1x05 - "Mask of Sanity"
by K. B. Cribbett
Click to Expand
Previously on DarkWatch...
Alpha spent a good deal of time away from home, first aiding in the retrieval of a package on the west coast, and then a long and painful chase of a corrupted chameleon. A woman from Talbot’s past came back into his life, and now haunts him with the order not to find her. Meanwhile, Zebediah has had some memory lapses that he believes to caused by something--or someone--within DarkWatch….
“This is ridiculous. We’re not making any progress.”
Nurse Margaret Rumsfeld glanced up from her clipboard to Zebediah MacPhearson, darting her gaze above the thin-rimmed reading glasses perched on her nose. With a sigh, she removed them, reaching back up to push a chunk of her hair--dyed bright pink this month--behind her ear.
“Sir,” she replied gently, “We are making progress. It’s just...baby steps.”
“I’m a grown man,” growled her patient in a thick Scottish brogue. “I can handle more than bleeding baby steps. Perhaps there’s another way of going about this? You don’t have to be so gentle...we can hit this thing head-on.”
“I’m afraid we can’t, sir,” Margaret frowned. “You know as well as I that anomalies are...tricky. Even if we tried to force the memories to surface, we could do irreparable damage, you might lose more than--”
“Enough,” the man stood suddenly, glaring down with dark blue eyes. “Get Miss Day in here. She can--”
Zebediah froze, his face contorted somewhere between anger and disbelief.
“Sir, if I may be so bold,” Margaret’s voice emanated patience, although her eyes displayed that it was wearing thin. “You specifically ordered me to keep this particular investigation under very close wraps. As it is, even the small number of agents I’ve assigned--per your orders--only have a small portion of the case. Bringing in a telepath….well, I think you trust your ‘Team Alpha’ a little too much.”
“That is bold.”
“The way I see it, we have not found anything irregular about your schedule, your health, or your interaction with anyone or anything on this base. Except that squad. More of your missing hours come from Alpha’s missions than anything else. And you think bringing in the telepath from that same team is a good idea?”
“She’s a sniper.”
“Touché. But she can help--”
“I forbid it,” the nurse gave a curt shake of her head.
“You...what?” the Scotsman growled.
“You’ve effectively appointed me as your doctor. Therefore I can refuse any order you give if I have medical reasons to believe those orders would be in direct opposition to your best health.”
“Let me start over, as I’m clearly not getting through to you,” the nurse carefully placed her clipboard on the edge of Zebediah’s desk. In response, the blonde man slowly returned to his seat, but his eyes still burned in anger.
“Throughout this investigation, we have found zero anomalies of any kind that can have altered your memory,” explained Margaret. “However, it is a well-known fact that telepaths have the ability to alter a subject’s brain chemistry in subtle ways, including repressing memories. It’s an avenue we resisted exploring because it seemed too obvious.”
“And we have more than one telepath in house--”
“But your two most powerful are on your lead Collections team.”
“The vore counts.”
“Sir, I’m just suggesting that you keep your distance from them. At least until we can narrow this thing down further.”
“Fine. What am I supposed to do in the meantime? Twiddle my thumbs?”
“Actually,” the nurse picked up her notes again and flipped to one of the back pages. “Now would be as good a time as any. There aren’t any active field cases. It would be perfect.”
“What are you suggesting, Miss Rumsfeld?”
“Sir, I’m suggesting--quite strongly--that you take a vacation.”
Vesta Moreau and Laraine Baldwin picked their way through the broken desks, chunks of drywall, and fallen bricks scattered across their path. Heavy dust filled the air, and Laraine stopped to cough.
“Watch it,” warned Vesta, gesturing with a nod to where Laraine had steadied herself against a wall. The dark-haired teen pulled her hand back, stumbling as she read the words of warning spray-painted across an old chalkboard.
“This place is totally creepy,” Laraine told her red-headed friend. “I mean, totally.”
“Not creepy, just haunted,” Vesta corrected her with a smirk. “Totally haunted.”
“Cool,” Laraine returned the playful smile. “Is this where you take all the new kids you tutor?”
“Nah,” Vesta shook her head, making her red curls bounce as they descended a narrow flight of stairs. She paused for a moment to look over her shoulder as she readjusted the bow and quiver she carried there. “Just the ones who can keep their heads.”
“Sweet,” Laraine followed Vesta's footsteps around a large hole in the middle of the staircase. “'Cuz when my mom told me I'd need extra studies to get caught up after moving, and that I was assigned to some college drop-out, I thought I would totally die. But you're pretty awesome. I mean, you taught me how to shoot a bow.”
“I didn't drop out,” Vesta squeezed her green eyes shut with a semi-annoyed sighed.
“Say what?” Laraine squinted to see down the hole in the stairs, but the dank, dusty air was black as sin.
“I didn't drop out of college,” Vesta spoke in a hushed tone. “I finished all of the coursework; they just didn't award me my degree.”
“Was it because of a guy?” Laraine held back a squeal, running one hand through her dyed-black tresses. “Oh my gosh, did you have an affair with a professor? That would be sooooo rad.”
“He wasn’t exactly a professor,” Vesta's voice trailed off as they rounded the last corner into their final destination: a large, cavernous room.
“Whoa...” Laraine froze as she took in the massive surroundings. The floor had rotted away, already having fallen through in several places. Unlike many of the rooms and corridors they had passed through previously, this room was void of any useless furniture, broken glass, or even graffiti.
“Where...” started Vesta, a small rise of panic showing in her green eyes as they frantically scanned the room. Her right hand subconsciously reached up to brush the feathers of an arrow in her quiver.
“This is the creepiest room ever,” Laraine confirmed, taking a step forward. As she did so, some of the floor immediately in front of her crumbled into the nearest gaping hole. “Hey, I thought you said this was the basement?”
“Hmm?” Vesta pulled back into the present, turning her attention to the young girl beside her. “Yeah, this is the lowest level. Why?”
“So how come then there's holes in the ground?” Laraine's heart beat with adrenaline as she tripped over her words. “I mean, what's under there? Shouldn't that be, like, rock?”
“There used to be a subway tunnel running through Setida,” Vesta remarked passively, turning her attention to the far end of the room where the largest of the holes was. “It ran right underneath the school. Damnit.”
“Huh?” Laraine finally seemed to sense Vesta's frustration. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Vesta grumbled, taking Laraine's arm and leading her back towards the stairs. “It's just...damnit!”
“You're such a spaz,” Laraine rolled her violet eyes as she made her way back up the stairs. She paused when she did not hear Vesta following her. Turning back, Laraine saw the woman digging her phone out of her pocket and starting to dial.
“Who ya calling?” Laraine asked
“Remember the guy who got me kicked out of college? He's going to get his Scottish ass down here. Right now.”
Elliot Washington heaved an over-dramatic sigh as he let his weight fall back in the neutralizing bubble that housed him, rolling his neck back to look at the dropped ceiling. He counted seven stains without moving his eyes.
“We know,” Gloria Day shot him the millionth glare of the day.
Elliot had rolled his plastic prison into the middle of their bullpen-like office space, but he could see only the blonde's cobalt blue eyes above her flat-screen monitor. Sighing again, the vore reached in his pocket to find the single photo of his wife he stashed there.
“You’re going to make yourself sick if you keep doing that,” muttered the telepath, turning her attention briefly to a sip of coffee, then back to whatever she was typing.
“I have to agree with Probie,” Talbot Nox grunted as he lifted one arm from where it had been draped over his eyes as he reclined on the room's single sofa. “The Manitoba Grass Wrestlers were more eventful than this past week.”
“The wha--” Elliot started.
“Right,” nodded Imogen Natura, flipping through the same pile of manilla file folders she had been sifting through all morning. “So were the Deep Gorge Water Crawlers.”
“Good times,” Talbot replaced his arm over his eyes.
“What are you even talking about?” the vore threw his hands in the air.
“Just some old missions,” shrugged Gloria. “I wasn’t around for them, but from the reports, one guy actually flatlined for three minutes, due to pure boredom.”
“Greeeaaaaaaaat. Couldn't we get a TV in here?” Elliot grunted, replacing the photo as he looked around the room for something else to focus on. “I understand the desk duty as punishment, but I’d rather not flatline...”
“I’m afraid television privileges weren’t part of our sentence,” Imogen did not look up from her folders. “Breathe while you can and get something done.”
“Dad's coming,” Gloria interrupted, her bright blue eyes slightly glazed over as they focused on the open doorway.
Everyone froze momentarily as their eyes collectively followed Gloria's gaze. A couple of seconds of complete silence were followed by a faint pat-pat of footsteps approaching the single entrance. Zebediah MacPhearson's face emerged in the opening wearing a half-cocky, half-apathetic countenance.
“'Allo, team,” Zebediah gave them a partial wave as he stepped over the threshold.
“Well, I never,” Talbot threw one leg off the sofa and propped himself up on his arm, his blue eyes glaring as they opened. “Look who finally decided to grace us with his presence! The Man himself...”
“So that's what The Man looks like,” Elliot flopped his hands to the side within his bubble. “I forgot that a world outside these walls even exists.”
“Indeed,” Zebediah shot the two men a raised eyebrow. “I've come to let you know I'll be out of the office for a time. I’ll be taking a brief holiday.”
“Hoooold up, cowboy,” the vampire scoffed. “You came down here, in person, just to tell us you're leaving?”
“Great,” muttered Imogen. “Did we do something else wrong?”
“Not at all,” shrugged the Scotsman. “An old friend phoned. You lot have the fort hammered down pretty tight here, there are no open cases, and Nurse Rumsfeld specifically mentioned that I should take some time off, so I thought I'd pop out for a tick.”
“We'll be fine, boss,” Gloria nodded. “Momo and I will keep the boys in line.”
“I'll bet you will,” Zebediah purposely caught Talbot’s steel blue gaze. “I should return in about a week, so try not to burn the place down while I'm out, yeah?”
“He means you, Shortstop,” Talbot muttered under his breath to Elliot. “No matches.”
“I doubt there’s enough oxygen in here to spark the flame,” retorted the vore, tapping his fingers on the floor of the bubble.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Zebediah paused as he turned to leave. “Nurse Rumsfeld also wants me to relay that those final tests came back negative. You are clear of any residual corruption, and can come out of that ridiculous thing whenever you want.”
“And here I was just mastering the ability to not run into everything.”
“One week. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Vesta tapped her pencil irately against her notepad as she stared out the massive third-floor window of the Moreau Estate. Books were scattered everywhere around her: on the desk, on the chairs, even on the floor. Under her elbows on the heavy oak table were spread blueprints of the rural town's old subway system. Across the room on the single computer was scrolling microfilm archives, running a search for articles relating to the school closure, the subway closure before that, and any accidents reported in that area.
A muffled car horn from somewhere to her left pulled her out of her internal musings. Vesta jumped up and spun around, sprinting to the door and halfway down the hallway before her brain reminded her limbs why she really should not be excited to see him again.
Forcing her pace to a civilized walk, she made the landing to the second floor and stood over the banister, looking down into the grand foyer. The doorman had let Vesta's old friend in, and was taking a small suitcase from him when the guest's eyes turned upward to meet Vesta's.
“Hiya, Ginga,” the blonde man grinned.
“Zebediah,” Vesta tried to withhold the childish grin welling up inside. “You old bastard. I owe you a punch in the face, remember?”
“Aye, a bit more than that, love,” chuckled Zebediah. “Come here so I can get a good look at you.”
Vesta made her way down the east side of the double staircase, trailing her hand along the ornately-carved banister as she did so. She made it to within five feet of her old friend before giving in and closing the gap with a sprint, tackling the Scotsman with a tight hug.
“Now there's the lass I knew.” He held her close for a moment before pulling her to arm's length and giving her a visual once-over. “The years've been kind to you, Ves.”
“Look who's talking,” Vesta suppressed a giggle. “You haven't aged a day.”
“And just look at this place,” he turned his focus to the monolithic interior of the Moreau Estate. “I never thought they had castles in Ohio. You even have a butler!”
“Well,” Vesta turned various shades of red. “I guess you can say that my family has been very involved with the community since pretty much forever.”
“Quite right,” nodded Zebediah. “But that's not why you called me here, is it?”
“Actually,” Vesta paused, and bit her lip. “Let's get you settled, and we can discuss it over dinner in the second study.”
“Second study?” Zebediah gave her an impish grin. “How many do you have?”
“I know what you're thinking, old man,” Vesta laughed. “And the answer is no.”
“I need something to do,” Elliot groaned, finally free of his plastic prison. Gloria shoved a stack of papers in his face.
“You still have reports to write up,” the blonde informed him.
“I wrote them up,” pouted Elliot. “Every mission.”
“Yeah, so I see,” Gloria glanced down at the papers still in her hand, then back to Elliot. “But they need to be legible. Or at least typed.”
“Rubbish,” sighed the vore as he took the pile. “My shorthand is perfect.”
“That's not shorthand,” Imogen countered from across the room. “That's hieroglyphs.”
Talbot snorted, a grin forming under his arm-covered eyes.
“And what about this lazy bum?” Elliot jerked a thumb towards the pale-faced Englishman. “Why doesn't he have to write up reports? Didn’t he admit fault to putting us in this situation?”
“Already done, mate,” Talbot mumbled, half-asleep.
“Talbot's penmanship is immaculate,” agreed Imogen. “Yours, on the other hand, leaves quite a bit to be desired.”
“Not just his penmanship,” Talbot laughed. He half jumped off of the couch when a stapler flew at his head. He caught it easily and set it on the coffee table beside him. “Easy, lad.”
“Seriously....” sighed the vore, slumping down in front of his computer and dumped papers onto his desk. The pile fell apart, a section fluttering to a stop at his feet beneath the desk. He scooped down to retrieve a chunk and stared at the top page, wrinkling his nose and furrowing his eyebrows as he attempted to decipher his own notes.
“Told you,” Gloria murmured from her desk without looking up.
“Yeah, whatever,” Elliot grunted as he pulled off the paper clip holding the chunk together. “Ow!”
“Paper cut?” chuckled Talbot. “Poor baby.”
“No,” Elliot stuck his stuck finger in his mouth. “Paper clip.”
“Terrifying,” Talbot reclined back into the sofa. Elliot lifted the stack of papers to locate the hostile office implement. He intended to bend it until it broke, partially out of spite, but mostly out of boredom. Not seeing it, he rolled back in his chair to look on the floor.
“Quit lollygagging,” Imogen called across the office.
Elliot made a face at her as he pulled himself back to his desk, and his computer beeped. Looking at his monitor, which was set to the default blue sky and green grass desktop, he saw a small box flashing in the corner. It beeped again, and the box popped open, containing the blinking phrase, 'Congratulations, you won!' in all the colors of the rainbow.
“Wonderful,” groaned the vore, clicking the X to close the window. Seven more popped up.
“That was positively gorgeous,” Zebediah dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “So you told me on the phone that you lost something?”
“Right to business,” Vesta caught his inquiring gaze and held it there. “In short, yes. I know there was more to what happened back in college than you let on, and so naturally you were the first person I thought to call when things here got a bit...weird.”
“Go on,” the Scotsman leaned back in the high-backed chair.
“After I came back from school,” Vesta started. “My mom was getting sick. Before she was bad enough to be admitted, she passed on to me some information about our family business.
“She didn't say where it came from. I don't know if it's because she didn't know, or if she was too far gone by that point to get all the facts across. But there is a...an object, a sculpture, I suppose you might call it. Big slab of stone with a face. It's a bit hard to describe, but we call it the Masque, and all I really know is that it's dangerous, and it's not where it's supposed to be.”
“Alright,” Zebediah took a deep breath in, and Vesta could see the wheels turning behind his blue eyes. Aside from her feeling of foolishness as she relayed what little information she had, she was sure she made the right move by calling her old friend. He was--at the very least--taking her seriously.
“As far as I know,” continued Vesta, “The Masque has always been in the basement of an old abandoned school on the south end of town. When the schools closed, there were rumors about ghosts and kids being possessed, but I couldn't find anything in the news to back it up, and it's been too long now for anyone to still be alive to talk to about it. I had been visiting it about once a week to keep tabs on it, as my mother instructed, and when I went there two days ago, it was gone.”
“I see,” answered Zebediah, leaning forward with interest. “Aside from the rumoured ghosts and possessions, does this Masque possess any strange abilities, or does anything strange seem to happen in its presence or to those who come in contact with it?”
“My mom never mentioned anything like that,” Vesta paused for a second, thinking. “But I was doing some research in the meantime. Building specs, newspaper clippings—anything I could get my hands on. Nothing has shown up yet. I can't even find out the exact date of the closing.”
“Quite,” Zebediah took a deep, contemplative breath and fished into his pocket for his cell phone. He flipped it open, thumbed a one-handed text, and snapped the phone closed.
“I'm not really sure where to go from here,” admitted the redhead. “All I know is that we have to find it. It's not safe until we do.”
“Oh, I believe you,” Zebediah flashed his old friend a toothy grin. “Artifacts made of stone are usually old, very old, and the ones that last through the ages aren't usually the ones that you want to show off at tea. Do you have any photographs of this Masque?”
“No, I don't,” Vesta thought for a minute. “But I could sketch it out for you.”
“What....the....fail?!” Elliot grunted through clenched teeth as he continued X'ing out all of the pop-up windows on his computer. But each window he closed was replaced by half a dozen more.
Gloria sighed and stood, pushing Elliot out of the way and clicking away on his keyboard. Elliot's wheeled chair slid a few feet and he heaved a frustrated sigh. Gloria held down a few keys, jabbed at a couple more, and turned to Elliot.
“Fixed,” she told him, turning on her heel. “Now finish that paperwork, or Imogen will make you do it at gunpoint.”
“Ooh, let's do that,” grinned the vore. “That would break the boredom fever!”
“Oi,” Talbot grunted from the couch. “Or I could break your face so you shut up and let a mate get some shut-eye.”
“That's what your taxpayer-funded high-rise condo is for,” Elliot quipped back.
“We're supported entirely by private investors,” Gloria corrected him.
“And I live underground like a good vampire,” added Talbot.
“So that great apartment you said I would get after a year with DarkWatch...” Elliot spun his chair in the direction of the telepath. She ignored him as she bent down to pick up something from the floor, mumbling something about the cleaning habits of men.
“Gloria,” Imogen looked up from her paperwork and gave the blonde a slightly disapproving look.
“What?” Gloria grinned as she slid easily into her chair and fiddled with the object she had rescued from the floor. “He was already half-imagining it. I just filled in the blanks.”
“Pause,” Elliot put up each of his index fingers. “You're saying...you put that apartment...in my head?”
“Noo....” the telepath said slowly. “The apartment was already there. I just...furnished it.”
“With a 92 inch plasma TV playing the Blackhawks game?” Elliot gave her a scrutinizing gaze. “I think I get it...you're totally a closet hockey fan!”
“Nonsense,” Gloria's face flushed pink as she glared at her computer screen. “I like, ya know, shopping and stuff.”
“Liar,” mumbled the vampire.
“Imogen?” the blonde called as she continued to look angrily at her monitor.
“Yes?” replied the shifter.
“Hey, we were just playing, don't need to—” Elliot started
“Shut up,” Gloria retorted. “Imogen?”
“What?!” sighed Imogen.
“When was the last time our firewall was hacked?” Gloria asked, clicking her mouse with prejudice.
“Which one?” Imogen did not even look up.
“Any of them.”
“About three days before never,” the dark-skinned woman stood and walked two paces over to inspect the younger woman's screen. Gloria's eyes shot up and locked on Elliot.
“Don't look at me,” Elliot put his hands up defensively. “I can barely remember my Friend Face password.”
“But this is the exact same crap that was on your computer not five minutes ago,” Gloria countered.
“I thought you fixed it,” Elliot rolled back to his computer and entered his password to unlock the stand-by screen. Immediately, several celebratory messages appeared. The vore growled.
“Hmm,” Zebediah squinted at Vesta's three-minute doodle of the Masque as he held it at arm's length.
“You can skip right past the insults to my pencil talents,” grunted Vesta, pushing a lock of red hair behind her ear and leaving a graphite smudge across her cheekbone. “And get straight to the part where you tell me if you've seen it before.”
“Of course I haven't,” the Scotsman turned the page sideways, then upside down. “Anomalies don't tend to come in pairs.”
“I'm sorry?” Vesta gave him a baffled look.
“My job,” started Zebediah, setting the paper on the table between them, “Is the inquiry of strange and anomalous artifacts. Usually they're one-of-a-kind; however, often times they feature a leading role in local myths and fairy tales.”
“Serious?” Vesta seemed skeptical. “Fairy tales? Like, talking mirrors and fire-breathing dragons?”
“More like,” he thought a moment, “Living puppets with extendable extremities and a house that always seems to contort itself into the shape of a combat boot. Li’l lass who lived there was positively...delightful.”
“Right,” the redhead's green eyes glimmered. “You're hilarious.”
“On the contrary,” one eyebrow went up, “I am entirely serious. This Masque of yours may be dangerous in the aspect that it can drive people to murder, or it might be dangerous in that it can make dogs bark to death if it comes too close to a puddle of water. Until we can find it and inspect it, the possibilities are, quite literally, limitless.”
“So where should we start?” Vesta's ginned waned, but only slightly.
“With the last place it was seen, naturally. And bring your bow.”
“Then it's back to school for the drop-outs.”
Imogen was back at her desk, logging into her computer and connecting to the remote server.
“I think I've wiped it from mine,” Gloria stood up and walked towards Elliot's computer. “But I don't know how far it got into the system.”
“Checking now,” Imogen clicked through the server files, skimming through the common viral hang-outs. “I don't see anything on this end; you're sure it wasn't localized?”
“If it was localized, how could it be on two computers and not the host server?” the blonde whipped back as she restored Elliot's terminal.
“Feel free to jump in anytime here, English,” Imogen turned her wrath on Talbot, who just grinned and adjusted himself on the sofa.
“Nah,” he grunted. “You got this.”
“Could it just be a coincidence?” shrugged the vore, allowing the women to handle the computer crisis. Both stopped what they were doing and stared at the newest member.
“Never, in the history of DarkWatch,” Imogen said slowly, “Has there ever been a coincidence. 'Coincidence' is just another word for 'anomaly.'”
“An anomaly that functions as a pop-up virus?” Elliot sighed.
“Some anomalies are just annoying,” grunted Talbot. “Hey, Momo, remember the--”
“If this is, in fact, an anomaly,” Imogen ignored him, stood up tall and put on her leadership face, “Then we need to process it immediately. Gloria, initiate local grid lock-down, make sure it can't get through the firewall and out of the building.”
“On it,” the telepath turned on her heel and booked it out the door to the server room.
“Talbot, hit the books,” continued the shifter. “Hard copies and digital. See if we can't find where this thing came from and how to deal with it.”
“Aye,” Talbot heaved a sigh and casually rose from the couch. Elliot’s green eyes followed the vampire out the door in confusion.
“I'll call up to the Director's office and ask them to advise,” Imogen reached for her cell phone.
“Uh, boss?” Elliot looked around the now-empty bullpen, feeling useless.
“Huh?” Imogen looked up from her phone. “Oh, you. Right. Um...” Imogen paused, thinking.
“I know I'm new here and all,” the vore started, “But, didn't the Director get fired? Like, a while back? They haven’t refilled the position yet, have they?”
“That's right,” Imogen nodded. “Acting Director, then. I'll call MacPhearson.”
“You mean Zebediah?” Elliot butted in again. “He left for vacation...”
“Damnit!” Imogen squeezed her eyes shut in frustration as she gripped her phone tight in one fist.
“It should be right over there.”
Vesta had brought Zebediah through the same hole-dodging path she had led Laraine through two days earlier. They had arrived in the cavernous ballroom on the lowest level of the abandoned Setida High School, and the redhead was now pointing to the other side of the room where a car-sized chunk of the floor was missing.
Zebediah said nothing, but he pulled out a worker's lamp from the messenger bag he had packed. He crouched at the foot of the stairs and aimed the light's beam through the nearest hole.
“What are you doing?” Vesta leaned down to his level. “You think we can get down there from here?”
“Negatory,” came the reply, then he carefully lay down on his stomach. He put the lamp and his head into the hole, and Vesta was temporarily blinded by the sudden lack of light. She blinked and stared around the room, and shivered away goosebumps at the shadows cast from the lamp's light coming up through the other holes in the floor.
“Alright,” Zebediah pulled his head and the lamp back up from the hole. “The bedrock that this level was built on is completely eroded, but the iron beams supporting the school are still solid. If we step carefully, we can walk on this beam here down to the other end.”
“Did you see it?” Vesta's voice was rapid and nervous. “Did you see the Masque?”
“No,” replied the Scotsman. “But I couldn't see very far. I think I saw a place we can climb down on the other end.”
“Let's go,” Vesta stood so quickly that parts of the floor near her feet crumbled as her weight shifted, and she lost her balance. Zebediah grabbed her flailing arm as she wobbled and pulled her down towards him where he knew the beams would hold.
“Ow,” he grunted. She had landed right on top of him.
“Sorry!” Vesta tried to scramble off of him, but he held her tight.
“Don't move,” he warned her. She froze as several more chunks of the floor around them fell away.
“Right,” she muttered. “So...just like old times, then.”
“Quite,” Zebediah grinned. “Only we're not naked.”
“So I guess this means you're in charge?” Elliot volunteered. Imogen literally bared her teeth.
“Okay, first we need to find the protocol binder in MacPhearson's office,” she growled.
“Which is probably locked,” Elliot nodded.
“But there's also a digital copy on the shared server file,” Imogen sat down slowly, her mind reeling.
“So long as the virus hasn't gotten into it,” replied Elliot passively.
“Would you shut up for five minutes!?” Imogen bellowed, then took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Sorry. Just...be quiet and let me think. Actually, go sit over there.”
Elliot, still sitting in the rolling chair, slowly backed it towards the other end of the room. Imogen clasped her hands together and wrung her fingers out distractedly as she thought through all of the protocols. Every few minutes she would grab a pen and jot something down. Elliot sat in complete silence, watching her without looking at her eyes for fear that she would snap on him again.
“Got it!” Imogen jumped up, grabbed the scrap of paper she had been writing on, and flew out of the room.
Elliot's mouth was slack, having just opened it to ask her what he should do to help, but instead he was left staring at the empty doorway. After a moment, he recovered, and sighed.
“Let me go down first,” Zebediah offered, handing Vesta the work lamp and his messenger bag. “That way, if you fall, I can catch you.”
“And if you fall?” Vesta challenged him as he sat on the edge of a gaping hole and swung his legs over the edge.
“If I fall,” he looked up at her, “Then you can run for help much quicker than I can.”
Vesta gave him a half-smile that told him 'Don't you dare.' Zebediah swung one leg forward until it met with the rocky wall beneath them, then leaned forward to grasp the iron beam anchored above it. Pulling himself forward to the bar, he carefully lowered the other leg, found a foothold, and started his downward climb.
The redhead crouched beside the hole and held the lantern at an angle to light as much of the rocky wall as she could. Using the shadows as guidelines for footholds, Zebediah was down the wall in a matter of minutes, calling up to Vesta to throw down his bag and the light.
“It's not that far down,” Zeb told her. “If you jumped, I could catch you, and it would only take a tick.”
“I'll take my own 'tick,' thank you very much,” Vesta replied.
She sat on the edge of the hole and lowered herself down to the wall in the same manner Zebediah had. It took her nearly twice as long to descend to the subway floor, but she made it down with only one scratched knee and one bruised elbow. Her companion raised the work lamp and aimed it around the broken remains of the abandoned subway tunnel.
“There!” Vesta grabbed his arm and pointed to a glint near the wall. “I think that's it!”
Zebediah tilted the lantern to point the light more directly in the direction Vesta indicated, illuminating a large slab of carved rock.
Standing beside it was a figure with its back to them.
“Hey!” Vesta called out. “Who's there?”
Instead of responding, the figure darted off into the darkness.
“Is that the Masque?” Zebediah turned curious blue eyes to the redhead.
“It is,” Vesta nodded. “So, I suppose we should run after them, eh?”
He gave her a goofy grin.
Vesta Moreau took off after the figure in the dark, darting past the Masque like a bullet from a gun. Zebediah MacPhearson followed more slowly, and as he passed the Masque, a cold chill ran down his spine. For a split second he felt encouraged to stay behind and examine the strange stone artifact beside him, but a string of profanity from Vesta regarding him holding the flashlight while she ran blindly in the dark pulled him away.
Zebediah dug his toes into the cold, hard rock beneath his feet as he sprinted the catch up with the redhead. He closed in on her in a matter of paces, and when he did, she snatched the torch from his hand and took off with it. Unable to see what Vesta had caught sight of, Zebediah was eventually forced to a slow walk, entranced by the dance of the light's beam against rock several dozen meters away.
Pausing for a moment to reflect and consider the options, the founder of DarkWatch wondered what Vesta would do with the figure if and when she get a hold of it. Finally completely engulfed by the darkness of the tunnels, Zebediah found himself turning around and making his way back to the anomaly. Guided only by a natural sense of direction and a considerable amount of hours wandering in similar darkness, he found the Masque with relative ease.
“Now, just what are you, my friend?” Zebediah muttered as he closed in on the Masque. His fingers brushed the side of it as he found it by feel, and he immediately withdrew his hand. “Let’s keep the hands on to a minimum, eh?” he told the block of stone. As the Scotsman’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he began to see the outer edges of the Masque. It has no pedestal, no carvings, not even a single etched mark. The block was just that: a perfect cube of stone.
Around the bend, he saw a flicker of light. Moments later Zebediah was blinded by the circular source of the beam, behind which jogged an irate and unsuccessful Vesta. She began to explain how she lost the figure in the labyrinth of interconnecting tunnels, perplexed as to how she came full circle back to the Masque, but Zebediah ignored her, snatching the flashlight and shining it on the stoney face.
“I don't like it,” he finally muttered.
“I don't blame you,” Vesta agreed. “It's quite ugly.”
“Not what I meant. It's a bad feeling I get; a good, proper, bad feeling.”
“And y'all Scots and Brits make fun of American English making no sense...”
“Here, stand right here. What do you feel?”
“Oh, hell, Zeb, aside from what I hope is the flashlight, nothing....well, no. Not entirely nothing. Kind of a....cold feeling. But it's frigid down here, with the subterranean in the coming winter and all.”
“I don't think that's it. This is no normal anomaly, Ves. It's something else. We can't leave it here.”
“You think whoever we were chasing will come back and move it?”
“No, it's much too heavy. Besides, that figure was too small to do it on their own. But if I'm right, and I pray to every god that's ever existed that I'm not, but if I am, this anomaly can move at will.”
“Please, Zeb. You want me to believe you hunt down weird stuff, fine, I'll take that leap of faith. But massive blocks of stone do not move by themselves. I mean, it doesn’t have legs or any moving parts, for Pete’s sake.”
“They do when they're anomalies. Trust me on this, we need to get this beauty somewhere it can be kept safe and watched over constantly. Your weekly check-ins aren't going to cut it anymore. First we move the Masque, then we find whoever that figure is. Whatever they're up to, if it's related to this powerful of an anomaly, it can't be good.”
“It's a good thing you know what you're doing,” Vesta commented. “I can honestly admit that I'd be clueless and completely lost if I hadn't called you in.”
“From the literal underground movement of this thing, I'd doubt you would even know something was going on if you hadn't already been keeping an eye on it,” Zebediah tried to comfort her as he pulled out his phone. “Oh good, I have service...Hello? MacPhearson here. Put out an APB in Setida, Ohio. Unknown gender, between five three and five six, no more than one hundred and thirty pounds. Go ahead and make it effective for the entire county, although it likely won't leave the area. Keep ears on all radio waves, make note of anything anomalous. Got all that? Repeat it back to me..….Good.”
“You really think that skinny little whoever-it-was is really that dangerous?” inquired Vesta as Zebediah put his phone away.
“I'm hoping not, love, but when it comes to anomalies, being overly cautious can mean the difference between life and death.”
In the server room, the young blonde telepath had her work cut out for her. After not-so-gently ushering the technicians out of her way, Gloria Day whisked between a dozen different terminals, keying in various commands and bringing the system into a lock-down.
“Ma'am, if you don't mind telling us what--” one chubby-faced teen began.
“In fact, I do mind,” Gloria's voice was sugar sweet, “So please shut your pie hole.”
Gloria managed to put up four more temporary firewalls before the techie spoke again.
“But we could help...”
“No, actually, you can't,” sighed the blonde, her temper still sedated behind her calm, reassuring voice. “If any of you happen to know the programming code for the DarkWatch dedicated servers as well as the initiation subroutines for the grid locks, then please, step right up.”
None of the server crew moved a single muscle except to dart glances at one another. Alpha Three gave them a knowing glance and returned to her work. Flipping on the microphone receiver on her earpiece, she reported:
“Remind me that when the boss gets back, he needs to start a class on teaching people how to do their jobs.”
“Copy that, Sweets,” Talbot Nox replied from the middle of the Resources room. “Not a single one of these field reports are labeled properly, and the people down here really just have no clue what a card catalog is. Pity. But I did find--”
“I do, too, know what that is,” a balding man in his late fifties sat opposite Talbot, comfortable behind his desk with a James Patterson novel open in front of him. “I just don't get the point, see, when the computer does it for you.”
“The point is,” Talbot reached for another bucket of binders, “That sometimes computers break.”
“Would you two quitcher bitchin'?” Imogen Natura's voice pierced through their earbuds. “I.T. has been informed of the situation and is currently running a series of scans to see if they can pick up anything. So far, MacPhearson's protocol binder has been about as useful as a flaming bag of shit.”
“Who's bitchin' now?” Talbot's grin could be heard through the wire.
“The Queen Bitch,” retorted Imogen. “Now get your ass back to work.”
“Yeah,” the vampire reached up and clicked off his earbud, returning his focus to the lazy librarian. “Now, you mentioned there were a series of files that had not yet been keyed into the system?”
“Sure, dozens of them,” the balding man shrugged. “Hundreds, even. But I was told they were from before the reestablishment, and anything relevant had already been pulled and recorded. What’s left is useless, even by DarkWatch standards.”
“Perfect, that’s exactly what I was hoping to hear. Where are they?”
“What could you possibly want with that old crap? The bathroom cleaning logs from 1965?”
“Just point, I’ll dig.”
“Fine,” the librarian finally closed his mystery book and stood. He led Talbot deep into the stacks, mumbling as he went. “It would help if you told me what you’re looking for.”
“Who, not what.”
“Hell, son,” the old man laughed a crackly, snorting laugh. “You won’t find any o’ them down here!”
“You never know.”
“Here it is--bottom three shelves,” grunted the librarian as he stopped at the back wall under a flickering fluorescent light. With a queer look, he backed away from the wall, leaving Talbot to his digging. “Must be some woman,” he mumbled as he hurriedly left.
Talbot crouched down and removed the first volume, which nearly fell apart in his hands.
The beeping of the moving truck in combination with the sun glaring off two inches of freshly fallen snow burned into Vesta's retinas as she and Zebediah stood in her wide driveway. Several men in U-Haul jackets were navigating the truck backwards and downhill towards the back of the house where the walk-out lower level opened out into the stable grounds.
“This isn't exactly low-key,” Vesta mumbled under her breath to Zebediah. “I have extremely nosy neighbors.”
“It'll be fine, love,” uttered Zebediah as he oversaw the movement of the large vehicle. “Just tell them that I donated a unique and priceless artifact into the museum you call your house. It wouldn't be lying, really.”
“I don't want them anywhere near that thing. To be honest, I don't want to be anywhere near that thing.”
“So it's not ready for public viewing, it needs some touch-ups done, there's some assembly required....I can think of a dozen reasons for people not to be able to see it right now. And when we get it out of here, we'll think up another line of BS for your overly curious townees.”
“Why can't you just get it out of here now, Zeb? The more I'm near it, the more I'm convinced it's pure evil.”
“Of that I have no doubt. But Ves, listen to me very carefully. If we leave here with this thing right now, we'd be in a world of trouble. Until we figure out what exactly it does, and how it connects to that person we saw down under, we need to keep it close.”
“I don't get it, but if you do this for a living, I suppose I'll have to trust you. Just the thought of sleeping under the same roof--”
“Ahhh, lass,” Zebediah reached over and wrapped one arm tightly around Vesta's shoulders, pulling her into a close embrace. “Don't you worry, I've got you covered. All of those men moving the Masque work for me, and they have been charged with guarding it. At no time will there be any less than ten armed men keeping you safe from both the Masque and whoever is connected to it. Now, all this mucking about's left me famished.”
“Kitchen's this way.”
When Imogen returned to the office, she found Elliot Washington sitting in the middle of the floor, arms crossed, with a stubborn expression on his face.
“On your feet, soldier!” Imogen snapped, pointing a long, dark finger at him.
“I politely decline,” grumbled the vore, not budging.
“Excuse me?” the brunette's dark eyes glowered as she put her fists firmly on her hips.
“I'm not moving,” the man replied. “Everything I touch. Everything I touch!”
“Come again?” one eyebrow went up.
Before Elliot could answer, Gloria strode briskly through the door, stoic-faced as she slumped down in front of her desk.
“Absolutely nothing in the server room,” the blonde stated. “The scans were as bare as the Arctic tundra.”
“No news is good news,” replied Imogen as she parked a chair next to Gloria. “I'll take a mundane hacker over an anomalous virus any day. Is the digital perimeter secure?”
“Good, because Wash--” the dark-haired woman started as Talbot sauntered lazily in.
“Our database sucks,” the vampire stretched out on the couch. “The closest thing I could find was a worm that cracked into an Apple computer casing and started chewing on the CPU. It appears we've not run into many technological anomalies.”
“Technology is new,” Gloria pointed out as she subconsciously clicked at her keyboard. “Nature is old. There are still far more people on the planet than computers.”
“Aye, true,” Talbot agreed, then turned to Imogen. “So what's the next move, boss?”
“I haven't the slightest idea.”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“Now Vesta,” Zebediah playfully scolded her from the top rung of the rolling library ladder. “If your mum meant for you to watch over this thing, especially if she knew how dangerous it is, she would have left you as much information as possible.”
“Yeah, well, she didn't leave me shit.”
Sitting in front of a dinosaur computer, a brand-new laptop, and an intimidatingly large pile of books, papers, and research notes, Vesta crossed her arms, her legs, and her mood. She could not forget for one moment that only two floors directly beneath her feet was a slab of stone ready to do something malicious. Preoccupied with brooding, she had not heard Zebediah's question.
“Hmm?” her green eyes darted up to the Scotsman.
“I said,” Zebediah repeated with an empathetic sigh, “Did your mum leave you anything at all? A particular set of books, a family heirloom, a clever children's poem?”
“She left me the whole damn house,” grunted the redhead. “Well, to me and my brothers. Technically, West got the stables and horses, and Payton got the stocks and other investments. I got the house and everything in it.”
“So, no cryptic last words, then?”
“Hardly. Her last words were the location of her killer pumpkin pie recipe.”
“Oh?” Zebediah turned from the bookshelf to face Vesta. “And where is it?”
“You can't be serious,” groaned Vesta. “You just ate!”
“I don't want pie, love,” the blonde man grinned. “But she may have been discreetly pointing out the location of something else, something hopefully related to our stoney friend, or if anyone else is connected to it. Whoever we saw in the tunnel might be old news to your mum.”
“I see where you're going...” Vesta jumped from her chair. Zebediah slid down the ladder and followed her hurried steps into a darkened corner of the library.
“She hid the recipe here, in the Young Adult Romance section,” Vesta explained. “She knew no one would touch it there.”
“Clever ol' lass,” beamed Zebediah. “I wouldn't come here, either.”
“Now where....here!” the redhead scanned a line of books before landing on a random one. She hefted the large, blue, leather-bound book from the shelf and splayed it open on the floor. Flipping through the pages, she found the recipe card, which she handed to Zebediah. He read the card and she continued thumbing the thin, frail pages.
“This recipe is in Yiddish,” Zebediah murmured. “And the last step says to cover with a metallic epoxy compound made of deer meat and kugelach. Think it might be a code?”
“Maybe, but Mom was known for weird cooking strategies. She ate breakfast cereal with pepper, cinnamon, and liverwurst.”
“Right? Hey, check this out,” Vesta spread two pages to reveal a thin, worn diary. She removed it and gently opened the cover, reading the carefully curvaceous long-hand: “'Log of the beast, beginning October 17, 1941, by the hand of Eleanor Luanne Moreau.' This must have belonged to my Grandma Ellie.”
“May I?” Zebediah knelt beside her and Vesta handed him the journal. He examined the cover with a tedious stare, turning it over several times in his large hands. “I think this may be just what we're looking for.”
“Let's take it out into the lobby area where there's more light,” Vesta stood and lugged the big blue book back onto the shelf.
“Actually, we should bring that, too,” Zebediah handed Vesta her grandmother's diary and removed the book she had just put away. “Just in case your mum left any other surprises.”
“Alright, let me think,” Imogen pressed her fingers against the bridge of her nose. “How many instances of the anomaly have we come across?”
“Two,” was Talbot's answer.
“Three,” Gloria corrected him, “If you count Elliot's computer twice. I thought I wiped it after the first time, but, not knowing it was anomalous, it may have hidden and returned. So, two or three.”
“And as far as we know,” Imogen reviewed, “The effect of the anomaly is just annoying advertisements, correct?”
“And the first sign was Elliot's computer,” Imogen walked over to his desk and checked his screen. It was clean, without a single pop-up. “Followed by Gloria's computer...” Imogen crossed the room to check that computer, but it also had no sign of the virus. “So....”
“So either we killed it,” Gloria failed to sound hopeful, “Or it's transferred to another area of the base.”
“Alright,” Imogen turned on her microphone. “Alpha Two to Command.”
“Alpha Two, we copy,” a monotone voice sputtered through their earpieces. “What can we do for you?”
“We have a possible loose cannon on site,” Imogen informed them. “Level one, harmless, and we can't get a lock. Repeat, level one, no lock. It seems to only affect computers. I want your ears up for anything strange on any base computers, starting with the Alpha arena.”
“Got it. Countermeasures?”
“So far a basic virus scan and a firewall has been enough to neutralize it, but use it sparingly. We don't want this thing mutating and becoming immune. I want a report of any cases, including location, termination, and all personnel in the vicinity.”
“In the meantime,” Imogen switched off her mic and headed for a large wooden cabinet against the far wall, “We need to run some tests. I don't want to endanger the server, so we'll use these non-networked laptops. Everyone take one, and Gloria, if you can program a series of simula--”
“Dippy slap nut.”
“Excuse me?” Imogen's cold dark eyes settled on Elliot as he dumped the laptop he had just been given onto the floor in front of him. “What the blazes is your problem?”
“This stupid virus thing,” Elliot grumbled, picking the laptop up off the floor and showing the screen to his fellow team members. The screen was lit up with pop-ups like the Macy's Thanksgiving day Parade.
“Well damn,” grunted Talbot, barely glancing at the computer before returning to being lazy.
“He's infected,” deduced Gloria, who stood and took the laptop from Elliot. “Being a Vore and all, I'm surprised we didn't notice earlier. He's spewing out the virus as much as the virus itself.”
“Wonderful,” Imogen groaned as she tapped her earpiece. “Command, we need the mobile quarantine shield back down to Alpha arena, stat.”
Elliot swore, hanging his head in defeat. “Back to the bubble…”
Zebediah and Vesta sat at the table next to the computers, staring down at her Grandma Ellie's journal. Zebediah had one arm stretched over the back of Vesta's chair while she tenderly flipped the thinning, aged pages.
“A lot of this seems to be gibberish,” Vesta murmured. “Like this:
‘I don't know where it came from, but it's always been a part of me. I can feel it sometimes, like a voice in my head, but not a voice, really...more like a feeling that's not entirely my own.’
“What in the hell is she talking about?”
“I'm not sure,” admitted Zebediah. “Under normal circumstances, I would wager she were either insane or in love, although those two things are not entirely mutually exclusive.”
“Funny,” Vesta snorted. “Grandma Ellie was always very sweet, if a bit paranoid. This doesn't sound like her at all.”
“Hmm,” Zebediah used his free hand to flip to somewhere towards the middle. “Here now, what's this?”
“That's a completely different handwriting...” Vesta flipped back several pages. “There, March 29, 1977. That's where it changes.
‘Two weeks ago, I gave birth to my fourth child, a lovely little girl with fiery hair. I named her Marjorie Annette, although I don't entirely know why. Something feels different; I feel lighter, and less tired. I feel like maybe I can start my gardening again. Maybe it's because I finally have a proper young lady to raise, but I feel more protective of little Marjie than of her brothers. Somehow, I know she's destined to do something great.’”
“Marjorie...is that your mum?”
“Yeah, her birthday was March 17. Grandma Ellie never got a chance to go back to gardening, even though she always talked about it. Her arthritis kicked in when my mom was just a little girl.”
“I'm sorry, love...”
“No, it's okay. It's healthy to remember the ones you love, right?”
“Absolutely. Anything in there about our mystery figure?”
“Not so far, although there were a few entries about some mysterious disappearances. But small towns like this, it's usually just a shotgun wedding type thing, especially during that time.”
“Write down those names and dates, they might be important. Keep reading?”
“Sure,” Vesta scribbled down a few notes in a separate notepad, and then skimmed through the next several pages, commenting on dates she recalled hearing about, like the time her mother fell from an apple tree and broke her leg. “Wait, what's this? Here, look:
‘Today I had the fright of my life. Little Marjorie came home from school with an art project she had made out of clay and paper. It was the same horrid stone creature out of my childhood nightmares, with four square sides and many faces. When I asked Marjie what it was, she told me it was her Mask, an imaginary friend she'd created a few years ago. Like other children, I had always assumed her imaginary friends she'd have tea with were human. Here I had been thinking that she was taking out some kind of passive-aggresive attitude with her brothers out on her imaginary friends, but the reality is that she had been speaking to my own nightmare, and she was not happy with it. On a happier note, I think she may have a future in sculpting...’“
“You can't be serious.”
“Damn right I can be,” Imogen tightened the final screw on the 'mobile quarantine shield,' which in truth was little more than a plastic sterility bubble.
“This is stupid,” Elliot groaned as he slumped down onto the floor of his plastic prison, and it rolled a bit. “I feel like a hamster.”
“Tough shit,” Imogen retaliated, pressing a series of codes on a hand-held unit. The bubble made a slightly electric hum, and glowed faintly green.
“But I just got out of this thing!” the vore labored, reaching out a hand to touch the pulsating enclosure. “E.T…..phone….home?”
“Someone stop him before he damages my calm,” mumbled Talbot.
“Shouldn't all anomaly things be put in something like this?” Elliot wondered out loud.
“They sort of already are,” answered the telepath from her desk, where she was furiously typing away. “The mobile units are very crude, very basic shields. If you had been paying attention during our training sessions, you would likely be able to break out using some of the abilities you've picked up. We have much more advanced shielding around the vaults, warehouses, and other storage units.”
“So until we find this thing...” Elliot trailed off hopelessly.
“You stay put, lad,” snickered Talbot. “You can roll with us if you like. I'd love a good show.”
“You're a dick, you know that?” Elliot pointed an accusing finger at the vampire.
“Ouch, my feels.” Talbot put his hand over his heart and pretended to frown.
“If you two would just get over yourselves, that would be awesome,” Imogen glared at them both. “Back to work, finding this stupid thing. NOW.”
“I brought you a snack from the kitchen.”
Zebediah reentered the library with a tray containing an ornate pouring pot, two cups, and a sausage and cheese platter. The sun had set hours ago while Vesta went back to her grandmother's very first entry in the journal and read through, page by page.
“Yeah, thanks,” Vesta mumbled offhandedly as she turned a page. Zebediah put the tray down and placed his palm gently over the journal, blocking Vesta's view. “Hey!”
“You've been at it all day,” the Scotsman insisted, taking the cups from the tray and filling them with coffee from the pot. “You need to eat. I'd suggest a proper roast, but this will at least keep you going a little while longer.”
“Oh, alright, fine,” Vesta snatched some cheese squares from the platter and mindlessly chomped on them as she buried her face back into the journal. Zebediah sighed heavily as he sat down beside her.
“What is it that makes you so intently interested in that scrap of a diary?” he inquired. “Have you found anything more about the Masque or anyone your grandmum thought might be connected to it?”
“No, but I get it now,” answered the redhead. “I can't quite explain it, but it makes sense to me. The feeling I get around the Masque, and the things that randomly pop into my mind at odd hours of the day. My grandmother experienced the same thing, and from what she's explaining in this entry, my mother started to, too.”
“Something hereditary?” Zebediah scooted closer. “A genetic mutation of some kind?”
“I don't think so,” Vesta gave a brief shake of her head, causing her fiery curls to bounce. “After my mom was born, my grandma seemed to be a normal person, without the weird feelings and thoughts. It's like it just left when my mom was born.”
“Left your grandmum...and went into your mum?”
“I don't know...my mom never talked about it, at least never to me. I faintly remember her and Dad arguing about something that seems to be related to this, but I can't really remember. It was a long time ago.”
“And you say you have these feelings now, too?”
“Yeah, sorta. I mean, it's not really exactly the same, but I get it, ya know?”
“Not quite, but I'll take your word for it. Is this a constant theme that keeps recurring in your grandmama's journal? Do you think it's important?”
“Yes, and yes. Somehow, I get the constant feeling that whatever she's talking about is absolutely vital to this Masque situation.”
“Then I'll leave you to it.”
Feeling disheartened from Vesta's sudden obsession with the journal and disinterest in both the actual Masque and himself, Zebediah rose to leave the room. He was halfway through the motion when Vesta's pale, freckled hand snapped up and grabbed his wrist, pulling him back down into his seat.
“Wait, here,” her green eyes were vibrant with excitement. “Listen to this:
‘March 1, 1970 - I've been writing about my thoughts and feelings for quite a long time now, and I feel like my time is about spent. I have decided to pass on this heirloom to my daughter, as she has taken a great interest in it, and in the history of the Moreau women. To my little Marjorie, who is not so little anymore, I leave you this journal and my library, may you always find the answers you seek.’
“And the next entry is from my mom:
‘March 18, 1970 – I have just finished reading through the entirety of Mom's journal, and love her as I do, my questions still remain unsettled. Perhaps if I could find the right words to place in the right order, and just find the right person to ask...but that kind of luck evades me more than the weekend I spent in Vegas. I don't think I can write out my feelings as well as my mother did, but instead I plan to use this diary to document my research, and find the answers to the questions I still don't know how to ask. I will start by playing out a dream I've been having every so often for as long as I can remember: It starts in a cave, and in the cave is a man. Yet, he is not a man. It's one of those dreamlike instances where you know it's something, but your mind's eye can't seem to make up what it's seeing, so the image is unclear. The man is always running away from me, but not in fear, exactly, but something else. I feel the need to keep my eyes on him at all times, and so I chase him, but there's a train, and it crosses between us. I run blindly until I end up back in the cave, and it starts over again.’
As Vesta read her mother's words, her voice got more and more excited, until she was almost standing in enthusiasm.
“Zeb! That's it!” she shouted at him, and he put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her gently back into her seat. “But that's it! That's the exact same dream I've been having! Only, after the train, I find the man in the park, and follow him to the school. The abandoned school. Where the Masque is! Don't you see?!?”
“Ves, love, calm down...” Zebediah tried to rein her in, but she was having none of it, rising to her feet again.
“No! No, this is it!” Vesta slammed her finger down on the entry she had just read. “This is where we will find our answers. That figure in the subway tunnel? The train. The school in my dream? See? The catacombs under the subway are the cave and the train! The...the....”
Vesta's exhilaration and lack of solid foods over the past several hours suddenly ovewrcame her, and Zebediah saw it coming. As her knees locked and her face turned first red and then white, Vesta lost her footing, trembled, and fell unconscious into Zebediah's prepared arms.
“Ahhh, lass,” he mumbled, “I told you to eat.”
After Zebediah MacPhearson made sure Vesta Moreau was comfortably resting in her own room, he crept slowly down to the lower levels to check in on the Masque. As he approached the cluttered basement where the stone artifact was being temporarily held, he met up with five of the guards on the stairs coming off of their shift.
“How goes it in there, lads?” he asked them. All five men stopped and stood at attention, but Zebediah waved them at ease.
“Quiet as a grave, sir,” one man answered.
“Not sure what that thing is supposed to do, but it just sat there,” agreed another.
“Good,” Zebediah let them pass. “Rest well.”
The Scotsman made his way down the rest of the stairs and opened the door at its base. He immediately felt the pull of the Masque, which made him instantly uncomfortable. Ten guards, five fresh from R&R, stood in a loose circle around the stoney mass, half facing towards it and half away.
“Nothing, huh?” Zebediah commented as he approached them. He was answered with shaking of heads and short, negatory responses. He felt a swell of pride in the focus the guards were able to sustain, effectively staring at nothing for hours, yet knowing exactly what kinds of minor disturbances to look out for.
One guard shifted suddenly, pointing her rifle up at one of the small, high windows. Pausing for a second to gauge the source of the shadow that had caught her eye, she slowly lowered her weapon and gave Zebediah a slightly sheepish look.
“Heh, just a rabbit,” the girl mumbled, then returned to her stoic, intensely aware stance.
“Good, good,” the older man responded in kind as he stepped closer to the statuesque anomaly.
In the light shining on it from all directions, the roughly cubic slab appeared to be some kind of quartzite stone. The imperfections of the top portion, viewed at different angles, gave the illusion of different facial expressions. All of the expressions Zebediah saw were of concentration, almost mirroring the intensity of the guards surrounding it.
“Do me a favor,” Zebediah commented out loud, “Please take a few steps away from the anomaly.”
As a single unit, all ten guards stepped back, then stepped back again. The stone did not seem to react. Concerned, Zebediah was about to ask the guards to step even further from the object, but his cell phone buzzed in his pocket. Without taking his eyes from the Masque, he flipped it open and put it to his ear.
“MacPhearson....yes....thank you, we'll be right there.” The blonde man turned on his heel as he put the phone back in his pocket, addressing the guards as he made his exit. “Maintain a safe distance from the query, and take up as much room as you deem necessary. We've got our first victim.”
“Seriously...” Elliot Washington mumbled from his bubble as the other three members of the Alpha Collections team wandered around the room, alternating between waiting, researching, and more waiting.
“You need to broaden your vocabulary,” Gloria Day grunted carelessly as she busied herself with picking up around the office. “And either the cleaning staff needs to stop sucking, or we need to stop throwing shit on the floor.”
“Have you been able to raise the boss?” inquired Talbot Nox from his now-signature sleeping position on the sofa.
“I texted him to call,” Imogen Natura admitted, “But I don't want to alarm him. He is on vacation, after all, and I'm sure the last thing he wants is to be interrupted by some stupid little anomaly. We can handle this.”
“I'd rather be shooting things,” Elliot twisted to try to sit another way in his bubble, his legs starting to cramp from the enclosed space and limited maneuverability. “And I hate shooting things. Also, I have to take a piss...”
“Here, take a soda bottle and go in the other room,” Gloria dumped a pile of things onto her desk and deftly threw a plastic bottle at the vore, which bounced harmlessly off of the shielding.
“This is officially the worst day,” the young man groaned. “Ever.”
“Maybe we should get you anti-anomaly gloves to wear all the freaking time,” Gloria mocked him, then stared at her computer. “Hey! Imogen, over here, quick!”
“What is it?” the dark-skinned woman crossed the distance between them with long strides. With slow but increasing speed, small windows of advertisements were covering Gloria's screen. “Shit.”
“Yeah,” Gloria reached for the keyboard to kill the virus, but Imogen put her hands out to stop the young blonde computer genius.
“Wait,” Imogen reached around the back of the computer and pulled the network cable. “Leave it a second; what were you doing when it happened?”
“Throwing shit at the Vore,” recalled Gloria. “You don't think he could cause it from there, from inside the shielding, do you?”
“Let's hope not,” Imogen stated, looking around the room, then reaching into her pocket for her tiny spiral notebook. “Let's go through any other options first. Simplest, you know, Ockham's Razor and all that. So, before you threw the bottle...?”
“I was cleaning up; I was kind of everywhere.”
“We'll need you to be more specific. Use your telepathy, memorize what you were doing, only in reverse order.”
“You that outsource client?”
A husky man called to Zebediah as the latter climbed out of the dented compact car he had requisitioned from DarkWatch for his trip. After getting the call from a DarkWatch dispatch officer listening in to the local police bands (per Zebediah's orders), he had wasted no time in getting over to the abandoned school.
“Aye,” Zebediah called back to the rotund man wearing a clean and pressed blue uniform. “I've been asked to consult on any crime reported in the area after a break-in last week.” Zebediah flashed a badge at the man, putting it away before the officer had time to take a close enough look to tell that it was a mock-up. “What have we got?”
“Suicide, I reckon,” the officer led Zebediah around the corner to the crime scene, which, being isolated from the town and behind the school, had not even been taped off. “Here, see, boy's legs are broke and his back's all twisted. Likely jumped from the top floor.”
Zebediah followed the policeman's gaze up to the measly third story, then focused his efforts on the crumpled form laying face-down on the ground. Both ankles had snapped on impact, along with severe contusions on the arms where the young man had tried to stop his fall with his hands.
“Who found the body?” Zebediah asked.
“Couple of kids,” the policeman shrugged. “They come here sometimes, ya know, to make out and stuff. We let them go.”
Half ignoring the answer, Zebediah concluded that the angle in which the torso was twisted was completely unnatural and, in Zebediah's opinion, could not have been caused from so short of a fall. Crouching and leaning down so far that his face almost touched the ground, the blonde man tried to get a good look at the dead boy's face. What he saw unnerved him.
With sudden urgency, Zebediah called over the medical examiner, who had at least had the foreknowledge of waiting to move the body until someone who knew what they were doing could arrive. The young woman, already prepped with surgical gloves and carrying a basic exam kit, scuttled over to him.
“Have you taken photos from every angle?” Zebediah asked the young woman.
She nodded, digging into the pouch on her hip for a digital SLR camera, which she handed to the older man. Briefly skimming through the images, he returned it, signifying his approval.
“I need you to turn him over,” instructed Zebediah. “I have a hunch, and I'm hoping it's wrong.”
The ME called over her intern and together, they tenderly moved the not-yet-stiff corpse. As the boy's front became exposed, Zebediah bared his teeth. Snatching the radio from the waistband of the confused officer-on-scene, he growled a series of commands into it.
“10-18, I have a 10-30 on the corner of Adelaide and Lincoln. Isolate case 72 and send in the clowns, authorization code 4-4-Delta-17.”
“Those codes don’t even--” the officer clambered at Zebediah to return his radio, which Zebediah carelessly dropped, letting it swing on its coiled cord back to the police officer. The Scotsman ordered the three loitering officers and deputy to secure the area, quickly running circles around the small-town staff in an attempt to keep ahead of the game.
“Sir?” The ME looked helplessly at Zebediah, half gesturing to the body and half lost in the sudden rush around her. He paused, looking from her face to the frozen terror on the dead boy's countenance. The victim’s eyes were completely black.
“That body needs to be secured and sent to my lab, ASAP,” Zebediah told her. “My men are coming to collect it, just tell them MacPhearson said this is unrelated to the current case, and that the boy is missing his shoelaces.”
“His...shoelaces, sir?” the ME was obviously overwhelmed. “Is that some kind of code?”
“If only,” Zebediah grunted, then pointed to the boy's shoes. “Fucking no shoelaces.”
“Okay, so,” Imogen ran her finger down the list of things Gloria did between when her computer was fine and when the virus popped up, “Basically, you picked up all of those objects and set them on your desk, beside your computer.”
“Right,” Gloria had her head in one hand, tired of concentrating on such mundane and tedious recall skills. “Except for the pop bottle I threw at the newb.”
“And you didn't leave the room, or touch anything else?”
“I still have to pee...” Elliot whimpered. Talbot kicked his foot out and slammed it into the plastic bubble, knocking the young man off his feet and causing the mobile shield to roll towards the door. Grunting, Elliot left to find the restrooms.
“Then for the time being,” Imogen continued, ignoring the boys, “Let's work under the assumption that one of the objects you picked up is either the cause or a carrier of the virus.”
“But I cleaned the whole damn office!” Gloria pleaded. “There are like a million scraps of paper, coffee mugs, staples, anything that should have been thrown away but my hands were full so it all got dumped on the desk...”
“Okay, okay,” Imogen put up defensive hands. “You've done enough for now. Talbot, get off your ass and let Gloria rest there; it's your turn to come help.”
“Why can't Gerbil Boy do it?” Talbot teased.
“Because ‘Gerbil Boy’ can't reach out of his happy little bubble, and we can't just throw everything in there with him, including a laptop to test each object.”
“Grumble, grumble,” Talbot chuckled, sliding gracefully from the couch.
Zebediah sat on a rickety old wicker chair, facing the Masque, as stone still as the anomaly before him. The more he stared at it, the more he felt the need to get closer, to touch it. Every once and again, his eyes would play tricks on him, and he thought he saw the shadowy face-like crevices move, almost as if they were trying to talk to him.
“What are you?” the blonde man murmured. “What do you do?”
“I make you breakfast, bitch,” came a testy voice from behind him. Zebediah turned in his chair to see Vesta opening the door to the enclosed basement, holding a tray laden with plates and saucers.
“Mornin', lass,” Zebediah stood instinctively, taking the tray from her and setting it on a table near the door. “Feeling better?”
“Much better, thank you,” Vesta uncovered one platter and the heavy aroma of bacon and sausage wafted up to greet Zebediah's senses.
“Mmm, smells divine,” he crooned, but put the cover over the platter. “Let's take this upstairs. Would be rude to eat in front of my men.”
“Have they eaten yet?” Vesta peered around Zebediah's broad shoulders at the stationary guards. “There's plenty upstairs if they'd--”
“They're being looked after, don't worry,” promised Zebediah.
“Alright, if you say so,” Vesta picked the tray back up, and Zebediah opened the door for her. “But Mary-Sue makes the best pancakes this side of the Mississippi. Just sayin'.”
“I'll make sure we save some for them, then,” Zebediah laughed, then paused at the top of the stairs. Frowning, he turned to look back down the flight behind him.
“What is it?” Vesta stopped with him. “Hear something?”
“No...just a feeling. Come on, let's eat.”
Leading the way into a small study in a secluded corner of the first floor, Vesta cleared a small table and arranged the dishes for their breakfast. Zebediah shoveled the food into his mouth, eager to return to studying the strange object downstairs.
“My doorman Gerard told me that you took off pretty early this morning,” Vesta commented between mouthfuls. “Have another hot date?”
“Hardly,” chuckled Zebediah. “Corpses are usually quite cold, unless I'm the one making them.”
“Very funny,” the redhead rolled her eyes. “But, you went to a crime scene? Without me? I'm hurt. You know bodies haven't bothered me since that short stint I took studying mortuary science.”
“It was nothing special,” Zebediah reassured her. “Since I had my guys keeping an eye out for suspicious activity, and a dead boy turned up outside the school, I thought it was related to the Masque somehow. But it turned out to be related to a completely different case I've been working on.”
“Did you catch the guy?” Vesta asked passively.
“Not yet,” thought Zebediah. “But him—or her—being here only tells me that we're close enough that he wants to mock me by following me around the country.”
“You think we're in danger here?” Vesta was suddenly aware that the murder was something serious. “Should you be around me, with some crazy after you?”
“I don't think he's after me, personally. It could be purely coincidental, that I happen to be in the same city this time. But you're in no danger; all his victims have been male. And your shoes have no laces.”
“What do my shoes have to do with it?” Vesta glanced down at her black leather zip-up boots.
“I'm not sure,” Zebediah finished the last bite off of his plate and leaned back in his chair with a satisfied sigh. “But let's get back to the Masque. That's more pressing right now.”
“More pressing than a serial killer? What happened to being overly cautious and saving lives?”
“That's exactly what I'm trying to do, Ves. The serial killer—I have people on that. The Masque...well this one is ours. Were you able to find anything else in that diary?”
“A little, but not much. My mother kept referring to something she called 'The Beast,' but she never really comes out and says what it is. I've gotten as far as the birth of my oldest brother West, and at that point the entries became very angry and frustrated, and kind of hard to understand because it was just random words. Some caught my eye, though, like 'possession,' and 'symbiote.' I somehow--”
“So nothing useful, then?” Zebediah cut her off. His eyes were narrowed slightly, and he kept stealing glances towards the door, as if he were gearing up to leave.
“Depends on what you--” started Vesta as she curiously watched his anxiety grow.
“I'll take that as a no,” he interrupted, standing with haste. “Thanks for breakfast.”
“Hey!” Vesta called out to him as he turned to walk away from her. Her brows furrowed as she asked, “What's gotten in to you?”
“Excuse me?” Zebediah half-turned back to her, his face cross. “Me? What's gotten into you? Your obsession with that diary is ridiculous, and it's not helped us one bit!”
“Well maybe it's not helped you,” growled the redhead, “But it sure has helped me!”
“Then just keep on helping yourself, you spoiled little brat. I've got to get back down to the Masque and figure out what the hell it--”
“Oh please,” Vesta threw her hands in the air. “Figure out what? Why it keeps you staring at it for hours on end, while in actuality you're doing nothing? Give me a break...”
Zebediah came towards her with a swiftness that surprised her. He grabbed her arm and she let out a shocked little yelp. They both froze, staring at each other with a fiery anger that neither could quite explain where it came from. For several minutes they stood, until Zebediah suddenly pulled her towards him, pressing his lips forcefully against hers. She did not fight it.
“Pencil,” Imogen held out a waiting hand to Talbot, who sat between the two piles of random objects Gloria had picked up while cleaning.
“Pencil,” he repeated, placing a stub of an old pencil in Imogen's palm. She held it up to the computer, and when nothing happened after several silent minutes, she tossed it into the other pile.
“Mug,” her demanding hand shot out, awaiting the next object.
“Mug,” echoed Talbot, handing her a mug.
“You can quit with the surgical reiteration,” Imogen growled, holding the mug near the computer. “Is it possible for you to just do this and keep your mouth shut at the same time?”
“Unlikely,” Talbot skimmed his eyes over Imogen, then darted them over to the pile of un-checked items, attempting to guess which she would less-than-politely request next. He snatched up a plastic spoon as Imogen dumped the coffee mug into the checked pile.
“Stapler,” she said instead. Talbot sighed, dropping the spoon and handing her the stapler.
“I believe you stole my stapler,” he mumbled, but Imogen either did not catch the reference, or she was now intently ignoring him. “You sure it's one of these? We've gone through half with nothing...”
“I might be, it might not be,” the stapler went flying into the checked pile. “Wad of paper.” Talbot handed her a crumpled note. “Better to be thorough and make sure than to just assume and be wrong.” The wad of paper went into the growing useless garbage pile. “Nail.”
Vesta awoke to the comfort of her own bed, wrapped in the soft microfiber-lined down comforter, and the shades were drawn against the morning sun. As she stirred to stretch her adrenaline-deprived limbs, she felt movement beside her. Through the haze of waning sleepiness, she turned to see Zebediah's dark blue eyes staring drowsily back at her.
“Well, hey stranger,” Vesta mumbled, finding his bare chest under the covers and snuggling into his warmth. He didn't respond except to hold her close, burying his face into her tangled tresses.
After laying still enough to doze off a few times, Vesta decided it was probably time to get up and get something done. Gently pulling away from the solace that comes after love-making, Vesta shivered at the chill of the room against her unclothed skin. Zebediah playfully pulled her back down towards him, turning to lay on his back so she could rest her head on his shoulder. She sighed contently as her eyes drifted towards the random objects on the bedside table.
“You brought up the diary?” Vesta asked carefully, half-hoping to avoid another confrontation, but also half-hoping if one arose, it would end the same way. Zebediah stared dully at the ceiling.
“Yeah, I thought I would give it a read,” he admitted, running his hand up and down Vesta's spine. “It only got more muddled after your brother Payton was born, but when you were born, it was like a repeat of your grandmum, with the whole weight-lifted clarity thing.”
“Hmm,” Vesta tilted her head up to brush her nose against Zebediah's jawline. “Maybe the women in my family just go a bit towards the deep end until they have a baby girl. We pass our name down through the women, you know.”
“I noticed,” replied the blonde man. “Rather unusual, like a matriarchal royal line or something.”
“Or something. I don't really intend on having kids, so the line will probably end with me.”
“I doubt your brothers would let that happen. Didn't you tell me once that one is already married?”
“Yeah, Payton was, but his wife died in some kind of accident at work. He doesn't really talk about it. They didn't have any kids before she passed, and I don't see him remarrying any time soon.”
“Sometimes I wonder if that boy is gay.”
“Well, then it might be up to you after all.”
After a few moments of comfortable silence, Zebediah moved, sitting up and getting out of bed to find his clothes, which were strewn in random places all about the room. Vesta rolled into the warm spot he had left on the mattress, reaching her hand out for the diary. As Zebediah dressed, she alternated between watching him and flipping through the pages near the end, skimming over the sections he had relayed to her.
“Hey, Zeb?” she called out suddenly.
“Yes, love?” he replied as he sat beside her on the edge of the bed to don his socks and boots.
“Did you notice that there are some pages missing back here?” Vesta opened the diary towards him, showing him the ragged edges where a handful of the last several pages had been ripped out.
“Ah, that...yeah, I saw that,” Zebediah dodged her question. “I'm sorry, I had to take them.”
“You ….what?” Vesta's green eyes snapped sharply onto the side of his face visible to her. “That's my personal property. You had no right.”
“I know, but I had no choice,” sighed the man as he dropped a now-booted foot to the ground with a dead thud. “The information in those last few pages...well, let's just say it's a matter of national security.”
“Bullshit,” Vesta spat. “My mom was nothing more than a good housewife, who maybe had a weird cooking streak. What could she possibly know that has to do with national security?”
“It has to do with the Masque, Ves,” Zebediah finally turned to look at her. “It's not safe, and part of my job now is to protect people from things like that...”
“This argument is sounding rather familiar,” Vesta continued her glare. “In fact, it sounds almost identical to the line of bull you fed me about the tumor on your back when we were in college.”
“It's not a tumour,” sighed Zebediah. “But I can't really talk to you about that.”
“Still?” Vesta released a frustrated sigh. “And you probably can't tell me about what my own mother wrote about the Masque, either? You know, the very thing she entrusted to me to keep safe?”
“Oh, I can tell you what she wrote about the Masque,” Zebediah corrected her. “You just can't tell anyone. Ever. In fact, there's a bit of paperwork you'll need to consent to just to make sure.”
“Since when did you become some bureaucratic pencil-pusher?” accused Vesta. “What happened to the 'knowledge is free so why should we have to pay for college' Zeb I used to know?”
“He grew up, I'm afraid,” he pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “Look, the Masque is part of a bigger issue, and the whole thing is a mess. You're more than welcome to be a part of it, and I encourage you to, because I don't think you can walk away from it any more easily than I can. But you'll essentially be signing your life away. It's either work with me, or drop it altogether.”
“You know I hate ultimatums,” Vesta threw back the sheet and launched herself from the bed, swiftly shuffling through her dresser for fresh clothes. “The world isn't black and white.”
“Don't I know it,” Zebediah agreed as he stood and watched Vesta get dressed. “There are too many shades of grey to count. But there are a handful of things that, if we don't make them black and white, they will destroy us.”
“Alright, fine,” Vesta yanked a shirt over her head so hard it almost ripped at the shoulder. “I'll sign your stupid waiver. But it better come with a damn good benefits package.”
“Oh, I assure you, it does.”
“Then let's not waste any more time. Spill it.”
“Have a seat.”
Zebediah gestured to the bed, which was the only sitting room available in Vesta's bedroom. She obediently plopped down on the thick, conforming mattress, staring up at Zebediah with fierce, waiting eyes. He perched himself on the other side, taking the abandoned diary from the middle of the bed and opening it to the last pages.
“The last entry here was when you were six,” he started, “And a young girl of about thirteen went missing. There had been several reports of domestic abuse filed against her father, but without any hard evidence, he was released, only to be found with a slit throat the following week.
“The pages after that, the ones I took out, detail a series of circumstances that could only mean bad news. Several weeks later, the girl was found, unconscious and with no memory of what had happened to her. After being found, her fingerprints went into the system, and they were matched to one of many found in a series of break-ins that occurred during the time she had gone missing.”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Vesta tapped her fingers impatiently against the soft mattress. “That’s just local drama. Teenage girl runs away and goes on a crime spree. So what?”
“Well, now, this is important,” Zeb spoke gently. “The local authorities rolled it up to her getting in with a bad crowd, going along with their mischief-making, until a large bruise on the back of her head suggested that when she no longer enjoyed the pointless breaking and entering, the gang she was with hit her upside the head and left her in a ditch. A few scans showed that the concussion had rattled her memory, and the girl had no intentions of remembering what had happened, so her family did not push her to.”
“Again, what's the big deal?” Vesta inquired as she twisted a chunk of sheet between frustrated fingers. “Still just a normal thing that happens. Doesn't sound like any of your 'anomalies,' and definitely nothing worth mentioning to the Department of Defense.”
“Aye,” Zebediah agreed, “Except that the young girl came to your mother. Without explaining what had drawn her to your mum specifically, the girl divulged some of the things she did remember, things she refused to speak to the cops about. She had run away from home because her father had been particularly cruel that day, and she ended up at the abandoned school.”
“Yadda yadda,” Vesta stood abruptly. “Still waiting for something interesting to be said here.”
“Be patient, woman!” Zebediah resisted a growl. “Now, while the girl was wandering around the school, she said she felt a strange pull to go to the basement, which, as you know, was where the Masque was at the time. When she got close to it, she had this overwhelming sense of duty, as if she were meant to find something, and she explained it as if she were being controlled by someone else. Sound familiar?”
“Sorta, sure,” Vesta paced the room, clenching her fists. “My mom's diary kept mentioning 'possession;' maybe she'd figured that the Masque could control people?”
“And so it seems it did,” agreed Zebediah. “It controlled the young girl, and she went and broke into those peoples' homes looking for something. Nothing was ever reported missing, so I think we can assume she never found whatever it was she was looking for. But the next part is interesting. The girl admitted that the sense of control enhanced issues she was already experiencing, and although she doesn't remember doing it, she believed that she was responsible for her own father's death.”
“You think the Masque has that much power?” Vesta turned cold green eyes on Zeb. “And you want to keep it in my house?”
“I'm afraid so, but please, sit down. While the girl felt no remorse over the loss of her father, whom the community agreed was a horrible excuse for a human being, she was not naturally the murdering sort. So you see, it's terribly important that we find whoever was wandering in those tunnels. They may be out for blood, or for whatever other bidding the Masque demands.”
“What happened to her?”
“The girl who came to my mother,” she growled.
“Your mum never mentions her after that. But she does mention you.”
“Me? You think I was possessed by that horrid thing?” Vesta took a threatening step towards Zebediah, offended at the very thought. Zebediah only put his hands up in surrender.
“No, not at all. See, your mother recognized a change in herself after you were born, and she noticed the same change in voice from your grandmother's diary when she was born, as well. She believes that something to do with your family's female lineage somehow contains a sort of immunity to the effects of the Masque.”
“Maybe because we hate it so much?” Vesta gave an uncomfortable snort.
“Perhaps that is the cause, but perhaps that is only a symptom of the true cause. From what I've heard you talk about, and from reading this journal, I believe that something passed down to you when you were still in your mother's womb. Something that requires a female body to reciprocate. It would easily explain why both your grandmum and your mum were so anxious to have female offspring.”
“Well, I think you're full of it,” Vesta snatched the diary from Zebediah's hands, carefully folding it closed. “And this, you don't get to touch this anymore.”
“No, I think I've heard quite enough,” Vesta stood and pointed Zebediah to the door. “All this talk of yours is just ludicrous. I mean honestly, you throw all this shit at me with no proof to support it, just a dozen wild claims less believable than a lunatic in a psych ward. I'm no mutant baby, I'm not some carrier of an anti-brainwashing thing-a-ma-jig, and I think it's high time you leave.”
“But you promised to--”
“Put the papers in the post. I'll sign them and return them to you. I wouldn't repeat such ridiculous conspiracies anyway. And I fully expect that you return to me what is rightfully mine.”
“If you insist...”
“I do. Now.”
Zebediah MacPhearson and Vesta Moreau both left the Moreau Estate in sour moods. Zebediah left south towards town, to find a coffee shop and think of a way to get close to the Masque. Vesta took off northwards towards the stables, and beyond that, a hunting range that provided the space needed for her to blow off some steam.
On her way past the horses, Vesta made a quick detour into the small hunting shed on the edge of the Estate. She ran her hand along the dozens of bows she had collected over the years, finally settling on an old Osage Orange recurve bow she inherited from her mother. Throwing a quiver over her shoulder, she filled it with a package of a dozen poly-carbonate practice arrows. Pausing for a moment, she threw in another two packs. She was really pissed, and figured she could use the practice anyway.
A half mile into the hunting range, Vesta had already used up half of her supply on rabbits, squirrels, and a lone coyote out of its den late that morning. After retrieving her arrows and hanging the carcases in one of the small hunting cabins, she turned west and followed a trail that led down into a thicket valley.
Having shot enough vermin to calm her thoughts slightly, Vesta began to be more selective with her prey. A set of white-tailed deer tracks did little to keep her mind focused and distracted from the nonsense Zebediah had assaulted her with. She did not resist the urge to bare her teeth at his opinions on the Masque. How could he even think that she was somehow related to that ugly, horrid...thing?
Losing the tracks in a wide stream, Vesta turned left and followed the half-frozen water through the thicket and towards the end of the valley. She could sense the end of the hunting range ahead, where it was fenced off a quarter mile from the backside of the abandoned school property. The very thought of the decaying building ahead made her stomach turn.
A shadow against the thinning snow provoked Vesta's attention to her right. A small, black rabbit had seen her move and froze, staring at her with dark, beady eyes. Measuring distance, curve, and wind speed while not moving a muscle, Vesta tracked in her head how quickly she would need to grab an arrow and load her bow before the rabbit took off.
She decided to test her skills and take the shot. Her hand moved with a well-rehearsed motion to her quiver and back, the bow ready, the string taught, and the arrow flew. Vesta was surprised that her motion, while quick, should not have been quick enough. The rabbit did not flinch and run, the way any wild rabbit would. The arrow sunk deep into its side, and Vesta expected a quick death.
What happened next made no sense to the redhead. Instead of falling, twitching, and expiring, as it should have, the rabbit blinked, then melted. Vesta stared, her mouth slightly slack, wondering if the cold, or her cooling anger, or the fact that she had not eaten this morning after her bed-romping session with Zebediah was making her see things. Shaking the shock out of her head, Vesta continued staring at the puddle of black....something....that soaked the snow where the rabbit had been.
Vesta pondered if she had only imagined the rabbit, or simply grazed a target whose blood now left the dark spot in her sights. While she stood, bow in hand, the curiosity faded as she stared at her arrow laying in the black goop, another bit of movement caught Vesta's eye. Blinking, she expanded her focus, and saw three more black rabbits, identical to the one that she had shot. A handful more came into view from behind a nearby tree, and they looked...angry.
“...The hell?” Vesta took an instinctive step backwards. Since when did rabbits take the offensive? Even if she had disturbed a burrow of them, in her experience, they clambered over each other just to get away. Instead, these were staring her down as if she were dinner.
Feeling a bit ridiculous about being hunted by rabbits, Vesta let out a long deep sigh, releasing a breath she did not realize she had been holding. Turning to walk away, she spotted several more of the small, black creatures to her left. Turning the other way, there were more.
She was surrounded.
“Come on, Ves,” she mumbled to herself under her breath. “They're just freaking bunnies.”
Then the first one took a lunge at her.
“Not much left...” Talbot Nox sighed, handing Imogen a stack of post-it notes.
“Great, then I can finish on my own,” replied Imogen Natura, snatching the post-its and holding them against the laptop. Nothing. “Damn it. Why don't you go and check on Elliot?”
“Do I have to?” groaned the vampire. “He's such a sodding loser.”
“You're going to have to get along with him at some point, asshole,” Imogen impatiently held her hand out for the next item. “And you're going to like it, or I'll shoot you both to keep myself sane.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Talbot put a click-top pen in her hand. She took it, paused, then looked at him.
“Well, get off you ass and make sure he's not sitting in a pile of his own piss!”
“Yes, ma'am,” Talbot jumped to his feet and sauntered out the door.
“A bit of quiet, thank heavens,” Imogen muttered under her breath as she continued to process the few remaining items.
A stirring from behind her caught her attention, and her head snapped around so quickly, out of instinct, that she felt a muscle in her neck twitch with over-extension. The movement originated from the couch, where Gloria Day had been napping soundly. The young blonde stretched as she sat up, and found Imogen through hazy blue eyes.
“Anything?” she asked hopefully. The shifter shook her head, gesturing to the two piles of objects. The unsorted one was nearly depleted. “Well, damn.”
“You're telling me,” agreed Imogen as Gloria stood, stretched one more time, and then made her way across the floor to the two piles.
“You know, I had this totally clean, too,” the younger of the two groaned as she reached down to pick through the smaller, unsorted pile. “Hey....I swear I've picked up this same paperclip from the floor like seven times.”
“Here, let me see it,” Imogen gently took it from Gloria, and held it up to the computer. Immediately, several pop-ups flashed across the screen. “Bingo. OW!”
Imogen's hand snapped back towards herself as the paperclip clattered onto the keyboard. Gloria and Imogen both scurried after it, but it moved as if being pulled by a string across the floor, barely evading their grasp at each attempt. It scuttled into an air vent on the floor. Imogen and Gloria looked at each other in scrutiny, both thinking what Imogen spoke aloud:
Vesta had an arrow in her bow before she could think about it, and the bolt flew through the rabbit-like creature hurtling towards her. When the arrow made contact, instead of slowing into the living flesh, it sped right through it, leaving a small, black explosion in its wake.
More than slightly unnerved at the liquid-like things that were gnashing surprisingly sharp teeth at her, Vesta prepped another arrow as the creatures slowly hopped forwards, closing in on her. She shot at two more, but it seemed like for every one she killed, four more were there to take its place. She guesstimated at least two dozen already amassing.
Darting her eyes upwards in the hope of snatching a low-hanging tree branch, or otherwise utilizing height and size to her advantage, Vesta saw only thick, sparse trees that offered little cover and even less usefulness. Throwing out a string of profanity, Vesta returned her watchful gaze to the encroaching beasts.
A flash of color from behind her had her spinning on her booted heels in the crunchy snow, and she caught sight of a familiar brown trench coat. With surprising speed, Zebediah slashed through one side of the circle of rabbits, barreling towards Vesta.
Wait...slashing? As Zebediah swooped up beside her, the redhead noticed two long, steel blades extending from his sleeves, which covered his hands. As if he had been doing this his entire life, he did not question the situation, but immediately had his back against Vesta's so that, between the two of them, they had eyes on almost every target.
“Miss me?” Zebediah snickered, a heavy tension behind his voice.
“Not really,” admitted Vesta, “But thanks for showing up. I could have handled it.”
“You don't even know what you're 'handling',” Zebediah corrected her, one long blade flying upwards and splashing a flying rabbit into a nearby tree trunk.
“And you do?” Vesta's anger rose to a head again, not having completely cooled. “You have flying killer bunnies back home?”
“Not exactly,” Zebediah's voice rose as several rabbits made a group effort to attack, and he turned them into ooze easily. “The rabbit thing is new.”
“So...we kill them?” Vesta's voice reflected her uncertainty. “They're just....rabbits.”
“They're not rabbits at all, lass,” Zebediah sighed. “Kill first, talk later.”
“Fine.” Vesta drew back her arrow and sliced through three of the creatures before Zebediah could get out another word.
“Nice,” he praised her, but was unable to offer further comments as the black rabbit horde, now topping three or four dozen, all sprang on them at once.
The next several minutes was a blur of black, white, and silver. As Vesta shot the remainder of her arrows, Zebediah cut through the rest of the intrusive animals with his dual swords. When the redhead's quiver was dry, she demanded Zebediah turn over one of his swords.
“Can't!” he yelled over the squish of dissipating black rabbit goop.
“Why not?!” Vesta called back, ducking a flying rabbit as it met one of the blades.
When he did not answer her, Vesta dropped into a roll underneath the torrent of rabbits, and snatched a stray arrow. Using it like a crude dagger, she used it to behead several of the creatures. After a long haul of rabbit slewing, finally no more came forth. Vesta and Zebediah both darted their eyes and turned quickly, awaiting the next assault, but it never came.
“Alright, Zeb,” Vesta began retrieving the arrows she could find. “Now you talk.”
“You ready to listen?”
Vesta angrily turned to give him a glare, glancing down with only a moment's surprise when she noticed he was no longer armed. Her gaze jumped back up to his face, which held a losing-patience look she was all-too-familiar with.
“Yeah, fine, whatever,” she waved a dismissive oil-covered hand.
“As you're well aware,” began Zebediah, assisting Vesta in arrow recovery, “Those were no ordinary rabbits. At DarkWatch, we call them Chaotics. They usually come in packs, and are usually associated with something larger and much more dangerous..”
“No kidding,” was Vesta's sarcastic remark. “Like you?”
“Erm,” he dodged the question, “More like, the Masque.”
“Quit pulling my chain,” Vesta demanded, wiping arrow after arrow on the snow in an attempt to remove the offensive black substance. “I've been around that thing my entire life, and have never seen any of these Chaotics, nor did my mother or grandmother ever mention them. They only showed up when you did.”
“Aye...” Zebediah handed her a stack of arrows, “I'm afraid I may have been the catalyst. Remember that 'tumour' in my back?”
“The one you claim isn't a tumor, or any other kind of spinal growth.”
“Indeed, well...it and the Masque may be part of the same group of anomalies.”
“So your back can spew these things out, too? Gross.”
“No, I have control over...the thing in my back. See, look.”
Zebediah pulled up one sleeve of his coat, exposing his arm. Slowly, his arm and wrist and hand were encased in a dark grey material, folding over itself as it hardened into a blade that extended from his wrist. Vesta dropped the arrows she had been holding and took a step back.
“What the fuck are you?” her lips twisted into an instinctual growl.
“I'm just a normal human,” Zebediah retracted his blade and lowered his arm, but his faced had greyed as if he were nauseous. “Or at least I was. Then I...came into contact with some shady stuff, got a new spine accessory, and have some...extra features.”
“Blades don't come out from anywhere else, do they?” Vesta's face was contorted, angry and slightly repulsed.
“Ha, no,” Zebediah picked up the arrows and quiver Vesta had dropped. “Only from my hands. But see, because I am here, the Masque is reacting, trying to draw me in.”
“Which seems to be working, since you're kind of obsessed with it,” Vesta snatched her weapons from the Scotsman’s hands, but kept her distance. “I think you really need to leave.”
“Not until we take care of the Masque.”
“You mean destroy it?”
“If need be.”
“Then go, bash the stupid rock with your stupid swords, and leave me alone.”
“It would be much better if you helped.”
Vesta turned to walk back towards her home, and Zebediah fell into step beside her. She quickened her pace, but his long legs had no problem keeping up. Finally, she was too exhausted to do anything but resign to him following her back home, where the Masque was waiting.
Imogen and Gloria sat on the floor in front of the vent for several minutes, eyes wide in anticipation, awaiting the return of the pop-up-causing paperclip.
“You think it'll come back?” Gloria finally whispered, afraid to look away in the instance that the tiny object would slip past her.
“I have no idea,” responded Imogen.
“Okay, let's try this,” Gloria suggested. “Just don't blink for like, thirty seconds, and I'll grab a magnet.”
“A magnet?” Imogen almost looked away from the vent.
“Yeah, paperclips are magnetic, right?”
“But was it really metal?”
“Felt like it...”
“Okay, so don't blink.”
“Right, just don't blink.”
“I got this.”
“'Kay,” Gloria stood quickly and went to her desk, scrounging around for something magnetic.
“Lots of metal, but no magnets...”
“Screw this,” Imogen sighed and finally stood. “Let's get the tech guys looking for this thing, now that we kind of know what it is.”
“I don't like the look of this...”
Vesta grumbled as she and Zebediah approached the Estate from the northwest. The stables were loud with the noise of shuffling hooves and the agitated snorts and whinnies of upset horses. Zebediah's senses were on high alert, and he put a hand on Vesta's arm, encouraging her to slow her walk and keep her eyes peeled.
As they approached the back door Vesta had left through only an hour or so earlier, Vesta needed no inspiration to be on her guard. The door was ajar, and she knew she would never have left it like that. Slowing as they came close to the house, Vesta checked the door and noted that the lock was not forced and the window was not broken. She wordlessly pointed these out to Zebediah, who nodded, extending his sword-like blades before entering.
The house was so quiet that Vesta could hear the remains of snowflakes crunching between her boots and the entry rug. Even though the sun shone brightly outside, the minute they stepped inside, a sense of gloom and cloud cover seemed to overtake them. Zebediah raised his arms, the hair on his neck visibly stiff from Vesta's vantage point a couple of feet behind him. As they stalked silently through the house, the redhead noticed that not a single object was missing or disturbed.
“I have a really bad feeling about this,” she felt the need to whisper out loud.
“Me, too,” the blonde man responded in kind, then gestured towards where they both knew the biggest threat was. “Basement.”
Vesta nodded, and they crept through the dining room to the basement door. Throwing it open to reveal a pitch black staircase, Zebediah turned and gave Vesta an unnecessary warning glance. She reached over and flipped the switch just inside the door, casting a hazy, dusty light for their path.
Still on high alert, they descended the stairwell with growing anxiety. The door at the bottom of the flight was cracked open, with a glimmer of light protruding from its edges. Noiselessly counting to three, Zebediah kicked it open, his sword-blades ready for battle.
Only they were too late. All ten guards posted around the Masque were laying in puddles of their own bodily fluids, eyes gaping wide in shock and terror, covered in a recognizable thick, black oil. Vesta and Zebediah noticed the same thing at the same time as their eyes darted around the room and then met each other’s.
The Masque was gone.
“What do you mean, 'There's nothing there'?” Imogen demanded.
“I mean, the scans aren't picking up anything,” the stocky, bearded technician stared at her with wide, anxious eyes.
“But it's in the base; we saw it,” growled the dark-haired shifter. “It bit me.”
“I'm-I'm sorry, ma'am,” the technician gulped. “Th-the program isn't perfect...if the anomaly is too small—”
“Then increase the sensitivity or something,” Imogen grasped the back of the technician's chair with both hands, spinning him back to face his terminal. “Find that stupid excuse for a paperclip.”
“Y-yes, ma'am,” the man's hands flew onto his keyboard.
“Vesta, grab your bow.”
Vesta stared at Zebediah with an incredulous glare. Her bow was still in her hand, not having set it down when she reentered her house, in case she needed to incapacitate any intruders.
“You have more arrows, yeah?”
“Grab them. Let's go. The abandoned school seems to be at the center of this, so--”
Zebediah froze in his tracks, his shoulders raising slightly in a cringe. Turning to give her a wildly bewildered look, he replied,
Vesta silently seethed for several moments, giving Zebediah an intent glare that demanded explanation, information, anything. He gave her none, patiently waiting for her to spit out what she wanted to say.
“Okay, look,” she finally snarled, “I think I've been pretty open to a lot of this shit, but this is crazy. People are dead, Zeb. Dead. These are your own men, and all you care about is finding a stupid rock. What gives?”
“Vesta, please,” Zebediah stepped close to her, putting a tender hand on her shoulder, which she flinched away from. “I do not condone senseless killing, and I was responsible for these men. They knew the risks when they agreed to come here, but because I did not put the pieces together quickly enough, they're dead. That's on my conscience. The only way to put them to rest is to avenge their deaths, understand? We take care of the Masque, and these men will not have died in vain.”
Vesta did not move for a moment, still reeling from the events of the morning. Zebediah's words slowly sank in, seeding in her a new kind of anger, the kind that only resolves itself with bitter and swift revenge. And she was thinking it would best be served piping hot.
“My arrows are in the shed.”
She took off up the stairs, bolting with a fresh energy towards the shed, while Zebediah headed for the garage to get the car. She met him around back, where he had pulled his small car through the snow-laden grass to get her. Without a word, he spun his wheels in the snowy mud and closed the distance to the abandoned school.
As they pulled up into the vacant and crumbling lot, the two knew instantly that they were in the right place. The familiar cold dread of the Masque settled in around them, and the windows were black against the afternoon sun. Zebediah pulled right up to the door, throwing the car into park as they kicked the doors open and vaulted towards the building.
Vesta had four quivers strapped to her back along with a sturdy, short-range crossbow for backup. One of the quivers held a couple of long blades meant for cleaning hunting kills, but Vesta grabbed them in the event she ran out of bows again. Zebediah had his swords unleashed as they entered the gloom of the first floor.
“Want me to lead?” Vesta called to him. The building itself seemed to produce a groaning, creaking noise that was loud enough for her to shout over it to be heard.
“I'll take point; I can feel it,” Zebediah hollered back.
Vesta loaded her bow as they crossed the first hallway and turned the corner towards the southwest stairwell. From it was pouring hundreds of rabbit-like Chaotics. With only a glance back at Vesta and a nod of certainty, Zebediah ran forward to greet them, keeping himself between the creatures and the redhead.
Zebediah took care of the first seven or eight with one swoop of a blade, they were so close together. Vesta shot into the mass, which filled with black bunnies as fast as she could shoot at them. She looked at Zebediah for the next move. Pondering the same thing as he continued splattering Chaotics over the chipping, stained, ivory-colored walls, Zebediah retracted one blade and held out his hand to Vesta.
“Remember Rio?” he shouted to her.
Her eyes lit up, remembering the time they had to barrel through a riot. She nodded, taking his hand. He pulled her towards him, and she pinned herself to his back. Heisting her small form up off the ground, Zebediah shot both blades out in front of himself and sliced a path through the black tar bunnies and made his way down the stairs, Vesta ducked her head from the flying black ooze, but she could feel them closing the path behind them, sealing them in.
Creating a repetitive pattern of slashing and swiping with his swords, Zebediah cleared the bottom of the stairwell. He almost lost his footing at the bottom when he saw where the enormous pile of bunnies was coming from.
Blocking the massive double doors was a small form of a Chaotic Hive Mind, roughly in the shape of a rabbit, but more like the darkened, stockier, and vaguer form that appears in dreams. In the dusk, dank air, Zebediah could not quite tell where the Hive Mind ended and the smaller Chaotics began. A large, sharp-toothed mouth was gaping open, and the tar bunnies were jumping from the opening as quickly as Zebediah could slash at them.
When Vesta caught sight of the Hive Mind, she catapulted herself from Zebediah and unleashed a series of arrows into the terrible beast. As the bolts pierced into its head, five large, disproportionate red eyes snapped open. One arrow fell close to an eye, and the creature roared with a deafening sound, snapping its mouth shut.
“Shoot the eyes!” Zebediah encouraged her, as he continued making splatters out of the hundreds of Chaotics still leaping at them. Several had latched onto his back, and he would occasionally swipe a blade behind him to get them off.
Vesta pummeled several smaller rabbits as she carefully aimed each of her next few shots for the thing's eyes. One rang true, spinning deeply into one of the smaller pupils, but the following sank into the ooze next to her target. The giant monstrosity bellowed in anger, raising up on its ginormous back feet and slamming back to the ground, knocking Zebediah and Vesta to the floor.
Twisting to catch herself, Vesta felt several of the smaller black, oily creatures clamber onto her legs, tearing at her thick jeans with razor-sharp claws and teeth, and Vesta was suddenly very grateful that Ohio winters required several layers of clothes to keep warm. Grabbing a fist full of steel-tipped arrows, the angry redhead slashed at the ones she could reach, kicking the rest away in disgust. She was surprised at how solid they felt against her boots, in contrast to their remains, which left the floor so slippery that the redhead had a difficult time getting back to her feet.
Zebediah had made his way closer to the giant creature, sneaking into a blind spot on its side where one red eye was dripping red and black ooze. As the Hive Mind attempted to open its gaping mouth to unleash another torrent of evil bunnies, Zebediah ran towards the wall, jumping up as he ran, using the wall as a ladder to vault himself up higher, and he spun in mid-air, bringing both deadly blades down on the head of the ugly beast.
The mere thickness of the creature's outer skin was enough to keep Zebediah's attack from dealing a fatal blow, but the result was still enough to keep the beast off-balance. Vesta had made it back to her feet, picking off the remaining smaller bunnies as she took aim for the six remaining eyes. Double-loading her trusty recurve bow, she took her shot, and both sank into the largest center eye. Zebediah lashed his swords at the head, on top of which he was now perched, trying to gash a hole large enough to drive a blade into.
The furious monster rose on its hindquarters again, causing Zebediah to lose his footing, and for Vesta to lose sight of the remaining eyes. The shorter, stubbier forearms reached upwards and grabbed onto the door-frame that it now filled, and it pulled on it, causing a large section of the ceiling to come crashing down. Vesta tried to jump out of the way, but her feet were two inches deep in the oily remains of slaughtered Chaotics, and she slipped and landed on her side, helpless to do anything except put her arms over her head.
By luck, fortune, or something else, Vesta was only pummeled by a couple of already-molding two-by-fours, which broke easily over her outstretched arm. Using what was left of the wall to get back to her feet, Vesta's gaze darted frantically around for Zebediah. He had fallen backwards to the other side of the doorway, which was now blocked by the enraged Hive Mind.
“ZEB!” she shouted, grabbing another arrow to reload her bow.
She must have lost her grip on it when she fell, for it was no longer securely in her hand. Panicking, she thrust her hands into the oily mess at her feet, coming up with only chunks of ceiling and broken wood. Her efforts were thwarted when the large creature came crashing down in front of her, front claws extended as it strove to take her out. One massive paw swiped at her legs, and Vesta jumped back, trying to counter its moves.
“ZEEEEEB!” the now-frightened redhead shouted as she ran out of room and stopped with her back up against the wall. “Where the hell are you!?”
The cruel excuse for a rabbit was now crouching towards Vesta, lowing its ugly head in preparation of belching out more small Chaotics to distract her. Vesta saw a short window of opportunity, and took it.
Grabbing several arrows in each fist, she used the wall to push herself towards the Hive Mind, whose three remaining eyes were now within reach. She drove the arrows into two of them until the arrows and her fists disappeared into the mushy, oily sockets. Resisting the urge to vomit, Vesta hung on tightly as the creature let out an enraged roar, tossing its massive head backward and throwing Vesta in exactly the direction she needed to go: the other side of the doorway.
The redhead landed hard on one knee, which gave out as she tumbled onto her left hip, shoulder, and neck. Having the breath knocked out of her, Vesta slid to a stop, temporarily immobilized. She gasped for breath, trying to will her arms to move and get her up from the cold, hard ground. Roaming her field of vision with unblinking green eyes, she caught a movement out of the corner of her senses, a black and brown blur.
Her lungs finally gave in, relaxing and expanding, allowing her to breathe again. Shakily turning onto her stomach to stand, a sharp pain rocketed up her left arm and into her shoulder. Gritting her teeth, she used her other hand to push herself up. Covered in several layers and a winter coat, Vesta was unable to see the extent of her injuries, but she was sure her arm was either broken or dislocated, possibly both, and her knee was not in much better shape.
Vesta's mind sped as she spun in place, whirling around to see Zebediah slashing at the creature's side as it was attempting to turn its bulky form to retaliate. Thinking fast, Vesta unzipped her jacket, using her right hand to thrust her left under a quiver strap and into a right inside pocket.
Hoping her make-shift sling would hold until they got out of this mess, Vesta reached to her waist for the small crossbow latched to her belt. Shoving the back end into the crook made with her left arm, she reached back for some arrows, pushing aside the anxiety when she discovered two quivers were dry. She struggled to load the weapon with only one hand.
“Zeb! Duck!” Vesta staggered up towards the battleground where the huge rabbit-form had spun its head around and had its mouth open, ready to engulf Zebediah or spew out more tar bunnies.
Zebediah immediately ducked, rolling down and to his right, and Vesta shot straight into the roof of the hideous creature's gaping orifice. While the blinded beast gurgled and spat black ooze as it choked, Zebediah delivered the final blow: two blades directly into the remaining eye socket and into whatever the creature used for a brain.
The bulky mass shivered and began to melt, gooey black oil flooding anywhere the leftovers of the smaller Chaotics had not yet covered. Breathing heavily, Zebediah jogged straight over to Vesta, immediately noticing how she was cradling her left arm.
“You alright?” he panted, carefully raising a still-bladed arm to wipe the muck from his face with his sleeve.
“I will be,” Vesta nodded, energized purely by adrenaline. “My arm will need to be looked at later, but let's finish this.”
“Tough lass,” Zebediah grimaced at her. “As if you weren't hot enough.”
“Can it, mister,” Vesta turned to hide a blush. “Let's find the Masque, kill it, and get out of here.”
“If it's that easy,” sighed the blonde man as they cautiously made their way towards the final stairwell that led into the cavernous basement. When Vesta gave him a sharp, inquiring look, he continued, “I think that was just the guard dog. If the Masque has had time to build up enough energy, there might be something worse waiting for us down there.”
“Great,” Vesta's face paled slightly, and she slowed her hurried walk. Zebediah would have none of it, knowing that if she rested now and her adrenaline ran out, she might not get a second wind fast enough to get back into the fight. She was not trained for this.
Zebediah half-dragged, half-pushed the weary Vesta towards the final staircase. She suffered in silence, selecting each step with care as the two descended the deteriorating flight of stairs. Vesta paused at the bottom of the steps, putting her free hand out to stop Zebediah. Signaling with her eyes and a nod, she indicated that this was the final turn before the cavernous room that the Masque called home. Zebediah grunted acknowledgment, rolling his shoulders back into battle mode. Swords revealed, he silently counted to three, and they turned the corner.
Vesta Moreau blinked. Was she hallucinating? The dull pain in her arm and shoulder did little to convince her of her own consciousness.
“What's wrong, Teacher?” the dark-haired girl batted long lashes over her brilliant violet eyes. “You don't look so good.”
“.....Laraine?” Vesta shook her head, trying to clear the fuzz from the edges of her vision. Laraine Baldwin giggled from her position in the middle of the room. She had somehow traversed the narrow beams and was now balancing on an intersection, ignoring the deep, gaping holes in the floor beneath her.
Behind her, also poised precariously over a crossing of floor supports, was the Masque.
“Laraine, get away from there!” called the redhead, extending her good hand out towards the girl.
“I thought you forgot about me,” Laraine snickered. “But I didn't forget about you, or this totally awesome place! Check it out!”
Throwing her hands up high, Laraine shouted the last words, which echoed through the halls, the booming sound rattling dust and paint chips from the ceilings. The young teen tip-toe danced along one beam, shwing off unnatural dexterity. Vesta clenched her teeth, darting her eyes between Laraine and the Masque, which stood stoic and menacing from across the room.
“Ves,” came a soft murmur beside her. Vesta turned hastily towards the sound, where Zebediah MacPhearson's dark blue eyes held a dozen conflicting thoughts. “Ves, love, that's not your friend. The Masque is controlling her. We have to sever the connection.”
“But...” Vesta's eyes tightened as she watched Laraine laugh and launch herself gymnastically from beam to beam across the room. “But she's just a little girl.”
“Just a little girl who happens to be connected to one of the most vile, evil anomalies on the planet,” growled the Scotsman, giving Vesta a firm shake in the attempt to snap her out of it.
“Vesta!” Laraine called to her. “Come play with me!”
“How...” the redhead was having trouble maintaining control. Zebediah gave her a sharp warning look, and Laraine stopped somersaulting to see why Vesta was not joining her.
“C'mon, Teach,” Laraine pouted. “You and Beast should come play. We'll have lots of fun.”
“Did she just call me a beast?” Zebediah wrinkled his nose in a snarl, ready to launch his attack on the Masque and losing patience with the small, dark-haired distraction.
“No...” Vesta's green eyes narrowed as a rage built inside of her. “I think ‘Beast’ is inside of me, passed down from my mother and grandmother.”
“Wha-huh?” Zebediah raised an eyebrow as a creepy grin spread across Laraine's face.
“So you finally got it, little chick-a-dee,” the purple-eyes girl sing-songed as she swayed back and forth on a beam. “So many generations of fools, and you finally understand. Such a waste of potential, squndering your life away with other humans. You're not one of them. You're one of us.”
“Bullshit,” Vesta growled, unconsciously loading her crossbow. “The Masque is evil. We're not. Let it go, Laraine.”
“Oh, pu-lease,” Laraine pretended to yawn. “I'm so over this. Show me what you got, sis.”
“Laraine, don't--” Vesta ordered, but her young tutoring subject was already beginning to change.
“Don't what, Moreau?” Laraine's lips moved, and her high, child-like voice came from it, but it was coupled with another voice, a deeper, blood-curdling intonation that at last convinced Vesta that Laraine was possessed by the Masque.
Vesta could only stare in horror while Laraine's black hair blew back, as if a sudden gust of wind had come straight at her. The Masque trembled behind the young girl, and suddenly several dark, rod-like objects broke out of the rocky face, plowing through the room and straight into Laraine's spine.
“NO!” Vesta called out, and Zebediah had to use both arms to hold her back.
The rods sunk deep into the teen's back, and her eyes flashed open, a the purple irises glowing brightly. A savage grin grew across her face as more root-like rods shot out from Laraine and into the walls and down into the floor, embedding themselves into the rock several meters below. Laraine's feet left the ground as the roots lifted her small form, which had become terrifyingly agile.
“Come at me, Teach,” the Laraine-Masque voice beckoned, and Vesta curled her lips back. As the redhead aimed her crossbow, Laraine raised her hands, palm-up in front of her. In each began a small glow, then a flicker, resulting in an electric ball of light. The rod-like roots seemed to tremble, growing bulges in various places. Bulges that separated themselves from the roots and took flight.
Unlike the previous bunny-like tar babies they had previously encountered, these creatures were larger, more angular, and had bony appendages, like rocks with bat wings. As they detached from the rods and hovered over the gaping holes in the floor, each opened a set of five glowing, ruby eyes. One growled, curling its lips back to reveal long, saber-like teeth.
“Oh, fuck me.”
“I can't believe we lost it; how could we lose it?” Gloria Day grumped from in front of her computer.
“It was just too small,” a defeated Imogen Natura flopped into her chair. “How the hell did it get in?”
“With the rest of the paper clips, probably,” the blonde replied, flicking objects off of her desk in an attempt to launch them into the trashcan a few feet away.
“I'll never hear the end of this,” Imogen leaned forward and put her head in her hands.
“You did everything you could,” murmured Gloria. “At least you found the cause, and it's not deadly, just annoying. If you go all emo and self-loathing on me right now, I will kick your ass.”
“Fair enough,” sighed the shifter as she stood. “Want anything from the mess?”
“Nah,” Gloria shrugged, her eyes so out of focus that none of her flicked objects flew anywhere near the garbage.
“Snap out of it, missy,” Imogen threw a pillow from the couch at Gloria as she passed. “If I can't be mopey, neither can you.”
Gloria caught the pillow before it thudded against her face. “Deal.”
“Vesta?” Zebediah clanged his swords together, preparing for round two.
“Yeah?” Vesta scrambled to get arrows into her crossbow.
“You need new mates.”
Zebediah ran towards Laraine, his sure-footed boots landing solid as he shot down one beam. Vesta loaded her crossbow slower than she'd like, able to only deal non-lethal blows to any Chaotics coming at Zebediah as he charged the Masque's new Hive Mind.
Laraine giggled, a terrible, horrific sound when mixed with the lower voice of the anomaly she was connected to. She raised one hand, and threw a charged energy ball at the oncoming Zebediah. He was forced to either take the shot straight to the chest, or lean to the side, and he chose the latter.
Dodging sideways, Zebediah lost his balance and tipped towards the hollow to his left. He threw out one arm and caught hold of the beam he had just been standing on. The ball of lightning-like energy collided with a Chaotic and it exploded into a gooey black mess.
Vesta continued shooting at the Chaotics as fast as she was able, reloading one-handed. Laraine gave another hideous chortle as she tossed her other energy ball at the section of beam that Zebediah was holding on to.
Grunting out a string of profanities, Zebediah swung backwards, locking his knees around one of the roots shooting into the ground. The energy ball struck the iron beam, and it flashed red with heat as the energy dissipated. Clinging on to the rod with his legs, the blonde man swiped at it with his swords. The result was just noisy, and hardly effective.
Zebediah abandoned that idea, and instead began climbing up towards the tainted Laraine. Seeing him move toward her, Laraine just laughed, and detached the rod-root from herself. Zebediah hung on as it swung wildly, and he jumped away from it and towards Vesta, clattering to a stop at her feet.
“Okay, now she's just pissing me off,” growled a now-enraged Zebediah. He balled his fists and lashed his blades at the blocky, gnashing Chaotics flying towards them. Vesta was running low on arrows.
“Zeb, this isn't working...” came her obvious opinion. “We need another plan.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” he retorted.
As they did their best to keep the oncoming Chaotics at bay while dodging sporadic energy balls from Laraine, Vesta and Zebediah tried desperately to think of some way of turning the table in their favor. But without anywhere to physically stand to launch an assault, not to mention the limited range of Zebediah's swords and Vesta's one-handed crossbow, which was only effective in their current defensive state, the two were coming up short on ideas.
“You're going to have to shoot her,” Zebediah finally yelled over the noise of the snarling Chaotics and the slashing of his blades making meat pudding out of them.
“I'm trying!” Vesta called back, her arm tiring of the repetitive motion of reloading and shooting.
“No, you're not,” countered Zebediah. “You're still trying to save her!”
“I can try and shoot the Masque--” Vesta's strength was wearing down, and it was showing in the gradual deceleration of her reload. She took a shot at the stoney block, but the arrow just bounced uselessly off of it and into the dark pit below. “It's no use, Zeb, we have to turn back...”
“Like hell we do!”
Zebediah grabbed her arm, pulling her back around the corner towards the stairwell, where the Chaotics were slow to follow. He was able to bottleneck them in the doorway, easily keeping them from passing through while he lectured the redhead.
“Listen, Ves, I need you in there. I know you're on your last leg, but you've got to push through right now. I can keep the little monsters at bay, but you need to get to Laraine. Shoot her, behead her, whatever it takes to cut her off from that thing.”
“I can't kill her...” Vesta leaned heavily on the wall, her high tolerance of pain waning. “I just can't...she's just a kid...”
“Not anymore, she's not. Now she's part of the Masque, and she's as evil as it is. We need to take her down, and if we don't do it now, other innocent lives will be at stake. What's left of Laraine will be gone forever, she's just an empty shell that's housing the evil of the Masque. Now get on your feet, damn it!”
Vesta started as Zebediah pulled her to her feet, but he refused to let her finish. Planting his lips firmly on hers, he pulled back and hurled himself back into the fight, dragging her with him. The room was now filling to capacity with black, bulging Choatics. Laraine was somewhere in the middle of it all, but the creatures reacted as a swarm, barreling towards the pair as they entered. Zebediah returned to his slashing technique as he punched a hole through them large enough to walk through.
“Zeb...” Vesta panted from behind him. He could not turn to encourage her any further, but his ears perked up when he heard her whisper: “Rio.” Zeb felt Vesta clamp onto his shoulder with her still-useful arm, and he grabbed one of her legs to hoist her up on his back. Blades whirling, Zebediah now knew what to do.
The room was so filled with Chaotics now that Zebediah could not tell in which direction he would find Laraine, but he realized that he no longer needed to. He stood on the edge of a pit and pummeled his swords forward until he heard the clinking as they connected with one of the rod-roots. Gauging the distance, he jumped forward, grabbed onto the root, and slid down into the tunnel underneath.
The confused Chaotics swirled above them, their flying forms unaware of the pit below, and they screeched in frustration. Vesta and Zebediah knew it was only a matter of time before Laraine realized where they had disappeared to and would send the wave of black, vile creatures down to them.
Zeb tested his blade against several of the rod-roots, but they were nearly as solid as steel, likely made from the same unearthly rock as the Masque. He let Vesta down from his back as he circled impatiently, knowing that the roots were the key, but unable to figure out how to destroy them with the tools at hand. He was so busy pacing that he had not heard Vesta's comment.
“What, love?” he turned towards where she had crumpled to the ground, her vigor nearly depleted. As he approached, he saw her hold something out to him. One of her used arrows.
“The Beast....” she struggled to force out the words. “Only natural enemy...my blood...”
Her last wind left her, and she lost consciousness, her small, bundled form tumbling to the rocky floor. Zebediah tried to understand her words as he snatched the arrow from her limp hand. What he had first thought was black oil from a slain Chaotic he now saw was the deep red of Vesta's blood, which she must have pulled from her broken arm.
Without waiting for his brain to catch up and fully understand what was going on, Zebediah clenched onto the arrow, bolting towards the closest rod-root and ascending upwards. As Laraine felt his presence against her roots, the Chaotics swirling in the basement above Zebediah descended upon him, and he climbed with one hand while destroying them with his other.
When he had reached the iron beams of the basement floor, the room became so thick with living and dead Choatics that Zebediah was having trouble breathing. As many of the creatures as he slayed, more were crushing him from every side, batting at him with their wings, and slashing at him with their long teeth.
But Zebediah did not stop moving. As he got closer to Laraine, the pressure around him grew. Luckily for him, because she had branched off so many rod-roots, once he got near her, they were closer together, and he could use multiple roots to clamber towards the form that was almost no longer a young girl.
When Zebediah reached her, Laraine turned to face him, creating a split in her Chaotics as she revealed a toothy, malicious smile, egging him on.
“Come on, old man,” the dual Laraine-Masque voice taunted him. “Kill the little girl. Just kill her.”
Zebediah tightened his grasp on the blood-drenched arrow, raising it above his head, intending to aim right between the little brat's eyes. But something stopped him. For a fleeting moment, Vesta's sacrifice, her push beyond her known limits, came to the front of Zebediah's mind. He remembered how, above all else, she was not willing to take an innocent life.
Somehow, the Beast--whatever it was that was inside of Vesta--knew about the Masque, and of what it was capable. And it knew that the girl was just a host, just like Vesta, and was no more evil now than before she had come into contact with the stoney anomaly. Zebediah hesitated only a moment, his memory reeling through everything he had learned about the Masque, and he remembered the other little girl.
His fist came down hard, and fast. In one deft move, he retracted his blade and threw his knuckles at the girl's temple. The blow against her small skull from his large hand caused a shock to course through the girl, and she seemed to stagger, her rod-roots wavering. Zebediah saw them weaken, and took the arrow, and plunged it into the mass of cords attached to Laraine's back. Unlike his own unbreakable blades, the blood-tipped arrow sank easily into the rods.
The result was immediate. It sounded as if the Masque itself were howling in pain, a rocky, crunchy, deafening sound, like a stone avalanche. The rod-roots melted away into useless black tar, and Zebediah threw his arms around the limp girl's waist, catching her as she fell. Only, he realized he was falling now, too, and as one foot landed on an iron floor beam, the slick black oil refused traction against the grain of his boot, and he continued falling.
One arm shot up with incredible speed, his hand grasping onto the underside of the iron beam. The flat bottom of the I-shaped support had less Chaotic remains and allowed him to maintain his hold. With one hand, he clung to the beam. With his other, he still held the unconscious Laraine, now separated from the Masque.
“Okay,” he grunted, struggling to maintain his hold. “Now I can’t get down.”
Zebediah hoisted Laraine's dead weight into a more secure grasp around her waist. Focusing the sword-armor to cover his back, he let go of the beam, twisting and holding Laraine tightly as he first tried to land on his feet, but her weight in combination with the gravity of the fall thrust him onto his backside.
Pushing Laraine off of him, he staggered to his feet, patting his pockets and finding his cell phone. Grumbling about the tattered remains of his favorite trench coat and the large crack in the screen of his relatively new phone, he managed to dial DarkWatch headquarters.
“Command, this is MacPhearson. I'm going to need a full cleanup in Setida. I've got two wounded, so send a med squad, three quarantine squads, and the strongest containment field you can find. And bring me the Viper.”
“Thank heavens for fresh air!”
Elliot Washington sat at his desk in the Alpha bullpen, having been released from quarantine only minutes earlier. Imogen had rushed ahead with it, having gotten word on the grapevine that Zebediah was returning a few days early from his vacation.
“Okay, team,” Imogen pointed to each of her fellow Alpha collection members, “If Zebediah asks, nothing happened. Paperclip? What paperclip? If it comes up again, we don't know anything about it. Capiche?”
“Aye aye, Captain,” Talbot Nox faked a salute as he loitered in the doorway.
“Momo, you won't get in trouble, even if he finds out,” sighed Gloria as she threw and caught a hockey puck she had found on her cleaning sweep through the room.
Most of the litter she had recovered had been strewn back across the room during the paperclip escapade, making it look almost exactly how it was before she started. Talbot sauntered over to his favorite spot on the couch, stretching his legs over the armrest as he watched Imogen pace the floor. Footsteps from the hallway hurried her pacing straight to her chair, which she rolled up to her desk and began frantically typing.
“'Allo, team,” Zebediah greeted them as he entered. Pausing for a moment, he looked around the room, where each team member was sitting in exactly the same place he was when he left. “Oi, deja vu. Things all quiet here?”
“Sure thing, boss,” Gloria continued throwing and catching her hockey puck, assuring Zebediah that he had not imagined the past few days.
“Well, don't work too hard,” teased Zebediah, who began to turn to leave, but stopped when his eyes settled on Imogen, whose focus was angrily targeted at something above his head. “Miss Natura?”
“Mhm,” Imogen mumbled.
As Zebediah had entered the room, a movement above the door had caught her eye. As she stared at it, the curved shape became familiar. The dreaded paper clip. Imogen shifted, freezing the paper clip in normal time while she walked through the room, past Zebediah, and, pulling a dagger from a sheath on her ankle, thrust the blade through the tiny worm-like creature. A small spatter of red and green bug-ish goo guaranteed her that the insolent thing was dead. Returning her knife to its proper place, she strode back to her chair, sat down, and unshifted.
“Imogen,” Zebediah's eyes narrowed just slightly. As stealthy as she could be, he never missed a shifter shift. She shrugged, having felt a sudden weight lift.
“Just had to tie up a loose end, nothing to worry about,” Imogen informed him. He stared her down for only a minute before seeming too tired to think about it any further.
“Good,” he sighed. “Then you wouldn't mind getting this place cleaned up before tomorrow.”
Gloria's rhythmic throw-catch of her hockey puck stopped with a start as she glared at Zebediah's back as he left. Elliot stood and walked over to the cabinet from which Imogen had pulled a series of laptops, but before he could open the door, Imogen was there, stopping him.
“Huh-uh, mister,” she pointed him back to his seat. “Released from quarantine or not, I'm not letting you near any computer for a while. You can type your reports on this.”
Imogen pushed Elliot aside, opening the cabinet and lugging out an old Remington Rand Seventeen typewriter from the bottom shelf. She heaved it onto Elliot's desk, leaving him to it.
“You can't be serious,” his shoulders dropped and he dragged his feet to his chair. Imogen ignored him, returning to her own work, suddenly quite content. Fumbling to load the spool and paper, Elliot began to type out his name, but the keys slowly took over, typing on their own.
“....What.” Elliot stared in disbelief as the keys managed to type out a box, inside of which were haphazard letters spelling out 'Congratulations! You won!' Elliot let his head slam onto the desk.
“EFF. EM. EL.”
“How's our patient?” Zebediah strode into the medical wing, having brought both Laraine and Vesta back with him to have them fully checked and rechecked against the Masque to fortify any doubts that it had any lasting effects on either of them. The ride home, with the Masque now on its way to a vault on the other side of town, remained quiet. Zebediah was hopeful.
“Which one?” Margaret Rumsfeld asked as she adjusted the splint on Vesta's arm. The redhead had not stayed unconscious for long, and the distance from the Masque was having a positive effect on her healing.
“Hey, stranger,” Vesta grinned up at him as he approached, unable to withhold a small smile of his own.
“Right, this one,” Margaret flashed a teasing glance between the two lovers. “She'll be just fine. Dislocated left arm, transverse fracture to the left ulna, bruised left ilium, multiple contusions all down her left side, severe blood loss, and probably a concussion, but I can't tell, because by the end of the entire hour it took to fly back here, half of that was healed. I tell ya, MacPhearson, you sure know how to pick 'em.”
Zebediah mostly ignored the nurses light-hearted jokes, instead going to Vesta's side and wrapping her in a quick embrace. He looked down at her with a curious stare, which she returned in kind. With a single motion of his hand, Zebediah ordered the nurse to head into the next room and check on Laraine.
“Ooooh, okay, I see how it is,” Margaret playfully rolled her eyes, tucking a pen into her pink hair and pushing her utensil cart out the door. “I'll make sure to hang a sock on the door.” With a wink, she was gone, and they were alone.
“I'm glad you pulled through,” Zebediah sat on the edge of Vesta's bed and took her hand. The gesture was not quite the tender hand-holding of sporadic lovers, nor a pitiful grasp that might belittle Vesta as a victim. Instead, it was more of a half-handshake of mutual respect.
“No complaints here,” Vesta chuckled, her freckled cheeks already regaining their normal luster. “Although, to be honest, I'm not really sure what happened, or how we all got out of there alive.”
“Aye,” Zebediah took a deep breath. “I think ‘Beast’ saved us all.”
“Who?” Vesta's green eyes reflected her ignorance at that term, which took Zebediah slightly aback.
“Do you remember your grandmother's diary?” asked Zebediah carefully.
“Sure, what about it?”
“I thought you had pieced it together, but I suppose you were pretty far gone at that point. From what your mum and grandmum wrote, and from the few things you said before you gave out on me, here's how I think it works. Somewhere down the line, a woman in your family inherited a kind of symbiote, and I think it calls itself Beast, or at least that's your English translation of it. It seems to require a female host, and passes down from mother to daughter somehow. And its directly related to the Masque.”
“You're really still on about all of that nonsense?” Vesta laughed, a pleasant sound after the torrent of the previous day. “Come on, Zeb, that's fairy tale stuff.”
“Ves, love, I deal with 'fairy tale stuff' as part of what I do here, remember? It's actually in my job description. But you fascinate me; here I've known you for all of these years, and the entire time here’s the most perplexing anomaly, right under my nose.”
“I'm not sure 'nose' is the right word,” Vesta's green eyes glimmered with a suggestive look, which made Zebediah laugh out loud, something he felt he had not done in a long time.
“Oh, Vesta Rose,” the blonde man gave her hand a good squeeze. “Here I came down here to make a serious business offer and you have me blushing like a little lass on her first date.”
“Wait, business offer?” Vesta's curiosity was piqued. “How now?”
“You held your own down there,” started Zebediah, shifting gears. “Granted, it was beyond what you were prepared for, but up until the last moment of consciousness, you were always thinking of Laraine, and how to save her. I've been pulling this gig for so long I forget that sometimes, people can be saved. We could use someone like that around here. Besides, you were a damn good shot with that bow, even one-handed.”
“I don't know, Zeb,” Vesta's grin faded. “This world you live in...it's terrifying. I'm not sure I'm ready for all of that. You may think I did pretty well, but the entire time I was in that school, really, I could only think of getting out, getting away. I was tired, and hurt, and just wanted to go home.”
“But you didn't,” encouraged Zebediah. “You kept going. You didn't show any doubt until that last bit, when anyone in their right mind would have wanted to turn heel and get away. You slayed killer rabbits, Ves. Flying killer rabbits.”
“Yeah,” Vesta laughed. “Killer rabbits. But still, I...I don't know. I don't think this is for me.”
“Well, love, I'll tell you what,” Zebediah reached over to her bedside table, where a stack of papers lay in wait. “Here are those forms you promised to sign, saying you’ll keep your mouth shut about all this craziness. You read through them, sign what you will, take them home, mull it over, whatever you need. You don't have to make a decision right now.”
“Damn, you were serious about the paperwork,” Vesta grunted, pushing the papers back onto the side table. “Does that mean I'm free to go home?”
“As soon as Miss Rumsfeld clears you,” Zebediah nodded. “Although I hope you might stay a bit longer--”
Vesta did not let Zebediah finish his last sentence, instead pulling him on top of her with a passionate kiss.
Margaret hummed quietly as she entered Laraine's isolated room. Seeing that the dark-haired youth was still slumbering, she rolled her cart as quietly as possible so as not to disturb her. The nurse picked up Laraine's clipboard and scanned through all of her charts, taking the papers with her to the monitoring screens and jotting down the updated information they displayed.
“What's that song?” Laraine murmured as her dark lashes fluttered awake.
“Good morning, doll,” Margaret stopped humming and smiled down at the girl. “Just a nursery rhyme my mom used to sing to me when I was sick. How are you feeling?”
“Oh, just pleasant, thank you,” Laraine sat up, her violet eyes clearing of sleep. “Would you sing a few bars to me?”
“Absolutely,” the nurse promised as she returned the clipboard to its place at the foot of Laraine's bed. Picking up a small cup of red pills, she added, “But first, I need you to take these. Just some vitamins and antibiotics to get the rest of this bug out of your system.”
“Of course, ma'am,” Laraine obediently took the cup, throwing them back and following them with a drink of water from the glass Margaret had ready.
“Now, lay back down; you need your rest,” the pink-haired woman instructed. “And I'll sing to you.” As Laraine lay her dark hair against the white pillow, Margaret sang softly,
“Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home;
Your house is on fire, your children are gone.
All except one, her name is Ann;
She crept under a frying pan.”