Let's Try This Again
Meryl was approaching the door at the end of the hall much too quickly for her racing heart. Her heart had already skipped a beat when she turned the corner and the door first came into view, but now, her heart was galloping. Not only that but her palms were beginning to sweat. Hastily she wiped them on her short skirt and then squared her shoulders. It was not lost on her the enormity of what she was about to do. Buck up Stryfe! Destiny awaits! Her stomach hurt.
In no way was Meryl a coward but she did consider herself a realist and also a practical person. What she was doing here was tantamount to suicide. Normally she would be the one arguing against such actions, which is why if she hesitated for even a second she knew her trembling knees would collapse on the spot. It was all she could do to keep her strides even and confident. To bolster her flagging courage she lifted her chin with determination and repeated the family motto under her breath, “Stryfes never quit.” It helped, a little, but fear was a snake winding coils around her chest wall and squeezing relentlessly.
Before she knew it, the door was right in front of her, too soon for comfort. With a shaky breath she reached out her hand, and paused. It was disconcerting to see it trembling visibly as she held it out in front of her. Brow furrowed with concentration she fought to keep her hand steady while running through all the lies she was about to spout forth.
Rarely did she come to Knives’ office; there was no need to. At first, it was because she was scared of him even though she was inexplicably drawn to him. More often than not he sought her out as if sensing those times when she was ready to wither from the weight of loneliness and the need to talk to someone.
Wait a minute here... Meryl’s frown deepened and if she had been alone she would have slapped her forehead with the sudden realization of actions that she should have noticed from the start if she hadn‘t been so self-absorbed in her misery and fear. Actions she would have known exactly what they were if he had been a human and that were totally out of character for him. Life sure was strange, she mused, but even stranger was their relationship; she took a deep breath, but now was not the time to ponder such things.
She tapped the button that would permit her entrance.
The door made a slight whoosh in the air as it slid open and Meryl felt a momentary panic. She wasn’t ready, she couldn’t do this... and tripped through nearly losing her balance.
Seeing the surprised look on the face of the man behind the desk she quickly lifted her lips into a wide smile of greeting.
The young man couldn’t stop staring at her. She couldn’t tell if it was because of her graceless entrance or not, although it was more likely that he knew who she was. She would bet on the latter.
With a glance Meryl took in the young man’s brown hair clipped short to his head, and dark brown eyes. A jutting jaw gave character to an otherwise bland face.
Slowly the aide stood to his feet. The raw-boned young man bowed deeply from the waist. It was one of the deepest she had ever received. A scene from a play came unbidden to her mind and she nearly let slip the phrase, “Arise Sir Knight,” before repressing the urge along with the giggle that was threatening to bubble up. She knew the situation wasn’t humorous, it was only because her nerves were being stretched to their limits. There was also the urge to return the gesture but she squelched it.
Totally aware of the irony, Meryl sent a desperate request upward asking for the ability to lie with sincerity, no less, not caring if said request was appropriate or not. Help was help and she would take it in any form she could get it. At the moment her heart was slamming rapidly against her chest indicating her doubt at having any of her pleas being answered.
Ignoring the trickle of sweat making its way down the middle of her back, her eyes flicked to the door of Knives’ inner office. It was the nearest equivalent of a throne this place had and it was the room which held the prize she sought.
Then, letting out a soft breath she started toward the desk.
As she moved closer her eyes fell on the nameplate at the front edge of the desk. ‘Chal Timonson‘ was engraved in it with some fancy old-English script making it hard to read. As he rose from the low bow Meryl met his curious eyes with a sweet smile. At least she hoped it was instead of looking like a grinning fool up to no good.
“Greetings O Mother of the Blessed, the Life-Giving Matron of Elevation...”
Meryl held up a hand to stop him and hoped, for his own well being, he would take the hint and desist from referring to her with titles that made her skin crawl.
Knives’ sense of humor was, even in the best of times, a bit odd and he used to tell her the names his followers had come up with for her. He derived pleasure from observing her squirm in discomfort before getting angry. He once quipped that watching her anger rise was like watching a purple storm on the horizon. Another time he let it slip that her eyes changed color with her emotions. Meryl had snorted upon hearing that and didn’t believe him at the time and still didn’t. Her eyes turning a lavender color, simply ridiculous! It was most likely another one of his convoluted schemes to get her all riled up. She did know that he liked to see her in a rage which was why she tried so hard to control her temper these days, just to spite him. Still, it was a monumentally hard thing to do. Just thinking about it was causing a slow burn making her forget the fear she had walked in the door with.
To his credit, Chal Timonson recognized the expression on the beautiful woman’s face; having three sisters helped him identify the warning signs when he saw them. He halted mid-praise. Being young, new to the job, and unsure of himself, he wisely decided to ask the Mother of Paradise if he had upset her.
“Have I offended you Mother?” He forewent the Womb of Life title as the same sisters had once given him the advice that no woman likes to be referred to by her body parts, either internal or external. “Er, Matron, Life-giver... Flower of Generations...”
“Stop.” Meryl ordered, making a face. “Just stop. Okay? Call me Meryl, please.”
“Yes Matron Mother.”
“That will not endear you to me young man.” Really, he wasn’t that much older than she was but his whole approach was that of someone very much younger.
Chal took a step back from the intensity of her gaze. Her eyes were changing to an odd color. “Yes, Matron.. er Lady Meryl.”
Meryl muttered to herself, “Guess that is as good as it is going to get.”
Meryl waved a hand in the air at his abashed and growing agitation. “No, you haven’t offended me... just please, no more with the names, okay?”
Chal nodded vigorously, hiding his shock.
“You can even just call me Meryl...” She stopped as the stubborn look came over his face. “Okay then, Lady Meryl it is.” It seemed the best out of a lot of bad choices.
“Would the Ma...” It was his turn to stop on a dime upon being skewered on the spot by gray eyes with a hint of amethyst in them and a warning finger held up between them.
He started again, “Would you care for something to eat or drink while you wait?” An extended arm directed her attention over to the corner where sat a coffee pot, tea bags, juice in a carafe, water and lemonade.
It could have been situated in Knives’ room since it was mainly there for his use rather than for any visitors he might have. But Meryl knew that Knives’ enjoyed being waited on by his inferiors as it emphasized their rightful place in the scheme of all things plant.
“No thank you. I am not here to wait, I came to look for something I left in Knives’ office so if you would open it for me...” Meryl was getting tired of having to halt the conversation every few words but from the stunned look on aide’s face he wouldn’t have heard any of it had she continued.
Seeing his disbelieving stare she sighed. She let him have a second to collect himself but she wasn’t sorry that she didn’t refer to Knives as ’Master’, there was no way she would ever call him that. She folded her arms in front of her and expelled a puff of air that stirred her bangs.
Chal was shaking his head back and forth as he said, “Oh no Ma.. uh Lady Meryl, I can’t do that. I was given strict orders. No one is to go in there at all when the Master is away from the office.”
Meryl gritted her teeth at how he stressed the word ‘Master’. Really, the lad was doing a fine job of nearly inciting her to violence. Taking a deep, calming breath and forcing a smile, she asked, “Who gave you those orders?”
“My supervisor, Lady.”
“Please, just Meryl.”
“Yes Lady Meryl.”
Meryl threw up her hands in surrender. The boy was utterly irritating but she could see why he was chosen for the job. In another ten years he would evolve into the perfect, if ever so annoying officious little ass of a bureaucrat. The very kind that she and Milly had taken field assignment after field assignment to get away from.
She gave him another wide smile even though the cheek splitting grin was starting to get painful. At the rate things were going she would spring Milly when both of them were old and gray.
“Did your supervisor mean that to apply to me as well?”
The aide paused in thought before replying.
“No, he didn’t mention any names or exceptions to the rule. He specifically said ’no one’. “ Gaining confidence from the recitation of his orders, he straightened and said in a serious tone which made Meryl think he was trying to mimic his superior’s voice, “That means no one at all, Lady.”
Meryl wasn‘t ready to give up just yet. “Well, I am sure if your supervisor was here now he would tell you different.” Meryl was appalled at herself. Never before had she so daringly used her position for gain of any kind. Then steeling herself with the reminder that this was for her best friend and not for herself, she went on applying as much honey to her voice as it was humanly possible to squeeze into each syllable.
“If you were to contact him right now I am sure he would inform you that I am an exception to this specific rule.” She said with a straight face while fervently praying he would do no so such thing.
“Well, uh Mother...” Under the most potent glare he had ever witnessed Chal’s words became stuck in his throat. “Miss Meryl.” The stress caused his voice to crack at an inopportune time but before he could collect himself the door to the outer office opened.
“Timonson, could you pull the file on...” The newcomer looked up from the papers in his hand to see the two in front of him. Obviously he wasn’t expecting to find anyone else in the office except for the assistant.
Two hazel eyes peered at them from behind round horn-rim frames and blinked as the man took in the tense atmosphere in the room. With a timid smile of greeting he apologized, “Pardon me, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Then his eyes whipped back to rest on Meryl as he realized, belatedly, who she was.
He stared for a moment before realizing that it could be misconstrued as rude and disrespectful. He started to bend his head when Meryl stepped forward with a hand extended. Automatically his own came up in response as he stared at hers closing the distance between them. When a gasp was heard from over Meryl’s shoulder, he lifted his eyes from the handclasp to the aide.
“No one touches the Mother...” Started the young man before Meryl swung back around with fire in her eyes.
With one hand on her hip and jabbing a pointed finger at him she stormed at him, “He didn’t touch me, I shook hands with him! You got a problem with that?”
The startled aide took a step back.
“What did you say!”
“Better!” He was pinned again in that gray-lavender gaze. “But if you don’t cut the mother-talk out I will ‘mother‘ you into an early grave!”
Despite the implied threat, for just a moment the male in the young man rose and with appreciation took note of the fiery woman in front of him with her unusual eyes. She was indeed beautiful like the circulating rumors stated. No wonder Knives had made her his concubine, a rumor never confirmed but sometimes rumors were based on truth. He looked her over, even a plant couldn’t be immune to this. There was something about her that was intriguing and he wished he could... he jerked his mind from that direction, aghast that he would even think of the Mother in those terms. Yet, those eyes alone with the force of a vibrant personality shining out of them was spellbinding. For just a brief second Chal Timonson, plant worshipper and devotee from the cradle, envied his lord and master until the habit of years of coaching and instruction rose up and established itself once again.
Unaware of his train of thoughts Meryl studied him for a moment longer before deciding he was sufficiently chastised.
Turning again to the newcomer she started, “I’m...”
“The Mother. Yes, I know.” All said without any inflection of veneration.
Meryl winced at the title. Of course he would know who she was. Let’s face, who here doesn’t?
She tilted her head as she studied his round face and reddish blonde hair. There was something familiar about him tugging at her and she wondered from where she knew him.
Seeing the questioning look on her face, he guessed correctly and supplied, “I was one of Dr. Conrad’s assistants.” He knew that one clear-cut statement would explain everything.
A rush of memory surged over her, leaving her lightheaded. Instinctively she reached a hand to her head as the pain, horror, fear, and confusion of those days enveloped her. Nearly overcome, Meryl closed her eyes trying to regain her emotional balance. That time in her life was an absolute and utter hell and nothing before it or since even came close to it in comparison. She would gladly forget that time and relegate it to the dustbin of wasted memories if she could. The only memory worth keeping was when Knives placed Tessla in her arms for the first time.
Feeling a light touch on her arm she opened her eyes to see the concerned look in the man’s light-brown eyes.
Softly, he said, “I am so sorry for what you had to endure. I am also deeply sorry for my part in it all.” Looking down at his feet, he dropped his hand away before looking up again. “I have wanted to say that or a long time now. I... just haven’t had the chance or the courage.”
Meryl stared, thunderstruck. He was actually acknowledging her, speaking to her, as a real person and not addressing her as some so-called blessed image by a bunch of misguided plant fanatics. It was astounding as well as being a breath of fresh air.
The man was half a head taller than her, which was still short for a human male. This was a true first. Someone actually thought about what the whole nasty episode was like from her point of view.
“Don’t worry about it,” Meryl replied, her heart warmed by the only apology anyone had ever given her for the horrendous treatment of those days. “It’s in the past.”
“But is it forgiven?” Two owlish lenses caught the reflected light obstructing her view of his eyes until he shifted again. Meryl was struck by the depth of pain and remorse she saw in them. For anyone around this place to have such a foreign thing as a conscience was beyond amazing; it was a miracle.
Something so subtle and elemental that she had never identified it before, thawed and opened in light of his sincere and honest apology. Tears sprang to her eyes and her bottom lip trembled. Someone had just apologized to her as if her feelings mattered, no, rather, as if she mattered. She mouthed the words because emotion robbed her of speech, ‘thank you so much.’ Tears coursed down her face and she reached up to brush them away with her fingertips. She tried again and this time out came a hoarse whisper, “Thank you.”
In the silence of the room, unseen chains fell from both hearts.
The warmth spread up from the deep core of her being to flood her face and in this hole deep within the bowels of the earth, Meryl’s beamed at him with a heartwarming smile.
Reaching out a hand she touched his arm saying, “I forgive you.” She could have said, ‘All is forgiven’ but knew that he was asking for himself, his own personal involvement and responsibility in the matter for his part.
With those words she helped someone else to escape. Two knowing smiles were exchanged.
Meryl was sure she was grinning from ear to ear as she brushed at another tear trickling down her cheek.
“Thank you, you have set me free,” he said softly.
“What are you talking about?” Timonson demanded as he looked back and forth between the two as if they had lost their minds. He didn’t know what had just happened but he knew he didn’t like it and was sure that his supervisor wouldn’t either. In fact, he was even willing to bet that Knives would take a dim view of this touching and shaking hands business with the lowered voices that just smacked of... something strange, he just wasn‘t sure what.
One thing he did understand was that there was implied blame for the treatment of the Mother in the early days when she refused to accept her place in the divine plan.
“Nothing here done by the Master needs forgiving,” he expressed with growing indignation on his face.
“Of course, of course,” soothed the man. Stepping forward he held out his papers eager to divert the suspicions of the assistant.
“And now if you would be so good as to...”
He was cut off by the young man’s gesture to Meryl.
“The Mother was here first,” he said brusquely, already forgetting that the ‘Mother’ in question didn’t much care for the title.
“Oh quite, quite,” the newcomer murmured while reaching up to adjust his glasses.
The aide turned to Meryl, his back rigid and stiff. With a sniff of disapproval opened his mouth to speak.
Meryl knew in that instant by the expression on his face that he was going to deny her access to Knives office.
Before he could say anything, her new friend said, “Oh, but ma’am, forgive me for interrupting but since I was coming this way the Master said to keep an eye out for you. He wanted me to pass on the message that you are to retrieve those records for him. He is much too involved in his work to come back and get them and trusts only you with them. You may have to search for them, as they were misplaced a few days ago.” He paused and winked at Meryl with the eye the aide couldn’t see.
“Wait a minute, why wasn’t I told...”
The older man whirled on the younger one saying in a fierce voice, “Who are you to insert yourself in the affairs of the Master concerning his concubine?”
“What?!” Meryl gasped out. She could have melted into the floor right then and there from mortification. Concubine? It was one thing to suspect that was what others thought but it was completely different to have it confirmed.
Both men looked over at her but she appeared to be frozen in shock. They turned back to each other to continue their discussion.
“Listen Timonson, the Master sent her and then sent me. Do you really want to wait until he shows up looking for her? Think about the explaining you will have to do as to why you kept his woman and favorite cooling her heels in the office... if he lets you live that long. So again I ask, do you want to deal with him directly?”
Woman?! Favorite?! Meryl felt the need to sit down for a few minutes.
“Mother, she is the Mother!” The young aide insisted with his jaw thrust out. However the pallor of his face it was easy to tell that his thoughts were elsewhere, like a certain plant and whatever mood he happened to be in.
“If you are smart, which I am beginning to have my doubts about, you would know the answer to that, however, it‘s quite simple,” he paused, Timonson was still staring off into space. “The answer is ‘No‘.”
An image of Knives entering the office in a rage did more to change Timonson’s mind than all the previous words spoken. Hurriedly he entered the code into the number pad on his desk. The door emitted a pleasant beep and the aide walked to it with quick strides and opened it for her.
She started for it and then paused to look over her shoulder at him and ask, “What is your name?”
“With a first true hint of humor in his smile he replied, “Allegretto. Allegretto Bluesummers-Tabbert.” He ducked his head shyly and said, “But you can call me Al.”
Her face went white again as her jaw sagged at the news.
“Only a cousin ma’am and not a thing alike, I assure you.” His eyes were earnestly pleading with her to believe him, and she couldn‘t help but do so, sensing nothing hostile or creepy about him that reminded her of his cousin. He certainly didn’t resemble Legato in the looks department. He was much shorter and more round in the middle, looking, like she hoped he was, a middle-level paper-pushing assistant.
She would have stood there gaping like a fish if he hadn’t looked up again, made a little twirling motion with his finger and then pointed to the open door.
In a breathy voice she managed, “Right, right,... not a problem... okay, heard worse than this before... c’mon Meryl, get a grip.” She turned around, tugged at the bottom of her skirt, lifted her chin and went through the door.
When it automatically closed behind her, she collapsed against the wall. Another Bluesummers!? One was thoroughly too much! He was right, they didn’t look a thing alike and surely he didn’t have the same weird mind powers as his half-brother. She hoped not. Then a thought came to her. How had he known she was desperate to get into the Knives office? She had stated her desire before he even came through the door. She felt a shiver go up and down her spine. Giving her head a shake, yet, even in that brief encounter, she could tell he was totally different than Legato.
She pushed off from the wall and started looking around the room. There was a job to do. Now, if she were a scheming, paranoid plant, where would she hide the evacuation button?
Levio followed the smaller form of his mistress as she in turn followed after the two gunslingers. He couldn’t lose sight of them even he wanted to. The priest was carrying his cross weapon over his shoulder after insisting on bringing it with him even when advised he should leave it behind. Levio wondered if the priest was regretting his decision to carry it down the treacherous path cut into the side of the cliff. He shot another amazed look at the sure-footed priest. The man hadn’t tripped, stumbled, or even gave any indication that the cross was too much of a burden. Levio gave a shake of his head in disbelief; and everyone called him crazy! He wasn’t carrying anything down with him, even so it was still a hazardous descent. Worse, none of them were dressed for the hike nor were any of them mountain climbers. He was an assassin and their hunting grounds were primarily cities and towns where the sane people lived. Not on some perilous path just barely wide enough for one person to walk on.
As they had all day upon waking, his thoughts returned to the previous events of the morning. He barely took note of the rocky path crunching under his feet as he began to drown, once again, in wretched confusion and an overpowering sense of guilt. Both had been consuming him since he had first opened his eyes. The twisted soul that was Razlo within him was not at all happy at being confined once again and threw himself time and again at the bonds holding him prisoner. The unexpected mental attack, although harmless, caused Levio to miss a step and nearly stumble to the side of the path that cut off sharply. The sane part of the dual man cast a quick glance at the edge that plummeted in a lethal drop straight down ending in a boulder field. The edge of the cliff they were making their way down was a narrow ribbon of a path and they were still near the top.
He heard a soft voice float back to him, “Please be careful Levio. I would not wish to lose you at this point in time. It would grieve me. I still have work for you to do.”
He gave a curt nod response even though he knew she couldn’t see it. Once again he was aware of the plant girl’s strange mixture of politeness and arrogance. As he considered it though, he decided that it made a certain kind of sense when taking into account who her parent’s were. Fire and ice, and she was the offspring of both.
Levio, the ascendant one once again, had woken up hours after the battle to blink up at the sky. Raising a hand, he knuckled an eye before sitting up straight in his seat to get a good look around. Not that he was expecting any different, but they were racing across the sands at a high rate of speed. The noise of the journey would have drowned out any conversation had there been any. As it was, the priest was in the driver’s seat staring past the hood of the truck with a fixed gaze. The Brother was slumped down in the passenger seat. Levio assumed he was sleeping, or at least resting.
There was one moment after he woke that nearly caused him to grin before he caught and squelched it. He looked over to find Tessla asleep... in mid-sulk. Her arms were crossed in front of her and her head was tilted back against the headrest but her displeasure was evident in the puckered frown she wore even in her sleep. As the recent memories of the morning came back to haunt him, he lowered his head with a soft groan. Would the nightmare never end?
The monster had been released. SHE had unlocked the cage door. This was the first time that the savage had been let out since the modified plant chip had been embedded under his skin with a the small access patch flush on the skin.
Right then the divided man was a jumbled amalgamation of two opposing wills warring within him and he was becoming weary of the struggle. Taking a shaky breath, Levio slowly massaged his aching forehead. In the worst way he wanted the other entity gone and to be in control of his own destiny, his own body, and make his own decisions. What other people took for granted the going wherever and whenever they wanted , for him it was an unattainable dream. Levio clenched a fist on his thigh. To be a free human was all he had ever wanted.
Then a small hand covered his tight fist as a soft whisper filled his mind. *“Don’t worry so, someday you will be free.”*
Levio didn’t bother to look up, letting the fall of his long hair be a curtain between them.
Remembering the earlier scene he stumbled again and with a curse he made a point to pay attention to the pebble-strewn path in front of him. He was certain he would survive the fall that would kill any normal person, but it would be a very painful recovery. If given a choice, he would just as soon avoid it. Interrupting his reminiscing, he heard Vash breaking the silence of the trail by saying something to his priest friend who answered back in the same tone of voice. From where he was above them on the trail he couldn’t make out what was said.
The assassin slowed his step to look over his shoulder back to where they had started down the cliff’s path. It couldn’t be seen, but at the top behind a few boulders was the truck, hopefully hidden from prying eyes. They didn’t bother to hide it any better than that, after all, what was the point? Hardly anyone ever came out here. None of them could imagine a sentry taking the job seriously enough to search the backside of the wastelands. It was too barren even to be called a desert. Knives knew what he was doing when he had chosen this section of the continent to settle in with his worshippers. No one in their right mind would come out here for a pleasure cruise. Logically he knew they hadn’t come very far yet even though from the unfamiliar ache in his calves and thighs it felt like they had been at this activity all afternoon.
Catching his attention again, he turned to find Vash and Wolfwood stopped on the trail ahead to look back at the other two members of the group. They both had that look on their faces as if they were waiting for someone to acknowledge what had been said. He shook his head at them to let them know their question or comment had gone unheard.
With a frown, Vash repeated his remark in a louder voice, “Even though we are letting you walk behind us, that doesn’t mean we trust you.”
The comment could have been directed at either the female plant or himself. He wasn’t sure which one but decided it was intended for him. From the tense set of Tessla’s shoulders he could tell that she thought it was aimed at her. Levio was sure she was pouting again and wouldn’t be surprised in the least if her lip was able to cast its own shadow on the ground.
“I heard that,” remarked Vash.
“I didn’t say anything!” Came the heated reply from the plant girl.
“Didn’t need to. Your face says it all.”
Levio’s mouth twitched at the thought, ‘the lip that is mightier than the stern look‘.
“You are the worst uncle ever!” Tessla retorted angrily. Levio sincerely hoped she wouldn’t pitch a fit right there on the trail as there was a good chance she could easily pitch herself over the side of the cliff. Then he would have to follow her over the side.
“Good! There might be hope for me yet.” Vash said with a smile in his voice that made Tessla snort in irritation.
Later Levio looked up at the sun trying to gauge how much time had gone by in their descent. He heard Tessla call out to her uncle and priest that they were nearing the end of the trail.
At that there was a brief discussion concerning whether they should rest at the bottom of the path or push on instead. Upon reaching the end of the trail the choice to rest was made for them in a very decisive way.
No one was speaking as they neared the bottom as they neared the end of the trail and found loose dirt, pebbles, stones and debris so that they needed all their concentration to stay on their feet. Everyone was skidding and slipping as the end of the path came into sight.
“Ah, thank God we are....“ Vash started to say until he found his feet skipping and dancing underneath him, unable to find solid ground underneath him. The others would have remarked upon his predicament except they were beginning to have the same problem too.
Vash threw a long leg out to the side hoping to find some firm ground to there but his feet slid out from under him throwing him forward.
“Oh crap.” He muttered as he continued to flail and spin wheel all his limbs until his toe caught, he tripped, and rocketed through the air, arms thrashing and grabbing at the empty air, alas to no avail. The typhoon came down heavily with an explosive grunt as he landed. The rest would have watched him slide a several yarz on his belly but they each had their own worries.
Wolfwood saw Vash go flat on his face and was furiously backpedaling to slow down but soon found that he was unable to stop. He did a fair imitation of Vash, but with only one arm flailing about wildly as the other held onto his weapon. The trail might as well have been ice as he was skating down with gathering speed to where Vash’s prone form waited.
The outlaw was pushing himself up on his hands and knees when Wolfwood slid down the rest of the way. Vash heard scrabbling behind him and had a sinking feeling he knew what was about to happen. He glanced over his shoulder, eyes going wide at the sight of the incoming priest. Wolfwood’s usually narrow gray eyes were also wide at the realization of the imminent crash that he had no control over.
“Look out...” yelled Wolfwood, unable to stop, still wildly flailing while desperately trying to come to a standstill, preferably a safe one, which was looking less and less likely to happen with each passing second.
The priest slammed into the outlaw and fell on top of him, effectively flattening the Humanoid Typhoon back to the ground with an explosion of expelled air from both of their lungs. Adding to the force of the collision was the fact that he still had a hold of his cross. Fortunately for Vash, and all concerned, as he was going down Wolfwood instinctively threw out an arm to halt his fall and tossed the weapon to the side so that it wasn’t involved in the human-plant pileup.
Within seconds Tessla and Levio were also draped over the two gunmen. Each person landing on the previous body caused groaning and grunting from the one preceding them. For a brief moment they all laid there stunned before Levio popped up first. Reaching down he gently assisted Tessla to her feet and held onto her arm while she wobbled for a moment before recovering her balance.
Wolfwood rolled off and up into a sitting position before reaching for his sunglasses that had been knocked off. The next thing he did was look around for his cross. Satisfied to see it within reach he then tilted his head back farther and farther to take in the face of the rock wall that, in his opinion, loomed way too high overhead. Not only that, the length of it ran one way and the other went in the opposite direction as far as the eye could see. His mouth opened in amazement.
“We came down that?!” The remark was out of his mouth in a flash. No one answered; not that he was expecting them to.
“I hope we have another way to get out of here because I am definitely not going back up that!” He stabbed an emphatic finger at the narrow ribbon of path; a stubborn expression crossing his face.
Vash got to his hands and knees again before shifting back into an upright position. Placing his hands on his thighs to support himself he looked to where Wolfwood’s finger was pointing and silently agreed. He didn’t relish the idea of climbing back up such a thin trail especially with all the loose gravel littering the way. It was bad enough trying to come down it in the first place. Going up it would be perilous, especially if they came back in the dark.
“We’ll find another way. This isn’t the only way in and out.”
Wolfwood gave him a sharp glance, “I hope you are not thinking that we’re gonna leave our truck here for Knives to find.”
“No, of course not. We’ll circle back around for it after we free the girls. Can’t be leaving all our supplies here, we’ll need them to get back.” He closed one eye at the priest, smiled and said, “Besides, Milly has an emergency stash of pudding tucked away under a tarp in a corner of the truck.”
Wolfwood ran a shaky hand through his messy and dusty locks. His Heart, his love was waiting for him and they were slowly getting closer. He closed his eyes for a moment before opening them to find Vash’s red eyes studying him.
“We’ll get her back for you. We’ll get them both back.” Vash said in a soft voice that couldn’t hide the intensity it held.
“And then kick Knives’ butt.”
With a grim smile Vash nodded.
Looking away, Wolfwood got to his feet and reached down to pick up his cross punisher, propped it up next to him and leaned on it. Just seeing the height of their descent from this angle made him feel that he should be more tired than he was and definitely thankful to have gotten down it safely.
He turned to Vash who was conferring with Tessla as she was pointing at a section of the wall down a good distance from where they were. She started off with the ever-present Levio at her shoulder. Picking up his cross, he slung it over his shoulder and started off after Vash.
It wasn’t long before the foursome stood in front of a part of the rock face that didn’t look any different from any other part of the wall. He reached up to pull down his sunglasses to peer at the wall, then at Vash and Tessla before returning his gaze to the wall again. There wasn’t anything there that he could see.
His eyes cut back to the plant girl, “You’re not lost are you?”
She returned his look with an offended one of her own.
“Okay then,” he glanced back to what looked like to him a very solid rock surface. “How do we get in, say the magic word?”
Tessla frowned at him.
“What? It looks all the same to me.” He waved a hand at the wall. “No welcome mat that I can tell. I don’t even see any seams.”
Unexpectedly, it was Vash who answered. “She marked it with a,... a burst of invisible mental light so that it is going unseen by the human eye. You could say it is a signature mark that plants can see and read.”
Wolfwood made a ‘well what do you know’ face as he also recognized that as casual as Vash was trying to make the explanation sound he couldn’t keep the hint of embarrassment out of his voice. He still doesn’t like being different.
Wolfwood turned his attention back to the rock, it was blocking his way to Milly and he was beginning to take it personally. A stick of dynamite would be handy right about now.
“Great, it’s marked. But maybe it’s the servants day off.”
Vash made a face at Wolfwood’s grumbling even as he reached out to place his palm on the rock in front of him and closed his eyes.
Wolfwood gave him a questioning glance. He still couldn’t see any difference from one part of the rock wall to another. He shifted impatiently. More plant voodoo. Couldn’t they have installed a door like regular folk?
He saw Vash drop his hand to his side and take a step back. A long, thin line appeared in the rock, one that wasn’t there before. Wolfwood expected to hear the grinding of rocks but such was not the case. The door, completely outlined now, receded several feet into a hallowed out recess before sliding sideways into the wall. It was all very quiet and efficient. Wolfwood gave it a measuring glance, in fact, very Knives-like. He didn’t like it.
Once the doors were open, Vash and Wolfwood gave the darkness ahead them a thoughtful look. The light from the outside was almost immediately consumed by the endless black stretching for who knew how far back.
Wolfwood leaned closer trying to pierce the darkness before straightening again.
“Looks like a great place for flesh-eating mummies to hang out.” He pulled off his sunglasses and slipped them into an inside pocket. Without turning his head, he slapped Vash on the shoulder making the outlaw’s red eyes pop open from the unexpectedness of the sharp blow. “You go first.”
Vash turned to glare at him.
Wolfwood shrugged, “Hey, you never know, they just might turn out to be vegetarians.”
Vash then looked over his shoulder at Levio who was standing motionless next to Tessla. Extending an arm toward the opening, he said, “Be my guest.”
Levio started for the door, understanding what Vash was implying. Tessla was close behind her servant but with a puzzled frown asked, “How can we be the guests? This is my home, not yours.” She was ready to stop right there to discuss it when Levio did the unthinkable. He took a hold of her elbow and pulled her to his side. Then, with easy grace, he ushered her through the entrance. Surprisingly, she allowed herself to be guided in without an angry outburst.
“Thank God!” muttered Wolfwood, “The tantrum train temporarily derailed.”
Vash raised an eyebrow, his eyes on Levio’s back as he said, “You know, if he wasn’t so twisted up by his inner demons he could be one of us.” After a moment of thought, “Maybe he already is since we all seem to have the same problems.”
“Speak for yourself Spikey! After this is all over I am going to be a respectable member of society, raise a family and love on my wife. If I were you I would think about doing the same; there‘s no retirement plan in your line of work you know.”
“I don’t have...”
“No, you just run away.” He didn’t flinch under the hard stare of the Humanoid Typhoon. “Think about it Spikey, Knives was doing you a favor all these years. You just used him as an excuse not to get close to the very people you claim to care so much about.”
“I think I hate you.”
“It’s a burden being this wise.” Wolfwood looked down and shook his head, shaking scraggily black hair about his head. “Well, lead on oh intrepid leader.”
“You get stranger by the day.”
Vash entered followed by the grinning priest. They had gone no more than ten or so paces when the door slid shut behind them. Both exchanged a look, startled by the sound.
“I knew it! I just knew it!” Muttered Wolfwood, throwing a frown over his shoulder.
Vash didn’t say anything in reply but silently agreed with his friend. A closed door behind them they weren’t sure they could open again was definitely an unsettling feeling.
At least I’m not bored anymore.
Milly was trying to look on the bright side since impatience had replaced boredom a couple of hours ago. Granted, Meryl had finally given in and played a couple of games of chess with her and then ordered each guard to also play a couple of games with her so time wouldn‘t hang so heavy on her hands, but the fun had passed too quickly for Milly’s liking.
Part of the impatience came from knowing that Meryl was out there taking all the risks herself and this time without her trusty partner to watch her back. Milly was worried for her friend. Her foot began swinging in wider and quicker arches until she accidentally whacked her ankle against a chair leg. The pain made her halt her nervous actions for a moment before she started again as she thought about Meryl and hoped that she was all right.
Hearing the key turn in the lock, Milly sat up and cocked her head at the door wondering who it could be. It was with some surprise when she watched Meryl come dashing in not even caring if the guards thought her behavior odd. At a glance she could see that her diminutive friend’s arms were full and were what kept her from giving the usual knock.
The door shut behind her and Meryl moved over to her friend with nimble light steps. The whisper couldn’t hide excitement sparkling in her eyes.
“Look Milly. What do you see?”
“Well Meryl, it looks like you have an armful of clothes...” With a sudden intake of breath she recognized one of the items. Her grandfather’s duster! With a squeal of happiness she launched from her seated position and tugged the coat from the stack.
Some of the other clothes fell to the ground unnoticed by an ecstatic Milly. Meryl chuckled at Milly’s reaction as she bent over to retrieve the other garments.
“Thank you Meryl! Only you would know what this means to me!”
She looked up to see Meryl’s elated expression upon seeing a family treasure restored. Milly couldn’t help herself, she reached over and grabbed her small friend in a crushing bear hug and lifted her off her feet.
‘Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” Milly gushed until, with a sniff, tears threatened on the edge of her lashes.
“Milly.... Mil... Uhhhh... Can’t...”
Milly recognized the sounds, she had heard them on enough occasions in the past to know what they meant. Gently she placed Meryl back on her feet and released her. A grimacing Meryl sucked in a precious mouthful of air while rubbing her ribs at the same time.
Seeing the other clothes were on the floor she draped her duster over a chair and bent to help Meryl retrieve them. That’s when it dawned on her that she recognized these particular clothes.
“Hey, these are Rinnah’s!” She exclaimed holding up the silky material of a rich blue shirt and she should know, not only had she sewn it for the hybrid but had also mended it before. Thunder gathered over her brow as she envisaged the damage she was ready to inflict on Knives’ person at this, this.. indecency, was as far as her mind would let her go.
“She’s without clothes....” Horror filled her voice, “They could be doing anything to her!” As if having one’s clothes on meant there was a certain amount of guaranteed protection. The thinking didn’t strike Milly as odd at all.
Meryl knew the look well. Milly enraged was like watching the rise of a Valkryie unsheathing her sword and ready to ride into the battle to wreck vengeance upon the wicked foe. Already Milly seemed taller and larger to Meryl. She always did at such times, awing Meryl completely. Wistfully she wished she could be more like that, breathtaking splendid and fiercely intimidating. She spent a moment wondering what that would be like, what being taller would be like. It sure would come in handy at times, then shrugged off pondering the impossible to concentrate on other things.
Upon entering Knives’ office the first thing she had found was the pile of clothes folded nice and neat on a credenza next to a tray of strange-looking instruments. Meryl wasn’t sure what they were doing there, she could only guess that they were being inspected for any anomalies or clues. Mentally she gave herself a slap for not seeing the obvious that Milly was pointing out to her. If the clothes were in the office then of course they wouldn’t be with their owners. Duh, Meryl! Why didn’t I think of that earlier? Then her lips set in a grim line and she looked up to catch Milly’s equally grim expression.
“We will see that they get back to her then.”
Milly gave her a pleased smile and a thumbs up of approval.
Meryl looked down at her watch. “We shouldn’t have to wait too much longer. Lucky for us I put it on a...”
Suddenly blaring klaxon loud to drown out her words went off and making them both wince. The sound must have been deafening near the speaker out in the hall as it was nearly so coming through the open door.
Without needing to confer with each other both women decided to sit down at the same time and wait it out. Neither was in a hurry to charge out in that ear blasting noise.
Milly went to the bed and sat on the edge while Meryl lowered herself to the chair while casting an irked glance out through the door. Knives would have to pick the most obnoxious sound possible for his alarm. The blaring of the siren seemed to go on forever but Meryl had to keep reminding herself that the results would be in their favor, all they needed for the moment was to exercise a little patience. Her foot kicked irritably. Must the thing go on forever? At least the human help would be out of the building heading for the little town where their families lived. It was also the place where all of the plant worshippers lived when their time of service was up and they were rotated out until their next time of service. However, she brightened at the next thought, this also meant that all of the guards would be gone from their stations. The wailing went with no end in sight. Their nerves were beginning to get stretched tight.
Neither tried to speak, as it wouldn’t have done either much good. It wasn’t the kind of sound that one could speak easily over. Meryl’s hands were clenched around the seat of the chair, praying that the alarm would shut off soon before she had a horrifying thought, what if the thing had to be shut off manually... from the office? She was about ready to give in to panic when the shrieking blast ended.
It was so sudden that the golden silence was a near shock to their systems when the screeching shut off in mid-blare. Now that it was over they were left with ringing in their ears. Milly stuck a finger first in one ear and then in the other, wiggling it around in an effort to relieve some of the buzzing.
“Wow, that was loud.” Meryl said as she moved her jaw around. “Well, as I was about to say before I was interrupted, the timer is about to set off the alarm and that should make quite a racket.”
“It sure did,” giggled Milly.
“That means the building should be human-free in just a few minutes. Let’s wait here for a while and give them a chance to vacate the premises so we won’t run into any stragglers.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Even after saying that, both women stood, hands hanging loosely at their sides as they looked at each other.
“Has it been long enough?”
“No... but let’s go anyway.”
“Yay!” Enthused Milly as she grabbed her duster from the chair and slipped her arms into the sleeves. “I’m ready when you are Meryl!”
Suddenly she stopped in her tracks. “Meryl?”
“How are we going to get through any locked doors we come to?”
Meryl reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out a slim plastic card and waved it aloft in a triumphant gesture.
Milly eyed it skeptically. “What is it?”
“This my dear friend, is the master key.” She said with a smug grin.
“It looks like a little piece of plastic.” Observed Milly still not convinced.
“We can go anywhere our little hearts desire!” Meryl practically crowed.
“Yes Milly?” Meryl’s eyebrow was beginning to twitch in that way of hers that let her tall friend know that her near inexhaustible patience was becoming severely tested.
“What about Melanie?”
All the irritation evaporated away like spilled water on the ground. “She’s going to be just fine. Zazie came up with a way to keep her safe. I’ll go get her once you and your friend are out of here.”
“Good. Let‘s go!” Milly replied, enthusiasm rekindled.
As one both women headed for the door. Meryl clutched the card tightly in her hand and with a mirthless smile began envisioning all the doors she was going to use it on.
“My feet hurt.” Upon saying that Wolfwood switched his weapon to the other shoulder and sighed.
The unusual priest wasn’t grumbling because he was tired but to hear the sound of a voice, even if it was his own. They had been walking for what seemed like an ungodly amount of time without a word being spoken between any of them. The silence was beginning to get to him, or rather, the stifling and oppressive lack of normal sound was beginning to eat away at his nerves. He could practically feel layer upon layer of overhead rock pressing down on them, threatening to come crashing down and squish bone and body into jelly at any moment. Also he had been hearing odd noises for a while now. He wasn‘t even sure exactly how long it had been before he finally became aware of what he was beginning to label, to himself as, strange noises. They weren’t normal sounds, but the soft slither of what sounded suspiciously like stealthy footfalls. The upside, and he admitted to there being one, was that they were no longer traveling in the dark.
When they first entered the tunnel it appeared to be black because, as they found out the hard way, the tunnel dipped down. The first time it happened Levio had tripped and, amazingly, had gone down with a grunt to alert them before, once again, all of them had found themselves piled on top of each other.
“Didn’t see that one coming.” Murmured Vash, hand cupped over the eye that had been poked by someone’s elbow.
“Great reflexes there Spikey!” Wolfwood growled, rubbing his forehead where a corner of his cross had caught him on the way down.
“Does this kind of thing happen to you two all the time or are you just a special kind of lucky?” Asked Levio. He was proud of himself. He was using the own brand of humor that he had been listening to ever since joining up with the two gunslingers. He noticed that the interjection of humor was necessary at intervals when people were interacting with one another. He started out human, he should be able to do this.
Wolfwood was amazed and would have stared at the inhuman human if he had been able to see him.
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” replied Vash with a chuckle, “Things like this happen to us all the time.”
“I have never had this happen to me before,” Tessla remarked indignantly as she scooted away from the pile before attempting to stand up. Levio was by her side in an instant to lend her a hand. “Until I met you people.”
Vash noted that she wasn’t as thrilled about her uncle as she had been the day before when she had first met him. He shrugged, knowing that no one could see it in the inky darkness of the corridor. Familiarity was breeding contempt at a very fast rate, for which he was grateful. If she wanted to be fond of him, that was fine, but he would rather it be from a safe distance away, like a continent or two.
It was still so dark that they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. Vash had already tried that and hadn’t seen a thing only feeling the puffs of air against his face as his hand waved in front of him.
The going was slow as they made their way by keeping one hand on the wall. It was not uncommon to hear an exclamation of pain followed by an apology as someone stepped on someone else’s heel or came down on unsuspecting toes by accident.
Tessla stopped. The rest found out the hard way that she had halted. First Levio bumped into her shoving her off-balance before then going down on top of her when Vash rammed into him from behind.
As Vash teetered on the balls of his feet while pin-wheeling to keep from going over, Wolfwood rammed into his back tipping him over. Vash half-turned, hoping to right himself by grabbing a fistful of black cloth to keep himself from falling. Instead, he yanked the wobbling priest over with him. Both fell down hard on Levio and Tessla. One just grunted while the other yelled threats after she caught her breath.
“Well, this is getting old.” Murmured Vash as he pulled himself from the tangle of limbs.
“I say we just stay put until the janitorial crew finds us.” Offered Wolfwood weakly. Vash’s elbow had landed in his side as they had gone down together. It was the same side that Razlo had punched earlier that morning. While it was true Tessla had healed it, it still was a mite tender. He rubbed it gently.
Tessla was under everyone and barely able to make herself heard.
“This is where we are to turn!” She lashed out a fist and felt it hit someone with a satisfying thump. It had to be Levio as he was already lifting her up and also, he made no sound as if he was expecting her blow.
“You couldn’t have said something sooner?” Vash asked, holding onto the remnants of his temper. “You could have saved us all from yet another, four-person pile up.”
“You are such pathetic uncle!”
The last frayed nerve snapped. Without realizing it, Vash flung out an arm to stab the air in his anger.
“Pathetic am I? Who was leading us? Listen you little...”
“Don’t you feel just a little ridiculous in letting a child get under your skin like this?” Wolfwood pointed out mildly.
Suspiciously mild, which was making Vash suspicious. He lowered his arm to his side.
Actually, the ridiculous feeling was coming from the fact that he had been gesturing and waving his arm like a wild person while staring at the place where he thought his niece was. He was heartily glad that no one was able to see his performance. As for this ‘child’ he was beginning to have his reservations about that.
“For your information, Vashunclestupidhead...”
Vash just kept himself from grinding his teeth. Despite the fact that she was acting like what she was, a spoiled brat, he wanted nothing more than to shove her in a deep dark hole and then run like hell.
“.... The end of the tunnel was not where it should have been. If you would all come over here, next to me, touch my arm and you can then tell where I am pointing...” She waited until she felt three hands touch her arm... “Can you see that small glow? It’s a sensor light. The automatic lights I had installed come on once the sensors detect movement in the hallway. We need to walk down this hall before they will turn on.”
Everyone spotted the dim light, so tiny and feeble it was as effective as starlight for lighting the path ahead of them. A faint pinprick of light in the overwhelming darkness. Wolfwood rubbed his aching neck.
“You know, for people with a bunch of plant angels, you sure do skimp on the lighting around here.”
“I can only draw off so much before Knives or his engineers would notice. This is all I thought advisable to try to siphon off for now. There is no reason to light the corridors if no one is using them. That would be foolish.”
“Well, you can just lead then.” Wolfwood replied testily. His side was aching and the tension headache that he was being to associate with her was throbbing between his temples.
As they started down the new corridor, each person took slow, careful steps, even Tessla who was familiar with the route. All were eager to avoid any more collisions . Finally the lights came on and, at first, because they were so used to the deep darkness they had been recently traveling in, the lights shone as bright as the surface of the sun. However it didn’t take long before their eyes adjusted to the light until what once seemed bright now looked muted and weak.
Vash noticed that the few dim light bulbs were strung out on a wire hung from the top of the wall. He heard Wolfwood grumbling behind him that it wouldn’t have hurt to put a few more in. The outlaw eyed the wiring, wondering how safe it was. At the moment though he was more concerned about Wolfwood. The priest was not handling traveling underground as well as the rest.
“Is it possible to run out of air down here?” Queried the sweating priest.
“Given the right circumstances, possible, but not likely.” Supplied Tessla.
Wolfwood would have slipped a finger in his collar, jerking on the neck of his shirt had he been the kind that fastened it to the top button. He knew it was just him but he could swear the walls were moving in closer while the air was getting heavier and harder to breathe.
Sensing the priest’s growing agitation and distress, Vash slowed and let Wolfwood come even with him. He put a hand on Wolfwood’s shoulder and asked, “Are you okay?”
Wolfwood managed to keep his face fixed in a neutral expression as he turned to look the concerned expression on Vash’s face.
The usual magma glow of Vash’s eyes was still there but Wolfwood was adept at reading the expression of those vermilion eyes by now.
“No, not really. This just isn’t natural.”
“You may have a touch of claustrophobia.”
“Ya think?” Snorted the priest, tightening the death grip on his carrying strap.
“Is this the first time you had experienced something like this?”
“Yeah, I have never been underground this far before.” He wiped a sleeve across his brow. Strange that it was so much cooler down here in the tunnels than the desert yet he was sweating worse on the hottest day the planet had to offer.
“We can stop if you need a minute.” Vash peered at him, trying to ascertain if the priest was just trying to reassure him or if he was truly able to press on.
“No, but the sooner we are out of this cursed rat hole the better off I will be.”
Vash nodded and let the priest go ahead of him.
Wolfwood readjusted his hold on the carrying strap of his cross punisher and heaved a deep sigh before starting forward. He found that it was easier to ignore the persistent invisible crush of the earth above him when he fixed Milly’s face in front of him.
Vash gave his friend an empathetic look while making sure the jittery priest didn’t see it. Given his present state Vash wasn’t sure if the priest might feel the urge to turn the cross punisher on him. He was not in a hurry to have that kind of mercy inflicted on him. With a wry grin in place, the typhoon followed the minister in black.
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