"Move!" Lily shoved Zetta one way and dove the opposite direction. Zetta had stood her ground when Rin was coming towards them, about to throw an illusion on the madwoman's face in an attempt to startle her so that somebody else could land a blow. Lily, however, had seen how perilously close Dr. Strauss was to hitting them on his way to intercept Rin.
Zetta hit the ground with a gasp. She looked up to see Strauss swinging Excalibur at Rin, then actually stabbing her with it. She could hardly believe it when she saw Strauss pin her to the ground and attempt to choke her. It's over, she thought. It's finally over. Rin's going to die and we won't have to be on the run anymore.
Not yet... just a little longer
The skin on Rin's neck began to melt under Dr. Strauss's grip, however the fight hadn't gone out of the ancient spirit just yet. With a yell she kicked the doctor in the groin, sending him sprawling backwards. Bleeding heavily from the wounds to her stomach and leg, it took all of Rin's strength to lift herself off for the ground for a final order.
"Merlin... avenge yourself!"
Out of darkness near the entrance to the chamber emerged the zombified Merlin, his flaccid skin a pale grey colour and his eyes empty of life. With surprisingly strong hands he gripped onto Lily's hair, then reached down to his side for a long knife wedged in his belt.
Sweat dripped down Alec's forehead as he slowed his running pace through the catacomb of tunnels through the mountain, realising that by now he must be well away from Rin.
"Never again... zombie Merlin was one step too far" he panted "Hmmm... where are I?" The archaeologist continued down the passageway deeper into the mountain, passing by numerous store cupboards, all disappointingly empty until he noticed one with something that caught his eye.
"Huh? It can't be..."
Tucked under a blanket so only her face was showing was Maya, sleeping peacefully. Around her food and water had been arranged neatly by someone. Alec tiptoed over and quietly as he could picked up a sheet of paper which he saw was lying next to the slumbering child.
"A map with exits out of this damn place!" he whispered excitedly to himself, before noticing writing on the other side of the paper "Wait... what's this?" He begun to read the note, his brow furrowing as he got further on.
"That... that can't be possible!" he exclaimed, looking down in concern at Maya's sleeping figure "She wouldn't... would she?"
Dr. Strauss recoiled at the hit, but he held onto the sword as he went. Which almost proved a mistake as he nearly gored himself on it as he was forced away form Rin. He only noticed his pain for a moment before charging at Rin again, swinging, hacking, slashing, and stabbing at her with the Sword as if all semblance of sanity had abandoned him - which could well be the case, as he was also ignoring the zombie Merlin... who could've been hurling fireballs at him for all Dr. Strauss knew. But even if the zombie were doing anything, even if everyone in the room were determined to stop him from killing Rin; it didn't matter to Jared; all that mattered to him, all that he would acknowledge was his need to kill this self-obsessed bitch of a 'spirit.'
After maintaining his dead silence for so long, Dr. Strauss finally started screaming at the top of his lungs. It was utterly incoherent and incomprehensible, but anyone who heard it would know two things: Dr. Strauss was pissed and he wouldn't be stopping his mad assault until Rin lay dead before him.
"What the... How in--?" Zetta stumbled backwards as Merlin appeared, her mouth falling open in shock. At first, she assumed Merlin had somehow survived despite being told that the bullet in the leg had killed him. But no, Rin had certainly not been lying about that. And he did not look healthy at all. An illusion? she thought, just moments before Merlin grabbed onto Lily's hair and yank her head back, causing her to scream. Definitely real, then; an illusion could never do something like that.
"Hang on!" Zetta called, casting about desperately for something she could use as a weapon. There was rubble strewn all across the floor, but none of it was particularly suitable for a bludgeoning weapon. It was all bound to crumble at impact, as the rocks Lily had sent flying into Rin's head had done. At least they'd done their damage first.
Finally, she spotted a small, broken chair leg on the floor by the wall. Zetta ran over to it and picked it up. She ran back over to where Merlin stood, his knife dangerously close to Lily's throat. "No you don't!" Zetta snarled, managing to thwap the undead Merlin across the back before he'd gotten the chance to slit Lily's throat.
Merlin flinched, likely from the impact instead of pain, and loosened his grip on Lily's hair enough for her to wriggle away. Lily scrambled backwards out of his range, rubbing at her sore scalp and trying to focus on the nearest pieces of rubble by her. Zetta, meanwhile, brought her arm back to wind up for another stinging blow. Merlin turned to face her and shoved his hands in her direction, and what seemed like a large gust of wind blew her away.
Zetta fell on her back, gasping. So zombies still had bit of the power they had in life, did they? As Merlin readied a small fireball in his hands--she swore his silence was creepier than his appearance--Zetta struggled to get back to her feet. Merlin loosed the fireball in her direction at the same time that Lily sent large chunks of rock at his head. Thankfully, that was enough to send his fireball slamming into the ground beside Zetta's face.
"Get him now!" Lily shouted as Merlin stumbled backwards, the hair on the side of his head smoking and sparking. Zetta needed no further encouragement; she took the opportunity to ran straight at Merlin, the chair leg held before her like a spear.
With a grunt of effort, Zetta punched the chair leg through the zombie's face. Merlin stumbled backwards and eventually dropped to his knees, the chair leg sticking out from his right eye socket. For seemingly the first time, he made a sound--a low, guttural moan that trailed off into silence as his body slumped forwards. He moved no longer.
As Zetta and Lily fought off Merlin, Rin stood shakily up to face Dr Strauss, her face wrapped in snarl despite her injuries.
"You know, the irony is that you'll probably be long dead before you realise your mistake dear. " She tried to laugh but ended up coughing several times, apparently struggling to breathe "Maybe you can have fun discussing with your family what it's like to be betrayed by someone you love!"
Maya murmured and then blearily opened her eyes. The room was dark with it's entrance being the sole light source and the walls made from the same tunnelled rock as the rest of the base was. Standing over her was the dark figure of a man.
"Doctor Stra... eh Daddy?" she asked with trepidation as she couldn't see his face properly.
"No, it's Alec. You remember me?" The archaeologist bent down and attempted a friendly smile, he couldn't blame Maya for being distrustful of adults after the way several of them had treated her.
"Uh huh. What happened?" she mumbled hugging the blanket around her, the last thing she remembered was finding her way out of the mountain, now it seemed she was back inside again.
"Um... I found you outside, so I brought you in here where's it's not so hot" Alec lied "Dr. Strauss is very worried about you, last time I saw him he was shouting something and then ran off."
"Ran off?" Maya muttered to herself, she hoped the doctor would be okay "What's that?" she asked the American, pointing to the note he held in his hands.
"Eh... it's... nothing important" Alec said quickly and stuffed it in his back pocket, cursing himself for not doing that earlier. He wasn't sure whether Maya would actually be able to read it but the note-writer had apparently thought so so he wasn't going to take any chances.
I can't let her see this... thank God I got here before she had to chance to wake up and read it.
He decided now was the time to change the subject to something that had been bothering him
"What happened in the big chamber with the sword? Was it something to do with Rin?"
Dr. Strauss paused for a moment to catch his breath. He was pretty sure he heard Rin apparently monologue about something... and then he heard that little jab about his family. What little bit of clarity that Dr. Strauss still had just snapped at that point. He lunged at Rin, and against all odds, he managed to impale her on the sword. Then he wrapped his free hand around her throat.
"Shut up shut up SHUT UP!" Dr. Strauss screamed at Rin as he strangled her, "You don't get to talk about them! You have no right!"
Dr. Strauss kept the pressure on her throat, and watched as Rin, slowly, but inescapably now... started to die. First, Rin's blood started to boil from the inside - she was clearly in pain, but she bit her lip down and only the faintest of snarls escaped. Slowly, lesions began to form, and blood and puss began to gush from her pores as her insides liquified.
With her last bit of strength, she leaned towards Dr. Strauss's ear and whispered, "It's too late. I've already won."
And with that, Rin's skin fell away, letting her flesh escape and releasing her vaporized blood, painting a second coat of the stuff onto Dr. Strauss.
"Is it over? Is she gone?" Zetta asked after a rather lengthy silence in the room. Her eyes kept moving from the twice-dead body of Merlin to Strauss and back again. She felt relieved, but she also couldn't help but feel anxiety tugging away at her mind and Zetta couldn't help the doubts surfacing to her thoughts. Was it possible that finally, after everything they'd all gone through, Rin was truly dead? Could a spirit such as she even be killed? Then again, she'd just watched the "woman" explode, and it hadn't looked like an illusion to her. Maybe they could relax after all.
As good as one can relax with all the death and violence in your life, anyway.
"We still need to free the dragons," Lily said suddenly, her voice ringing confidently throughout the room. "And then we can finally get out of this place. We'll need the sword for that, Strauss," she called, unwilling or unable to hide the somewhat disgusted frown on her face as she took in the doctor's bloodied appearance.
"I guess we have to find out where Alec went, too," Zetta added, looking back the way the man had run off to earlier.
Dr. Strauss dropped to his knees, leaning on the sword heavily, as if he would completely fall face-first into the floor if he didn't have it. Which he might. Up to this point, Dr. Strauss had been managing to keep himself going by not paying too much attention to what he was doing. But now that he had won... he could not escape himself. Now he was forced to fully process everything that had happened in the last hour or so. Tears would have escaped his gray-green levies... if he had any more tears in him.
I... I've become a murderer... I...
The sound of metal scraping metal rang through the room as Dr. Strauss started shaking. His breathing became uneven, and for several moments, it became faster and shallower, and it kept building up until it became a full bout of hyperventilation. As his mental state deteriorated, Dr. Strauss became increasingly fascinated with the Sword until it seemed to fill his field of vision entirely.
Gabriel picked himself up shakily from the floor and began to walk towards Dr Strauss, trying to avoid looking at the mess which was all that remained on Rin.
"Alec can wait, he hasn't exactly been helpful for us in the past" he called back to Zetta and Lily "We came here to rid ourselves of the threat of Rin and help the dragons. We've done the first, let's get on the second." Seeing the expression upon the doctor's face, he addressed Strauss directly. "Don't feel hard on yourself, that woman was a monster and would have killed all of us if she had the chance. Hand over Excalibur now so we can end this."
"No, it was..." Maya then recounted Mr Kimura and Dr Strauss's plan in detail. Alec listened with increasing surprise, waiting until she had finished before interjecting with his own thoughts.
"They both thought it was safe for you to use a real bomb, on your own?" He asked in an incredulous voice.
Maya looked up at him but didn't reply.
"And you still want to live with Dr Strauss after this?"
"Yes" Maya replied stubbornly. "It wasn't really his idea anyway."
"He still went along with it" Alec pointed out.
"I don't care." Maya said moodily "Can we go somewhere-else now? This room is too dark."
"I suppose so. Aren't you going to eat this food that, eh, I brought here?"
"I'm not hungry."
Alec let out an exasperated sigh as he led the young girl out into the corridor, he was relieved that Dr Strauss had apparently volunteered to take permanent care of the child, he got the feeling that Maya didn't particularly like him.
If all children are this ungrateful then you can count me out of the breeding game!
Dr. Strauss looked at Gabriel, no longer possessing the presence of mind to even attempt to compose himself and as such, his grief and horror were all too apparent.
"I... I'm a murderer...," he slowly got up, his voice starting off as little more than a whisper, but as he went on it gradually built to a panicked shout, "I'm a murderer now! I've killed three people... Rin... that little wheel-chaired bastard Kimura... and..." he paused again, his voice suddenly dropping back down to little more than a whisper, "And before them... Maya."
Dr. Strauss used the sword as a walking stick until he reached the nearest wall that he could lean on. After this, Dr. Strauss spoke clearly, but to no one in particular.
"I was going to adopt Maya..." his face contorted in a self-loathing scowl, "She'd just found out about her mother... I thought I could help. I thought I could give her a happy life in England. All we had to do was get the fuck out of here," he stabbed at the floor beneath him with the sword - only just missing his left foot, "Kimura's plan... use a child to deliver a fucking bomb! That's a suicide-bomber's trick! What the fuck was I thinking it going along with it! Stupid stupid stupid stupid STUPID!"
As Dr. Strauss started to tear at his hair with his right hand, he also brought up his left, which still held the Sword. As the glint of the glare on the blade caught his eye, Dr. Strauss found it difficult to look away from the Sword. He imagined the blade cutting through him, ending his miserable little life.
"If only it were that easy," he thought out loud, "If only it weren't for my condition..."
Then Dr. Strauss saw his life - or rather, every death he held himself responsible for flash before his eyes. He covered his eyes with his right hand, blocking the flooding river of tears for only a few moments before they broke past their flesh-and-blood dam. Then...
"Heh," Dr. Strauss's attention refocusing on the Sword, "Though after all, why not? Its not as if anyone really values life anymore... if anyone ever did. All we do is look for 'better' ways to kill each other... I've just got the one true trump card."
Dr. Strauss lifted the Sword's blade to his throat. Now that his attention was focused on it, he noticed that the Sword seemed to be much lighter than it looked. If he were blind, Dr. Strauss would have sworn he was holding a plastic butter-knife.
"May as well get it over with."
"Don't be such a moron," Lily told the doctor scathingly, eyes fixed firmly on where Excalibur was pressing against the skin on his throat. She was debating whether or not it was safe to use her telekinesis to move the sword out of his grip. She could try it, but he might feel the pull and jerk his hand in the opposite direction suddenly. No, this was a tricky situation.
Lily wanted to tell him that the murders he committed weren't that big of a deal; Rin was a monster, and while she admitted she knew nothing about this Kimura was, she knew Maya's death was not his fault either. Not entirely, anyway. She wanted to tell him that she'd murdered before, too--accidentally. However, Lily suspected that he wouldn't care too much about that.
Then again, the murders he committed were obviously wearing heavily on his mind. That was one angle to work, then.
"You may not care much about your own life right now, but don't let your self-pity endanger the rest of us," Lily continued, still read to use her powers to take the sword away if need be. She rather hoped it wouldn't have to come to that, since that would mean it would likely be too late. "We heard what Rin told us, about the diseases you carry. If your blood spills in this room, we're all in trouble."
"She's right," Zetta spoke up. "We're not done here yet, and I really have no desire to die. Not after everything we've just been through." She took a deep breath, eyes flicking nervously from Excalibur to Strauss's face and back again. The look in his eyes unnerved her. She wasn't sure if what Lily had said would convice Strauss to drop the sword, so she desperately added, "Rin's responsible for a lot of death. Hell, just about all of the trouble we went through was because of her and her stupid plans. If you give up now, you're still playing into her hands."
Zetta took a deep breath, deciding to try for one last thing. Something she and Lily said had to get to the doctor somehow, and she wanted to be sure that it would. "And what about Maya?" she added slowly, unsure if it would really help or not. "What would she think about you doing this to yourself?"
"What would she think?" that one caught Dr. Strauss like a punch to the gut... it was a few more moments before he could respond, "I don't know what she would think. That's the whole point. I'm not going to know anything about her now... just like... just like I never took the time with Emily, or Amy, or Sunny..." he trailed off for a moment, "and just like them... I can't know now."
Dr. Strauss took a moment to replay Lily's comment in his head.
"Right," he said, inclining his head slightly to Lily, "And what makes you different from Rin? I don't know much about you... but I can tell from your tone that you're just as manipulative as Rin was. And this isn't just about us in any case. It never fucking was. I ran some tests... if this virus gets out... we're all dead... the whole fucking world is dead. I'm getting into my twilight years now... my immune system is getting weaker. I don't know how long we have before the virus overpowers my system, kills me, and then goes on to the rest of the world. But..." he hefted the Sword out for a moment before putting it back to his throat, "With this; it'll all be over much more quickly. We're fucked no matter what we do. Might as well get it over with."
"So you're just going to give up now?" Gabriel asked angrily, struggling to stop himself running towards the doctor in a fit of rage "Do you think you're the only fucking person in this world who matters? You know, this is only the second time I've met you but both times all you've done is whine about your dead family and now the Maya kid too. Maybe if you opened your eyes a bit then maybe you'd realise the truth."
He stepped closer to Dr Strauss, eyeing the sword in the doctor's hands. With one finger he discarded a used cigarette.
"Rin spoke a lot of bullshit but there's one thing she said which was true. Your daughters, Maya... they were no more special or worthy than any of the millions of young girls or boys in this world. I'm no parent but I know you guys believe otherwise about your own kids and usually that's harmless. Today though you must face reality... what would you gain by fucking destroying for many others what you have lost?"
Dr. Strauss sidestepped away from Gabriel; carefully keeping the Sword's blade at a happy mid-point between threatening Gabriel with it, and keeping it within reach of the good doctor's own throat.
"I know that," Dr. Strauss growled, "I was a doctor; I've treated hundreds of people; both children and adults of almost every ethnicity and religion. But that isn't what this is about. I'm accepting the reality of this situation more than you are. There is no way to cure my condition. The virus evolves too quickly and too diversely for any cure to even make a dent. My family died... no... I..." his voice cracked, growing a bit more hysterical, "I killed my family four years ago when this... disease came up. I've been trying to cure my condition ever since. And that went well... even with Rin's resources... its impossible. Curing my condition would require technology and medical knowledge centuries ahead of ours... if not a millenia. No matter what I do, its all going to end the same way; the human race extinct because I exist."
Dr. Strauss paused for a moment and then pointed the Sword at everyone else in the room in turn, "What the hell would any of you do in my position? What COULD you possibly do differently that would make a difference?"
Lily was grateful that Gabriel spoke up before she could try to articulate a response to Strauss's earlier question. What made her better than Rin? Apart from not being some ancient spirit hellbent on ruling the world, she wasn't sure what else she could say. That she was trying to help? Like some of the others, Lily really only got tangled up in this whole mess by chance. If it hadn't become personal when Rin tried to have her killed, would she have even come this far with the others? Maybe, maybe not. Hard to tell.
"I don't know what I'd do, but I wouldn't give up," she said, folding her arms and giving Dr. Strauss a measured stare. "Giving up is the stupidest, most selfish thing you can do. If you're not even going to try, you might as well stand back and let the rest of us try."
"Look," Zetta spoke up, "I can't even imagine the guilt you're feeling for... for what happened to your family. But the others are right; you need to calm down and keep trying. Is it fair that the rest of us should die because you say we might as well? If you do that, you're no better than Rin. We should still have a say on if we want to live or die, and I think we all opt for the option to live as long as possible."
She paused to glance at the other two to see if she had their agreement. Lily gave a tiny nod and, heartened by this, Zetta continued in a more confident tone. "We've still got time, and a chance. If there's a chance, it's only right to do the best we can. Look, I know you've said modern technology isn't enough to develop some sort of cure for your, ah... affliction. But what about magic? Have you looked into that route?"
"Dragons are magical creatures," Lily chimed in. "They'll owe us after we free them from their bonds. They may be able to help us with this."
"See? Think about it," Zetta added. "Don't give up just yet, not when there are still options available to us."
Dr. Strauss turned his attention to Lily and Zetta. He studied them, careful to keep his distance from everyone else in the room as he spoke.
"Perhaps you're right," he conceded, relaxing his stance a little, "Maybe magic can help... though... does anyone here have any kind of explanation for how we all came to get our powers? I have no clue where my 'gift' came from... what if it too, is a form of 'magic'? If so, then your suggestion is treat my disease with MORE of it. That... doesn't make any sense. But..." he paused, adjusting his grip on the Sword, "assuming that you are right; what right do I have to live? My family is dead because of me; dozens of my patients are dead because I didn't pick up on my disease quickly enough. And tonight I killed three people. If I tried... yes, I could justify Rin's and Kimura's deaths..." he trailed off, grimacing, "but Maya? She's dead because I went along with Kimura's escape plan... give her a bomb... give a child a fucking bomb, and have her set it off!" He randomly stabbed at the floor with the Sword a few times, "Maya is dead because of me. I deserve to die."
He paused for a moment, and then...
"Though... maybe magic is worth a try though... at the very least, I could die without killing anyone else..."
Dr. Strauss's shoulders slumped a bit.
"But how do you know the dragons won't just lash out at whoever happens to be nearby when they're set free?"
As Dr. Strauss spoke of his regret for his and Kimura's plan, Gabriel inched closer to where the Englishman stood. He didn't care much for what the doctor was saying, he was focused entirely on getting Excalibur away from any possible suicide attempt. For a second he locked eyes with Dr. Strauss and in that moment they both realised what the other was planning. Gabriel leapt towards the doctor with his arm outstretched, he just couldn't trust him with the fate of the world in his hands.
As soon as Gabriel's hand made contact with the sword though; a strange sound began to resonate all over the chamber. Though the sound seemed to come from all over the room, and from several different directions... somehow... everyone in the room simply... knew that the sound's true source was the sword. To all but Dr. Strauss, the noise emanating from the sword could only be described as the shrill, blood-curdling screams of the thousands upon thousands that it had felled over the centuries. All of the last, desperate gasps and death-cries of its vanquished foes... all of them united in a grisly symphony.
To Dr. Strauss however... the sword sang to him. Dr. Strauss heard the comforting sound of his long-dead mother's voice singing his favorite childhood, "Dango Daikazokou," his father's humorously sober renditions of old drinking songs, and all of the soft little lullabies his patients' parents would sing to them... one last time. But above all, it rang with the voices of his wife, their three daughters... and his own voice singing "Ashes, Ashes..." together.
To Dr. Strauss, the sword's song drew fresh tears from his eyes; but for once, they were accompanied by a genuinely happy smile. Somehow, the sword had managed to remind him of the best times he had ever spent with his family... but its song also strengthened his resolve; it would not do, from the sword's view, to have its wielder falter.
To Gabriel, the sword's screaming choir was becoming too much - and he let go of the sword and backed several feet away from Dr. Strauss, whose gaze had once again fixed itself back on the sword.
Then, a phrase burned itself into Gabriel's mind: "Thou hast not earned the right. This champion hast already drawn the blood of the unrighteous; thou hast not."
Gabriel took another step back and for the umpteenth time this day fell onto his backside.
"What the hell was that?" he exclaimed to Zetta and Lily, looking towards Excalibur with a newfound fear and respect.
Maya tried desperately to keep up with Alec as he strode along the corridor, constantly checking over his shoulder and around bends for signs of any of Rin's remaining followers.
"Can we slow down, my legs feel tired" she whined loudly, wiping her straggly hair out of her eyes.
"No, and whisper if you have to speak!" Alec hissed "Rin and her minions are still somewhere around here and if they find us wandering around... wait, what's that?"
Booming sounds echoed from further down the corridor, Maya gripped onto Alec's trousers.
"It sounds big, and it's coming this way," she said with a note of fear in her voice. "Should I turn invisible again?"
"Let's see what it is first, I don't want to spend hours finding you later."
Zetta opened her mouth to reply to Strauss, but it was at that moment that Gabriel tried to snatch away the blade. Zetta and Lily both clamped their hands over their ears to try and protect themselves from the eerie, painful shrieking emanating from Excalibur. It didn't help; the symphony of screams and cries seemed to echo in their heads, rather than in the room itself.
Just when Zetta thought she couldn't stand it any more, it all stopped. She looked up to see Gabriel on the floor, far away from Dr. Strauss, who gazed at Excalibur as if enraptured. She saw the tears in his eyes and the smile on his face, and wondered what exactly he had heard. She doubted that whatever she and the others had heard would make anybody look so happy.
"That," Lily said in response to Gabriel, "was more magic, if I were to guess." She paused to collect her thoughts, running an appraising eye over both the sword and Dr. Strauss. "It seems there is quite a bit about that sword that we don't know about yet."
"And what that, I don't think we'll need to worry about the dragons trying anything to us," Zetta said. "Although, Goch would have warned us if that was a possibility anyway, right?" She paused, then looked over to Strauss and held his gaze. "As for your... condition, I really think magic is the only option we can turn to now. Fight fire with fire, you know? If we fail, then okay, everybody dies. If we don't do anything at all, everybody dies. But if we try, there's a chance that we'll be saving a whole lot of people."
"Besides," Lily added with a wry smile, "how can you say no after that little display?"
"What are you talking about?" Dr. Strauss stared at Lily, "That was the most beautiful song I've ever heard..." his voice trailed off at the recent memory, he hoped the Sword would sing again.. he needed it to Sing again.
Dr. Strauss looked expectantly at the Sword for a moment, then he turned back to Zetta.
"Fight fire with fire?" he echoed, "I'm sorry if this seems a bit rude but... are you an idiot? You know what you get for fighting fire with fire? MORE bloody fire!"
He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts.
"No... its pointless. There's nothing we could do that would make the slightest difference. Tell me though... has 'magic' in any form made your lives any better? No... all we've been doing is trying to kill each other over whether or not Charlie Manson," he gestured at the bloody stain where Rin used to be, "gets to start a new cult." He spat the last word out, "Bravo... we stopped a Bond villain. What's up for our next adventure? Stealing some useless rock from a forgotten tomb? Traveling back in time to fake the moon landing? Heaven forbid it be anything useful. Like... solving world hunger, or fixing the bloody climate... or... or... curing all of the world's diseases." Dr. Strauss went oddly quiet after that last one, and stared at the floor.
After a few moments, he sniffed, and put the Sword back to his throat
Lily raised her eyebrows as Strauss spoke to her. What we heard was far from a song, she thought, unable to say so aloud because Strauss was now busy talking to Zetta. It was apparent that Excalibur had somehow chosen the doctor to be its champion, but she couldn't imagine why. The man was an emotional wreck, it seemed, and currently threatening to kill himself with the very sword that bonded to him. Huh. Some champion.
Zetta, meanwhile, bristled as Strauss spoke to her. "Oh, I'm an idiot for thinking the only way to stop your damn diseases is magic more powerful than the one plaguing your body, even when your science has been proven to fail?" she replied, her voice raising angrily as she went on. "I'm the idiot? What about you, the man who gave a child a bomb that ended up blowing herself up?!"
Lily sighed in exasperation. Zetta had appeared to calm down a little after Rin's death, but now she was back to acting emotional and hostile again. She, Gabriel, and Strauss all were; it was giving her a headache. "Yelling at each other isn't going to help," Lily cut in before Zetta could say any more. "We can go to the dragon chamber and at least see what help they can offer us, or we can stand her slinging accusations and harsh words at each other until we die of old age."
Zetta continued to glare at Strauss, tightening her jaw as Lily spoke. She was right, but that didn't mean Zetta had to like it. After a short, awkward silence, she spoke in a low voice. "No, magic hasn't made my life any better," she said in reply to Strauss's last question. "But it hasn't made it any worse, either. It got me in trouble when I was... younger, but if I didn't have it, I would have gotten in even more trouble later on just for being half-demon."
"Mine made my life a little more lucrative," Lily said with a shrug. She didn't go into any more than that; it really wasn't the best time to tell the angry doctor that she used her powers to steal. "That's not important, though," she added, tapping one foot impatiently. "The dragons are all that we've got. At least see what they say before you spill your blood on the floor and doom us all for, possibly, no good reason."
Gabriel nodded in agreement with Lily's final statement, slowly rising to his feet again.
"I never met your wife or daughters Strauss and I was only briefly around that kid Maya but if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that they never would have wanted you to give up hope at a time like this. There's a line from a musical I saw a long time ago, I can't even remember which any-more, that goes something like 'If one man can stand tall, there must be hope for us all, somewhere... somewhere in the spirit of man'. It's always inspired me to keep going and now this is your chance to stand tall in the face adversity."
Gabriel took several steps forwards and offered a hand to Dr Strauss.
"Somewhere in the midst that wretched and guilty spirit of yours must be the man who loved his family more than life itself."
Alec peered cautiously around the corner, Maya doing the same while keeping an arm firmly wrapped around one of his legs. Standing beneath a gaping hole in the roof of the tunnel was a huge dragon, red in colour and much larger than either of the ones he had met earlier. The dragon's head slowly turned and it's gaze bore into the American.
What's up, boyo? the dragon's voice filtered through his head.
"Aaaahh!" Alec jumped back, pulling a curious Maya with him.
One of the dragons, not the one which helped me earlier! he thought. But is it on Rin's side or ours? Guess I have no choice but to ask.
"Now Maya," he started in the most parental voice he could muster "You stay here while I... eh?"
He realised with a jolt that his young charge was no longer standing anywhere near him. Hearing a shrill laugh around the corner, he dashed around without a moment's hesitation, expecting the worst and ready to fight.
Five minutes later, Goch soared above the mountain, Maya giggling and cooing from the flattest part of his back and Alec clutching on desperately just below her, between the beast's beating wings.
"You aren't acting so grouchy now," Alec muttered to himself but he couldn't stop himself smiling, there was something incredibly refreshing about flying thousands of feet high in the air.
"Look Alex!" Maya shouted, forgetting the archaeologists name in the excitement of the ride "You can see everything from up here. I want to fly around the whole world like this! Can we Goch? please!"
I ain't goin' anywhere until the curse is lifted from my people, I myself have a temporary reprieve but that don't mean I'm gonna abandon my folk on the whim of a little manspawn. Ain't you forgetting someone anyways you were telling me about just a minute past?
"Oh yeah, Daddy Strauss! How are you going to find him?"
One of me nephews said he saw him near my folk's chamber, best start there. If we're lucky we might even meet those kind folk who said they'd try to free my people, maybe they seen him. Hold tight riders, this dragon's headin' down!
Dr. Strauss paused to consider Gabriel's words. Somewhat to his surprise, he thought of Maya first. Then he thought of his family and how they would react to what he was about to do. Then he thought of his former patients and their families. He recoiled in horror. But this also reinforced his desire... his need to die.
"All right Gabriel," he said, "I... I can't do it. I can't allow myself to become death. I still need to die; but there has to be a... safer way to do it. Here... take the Sword."
Dr. Strauss tried to hand the Sword over to Gabirel, but it simply started its half-scream / half-song again until he stopped trying to give it away.
Zetta let out the breath she'd been holding, only to suck it sharply back in again when Dr. Strauss tried to hand the sword over to Gabriel. "I don't think it's going to let anybody else hold it," she said as soon as Strauss drew the sword back and the screams stopped.
"That seems rather obvious," Lily remarked, eyeing Excalibur with a mix of curiosity and dislike. It would be interesting to know more on how the sword worked, but she really didn't fancy hearing that cacophony again. Plus, now was not exactly the best time.
"Well then," Zetta said after pausing to clear her throat. "Now we've got to find the dragon chamber. Any idea where that is? I think it's supposed to be nearby, but none of us can read the Chinese on the signs." For a moment, her expression darkened. "The only one who could read even a little is... was Blackrose."
Gabriel breathed a sigh at Dr Strauss's confession and raised an eyebrow at Zetta.
"Didn't that one we met earlier with Alec say this place we're in now is the dragon chamber?"
He looked over his shoulder at the entrance to the half-destroyed chamber but the beast was nowhere to be seen.
"Damn," he muttered under his breath and turned back to continue the conversation.
Meanwhile several hundred feet above in the air, Goch dive-bombed towards the top of the mountain at break-neck speed, wind whooshing past his snout. Maya screamed in exhilaration with her arms wrapped tightly around the dragon's neck, while Alec tried to hold as best he could to the dragon's wider body, yelling as loud as he could so the creature would hear.
"Where the hell are we going? We'll hit the mount..."
Just before impact he saw the hole blown open in the mountainside which Goch was aiming for, the dragon's wings were a little too wide and so rocks tumbled down as he landed with a crash in the middle of the chamber.
I think I landed on something... The dragon's disembodied voice echoed through the American's head, he looked down to see Maya clambering towards a group of people. He quickly inhaled, then relaxed when he recognised who the two men and two women were. His relief at finding them temporarily even dispelled the worry still imprinted on him by the note he had discovered by the bedside.
Back on the ground, Maya halted in her tracks when she reached the four adults, her energetic enthusiasm brought on by the ride counterbalanced by their wearied and in Dr Strauss's case bloodied appearance. At closer inspection they seemed more surprised than anything-else by her, Alec and Goch's sudden entry from above.
"I was flying on that dragon, it was really fun!" she blurted out into the silence, innocuous to why such shock was etched into their face.
"M-Maya?" Dr. Strauss said, his voice trembling, "You're alive? I... I..." Dr. Strauss buried his face in his free hand and made an odd sound that was somewhere between a snort, a wretching cough, and a sob. Every now and then he seemed to let out a curse directed at himself.
When he was done, he looked back up at Maya with a full smile on his face.
"Maya..." he said, "I...I'm just... just so happy that you're all right. I'm sorry... for going along with that idiot's plan. I shouldn't have listened to him the moment he suggested putting you in harm's way." He checked himself before he accidentally cut himself with the Sword as he made a move to pull out some of his already thinning hair, trying to convey just how stupid he felt.
Zetta had been about to reply to Gabriel when Goch suddenly dropped into the room. She let out a gasp of surprise, staring up at the dragon with her eyes wide. When she saw Maya walking over to them, she felt her breath catch in her throat. Maya was alive? But the bomb, the explosion, the melted shoe...
"Looks like she got away after all," Lily remarked, a hint of surprise in her otherwise calm voice.
"How did you find her? What happened?" Zetta directed her question to both Alec and Goch, as she was unsure who had actually found Maya first. Alec, probably, since Goch was supposed to have been waiting where he dropped everybody off, but...
Not even waiting for either of them to answer, Zetta knelt down in front of Maya. "Maya, it's... It's good to see you again." She paused, glancing over at Dr. Strauss before looking back at the girl. She seemed so young, and so innocent. Zetta felt a flare of anger rise in her chest, but it was brief; Rin was dead and she wouldn't hurt Maya, or the others, any more. Then again, there was still that other matter to deal with.
Maya smiled back at Dr Strauss and Zetta since they seemed pleased to see her, she didn't understand what the doctor was talking about but that didn't matter to her. She seemed oddly happy, too happy in a sense after what had happened over the last couple of days, almost bouncing on the spot with energy. She gave Zetta a quick hug since the woman was kneeling down, she would have done the same for Strauss except he was covered in red mess. Meanwhile as this was happening, Alec slid fumblingly off the dragon and ran up to the three.
"Is Rin still around? There's something I... eh," the American stopped when he realised what the dark maroon thing nearby was. "Good riddance I guess, I found Maya over on the other side of the mountain asleep." He thought it best to wait for Maya to move out of ear-shot before he discussed with the others what he had found.
As Dr Strauss and Zetta were getting reacquainted with Maya, Gabriel had more pressing things on his mind. He approached Goch respectfully, relieved to see the dragon who had flown him here not much more than an hour ago.
"Hey, Mr Dragon, nice to see you again!" he called up to the towering beast.
"Me and my friends were wondering... is this the dragon chamber?"
That's right, say is that Rin there? Goch extended a giant claw out towards the suspicious red blob which was lying some feet away from the others. Luckily young Maya seemed far too besotted with meeting Dr Strauss and Zetta again to notice it.
"Um... yeah, she had a run-in with the doctor, it wasn't pretty," Gabriel said bashfully "How do we do that freeing ceremony or something you wanted?"
Go up to the chair, all of yer and the sword too, I'll help yer from there.
"Alright" Gabriel nodded and turned to the rest of the group, "Let's get this dragon stuff over and done with now. Strauss, we need the sword up by the big stone chair, and the rest of y'all too. It's time to end this witch's legacy."
"Right..." Dr. Strauss said, "and... the dragons aren't going to go rampage all over the world to get even or something like that?" Dr. Strauss looked at the wreckage of the chamber, "Forget I said anything. Let's get this over with. But, whatever happens is on you lot. I'm... tired."
Dr. Strauss stared at the dragon, and tried thinking really hard about the price he was going to ask of the dragons for his help.
You there? Can you hear me? Assuming you can... if I help you, I want you to kill me and destroy this damn Sword along with me. If you kill me, don't even leave ashes behind. Nothing of me can be allowed into the air. I must be completely incinerated, right down to the molecular level. If you don't or can't... then this entire world is going to die. I am... diseased.
Without waiting for a response from the dragon, Dr. Strauss walked towards Gabriel. Once he was standing right next to Gabriel, Dr. Strauss whispered to him.
"Whatever happens to me, don't let Maya watch."
"I highly doubt the dragons will go about destroying the world after we've just got done saving them." Lily gave Goch a shrewd look and said, "Right?"
"That would rather suck, considering everything we've been going through to save it," Zetta sighed. She ruffled Maya's hair quickly, hesitating before getting up to go over to the chair with the others. "This isn't going to be real, I don't know, complicated or something, is it?" she asked when she finally took position by the chair.
Lily, also having taken up position by the chair, rolled her eyes. "Like everything else we've gone through has been nice and easy," she said. Zetta just sighed and shrugged. "I think we're ready," Lily said to Goch after everybody was standing around the chair.
As Dr Strauss engaged Gabriel, the dragon fixed eyes with the doctor and replied in a voice only he could here.
If that is yer wish, I won't refuse. The fate of Excalibur is for many, not just you though, leave that until afters.
Unaware of the telepathic conversation, Gabriel nodded in reply to Dr Strauss and then along with Lily and Zetta they climbed up the piles of boulders to the ruined chair. Maya made as to follow them but Alec stopped her gently with a hand on her shoulder.
"We best wait back here Maya, I don't know what sort of magic they'll be doing up there and I bet you don't either" he said softly. Maya groaned in response but stayed where she was. "Why were you being weird earlier?" she asked the American whilst watching the others climb intently.
"Eh..." Alec felt put on the spot, he couldn't tell her the truth about the note he'd found. "It's just been a long day," he finally answered, somewhat truthfully.
In the center of chamber, the four stood together for a moment, unsure of what to do. Dr Strauss carefully laid Excalibur across the makeshift altar, keeping his gloved hand upon the hilt of the sword.
"It just feels right" he replied to quizzical glances of the other three, who each in turn copied him, careful they didn't make skin contact.
"What now?" Gabriel called to Goch.
The dragon started to sway strangely from side to side, a low roaring sound resembling waves echoing round the chamber. As he did this, Excalibur began to glow a light blue, tiny sparks flying off the entire length of the blade. As this continued, Lily leaned forwards to speak to the others in a low voice.
"Say, I've been thinking," she said quickly "bringing the sword here the way Rin was going to find a new controller for the dragons right? What if rather than freeing the dragons, we renewed the spell on them so they have to obey us four now. Sure, they won't happy about it but think of all the things we could do with an army of these beasts behind us. Might even have been worth going through these last few hellish days for. What do you think? Should we try it?"
Dr. Strauss glared at Lily in a way that clearly read: Just how stupid are you?
"You know, that dragon can hear you," said Dr. Strauss, "Lily? Is it? There's only one way I'd agree to do that... and that's if you consented to being put under the same spell. Ever heard of the Categorical Imperative? You might want to learn that one."
"Absolutely not!" Zetta said, once she'd gotten over the shock of hearing Lily voice the option. "Isn't this exactly what we wanted to stop Rin from doing? How could you even suggest that?" She shook her head fiercely, pausing to try and gather her words. Goch was already giving them all a rather anxious look.
"All I want," Zetta continued slowly, "after all of this is over, is to be left alone. I thought that was what all of us wanted. You really want to go down the path that vile... woman went down?"
Without waiting for Lily to reply to either her or Strauss, Zetta turned to Gabriel to gauge his reaction to Lily's suggestion. "None of us want that," she added, maybe a little desperately. "Right?"
"Right," Dr. Strauss turned as much as he could without moving the Sword to face the dragon, "Er... what do I do to set your people free?"
Dr. Strauss struggled to control his anxiousness... now would quite possibly be the worst time to be shaking.
Lily sniffed in reply to Dr Strauss and Zetta's virulent responses to her suggestion.
"Alright jeez, it was just an idea, sometimes looking after yourself isn't such a bad idea. On that note good doctor, I have a number of disagreements with Kant's views, but this isn't the time or place for philosophy. Ugggh, carry on."
After a pause Goch spoke, his voice now etched with a tinge of anger.
As Strauss said, I could indeed hear that little idea of yers Lily and make no mistake, yer lucky I don't make toast of yer now. However I'm not gonna do terrible things in front of a kid and I'm not gonna leave your friends without yer either, so we'll help yer back with the rest but once that's done, consider us through.
The dragon then turned wearily to the other two.
Just hold the sword and feel for the magical chains that bind my folk, then use yer imagination to break 'em. You'll hear a mighty roar when it's done!
Zetta couldn't help but roll her eyes in exasperation at Lily's comment. Since when should looking after yourself involve the enslavement of another species? she thought, then grimaced. Lily's suggestion really shouldn't have surprised her, come to think of it. Although Zetta still didn't know a great deal about Lily, the way the other woman talked to Rin--and everyone else--should have been an indicator that she was cunning and ambitious. Still, Zetta didn't have to agree with her views...
She shook her head to get rid of the thoughts in order to focus on what Goch was saying. "Sounds easy enough," she said, wrapping her fingers a bit more tightly around the sword. She took a deep breath and reached out with her mind, feeling a strange sort of resistance around Goch and somewhere else nearby. The other dragons, she assumed. It felt almost like ropes binding the creatures, though they ebbed some sort of energy that was probably due to the binding magic itself.
So, what, just imagine them breaking away? Might as well try that, she thought, then closed her eyes and began to imagine the invisible chains around the dragons to break.