The very last chapter of Devil at the Crossroads! It's a little anticlimactic, perhaps, but, all the same, I do hope you enjoy this last installment!
As the first and second chapters had been, this last chapter is for Violetlight, whose friendship and editing skills have meant the world to me. Thank you so much, my dear! You've been too wonderful! :)
Extra-big hugs and love go out to the reviewers of the last chapter- Bunnylass, Chloo, Bluebird Soaring, Silveriss, Lecidre, theshadowcat, and Lady Tecuma! You're all the best! Thank you so much for the wonderful words of praise! And all the love you've shown! You all deserve a huge hug!
Credit goes to where credit's due: Violetlight, Nightshade and symbiote belong to you! :)
Devil at the Crossroads
"Somehow our devils are never quite what we expect when we meet them face to face."- Nelson DeMille
Here, of all places…
Soundwave let his gaze wander briefly over the deadened ruins of Kaon, crumbling and black from fire and vorns of neglect. Time had oozed by in a painfully slow and horrid manner since last he'd stood amongst Kaon's remains, yet he could still conjure with perfect clarity the stark strength of the Decepticon stronghold as it had once been. Once a city that glittered like a black jewel set into a metal basin in Cybertron's surface, surrounded on three sides by high, jutting metal faces, cast in shadow for most of the vorn, it had been an ancient and brooding city of shadow and festering darkness. It had always been the haven for the dark-sparked, a lure to those with minds shrouded in shadow. It was a refuge for the crooked and evil. Kaon's ancient roots had been transformed from the moment Megatron had laid claim to it as his home and base for all Decepticons. Seemingly overnight, Kaon had been changed forever from an ancient city to a military base. Twisting spires and decorative statues that had stood for hundreds of vorns in pavilions and dotted the cityscape were ransacked and melted down. Barriers rose, barracks and operational buildings took root. A cold power had taken hold of the city and moved it in way that no one ever dreamed possible, the soul of the deep-set land stripped bare and broken down to its essentials, only to be raised once more as an aloof base, untouchable. A haven to all Deceptions.
…of all places…
Now it was nothing more than a hollow shell; another sad and rotting corpse to add to the millions dotting Cybertron.
As far as Soundwave could tell, those who were to meet them in this place were already present. They lurked beyond sight, in the rotting shadows and putrid filth. They were watching from a distance, measuring him for his worth, seeing if he had come armed for a fight or a deal. The crawling sense their unseen optics left on his armour made him feel unclean; it was an oozing sense or morbid interest, tracing him and grinning, hungry and poisonous. He stared into the grey half-light dispassionately, trying to determine the source and direction of the spark resonances he sensed. The tech being employed by the lurking bots was weak, so much so that Soundwave could practically hear the rumbling death groan of the pathetic dampener, but distance worked against him in this case, unable to get a clear fix on the fuzzy signals.
"Stay on guard," he warned, only to have Nightshade pause a few steps behind him, nodding curtly. It was a needless order, of course, since he already knew her long-range scanners had been active since the moment they'd landed, but they both felt marginally better to have that order lingering in the air.
"Do you believe they are near?"
As clearly as Soundwave knew they were near, he knew they were regarding his apprentice with as much vivid interest as they were viewing himself; small and young as she was, she still posed a possible threat if provoked. If Nightshade was deemed an exceptional risk to the deal, everything would fall through and Soundwave would be left with very few options to protect his own. In the worst case scenario, she would be shot, or infected, before he could intervene, and he would be forced to retaliate with whatever means necessary. Instead of disapproving of her natural youth, he hoped today it would play in her favour.
In the same vein of thought, Soundwave had already taken the precautionary action of safely storing his symbiotes away in their compartments. Not only was it for their safety should this deal go awry, but also for the reason that their separate presences might have been enough to spook away those he'd come to see. Close at hand as they were, Soundwave could sense their collective anxiousness over the situation and he did what he deemed appropriate to sooth them. When Ratbat suggested they turn back and consider a few more options, the others quickly rallied behind him. Soundwave, unfortunately, was not to be swayed.
"Why here?" Nightshade suddenly asked, running her hand along what once had been the inner walls of their Kaon base. Her hand came away dirty with soot.
"For a better sense of irony, I believe," Soundwave ventured.
"The irony is a nice touch," she commented absently. She straightened, stretched, and then realized a shadow had moved. With a subtle jerk of her head, she sent Waspinator out to see to the occurrence, only to watch as several heavy black cables shot out from a pile of rusted slag, reaching for her symbiote. The instant thrill of fear that shot through her spark was enough to cause the insectoid symbiote to recoil, missing the viral injectors by a mere breath of air. He was summoned back immediately.
"They're over there," Nightshade announced needlessly for her Master, drawing her rapier to prepare for the creatures she knew were about to emerge. Even in a single glance, she recognized the dark cables; not many bots were equipped with viral injectors quite like thoses.
Soundwave's large hand on her shoulder stilled her. "We are not looking for a fight," he reminded, to which Nightshade warily replaced her weapon in subspace.
"You made a deal with them?"
The darkness that crossed Soundwave's was almost palpable. "I did not make this decision lightly."
Nightshade was on the verge of informing her mentor he shouldn't have made the decision at all, but decided better of it when the mercenaries began to emerge from their hiding places. First came two short, thick behemoths, both looking a little patch-worked in their ragtag armour of blacks and blues, thickly layered in dents, pockmarks, and rust. One had an obvious set of wings protruding from his frame, but he was so thickly built that it would have been a miracle to see him off the ground. The other was devoid of wings, and by the dull look his faceplate appeared fixed in, he was also devoid of any greater intelligence. They took up flanking positions to allow the rest of their small party through.
A low hiss rattled from deep within Nightshade's chassis as the next mercenary came into a dim mote of grey-light: Flamewar. They didn't need their resonance scanners to identify her spark resonance, she was in the exact same frame she'd always inhabited, only a little more pockmarked than before, and with a few new, deadlier additions. She looked more feral now, as if vorns as a mercenary had made her lose a few pieces of the mind she had left. Soundwave tensed, shifting carefully to place himself subtly in front of Nightshade, not to shield her from attack but to prevent her from attacking. When the femme made a move to step around her mentor, Flamewar gave a short burst of sharp laughter.
"Think carefully about that. Last time didn't exactly turn out in your favour," she warned.
"This isn't last time, now is it?" Nightshade countered.
"Calm yourself," Soundwave warned darkly, which his apprentice did well to obey before the order was enforced manually.
"Back down, Flamewar," growled the last approaching shadow. Flamewar went rigid, and then reluctantly acquiesced to the order like a puppet helpless to the strings she was tangled in. She stood aside for the thick-set shuffling form prowling behind her, allowing the quadruped to step into the light.
Soundwave offered a miniscule bow, which barely counted as a tip of his head. "Virus."
"Soundwave." She was scarcely distinguishable from the rotting scrap around her, blackened armour grimed with dirt and caked with dried energon, most of her armour flaking from rust degradation. It was little insulting to hear the dry grating of her frame as neglected parts scraped together, knowing that she had lain in wait without a sound previously. While her viral injectors remained safely coiled away in their inner compartments, the armour-shearing fangs that lined her too-broad faceplate glittered in the dim light from something wet and dripping. Deep-set optics regarded them mockingly, and she settled heavily on her haunches a short ways in front of them as if they were on familiar terms.
"I believe you contacted us?" the beast began.
"Care to reiterate the terms of you proposition? I don't believe my comrades believed me when I first suggested it to them." Most notably, Virus's optics slid to Flamewar, whose mouthplates curled into a distasteful snarl.
Soundwave merely stared flatly. "When I first contacted you, I proposed that you allow me and mine to join your," he paused, trying to come up with an appropriate description of what the quadruped did, "business."
"You did what?" Nightshade hissed incredulously.
"You heard him," Flamewar laughed scathingly. "He wants to join our merry little band." She glanced back at Worm and Trojan, both of whom appeared to be laughing dully without noise. "I bet he thinks we're all fun and games compared to the main Decepticon forces; a little vacation from all the hard work he's been doing," she mocked, only causing the two mechs to shake harder with silent laughter.
"That is not it at all," Soundwave countered calmly.
Flamewar snorted, sidling up next to Virus's side. "Oh? Care to enlighten us disbelievers, then? I'm sure whatever explanation you give will be optic opening." Her words all but dripped with venom. The vorns had not been kind to her, and she was not about to be kind to anyone else.
Virus nodded, laughing dustily. "If we are going to refuse you, we might as well know the offer we're refusing." She tipped her head to Flamewar. "Bad for business if we don't know exactly what we're turning down. Could come back to haunt us."
"I don't doubt it," grunted Flamewar, still venomous. "Of course, making a deal with you in the first place could always come back to haunt someone, as well."
"It's a harsh business," the mercenary shrugged.
"So I've learned." Seven vorns had long since past, and still she was trapped in the hole she'd dug herself when she'd first turned to Virus for help. There was nowhere else on Cybertron that would take her now, and every orn she didn't know if she should be bitterly grateful Virus showed enough tolerance to allow Flamewar keep, or feel utterly wretched that she had ever made a deal with the beast in the first place. "Not every bot is cut out for being the universe's bitch."
A shadow of a scowl crossed Soundwave's features, which did not go unmissed by the mercenaries. "I do not intend to contract myself into your services the same way Flamewar foolishly did."
"You plan to join me without contract?" Virus asked, raising an optic ridge. "I don't offer free rides, and without a contract who's to say we won't kill you while you're in recharge? We could sell your parts to the highest bidder. You'd be worth a lot, once you were broken down." She looked him up and down appraisingly, as if determining exactly what pieces of him would be worth the most.
"I am far more valuable whole and functioning than sold for scrap," Soundwave pressed. "What I intend to propose is a partnership of sorts, or, in more familiar terms, a symbiotic relationship that would easily benefit us both."
Virus frowned, snorting roughly through her vents so that a puff of dust came out them. "Symbiotic relationships entail exchange on both sides, Soundwave. There's no way in the pit I'd pay anyone the slag off my claws to stick around. I get compensated for any and all work rendered, not the other way around."
"Of course, and what services I wish to purchase from you is an alliance, and a centered base with which to operate from without the threat of the Decepticons looming over my unit. In return for such long term services, I will be willing to work as you see fit. As you know, my communications skills are second to none. I would be a very valuable asset, should you allow me stay."
"You're skills are rather valuable…" Virus conceded reluctantly. While gathering intelligence was a mightily paid service, not every mercenary was equipped to accept the contract; she and her kin were capable, but nowhere near Soundwave's abilities. Of course, she was still curious of one thing. "Why contact me, of all the miserable bots on this planet? I never was a high ranking officer in the Decepticons, and, if it wasn't obvious by the state of repair of my kind, we don't exactly have exceptional resources to offer you. It would seem far for advantageous for someone like you to forge a contract with another Decepticon sect, or the Neutrals, if you're willing to sink that low." She refused to even consider the Autobot option, which was as low on her scale of revolting things in the universe as Starscream was.
"The Decepticons, the main forces anyways, are no longer my allies. It has been common knowledge for a long time that I present a substantial risk amongst the main splinter sects of the Decepticons for both my high ranking position and power, as well as for risk my data manipulation skills presents."
"You were also one of the most loyal to Megatron, if I remember correctly," Flamewar said. Virus's optics brightened with the mentioning of her Lord.
"Yes, you were very loyal to him, weren't you?" she queried.
"I held an agreement with Megatron, in which he assured the safety of my kin so long as I served him faithfully. He did not go back on his word, and I had no reason for my loyalty to falter in anyway," Soundwave informed, watching as Virus nodded approvingly. He decided to press his luck with the subject. "Seeing as our loyalty to Megatron and our reservations about the remains of the Decepticons are things that set us on common ground, I believed it was in my best option to come to you before any other mercenary, bounty hunter, or nomad group."
"We'll see if it was," the quadruped replied, nodding absently to herself as she began to tally her thoughts. "To get everything straight, what you are asking for is an open-ended bargain, isn't that right? You agree to work under my command for as long as it suits you, and as soon as a better opportunity comes along, you leave without looking back. Have I missed anything?"
Flamewar snorted harshly. "He's in symbiotic contract with half a dozen other bots, not to mention his little shadow over there-." She jerked her head dismissively in Nightshade's direction, who growled in return. "Even if he's able to work for his own keep, he hardly can cover the costs of all of them. He's only one mech."
"You do have a valid point." Virus regarded Soundwave carefully, her expression making it seem as if she were considering possibilities already. "What do you suggest for your extra baggage?"
The ex-Communications officer paused, thinking. What hit him in the interval between one thought and the next was an overwhelming feeling from his symbiotes; they were willing to do whatever it took if this was what their master wanted most. "They will work."
Flamewar's gaze dragged to Nightshade, grinning poisonously. "Her as well?"
Nightshade opened her mouthplates to snap something out, but Soundwave beat her to it.
"Nightshade as well."
"I see…" Virus rose to all fours and shook herself off, shedding a sheet of accumulated dirt. "I will have to confer with my comrades on this matter-." She turned to wander back to Trojan and Worm, Flamewar turning to as well. Seeing this as his last option to gain Virus's interest in his proposition, Soundwave decided to reveal his trump card.
Instantly, the retreating pair froze. Flamewar turned to narrow her gaze on the mech. "What's he spouting?"
Virus cocked her head, listening as Soundwave paused, and then a new set of numbers and words came, quickly followed by another, and then another.
"They're access codes," she laughed. "To every major Decepticon base on the planet. Impressive."
Knowing that he'd gotten his point across, Soundwave quieted, staring down indecipherably into Virus's blunt faceplate. They remained staring for a long time, measuring the other for their worth, seeing if the consideration really was worth anything. Soundwave revealed nothing of his inner thoughts on his faceplate, nor in his rigid stance. He imposed on the landscape like a dark looming cloud, towering so high over Virus she had to crane her neck to see his faceplate. Virus was much the same, devoid of movement other than the occasional shuttering of her optics.
Finally, after far too long of doing nothing, the quadruped seemed to come to a decision. Her weight shifted back to her haunches, first crouching low, and then pushing upwards so she reared to her full, heavy height. She only came up to mid-chest on Soundwave, but extended a clawed appendage regardless.
"So long as your services cover your costs, I will accept your contract proposal."
Soundwave nodded, extending a large hand to scrape along the long, dangerous blades of the beast's paw. They had a deal now.
Nightshade shifted on her feet, not sure how to feel about this deal. "What now?"
Virus crashed back to all fours, causing a small tremor to run through the ground. "Now? Now you and your master get to earn your keep." Without looking back, she shuffled around and made her way back to where the Darksyde laid in wait. Flamewar hung back, taking her time to glare as Soundwave and Nightshade passed. Trojan and Worm were not as aloof, though they refrained from coming near Soundwave. They flanked his apprentice and clapped her heavily on each shoulder in a manner that could possibily be thought of as welcoming, and then moved on as a hatch opened up in the side of a slag heap, which Nightshade was horrified to discover was actually the ship they were boarding.
"You have got to be kidding me-!"
"Hurry up, get on board already. We don't have time to wait on you," Flamewar ushered impatiently, coming up behind the femme in order to shoo her along roughly. "You'll get over it soon enough."
Too disgusted by the state of the Darksyde, Nightshade was left speechless and unable to protest, but made sure all her limbs were kept close to her frame so as to touch as little surface as possible. There were no lights inside the Darksyde, so movement depended on proximal sensors alone, which came in handy when you didn't know if there was going to be flooring beneath your next step or not. A bit of illumination came from small panels here and there, and there was an odd squirming substance that grew in the corners that gave off an eerie bio-luminescence, but everyone appeared reluctant to touch it. The air was stale whichever way you turned, and the only way a fresh breeze wandered in was if there was already a hole in the ship. Engines wheezed as they ignited, powering up slowly in a way that felt reminiscent of an old bot living on his last dregs of life before his spark finally extinguished on its own. Nothing on the ship looked clean.
Coming onto the bridge, Soundwave could be seen standing near the centre of the room, observing everything, or the extreme lack-there-of, within visual range. Trojan and Worm were already at their stations, preparing the ship for take off. It took a bit of coaxing, but the Darksyde finally took to the air, though something deep within the bowels of the ship sounded like it collapsed. The sharp jerk that rocked the ship knocked Nightshade from her footing, causing her to smack painfully into Trojan's broad shoulder. The behemoth smiled amusedly, righting the femme with a gentle care one would not expect from such a mech, and then took her hand to pat it once before going back to his work. Confused by the gesture, Nightshade stood awkwardly where she was left until Flamewar's increasingly familiar clawed hands grasped her shoulders and moved her to the open centre of the bridge where Virus and Soundwave stood.
"Doesn't have a vocal processor," Flamewar filled in. "Neither does Worm. You get used to it."
The ex-Femme Commander rolled her optics. "He said 'welcome to the Darksyde,' if you're wondering. He means that in more ways than one."
Nightshade made a small noise deep in her vocal processor, wrinkling her olfactory sensor as she stumbled into the side of a relay station and came away caked in... something. She couldn't even identify the substance coating the console.
"This is the dark side, alright," the femme grumbled rottenly, trying in vain to wipe away the grime from her plating. This was, perhaps, the lowest point in her life. "Can't get much darker than this."
Soundwave, at the moment, was concerned with things other than the grime and how far he'd sunk to find himself here, of all places. He continued to look about his surroundings with a distant expression, as if trying to gauge how long the Darksyde would stay airborne before it spontaneously combusted, exploded, or just plain died. Virus circled around the bridge once to inform Worm and Trojan where they were going and how fast they had to be there (in accordance with how well the ship was going to stay together at certain speeds), but eventually came back to Soundwave to watch him.
"You can let your symbiotes out, if you want," she offered. "There's not mucn on the Darksyde they can break that isn't already broken." He nodded silently, the hatches on his back shifting open to allow several metallic forms to drop to the ground. They were all wary, huddling close to each other and their master's feet. Like everyone else who ever climbed aboard the Darksyde, they were reluctant to touch anything.
"Reconnaissance," Soundwave commanded. They nodded cautiously and left the bridge to explore the rest of the darkened ship, only a little fearful of what they might find in its rotting depths. As soon as they were out of sight, and Flamewar now busying herself with some cruel game that involved Nightshade and something she'd peeled off a wall, Soundwave glanced down to Virus. She had not bothered to stop staring up at him, as if waiting for his next question. "What is our destination?'
She smirked. Apparently that had been the right question. "There's a new client on the market; he's an infrequent patron, but pays well for all services. We're going to meet a drone of his."
"Do you already know the nature of what he's contracting you for?"
"More or less. He always requests the same thing from everyone, so says the rumours on the market anyways. I have a gist of what he might be asking from us; new material." She huffed a grating laugh, as if it were a funny joke.
Virus shrugged. "Autobot, Decepticon, Neutral, whatever he asks for. That kind of material."
He wanted to ask why they were referring to bots as material, but decided against it for the time being. Instead, he asked, "What does he use the material for?"
"Who cares? He pays well enough for us not to ask questions; our job is just to pick up the payload and deliver it wherever he wants. With abilities like yours, you'll be able to track us down a loner to hand over in no time."
"And this new client of ours, does he have a designation?"
At this, Virus paused, thinking carefully through every transaction and rumour she was privy to.
"I believe he's being called the Mastermind."