"Blackfire & Gunsmoke Chapter 32"
By Susan-chan

Rated PG-13

Separate Paths
Let's Try This Again

       After too many twists and turns for Wolfwood to follow, the four travelers found themselves entering a natural, hollowed out cavern. Upon arriving at the middle, as if by some unspoken agreement, they all came to a stop. Only one of the group was unfazed by the sight around them but the three men were engrossed in staring at the ground and walls in openmouthed astonishment. A soft glow bathed the room in a dim light making it possible to make out one another’s features.

        Vash looked up at the domed ceiling where a shaft went up until it disappeared. He wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it reached the surface but knew that they were too far below the under the earth for the light of day to reach down to them by that slender of a passage. Yet the room was alight with a soft glow. Puzzled, he scanned around for a light source. It wasn’t bright enough to read by but there was enough light to see each other and make out his companion‘s faces. He did notice that there was more illumination where a concentration of sparkling stones were strewn out in various places on the floor and the walls. He was amazed at the low-level radiance being given off. Vash didn’t know of any jewels or gemstones that had their own light source, yet these did.

        Wolfwood slung his cross in front of him and draped his arms over it as he stared around in wonder. He wasn’t knowledgeable about precious rocks but he was guessing that a treasure lay glittering just within eyeball range. He cocked his head puzzled, they weren’t diamonds, nor opals but looked more like a cross between the two although some were greenish like emeralds while others possessed a reddish sheen not unlike rubies. No, he couldn’t figure out what they were. Maybe it was this planet’s own unique jewel. He scratched his cheek thoughtfully with a forefinger as his gaze lingered over several gemstones littered about near his feet.

        This was the first time that day, or night, where Wolfwood was able to forget that he was entombed in an endless maze of rat tunnels with millions of tons of earth pressing down from overhead just looking for a reason to crush him into priest-paste. Strangely enough, the dim glow of the stones illuminating the room distracted him enough that he even forget the low-level panic he was constantly striving with since he heard the outer door to the desert close behind them. However, the wondrous vision in front of him distracted him. It was much like he imagined an underground fairyland would appear. Barely noticing it, he was able to breathe more freely than he had been in quite a while.

        Currently his attention was caught and held by the mesmerizing glow of the jewel-toned stones on the floor and embedded in the wall near him. If he weren’t feeling quite so lethargic at the moment, he would be tempted to reach down and scoop up a handful of the twinkling stones scattered around him.

        Everyone’s attention was riveted to the display except for Tessla. Colors of all hues and shades gleamed from the sides of the wall and with expressionless eyes she surveyed the area around them as if bored by the whole thing.

        “What are these? I know they aren’t diamonds, rubies or emeralds, but I have never seen their like before.” Remarked Wolfwood as he continued to stare about him from one side to the other.

        The walls were festooned with colored chips the size of a finger to a man’s head.

        “They are eggs.”

        Simultaneously the three men mouthed, ‘eggs?’.

        Wolfwood stared at Tessla. Vash did too and even Levio‘s eyes were wide before dropping down to the stone the size of his hand sitting on a rock near him.

        Vash gazed at the twinkling stones near his feet. This was a new one on him. But then, when had he ever traveled underground before?

        Vash glanced about the room in wonder. If he admitted it, and he could, he was feeling a smidge tense all of a sudden. Which was nothing compared to Wolfwood who brought his cross around in front of him, clutching it as if it had the power to ward off all evil. Instinctively he was turning so that he and Vash could easily defend each other’s back if the need arose. Vash fervently hoped the need wouldn’t arise. He was quite content not to be attacked by these unknown eggs no matter how pretty they were.

        Despite the eye-catching sparkles twinkling and dancing across the surface of the egg-stones, Vash’s internal warning alarm was starting to nudge at him for attention. A familiar uneasy prickling sensation ran up his spine. He looked around, expecting at any moment to be set upon by vicious desperados or equally lethal enforcers of the law. However they were quite alone even though the tingle still persisted. He twitched a shoulder in response and turned to study the eggs closest to him thinking that they didn’t look all that dangerous.

        “They are eggs that have been laid and are waiting to hatch.” Tessla went on oblivious to the rising tension in the two gunslingers.

        “HATCH! What the hell, hatch? Wolfwood scrubbed a hand over his face before massaging the tense muscles on the back of his neck. “Geez, I knew it, I just knew it! I never cease to be amazed at how rapidly things can go from bad to worse.” With a wary eye he scanned the jewels as if expecting them to break open at any second to and then for a slime-covered baby worm to slither forth.

        In an almost gentle tone for her, Tessla chuckled, “No need to worry Vash friend, they will not be hatching for another fifty years or so. They are newly laid and it will take that long to grow.”

        Wolfwood’s shoulders visibly sagged in relief at hearing the news .

        In so short of a time Vash was well aware of how his niece operated and waited for the other shoe to drop while sweeping a curious gaze over the eggs again. Then lifting his eyes, he scanned the open space and walls looking for something other than the hundreds of eggs that could be responsible for setting off his alarm.

        “However, I would also advise that you would not touch any of them. An egg has an automatic and instinctive response of seeing you as food. Whatever part of your body that touches an egg will be stuck to it. Then the eggshell dissolves in that spot and will grow rapidly as it digests your body slowly over time. Because of the sudden and unexpected food source, that egg will hatch before the others and it will be given an edge up in the vicious cycle of life.”

        “Very efficient.” Noted Vash dryly although a telltale flicker of impish humor crossed his eyes. He had no intention of picking one of the eggs now.

        Wolfwood disagreed, “No, it’s just downright gruesome.”

        “Remarkable.” Breathed out Levio in awed tones; his eyes were fixated on a dazzling egg within a hand‘s reach of him. The sparkle of it captivated him until the sound of someone clearing their throat broke through his reverie. The glazed look dropped from his eyes and came back to himself with a start. Looking down he saw fingers wrapped around his wrist with a grip of iron. The preacher was keeping him from reaching out to touch the sparkling flicker that was calling out to him from the inner depths of the stone.

        “Weren’t you paying attention? Didn’t you hear what she just said?” Demanded Wolfwood crossly.

        Levio looked down at the priest’s hard grip on his arm, ready to pull the assassin back in case his fingers got too close to the egg.

        “What an idiot.” Grumbled Wolfwood as he saw the surprise spread across Levio’s face. Suddenly self-conscious, he dropped his hand and stepped back.

        Levio was speechless. He looked up from his arm to the priest with astonished eyes. What did the priest care? The assassin just recently had tried to kill the clergyman and would have done so if Vash hadn’t intervened when he did.

        Still recovering from his daze, Levio noticed that there were three sets of questioning stares centered on him. It was the first time in hours since they had tumbled into a pile together that he had spoken. They were also amazed at his uncharacteristic reaction. It was the first time he allowed himself to be distracted from his mission.

        Impassively he looked back at them and asked, “What?”

        Vash spoke first, “Nothing.”

        “They also produce a mesmerizing effect. When a prospective food source comes within range the egg emits a hypnotic allure and as soon as contact is made, the trap is sprung. I, of course, am immune to their effect.” She speared a disdainful look at her uncle, “As you should be.”

        He merely frowned at her, the message was very clear, she found him sadly lacking in the area of displaying plant superiority over the lesser species.

        “Maybe we should get a move on.” Wolfwood suggested, missing the exchange between the two plant relatives as he was still frowning at Levio.

        “Right.” Vash quickly concurred, “Let’s get going.” Looking around the edge of the cavern for the first time he noticed that there were several openings set in the walls. Questioningly he cocked an eyebrow at his niece.

        “I agree. We must not linger; this is a nesting area and every once in a while the smaller females come here to lay more eggs and check up on the ones already laid.”

        “Oh yes, Well, I was never one to linger when some big mother worm would like nothing better than to swallow me for a little light snacking.” Wolfwood swung his weapon over his shoulder and sent a dark look about the room at the eggs that had so quickly taken on a menacing aspect. He wouldn’t be surprised if a rampaging egg-laying female came charging down on at any second.

        Vash nodded. It wasn’t a good idea to stick around, not after what they had just learned.

        Tessla started for the far corner wall where a smaller opening was situated. Immediately Levio was at her shoulder. Vash waited for Wolfwood to follow and then brought up the rear. He paused at the opening of the tunnel to glance back over his shoulder for one last look at the spectacular eggs. If they had been real jewels the room was worth a king’s ransom. ‘All that glitters‘, Vash reminded himself. He turned and started after the group.

        Again they traveled down more seemingly endless tunnels with Wolfwood grumbling that Knives had more holes under his hideout than there was sand in the desert.

        This time the passageways were hollowed out in a curved manner, sinuously moving back and forth. Vash was getting tired of the underground travel and was sure his cross-toting friend was also more than ready to be above ground again. Though he knew it wasn’t true, he felt like they had traveled to December and back again.

        He noticed that dim lights were strung out near the ceiling again. Of course, it would be wasteful to have them in a cavern that didn’t need the illumination.

        Peering over everyone’s shoulder, Vash noticed that they were coming up to a ‘T’ intersection. He wondered which way Tessla was going to turn when she came to a halt. Waiting until everyone was close to her, she held her finger over her lips to forestall any questions.

        All three looked at her curiously, yet tensed, ready for any sign of danger.

        In a low voice she softly explained, “This next hall has many openings. They lead to hibernation caverns. The larger the hole, the larger the worm. It would be wise to keep as quiet as possible until we arrive at the elevators.”

        The men nodded their understanding. First eggs and now worms. Wolfwood glanced uneasily at the nearest hole imagining he could hear strange rustling noises coming from it. Levio merely appeared bored, hands hanging loose at his sides with his weight shifted to rest on one leg.

        They started off trailing quietly behind Tessla again, but Vash took a moment to rub his brow. His warning sense was nagging at him and he decided it wasn’t the eggs after all. However it could be that it was going off because they were in such close proximity to the worms. With a sigh he moved to follow before coming to a sudden halt at the first oval shaped door. His head tipped back as his eyes scaled up the dark hole to the top. It was huge. As worms went, it wasn’t that large, still, it would be big enough to swallow one of them whole for a tasty appetizer. With eyes narrowed he considered the door. This was the source of his warning intuition, he was sure of it. Deciding that there must be a hibernating worm at the end of the long tunnel that was responsible for the tingling running along his nerves, he shrugged and prepared to disregard any further warning signals.

        As he was about to move again, he heard the sound of a small scrape. He tilted his head to listen and then, as casually as he could, started after the others. There was another soft rustle and then he was sure. They were being followed. He frowned as he stared hard at the back of his niece’s head. He was certain they were going to be attacked just before or when they got to the elevators. The only thing he was unsure of is whether his niece was the instigator or not.

        He let out a soft snort, who was he kidding, of course she was involved!

        Upon reaching the end of the hall, Vash was surprised to see the tunnel turn yet another corner. As he rounded the corner after the others he saw that the tunnel dead-ended at a wall where metal elevator doors were set. Next to the doors, carved into a shaft, was a spiral staircase. Vash assumed it ended up at the same place where the elevators did.

        Just as he was about to ask a question, the lights went out and the hall was plunged into darkness. He heard a peeved Wolfwood mutter, “I knew it! I just knew it!” Which was soon lost in the yelling that seemed to come from everywhere at once but was most likely the echoing effect of the stone hallway they were in.

        The lights came back on and found the two gunslingers with shoulders slightly touching already standing in a fighter’s slouch. To the casual observer they looked relaxed and calm. While it was true that both were calm, relaxation was the last thing on their minds as they sized up the situation with a glance.

        With a small turn of his head, Vash met Wolfwood’s eye and saw that he was aware of the same thing despite the urgency of the situation. Wolfwood, noted in the background of more important concerns, that during the brief time of darkness Vash was again wearing his sunglasses with the obscuring lenses, but he ignored the significance of that, if it had any and nodded back at Vash. After the lights were switched on again, they quickly discovered Tessla and Levio were gone from the scene. Obviously since neither had made a sound it they had left voluntarily and weren’t dragged off against their wills.

        The outlaw wondered if Wolfwood had the same thought he did. His little niece was a disturbing mix of a young, inexperienced child and ruthless, manipulative wanna-be tyrant. She would be one to watch as she got older and mastered what she was already trying to practice now.

        “You didn’t happen to put a homing device on her did you?”

        Vash grimaced, “NOW you mention it!”

        “Yeah,” Wolfwood’s wince matched Vash’s, “I shoulda figured she’d ditch us sooner or later.” He slanted a look out of the corner of his eye, “She hasn’t impressed me much with her sterling qualities.”

        Vash grunted his agreement while the fingers of his right hand settled lightly around the butt of his gun.

        Advancing toward them from the hall they had just traveled down were eight men wearing tight-fitting body suits of camouflage shades of light gray, dark gray and black. Covering their heads were masks with thin slits that only allowed their eyes to show. Crossing the chest, two bandoliers hung from either shoulder filled will all manner of sharp implements from tiny throwing knives to huge machete affairs. The interesting thing was that none of the weapons showed one shine of silvery metal, but rather were some kind of metal painted a matte black, even the buckles on their clothing and belts weren‘t made of anything that would give off a reflection.

        “Hey, how come they get the cool uniforms?”

        “We don’t have uniforms.”

        There was a pregnant and silent pause as the group of men took a couple of slow steps forward.

        “Why don‘t we?”

        “How about this: ‘cool’ is a uniform unto itself and you wear it well.”

        Wolfwood nodded to himself, “I like that... yep, that’s my new motto, ‘the too cool priest‘. Has a nice ring to it.”

        “Have you been drinking?” Vash demanded, having finally reaching his limit while keeping his eyes on the men that were approaching them from down the hall.

        “You wouldn’t happen to have any gum or candy on you, would you?”

        Vash turned to stare at the priest, incomprehension written all over his face. “What!?”

        Wolfwood just shrugged in response. “Can’t help it, I’m having a nicotine attack.”

        “NOW?” Vash waved an arm at the approaching foe and then demanded, “Why are you having a fit now, of all times?” Then it dawned on him as he saw the strain showing around those narrow, gray eyes that Wolfwood was dealing with more than just the situation in front of them. He was already struggling with a newfound phobia in his own, albeit, strange way. Considering the circumstances, Vash had to admit that he was doing a good job of keeping his sanity intact.

        “Well, before this Milly was around distracting me. You know a smoker needs to substitute one habit for another one. When I had the urge before, she would take me into the...”

        “Stop right there! I think I know where this is leading and I don’t want to hear it!”

        Now the two gunmen were shoulder to shoulder as they assessed the situation.

        “Suit yourself, but you know what... it works!”

        “I’ll keep that in mind when I need to break a disgusting habit.” He said even as he reached for his modified long colt.

Always a Hitch in the Plans

       “Mistress, is this the best course of action? Shouldn’t we stay with them? Wouldn‘t it be better to know what they are up to?”

        “No, I need to get ready and also make sure the lab is set up correctly. I have high hopes that my plan will work. Besides, I know what they are up to.”

        Tessla said this as she punched a button on the panel in the hidden set of elevators inside one of the dark openings. In the hallway it appeared to look like the arch leading to a smaller worm’s hibernation room, but only a few feet into the space and a person would bump into a wall if they didn‘t know it was there. Even the wall was part of the disguise. If one knew how to do it, the stone wall opened to a hidden elevator. This one was a natural shaft and she had it made into a second elevator. One never knew when a second escape hole would be needed.

        Really though, it was not so much that she needed more escape exits as it was extremely doubtful that any human would attack Knives’ home, even if they knew where it was. Then for someone to actually find the labyrinth beneath the place, well the odds were astronomical, but Tessla didn’t let that stop her from fashioning one bolt hole after another. She had many avenues of escape littered around the premises as a precaution; it was birthed from her fear of being trapped in one place and not able to get out. Not sure where this fear of being confined came from, and not really caring either, she made sure there were different options and several escape holes at every place she happened to be staying. Her room alone had four secret exits that not even Knives knew about. Furthermore, in her opinion it was the height of idiocy to depend on only one way up and down, or in and out.

        She glanced at Levio. He knew too much, one of these days she would have to wipe his mind clear of all her little secrets. It troubled her that she couldn’t bring herself to contemplate his demise if he became too knowledgeable of her affairs. Watching Levio out of the corner of her eye she pondered why she was reluctant to come to a ruthless decision concerning him if need be. The thought was elusive and caused her discomfort so she shrugged it off. She was an advanced and highly complex being and didn’t need to delve into the emotional morass of lower life forms. She was about to pitch out that particular line of thought when all went black around her.

        The next thing she knew she was regaining consciousness and staring up into Levio’s concerned face. As soon as he saw her eyes flutter open, his face went blank and a shutter closed over the emotion in his eyes.

        Tessla struggled to stand up. “Wha... What happened?” The last thing she was aware of she was thinking about... she looked up into his face and wondered if he knew that she had been thinking about him; not that it mattered of course. She tried to pull away but as soon as she did, her knees buckled. An imminent collapse to the floor of the still moving elevator was halted by Levio catching her and pulling her upright.

        “You clutched your head and groaned. Then you collapsed, Mistress.”

        Tessla’s brows puckered in a puzzled frown. Now that she thought about it something was missing while also on the edge of her consciousness, something full of anger, revenge and steely-determined patience. Who? Tilting her head she tried to figure out which plant angel it was. Ah, Melanie wasn’t connected anymore. How strange. With frown furrowed in concentration she realized that something was rippling through the plant web of awareness. Not only was Melanie missing but Knives was only a vague presence as if not entirely connected in with the others.

        The sounding fury though was like a trumpet call blasting through her awareness. Now that she was home the connection with her clan was extremely intense. Instinctively she had slipped back into the flow of plant consciousness and the shock of the whirling tumult had caught her off-guard like a hammer blow to the head.

        It was an implausible and highly impossible that the change was being caused by one of the plant angels, none of them were able to sustain this energetic and emotional frenzy. Raising to gingerly touch fingers to her aching temple, she suddenly realized that she knew who it was.

        Tessla turned and stared at Levio in open-mouthed astonishment. He merely inclined his head to the side and waited for her to speak. Finally Tessla was able to stand without her knees threatening to buckle underneath her. Levio could tell the difference and dropped his arms. He took a respectful step away even as he kept a watchful eye on her.

        “It’s that black-haired half-plant! Somehow he has her hooked up to the family!” She moved a slender hand to her head and closed her eyes shut for a moment wondering why she hadn‘t noticed before this. She should have noticed the difference immediately. Did one of the family need to be in close proximity to be able to sense her in the plant chain? Or was it that she was able to keep her own personality intact and not let her consciousness be absorbed into the plant link? Well, those were matters for another day; right now the important thing on her agenda was to take care of a certain someone.

        Opening her eyes it took her a moment to get them to focus, “But I wouldn’t be able to read her like the others if she wasn’t projecting, and believe me Levio she doesn’t care who is receiving right now. No wonder the aunties are all in an uproar.”

        Tessla’s eyebrows raised in a puckered frown as she thought over the implications of this new development. If Knives had the hybrid incapacitated that might jeopardize her plans. She needed the half-breed free. Sucking her bottom lip in and chewing while furiously thinking, she deliberated on how she was going to be able to free the captive without alerting Knives. It wasn’t looking good. Well, she couldn’t do anything about that right now, but she did know what she could do.

        Looking up at Levio she said, “We are getting off at the ninth level. I want you take the stairs, the unused ones near the janitorial station to get to the other elevators. Then, go to the living quarters and find my Mother. I want you to protect her at all costs.”

        Levio nodded, “Yes Mistress.”

        She looked down at his empty forearms. “First we will make a stop at the armory. I have something there that you are going to need.” The elevator stopped and the doors obediently slid open. Tessla was several steps down the hall with Levio behind her shoulder as usual when the sound of the evacuation alarm went off.

        Tessla gasped in shock when she heard it and glanced over at her manservant. The look on his face was grim but he stayed where he was. Good, he wasn’t going to take Knives’ orders over hers and abandon her.

        Both winced at the grating sound like witch-nails screeching up and down every auditory nerve they possessed. Granted, they were levels below with solid rock between the nearest speaker but it was irritating to say the least. Maybe he designed it that way so that the humans would scurry from the alarm as quickly as possible. Even if it didn’t pertain to her, it was nerve-wrenching to listen to.

        “Why now of all times has he decided to...” Then her face cleared as a sudden thought struck her. “Wait a minute, we might be able to make this work for us.”

        Spinning on her heel she pointed a finger to Levio saying, “You, your orders are the same, but what I need to do is going to change. I will meet you in Knives’ lab after you have made sure my Mother is safe. But first, we still need to get to the armory.”

        Blank-faced, Levio nodded.

        “You know who she is in danger from...“ Her mouth turned down saying, “Don’t kill if you don’t have to but first priority is to make sure that she is safe from that one.”

        Grimly, Levio’s light eyes held hers before giving another curt nod.

        Satisfied, Tessla hurried down the hall. They didn’t have much time.

I Wasn’t Raised to be a Light Fixture

       Rinnah hung in the bulb, gently and slowly bobbing up and down. She had been quietly seething for hours but kept the anger from spilling over for nearly as long now. The hardest thing she had ever done in her life was what she was currently doing, pretending she wasn’t naked and spitting angry.

        The worst moments were when a technician would stop by, make some adjustments, consult his hand-held scan-screen and then look up at her with a blank expression on his face. It was all she could do to keep her arms from crossing in front of her chest. Except that they usually looked at her as if they were studying a frog floating in formaldehyde. Whatever it was they thought while they peered up at her she had to make sure it didn’t matter a whit to her. She made sure to return every look with a dignity and haughty poise of a queen, sovereign over all she surveyed.

        The other thing Rinnah found out about herself was the fact that she was able to hold her tongue. What a surprise to find a talent she didn’t think she possessed. There were a slew of insults, observations, and witty remarks she held in check, although it was near killing her to do so. There was plenty of material to work with here and many the moment she was tempted to speak. However, she quickly found out that those first few times she had spoken up they acted as if they were expecting it. However the more silent she was, the more uncomfortable they became as she hung above them watching their every movement with bright opalescent blue eyes. It seemed the weight of her stare raked through them and soon they found things needing attending on the other side of the room. For the time being it was her only, if minuscule, triumph. She would take anything she could get.

        Rinnah would do something she had never had much practice with in her life before this, she would wait, and moreover, she would do it with patience. Fingers lifted one at a time and drummed against the bicep of her folded arm. If she didn’t explode from inaction first.

        “Biding your time I see.”

        She looked down at the voice even though she knew whose it was. Knives was staring up at her with a smirk on his face and arms crossed over his chest in a similar pose.

        “I know what you are doing and what you are thinking. Too bad it won’t work. Be as patient or impatient as you wish, but if anyone tries to free you,” he nodded his head at the metal door to far side and near the bottom of the globe that for the moment was the only way to enter and exit. “It will set off an alarm and also fill the bulb with a gas that will incapacitate you... for hours if not days.” A cold smile met her pokerfaced expression. “Not only that but a small charge will go off and kill the person trying to tamper with the door.”

        He paused to let that sink in but was disgruntled to see that not a shred of dismay or concern crossed her face at the information.

        “As soon as we have surgically added the other cherub life-support attachments, the door will be removed and replaced by successively smaller portals until the area is grown together. You will be here forever.” With an evil smirk and lift of an eyebrow he turned and, with a few quick strides, moved to the nearest console and bent over it.

        “Karma, dude, that‘s what it‘s all about. Yeah, just like stepping in dog poo, you know, the sticky kind that you can’t easily scrape off? Oh yeah, that’s what’s coming to you!” She murmured, watching his eyes darting back and forth across the screen reading the latest stream of data.

        Knives lifted his head to stare at Rinnah as if he heard her whispering and gave her a slight frown. With a playful wave of her hand and a cheeky grin she pushed away from the glass. With a slow spin she drifted higher in the globe until her back was turned to him and she could view the other plant angel bulbs that stretched back into the cavern.

        Rinnah hooked her forefinger over the middle of her nose while palming her elbow. It was time to think and plan for the moment when ‘Operation: Let’s Free Me and Then Kick That Stupid Plant’s Ass All the Way to Sol and Back Again With Numerous Lumps, Bumps, and Broken Bones Along the Way ‘ would be put into effect. Granted, the title took longer to say than the actual breakout would be but it was immensely comforting to repeat silently to herself.

        Just as she was about to repeat the title to her plan again a long warning siren went off causing her to near leap out of her skin.

        “HOLY ST. FLAMING STAR HOLES! What the hell is that infernal racket?!” She clapped her hands over her ears. She assumed that this was some new torture of Knives’ concoction and as much as she hated to admit it, this one was working. Well fine then, all they would get out of her was her name, rank and starship serial number.

        In trying to spin to face forward to find out what was going on, she overdid her twist only to find herself facing the bulbs again. With a curse the hybrid forced a calmness she wasn’t feeling and executed a perfectly balanced and coordinated spin so she was turned toward the front of the globe.

        The pandemonium in the room surprised her. Men were evacuating the room at a breakneck speed until the place was empty with seconds. She turned her gaze back to Knives who was, it looked like, trying to do several things at once. His mouth moved but she couldn’t hear what he was saying from where she was over the siren commotion of the alarm.

        “Great. Someone set off the fire alarm and here I am, stuck in this fish bowl. I never get to have any fun.” She didn’t bother to try and yell over the siren, it would have been worse than useless as the cacophony was painfully loud and ear piercing, drowning out any possible communication attempted.

        It soon became apparent to her that Knives was livid. He was scowling fiercely and typing away on a keyboard at a fantastic rate while pushing a different sequence of buttons every now and then. Then he slammed a fist against a console, or right next to it as Rinnah didn’t see any shards of glass fly up at the force of his strike.

        The hybrid couldn’t keep a growing grin off her face. It was becoming clear to her that what was happening was not of Knives’ doing, nor was it something he was pleased to have happen at this time. Anything that got Knives’ knickers in a twist was fine and dandy with her. Whoever caused this incident needed to be congratulated. If she could find construction paper, glue, and crayons, she would make them a medal with long dangling ribbons attached to it and hang it on the nearest refrigerator for all to see.

        At one point Knives looked up to see the ‘you are so screwed’ grin on the hybrid’s face but for the moment he was too busy to wonder what was at the bottom of that expression.

        Rinnah could barely keep herself from letting fly a victory crow upon watching Knives slam a fist against the console for the third time. The plant was losing it. Lack of sleep, intense concentration for hours upon end, expenditure of energy while being ‘healed’ (she could have giggled at that one), and something else that was eating away at him from within, and all were beginning to take their toll. The normally contained, self-assured plant was starting to come undone at the seams. It was a lovely sight to for the one person with a ringside seat to behold.

        Her eyes were glued to him as he ran a hand through his straggly white blonde hair. Yes, the iron will that kept tight rein on his emotions was slipping. She couldn’t feel it herself since it came across secondhand through the plant angels she was hooked up to. His presence was fading to a dim echo, which they were noticing but he was not. Rinnah doubted he was aware of it. The fluttering concern for their male sibling reached her and such was the physically attachment implant that it carried their concerns as if they were hotwired straight to her brain.

        However, she clenched her jaw, refusing to let the emotion they were feeling overwhelm her and take her down into the morass of their worries and fears. She would not merge with them! They could not share her consciousness as the wisps of their merged personalities as they met a mental blockade at her end keeping them out. It required a continual, non-stop stream of power that she wouldn’t be able to keep up forever. At some point in time that barrier would drop and all of them would come rushing in like floodwaters through a break in the dam. She didn’t intend to become one with the plant soup even though she also knew that one could keep a separate identity while still being one with the plant family shared consciousness.

        Rinnah knew she would have to escape soon. There was no way she could keep at bay the essence of communal consciousness that marked this species of contained plant females. As she saw it, her soul would be shared across the board and she was not about to let that happen.

        The hybrid glanced around the now deserted room. All the plant engineers, doctors, and technicians were gone, having vacated the room as soon as they heard the alarm. If nothing else, she was impressed with the training that Knives had drilled into his people. So deeply ingrained was their response to the sound they never even looked to their lord and master in the mad rush to exit the premises. No one saw the stunned surprise on Knives’ face before murderous rage descended upon his countenance. That alone brought a small smile to Rinnah’s face.

        Seeing that expression on his features wiped away all suspicion that Knives had orchestrated the alarm being set off. She watched him closely. No, he was not pleased at all. She chortled quietly to herself.

        Every once in a while she saw his lips move in what she assumed was a variety of curses. The more displeasure he showed only caused her more elation. He stabbed at buttons and typed commands, then reaching up to touch the 3-D spectral control floating above his console. Where it led, she had no idea and his hands were a blur while he worked.

        With grand amusement which she didn’t bother to hide, whenever Knives chanced to look up she would give him a wink, a thumb’s up, or blow him a kiss. It was gratifying to see how easily the small gestures were starting to get under his skin.

        “There is such a thing as ‘what goes around comes around’!” She said to no one in particular. It was satisfying to hear the sound of it in her ears.

        Finally Knives was able to hack into the outer shell of his own computer system. He couldn’t access the command core but did manage to get to the auxiliary re-router and from there to the program hub adjusting and controlling the power output to the emergency alarm siren. He wasn’t really turning ‘off’ the speakers so much as rerouting the power to other sources. Once the power was restored to all hubs then the warning alarm would continue until he turned it off from his office. He gave a small shrug of a shoulder. It was the best he could do for now.

        Rinnah found out when all sound was cut off. Her globe went silent. She bit back an oath and frowned thinking that she went deaf all of a sudden. Then she realized she could still hear as the ‘plumbing’ of her globe was still audible. This was irritating. Well, at least she was able to see what was going on. It was then she noticed how loud silence could be. The so-called silence of her bulb was anything but that. She would hear the numerous noises it was making around her and beneath her the bed of the globe. It wasn’t loud but it was invasive.

        The worst thing about it was that it sounded like she was being kept captive within a gigantic body, seated inside the chest of some great beast listening to the beat of a steady, pumping of a heart. The slow thudding of a regular pulse with enough force that she could feel the vibration coming up from the bottom of her feet along her bones to the top of her head. Then a rasp of breath being inhaled and exhaled was the exchange of the environmental regulator making sure the atmosphere around her was at a constant optimum for her continued existence. The substituting for the waste elimination system was the umbilical-like cord attached to her back. Fresh and new plant blood was replacing the depleted, old that contained waste and byproducts the body was filtering out. In with the new, out with the old. Making a face at the thought, it was just plain nasty. She would take using the restroom facilities over this any old day of the week.

        Adding to the mixture of the noises of her new home, she identified the low-level humming noise as the grav-unit at the base of the bulb stand.

        It was an eerie feeling being the unwilling nerve center of the great globed being that surrounded her while processing everything she; and it, needed in order to survive. Except for a refrigerator, books, companionship, walking, opening a window, watching a sunrise or sunset... the list could go on without end, she could live here forever. I am not about to give him my future! Besides, I would go insane if I have to stay in this thing for the rest of my life.

Ambush Hijinks

       In the time it takes to blink, Vash squatted down on the back of one bent leg with the other one stretched out in front of him. His coattail flaps flared out around him, as if they possessed a life of their own. His prosthetic hand held his right wrist steady while extending the arm out in front of him with silver colt leveled at the approaching attackers bearing down on them. Everyone in the group seemed to be as wide as they were tall with muscles bulging through the thin fabric of their garments.

        A quick glimpse out of the corner of his eye showed him that Wolfwood had the cloth unwrapped off his cross punisher and was air borne with it, swinging it at the man closest to him. He knocked the man back with a quick blow to the head then landing lightly even as he brought the cross around in an arc with a quick twist of his wrist, sweeping the man off his feet. The man landed back of his head first and bounced with a thwack that caused his fellows to pause in their strides. The injured man stayed down, dazed and knocked unconscious from the blow.

        Vash counted six men in the dark outfits. With disgust he noted that these costumes were yet another variation of the moon suit with a shadow-absorbing ability. It made them blurry at the edges so that the men too easily blended in with the shadows along the wall.

        Two of the attackers had guns and he zeroed in on them first. Narrowing his focus and keeping in mind the in-and-out weaving of bodies he pulled the trigger twice. The thunder from his gun echoed off the walls making even him wince, but he was satisfied to note that the two guns were now only pieces scattered along the hallway.

        Neither the outlaw or the priest said what was already obvious, these men weren’t amateurs. The two men who had the guns shot out of their hands didn’t stop to grab their hands or shake them even though they had to be in pain. He did expect them to slow down a little but still they came on, hands reaching to their belt to whip out some sharp little circle things with the obvious intent of throwing them.

        One thing working against the hostile attackers was the fact that they didn’t have the same kind of camaraderie with one another that he and Wolfwood had established over the years. Each was only loosely paying attention to the man next to him while intent on his own attack. Trained, but not to be dependent on one another. Sloppy, thought Vash as he watched the assailant nearest him stoop over the fallen man.

        At first Vash thought he was going to help his comrade up, but instead, he grabbed his team member hoisted him up in the air only to hurl him at Wolfwood. The priest saw it coming and tried to dodge and leap out of the way at the same time while swinging his cross punisher in another wide arc away from either man. Vash knew why he did it, the gun had a hair trigger and the priest didn’t want it to accidentally go off when the impact of the man hit him.

        It was a good idea but as Wolfwood turned his shoulders the thrown man proved he wasn’t as unconscious as he first appeared. Having that split second of surprise, he took advantage of it and brought his arm up to smash a fist into the priest‘s much-abused ribs. Vash heard the thud even from where he stood. He was amazed that Wolfwood only grimaced even as he swung an elbow around to slam into his opponent’s face. The blow rocked the man’s head back but it bobbed back forward, blood streaming from his nose as he favored the priest with a spreading, malicious smile.

        Wolfwood abhorred the thought of dropping his cross punisher but the man was reaching for his neck to squeeze the life out of him. In a twinkling he tossed his weapon over by Vash so he would deal with his attacker. He would need both hands to deal with this punk who already had one hand gripped around his throat. With a quick look down he saw the man was unable to use his other arm, not that he needed to, the one hand as big as a shovel looked to be enough to finish the job. Still, Wolfwood was royally pissed. Tossing his cross punisher to the side like that could have knocked the sight loose, or God forbid, the myriad small and delicate components within. Dammit, he just had that old geezer fix his baby up and he was not in the mood to hear any lectures from him again about how the younger priest needed to be careful and take special care of his weapon!

        Wolfwood was thin, but it was with a tough, resilient whipcord strength. His lean muscles were hard and strong, they had to be, given his lifestyle. It was an easy matter for him to spin, pulling the man around and slam his head into the wall, especially since he only had the use of one hand. Without a sound his attacker slid down into a boneless heap on the floor.

        “Oh Lord, a priest‘s work is never finished!” muttered the priest as he took a step away. He heard two more bodies hit the ground. He didn’t need to turn his head to know that Vash had taken them down. A lop-sided grin appeared on his face. He knew what had happened. They, like most people upon first meeting the Humanoid Typhoon, had underestimated the white-haired gunman and were now paying the price.

        The three remaining men stood shoulder to shoulder and Wolfwood wondered at the strange position. It seemed out of keeping with the devious manner of dress and silence. Another thing he was finding creepy was the fact that they had yet to speak during any of this.

        “Wolfwood! We have places to be.”

        “Right. Let’s finish this.” He moved next to Vash and waited for the attack to come. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder at his weapon. He wondered if he had enough time to close the distance and grab it in time before the goons launched their next attack at them. Deciding to stay and not race back for it was a tough decision to make, but he did so even though he felt naked without it.

        Vash and Wolfwood tensed for the next attack, expecting the men to make a last charge down the hall. Instead, they pulled something from concealed pockets and pulled down the cloth covering their mouths. Wolfwood saw a small glass vial in each hand as they tipped it up and swallowed the contents within. He knew what it was, he himself used to carry a packet of vials with him. Only his were for healing the body after catastrophic damage. He wondered what these did and decided they would soon find out.

        “This is not promising.” Vash whispered.

        “Yeah... I’ve seen this before...”

        Wolfwood didn’t get to finish his statement as he and the outlaw watched the men’s muscles began to bulge to the point that it was a wonder that the seams of their tight costumes didn’t rip out. Instead, the material expanded with the increased girth.

        “Wow... that’s new.” Breathed out the amazed priest.

        “Bulking up without the all the hassle of pumping iron. Nice.”

        “Have you ever considered that we might be in the wrong line of work?” Started Wolfwood. Instead of answering Vash moved with lightening speed, startling him. Talk about rude, he thought.

        They had less time than the space of a breath and Vash took it. Throwing himself sideways with one palm flat against the floor so that he was parallel to the ground he pushed off, flinging one leg out in front of him. The extended foot landed deep in the midriff of the man standing across from him. So quick was the attack that it was only after the man was down on the floor that the other two were able to react to it. One leaped for Wolfwood and the other, within a few steps of Vash, reached out to grab the outlaw‘s coat. Snatching a fistful of material of the back of Vash’s collar he lifted the outlaw up until his feet dangled inches above the ground.

        Whatever the attacker was expecting it wasn’t Vash’s calm demeanor.

        “I wouldn’t have done that if I were you.” Intoned Vash quietly.

        The man tried to look into the skinny man’s eyes to see the fear he was expecting, but the odd yellow lenses of his glasses blocked his view. He lifted the white-haired man higher into the air. The scrawny fellow with his black long coat wasn’t going to intimidate him in the least. In fact, with white hair like that, the goof must be older than he looked. It was just a lucky kick the old man had landed on his partner. With a satisfied look the masked assailant decided that it wouldn’t happen again. He would snap this black string bean in half like a toothpick.

        The first sound heard from any of the assailants was a contemptuous chuckling as the man’s free arm cocked back ready to deliver a blow what would kill any normal human being. The hooded man hesitated only a second, stalled by the knowing smirk forming on Vash’s face. Cocky little grunt was the attacker‘s thought just before he struck.

        The face he was expecting to smash suddenly disappeared. The assassin’s brain registered dumbfounded surprise, stumbling as his body followed the path of his arm through the empty air. Amazingly though he still had the black-clad man in his grasp. He should have been able to punch the features off the face of this tall, lanky gunman without effort. Yet the thin outlaw was untouched and worse, grinning insolently at him now.

        “Missed.”

        With a sound coming from someplace deep in his chest, the attacker pulled his arm back and struck again. His growl of rage soon turned into a grunt of surprise when his fist went speeding past the mocking smile.

        “Missed again.”

        Somehow White Hair was evading his blows even as he hung helplessly from his fist. A louder growl of frustration came out of the man and he swung again with the same result.

        “You sure aren‘t very good at this.” Remarked Vash in bored tones.

        The man was puzzled. He still held the white-haired skinny man dangling by the back of his collar. Why couldn’t he land a punch on the tall, lean stranger?

        The giant of a man was a good deal taller than Vash and his arm was as big around as Vash‘s waist. He should be able to deal with this unassuming freak. Out of the corner of his eye Vash’s captor saw a silver and black blur race past his eyes and instantly felt his head explode. Darkness descended and he was out before he hit the ground.

        Vash landed catlike on his feet to stare down at the man shaking his head while slipping the colt back into the holster.

        He glanced over his shoulder and saw Wolfwood block a spinning kick before striking back, first was a punch to the shoulder in order to stun the attacker but not meant to wound. It only opened the man’s defensive posture so that the priest could come up from underneath and land a few quick strikes on his jaw. He backed up and lowered into a defensive crouch just in case the man attacked him again.

        With a look of astonishment the man went over and hit the floor like a heavy weight. Wolfwood straightened while shaking out his fist. He heard the priest mutter something about a hard jaw when he caught Vash looking at him.

        “Hey, don’t forget...” He started to say as he saw the last man gather himself up on the balls of his feet. He stopped though and Wolfwood smiled as he caught sight of the gleam of Vash’s silver gun poking out between his arm and side, barrel aimed at the last attacker.

        Despite the fact that he knew Vash had the situation well in hand, Wolfwood’s gray eyes hardened at the threat from the last remaining assassin. His blood was still up and he was ready to take on the last attacker with bare hands until he saw Vash reach up and take hold of the corner of his sunglasses. He paused for a second though as if reconsidering his decision to take them off. The priest blinked. Thinking back, he remembered seeing Vash‘s eyes covered by the yellow lenses of his sunglasses when the lights came back on.

        Taking that bit of information in, he shrugged and started toward the last man until Vash held his palm up in a halting manner.

        Wolfwood instantly came to a halt and then sighed... “Fine, scare the hell out of him then, might as well get your jollies while you can.”

        The last attacker shifted his eyes nervously to Wolfwood as he spoke and then back to Vash. By the time he did, Vash’s eyes were uncovered revealing the hellish flame burning where normal colored eyes should be.

        Wolfwood had to admit that the unsettling sight of the unnatural red glowing in the dim lights of the hall was indeed unnerving, especially if a person wasn‘t used to seeing them day after day as Wolfwood had all this time.

        The first spoken words were uttered, “You... You... you aren’t human!” The man turned and ran.

        “Do tell.” Murmured Vash as he stared at the glasses in his hand, his mind on other things.

        “’Bout as smart as a box of rocks.”

        Then catching the melancholic expression in the outlaw‘s eyes, he said, “Don’t bother Needle Noggin, there’s a lot more in the ‘weird and bizarre’ category around here than you with your red eyes.”

        Vash looked at his friend, “You know they weren’t trying to kill us, just slow us down.” I should have thought of this sooner, Vash thought to himself with sad and pleased at the same time.

        “Yeah, well ‘pickled hallelujahs in a Mason jar’ because it worked.”

        He picked up his cross with a couple of fingers in the trigger guard and started for the elevators. When he reached it he pushed the only button on the panel next to the doors. Vash moved to stand next him. Both looked up where normally a floor indicator was, except there wasn’t a display to show at what floor the elevator was passing or stopped at. Both jerked their gaze down at the same time. Wolfwood gave a little chuckle.

        “Well,... feeling a little silly right about now.” He pushed the button again. “I can’t stand this waiting business though. How long is this thing going to take to get....”

        The doors opened.

        “About now, I would say.” Answered Vash as he stepped into the elevator.

        “Smart ass,” grumbled the priest following him in.

        Once the doors slid closed both men looked around the compartment and saw only two buttons recessed into a panel on the wall by the doors.

        “My guess that the top button is the up button. What’s your take on it?”

        Vash rolled his eyes and pushed the top button. Both were gratified to feel the elevator jerk and then begin to ascend. However, the ride was not smooth, instead they were pitched around in the wobbling box until only their innate sure-footedness kept them on their feet.

        Unexpectedly the elevator jolted, throwing Wolfwood into Vash who reached out a hand to steady the priest even as they both thrown against a wall. The two gunmen’s eyes popped open when the floor gave way for a couple of inches causing them to stumble, grab for walls and each other to keep upright. It tugged to an abrupt halt with a screech that put their teeth on edge as both men stumbled to the other side of the car. Vash threw out a hand and stabilized himself and caught the priest’s elbow before Wolfwood went over on his nose. After an indeterminable pause, whatever gears, pulleys or winches that were sticking finally loosened and the box once again ascended...

        ....Before dropping again. Explosive cursing accompanied the short plunge before catching and halting causing the two gunslingers to fall to their knees, weak with relief when the car started upward...

        ...To plummet along with their innards which were protesting each jerky movement. However, this time it dropped a few inches and bounced to a stop.

        As they leaned on the walls nearest them to regain their composure and breath, Wolfwood remarked, “I would bet all the small change I have in my pocket right now that this hellish contraption has not been inspected by the Elevation Safety Board... let me randomly pull a date out of my hat, how about, oh let’s just say... since time began!

        The words were barely out of his mouth when a loud screech caused neck hairs to stand rigid. They only had time to exchange a quick, ‘What next?’ glance when, with a convulsive jerk, the elevator started up again.

        “I hate your niece.” Growled out Wolfwood at one point, his pale face covered with a faint sheen and steadying himself by palming one wall with spread fingers.

        “I’m thinking of starting a club.” Vash’s face also was paler than usual, while his hand braced the wall next to him as he slowly breathed in and out.

        “Pass me the clipboard and I’ll be the first to sign up.”

        Finally the ride smoothed out and both men heaved a sigh of relief in unison.

        “Hey, why did you put your glasses on?” Now that there wasn’t a threat of plunging to their deaths, Wolfwood took the opportunity to ask. Looking over at the melancholy expression on Vash’s face, “And then, why the hell did you take them off again?”

        “I didn’t want to frighten them.... well, at first anyway, and then it seemed like a good idea, less fuss and bother with guns, bullets,“ Here he made a flapping motion with his hand as if brawling were a lowly pastime totally beneath his delicate sensibilities, “And things.”

        Wolfwood ignored the wimp performance from of old and went straight for the heart of the matter. “Those red eyes sure are coming in handy.” Wolfwood gave him an admiring glance. “Good thinking to use them as a distraction.” He was wondering how to lift the plant out of the dark mood lurking underneath the surface of thinly disguised good spirits and cheerful voice. Wolfwood wasn’t fooled by the act for a minute.

        Not needing the priest’s assistance at dispelling his negative outlook, Vash lifted his nose into the air, “I knew it. You’re jealous.” He glanced at Wolfwood from the corner of his eye, “You don‘t have that dangerous outlaw air about you that have the ladies drooling over you.” Vash gestured at the long coat, “It’s a chick magnet, get’s ‘em wondering what’s underneath. Of course, you need to be able to pull off the look, which I don’t think you can. And, it just so happens that I look good in red. damn good.” He gave the priest a smug smile.

        “Oh right,” Wolfwood responded dryly, “You guessed it, can‘t keep anything from you, sharp guy.” Then muttered under his breath, “As if I would ever be caught dead wearing a girlie coat like that even if it is black.”

        “What?! What did you say?” Vash knew very well what had been said, his hearing was better than most and he had heard every word. He frowned at the priest.

        “Red suits you.... Santa,” grinned Wolfwood and stared up at the floor indicator which wasn’t there either. “Stupid elevator.” He ended up grumbling.

        “Well what about you? You look ready to attend a funeral at the drop of a hat,” replied Vash, waving a hand up and down to take in the priestly attire that Wolfwood habitually dressed in.

        “Look who’s talking, the Undertaker calling the casket black,” Wolfwood growled back.

        “What the hell does that mean, that makes no sense whatsoever!” Scowled the outlaw.

        Within seconds insults were slung back and forth with caution thrown to the wind. Lineage was insulted back to Adam and Eve, the only forebears Wolfwood could legitimately claim, while he in turn, trashed Vash’s family Tree. Vash in turn claimed it was the same one that Wolfwood’s many-times great grand parents had stolen the fruit from in the first place. Vash retorted that Wolfwood’s family deserved the trouble they got from being thieves. All in all, creative imagination flowed and a good time was had by every orphan riding the elevator car, no matter who the ancestors happened to be or how appalling their behavior.

Blackfire & Gunsmoke: Chapter 33
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