equipment grew in volume. She couldn’t really see anything, her head was sandwiched between the ground and Wulf’s back so she assumed they were crowding around her in typical Indra fashion.
“I assume you’re all crowded around so I’m gonna let go, don’t let him try to get away.” She let her hold fall away and Wulf was hauled to his feet.
Pestilence crouched over her. “I’m starting to think you have other interests besides me. Pixia and now Wulf?”
Bolt reached out, trying to grab her but she danced away. “C’mere I’m gonna get ya.”
Pestilence crossed her arms and huffed dramatically. “No, you can’t win me back.”
Bolt pushed herself into a sitting position and was pulled to her feet by Xypia. “What? Do I have to tackle you and grab your ass to win your affection back?”
Pestilence maintained her pose. “It would be nice to be acknowledged every once in a while.”
This is gonna be embarrassing. Bolt launched at Pestilence who squawked in dismay as she was knocked to the ground. “Oh you mean like this? You want to be acknowledged like this?” Bolt brandished her fingernails and began dancing them across Pestilence’ back. She squirmed and giggled as Bolt kept tickling.
The others watched awkwardly as the two play wrestled on the ground. Wall gave Wulf a nudge in the side, Wulf responded with a reaching slap to the back of the head.
Scorn made the sound of clearing his throat as the two kept rolling on the ground, they didn’t seem to hear him. He cleared his throat again but more aggressively. The two froze and looked up at him, he walked over to their bags and picked them up, he walked back over and dropped them on the two.
“As touching as this moment is, we have very pressing matters that need resolving.”
Bolt raised a finger. “Keep that up mister and you’re living in the basement.”
Scorn rolled his head in annoyance and walked off.
Bolt got back to her feet, pulling Pestilence up with her. “There o darling, o light and guide of my life… was that enough acknowledgement for you?”
Pestilence dusted herself off. “Barely.”
Bolt tried to put as much sass as possible into her reply. “Well… you’ll have to suffer off of those scraps for the time being, I am done with you until our business in the Citadel is concluded.” She turned around and followed Scorn.
Pestilence looked up. “Oi… Wait…” She jogged after Bolt
Pixia rubbed at her temples. “There she goes, the stolid immovable rock, tickle her for a few seconds and she’s putty in your hands.” She looked over at Anon. “D’you and Ari ever have tickle battles?”
Anon rubbed the back of his neck. “Eh… I don’t want to talk about that.” He jogged away leaving Pixia with Xypia.
She felt an air of expectance emanating from him.
She sighed. “I hate to snub you on this one but we have to get going, comedy must wait!” She broke into a print to catch up with the others.
Xypia slouched and followed her.
Cass was shocked, absolutely stunned, the others were as well. As they reemerged from Ellie they were all witness to the totally bizarre event.
“Should we wake her?” Mithra whispered. “That can’t be healthy.”
Cass shook her head; she was as taken as the others. “I think we should savor the moment, she almost looks human.”
Marge was curled up around the fire, apparently powered down, the baby snuggled happily in her cradling arms. There was a tiny smile on both of their faces.
Ghost shook her head. “They’re both despicable, but I’ll admit to the cuteness of the situation.”
Laverne crept up behind Lethe and tapped him on the shoulder. “C’mon we need to make some more biomass, Kid got snubbed when Mithra,” his eyes shot over to the hardened slab of grey paste, “and I think we ought to finish the job.”
Lethe nodded and followed Laverne to the small pile of empty sacks. Each filled their arms and padded silently into the tall grass.
Mithra was absolutely engrossed; she watched a thin line of droll roll down the baby’s face and drip onto Marge’s shirt. She flicked her gaze up to Marge’s face, a near identical line of droll emerged from her slack mouth. Before she could go on watching the inhuman robot engage in such human activities as drooling, Mithra felt a massive hand cup her shoulder and gently pull her away. She looked over and saw Ellie quietly gesturing for her to follow. Mithra nodded and crept after Ellie. They stopped near the ship.
Ellie punched her open palm. “We must spar.”
Mithra slouched. “Must we?”
Ellie nodded on long slow nod. “Yes.”
Mithra flicked at her arm. “I’m full of staples.”
Mithra shrugged pleadingly. “I’m not at a hundred percent.”
She shook her head. “Don’t care.”
Mithra slowly backed up, she got the feeling a sudden swing was coming her way. “Quite the tonal shift from the caring gentle child in your head.”
Ellie took a step forward. “I’m surprisingly violent.”
“Clearly. Aren’t you worried about Marge and the baby?”
Ellie tiled her head from side to side. “Marge no, baby yes… We’re keeping this quiet.”
Mithra’s nonexistent stomach dropped. “Joy.”
Ellie lashed out with the crutch landing a glancing blow in Mithra’s side. Mithra winced slightly.
“Remember… no screaming.” Ari added helpfully.
Mithra danced back, avoiding the swinging crutch. She pointed at Ellie, outraged. “Look, screaming is the most logical thing to do when you’re being assaulted by an eight foot death machine like her.”
Ellie’s voice dripped with malevolence. “No one will come to save you.”
“Thanks for the confidence boost Ellie.” Mithra stuck her middle finger up at her.
Ellie’s shoulders dropped. “Well that’s just rude!” she whisper-yelled.
“You assaulted me.”
“Ah, that’s right… let’s continue.” Ellie shot forward.
Mithra ducked under the crutch, rolling beneath Ellie’s leg. She may not be as strong but she had the advantage of speed and agility.
Mithra didn’t have time to contemplate what the scoff meant as a massive foot sped toward her. She leaned to the side, letting the kick skim past her. She twisted to the side and stuck out her elbow, she dug her feet into the ground, she had to end it quickly or Ellie would wear her down. She felt Ellie’s stomach wrap around her elbow. She suddenly found herself flying away from the fight; her decisive blow wasn’t as decisive as she thought. Ellie weighed too much to be taken down with a hit like that.
Mithra jumped to her feet and dusted herself off. “I’m feeling that this fight is rather one-sided.”
“It was a clever move but I’ve seen it too many times before. It was a particular favorite of Kid.”
“Ellie rarely ever won against Kid… I wonder why?”
Mithra sighed. “Alright, let’s get serious.” She pulled off her shirt, revealing her crisscrossing stitches. She wadded it up in her hand and kept hold of it.
“Hmm…” Ellie fell back into a loose defensive stance.
Mithra set forward at a casual trot, almost skipping toward Ellie, she felt compelled to whistle. She couldn’t hide the silly grin on her face.
Ellie slumped. “Look Mithra we have to take this at least a bit seriousl—.” Ellie didn’t get to finish.
At Ellie’s slouch Mithra’s grin hardened into one of pure malice. She dropped her shirt letting it flow loosely. She snatched it from the air as she leapt onto Ellie’s shoulders wrapping her legs around her neck. The shirt was wrapped around Ellie’s head and Mithra quickly slid down her chest, digging her fingers in to halt the pull of gravity. Ellie was taken off guard, one arm shot to her head to tear away the shirt while the other went to bat away Mithra. Mithra watched the hand shoot toward her she smiled and dropped lower reaching for the grasping hand. She wrapped her fingers around it and let it carry her away. She wrapped herself around Ellie’s arm and began shimmying up it toward her object of focus. She wrapped her hands around the crutch and prepared to pull it out from Ellie’s armpit. She ducked as a wild swing from Ellie’s opposite arm nearly took her head off. The shirt was off and Ellie could finally see what Mithra was trying to do. Mithra braced herself and pushed away, tearing the crutch from Ellie while pushing her forward. Ellie fell to her knees as she lost her balance and Mithra came to a graceful stop a short distance away, crutch in hand.
She stuck it into the ground. “Let’s see how you do without this.”
“Crafty child, but I’m not so helpless as you think.”
Mithra shot forward, putting on as much speed as she could as she ran headlong at Ellie. Ellie turned to the side, minimizing her profile as she wound up for a hard strike at Mithra. Mithra twisted to the side, wrapping around Ellie’s punch and dug her fingers into her side. Ellie winced as Mithra’s claws dug into her flesh. Mithra kept up her momentum, swinging in a horizontal ark she pivoted to Ellie’s back. Bending her stomach she managed to plant her feet in Ellie’s lower back. She let herself go back into a crouch and, using Ellie’s back as a springboard, launched back to relative safety.
Ellie fell to her knees again, she grunted as she regained her footing. “Alright… I’ll admit… I haven’t seen that one before. Good thinking. I would prefer if you kept the maiming to a minimum though.”
Mithra didn’t bother with a response, she simply shot forward again. Time to change the strategy; Ellie was expecting something fast and clever, time to avert expectations. Ellie’s stance was loose and open; she was taken somewhat off guard with Mithra’s blatant hostility. It was no issue to position herself directly to Ellie’s front; she was expecting an attack to the side. Mithra planted her feet and wound up for a punch. She was blasted with a gust of wind, her ears filled with the roar of a thunderstorm and suddenly Ellie was ten feet away.
“You spooked her, I can’t remember the last time she used the jets.”
Mithra grunted, she was too focused to listen. “Well there’s goes agility.”
She sprinted forward again. Ellie’s movements seemed to change, her blows were deflective she never tried to move forward or take the advantage. Mithra had the feeling it was an act.
“Time to die!” Mithra screamed.
“Wait Hol’ up.” Ellie tried to say.
Mithra crouched down, putting as much power behind her leap as possible. She shot toward Ellie like a missile.
Be strong my spine.
Mithra felt her head burrow into Ellie’s stomach, it felt like her neck was being crushed but she kept it straight.
Ellie shot backwards into the pile of shredded metal taken from the ship, there was a resounding clang as she tumbled through it.
Mithra straightened up and beat her chest in amazement that that actually worked. “Mithra smash aggressive giant!”
She ran after her, snagging a large flat chunk of the outer hull as she went. Ellie was floundering in the new loose terrain. Mithra whipped the chunk of metal at her; it spun through the air like a massive sawblade. Ellie gave up trying to stand and whipped out the sword. She batted the Frisbee of death out of the air. Mithra slung another one, and another. Grabbing a long chunk of pipe Mithra rushed Ellie. She just couldn’t get back to her foot; she kept slipping on the sifting mass of metal. Mithra brought the pipe down in what would have been a crushing blow to the head but her vision was suddenly enveloped by a massive hand.
Mithra’s momentum vanished, she was held slack by Ellie’s enormous hand. Ellie slowly got to her foot, using the sword as a crutch. She made her way over to the edge of the metal pile, Mithra was struggling wildly.
“Mithra, that’s enough!”
Mithra wasn’t listening she wanted to hit things some more.
“Mithra, the sparring is over!”
The words went in one ear and out the other.
Ellie sighed and whipped Mithra into the ground. She smashed headfirst into the soft earth with a slap. She tried to push herself from the dirt but a massive weight kept her pressed down. Ellie settled her bulk on Mithra’s back, keeping her pinned down.
“I’m gonna sit here until you calm down. Sheesh kid, for someone so sheltered you really are quite violent.”
“Don’t temp me!”
“I already did and we saw how that worked out.” She threw a glance over to the others, they were all staring, she waved.
Kid shambled over and sat down next to Ellie, she poked Mithra’s exposed head. “Goofy child.”
Mithra snapped at Kid’s fingers, she squealed in delight and ran off.
It was Cass’ turn to settle next to Ellie, she had studied the fight closely.
“You’re quite creative, but you rely too much on luck, you need to be able to knock your opponents down in a way that isn’t quite so self destructive. Ellie probably wasn’t the best partner for your sparring… too heavy. If we ever get the chance you should probably try fighting those in the middle weight area. Anon or Ghost would pose a wonderful challenge, if you’re feeling brave you could try Bolt.”
Ellie grunted. “Probably best if you worked in a team, probably coupled with Xypia. He’s got the muscles but he can’t be creative to save his life.”
Laverne suddenly appeared beside the three. “I can attest to that.”
Cass pushed him away. “We’re not going to talk about that, Bolt filled me in before she left and I don’t think I can forgive you for that one.”
“He attacked me in my office… and destroyed my window.”
“You broke his neck!”
“I got a little heated.” He looked down, his eyes widened momentarily. “Oh, hey Mithra, what are you doing down there?”
“Relaxing,” she mumbled.
“Good for you.” He stood up and walked back to Lethe, the two made their way into the ship.
A low buzzing rolled across the landscape, everybody turned to look at the approaching ship.
Laverne narrowed his eyes. “It’s Shalthar… but it’s tiny.”
Marge had been woken from her nap by the scuffle. She looked up at the approaching ship. He scoffed. “I’d recognize that dumpy little ship anywhere. It’s my boy Tash, the ever so eccentric head of the science and research division in the Citadel.”
Kid hefted the shard of pipe Mithra was going to bury in Ellie’s head. “Want me to knock it down?”
Surprising everyone, it was actually Marge who spoke up. “Nah, don’t bother. They’re harmless, probably the only Shalthar that could be quantified as neutral, surprisingly good conversationalist.” She went back to focusing on the baby.
Kid dropped the pipe with a clatter. “Aww.”
Juvinea stared at the motley group scattered by the wreck of the ship. “Oh, there are the rest of them; I wonder what they’re doing back here.”
Tash, surprisingly, had an answer. “Unfortunately that is partially your fault. You had some… teething troubles with your new body. The Corcus beasts were rather too loud for your liking so the Monarch sent them away… to attack the Indra.”
“Were any of them hurt?”
Tash nodded silently.
She sighed and looked out over the widening scope of the salt flats. “Well, I hope I’ll get to apologize to them in person.”
“That is a likely prospect. But right now we have to focus on our own little mission.”
They sat in silence as the ship skimmed over the surface of the salt flats. Juvinea’s mind was aflutter; more memories were spinning through her brain, memories of the Indra, memories of her sister.
“I miss them… we should have set down,” she finally said.
Tash grunted. “It’s for the best that we didn’t, it would only make complicated a rather simple plan, and besides, one of the Monarch’s Indra is liable to be among them. Back in the town, the grey Indra you had me fire upon, that was one of them.”
“It was grotesque.”
Tash’s voice was split with both admiration and disgust. “One of three successful attempts with the IL group. They are like your Indra with the humanity bled out of them, replaced with an unquenchable bloodlust. I’ve read the reports of their abilities… they are virtually unstoppable. The only reason your friends are alive is because the Monarch has decreed it, otherwise they’d all be destroyed.”
“I assume you have some miraculous way of destroying them whilst keeping all of my friends alive?”
Tash frowned and shook their head. “The only way I can think of is to directly destroy the board but to get to it is impossible.”
“So we’re doomed to failure?”
They shook their head. “No, the Monarch can be destroyed, he is the head of this snake, without it everything will crumble. Without orders the IL’s will likely shut down or simply go insane.”
A pillar of smoke rose over the horizon.
Tash gritted their teeth. “There it is, let’s hope the pods weren’t damaged.”
They circled the smoldering wreckage for a short while, searching for a safe place to settle down. The nearby ground was pocked and scarred with large craters making landing difficult.
“This looks depressingly familiar,” Juvinea sighed. “Everywhere they go they leave a trail of craters and fire.”
The small ship slowly descended, the salt crust crunched under it, it settled slightly. Tash flicked off their safety harness and slid from the pilot’s seat. They groaned slightly as they stretched their back.
There were a few quiet pops from their spine, they groaned in satisfaction. “If I may envy one part of your body Missus Fitsch, it’s that you’ll never get stiff.”
She smiled slightly and torqued her neck to the left, a series of sickening cracks rebounded through the cabin. “Amateur,” she smiled as she passed by the revolted Tash. “And that was just the right side,” she said as she scanned the desolate landscape.
“Your point has been made.” Tash jumped out of the cabin after her.
She breathed in deeply. “Hmm, I forgot how flavorful the air could be, I think I’ve also developed hypertension.”
“The Shalthar rarely live long enough to develop issues of the heart.”
“I’d almost say you’re lucky, salty foods made my world go ‘round.”
Tash pointed to a large smoldering hole, the entrance to the Horsemen’s chamber. “Enough about heart disease, we have things that need doing.”
She ran her hand through her hair. “Sorry, I can’t help but feel rather distracted.”
Tash set off at a leisurely pace. “Well, you have been dead for a very long time; it’s understandable that you’re having difficulties. I must say, your stability is remarkable, by this point in time I had expected multiple things to have gone wrong.”
She stomped her foot, breaking through the crust. “Well now that you said it something’s guaranteed to go wrong. Don’t you know the rule?”
Tash stopped and looked at her. “Rule?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you never remark on how something was so easy or that something wasn’t so hard, or that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. Every time somebody says that everything goes wrong.”
“You’ve witnessed this?” Tash was finding themselves genuinely interested.
She nodded her head. “Sometimes it takes a few minutes for karma to kick in but everything always winds up worse in the end.” She went to take a step forward but as she neglected to notice earlier her foot was rather lodged in the salt crust.
She seemed to keel over in slow motion a defeated look on her face; she quickly whipped her glasses from her face. Tash could swear they heard her sigh before she hit the ground.
Not even bothering to get up she yelled into the ground. “As I was saying!” She held her arm up for emphasis.
Tash hauled her up. “I think I’m beginning to understand this rule. Perhaps it would be best if we conclude our business quickly and leave this unlucky place.”
“A wonderful thought.”
The two drew up upon a crater far larger than the rest; it was obvious that the Shalthar intentionally bombed the area.
Tash knelt beside the hole. “Impressive display of incompetence. If Brekka got their hands on whoever did this…” They dropped down, kicking aside the small pile of rubble that partially blocked to tunnel opening.
Juvinea dropped down beside them. She was taken aback by the lighting strung across the wall of the tunnel. “Hmm, looks rather lived-in.” She followed Tash down the corridor.
It opened out into a large rough-hewn room. Though the cryopods dominated the room, Juvinea was more taken with the table and chairs. She wondered silently to herself what sort of steps had to be taken to get something like those in the middle of a desert. Tash was fiddling around with the cryopod controls; they pressed several buttons and flicked a switch. The sounds of the generators spooling down filled the room. The pods hissed at the doors opened, thick cloudy vapor filled the room. Juvinea felt her skin ripple with goosebumps as the wave of vapor rolled over her.
She took a shuddering breath. “They always had a flare for the dramatic. Watch they’re gonna suddenly appear as the mist clears even though they had ample time to crawl from the pod and pose like statues.”
There was a small snort from the mist. “We’ve been found out brother.” It was a deep male voice tinted with humor.
Another male voice responded, though slightly higher pitched than the other’s. “Hmm, indeed, but by whom have we been found out by?”
A third voice that could have been a high pitched man or low pitched woman responded entirely monotonously. “All options are improbable.”
Three silhouettes aligned in the mist, one bulky, one tall, and the other somewhere in between.
Juvinea crossed her arms and began tapping her foot loudly. “Cut the shit you three, without Pestilence here the overall tone is incredibly bland.”
The bulky silhouette slouched. “She’s right y’know… Where is Pestilence anyway?”
Tash stepped forward. “That is a very long, very convoluted story.”
Juvinea kept her arms crossed. “You three are gonna have to get real cool with a lot of shit really quickly. Let’s start with the easiest one shall we?” She inhaled deeply. “It’s me Juvinea.”
All three started slightly, the monotonous voice spoke. “That is the least probable answer to this situation.”
The tall one stepped from the mist, Death. He stared down at her, the light reflecting slightly from his jet black body. “If you are Juvinea Fitsch, a woman whom we know to be dead and gone, then prove it. Say it… the phrase we all agreed upon.”
Her mouth flapped open a few times as she tried to remember that specific conversation. Her stomach dropped as she remembered. “Do I really have to say it? It’s so stupid.”
Tash looked at her, entirely confused.
Death leaned down; he was joined by War and Famine who flanked him. “If you are Juvinea you will say it.”
She pursed her lips. “Why did I let Kid pick the phrase?” She sighed and recited monotonously, “It’s me motherfucker, now get out of my way before I malice you with a shoehorn.”
War basically collapsed laughing while Death and Famine stepped back in relative surprise. None of them actually expected her to remember. Tash simply shook their head they turned about and settled at the table. It was time to wrangle the Indra.
“War, Famine, and Death, three of the Four Horsemen, or as the records seemed to call you ‘The Three Amigos’. I am Tash a member of the Shalthar race and I desperately need your help to free my people.”
The three walked over, Death settled in the stool opposite Tash while Famine and War stood.
“How may we be of service?”
Tash stared intently at Death. “As Missus Fitsch said earlier, you will need to come to terms with some things in a rather short span of time.” They juggled their words again, trying to think of the least offensive way of saying things. “Unfortunately… your past actions in the city of Alcadon have led to a… domino effect that has led to the world becoming subjugated to my people and their master.”
The three stayed still; slowly War’s hand stretched out and held his brother’s shoulder. “Go on.”
Tash explained as best he could the Monarch coming to power and the cycles of the Shalthar, Marge’s involvement and the ancient research that could cure the Shalthar.
“Things have grown complicated,” Tash continued, “as we will be allied partially with an old enemy of yours. Laverne T. Schultz also seeks to destroy the Monarch, but he seeks the destruction of the Shalthar by proxy, he is ignorant of the research.”
Death’s fingers sunk into the table as his rage grew. War’s grip firmed as well, digging into Death’s shoulder.
“Calm, brother, listen.”
Tash cleared their throat. “I know of your animosity towards Schultz, while the nuances are lost to time I can still understand your feelings. We still need his help though, he has revived and located the rest of your brethren and they are all working toward the Citadel as we speak. His assistance will be invaluable. Please, I need your help, I can’t do it alone.”
The three were silent, Death looked away, studying the table. Tash’s face fell, he pushed the stool back, ready to leave.
“A pickle…” Death muttered.
“A fine pickle indeed, brother, do you think you can quash your feelings for Schultz to carry this out?” War kept his hand on Death’s shoulder.
Death sighed. “My hatred for Schultz is not something I will readily throw away, but I cannot sit idly by while people suffer from my past actions. I will help you, but if I meet Schultz then I make you no promises as to my conduct.”
“And that’s why I’m here.” War sounded tired. “One day I’m going to have to retire from being your surrogate conscience.”
Famine was silent for a moment. “Normally this is when our sister would say something either witty or stupid; I am not quite prepared for that absence.”
Tash stood up. “From what little intel I could glean from the military she was found here with Bolt, we are unsure how long she’s been out but considering the surroundings it’s been rather a while.”
Death looked over at War. “You don’t think?”
Juvinea sighed. “Just face it you guys, she’s a raging lesbian. You saw that clear enough when she met Ari.”
Famine spoke. “I don’t think it’s that fact that has them so confused, it’s that she would enter into a relationship with Bolt. Their personalities are wildly incompatible.”
“Perhaps not as incompatible as you think, now c’mon let’s go bust some heads.” Juvinea jogged from the chamber followed closely by Tash.
The three all exchanged glances and followed her out. They watched, perplexed, as she effortlessly leapt from the smoking hole. She pulled Tash up and waited for the others. She poked her head down and stuck out her tongue at them as they approached. She held out her hand offering her assistance. They exchanged glances, no words needed to be said, War stepped forward and took her hand. She basically tore him from the hole; he went flying several meters before landing on his feet, breaking through the salt. She snagged Death and Famine and pulled them from the hole with the same amount of gusto.
She beat her chest in mock masculinity. “How the turns have tabled! I am now more powerful than you could ever imagine!”
“Robotic, organic mind in a mechanical body.” Tash pointed out helpfully.
She wilted. “Well you just took the mystery out of it, we were gonna have a dynamic sparring moment where they debate whether or not they can trust me and I have an impassioned speech.”
Tash’s face went slack; they struggled to understand why she would want to do something like that. “Well, you can still do that.”
Juvinea waved him away. “Nope the moment’s gone, let’s just get out of here the salt is making me feel itchy.”
The three watched her pass them by looking grouchy.
Famine leaned over and looked at the others. “I do believe she is stronger than any of us.”
Tash stood next to them and watched her wade through the salt. “If I may appropriate an ancient figure of speech… She’s like Laverne T. Schultz on steroids.”
The all leaned to look at Tash.
War pointed a finger at Juvinea who had fallen over in the salt. “You’re saying that a woman as naturally clumsy as her is stronger than me?”
“A closer approximation of raw strength would probably be Wall. I have electronically limited her so that she cannot be overtly destructive but she can more than hold her own.”
Death scoffed. “Technology is incredible.” He made his way after Juvinea keeping to her deep footprints.
“Alright Kid, how do you feel?” Cass leaned back as she pulled the tube from the small cut in Kid’s side.
Feeding Kid the biomass had been disastrous; she simply refused to sit still. Finally with the help of Ellie and the recently sobered up Ghost they held her limbs down while Lethe sat on her. Even injured, Kid was a force to be reckoned with.
“You will perish!” Kid roared, “My strength is mightier than the ocean!” She squirmed viciously nearly dislodging Lethe.
He sighed. “I get the feeling I’ll be stuck here for a while.”
Cass pantomimed looking at a wristwatch. “Give her fifteen seconds.”
He looked at Cass. “Until what?” He was rocked as Kid bucked her legs.
Cass began dropping fingers. “…two… one…” she pointed at Kid.
Muffled snoring wafted up from beneath Lethe’s backside, Kid went completely limp.
Cass spread her arms rather smugly. “I still got it.”
The three tentatively let go of Kid, she stayed where she was completely dead to the world.
Laverne shrugged. “Well that’s it, there is now officially nothing stopping us from following the others.”
“Joy,” Mithra said sarcastically, she was still in a rather sour mood after Ellie broke her groove in sparring.
Cass scanned the group. “Alright, division of labor. Ghost you carry Kid, Ellie you’re on standby if Lethe gets knocked out. And then there’s you…” Cass turned to look at Marge who had been minding her own business with the baby.
Marge made a little pouty face at the baby as it began fussing. “You’ve already eaten three times today, what the hell you little gremlin.” She bounced it carefully, her lip began to curl. “You just shat in my arms didn’t you.”
The baby giggled in response and wriggled happily.
She sighed in defeat. “You just like to see me suffer, don’t you?” She got up in pursuit of a fresh diaper.
“Hmm.” Laverne stood next to Cass, marveling at Marge. “I do believe she’s taken to it… What should we do?”
Cass sighed; she really didn’t want to have to do it. “There’s a human settlement at the fork of the Shalti River, we can leave her and the baby there.”
He looked sharply at her, astounded that she’d even suggest something like that. “But she’ll be invaluable for taking down the systems.”
She nodded. “Yes, she will, perhaps we can see about finding a nursemaid, but…”
Marge recoiled as she opened the diaper. “Child…! Perhaps I need to feed you less.”
“She caught feelings, and all it took was somebody else’s baby.” She chuckled as she remembered how vehemently Marge had been against that very thing.
Laverne scoffed. “Well, if we must then I think it would be best if we went about it tactfully.
Dusk fell on the town on the fork, life was just beginning to return to normal after the Old Gods paid their destructive visit. Though the light was failing efforts to repair the buildings was still headily underway, they would work by candlelight if they had to. Nobody paid any mind to the three travelers emerging from the road through the grass sea. Normally the Shalthar would accost any attempting to get through the town, drawing the people’s attention, but due to the Shalthar’s rapid departure there were no such alerts. They walked leisurely past the repair efforts.
Laverne grinned from under the hood of his cloak. “I see they were paid a visit by our friends.”
Mithra kept her face neutral, she was quickly losing her nerve in the face of all of these new people. She had forgotten that regular people didn’t have black veins; she was so used to Laverne.
Marge scoffed and she readjusted her hold on the baby. “A total slapdash job, they must be getting rusty in their old age, I mean, all the buildings are still standing.”
“That’s a good thing Marge.” He said bluntly. “We spoke; you’re going to have to curb your attitude while you’re here. You’re going to need to play the role of the ignorant mother.”
Mithra and Marge cringed.
He sighed. “Yes I know it’s demeaning but for your safety you’ll need to put up with a little bit of an antiquated mindset. Unless you’d like to come with us and leave the baby with somebody else?”
Marge stared at the baby in her arms, slowly coming to the realization of her attachment. She frowned deeply at it, it slept quietly in her arms, swaddled in cloth so that only it’s cute mushy was visible. She couldn’t help but smile at it, the frown couldn’t withstand the cuteness.
She sniffed deeply and regained her composure. She looked up at the two, their eyebrows were raised expectantly. “Out of a sense of self preservation I elect to remain with the baby.”
Laverne turned around. “Very well, we continue with my plan.” He walked over to the nearest group of men who were hoisting a heavy wooden door back into its frame. “Some solid craftsmanship, what happened?”
One of the men turned about, rather surprised to see a family of travelers standing behind him. He ran his arm over his brow. “The Old Gods have returned friend, they killed all the Shalthar in the town but were driven away by strange evil creatures. Old Midge swore the things were also Gods, said they didn’t have no faces he did.”
Laverne stroked his beard thoughtfully. “The teachings do mention a force opposite to the Old Gods, coming into being long in advance. They used to rule the world of man with an iron fist, until the Old Gods drove them from being. Perhaps the Monarch has drawn these creatures from the ether to help with his conquest. I wouldn’t worry friend, the gods defeated them once before, they can do so again.”
The man’s face went slack as Laverne spoke. “You seem to know quite a bit about the Indra, stranger, you wouldn’t happen to be…?”
Laverne pulled down his hood revealing his face covered in black veins. He bowed. “Master Elgin, at your service.” He held out a hand indicating the other. “My pupil, Mithra, and my wife and child.”
The man as well as the others who were eavesdropping on the conversation hurriedly bowed. “We are humbled to meet you.”
Laverne inclined his head. “We have traveled long and are looking for a place to lodge for the night.”
The man looked them up and down. “Indeed, you’re traveling quite light especially with child.”
Laverne chuckled. “That was our own misfortune; a group of ruffians stole our supplies last evening.”
The was shocked. “Bandits in the grass sea? There haven’t been any since long before my great grandfather’s time, at the turn of the cycles.”
Laverne nodded. “We live in strange times friend. I don’t wish to delay you any further, if you could just point the way to the nearest inn we’ll be glad to leave you be.”
The man pointed down the road. “Three storey building, huge hole in the front, my brother Tov is working on it, he looks just like me you can’t miss him.”
Laverne nodded his thanks and pulled his hood back up again. The three continued making their way down the street.
Mithra looked over at Laverne, an eyebrow raised. “Why did you talk like that?”
“So proper and polite.”
“That’s just how people talk these days; you’ve unfortunately been tainted with how folks used to speak back in my time and the time of the Indra. Language used to be looser; today it has found itself to be rather rigid.”
“It sounds weird and old-fashioned.”
“An accurate assessment.”
They stopped in front of a large building with what could be described as a huge hole punched in the front. Large sheets of plywood had been erected to shield the inside of the building from the elements while it was being worked on. A man near identical to the man Laverne had spoken to earlier was busy mixing mortar.
Laverne gently tapped the shoulder of one of the workers. “Excuse me, is this the inn?”
The man nodded. “Indeed it is, though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, we had some rather rowdy visitors.”
Laverne nodded. “The Old Gods are known to be destructive even with the best of intentions.”
“I see you’ve already heard.”
Laverne nodded. “Please don’t let us keep you; I’m sure your business is far more important than ours.”
The man nodded. “My thanks.” He went back to shoring in the front of the building with large timber poles.
Laverne ushered the two inside. It was a well kept inn; the ground floor was a traditional tavern with nearly a score of tables spread about the large room. At the far end of the room was the counter, several large kegs, likely full of ale or wine were arranged behind it. Chandeliers ringed with candles hung from the ceiling casting a friendly glow on the exhausted men and women relaxing after a long day of rebuilding the town. A few glances were thrown at the trio but nobody went so far as to start conversation they were too tired, the low grumble of conversation buzzed in the background. The air stunk of sweat, alcohol, and exhaustion.
Mithra made an exaggerated frown. “So this is what buildings are like… interesting.”
He gave her a nudge. “Behave yourself, you may have been raised in a tree but you don’t have to act like it.”
She threw him a glare. He ignored her as he made his way to the counter.
Mithra huffed and followed him and Marge; she began wondering why the counter was at the back of the building and not the front.
Surprisingly Ari answered her. “Simple, if somebody is stupid enough to try and rob the place they have to get through every patron before they can get out the door. I can’t blame you for not knowing Inn Law but that is rather obvious.” Her voice turned incredibly excited. “Quick, get a good look around, I want to make an inn in here!”
Medusa groaned. “I would request for you not to indulge her, she does not need any more fuel for the… dumpster fire she’s calling her ‘home’.”
Ari bit back. “Hey! I’m learning, cut me some slack.”
“I will cut you.”
The two descended back into argument, Mithra ignored them. She’d have to check in later. She heard a small hiccup to her left as a positively enormous man stumbled toward her, his eyes were glassy and looking into the distance. He stumbled and fell, Mithra jumped back as he hit the ground. A few more glances but nobody had the energy to do anything. Mithra looked around, glaring at everybody. The table next to her had a free seat, she looked down at the man, he was probably in her weight range. She got down and hefted him over her shoulder like he weighed nothing, she grunted in surprise as she lifted him effortlessly.
She looked at the stunned men sitting at the table next to her and nodded her head toward the chair. “Is this seat taken?”
They silently shook their heads.
She pulled the chair out with her foot and carefully placed the man down; he slowly tipped forward and smacked his head into the table. Mithra shrugged, it was better than the floor. She made after Laverne and Marge who were already speaking with the innkeeper. A hand shot out and snagged her wrist, she stopped and looked down at the massive muscular hand, then the tree trunk of an arm it was connected to. Finally she looked at the rest of the person the appendage was connected to. The man was remarkably muscular, almost as muscular as some of the Indra. His face looks as though it was chiseled from stone, not a subtle feature to be seen, it was kind though at the moment it was pinched with suspicion.
“Lass, I’ve seen some strong folks in my day, but that display you just put on strikes me as… unnatural.”
“I’m sure you’ve seen stranger.”
He raised an eyebrow in thought. “Aye, though before today I’d probably say no. My friend Thoer weighs as much as a laden ox… on a good day, and you lifted him as though he were nothing.”
“I’ve been told I don’t quite know my strength.”
“That’s unsurprising.” His grip tightened.
Laverne came up behind Mithra. “Do you have a grievance with my pupil?”
The man looked behind her. Laverne had his hood down revealing his veins; he pulled Mithra’s down as well revealing hers.
The man let go of her arm. “That would explain that. My apologies Master, after the events of today we must learn to be cautious.”
Laverne nodded. “An understandable sentiment, but not one that must be extended to the Warriors of the Old Gods.”
The man nodded again, a twinkle entered his eyes, one that Mithra did not particularly like. “May you perhaps indulge me then? I am regarded as one of the strongest men in the village; it would be an honor to test my mettle against a Warrior of the Old Gods.”
Laverne looked down at Mithra, she raised an eyebrow. “What do you propose?”
The man looked over. “Murph, grab the table.”
A shrimpy man with a pronounce limp nodded and stumbled to the back room. “Ye, sure thing Grantham.”
Grantham reclined in his seat and smirked. “The most civilized form of wrestling known to man.”
“A thumb war?” Mithra asked earnestly.
Grantham was taken aback. “The second most civilized form of wrestling: Arm wrestling.” He flexed his massive biceps; they almost creaked as his rippling muscles contracted.
Ari sighed. “This is bringing back some memories.”
Did you win?
“I broke the table, and the poor man’s ego.”
Mithra grinned wolfishly. “I accept your challenge.”
The nearby tables were cleared away as a smaller table, made completely from cast iron was dragged out.The eyes of the entire tavern were glued on the two as Grantham settled down in the special reinforced chairs. Word had spread quickly and soon most of the town had piled into the establishment to watch the spectacle. Bets were placed and money exchanged hands.
Laverne leaned down and whispered, “Restraint,” in Mithra’s ear.
Marge leaned down and whispered, “Destroy him,” in her other ear.
The baby squealed in delight.
Mithra cast off her cloak, her Indra arms were clearly visible as her tunic was sleeveless. Bolt had kindly repaired her clothes earlier; she still had reservations about going naked. The muttering began in earnest as the spectators saw her wiry, scaly, arms and slender sharp fingers.
Somebody called from the crowd. “Grantham, bow out! She’s a demigod, you have no chance!”
Laverne saw a moment to boast, he knew he shouldn’t but there was something about appreciation… “She is paired with one of the seventeen. The Traveler resides inside of her! As does the Companion! It would be wise for you to leave with your dignity intact Grantham.”
Mithra looked up at Laverne unamused. “Don’t scare him away; I want to crush his ego.”
Grantham laughed uproariously. “Master, your words only strengthen my resolve.” He placed his elbow in a small indentation in the table, he flexed his fingers threateningly. “Now, young lady, shall we?”
Mithra settled in the chair and flexed her wrist, snapping rolled around the room, she flexed her fingers and a cacophony of popping followed. The crowd grimaced and her smile only grew wider. She placed her elbow in the indent and took Grantham’s hand.
She squinted her eyes. “On the count of three? Or do we have a referee?”
“On your master’s count of three.” Sweat dripped from his forehead.
Laverne placed a hand on theirs and dramatically lifted it, counting down. “Three… two… one!”
Grantham began pushing; he twisted his body, ground his feet into the floor and pulled the table with his free hand. Mithra did none of those things. She sat and watched Grantham struggle her arm not budging. He was putting a considerable amount of force in but it wasn’t nearly enough to make her arm even tremble vaguely.
She slowly leaned forward and watched Grantham’s heart sink as his eyes widened. She figured she might as well go whole hog, internally she asked for Ari to feed her lines.
She juddered slightly and lowered the tone her voice slightly, giving it an ominous edge giving the impression that the Traveler had taken control. “So bold… a mere mortal man, challenging me… I admire your courage. So long has it been since I have tasted the air of the mortals, I have missed its flavor. So long has it been since I have seen the fear in the eyes of the foolish and ignorant who would dare treat me as lesser. Should I call my companion to deal with you? Or should I dispose of you myself? Oh, it has been far too long since I savored such an indulgence, I feel I must partake.” Mithra kept her face twisted in her evil smile but internally she was screaming confusion at Ari. “Let us finish this.”
Mithra gripped the edge of the table, her fingers sinking into the metal; her feet dug gouges into the floor. She whipped Grantham’s hand down, stopping sharply a mere millimeter above the surface; she gently tapped his hand against the table.
“I win,” she smiled widely and stood up. She looked around at all of the fearful faces in the crowd. She waved dismissively. “She does that, it’s fine, nothing to worry about.”
Laverne placed a hand on her shoulder. “Perhaps it would be best if you waited outside, I need to speak with the innkeeper about a room for Marge and the baby.
Mithra grunted and made for the door, the crowd parted around her like water. The door closed with a clatter behind her and she made her way to the undamaged front of the building, she reclined gently into the wall. She inhaled the warm evening air deeply, it smelled so fresh compared to the stuffiness of the indoors. She sighed and smiled to herself, not even among humans for an hour and she already had a reputation. That must be some sort of record. She watched several passers-by, they seemed so normal. She tried to imagine what their life must be like, to be normal.
Ari interrupted her quiet introspection. “Believe me, after a while having a normal life is a tantalizing prospect.”
Mithra smiled, she was surprised at how tired she felt. “I’m far too young to be thinking like that. Gimme at least fifty years.”
“Ten, it’ll only take ten.”
She snorted. “You’re really putting faith in my ability to cope with weird shit.”
A muffled noise drew her attention, it sounded out of place, a quiet crackling noise, like a thousand bubbles popping at once. The strange noise was followed by quiet snuffling and strange guttural chittering.
“My hackles have risen.” Mithra kept her voice quiet, she didn’t dare move. There were still people on the street; she didn’t want to cause a scene.
“It’s down the alley.”
“Of course it is. Let’s investigate.”
She pushed herself from the wall and casually strode towards the opening of the alleyway. Nobody paid her any mind. She cast a glance to either side before she was swallowed by darkness. The faint chittering grew excited as she made her way further. Mithra stopped and whistled a note into the darkness. The same note was whistled back. She made a smooching noise. A similar noise was made in response. Mithra could feel a presence move around her, her enhanced vision could just barely make out a vague shape. It stood a few inches taller than Kid and moved in a silky fashion, its steps making no noise as it padded around Mithra.
Mithra blew a raspberry. The thing giggled and blew one back. A small ice cold hand clutched hers, her breath caught in her throat.
A high pitched voice whispered through the darkness, “Hello… friend…”
“I hate fields!” Pixia wailed.
“Hate ‘em all you want, you’re still stuck in one!” Anon retorted.
The plains were a vast stretch of rolling hills and inexplicable boulders. The group was moving in a brisk jog toward the Citadel, the red cloud was just beginning to rise over the horizon.
“I’m sick of this grass and I’m sick of these goddamn boulders!” She stopped to grab at a rock that was just poking through the surface, threatening to trip her.
She pulled the small boulder out of the ground and lobbed it at a miniature mountain to her right, it bounced off and came rolling back at her. She leapt out of the way as it rolled down the shallow hill.
Scorn, who was given minder duty for her, sighed. “Didn’t you look at the history courses they offered? The entirety of the Sierra Nevada mountain range as well as this entire area was mined out for the Galapagos Conflict with Dictatorial Bulgaria.”
Pixia looked up sharply. “Wait Bulgaria was real?”
Scorn groaned and looked up into the sky. “Yes!”
Pixia huffed and crossed her arms.
Scorn pointed to the tiny dots crossing the horizon. “Now, are you going to keep sulking? Because they’ve left us behind.”
She threw her arms up and broke off at a run to catch up with the others. Scorn marveled at her as she ran past, completely astounded at how negative she’d become, that used to be his job or Ghost’s. Perhaps they really had gotten old.
Tash set the ship on autopilot and turned back to the rather cramped sitting area. Death took the only seat, War stood, and Famine sat on the floor. They rummaged in a small cabinet set into the wall and pulled out three small dome-shaped objects.
“In order not to rouse suspicion I will need you to wear these on your heads.” They offered them to the three.
They stared but did not take.
Tash withdrew their hand. “Ah yes, that’s correct, that will only rouse your suspicion of me. These are fake Indra controller modules.” They twisted the top off of one and showed the inside, it was entirely hollow apart from a small LED and a battery pack. “Our esteemed leader devised these things to keep the Indra he captured servile to him.”
Famine took one of the modules from Tash’s hand and inspected it. “You neglected to mention any of our own being captured.”
“Indeed, at least five have been his prisoner over the years. As far as I can tell they have all been released in some form, but in what condition I do not know. It is entirely possible that they are being controlled by these implanted inside of their flesh or are charges of the IL Indra and are being held hostage in their freedom. Until a few days ago your Anon, Scorn, and Kid were being held in the Citadel. They were freed with help from Marge and your mother.”
That got the three’s attention, and Juvinea’s
She looked over, brow furrowed. “Cassandra Whorl is dead; they should know, they were forced to watch her murder.”
Tash smiled. “You really think a woman as clever as her would allow herself to be killed?”
They all shook their heads.
“Well there you go. According to a heavily encrypted report from Ghost and Pixia they found her on a trip to the Sampras Dig, right under her old office. She had perfected a method by which she digitally preserved her memory and uploaded it to a compatible LX board, overriding the board’s personality with her own. She’s very similar to your Ellie except if Valkyrie maintained constant control. It’s a surprisingly simply process, almost entirely automated.”
War tilted his head. “If I had eyes they would be glossed over, I have no idea what you just said.”
“My final analogy was fairly straightforward.”
Famine nodded their head. “Indeed, just the sort of ingenuity one would expect from mother.”
War placed a hand on Death’s shoulder; he didn’t look up, he was still lost in thought. “Brother I’m growing giddy.”
Death finally looked up at Tash. “You also conveniently forgot to mention her in your retelling of past events.”
Tash frowned, thinking upon their past words. “I’ll admit that I’m not much of a storyteller, I find it difficult to tell everything while keeping things straightforward.” They began to grow frustrated as they concluded they had forgotten Cass entirely.
Juvinea put a hand on Tash’s elbow. “It’s alright; remember what you told me before, science, not storytelling.”
War gestured for Tash to hand him one of the modules. He looked over at Famine.
Famine nodded. “They are as they say they are, completely harmless.” They closed the module and stuck it to the side of their head. “I feel foolish.”
Juvinea waved dismissively. “It’s the height of fashion, you look fantastic.”
War stuck the thing to his head and looked down at Famine. “You’ve never bothered about your appearance before, I think it’s an improvement.”
She giggled quietly, Famine did look rather silly, she looked over at War. “So, when did you become so relaxed? All I remember from you is standing still and being stoic.”
He crossed his arms and reclined into the wall. “Hobbies are wonderful things to have, very relaxing.”
Death shook his head. “I will never understand your love for bird watching.”
“Birds are fantastic,” War replied simply.
“I wonder what you’ll think of the Corcus then.” Tash turned back to the cockpit and flicked off the autopilot.
Mithra kept her breathing slow, she didn’t want to spook whatever it was that was holding her hand. The clammy hand squeezed hers. She could feel sweat unbidden emerge from her forehead, a strange chill rolled up her spine and into the back of her mind, something far colder than whatever it was that occupied the dark with her. Its other hand emerged from the darkness, slowly wrapping around her waist in a gentle embrace. A cooing oozed from the thing, it let go of her hand and fully wrapped her in its arms.
“Mithra…” it whispered, “so lovely…” It squeezed its arms. “So… alone, afraid… Miss family.”
Mithra’s voice was little more than a raspy murmur. “You miss your family?”
It purred in affirmation. “But they no miss me.”
“I strange… not like them, soft, weak, mistake… a kid.” It stiffened.
Mithra strained her ears; she could hear quiet steps approaching from the end of the alley. There was a spectator to the strange scene, hopefully as blind as the rest of them.
“I go…” it said sadly.
The embrace faded away and the thing vanished into the deep dark of the alley. There was a small grunt and the thing’s presence faded. Mithra was stunned, too stunned to acknowledge Ghost pad up beside her. She jumped when Ghost’s hand wrapped around her shoulder.
“What was that?” Mithra whispered harshly.
“I don’t know, I was going after Kid, I followed her trail to this alley and heard you with that… whatever it was.”
“It knew my name… it seemed almost friendly.”
“Hmm… perhaps it was sent by the Monarch to keep an eye on us? I don’t like this. C’mon, let’s get Laverne and get out of here.”
Kid ran screaming past the opening to the alley.
Ghost’s voice filled with dread. “No, no, no. Get her, we can’t be seen! We can’t afford to lose any more time.”
Without a word Mithra bolted from the alley after Kid. She cursed silently, that little bugger was fast, she was already a good hundred meters down the road. She poured on the speed, blowing past confused spectators; her cloak was pulled away by the wind. Mithra cursed again, that thing was comfortable. Kid was getting closer, Mithra had halved the gap. She desperately hoped nobody got in her way, there was no way she’d be able to stop in time. She cursed a third time, she knew with that damned thought she was destined to run into somebody.
She counted down for her inevitable collision.
One second late, her collision wandered into her path. A stockily build man struggling beneath a pile of shoring timbers stumbled into her path, making his way to a repair effort on the other side of the street. Mithra sighed, she knew it.
Time to eat the dirt.
She let her legs buckle, there was no way she’d be able to even leap out of the way, she was going too fast and he was too close. She slid past him on her stomach, the added friction from her tumble slowing her just enough to miss him. She felt her clothing tear as she ground across the rough cobbled stones. Bolt wasn’t going to be happy about her work getting destroyed. She still had a considerable amount of speed behind her so she wedged her hand into the ground and stiffened; she spun through the air and landed back on her feet in a dead sprint.
Ari gasped. “How did you do that!? I wish I could do that. Aw… I’m gonna have to take control of your body sometime and try to do that.”
Medusa rumbled. “Quit your blather and let the child savor her triumph.”
“See!? Even you’re impressed!”
“Shut… Up…” Mithra growled, she didn’t need the distraction.
The two fell into silence. Mithra’s feet pounded across the bridge, the roar of the river was deafening. Ahead of her still was Kid, only leading her by a few meters. She put her final reserves into closing the small gap, her hands shot out and tightly gripped Kid’s shoulders.
“Ow in advance,” Mithra grumbled.
She pulled Kid back, lifting her into a tight embrace. The two tumbled, Mithra couldn’t keep up her speed with Kid’s added weight. A shallow ditch was carved into the grassy earth as they finally came to a stop.
“Kid,” Mithra gasped through gulps of air, “I am going to truss you up and carry you to the Citadel if you keep this behavior up. Which one is it? Happy or depressed?”
“Wah!” Kid roared.
“Happy… alright, I can live with that. We’re gonna lay here until the others show up; I don’t trust you not to bolt again.”
“Bold of you to trust me! Bold and spicy!”
Mithra tightened her grip against Kid’s squirming. “Child… I am not in the mood for your attitude. You have destroyed my clothes and in my current mood that is unforgivable.”
“Forgiveness is for those of flaccid self!”
“Never, O spindly one!”
“Stop talking in exclamation points, you’re going to blow out my ear drums.”
“Shower me with more affection,” Kid whispered dramatically.
Ghost ground to a stop next to them, she bent down and picked Kid up by the scruff of her neck, she thrashed about as she was lifted into the air.
Ghost’s voice was a harsh whisper. “What the hell Kid? What has gotten into you? I’ve never seen you act like this.”
Kid went limp, she dangled in the air. Her tone turned morose. “Maybe it is all an act, I don’t even know any more.”
Mithra stood up, tearing off the remnants of her clothes. “Ghost, say hello to depressed Kid. We don’t know why but Kid has some sort of split personality.”
Ghost put Kid down; she immediately collapsed as if all the energy drained out of her.
“Tired,” Kid muttered to the ground, “I’m so tired.”
Lethe came puffing up. “Hey,” he winced as he stretched his back. “Oof, I’m not used to running that much.”
At the sound of his voice Kid perked up, she began pushing herself along the ground trying to get away from him. She didn’t say anything, just making small whimpers of fear; she curled into a ball and began weeping. Mithra waved Lethe back; he raised his hands up disarmingly and retreated back. Cass and Laverne were just crossing the bridge; Lethe’s outstretched arm stopped them from approaching. Mithra crouched over the sobbing Kid and scooped her up, Kid didn’t respond. She maneuvered Kid so that her legs were wrapped around her waist and arms around her neck, Kid buried her head in the hollow of Mithra’s neck.
Mithra’s vision filled with stars. “Kid what are you doing?”
Mithra could distinctly feel tendrils of Kid’s fiber optic cabling dig through her skin, she winced as it wrapped around her own.
Ari spoke. “Kid? What are you doing here?”
Cass placed a hand on Mithra’s shoulder. “What’s going on?”
“It seems Kid has taken up residence.”
Cass made a seething sigh. “Perhaps that’s for the best, at least she won’t be running off for a while, Ari can keep her in check. We have a lot of ground to cover let’s go.”
The group started at a brisk jog, following the steps of the previous group. All that could be seen of their final destination was a dim red light on the horizon.
Scorn had suited up, he was covered head to toe in borrowed Shalthar clothing, he didn’t quite cut an imposing figure. The group was crouched behind a small hillock a hundred or so meters from the outermost fences of the Citadel.
The group looked to Scorn. “Alright so, what’s the first step? Any traps right off the bat?” Wulf asked.
Scorn shook his head, the helmet shifted slightly. “That fence is merely a deterrent, not electrified, no sensors, and no guards.” He chuckled bitterly. “anyone foolish enough to enter unprepared with soon meet their end at the hands of far worse things.”
The group settled down around him.
“Alright, tell us everything, what should we expect?” Bolt asked.
Scorn nodded. “They had me all over the place in there; I made frequent trips to the Cloning Pools on the opposite side of the city. So the Cloning Pools form a ring around the Industrial Complex which forms a ring around the Shalthar barracks, then finally there’s the Tower and the Monarch is likely at the very top.” He carved three circles with a dot at their center, much like a target. “The outer ring is the least guarded with the Shalthar relying mainly on camera surveillance, sporadic guard patrols, and the Corcus. With my baseline knowledge of the computer systems we should be able to sneak through without much issue. The industrial area is a different beast. You’re just as likely to take a bath in molten metal as you are to run into a Shalthar and unfortunately both are quite plentiful. Heavier Shalthar presence as well as tighter surveillance. This will be a game of stealth more than anything. Then the barracks.” He made a defeated sounding grunt. “It is a sea of Shalthar, they don’t need surveillance, they don’t need Corcus, they definitely don’t need the remote operated machine turrets but they have them all anyway.”
“Will stealth still be an option going through the barracks?” asked Wulf.
Scorn shook his head. “They’d catch us in seconds, probably faster with all of this equipment. If we had some way of flying over it would be less of an issue but we don’t have any Shalthar ships on hand.”
“Could we steal one?”
“Doubtful, ships rarely settle down in the outer circles, if we’re lucky there’s an inspection and we can steal the commander’s ship, problem is there is no clean way of dealing with the troupe of Shalthar a commander travels with.”
Wall punched his open palm. “What if they all had surprise baths?”
Scorn nodded his head from side to side. “Do you all think you could manage to be that stealthy?”
Pestilence sagged. “I can feel your gaze pointing distinctly at me.”
Wall clapped her shoulder. “You have a history.”
Anon spoke up. “Who knows, maybe they’ve changed their methods, it has been quite a while since you were out and about around here.”
Scorn shook his head. “I saw the transitions of multiple cycles and the behavioral differences that came with them. They never changed their patrol rounds; in fact the Citadel itself looks the same as when I was last here about a dozen cycles ago.”
A low grumble began building up in the distance. Anon poked his head over the hillock as did several others. The grumble grew into a dull roar as it echoed through the warehouses. An odd looking vehicle turned a corner and began patrolling the outer perimeter. It was a somewhat tall thing with four oversized wheels and an open cab with only the metal piping of a roll cage being present. Mounted on the back was a large weapon emplacement. The gun didn’t look like a standard machine rifle, a mess of wires and tubing jutted from the base of the barrel and fed into several large containers lining the bed of the vehicle. A strange blue light emanated from the barrel.
Scorn settled back behind the hill, his voice filled with dread. “It just wouldn’t be complete without energy weapons.”
Bolt’s voice was pinched with worry. “Did you see the size of it? That thing probably has the same yield as one of the old energy discs.”
It was Pixia who surprised everybody by breaking the aura of despair. “We can hear those things coming a mile away and they can’t fit in the warehouses, there is no issue. We continue as we are.”
Wulf nodded his head. “I can’t argue with that assessment. What about those shrimpy bastards.”
Scorn stared at the fence. “Pray. Now suit up, we’re not bringing all of this with us.” He kicked his discarded bag.
The Indra dropped their bags and tore them open. Soon they were bedecked with small arms and rifles, a Cutter was strapped to each of their waists. Anon was loaded heavier than the others as he refused to leave his medical supplies, he had them strapped to his front.”
Bolt looked over at Pixia. “How’s the wing?”
“Sore, not flight worthy,” she replied sadly. “I can still outjump the rest of you though.”
Xypia gripped her shoulder and gave her a coy glance.
Pixia responded with a glance of her own. “In your dreams buddy.”
The Indra readied themselves, it was time to storm the Citadel.
They silently sprinted across bare dry earth, their footsteps muffled by the hard packed dirt. Pixia and Xypia effortlessly leapt over the fence, Wall and Wulf pulled the links up and allowed the rest to crawl underneath. True to what Scorn said, no alarms were raised and the fence was not electrified. They broke across the pavement and closed themselves in the nearest warehouse.
The smell washed over them like a wave, it was positively foul, resembling the underside of any large animal after several weeks without bathing. Several of them noticeably wilted. The same red fog that covered the Citadel outside was nearly tangible inside; the strange red vapor clung to their skin, leaving a sticky residue.
“Pooh!” Pixia instinctively covered her nasal region. “What the hell is this stuff?”
Scorn began skirting along the wall.“Evaporated cloning solution. Thank the powers that be that you can’t taste it. Keep to the wall or you’re taking a bath.”
Bolt crouched down and inspected the edge of the crimson pool. The liquid was nearly opaque, only vague shapes could be seen floating about. Out of curiosity she reached for one of the small objects. Pestilence grabbed her arm stopping her. She shook her head.
“Something tells me that’s a very bad idea.” She pulled Bolt back up and followed the others.
Bolt threw a glance back at the pool before going after the rest. She quickly ran into the others, they were stopped as Scorn fiddled with the lock on a heavy metal door. He let out a frustrated grunt and pulled the lock from the door, it swung open and a bright white light assailed their visual sensors. They stepped inside the small control room, it was positively antiseptic compared to the foul cloning chamber.
Scorn grunted in appreciation. “They upgraded, I can appreciate that. Last time I was here these rooms were as sticky as the outside.” He moved around the room looking for a computer terminal.
He finally found a terminal, tucked away next to the door to the outside. It was just a small screen with a protruding one-handed keyboard. Scorn tapped a few keys, he grunted in surprise.
“Well, that’s unexpected… they already have a replacement system, they completely flushed Marge from the system. It looks like similar architecture…” He looked over sharply as the handle to the door jiggled. “Back!” he whispered.
The Indra fled back through the door to the Cloning Pools and closed it behind them.
A Shalthar scientist entered the control room and blanched. It grumbled to itself in broken Common Language. “Blegh! What djuta left the door open? Geh… Drual Djrahl.” It approached the door.
The door burst open and several sets oh hands pulled the scientist into the cloning chamber. A massive hand was clapped over its mouth. It struggled briefly, the ocular implant going haywire trying to see its aggressors in the fog.
A Shalthar helmet emerged from the fog, looming over the scientist, whoever it was spoke the Common Language flawlessly. “Hello friend, it seems you’ve don’t some redecorating while I’ve been away.”
The Shalthar scientist stopped their struggling, if their attackers wanted them dead they would be a corpse floating in the pools before now. The hand lifted away. “What you want?”
“Information… are there any inspections today?”
The scientist nodded. “Ya, ya! Tashte Commander Brekka makes his rounds today!”
The helmet leered closer. “Where?”
“Look for Brekka ship! Cannot miss.” They spread their arms. “Is massive! Take fifty Shalthari to fly!”
The helmet looked off to the side and nodded. A fist shot from the gloom and knocked the scientist senseless.
Wall let them fall. “What should we do with it?”
“Hogtie ‘em and leave ‘em, we don’t have time to waste. Pixia you’re the most agile, get to the roof and try to spot Brekka’s ship. If it’s as big as this fellow said it’ll be hard to miss.”
Pixia nodded, brushing past them all, she stole from the ajar door to the russet tinged outside. She was back surprisingly quickly.
“Holy fuck that thing is massive! To the north, about twelve installations up. You’ll see what I mean when you get out there.”
The group filtered outside, careful to hug the wall. There it was, like a great scarab hovering over the vast warehouses was Brekka’s ship. Eighteen massive rotors kept the thing aloft filling the air with a near deafening roar and gale force winds. The Indra beheld their next victim.
Tash neatly parked the small ship in the sprawling hangar. The Indra crowded the cockpit to get a view of just what they were up against. Juvinea had fallen asleep so she was spared the front row view of War’s armpit.
“I miss the Japanese,” War muttered.
Even Famine couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. “I do believe we have underestimated our foes. How did you account for the barrier of physics? Many of these ships are far too large to get off the ground without an explosive form of propulsion.”
Tash nodded. “Well, that’s what we initially thought as well but then we kept strapping more and more larger fans onto everything and it worked, with some basic maneuvering jets it all just wound up working.”
Famine could only conjure up a grunt in response, best not to argue with the evidence of the eyes. Tash unbuckled their safety belt and mashed door control. With a quick jostle Juvinea was woken up and she followed the rest outside. The Indra craned their necks to look at the swarm of ships both flying through the air and hanging from the towering ceiling. Death pointed at Brekka’s massive ship, Famine nodded. Tash raised an eyebrow.
Death’s voice was almost drowned out by the roar. “The rotors are spooling; we need to get out of here!”
Tash looked up, they couldn’t help their eyes widening. They grabbed Juvinea’s arm and began rushing through the maze of ships. The three exchanged glances and ran after them. A wall of near solid air blasted them from their feet and they were sent sprawling, finally smashing into the nearest ship. Oddly none of the ships were even shifted by the shockwave force of the massive rotors. A massive clang could be heard over the sounds of the rotors, they all twisted their necks trying to see what the sound was. The massive ship dropped sharply, whatever ungodly clamps were used in keeping it suspended gave way and left the ship to hold itself aloft by its own power. The force pinning the group slowly lifted at the massive ship buzzed from the hangar.
Tash brushed themselves off and helped Juvinea to her feet. “That was my counterpart… Brekka. We stand as equals before the Monarch but I do believe they have crossed a line of humanity and grown an ego.”
War pointed at the lumbering craft creating a miniature eclipse across large portions of the city. “You mean to tell me that you could have had one of those!?”
“And you picked that?”
Tash nodded again. “I am antisocial.”
War grunted, “fair enough, I guess.”
Tash looked at the three. “Now, you cannot behave the way you are currently among my own. With those control modules on you need to act robotic, more similar to Famine, keep answers to questions brief and simple preferably yes and no. You will be offended, my people, especially the scientists, completely lack what you would call a filter.”
War hand immediately went to Death’s shoulder. He shook it off.
“I am more than capable of handling poking and prodding, it’s no worse than the military.”
Tash nodded grimly. “To the belly of the beast then, we will make out way to my office where we will plan out what to do next.
They skirted around the outskirts of the hangar and ducked into a dim hallway. They brushed past several Shalthar Grunts who promptly stood at attention; Tash waved them away with a dismissive grunt. The hallway widened and forked, Tash turned left and was almost flattened by a heavily laden gurney. Juvinea and the others swiftly parted around the seemingly blind gurney driver, they weren’t even spared a glance.
Juvinea screwed her face up. “It seems absentmindedness is a trait among the scientific community.”
The Indra said nothing; they were dedicated to their act.
The hallway was piled high with Shalthar, entering and exiting rooms, swapping notes, having conversations in their grumbling language interspersed with English. Several more gurneys pushed through the crowd splitting the scientists who cave the drivers dirty looks. Tash simply stood at the end of the hallway, they shifted their weight and crossed their arms and waited. Slowly the antics in the hallway died down as the scientists noticed their boss looking very annoyed, silence descended.
Tash simply pointed at a sign fastened to the wall.
It read: Groose krestra grai ru vert’ka.
“No research in the hallway!” Tash roared.
The Shalthar scattered, closing themselves in their rooms. Tash grunted, satisfied.
Juvinea gave them a look. “I assume something happened that caused that sign to be erected?”
Tash pointed at the gurneys and their pilots. “These gurneys are responsible for interspersing scientific equipment and research materials throughout the department. They are piloted by Shalthari, the third class in our two class system: the labor class. The scientists were bred for intelligence; the Military for physical strength, the Shalthari are bred for obedience. That sign is there because several scientists have been run over and killed by the single-minded Shalthari, they will not stop for anything. They are looked down upon by both classes for something they are unable to control and I find it quite… sickening. Perhaps you can more clearly see my views on genetic diversity when you see how we treat our own in such a way.”
A Shalthar rushing down the hallway stopped Tash from ranting further. They stopped a short ways away and gave a small bow before approaching further. Fear punctuated their features as they saw Tash flanked by four beings who could destroy them in a heartbeat.
They kept their eyes averted as they spoke. “Provost has not reported in from Cloning pool J-45, they were conducting initial testing of the new DNA strain.”
“What does surveillance say?”
They shook their head. “The sensors went completely dark, Sectors H through K are totally dark.”
Tash’s face grew stormy. “Has the military not been notified?”
“They said it was a scientific matter not requiring their attention.”
Tash scoffed. “Of course. Have the details forwarded to my terminal I’ll sort it out personally.”
The scientist nodded and shuffled off.
Juvinea was confused. “Provost?”
“The scientists have begun adopting words from the Common Language as their names. I had to convince Provost to pick that one otherwise they would have picked prolapse.”
Tash nodded. “Indeed, their grasp on the language isn’t very good.”
They began down the hallway. The walk to Tash’s office was long and wholly uneventful bar a few quick dodges as the Shalthari gurneys blew around corners. The scientists kept their distance even though Juvinea could see hungry curiosity burning in their eyes as they watched her and the Indra go past.
The aggression in the glances was not lost upon Tash. “Word of your resurrection seems to have circulated; I believe you’re more popular than the Indra.”
Juvinea could feel her stomach turn in something resembling fear. “I don’t feel safe.”
“You have my permission to punch them if they get too close for comfort.”
The nearby Shalthar who heard the statement quickly rushed past, fleeing her possible wrath. They turned down a hallway that was a bit grander than the rest, the ceiling was higher, and the walls cleaner, the floor shinier, at the end were a set of unadorned wooden double doors.
“I’m getting flashbacks,” War whispered.
Tash chuckled. “I’ll admit to taking inspiration from the history of this place, I may perhaps be the only one to do so.”
The group made their way down the hall, Juvinea paused, something felt off. Her brow furrowed as she turned around. She stared into the stomach of a Shalthar scientist, it peered down at her.
“Hello little dove,” its tone of voice was disturbing.
It ran a hand through her hair; it grumbled and tapped a few times at a small pad around its wrist. It pinched her cheek and pulled, Juvinea winced in pain. It made a satisfied noise and put more information into the small wrist computer. It reached its hand out to grab another part of her.
Juvinea was angry; she did not enjoy her new status as a scientific curiosity, she saw the opportunity to voice her dissatisfaction. She gripped its wrist and squeezed. Its eyes bugged out as the tendons and then the bones of its wrist were crushed. The scientist fell to its knees where a blindingly quick kick burrowed into its crotch. It flew back and crashed into the wall, wrist vaporized and pelvis shattered.
“I am not an object!” she screamed, “I will not be treated as one!”
The Shalthar didn’t respond it was totally unconscious. A group of other scientists hidden around the corner ran over and pulled them away, throwing fearful glances at Juvinea.
“The next one who tries that will get far worse than them!”
Tash called from the doorway. “Missus Fitsch could I have a word with you?”
She pointed down the hall. “Be like Tash! Ask!” She turned about and stormed down the hallway.
She slammed the door behind her, her mood had taken a considerable downturn. Tash clapped their hands as they settled behind an ornately carved wooden desk.
“I congratulate you Missus Fitsch, it gladdens me to see you stick up for yourself. Unfortunately you may find that you’ll have to make use of your physical strength far sooner than you may have thought.”
She and the Indra turned to look at them. They swiveled a large monitor fixed to their desk to face the group, a collage of pictures scrolled by showing the Indra running through the cloning pools and warehouses.
“Your brethren have arrived and it’s time to put my plan in action.”
Famine took the module from the side of their head. “Why have the alarms not gone off?”
Tash smiled. “Because the Monarch didn’t take the advice given by Marjorie Fitsch all those years ago: Never put too much power in the hands of one person. Brekka may get the military glory but I control everything from behind the scenes. I simply added a few parameters so that all feeds showing any Indra get fed directly to me and conveniently remain unnoticed by the security division. I built the computer; I can quite easily dictate what it does.”
Death chuckled. “This building brings out the worst in people’s judgment and common sense.”
Famine scrutinized the pictures. “I have located our sister.” They pointed to a somewhat grainy still showing Pestilence pulling Bolt along, like a slideshow it showed her tripping and rolling across the camera’s view.
War and Death slumped.
“It appears the group may have split up, several are missing.” Famine flipped through several more stills.
“The group split a while back, from the quick glance we had flying overhead Ellie, Kid, Ghost, your Mother and Laverne T. Schultz stayed behind for some unknown reason. They are likely across the river by now if they left soon after we passed overhead.”
Famine grunted. “Very well, but what do you suppose our family here is up to? They are moving northward, perpendicular to the tower.”
Tash sighed and flipped the monitor back around. “I sincerely hope they’re not but…” their face fell. “It would seem they are poised to commandeer my colleague Brekka’s ship. Come there is no time to lose, you three must hide at the entrance of the tower and await the arrival of your brethren, Missus Fitsch and I will make our move to contaminate the pools.”
“An elevator tube? Classy.” Pixia looked up at the telescoped plastic tube that descended from the massive ship.
The Indra could barely stand as they were buffeted by the wind from the rotors, they squeezed into the small elevator, it very clearly was not built for that many.
“So how does this work?” Bolt looked for controls but there were none present.
“Pray its automatic,” grunted Wulf.
The platter jerked upwards pulling the Indra into the sky. They chorused a sigh of relief. The vast underbelly of the ship rapidly drew closer.
Wulf pawed at the hilt of his Cutter. “Get control of the ship and try to keep overall damage minimal, we still need to fly it out of here.”
The Indra grunted their acknowledgement as the world went dark. The platform slowed to a stop revealing a large chamber filled with Shalthar soldiers standing at attention.
“Stealth’s out the window then!” Yelled Wall as he burst from the cramped elevator.
The Indra streamed from the elevator, Cutters in one hand, machine rifles in the other. The sounds of gunfire echoed through the room as the Shalthar scattered, running for cover. Multiple alerts began keening through the sprawling maze of metal passageways, Shalthar soldiers streamed from their quarters ready to destroy the invaders. Wulf and Wall sprinted down one corridor branching to the left, Pestilence and Bolt down another to the right. Xypia and Pixia rushed straight ahead and Scorn and Anon took the passage to their rear. Their goal: The cockpit.
Pestilence and Bolt turned a sharp corner and immediately regretted choosing that corridor. Two dozen Shalthar aimed their weapons at them. The two didn’t hesitate they opened fire into the mass of Shalthar, the first wave collapsed in a screaming mass, trampled by the feet of those behind. Bolt’s gun jammed, she lobbed it into the rapidly approaching enemy, impaling the skull of one, and held her Cutter outstretched. The Shalthar pulled their blades from sheathes about their waists, a variety of sharp objects pointed at them while others took potshots. Bullets smashed into the two but they shook them off as though they were little more than droplets or rain. Batting aside their weapons with her own Bolt launched head-on into the mass of Shalthar. The ground immediately became wet with tides of crimson blood spewing from scores of several limbs and decapitated bodies. Slinging her rifle across her back Pestilence followed Bolt into the fray, finishing off any stragglers that dared to survive Bolt’s initial assault.
Scorn and Anon were having far better luck in avoiding the Shalthar, they only ran into sporadic groups, nothing near the raw numbers that Bolt and Pestilence had. Anon kicked aside a corpse that was hunched over a terminal of some sort.
“Damn, I can’t read this language… Scorn?”
Scorn took his place. “I know a little, it’s very similar to English.” He scrolled the screen up and tapped a highlighted button, a simplified map of the ship filled the screen. He jammed his finger at a spot that was decidedly not the cockpit. “We need to take that out.”
“Why? What’s there?”
Pestilence and Bolt kept cutting away at the writhing wall of Shalthar. The Shalthar at the back of the pile began to flee to regroup in a more defensible location; in the bottleneck of the hallway they had no chance against the outright brutality of the Indra. The lights flickered as the ship juddered violently to the left; the Shalthar and Indra alike were tossed about helplessly. A new alarm began sounding, a trembling screech that pierced the ears and auditory sensors of all who heard it. The lights dimmed until the corridors were almost pitch black.
The Shalthar fled in earnest their cries of terror rang through the corridor. Bolt jammed her stolen sword into her belt.
“Well where are they going!?” She held out a questioning hand at the fleeing Shalthar.
Pestilence hackles were rising. “Something here terrifies them more than we do… C’mon we need to find that cockpit.”
“Fuck!” Scorn smashed the console; a shower of sparks illuminated him and Anon in the darkening corridor. Screams of terror echoed throughout the ship as the frightened Shalthar fled.
“What do we do?” Anon was getting spooked.
“We run, and hope they don’t catch us.”
Pixia and Xypia froze as the alarm ran throughout the ship. Their corridor was completely empty, they hadn’t encountered any Shalthar. They strode on through the freshly laid darkness, keeping a hand on the walls to keep their bearings. A heavy air of gloom had descended. A stifling aura of dread seemed to exude from every surface.
“Xypia… I’m scared,” Pixia’s voice was little more than a hoarse whisper.
Xypia stiffened and held out an arm, barring Pixia from moving past. He knelt down and felt the ground, listening for something. He shot up and, pulling Pixia with him, fled as fast as he could in the opposite direction. He snagged the railing of a set of stairs and sprinted up, taking six stairs at a time, all the while Pixia was being pulled along in his unwavering grip.
He stopped at a two-way intersection he looked down the halls; they were nothing more than featureless tubes of metal, nowhere to hide. Pixia looked back, a bright light shone at the bottom of the stairs, a pair of them judging by the split shadows. A faint snuffling could be heard, it grew in intensity as the Doch’erne caught their scent. A light shone at the end of one of the hallways, a set of glowing white eyes pierced the darkness. Xypia pointed down the only other hallway, their final avenue of escape. He patted her on the back urging her to move. She sprinted, followed closely by Xypia. She threw a glance back, the two eyes were bounding towards them, and another set joined them from the stairwell. The hall ended at another intersection, on a whim she turned right and kept running, the corridor ended in another stairwell. Their feet pounded into the metal grate flooring, distorted echoes rebounded through the halls, and underneath it all was the low sounds of the Doch’erne getting closer.
She leapt up the stairs, the corridor opened up to a large sized room, large spiraling pillars shot from the floor to the ceiling, trunks of glowing blue cabling tricked from the sides of the pillars all coalescing at a large sphere set in the room’s center.
“That looks important… Let’s not break it.”
Xypia tapped her shoulder and pointed to a door at the end of the room.
She shook her head. “This is the perfect place to fight back, plenty of cover and we can get them from above.”
She holstered her rifle and vaulted up and clung to one of the pillars; due to the spiral it was easily scalable. Xypia nodded and followed her. They climbed up to the ceiling and waited for the Doch’erne to arrive.
The heavy steps approached painfully slowly, the sounds of deep breathing and a low growling filled the air. There were low barks as the things communicated. They stalked into the room on all fours, flinching slightly at the blue light. Pixia felt her stomach twist, they looked like the Tcha’Gough, or what was left of them, twisted and mutilated. Their nostrils flared as they lost the scent. Xypia, using his legs to hold onto the pillar aimed his rifle at the base of the Doch’erne’s neck. He squeezed off one shot.
The crack rang through the room and a small blossom of blood shot from the creature’s neck. Unlike what the thought was going to happen the thing looked straight up at them, the bullet doing seemingly little to kill it.
Pixia sighed, the jig was up anyway. “Great, so their bulletproof, what next?”
The thing leapt at them, its razor sharp claws grazing their heels.
“I need to learn how to shut up,” Pixia mumbled.
Xypia pulled out his blade and leapt from the pillar, landing on the wounded Doch’erne’s back. The thing bucked wildly as its counterpart backed up, looking for an opening to strike. Xypia leveled his cutter so that the serrated end was pressed against the thing’s neck and began sawing. Pixia did likewise to the distracted Doch’erne, landing heavily she pressed her fingers together making a spike with her sharp nails and she drove it into the creature’s neck. Her Doch’erne was considerably smarter than its counterpart, it launched itself backwards and planted Pixia against the wall where she fell to the ground, dazed. It wound back and hit her across the chest in an openhanded slap, raking its claws through her skin and tearing away her many bandages. Ignoring the dazzling pain she pulled her legs back and bucked them outward catching the thing’s shoulders. It flew across the room grazing the glowing blue orb and finally windmilling into the wall. It was on its feet almost immediately.
Pixia threw a glance over at Xypia; he was still very occupied in beheading the other Doch’erne. She stood up, leaning against the wall as the pain in her chest grew. She threw her rifle aside and pulled a second Cutter from her belt. She held them loosely at her sides waiting for the thing to make its move. Its glowing eyes were fixed firmly on her, two glowing unblinking orbs peering into her very being, calculating every possible move she could make. It began moving to the left, circling around the blue orb and avoiding Xypia. Pixia moved closer to the orb, she really hoped the thing’s vision relied mainly on light, or lack thereof. With the orb standing to her right she rushed the Doch’erne, she extended her wings and leapt. The pain was striking, she knew she shouldn’t be using them but she had no choice. Her mind grew fuzzy as the ache in her chest met the agony in her back but she kept herself together. She drew as high as she could and vaulted from the ceiling, spinning through the air she poised to smash the thing with her feet.
The Doch’erne was taken aback as its prey seemed to vanish into thin air. It didn’t have time to prepare for the two feet that plowed its head into the hard metal floor and the dual hilted smash that liquefied its skull.
Pixia collapsed with the Doch’erne the pain blanked her mind and she fell on top of the twitching carcass. Xypia finally pulled away the final tendons connecting the Doch’erne’s head to its torso and lobbed it aside. He rushed over to Pixia and pulled her off of the decapitated corpse. Without a second glance he ran from the room, his feet making wet slaps as the echoes reverberated down the empty corridors.