Lone Star – Chapter 7

Deliah and her team were mostly quiet while they traveled. The sound of the hovercycles was loud enough to cover up the sounds of the forests, which bothered many of them.  But between Deliah’s sensors, Torealis’s dragon senses, and Jasmine’s psychic skills, they were fairly certain that nothing would sneak up on them.

Fairly certain.  Each of them had too much experience roaming the wilderness to let down their guard- especially at night.   Occasionally, one would pace their cycle to stay alongside another, spend some time talking, then move on.

Tristan and Father Martiniros spent most of the trail this way.  At one point, Jacob pulled up alongside the two.  “How did you two end up meeting?  I mean, when I came in, you had a pretty harsh look in your eyes, Tristan.  I’d expect you’d feel the same- or worse- about vampires.”

Tristan altered his cycle’s course to accommodate him, then answered.  “For most vampires, you’re correct.  I sometimes do teachings with the academies at Tolkeen, and sometimes at Lazlo.  So when Padre brought his library to us, I was one of the scholars they asked to catalog it.”

“His library?”

The vampire nodded, then cleared his throat.  “On my travels, I came across the ruins of a very wealthy residence from before the cataclysm hit.  Everything above-ground was a shambles, but much of the under-ground structure was un-touched, even after all those years.  They had apparently been either a scholar themselves, or a great collector of books.  Many of those books are what showed me the path back to God.  Don’t worry, I won’t preach while we’re on our travels- unless you ask.”  He smiled, warmly, then sighed.

“So how is it that you’re tolerated in Tolkeen?” Jacob asked.  “I mean, no offense, you seem decent enough, but most people wouldn’t give you the chance to reason with them.  The vamps I’ve met sure don’t waste any time trying to kill Tori and I.”

“Well, aside from the gift of a large library,” Martiniros chuckled, “enough people knew me, or knew of me, before I was changed.  Once I could prove that I hadn’t given up on my path, even as a creature of darkness, people were willing to give me the chance.  Tristan here, for one, had heard my name, which is why he helped with the books.”

Tristan nodded.  “I had grown up in a pretty small place, and I can remember three times growing up when a gang of bandits rode into town and took over.”  He shook his head.  “But once in a while we’d get a cyber-knight who would come through and help out, even when things were sort-of peaceful.  So we knew there were helpful strangers out there, too.  One time, when I was little, some travelers came through town, stayed a few weeks, and helped out with everything from building a barn to helping a few folks who were sick.  They talked a lot about how we had to help other people out, how the world could be better if we worked together, and sometimes talked about religion if people wanted to listen.  Padre here was their leader, and it seemed like he didn’t want or expect anything in return for coming through and improving our lives.  He saved the life of one of the people in town, cured a sickness that had our doctors and herbalists scratching their heads.”

“So when we heard he’d been turned, the whole town mourned him.”

Jacob looked from one to the other, confused.

“One night, when we were heading north out of the Pecos Badlands, my people were attacked by a trio of vampires who didn’t appreciate our efforts.”  Martiniros sighed.  “There was nothing we could have done to stop them… they had just fed upon the village we had left.  They thought it would be amusing to turn a man of the Light into one of the damned.”

“Don’t vampires have some kind of control over those they turn?”

“Usually, yes, but my faith gave me a greater strength then they’d expected.  I refused to allow the curse to enslave me.  I’ve hunted down each of those three, and destroyed them.  I would have died myself if I was connected to them.”  He paused, looking up toward the moon.  “No, I won’t let the curse pull me from my path.  I’ve taken possession of the darkness, not the other way around.  In fact, those who turned me have given me the strength to do so much more for the meek of this earth.  Before, I couldn’t have hoped to challenge any of the petty dictators scattered around these lands.  All I could do was to help people to cope.  But now…” He held up a clenched fist.  “Now, after dark, I can finally do something about the injustice I see.”

Jacob nodded.  “I suppose you have plenty of bad folks to feed on.  How long can you go without having to kill?”

He shrugged.  “To be honest, my friend, I’ve never had to find out if its longer than two weeks.  There is much evil in this world, and no shortage of people who’ve proven they deserve to feel my bite.”  He chuckled.  “We’ll be seeing plenty of that where we’re going now, I’m sure.  But what of yourself?  Tristan here tells me you didn’t choose your own change, either- and I know him well enough to know he wouldn’t travel with anyone whose life depended on the death of dragons.”

Jacob nodded.  “I’d never be able to hurt them, not having known Tori for so long.  No, she has kept me supplied every time I’ve needed it.”

“Quenlia mentioned that you were kidnapped, and had the procedure forced upon you,” Tristan said.

Jacob nodded.  “It was some little city-state in the southern part of the Magic Zone.  I don’t even remember what they called themselves.  Came for me in the middle of the night, and when I woke up I was strapped into the machinery.  They had 7 or 8 other people, all going through it together, and they were all so excited.  They talked about the power they’d have, how they couldn’t wait for the time when they could fight and kill a dragon on their own, and drink right from the source.”  He shook his head.  “This after knowing Torealis for years.  I couldn’t take it.  When Tori found me, I wanted to kill all of them.”

After a moment’s pause, Father Martiniros quietly asked, “Did you?”

Jacob shook his head.  “No.  I was too weak- it took me more than a month to recover from the change.  Tori wanted to… but instead she just scared the hell out of them.  All their talk about ‘drinking from their own kills’, but when face-to-face with one, especially as angry as she was, they just wet themselves.  The people who did this to me, yes, they are dead, but not the others they changed.  We just left, heading for Tolkeen in the hopes that someone could reverse the process.  No luck yet.”

“We are all being tested, my friend, every day of our lives.”  Martiniros sighed.  “You seem to be walking the right path.  And lucky enough, it seems, to have such a companion.”

Jacob laughed.  “You got that right.  Although it’s not all bad, I must say.  She used to get so worried about me.  Now I can take care of myself much better than before, and she and I together can be pretty fierce.”  He smiled sideward at them.  “She enjoys wrestling with me now, and doesn’t have to worry about being so gentle.”

Martiniros and Tristan both laughed out loud.  After a moment, the vampire grew somber again, then took a slow breath before asking his next question.

“What about your life-span?  That has to be a concern.”

Jacob nodded.  “We’ve talked about that.  We actually talked about it before I was changed.  Gotta remember, to a dragon, a normal human lifetime is short enough anyway.  I mean, if I live 6 years instead of 60, what’s the difference to someone who won’t die of old-age until they’re 60 thousand or so?”  He chuckled.  “No, she fears for my passing, and we’re trying to find a cure, or some way to reverse the process, but at the same time, she knows she’ll long outlast me no matter what happens.  I’m just a good friend who was there when she needed me.  Either of you heard of Ashlin’s Peak?”

Tristan shook his head, but Martiniros perked up.  “Out east, the dragon’s nest up in the mountains?  Yes, I heard that story.  Was Torealis one of-“  He broke his sentence, catching a look from Deliah, up ahead of them.  The team stopped their hovercycles, clustering near a low rise in the earth that was topped with a trio of large oaks.

Torealis was off to the right, looking intently into the woods.  Deliah was beside her, scanning with her robotic eyes.  Jacob dismounted from his cycle, approaching the pair.

“They’re off behind that small hill there,” Torealis said quietly.  “Maybe 300 meters.  I don’t know if they hear us, but they might smell us from there.”

Deliah nodded.  “I’m still getting used to the sensor package on this body,” she said.  The face on this one wasn’t at all human-looking; in fact it almost looked demonic.  It was a Triax-made heavy combat unit, and no attempt was made to hide its nature.  The red metal frame was only hidden by the loose clothes she wore.  It still looked very feminine, Jacob thought to himself.  Quenlia had mentioned that it was a prototype.  With the right clothes, she could almost look sexy- but the red-metal face and glass-eye optical sensors made her look that much more disturbing for the curvy shape.  To him, something that was farther removed from human would be less unsettling.  But a humanoid female shape, especially an attractive shape, just made the face seem that much more creepy.  Apparently Deliah didn’t mind that.  She dressed to accentuate her shape, and earlier in the trip had pointed out that she hadn’t been able to wear clothes like that in a long time.

Torealis caught Jacob’s eyes, smirking a little as if reading his mind.  “There’s something off behind that hill- two fairly large creatures, but from their movements they’re not sentient.  Probably some kind of predator-demon.  I think they smelled us, and were hoping to come in for a bite to eat.”

Jacob laughed.  “Let ‘em try.”

Deliah shook her head.  “That’d be the easiest solution, but not the best.  There’s a coalition outpost not far from here, and they’re certain to have patrols out.  Any of our weapons, at this time of night, will give away our position.  We’ll have SAMAS sweeping overhead before we know it.”

“I’ll scare ‘em off,” Torealis said, dismounting from her cycle.  “They’re big, but not that big.  Even a brainless predator will know better than to mess with a dragon.  And if I have to freeze them, it’ll generate a lot less light and noise.”

“True,” Deliah said.  “We’ll move forward, at a slow pace.”

“Guard my bike for me?” Torealis asked Jacob, making her already large eyes more beautiful in the moonlight.  Jacob never forgot her true nature, but he was always attracted by the humanoid shapes she took.

“Of course,” he said.  She rose up on tip-toe to kiss his cheek, then turned and walked off into the woods.  Just as she was about to disappear into the dark, Jacob could see her form turn to liquid as it stretched into her true shape.  Deliah playfully nudged his shoulder with her elbow.

“That’s a hell of a woman you have there.”

He chuckled.  “Tell me about it.”  Deliah turned her cycle back toward the south, and the group slowly moved off.

*****

It was 10 minutes before Torealis returned. She seemed to appear out of the moonlight and shadows, a slightly different shape this time, and different clothes, but with the same white hair and ice-blue eyes.  Jacob stood relaxed, leaning against his cycle as he watched her approach.

“Did they scare easily?”

She shook her head.  “No.  But they won’t bother us, either.”  Then her eyes darted to one side, then the other.  She froze in place, looking around them with her eyes but not moving her head.

Jacob turned at the sound of rustling leaves.  From between the trees, a dozen mutant canines were encircling them.  In the dark, it took a few moments for it to become obvious that they were all wearing CS Dog Pack uniforms.  They each had a heavy energy rifle, pointed at Jacob.  He might be able to evade a few shots, but with 12 of them, he’d have to get excessively lucky.  And while his juicer reflexes would be enough to move at lightning speed, the weapons pointed at him would still be enough to put large holes in him.  Nevertheless, he willed his augmentations to begin the change to his body chemistry, and felt the difference immediately.  Everything around him slowed just slightly.  He kept it under control, waiting for the right moment to unleash his full abilities.

Behind the half-circle, three human forms came into view- two were in psi-stalker uniforms, the third in standard dead-boy combat armor.  The white rib-cage pattern on the chest plate stood out in the shadows and moonlight.

“Is this them, sargeant?” the amplified voice from the dead boy armor cut through the night.  One of the mutant canines turned his head without altering the aim of his rifle.

“Yes, sir.”

The armored human stepped forward until he was just behind the line of dog boys.  “You sure made it easy to find you, juicer.  You and your little spell-caster friend here.  You’re in Coalition territory now, but you haven’t caused any trouble for us, so come quietly and if you aren’t on any of the lists, you’ll be set free.”

“You think we’ll believe you’d just let us go?” Torealis asked.  Her voice had changed again, soft and petite to match her chosen shape.

“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” the officer replied.  “One way or another you’re coming with us.  I’m just telling you it’ll be easier on you if you come quietly.”

Then the armored suit stiffened, the hands snapping to the sides of its waist with fingers spread.  In the darkness, Jacob could just make out the shape behind him- Deliah’s demonic face was glittering in the darkness, looking right at him.  A moment later, both of the psi-stalkers assumed the same poise.  These two each had an arm around their neck, and a blade at their chin.  The two psi-stalker tribesmen had crept up on them, silent as ghosts.  The hum of their vibro-blades warming up was the only sound they’d made.

The dog-boy sargeant, a pincher breed, turned his head again, confused by the hesitant silence from his officer.  When he saw the shape behind, his eyes went wide.  He turned his rifle, but couldn’t get a clear line of fire.

“Kill them all, sargeant!” the officer’s last order rang out.  The sound of a rail gun immediately followed.  The officer shuddered as the first few bursts took their time working their way through his armor, then fell forward as Deliah finally let go of him.  The canine sargeant almost had his shot when he burst into flames, howling and dropping his rifle.  He tried to roll on the ground to put out the fire in his fur, but to no effect.  Oddly enough, the fire didn’t spread to the leaves or branches he fell into, but followed him as he rolled and twisted.

The other canines turned their weapons outward, looking for the source of the threat.  Two of them spotted Deliah, and opened fire on her, but she had vanished again into the darkness.  The two CS psi-stalkers then dropped as the tribesmen behind them dealt each a lethal blow with their blades.  Several of the dog-boys began firing at them, but couldn’t seem to score a hit.  The flashes of light from their weapon muzzles cancelled their night-vision completely, and within a few seconds, their eyes had maladjusted too much to see anything in the darkness.

In those seconds, Torealis changed back into her true form.  When she roared full-voice, Jacob crouched low before leaping at the nearest of the canines, punching him twice in the stomach and head.  The canine fell to the ground like a dropped stone.  The other dog-boys were firing wildly now, but with their own Sargeant down, and their psi-stalker and human officers killed, there was no co-ordination.  Some fired into the woods, some at Torealis, and some tried to hit Jacob as he swept among them, using only his hands to incapacitate them.  Gunfire from the woods had put down four of them, and Jacob was to the last two when his hand was caught from behind.

“No,” the gravelly voice said, quietly but forcefully.  Perriman’s bald head shone in the moonlight, his spider-tattoo shimmering.  His eyes were fierce but calm.  “Good work, juicer- both you and your pet dragon.  But not these two.”  His apprentice had entangled one of the canines from behind, putting him into a submission grip after knocking his weapon to the ground.  The last armed canine held his fire, looking at his only remaining squad-mate in horror.  Then he felt Perriman’s knife at his own throat.

“Put down the rifle, dog-boy.  You two will not be harmed, you have my word.”

Jacob circled around the elder tribesman to stand between him and his apprentice.  “What’s this about?”

Perriman waited until the rest of the group had approached before answering.  “These two will not suffer harm at our hands.”  He looked at Jasmine as she moved closer.  “You can wipe us from their memories, yes?”

She nodded, but looked confused for a moment.  But soon she had read enough of Perriman’s thoughts to see his reasoning, and nodded her silent approval.

The team stood in a rough circle around the five of them.  Torealis had returned to human-shape, and stepped up beside Jacob.  Deliah had shouldered her rail gun, and Tristan had let his burning victim extinguish.  Father Martiniros walked among the dead soldiers before joining the circle.

Jacob noticed the exchange between the tribesmen and the psychic.  “Ok, it’s plain that you figured it out,” he said, motioning to Jasmine, “but the rest of us would like to know, too.”

Perriman looked over to his apprentice.  “A good test for your senses, Fin.  How old is the smell?”

Finjiarn took a moment, inhaling deeply through his nose, sweeping it past the terrified canine’s neck.  Then he locked eyes upon his master.  “9 months, maybe a little longer.”

“Very good.  It does fade quickly, but it is still there.”  He turned his head back toward the canine he held.  “I’m going to put my blade away, and so will my apprentice.  I trust you’ve seen enough to know better than to try anything?”

The canine nodded, shakily.  As promised, Perriman removed his blade, then circled to stand before him.  Then he raised his voice enough for everyone to hear.

“The Xiticix insect warriors, the plague that has infested my homelands to the north, they don’t communicate the way we do at all.  They use chemicals, and they can smell these signals for miles if they are fresh.  Sometimes a Hunter-insect will ‘mark’ someone with a smell that draws a swarm that will carry the victim off to the hives- most of you have heard this.  But what is not as widely known is this; when you kill a Xiticix, it leaves a death-chemical scent behind.”  He looked from one of the canines to the other.  “These two both have the smell on them.  This means that they fought the insects, the greatest threat my people have known.  Not only did they kill Xiticix, but they killed them up close- close enough to be marked.  This scent doesn’t wear off.”  He looked into the eyes of the larger of the two, and stepped closer.  “None of my people will harm you, and neither will anyone that we travel with.  Our people are grateful to all who fight the insect plague, even our enemies.”

30 minutes later, a squad of CS SAMAS was on the location, summoned by an emergency beacon.  They found this beacon on the chest of one of the two unconscious survivors of a deadly battle.  They called in backup and swept the area for signs of the aggressors, but couldn’t risk heading very far west.

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