There Will Be Blood
The beast-meka overlaid Eli's vision, making the world warped and unreal as what Phyre could see, and what he could see fought for dominance. He didn't have another hour to fumble around in the dark. He had minutes. Maybe less.
He took off at a run, half blind, but more desperate than he had ever been in his life. He knew now what he hadn't known in her first battle, when he had saved her from Gremlin. Her life was his life. Even without the bond between meka and handler, she had given his existence meaning and without her he would be worthless again. Empty. Alone.
History was repeating itself, but this time he was going to fail her. Fail both of them. His cheeks were wet, his heart pounding. All this effort, meeting Squall, training, getting his own apartment, fighting Aquillis. Getting close enough to his dream to see it on the horizon. And now it was going to end like this. Him running through the darkness alone, watching her die through her own eyes.
"Eli!" The voice was so familiar and so unexpected, he tripped. As he clambered painfully to his feet again, Dirge and Squall immerged from a darkened alleyway.
"How did you get here?" he demanded, wiping the back of his hand across his cheeks. Were they really here, or had he gone mad and started hallucinating?
"Dirge picked up Phyre's trail," she said.
Details would need to come later. "Squall, we're out of time. Phyre's in an arena with a monster meka. She's going to die."
"Come on then."
Dirge led the way with his nose at a gallop, picking the path Phyre's captors must have taken through the Undercity.
They were almost on top of Phyre, but there was no sign of the huge building she was in. The ceiling was low overhead, the street seemed to cramp in tighter and tighter rather than opening up. But Eli could hear her high-pitched screams of terror—not in his head, in real life. They reached a dead end—two large barn style doors. On the other side, Phyre's shrieks were echoing.
"She's in there," Eli whispered as he crouched down, trying to peer through the tiny crack between the doors.
"How many people are inside?" Squall asked.
"About a dozen workers, Kalex and a woman in red. And the monster meka."
"Long story. I'll tell you later." His palms were sweating, his belly churning. It was hard to focus with Phyre's panic smashing over him like waves.
"Do we have a plan?" Squall asked.
"Bust in, let Dirge scare everyone long enough that I can get the cage open. Then we get out."
"That's a terrible plan."
Phyre's squeals changed in pitch and Eli rose to his feet. There was no more time for talking.
"Eli!" Squall protested. "That's a terrible plan!"
He yanked on the handle and the door scraped open a few feet. It was heavy, but he forced it open far enough that Squall and the meka could make a hasty escape. Inside, the workers turned to look at him. They were armed with tools, he realized. And he hadn't thought to grab a weapon of his own.
In the arena, Phyre was still hanging from the sphere apex, her shrieks echoing off the walls. Below her a huge grey mass of liquid flesh was oozing up the cage wall, long jelly arms forming as it trying to drag Phyre down into a gaping, black, toothless maw.
In a white and black blur, Dirge leapt over Eli, landing hard on the warehouse floor and giving a wall-rattling roar. Attention shifted from Eli to Dirge, and the workers raised their power tools and wrenches.
Eli ran for the cage. The lock was thick, too heavy for a meka to break, let alone a frantic thirteen-year-old boy. He veered away, sprinting past two surprised workers toward one of the cranes.
"Hang on, Phyre," he yelled.
::Hurry!:: she snapped back. ::This thing is going to eat me!::
He yanked open the door to the crane, then froze. There were hundreds of buttons and levers. Some were labeled, but he couldn't read.
"No you don't," a voice snarled and someone grabbed him and yanked him back. Eli landed hard on his back, his breath whooshing out of him.
Kalex was standing over him, sneering, stinking and vicious. "Remember me, you dirt-scab?" he demanded. "'Cause I remember you punching me in the face with a rock."
His boot slammed into Eli's ribs, lighting up the bruises and beating he had taken when Phyre was kidnapped. He had no air to cry out in pain, there was nothing but a soft wheeze that did nothing to express the agony ripping through him.
"Bet you wish you'd just lost that first fight," Kalex punctuated his sentences with a kick. "Would have been easier. Quicker. Time to give up, you know? Time to lie down and die."
"No," Eli croaked. Didn't he see? Whatever Kalex intended, giving Phyre to Eli had given him something to live for. Maybe once, he would have given up. But not now. Not while she was still alive.
He kicked up with all his strength, catching Kalex between the legs. It was a terrible kick, but it did the job and Kalex dropped to his knees, his keen of pain lost in the echoing shrieks of Phyre's panic.
Eli rolled onto his hands and knees. Every rib felt broken. Every breath felt like a fresh kick. He dragged himself back into the crane. How was he supposed to work this thing?
He jabbed a button and the engine roared to life.
Kalex crashed into him, his fist clipping the side of Eli's head. White fireworks exploded in his vision, and he was knocked across the controls.
The jaws of the crane swung away from the cage, everything shuddering, the crane tilting horribly off balance. Kalex grabbed Eli's shoulders, trying to haul him out to the ground and Eli scrabbled at the controls, yanking the levers he had fallen across.
The arm of the crane slammed into the scaffolding of the arena. The metal screamed and snapped, one of the arena's sides crumbling from the force. Phyre threw herself at the weakened corner, and her weight—along with the sagging, grinding metal—shifted the sphere. The bolts holding it in place gave loud pings as they snapped. Cascades of blue sparks rained down on the meka as the electric wires attached to the cameras tore and began to flail, alive and writhing on the warehouse floor.
"Cut the power!" someone was screaming. "Cut the rusting-"
The sphere lolled sideways, slamming into the crane. It lurched sideways, toppling over with Eli and Kalex inside. Eli was thrown hard against the windscreen. Kalex's feet against his chest, his knee in Eli's face.
There was a grinding, crunching vibration as the sphere rolled across the warehouse like a giant hamster ball, Phyre screaming blue-murder inside and the grey meka flailing his limbs wildly.
Eli watched it roll past through the shattered windscreen, then Kalex kicked him in the head as he hoisted himself out of the open door overhead, crouching on top of the crane, the scrambling down and out of sight.
Eli couldn't see Squall, but Dirge galloped past, avoiding the rolling arena's path of destruction. The torn electrical wires were still whipping back and forth, turning the warehouse floor into a deadly sea of static.
Whimpering, Eli twisted around, kicking the windscreen until it folded in on itself, flopping onto the ground. Eli fell out, dizzy, half blinded by the red and white spots dancing in his vision.
He looked up into the black lens of a camera. The woman in red was only a few feet away, a camera in her hand. She was filming him.
"Enjoying the show?" he spat at her.
She gave him a thumbs up.
In that instant, he wanted nothing more than to kick her in the same place he had kicked Kalex.
The arena, still containing Phyre and Scylla, crunched against the far wall with a sound like an explosion and the joints holding it together snapped, cracking it open like an egg.
Phyre leapt for the gap with a surge of hope, but a tentacle-like grey limb snatched her from the air. Scylla dragged her back into the cage, Phyre's claws sparked on the metal as she tried to struggle free. Under the grey mire, Scylla's mouth was forming. Monstrous and gaping. Large enough to swallow Phyre whole.
"Phyre!" Eli lunged across the open expanse of the warehouse floor, heedless of the sparking wires. He struggled to find his feet. Struggled to run, on limbs that didn't even want to hold him upright.
From somewhere behind him, Squall screamed.
Eli pivoted, heart surging. Her wheelchair was overturned. Kalex had her around the neck, dragging her across the floor. He seemed to be trying to take her hostage, but she was putting up a hell of a fight. Clawing and biting him, punching him in the face, three times, four. As her nailed dug his face for his eyes, he gave up, letting her fall and running for the door without her.
In an instant, she was up on her elbows, trying to drag herself to safety, but the live wires were whipping back and forth, only inches from her paralyzed legs. She was going to be fried alive.
Across the room, Scylla's mouth was closing on Phyre's hind quarters. Her screams were desperate, terrified and wild.
Eli froze. Squall or Phyre?
Aquillis Pike stood in the warehouse doorway. Beside him, Sin shimmered glorious white in the flickering warehouse lights.
They couldn't be real. It was too ridiculous. Too insane.
I am going to find those damn cowards and drag them back here. They're going to face me and they're going to lose. That was what he had said. Had he really come down to the Undercity to find them for a stupid fight?
"I'll handle the meka!" Aquillis called.
There was no time to question.
Eli leapt over the nearest wire which snapped up at his feet like a snake. He crouched down beside Squall and she grabbed him around the neck. "Go! Go!"
There was no way to get her wheelchair too. He held on to her legs, pressed his own back to the wall and started making his way toward the barn doors, Squall screaming for Dirge in his ear.
Directly across from them, Eli saw the woman in red. Far from being afraid, or even alarmed, she still had a hand-held camera was panning the chaos. Even as the people she'd had hired risked their lives trying to stop the building from going up in a huge electrical fire, she was recording the fight.
On the other side of the warehouse, Dirge leapt onto the side of the spherical arena. Four of his paws were gripping the wire, the other two stretched into the opening, clawing at the grey meka's multitude of eyes.
Aquillis stood assessing the scene, arms folded, blonde hair illuminated by the flickering lights as if this was a movie set, and he was the star. He looked infuriatingly calm, like this was any other arena, and he was fighting any other battle. Then, like a floating white ghost, Sin bounded into the fray.
She leapt like a deer, dropping neatly through the gaping hole in the wire as she faced off with Scylla, who was still sucking Phyre into his mouth like a noodle. Through her, Eli could feel his wet mouth, and something like a hundred thrashing tongues, scouring her hind legs and tail.
Sin reared, slashing at Scylla with razor sharp cloven hooves. As he swayed backward to escape her, Dirge caught a dozen of his eyes in one vicious sweep of his claws. They popped with spurts of blue meka blood and Scylla loosened his grip on Phyre to scream in silent agony.
"Draw him out into the open!" Aquillis urged the meka, like he intended to face Scylla himself. Eli and Squall were almost at the door. Almost safe. He just had to get Squall outside, then he could go back.
Dirge kept clawing at Scylla as Phyre hauled herself out of the arena. She took to the air with a scream of rage. She circled the rafters, clinging to the support beams, shrieking like a demon. Her fury was giving Eli a pounding headache. He was afraid, but she was an inferno of hatred.
Sin bounded out of the cage too, but a grey limb shot out, snagging one hoof and dragging her off her feet. She thrashed, kicking viciously, but Scylla held her tight. Then, with fluid ease, he began to clamber out after her.
"Do meka really eat other meka?" Eli asked Squall.
Her gaze was locked on the struggle. "I'd say no, but I think this one is going to be the exception that proves the rule. We have to help them!"
They were almost at the door, Eli pushed on, teeth gritted. "I'm getting you out."
"I can't leave Dirge! Aquillis can't handle this alone!"
Phyre's rage was boiling through him, raw and overwhelming. It was hard to speak, it was hard to even think, but amid the primal seethe of emotion, her intentions were clear.
"We all have to run. Phyre is bringing the roof down. Aquillis!"
The blond glanced at them and blithely waved them on to safety. "I'm fine! Get out of here. I'll handle this."
Dirge leapt from the top of the cage onto the grey meka, using four of his dinner plate-sized paws to shred it now, tearing through Scylla's viscous hide and sending out sprays of blue. Sin was on her back, her mane and tail grappling with Scylla's rapidly forming limbs. The fight seemed to be going well, but Aquillis had not seen Phyre tearing at the metal rafters.
"Aquillis!" Squall yelled. "Look up! Up!"
Squall waved her hand wildly, almost elbowing Eli in the face and Aquillis finally looked, only just in time to leap sideways as the first metal beam fell. It crashed down only metres from where the three meka were fighting.
"Come on, idiot!" Eli yelled to Aquillis. "You can't fight gravity!"
The workers on the far side of the warehouse had noticed what Phyre was doing too and they were battering the far door to escape, but it was chained closed. Already Phyre had the next beam free.
"Can't you stop her?" Squall demanded.
Every part of Eli hurt. His head. His body. He could barely stand, holding Squall up was borrowing from strength he didn't have. In the face of Phyre's rage, he was small. Kalex had tried to kill her hours after she was born. All her life he had stalked her and Eli. He had threatened her. Hurt her. Tried to feed her to a monster. Taunted her with all the ways Eli would suffer when she was gone.
There was no reasoning with her rage.
"She won't listen."
Eli carried Squall outside. There was no sign of Kalex—the target of all Phyre's hatred was long gone. Already fled, like the coward he was. Aquillis ran out the doors, only a few feet behind them, arms over his head as the ceiling began to break away, sending chunks of concresteel smashing onto the floor. The woman in the red dress charged through the doorway with him, almost knocking Aquillis down as she ran, tossing the camera aside and vanishing into an alleyway.
The barn doors framed a horrifying tableau, Scylla was getting the upper hand on Sin. His maw was wide, and she was impossibly entangled within his limbs. Aquillis turned in a panic and lunged back toward the collapsing building. Squall almost crashed to the ground as Eli grabbed Aquillis by the shoulder, dragging him back.
"Sin!" Aquillis screamed, fighting Eli's grip.
"The roof is caving in; you can't go back!" Eli yelled at him.
He twisted to glare at Eli, but behind it was the same desperation Eli had felt when it was Phyre in danger. "She can't get loose!"
Dirge leapt to avoid another beam, the largest yet. It smashed into Scylla instead, crushing his side under a ton of twisted, rusting steel. He writhed in silent agony, blue blood gushing from his wounds like a flood.
Phyre dropped from the ceiling, dive-bombing the tentacle-like limbs still holding Sin. The ground started to shake and Eli, Aquillis and Squall were forced to their knees, Squall propped awkwardly against Eli's side. Dirge bolted to safety and Sin struggled free, leaping for the door with Phyre gliding only a foot behind her.
The ceiling gave in a rush, the roar drowned out everything else and a storm of dust and debris swallowed them. Eli cowered beside Squall, one arm still around her.
The street was going to cave in too; they were going to be buried alive. Maybe thousands above them would die too, as layer after layer of city sunk into the collapsing hole, like in the Rift.
Then, like the end of fireworks, the sounds stopped. The echoes faded away. Eli took his hands off his ears and looked around. Squall was still beside him, propped up on one elbow coughing. Aquillis was crouched down a little further away. Their three meka were standing. Bloody but alive. There was nothing left of the warehouse but a mound of rubble spilling out the doorway. They were caked yellow with dust, even their eyelashes. Aquillis blinked and rubbed a yellow hand across his face, smearing the mess.
"Is everyone okay?" Squall asked.
"I've been better," Eli muttered.
Squall turned to Aquillis. "What are you doing here?"
He looked surprised by the question. "You didn't show up for the fight. I came to find you."
"How could you possibly find us?" Eli demanded.
"My cousin has security clearance to access the Blueline video feed. The city the facial recognition system was able to track you and Squall until you left the Blueline, and Sin sniffed you out from there."
"You really cared enough to come looking for us?" Squall asked.
"Well," he said wryly. "It had more to do with having an arena filled with one hundred thousand fans demanding to know where you were. I thought you'd wussed out."
"Please," Eli said. "I was going to enjoy kicking your butt even more the second time around."
Squall glared. "Do we have to do this now? What was that place?"
"Nightshop," Aquillis said darkly.
"No way. Nightshop isn't real," Squall said.
Aquillis pulled out his jabber.
"Who are you calling?" Eli asked.
"Some of those workers might still be alive. The ceiling might not have caved in on the other side of the warehouse. Someone needs to get down here and get them out."
Despite his protesting ribs, Eli scooped Squall up again, hoisting her onto Dirge's back. She gripped his fur with her hands.
"Can you balance there?" he asked.
"Not without a saddle, but you can hold my legs."
He smiled a little. "Good, I don't think I can carry you to the Blueline."
Aquillis was explaining their location on his jabber with a lot of big hand gestures, Sin peering over his shoulder. Phyre leaned on Dirge's other side, her head on Squall's chest, seeking comfort, or checking Squall was okay. For now, she was holding Squall steady.
Eli stepped away from them a moment, trying to catch his breath. Abandoned, a few feet away, was the camera the woman in red had dropped. He scooped it up, peering at the screen, then turning it over. The feed was still running. He cleaned the yellow dust off the lens and held it up.
"Did you get your money's worth?" he asked quietly. He wondered who was watching. Who had paid to see him suffer this time? "I hope you did. Because one day I'm going to find you. Each and every one of you. Phyre and I haven't finished pulling down buildings."
"Eli!" Squall called. He glanced up and saw she was swaying, almost slipping off Dirge's back. Aquillis was chuckling, catching her hand from the other side to keep her in place.
Eli dropped the camera, hurrying over to steady Squall.
"It's time to go home," Squall said.
Together they started the long trek back to the Blueline. Revenge, Kalex and the woman in red, could wait.
Squall grinned at Aquillis. "Does this mean we're friends now?"
"No," Eli and Aquillis said in unison.
# # #
They emerged from the Undercity into a flurry of chaos. The Blueline streets had been cleared, and hovers brought down, flown slow and dangerously low, to fit under the Blueline ceiling.
Militia officers were everywhere, swarming like insects. Some prepared medical supplies and excavation equipment to be taken down into the Undercity. Others set up barriers to keep out the gawking public.
Hundreds of slick, black camera lenses turned to the six of them as they stepped into view. Eli froze. The media seemed to have arrived at the same time the militia, and those with high level citizenship cards had access past the barricades. They swarmed closer, talking eagerly into their cameras.
Oblivious to the chaos, Squall's parents ran over, one on either side of Dirge, to hug her. Mrs. Owens was sobbing, alternatively kissing Squall's cheeks and burying her own face in a tissue. There was a man in his early twenties with them. Probably Squall's older brother, Conner. He patted Squall on the back while her parents fussed over her.
Aquillis' father, resplendent in an expensive suit and without a hair out of place, swept Aquillis up in a fierce hug despite the yellow dust coating him. Sin pranced beside them, shimmering in the neon Blueline lights. With his arm still around his son's shoulders, Mr. Pike led Aquillis toward the waiting media. Aquillis looked confident and calm, but the way his head tilted toward his father's shoulder betrayed a genuine affection.
There wasn't anyone waiting for Eli.
He stood there, still half in the doorway they had emerged from, holding his own elbows, hurting all over with his injuries and feeling horribly alone.
He wasn't ever going to have a family waiting for him. Even if he somehow became rich and famous, with thousands of people cheering his name, he was never going to have a mother or father. Friends weren't the same as family.
Phyre nudged his arm with her snout.
::We're family, aren't we?:: she asked.
He blinked, once, twice, three times, to clear away the tears that threatened to cloud his vision.
"Yeah. You and me. Let's go find a doctor. The reporters are here for Aquillis anyway."
Unnoticed by the media circus, Eli followed the shadow of the wall, slipping past the militia barrier and the medics, leaving Squall, Aquillis and their families behind him.
He didn't need them. He didn't need parents or brothers. He certainly didn't need the Red Hollows. He was Eli. He was perfectly okay alone.
He squeaked in surprise as a hand closed on his shoulder. He spun around to find Viscountess Aeryn Vayne the Eighth looking puzzled, Sugarball blinking owlishly on her shoulder.
"Didn't you see me?" she asked.
"No," Eli stammered. "What are you doing here?"
"Did you think I wouldn't come? Imagine if you'd escaped the Undercity and no one was here waiting for you. How depressing would that be?" She put her arm around his aching shoulders. Sugarball's pink tail curled around him too, soft, warm and tickly. She steered him back toward his friends, the lights and the chaos.
Squall spotted him and waved. "Eli, where did you go? Come over here! My brother wants to meet you."
Slowly, Eli smiled. Beside him, Phyre flapped her wings and cooed.
Maybe he was wrong. Maybe sometimes, when it mattered, friends were almost as good as family.
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