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.
It reminds him of that other day; he shuts away the memory, letting his realisation strike him instead.
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."
Neither of them says anything for a while. Avett's stomach churns. He shakes his head.
"Why lie about the herbs?" he asks himself. "They could've used any excuse, but why herbs?"
"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."
The globe heats at her snide remark, beating hotly at Avett's chest.
“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.”
Gears turn deep within Lilith’s mousy eyes. “B ranks can’t become A ranks… can they?”
She releases a breath, holding her knees to her chest as she drags a finger through the dirt. “Oh, god.”
"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."
"But it did."
"It doesn't happen."
"It just did."
Avett throws his head back in defeat. "We're missing something here."
Lilith looks off to the side. "But you believe me, right?"
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."
He looks at her. "It's a pretty apt claim. Everything fits together nicely… except for that."
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."
"So you've stayed quiet for this long because of your cripplingly low self esteem."
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.”
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."
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.
So he focuses his eyes on hers. Places both of his hands on her shoulders again. Lilith tenses underneath his grip.
"Lilith," he starts, his tone gravely serious.
She trembles. "What?"
"You put too much faith in me. And that's not a good thing."
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."
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.
"So." He scratches the outer shell of his distinctively Kattish ears, thankful for their presence once more.
"About that GlassLink."
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."
"It won't be that hard if we go now," says Avett. "They're eating dinner, we could just walk in. Walk out. Leave."
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.
This plan is going to shit already.
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.
"Wait," Lilith hisses. "I'm not confident in my ability to use ether entirely just yet, but—let me."
His grip loosens. She's already moved in front of the lock and gripped her hand over it.
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.
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.
She looks to him, eyes swimming with puppy-like innocence.
Of all of the—he bites back the urge to smack her. "...What."
"It's a lot of ether to call up on such a short notice…"
"Fuck, just let go. I'll deal with it."
Lilith shakes her head. "I think you're missing something, Avett."
"Oh yeah?" he hisses back. "Missing what? Your lack of utility? I wouldn't miss you for shit, Lilith."
A raised eyebrow, and the faintest wisp of ether on the wind. "You can do better than that."
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."
"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?"
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—"
"—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."
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.
Then she catches herself. She offers a worried glance to Avett.
He throws up his hands. "You told me to do it."
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.
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.
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…
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.
"Avett, what does it look like?"
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"Not here." He slams that drawer shut, moving onto the next, his other hand slipping into his pocket like it's second nature.
Lilith narrows her eyes in annoyance. "What did you see?"
"A whole lotta' useless shit."
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—
Avett's ears swivel on the spot. He lowers into a crouch and pulls down Lilith with him.
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.
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.
"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?"
Several seconds of silence drip past like a jar of spilled molasses.
"Should we answer?" Lilith whispers.
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."
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.
"He's not leaving without a fight," Avett offers.
"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.
"He's holding a loaded firearm, Lilith."
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.
Then she shakes her head. You first.
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."
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.
A rich chortle. "Why am I not surprised that it's you?"
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."
He takes a few steps towards the table. "That's my desk, Ironsturm."
Will halts, his leather shoes just visible from underneath the overhang of the table. "You like what you see?"
"I'm seeing a whole lot of vanilla and nothing else."
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.
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?"
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.
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.
As the desk goes flying, flying, Avett replies with, "Don't worry about us. We've got it where it counts."