Chapter 22: Vertigo


Samael grimaced as his body bounced and the sharp jolt stirred him from unconsciousness. He tried to sit up but a sudden pressure on his chest made him open his eyes blearily to look down at the hand gently holding him in place. "Sammy...you're awake!"

The rebel slowly turned his head to the side and stared stupidly at the blurring vision before him. He saw Will, but the world was whipping past his head impossibly fast. "W-Will...shit, where..." He looked down again and finally began to put the pieces together as his eyes took in the floorboards and gear shifter and dashboard and windshield...they were in the jeep. "Will..."

"Just hang in there, Sammy...hang in there, you're gonna be okay..." The ex-soldier's voice faded out as Samael's eyes fluttered shut again. The hog bounded off another boulder and Samael hissed in pain as he grabbed at the bloody cloths shoved against his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Sammy! I...I gotta drive fast, we need to get you back..."

The rebel tried to open his eyes again but the pounding agony in his skull made it feel impossible. He imagined they were somewhere still in the mountains with the number of rocks they were thundering over, but he couldn't even pretend to remember which way to go, or where their base even was. He opened his muzzle and whispered some incoherent jumble of words before whimpering and slowly sinking further into the uncomfortable passenger seat.

Will rubbed through his mane worriedly, leaning over to double-check that the restraint was secure around Samael's body before he bit his lip and turned his attention back to the darkness looming ahead. "Oh god, just hold on, Sammy..."


* * *


Samael opened his eyes and then grimaced as he placed a hand against the bullet wound in his upper chest. His paws were on solid slabs of rock -- he was in Qoppa, wasn't he? He looked around to try and get his bearings, struggling to mentally picture the map while attempting to match it to the countless mountains rising up around him. Where was he going again? Why was he alone...he wasn't alone before. Not since...

The young chupadore dropped to one knee with a whimper as he clutched harder at his injury. There we no tears, but the agony burning inside him screamed for a release all the same. This was the first time he'd been on his own since his trial. And then he'd met Tracer, and everything had changed. He'd been given a new life, and a new family.

...Except they were all gone, now. Even Tracer, who promised Samael in that bed their first night together that he'd make sure nothing happened to him...who swore to make him into a proud, strong leader of revolution, a whirling force of change...he was gone, too.

Samael was alone.

He could smell smoke -- that meant he was close, didn't it? He scanned the jagged peaks ahead of him and spotted a thin plume of black smoke twisting upward from between two of the craggy silhouettes. That had to be the base...unless someone else was out here in the abandoned mines setting fires. A new sense of strength enveloped his weary body and he bowed his head against the wind and pushed himself onward. He was almost there. He'd be able to rest soon.


Samael lifted his head when he heard the rumble of an engine approaching him. His eyes widened a bit as he thought immediately of the HADES units he'd barely escaped, choking down a panicked gasp and staring around for some kind of cover. But the nearest thicket of trees were several yards away. All he could do was sprint for them as the sounds of tires tearing across gravel grew nearer, dashing behind the closest trunk and pressing against it as the first of several vehicles crested the hill ahead of him.

He heard at least four or five engines and he closed his eyes while trying to make himself as compact as possible against the bark. The first vehicle rolled past, then suddenly screeched to a stop as a gruff voice could be heard over the skidding tires. "--thing move into those trees."

Samael's heart leaped into his throat and he stared straight ahead, trying not to breathe. The gun...the gun!! He slid a trembling hand down to pull the pistol out from the inside of his bloodstained jacket, his chest thudding in fear as a second voice barked out.

"Get out here, whoever you are!"

Another voice grumbled from what sounded like the second vehicle in line. "We don't have time for this shit! They're gonna find our tracks, if they haven't already!"

"He's right," the first voice replied icily. "Throw a grenade and let's go."

Samael's eyes bulged and he grit his teeth, mentally struggling with himself for a moment before taking a slow breath and spinning out from the tree, leaning against it with his good shoulder while leveling the pistol in the direction of the voices.

Several weapons immediately rose to meet his and he winced, closing his eyes in anticipation of the gunfire. But there was only a brief, uncomfortable silence before the first voice growled: "It's just a kid. Doesn't look like Army, either."

Samael slowly opened his eyes. Before him was a small convoy -- three military jeeps, a pickup truck and two all-terrain vehicles. Several chupadores were piled into each vehicle, all wearing a varied mix of fatigues, civilian clothes and patchy armor that neither matched nor seemed even remotely up to code considering the deep scratches and battle damage covering most of the pieces he saw. It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at.

"Are...are you the Movement?" he whispered as he slowly lowered his pistol.

The same gruff voice addressed him and his eyes were drawn to a stony-faced female leaning against the bed of the pickup truck. "We don't got time to chat, kid -- who are you?" She shifted to study him, then immediately hissed as her muzzle screwed up in agony, a hand flying to her waist. "Motherfucker..."

"Nelson, you gotta quit moving," a one-eyed chupadore mumbled, looking down at her body before grimacing and glaring at Samael. "Are you coming with us or not??"

"We don't know who the fuck this kid is!!" the driver of the pickup protested, leaning out of the cab to glower back at Samael as well. "We need to move!"

"I...T-Tracer!" Nelson's head shot up and she stared at Samael, her eyes boring into his. "I...I was...I was with Raymond Tracer, he...he said to find y'all..."

"Where is he?" Nelson snarled, but the look on her face betrayed her assumptions. "Where are the other recruits?!"

Samael trembled and looked away before meeting her gaze and speaking in a hushed voice: "Th-they're...they're all..."

"God dammit!" Nelson roared as she slammed a fist against the side of the pickup bed, glaring away from Samael as she gave the slightest tremble. The chupadore at her side studied her for a moment before applying another gauze patch to her torso, which Samael now saw was already soaked through with blood.

"Ma'am...all due respect...you're gonna lose more than your legs if we don't get you somewhere we can operate," he murmured. "We need to go."

Nelson inhaled sharply before her cold eyes locked onto Samael again. "Up here. He's coming with us." It wasn't a suggestion and Samael blinked before nodding mutely and jogging over to the pickup truck to hoist himself over the side and drop into the bed across from her and the chupadore providing her with what aid he could.

"Here, kid -- help me out." The one-eyed rebel held out a long strip of bandaging while motioning to the glowering female. "Need you to put pressure on the wound. She's gonna bleed out if we don't get this stopped." He then elbowed the back of the cab. "Let's go, O'Neill!"

The driver grunted and then punched the gas again, making the trio in the back slam together as Nelson howled in pain. "Goddammit, O'Neill!" the patch-wearing chupadore snarled before sighing and motioning to Samael. "Here, right here."

Samael swallowed thickly as he nervously pressed both hands into Nelson's abdomen. For the third time that day, he felt someone else's blood trickle through his fur and he took a deep breath. When he finally lifted his muzzle, he found her piercing hazel eyes locked onto him.

"What's your name?"

"S-Samael. Samael Wurlitz," he stammered. "What...what happened?"

"We got hit," she replied curtly. "Someone betrayed us. Probably that Freelancer bitch." She grit her teeth and the one-eyed chupadore gave her a sour look. "Don't gimme that face, Carson."

"Then stop making more blood come out of your body," he replied mildly as he continued to wrap bandaging around her muscular torso.

She snorted quietly before glancing at Samael again. "Wurlitz. You must be the cocky shit from Sampi. Tracer seemed to think you were hot shit. A real survivor." Her eyes narrowed as she added coldly: "I guess he was right."

Samael swallowed again and shifted his gaze away as tears pricked at his eyes. He felt Nelson shifting beneath his blood-soaked hands, however, and when he brought his eyes back, her features had softened the slightest bit. "We lost more than just our base today. We lost a man who was solely responsible for bringing us together and shaping us into what we are today. The greatest among us all, and yet someone whose name most of Sirca will never hear."

Carson lowered his head silently, closing his one remaining eye in respect. But Nelson's head remained lifted, as did Samael's. She gave the hint of a faint smile at this before gesturing to him. "Go on, Wurlitz. Tell me everything. I want a complete rundown before we get into the snow."

He blinked in confusion -- he'd stumbled out of the tundra of Kaprime several hours earlier to escape the pursuing HADES units. They couldn't possibly want to go back there. "M-Ma'am..."

"Nelson. Call me Nelson. Anyone who calls me 'ma'am' is just trying to break bad news to me." Carson huffed quietly in response as he prepared another bandage and she gave another tiny almost-smile.

Samael blinked again but nodded. "Uh. Nelson. You really don't wanna go that way...that's..that's where we..."

"I know," she cut him off, gently but firmly. "We're going to go through Sampi." She saw the look in his face and she shook her head once. "We can't go back for them. We'll mourn them when we aren't running for our lives. We have another location we've been scouting in Honkal. Now enough bullshit, Wurlitz -- start talking."

Samael bit his lip quietly before he took a long breath. "Okay. Lemme start from the beginning..."


* * *


Will frowned, one elbow keeping the steering wheel steady as he fidgeted with the radio. He knew he was still in Qoppa, and it was somewhere between nine and ten hours since the sun had risen over the edge of the ring. He understood the code Samael had explained to him, but that didn't make it any goddamn easier to try and formulate the math, and then punch in the numbers, and remember the right way to call...all while driving through the jagged, rocky terrain with his unconscious companion groaning with pain next to him.

The ex-corporal gave a frustrated shout and grit his teeth together before exhaling slowly. Samael wouldn't panic. Samael would remain calm...no, not calm. That stupid goddamn easy demeanor, like he knew the world wouldn't spin any further than he wanted until he was ready for it. Will muttered quietly and glanced at Samael's slumped form before swallowing and finally deciding to slow his frantic driving and pull the jeep into a smooth outcropping between the endless crags that jutted out all around him.

He took a deep breath to calm his pounding pulse -- yes, they'd killed two HADES officers, but who knew how long they had planned to remain at the razed hideout. They hadn't been able to radio during the surprise attack from Will, and Samael certainly hadn't given the captain a chance to make a call afterward. Will had time.

Jus' breathe, hon. Count to four, inhale. Count to four, exhale.

Will closed his eyes, the damnable rebel's drawl guiding him even in his unconsciousness. He listened, however, and found his nerves beginning to relax. He nodded once to himself, then opened his eyes to glance down at the radio. And it was suddenly child's play to calculate the code and tap in the numbers. Will breathed out slowly again and then studied the angle of the sun briefly before making an adjustment to the decryption device on the radio. He looked at Samael, a worried expression creasing his tired features at the rebel's shallow breathing. Stay with me, Sammy... He lifted the communicator to his muzzle, then spoke as steadily as he could manage. "Base...um. Come in, Base. This, um. This is...er. Barnes. The...new driver."

He sighed quietly at his own aloofness, holding the radio at arm's length as if physically sympathizing with whoever just had to hear that embarrassing call. Several seconds passed and he bit his lip silently, wondering if he'd forgotten something...if he'd screwed up the decryption code, or if he'd estimated the time wrong. Or, hell, maybe they just weren't going to answer an unfamiliar voice. He made a face and started to put the radio back down to resume driving when a sharp female voice cut through the static.

"Put Wurlitz on."

Will looked relieved even if a bit nervous -- he immediately recognized that as Nelson. He licked his lips hesitantly, then keyed the radio to reply. "U-um, I can't. He's okay! Well, he's, uh...under the weather from...a bad sandwich...at the last stop..."

...He hoped his attempts at keeping to the trucker story made sense.

But Nelson's snarl ripped back through before he could ponder how good his cover was. "Enough of that shit! Is he alive?!?"

He blinked in surprise but didn't question the apparent loss of the need for a cover identification. "Yeah, he is. He's just hurt and...and he's out right now. We're still in Qoppa, and...I think I'm going the right way, but I'm not--"

Nelson interrupted him. "Head west. Bearing toward the southern rim. You're going to cross through Sampi, not Kaprime -- understood?"

Will absolutely did not. But he forced himself to nod while clutching the radio nervously in both hands. "Y-yeah. Yes, ma'am."

The beat or two of silence was deafening before she came across again. "I don't want any more bad news, Barnes. Drive fast, but don't be stupid. I'm leaving you with O'Neill. He knows the way. If you need to save battery, you tell him before turning it off."

Will realized he'd never felt this cowed even in the face of Marsden's worst tirades. His bluster felt so obvious now as this woman dictated orders to him with a fiercer presence over the radio than he'd ever experienced, even from only a few inches away from his former commander's shouting. "O-okay," he finally stammered.

"Barnes. Bring him home safe."

Will swallowed nervously. That wasn't a request. But he lifted the radio close while looking over at Samael again, speaking softly but genuinely: "I will."

He heard a grunt before a new voice crackled through. "Goddamn, you two assholes really got her worked up. Barnes, right?" There wasn't time for Will to confirm his name as the rough baritone continued: "You're in luck, at least. I made this drive a few years ago. Listen to me, and I'll get you here in one piece. Got it?"

Will exhaled quietly again and then carefully hooked the radio to a slot in the windshield frame. He reached up to depress the talk button while maneuvering the jeep back onto the rough path. "Got it. I'm almost out of the mountains closest to Sampi. Facing west."

O'Neill grunted in acknowledgment. "Okay. Just start driving. Follow the path and stay south, like Nelson said. Tell me when you see white and we'll adjust." The gravelly voiced paused, then added mildly: "Welcome to the Movement, Barnes."


* * *


Mahihko grimaced a bit as Doc mumbled a quiet apology from behind him. "Sorry. I've, um. I've never dealt with an...arrow wound before..."

"It's fine, Doc," the wolf replied softly. "Jus' take yer time..."

None of them were in a rush at this point. Donut was halfheartedly tossing together a meal in the kitchen while Riffraff and Amdusias sat together with Graceful Melody's weapons between them, the only part of their companion remaining for them to memorialize. Donut had offered the pale feather to the demon, but Amdusias had gently pushed it back into the chupadore's hands, tears filling his amber eyes as he'd murmured that the pony would want him to keep it.

It was rare for Mahihko to feel morose, but this situation certainly felt worthy of it. He'd only known Graceful for three, maybe four weeks, but the impact of his loss was unexpectedly deep. As the medic carefully poked around inside the wound to check for any remaining shards of metal, Mahihko stared quietly toward the base's entrance. He didn't feel much of the prodding, his mind instead fixated on the implications of what they'd just done.

During a moment of clarity after his initial state of distress, Amdusias explained that Graceful's sacrifice did more than simply eradicate the enemy and close the portal. It had effectively shielded this world, this plane, this...dimension from the human invaders. The sheer magnitude of Graceful Melody's act created a kind of barrier to prevent anyone from making any new tears in space-time into Sirca...or whatever the proper explanation was.

Amdusias had warned, however, that it wasn't permanent. Eventually that protection would fade, and since Mahihko presumed the humans had an idea of how to reach back out to the unique ring-world...

He frowned quietly before wincing at a sharp jab in his shoulder. "Sorry again!" Doc called out sheepishly. "I'm...I'm not really good at sewing..."

"I have the reserves to repair you, noisy cricket," Amdusias muttered from across the room.

"Save it, save it -- I'll be fine," Mahihko replied quietly before glancing up as Donut approached him with a steaming mug in his hands.

"Here, this is one of my favorite teas," the soldier offered with a smile that was honest despite the sad droop to his normally perky posture. "It'll help you feel better."

"Homeopathic nonsense," Amdusias grumbled as Mahihko took the mug with a grateful smile in return. "One cannot simply feel better, and encouraging it through the intake of useless, empty comestibles is foo--" He blinked and trailed off when Donut appeared next to him with another mug, the small smile still gently framing his pained expression.

"I made some for you, too, Mr. Demon."

Amdusias opened his muzzle to protest, but Riffraff placed a hand silently on his shoulder and the demon sighed and glanced down before holding both hands out to gingerly take the mug. "I appreciate the gesture." He sipped carefully from the mug and his eyes widened slightly in surprise. "Goodness. This is lovely."

Donut beamed quietly and returned to the kitchen. "I'll bring the rest out, and the sandwiches, too."

Mahihko held up his mug in a silent salute, tasting the hot beverage afterward for himself. "Woof. Strong, too," he murmured. He looked over his shoulder to see Doc staring intensely while continuing to stitch up the wolf's wound. "How's it goin' back there, Doc?"

"Almost done," he murmured.

Mahihko gave a small nod before looking over at Amdusias and Riffraff again. "I still don' understand why ya can't...y'know. Demon him back up. You said yerself ya brought him back before."

Amdusias scowled horribly but then shifted a bit as his long, forked tail curled up beside him. "His life yet clung to his body in that instance. And he also still had his body." Riffraff looked away and the demon glanced toward the horse sympathetically. "I apologize for the harshness in my tone." He sipped at the tea again, then added: "Had...had we made some sort of phylactery that contained his soul, perhaps it would be simpler, but. Graceful always refused such suggestions in the past. He said his life would play out as intended."

Riffraff chimed in quietly: "The real issue is...he wanted us to stay, to help you guys. If we go chasin' down his soul, well..."

Mahihko cracked a half-smile. "Sure, I get it. But since when the fuck did he ever listen to anyone's orders? Just sayin'..."

Amdusias huffed and began to respond, but Donut bustled into the room again. The soldier was doing his absolute damnedest to keep his spirits up and he sounded genuinely positive as he announced: "Sarge told me to keep an eye on Graceful, but I can't do that if he's gone!" He clutched the tray of sandwiches to his chest for a moment, his voice wavering but his words still strong. "So if there's some way you can find him, you should! Otherwise I can't do what Sarge told me and then he'll yell at all of us!!"

There were a few seconds of uncomfortable silence before Amdusias sighed quietly. "Bring forth your sustenance. I wish for...comfort food." He made a face as he said it, but Riffraff smiled at his side and nodded to Donut, who brightened and approached.

But Mahihko lifted his head with a frown just as Doc tied off the messy stitching. "Jus' a sec..."

The medic paused, halfway through putting away his supplies. "Um. You didn't want a pattern or anything, right? Your tattoos are really nice but I'm not that--"

The wolf half-turned so he could reach back and put a finger against the chupadore's muzzle, effectively silencing him if only because of the awkwardness. "Hold up a tick...you hear that?" His ears swiveled toward the front entrance and a moment later, Riffraff turned his head as well, his ears pricking as well.

"It...it sounds like engines. Big engines," the horse muttered. "But not on the ground..."

"Nah, those're turbines," Mahihko replied with a scowl as he stood up.

Donut tilted his head curiously before looking hopeful. "Ooh, Doc! Maybe it's a dropship like the one that dropped you off! Maybe they're here to help us!!"

Doc frowned immensely and nervously closed up his first-aid kit. "I didn't come on a dropship, Donut. I had to walk here from the nearest outpost." He rubbed slowly at his throat, his eyes flicking to Mahihko when he felt the wolf's querulous expression on him. "There...there are only a few reasons a dropship shows up. They, um. They usually aren't for any good reasons." He fidgeted and self-consciously clutched his kit against his chest. "It could be HADES..."

Even Donut's effervescence slowly faded with this thought. "Oh. W-well...HADES isn't, uh. Always bad, right? Maybe they're here for the aliens we already took care of and we'll get medals!"

"Donut, sweetie -- we're still aliens," Mahihko replied kindly before he glanced at Amdusias when the demon slowly stood up, his eyes smoldering. "I think we're gonna hafta wait on those snacks, hon. Somethin' tells me we ain't gonna be lucky enough for a friendly visit..."

The enormous reptile flexed his fingers slowly as his tattered suit stretched a bit with his deep breathing. "Let them come. I have some emotions I wish to act upon."

Riffraff looked nervous but Mahihko's grin was startlingly eager. A little bit of redirected anger sounded like a proper homage to the fiery pony. "Well then we shouldn't keep our guests waiting," the wolf remarked as he strode over to the pile of weapons and picked up Graceful's enormous handgun. Amdusias glared down at him before grunting his approval and levitating the sub-machine gun up to one hand.

"Riffraff, you may stay behind with the others if you wish. The cricket and I are capable as a duet."

"You are, but someone needs to stop you two from making any more self-sacrifices," the horse mumbled, getting up to his hooves and producing both Lone's sawn-off shotgun along with a similarly-shortened twelve-gauge from Graceful's collection.

Donut handed the tray of sandwiches to Doc, but Mahihko reached out to touch the soldier's arm gently. "You need to take that leg easy, hon. Cover the door, okay?" Donut gave him a worried look but the wolf responded with a cocksure grin. "We'll be okay. We're blind with vengeance -- 's almost as good as bulletproof vests."

The soldier inhaled sharply but managed a slow nod even as his eyes shone with concern for the three aliens. "Please come back...all of you!" He gave a small smile. "Doc and I can't eat all these sandwiches ourselves."

Mahihko blinked before flashing a grin and checked the supernatural sword he'd attached to his belt. "Donut, if it makes any difference, just thinkin' of gettin' to spend more time with you will be all I need to come back in one piece." He tipped a wink to the smiling soldier, who wrapped an arm around Doc's shoulders while the medic looked torn between uncomfortable and concerned.

Mahihko's confidence was nearly as dazzling as the morning sun glinting off his piercings as he joined Riffraff and Amdusias, and the three looked between themselves before sharing a single nod and striding fearlessly out into the canyon with their weapons drawn and ready. Donut and Doc watched them exit in silence until a second or two later when Mahihko's voice trickled back into the base as he called out: "Hey, shitbirds! We're aliens! So y'all friendly or here to start some shit?!"


"Guess that means they was here to start some shit."

Mahihko's grin was as broad as ever despite the blood splattered across his chest and face...or perhaps it was because of it. Some of it might have been his, he wasn't sure. He grunted as he yanked his new-to-him sword from the armored soldier's chest, using his paw to hold the heavy body down.

"I...I still think we should have had one of the...uh, locals come out first," Riffraff mumbled as he leaned against the side of the dropship, making a face at the carnage they'd wrought. "Maybe they could have talked to these guys."

"I somehow doubt by their demeanor and quick triggers that they would have entertained any sort of negotiation," Amdusias intoned. The demon grumpily kicked one of the bodies as his eyes skimmed the scene to check for any signs of life.

The HADES unit had opened fire almost immediately at the sight of the trio, and Amdusias's instincts saved them from the initial salvo, a broad amber shield flickering to life before them. And then it was Riffraff who actually handled the majority of the elite troops -- he'd taken aim at one of the soldiers that charged in and the blast from his shotgun had sent the chupadore stumbling backward into the dropship, where they had proceeded to trip and fall into the mounted turret, In their attempt to catch themselves, they'd somehow gripped into the trigger and started to fire in a wild, frenetic pattern that ripped through several of the HADES troopers and dropped them before they could even turn around to register the situation.

Amdusias and Mahihko had wasted little time with the ensuing chaos, tearing through the remaining soldiers despite their advanced training and heavy armor -- the modified bullets in Graceful's guns punched through the protective garb effectively and Amdusias's raw fury had manifested itself with such intensity that a few of the soldiers simply burst into a thin mist of crimson and shattered ceramic plating when he directed a burst of power toward them.

Mahihko turning to the angelic sword for the remaining two soldiers had mostly been to sate his own adrenaline-fueled rush -- he'd suffered a bullet wound or two for it, but he certainly looked pleased with himself as he wiped the blade casually on one of the few unmarred patches of his pants. "Boys, I think Grace'd be proud," he claimed, even as his smile became reserved for a few moments.

Amdusias grunted and then glanced at the wolf when Mahihko wandered past him to check the inside of the dropship. "Most assuredly. Allow me to heal you before you find more trouble."

"Ah, can it, I'm fine," Mahihko retorted, waving a hand dismissively only to blink in surprise as Amdusias's long tail snapped out and wrapped around his wrist to yank him closer. "Hey!"

"Silence, you are an idiot," the demon muttered as he slapped a hand on Mahihko's forehead, then rolled his eyes at the goofy grin he received. But a moment later, a flash of amber energy passed over the wolf and Mahihko blinked as he looked down at himself. The blood was still there, but he no longer felt the very distinct sensation of having a hole bored through his torso. It clearly took most of Amdusias's remaining energy considering the way his towering body seemed to wilt a bit afterward, but he still maintained a firm grip of the wolf's arm as he murmured wearily: "Now the little one cannot haunt me for letting anything happen to you. Idiot."

Mahihko laughed quietly but nodded gratefully, reaching up to pat the demon's arm. "Thanks, big guy." As Amdusias grunted his soft acknowledgment and let his tail loosen, the wolf slipped free and then poked his head into the dropship. "Hmm. Y'know..."

"I already dislike this idea," Amdusias muttered as he watched Riffraff grimace and carefully step between the scattered bodies to come closer. "We have had enough mindless ideas for one day."

"Hey, ya ain't wrong...but. My guess is there'll be more like this on the way eventually," Mahihko replied as he hopped into the ship and began to explore the interior. "These guys seemed pretty high-level."

"That does not mean that attempting to make use of their infernal sky-boat is a good plan," Amdusias shot back with a scowl.

Mahihko grinned a bit. "Heh. Hear me out, though...after everything we just went through..." The wolf glanced back out at the other two and the moment of sincerity was visible on his features. "We should find Lone and the others. We can get the other two outta here and let our friends know what the fuck went down...and what might go down again in the future, sounds like." He eyed Amdusias purposefully, and the demon huffed quietly.

"It is true, I do not know how long the effect will last to prevent the creation of dimensional rifts, but we should not act hastily because we assume the worst..."

"Sure, sure, 'course!" Mahihko replied airily, hopping back out of the ship and firing two fingerguns at Riffraff and Amdusias. He then tilted his head as he saw Donut's head poke out of the base entrance. "Ayy, sweetie! Y'all should be safe to come out!!"

Donut looked immensely relieved at the sight of the three among the messy scene. "Oh goodness, there was so much shooting! I was worried!"

Doc nervously edged out from behind the concrete wall, his eyes widening at the sight. "Oh no, it was HADES..." He took a few steps past Donut before making a face at all the sprawled corpses in various states of very-dead. "I...I should try and help anyone I can, and perhaps it'll, um. Soften their response."

Mahihko tried not to grin too broadly. "Oh, absolutely, Doc." He paused before pointing at one of the nearby corpses. "I think that one still has most of his blood."

Doc's jaw dropped. "Did...did you three really wipe out an entire squad?? That...should be impossible..."

Mahihko rubbed at his muzzle before pulling away his hand to huff at the sticky blood that clung to his fingers. "Oh, yeah, we probably woulda been in some real trouble if we hadn't gotten so..." He paused to wink gregariously toward Riffraff. "Lucky."

The horse sighed and dropped his head while Amdusias preened irritably next to him. "We would have held our own regardless," the demon insisted.

"Mhmm," Mahihko replied with a slight smile before he glanced up at Donut. "But for real -- these guys ain't no joke, I see why y'all were worried. My vote is for takin' this bucket 'n gettin' the shit outta here 'fore anyone else shows up. Hate to say it, but I think we fucked up yer quiet li'l canyon."

Doc leaned back in horror at the thought. "You can't be serious!"

But Donut looked more contemplative, tilting his head and studying the dropship. "A vacation would be so nice, though!! I don't think Sarge will be upset about us leaving if HADES is coming here!" He paused and peered at the dead soldiers all around them. "I mean. If more HADES is coming here."

"Well, then it's settled," Mahihko chirped, about to slap the side of Donut's armor before pausing and waving his bloodstained hand. "Yeah, I should go clean up. Grab whatever ya want 'n let's get the shit outta Dodge an' go find our friends."

Amdusias groaned from behind him, but then added soberly: "I would dearly enjoy the layered bread-based indulgences you prepared, should they still be available."

Donut stared at the demon blankly for a few seconds before a look of recognition crossed his features. "Oooh! The sandwiches! Of course! I'll get them along with my travel kit!"

Doc blinked in confusion. "Travel kit?"

"Yeah! You never know when opportunity arises! I've always got a bunch of little shampoo bottles and a grooming set and a spare copy of Persons and an emergency set of my favorite teas ready to go at a moment's notice!" With that he beamed and followed Mahihko back into the base, leaving Doc to stare stupidly before glancing awkwardly at the other two aliens.

Riffraff sighed quietly. "I guess I'll go pack up the chest..." He shook his head and then offered a lame smile to Doc as he passed.

The chupadore at last looked resigned and slowly approached the demon. "I...I can't believe we're about to steal a HADES dropship. Just yesterday I was walking into this canyon, expecting a bunch of bored soldiers in the middle of nowhere. Not aliens, or other aliens or...demons." He peered warily at Amdusias, who fixed him with a bemused glance.

"One should never presume precisely what life has planned for you -- life itself does not possess this knowledge either, after all."

Doc frowned quietly as he shifted his medical kit to one arm, the other lifting his cap as he scratched at the back of his head. "I...I guess. But this is the kinda stuff that gets people like me killed. I understand you all came from worlds that are so much different from Sirca, and have their own dangers, but..."

Amdusias studied Doc for a moment before allowing himself to sit on the edge of the dropship's loading bay. "Mortal. There is nothing wrong with fearing the consequences of a decision. Even those of us who are supernatural know this sensation." He took a slow breath as Doc awkwardly stood before him, clutching the kit in both hands once more. "We had a choice on the previous world we stood upon. We could have either followed the path the two wolves took, into an unknown dimension, a new and strange world...or we could have forged a path to return to our home world. We would have been able to elude our pursuers equally with either decision. I cast my opinion that we should return home, to familiar ground, we would have the advantage and the resources to prepare a proper counter-offensive."

The demon picked at a bit of invisible dust on his sleeve, not seeming to notice that it was burned and tattered in multiple places. Doc watched him silently, seeing the way the reptile's features creased as he continued slowly: "Graceful Melody, however, insisted that we should follow those idiotic wolves, to provide them with additional assistance and, as he so eloquently put it, 'keep an eye on their sorry asses so we ain't got no regrets'." Amdusias smiled slightly, his expression becoming less sad and more wistful. "That damnable child. Infinitely cold and cruel toward the world, yet he would put himself in harm's way in an instant for the lives of the innocent." He studied the claws on his fingers for a moment. "Even now, I know I myself fear the unknown more than he ever did."

Doc shifted on his paws before murmuring: "I don't think I've got even a fraction of the bravery he had, though. I'm a medic -- not even a good one -- in a war that I don't agree with, who wouldn't want to harm someone else even if they were about to kill me." He gave a lame laugh, glancing to one side. "And yet I'm still scared of dying -- heck, I'm scared of getting on this ship because if we're caught...it might be even worse than dying." He shook his head and looked at Amdusias again. "Graceful was fearless, and talented in a fight, and didn't even hesitate to give his life for...all of us."

Amdusias grunted softly, his tail twisting toward Doc as one of the two sharpened tines of bone lightly tapped against the chupadore's chest. "You do not need to possess his courage or his prowess in battle to make a difference, healer. It is not cowardice to remain true to your principles, regardless of what they are. To refuse to break your own morals even under duress -- this is a strength, not a weakness." The demon looked toward the base for a few seconds before offering a small but honest smile. "Your companions would benefit greatly from your presence on this new adventure. I do not know the fate of your world now that we have injected ourselves into your reality, but it has no doubt been altered. You could stand back and try to avoid the inevitable storm...but I believe you will find a greater sense of self if you accompany the others. You have a role to play as much as any of us do."

Doc frowned quietly in thought. He'd gotten over the fact he was talking to a supernatural creature, but it was still difficult to accept that it wasn't just chatting with him, it was giving him practical advice. That might have unsettled him more than anything else. He nonetheless stood back as their three companions emerged from the base, still visibly torn even as they began throwing the gathered gear and supplies into the dropship.

Amdusias kept his eyes on Doc for a bit longer before scowling as Mahihko flicked his tail into his face. "Gods damn you, noisy cricket, what, what is it??"

"Yo, thill out," the wolf announced around something in his muzzle. "'Ere. Sammithes." He held out a picnic basket to the demon, who blinked but delicately took it in both hands, leaving Mahihko free to finish chowing down on the sandwich hanging from his jaws.

"I knew that thing would come in handy, even if Grif and Simmons kept refusing my picnic dates!" Donut commented as he pranced past with a giggle, clutching two matching suitcases decorated with leopard print.

Doc stared wordlessly for a moment. "I...your travel kit is...two suitcases? How much tea are you bringing??"

"Oh, only one is for tea and personal effects!" Donut trilled with an extravagant gesture. "The other one has all the essentials for a getaway on Sirca! Lots of bullets, some grenades, medical supplies and of course, Sarge's Standard Issue Booklet of Appropriate Insults to Use Against Your New Blue Enemies!"

Riffraff mumbled to himself as he quietly squeezed past to drop the enormous, heavy crate onto the floor of the dropship, wheezing softly after it clunked into place. "You and Grace must have similar thoughts on what makes for a suitable 'getaway supply', then..."

Mahihko had already wandered into the cockpit while Riffraff started to secure the various supplies they'd brought out. Amdusias was chewing resolutely on one of the sandwiches, the basket perched in his lap while Donut flitted around to check for anything left behind by the dead HADES soldiers. It left only Doc standing awkwardly in the dusty canyon, staring at the others.

Donut eventually paused and smiled down at the medic with a slight tilt of his head. "Hey, Doc! You're comin', right??"

Riffraff glanced up from the cargo he secured, looking at the nervous chupadore curiously while Amdusias watched silently, amber eyes glowing with their own inquisitiveness.

The medic exhaled, a long, rattling sound before he asked sheepishly: "Do...do any of us even know how to fly this thing?"

"Oh, I'm already like...halfway to figurin' it out!" Mahihko called back from the cockpit, a moment before he tapped something and caused the dropship to plummet down into the ground with a screech of metal. Doc hopped back with a horrified expression as Amdusias looked supremely annoyed, his eyes flicking furiously toward the front of the ship."Aw shit, that musta been the landing gear."

Doc slowly turned to see that, yes, the landing gear had been retracted. Or rather...had started to, before the mechanical components had snapped under pressure and torn two of the three pieces of equipment from their housing to sit, quite broken, a few feet away.

"Welp, that sucks." Mahihiko's voice paused before another button could be heard being pressed, this time causing the jets on either wing to rumble to life. "Ayyyy, there we go! Who needs landin' gear anyway, we're takin' off, ain't we?"

"Oh my god, we're all going to die," Doc mumbled as he finally took a hesitant step forward, moving around the fiery output of the thruster and clambering into the side of the dropship next to Amdusias. He looked up at the demon, who stared back down with a rather severe expression before he wordlessly offered a sandwich to the terrified medic.

Doc peered down at the sandwich, then sighed and accepted it as he and Amdusias both stood up and moved back so Donut could slide the heavy door across the opening of the ship and seal them inside. "We're so gonna die," Doc repeated miserably before taking a resigned bite of the sandwich.


They were flying, and it was almost smooth, even. Not that it stopped anyone's bones from continuing to rattle after the jarring start to Mahihko's first flight in an alien airship. His finest rebel yell couldn't drown out the sound of everyone's horrified shouts as he'd sent the ship leaping upward violently, only to then immediately slam everyone onto their backs as he jammed the yoke forward and lurched the dropship into a jagged sprint.

Mahihko remained at the cockpit, insisting he knew the way as he steered the ship toward the inverted curvature of the ring while the other four settled into the uncomfortable seats that were, at least, equipped with safety straps. While trying to ignore the occasional surprised grumble from the wolf who continued to claim he was "totally in control" and "had everything runnin' just hunky-dory", the others fell into a quiet conversation.

"It should have been me," Amdusias muttered as he crossed his arms and looked abnormally childish.

Doc shifted awkwardly in his seat before chiming in, "I, um. I thought Graceful made the right choice." Amdusias immediately glared at him and the medic shrunk back, then added lamely: "I mean...I mean because it was your, er. Magic that protected the rest of us. Twice, actually."

"Yeah, those armored soldiers would have made short work of us without you, Dusey," Riffraff murmured, nudging the demon in the bicep and making him scowl immensely even as his expression softened slightly.

Donut smiled and raised a hand. "And you know what they say! When life gives you lemons...make lemonade!!"

Riffraff smiled as well. "Heh. We had that phrase, too. Grace hated it." Amdusias snorted but gave a half-nod while glowering out through one of the small windows.

Donut brightened immensely and he and Riffraff began to trade metaphors, slang and euphemisms back and forth while Doc tried not to look too embarrassed by some of the delicate subjects that came baked into some of Donut's favorite sayings. Mahihko would occasionally toss one back from the front of the ship, too, usually with enough charged undertone that both Riffraff and Doc were knocked abashedly silent for a few seconds while Donut giggled away.

It was nearly ten minutes later that Amdusias suddenly interrupted with a deep frown. "Lemonade." The conversation trailed off as the others glanced curiously toward him. "Graceful hated the phrase, and he hated that infernal mortal beverage." He grumbled and clenched his fingers slowly into fists as a bit of amber energy trickled out from between his knuckles. "Do not simply accept life's ugly, tart, yellow fruits when they are thrust upon you. Grasp them firmly and -- as Graceful would have eloquently stated -- shove them directly up life's ass." The language sounded strange coming from the demon, but he spoke the words with a steely strength, his eyes burning fiercely.

Both Donut and Doc stared across at Riffraff, who worked his muzzle helplessly for a few seconds, then asked hesitantly: "Am...Amdusias, what are you saying?"

Doc cleared his throat before adding sheepishly: "I thought, um. I thought what you told me earlier is that we can't help what life does to us..."

"We may not know what life has in store for us, but we most certainly do not need to just accept it!" he insisted before his eyes locked onto Riffraff. They seemed almost crazed, but the horse noticed a flicker of hope behind them. "Gambler. Graceful's soul is strong. And I am aware he bid us to not pursue him, to stay with our..." He paused before speaking the next word firmly. "Friends. But our companions are strong! And they are capable of continuing this journey without us." Amdusias met Doc's wide eyes, the demon dropping down to a knee and reaching out to place an enormous hand on the chupadore's shoulder. "You all are strong," he repeated quietly.

Doc blinked and then silently looked at the demon's hand before meeting his eyes again and giving a hesitant nod. From the front, Mahihko twisted around in his seat with a half-smile as he spoke over the hum of the engines. "Go, you two. Go find 'im. And once he's done kickin' your ass, promise us you'll try to swing by, eh?"

Donut undid his safety straps so he could hop up to his paws and hug the demon tightly around his muscular torso. Amdusias's arms went wide before he sighed and then returned the embrace securely. "We will do our best." He gently pushed Donut back, speaking gently again while Riffraff awkwardly climbed out of his own straps to go share a quick word with Mahihko at the front. "Fearless warrior -- I must humbly request something of you..."

Donut tilted his head curiously, then smiled in understanding before Amdusias could form the words. He dug around in his armor and eventually produced the pale blue feather, which he offered to the demon in both hands. "Tell him we all appreciate what he did...but that we'd really like to see him again one day."

"I shall," Amdusias replied softly as he gingerly took the feather and clutched it securely in one hand. He looked up as Riffraff came back from the cockpit. "Time is of the essence, gambler. Are you prepared?"

"Considering you once told me that bringing a mortal into the realm of souls was nearly guaranteed to lead to a complete mental breakdown...no," the horse mumbled before he took a deep breath. "But Grace'd do it for me, in an instant." He smiled down at Doc, offering his hand for a brief but firm shake. "It's been a helluva trip, guys. Take care of each other." He turned around, already anticipating Donut's hug as he closed his eyes and returned it tightly. He leaned down to whisper to the soldier: "Keep an eye on Mahihko...he's liable to do something Graceful would, too."

Donut smiled a bit, glancing briefly up to the cockpit and then nodding as he planted a kiss on the horse's cheek and made him blush. "Will do, Mr. Horse!" He then stepped back as Amdusias loosely coiled his tail around Riffraff's legs. "Good luck, you two...be safe in, um. In ghost world!"

Amdusias snorted but smiled slightly all the same, nodding and then closing his eyes as he began to murmur in his native tongue while at his side, Riffraff shifted closer and bowed his head to the two chupadores. And as Donut raised his hand to wave goodbye, the two suddenly disappeared in a pop of energy, leaving behind only a wisp of black smoke and the distinct crackle of Amdusias's supernatural ability.

Donut sighed quietly, but continued to smile sadly as he sat down next to Doc again and then shamelessly dropped his head on the medic's shoulder. "Dang. Our little party's gettin' smaller and smaller."

Doc looked uncomfortable, but didn't push the soldier away, only sighing as well and then glancing to the front as Mahihko remarked in an upbeat tone: "Don't worry, fellas! They know what they're doin'. Made the right choice. Plus we're gonna find our friends soon enough, an' then we'll be all gravy again, you'll see!"


* * *


Will tried not to panic. He had formal training for surviving with low to dwindling supplies. He'd been given very clear directions by O'Neill and he could even see the distant landmarks he needed to use. The tundra of Sampi was visible on the horizon, he was getting closer. He was making progress.

But the radio was dead now. Even conserving the battery as he had, it was already on a low charge and had finally given out as he hurriedly asked for an updated set of directions from O'Neill. And to make matters worse, Samael hadn't offered much more than a few pitiful whimpers over the last couple of hours, his only response to Will's voice to curl up tighter. Will had wrapped the wound in his knee, but the bullet hole in Samael's shoulder was starting to leak again and the rebel was beginning to shiver despite his thick Sampi hide. "That's shock...oh no, that's shock, isn't it," Will mumbled to himself as he fidgeted and debated slowing down to see if there was a blanket somewhere in the supply bags in the back of the hog.

"Goddammit," he whispered as he stared back through the windshield and then continued to race forward. He hadn't passed many signs of life since his last contact with the rebel base -- it was a blessing, but he still felt like he was woefully exposed. The trees were sparse and the rocky plateaus and bluffs in this area were barren, making the jeep stand out like a sore thumb. The thought of stopping made him even more nervous and he mumbled a soft apology to Samael as he shoved his paw to the floorboard and begged the jeep for a bit more speed.

He could feel the temperature starting to lower as the Sampi border drew nearer. There was better cover in the cold frozen corner of Sirca -- even if the tundra was unforgiving, Will would take it over being so easy to find. The chupadore closed his eyes in relief when he heard the gentle hum of a wintry breeze growing louder and louder. He had to be getting close if he could already hear...

But then his eyes slowly widened as he realized the whine was not from Sampi. In fact, it was nothing natural at all. He stared ahead as an object became visible on the horizon and it was with a horrified expression that he saw the sound was emanating from the turbines of an approaching drop-shop. "Oh no...oh no, no no no," Will gasped as he shrunk down into the seat. It wasn't possible...their luck couldn't be this bad. Maybe it's just a supply ship...maybe it's a private ship, the SSF has their own ships, right?

But the HADES logo was unmistakable. Will let out a low moan of denial as he started to look around frantically. He was in the middle of an open expanse of cracked earth and scattered rocks, none large enough to even remotely think of using as cover. His only remaining hope was that the ship would pass over them...that it wasn't looking for them, and had no interest in a couple of under-dressed chupadores in a military vehicle...

He grit his teeth as he continued to drive forward, but he could already see the dropship decelerating. The fear began to rush into his nerves and he could feel his entire body tensing as he struggled to think of a plan. The nose of the ship dipped low before the thrusters screamed as the hull swung slightly to one side. It was getting closer and closer to the ground and Will cursed as he reached out with one hand to hold Samael steady while slamming on the brakes. The jeep skidded to a stop and the back end whipped around so their vehicles were parallel. And then without hesitation, Will jumped out of the hog with the momentum of the sliding halt as the reloaded handgun appeared in his hands.

He yelled incoherently and started to fire at the cockpit as tears of desperation welled up in his eyes. Goddammit, if he could just drive them away long enough...or bring it down...they had a chance of running. It was an impossible chance, but he knew Samael would try if their positions were swapped.

He couldn't quite make out the face at the yoke but it certainly seemed shocked by the sudden barrage of pistol fire. The pilot yanked on the controls and the dropship jerked upward before twisting into an ungainly half-spin. Will was so sufficiently surprised by the over-correction that he hesitantly lowered the handgun and wiped quickly at his eyes. What the hell...

He heard someone moving to open the side panel and the chupadore quickly lifted the pistol again with a deep breath. If this was where he made his last stand, so be it...but he was going to do it standing up.

Even before the door slid open more than a few inches, he could hear a voice calling out cheerfully. "Hey, hey, don't shoot! Don't shoot, we're friendly!"

...Will couldn't imagine even the most devious HADES units attempting something like that. He frowned and carefully pointed the muzzle of the pistol downward again. He didn't speak, however, and just stood between the ship and the jeep...between the ship and Samael.

Eventually the door slid open entirely and two faces peered out at Will's trembling form. They certainly did not look like HADES, either. Will looked between the two of them, keeping a wary grip on the pistol. One of them appeared to be Red Army -- although his armor was tinted an irregular, lighter hue -- and the other wore some kind of green cap...

Will took a step forward before he gasped softly as he made out the red cross. "D-doctor! Are you a doctor?!? We need help!" He no longer cared if they were hostile, all he could think of was banking on someone caring enough to help Samael. "M-my friend...he's hurt bad, he needs attention right away!" he shouted up to them, finally letting the pistol hang from one hand as he mentally begged for something, anything from them.

"I...I'm actually just a medic!" the unarmored chupadore yelled back down to Will. There were a few awkward seconds of silence before he added lamely: "We'll be right down!"