"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 29"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG-13

Leaving Part II
Let's Try This Again

       In identical imitation of the day before Levio barely managed to get Tessla and himself in the car before an impatient Vash had the engine revving ready to leave. Levio was guessing that Tessla had some other henchmen disable the truck the day before while she was telling the two gunmen about the secrets and codes. Then during the night the same ones must have repaired it. He wondered what parts of the vehicle had been removed and replaced, but then, it didn‘t matter as car engines were not his strong suit. What he understood was that Tessla considered it important to have it done as she considered it was absolutely necessary to slow the gunslingers down.

        Levio looked over at the two men, observing the air of impatience that hung over them. If they weren’t in an all-fire hurry the day before the two were now practically chomping at the bit to get on the road, especially when his mistress explained how long it was going to take for them to arrive there.

        Levio looked over at the two gunmen, observing the air of impatience that hung over them. If they weren’t in an all-fire hurry the day before the two were now practically chomping at the bit to get on the road, especially when his mistress explained how long it was going to take for them to arrive there.

        With a grim look on his face Vash put the engine into gear and let out the clutch. Hair began to whip around their heads slowly at first then more quickly as the car started to pick up speed.

        Out of the corner of his eye Wolfwood noticed that Vash’s grasp on the wheel was so tight it was threatening to leave dents there, especially the section gripped by his artificial hand. Then turning his gaze to the hills in the far distance he thought about Milly and mentally sent her his love, telling her to hold on and that he was coming for her. He wondered if love could cross time and space and decided it could. For all that they were separated he could close his eyes and still feel a connection to her like he felt with no other person.

        Once they passed beyond the second ridge there was another wide desert stretch to cross before they came to the next set of hills and cliffs that hid the place where the compound was situated. He settled down trying to find a comfortable spot on the seat. Now they were started on the journey Wolfwood was nearly giddy with excitement. If they could just have a monotonous, humdrum journey he would be particularly grateful. He rolled his eyes upward and mouthed his request for an uneventful trip. He hoped the Big Guy was listening.

        He shot a glance at Vash out of the corner of his eye. Vash, on the other hand, looked like he was tight and rigid to the point that he could snap in two at any second.

        He leaned toward the outlaw and yelled, “You need to get control of yourself Needle Noggin. You’ll need your wits about you, what little you have at any rate.”

        The wind whipping by them tried to snatch Wolfwood’s words away before they could register.

        For an answer Vash reached inside his coat, groped for a second before pulling out his yellow-lensed glasses. Ignoring the priest’s inquiring look, he flipped open the arms and pushed them halfway up his nose to rest there. Wolfwood squinted up at the first rising sun and felt inside his pocket for his own dark shades. Finding them he pulled them out and slid them on.

        With a twitch of a grin on his lips, Wolfwood loudly cleared his throat to catch the Typhoon’s attention. Vash ignored him for a moment, then swung glowing red eyes to glare at the priest. He frowned at him from over the top rims of his glasses.

        “You know you really have lost your sense of humor since she’s been gone.” Wolfwood stated reasonably.

        As if someone flipped a switch, Vash whipped his head away from regarding the priest. Wolfwood bit the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning. Score! He knew teasing the outlaw was only a screen to mask his private worries, but for now, it was succeeding and it seemed as if his own wry observational skills were still as sharp as ever.

        The car hit a bump and he rose off of his seat an inch into the air. And this was only the first step of the journey! He sighed, hoping this wasn’t an indication that the trip, which was already promising to be a long one, wasn‘t ill-omened.

        Already bored, he leaned forward and pulled the map out from the cubbyhole. Flipping it open to the fold he needed, he stared down at the vast expanse of, what looked like, empty space. There wasn’t a whole lot written on that page and he had it committed to memory last night but the action made him feel better, like he was helping in some way.

        He followed the route with a finger then looked up at the horizon. The faint path of the road led off into the direction where they would find Knives’ hideout at the end of the line. A great heaviness had lifted off his shoulders and with a wry smile he figured that Milly’s substantial faith was infecting him.

        The only thing unknown now was what they were going to do with Knives when this was all said and done. He knew what he would like to do, but truthfully, in the end the decision was for Vash to make. Wolfwood shrugged. It was one thing for Vash to say he wanted his brother dead. It was an entirely different matter when standing face to face with his twin. Vash may go in with the intent to pull the trigger, but Wolfwood was not convinced. He still believed that there was a peace-loving, clumsy, doofus underneath all the inner wounds that were much more painful than the scars Vash carried around on his body. No, Knives was not going to be easy to take down, but outside of killing him, Wolfwood couldn’t think how they could restrain the madness of the only other free-walking male plant. He lifted a finger to the center of his glasses to push them back up his nose.


       Knives looked down in vexation when she tripped and stumbled against him. Looking down he was brought up short by the sight of the drooping black head next to him. She had staggered again and would have fallen forward onto her nose except that he caught her at the last second and hauled her upright. Concern prevailed over the irritation as he pulled her up and held her to his side. He could tell she would have wilted down in an uncaring loose-limbed pile on the floor if he hadn’t been quick enough to catch her. He readjusted his hold on her trying to get a grip she couldn‘t slide through.

        Seeing the weary slump of her shoulders and the fact she was unable to lift her head Knives began to realize that she was utterly and completely done in. He blew out a puff of air in irritation. He couldn’t afford for anything to happen to her at this early stage! Although, he did notice that she was able to heal the first several plant angels much quicker than when she had exerted her powers to heal him. That was curious. He would ask her about that later.

        He turned around and headed back to the previous globe. That transfer of power and vitality had taken the longest of them all in bringing that plant angel to full white-headed health. When he came level with his sister‘s bulb the male plant stopped to look up at her globe to listen to his sister gushing praise and thanks for ridding her of the dreaded Hair Darkening Effect. The hybrid was near to collapsing and Knives wondered if she could hear his sister.

        The plant sisters voiced, at first, skepticism when he informed them of the newcomer who was going to reverse the black in their hair. Now the ones who were restored to health were excitedly chattering with the others letting them know that the hybrid indeed had the healing touch.

        Possessively he clasped the limp hybrid to his side before heading for the front of the cavern where the medical rooms were. Preparations were already in place and he could see figures moving around in the sterile room. Only a few of the most loyal, handpicked technicians and maintenance workers were allowed to come here. As much as he hated to admit it, he still needed humans to tend to the plant angels. Therefore they were a necessary evil to keep all the machines used to house his sisters at peak operating efficiency. However, these particular ones milling around waiting for them were the cream-of-the-crop of his medical crew, along with their attendants. It ate at him like a canker that he could not be rid of the vermin just yet.

        As he turned away he didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know that the regenerated plant angels were burning bright. The rest of them though, the ones he had scavenged from plant facilities where heartless engineers were bleeding the life out of sisters, were glowing dimly against the dark of the tunnel. Some were perilously close to burning out. His face grew hard. If those sisters were to be saved he would have to be more careful with this living remedy for the Hair Darkening Effect.

        Readjusting his grip on the half-breed he hefted her up so her legs weren’t dragging when he noticed that they kept collapsing out from under her. Seeing they were all but useless he stopped to swing her up in his arms. His brow creased. It bothered him that he didn’t know exactly how long it would take for her to recuperate. He looked down at her pale face and her glassy eyes. He would give a great deal to know how she did what she did and if it was something that his plant sisters would be able to learn to do. As he was staring he noticed her eyes slowly losing their glassy-eyed look. He almost faltered in his tracks. No one could regenerate that quickly! Yet she was, already.

        Behind his back were bulbs needing an infusion of the life she possessed. His shoulder blades twitched as if those failing plant angels were staring at him accusingly. They weren’t, of course, for his sisters were happy that they at last had some hope for the future. Instead, the communication between them was filled with mental cooing and chirpings as they voiced their excitement. They were so easily; too easily in his opinion, satisfied.

        He looked down at his rare burden and reluctantly acknowledged that this resource was a limited one. He would have to be more careful from here on out and only have her do so many angel healings at a time. A stab of anxiety passed through him as he realized that in his zeal he might have overdone it today. The next time he would be more mindful of her stamina and ration out her energy more prudently. If what he learned from her story was correct then there might be many more uses for this female half-plant than he had at first realized. All he needed was time and the right equipment.

        As for Rinnah, she was dimly aware of her environment as she watched the lights pass by overhead. No matter how tired she was right now she knew that soon the weary state she was in now would begin to fade. Shortly she should be feeling more energetic... if he would only leave her alone so she could recover in peace. Sun barnacles eat his hide! With a start, she realized she was already starting to feel better. In the past it would have taken her longer than this to recuperate. Maybe I am getting better with practice. Who knew? Uh oh, this may not be a good thing.

        She stared up at his face but he wasn’t looking at her, instead his focus was on something or someone ahead of them. That’s when she became aware of the murmur of voices.

        Knives headed for the prep room and was rewarded to see the scrambling to get everything ready by the time he arrived. Someone even remembered to open the door for him.

        Turning his torso as he entered to keep her head from hitting the frame of the door, he made for the metal table in the middle of the room. Gently he placed the hybrid on it and noted that her eyes were on him. Stepping back he started to turn away when she tried to sit up. In a flash he was by her side pushing her down again.

        Ignoring her frown he ordered, “Don’t move.”

        “Screw your bulb! I’ll sit up if I want to.” She moved to swing her legs off the table and slide out from under his restraining hand when he gave a nod to the side. All of a sudden there were more hands on her than a plague of locusts at harvesting time.

        “Hey, get your hands off me! I don’t even know you! And where the hell do you think you are going to put that hand, eh? And you, if you want to keep those fingers, then I strongly suggest you move them!”

        There was more but Knives was busy watching as his senior plant engineer came forward with a hypo-needle filled with the specific concoction mixed for her alone. He stepped back in and grabbed a hold of the squirming female because his men were beginning to get thrown off and at this rate she would soon be free. He knew she wouldn’t be able to throw them all off at the same time if he was helping hold her down, especially in her tired condition.

        Rinnah was beginning to struggle in earnest as she realized these men were gowned and had masks hanging from their necks and some even had surgical gloves on.

        “Oh no you don‘t! You can just check me out of this freak hospital right now! And you!” She lashed a momentarily freed foot at a heavyset man with a mop of curly brown hair, “Get your flipping hands off me!! Okay, that’s it, you are not leaving here with the same teeth you came in with. Your own mother won’t recognize you when I am through with you.” A well-placed kick sent the man reeling back to slam against the wall. She didn’t notice him shake his head before diving back into the fray to help another attendant grab and hold that same leg down. One limb at a time she was restrained but only just barely. Even in her weakened condition, without Knives helping them they would not have been able to keep her down.

        Whipping her head back to the other side of the table to peg a glare at a greasy-faced looking attendant who was being a little too free with his own paws. Since both legs were pinned from ankles to knees the only thing loose was her tongue which she used to verbally assault the man until the doctor shoved his way between two men and pushed the drug-filled hypo-needle into her arm. It didn’t take any time at all for the sedative to take affect cutting her off in mid-sentence, “We have not been properly introduced, you shaggy ape! And as for you, you... pervert, you... can..... ” instantaneously her eyes closed as she sagged back into the hands still holding her as if their lives depended upon it, which they did.

        As if dealing with fragile porcelain china, they cautiously eased her back onto the table and gently arranged her limbs. Several were looking accusingly at the largest man there. He could have gotten them all in trouble and displeased the Master.

        Then they looked up to see the expression on their Master’s face. Was he pleased? He was and nodded even though his eyes didn’t move off the sedated hybrid. After bending at the waist they all stepped away from the table and moved to the other end of the room in case he still needed their assistance.

        The older doctor and his chief medical engineer stepped up to him, but not so close as to invade his private space. One didn’t have to know the powerful plant for long to quickly learn where the boundary line was.

        With an apologetic bow, he asked, “What is your will, Master?”

        “Begin the preparations.”

        “Master, what if she doesn‘t survive the surgery?”

        “She will. She’s too stubborn not to.“

        He looked over at the chief doctor and instructed, “Hook up the plant regulators and fluid conductors to the new bulb and this time don’t forget to fine tune the coupling nodes first!“

        Knives snapped out orders, not caring if it was making his team back away nervously, as long as they did what they were told and the end results were what he wanted.

        “Link them to the wave regulator and then the assembly reserve router. That will supply all the energy she needs with enough to spare.”

        “As you say Master.”

        Before he exited the room, Knives turned to look at the unconscious female with icy eyes. Looking up he stabbed the doctor with them. “There will be no failure.”

        “Of course Master.” He knew that if anything were to go wrong on the operating table and the Master lost his new acquisition his life was over. There were many benefits when one worked for Knives but job security or a long life expectancy wasn’t among them. He lowered his head and listened to the Master’s footsteps move away.

Clowns To The Left of Me, Jokers To The Right

       “What do you mean we’re out of gas!” Wolfwood demanded. He watched Vash bang his forehead against the steering wheel while muttering a string of hair-scorching curses under his breath. The self-inflicted punishment was the only thing keeping the priest from leaping over to Vash’s side of the car and strangling the outlaw’s scrawny little neck.

        “Don’t tell me you forgot to fill up before we left town?” He asked disbelievingly, his hands raised and fingers curled into claws with the desire to inflict damage upon the Typhoon‘s person.

        “We were a little busy at the time, remember?” Vash muttered through clenched teeth, head resting on the wheel with eyes squeezed tight in frustration. “And I don’t remember you saying anything at the time!”

        “Oh sure, find a way to blame the priest, why not, every...”

        Wolfwood broke off mid-yell as his face went slack for a second before he beat a fist against his forehead. He let out such a potent curse that Vash looked up from the steering wheel to stare at him.

        “Aw I can’t believe this!” Wolfwood moaned, eyes squeezed shut as he recalled the supplies tucked safely away in the back of the truck. “I swear Needle Noggin, you get me so worked up...” he trailed off without finishing his thought.

        Intrigued Vash sat up straight waiting for the priest to conclude his baffling statement.

        Only a few scant moments ago their vehicle came to rolling stop, sputtering and coughing.

        Staring around at the scenery which was passing by them slower and slower, Wolfwood turned to study the notorious outlaw with exasperation. “What did you do now Spikey?”

        Vash didn’t answer, he stared, eyes fixed in front of him on the fuel gauge that was registering empty while his glasses slipped down to the end of his nose. Unnoticed by him they hung there precariously.

        Vash only noticed them when Tessla’s voice broke through his introspection, jerking him from his haze before becoming aware of them and shoved them back up again before they could slide off.

        Sitting up to lean her crossed arms along the back of the front seat she looked from one gunslinger to the other before asking, “What is wrong Vash uncle?” She turned to the priest, “Vash friend?”

        Wolfwood said, “Wolfwood or Nicholas, or even Mr. Priest, but please, not ‘Vash friend’ okay?”

        “I understand,” she replied and her eyes rolled in thought before deciding. “Vash’s companion.”

        “That’s worse!” Wolfwood grated out through clenched teeth. Then he reminded himself to relax before saying, “It is really quite simple, watch my lips,” he said as he turned in his seat so she could see his face. “Wolfwood,” he enunciated it slowly and made each syllable comprehensible. “That’s all you need to say.”

        She tilted her head to the side, “Vash’s Wolfwood? Vash’s man Wolfwood?

        “Never, never, use those names again! EVER! If you feel you have to call me something then ‘Vash friend’ will do.” He rubbed his forehead where a tension headache was beginning to make its presence felt.

        The plant girl blinked at his fierce tone wondering why he was so agitated. Obligingly she spoke his name trying to mimic his pronunciation. She was gratified to see his shoulders relax a bit. It was obviously important to him. What she didn‘t understand was why it was giving her such a warm feeling when it became apparent that he was pleased she was making an effort say his name correctly. She discovered the smile he threw back at her made her feel warm and tingly inside.

        As Wolfwood was instructing Tessla on the proper pronunciation of his name, Vash scrubbed his face with the glove of his real hand wondering how he could have forgotten that they had been heaving supplies into the back of the truck only the day before. He knew Wolfwood would never let him live this down. He rested his forehead on the wheel again as he listened to Tessla teasing Wolfwood by not quite getting his name correct. He wondered if the priest knew he was being played with.

        Finally satisfied the plant girl could say his name right, he turned back to Vash, “Supplies, remember?”

        Wolfwood gave a small shake of his head at the slumped shoulders of the outlaw. Obviously Vash was a tad bit embarrassed at having forgotten the morning they had spent searching, buying and then loading up the supplies. He could sympathize, didn’t he forget too? The day before had been pretty hectic and filled with all sorts of interesting commotion.

        Swinging his legs over the truck door, Wolfwood started for the back with sigh. Needle Noggin wasn’t acting like his usual self, but then he wasn’t feeling fantastically normal either. He would be glad when this whole ugly episode was behind them and he had his Honey with him again.

        Coming around the back of the truck, Wolfwood unhooked the chains holding the tailgate in place and cautiously lowered it, taking care not to pinch his fingers. Climbing up into the truck bed Wolfwood grumbled about all the obstacles they were running into. What should be a simple quest for their women was turning into a strangely difficult ordeal. For it to get any worse all they needed was a horde of bandits to come roaring over the horizon to surround them.

        “I should be thankful it’s not worse. She would say that the glass is half-full and I should be happy about that,” Wolfwood knew no one was listening to his complaints but he couldn’t stop from talking out loud to himself, “but no, not me, I always see the glass filled with something undrinkable in the first place.”

        Quickly he found the fuel cans and squatting down began to unbuckle the nearest one. Feeling a shadow fall across him he looked back over his shoulder and squinted one-eyed against the glare of the sun even through his dark shades. Vash was standing next to him. The plant was ghostlike quiet when he wanted to be.

        Wolfwood said to Vash as he stared at him from over his shoulder, “Want to give me a hand with this?”

        “Sure.” Vash reached down and took a hold of the handle on one side while Wolfwood got the other.

        “Hey Needle Noggin,” Wolfwood said softly to get the outlaw’s attention.

        Vash lifted his yellow-tinted lenses to peer at Wolfwood.

        “It happens, okay?” he said and gave Vash a lopsided grin.

        Vash nodded with a hint of a smile showing on his lips. Once again, everything was as okay.

        They were rolling the can to the tailgate when Vash leaped down to the ground and began pulling the container while Wolfwood guided it from his position above.

        With Vash helping to manipulate the fuel container over to the edge of the tailgate, Wolfwood was sure it would be easy to lower to the ground, easy for Vash that is, he had no intention of straining his muscles. Hopping down from the edge he waited for the outlaw to grab a hold of the can. Vash noticed he was the only one holding onto the can and turned to give the priest a dirty look over the rim of his lenses.

        Wolfwood was filled with the desire to snatch those yellow lenses off his face and toss them away. The outlaw used them as if they were a weapon in their own right. The black-haired man sighed and reached over to take a handle. Funny how those glasses could slip down whenever the Typhoon wanted to pin someone with a glare and then when he didn’t want anyone to see his eyes they miraculously appeared on the bridge of his nose so he could hide behind those lenses. Stupid spectacles!

        Without exchanging a word, both men got a good handhold and began to scoot the fuel container toward the edge to lift down. Just as they lifted it down they both became aware of a growling noise off in the distance and headed their way.

        Two heads popped up at the same time. Encountering someone this far in the wastes was extremely rare and usually meant bandits. Law-abiding citizens didn’t come out this way as there was nothing in the form of legitimate business to be had on this side of the desert.

        Instinctively and without realizing what they were doing, Vash and Wolfwood angled their shoulders to one another, slightly back to back as they searched the horizon’s edge with hard, grim eyes.

        The sound enveloped them from all directions and instantly they could tell it wasn’t just the echo of one car engine coming across the empty desert. Giving each other a knowing look they reached for their weapons at the same time. Wolfwood’s gun was in his hand in an instant while Vash’s hand floated down to cover the hilt of his, finger instinctively finding the trigger guard and sliding in.

        Tessa's voice called back to them, “Vash uncle, Wolfwood friend, I fear there are some motor vehicles headed in our direction. I suspect they are up to no good.”

        Vas noticed that she didn’t sound frightened about these approaching unknown persons who were up to no good.

        Wolfwood and Vash gave each other another look between them understanding immediately what the other was thinking. The priest gave the outlaw a tight smile while shrugging and said, “Some things never change.”

        Vash nodded, returning the preacher’s smile with a twitch of his lips, “It‘s show time!”

        Then he bent over, grabbed the can by the handles, and without any sign of effort easily lifted it up and carried it over to the fuel tank’s cap. Wolfwood returned his gun to his suit pocket and hurried around to pull out his cross punisher.

        As Vash hefted the fuel container up to the tank spout he heard Wolfwood remark to Tessla, “Girl, if this is any of your doing I will personally lock you in your room and throw the key down a bottomless well!”

        Vash made a soft sound of agreement but was careful not to let himself become distracted by the conversation. It was, however, exactly what was running through his head. Yet one more thing calculated to slow them down. He wouldn’t put it past the conniving little plant girl.

        “This is not my doing!” Protested the young female plant. “I swear on the plant bulb of my ancestors!”

        Vash could barely restrain from rolling his eyes.

        Wolfwood was watching her with doubt written all over his face while lifting his weapon out. He gave her one last measuring look before popping open the restraint snap on the key buckle holding the cloth around his cross. He, too, wasn’t entirely convinced by her claim of innocence.

        He closed his eyes to concentrate on where the loudest sound was coming from. Having located it, the priest opened his eyes and faced in that direction while running a calloused hand up and down the surface of his cross. His fingers ran over the skull grip slots but he refrained from sliding his fingers through them just yet, instead choosing to wait and see how the action was going to be played out.

        “Maybe we’re cursed,” he suggested.

        “I wouldn’t doubt it for a minute,” agreed the infamous Humanoid Typhoon. His brow was puckered from focusing on the job at hand. It was slow going. Next time he would buy fuel containers with wider spouts.

        Wolfwood planted the foot of his cross punisher between his feet and leaned on one of the arms wishing he had a cigarette to help pass the time while he waited.

        With a growl he complained “I have said this before but I will say it again,” he lifted his face up and yelled to the empty blue of an uncaring sky, “we don’t have time for this!”

        Catching Wolfwood’s attention, Tessla stood up on her seat. Placing a hand to her brow to shade her eyes she turned one way and then another scanning the desert around them. After doing a slow one hundred and eighty-degree sweep, she informed them, “There are six vehicles surrounding us. The closest is coming from that direction,” she pointed to the flat land off to the right side of the truck, “and it will be the first one to arrive.”

Who Invited Him To The Party?

       The young female plant sat down before looking over at Levio. His head was bent; eyes fixed on his knees with his arms folded over his chest. The long hair on one side of his head was hanging over and covering that side of his face. Feeling the weight of those white orbs on him, he slowly lifted his eyes to hers.

        The brooding look Tessla saw there quickly disappeared behind a blank wall. He met her gaze while waiting with quiet patience for her will to be made known.

        Unseen by Vash or Wolfwood, Tessla slipped a black control box from her pocket, letting Levio see it as she pulled it out. His eyes widened in understanding.

        Pushing a series of buttons for the restraining code, she spoke softly so that only Levio could hear her, “Razlo, protect.”

        Instantly, Levio’s features changed from unsure and uncertain to aggressively confident as his bearing changed as well. With an expression halfway between a smile and a snarl Razlo leaped out of the car and landed on his feet with catlike grace. Then he reached up to a small storage shelf to pull out a bundle as long as the length of his arm and began untying it. He let the cloth fall away and drop to the ground revealing two cross-shaped weapons. In shape they were much like versions of Wolfwood‘s cross punisher only smaller, a little longer than the size of large man‘s forearm. Whipping them up he twirled them as if getting a feel for them again. Razlo reveled in the joy of the weight of his Double Fangs as they flashed brightly around him in a dancing arc.

        The dark-haired man looked up to observe Levio taking a stand next to him and with a touch of curiosity watched as Levio twirled his guns with expert precision and skilled ease. After spinning the Double Fangs this way and that in a complex pattern in the air in front of him, he halted, apparently satisfied with the short warm up drill. Crossing his arms he began strapping the weapons to three bands attached to his coat sleeves. All of this done with confident moves without any excess or wasted movement. Wolfwood was impressed. Usually the assassin was more hesitant than this; he didn’t know Levio had it in him.

        Once the weapons were fastened in place Levio turned his attention to the approaching cars with an aloof hostility radiating from him. Then, as if feeling the priest’s considering look, he turned to find slanted gray eyes regarding him with interest.

        Wolfwood was about to turn his attention away when an inner alarm warned him something was amiss. He looked closer and saw eyes of a beast staring back at him as Razlo lifted one side of his lip up in an animalistic snarl. Any other day the killer would have attacked the preacher no questions asked. What Wolfwood didn’t know was that this day the manslayer was on an unseen leash.

        Well acquainted with the indescribable hunger coming over him Razlo welcomed the embrace of the unquenchable bloodlust surging through his brain.

        Razlo fingered one of the straps on his arm. The hunger was an incessant craving to destroy, hurt, kill and then afterwards walk through the wasted ashes of his carnage. This was his one unholy desire in life, to leave chaos and desolation whenever crossing paths with the pathetic sheep upon which he fed. Their terror was his food, their pleas for mercy his drink, and their dying voices his arias of joy. The only annoyance was that no matter how much one half of his soul gloried in the spilled blood, the other half knew only a grief-stricken howling as remorse tore through his soul. Always, over and over again, the fanged twin was forced to feed at the banqueting table of misery and despair to fill the hollow spaces that the weak other poured out in repentance.

        He snarled in hate at the pathetic frail being. With the controller Razlo couldn’t wake up to be the terror that walked by night, he could only watch through the eyes of the tamed one. His rage knew no limits. The beast prowled within the confines of Levio’s mind waiting for a chance to escape, and here, one was being handed to him. The problem was that he wasn’t exactly free. The walls of his prison were broadened and he could act within the clear-cut guidelines, but other than that, he was still a prisoner. Since he couldn’t slake his blood thirst as he wished, he would do what he could and send as many as he was able into the darkness, their last screams ones of despair. The imagery brought a twisted grin of perverse joy to his lips.

        This was what Wolfwood read in the eyes lighting up like a demon straight from hell, the creature without a conscience, bereft of any human kindness and compassion.

        “Oh shit.” He mouthed and took an involuntary step back.

        The priest knew his life was meant nothing to the ravager. Automatically he made a move to lift the cross punisher and aim at Razlo. He would show him mercy all right, the kind shown to a rabid dog to keep him from running amok. However, in an unexpected move, the killer turned his gaze away from him. Wolfwood froze, confused, and then shook his head to clear it as if suddenly released from a magic spell. Quickly he assessed the level of danger to the rest of them. It was high, very high. No one could predict when such a beast as this would turn and tear into them without a qualm.

        Wolfwood’s guts churned inside of him. Should he kill him now? Shoot first and explain later? A finger tensed on his trigger. If he did it would save them all from trouble they didn’t need. Now would be the time to do it. The attention of the manslayer was turned away, facing the pending threat in front of them. The priest saw the beast’s limbs trembling from the force of his desire to attack and kill and yet, puzzlingly, he stayed put, silent as a stone.

        Relaxing his finger, Wolfwood decided to take this is a good sign and give Levio/Razlo a second chance. Watching the killer out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Razlo was unsnapping and then snapping one strap after another that held the Double Fangs to his forearms in an agitated manner.

        Great, Wolfwood fumed to himself. I’m standing next to someone who doesn’t even have a passing acquaintance with mental health and what is worse, has pre-battle jitters! Rolling his eyes to the sky he prayed for a favorable outcome.

        Knuckling his eyelid with his free hand he was having misgivings about his decision not to shoot Razlo. He couldn’t wait to spring this new development on Vash and see his reaction.

Pacing Oneself

       Fretting was not solving anything. Could she stop herself from doing it though? No, she couldn‘t.

        If ever there was a contest for worrying Meryl knew she could take first prize easily, hands down and without breaking a sweat.

        And was there ever reason to worry!

        Meryl’s measured steps took her around and around the living room in a large circle. Every once in a while she switched and walked in the opposite direction for a change of pace. She wasn’t precisely wringing her hands but they were clasped tightly together in front of her.

        No worries whatsoever. A breathless but cynical laugh escaped past her lips before she realized it. Her best friend in the whole world was pregnant. Her pregnant friend was being held a prisoner. Her friend the prisoner was at the mercy of a human-hating plant. What was a little experimenting on a human after having killed so many? A bona fide killer of humanity and Meryl was sweet on him. The whole situation was hopeless but there must be a way for Milly to escape before anyone noticed she was pregnant. There had to be! She was fearful for her friend to the point that her stomach was churning. Oh yes indeed, no worries whatsoever. She and her best friend were only plotting on going against the most powerful being on the planet and the mere contemplation of it was bleak to say the least.

        Taking another turn about the room she instinctively listened to the nonsensical sounds Melanie made as she babbled away to herself. Despite her thoughts centering on Milly’s situation and trying to come up with a solution, the mother in Meryl multi-tasked, keeping one eye on her daughter while trying to figure a way out for her friend. No problem, she could do all this and sort laundry at the same time! Ha ha, aren’t I the humorous one? Okay then, if I am so funny why can’t I come up with a plan? Making plans and carrying them out until completion is what I was good at. Right now no one would even suspect that I used to do it for a living! She knocked one fist lightly against the side of her head as if that would help with the plotting process even as she kept tabs on her daughter.

        The toddler was walking from one piece of furniture to another while picking up a doll or a stuffed animal and moving it around the room as the mood suited her. Every once in a while the young child fixed familiar artic blue eyes on her mother as if sensing something was wrong with her parent.

        The circuit brought Meryl near and she stopped to kneel by her daughter to remove a doll’s head that was wedged in the slats of the rocking chair. After an absent smile and a quick kiss to the child’s forehead Meryl stood and continued her pacing. As she neared the kitchen she stopped short in her tracks as a thought occurred to her.

        Was it possible? Could she make it work? Did she have the courage? Would it be successful? Would they get caught? She started pacing again. They may get caught; but then again, it was possible that Milly might get away. If anyone got caught it would be Meryl; that was a given. The price was high but it didn’t take but a heartbeat for Meryl to decide. Meryl knew that Knives would figure out that she was the one behind the scheme and had used his own alarm system against him. He would really hate that. Meryl’s lips twitched in the only amusement she was likely to get in the next several hours. No, he would be furious beyond belief, in fact, in a towering rage. The smile slid off her face as fast as it had appeared. Knives in a rage was not pleasant to witness especially if it was directed at the one watching. Suddenly the idea of leaving with Milly wasn’t looking all that bad.

        In his office was the button. First she had to get to his office. That wouldn’t present a problem since she had been there many times in the past. After that she needed to get into his private office, his sanctum sanctorum. Again, she had been there a multitude of times also. However, she needed to get in there alone, find the button which was hidden, and then push it. All without being questioned or stopped. How easy was that? Right. I’m doomed.

        Meryl pulled up short. If she kept thinking of all the things that could go wrong then she would end up only frightening herself into a catatonic state and nothing would get accomplished. The thing to do now was focus on the things the might be doable.

        Before she decided anything though she needed to talk to Milly since this affected her directly.

        She glanced over at her daughter. If she did leave she would take Melanie with her and that meant Knives would come rushing after her, with a vengeance. There was no place on the planet where Knives’ wouldn’t find them. Come to think of it, that actually might be good for Milly and the rest of the humans because Meryl knew that he would drop everything else to concentrate on finding her. Involuntarily she shuddered wondering what he would do to her once he caught up with her. It was a difficult decision, stay and get punished or runaway and get punished. She closed her eyes, either way it wasn’t looking good for her. Her shoulders slumped in defeat for a second before Meryl stubbornly straightened her spine and began slapping her cheeks. This is no way for a Stryfe to think! No use dwelling on things before they happened.


        Meryl looked down to see her daughter tugging on her skirt. The other hand was holding up her stuffed thomas to her. Lowering to her haunches Meryl took the toy with an exclamation of thanks. She cradled the toy in her arms and cooed over it pretending to rock it to sleep. All of her pretense was not wasted on the small child who giggled with approval while hopping up and down in place. Then reaching an open hand up for the toy, she waddled over to the couch and laid it gently on a pillow. When she finished with that, she noticed the colored blocks in the middle of the floor. In a few seconds she was plopped down next to them and began building a lop-sided tower that when it tipped over Melanie let out a howl of frustration. She made several attempts before one was straight enough to not tip over.

        Meryl flopped back on her rear with her legs splayed out in front of her while leaning back on a supporting arm. She smiled as she watched the tower her daughter was building, that is, until her sensitive nose picked up the odor announcing that someone in the room needed their diaper attended to.

        “Come here Sweatpea, let Mommy change you.”

        “Na!” Came the stubborn answer accompanied by an equally obstinate look on her small face. In that split second the toddler did an about-face and plump legs moved as fast as they could for the opposite side of the room. Hiding behind Knives’ large cushioned chair she let Meryl know that she had no intention of cooperating with the operation of removing a soiled garment from her person.

        Meryl tried not to let a smile crease her features as the tiny plant girl peeked at her from behind the chair. This attitude was a new development too and Meryl knew this phase would only last a day or two. With a sigh Meryl stood to her feet and stared at the chair until she saw a dark head peek around from behind it.

        With fists on hips and a mock stern look firmly in place Meryl asserted, “Melanie, Mommy says come here right now!”

        “Na! Na!” And the child ducked behind the chair entirely.

        Meryl sighed again; the battle royale was beginning with a volley over the port side. The large destroyer began circling the little freighter with its odiferous cargo. Bottom heavy, the little freighter tried valiantly to elude the charge of the great warship but to no avail. A frustrated wail sounded out the capture and enforced berthing of the smaller ship at the changing harbor. Smuggled goods were removed and disposed of quickly and efficiently.

        Once the poop decks were swabbed and cleaned, the sniffling freighter, now relieved of the contraband, was lifted up and cuddled.

        Meryl cradled the small child against her breast feeling the diminishing hiccups against the sensitive skin of her neck. Cooing softly she rocked back and forth from one leg to the other, hips swaying as she hummed a lullaby for her precious bundle. Soon the child was breathing the deep sounds of contented sleep. Meryl smiled and moved toward the crib and frowned down at it in thought. It wasn’t going to be needed for very much longer. Good thing they still had Tessla’s old bed stored away. Maybe Knives could have someone bring it in... If he didn’t kill her before she was able to ask him that is. Motherhood was not for the faint of heart and neither was living with Knives. Heaving a huge sigh, she sent a puff of air up to move the bangs hanging down in her eyes and wondered if she should even bother picking out colors to repaint the bathroom.

        After covering Melanie with her blanket, Meryl tiptoed out of the room and closed the door behind her.

        Now she started to make a mental list. Normally a piece of paper and pen would be used in the process but leaving a list of supplies needed for an escape for Knives to find was the height of folly. Meryl wasn’t worried about forgetting anything though; she had a very orderly mind and was sure to remember everything. She imagined a piece of paper scrolling out of her typewriter with everything she needed listed in a neat column. No typos of course, at least, not on the imaginary sheet of paper in her mind.

        The door slid open and Knives stepped in causing Meryl to jump in surprise.

        “What have I said about sneaking up on me!” Hissed Meryl, a fist on hip and jabbing a pointed finger at him accusingly.

        Throwing a quick glance at the clock she saw that it was early yet, not time for lunch. What was he doing back so soon? He was so punctual and rigid with his coming and going that she rarely needed to look at a clock to know the hour of the day, but here he was. How dare he not abide by his usual routine, what was he trying to do, mess with her head when she needed her wits about her? He was acting, acting,... well, human, if she had to find a word that fit the bill, and she was ready to tell him so not caring if that comment would send him over the edge or not. Wouldn’t you know it. The one day she needed him to act in accordance with his rigid habits, and what did he do, but change everything, all without informing her.

        “You are...” Knives was going to make a comment about her emotional state but remembered in the nick of time that in the past she did not take kindly to such remarks. Also, he couldn’t help but notice her deepening frown and the glint of anger in her eyes as she suspected he was on the verge of making some observation concerning her humanity, yet again. He paused, holding a breath as the lavender highlights flooded her eyes bringing a purplish hue to them. It was so uniquely ‘Meryl’ and he had never seen anything quite as wondrous as the sight. He doubted she even knew it her eyes did that.

        Knives tilted his head, wrenching his eyes from those hypnotic eyes to fall on delicious looking lips. He knew how they tasted. With effort he jerked his attention to take in her overall manner. ‘Easily overwrought’ was the conclusion he was coming to upon seeing her agitation. However, and without bothering to look, he reached over to the side and tapped in the code that closed and locked the door behind him while his eyes dipped lower.

        Meryl’s eyes followed his fingers and her brow raised up in question. Slowly her hand sank to her side as the realization dawned on her as, for the first time, she noticed the look in his eyes. It wasn’t the usual lost-in-thought look that meant his mind was still on business. He might not bring a briefcase home with him, but everything was up there, swirling around in that brilliant mind of his. Nor was it the glowering dark look that meant something wasn’t performing up to his expectations or there was a setback he had not anticipated. No, this was something different. She noticed that his eyes were alight, a clear artic blue and fastened on... She glanced down and then up as a furious blush began to redden her cheeks. It didn’t take a plant bulb engineer to figure out what he was gazing at. With a stab of insight she knew it for it was, a very human thing to do and why she it had taken her so long to catch on. It wasn’t a behavior she expected to see in him. Then again, it was a very male thing no matter what the species.

        “Would you like some lunch?” She asked trying to distract him and give herself time to think. Thinking seemed an important thing to do right then even though what was running through her mind was, Oh surely he doesn’t want to again? We just... and gasped in surprise.

        Knives had vanished from where he was standing only to materialize right in front of her, not an inch of space to separate them.

        “STOP DOING THAT!” Meryl shouted. Then remembering her sleeping child slapped a hand over her mouth. Ignoring her predicament for the moment, she listened for any sounds of a waking child coming from Melanie’s room and released the breath she had been holding as the silence continued.

        Turning her attention back to him she gave him her fiercest glare and tried to step back but a hand was on her shoulder holding her in place. She instinctively knew that the sting out of her intended rebuking glare was rendered harmless if not comical by the close proximity and ridiculous tilt of her head. It was hard to intimidate him when his head loomed over her like that. Ignoring the sharp crick developing in her neck, she doubled the intensity of her glare. He knew how much she hated it when he did that speed trick of his again. It was really irri...

        Suddenly Meryl was hoisted up with feet dangling in the air, pressed tightly held against his chest. She could just make out a grin growing across his face and all of a sudden she couldn’t stop staring. His gaze was fastened hungrily onto her lips before traveling over her face and neck. She tried to be aloof but it was a lost cause battle. A flush was rising up her face and a warm tingling in her belly, as she became entranced under his penetrating stare.

        Finally she cleared her throat, still not quite believing what was happening.

        “Oh no, you can’t be serious! ... You want to... Again?! But, we... It’s only been... Hey!”

        Without a word, he scooped her legs up even as he nuzzled the soft skin behind her ear causing shivers to run up and down her spine. Without looking she knew where they were headed.

        Dammit, she had just made the bed too!

No Matter Where We Go...

       Vash finished emptying the fuel can into the gas tank before tossing the container back into the truck bed. He took a couple of steps over to where Tessla sat watching the incoming cars with disdainful eyes.

        Feeling his displeasure she turned to look up into her uncle’s face. It was with some surprise she found herself repressing the urge to shudder from the unearthly glow of those red eyes glaring down at her over the rims of his glasses. This was her first experience to have them centered unrelentingly on her like this. It was rather disconcerting. Reflexively she slouched down a little in her seat.

        Leaning over and gripping the edge of the door with both hands supporting his weight he ordered, “you stay put. Do not get involved. Understand?”

        White orbs swung up to meet the crimson ones.

        “Vash uncle, I cannot help?”

        “No you can’t. Do us a favor and stay out of this.”

        The sulking plant girl sank down even further in her seat. Stupid old people! She could be a big help if they would just let her, but no, they bossed her around when they weren‘t busy ignoring her. No one appreciated her offer. They were always wanting her to sit down, keep quiet, don’t move, don’t think, and stay out of the way. Well they would all certainly rue the day they treated her like this, especially when she became queen of the planet. Yes, she liked the sound of that and even better was the image of them kneeling fearfully before her throne. It would be worth the wait.

        Seeing the gathering storm of rebellion barely contained under the surface, Vash gave the girl one last warning look before darting to the other side of the truck to stand next to Wolfwood’s right. He took vague notice that Wolfwood appeared to be more distraught than usual and thought that strange. It wasn’t like the priest to be so coiled up with tension like this over something they both knew wasn‘t going to be that big of a problem. With a mental shrug he turned his attention to the cars which were now close enough to make out the individuals within.

        As Vash’s eyes scanned the scene in front of him he lifted his prosthetic arm and with the middle finger slowly and deliberately pushed on the nosepiece of his sunglasses until they completely covered his eyes.

        “Uh, Vash,” began Wolfwood while also elbowing the outlaw in the side to get his attention.

        “What is it?”

        “A bit of a complication has come up.”

        “Please God, no.” Moaned Vash. There was silence. “Okay, I give. What now?”

        “Oh, nothing much, really ...”

        “I’ve heard that before and it usually ends up with me running from a hail of bullets and you cussing like a drunken sailor. Am I right?”

        Wolfwood was talking funny and Vash glanced over to see that the priest’s lips on the side facing him was the only part of his mouth moving.

        “The crazy is loose.”

        “We already know that.”

        “No, the insane one is out and in control.”

        “What do you... ” A puzzled wrinkle appeared above Vash’s brow before understanding dawned on him.

        Eyes closed and head bent, he muttered quietly as the fingers of his prosthetic hand gripped the bridge of his nose. “Oh crap.”

        Lifting his hand higher, he began rubbing his forehead in an attempt to think.

        “Okay then, you watch him and let me take care of our unwanted company.”

        “Right, I get the crazy. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m a priest not a psychiatrist.” Too late, Vash was turning away but he let out one last parting shot, “Or a zoo keeper.”

        He looked back over at Razlo who appeared not to have heard a word or if he did, didn’t care that he was being talked about. “Stupid Needle Noggin makes it sound so easy.”

        As he took several steps in front of Wolfwood and Levio the scene in front of Vash was all too familiar. He could have written the script for it without difficulty. Knowing the posturing that was going to be coming, along with the expected threats, demands, challenges and accompanying boasts, he cursed. Again, it would eat up more time than he was prepared to spend. With mouth turning down he decided the script needed to be rewritten. His right hand never strayed far from his piece, hovering above it as he gauged the social misfits confronting them. For a change of pace he wasn’t going to play the buffoon and stumble and trip his way around while disabling the gang.

        Vash took it all in with one quick glance, the cars, men, guns, ammunition, the simplistic attack pattern, along with possible angles and trajectories they might use. There were a few more particulars and details to be considered but he had all the information he needed in order to make his counterattack.

        The cars were close enough now to make out the faces of the men riding in them in. He watched with a sour expression as they turned their vehicles to begin circling the truck.

        Vash glanced back at Wolfwood who looked like he wanted to say something more but the gunslinger spoke first.

        “They’re trying to use scare tactics.” He was unhappy with the show.

        Closing his mouth Wolfwood scanned the crowd and nodded, his narrowed gaze also automatically probing their adversaries for weaknesses.

        Both men watched with interest as the lead car broke from the circle, turned toward them. It approached several yarz before halting. They could see three men in it conversing together as they, in turn, studied the three waiting men lined up in front of the truck. Vash sincerely hoped they were discussing leaving peacefully; not that he was banking on it, what with this riffraff, and certainly not in these surroundings.

        “So,” asked Wolfwood of Vash although he never took his eyes from the circling cars, “How do you intend to play out this scenario?”

        Vash also replied without looking over, “We will just gently explain to them they have the wrong people and that it is in their best interest to move along.”

        “That’s you all right, ‘Mr. Love and Joy‘.”

        “That was ‘Love and Peace’. Corrected Vash mildly.

        “Oh yeah, how could I forget? Like that little mantra hasn’t been used by nearly every religion since Buddha wore diapers!”

        Vash shot him a swift questioning look, “You seem a little testy this morning,” observed the outlaw even as he calculated where best to place his shots.

        “Listen pal, let me tell you about ‘testy’! Last night I slept in a bed that had live vermin mating under it, next to the ear-rattling snoring of a psychopath, and every time I woke up there was your niece staring at me! Not only that, we are carting around your overbearing relative intent on slowing us down along with her manservant who has a gun, which would give any sane person the willies. On top of those little complications add to the mix: No breakfast, no coffee, I haven’t shaved, and no cigarettes! Then you got me loon-sitting this certifiable crazy...” Gesturing to the cars in front of them, “And now this!” Wearily he scratched his cheek. “So yeah, you could say I’m a little testy.”

        “You gave up smoking months ago.” Pointed out Vash, looking down as he spun the chamber of his gun.

        “I hate nonsmokers,” grumbled the priest hunching his shoulders, “So clueless!”

        Vash ignored his complaining and asked, “How about we use the same strategy as the time we rescued Lina?”

        “Aw hell!” Wolfwood made a pretense of being put upon. “That means I can’t kill anyone, right?”

        “No, you can’t. What kind of clergyman are you anyway?”

        With a lopsided grin the priest recalled, “Just graze them enough in order to make them see the error of their ways.”

        “Love and Peace.”

        “Yeah, yeah, dove in grease.”

        “You are an odd priest.”

        “Tell me about it.”

        The preacher pushed his dark shades up higher on his face to hide the relief he felt at hearing the no-kill rule coming from Vash after all this time. It was satisfying to see the old Vash emerge up from some place within and peek out, if only for a moment, to spar with his friend.

        Traveling with his Honey and with Vash had sculpted some changes into the fabric of his tattered soul. Most times it was damned inconvenient but he couldn‘t deny the relief he felt at the banter. Then in a whisper he quoted himself from ages ago, “The redeemed shall be saved in the end.” He shot a guarded look at Levio who was now Razlo. He prayed that they would all be saved in the end, even the crazed man-creature standing next to him.

        A need and hunger for Milly he had been keeping locked away broke through all the barriers and swamped him so strongly he nearly gasped at the force of it. God only knew how he needed that tall girl, desperately wanted to feel her arms wrapped around his waist and to embrace her while inhaling her sweet fragrance. He missed her with pang so sharp it was physical. It took an enormous effort but he managed to dampen it and set aside the image of his smiling wife. He knew he couldn’t let himself become distracted by the pain of her absence.

        The three men watched as the circling group came to a slow halt. When the billows of stirred up dust finally settled they found all the cars lined up facing them. The lead car started forward until it was out in front by a couple of car lengths. The other cars pulled up beside the car in front. It was all designed to be intimidating. Both gunmen looked at each other out of the corner of their eye before turning to face forward again.

Phase One of Operation Free Milly

       There was a knock at the door and Milly knew right away it was Meryl; she was the only one with manners in the this hole in the ground. She marked her page in the book by tucking her finger in before closing it. She didn’t want to lose her spot. As she was about to call out a chipper welcome the door burst open on its hinges and an impatient Meryl came bounding in.

        Two things Milly became aware of immediately: One was the baby on Meryl’s hip staring around the room with wide unsure eyes. The other was the excitement Meryl was barely able to keep contained in the presence of the guards following on her heels. Not that she was showing much on the surface but Milly knew her friend very well indeed and Meryl was ready to pop with excitement.

        Meryl quickly crossed the room while bouncing and talking in soothing undertones to her little one.

        This time two guards entered all the way in and peered around the room, hands on the butt of their guns as they did so. Milly’s eyes searched with theirs as once again, the room was looked over for signs of recent digging. What did they think she was going to use for a tool, the cheap plastic toothbrush or perhaps the miniscule bar of soap provided? Well, if nothing else they were aware of the need for good hygiene. Meryl simply waved that away saying that Knives couldn’t stand the smell of unwashed human bodies and bad breath. In fact, all prisoners were marched to showers twice a week to wash the human stink off of them. To Milly’s way of thinking that was an incentive for trying to escape as soon as possible. She wasn’t looking forward to a communal showering with other unknown prisoners.

        Obviously the guards were in a hyper state of alertness since the youngest plant child was on the scene. Milly could understand their concern and gave them a smile which neither one returned. That was okay with her. It was their skins on the line if anything happened to the baby. It was still a relief when they left though.

        She turned her attention to Meryl and found her eyes alight with determination. She sighed. The signs were unmistakable. Meryl had a cause to champion. It didn’t look like she was going to get back to her book for a good long time. The Dawntreader was going to have to set sail without her. Tossing the book onto her pillow with a rueful face she turned back to Meryl and the child she carried.

        Milly smiled one of her sunniest smiles at the child and waved, “Helllooooo!”

        Meryl looked down at her child, the fierce glowing pride evident on her face. The baby plant girl was returning Milly’s regard with a blue-eyed one of her own. The child’s stare was not like a human’s of the same age. This measuring look peeled through the outer layers to the core of who Milly was. Some decision was made before Melanie smiled in delight at the tall woman standing before her.

        Milly met the look accepting the judgment process with her usual good-humor and understanding. Throwing her torso forward over Meryl’s arm, Melanie lunged for the floor. Meryl must have been expecting it and kept a firm hold on her even as she lowered the child’s feet to the floor.

        Meryl didn’t need to explain with a ‘she wants down’ as Milly recognized the universal, non-verbal sign of a child tired of being held.

        Once the child was free she made a straight line for Milly.

        Upon reaching the Amazon the girl held up chubby hands; again, another well-known sign and Milly was only too happy to oblige. As she held the little one in her arms she gave her a careful hug and rubbed her cheek against the toddler’s feeling the soft skin before deeply inhaling the powder-fresh scent of her.

        Hearing a soft sigh, Milly opened her eyes to see Meryl’s watery eyes watching her, lips curved in a wistful smile.

        “She’s beautiful Meryl, just like you.

        Meryl waved her hand in a negative sign to deny it but Milly insisted, “No, I mean it. She’s as pretty as you inside and out!”

        At the soft chuckling she heard Milly looked up to see Meryl’s cheeks turn pink with pleasure and pride in her offspring and the comparison between the two of them.

        The small plant child indicated she wanted down now with the same method as before, she tipped her upper body over Milly’s arms. With a grin Milly placed the child on the floor where she immediately fell to investigating every corner of the room.

        Meryl gestured for Milly to follow her over to the bed and since she didn’t have anything pressing in her schedule for the day, she drifted over and sat down and waited to see what was on Meryl‘s mind.

        When Milly was comfortable Meryl took her completely by surprise saying, “Knives’ hair is back to the original white blonde color. Uh, your talented friend, uh...”

        Milly watched as her friend’s fingers worried the hem of her skirt.

        “Rinnah.” Milly supplied helpfully.

        “Right. Rinnah.” Meryl paused and Milly was beginning to feel the tension forming over Meryl like an invisible thunderstorm.

        “I don’t know what exactly it is your friend does but I do know she must have some strange ability...”

        Milly sat silent as she listened. She was pretty sure what it was Rinnah had done so she wasn’t surprised by what Meryl was telling her.

        “.... And when I woke this morning he was already up, which is not unusual, but what floored me was the color change and then there‘s the way he has been acting of late...”

        Meryl paused. Actually this didn’t have anything to do with the hair color change since the behavior was in place before that. What was new was what resulted from that behavior. She was still reeling from the events of the morning with her emotions a confused mix of joy, bliss, wonder, embarrassment, and worry. It was too much to sort out and deal with all at once, especially right now when there were other things of import that needed her attention. She desperately hoped that her expression wasn’t giving her away. At the moment Meryl was certain everything that had happened between her and Knives was as clear as if it were written on her face in neon ink. It was bad enough that she could tell that her face was now a bright cherry red.

        She lowered her eyes. Milly was giving her the look that meant she already knew what it was that Meryl wasn’t saying. Meryl threw up her hands. Sometimes it was extremely hard to keep a secret from Milly. She really hated that. Well Milly may suspect but that didn’t Meryl had to confirm her suspicions.

        “Er.... So your friend erased the black out of Knives’ hair. Has she done this kind of thing before?” It was an effort for Meryl to speak without stuttering but she managed. No need to confirm Milly’s notions.

        Milly quietly watched her embarrassed friend with a small smile knowing what had happened. She didn’t know whether to be happy for her smaller friend, since it was obvious that Meryl was in love with him, or disturbed that Knives was returning the sentiment.

        Meryl could barely sit, eyes shooting off one way and another as she squirmed under the considering light blue gaze of her tall friend as she waited for her to answer.

        Milly nodded, thinking back.

        Meryl rubbed her chin with a hand. That explained a lot.

        “I see.” Pushing aside her discomfort to look at Milly straight on, she said, “This means she is indispensable and is also going to be heavily guarded. You do realize that, don’t you?”

        Milly’s mouth set in a stubborn line before she announced firmly, “We have to help her! She would help me!”

        “We might not be able to.”


        “But we will try Milly.” She finished quietly.

        Meryl knew that Milly’s chances of escape were going down rapidly but she lifted her hands and gave a rueful shrug. “We must try.”

        At Milly’s adamant nod she smiled and leaned in closer. Milly automatically copied the movement as Meryl lowered her voice even though they were the only ones in the room.

        “Sorry Milly, but this is the best plan I can come up with.” Swiftly she outlined her thoughts before listing all the things that could possible go wrong. It was a slim chance, which was only slightly better than no chance at all.

        After sharing all that, a silence settled between them as she gave Milly time to reflect. It was surprise when the tall girl began to smile and then lifted her fingers to her mouth to cover her giggling. Pretty soon her shoulders were shaking and the giggling escalated to delighted laughter. Meryl stared at her friend, slack jawed. She was a little taken aback at this reaction.

        Milly finally stopped chuckling and said, eyes gleaming, “This is perfect Meryl!”

        Meryl was sure the good-natured woman’s eternal optimism was blinding her to the myriads of obstacles that they were facing and the millions of things that could go wrong. Millions Knives being one of them.

        Seeing Meryl’s skeptical look, Milly reached a hand over and patted her comfortingly on the arm. The short woman stared. Comforting was supposed to be her job. In fact, she was the one who should be comforting Milly about now over the hopelessness of their cause. Instead everything was backwards.

        “Really Meryl, this will work out great. It’s like two puzzle pieces coming together.”

        Leaning back in again as the role of conspirator came over her, Milly told Meryl all about the gift Rinnah had given her. As she recited her story Meryl’s expression lightened and then her lips split into a grin that widened with each word. This just might work after all! The chances of Milly’s escape had just risen by several notches.

        “How are we going to free Rinnah? Do you even know where she is?”

        The smile disappeared from Meryl’s face once again and her head dropped. It was always the little things that threatened to overthrow a perfectly good plan.

        Milly laid a finger against her cheek. The situation was dire.

        “What we need....,” she started.

        “Is pudding?” Meryl supplied looking up with a weak smile.

        “Meryl Agnes Stryfe! While I do know pudding is a necessary part of a one’s diet, now is not the time!” She admonished her friend with a wagging finger.

        Rolling her eyes up to the ceiling she added, “Maybe later... After the planning.”

        Milly raised a fist and waved it about in the air, “Yes, then we will toast our plan; for good luck purposes of course.”

        “Of course,” Meryl agreed.

        Vive le revolution!

* * *

        “Uhmmmm, Meryl?” Milly whispered.


        “I think someone needs a diaper change.”

        Of course.

I Know What a Good Idea Is and This Ain’t It

       From the front car the driver looked over the sight in front of him. Something wasn’t right; he could feel the wrongness like a shift in the air pressure. From the first as they came over the ridge he had a bad feeling about this small group of unprotected travelers seemingly ripe for the picking. The more Junk looked over the small troupe the more it intensified. This situation was not going to turn out well for the Snarling Rats; a name that he personally detested but the boss thought it a grand description and that ended that.

        Junk scanned the three men arranged in a line alongside the car. If he was seeing right there was also a young female seated in the car. His eyes returned to the line up. All three men showed no signs of fear or apprehension but rather were waiting patiently in a typical gunslinger’s stance. He shook his head in distress. The Snarling Rats weren’t used to resistance and he knew that was what they were going to find this time. He also noted that all three were ominously dressed in black. The first one in the line had a short coat on, long hair on one side of his head and the other half shaved. He turned his eyes on the next man, the one in the middle wearing a suit jacket like he was on his way to a funeral with a cross in front of him just shorter than he was tall. Then, the third was had white hair worn in upswept spikes and he also wore a black coat, only this one was the longest of the trio that had tails catching every stray breeze to gently flap about his long, lean legs.

        Ominous was a good word for it. It was broad daylight yet he was getting that twitchy feeling that let him know something was very wrong. He wondered what Mace was feeling.

        The one in the thigh-length coat also had a skull death mask covering one half of his face. Attached to his forearms were two very strange objects. Junk stared at them, yes, they were indeed shaped like crosses. Even as Junk tried to figure out how they could be used as weapons the masked man crossed his arms in front of him and began to unbuckle the straps holding the metal objects to his arms. As soon as the man had them in hand they split apart forming what were dual-layer guns. Junk’s eyes popped open at the sight of the compact, semi-automatic weapons not intended for shooting at long-range targets. They were for one lethal purpose only, that of ripping apart the human body to tiny shreds. Junk felt a cold wind pass over him.

        Then his eyes went to study the man in the middle wearing the black suit. This man only had one cross but it was much larger than the first man’s weapons. In fact, it was large enough for the man to lean his weight on it so he could wrap his arm dangling around one of the cross arms in a friendly hug, as relaxed as one could be under the circumstances. In the center where the cross beams met, was a skull worked in black metal with cut out slots for the eyes and teeth. This gent had an air of being more in control that the first man but Junk wasn’t fooled. He was no less deadly than the first, if he was correct in reading the intention showing in those narrow eyes. The man was merely biding his time waiting for the gang to make the first move. Junk knew that once they made the first hostile move all hell was going to be unleashed and they would be lucky to get out of this one alive.

        Finally his eyes went to the last man in the lineup. At a quick glance he appeared to be standing in a relaxed posture, but Junk‘s experienced eye could see the tension in his limbs. Nothing about him moved, except for that black coat of his but Junk knew restrained and controlled menace when he saw it. Unlike the first two this one had white hair stuck up in spikes all over his head. The hulk of a driver noted the man didn’t have a cross of any kind but had a large and lethal colt strapped to his hip. He noticed how the man’s right hand was held easily in a hovering position above his piece. This one held himself like a coiled spring ready to be released when the need presented itself.

        It only took a few seconds for Junk to size them up it and he wasn’t liking what he saw. Nosiree. All his senses were warning him to leave the small party alone and drive off back the way they had come.

        Usually he was a man of few words. However, as his dark eyes roamed back and forth over the trio he felt it necessary to speak up. Not looking at the man who was standing in the back, arms braced on the roll bar, he said, “Mace, this ain’t a good idea. They ain’t no normal travelers.”

        “Don‘t you worry none Junk,” The voice came from above him. A thickset man used a small carving knife to cut off a plug of tobacco and pop it into his mouth. Rolling the lump around until it was pressed between his gum and cheek to make a discernible bulge there, he sucked on it to get it softened up first before speaking. “Just plain folk, like always.”

        Junk muttered to himself. Like hell just plain folk! Mace was fooling himself. Sure he saw them but Junk knew his friend only had eyes for the truck behind the trio and was already seeing himself being driven around in it. One didn’t see a military grade, B-class armored Banshee in these parts every day. Junk felt the allure himself but everything was telling him the best thing to do was turn around and forget these people were even here. He could feel Mace’s greed and imagined the boss drooling over his shoulder. The boss wasn’t seeing the obstacles between them and the object of his avarice.

        “Yeah, yeah. Junk is right Mace. Let’s go home and leave dees weird guys alone.”

        Mace reached over to the passenger side and smacked the back of the head of the smaller man even though it was Junk who brought up leaving first. Junk was twice Mace’s size and was careful of not tangling with him. They were cousins and had grown up together and Junk never lost a fight with Mace.

        “You are such a bald-headed, yellow coward Farrick! We are not, I repeat not, giving up that truck. It’s my new mode of transportation.” He said with a glint in his eye.

        Farrick rubbed the back of his head where he had been hit. It really stung when the boss used a swiping blow like that and it was sure to leave a red mark behind. Not that he could see it. He knew though because the others made fun of him every time the boss hit him back there. He sighed as he rubbed his bare head. When the boss used that tone of voice there was no talking him out of whatever scheme took possession of him.

        “C’mon boss,” Farrick tried again even though he knew it wouldn’t do any good and possibly get him hit again. “Dees guys ain’t right. Look at ‘em!” He jerked his head toward the three men. “Ya’s can tell they got that killer look in the eye.”

        Farrick shifted nervously in his seat next to Junk who was as motionless as the men they were observing. His arms were propped up on the top of the wheel and he had his chin resting on the back of one wrist. Taciturn Junk didn’t usually voice his opinions so this was an unusual occasion. Farrick thought it spoke volumes that both of them saw the strangeness hanging over the truck like an unseen cloud. Only when one paid close attention did all the little clues add up. His own innate caution, which Mace liked to call cowardice, was demanding that they beat a hasty retreat.

        Junk may have stated his doubts and unease but he was one who didn’t easily show fear. That was fine for a walking wall of beefed up flesh, but Farrick was a bony fellow with a lack of muscle on his skinny frame to the point a good stiff breeze could knock him out of his shoes.

        “They give me the creeps boss. We’re going to lose this one.” Farrick argued and then clasped his hands over his shiny scalp and ducked anticipating the blow. When it didn’t come he straightened and slowly lowered his hands.

        Junk spoke up, his deep voice rumbling, “Farrick may be a coward but he’s got good desert rat sense boss, you know that.”

        Farrick shot his friend a grateful glance. Junk didn’t have but two close friends and those being Mace and Farrick who were as opposite as two people could get.

        For the first time niggling doubts were beginning to invade Mace’s sense of security and cool his lust for the vehicle. Not accustomed to feeling fear and inadequacy the leader of the Snarling Rats decided there was only one thing to do and that was to kill them all and leave no survivors. That way all the loot, specifically the vehicle, would be theirs for the taking. Then this uncomfortable doubt flooding him would go away.

        “Boss,” whispered Farrick, sweat beginning to bead on his face from nervous fear, “I think I know who these gents are. But I don’t know why they are traveling....”

        “Shut up Farrick! I don’t want to hear anything you got to say, understand me!”

        Mace shot the smaller man an irritated glance while moving the lump around in his mouth.

        “Mace, just listen to him.” Junk said tiredly.

        “Okay then, who is it that we are going to be killing?” Mace was reaching behind him for his Rattler Long Shot rifle, for picking off vermin in the distance. He chuckled at his own joke; he would pick off these pests that was for sure.

        “That’s crazy Razlo with the mask and that guy in the middle used to travel with Vash the Stampede. I heard he was a religious guy. And that one on the end, dat’s the Dark Vash, the new guy taking Vash the Stampede’s place. But I seen the Humanoid Typhoon before and this ain’t him.” He paused to squint at the trio before continuing, “but he’s scarier looking though.”

        “Mace, we oughta back off.” Junk suggested in an even tone that gave no hint as to what he was feeling. “Ain’t nothing wrong ‘bout owning up to being wrong.”

        “What! Are you crazy?! I am not wrong! Look at them will ya! There are only three of them! We outgun them and outnumber them!” Mace insisted.

        The men in the other trucks were beginning to stare at them with curious expressions wondering what was going on in the bosses’ car. This was the longest they had ever sat while waiting for the signal to start circling for the kill. Mace decided he needed to take control of the situation and assert his leadership before the other two wore him down with their peculiar misgivings.

        Mace stood up and raised a clenched fist. It was the sign that his men were waiting for. Two cars broke from the line and began to circle first before being followed by two more. Maces’ car and one other stayed put waiting for the cleanup at the end.

        In using this type of tactic there was always the chance they would get caught in their own crossfire but it was one that worked well for them over the years. Normally there was actually very little shooting involved. They were not about to abandon it at this late date, especially considering that most folks surrendered rather than tried to fight back.

        The boss stood up straight, one hand clutching the roll bar as he held up his weapon for the three men in black to see. It was an intimidation ploy that always worked for him before in terrorizing their victims. It was very satisfying to see the prey cringe or give little screams of fear and then beg for mercy. As a rule they did let their prey live, killing others was a waste of good ammunition for a band of criminals living out on the edge of the wastelands.

        Mace was disappointed to see none of the men flinched. Instead they stood there like three statues sculpted from dark granite. There was not a sign to show that they found the bandit group in front of them threatening. With a sour expression Mace lowered his gun. He gazed at them for a second as, once again, doubt swept over him. With a stubborn curse he shoved it aside.

        “Throw down yer weapons and we may let ya live!”

        He was lying; Mace had no intention of letting them live now. All he wanted was a trouble-free outcome. It was easier to kill unarmed people because there was less chance of them shooting back. A wicked grin crossed his thick lips before he turned and spat a greasy globule at the ground, leaving a brown stain in the sand.

        The black-suited man said something to the white-haired man out of the corner of his mouth.

        “Dees guys are good Mace. Did you see the way that funeral feller kept his eyes on us even as he said something to his buddy? You know, we don‘t need this booty, we got enough supplies to last.” Farrick pointed out with a nervous flick of the eyes to his boss.

        The standing man saw but he didn’t want to admit it.

        “Farrick is right, we don’t need this job.”

        Mace twisted his torso to face the other car, fist held aloft and yelled, “Like always you rats! Let’s go!” He pumped once and threw out his fist ahead of him. Barely heard was Farrick’s whine and Junk’s heavy sigh as he stomped on the accelerator.

        Just when he began to smile in anticipation of the victory ahead of them the sound of something like a machine gun opened up and a hail of bullets whistled through the air around him. Catching him by surprise, it took Mace a moment to realize that it wasn’t coming from his men. He yelled at Junk to take evasive action but the bigger man was already wrenching the wheel to maneuver the car at a slant away from the truck.

        With a growling curse Mace watched the two cross guns stitching bullets through the air at an ungodly rate. He threw himself down in the car to evade the onslaught slicing all around them. “Shoot ‘em! Shoot ‘em all!” He tried to yell above the noise of the engines and explosive reports of the gun.

        In a movement that struck him as odd, out of the corner of his eye, Junk saw the black-haired man throw himself at the masked man doing the shooting. He was interested to know what that was all about but for now he was busy driving and dodging, although he was thankful when the deadly hail of bullets stopped. Maybe Mace would believe him now.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 30
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