Chapter 21: The Ballad of Billy the Kid

Samael leaned against a thick tree with a scowl, pulling his woolly poncho tighter around his stocky form to try and keep some of the biting wind at bay. He was on the last day of the journey but he still wished he'd been a little less eager in volunteering to undertake his maturity quest. Or at least waited for the goddamn blizzard to pass.

The young chupadore frowned and stared in the direction of his pack's den. It wasn't like the snowstorm had made it so he couldn't clear his mind...but here he was, expected to return in twelve hours or so with a plan for his future, and he still couldn't even describe a vague map of his vision. He yearned to travel, to get away from the sheltered safety of his tribe's homestead, that was what he wanted. He just didn't know how, or why, and he could already see the disapproving faces of the council.

...Not that it would matter if all he wanted to do was leave, anyway. Why did he care so much about 'the rules' of this stupid ritual? He hated rules. And he'd survived almost three days, alone in a blizzard -- wasn't that proof enough he was capable of leaving the den and forging his own path forward?

He grumbled and dug around inside the oversized cloak to find the last bit of roasted snow-lion he'd stored from the hunt on his first night. I c'n always jus' make up some bullshit...not like they gonna know... He huffed to himself and chomped into the woefully unseasoned meat while continuing to mutter half-assed ideas under his breath.

His brooding was interrupted by a muffled curse that drifted through the howling winds. Samael cocked his head before pressing into the tree and remaining stark still, his eyes searching for movement in the darkness. It couldn't be someone from his tribe -- even the youngest pups learned to move stealthily before they were allowed to wander out of the den. Suddenly his interest was piqued as his moodiness shifted to curiosity.

Samael stared through the spiraling snowflakes until he caught sight of a figure stumbling through the snow, one arm raised to try and keep some of the storm out of their face. Whoever they were, they were by themselves. Samael waited another moment or so to ensure the stranger had no companions further behind, then pushed away from the tree to creep after the wanderer as his already-quiet footsteps were muted even further by the snowstorm.

As he approached the figure's back, he spotted a few supply packs strapped onto their hips and sides, some kind of radio communicator...and what Samael thought might be the bulge of a weapon. He grinned despite himself. This person didn't move like a hunter; were they perhaps a soldier, far from the battles that raged across the less-snowy parts of Sirca? Samael licked his lips excitedly and drew his knife, shifting it into a loose grip -- he didn't plan on hurting the trespasser, not unless he had to. But surprising that sounded like a nice distraction from his indecision.

When he'd closed the distance to nearly a meter, he shoved himself into a flying leap to tackle his target from behind. But the moment his paws left the snow, the stranger spun around and grabbed Samael's wrist in a blur of movement. And before he realized what was happening, Samael gasped in shock and found himself on his back with a pistol shoved under his muzzle as his dominant arm was pinned into the snow.

He instinctively tried to swing his other arm wildly into the stranger's head, but the larger chupadore shifted their shoulder to deflect the blind swing while pressing the barrel of the gun a bit more firmly into Samael's throat. "Easy there, kid," a gruff voice rumbled from the bandanna wrapped around their muzzle as sharp green eyes bore down into Samael's. "Good way to get your head blown off."

"Yer the one trespassin'!" Samael protested, no longer trying to attack with his arm, but still struggling firmly under the strong grip of the gun-wielding chupadore. "Who are you 'n why're you on our territory?"

The stranger simply chuckled. "I thought so." They lowered the hammer of their pistol and pulled it away from Samael's throat before hopping up and offering a hand. "Your tribe doesn't exactly have signs on your borders, you know."

Samael scowled and scrambled back to his paws, ignoring the hand and instead brushing the snow off his backside. He quickly grabbed his knife but the stranger made no move to stop him. "We got signs all over, ya jus' gotta know where to look," he grumbled, his eyes looking over the mysterious figure. He guessed the stranger was a male, estimated him to be around six and a half feet tall...he looked fairly bulky, too, though that might have been the darkness and the bundled clothing. "Either way, y'ain't from 'round here, all the locals know where our shit starts 'n where it fuckin' ends..."

"You've sure got a mouth on you," the stranger retorted before finally tugging down the bandanna to reveal grizzled but smiling features. "You're right, though. I'm not from around here. I was tryin' to find my way to Silvenna, got lost in the storm," He held out his hand more insistently. "Heard good things about your people, kid. Name's Raymond Tracer."

Samael studied his hand for a moment before hesitantly sheathing his knife and reaching out with his own. "I'm Sa--"

* * *


Samael's eyes snapped open and he hissed as the frigid water sloshed over his muzzle and ran down across his bare chest. He snarled and shook his head rapidly, only to have a fist slam into his cheek with enough force that he nearly toppled backward.

As his bearings were once more rocked and his senses grasped for some semblance of clarity, he managed to process the fact he was in a chair with his hands cuffed behind him. And that was about all he could piece together before another punch rocketed into his gut and made him double over...or at least try to, only for his shoulders to scream in protest from the handcuffs restraining his movement. "F-fuck...ain't...ain't you s'posed to...ask a fuckin' question?" Samael muttered, tasting blood and spitting it to the side before glaring defiantly up at the massive HADES captain.

He looked pleased with himself, the first sign of emotion on the stony chupadore's features. His helmet rested on a nearby table but he was otherwise still in full battle armor. "Shut the fuck up, rebel. I'll ask the questions when I feel like asking the questions." He leaned down close so that his scarred muzzle was only a few inches from Samael's "Or maybe we'll just...crack you open. See what comes out on its own." The grin that crept across his face felt feral.

"Sir! Anything from that piece of shit yet?"

The captain straightened and then glowered over his shoulder as the lieutenant wandered into the room. They were somewhere inside the cave, Samael guessed. These caverns had plenty of naturally-formed spaces, perfect for both bubbling rebellions and terrified refugees. At least until the drop ships showed up.

"Lieutenant, how many goddamn times do I need to tell you to keep your chest plate on? I don't give a fuck if the men aren't here to see, that's just fucking protocol!"

Samael looked between the two soldiers as they traded glares, trying to garner whatever details he could. The captain was taller by maybe one or two inches, but neither of them looked like they'd be on the losing end of a fight very often. The lieutenant's features were unmarred, though not necessarily handsome. He seemed...ambitious. Maybe he could use that.

He hadn't heard their names yet, though. That made it more annoying.

"Sir, with all due respect, we barely broke a sweat wiping out the cowards here. I seriously doubt any stragglers are gonna pose a problem," the lieutenant grumbled. "And these caves are humid as shit."

The captain's muzzle wrinkled as his tail flicked irritably. "It isn't your record that gets marked when you catch a stray bullet to the chest," he muttered.

Guess that's what I'll call 'em...

"Aww, c'mon, let 'im be," Samael chimed in, grinning crookedly. "Rude if I'm the only one showin' off my hide." He flexed his abdominal muscles and winked at the lieutenant. "You get me, right, Lieutenant?"

Lieutenant's face immediately screwed up in disgust as he raised his rifle and stomped forward. "Fuck you, you rebel faggot!"

Captain's head whipped around to stare back down at Samael with a mix of surprise and loathing. Samael smirked up at him. "What, I didn't trip yer trigger, sweetie? Sorry, forgot to put on my 'I Suck Dicks' shirt this mornin'."

Captain grabbed the barrel of the other soldier's gun as it rushed past, shoving it to the side. "Oh, find your fuckin' spine, Lieutenant," he snarled, glaring at his subordinate. "If you can't handle the screams of a trapped rat, then you'd better get your ass back to the fuckin' academy."

Lieutenant ground his teeth together before yanking his rifle back. "I can handle them," he seethed, jabbing a claw at Samael. "But I'm not gonna sit back and let some heretic make a pass at me, sir." He stared daggers at the rebel. "He isn't worth interrogating."

"That's not your call, soldier," Captain replied brusquely before offering a saccharine smile. "Would it make you feel better to remind him why we're here?"

Lieutenant snorted. "You enjoy this a little too much, sir. But sure." He returned the false expression and jerked the rifle up again, making his captain frown immensely.

Samael's face remained calm even as his eyes flicked to the barrel of the gun. It slowly shifted from his face over to the side and the look on Captain's face morphed back into one of entertainment a moment before the rifle cracked deafeningly and a searing pain shot through Samael's shoulder. The rebel cried out despite himself, throwing his head back with a curse and then glaring furiously at Lieutenant through the unavoidable tears of pain as blood ran down his arm and chest. "Can't even get yer load off properly, can ya?" he taunted through a clenched muzzle, trying to ignore the searing agony from the fresh bullet hole just above his collarbone. "Too fuckin' busy garglin' yer captain's--"

The punch to his cheek hit with the force of a freight train, dislocating his jaw and causing him to tip to one side. The chair toppled over and Samael had half an instant to notice the cave floor before it collided with his skull and sent him drifting once again into darkness.

* * *

"...And last but not least, this is Samael. I ran into him a couple days ago trying to find my way here."

Tracer stepped to the side and gestured to the grey chupadore behind him. The others gathered around the table at the back of the tavern exchanged glances before all eyes fell onto Samael. He looked to be younger than everyone else there. He also looked to be rather distracted as he stared through the smudged window at the sunset, just barely visible through the snow-dusted trees that surrounded the small village.


Samael blinked and shook his head before scowling up at the half-amused, half-annoyed chupadore. "It's Samael!" When nearly everyone narrowed their eyes a bit, he huffed and cleared his throat quietly. "Uh. I mean. Hey."

"He still looks like a kid," one of the others muttered. "Looks like the runt of his litter, too."

Samael snorted and hopped off the bench to lean across the table. "Gimme three seconds, I'll show ya who's a runt!"

Tracer placed a hand on Samael's shoulder, guiding him back down to sit. "Save that fire, kid." Samael glanced down at his hand but didn't protest. "And you should all know that far younger lives are lost in these goddamn Holy Wars," Tracer added with a disapproving look at the others. "Our movement needs passion more than it needs experience."

The offending chupadore grumbled quietly but nodded, even as he glowered at Samael. But Samael's attention was once again elsewhere -- his eyes were now drifting over Tracer's form as the older male kept his hand on his shoulder while addressing the group in a lower, gruff voice. "With Samael joining us, we're at eight. I don't like to work with much larger groups -- even out here in the middle of nowhere, I'm sure I don't need to tell you all about the risks. So we'll start training tonight after we get some sleep, but I wanna start with a few...housekeepin' rules, if you will. If you wanna back out, you do it tonight. Otherwise we're gonna have a real tough conversation."

He continued laying out barely-veiled threats woven in with very inspirational anecdotes, but Samael was busy gazing at the sharp profile of Tracer's muzzle...the way his eyes danced excitedly as he spoke of revolution...the sly grins that parted his features with every mention of changing the future, one mission at a time...

Samael thought back over the last few days as Tracer spoke. Once he'd shown the recruiter to the town, Tracer hadn't even hesitated to ask if he wanted to join the Movement. Samael's clan avoided the war but kept enough contact with the outside to know about the resistance across Sirca. They knew it was no myth -- unlike those who lived in more hospitable places, the denizens of the far reaches of the tundra were well-aware of the rebels' existence since the desolate environment made for a safer-than-usual place to gather.

Samael hadn't been sure at first. Every chupadore in the den that completed the trial of adulthood was free to make their own decision on their future...but it was still somewhat of an unspoken rule that departing the territory was vaguely frowned upon, while the thought of involving oneself with something as senseless as the Holy War was just about forbidden. Yet it was still the choice of each individual adolescent -- the elders' permission was technically a formality, after all.

He dutifully stood before the council, trying not to make eye contact with the chupadore who had been the closest of all the mothers to him. Her eyes reflected a quiet mix of pride and pain as he explained that he wanted to make a difference. Not just to their little corner of Sampi, but to the whole ring. They'd asked him if he truly felt the Movement was the best way to do so, and he'd made a very intense argument why he believed it was. Whether or not they could tell that his grandiose visions of the future were inspired perhaps by a less-than-well-thought-out urge, they nonetheless listened.

He spoke honestly about meeting Raymond Tracer, and the hours they spent talking at the edge of the village. Tracer had regaled him with tales of Sirca, and of all the things he had yet to experience -- both good and bad. And most of all, the difference he could make for hundreds, even thousands around the ring, if he so chose to dedicate himself to it. Samael's passion was indomitable, and even the most stoic elders conceded that his heart felt genuine, even if his notions were foolish and likely to disappoint him in the end.

After all was said and done, he was given their blessing. It meant more to him than he thought it would. He hated to admit it, but there were tears in his eyes as he hugged the group of adults that had raised him, and set off for Silvenna with nothing more than the furs on his back and a single set of spare clothes. There was a bit of a silent expectation that Samael would very likely return in a few weeks or months...but he was given all the encouragement that could be afforded by the close-knit and rarely-outward-looking tribe.

When Samael felt the claws squeeze lightly into his shoulder, he blinked and looked up to see that he and Tracer were alone in the corner of the tavern. "Uhhhh, my bad, I was just thinkin' about what you were sayin' an'. Stuff."

Tracer smiled amusedly and shook his head. "Did you hear a goddamn thing I said, Sammy?"

Samael huffed quietly. "I already told you it's 'Samael'. But 'course I did! I'm a good listener."

"Mhmm. What was the third lesson?"

Samael blinked and then raised a finger. "Umm. Trust no one?"

Tracer grinned and reached down to pull Samael up to his paws. "Heh. Not even close, kid. Now, c'mon. I don't care how tough your redneck lifestyle made you, we're gonna be workin' hard. You gotta get some rest."

Samael pursed his lips but didn't argue, allowing the other chupadore to guide him away from the impromptu meeting space. "Y'know, jus' 'cause we live out in the middle'a nowhere don't make us dumb or nothin'." He puffed his chest out. "We might talk funny but we're still smart'n shit."

"Smart enough to bring some cash to rent a room?" Tracer inquired teasingly.

Samael blinked again and then rubbed the back of his head. "Uhhh...well. We usually trade with the local villages, so we don' usually have, uh. Money, so. Shit, I ain't got a room, nah..."

"I know," Tracer replied, his smirk neatly framing his entertained expression as he slid an arm around Samael's waist and guided him to the stairs. "You can bunk with me, dumbass."

Samael grumbled but couldn't come up with a proper retort as he fought his blush and let himself be led to the recruiter's room. No big deal, he'd learned all about this. He'd even once practiced kissing with one of his packmates. Yeah, no big deal.

Samael wheezed and clutched at his chest, his eyes trying to stare anywhere but up at Tracer as he desperately attempted to not pant heavily. But it was kind of hard to hide the truth, and for what it was worth, Tracer's smile was only a little mocking. "Yeah, you're a real experienced globe-trotter, I can see," Tracer rumbled as he reached down with one hand to stroke a thumb along Samael's muzzle. "Don't worry, we got plenty of time for you to learn more," he teased gently, his claw nudging against one of the studs in the embarrassed chupadore's jaw. "Sorry, Sammy -- figured you weren't a pro but these made me think you at least weren't a damn virgin..."

Samael mumbled quietly before wincing as his companion pulled back and then dropped down into the bed next to him, not seeming to mind the mess as he pulled Samael close to his broad chest. "Well...maybe y'should take the time 'n learn more 'bout the young, impressionable minds yer recruitin'," he replied against Tracer's collarbone. Lifting his head so he could drop his chin on Tracer's shoulder, Samael gave him a dazed smile. "Body art's common 'mongst my people. 'S how we express ourselves."

Tracer chuckled, running his thumb over the piercings again while squeezing his lover close. "I got the feeling you're gonna express yourself in a lot more ways than that, kid..."

* * *

The third slap finally stirred Samael from unconsciousness. His cheeks stung...his jaw ached. Might have been dislocated. He looked down woozily -- they bandage up my shoulder?, it was simply a dirty, torn strip of his under-armor that someone shoved into the wound. "So considerate of ya fuckers," he muttered before wincing as another open-palmed hand smacked against his muzzle, sending pain shooting through his skull. "Fuck!"

"Theeeere he is," Captain all-but-purred, looking viciously delighted when Samael's eyes slowly drifted back up to him. "Were you having a nice dream, asshole?"

"I see the Omegite inquisition process really steppin' up the game lately, resortin' to slappin' me like a buncha limp-wristed prissies," Samael intoned, only for the HADES officer to backhand his damaged jaw yet again to elicit another agonized grunt.

"Oh, you're one to talk, cocksucker," Captain retorted as he rolled his wrist a few times before sneering: "You probably get off to this shit, don't you?"

Samael croaked laughter. "Fuckin'...hell, when did you intolerant fuckers decide every fuckin' gay guy is into bondage 'n abuse 'n shit. Jus' like you figure we're all wimpy li'l bitches, too."

"I admit, you've got more balls than I'd expect for someone who's so comfortable with sodomy," Captain remarked, walking a slow circle around the cuffed rebel. "Actually, I find all of this rather incredible. Going against Omega, our one true Lord, the Creator, the Architect of this ring, of our very existence. And you stupid heretics think that you stand a chance? We are all but stones for the Builder to use in crafting His incredible works -- you have no right to protest, we are nothing but raw materials for Him." Captain took a step closer as his features hardened. With a smooth movement, he drew a combat knife from a sheath on his shoulder. "Enough bullshit. You wanna play the tough guy, that's fine with me." He grinned and leaned down close to Samael, who met his eyes churlishly. "Can't wait to watch you break. This is my favorite part..."

The gleaming tip of the knife swept down and brushed against Samael's muzzle before slicing a thin cut near one eye. The rebel grit his teeth and hissed to try and avoid flinching, all too aware that was exactly what this asshole wanted. "You seem proud. Proud of your attitude, proud of your toughness. Proud of your body...and all these goddamn shiny bits on it," he taunted as he guided the blade of the knife toward one of the studs in Samael's jaw.

Samael trembled, breathing a bit harder as he refused to tear his eyes away from the calm, cruel face of the captain. "Fuck you," he uttered, leaning his head away defiantly.

But Captain grabbed the back of his skull and held him firmly in place while sliding the blade of the knife under the lip of the stud. "Now now, the more you squirm, the more I get careless," he warned, using his thumb to push the piercing against the blade. "Are you ready for the questions to start yet?"

Samael's pupils were already tiny dots as he glared furiously upward, but he refused to give the soldier the satisfaction. Captain frowned at this but then shrugged while lightly pulling on the piercing. "First question. Does this hurt?"

And in a single, deft motion, Captain tore the knife away from Samael's muzzle. The stud piercing ripped out almost effortlessly along with a chunk of Samael's muzzle as he cried out despite his best efforts. Blood splattered across his neck and began to drip down his muzzle while Captain's grin broadened.

The soldier glanced idly at the piercing clamped between his thumb and the knife before carelessly dropping it at Samael's paws and slowly wiping the blade off on the rebel's muzzle. "Well?"

Samael breathed hard through his nostrils, eyes shedding tears he couldn't keep back despite the way he trembled with rage. "Fuck. You," he repeated through his teeth before screaming in agony as the captain suddenly lunged down at him and shoved the blade deep into his wounded shoulder. His eyes swam with a multitude of reds and blacks, the sharp jolt of pain sending him spiraling into another blurred mental state as reality faded around him

* * *

"Goddamn, kid, for a backwoods inbred, you know your way around a pistol!" Tracer laughed, clapping Samael on the back with a grin. The young chupadore did his best to look offended with his huff, but it was hard to hide the proud grin as he and the recruiter studied the target together. Seven holes in the center ring -- it was enough to make even the most grouchy of the other recruits admit that, maybe, bringing the sharp-mouthed cave-dweller wasn't going to be their complete undoing. "However, I want you to focus less on weapons, Sammy -- you're a natural, yeah, but I think you got somethin' better you can bring to the Movement."

Samael tilted his head curiously but Tracer just winked and gestured at him to reload while going around to speak to each of the others. Samael frowned a bit, his eyes watching the veteran as he made the rounds.

They'd been training as they traveled toward Qoppa, never camping for more than a day or two in the same place. Tracer had them all memorize a map of the mountains that made up their destination -- an early lesson from the seasoned rebel was that they should avoid as much physical evidence as possible, so he regularly quizzed them on the coordinates of the Qoppa base, as well as the path they'd be taking through Kaprime to avoid the supply routes from the research outposts in Sampi. It helped keep their minds sharp considering the relentless physical exercises he put them through every chance they got. And after a few weeks, even Samael -- who took pride in having so much endurance thanks to the way he was raised -- felt weary. The only difference for him was that he found solace and comfort with Tracer whenever they hunkered down for the night.

He wasn't sure why the battle-worn fighter found him so...appealing. But Samael wasn't complaining. He was in love, after all. He knew starting on this adventure to become a part of the resistance was going to change his life; he didn't expect to find such a wonderful, experienced and passionate first partner, too. It was a damn fortunate coincidence, and one he wasn't going to take for granted.

When Tracer returned to him, Samael impulsively leaned up for a kiss. But the recruiter half-smiled and lifted a hand to place it against the end of Samael's muzzle. "Lessons first, kid. We're not just out here for a romantic stroll across Sirca, y'know."

"Yeah, I know, I ain't stupid!" Samael blurted, his deep flush betraying his attempted aloofness. "So um. So what do you mean, 'somethin' better I can bring'? I thought our job was to fight against Omega 'n all that? Stop the war?"

"Stopping a war isn't just about fighting," Tracer explained while gently pulling the pistol out of Samael's hands. "Sure, there are plenty of us that train every day for a single battle, for the opportunity to put a dent in something and die happy knowing we went out swinging. But there's a lot more to a successful rebellion. We need spies as much as we need soldiers." He smiled and flicked Samael's forehead lightly. "Other than your stupid ass accent, I think you'd be ideal for infiltration and recruitment." The smile turned to a playful grin. "You learn to last more than thirty seconds and there's not a goddamn half-curious guy that would be able to resist saying yes to you."

Samael huffed loudly and shifted awkwardly. "Shaddup," he mumbled while glancing away, but Tracer took his maw and forced him to look back up into his steely gaze.

"Hey, I'm serious, kid. It's not easy convincing people to essentially give up their lives for a cause infinitely greater than they will ever be," the recruiter explained, shaking Samael's head lightly. "Our numbers are always thin. And there is always, always the looming fear of a raid. We live in constant paranoia, everything we do is a losing battle and even if half of the ring thinks the rebellion is just a rumor, everyone knows what happens to heretics." He released Samael's muzzle and shifted his hand to cup his cheek for a moment. "Someone as charismatic and adaptable as you can make or break our effort."

Samael felt embarrassed, but he couldn't tear his eyes away this time. He instead nodded slowly and then swallowed thickly. "W-well...a'right, if you think so..." He exhaled before squaring his shoulders and giving a more confident nod. "Where do we start?"

Tracer's eyes lit up excitedly. "That's what I wanna hear, kid. Now then, first things first -- we're gonna talk about what you can and cannot mess with when it comes to the House. So keep your mouth shut for this bit, 'cause this shit's the difference between life and death in the field."

Samael froze in place, stupefied, horrified by the blood splattered across his chest. It wasn't his blood. And it wasn't like he was unfamiliar with the sight. He'd been hunting before, after all -- hell, just last week, he'd stalked and killed a tundra deer with only his knife so Tracer's little band of rebels-in-training could enjoy something more than stale rations well past their expiration date.

...A band of rebels that was now down to three, as the recruit in front of Samael dropped to his knees with a gurgle before a final, unnecessary shot blew out the back of his skull to send a second spray of blood and gore onto Samael's torso. He moved his muzzle wordlessly, staring numbly at what was left of Williams. It was Williams's blood that marred his jacket. He'd never been covered in another person's blood.

It was terrible.

He looked up sluggishly as the HADES units -- ironically themselves a squad of rookies in training -- closed in. Samael struggled to remember the training and reached for his pistol, but he felt like he was swimming through molasses. A rifle barked and the next thing he knew, he was stumbling backward from an impact to his upper chest as the world tilted beneath his paws. He shrieked as he fell back toward the snow, only to give a sharp gasp of shock as something tackled him into the treeline and then scooped him up as gunfire rattled behind them and bullets whizzed past to tear into the surrounding tree trunks.

He barely registered that they were moving as his rescuer grunted and muttered rushed words that he struggled to process. "Hold on, Sammy. Motherfucker, where the fuck did they come from..."

"M-Mark, wh-where's Mark?" Samael whimpered from the blood-soaked folds of Tracer's coat. "They...they were everywhere..."

"He's dead," Tracer replied curtly. "It's just us, kid." He glanced down and met the mortified chupadore's eyes. "Don't worry, we're almost back to the--c--ca...glk..."

Samael's eyes widened, staring up at the ragged tear that suddenly appeared in Tracer's neck. Tracer stumbled a few steps before tripping and toppling forward, Samael tumbling out of his arms to thump into the snow and roll several times. "Tracer!"

Several HADES soldiers pounded through the woods behind them, continuing to fire blindly at their targets. Samael stared around -- they'd made it back to camp. He looked back at Tracer, who had forced himself up to his knees so he could shuffle over to one of the supply packs. He held a lump of crimson-tainted snow against his neck while he dug out two small bundles of plastic explosives.

Samael felt his world spinning as he stared down at the wound in his chest. The screams of his companions were still ringing around him, the sight of Williams's lifeless corpse collapsing into the snow continued to replay in his mind, over, and over, and the approaching troops were like an avalanche, rushing toward him from every angle. He glanced up just in time to see Tracer fling one of the packages toward the treeline, an instant before the veteran leaped toward him to shove him into the snow. "Get down!"

Samael stared mindlessly at Tracer's chest, unable to react, unable to do anything but feel Tracer's body twitch with the salvo of bullets that thudded into his back. The explosion that came a few seconds later felt muted, even as the ground beneath them rumbled, even as several trees could be heard snapping and crashing down around the HADES units not caught in the improvised blast. Everything felt wrong, like some awful nightmare that Samael just had to wake from.

He felt a warm, wet sensation grasping into his maw, forcing him to look up. Tracer looked down at him with a faint smile, blood running from his muzzle as his other arm kept the young rebel held protectively against his bullet-riddled frame. "T-this is it, kid. You gotta...go..." he whispered, slowly stroking Samael's cheek.

Samael could feel the blood from his fingers soaking into his fur and he choked back a sob, tears streaming down from eyes too afraid to look away. "N-no, no-no-no-no...Tracer, w-we can make it, c'mon...c'mon, we can--"

Tracer gripped the back of his head and pulled him up for a brief but passionate kiss. Samael's eyes widened, tasting the coppery blood and trembling violently even as he returned it with every ounce of strength he could muster. He could hear shouts from the treeline as the remaining HADES units collected themselves and began to regroup.

He felt a hand against his chest shoving him forcefully back and Samael whimpered as he stared down at Tracer, his proud, strong body lying brokenly in the dark-red snow. "Go," Tracer whispered again as trembling hands gripped the second bundle tightly to his chest. "Don't make this for nothing, kid. This is your fight now."

Samael didn't know how he found the strength to stand, or to begin stumbling away. But he did. It took every bit of his willpower to start running, even if he glanced back through blurry eyes to see Tracer clutch the explosive fiercely with both arms as the elite soldiers rushed forward. He closed his eyes and whimpered when the second boom echoed through the quiet woods, begging himself to wake up, pleading with the world to let it all be some twisted dream.

But he was met only with the furious shouts of the few remaining HADES soldiers behind him as they took chase through the forest. Samael clutched the pistol in both hands as he sprinted, his chest heaving with his sobs as he tried to focus on escaping. More blindfire from behind. Another bullet grazing past him, opening a cut on his thigh. He nearly stumbled, but maintained his balance with a guttural, emotional shout.

They were relentless. But he was faster, and he knew how to become invisible. He moved purely on instinct, and he didn't stop moving until his legs threatened to buckle beneath him in exhaustion. A snowstorm was rolling in -- a wry twist of luck. His mental projection of Tracer's map told him he was near the border of Kaprime and Qoppa. He could make it. He had to make it.

Samael stumbled over to a large boulder, crawling to the side facing away from the wind and curling up tightly against the smooth stone. He finally allowed his tears to roll free again as he clutched his knees to his chest and began to sob. The hole in his chest was numb now, but he could still feel Tracer's blood on his face, frozen stiff from the sharp winds.

Tracer had given him purpose. Tracer had offered him a life where he could make a difference. And then he'd made the ultimate sacrifice so that the young, dumb pup from the middle of nowhere could continue the fight. Part of Samael wanted to be furious, to scream into the void that it wasn't fair, that this wasn't his fight to take on alone.

But that would have been a disservice to Raymond Tracer, a coward's plead for lenience. And Samael Wurlitz was no coward. His soft blue eyes opened again to stare out into the blizzard, his tears at last subsiding. This was his fight now.

* * *

The same blue eyes bore into the captain's cold glower as the hand around his throat tightened. "Do it, then, ya fuckin' bitch," Samael spat out before snarling as the fist still closed around the knife slammed into his muzzle. His head rolled back drunkenly and he managed a weak laugh. "I...I still think...yer the one gettin' yer rocks off here..."

Captain snarled and leaned in close again, his muzzle almost touching Samael's. "I can do this all day, you yellow shit. You'll talk, everyone talks."

"For the love of Omega, just kill the fucker," Lieutenant muttered, walking into the cavern once again. "Or at least ask a fucking question -- if he knew anything, he woulda said it by now. Sir."

Captain glared back at his subordinate before snorting and glancing down at the bruised, dazed rebel. "You kids these days have no fuckin' patience." He gave a simpering smile, gesturing with the knife as he spoke. "Fine. Tell us about the Qoppa base. We know you rats have one out here somewhere."

Samael barked another laugh, bloodshot eyes shifting from one soldier to the other. "Serious, asshole? Yer standin' in it, I wager. Y'all destroyed the one we had here years ago. Though you elite boys paid attention to this shit..."

"Not the old one, shit-for-brains!" Lieutenant spat out, earning a glower from the captain. "Where's the new one! We have good intelligence that there's another Movement outpost in these fucking mountains!"

Samael blinked, looking genuinely surprised for a moment. Had another faction set up shop somewhere else in these abandoned mines? Did those damn Freelancers decide to prop up a base out here? Of course they wouldn't have told anyone, why would they, that was just that goddamn Wash's style, wasn't it, always having to--

Samael's eyes suddenly bulged and he gave a sharp howl as a searing flare of agony tore across his leg. Captain twisted the knife now buried in the rebel's thigh, his other hand squeezing viciously into his bleeding shoulder. "Enough bullshit!" he roared in frustration, sending bits of spittle across Samael's features.

"I don't know shit!" Samael yelled hoarsely, struggling desperately as he threw his head back and yowled again when the officer released the knife and simply began to pummel the rebel's face with a bare fist.

"H-Hands up!!"

Everyone in the cavern froze in confusion. The captain's bloody knuckles were halfway to Samael's face as he twisted his head around with a frown to look over his shoulder. The punch-drunk rebel tilted to one side, breathing hard and squinting through a swollen eyelid and puffy cheeks to make out the form of..."W-Will?" he rasped weakly.

Behind the two, Lieutenant bared his teeth and Will shakily shifted the pistol toward him when he twitched. "Don't...don't move!" Will looked like he might faint at any moment, his knees practically knocking together as he struggled to keep the handgun level. "I...don't want to hurt anyone!" he added, almost in a squeak.

When Will's gaze flicked to Samael's battered features, his eyes widened a bit. The junior officer took it as a sign and scrambled for the rifle propped up against the nearby table. Will shouted in protest, wincing as he pointed the pistol toward the lieutenant and then started pulling the trigger.

The first shot took him by surprise, the recoil making him stumble back a step as the bullet lodged into the lieutenant's arm. The impact was enough to make him twist slightly to one side, and he had only enough time to stare stupidly at the panicked intruder before Will grit his teeth and continued firing the magnum with a steadied stance.

The next six shots ventilated the lieutenant's unprotected chest and torso as his arms pinwheeled almost comically before blood gurgled out from his muzzle as he thudded lifelessly onto his back, his eyes staring mutely up at the captain.

Captain's pupils widened and then instantly became tiny, furious dots as he roared and shoved Samael's chair backward before turning to charge at Will. Will gasped and quickly reoriented the pistol to unload three more rounds at the soldier's center of mass.

They all rang off his armor plating, however, and he leaped over his dead subordinate to rapidly close the distance. "Head...shoot him in the head!" Samael cried out as he struggled to free himself from the toppled chair, twisting his aching body in an attempt to roll to one side.

Will quickly tilted the gun up and fired the final shot at the last instant, but the bullet only grazed the captain's muzzle and glanced off his cheekbone. "Oh shit!" Will cursed a moment before he was tackled heavily to the cave floor. "Get off me, you asshole!"

Captain was quick, and far more adept than Will. As soon as they collided with the smooth rock below, he fired a punch into Will's face and immediately disoriented him before grabbing his wrist and slamming it down viciously to force the empty pistol to skitter out of his reach. "I knew there had to be another one of you fuckers...rats never scurry alone!" he snarled, pounding another fist against Will's muzzle and making the slender chupadore gargle in pain while struggling desperately to free himself from the weight of the armored soldier.

Will noticed the pistol holstered at the captain's side and he lunged his arm out to grab it. He was surprised when he was able to free it from the pouch, but the HADES officer moved like lightning and snagged his forearm to shove it away just as Will pulled the trigger.

The gun had apparently been chambered and ready to fire as the round screamed past the soldier's shoulder and the two started to fight for control of the pistol as terrified tears ran down Will's cheeks. ", goddammit, no!" he sobbed in protest, pulling the trigger again and again as the captain steadily forced the pistol backward and toward Will's muzzle, his eyes boring coldly down into Will's.

"Fuck, hold on, Will!" Samael yelled, forcing himself to look away so he could focus on his predicament for a moment. He continued to struggle before finally rolling over to one side. He kicked desperately at the legs of the chair to force it out from under his arms -- he was handcuffed, but not to the chair itself. He could hear Will pleading, begging for help and he stole a glance long enough to see his friend losing the battle of strength, Captain's frenzied grin alight with animal exhilaration as the barrel inched closer and closer toward Will's face. "Goddammit, no!" Samael hollered before taking a deep breath and steeling himself.

He brought his knee up to his chest and leaned down -- his shoulder screamed in protest, his leg was on fire, but he fought through the agony and opened his muzzle to grip the handle of the knife between his teeth. And with a muffled cry of pain, he yanked it out of his leg as his own blood pattered down from the blade. His eyes burned with desperation and he gave a wild shout around the knife before stumbling toward the captain, his arms still bound behind him.

He threw himself through the air and twisted his head around to send the blade directly into the side of the soldier's neck. The HADES unit roared in shock, batting Samael away before hauling off of Will and staring furiously down at the rebel, who doggedly shoved himself back up to his paws despite the labored breathing and rivulets of blood running down from his chest and leg. Captain's pistol hung from one hand and he reached up with the other to slowly pull the knife from his muscular neck. Blood poured out, but not more than a steady trickle -- Samael had missed the artery. "Oh, I am gonna enjoy this," Captain rasped as he took a step forward and then lifted the handgun.

But Samael was already charging forward, butting his shoulder violently into the soldier's wrist to loosen his grip on the pistol, then quickly whipping around to smack his tail against the weapon to send it clattering to the stone below. Captain responded by snarling and lunging with the knife, and Samael nimbly slid out of range with a wince as the blade sliced through the air where his muzzle was moments before.

He backpedaled quickly and then took a few rapid, deep breaths, gathering himself. He clenched his jaws together and then closed his eyes as he suddenly wrenched his arms upward and to one side. A piercing bark of pain accompanied the sickening pop of a shoulder before he drunkenly stepped back again when Captain tried to thrust the knife into his chest, feeling like he was barely holding onto consciousness. Samael forced his arms over his head, his loose shoulder joint screaming for mercy; he ignored it the best he could as he shook his head rapidly and trained his attention on the infuriated soldier.

He held his cuffed hands out, ready, and Captain didn't hesitate to take advantage, slicing rapidly toward Samael's dislocated shoulder. The rebel ducked and immediately hissed painfully at the particular motion before crying out when Captain shifted and jammed the knife deep into his bicep. He ripped away cruelly and then instantly went for a jab to his exposed throat as Samael twisted his head to the side.

But the rebel's eyes flashed dangerously and he changed his momentum in the blink of an eye, his hands coming up together to catch the bottom of the soldier's wrist. Captain looked confused before a sudden thrust kick to his groin made him stumble backward with a wheeze, eyes bulging in shock. Samael shoved his hands up at the same time, forcing the knife free and then snagging it deftly out of the air. He spun to the side, slipping just under the soldier's arm before he slid the knife firmly through the gap in the HADES armor, guiding the blade directly into his rib cage.

Captain eyes widened and he slowly dropped to his knees, staring with disbelief into Samael's ice-blue irises. "What...what are you?"

"I am the stone that the Builder refused," Samael spat out before twisting the knife with a grimace and taking a step back as the soldier gave a weakened gasp, then slowly collapsed into a pool of blood that began to expand around him.

Samael stumbled back again, then looked tiredly over at Will as the wide-eyed chupadore struggled to stand. "Hey, Will. Thought...thought I toldja t'run..."

"Oh god, Sammy, shut up, I...I couldn't. And you, you''re hurt!" Will stammered, rushing over as Samael chuckled weakly and dropped down to his knees.

"I'm...I'm jus' fine, I jus'...I jus' needa minute to...y'know..." He swayed slowly before his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he fainted into Will's arms.

"Sammy! Sammy?!? Ah shit, Sammy!"