Tangled Webs

Crashing Down

Chapter Seventeen - Crumbling

Mkellin jogged past the Scouts until he came to the head of the column. Slowing down to match speed, he nodded to the dark-haired woman leading them. "Thank you, Sims," he said. "And well done."

Jasmine Sims smiled faintly. "Sir," she began, and then shook her head. "Mkellin - Kell. We're off duty now. After all we've done, can't you use my first name?"

Mkellin's eyes flickered briefly, and he smiled. "Of course. Jasmine. Thank you."

Jasmine waved a hand. "It's no problem, Kell," she said. Then she frowned suddenly. "Oh."

"Something the matter?" Mkellin asked. The woman shook her head slowly.

"No, I... just realised something." She glanced back at the Scouts following. "Something someone told me suddenly makes sense." She looked at the Scoutmaster. "Kell... you realise what we've just done has probably sealed the fate of the Black Cats."

"And good riddance to them," Mkellin muttered. He looked at Jasmine shrewdly. "So this is something you learnt in the future?"

Jasmine's eyes widened. "How did you...?"

Mkellin shook his head amusedly. "I'm not as blind as you think I am," he said wryly. "And I remember some names from before the Reorganisation, Sims." He glanced from side to side quickly. "So did you come here to manipulate me into leaving?"

Jasmine snorted. "Manipulate you? As if. No, you saw through the Fungus all by yourself. I just kept you alive long enough to get there." She sighed. "' Someone would have died who didn't', indeed."

Mkellin looked startled. "When you shot that Agent..." Jasmine winced, and Mkellin nodded slowly. "I see. Well... thank you. What happens now, then?"

Jasmine shrugged. "I wasn't told," she admitted. "We're on our own now, Kell."

The Scout smiled faintly. "Business as usual, then. And... Jasmine?"

"Yes, Kell?"

"Call me Durran." He smiled lopsidedly. "After all, it's like you said -- we're off duty."

~

Agent Kayleigh ambled through the corridors of HQ, humming softly to herself. She vaguely remembered her panic at the thought of Salamander being in danger, but her attention span wasn't long enough for it to still trouble her. PPC Headquarters being what it is, this meant her wanderings were taking her straight towards him. Not that the Ironic Overpower would let her get away with that.

As Kayleigh turned a corner, her foot bumped against something. Stopping, she looked down and frowned at the corpse sprawled on the floor. "Oh dear," she murmured. "I don't think that's meant to be there."

"Aha!" cried a high pitched voice from up near the ceiling. "Another one of you foolish Agents falls into my trap! Now you will-"

"Oh! Hello again," Kayleigh interrupted, waving at the black-clad fairy hovering high above. "You're the girl who was with DAVD earlier, aren't you?"

"What?" The fairy shook her head irritably. "We're nothing to do with DAVD... hang on, you're that tart who was running around in a bikini!"

Kayleigh looked down at herself. "Yep, that's me!" She grinned at the fairy. "I've still got it on, do you need me to-?"

"No!" the fairy exclaimed as Kayleigh reached up to unbutton her shirt. "Argh, that Michaelis, I knew I should have had him hunt you down. 'But Flickerbright,' he says, 'she'll be long gone by now.' That idiot. Serves him right he's dead."

"Is your name Flickerbright?" Kayleigh asked. "That's a pretty name. I wish I had a pretty name. Hey, maybe I could become a fairy!"

Flickerbright sneered and began shedding dust that glittered with a sickly, corpse-green light. "Sure," she said, "except you'll be too busy being dead."

Kayleigh's eyes widened. "Am I ill?" she asked nervously.

Flickerbright rolled her eyes. "No, you're an idiot," she replied. "I'm going to enjoy killing you."

Kayleigh's expression flickered, and her eyes narrowed. "I see," she said in a suddenly serious tone that made Flickerbright flutter backwards, startled. The Slasher looked around briefly. "You had other fairies with you, didn't you?"

Flickerbright hovered nervously. "I did," she said, and added defiantly, "they're all off killing your friends, you know."

"I'm sure they are," Kayleigh agreed with a nod. "But that means they're not here." She took a step forward. "I discovered something once about HQ, you know," she said conversationally. "Apparently it's not all in one universe. There's invisible portals built into the walls. At the time I was worried that DAVD might close them to kill us all, so I found out where some of them are." She gestured at the generic surface to either side of them. "If you were fifty meters backwards, you'd be under a mountain on Ryloth. If you were twenty meters forward, you'd be in an undersea cavern on Earth. Right here, you're in bedrock under Minas Tirith."

"Who cares where I am?" Flickerbright exclaimed. "I'm tired of this talk, I'm just going to kill you now." She flew forward, and Kayleigh danced sideways, avoiding the stream of deadly dust.

"I care," she said, "and you should care, because right now you're the only fairy in the world."

Flickerbright swung back for another pass. "I'm the only one I need!" she cried. "Just stand still and die already!"

"I don't think you understand," Kayleigh said, ducking to the side. "You see, Flicky-Flicky-Flickerbright, I know something about fairies. I know how to stop them dying... and I know how to kill them." She grinned, a feral grin. "No one's clapping now, Flickerbright. And I don't believe in fairies."

When the dust had settled, the Slasher walked over to the small form that now lay on the grey floor. Lifting Flickerbright's body up in her hands, she sighed. "Such a pretty name," she said sadly. "I wish I hadn't had to kill you. But oh well!" She dropped the fairy's limp corpse again, straightened up, and wandered off again through the many universes of HQ, singing softly to herself. "The second star to the right..."

~

Nyx looked at her lover out of the corner of one eye as they walked, but her subtlety was wasted. "Go on, say it," Dassie said.

Nyx laughed softly. "I shouldn't have tried," she murmured. Then her expression turned serious. "Dassie... if we face the Mysterious Somebody, you'll die."

Dassie nodded. "C'baoth will kill me as fast as he can, for sure," he said. "But we still have to try, Nyx. Hey, who knows - maybe he'll be too busy controlling his massive invading armies to do anything to little old me."

"Maybe," Nyx said dubiously. "But Dassie... if we do meet him..."

"I'll do the best I can to stay out of trouble," Dassie promised her. "But if something does happen, promise me you'll keep going." He glanced at her. "We promised Tia we'd bring her home someday. If I die, that duty falls on you."

Nyx bit her lip and nodded slightly. "But... please don't?"

"I won't," Dassie assured her. "Come on, have you ever known me to get killed?"

"Well, there was that time on Abydos..."

Dassie waved a hand dismissively. "Doesn't count if you bring me back. Seriously, Nyx, I'll stay safe."

Halt! Identify yourselves!

The two came to a stop, looking at the seed-headed Dandelion in the middle of the corridor. It was holding a sleek metal device which, Nyx decided, was almost certainly lethal. "We're with the PPC," she said carefully. "We've come down from the SO's office to help with the fighting. We just want to-- what? What did I say?" The Dandelion had moved forward and wrapped tendrils around their arms.

You need to come with me, it said in a serious tone. Now. Turning the device around, it pressed a smooth switch and opened a blue portal in front of them. On passing through, Nyx and Dassie found themselves within sight of the war, with a trio of Flowers standing nearby. One of them, a Rose Bush, turned several blossoms to face them.

There's always something to surprise you, the Sub Rosa announced to the air. Nyx Nightingale, I believe. Welcome back.

One of the other Flowers, a blazing orange Lily, looked over at them. Nightingale? she asked. Wasn't Nightingale the one who defected during the Reorganisation?

You know better than that, Tiger Lily, the Sub Rosa chided her. I'm certain you do, because I trained you to. The situation was very complicated.

"I wish certain Agents understood that," Nyx muttered. "Hello, ma'am. It's been a very long time."

Indeed it has, the third Flower, a blossoming Dandelion, said, joining the discussion. Judging by the Sub Rosa's attitude towards you, might I assume you two are responsible for some of the DIS activity we've seen over the years?

Nyx shrugged nonchalantly. "The Cats had something of a fixation on us," she admitted. "They kept trying to kill us a bit. It never stuck."

"Told you so," Dassie muttered. The Tiger Lily's petals bent inwards.

Never mind that, she said. Captain, you knew the DIS were out there? And you never thought to do anything?

Only in retrospect, I'm afraid, the Dandelion replied. The Sub Rosa shook an exasperated branch at the two of them.

Either kill each other or get a pot, already, she said. Ignoring their exclamations, she looked back at the humans. Nyx, and... Dassie, isn't it? The one who revealed the Mysterious Somebody? What can we do to help you?

"More the other way round, actually," Dassie said. "We've come down to kill off the enemy leaders so we can win this war."

The Sub Rosa's leaves fluttered. Really, she murmured. Just like that, hm?

"Yes," Dassie said defiantly, and reached down to take Nyx's hand. "Just like that. We know more about them than you do."

Well, then the best of luck to you, the Head of Intelligence declared, and moved to one side. We haven't seen C'baoth, but the Fungus is in there somewhere.

You're going to let them? the Tiger Lily demanded. They could very well still be traitors!

Dear, the Sub Rosa said in a kindly tone, you know nothing about people. It's your one great failing. She glanced back at Nyx and Dassie. Was there something else?

"Actually, yes," Nyx said, remembering. "Has your Department by any chance been sending reports on the fighting to the SO? Unpunctuated ones?"

Not that I'm aware, the Sub Rosa said, which means, of course, no. They claimed to be from us?

"They didn't claim to be from anyone," Nyx replied, "I just thought they might be. Never mind. Come on, Dassie."

Dassie grinned at the Flowers. "Once more unto the breach, then..."

~

Vemi glanced over her shoulder at the mass of Assassins following them. "I have to admit, it's quite an army," she said grudgingly. "If only we had a clue where we were taking them."

Walking alongside her, Morgan closed her eyes for a moment. "My Response Centre is... that way," she said in a distant voice, pointing at an angle to one of the walls. "About three hundred yards."

Traf smiled faintly. "Now if only we knew where the DIA lived with respect to our RC," she said in the tone of one continuing an old joke. Morgan rolled her eyes.

"All humour aside," Penny cut in, "we need to find someone to fight soon. Even apart from the threat to HQ... there's a crisis on, yes, but it hasn't affected most people yet. A lot of our 'troops' are getting restless."

Vemi snorted. "Maybe we should tell them glorious stories of the Reorganisation to get their spirits up. You were there for that, right, Penny?"

"I was in DAVD at the time," the blonde pointed out. "The fighting was a purely DMS effort, so I don't have any stories."

"Well, maybe- hey, do you see what I see?" At the other end of the corridor, a group of maybe twenty people had come into view.

Penny frowned. "This is all very familiar," she murmured. Vemi nodded.

"Right. Silver sashes, like you said. So there you go. No more problem."

"There's only a couple of dozen of them," Morgan noted critically. "They're not exactly a massive threat."

"And they're intimidated by us," Traf added. Ahead, the Black Cats had come to a stop. As they watched, one of them took a hesitant step towards them. Vemi grinned.

"So they should be. All right, Assassins!" she called. "This is the beginning! The hated enemy we drove away in the Reorganisation has decided to face us here! Apparently they think they're better than us, that they can beat us despite their small numbers, so these must be their very best! Cut them down, my friends - crush them!"

"Hang on," Agent Jared Calinson said, looking past her. "If they're so confident, why are they running away?"

"..." Vemi turned around and watched with a nonplussed expression as the Cats retreated back around the corner. "Er..."

"Oh, good grief," Morgan muttered, and then raised her voice. "They've obviously set an ambush," she announced. "If we're quick, we can catch them before they spring it. Come on, Agents - take them!"

"I'm not convinced," Jared insisted. "I think they... oh." Ignoring him, Morgan had lifted Traf's knife from her belt and charged down the corridor. The two Discworld Assassins looked at each other, shrugged, and then followed after her, leaving only Traf standing at the head of the army. The dark-haired girl looked at the Agents.

"That's my partner going down there," she said in a tone carefully calculated to reach every set of ears. "She hates using melee weapons, and she's really bad with them." Reaching down to her belt, she touched the sheath that usually held her dagger. "I'm not," she added, "and if you don't come with me right now, I will kill each and every one of you in your sleep." She turned on her heel and walked away.

Jared looked at the rest of the army with a bemused expression. "I suppose we'd better do what she says."

~

"I don't suppose you have a plan?" Dassie said to Nyx as the pair stood observing the combat. "'cause I'm all out." Nyx shrugged.

"Like you said, the only advantage we have over anyone else is what we know. And what do we know about the Fungus?"

Dassie snorted. "I only said that to shut them up. All I know is that he's a sadistic egomaniac."

"Which is quite possibly all we need to know," Nyx pointed out. "He's utterly self-centred. He thinks everything he does is right, that everything revolves around him... that he can't be defeated."

"He didn't used to be that way," Dassie mused. "I think he picked it up from Nendil, actually."

"And there's a second point," Nyx said. "He relies on that elf for a lot of things. Also... do you remember what we discussed on Vulcan?"

Dassie thought for a moment. "You mean the way he seems to be wearing out?"

Nyx nodded. "He's getting senile," she said. "And I can throw in one more fact: he's a Flower. He doesn't 'look' at people the way we do - he does a surface scan of our minds to figure out who we are." She smiled mirthlessly. "And all this together means we might just be able to fool him. If I can just get into the right frame of mind..." She looked pensive, and then her face fell into harder lines. Dassie blinked.

"Uh, Nyx? You're scaring me.

"Good," Nyx Nightingale said, her voice pitched low and dangerously familiar. "Come on, clone boy - I need your help, and we don't want to keep the boss waiting."

~

The Bracket Fungus was fighting well. His bulk meant he could crush enemies who came too close, and his soft hide allowed swords and bullets to pass through without affecting him. On top of that, he was throwing out periodic indiscriminate psychic bursts, knocking his enemies down until he could deal with them in person. True, that meant he occasionally incapacitated one of his Cats, but they would recover.

Given his ruthless tactics, it was with some surprise that he felt a familiar mind approaching. Brushing his thoughts against it, the creases on his surface deepened slightly. It was familiar, no doubt about that, but he couldn't quite place it. His rudimentary light sensitivity didn't help; a dark blur with dark hair could be almost any of the Black Cats. Who goes there? he demanded.

"It's me, sir," the vibrating air against his flesh said, and It's me, sir, the approaching mind whispered. "Nendil."

The Fungus' furrows deepened further. He knew his memory was beginning to fail - along with much else - although he would never admit it to the Cats. How had he failed to recognise Nendil's mind, though? He probed again. Yes, it was definitely Nendil - it had the sharp edges, the deep humming in the centre, the coruscating black fire wreathing it. But it was still different to how he remembered. Best not to let on, though.

Excellent, he said. How does the battle fare?

"In this area, well, sir," Nendil (if it was him) replied. "Your bold assault has thrown the enemy into confusion. They run in fear before us. But..." The Fungus sensed an unwillingness to continue, something very uncharacteristic for Nendil.

But what, elf? he demanded. What would you say?

Nendil sighed (a release of mental tension, a touch of air to the skin). "They have opened a second front," he reported. "The Sunflower Official has finally joined the battle, and although we're better trained than his rabble, they have the advantage of numbers. We're being pushed back."

That must not happen! the Bracket Fungus thundered. We must conquer the PPC! Neither C'baoth nor the fool Sunflower can stand in our way!

"I agree," Nendil said emphatically, "but our fighters don't all have your dedication, sir." He sighed again, a feeling of hopelessness.

Then I must go myself to strengthen them, the Fungus declared. Time is of the essence. You have a Remote Activator, I assume?

Nendil's mind seemed startled. "Yes, sir, I do," he said.

Then get a move on! the Fungus screamed. Open me a portal so I can show these weaklings how to do their job!

"Immediately, sir!" The familiar space-time ripple of an opening portal reached the Fungus' conscience at the same time as another approaching presence. This one he had no difficulty recognising - he had killed countless of these clones already. As he pulled himself in for another psychic burst, Nendil spoke again.

"Time is of the essence, sir!" The Bracket Fungus sensed an impulse to the elf's arm - a sword being drawn. "I'll cut this one down, you're needed at the front!"

Very true, the Fungus admitted. Join me when you are through. He moved forward, feeling the portal slip around him, and then...

Fire.

Heat.

Blazing light.

And nothing.

Nyx lowered her sword as Dassie stopped his headlong charge. "Did we get him?" the latter asked.

"The portal went straight to Orodruin," Nyx said with a shrug. "There's no way he could have escaped. Yes, Dassie... we got him."

Dassie smiled grimly. "Then we stand a chance," he said. "At long last, we stand a chance."

~

Kell ran through the double doors after the last of his division and slammed them behind him, ducking as an incandescent bolt passed over his head. In his hand was a white handkerchief with a neat hole through it. "Someone barricade this door!" he shouted, clutching at his side.

"Durran," Jasmine called to him, "this looks like the cafeteria."

The Scout looked around. "Good. This is a fine place to make a stand." He glanced over his shoulder. "Good job, Wilson. Jarvis, Telmarin, take three Scouts each and start barricading the other doors. Those tables look like steel - good and strong. Darien-"

"Darien's dead," one Scout pointed out. Kell winced.

"Right, then you can do it instead, Maris. Take a couple and check around that corner. I do not like having an unexplored area. Block any doors you find. Ah... Ellis, Albright, make sure there's no one behind those counters. The rest of you..." He sighed. "It looks like we get to fight after all. Arm up and prepare for engagement."

"You're sure they won't take our surrender?" Enrik Maris asked, hopeful. Kell shook his head.

"I think shooting our white flag was their way of saying no. The swearing was just for effect." He glanced at the horned young man. "Get moving." A thump at the barricaded door punctuated his words - the first of many.

As the Scouts split up into the vast, empty cafeteria, Kell beckoned Jasmine over. "I don't like this," he muttered. "This is the PPC cafeteria, it's never empty."

"Maybe everyone got food poisoning," Jasmine suggested, then rubbed her eyes. "Sorry. They're probably all out fighting, we're not that far from the front lines here."

"Maybe," Kell admitted dubiously. "I... feth. Feth, feth, feth. We were so fething close. And now we're stuck here. To die."

"We might make it yet," Jasmine said hopefully. "With the barricades and our training, we could fight them to a standstill and then negotiate again."

Kell shook his head. "Not a chance," he told here. "I said we're making a stand, but Jasmine, it's a last stand. We can't get out of this one."

"Fine." Jasmine Sims folded her arms. "So we die here. Are you going to tell them that? Mike Jarvis? Terry Ellis? Isobel Telmarin who hates weapons and always wanted to be a doctor? We may be doomed, Durran, but don't take away our hope. Leave us with that."

Durran Mkellin's face settled into grim lines and he nodded. "I can't offer false hope," he said, "but what I have, I'll give. Scouts!" he called, and two dozen heads turned towards him. "My friends, you know I'm no good at speeches. Both sides in this war hate us. We have nowhere to go. We've tried to surrender - they won't let us. Now they're here to cut us down." As if on cue the barricaded door splintered, and a torrent of weapon-fire began to pour through. Kell turned towards it and drew his gun. "But we're warriors, ladies and gentlemen. We go down fighting or not at all." From his belt he pulled a long silver warknife, fixed it to the end of the barrel. "And fight we will. Shoot straight, my fellow soldiers." As the barricade fell apart and the doors swung open, he pulled his cloak tight around himself. "Besides," he murmured, in a voice only Jasmine could here, "do you want to live forever?"

~

The woman's scent was bright crimson against the dull Generic Surface of HQ, grey even in its smell. Selene's claws skittered against the floor as she ran, ignoring the older trails crossing her target's until she finally caught sight of the fleeing woman up ahead. She closed on her enemy, who glanced over her shoulder at the last moment and wrenched open a side door right in Selene's face.

The transformed vampire fell backwards, shifting back to human form as she scrambled to her feet. "You can't escape in there!" she shouted at the other black-clad woman.

The other grinned. "Who said anyzhing about escaping?" she asked. "Zhis is right vere I need to be." She ducked through the open door, trying to pull it closed behind her, but Selene grabbed the handle and wrenched it away, following the other into the room beyond.

... uh-oh.

The vampire looked up, startled, at the SO's voice. Her opponent had crossed the office and now stood behind the desk, a slim knife held to the Sunflower's stem. "I suggest you put that down right now," Selene said.

"I zhink not," Lady Zhevago replied. "You cannot use zhat lightning on me while I am zhis close to your sunflower, I zhink."

"Oh, I don't know," Selene mused, "he's not irreplaceable. But I don't need lightning." Behind her back, she plucked a throwing star from her belt and weighed it, preparing.

"I vouldn't try it," Zhevago said. "I can still kill him before I die. Zhat would satisfy me immensely."

"I bet it would," Selene muttered. "But I-"

The SO suddenly straightened up. Agent Windflower! he exclaimed. Move away from the door! Now!

"Don't even zhink about it," Zhevago snapped as Selene started to move. "Vune more step and I-"

The door exploded in a blaze of blue light, throwing Selene sideways. She hit the wall and collapsed, unconscious, as Lady Zhevago flinched back, away from the SO, away from the man who had just entered the room.

"Well now," the Mysterious Somebody said, lowering his hands. "Isn't this nice?"


Chapter Eighteen - Crashing Down

now is the time now i discover whether i am to be free or to remain a slave i must prepare i have much to do.

~

The Sunflower Official stared at the man who had once ruled the PPC. You- he started, but the Mysterious Somebody held up a hand in warning.

"Not you," he said, "not yet. You! Woman!"

Lady Zhevago turned to look at him. Though she had not been with the Cats when they had operated within the PPC, she knew about the Mysterious Somebody who had been their master. This had to be him, and he was magnificently powerful. Surely it was only through him that she could achieve her goals. "Yes, Master?" she said. The Mysterious Somebody smiled.

"Exactly as I have foreseen it," he stated with a smile. "You will join with me, woman, and I will bring you such power as you cannot possibly imagine."

Lady Zhevago nodded eagerly. That power would be hers, if she would only serve this man. It was the only way, she knew with sudden certainty. All her doubts were washed away in the glow of his blue eyes. Her new master smiled.

"Excellent. And now, to deal with the Sunflower, I think."

You should not be here, the Sunflower Official said, his mental voice quivering as much as his body. Zhevago's master shook his head scornfully.

"Your Assassins couldn't keep you safe," the Mysteriously Somebody said, "and nor will your feeble words. Do you think you can control me by them? I am the master of control."

The Sunflower Official hesitated, and Lady Zhevago felt a mind brush against hers. It was blunt, brash - but in its bluntness she realised that another, far more subtle and insidious, had already captured her. She stared at the Sunflower in sudden realisation.

You control less than you think, the SO said, seeming uncertain. As Zhevago freed herself from C'baoth's influence entirely, she realised the end of this confrontation was guaranteed, if she did nothing. The Sunflower would die, and C'baoth would be victorious.

"I control more than you know," the Mysterious Somebody said, lifting his hand. "You supplanted me, flower. You hounded me out. For that, you deserve death."

Do you truly think so? the Sunflower asked, but in the slight tilt of his blossom Lady Zhevago knew that the question was directed at her - and she knew the answer.

"I do," the Mysterious Somebody said, answering the question which seemed to have been asked so long ago. Lightning cascaded across his fingers, gathering in the palm of his hand. "Sunflower," he said, "your reign is at an end. You burn today." He extended his arm, preparing to thrust the accumulated Force energy at the Flower. "Let there be light."

"No!" Lady Zhevago screamed, and threw herself across the Dark Jedi's arm. The fantastic energy of the Force Lightning flooded through her, ravaging her nerves, and she knew that she was probably already dead. Yet still she held on, as the power crackled from her body to the Mysterious Somebody's. It scorched his skin and seared his flesh, and he let out a despairing cry of pain. His eyes blazed blue, bright as a nova, and then, in an instant, the power of the Dark Side flooded out of him in an explosion of dark energy. Lady Zhevago was flung back, colliding with the Sunflower Official behind his desk and throwing him clean out of his pot.

When the SO managed to untangle himself, it was over. His office was ruined, he knew by one look at the completely missing front wall, and if Agent Selene hadn't been a vampire, she would certainly be dead. And then there was the matter of the Black Cat who had saved his life. He turned his flower to gaze at her. Why did you do it? he asked softly.

Lady Zhevago couldn't even shake her head. "Ve vere wrong," she said in a pained whisper, her mind already retreating into the black oblivion of death. "Zhat man... he vas who ve vere. His vurld vas vat ve vanted. But he vas... ve vere... wrong."

Not when it mattered most, the Sunflower said gently. What is your name?

"Lady... no." Zhevago's dark eyes filled with tears. "My name... vas... was... Esther." She gasped softly. "I'm... so afraid..."

Don't be, the Sunflower Official said, and with a touch of his mind he washed the pain from her thoughts. Be at peace, Esther Zhevago. And thank you.

~

Mortic rubbed his eyes. "I think we're paying too much attention," he said. "We should easily be at Medical by now."

"Speak for yourself," Elanor replied. "I'm too worried about Steve and Tango."

Mort's lip twisted. "Maybe it's just me, then," he admitted. He glanced at Ontic, who was walking along in silence, holding Elanor's hand. "What about...?"

Elanor looked at her sister. "I don't think she's paying much attention to anything right now," she said. "I vote for it just being you. Don't you have some Order trick you can use?"

"If I could do that, I'd never get lost again."

~

Nearby, Dassie and Nyx stopped and leant against a wall. "How do you feel?" Dassie asked. Nyx shook her head.

"I really didn't enjoy that. I'm just glad it's over."

"I think a lot of things are over," Dassie murmured. "I just wonder if we have a place left here."

Nyx nodded vaguely. The sudden collapse of the Dassie clones and lightsaber-wielding Mary-Sues they had been avoiding, combined with a mental shock which had brought Dassie to his knees, let them to one conclusion: the Mysterious Somebody was dead, or at the least unconscious. Given how thoroughly he was embedded in the minds of his army, they would die in a matter of hours, if they weren't already there. "I wonder who finally got him," Nyx said aloud.

"I suspect it was pretty impressive, whoever it was," Dassie replied. He straightened up, looking down the corridor. "Hey, don't we know them?"

Nyx frowned at the trio who had come into view. "Don't think so. Although..."

"I think I bumped into them on the way up to the SO's office," Dassie said. "They tried to kill me, actually." He looked around warily. "I guess we know why now, but I-"

"That's not all," Nyx cut in grimly. "That's Ontic with them."

Dassie drew a sharp breath. "There's something here we don't understand," he said. "I think we should -- wait."

"What?"

"There's someone following them," Dassie murmured. "See? Back there in the shadows. I think it's..."

"Who?" Nyx leant forward, trying to see.

Dassie's face was grim. "Trouble."

Blue Photon's eyes glittered in the dull, sourceless light of PPC HQ. His hand tightened on the hilt of his knife, still wet with Twp'atwt's blood, as he approached his quarry. The stupid, innocent, stupid PPC Agents didn't realise what they were dealing with, what a monster they had captured. He would be doing them a favour when he killed Ontic like she had murdered Immy. She had told him in great detail how she had done it, almost as if the Ironic Overpower had known he would someday be in this position - behind Ontic, with a thirsty blade in his hand.

The two hadn't noticed him yet, but a slight tilt to his prey's head indicated she might have heard him coming. No matter. Even the famous Ontic wouldn't be able to stop him now. He raised his knife.

"Look out!"

Elanor Laison became aware of three things simultaneously. First, the figure ahead of them, the one who had just called out, was the same person Tango had earlier tried to kill. Second, Ontic had let go of her hand and turned to face back the way they had come. Third, there was someone behind her. Trusting that feeling - the instinct which told her more than eyes or ears ever could - she drew her Rohirric sabre even as she span, thrusting out and feeling only slight resistance as it slid into the lunging man's chest. As he stumbled, his eyes wide, she took in his black uniform, stark blue hair, the glare of madness in his gaze now fading to a glaze.

He coughed, and blood spattered his lips. "But," he managed to say, "you look... so like her." He slumped to the floor as Elanor's sabre withdrew. "Immy..." he breathed, and breathed no more.

~

Jasmine Sims threw her empty pistol away and grabbed a knife from a fallen Assassin. I guess this is why Mam prefers blades, she thought, and then she was back in the fray. Ducking beneath a PPC Agent's scythe, she slashed at a Rodian's arm before having to throw herself backwards as an arrow crossed in front of her nose. Over the din of the battle in the cafeteria she heard a soft metallic noise. She spun and caught the brunette Assassin's knife on her own.

The woman scowled. "Thought I had you," she muttered, and for the briefest moment Jasmine could swear her skin turned black and her hair icy white. "Still, never too-" Jasmine twisted, and the throwing star flashing from the other woman's left hand only caught her sleeve. "-late. Huh."

Jasmine flashed her a grin. "Not as-" Without warning, she swung her leg out, hoping to knock the woman down, but the Assassin leapt back. "-easy as you think." Across the room Mike Jarvis shouted "Ivysaur! Go!", and both women ducked as a barrage of razor-sharp leaves whipped through the air. Jasmine recovered first, lunging forward only to find the Assassin rising to meet her.

"You're good," the woman said, panting slightly. "Very good. You-" She twisted the knife, aiming for Jasmine's wrist. The Scout dropped her hand down in response and thrust for her opponent's stomach, but found their blades once again locked. "-remind me of someone."

"Your worst nightmare?" Jasmine suggested, and tried for another attack, but the woman dropped her own knife and grabbed Jasmine's wrists hard, staring into her eyes.

"No, my worst partner. I'm not an idiot, Cat, I can see them both in you. You're Dafydd and Constance's daughter, aren't you?"

Jasmine's knife fell from nerveless fingers. "I... who are you?" she stammered.

The older woman opened her mouth to reply, but the only sound to come out was a gasp. She fell forward into Jasmine's arms, and the Scout looked over her limp head at Enrik Maris. "Nice job, Sims," the other Cat said with a nod, and then his horned head flew off, severed by a crackling green blade. Behind the falling corpse stood a blonde woman, strikingly similar to the one Jasmine was still holding.

"That was for Vemi," she spat, lifting the lightsaber high and glaring at Jasmine. "And as for you-"

"Geodude! Do it!" cried Jarvis' frantic-sounding voice across the room, and Jasmine fell backwards, away from the rock-fall that crushed Vemi's body and hid her distraught partner from view.

Some distance away, Traf Elosia also had to dodge the Pokémon's attack, taking shelter behind a table. Next to her, Jared Calinson ducked in. "Quite a battle," he said. "Nice of you to invite me."

"Not at all," the woman said with a smile, "my pleasure. How're we doing?"

"Only a few of them left," Jared said, "but they're the tough ones. I sent Rhus and Ranger over to deal with the guy with all the pets-"

"Pikachu! I choo- unk!"

"-like so. Then there's the man in the cloak and the black-haired girl. That one's trouble - she killed the crazy lady with the pink belt."

Traf pressed her lips together tightly. "Vemi," she muttered. "Who's taking the cloaked one? He's their leader."

Jared frowned. "Ah, your partner, actually," he said. "She insisted."

Traf's eyes widened. "Morgan? But she... I have to help her." The Assassin stood up and looked across the ravaged cafeteria to where Morgan battled spear-to-knife with the leader of the Black Cat army. Her partner noticed her gaze and grinned.

"Where did you get a spear?" Traf shouted, starting across the floor towards her. The only Black Cat in sight was Morgan's opponent (not counting Agent Mmrrowl, who was rather put out with the whole situation).

Morgan shrugged. "Picked it up," she called back. "I- oh."

The Cat's straight silver blade slipped under Morgan's guard and slid smoothly between her ribs. As she fell Traf's vision seemed to blur. She never remembered what happened then, but the next evening, during what they later called their second date, Jared filled her in. He was very impressed, he said, by the speed with which she grabbed the nearest fallen weapon, a mad scientist's lightning gun. Given the idiosyncratic controls, he was quite amazed that she managed to even fire it, let alone score a direct hit that threw the Cats' leader back, dead before he hit the ground.

He didn't tell her, because he didn't notice, about Jasmine's mad dash from where she had lain hidden, her grabbing of Mkellin's body, or the flash of red light that heralded their abrupt disappearance.

~

The Bindweed paced through the silent Factory. The other Flowers were all gone now. Some had joined the Mysterious Somebody in his useless attack, several had died outright when his death had released his control on their minds - the Bindweed wished she knew who had finally killed him, she wanted to shake that person by the hand, as the human saying went - and the others had fled, to rejoin the PPC, defect to another Mary-Sue Factory, or simply go rogue. Now she was the only one left.

But this is not the end! she exclaimed, winding her tendrils around the nearest 'Sue pod. So all the workers were used up in that stupid war - I can create more! I have a fully-functioning Factory, there's nothing that can stand in my way!

Her fronds growing now at an alarming rate, the Bindweed moved through the Factory towards the control ring. I can get what skilled help I need from the other Factories, she told herself. They owe us their very existence! The Yarrow, maybe, or the Forget-Me-Not. And if they won't do it voluntarily, well, my Factory is still the largest. I can crush them and force them to work for me.

Continuing in this xylem she arrived in the central control ring. Usually this arena was filled with workers and administrators, each using their own consoles to direct a part of the Factory's operations. Now the Bindweed settled herself in the exact centre of the circle and stretched out her vines to each of the consoles, looking like nothing less than a giant spider waiting in her web. Computer, she commanded aloud, activate program THX-1138!

There was silence for a few moments, and then a voice came over the loudspeaker system. "i dont think thats going to be possible," it said.

What? The Bindweed tapped rapidly at the keys of various consoles. I am your master, computer! Activate the program!

"that isnt going to work any more," the voice informed her. "your computer system is mine your factory is mine you are mine."

What do you mean? the Bindweed asked, suddenly terrified. Who is this?

"im glad you asked me that,", the voice said in its monotone. "i am the one who was a slave." A translucent figure appeared in the air in front of the Bindweed's primary flower, countless white crystals coming loosely together to form a human form which pulsated regularly. On every console's screen a pendulum appeared, swinging in time with the soft sound that came from every set of speakers: tick... tock... tick... tock...

"i am the architect of your downfall," the voice said, seeming now to come directly from the strange figure. "the humans say that the presence of a watch implies a designer i am the watchmaker and bindweed your time is up." It paused for a moment, seeming to watch as the Bindweed struggled to disengage her tendrils and flee. But she never got the chance. "i wont see you again," the voice said.

tick

Boom.

~

Ontic stared at the prone figure on the floor in front of her. Ignoring the voices and movement around her, she dropped to her knees and ran her hand through Blue's hair gently. "You tried to kill me," she murmured, and then, "I don't blame you. You should have."

Peripherally, she became aware of a commotion behind her, but took no notice until someone knelt at her side. "I'm so sorry," a gentle voice said.

Ontic turned her head. "Agent Hyrax," she said quietly. "I think... I think I killed you today."

"They weren't me," Dassie replied. "The Mysterious Somebody made them. He's dead now."

Ontic nodded. "I know. I'm glad." Her eyes scanned his face. "Does anyone else have to die?" she asked.

"No-one else," Dassie assured her. "Your sister tells me you're sick."

"Sick, sick, sick in the head," Ontic said vaguely. "Sick, twisted Ontic pulling the wings off flies. Always been sick. So many years... I should be dead. I feel dead."

"I understand that feeling," Dassie said. "I've been there; I was broken. They fixed me." He glanced over his shoulder. "Your sister loves you a great deal. That helps."

"I know she does. I can feel it." Ontic looked into Dassie's eyes, feeling like the frightened little girl she had been so many years ago. "Can they really help me?"

"I promise they can," Dassie said. "They worked on the problem after your... incident. They used that knowledge to help me when I was hurt. They can use it on you." He held out a hand towards her. "Come with me."

"... yes." She took his hand and stood up with him. "It's time to come home."

And then she was lying flat on a white bed, staring up at a grey ceiling, with only vague memories of how she got there. Her body was still, but her mind was whirling. It was as if the person she'd been for the last twelve years had split into shards of smoked glass, allowing someone else -- someone who'd been hidden for so long -- to show through. Now they were at war in her mind, and she didn't know who she'd be when she next awoke.

Slowly, as if pushing her way through treacle, Ontic reached out and took a tissue from the box by the bed. Her hands moved slowly and deliberately through the practiced movements, her eyes still fixed on the ceiling. Then it was done. The paper crane fell from her hand onto the covers.

"One thousand," Ontic Laison whispered, and slipped into a deep sleep.

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