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Sweet Dreams

By Brasscat

It still wasn't unusual, these days, to find Dude frequenting the ventilation shafts of the Brotherhood Lair. Old habits are hard to break.

On this night, she was travelling through the vents on her way back from a little late-night raid on the kitchen. Sure, she now ate with the other thieves - when it suited her to do so - but occasionally she felt like a little extra, a treat. And a raid on the kitchen was just the thing. On all fours, she scrambled along the cold metal shaft, then stopped as an orange slipped with a thud from under her shirt. She caught it as it began to roll back the way she'd come; the shaft sloped downwards ever so slightly.

This didn't concern Dude; it never had. The ventilation system here was her home, and she was used to all its quirks. Tucking the orange back under her shirt with the other four she'd filched, she continued crawling, one-handed, holding her shirt to her chest with her left hand.

There was a strange odour in the air, and she wrinkled her beak. She'd never smelled that in the shafts before... but then, they were linked to the outside, and an odd odour could be coming from just about anywhere out there. Factories, fires, anything. She gave a mental shrug and continued on her way.

The shaft split into a few branches here, the one furthest to the left leading deeper into the Lair, the one furthest to the right leading toward the outside vent. Dude turned to take the left, as she always did on the way back to her home within the shafts, then paused.

Something was hissing.

For a moment, images of jewel snakes flashed through her head and she blanched. According to Milantha, a jewel snake was something one did NOT want to have an encounter with. Then she shook her head. A jewel snake in the middle of Keltor city? In the ventilation shafts of the hidden Brotherhood Lair? Impossible.

But the hissing didn't go away.

"Dammit." Dude muttered. "Looks like I be da one who's gonna hafta check dis one out, yeah. Lucky I ain't scared of no snake. Or nothin', fo' dat matta."

She turned and crawled up the right passage, the smell growing stronger. But it was one of those smells that was easy to get used to... once it had been around for a while, you got used to it and forgot it was there...

"What da--?" Dude froze just a few feet up the shaft, squinting into the darkness ahead. She could almost swear she saw two green eyes glowing faintly in the dark. And something long, thin and silvery... the sight made a shiver run through her. She wasn't sure what it was, and yet... it looked vaguely familiar. She crawled forward, more careful now, her curiosity about the unidentifiable glimmer in the dark overcoming any other instinct...

And then she started to scream.

In the darkness of the vents, something thumped and rolled down the slight incline, gaining speed as it went. A lone, round orange.

*****

Shockwave Featherstone sat up in bed, the faint, faraway scream which had woken him fading out of his sleepy mind before he truly became conscious of it's existence. A little confused, he shook his head. What had woken him up?

He sat and listened for almost a full minute, and heard nothing. With a slight shake of his head, he yawned, took a deep breath, and lay down again.

And paused as the odd smell registered. He stayed still under the covers, frowning into the dark as he sniffed the air slowly. Sure enough, there was a very strange smell there. He sat up slowly, not sure what to do. As the keeper of the guard post of the Lair, surely he should report anything out of the ordinary... But this was just a smell. He checked his clock, the red digital readout the only light in the darkness of his room. 11:30.

Sparky shook his head. It was too late at night to be running around worrying about some weird smell coming from outside. So he lay down again, and closed his eyes, willing sleep to return to him.

And waited... and waited...

He sat up again, restless now. Occasionally he did suffer bouts of insomnia, but this was more a feeling of restlessness... Sparky swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat there for a moment, staring around the darkness of his room. He shivered suddenly, then almost laughed at himself. Great, so now you're afraid of the dark?

A soft sound broke the silence, and the grin dropped from Sparky's face. "Who's there?" he finally whispered.

There was no answer. He sighed in relief. And now I can add paranoia to the list... Tarrin's gonna love this...

Feeling strangely lightheaded, Shockwave stood up and walked slowly over to the door, careful not to trip over anything in the dark. He put his hand on the doorbutton, and hesitated. He had a funny feeling...

The boy shook himself out of it, and hit the button. The door slid open with a soft hiss, and in the dimness of the corridor he could make out the shape of someone standing there, their back to him. This must have been what he'd heard, and with that realisation, he relaxed. The person - an adult man by the shape of his back - looked fairly harmless, and certainly didn't look suspicious. The man simply stood there, arms by his side, looking off down the hallway. Sparky thought he recognised him, even from the back... something about his stance was familiar. He was quite tall, really, and Sparky tried to remember if anyone in the Lair was quite that height... apart from himself, of course.

"Excuse me... did you want something?" Sparky asked softly, hoping he wasn't interrupting anything. The man's attitude was one of sadness, or perhaps loneliness.

The man made no response.

Sparky frowned, not sure whether to be annoyed or worried. "Um... are you okay?" By now his eyes were adjusting to the dimness of the hall, and the figure before him looked more and more familiar... it was on the edge of his thoughts, but the name and face eluded him. He took a step toward the figure, reaching out to tap him on the shoulder, then froze as he caught sight of the man's hand, hanging at his side. He was wearing a ring, a silver ring with a jagged line carved over it, a ring that Sparky had, as a child, fiddled with as he sat in his father's arms.

Don't say it, don't be stupid. It couldn't be him! he told himself savagely, but for all his mental rebuffs, he couldn't stop the word slipping out.

"...Dad?"

Then the figure turned, and Sparky saw the face. His mouth went completely dry, and he couldn't find the strength to scream. His knees buckled, and he sank to the cold stone floor, numbly awaiting his fate.

*****

Leila sat up in bed, listlessly flipping through a handful of papers. These were the sort she hated the most - finances. Wonderful migraine material. She scanned down the double columns of figures and tiredly wondered whether to give up and go to sleep, or to start, and if the latter, where to start. The task ahead looked mind-boggling. With a groan, Leila picked up her old-fashioned handheld calculator and started adding up the figures.

Some time later, her concentration was broken by a faint smell. She barely looked up, but inhaled deeply, wondering what it was that was causing the strange odour. "Dude," she said aloud, "Or Nosedive, or whoever that is, if I open that vent and yer there, heads will roll. I ain't in the mood fer practical jokes, you got it?"

There was no reply, not even a giggle or a shuffle echoing from the grate above her head; but Leila hadn't expected one. She went back to studying the figures.

A few minutes later, she pushed the papers aside. She was feeling lightheaded. If this feeling was a predecessor to a migraine, it wasn't one she was familiar with. She began to wonder whether she shouldn't have skipped dinner that night.

Leila knew when to give up the fight. She clapped her hands and the lights went out, leaving peaceful darkness to settle around her. With a sigh, Leila settled back on her pillow and closed her eyes.

She wasn't sure what awoke her, or even if she'd really been asleep, but an indeterminable amount of time later she became aware that she was no longer alone. She stayed very still, thinking fast. She hadn't seen whoever it was enter, but then she was fairly sure she'd been asleep. "Duke? Is that you?" she whispered. No answer.

"Hello? If this is a joke, I swear someone is gonna die..."

A soft chuckle emanated from the darkness, it's point of origin somewhere in the centre of the room. "Someone IS going to die..." said the faceless voice; smooth, cultured, deep and unmistakably familiar.

Leila's hands were shaking so hard she wasn't sure she could manage the clap needed to flood the room with light again. But she did.

And saw the figure, the face, the stance, all of which she knew so well... the shadow of a cruelly curved beak thrown against the opposite wall. With a tiny whimper, Leila shrank back into herself, curling into a ball. She huddled there on the bed, under the harsh electric light, as his shadow loomed over her. She didn't scream once.

*****

Duke slept peacefully, snoring slightly. He twitched slightly, dreaming.

He reached out for the huge diamond, careful not to touch the broken glass around it. Man, it was a beauty. Pure white light gleamed off every facet as he held it up to the light, admiring its cut.

The thief wondered vaguely why he wasn't wearing any gloves, then dismissed the thought. All that mattered now was that he got out of here, preferably with both the jewel and his freedom. He turned and padded across the room, virtually silent. No alarms split the silence, no guards leapt out from the shadows, and his confidence grew as he reached the centre of the room and stared up at the high windowsill. He lifted his right arm to fire his grappling hook, then stopped, the sight of his hand hitting him like a slap in the face.

It was covered in blood. Fresh, thick, dark red blood, running down his hand onto his forearm, slowly drying and clotting. It had come from nowhere, it seemed; his hand had been clean a moment before. But he knew better. There was blood on his hands now, but really, there always had been. Now, its metallic scent filled the air, overlaying another scent he'd almost failed to notice in the background; one he couldn't quite place. And still the blood ran. His heart pounding, he took a step back and nearly stumbled over something lying in the floor.

It was the bloodstained body of a large, overweight Mayalan duck, the hilt of an old-fashioned sword poking out from his belly, his greasy black hair tangled, his eyes wide open and staring, his face twisted in a death mask of agony. Those eyes seemed to catch the thief's gaze, seeking him out from the safety of his private thoughts, cutting down into the depths of his very soul with their accusation...

Your fault

'No!' the thief cried, and ran, ran as far and fast as he could. The floor of the museum stretched far out in front of him, the opposite wall never growing any closer no matter how hard he tried to reach it. He stopped, breathless, and turned almost against his will to see how far away the terrible corpse was.

It was no more than two feet away. And the thief began to tremble as he came to the terrifying realisation... no matter how fast he ran, he could never leave it behind him. Never.

Something was different. Something had changed. The corpse was smaller, thinner. Darker in color. The face turned away. Not understanding, at first, the thief stepped closer.

The name froze on his lips, but it didn't need to be said. He knew who it was, now, with the dead, accusing glare, with the blood draining out of him, with the hilt of the sword poking from his belly. The hilt that the thief had put there. Bloody now, like his hands.

Then he was crying, sobbing the name over and over again... "Rance... Rance... oh gods... I didn't mean it... RANCE!!"

Duke sat bolt upright, his heart pounding. He was covered in sweat; he could feel it soaking his feathers and see it glistening on his arms in the light from under the doorway. His face, too, was wet, and Duke refused to think about that, not admitting to himself that it was anything more than the cold sweat of a nightmare.

He needed to go to the bathroom badly. Duke got out of bed, his breath becoming more even as he adjusted to the far less horrifying reality he was in... or so he thought.

So he thought until he tripped over something soft and heavy on the way to the door.

*****

Tarrin woke up with her arms around him, and was startled at first, his heart pounding in his chest and confusion making his head spin. It had all been a bad dream. A nightmare, that was all. He almost laughed... what a vivid nightmare it had been!

The shape in bed beside him shifted. "Mmm... what's wrong, Tarrin?"

"Nothing." Tarrin said softly, "Nothing's wrong now..." He sighed into the darkness. "I had this funny dream..."

"Really? Do you want to talk about it?"

That was Felicity, Tarrin thought fondly; even in the midnight hours she was willing to listen and be there. When she could just be sleeping. "I dreamed that Saurians invaded Puckworld..." he said, relief putting amusement in his tone at the thought of what a ridiculous concept that was. Yet so believable at the time. "And then they were chased through a dimensional gateway by a team of fighters chosen for the military - including L'Orange!"

She laughed softly. "That is odd."

He smiled in the dark, wishing he could see her face. His expression became more serious as he recalled more of the dream easily. Strange; he didn't usually remember his dreams well. "A member of the military, a man called Canard, picked up the pieces and reformed a government, but he ended up being a dictator. And..." he hesitated. "Then you got shot, on a heist," he said quietly. "Shot through the head. You were killed instantly."

"Was I?" she asked quietly, her voice showing no surprise, or even concern. Tarrin blinked. That wasn't exactly the reaction he'd expected.

He reached out to touch her hair, and his hand came away wet... sticky. Tarrin lay very still, frozen, nightmare and reality fusing into one. As his head spun and shock reached up to overtake the darkness of the room with a blacker dark of its own, Tarrin thanked his stars and all the gods on Puckworld for one saving grace... that the light wasn't switched on.

*****

Milantha Lightwing lay on her bed, drifting in and out of sleep, the paperback she'd been reading sitting open on her stomach. She was having trouble sleeping. She wasn't sure why, but something was bothering her... something was niggling at her. She yawned widely, and then it hit her.

The smell.

"Oh stars..." she muttered. "My chemicals!" Switching on the bedside light, she leapt up to see what had been spilled. And stopped.

Nothing was spilled. Every bottle was lined up tidily, and immaculately placed on its shelf. She'd been warned about the danger of keeping chemicals and poisons in her room, and had upped her safety precautions just in case. She was just a little worried that someone might confiscate her precious chemicals, and then she'd have lost her favourite form of revenge.

But there was nothing wrong. No spills, no cracks, nothing. Milantha frowned, and the room tilted slightly. She shook her head, disoriented, and then began to grow worried. If whatever was in the air - some kind of gas, perhaps - had that effect on her after such a small exposure, what might it do to those closer to the source? And where WAS the source?

Milantha jumped up and dug through her desk drawers, quickly coming up with the beak filter she wore when mixing strong chemicals. It would do, she decided, though a gas mask would be better.

Tying the mask on, Milantha hurried from her room.

*****

Jedar sat up in bed. "Do you smell something?"

"Jedar, you've been hanging around with Nosedive too long," Nylessa said sleepily. "Your sense of humor is really going down the drain."

Jedar frowned. "No, I'm serious. I can smell something... odd."

"Look under the bed," Nylessa yawned. "I think I had an egg sandwich in here the other day."

"Now who's disgusting?"

"Oh, stop fussing, Jeddy. A rat probably died in the ventilation system. I'm sure Dude will find it and use it to freak out some poor unsuspecting victim... probably me."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. Night, love." Jedar rolled over and promptly went back to sleep, as only a male can do. Nylessa gave an annoyed sigh and stared at the darkened ceiling, wide awake.

*****

Cutter and Nosedive glared at each other over the card table in the Lounge, their cards fanned out in front of their faces, their expressions full of exaggerated suspiscion. Both broke the glare to examine their separate hands. Nosedive looked up again, a challenge in his eyes.

"Got any threes?"

"Go fish."

Marshall snorted in disgust. "You two are unbelievable. Ye put the name of the Brotherhood te shame."

"Hey!" Nosedive protested. "This is a legitimate card game! Ask any human!"

"I'm seriously beginning te doubt the intelligence of the human race."

"Don't we all?" Dive scooped up a card from the pile in the centre of the table.

Cutter glanced up and spotted the reflection of Nosedive's cards in the mirror behind the bar. He grinned evilly. "Hey... you got any queens?"

"Aww MAN!"

Cutter smiled modestly as he took the card from Nosedive. "A lucky shot. Say, you interested in a little bet on this game?"

Nosedive's eyes gleamed. "How much?"

To Cutter's everlasting regret, Milantha chose that moment to dash in. The three males took in her white pyjamas and facemask with some surprise.

"The operating theatre's thataway, dear," Cutter said offhandedly, hiding a grin.

"Hellooo nurse!" Nosedive grinned, knowing full well he was risking either his neck, or his health in the morning. To his surprise, Milantha completely ignored his remark. "Do any of you have gas masks?" she asked urgently, her voice a little muffled through the material.

"Oh, sure, I never leave home without one..." Nosedive said conversationally.

Milantha glared at him. "This is serious. Can you smell anything?"

Cutter clamped a hand over Dive's beak before he could reply to that one. "It's for your own good, kid."

Marshall ignored the pair of them. "No, m'dear, I can't say I do. Should I?"

The young girl shook her head. "I'm... not sure. But something weird is going on... I could smell this funny smell in my room, and I'm pretty sure it was some kind of gas. I started to feel lightheaded, which is when I put this on." She pointed at her facemask. "I'd like to check on everyone, just to make sure they're okay, but..."

"But you came here first to catch someone already awake. Good girl."

Normally Milantha might have even objected to Marshall's last statement, which she took to be a little patronising, but now she just looked urgently at him, willing him to take her seriously.

Perhaps that was what made it sink in for Marshall... that, for some reason, Milantha was really worried. And Marshall knew that she was a smart girl. She wouldn't be worried unless she had a strong suspicion that something was wrong. "Alright, lass..." he said. "We'll go to the weapons repository and see what we can find there."

Nosedive raised an eyebrow. "Well, you two can go and track down all the smells you like. I think I'll stay here with--" Cutter grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet.

"Oh no you don't."

"MAN!"

*****

Approximately fifteen minutes later, four masked ducks walked through the halls of the Brotherhood. They went from room to room, and in most they found the occupant either delirious and hallucinating, or unconscious, whether from shock of the hallucinations or from the gas, they couldn't determine.

On C level, Milantha was horrified to find Estelle in such a state, slumped in a corner of her room with her activated saber still clutched in her hand. Further up, they discovered both Nylessa and Jedar in Nylessa's room, huddled in one another's arms, both out like lights. Lyric was stretched out on the floor of her room, unconscious, tears drying on her face, a hand stretched out in front of her as if, in her last moments of consciousness, she'd been reaching out for someone. They found many more on that level, some hysterical, babbling about all sorts of imagined horrors.

On B level, they found Leila in her bedroom. She was in shock. After failing to elicit a response from her, they simply had to leave her behind and move on. A few doors down, they found Duke in tears. He didn't even seem to see them. Further along, Tarrin was huddled unconscious on his bed, and Marshall silently shook his head, imagining what the doctor might have been through under the influence of the gas.

As they climbed the stairs to A level, Milantha's heart grew heavy. She almost stumbled in her haste to reach the top of the stairs, but she had a feeling she knew what she'd find.

Shockwave was lying in the hallway just past his room. Marshall and Cutter joined Milantha and took the sight in silently, then together picked Sparky up and carried him back into his room, laying him on the bed. Nosedive was uncharacteristically silent through all this, frowning.

Milantha stood over Sparky for a moment and squeezed his hand, phasing out the other occupants of the room for a moment. "You'll be okay..." she whispered, and let go.

She turned around to see Dive, with his mask off, sniffing the air like a canid. "Dive?!"

"It's coming from the vents!" he blurted.

Marshall and Cutter, who had been talking quietly, both turned as one. "Are ye sure?" Marshall asked urgently.

"Oh, yeah. They don't call me Nosedive for nothin'!" He nodded vigorously, then put a hand to his head and staggered slightly. "Whoa... trippy."

"Put your mask back on!" Cutter snapped. "The last thing we need is you freaking out on us." He paused. "Then again, considering your normal state..."

"Yo, Jay, this is no time for humor!" Dive mock-scolded, slipping the mask back on.

By then, Milantha was up on the bed, examining the grating the best she could at her height. Marshall climbed up beside her. "Ye need a leg-up, lass?"

She gave him a cursory nod, and he laced his fingers beneath her bare foot and lifted. Milantha pulled the grate away from the wall, passing it down to Cutter, then clambered into the large opening.

After a few thuds and thumps, her head reappeared at the opening. "Cutter, if this is a gas leak..."

"I know. I'm coming." Unaided, Cutter pulled himself up over the lip of the opening. Milantha backed further down the shaft to give him room. A second later, Cutter poked his head back out and looked down at Dive and Marshall. He opened his mouth to speak, but was overridden by Nosedive.

"Lemme guess. If you're not back in ten minutes, call the cops?" Dive sniggered.

Cutter didn't grace that with a reply. "As much as I'm going to regret this... Nosedive, we might need a third person."

"Whoa, man. No way. I got claustrophobia. I'm allergic to ventilation shafts. Did I ever mention my trick knee?"

"Liar." Marshall pushed Dive toward the vent, and Cutter grabbed his wrists and hauled him up, ignoring his protests.

Marshall watched as the three of them disappeared, then settled back on Sparky's bed to wait.

*****

"It'd be running downhill," Cutter said. "Therefore, we follow the uphill slopes."

Milantha nodded, and they headed off. Vent travel isn't a comfortable way of travel. Whether they'd known that or not, by the time they reached the junction where Dude had been not two hours before, they all knew it well. Grazed, bruised knees and elbows, as well as scratches on the arms and tears in the clothing, are all an integral part of vent travel. In the short time the three ducks were in the vents, their respect for Dude went up a collective notch.

Nosedive had just said so, in fact, when he almost fell over her. "Whoa! Dude!"

"What?" Cutter asked impatiently from behind him.

"No, I mean it! It's Dude!"

Milantha managed to squeeze past both Cutter and Nosedive, and looked over the young girl lying slumped on the bottom of the vent. "She's alive. But all this gas can't have done her good... I'm no doctor, but..." Milantha slipped off her facemask. "I think she needs this more than I do."

Cutter tried to grab at the mask as Milantha tied it onto Dude. "Don't be stupid! We need you!"

"No you don't. We need you, Cutter, to fix whatever's causing this, and we need Dive to drag Dude back out of here-"

"Me?"

"But we don't need me." Milantha finished.

Cutter looked evenly at her for a long moment, then sighed. "It's your choice. But you've seen the others, you know what you may be letting yourself in for..."

Another shuffle put a nearly ridiculous spin on things as Dive and Milantha somehow got tangled up with one another in the process of getting Dude back to the end of the line, but they finally managed it. Dive didn't protest once, and did as he'd been told.

'He's learning...' Cutter thought smugly as the youth disappeared down the shaft, carefully pulling Dude behind him.

The remaining two ducks continued on their uphill crawl, Cutter holding his small pocket torch between his teeth. The thin beam did little to split the gloom, but the presence of even that small glimmer made the close walls of the ventilation shaft seem a little less claustrophobic.

They rounded a corner, the hissing sound growing steadily louder now. And then the vent abruptly widened, and the floor went from metal to a light, concrete-like material. They were in a small maintenance room, and in the centre crouched a large, old-fashioned generator, or engine. Cutter doubtless knew what it was and how it worked at a glance, but the dim light and Milantha's inexperience combined left her blank as to the exact identity and function of the dirty jumble of metal. One thing she could tell, however, was that the hissing sound was coming from somewhere in or around that machine. "Now what?"

Cutter frowned, and gradually got to his knees. There was room to crouch in here, at least... He dug into his shirt and emerged with what looked to Milantha like a wallet of lockpicks. He opened it, and instead of the usual row of dull metal picks with shaped heads, Milantha could see a variety of tools - small screwdrivers, rubber patches, a tiny tube of glue, and a few things which she couldn't even identify. Cutter looked up and noticed her gaze. "Never leave home without 'em."

"Well congratulations." Milantha was starting to feel a little dizzy. She could feel her grip on reality gradually loosening, which was something she didn't really want to think about. She knew her mind, and she knew what kind of hallucinations she'd get if they came. Milantha shook the thought away. "What can I do to help?"

Cutter, who by now was on his back, half under the machine, passed a loose part out to her. "Hold this. I've just got to loosen-- DAMN!" The hissing noise doubled in volume, the humming noise of the working engine slowed and died, and white gas visibly jetted out from under the engine, spreading into a cloud which obscured Cutter from view.

Cutter shoved himself out from under the engine and sat up, waving the gas away.

"You're going to tell me to get out of here, right?" Milantha asked frankly. She may have argued a minute ago, but even she knew when to admit defeat.

"Actually, no. I've just done something incredibly stupid, and I need your help to fix it. Here." He slipped off the gas mask and held it out to her. "We'll take turns."

Milantha slipped on the mask and took a deep breath. Her head started to clear almost immediately. She handed the mask back to Cutter, who was holding his breath. He needed his head about him for this more than she did.

Cutter pushed himself back under the engine. "This thing is really old..." he muttered, barely audible over the hissing of the gas and whirring of the engine. "The technology here is ancient... no wonder the damn heating is always breaking down!" He shook his head and grappled with a tight screw, pushing hard on his wrench. "And not only didn't I fix the gas leak, I made it worse! And somehow shut down the engine which is drawing the air in from the outside, so now we're not getting fresh air at all in here anymore! This could possibly rate as one of the stupidest mistakes I've ever made... Lucky for me the only witness is someone who has no idea what just happened..." He groped about for his wallet of tools, and pulled them under with him. "Milantha, I need you to hold this tube closed while I... Milantha?"

There was no answer. Cutter again pulled himself out from under the engine and sat up. "Milantha, where are you? I need your help here!" The white gas had all but filled the small engine room, and it cast an eerie, misty effect over the scene. Milantha was nowhere to be seen.

*****

Milantha held her breath as Cutter pulled himself back under the machine. She heard him muttering to himself, then he became quiet. Still. Too still. She whispered, "Cutter?" and crawled over to the engine. He was deathly still. She opened her mouth again, but closed it with a snap as she saw something slide down the black material of his pants leg.

The form was ever so familiar. Something she'd seen again and again and again in feverish nightmares. Something that had haunted her for most of her life.

A jewel snake.

"Oh my gods..." Milantha whispered, and backed away hastily, still on her hands and knees. It was too late for Cutter now... she had to save herself... had to escape...

As quietly as she could, she backed towards where the vent branched off from the small engine room, choking a little on the white gas that clouded the air. She had to get out of here...

Her mind was befuddled; clouded by the gas. She didn't stop to consider that what she was seeing might not be real; the thought didn't permeate the mist of fear and quasi-delirium which now shrouded her conscious mind. No, she believed what she was seeing. Just like every other person in the Lair had believed...

A gentle hiss rose above the hiss of the gas, and Milantha turned slowly.

And locked gazes with a gigantic snake. A jewel snake, of course. What else? It was reared up, as though ready to strike. Its body was as thick as a mans' arm, and its length trailed away into the shaft, through the exit she'd been going to take. It's beady black eyes regarded her coldly, and then it opened it's mouth to reveal long, cruelly curved fangs, moist with milky poison.

Milantha opened her mouth, but her scream was a silent one. The creature before her represented her worst nightmares and more, and a mere scream wasn't enough to express the utter loathing, horror and revulsion that swept through her at the sight. The pure fear.

They say babies are born with an instinctual fear of snakes, developed over years of early evolution, when knowledge passed down slowly became instinct, when those with the instinct of fear were those who survived. I survived, she thought numbly. This isn't fair! Why me? I survived, I've passed my test! Then the fear swept over her, stronger than before, and her thoughts became a disjointed jumble once more. Only one clear theme came through that cacophony of panic, and that was survival.

She scrabbled away from the giant snake, back across the engine room. There! In the far wall was set a small storage cupboard, just large enough for a person to fit into. It had a slide-down style door, clear perspex, with a handle on the outside. Milantha yanked the handle up, and the cupboard slid roughly open. She shoved herself into the small space and managed to pull the door back down, bloodying her fingers on the thin metal seal on the inside of the door which she was using for want of a handle. Finally, almost sobbing in fear, she managed to get it completely shut.

All was silent. The white mist swirled. Nothing moved.

Gradually Milantha's fear faded, and was replaced by shame. I left Cutter out there to die! But I can't go out there... I just can't! Another, deeper part of her spoke. How am I going to live with myself? I have to go out there...

Milantha dug her nails under the door and started to lift, staring out into the silent mist. One of her nails broke and she hissed with the momentary sharp pain, glancing down at the blood welling on the end of her finger.

Which is why she didn't see the snake until it hit the perspex with a thud.

Milantha screamed and shoved the door back down. The huge snake reared up, seemingly even larger than before, and hit the perspex again. THUD! THUD! Milantha suddenly felt a little dizzy, and for a moment seemed to hear a voice... Behind the thumps and the hissing of the dreadful python out there, a voice, calling... Fading in and out... She couldn't quite make out the words...

*****

THUD! Cutter hit at the screen again in frustration, and cursed. She was holding it closed from the inside. He had to get to her with the mask; he needed her help on the repairs. That, or he needed three arms. He'd considered going back to get Nosedive - even Dive was better than no help - but had realised his error when he crawled out of the engine room back to the junction of the shafts, only to see five branching off from where he was. He couldn't remember which one they'd come up in; he'd been too preoccupied with getting there. And if he took the wrong way...

"Milantha! You're seeing things!" Taking in the terrified look on her face, he calmed down a little. "Just let me open the door, okay? You're going to be alright... I know I probably look like... Drake knows what... from your point of view, but you gotta ignore what your eyes are telling you now. You're hallucinating, hear me?" It wasn't working. Cutter changed tacts. "Remember Sparky? Do this for him. Sparky? Shockwave? C'mon, the kid needs you! Everyone in the Lair needs you! Me most of all, right now. I need your help!" Cutter began to despair of reaching her. He lowered his voice. "Please. Just listen to me. Be brave. I can't do it without you, Milantha! I can't do it alone..."

She was staring at him now, a strange look on her face. Her head was cocked to one side, as though listening.

"Yes! That's right! It's me, Cutter!"

She blinked once, closing her eyes tightly and opening them as though she had something in them.

"C'mon, girl, open it... open the door... this is no trick!"

Slowly, hesitantly, she let go of the bottom of the door. He didn't reach out to pull it open, though, just waited and watched as she levered the perspex upwards with some difficultly.

"Come on..."

Milantha gave one final heave and the door shot open. She tumbled out and Cutter caught her. "Oh, you wonderful, brilliant girl! Thank the stars!" He yanked off the mask and shoved it over her face. Milantha breathed deeply, and her wide-eyed gaze, full of fright, began to clear. Confusion took the place of fear, and she sat up.

"The snakes. They seemed so real..." She shook her head and focused on the task at hand. "You said you needed my help?"

Cutter nodded, then took the mask when she offered it and gulped down a quick few lungfuls of air. He passed it back and grabbed her arm. "Over here. I need you to hold this tube closed while I..."

*****

A few minutes later, the hissing quietened; and after a little tinkering and some soft muttering from Cutter, stopped altogether. There was a short pause while Milantha used the mask, then Cutter took it back and plunged back under, with a brief, "I'm not quite done here yet." Less than a minute later, there was a dull throbbing sound, and the engine started up again. Passing the mask to Milantha, Cutter wriggled out from under the hastily repaired heating engine and watched as clear, fresh air blew away the thin mists of gas.

"Of course, we're not safe yet. It's going to take a couple of hours for the fresh air to go through the entire Lair. Thank Drake you caught me when you did." He glanced over at her, admiring. "Kid, that was some neat stuff you did tonight."

Milantha passed the mask back and tried not to look red. "I didn't do anything, really. You were the one who fixed the problem..."

Cutter smiled, though Milantha couldn't see it through the mask. "Alright, now, you'll make my head swell. Oh, wait - too late." He grinned broadly at her, taking the mask off. "Let's go see how everyone is, shall we?"

*****

As fresh air swept the Lair, the sleeping inhabitants awoke from their nightmares. Dawn was breaking outside before everyone was accounted for, relatively uninjured. Physically, anyhow. It wasn't Tarrin's place to judge the depth of their reopened emotional scars.

Cutter walked alone to the bathrooms, wanting to wash away the sweat and dirt of the shafts, if not their memory. The air still smelled slightly stale here in the lower levels. He glanced up at a slight sound ahead. Milantha was going into her room, dressed for bed. He stopped, and she paused, glancing back at him. There was a short, uncomfortable silence.

"Night... uh, morning, Cutter."

He nodded and allowed himself a very slight smile. "Sweet dreams."

She smiled wanly and shut the door behind her.

 

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