Chapter 16:

the past

Aboard the Winnow

When he enters the armoury, his mouth nearly drops at the sheer amount of—shit that's in there. Blasters, auto-crossbows, energy cannons and swords of every make and mark line the warehouse walls. And as he admires the rack of state-of-the-art blasters, he realises, with a fearful lurch of his stomach, just where they're all from. Off-landers used to own these, dead off-landers—and judging from the model, they've been obtained pretty recently. Bookmark here

Mari waves to a figure in the distance. A blond man is hunched over, quite possibly polishing away at weaponry he doesn't even own. "Hey, Will! You got this guy's stuff?"Bookmark here

"This guy?" He turns briefly to look at Avett, looks back, then does a double-take. "You fucking brought him in?"Bookmark here

"Yeah, he's not one of 'em, I checked him myself. He's with the girl."Bookmark here

Will's seat clatters to the floor as he stumbles toward a particularly heavy-laden rack of blasters. It takes a moment for Avett to realise that they'd fully intended to—stars, he doesn't even want to say it. "Christ, Mari, don't fucking bring him in here. Get him out. Out."Bookmark here

"Will, he's not—"Bookmark here

"You'll do as I fucking say, Marina."Bookmark here

The warehouse door slams shut behind them. Mari shrugs. "He's a bit rough around the edges, but he's a real softie underneath it all." She pauses, bends over slightly so that she's face to face with Avett, and raises a curious eyebrow. "You alright? You're looking kind of white."Bookmark here

He releases a breath. Inhales. Does it again as he's nodding. "Yeah. Yeah. I'm fine." What the fuck is he doing? Dragons try to eat him on a good day, and on a bad day… what happened yesterday probably counted as a bad day, but he's definitely had worse. The day he'd met Lilith was significantly more unbearable than any other day, and that's including the time he had to wade through an endless underground network of broken sewers for a relic. Auren had refused to talk to him, and though Ysh'vanna had been more mature about it, she later suggested for him to relocate to the armoury with a temporary mattress "for the foreseeable future." The smell didn't wash out for weeks.Bookmark here

In desperate need of a distraction, he brings himself to meet Mari's eyes once more. "You're all capable of manipulating ether then?"Bookmark here

She shakes her head. "It's not ether. It's magic. What we can do is different from what you're capable of."Bookmark here

He freezes. Stars save him if he's actually managed to piss off this woman.Bookmark here

"…is what I think the other members of the council would try to say." Mari sheepishly rubs the back of her head and grins downwards. "They think we're different from the pir—uh, off-landers because we can't use those wings or something. That whatever we have is less harmful and more productive, but that's stupid. We're just as capable of destruction."Bookmark here

She rubs her fingers together, and a misty swirl of pure black emanates from her fingertips. Avett doesn't know what it is, but her point is proven regardless. She snaps her fingers, and then the flame is gone.Bookmark here

"Have you ever had someone lose their magic?" Avett asks. Bookmark here

"Eh, not really." She shrugs. "That's not a thing that happens. I'm not as well versed in magic as the other members of the council, but I'd like to think that I speak for all of us when I say that it's a part of me—it's not something you can just lose and still—" She bites her lip. "—still be mentally sound. Why?"Bookmark here

He's about to tell Mari about Lilith when the blond man from earlier slams the doors open. His arms are full of weaponry. Avett's weaponry. He should not be handling his incendiaries like that.Bookmark here

Avett takes them back the moment Will offers them to him with a swift lunge, narrowly avoiding what could've turned his day from bad to fucking disastrous. Pretty soon, he's got all of his gear strapped in again. Will stands by, his face impassive as he watches him slide his blasters through the holsters.Bookmark here

"This guy is definitely not safe," he whispers. He must think he's out of earshot, but Avett's ears perk straight up anyway. He's about to bristle and cave in when Mari answers for him.Bookmark here

"I tested him myself, I told you. He wasn't lying."Bookmark here

"And we all know how reliable your magic is."Bookmark here

"Yeah, well, it went fine this time." Mari folds her arms, her eyebrows knitted in defiance. "Lilith—the girl, is his partner. They're mercenaries passing through."Bookmark here

Avett's ears lower as Will strides up to him with his shoulders squared and chin tilted upwards. This guy definitely didn't get benched during high school tournaments; on the contrary, he's probably intimidated far more coaches than he's been threatened with the bench. Avett wonders if he could take him, should the need to defend himself ever arise. Bookmark here

"Mercenaries, hm?" Will prods.Bookmark here

"My ID's right here." Avett narrows his eyes. Not like it'll prove anything.Bookmark here

Will waves a hand in dismissal. "We saw when we went through your belongings. Put it right back, though."Bookmark here

He circles Avett like a hawk. Bookmark here

"They're real," Avett grits out. "Lilith has one too."Bookmark here

"Oh, does she?" He stops circling and flashes a glance to someone that's behind Avett.Bookmark here

Then he leans over. He's like a skyscraper, and Avett's just the dwarfing tourist underneath him. Straight back, he tells himself. Fuck him and his Kattish genes for making him like this. Bookmark here

Then he starts talking again. "They're made out of a grainy, eco-friendly plastic—means there's enough grip on the surface for a pencil to draw over it. The back lists your biological details, and the front lists your specialisation and ship. If you hold the card up to the light, a signature appears on the back—three, vertical strips, with a line running horizontally through all of them. Am I wrong?"Bookmark here

Avett stares at the man, his mouth parted and still. Mari steps in between them. "Will, what's gotten into you? I told you—he wasn't lying when he said he didn't know about last month. He's not dangerous."Bookmark here

Will grabs Mari's shoulder and pushes her aside. "Am I wrong?" he simply asks again. Bookmark here

"How the fuck did you know about the signature?" Avett asks. It's not a thing someone who's never seen nor heard of an ID card thinks to test for, especially not a Human. Unless he's seen them before. Bookmark here

Slowly and carefully, Will reaches into his pocket and closes his hand around something. It takes every ounce of control for Avett to not leap back with a hand on his blaster and the other on his incendiaries. Whatever he's holding is an off-colour white and doesn't catch the sunlight at all. He takes it out and lets them all scatter against the dirt.Bookmark here

ID cards. At least fifty of them. That's, at the very least, ten ships.Bookmark here

This time, he actually does stagger backwards, right into the firm grip of another Human. He thinks about fighting back briefly before he remembers that it's Lilith's life on the line. Though maybe if he makes a run for it, they'll think that she's just a hostage he plucked from the Hive and that she's not associated with him at all. Except it's hard to move when he's been pinned to the ground with a blaster pointed into his skull.Bookmark here

"Will, what the fuck?" Mari starts, her hands clenched into fists.Bookmark here

"Perhaps we can try redoing the interrogation, now that we know what they are." Ether is rolling off his body in waves. "I've always hated the term 'space pirates.'"Bookmark here

A grunt leaves Avett's clenched teeth. The kiss of cold steel against his skull is not a feeling he's well acquainted with. "Waste your time," he spits. "Go on."Bookmark here

"Gladly, mercenary." Will's eyes briefly meet with Mari before he turns back to Avett. "Mari deserves a proper demonstration. But first—a fresh subject." Bookmark here

A second body thumps to the ground next to him. The pathetic, light moan informs him that it's Lilith that's just been tossed to the dogs. Her hair pools around her head. She doesn't bother with picking herself up, instead choosing to lie there with her face against the dirt.Bookmark here

Then—ether. It's powerful, overcoming yet controlled, and it's whipping right past Avett's ear like a narrowly avoided bullet. Bookmark here

"Does it feel good to betray your own people?" Bookmark here

She quivers but stays silent. Bookmark here

He leans down until his mouth is right above her head. It's then that Avett realises that there's not a single person out. The square is completely empty—and they're the centrepiece. Will is making a point out of them. "Do you find the idea of slaughtering an entire Human settlement entertaining?" Bookmark here

Lilith just coughs. Not to send a message; she's genuinely sick as if she might pass out at any moment. It's buying her time, but Avett just wishes she would hurry up and answer instead of stubbornly fighting back. Will grits his teeth. Mari is adjusting her stance and raising an eyebrow.Bookmark here

"Do the cat ears make it better?" His tone is cold, smooth, and—surprisingly—even. Like he's a fucking snake. Avett thinks about launching himself at him, but the barrel at his head serves as a reminder for exactly what type of predicament he's stuck in. The Human won't miss shooting both him and Lilith at this range. All he can hope for is sit back and wait for their interrogation to go well. And from the looks of it, he's probably about to move on to Avett himself.Bookmark here

"Will—" Mari starts again. Bookmark here

Still no response. Instead of cutting his losses and moving onto Avett, Will leans back and barks, "Lift her head up. By the hair, please."Bookmark here

Avett sees Mari hesitate for a second. She shakes her head. "No. I'm done with all of this pointless violence—you just want to prove a point. Go fuck yourself. Do it yourself." Bookmark here

"Fine." A loose exhale. This is more of an annoyance than anything.Bookmark here

With conviction, he tangles his hands in her hair. The muscles in his arm tighten into cords as he lifts her head up and off the ground. Avett flinches—then he yells, rage boiling in his veins like he actually gives a fuck about what'll happen to her. Bookmark here

But then Will's shoulders go still. And then he drops her right back onto the floor. He backs off, each of his steps taking a century and a half. Bookmark here

"Lili," he breathes. He says her name like she's a fucking unicorn—a manmade cognition of pure fantasy. He could pass his hands through her body if he tries hard enough. A laugh rattles out of him, and he covers his eyes as he looks to the sky.Bookmark here

"Sir?" The Human that has Avett pinned to the ground loosens his grip for a second. Bookmark here

"Release them. They're not dangerous."Bookmark here

The Human rolls away from Avett before he gets the satisfaction of throwing him off. As he crawls up to his knees, he manages to catch precisely how Will regards Lilith. She's a cloudy reflection in his eyes. He's not focusing on the fact that she's there, but on the fact that she's Lilith. Like he's looking at an ant that's managed to escape the hoard.Bookmark here

"Will?" Mari asks. "You know her?"Bookmark here

He stops laughing. "Man. Oh, man." Draws in an over-exaggerated breath. Exhales loosely. "The girl's incapable of evil. Incapable of making her own decisions too—but she'll draw the line at evil."Bookmark here

Lilith digs her nails into the dirt. She clenches her hand and leaves five deep gashes in the ground. Bookmark here

"Lili, I'm defending your cause." His voice turns soft, as if he's talking to a child and not to someone in her early twenties. "The least you could do is be grateful. Say thank you. I didn't get to relieve my stress today, and I'd like a little compensation."Bookmark here

Even Mari is taken aback by his tone. Avett's just glad he's not getting fed a mouthful of blaster pellets. He slides Lilith's arm over his shoulder. Her body remains hot against his, and her head slumps against his arm.Bookmark here

At first, she lets him pick her up. But then Will tilts his chin upwards with a sly grin plastered onto his face. Bookmark here

"You're like a cancer cell that's dropped off from the main body. You won't last long without your host." He's still using that mockingly soft voice. "Say thank you, Lili Wang-Rosales."Bookmark here

Something snaps in Lilith. Avett feels it in the way her cheeks have tightened into knots. It reminds him of the ship, when she'd blinked and—for the first time in the short days he'd known her—exposed her foundations and steel beams and metal pipes and just screamed at him. She'd told him that everyone she knew was gone. He meets Will's eyes for one second. Not everyone.Bookmark here

"We've come to fucking kill and plunder and pillage your village," she spits. Quite literally too; she's somehow managed to pool her saliva in her mouth in her delirium. "We've got tens of thousands of mercenaries and space pirates just waiting behind our backs, and they're going to kill all of you—"Bookmark here

Avett slaps a hand over her mouth, turning her empty threats into wordless muffles. He's about to tell her that the amount of brain cells she's lost is clearly in the quintuple digits when he meets Will's eyes again. Bookmark here

They're glittering with a satisfaction Avett can't quite place his finger on. Bookmark here

Then Will turns to Mari and says, with a demeaning smirk, "That last part was a lie. That's how you interrogate."Bookmark here

He leaves and slams the door of the warehouse on his way in.Bookmark here

Mari almost follows him, but she stops mid-step and bends down to sling Lilith's other arm over her shoulder. They stand up at the same time. Lilith's body is awkwardly tilted upwards.Bookmark here

Avett blows his hair out of his eyes. "I can take her. It's fine."Bookmark here

"No, it isn't." Her voice is tight and quick. She corrects her tone not a moment after. "I need you in tip-top shape for tomorrow. So go get some rest. Some real rest."Bookmark here

He doesn't say anything as she effortlessly lifts Lilith from him. The idle bumble of the village is back, and he's thankful it's providing him with an ambient noise that isn't the occasional rustle of the trees in the mid-afternoon breeze. He does, however, start talking when Mari starts heading off without explaining herself.Bookmark here

"What for?" he asks as he paces next to her. Bookmark here

A thoughtful pause. She glances over to the village gates—two wooden stakes that have been stuck into the mud and sharpened at the ends. "There's an abandoned department store off to the east from the village gates. It's huge, there's always another shop to pillage—but it's not exactly safe there. We send out retrieval teams often when we're short." Her attention turns back to Avett. "And we're kind of short on food right now."Bookmark here

He looks towards the small patches of tilled farmland that every cabin has in their backyard. There isn't a single garden that doesn't have rows upon rows of leafy vegetables, and he's willing to bet that there are plenty more growing underneath the dirt. Bookmark here

"You think Will's gonna like me more if I'm directly helping the village," he finishes.Bookmark here

She only shrugs. "See you in the morning, Avett. Sleep in the room opposite Lilith's tonight."Bookmark here

Bookmark here

Avett's eyes snap open. An urgent sense of wrongness shoots through his body, and when he stops to catch his breath, he hears the soft, front-heavy footsteps of a certain frontliner and the click of the front door. He swears and reaches for his jacket, but by the time he's dressed and ready, Lilith is already gone. The giant double-doors of the cabin have been left wide open. Bookmark here

He shivers as he steps outside and closes the doors behind him. He doesn't worry about locking it—none of the houses in the village have locks installed anyway. Bookmark here

Lilith is nowhere to be seen. But then he catches it on the wind; the slightest hint of their ship's cheap and shitty three-in-one shampoo. He heads towards the forest. He can't believe that he's the modern descendant of a proud, 200,000-year-old race and that he's using their evolved traits for something as menial as this instead of—fuck he doesn't know. Hunting, he guesses. He could've been hunting rabbits right now. Bookmark here

The forest is incredibly dense. Branches stand from their trees to prod him in the sides, and sometimes the grass gets so tall that he has to whip out his utility knife and scythe it down. How the fuck had Lilith managed past all of this with her painfully average Human eyesight, he has no idea. He just knows he has to find her before she does anything stupid in that fever-induced psychosis of hers.Bookmark here

He pushes past another clump of foliage, fear gripping his stomach as he accesses his surroundings for an idiot in a white dressing gown. Her scent is strong now, unbearably so, but he still can't find her.Bookmark here

"Lilith," he hisses. Then he realises she probably can't hear her, so he raises his voice just a smidge. "Lilith, you've got a fucking pair on you, I swear."Bookmark here

Lilith doesn't respond, even though he knows for a fact that she's within earshot. Avett holds back on pounding the nearest tree trunk with his fist and continues his search instead. Then he thinks about turning back briefly because his jacket's proven to be absolutely useless against the midnight chill. Bookmark here

He winds up a kick, faces the tree—then whirls and sends his foot into a bush instead. It rustles softly. He's going to kill Lilith if she doesn't do it herself. Bookmark here

But then he sees her. She's sitting down with her back leaning against the tree and her face streaked with tears. Her cheeks are still very red. Bookmark here

He freezes, then takes off his jacket. "You've still got a high temperature, Lilith, stars."Bookmark here

Avett moves to drape his jacket over her shoulders, but she jerks away at the last second. "You need that," she says, with difficulty, "more than me."Bookmark here

"I'm not the one here whose organs are getting cooked from the inside." He lunges to drape it over her again, but she dodges—and promptly falls onto her side. Avett does what he's come here for and props her back up onto the tree.Bookmark here

"You'll be cold," she says.Bookmark here

He flicks at an invisible fleck of dirt on his shoulder. Today's interrogation is still a pain in his ass, and he's willing to bet it's been one for Lilith as well. The way she'd snapped sticks with him more than the actual garbage she'd spat at Will in the heat of the moment. He's still not quite sure what she was thinking at the time. No one gets accused of crimes they didn't commit and then doubles down on them without a motive.Bookmark here

Avett settles in next to her. "The reason why I haven't just picked you up and taken you back to the village is because you're crying." He slides a packet of tissues from his pocket. "So tell me what's wrong."Bookmark here

"I don't feel so good." She sniffles.Bookmark here

"Duh. You're sick, and you're cold."Bookmark here

"The cabin smells, like, really strong wood. I wanted to get out, that's all."Bookmark here

He ignores the fact that it doesn't actually smell that bad. "So you came out here?" He motions to the forest. "With the Equaliser at large?"Bookmark here

She coughs. She's so pathetically out of it right now that she doesn't even bother refuting what he's insinuated. "Sometimes, when I get a fever, I start crying."Bookmark here

"...Really." He feels his stomach lurch in what he thinks is disappointment.Bookmark here

Lilith shrugs. Then she lets out an angry moan. "The stuff they inject me with every morning, I don't know what it is… but it's making everything worse. Could you tell them to stop?"Bookmark here

"It's cilantro and thyme. It's meant to stave off the dragon's aura and amplify your magic or something."Bookmark here

"It's garbage. I doooon't want it."Bookmark here

"It's good for you."Bookmark here

"No, it isn't."Bookmark here

Enough is enough. She's clearly too sick to carry out a conversation, let alone to be outside in the chill of a midnight breeze. He scoops her up in a carry and stands up. "We're going back to the cabin, and I'm fucking making sure you stay in bed this time. There's a dragon in the woods, Lilith. Be scared or something."Bookmark here

She breathes. It leaves a hot brand on his neck that quickly fades in the cold. Then, with a quiet stillness, she says, "That's not even remotely close."Bookmark here

He shoves past a particularly annoying branch. "What isn't?"Bookmark here

"The dragon."Bookmark here

Another delirious ramble. He finds himself smiling and exhaling. "How so, princess?"Bookmark here

"Could you look at me when I say this, Avett?"Bookmark here

"Is this another one of your young adult novel things—"Bookmark here

Lilith coughs again. "So you know I'm not lying."Bookmark here

He stops in his tracks. "Fine. I'm looking."Bookmark here

Her eyes—usually an iridescent hazel—are now pure obsidian in the darkness. Bookmark here

Then with her words carrying the pin-prick precisity of a woodpecker, she says, "It's the other way around. The dragon protects them."Bookmark here

Lilith's words ring like toll bells in his head. He blinks—he's about to ask why, but she's out cold in his arms. Bookmark here

Leaving him alone with her warning. Bookmark here

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