Chapter 21:


Aboard the Winnow

He's still reeling from the abruptness of it all. Four days. Four fucking days, and he'd spent it eating mash, filling his veins with that poison, losing himself and seeing hallucinations of another lifetime—and that woman. He'd experienced a class A brainwashing, somehow. The way he'd moved during those thoughtless, aimless days reminds him of moving through an ocean of heavy smoke. His body was hardly in his control; it ran on someone else's whims like he was a gear being turned by other gears in a clockwork world.Bookmark here

It reminds him of that other day; he shuts away the memory, letting his realisation strike him instead.Bookmark here

The globe warms in his hands. "This Equaliser feeds off the villagers," he breathes. "It protects them—uses its aura to keep them complacent. Which… means they were lying about the herbs."Bookmark here

Neither of them says anything for a while. Avett's stomach churns. He shakes his head.Bookmark here

"Why lie about the herbs?" he asks himself. "They could've used any excuse, but why herbs?"Bookmark here

"The herbs do the exact opposite of what they're supposed to do—they accelerated the process, making us more susceptible to its aura. I get feverish in the presence of the dragon; it's the same feeling when I eat anything here, or when the villagers… use their power on me." She shrinks back, her shoulders hunching over her chest. With a shuddering breath, she starts talking again. "The artifact was protecting me this whole time, like an auto-immune system burning up a virus. One dragon's aura for another, but I guess this one doesn't want to enslave us or something."Bookmark here

The globe heats at her snide remark, beating hotly at Avett's chest.Bookmark here

“It’ll go tits-up if we don’t stop it,” he adds. “B ranks have aura, B5s especially, but not to this extent. Put two and two together, and I don't think it's feeding just for sustenance.”Bookmark here

Gears turn deep within Lilith’s mousy eyes. “B ranks can’t become A ranks… can they?”Bookmark here

Avett shrugs. Bookmark here

She releases a breath, holding her knees to her chest as she drags a finger through the dirt. “Oh, god.”Bookmark here

"This is good and all, but dragons are not fucking smart enough to do this," he says plainly. "The Equaliser doesn't hunt in packs. It's biologically engineered to be lonely. Gathering an entire community of endemic species, brainwashing them into submission—not possible. Pigs can't overthrow a farmer. It can't happen."Bookmark here

"But it did."Bookmark here

"It doesn't happen."Bookmark here

"It just did."Bookmark here

Avett throws his head back in defeat. "We're missing something here."Bookmark here

Lilith looks off to the side. "But you believe me, right?"Bookmark here

"Believe what?"Bookmark here

She toys with the folds of her gloves, pulling them taut, rubbing the material between the flats of her fingers until she's ready to talk again. "It's just—it's a pretty far-fetched claim."Bookmark here

He looks at her. "It's a pretty apt claim. Everything fits together nicely… except for that."Bookmark here

Lilith shakes her head. "I was worrying about bringing it up with you, because you looked fine, so mundanely unaffected—" She stops herself, takes another breath, then looks to him. "I didn't think too much of my judgment at first, because I assumed I was wrong."Bookmark here

"So you've stayed quiet for this long because of your cripplingly low self esteem."Bookmark here

She slinks backward until her back is pressed against the wall. "I guess. Maybe. I just wasn't sure. I thought you had a better idea than me, and it definitely looked like it—you were integrating into Human society so well, even though you're Kattish and I'm… you just looked like you had a plan. A better plan. I was willing to take anything—my ether’s back, Avett, but its performance is spotty at best, unresponsive at worst.” Bookmark here

Avett tries not to show it, but his disappointment comes leaking through anyway. It must've been in the way he'd exhaled, because Lilith is saying quickly, "Whatever you're about to say to me, I've already said it to myself a hundred times over the course of this conversation."Bookmark here

He sits up, placing the globe on the ground. Soothes down his boiling frustration, because he's starting to learn exactly when Lilith needs some nice fluff and when she just needs a good scolding. And right now, she needs a little bit of both.Bookmark here

So he focuses his eyes on hers. Places both of his hands on her shoulders again. Lilith tenses underneath his grip.Bookmark here

"Lilith," he starts, his tone gravely serious.Bookmark here

She trembles. "What?"Bookmark here

"You put too much faith in me. And that's not a good thing."Bookmark here

Her mouth is slightly ajar, as if she wants to say something back. Avett doesn't let her, pulling himself away from her body before she can vocalise her thoughts. "I know that's a fucking weird thing to hear from me, the self-righteous hot-headed asshole, considering I just exploded at you earlier today, but you're a frontline caster." He mulls over his sentence for a bit, then adds, "Our frontline caster. There's no one else I'd rather trust other than you, even if I… hate it."Bookmark here

Avett stumbles over his final two words like a kid on their first date. So then he decides that that's enough of that. Lilith's flush is all that it takes for him to stop digging his grave any deeper than it already is, but he could've used a thank you, at least.Bookmark here

"So." He scratches the outer shell of his distinctively Kattish ears, thankful for their presence once more.Bookmark here

"So?"Bookmark here

"About that GlassLink."Bookmark here

His partner picks herself from the ground. She smoothes down her tunic with the flats of her palms, drags a raked hand through her hair. "It'll be in Will's weaponry shed, probably. The plan is to call the Winnow, get reinforcements from Auren… then go after the mark again."Bookmark here

"It won't be that hard if we go now," says Avett. "They're eating dinner, we could just walk in. Walk out. Leave."Bookmark here

And yet when they make their way across the village and towards the shed, making sure to crouch below the glow of the dining hall's windows, they find that the door is padded firmly shut. The lock is bulky—but old from the village's lack of modern resources. Since Avett is a firm believer of giving traditional obstacles an innovative treatment, he readies the barrel of his blaster, holding it flat side down against the lock, flexing the muscles in his arm as he prepares to strike against it. Bookmark here

This plan is going to shit already.Bookmark here

Lilith winces as he poises to make the hit. The moment his blaster connects with the metal, a loud clang grates through the air. He raises the blaster up again, intimately aware of the noise he's about to make if he carries through with this plan.Bookmark here

"Wait," Lilith hisses. "I'm not confident in my ability to use ether entirely just yet, but—let me."Bookmark here

His grip loosens. She's already moved in front of the lock and gripped her hand over it.Bookmark here

Fine then, he'll step back, just this once. She shuts her eyes until they wrinkle at the sides, until the tips of her fingers are dangerously red. Bookmark here

Avett folds his arms across his chest. A second passes. Five seconds. The lock is still intact, and Lilith's lips have pressed into a wobbly grimace. They're wasting time—the strength she'd used to push him to the ground early had been a fluke, something akin to an outburst. Bookmark here

She looks to him, eyes swimming with puppy-like innocence.Bookmark here

Of all of the—he bites back the urge to smack her. "...What."Bookmark here

"It's a lot of ether to call up on such a short notice…" Bookmark here

"Fuck, just let go. I'll deal with it."Bookmark here

Lilith shakes her head. "I think you're missing something, Avett." Bookmark here

"Oh yeah?" he hisses back. "Missing what? Your lack of utility? I wouldn't miss you for shit, Lilith."Bookmark here

A raised eyebrow, and the faintest wisp of ether on the wind. "You can do better than that." Bookmark here

Her voice is lined with a stingy coating of arrogance, but it's there all the same. Avett tenses a bit at the challenge in her tone, unused to the confidence, but welcoming it entirely when he makes a face and indulges her and her unusual methods of manipulating ether. "You're a fucking freak. Get over yourself—better than that?" He towers over her, or at the very least, he tries to. "I could do so much worse. I could make you fucking break down in tears and get you to come crawling back for more right after."Bookmark here

"Oh yeah?" She grins, her hand shaking from exertion. Mousy brown eyes flare into a deeper umber, and her grin turns disastrous. "Can I get a demonstration?"Bookmark here

It's hard to keep his voice lowered in the throes of his passionate tirade. "You're a shit field partner. You know, at one point in the forest, I decided that I'd actually prefer Auren over you. Yeah, that's right." He's pacing around now, arms gesturing madly. "Auren—you know, the guy who's got the personality of a dried up cum sock—"Bookmark here

Lilith winces. Bookmark here

"—and I chose Auren anyway," he finishes. "Over you. At least the man can cook without having an existential crisis every ten seconds about how he's a useless sack of shit. By the way, your mushrooms tasted like ass. Never cook again. Fuck you."Bookmark here

The lock shatters in her hand, shrapnel splintering through the air and stabbing their pointed ends into the earth. Her gloves have protected her from the brunt of the damage, but she hisses and shakes out her hand anyway. The door swings open easily and without sound; a mercy, considering their prior ordeal.Bookmark here

Then she catches herself. She offers a worried glance to Avett.Bookmark here

He throws up his hands. "You told me to do it."Bookmark here

Speechless and properly humbled, she enters the shed. Avett follows along, pacing forward until he's next to her. He's sure that she can't see jack in the darkness of the unlit shed anyway, and any form of light would give way to their location all too soon.Bookmark here

Lilith skims the nearest rack with her hand, and his suspicions are confirmed. She might as well be blind, especially when she's running her fingers over a display of sharp blades—rubbing them the wrong way too, like she's ruffling against the way fur grows. Bookmark here

Turning away from his partner's inevitable despair, he scours around, noting down the contents of each rack, each stand. They've been sorted by date and arranged by type. The blades—the ones of higher quality, at least—are displayed on the walls alongside the blasters. Not sorted by coincidence, but by… Bookmark here

It takes a great amount of effort for Avett to squint, but to look away would've taken an equal toll on his conscience. On every hilt, every grip, every frame, there's a golden-edged insignia that blinks through the black and blue darkness. Bookmark here

"Avett, what does it look like?"Bookmark here

Lilith is on the other side of the warehouse already, and she's leaning over a table—Will's table, he realises. She runs her hands over the assortment of tools, wincing when one of the blades manages to snag on the seam of her glove.Bookmark here

"You mean, what does it feel like." He sidles through the rows upon rows of tables, making sure not to bump anything on his way there. "I can't stand to watch you fumble around. Play the casual racism card and let the cat man do the searching for you."Bookmark here

She steps back, her features scrunched up in disgust. To her, the tools—and he uses the term tools lightly, because he manages to catch the glint of a glossy magazine and the curve of someone's very pouty lips—are fuzzy shapes resting on a vaguely flat surface. Bookmark here

A quick scan of the tabletop tells him that his GlassLink isn't here. He pulls open the drawers, making sure to lift them upwards by the handle to avoid the clatter of the runners. Porn, porn, and porn—more stupid fucking ‘Playboy' booklets; a plastic cover with a Human chick on the front, her bare legs crossed up and over the other, revealing enough to tease but not enough to please; a smorgsabord of horny postcards, each model showing more skin than the last. Bookmark here

"Not here." He slams that drawer shut, moving onto the next, his other hand slipping into his pocket like it's second nature. Bookmark here

Lilith narrows her eyes in annoyance. "What did you see?"Bookmark here

"A whole lotta' useless shit."Bookmark here

He's scanning the second drawer for anything, anything at all, but it's the same shit again. His movements become desperate, more inane. Lifting a magazine gives way to more women, another sensual curve, another arched back, another, another—Bookmark here

Avett's ears swivel on the spot. He lowers into a crouch and pulls down Lilith with him.Bookmark here

The first footsteps are bold and heavy. They set Avett's heart ablaze, and he doesn't need his enhanced hearing to know that Lilith's heart is pounding equally as fast. Bookmark here

Will's flashlight circles around like a search beacon on an iron fortress. Lilith is literally hissing through her teeth like a snake ready to bite, but her doubt keeps her circling at bay. Which is a good thing—better for her to stay sober, than to go heady from the rage and malice. Bookmark here

"I know you're there." Like a hunter readying his rifle, Will goes absolutely still. "Didn't have to break my lock like that. Why don't you come out from under that table, and we'll talk this out like civilised Humans?"Bookmark here

Several seconds of silence drip past like a jar of spilled molasses. Bookmark here

"Should we answer?" Lilith whispers.Bookmark here

Avett's answer is blunt. "I dunno, it's your friendship you'll be ruining. Just know that he's reloaded a clean battery into his blaster in the time that he's taken to give you his 'we come in peace' talk."Bookmark here

He'd heard it—a subtle snap of iron against plastic, nestled between the words' civilised' and 'Humans', a sound he'd recognise three sheets to the wind. She slumps back against the leg of the table, her eyes fixed on nothing in particular.Bookmark here

"He's not leaving without a fight," Avett offers.Bookmark here

"He's got no reason to fight us when he doesn't know that we know about the dragon." She balls her hand into a fist. Bookmark here

"He's holding a loaded firearm, Lilith."Bookmark here

His partner pounds her fist into the ground, silence and violence concentrated into one swift movement so that she makes nary a sound at all when her hit connects. If only she'd channel that passion elsewhere. Bookmark here

Then she shakes her head. You first.Bookmark here

Projecting his voice out and upwards, he pushes aside his usual air of arrogance and wears a mask of pure brown-nosery on top. "Alright, you got us. You've won."Bookmark here

At least Will isn't moving forward anymore, but that's because he's entirely aware of where they're hiding right now. Avett hears the sound of cloth shifting against cloth and assumes the worst: Will's blaster, pointed right at the edge of the desk, just slightly above the surface so that when Avett pops his unassuming 'alien' head over, Will won't have to adjust too much when he shoots him between the eyes.Bookmark here

A rich chortle. "Why am I not surprised that it's you?" Bookmark here

Though he can't see Will from here, Avett is willing to bet that he's rolling his eyes into his skull. He decides to return that sentiment. "I'm just a little unforgettable like that."Bookmark here

He takes a few steps towards the table. "That's my desk, Ironsturm."Bookmark here

"And?"Bookmark here

Will halts, his leather shoes just visible from underneath the overhang of the table. "You like what you see?"Bookmark here

"I'm seeing a whole lot of vanilla and nothing else."Bookmark here

Behind the leg of the table, Avett gestures towards Lilith with a raised hand. Gears turn behind her once dulled eyes, fast and hard enough to fling sparks into the air. Bookmark here

The rattle of metal against metal as Will raises his weapon. A snort—then, an exhale. "Of course. Of course. I saw you eyeing up Mari earlier—emphasis on the 'up.' I suppose the men of your kind simply have to make do, hm?"Bookmark here

Lilith waves at Avett to scuffle back. When he does, she plants her feet firmly into the ground and squats low. Then she curls her fingers underneath the overhang. Bookmark here

Ether ripples through the shed, its scent hot and tangy like freshly pounded iron. Something changes in her posture. Maybe it's because she's finally hitting back, maybe it's because she's trying to lift a desk into the air, but she looks a little stauncher, a little more unhinged. Bookmark here

As the desk goes flying, flying, Avett replies with, "Don't worry about us. We've got it where it counts."Bookmark here

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