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Rendesvous Chapter 3

Delicious was the smell of burning corpses, riding the smoke-filled air that echoed with the pleas of humans. The creature inhaled deeply, a rumbling sigh of pleasure escaping her throat as she opened her eyes...two glowing, red orbs of fire...and fixated on a fleeing sailor. With a howl of glee, she pounced, claws of gleaming obsidian tearing through the soft flesh, rendering him into pieces within a mere matter of seconds.

"Child's play," she growled gutterally, climbing to her feet and stretching her wings luxuriously. The heat waves of the burning fishermen's huts caused the shadows to dance, dim outlines of fleeing, desperate men. She licked her snout, tasting the bitter tang of blood on the short, brown fur.

And she desired more...

* * * * *

"GAH! Donuts!" Faetan snapped straight up in bed, her eyes bulging. For a long moment she remained as she was, panting for breath, beads of sweat trickling down her forehead, back, and chest. Finally she caught her breath and released it slowly, relinquishing her death grip on the dampened blankets. Disgusted, she kicked them off of the bed and turned sulkily onto her side. "Stupid nightmares," she grumbled, and glared at the windows. A pearly sheen glistened faintly where the fading moonlight fell on gauzy, pale green curtains. "Stupid prison."

And a prison it was, no matter how lushly decorated Charlemagne had prepared it. Frowning, she rubbed at her right shoulder which still ached from her last attempt to crash through the window. It happened rather quickly. A running leap, WHITEWHITEWHITEWHITEWHITE, and there she was on the floor, stunned and breathless for what seemed like hours.

She pulled her knees to her chest, still glowering at the window and the invisible power shield that held her prisoner. Her thoughts drifted to Tannin and the others, wondering how they were faring, wondering if they knew about her captivity. And what of Merlin? Was he having worse luck against the enemy pianos now that she wasn't around to keep an eye on him?

Faetan sighed, closing her eyes. "Sure miss you guys..." she murmured, slipping her hand beneath the pillow to clutch it more tightly to her.

* * * * *

Hiryuu stared tiredly at the reploid's form as a thin blue laser moved with excruciating slowness from head to toe, inputting the final data. Things had been surprisingly successful regarding his reconstruction, excepting the twenty-three memory scans he'd been forced to repeat. At the crucial point of the scan, Hiryuu had attempted to state the reploid's master, but always...ALWAYS, without fail...Jiharn had interjected something else completely silly.

"Reploid, I am your creator. You will follow..."

"...Mr. T is on!"

"I will follow Mr. T."


And five hours later, after the erasing and re-scanning...

"Reploid, I am your creator." He paused, glancing around. All was quiet, no Jiharn-age anywhere. He cleared his throat. "You will follow..."

"Lemons are so good, boss." *slurp slurp slurp*

"I will follow lemons."


Another five hours later...

"Reploid, I am your creator. You will follow..."

"Faetan, boss!"

"I will follow Faetan, boss."

"Would you STOP that?! Now I have to start all OVER again! Grah grah grah!" He reached for the re-scanning button which was beginning to acquire a faint groove from his fingertip when Jiharn reached out and clamped his hands over Hiryuu's wrist.

He gulped. "Boss...Faetan. She's uh...well...she's kinda sorta..."

"Kinda sorta WHAT? Either you ARE something, or you AREN'T. Now spit it out, why don't you, so I can get back to my work!"

"Weeeelllllllllllllllllll..." Shuffle shuffle. "You aren't gonna punt me, are you?"

Hiryuu clenched his teeth tightly. "NoIwon'tjustspititoutbeforeIthrottleyou."

Jiharn winced, and instinctively shielded his face with his arms as he squeaked something under his breath as quickly as he could.

"What's that? Speak up!"



"Faetan's been blown to smithereens!" Jiharn finally blurted, and cringed yet again, squeezing his eyes shut. Any moment now the boot would strike his posterior and send him into orbit. Yes sir, any moment now.


Quivering, Jiharn slowly opened one eye to peek between his fingertips. Hiryuu stood there as though frozen in time, not even breathing. Not even twitching! Jiharn blinked his one eye, then cautiously opened the other. Hiryuu still hadn't budged.


There was no response.

This was getting a little spooky, thought Jiharn. He glanced over at the failed time-stopper contraption, and saw that it was still unplugged. So he hadn't been frozen in time, which was partly good because Jiharn had buried himself in serious trouble the LAST time it had been activated. But it was partly bad too, because Jiharn was utterly confused. "Boss? Hey boss?" He poked Hiryuu's shoulder with his finger.

Still, no response.

Jiharn poked Hiryuu in the eye.

"OW!!!!!" Hiryuu flailed his arms, slapping Jiharn away from him. "Get out of here you fool! And take that reploid with you!"

"But boss! You worked so hard on it!"

"Does it MATTER now?!" he spat, his insides twisted into painful knots. "We MADE him to win Faetan's love! Now last I heard, corpses don't really give up any sort of affection!"

"Well yeah, but she's not a corpse, I think she's more a pile of ashes. See, Lunaris had all these mini-pistols that went off in the weapons shop...which is now a pile of ashes as well, so maybe they're kinda mixed together..."

"I SAID OUT!!!" Hiryuu turned his back away from Jiharn, his hands falling onto the cool stainless steel of the control console. His head drooped, his shoulders hunched as he fell quiet. "Just go," his voice broke.

Now Jiharn was *really* worried. He'd never seen the boss like this, not even when Jiharn had tamed his ravenous beast o' destruction and converted it to be a fruitarian like himself. He cautiously approached, and patted his mentor's shoulder. "Are you okay, boss?" he ventured.

Hiryuu didn't answer for a long moment, and Jiharn was starting to wonder if he'd have to poke him in the eye again. Then Hiryuu shivered, and closed his eyes. "I feel terrible," he croaked.

"Do you want to punt me?" Jiharn volunteered charitably. "That always makes you feel better, yeah?"

Hiryuu smiled faintly, then glanced at Jiharn and shook his head. "I'm going to go lie down for awhile. Think about things. Take the day off, all right?" He straightened his back, refreshed his smile, and walked away.

Jiharn felt somehow...empty. No orders? No work to be done? What was he supposed to do with an entire day?!

He glanced over at the blank-eyed reploid. "Well, first things first...let's get you up and running. That oughta cheer up the boss!" He rolled up the sleeves of his labcoat and set to work.

* * * * *

The mourners came and went, paying homage to the brightly painted urn that held the ashes of the weapons shop and perhaps some part of Faetan as well. Merlin kept to himself on the far left of the fifth pew, watching silently. He didn't sigh, and hadn't really felt any overwhelming pangs of sadness. Something about it just didn't sit right with him. ~It's almost as if I was expecting to FEEL some sort of passing on...this just doesn't seem real to me.~ And where was Macc? Tenchimaru had speculated that he'd probably gone off to visit Kai again, but money was tight, and Macc had already seen her just a few days before he'd disappeared.

~Am I just numb inside?~ his brow lowered faintly as he frowned, speculating. ~Or is it denial?~ He wasn't sure, and that irritated him.


Merlin glanced up as Tannin slid onto the pew beside him, her eyes fixed on the urn that sat resting on the pedestal at the front of the church. Zero had just entered and was walking toward it, his face set in painfully restrained neutrality.

"Hey," Merlin nodded to her, straightening a little. "You all right?"

Tannin pursed her lips, remaining silent for a few moments. "Not really."

Merlin offered a faint smile and patted her shoulder. "I'm sorry. I know you two were real close. It must be hard for you."

She shook her head, brushing a lock of flaming hair behind her ear. "It isn't hard at all. And that's bugging the hell out of me."

He nearly choked. "Uh...we're in a church..."

"Whuh? Oh, sorry," she colored faintly. "It's just that...this whole thing stinks like fishrot. I mean, as lethal as Lunaris' weapons are, he's not careless about them. They wouldn't just blow things up so suddenly, y'know?"

"That went through my mind, too," Merlin nodded solemnly. "I can't help feeling that something big is going down."

Tannin shuddered. "I hope you're not talking about Moogoon, there's no way she's EVER coming back--"

"No no no," he shook his head vigorously. "Something *really* sinister. Everything seems to be leading up to this big question mark." He put his hands on his knees, staring intently at the back of the pew before him. "There are just too many missing pieces. I hate the vagueness of it all."

"Mm," the woman faintly nodded her agreement, her eyes moving once again towards Zero as he kneeled before the urn, bowing his head respectfully. "I'm glad I'm not the only one who isn't moved to tears by this sudden death, then."

He smiled weakly. "I'm sad she's gone, but...I dunno, it just..." He rubbed the back of his head. "I just have this feeling, that she's not gone at all. Just...waiting. Does that make sense?"

Tannin looked at him for a moment. "Not really. But I get your point," she grinned. "It's a shame we're not omniscient. If you'll excuse me...I have to take advantage of this situation. Before the investigation starts, of course," she added with a wink. She stood and ran her hands briefly through her thick red mane, then adopted a tragic, heartbroken expression as she shambled towards the urn...and Zero...with a few choked sobs.

Merlin looked away to hide his smile while Zero obligingly reached out to comfort Tannin, though somewhat awkwardly as she clung to him tenaciously whenever he made to step back.

Merlin stood to his feet and walked to the door, gathering his purple cloak into his arms before venturing into the afternoon sunlight. Some fresh air in the open countryside would do his mind a world of good. He began reviewing the situation once again, hoping that perhaps he would latch onto something he'd missed.

* * * * *

"You can't keep her here much longer, Charl. I think the isolation is making her just a tad bit violent." Which was something of an understatement. Faetan had hurled almost every available object in the room at the windows and door, snarling and growling viciously.

Charlemagne shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment. "I can't. This is the best way to protect her."

Weiila sighed with exasperation. "From what?! Hiryuu? I did some research on the guy, he's totally harmless! All of his experiments are bitter failures!"

He glared at the woman.

"Well, excepting you, of course," Weiila amended. But only for the politeness factor.

"It's not Hiryuu...dang his rotten father eyes...that concerns me. It's the other guy. He said we have to keep her here, something about her knowing too much."

"Knowing too much about WHAT?!"

"If I knew, I'd probably be locked up too!" A shiver trickled over his spine, and his hand twitched. "You haven't seen the guy, Weiila, he's...he's pure EVIL. He's got these RED EYES..."

"But aren't your eyes red...?"

Charlemagne paused. "Well...mine don't glow."

"Oooooo. Now that IS evil. Go on."

"He seems to...I dunno...suck light into him. It's like things get darker when he's just standing there. I tell you, it's spooky!"

"Hey hey hey, guess what I found!" Another man entered the room, stylishly dressed in futuristic armor and shades, a sash hanging loosely from his throat. In his arms, he held a limp armor-clad figure that neither Weiila nor Charlemagne recognized. "You come across the strangest things when spelunking..."

Weiila was immediately by his side. "984..." she addressed the newcomer. "Is he alive?"

"Oh yes, very much so." 984 glanced to his left and right. "Got a couch or somethin' to put him on? He's not heavy, mind you," he frowned, lest they got the idea that he was a weakling. "Just bulky."

"Suuuuuuuuure, he's BULKY," Charlemagne hooked his fingers into the annoying quotes sign.

Weiila was already opening a chamber door, ushering 984 inside before he could snap out a retort to Charlemagne. "This one's empty. Gads, but this one's pale!" She reached out to touch his forehead while the reploid dumped him gently onto the bed. "Cold and clammy...not good," she shook her head as she wiped her hands on a handkerchief. Tilting her head back with eyes half closed, she lightly skimmed her hand over the top of him, searching out his vital signs. There was something there...that was good...but it somehow felt diminished. As though something had just sucked the life right out of him with only a beggar's portion left behind.

She rolled up her sleeves, squaring her shoulders. "I need to be alone, if you please," she glanced at 984 who was hovering curiously.

"Aw, but I found him...what if I'm *really* quiet?"

"Yeah, and me too!" Charlemagne stood on his toes. "I'm so good at being quiet! I'm the quiet master!"

"Psh, yeah, right. A flaming barrel rolling over a hill of gunpowder makes less noise than you do."

"Does not!"

"Does so!"



"OUT!!!!" Weiila flared, shoving both of them out of the room and locking the door.

Charlemagne and 984 stood there in the corridor for a moment, stunned. "What's with HER?" Charlemagne sniffed.

"Must be that female thing," 984 smirked. "I'm bored. Let's go pick on Hmongs."

"Yeah, good idea!" And off they went to terrorize the Hmong Free-Love Society.

* * * * *

Merlin stared at Mazrim impatiently, listening to the faint cheesy chords of 8-bit video game music from the Virtual Boy. "Uh, Maz..."

"Hmmmmm?" Bip bip beep-o doo doo...

"I asked you if Faetan was alive or not."

Beep bip bip doo bip... "I'm not allowed to answer that."

Merlin stared. "So you know?"


"Why can't you tell me, then?!"

"Because of the Elvis stipulation."

Merlin stared again. "The what?"

"Elvis stipulation. Too many people wanting to know if he was alive or dead, when he simply didn't want anyone to know at all. So there was a big motion in the celestial courts--"

"So he's not dead?"

"I never said that. I merely stated that he--" DURN!!! Bip beep beep beep be-beep! "AUGH!!!! Stupid peesa--I'll catch you later, you're too distracting on this level." PUZZAH!

Mazrim was gone.

Merlin grunted in frustration. "I'll have to look into this myself, then," he declared, and sighed. It meant he'd have to approach someone skilled in forensics and science. And as far as he knew, there was only one man with a degree in both areas...

* * * * *

Hiryuu's keep was...interesting. It appeared that he'd gone through great lengths to make it appear foreboding and evil. As soon as he stepped onto the grounds, the clouds overhead rushed together into a dark gray mass, rumbling with thunder and flashing with half-hearted threats of lightning. But Jiharn's painted smiles on the stone gargoyles sucked the evil factor right out of it. Merlin felt no twinge of apprehension, therefore, when he rang the doorbell.

"Bwoh ha ha ha!" the doorbell echoed from within the keep. Again, another of Jiharn's 'improvements' that took away from the dark atmosphere to turn it outright silly. "Bwoh ha ha ha!" "Bwoh ha ha ha!" He rang the doorbell twice more, then folded his arms behind him patiently.

He heard the faint sound of dragging scuffle noises shortly before the door opened. A bleary-eyed Hiryuu peered out at him with no small amount of irritation. "We're closed. Indefinitely. Go away."

"Now hold on just a sec," Merlin braced his hands against the door to keep Hiryuu from shutting it. "I need your help."

"You need a lobotomy then?"

"Wha--?! No, of course not! I want you to run an analysis on some ash I gathered--"

"Not interested." He flung his body against the door, slamming it shut and sending Merlin stumbling backwards in surprise.

A new tactic was required. "Ah well...I'll just have to find some other genius to take a look at it..."

"There's no one more ingenious than I!" Hiryuu bellowed from behind the locked door.

"Heh. Yeah, that's what HE said. I guess I should have listened to really WAS a waste of time coming here."

Silence. "Yeah right, I'm not an idiot you know. Like that trick hasn't been used a THOUSAND times before. I'm appalled that you would think me so inferior in intelligence that I wouldn't realize you were attempting some paltry usage of reverse psychology. Begone!"

Merlin rushed back to the front step, his face pressed close to the door. "All right, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to insult you. I don't think Faetan is dead, and you're the only one I can think of that could help me prove it."

There was a long span of silence, but for the threatening rumbles overhead.

Then a heavy clicking, and the door creaked open faintly. "Fae...? Not dead...?"

Merlin shook his head. "I don't know for sure. But I gathered some of the ash from the demolished weapon shop. Can you run a test on it, see if maybe any part of her is actually in there?"

Hiryuu narrowed his eyes. "I thought the wind took care of all the ashes at the site."

Merlin fumbled again. "Fine, I stole the urn's contents."

Hiryuu looked pleased. "Ah, dear boy! I knew there was some touch of evil to you!" Merlin sweat-dropped. "There may be hope for you yet! Come in, come in! Surely there must be some sort of arrangement to be made. Hm hm hm hm hm!" he chortled, extending his hand and opening the door wide.

NOW Merlin was feeling some apprehension. Reluctantly, he stepped inside the keep as the door slammed shut, echoing ominously through the stone halls.

* * * * *

Blurry shapes swiveled and tugged at his line of vision. "Urgh...ugh..." ~I'm not too eloquent in the mornings, am I?~ he thought to himself. He pushed himself up onto one elbow, and looked around. A half-moon hung in the sky, surrounded by jeweled blackness. He frowned faintly, realizing that his helmet and face mask were not in place as they should have been.

He thought back, and remembered that he'd taken them off when he was consumed with...with...

What had it been?

Fire? Pain? Anger?

Perhaps all of them, he sighed to himself and used his other elbow to prop himself up into a sitting position. Draped in an armchair was a woman in white, her long hair hanging over half of her face and spilling over her shoulders. Her breathing was shaky and faint...not too dissimilar to his own. He still felt nauseated and weak, worse than he'd ever felt before, at least as far as he could remember.

~Ah, such is the life of Macc,~ he thought with a wry smile. ~Now, to figure out where I am...~

He stood wearily to his feet, waiting for the inky blotches of darkness to melt away from his eyes before proceeding toward the window. It was still too dark to tell where he was specifically, but he didn't recognize what he saw. This concerned him greatly. Was he a prisoner? A patient? A scientific study in lemon obsession? Who knew... He glanced behind him again at the woman. Perhaps she did. But he hesitated at waking her, she seemed so exhausted. Perhaps even frail.

~I'll just leave her alone,~ he decided, and crept silently to the door. It swung open noiselessly without any effort, so he scratched out the possibility of being a captive.

The hallways were carpeted in red and black, matching the lush and expensive tapestries that hung on the walls. Orbs of fireflies floated overhead, adding a mystical touch to the interior. It filled him with a vague sense of awe.

Macc paused as a sound pricked his ears, that of a dark grumbling, and something being flicked and fried. Someone playing with a bug zapper? He turned towards it, since the source of the grumbling sounded somewhat familiar.


He approached the door, elaborately carved into a pair of lions clawing at one another with bared teeth and claws embedded with jet. Carefully, Macc pressed his ear to the door.


He blinked, and gave a faint nod. It was Faetan all right. Gently he rapped at the wood, and the grumbling halted for a moment.

"Since when did you take to knocking, you worthless slime of the putrid slugs?"

Macc gave a start, as that hadn't quite been the response he'd expected. "Uh, Faetan? It's Macc. Can I--"

"Macc!!?!?!" Her feet thundered across the floor, followed shortly by a loud ZZZZZAP!!! "AAAAUUUGGGHHH!!!!"

He wrenched the door open, and saw Faetan sprawled out on the floor, floundering for breath. "What happened?!" Macc started towards her, but she suddenly hissed at him.

"Don't, don't...the door is warded with some sort of shield," she gasped, and let her head fall back to the floor. "I wondered where you'd gone. What happened to you?"

"Wish I knew," he rubbed at his blue hair, looking around the doorframe to see if he couldn't find the source of the shield. "How did you get here?"

"Not too sure either," she smiled faintly, and closed her eyes. "The guy who brought me here is called Charlemagne. He says he's protecting me from 'him'...but I don't know just who that would be. Whoever it is hasn't chosen to appear, but I get the feeling that this whole keep belongs to him."

Macc crouched to the floor, peering at the carpets and stonework. "I'm gonna get you out of here."

" hero," she grinned, then looked at him again. She stared. "That's the first time I've seen you without your mask."

"Uh...? Oh. Not sure where it is," he scratched at the back of his head. "I'll have to get a replacement before heading back to Rendezvous."

She shrugged a little. "Why? You look nice. And I don't mean that in a 'tee hee let's flirt' way, you really look good."

He colored faintly. "Thanks..." But he still had to get a replacement. "This is strange...I don't see any mechanical devices. Your shield might be magic-based."

"Charl has the key to deactivate it. Whew...I forgot how much it takes outta you." She didn't bother getting up off of the floor. "Have you been to Rendezvous? Is everyone else okay?"

Macc shook his head. "Sorry. Haven't been back yet."

"S'all right. It's nice seeing a familiar face." She sighed tiredly, and smiled. "Are you a prisoner, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

He stood to his feet again. "Probably the latter, there was no shielding on my room. Some girl was with me, in a white dress with long brown hair."

Faetan pursed her lips. "Probably Weiila. She's all right, you can trust her. Profound healer, too, I'm so jealous."

Macc grinned, despite the anxiety that ached in his innards. There was something very wrong about all of this. "And you say this Charlemagne person can deactivate the shield... Since I'm not under lock and key, I could probably try to get him to cooperate in your freedom. Maybe find out a bit more about what's going on here."

"Nuh uh," she disagreed. "You get outta here, Macc. It's WAY too risky."

"Oh please, like I'd just LEAVE you here! Can you honestly say you would high-tail it outta here if one of us was in your position?"

"Of course!" And she was silent as Macc folded his arms. "Dang your eyes... That's not a fair argument."

"Sure it is. Hang tight, Fae, you'll be out in no time. Scout's honor."

She glanced at him with a lop-sided smile. "You're not a scout."

"Ah, so you're the expert of my past, are you? For all you know, I might have my lemon badge."

"Psh," she snorted. "Now get out of here, before someone gets suspicious!" She flicked her fingers at him.

Macc smiled, and gently closed the door. This definitely required investigation.

* * * * *

Hiryuu mashed his eye against the microscope eyepiece, adjusting the dials while hm'ing to himself. Merlin stood by, off to the side, and watched eagerly. "Hmmmm..." Hiryuu stood, rubbed his chin, and extracted another sample of ashes. Very carefully, he sifted the gray stuff into a test tube, slowly tipping it into the analyzer. A series of colored lights danced over the monitors. "Hmmmm..." He rubbed his chin again.

"Hmmmm what?" Merlin asked.

"Just hmmmm...I'm speculating. Now please be silent, I must concentrate." He retreated to the microscope to peer at it again, scribbling some notes on a pad of yellow paper.

"Hey boss, I finished the reploid!" Jiharn announced happily, bouncing into the lab. Behind him walked a stone-faced figure clad in golden armor. "I named him 'X' 'cause the name Ben just doesn't seem to fit him very well--"

"Shhhhh...I'm working, Jiharn," Hiryuu grumbled, adding a drop of some chemical to the ashes on a slide. A wisp of purple smoke curled into the air and vanished.

"--and whoever heard of a weapon of mass destruction being called Ben? Ha! I almost named him Hiryuu after you, since you rescued him--"

"SHHHHH! WORKING! BE SILENT!" Still, Hiryuu didn't glance at him.

"--and how confusing would THAT be? Whenever someone said 'Hey Hiryuu, knock it off you pervert,' you'd be confused as to just who that person would be addressing! Ha! That's funny, you know--"

Hiryuu grumbled under his breath, measuring some samples on a scale.

Jiharn paused for breath, glancing between X and Hiryuu. "Uh boss...? Aren't you kinda excited that he works? I's my first full-fledged experiment, don'cha know..."

"PLEASE...for the love of all that is holy...BE...QUIET..."

Jiharn blinked. "I betcha want a demonstration! Okay, X, you show 'em!"

X stiffened faintly. "My pleasure." He lifted his arm where it immediately shifted into the form of a small blaster cannon.

Red lights started to flash on the ceiling of the lab, and Merlin glanced upward with a start. "Nuclear launch detected," a neutral female voice intoned.

Merlin swallowed. "Er...Hiryuu..."

Light began to gather at the end of the cannon, growing steadily brighter.

"Three seconds," the passive voice stated again.

"So more test to go..."

"Two seconds."

"Hiryuu! Didn't you hear the warning?! HIRYUU!"

"One second."

"Wheeeee! This is the best part, boss!"

Merlin dove for cover.



"... ... ka... Heh... Heh heh..." Hiryuu chuckled, his eyes swirling in disorientation as he lay amidst a bed of ashes.

Jiharn crawled down from the smoking rafters, tumbling as he hit the ground. "Pretty neat, eh boss? I'm so proud!"

X scoffed, glancing around the destroyed laboratory. "Was there actually a purpose to this?"

Merlin dusted off his shoulders, standing shakily to his feet. "Hiryuu...? You okay?" He gently slapped the man's cheeks, trying to help him regain his senses.

Hiryuu batted at Merlin's hands, then flopped back with a contented sigh. "It's not in vain. Faetan wasn't in those ashes. She LIVES!"

"Yay!" Jiharn cheered. "So where is she?"

Frowning, Hiryuu staggered to his feet. "Well...I don't exactly know. But we'll find her...that we will."

Jiharn nodded. "If anyone can do it, you can, boss! Wanna see another nuclear explosion?"

Hiryuu and Merlin's eyes bulged. "NO!!!"

"Aw, chickens."

* * * * *

Faetan sat on the corner of her bed, grinning pleasantly. Seeing Macc again had definitely brightened her mood. Not only did this assure her that at least someone knew where she was, but it also assured her that Macc was all right. His disappearance had worried her...not that she would have admitted that to the others, of course. All seemed good.

The shield flickered darkly, and the light of the sun dimmed as though covered by a cloud. Faetan turned her head, frowning. The sky was clear...not even so much as a frilly wisp of white anywhere.

"It's been awhile, hasn't it?"

Faetan's head whipped around, and she gave a start at seeing Macc...only it *wasn't* Macc. There was a terrible aura to him, so dark and filthy that it turned her stomach into knots just glaring at him. Two red eyes glowed from deep within the visor. His armor was a mockery of Macc's, in shades of deepest black instead of Macc's blue and grey.

She turned her head, regarding him from another angle as she folded her arms. "And who might you be, hmmm?"

"So cold..." He stepped forward, the crimson of his eyes flaring briefly as he moved towards her. Every fiber of Faetan's being had the earnest desire to flee, but she held her ground. "And we go back so many could you forget me, dearest?" He circled her slowly. "My dearest Mochi."

All pretense of arrogance faded abruptly as she paled. "Wha--?! Who ARE you?!" She turned to meet his fiery gaze, struggling to remain angry. The sound of that name hit her like a punch in the gut. It had been so long since someone had named her thus...

"I am...many forms," he continued his leisurely stroll around her. "I arranged it so that I could assume that of your friend, the Maverick. He has great power...most of it is untapped, the fool. I had to give him a little nudge to help him unleash it." He chuckled darkly. "Silly reason for it...but if it works, it works."

Faetan grit her teeth, her hands clenching tightly into fists. Her trepidation was forming into seething fury again. "You leave him alone. He's a good guy."

"Isn't he just?" he tsk'ed in a mocking tone. "Too good. But not like us." He reached out and laid a gloved hand on her shoulder. The coldness of it seeped through to the bone, and she shivered involuntarily.

"It's not that way anymore," she smacked his arm away. "Mochi's dead."

He chuckled again. "No, dear one...she only sleeps. I think she will awaken very soon." He lifted his hand, holding a small black stone on a golden chain. It glistened ominously, and Faetan felt her blood run cold just looking at it.

She took a step back. "Keep that thing away from me."

He threw his head back with a hearty, wicked laugh. "What's the matter, Mochi? Don't tell me a great, powerful warrior such as yourself is afraid of a little rock? Oh...I'd forgotten..." He stepped closer to her, backing her against the wall. "You're not the great, powerful warrior anymore, are you? Such a waste..."

"Shut your mouth," she snarled. "I'm not going back."

He chuckled...then struck her sharply across the face hard enough to knock her to her knees. "Don't lie, dear one. It doesn't become you." He dangled the stone over her head, his eyes narrowing with pleasure as sweat beaded on her brow. "You WILL awaken to your full glory again. You know is written in the stars."

"NEVER!" she snarled, lunging at him. She thrust her fist against his stomach, her knuckles bloodied from the hard armor. He laughed again, and the air whistled as he chopped his hand against the back of her neck. Faetan grunted and crumpled on the floor in a heap, unconscious.

"Very soon, Mochi." He pocketed the stone. "But not now. We must awaken your brother first. Sleep well." He stepped over her prone body, and walked straight through the shield.

* * * * *

A loud and boisterous belch erupted from Charlemagne's mouth, and he chuckled while swirling around in dizzy circles. "Arr...arr har har...'tish good stuff. Whadja shay it wash again?"

Macc just smiled cheerfully, pouring him another glass. "Dragon whiskey. Best stuff on earth. And thanks again for the new helmet, it's much appreciated."

"Shurr, shurr, no problemsh there." He took another slug, and pounded briefly on his chest. "I jusht realished're the one Hiryuu cl...cloned me after."

"Seems that way, doesn't it?" Macc absently swirled the whiskey in his glass before sipping at it.

"Sho that makesh DAD!" He flung his arms around Macc, and the whiskey sloshed out of his glass.

A bit caught off-guard, Macc nevertheless received the embrace casually as if it happened all the time. Things were getting better and better. "Weird how that worked out, isn't it? Ah, but don't go spreading that information around, or else my girlfriend will get the wrong idea about things." He patted Charlemagne's shoulders, then pried him loose to set him down in the chair again. "More whiskey?"

"Yesh," he nodded enthusiastically. "Whadja shay her name wash again?"

"Kai," Macc grinned from beneath his faceplate. "She's a catgirl."

"Shoundsh shexshy," Charlemagne chortled. "Tell me about her? 'Caushe if you getsh married, she'll be my mom!"

~Oh yes, Kai definitely doesn't need to know about THIS.~ He refilled Charlemagne's glass slowly. "She has long green hair, stands about yea high," he measured up to his chin, "and has the softest, fluffiest tail... Better than lemons."

"Blashphemy, pish posh," Charlemagne shook his head. "Nothing'sh better than lemonsh."

Macc decided to begin his subtle attack. "I've heard you've got your own gal on the premises, eh? Eh?" He nudged Charlemagne with his elbow, winking like there was no tomorrow.

"Ho ho! Fae ishn't my girlfriend...she'sh jusht cute, and...HE doeshn't want her to leave, sho, gotta do what HE shaysh."

"He?" Macc watched as another glass of whiskey was downed. He stopped pouring...had to keep him at least coherent to withdraw the information he needed. "Who's this he?"

"Not he...HE," Charlemagne corrected with pronounced emphasis. " know, HE never did shay what HISH name wash. Not that HE needsh one." He shivered violently. "Shcary guy."

Macc nodded sympathetically. "We all know someone like that. Now this seem fond of her. Is she nice?"

Charlemagne scratched his head, and kept scratching. "Well...yeah, I shposh sho. When she'sh not angry, that ish. Then she'sh shcary too."

"Do you like her?" Macc pressed.

"Well yeah! Coursh I do!" he beamed, his cheeks reddening to match the color of his eyes.

"Do you like the dark guy?"

Charlemagne coughed. "Uh...I'm not shposhed to shay nothin' to nobody..."

"You think he might hear you or something?"

He looked away dizzily, then chuckled. "Shometimesh HE jusht appearsh and shcaresh the crap outta me."

Macc stood up. "Well then, it's obvious what you have to do!"

"It ish?" he blinked, his eyes bleary with confusion.

"Of course! You like the girl, so you want to help her, right?" Macc placed his hands on Charlemagne's shoulders.

He nodded emphatically. "Oh yesh. Me 'n Weiila, we take good care of her. An' 984 too, when he'sh around."

"And you wouldn't want the dark guy to do anything to hurt her, would you?"

Charlemagne shook his head vigorously. "No way! And he promished he wouldn't if we kept her here. Sho she hash to shtay."

~Blast...~ "Don't you think she should be free to make her own choice?"

His eyes widened. "No, shir! She wreaksh havoc on furniture, no ottoman would shtand a chance!"

Macc folded his arms, thinking deeply. "What if *I* was the one to let her out? Then you wouldn't be in any sort of trouble at all. I could hide her away from HIM, and she'd never get hurt."

Charlemagne held his head, which was beginning to ache. "Then he'd hunt YOU down! I can't let that happen to my DAD!"

Macc sighed. "Let's go talk to Faetan. She could tell us what she wants."

He furrowed his brow. "How'd you know her name, huh?"

"Er...lucky guess. I'm just cool that way."

"I have a schmart dad, hehhhh! Okay, let'sh go." He stood to his feet...and promptly toppled over, giggling.

"Whoa there! Let me give you a hand," Macc grinned, reaching down to put Charlemagne's arm around his neck. It was a shame he had to deceive as he did. He'd actually grown somewhat fond of the little guy. Easily duped, but hey, he WAS born just a short time ago. Charlemagne would have plenty of time to learn how to avoid dirty tricks down the road.

It wasn't long before they reached Faetan's room. Charlemagne fumbled for the doorknob, and finally turned it after Macc gave his outstretched hand a little guidance. Faetan was curled up in a corner, sulking darkly. Her countenance immediately brightened as she saw the two reploids at the door.

Macc winked. "Hey there, Fae!"

"Ah! You DID come back!" She pushed herself to her feet as Charlemagne eyed her suspiciously. Faetan paused, glancing at him. "What?"

"Your faesh," he pointed towards her.

"My what?"

Macc's brow knit. "You've got a bright red welt on your cheek, Fae...what happened?!"

She blinked, then winced as her fingertips brushed the side of her face. "Oh...had a nasty visitor. I'm fine, though. We have to get outta here before he comes back."

Charlemagne was quiet, his reddened face deeply pensive. "You can't go."

"But Charlie, LOOK at her," Macc frowned. "She's not safe here anymore. Can't you see that?"

He looked away. "Bossh'll kill her if she goesh..."

Faetan shook her head, moving as close as she dared to the shield. "No he won't. He needs me alive, trust me on this one."

"How can you be sho shure?" Charlemagne narrowed his eyes.

"Uh..." Faetan glanced nervously at Macc, who was looking at her with evident concern. "It's a long story. But I have something he wants, and he won't get it if I'm dead."

"You're bein' shorta vague," Charlemagne peered intently.

She smiled weakly. "I'll tell you all about it if you let me out."

He was silent. "Nope. Can't do it, Fae. Shorry."

"So am I, Charl. No hard feelings," Macc apologized...and bopped Charlemagne on the back of the head. Gently he set him down on the floor, prying the shield key loose from his belt. "I tried manipulating as best I could, but..."

"It's okay, Macc," she beamed. "He was about ready to pass out anyway." The shield flashed, then dissipated at the touch of a button. She squealed with delight, bounding out of the room gleefully. "YES!!! If you weren't already attached, and if I didn't have a severe aversion to displays of affection, I'd kiss you."

"It's the thought that counts," he snickered. "Let's beat it."

She nodded, smiling mischievously, and the two set off at a dead run while Charlemagne snored haplessly on the carpeted floor.

* * * * *

Lunaris stared at Merlin for a second, almost forgetting to breathe. "Are you sure?" he finally uttered in a broken whisper.

"Absolutely," Merlin inclined his head once. "Whatever happened, it wasn't your fault. You said there was a laser fired at you, right?"

He thought about it, and nodded slowly. "Yes. It shooted the dummy, though, I were fine."

"Sounds like a real life-saver," he grinned at his friend. "It would have fried you. It's a shame, though, since we can't be sure just who was behind the attack in the first place."

"How do you finded out about all this?" Lunaris blinked, and furrowed his brow. "Is Mazrim telling you?"

"," Merlin bit the inside of his cheek, wondering how to do this tactfully. "I had some help..."

Lunaris' brown eyes narrowed. "Who?"

Merlin winced faintly. "Trust me, if there was anyone else who could have done it..."

The hanging curtain was brushed aside as Hiryuu stepped into the room with a wry smile. "My ears have the strangest ringing wouldn't happen to be talking about ME, now would you?"

Immediately Merlin lunged forward to grab Lunaris' arm as he went for his blaster. "Calm down now, he's on our side. At least for now!"

"You losed your mind, trusting him!" Lunaris snarled, struggling fiercely. "He probably started this all along at begin with!"

"My my, what rude manners," Hiryuu sniffed, folding his arms. "I most certainly did not have anything to do with this, and if you don't want my help in locating Faetan, all you had to do was say so." He made to leave, but halted at Merlin's exclamation.

"Don't go, Hiryuu...hold on just a moment. Lunaris, you know it couldn't have been him. First of all, the attack was actually successful--"

"Hrmph?!" Hiryuu grunted unpleasantly.

"--and second of all, if he really had Faetan, I think we most *definitely* would have heard about it by now. You know how he loves to boast."

Hiryuu tossed his head, obviously vexed. "You know, for someone who wants me to stick around, you're not very persuasive."

Merlin rubbed at his temple with a sigh. "I apologize, I meant no offense. You have to understand, though, we've dealt with nothing but treachery from you. No one is going to trust you so easily."

"I not going to trust him at all," Lunaris snorted. "Why he is being so helpful all the sudden?" He directed his glare to Hiryuu. "What is being in it for you?"

"You mean, what do I get out of all this?" he said coolly, examining his fingernails. "I made a little deal with Merlin." He paused to smirk. "You want to tell him, or shall I?"

Merlin's shoulders drooped. "I promised him a date with Fae."

Lunaris stared. Then he burst into loud laughter as Hiryuu frowned at him. "She NEVER goed out with HIM! HAR! And what be keeping him from go trying something else?"

Merlin's eye twitched uncomfortably. "It's a double date. One of us will be going with them."

Lunaris' laugh stopped abruptly. "Who? Nots me!"

"Not sure yet, but that can be hashed out later. Right now, we just need to bring her home. We can worry about this afterwards, right?"

"Hmmm..." Lunaris considered, still eyeing Hiryuu suspiciously. "Fair engoud...for now. But if he trying to do something stupidish, I gets to blow up his idiot castle."

"The gargoyles are Jiharn's fault!" Hiryuu erupted furiously.

Merlin and Lunaris both stifled a snicker. "Okies," Lunaris finally sighed. "Let's get go to work." He stood from the chair and replaced his blaster in its holster. "Do everyone else know about this?"

"Yeah," Merlin sighed. "We're still waiting for TD to stop laughing about Fae's date. He's been rolling on the ground for over an hour now."

"Oy," Lunaris rolled his eyes, and followed Merlin out the door with one last reproachful glance at Hiryuu. "I keeps my eyes on you. No funny stuffs."

"I wouldn't dream of it, dear boy," Hiryuu said with an unnerving smile, and fell into line behind Lunaris.

* * * * *

Charlemagne awoke with a hiccup and a headache, both severe and painful. He clutched one hand to his chest, the other to his head. ~Ungahhhhh...I thought reploids weren't supposed to GET drunk... Then again, Hiryuu the imbecile made me...~ He turned his head, glancing into Faetan's empty room. His eyes slowly widened as vague memories of the previous night started filtering into his foggy mind. ~Oh crap, I am SO dead.~

A dark chill slithered through his frame, and a shadow fell over his face. Nervously, he turned his head to see HIM staring down, red eyes aflame with outrage.

"You...are SO dead."

He gulped. "Forgive me! I was deceived! And beaten up! By ten big brawny men!" He held his arms out to the side to indicate their enormous bulk. "It was horrible! HORRIBLE I tell you! They--ERK!" he squawked. A gloved hand snaked out and grabbed him by the throat, lifting him slowly off of the ground.

"I do not tolerate failures," he hissed in a low voice, the glowing red eyes narrowing. "And you are the worst failure I have ever encountered." The hand began to squeeze, tightening painfully.

"Gack ack ack argh!" Charlemagne coughed.

"Oh stop your complaining, you should consider this a mercy. If it weren't for the fact that I am in a hurry to retrieve my prisoner, I'd take great pleasure in dissecting you alive. Have you ever felt that? Having your ribs spread wide as I slice open each organ, with a very rusty scalpal laced with burning acid?"

Charlemagne would have swallowed, but could not. "Gack!"

He sighed. "Ah well. Maybe I'll restore you to life later so you may experience the pleasurable pain for yourself."

Weiila dashed into the hallway, her eyes widening as she saw Charlemagne clutched in the villain's grip. "S-stop!" she cried. "I saw them, they're heading to the west! Towards Felinia!"

"Why would they be going there, when it's clear that their friends are waiting in Rendezvous?" The dark gaze swiveled and fell on Weiila, icing her blood.

She swallowed hard. "K...Kai. Macc's girlfriend."

"Hm." Charlemagne was flung backwards and through a stone wall. "Clever of them. I shall return for you later." His form dissipated immediately.

Weiila released a sigh of relief, then ran to Charlemagne's boots which were sticking out of the newly made hole. "Charl! Are you all right?"


"Good," she nodded. "We have to get out of here, he's going to kill us."


"Because I lied," she whispered. "It's fortunate I mind-linked with Macc to speed the healing process, else I never would have known about his catgirl. There's so much more that he hides..." She shook her head, getting back on track. "We have to run to Rendezvous too and pray we make it there before HE does"

Charlemagne struggled onto his elbows. "Blech..."

She nodded sagely. "984 called him the Dark Macc. Seems an appropriate name, though I pity his namesake. He was such a nice young man." She reached out to pull Charlemagne to his feet, draping his arm around her shoulders. "Let's go, Charlie boy."

* * * * *

Macc leaned low over the neck of his horse, as though by doing so it would increase the traveling speed. He glanced at Faetan out of the corner of his eye, wondering just why she looked so incredibly happy. They were on the run from a ruthless and deadly villain, and she looked like she was having the time of her life, beaming at nothing in particular. She turned and caught his eye, and waved cheerfully, then turned forward again. She ran her hand through her wild spiky hair, and laughed raucously.

The horses panted, tossing their heads with a snort. They must have been galloping for miles now, and the horses were beginning to tire. With great reluctance, he turned his mount into the woodlands, Faetan following closely behind, and pulled up to a halt. "I don't want to run them into the ground," he explained, glancing at Faetan who was looking around her with the same broad smile.

"Fine with just feels GOOD to be out DOING something, y'know?"

He shook his head. "Uh...I don't know if you realize the seriousness of the situation..."

"More than anyone," she winked at him. She was already moving down a game trail, dodging a low-hanging tendril of thorns. "The guy's a coward. He doesn't like attacking groups, he'll always try to pick off people in singles or pairs."

"Like us, you mean," Macc said tonelessly, not in the least bit comforted.

She nodded, scrambling lithely over a fallen log. "Yes, like us. But once we're in Rendezvous, we won't have to worry."

Macc brushed aside a branch, frowning. "How do you know so much about him?"

"I ran into him before on a previous adventure. Only problem is, his strengths and weaknesses change with each form he takes."

"And what form does he have now?"

She paused where she stood, then smiled at him over her shoulder. "Yours, Macc."

He stared at her for a moment. "Assuming they're the same as mine, do you even KNOW my strengths and weaknesses?"

"," she shook her head, and moved forward again. "But you do. Which is why I'm not worried." And she said nothing more about it. "About how far away do you think we are?"

"Perhaps fifteen miles. We can probably reach town by tomorrow afternoon, early evening at the latest." She was still hiding something, and it nagged at the corners of his mind. "There's something you're not telling me," he pressed gently.

"Of course there is. Just as you don't talk about your past," she smiled faintly, turning her head up to follow a shaft of sunlight that had pierced the forest canopy. "There are some things I'd rather not deal with again if that's all right with you."

"It's all right with me. But if it's going to get you into trouble, you should tell someone at least."

Faetan shook her head. "Everything will be fine, don't you worry. My weaknesses have changed as well, and he knows it." She pulled up short, then chuckled. "Careful there, Macc, I might just spill my guts without realizing it. Can we talk about something else?"

Inwardly he sighed. But he nodded. "Sure thing."

"Good," she grinned. But neither one had anything further to say.

* * * * *

"All right," Hiryuu folded his arms as Jiharn rolled out a map of the surrounding area. "The search pattern will proceed as follows: Tenchimaru, Zero, and X are all able to fly. You will follow the flight lines indicated here..." His eyes fell to the map, and he frowned as he saw a crayon drawing of himself and Jiharn smiling happily with a cheerful sun beaming over them. Pretending to be unphased, he cleared his throat and followed the lines with his finger. "X will go north, Zero to the west, Tenchimaru to the east." He glanced at the purple-haired Tenchimaru. "I assume you'll be taking your dragon form."

"Oh yeah! I was wondering how I was gonna manage flying...and quit drooling, Lunaris, you get no dragon meat!"

Lunaris blinked. "What is you talking about?!"

"Greedy lunatic! You can't fool me with your crave the taste of dragon flesh!"

"You is crazy." Lunaris paused for a moment. "And half-dragon flesh tasted likes rotten wheat bread mold."

Tenchimaru's eyes widened. "I do not! I taste delicious! See?!" he proferred his arm, then froze...and tsk'ed coyly. "Ah ha...I see what you're doing, sly WANTED me to put my arm out, so you could sink your teeth into this grade A product! Ha...thought you could fool me, did you? Not today!"

"So we're covering the south?" Spoony asked, glancing from the map to Hiryuu.

He nodded. "Yes. And because progress is more slow on foot or horse...whichever you happen to be using...there will need to be more of us."

Merlin struggled to ignore the ongoing argument of Lunaris and Tenchimaru, which was now escalating rapidly into a brawl. "I don't see you on this map, Hiryuu."

"Of course not," he looked aghast at the mere notion. "Someone has to stay here in case she comes back! Otherwise she'll go out looking for us, we won't be there, we'll have to find her again, yadda yadda yadda," he rolled his wrist around in circles.

A blast sounded from Lunaris' cannon, and a smoking Tenchimaru somersaulted over the map, crinkling it.

"Oh ho ho, very clever...a pity you forgot to add BARBECUE SAUCE to that weapon!" Tenchimaru scoffed, brushing at his smoldering cloak.

"For the lasted time, I *NOT* going to eat you!" Lunaris shouted, reloading.

Jiharn very carefully moved the map aside as Tenchimaru tackled Lunaris, grappling with him to get the gun out of his hands.

X watched with cool nonchalance. "Shall I nuke them?"

"NO!!!" everyone else shouted.

He shrugged, masking his disappointment.

"Well, it seems like a fair enough plan to me," Zero stated. "Shall we be off?"

"ZERO YOUR HAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!" Tannin shrieked, her eyes enormous as she pointed at his long blonde mane.

A cold chill ran through Zero's body as he slowly pulled his hair over his had been painted with permanent ink! "RAR!!!! WHAT THE @#$&@*#&$*#@&$@ HAPPENED TO MY HAAAAIIIRRRRR??!?!?!?!"

"My art r teh r0x0rz!"

Everyone whirled around to glare at a very familiar figure, holding a leaking ink-soaked pen in his hand.

" fiend!" Tannin snapped, trying not to weep as she thought of all that beautiful hair...ruined! RUINED!

The all-too-familiar form of Hades punched his fists into his sides, throwing his head back with an egotistic laugh. "I r teh dev0l!"

Merlin glared. "That's my line, you peesacrap..."

X didn't bother to ask this time. Immediately he jumped into the air, giddy with the explosions soon to come. "Here we go, kiddies!"

Spoony quickly dove for cover behind Zero, using the ruined hair as a shield. And it was, of course, more than adequate to hide ten people, so he was quite safe when the nuclear bombardment came blasting out of X's outstretched palms.

"Ah ha ha ha! AH ha ha ha ha! Now this is what life is all about!" X chirped, the ground exploding into bite-sized pieces.

When the smoke cleared, Hades was no longer there. Everyone else, however, was covered in ashes with wide, unblinking eyes.


Spoony emerged from the hair unscathed, looking around. "Well...good riddance, at least."

Zero sighed, using a magnetic pulse to get rid of the ashes on his armor and hair. "Now that was a bit of an over-reactment...I mean, it grows back you know." A flash of his beam sword, and golden hair patched with black ink fell to the ground. And immediately, replacement hair surged forth, flowing effortlessly to his ankles once again.

X shrugged. "I don't care about the hair. I just wanted to nuke someone."

Merlin glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, offering a tiny smile. "Yes, well...perhaps next time, you could make sure the rest of us aren't in the line of fire, eh?" He brushed at his cloak. "It's not like it's the most pleasant--"


Everyone sweat-dropped as the piano dropped heartlessly on top of Merlin.

* * * * *

The sun sank in the mire of the horizon, golden traces shifting to hues of dark rose, then fading altogether in the inky darkness. Macc glanced at Faetan, who was still wearing the strange, eerie smile. The rest of her body was showing signs of fatigue, however. They'd been moving at a quickened pace ever since they'd abandoned the horses, and though Macc could continue indefinitely due to being a reploid, Faetan was only human.

She stumbled over a root, and chuckled tiredly as she regained her footing and pressed forward.

"You should rest for the night," Macc spoke quietly.

Faetan shook her head. "Better to rest during the daylight, move at night. He'll be less likely to see us."

Macc reached out and caught her arm to keep her from going any further. "Reploids have night vision. At least if he found us in the daylight, we could both see him coming. You're exhausted anyhow, Faetan, you won't be in any condition to fight him, or even attempt an escape."

She frowned. "No, we shouldn't stop. You're in danger as long as we're not in Rendezvous." Then she paused, considering her words. "Why don't you go ahead without me? I can catch up tomorrow."

He chuckled. "Now I *know* the sleep is fogging your brain. You're no match for him, you know that."

Growling, she turned her head away to scowl at some distant tree. "I'm no weakling!"

"I know that," he soothed. "But he's not your ordinary opponent. He's evil me. And you said so yourself, you don't know his strengths and weaknesses. We got lucky, springing you out like we did. Do you really want us to put our necks on the line attempting a second rescue that he'd be ready for?"

"Hmph. Stop making sense." The corner of her lip twitched upward. "All right, we'll stop here to rest. But promise to wake me up before daybreak. I don't want to waste any time."

Macc smiled, bracing himself. "Actually, I *can* keep going. You'll sleep while I carry you."

Faetan snarled vocally. "Are you nuts?! Just what kind of frail weakling do you think I am?! I'd rather march myself to death! Not gonna be carried..." she trailed off into dark grumblings.

Macc folded his arms sternly. "Who are you trying to kid? You'd be contradicting want to keep going as much as possible, to reduce the risk to me, I believe you said that, yes?"

"I--!" She held up her finger angrily, but no further words came. "You--!" No further words came again. "You stubborn mule!"

"Look who's talking!" he laughed. "Come on now, on my back."

"Guh..." She inched forward bit by bit, clearly uneasy. "Uh..."

"Hop to it now, the clock is ticking. Hi ho Silver away!"

Cautiously Faetan put her arms around his neck, and made an odd sound as he wrapped her legs around his waist and hefted her up. "I'm not too heavy, am I?"

"If there were ten of you on my back, it wouldn't make a difference. You keep forgetting, I'm a reploid, Faetan," he laughed.

"Sorry." She remained stiffly in place.

"Relax," he slapped her thigh (at which she squawked indignantly) and started off at an easy pace. "Just think of your mother rocking you to sleep. Minus the lullabies."

"Heh!" she forced a nervous chuckle.

"Really, Fae! You've gotta loosen up. What if you get a boyfriend someday? You can't just flip out like this if he holds your hand..."

"Don't want a boyfriend," she grumbled sourly. "They suck."

Macc just smiled to himself. "I'd argue that with you, seeing as how I'm a boyfriend to Kai, but later. Sleep, kiddo." Bit by bit, he felt her begin to relax until she was slumped against his back...too tired to snore. ~Good gravy, what a reaction. I wonder if I can get Kaisha to talk some sense into her...~ Gads, but he missed her. Though he kept his eyes alert, he couldn't resist the flow of his thoughts which led him to dwell on a lovely green-haired catgirl that had purred on his shoulder not too long ago.

* * * * *

From the banks of a dark mountain, a shadowy figure gazed down upon the countryside with a look of mild disdain. He folded his powerful arms, the slitted eyes narrowing further as he watched. There was a power growing steadily there, he could feel it. It was something that pulsated with unnatural energy. Not something of this world, certainly...but more powerful than any man could have made. ~What is it... What IS it...?~ Whatever 'it' happened to be, he could sense that it had not yet fully awakened.

Darth Ninjus turned away with a snort of contempt, and paused momentarily as he saw a lovely woman stepping delicately onto the winding path. Long dark hair curled to her waist, swaying elegantly with each graceful step she took. "Nightshade..." he murmured quietly, his voice softening at the merest glance.

She lifted her head and smiled at him. Deadly Nightshade was his counterpart. Where he was dark, twisted with past malice and rage, she was as lovely as a falling cherry blossom, soft and gentle in appearance and manner. He reached out to take her outstretched hands, marveling at the smallness of them in his own, and he drew her near.

"Are you all right?" she asked him quietly. "You were standing out here for so long, I had begun to worry."

"There is nothing to be concerned about," he trailed his hand over her cheek. "Now that you are one of the gods, you are protected."

"What's happening below?" Nightshade looked past him at the vast landscape.

Darth Ninjus shrugged nonchalantly. "Why does it interest you? The petty and short lives of mortals should no longer capture your attention."

"It was my home once," she smiled at him, and kissed his cheek. "I like to see how they fare."

"Just the regular idiocy and chaos. You know how Rendezvous can be." He tugged softly at her hand. "Come along, dearest. I have some matters which require my immediate attention. Bleys wishes to meet with me, and I shall need your diplomatic ways at my side."

Deadly Nightshade sighed, taking one last glance at the green plains far below. "Very well. But I do not care for the man. He schemes too much, and I can't help feeling that he is up to something."

The demon god snorted. "Just as well...he's ALWAYS up to something. Luckily he seems concerned only with the mortals and twisting their lives. We shall never have to fear that trickster."

Nightshade smiled again and took Darth Ninjus' hand. "Then I shall not, for I trust your word."

"You're good for me...almost TOO good." He kissed her forehead and grinned toothily, then led the lovely woman back to his keep.

* * * * *

Five miles to go. That wasn't too far at all. Faetan kept glancing up at the skies warily. The escape had been almost too easy, and she was no longer smiling. Now that they were close, there was *real* hope in sight instead of just a vague faith. So, of course, she took it more seriously. She longed for her sword...and a donut, but that was not important at the moment. The open plains they had to cross were making her nervous as well. She'd never minded that most of Rendezvous was surrounded by green hills and countryside. There was only a small forest on the southern side near her home. Now that she considered things tactically, though, she didn't like it much.

"Reploid!" Macc suddenly announced, and Faetan immediately froze, the hairs on the back of her neck rising. He took a step back. "Whatever it is, it's seen us...he's coming straight at us now."

Faetan clutched her makeshift cudgel more tightly in her hand. "When he does, I'll brain him!" she snarled.

Macc's fist was clenched tightly. And though she couldn't see it, she knew he was gathering energy into it, preparing for battle. Then his head moved slightly to the side. "Hold on...this one's armor is gold."

Shifting uncertainly, Faetan squinted up at the bright skies. "Is it Zero?"

"No...I don't see any black on him, or the insanely pointless mane of blonde hair."

"I like the hair..." she sulked.

Macc rolled his eyes. "EVERYONE likes the he comes. Get ready." His arm morphed into a blaster while Faetan hefted her club, prepared to do some braining.

The questionable figure pulled up before them, folding mechanical wings back into place as he landed in the grass, surveying the two of them neutrally. He looked first at Macc, sizing him up and down for a silent moment. Then his eyes moved to Faetan who was stooped faintly in a crouch, her shoulder muscles bunched as though she were preparing to spring.

"Who are you?" the newcomer demanded, his gaze lingering upon her.

Macc frowned. "Why don't you tell us?"

"Because I don't know who you are, duh."

He shook his head. "No, why don't you tell us who YOU are?"

"I am called X," he stated, still staring at Faetan. She shifted uneasily, her gaze flickering to Macc.

"Ambiguous sort of name..." Macc stated suspiciously. X just shrugged. "What do you want?"

"I'm looking for a female named Faetan. Are you her?"

Faetan grimaced, not quite sure if she felt like giving up her identity. "On whose behalf are you searching?"

"Hiryuu's. Now..." he failed to notice the tiny flicker of alarm that crossed both Macc's and Faetan's faces, "...I've answered enough questions. It's your turn. Who are you?"

"Mav," Macc answered him, taking an abbreviation of his last name.

Faetan caught hold of the first name that flickered to mind. "Mochi." Her guts wrenched at the title, and she avoided Macc's eyes.

"Really..." X blinked once, twice. "Well, have you seen a woman calling herself Faetan around here?"

"No," they both chorused, almost too quickly. Faetan cleared her throat. "But we'll keep our eyes peeled, won't we Mav?"

"Sure will, Mochi." Macc noticed that she blanched again at the name, and felt slightly disturbed at the odd flash in her eyes. "Well, it was nice meeting you, X--"

"Hold it." Both of them froze for a moment, and X moved forward, his eyes fixed on Faetan. She lifted her chin stubbornly, shifting her weight to the right with a hand on her hip. "You sort of match the description he gave me."

" I?" she blinked innocently. "I get that a lot. Mistaken for other people, that is..." She held her place as he circled her slowly. No minion of Hiryuu's could be up to much good, and she considered bashing him then and there. ~No, you idiot...keep calm, or he'll know something is up!~ He leaned in close, studying her face. "Well?"

He kept staring, and she was somewhat surprised to see a flush of red trickling into his cheeks. "Nothing," he muttered. "Not that you're nothing, it's...ah..."

She blinked. "It's what?" she asked dryly.


"GET DOWN!!!" Macc suddenly crashed into the pair of them, knocking them to the ground just as twin bolts sizzled the air above their heads. X rolled to his feet immediately, Macc close behind him. Faetan had the wind knocked out of her, and took a few more moments to regain her composure.

A dark figure hovered in the air, snapping his fingers once in disappointment. "Oh, so close..."

Though he'd been expecting the moment to come, Macc still felt somewhat stunned to be looking at such a close replica of himself. The size, the shape, even the voice to a certain extent... ~It truly is Evil Me!~ But since Evil Me didn't really seem to fit...

"So you're the Dark Macc," the blue reploid scowled at him. "You were the one ripping at my mind!"

"Hm, yes," he said in a bored tone of voice, inspecting the tips of his gloves. "You really are a very dull sort of fellow, you know that? Gotta be nice to everyone, gotta play the're so disappointing. A disgrace to reploids, even more so than that sorry piece of filth behind you."

"Why you @#$&@#$@#&$#@!!!" X leaped into the air as Faetan made a grab for his arm. Her fingers slipped as they clutched at his glossy golden armor and she staggered.

"X, no! Come back!"

A long blade protruded from X's right arm as he stabbed at Dark Macc. The villain sidestepped easily, simultaneously slamming his hand forward to grab X by the face. An electric shock of dark energy encompassed the reploid, and he fell limply to the ground with a loud 'crunch.'

"Child's play," Dark Macc chuckled malignantly.

Macc and Faetan both nodded at each other. They couldn't defeat this guy one on one. And they weren't close enough to Rendezvous to rally any sort of help. As one they moved forward, Macc taking to the sky while Faetan brandished her club and swung it at Dark Macc's being with all her might.

He dodged them both with a deft twist, thrusting a fist into Macc's stomach. Macc grunted with the impact, but pressed the attack. They lifted higher into the air, and Faetan snarled in exasperation. Sometimes she hated being human.

"Fae, go get help!" Macc shouted, struggling to keep his concentration fixed on his opponent as he thrust another kick. It took Dark Macc in his solar plexus, eliciting an uncomfortable grunt. "Run!"

She snarled again, realizing that she couldn't really do anything of use. Reluctantly she turned, dropping the cudgel as she darted over the wide plains.

An evil laugh burbled from Dark Macc's throat. "No, I think not." He pounded his fist in a downward motion, crashing against Macc's head and sending him sprawling. A dark, glittering pendant was pulled forth from a hidden compartment. He took careful aim, then shot it at the fleeing woman. It wrapped tightly around her throat as she made a strangled cry and staggered to her knees, clutching at it.

"No!" she yelled, her fingers burned as the necklace flared darkly. It refused to come undone. "Macc!!"

"Ha ha ha ha ha!" Dark Macc threw his head back, laughing horribly. "Now you begin to understand the powers of--"

WHAM!!! Macc slammed his fist into the back of Dark Macc's head with all the power he could summon. "There, NOW look what you've done! Talk too much, and you lose sight of the REAL battle! Stop picking on girls and fight me!"

"You DARE!" Dark Macc hissed, his eyes flaring even more brilliantly than before. With a roar of anger, he rushed at Macc and smashed into him, carrying them both hurtling to the ground where they crashed. Trees shook with the impact, upsetting a flock of birds that tore into the air with startled screams.

X slowly came around, even more furious than before. He climbed to one knee, then to his feet. "All right, you pea-brained farker! You're gonna get it!" He pulled both fists back, teeth clenched furiously as he prepared to launch himself into the fray...then he saw Faetan writhing on the ground and screaming as she clawed at her neck. He paused, torn. Attack the nasty reploid that had humiliated him, or move to help the woman... Some inner directive surged in his circuits as he realized that this was indeed Faetan.

"I will follow Faetan, boss..." he murmured tonelessly. He jerked forward, moving to her side. His hands reached for the pendant, and at once she swatted them away.

"Don't touch it!" she yelled. "It'll corrupt your soul!"

"Don't have one," he echoed. He grasped the chain with both hands, then bellowed in agony as hot fire ripped through his arms. The invisible flames coursed through his body, washing into his head and chest, churning to the soles of his feet. The chain burned more brightly, white hot with glowing energy.

Dark Macc glanced up, sensing the near-destruction of the ancient artifact. Brutally he shoved Macc away, charging at the pair. "Oh no you don't!" he threatened.

X glanced up, seeing the being bearing down on them. He wanted to lift his hands to fight back, to blow him away with a nuke...but he could not. The pain was too intense, and the necklace seemed to have HIM in its lethal grip instead of the other way around.

Macc tackled his counterpart about the waist, bringing him to the ground. "Where you goin', cupcake?" he growled, and thrust his fist into Dark Macc's face.

With a howl of rage, Dark Macc raised his hand, palm outstretched, towards Faetan and X. "Return!" he commanded. The pendant suddenly snapped away from Faetan's throat, tearing through the air to rest in Dark Macc's grip. His red eyes moved to Dark Macc as he began to chuckle. "This is not over," he promised in a low hiss.

In a cold mist of darkness, he abruptly vanished, leaving Macc pinning only the grass.

All three were breathing heavily, taxed from the terrible struggle. Faetan flopped onto her back, massaging the burns on her neck gingerly. "Ow..."

Macc struggled to his feet, feeling the replicators already kicking in to begin self-repair. "Everyone all right?" Faetan grunted something, and X inclined his head once. Macc moved forward, pulling Faetan to her feet as X stood upright, his face stoic. "Let's keep moving. I don't want him to come back and find us all weakened," Macc frowned.

X said nothing as he moved along, though a few steps behind Macc, the blue reploid failed to notice the changed, dark smile that sported X's face.

* * * * *

"So you're a healer, you say?" Hiryuu rubbed his chin, smiling at a very tired Weilla who was supporting Charlemagne with one arm around his waist. "Very interesting. Have you considered making yourself available for hire?"

"Not interested," she frowned coldly. "Charlemagne and I work together. And I know for a fact he wants nothing to do with you."

Hiryuu tsk'ed. "Hm. A pity. I could pay a great deal, healers are rare these days."

A lanky figure suddenly tackled him to the ground, stealing Hiryuu's breath. "Bossbossbossbossboss!" Jiharn squealed. "They're back! They're back, and they're ALIIIIIIIIIIIIVE! Yay!"

"Faetan?" Hiryuu blinked, sucking in a gulp of air.

Jiharn blinked. "No, boss, the lemons! They got replanted, and they're already starting to blossom, even though it's nearly winter! Oh boss, I'm so happy! And oh yeah," he put a finger to his chin, "Fae is back too. She's with her mom right now."

"Gah!" Hiryuu tossed Jiharn aside, brushing the dirt from his cloak. "Excellent. Though I'm not really surprised, I was certain the search party would work."

Jiharn just shrugged with a happy smile, looking at Weilla. "Hey, nice dress!"


* * * * *

Night fell, and the newly remodeled Drunken Monkey tavern was more crowded than ever. Ale flowed from stout mugs, and the smell of grilled beef was thick in the cigar-smoke-filled air. Faetan and Macc looked tired, but happy to be home as they drank and laughed in the company of their friends.

Tannin's arms snaked around Zero's shoulders from behind. "Didn't I tell you? There was no way a Jarl could die THAT easily!"

"Actually, you never said that--"

"Shoosh!" she tugged on a lock of his hair, stroking it between her fingertips.

Spoony Bard glanced up from his plate, rolling a bite of croissant in his mouth. "Hey...where's Tenchimaru?"

Lunaris looked at Spoony darkly. "I did not eated him."

"I didn't say you did," he blinked, puzzled. "It's just that he never misses out on happy hour. Where could he be?"

984 shrugged, tossing his scarf over his shoulder. "Oh more search party can't hurt, can it? But for now..." he took a large swig of beer, "it's hangover time! At least, for you weaker non-reploid types."

"Oh YEAH?!" Tannin puffed out her chest. "I can outdrink you any day of the week!"

"Bring it, red!"

Merlin smiled quietly, glancing at Faetan. He noticed that she'd already been watching him. She smiled self-consciously, and looked away. Merlin speculated silently over the bizarre events that had plagued Rendezvous lately. Yes, this had been a victory as far as they why did it feel like things were getting worse? And where WAS Tenchimaru anyhow?

* * * * *

Purple-skinned natives whooped and sang, prancing around the bonfire that burned brightly into the sky. On a throne of bamboo and palm leaves, Tenchimaru sat proudly. A chain of banana leaves hung about his brow with a longer weave braided over his dragon's wings. Who would've thought that there were dragon-worshipping cults out here anyhow?

They brought exquisite (but strange) dishes before him, sizzling with hot grease and fruit juices. He ate hungrily, stuffing himself until his appetite was sated, and then some.

Still, enough was enough. He needed to get back to Rendezvous...

"Bring out the virgin!" the large-bellied chief lifted his hands, turning in a slow circle as he repeated the announcement.

Tenchimaru smiled to himself. Well, perhaps he could stay just a little bit longer.

The shaman to his left sulked darkly, glaring reproachfully at the half-dragon next to him. "I suppose you'll just take what you want and leave when you're done..."

Tenchimaru just smiled back toothily, and scratched at his chin with one of his claws. "Don't mind if I do," he chuckled.

"Typical...well, we've had your sorts here before." A nasty smirk ghosted over the shaman's face. A slim woman in white robes was brought forth out of one of the huts. Her dark eyes flickered briefly over the sea of purple-skinned faces about her. She seemed normal enough, lacking any violet pigment to her skin. Tenchimaru sat up a little straighter, straining for a better look. Blonde hair...yes, very nice. The dark eyes were actually a deep color of blue. Nice shape, right height...

"Let the marriage ceremony begin!" the shaman announced with an overly large smile.

Tenchimaru's eyes bulged. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"

His cry echoed through the moonlit plains, fading into the darkness of night...

Chapter 4

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