Nyx Nightingale nodded slightly. "The Cats... you don't know what they've become, Sunflower Official."
I remember what they were, the SO replied. I remember the Agents who have vanished.
"Oh!" Kayleigh exclaimed, and the pair turned to look at her. She blushed. "Sorry. I just remembered that I should apologise to DAVD for saying that was their fault." Then she frowned. "And I need to remove the bomb, too."
... Agent Nightingale, the SO said, and when Nyx flinched, he corrected himself, Nyx. We drove you away. I, I sent you into the DIS with no backup. I shunned you when you returned. But now... we need you. The computer network is down, but now that I know who it is we face, I know that we cannot face them alone. He held his blossom steady, looking at her. Miss Nightingale... please. Help us.
Nyx looked at him. "You drove us away, as you said. Dassie was utterly unable to help himself... I had to do everything for him, Sunflower." Her eyes narrowed. "The best time we had was two years ago; we spent more than nine months safe and happy in the Star Wars 'verse." Her fists clenched unconsciously. "We lost so much when we left... we had a daughter, did you know that?" she snapped. "My beautiful Tia, and we had to leave her there, abandon her to the care of someone we barely knew."
The SO's petals folded inwards slightly, his stem slumping. What we did was unforgivable, he said quietly.
"Yes," Nyx replied grimly, "it was." Then she looked around the room. "And yet... and yet. These Agents here had no part in that, even those who had good reason to hate me." She glanced at Penny. "I remember that day in the cafeteria, you know."
"So do I," the Assassin said quietly, ignoring her partner's curious look. "But I know the enemy now, and they are not you."
Nyx closed her eyes. "So much history. So many hurts. But they are history." Looking again at the SO, she took a deep breath. "Sunflower Official..." She bit her lip, shook her head sharply.
Nyx, the Sunflower said gently, you've been running for a long time. There... there was a time when you had a home here. He raised a leaf above the desk, holding it in her direction. Will you come back, Nyx? This is our most desperate hour. Will you lead us? You are our only hope of victory. He tilted his bloom slightly towards her. In spite of all that was done to you...
"In memory of the things that were," Nyx replied quietly, and lifted her head to fix her gaze on him. "For the love of Canon... against the atrocities of the Black Cats... for all the futures of all the worlds, yes, Sunflower Official, I will join you." She looked around the room. "And if the Protectors will follow, I will lead."
"We'll follow," Penny said quickly, and at her side Vemi nodded.
"These Cats are a menace to everyone," the brunette said, and she seemed almost to glow as she drew her long knife, flipped it, and held it out blade-first to Nyx. "If you need it, you have my blade," she said, ignoring Penny's gasp.
Nyx smiled, and in a single quick movement pulled her gladius from her belt and held it out for all to see. "I have my own sword," she said, and then pointed it at Morgan and Traf. "What about you?" she asked. "Will you listen to an exile's orders?"
Traf Elosia smiled. "I remember your Dassie," she said. "I recruited him. I know who he is, and I know that he would only love someone who is worthy of it. I'll follow you, Agent Nightingale."
"As will I," Morgan declared. "You remind me of a man I once knew... a great man. Anyone who is like him has my loyalty any day."
"I'm with you, too!" Kayleigh piped up from the doorway, and Nyx smiled to see that her mace had once again appeared from nowhere. The former Assassin turned to look at her Head of Department.
You were born to be a leader, the SO said firmly. You would have ruled Ukraine had you remained there. But... I, for one, am glad we recruited you.
"And so am I," Nyx said decisively. Sheathing her sword, she nodded. "All right, ladies and foliage, let's see what we can do about this little infestation you've got."
Weed-23 let out a small mental sigh. When she'd agreed to go on patrol with Agent Kyaris from Intelligence, she hadn't realised the Hydra was so... well, chatty.
"It's not often I get outside in my own form," she was saying, her three heads swinging around constantly to take everything in. "People have a distressing habit of trying to kill me, and I like my heads. So this is quite a treat, really. Not that it's not tragic what's happening in HQ," she added hurriedly, glancing at the third member of the scout group.
Charlotte Hust, DIA, smiled thinly, rubbing the still-healing wound on her cheek. "I understand," she said. "But, much as you're enjoying the view, could you do your job, too? There's two Flowers coming towards us from the west."
Weed-23 span around, seeds flying from her head as she focussed on the casually-announced intruders. Kyaris' response was even more immediate; spreading her heads wide, she turned them all on the approaching Plants, the wide spacing giving her an absolute three-dimensional fix on their position, ready to strike. Charlotte, in contrast, calmly drew her sidearm and aimed it at the nearer of the two.
Declare yourselves and your intent, Weed-23 called, and then ducked behind Kyaris, uncomfortably aware that she was the only unarmed member of the team.
One of the approaching pair, the one with a large purple primary blossom, touched the reed-like Plant next to her on a leaf. The Gladiolus stopped, her companion coming forward a few more feet first. I really hope you're with the PPC, the Nightshade said, her blossom visibly drooping. We need to speak to someone in charge. The situation has become much more complicated.
"... and when I woke up, Kayleigh was there," Salamander said. "That was about it. Dassie and Nyx brought us back here, and Dassie took me down to Medical. We were on our way up to see the SO when you and that other lot showed up."
Narto nodded thoughtfully. 'That other lot' had included Tango Dioxide, one of the two people who had accompanied his sister to the PPC so many years ago. He'd actually wanted to talk to her, but there had been no chance -- the quartet had set off again towards whatever their destination was, leaving him and Selene to look after Salamander.
"I've never been fond of felines," Selene said with a grimace, "but that sort of torture... how could anyone who's ever been in the PPC do that to anyone? Other than a 'Sue, obviously."
"The worst part is," Salamander said, "I think they thought they were being kind. After all, they left me alive, didn't they?" He laughed a hollow laugh. "If Dassie hadn't tripped over my leg, I'd probably be spider-bait by now."
"I can't imagine being blind," Narto said sympathetically. "It must be awful..."
"It's not so bad now," Salamander replied with a shrug. "My hearing's been getting better, and I've got my balance back. But no, it's not exactly pleasant."
The orange-haired Pyro frowned. "Can't Medical-" He was cut off by a woman in what seemed to be mostly black lace pushing past him.
"So sorry," she said, "I vas just trying to... oh."
Selene swung around at the sound of the newcomer's voice, even as Narto scrabbled backwards. "You!" the vampire exclaimed, and thrust a hand in Lady Zhevago's direction. A flurry of lightning sprung from the ceiling as Selene's eyes burned red, but Zhevago threw herself to the side and avoided injury. Then she was up and running, easily evading the next electrical storm. Selene bared her teeth and started running herself. Narto jumped to his feet and headed after her.
"Look after Sal!" the vampire called over her shoulder. "I'll handle this!" For a second her body seemed to flow like water, and then in her place stood a large black wolf which leapt after the fleeing Black Cat. Narto slowed to a stop, watching her go, and then shrugged and walked back to Salamander.
"I guess that explains her dislike of cats," he commented idly. "I wonder how she got on with the Great Goddess. Her old partner was Bast's High Priest, you know."
Salamander tilted his head curiously. "I have no idea what you're talking about," the blind Slasher said, "but it sounds fascinating. Keep talking."
The Tiger Lily and Sub Rosa stood on either side of Captain Dandy, watching the two Flowers in front of them intently. So, Dandy said, Nightshade, Gladiolus. It has been a very long time.
The Nightshade nodded her bloom slightly. We've not seen you since the Cascade, Captain, she said in a subdued tone. But even the Sub Rosa... seven years is a long time.
Enough time for change to take place? the Sub Rosa asked. You were the Mysterious Somebody's closest advisor, and you, Gladiolus, you went with him when he left. Why should we trust you in the slightest?
The Nightshade's petals folded in slightly. I was his secretary, she said. Do you know what that word used to mean? Secretary. I knew the Mys- C'baoth's secrets. And the things I saw... I could not countenance what he did to Agent Dassie. That's when the Orchid and I started working against him. We're the reason he didn't flood HQ with Warrior!Sues as soon as you kicked him out.
And where is the Orchid? the Tiger Lily asked nastily. All this talk, but the Flower herself is -
Dead, the Gladiolus interrupted flatly. The Mysterious Somebody killed her. We tried to overthrow him.
... oh, you poor fools, the Sub Rosa said sadly. You would never be able to defeat that man. Only someone he trusts completely could do that, and you, Gladiolus, you had far too much to gain by his death for him to allow that.
Then you may as well give up now, the Nightshade snapped. You'll never drive him out of HQ if-
HQ? the Tiger Lily exclaimed. He's inside Headquarters? She rounded on Captain Dandy. You were supposed to prevent that!
The doors were all sealed, the Dandelion said with maddening calm, but they are hardly indestructible. I can only imagine he broke on of them down.
You should have left them guarded! the Tiger Lily shouted. This should never have been allowed to happen!
And who's going to guard them? Dandy retorted, his calm demeanour shattered. Do you know how many Agents I have? One hundred and seven! And with that you want me to guard every single door into HQ?
You will both calm down, the Sub Rosa said forcefully, or I will have Agent Architeuthis take you both somewhere until you do. You don't want to underestimate her. She looked between the two until the Tiger Lily folded her petals in acquiescence, and Dandy bowed his bloom. Thank you. Now, Nightshade, Gladiolus... are you on our side now?
The Nightshade glanced at her companion and then nodded. We are, she said. I've been outside far too long. If you'll take us, we'll join the PPC again.
Good, the Rose said, and leant forward onto the desk between her and them. Now, let's run over what C'baoth has on hand, and see if we can't figure out how to smash him into a million pieces.
Nyx leant over the SO's console, frowning. "Why someone in the PPC would so completely abandon punctuation is beyond me," she muttered. Then she glanced over her shoulder at the Sunflower. "Boss, don't you ever read these messages?"
Oh, I never read anything on the computer, the Flower told her. It's usually Agents whining or threatening me, not worth it.
"Well, this isn't," Nyx said grimly, pressing a button to project her view onto the wall of the office. "From the look of it, someone out there is sending you reports from, well, all over the place. Wherever the Cats are, she's watching." Carefully manipulating the touch screen, she brought up a two-dimensional projection of the map of HQ, then moved the text of the messages around, seemingly at random.
"I like that," Kayleigh said. "It's pretty. Ooh!" She pointed at a space near the bottom of the screen. "Put one down there!" Nyx shook her head distractedly, still working.
After a few moments more she straightened up. "All right. It's very approximate, but this is roughly where the reports are coming from. Kay, this one is where we were attacked." She tapped a fractured red line. "Penny, I think this is the path you followed. There's a few reports along the way, they seem to match your description." She frowned again. "I don't know, there's something about our informer... she seems to be everywhere."
That is the value of portal technology, the Sunflower Official said calmly. Perhaps you have forgotten?
"It's not right," Nyx insisted. "But whoever they are, they can't be watching us in here. They couldn't know who was in here, so the fact that I've managed to place those particular events means it's probably accurate information. Which means... well, look. There's a space here with no reports coming from it. What's in there?"
"Some very lucky Agents?" Traf suggested. Nyx shook her head.
"No. I think it's their base of operations. It's so secure that even our spy can't get inside."
Then we are in a great deal of trouble, the SO announced. That space you've outlined corresponds almost exactly to the Department of Internal Affairs' headquarters. They are our primary defence against attack.
Nyx smiled grimly. "Not any more they aren't. Right now, we are the biggest threat to the Cats." She glanced at the screen again. "Well, almost. There's a couple of reports of fighting down near Finance - the Large Auditorium, the Mongoose Shelter, the Miss Cam Courtyard - so I think one of the other Departments is mobilising."
"It could be DAVD," Kayleigh suggested. "They're down there." The others looked at her, and she shrugged. "I still think they're evil, all right? So I know where they lurk."
"... all right, it could be DAVD," Nyx agreed. "But whoever they are, they're not a threat. The threat is the main force of Cats, which is probably in this empty area - DIA Central." She looked over at Penny. "And that's where the groups we all encountered ended up."
"Then we have to go and get them," Vemi said, drawing a dagger and tossing it from hand to hand. "They're a danger, and we should take them out."
Nyx pursed her lips. "They're a significant danger," she said. "There's only six of us here, and I need stay and coordinate here. Kayleigh is... um, I'd like to keep her nearby, too."
"She likes me," Kayleigh said seriously. Nyx coughed.
"So there's four of you. There were twenty or so of them, by the reports. You'll need reinforcements."
"Well, we know a few people," Morgan said, straightening up. "We can... let me look at that map?" She walked across as Nyx cleared away the reports, marking the target with a red cross. "Right, we can head through the main body of DMS Response Centres as we go," she said, rapidly tracing with her finger a bewildering path that occasionally skipped from one side of the map to the other. "We should be able to pick up a decent sized force. Not everyone will be willing, but we can do it."
Nyx nodded slowly. "All right," she decided. "I... be careful, all right? I don't want to lose anyone this time."
Morgan smiled at her. "We'll do our best."
Flickerbright hovered over her console, occasionally flitting back and fourth in a sort of nervous twitch. "They're taking far too long," she complained.
"Twp knows what he's doing," Nendil told her calmly. "He's perfectly competent." There was a snort from across the room, and the elf turned in his seat. "Do you have a comment, Sims?" he asked mildly.
Jasmine Sims blushed and ducked her head. "No, sir," she said, "sorry, sir." From the cushions next to her, Mkellin laughed weakly.
"So polite," he murmured. "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
Jasmine looked down at him and shook her head gently. "Maybe someday I'll tell you," she said. Kell smiled up at her.
"I'd like that, I think."
"Oh, good grief," Flickerbright broke in. "Would you two just stop-!"
There was a burst of blue light, and a black-clad figure fell out of nowhere onto the floor. The Cats scrambled for their weapons - all except Ontic, who instead muttered, "Nine hundred and fifty-three," and picked up a new sheet of paper - but then Kell held up a hand.
"Wait," the Scout-master said, sitting up with some help from Jasmine. "Isn't that... Caraway, isn't it? From Parma Division?"
The figure didn't move for a moment, and then lifted its head. A gasp rippled through the room as the Cats saw the scorched, scarred face, so unlike the youthful flamer Caraway. The woman looked at them through one blurry eye, the other apparently unable to open. She coughed, and blood spattered the grey floor. "Too many," she said, her voice harsh. "Tjan is dead. Twp is gone. I..." She coughed again, a sharp, grating sound which spoke of lungs too ravaged to keep her going.
"Who was it?" Nendil asked, leaving his seat to cross to her side. "Caraway, who did this? The Agents?" He touched her hair in an oddly tender gesture, smoothing it over the patches of skin where it had been torn away.
"A... gents?" Caraway shook her head very slightly. "Not them. I don't..." She shuddered, one hand curling into a fist before relaxing again.
"Caraway, we need to know," Nendil Morifëa said gently. "Who was it?"
The Black Cat looked up at him through pain streaked eyes. "C'baoth is here," she whispered, then let out a little sigh and slumped against the floor.
Nendil stood up, abandoning the body where it lay. "C'baoth," he said into the silence. "The Mysterious Somebody. Our one-time ally. He did this to one of our Agents - by the sound of it, to the whole of Parma Division. The PPC haven't been able to do much more than wound our scouts, but the MS took out a significant portion of our force. He is the main threat to us now."
"And who's going to deal with him?" Jasmine spoke up. "Parma is gone, our division is a mess, and I don't even know where Tinco and Calma are."
"Leave the planning to the grown-ups, girl," Flickerbright snapped, and then turned to Nendil. "We can have Tinco and Calma meet us before we reach him," she suggested. "Zhevago's incommunicado, but you have the authority to call her division in. We know he's near Finance, we can find him from there. Let's nip this threat in the bud and get on with taking down the PPC."
Nendil considered this for a moment, and then looked across at the bulk of the Bracket Fungus. "It seems like a good idea, sir," he said.
Hmm? The Fungus stirred, propping himself up. Oh... yes, I concur. We must face this threat directly.
Nendil frowned. "We, sir? You know you're... um." He stopped. There wasn't really a polite way to refer to the fact that the Bracket Fungus was particularly prone to decay. He wasn't even from the first generation of Plants, but he was already slipping into senility. A few more years, and Nendil would likely have to take direct control of the Cats... but time enough for that later. "Wouldn't you be better in an organisational position, sir?" he rephrased his remark.
Not at all, the Fungus said. The Mysterious Somebody is a very serious threat, and I intend to be there when he falls. Come, Cats, let us away. Dropping down from his perch on the desk, he headed for the door.
Nendil looked after him with a concerned expression, but said, "All right, you heard the boss. Flicks, you contact the two divisions and give them a rendezvous point. Everyone else, with me."
"Nine hundred and ninety nine," Ontic said loudly, and looked around. Her face fell into a pout. "Aww, no more paper." She scanned the room for a few moments more, then shrugged, stood up, and walked over to Nendil, crushing some of the hundreds of paper cranes that surrounded her former perch. "So," she said, drawing her sword and grinning at the elf, "what are we going to kill?"
The Mysterious Somebody stood in front of his army and examined them. Some had been injured, many - despite their obvious superiority - had been slain and now littered the route they had taken, but that was all right. Through his controlling link the MS could feel the beginnings of fear or doubt and ruthlessly crush them. That was the true nature of power, of course - to hold a person's soul in the cusp of your hand, even one of these crude imitations.
At an unspoken command one of his lieutenants stepped forward. C'baoth smiled at the sight of the dark-haired young man - it had been a stroke of genius to pattern the leaders of his army after who he did, he had to admit. "Eleven thirty-eight," he said, "I am leaving you in command of my forces."
The clone's eyes widened imperceptibly, showing the trace of individuality his master still allowed him and his kind, but he did not dare to argue. "Yes, Lord," he said, bowing his head. "Have you instructions for us?"
The Mysterious Somebody shrugged, his silver hair falling around his shoulders. "Simply continue as before," he said. "None can stand before you. If the attrition rate becomes too high, contact the Bindweed on my authority and she will send a second batch." The Jedi Master looked over his army once more and smiled thinly. "I will be watching you," he said, and strode away.
Thirty-eight watched his Master go, feeling the touch on his mind grow slightly fainter before stabilising, and then turned to his new army. "All right," he said, "we need to move on. This corridor hampers our efficiency. We must-"
The hallway at his back vanished, replaced by a barrier of blue light that stretched from wall to wall. Thirty-eight span around and stared in horror as a reptilian beast, a four-headed fiend, pushed through to stand in front of him. His shock lasted only a moment before he grabbed a lightsaber from the nearest Mary Sue and struck. One of the creature's heads tumbled to the floor, neatly severed, and as it hissed in pain Thirty-eight felt a surge of triumph. Then two of the other heads swung round and grabbed his arms, teeth breaking his skin, and in dismay he watched the stump bulge and regrow, two heads where there had been one. The nearer of the two turned on him. "That hurt," it growled, and lunged.
Kyaris dropped the tatters that had been a mockery of human life and spread her heads wide. To her left, three figures stepped (or in one case, moved indefinably) through the portal into HQ. "I knew we kept you around for a reason," Architeuthis said approvingly.
Dúros Black surveyed the shocked Factory army. "That's a lot of 'Sues, you know," he commented.
Weed-One's petals spread, then folded in. All the better, he said with an air of grim satisfaction. I always liked target-rich environments. Lifting a silver communicator to his blossom, he pressed a switch. Captain, Sub Rosa, Tiger Lily - we're in. Send them through.
The Black Cats moved swiftly through HQ, more than two hundred strong now. As they began to hear the sounds of battle ahead, Nendil held up a hand and stopped. The Cats halted in orderly fashion behind him, and he turned to Mkellin, who was just about able to support himself, and was eying the group with an even more grim expression than usual. "You're not up to this," he said flatly.
The Scout Master shook his head. "It's not our forte at the best of times," he said, with a sideways look, "and with my division so injured... no, we're not. And... no."
Nendil nodded. "Hang back," he advised. "Guard our retreat. With C'baoth in Headquarters we don't know what we'll face."
Mkellin nodded, and with an effort stood up straight. "Bracket Fungus, sir," he announced, "my Scouts will put aside our desire to revenge ourselves on the PPC and remain here. Should anything go wrong-"
Nothing will go wrong, the Fungus said sternly. Nothing can. Beside him, Ontic giggled, high-pitched.
"It's all coming together," she declared. "The white and the black and the grey, all rushing at one another. And two will fall..." She laughed, and started chanting: "When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back, three from-"
Agent Laison! the Bracket Fungus snapped, and she stared at him in shocked silence. We will have no more of that! We are here, and he turned to address the Cats as a whole, to rain destruction on our enemies, the so-called Protectors. If any of you are unwilling to fight, I will have no further part of you. If any of you oppose me, I will have you cut down without hesitation. Is that understood? he asked, turning to Mkellin.
The Scout's eyes narrowed. "Perfectly," he said coldly. "You, sir, are completely insane. I joined the PPC to fight against Chaos and preserve the worlds. I joined the Black Cats because I could see how corrupt the PPC was becoming, and knew it needed cleansing. But now I see the corruption was not in them - it was in you." He spat on the generic surface floor. "You are rotten, you creature of Chaos, and from this moment I sever all ties with you. Scouts!" he called, turning away from the shocked leaders of the Black Cats. "We're leaving! Sims, you lead us out of here, I'll guard the rear." He smiled thinly. "Just in case anyone gets any ideas."
"Got it, Kell," Jasmine called back. "All right, guys and gals, you heard the boss. Ordered retreat, as fast as you can. Follow me!"
As the Scout Division moved swiftly back in the direction they'd come, Mkellin turned back to the Bracket Fungus and bowed low. "You will fall," he said. "I only hope they let you linger." Then he was gone, vanishing into the shadows that plague even HQ.
There was a loud banging on the SO's office door. Nyx frowned. "They can't be coming back already, surely."
Doubtless it is one of my Assassins come to remonstrate with me, the Sunflower said dryly. Agent Leonard, if you would be so kind.
"I am kind!" Kayleigh said brightly. There was a long moment of silence.
"... I think he wants you to open the door, Kayleigh," Nyx said. Kayleigh's eyes widened.
"Ohhh! Well, why didn't he say so?" Walking over, she pulled the grey door open. "Hi! The SO is busy right now, but if you'd like to- hey!" The tousle-haired figure on the other side had lunged with his sword, slicing through the side of the Slasher's shirt. Kayleigh swung her mace at his head, but he ducked and struck at her again, only to crumple to the floor as the heavy weapon switched direction in mid-swing and crushed his skull. The whole fight had taken less than a second, and only after it was over did Nyx have time to react to her horrified recognition.
Kayleigh looked up, mace gone again, lips pressed tightly together. "That wasn't Dassie," she said grimly.
Nyx's sword was out and levelled at the woman's throat in a flash. "You killed him!" she shouted hysterically. "All these years and you-- die!"
Kayleigh threw herself backwards, avoiding the thrust. "Fine!" she called. "If you won't listen to me, listen to him!" With an outflung arm she indicated the slightly breathless man standing to one side of the door.
Nyx turned and stared. Her gladius dropped from suddenly limp fingers. "D... Dassie?"
Dassie Hyrax waved slightly. "Hi, Nyx," he said, and then, "Oof!" as Nyx flung herself at him and clung.
"You're alive! But..." The dark-haired woman glanced back at the bleeding body. "... okay." She closed her eyes for a moment, steadied her breathing. "Dassie-love, what's going on?"
"The Mysterious Somebody," the man replied. "He's brought an army from, well, wherever he went to. An army of Mary-Sues."
The Mary-Sue Factory, the Sunflower Official supplied. We've long suspected him of taking over that facility, and this is just the time he would make his move.
Dassie looked past the still-clinging Nyx. "Hi, sir," he said. "It's been a long time."
Far too long, the SO agreed. But don't stand around in the corridor, Agen-- I mean, Dassie. Won't you come in?
When the three humans had reentered the office, shutting the corpse outside, Dassie squeezed Nyx's hand reassuringly and went on. "So this army of his... it's massive, Nyx. He's cutting through Black Cats and Agents alike."
"We may need to adjust our plans, then," Nyx said with a frown. "But I don't see how this explains... oh, no." She stared at her lover. "The Mysterious Somebody. No, Dassie..."
"'fraid so," Dassie said. "One of the last things he did to me back then, he took a blood sample. And he's a clone himself. I should have expected this." He sighed. "Magic," he murmured, and then shook his head and laughed softly.
Nyx looked over her shoulder at the now closed door and swallowed. "But this means... how will we know which one is really you?" she asked.
Dassie smiled, reached out, ruffled her hair. "I guess you'll have to keep me in sight at all times," he said. Then he looked her straight in the eyes. "And then kill them all."
Steve stuck his head round the corner and immediately pulled it back, a thoughtful look on his face. "What?" Elanor asked. "What did you see?"
Steve looked across at her. "At the end of the corridor there's a giant Tumbleweed fighting a woman with a pink lightsaber," he said, looking puzzled. "Doesn't sound much like the Black Cats to me."
Tango's lips tightened. "The Mary-Sue Factory," she surmised. "I would have thought you'd have destroyed it."
"We didn't even know where it was," Mortic said irritably. "I was in on some of the SO's councils about the issue. He did believe you and Blue, you know - afterwards, I mean." He shook his head. "We spent a long time hunting for it, until the number of Agents we were losing got too great."
Tango sighed. "Well, somebody knew where it was," she said, and then looked back at Steve. "Any sign of the Cats?"
"Nothing," the man informed her. "There's only..." He peered round again, then blinked. "Okay, now there's a little fairy sprinkling dust over the two of them. Am I seeing things?"
"Let me look." Tango nudged him out of the way and glanced at the fight herself. When she turned back to the groups she was frowning. "Flickerbright," she said. "She and her fairies have poison dust. We have to be careful."
"And she's a Black Cat?" Elanor asked. Tango nodded. "Then let's stop hanging around here. We have to rescue Ontic." She shot a look at Steve for reassurance, and he smiled.
"She's been lost a very long time. Let's not drag it out any longer."
At the end of the corridor they passed the prone body of the 'Sue, glitter bleeding from dozens of small wounds, her face swollen and agonized. Of the fairy and the Tumbleweed there was no sign. Around the next corner was all-out war.
Outside the Tomb of the Unknown PPC Agent, formerly DIS Central, the Black Cats had met their foes, and the result was a three-way melee unlike any other. At one end of the wide corridor Joel Weaver was being ruthlessly assailed by the Hust twins, while at the other Architeuthis held her own against three redheaded 'Sues. Many had already fallen - rubble was all that remained of the troll Erratic, and a pair of broken Dandelions lay against the wall next to one of the three hydra heads severed from Kyaris. At the heart of the battle, where the fighting was thickest, the leaders of the three sides flung themselves relentlessly at one another. Above it all the fairies of Tinco Division hovered, waiting for their opportunity. None of this was what occupied the quartet's attention.
Staring in shock, Steve said quietly, "Tango, do you...?"
"I see it," Tango replied in a stunned tone. "That Cat we ran into..."
"Why would there be so many clones of him?" Mortic asked wonderingly. Elanor, her eyes following the action, shook her head.
"It's not right. They're not with the Cats, look." She frowned. "If anything, they're fighting alongside the 'Sues."
Tango grimaced. "I don't care how evil he is," she said, "it must be awful to have that done to you. And I can't imagine what his colleagues think."
"There she is," Mortic cut in tensely, pointing. In the thick of the battle, under attack by two Dassie clones and Agent Irvine of the DIA, her face locked in a grim expression, was Ontic. Her blades whirled with impossible speed, directed with skill bordering on the supernatural straight to the gaps in her foes' defences. The clones fell, heads severed, and Irvine would have followed suit had he not leapt back to safety, allowing a 'Sue and a DES Wild Rose to take his place.
Tango shook her head slowly. "That woman... you want to rescue her?"
"Yes," Elanor snapped. "She is our sister, Tango. Do you expect us to just abandon her? Would you abandon a relative, a friend, to the DIS?"
Tango flinched visibly. "I... oh, stars." She bit her lip hard, and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I didn't... look, just forget it." Blinking rapidly, she looked back at the fight. "How can we do it?"
The plan, as it turned out, was absurdly simple, but relied heavily on a stroke of luck. Cutting down the Wild Rose, Ontic found herself in a free space and looked around, eyes narrowed, sword and dagger dripping with blood. The nearest enemies were all engaged by other Black Cats, who seemed to be handling things (although she noted absently that Weaver from Calma had been rather messily killed), but further away from the centre of the battle there were others. She made her way through the press, slicing the head off a Dassie clone absently, and made for a pair of 'Sues.
That was about the time a vision from her past stepped out in front of her and spoke her name. Ontic Laison froze solid.
"Elanor--!" Tango dashed out and grabbed the woman's shoulder, bringing her sword up in front of them. "She's dangerous, whoever she is! You can't just--"
"Apparently I can," Elanor said calmly. "Hello, Ontic."
"... E... El... Elanor?" The dark-haired woman's voice was weak, broken.
"Yes, Ontic," Elanor confirmed gently. "It's been a long time."
"A long... no!" Ontic's sword came up sharply, and Tango took a rapid step back before realising Elanor hadn't moved. "You can't be here! It's a lie!"
"I'm here," Elanor repeated. "It's true. I've come to get you."
"Can't be," Ontic mumbled, her sword dropping from her fingers. "I saw, but no they said, then they said you were, but that can't be true, but they can't have lied, can't have." She was staring at her sister, but there was no comprehension in her eyes. "They wouldn't lie. I'd know if they'd lied. Wouldn't I know? I'd know. I'd have to know."
Carefully, gesturing to Mortic to stay out of sight, Steve stepped into Ontic's field of view. "It's us, Ontic," he said carefully. "We've come to take you home."
"Home... home?" The woman -- the girl who had never grown up -- stared at her family. "I... home. I."
"Home," Elanor repeated softly, and held out a hand. "Come with us, Ontic. Come home."
Ontic stretched out over what felt like a million years and took the blonde's hand. Once she had it, she felt she could never let go. Everything she was seemed to be focussed in that one soft palm, such that she barely felt her legs start to walk, and when there was a cry of rage behind her, she didn't even blink.
The others did. As Nendil Morifëa of the Black Cats hurtled towards the fleeing PPCers and their rescued captive, Tango and Steve both swung their swords up to intercept him. The elf passed wide of Steve's effort, but had to stop short in front of Tango. His own lethal blade came out and he swung angrily at the redhead. Steel crashed against blackened steel, and Tango staggered back under the impact.
"Go!" the woman called over her shoulder. "I'll hold him off!"
"But..." Steve looked between her and Ontic, agony in his eyes. "Tango...!"
Nendil's sword flashed down again, clashing against Tango's. "Go, Steve!" she shouted again, and then turned to the elf, blocking his next strike. "You ruined my life, Nendil," she growled.
"You ruined your own life, Dioxide," Nendil replied. "We gave you every opportunity to succeed, and how did you repay us? You murdered two Agents."
"Your pawn tried to kill me!" Tango lunged, but Nendil ducked to the side and swung his own weapon, catching her left arm with the point of his blade. He grinned.
"First blood, Dioxide. You Assassins were never up to our standard."
Tango's eyes narrowed. Ignoring the pain in her arm, she launched into a bewilderingly fast offensive that pushed Nendil back towards the battle that still raged outside the Tomb of the Unknown PPC Agent. Her sword was a silver blur, expertly countered at every point by Nendil's dark blade. Nendil grimaced. "You've been practicing," he accused. The redhead grinned ferally.
"I've spent seven years watching you, Blackheart. I've hunted your scouts, I've stolen your equipment, and I have waited for a chance like this." Her sword twisted in mid-stroke, rolling over Nendil's and slashing into his left shoulder. The silver sash split and fell away, and Tango nodded. "Now we're even," she told him, and stepped forward, crushing the badge under her heel as she drove her adversary back.
"You'll never be my equal," Nendil snarled, and lunged. Tango's blade, already falling, slashed down his arm, but he ignored it in favour of landing his own blow.
Tango Dioxide limped backwards, biting back a scream at the sharp pain in her hip. Nendil stood, watching her, blood dripping from his sword. "You are a complete-"
"The word you want is winner," Nendil said calmly, and began his attack anew. Now it was Tango who was driven backwards, limping on one dislocated leg. She kept up her defence as best she could, but more and more of Nendil's jabbing strikes got through. She could feel her trousers growing heavier, soaking through with her own blood, and knew she only had a few minutes left.
Then there was a flash of silver and suddenly Steve was there, his sword blocking Nendil's, his body between the two of them. "No you don't," the Agent snapped, slashing past the surprised elf's guard and battering his wrist. Nendil's sword flew from his hand, and Steve smirked. "Call yourself a fighter?" he asked.
Nendil looked after his sword for a moment, and then shrugged. Whipping a dagger from an unseen sheath, the Black Cat threw himself forward, the knife aimed perfectly at Steve's heart. There was a sickening crunch, and the body fell to the floor.
Breathing hard, Tango looked down at Nendil. "Not a chance," she said, and plunged her bloody sword through the centre of his back. The elf gasped once, his hands clawing at her leg, and then was still. Pulling her blade out, Tango turned to look at Steve. "Well?"
The stunned Agent blinked. "Um... thank you?" he said. "I really thought he'd got me there."
"Not that," Tango said irritably. "What are you doing back here, Steve? I told you to go."
"I did go," Steve said indignantly. "I went halfway down to Medical with El and Mortic before I realised what I was doing."
"Getting your sister to safety?" Tango said snidely, and then staggered as the blood loss kicked in. Instead of the floor, though, she found herself hitting a warm body, and Steve's arms closed around her, supporting her.
"No," Steve Dimond said, holding her close. "I was abandoning a very good friend - a woman I rather think I love."
Tango clung to him and wept, wept at the pain from her wounds, at the horror of having killed someone, and at the joy of finally being home.
"It's all junk!" Kayleigh exclaimed. "I have to save Toby!" Leaping from her seated position against the wall, she threw the office door back and ran out into HQ.
Nyx looked at the open door, at the SO, and then back at Dassie. "Translation?"
Dassie shrugged. "She didn't like my abandoning him, so she's gone to find Salamander?"
It appears Agent Leonard has watched Labyrinth a few too many times, the Sunflower put in. Nyx blinked, then turned and stared at him.
"I'm sorry... what?"
Labyrinth, the Flower repeated patiently. It's a movie from some time ago, starring-
"Yes, we went to the premiere a couple of times," Nyx said vaguely. "How do you know about it?"
... ah. The Sunflower had the decency to look embarrassed. We've had a couple of... incidents. Best forgotten.
"Ah, well," Dassie said, nodding sagely, "no one can blame you for walking away."
... please do not do that.
"Don't tell me," Nyx put in. "Truth hurts?"
It hurts like... no. The SO's petals fluttered. We have a serious situation on our leaves, Nyx. This is no time for jokes. The Bracket Fungus and the Mysterious Somebody are wreaking havoc in the halls of HQ, and they must be stopped.
"You're right, sir," Nyx agreed. She took a deep breath. "The best way to do that is directly." She glanced at Dassie. "I know we said--"
"And we're sticking to that," Dassie interrupted. "I know what you're planning, love. I'm coming with you."
"... thank you." Nyx looked over at the SO. "You need to coordinate the PPC's efforts. It sounds like there's a couple of counter-attacks on already, but once we've taken out the leaders, they should be much more effective."
"Especially against the Factory clones," Dassie agreed. "I know the MS. He's got his army mind-controlled completely, I guarantee it. Take him out, they'll all go down."
All right, the Sunflower Official agreed. If any of my agents get in touch with me, I shall send them down to the battle. And...after all this is over... I will see you again.
"Count on it," Nyx said. "We'll be there..." She grinned and went on. "... for you... as the world falls down!"