Another chapter already? Well, it might be the last for a while since I want to focus on getting my other major fic finished before the year is out. Chances are, though, that this will keep bugging me now and then for an update. Thanks for the reviews!

Blood Wars: New Dawn

Chapter 8

Cloaked figures wearing gas masks descended with parachutes and scoured the harsh terrain throughout the night. Dawn didn't seem to bring much promise until one Auto Jäger came across something. The thug half-stepped on a long object that was already showing the cracks of impact. The creature picked up the object and held it to its eye. Well, it held up the object to the camera implants that relayed an image through a wireless connection into a computer thousands of feet above the ground. Dietrich von Lohengrin sat at that computer, electronic visor hiding his tea-brown eyes. The image of the object came into his view.

His full lips turned up in a half-smile. One hand, gloved and hooked up to wires that ran from each finger into the computer's modem, pushed up the visor. It then pressed the button to the communicator in his ear. The boy continued smiling. "Kämpfer? Yes, they finally found something. Know anyone who smokes a pipe?"

"The Inquisition would pay to have individuals like these women in their group," Wordsworth muttered to Tres as the cart reached the hill's apex in hardly any time.

"Unlikely," said Tres. "They are vampires, and therefore would never be admitted entry into the Inquisition Bureau."

Wordsworth gave a tired chuckle. "Maybe they need to reconsider their membership policy." He cut off the exchange and poked his head out the cart. Una and Nonie, hair a bit mussed from bolting up the hill the way they did, panted and glowed from exercise and anticipation. His eye traveled further to a pair of figures standing by the horse corral. One of them was D. He'd just released his horse into the enclosure and was returning to speak to the other young man. He loomed over his companion and struck a fine profile against the brightening skyline. Wordsworth kept hoping against hope that they would be able to approach the men without interference—until he saw another group coming up the hill.

He understood now why William MacLeod, who led the procession, had long hair while all the other men kept theirs shorn. He was the leader, and his long locks were a symbol of his superior status. If Wordsworth hadn't figured it out, of course, his place as chief would have still been obvious by the cut of his figure—tall, barrel-chested, dignified even in animal skins—as he led his men. Wordsworth felt only a smidgen of relief because the Duke didn't appear to have noticed them yet. He began to stand in the cart, but both his knees suddenly throbbed and ached from being stretched. He almost sank back down, but a pair of hands helped him up.

"We better be quick," said Nonie. She drew Wordsworth out of the cart while Una assisted Tres. Wordsworth forced himself to stand on his own feet and hide the pain so that Nonie could go on ahead and obtain D's attention before the Duke did. He also wanted to avoid showing weakness. If he intended to be hired as a servant, or a slave, he needed to look like he could do real work.

Already the holes in his plan were starting to show. Wordsworth saw the flaws gaping at him: the disadvantage of his age; the fact they already had a healthy, strong farm hand at their disposal; the risk of Tres being bought but not him; the possibility that Tres might rebel against this out of unfailing loyalty to Caterina. But he pressed on. He tried to move quickly. His aging legs objected. Thankfully, Tres chose to stay close to Wordsworth this time and kept an eye on him in case the older priest became stricken with cramps or faintness. Then again, Tres couldn't move much faster than Wordsworth since he was still wrapped in chains. Both men alternated between hopping and shuffling, both of which tired out Wordsworth sooner than he liked. "We better just wait," he eventually suggested to Tres. The cyborg conceded.

Nonie, good to her word, approached D directly, chatted with him for a minute, then took his hand and guided him over to the priests. The handsome youth's smooth forehead now crinkled a little. Wordsworth understood the expression. Nevertheless, the boy remained polite. "You must be newcomers here," he spoke in a low, gentle voice.

"Indeed," said Wordsworth with a grin. "Not entirely accustomed to all that goes on here. So, you are the hired hand."

D just nodded. "'e be especially good with animals," Nonie said on his behalf. "An' they take to 'im very well."

"Works far too 'ard, too," shouted Una as she came jogging up from behind. She sent Nonie a slash-across-the-neck signal and pointed behind them. Nonie winced and looked back. Wordsworth's view of the Duke and his counselors was now blocked, but he had an idea what was going on.

"Well, I think you might like to know that, while I'm getting a little ways in years – though not too much – I have a wealth of skills with machines and figures. And my friend, Tres Iquus, knows how to complete any task with optimal efficiency and speed."

The young hired hand cleared his throat. "That is good to know, but I'm afraid won't be much help."

A scowl and pout formed on Una's face. It informed Wordsworth that she realized what he'd been up to all along. If Nonie knew, she didn't show it. She was all sympathy while giving the Professor a light pat on the shoulder. "Auld Sherdale 'asn't taken on new workers in years, love. They'll be others, dun worry."

Heart sinking once more, Wordsworth sighed and bowed to Nonie. "Thank you." He wished he could have said more to convey his gratitude, but another presence entered the fray. An old man, leaning heavily on a cane, came up behind D. He had a gray-and-white mustache and beard.

"What's going on?" the man asked in a rough voice filled with what sounded like pebbles. "MacLeod's telling me these two shouldn't be up here."

"You must be Mr. Sherdale," interjected Wordsworth. "A pleasure. I'm William Walter Wordsworth, and—"

"I don't care who you are," retorted Old Sherdale. "I'm not buyin' labor right now."

That seemed to seal it for them. Wordsworth looked at Tres despairingly. He expected the Duke to come up and drag him back to the cart any second. A hand did grab him, but it wasn't one of the Pictavians. It was D. His eyes looked at him with sudden urgency.

"Wordsworth? Your name is Wordsworth?"

Wordsworth shuddered from the abrupt inquiry and the strength of D's grip. He imagined the boy being strong, but not this strong. "Y-yes. Why?"

The old man looked up at D and tried to straighten up in spite of his slumping back. "What is it?"

All at once the young man, who radiated confidence and calm shortly before, looked confounded. His eyes darted around. He was trying not to look at anyone directly, but when that failed he focused on Wordsworth. The Professor felt himself being examined by someone who thought he should recognize him, but didn't. For Wordsworth's part, D's face was totally new to him. Well, there was something vaguely familiar in his features, but not enough to make him think he'd seen D before.

Eventually the young man's grip relaxed. "Sorry, I . . . I'm not sure. It sounded sort of familiar."

During the uncomfortable silence, the other young man joined the group. His rough features and stockier build matched Old Sherdale more than D. Wordsworth guessed the individual was Sherdale's son. "What's the matter?" he asked after D muttered his confused statement.

"D thinks he's heard this man's name before," grumbled the old man. "Look, I've got things to do. MacLeod, take these men back down. We don't need them."

The other young man looked startled. "Father! If D thinks he might know him, we can't just have him leave!"

"We can't afford him!" Old Sherdale's voice thundered unexpectedly. "Now stop mucking around, you two, and get back to work."

"Wait." The youth came close to D and touched his shoulder. "D, I'll help you buy him if you want."

D's eyes widened for second, then half-closed. "I can't ask you to."

"That's very generous of you," Wordsworth cut in again, "but I'm afraid you have to take both of us. Tres and me, that is. I know it's a lot to ask—"

The Duke came down on them like a hawk, which made Wordsworth close his mouth and stumble back a few steps. He nearly fell trying to maintain his balance. "I be the one who sets conditions an' prices, not ye."

"And I am not giving you permission to buy them!" Old Sherdale came back and looked ready to start swinging his cane at the boys. "Get out of here!"

"I'll pay it off," said D in a deep tone, like a warning breeze before a thunderstorm. "I'll earn back what I pay."

"That doesn't do me much good now, does it?" Sherdale dug the foot of his cane into the ground. "I'm in debt enough as it is. We need hard cash right now, and you're about to waste it!"

"But the harvest is coming up!" his son pointed out. "Look, D, I'll help you pay. Don't worry about owing anything, all right? From one friend to another."

Sherdale stamped his cane and growled. "You two are going to be the ruin of me."

Guilt started etching itself on D's fair face, but his comrade didn't relent. He turned to the Duke. "How much do you want them for?"

D and Sherdale's son haggled down the price as far as they could, but it still sounded hefty to Wordsworth's ears when the price was settled. Yet he imagined that William MacLeod could have sold his new goods for more elsewhere. He regarded D with a kinder eye than with the Sherdales. Wordsworth considered the possible reasons. Maybe they knew him better as someone closer to being their equal. Nonie and Una exhibited no hesitation in breaking from the line and approaching D—the only obstacle was the Duke's disapproval.

Wordsworth then recalled something Una had said: He hadn't changed a bit. As in D hadn't aged since they last saw each other? Three years didn't seem a long enough span of time to expect someone to age significantly. That indicated that this was something Una and Nonie monitored. Had he not appeared to age these last ten years?

Wordsworth discreetly examined D's mouth. When the young man's soft lips parted, the priest noted no sign of fangs. But some Methuselah wore caps or developed other techniques of hiding them. Then again, many Methuselah had copper-colored eyes. Doubtful that D would bother with contact lens that changed his eye color – unless he was trying to conceal his Methuselah identity.

Further musing on the issue had to be postponed. The two sides had come to a compromise. Both money and some horses were given in exchange for Wordsworth and Tres. Even though Mr. Sherdale took no part in the arrangement, he was owed a handshake from the Duke after his son and D.

"It be yer lucky day, after all," said Nonie. She patted Wordsworth on the shoulder again before coming around to peck Tres on the cheek. "Be seein' ye!"

"Though nae fae a while," Una reminded her. "Lots o' country t' cover." She aimed a squinting eye at the priests. "Ye lads behave yeselves."

"Of course," said Wordsworth with a bow. He couldn't say he was sorry for being free of his vampire captors, but he and Tres owed a great deal to these women. "Thank you again. God willing we will meet again so we may repay you for your kindness."

Una laughed. "Yeah, yeah, we'll see."

A pair of young men took Una and Nonie by the arm and escorted them back down to the caravan. Another youth took charge of the pony with the cart and likewise brought it back. The Duke's counselors descended the hill in kind, but the chief delayed for a moment. He approached the still bound priests. "Ye be a clever an' lucky pair, I give ye that. Don't think I don't see what ye be reckonin'. But now that Sherdale owns ye, don't expect to be gettin' out of this country in the near future. An' don't expect us t' treat ye so generously should we meet again."

"Your hospitality has not gone unacknowledged," said Wordsworth, trying not to sound cross. His body ached and was on the verge of buckling from fatigue. He wanted nothing but to get out of these blasted ropes and lie down for a bit. Maybe even sleep, if he could. "I wish you God's blessing in your travels."

The Duke grunted and turned to go. A thought struck Wordsworth. Despite risking the vampire's annoyance, he called to him. "I don't suppose you could return our possessions to us? Or at least my cane?"

The chief paused midstep. However, he didn't turn back to Wordsworth or utter a word. A second later he continued downhill. Wordsworth sighed and shrugged. At least he tried.

Soon the priests could no longer hear the clinging of objects and the groans and creaks of wagon wheels. The caravan moved away from them toward the black forest in the distance. Orange light continued to spread across the eastern horizon, and the sun had surpassed the hills. For all the trouble they'd given him and his comrade, Wordsworth hoped the vampires made it to the woods in time.

"All right," Mr. Sherdale said, intruding on Wordsworth's final thoughts regarding the vampires. "What have we got here? You, Wordsworth. What did you say you could do?"

Chasing away the Pictavians from his mind, Wordsworth gladly repeated his and Tres' skills. He still fought the urge to lean on his companion or sit on the ground. He did rather well until D and the younger Sherdale untied them. Wordsworth wanted to groan in relief from being freed, but now his body demanded him more than ever to find a source of physical support.

After listening to them half-heartedly, as it appeared, Sherdale waved a dismissive hand. "Fine. I suppose we could use you. D, bring them in. Help them wash and dress. We've got spare clothes in the attic. If nothing fits, just adjust them as best you can."

D nodded and led the way inside. "You can borrow anything of mine you need."

Another swell of relief washed over Wordsworth on receiving such consideration, and on returning to some hint of modern living. Just a simple farmhouse, but it was still a building with a roof. The front door brought them into a small living room with chairs—all wooden and carved—a couch, and a wood-burning stove. A few watercolor paintings hung on the walls, which helped to distract from the ugly brown wallpaper that started to peel along the ceiling and floor. A kitchen stood attached on the left via a wide archway. D continued through a hallway lined with doors to bedrooms and a study. The last room at the back of the house seemed to serve as a dining room, only there wasn't just a table for people to eat at. The room provided the best view with its expansive windows that looked onto a porch and a chain of hills and vales in the west. The sky was still dark on that side, yet Wordsworth could imagine the lovely sunsets. He saw more watercolors on the walls in here, too. One of them portrayed this very room with the red and golden beams of a sunset streaming in and tinting the furniture.

"Here's the washroom," said D. He walked toward a large alcove with a dressing screen in front of it. He pushed it aside. To Wordsworth's mild horror, it revealed a sink, a tiny shower, and a raised round tub with tall sides. One man could just barely fit into either water apparatus.

"That's the washroom?" Wordsworth couldn't believe that they didn't have a separate room for such a private routine. "Where is the toilet?"

"We have an outhouse," said D. "There's no sewage system this far north. We did have a septic tank a while ago, but it was old and faulty and Mr. Sherdale has been trying to save every penny he can. An outhouse is a simpler and less expensive option. I'll point it out to you after you've washed up. Or do you need to use it now?"

"No, no!" Wordsworth laughed nervously and waved his hands. "I'm fine, thank you. So . . . where do we change our clothes?"

D pointed to the alcove. "In there, if you wish. Or out here." He gestured to the room. "The Sherdales are busy, and we have no neighbors for miles to spy on you. I'll be upstairs getting clothes."

Wordsworth mulled over this. "Yes. Well, that's a help. I suppose I'm not used to such . . . casualness."

A smile formed on D's lips. "It's all right. The shower is on a timer, just so you know. You have ten minutes to clean off. That tub is not so much for cleaning as it is for relaxing. We have a heater under it to make the water hot, and there are jets in the tub itself. Feel free to use it."

Wordsworth couldn't quite imagine why a farm family couldn't afford a septic tank, but could keep a hot tub around. Still, he wasn't about to complain. D left and took his time with retrieving garments, and Wordsworth was glad for it. The priest stripped down as quickly as possible and hopped into the shower. Tres placed Wordsworth's clothes in a folded pile on the table before removing his poncho and undershirt. "Professor," he called, level-headed as ever, "I do not think I should use these facilities. I have some exposed hardware."

That did come as distressing news to Wordsworth, moreso because he wouldn't be able to remedy it before they got back to Rome. "Don't worry. Maybe they have oil you can use."

When D returned with clothes and towels, Tres explained the situation. He even showed D where his synthetic skin had burned away and left his metal skeleton and some wires unprotected. There were a few bare patches on his chest and arms.

The young man's forehead pinched. "They must have given you some bad shocks," he muttered as he examined them. "They're rougher on the cyborgs because cyborgs can endure more." He looked up at Tres with a compassionate gaze. "Sorry."

"Negative. It is nothing, so long as the burned areas are properly covered."

D nodded, then left and came back with bandages and duct tape. Wordsworth managed a glance at D's attendance to Tres when he stepped out of the shower and started filling the tub. The youth worked with quick and meticulous precision. Tres' chest and arms were soon wrapped up, and D left and returned with a mixture of castor oil and olive oil, as well as a sponge. "It's all right," he said when Tres tried to take the items from him. "You relax. I'll do it for you."

Wordsworth silently chuckled at the idea of Tres trying to relax. To his surprise, though, Tres accepted D's offer. The young man silently scrubbed away at Tres' skin, careful to avoid wetting the bandages. At the same time Wordsworth stepped into the filled tub and sank down. The heat shot through him and make his nerves tingle. Then his muscles began to unwind.

"Thank the Lord!" he exclaimed before sighing. "I can't remember the last time I've been in a hot tub. Wonderfully therapeutic." He relaxed in silence for a few minutes, relishing this little luxury. But before long the extensive list of questions returned to the forefront of the Professor's mind.

"So, D," he began casually, "you said my surname sounded familiar to you, yes?"

He heard a stifled chuckle from the other side of the screen. "I really couldn't say. Maybe I have, but I have no idea where."

Wordsworth hummed thoughtfully. "That is very bothersome, isn't it? Maybe it's the name of someone your family knows."

"Maybe," said D after some hesitation. His tone sounded more discouraged.

"Are you originally from Albion?"

More hesitation. "I'm afraid I don't know."

Wordsworth, in spite of how nice the heat and jets felt, sat up and focused his attention on D's increasingly morose voice. "Why is that?"

The scrubbing sound the sponge made against Tres' skin slowed down in pace. "The truth is I can't remember anything about myself or my life before ten or eleven years ago."

"Oh. I see. I'm sorry to hear that." Wordsworth really did feel sorry for the young man. With a kind temperament like his, surely he had family or friends who missed him. "Well, do you know what 'D' stands for?"

"Nope," said D. He let himself chuckle. "I don't know if it stands for my first name or last name. It may not stand for anything at all. But when I saw the letter, it stood out to me. It seemed important." The scrubbing picked up speed again.

"Just like 'Wordsworth'."

"I guess."

Both men allowed a moment of silent respite. Wordsworth leaned back to rest. The air jets lightly massaged him. He breathed in the steam and let it warm him up from within. His body not only relaxed but thawed out. How bitingly cold it had been, both yesterday and today, especially in the dead of night. He could have fallen asleep in the tub. Tired as he was, Wordsworth reminded himself that this was not a holiday. The Sherdales would soon put him to work. Before that, though, he wanted to know more about D's situation. It might give him a sense of what was in store for them.

"How did you come to be employed by the Sherdales?"

"They found me in the Howling Wood," said D. "Knocked unconscious and left for dead, it seemed. They never figured out how I got there. I agreed to stay on as their farm hand to repay them for rescuing me."

The heat started to make Wordsworth drowsy. He took the hint and pulled himself out of the tub. "But that was ten years ago, yes?"

"Things haven't been easy for them. I know Labon – Mr. Sherdale, I mean – can be hard to get along with, but he wasn't always like that. As much as I want to find out more about who I am, I can't just leave them. Not yet, anyway. Once things get better . . ."

Wordsworth could hear the rising tension at the end of that incomplete thought. He could imagine how D felt. Yet the man had to look after his own needs, too. He wanted to say that, but as he was about to speak, D continued. "What about you? You said you weren't from around here. Where did you come from?"

Ah, so he was throwing the questions back at him. Wordsworth let the other matter go for now. "Well, I hail from Albion," he explained while drying himself off with the towel D left hanging over the screen. "But I'm actually a priest from Rome. Both Tres and I are, in fact."

"Priests?" D asked, his interest sounding piqued. "But how did you end up this far north?"

"By accident, as often seems the case. We were in an airship and had to abandon it."

Wordsworth did agree with Tres that the details of their plight should remain a secret to strangers at this time. But, then, maybe D, who did not sound disturbed or angered, would be willing to help them escape. Well, considering his situation with the Sherdales . . . no, it wouldn't be fair to place him in such a compromising position. After all that effort to buy them from MacLeod's clan, only to let them flee—D would undoubtedly face severe retribution.

"You mean the ship was going down?" D asked.

"Not exactly." Wordsworth pulled on some long johns that smelled like moth balls, then a pair of loose-fitting trousers with suspenders. He tore open the hem so that the cuffs would be long enough. The shirt, though made of a coarse fabric, fit him quite well. To be clean and wear clean clothes invigorated his spirits. "The ship was under attack by terrorists."

Wordsworth, now decent, pushed aside the screen. Tres was still naked from the waist up and being scrubbed down by D. His torso and arms were clean, which left just his face and neck. "Is that what's going on in the rest of the world?" asked D. He then squinted into Tres' ear. "Looks like you have something jammed in there," he mumbled before getting up to fetch some cotton swabs and a pair of tweezers. He came back in hardly any time and looked at Wordsworth for an answer.

"It is indeed a fraught and dangerous world," Wordsworth said gravely. "Have you heard of the political tension between the Vatican and the New Human Empire?"

"Some snippets here and there." D pressed one of the cotton swabs into Tres' ear first. He managed to remove some black grime, but the main object of concern was still wedged in place. Tres displayed no sign of discomfort. "There's no full-out war yet, but it can't be long in coming."

"My hope is that it won't come at all." Here again Wordsworth wondered if it would be safe to disclose more information about their profession. Tres did look at him, probably to warn him against it, but the cyborg's eyes weren't easy to read. "Actually, the two of us work for the Vatican. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

Wordsworth watched D whip his head toward him. His eyes filled with surprise and apprehension. His eyebrows pulled together. "The Vatican? You're . . . agents of the Vatican?"

"Father Wordsworth," said Tres, "it is advised that you do not disclose any more information until further data on D and his constituents has been gathered."

D widened his eyes, alarmed. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"It's just Tres' way of saying he doesn't trust you yet," Wordsworth interjected. He felt his forehead bedewing with sweat. "But I trust you, D. We're here by accident, and we want nothing more than to get out of here. It would be selfish to ask you to help us—you've done enough—but—"

"We will take whatever measures we must to complete our mission," Tres finished in a deadpan tone that put both D and Wordsworth on edge.

"Within reason," Wordsworth amended. It hardly helped. D looked at both of them with flashing eyes that couldn't settle on one emotion. After looking back and forth between them, D hung his head.

"Great. Just great. The one time I let myself cross Labon, and it's over two slaves who turn out to be Vatican agents." He raised his head. His scowl had deepened. "He's not going to believe this, you know."

"I know," said Wordsworth gently. He nabbed a chair from the table and sat next to D. "We're both in a sticky situation. If it makes you feel any better, we won't let the family come to harm."

D sighed and resumed digging out the object trapped in Tres' ear, this time with the tweezers. "I can only take your word for it, right? But if you try to escape, they'll come after—"

The object – a chunk of tree bark – flew out of Tres' ear. D tumbled back and nearly landed in Wordsworth's lap. The force of the withdrawal dazed D, but Wordsworth's ears perked up when he heard some static and a familiar voice. "Please help me, Alucard. You're my only hope."

Both he and D looked at Tres. A light beamed out of the cyborg's left eye and cast a holographic projection onto the floor. The projected figure stood only a foot high, but she was otherwise a perfect replica of Caterina Sforza, if a bit more transparent. After speaking, the figure looked behind her, then looked forward again and nodded. Another moment of static fuzzed her out, but she came back and repeated, "Please help me, Alucard. You're my only hope."

D propped himself up to see the hologram. "What's this?"

Quite uncharacteristically, Tres did not respond immediately. Wordsworth nearly repeated the question, both for D's sake and his. The cyborg still hesitated. "Question unclear. Request input."

"Question unclear!" cried Wordsworth. "I think it's pretty clear! What's this message from Caterina?"

Again, Tres didn't answer. He hardly acknowledged either man's presence now. His reddish eyes locked on the holographic cardinal as she repeated her short plea over and over. D sat up fully and closely watched. "Who is she?"

"Our superior." Wordsworth stood and walked around to Tres. "She was on the airship, too. Unfortunately she was captured. She insisted we escape without her, according to Tres. Tres, I assume she recorded this message shortly before you came to get me."

Tres let another bout of silence make its merry way through the room (repeating hologram excepting) before deigning to answer. "The Duchess of Milan recorded a message to be delivered to the individual called Alucard. That is all the information I can divulge at this time. Mission details remain confidential."

"So this is some kind of mission." D's gaze honed in on the priests. Wordsworth felt it and grew uneasy under its scrutiny.

"Not that I am aware of. Our only objective is to return to Rome as quickly as possible to get help. If there is another mission, Tres won't tell me what it is."

"Positive," said Tres before D could say anything. "Mission details will be disclosed after I have located Alucard."

Wordsworth rubbed his tired eyes. "I don't suppose that name rings any bells, does it, D?"

The young man's cool eyes relinquished their inquiring stare and turned away from both Wordsworth and Tres. They shifted back and forth as he thought. "I don't think so, but . . . maybe she means another name. I do know someone around here named Aldruca." He let himself look at Wordsworth, though his face winced doubtfully. "Could there be a connection?"

Tres didn't move his eyes, but he asked very suddenly, "Where does Aldruca reside?"

"In the Howling Wood. He's an eccentric hermit who's been there for years. Some say he's crazy, or that he's a cannibal. No one goes looking for him. Not even Methuselah." D turned his attention back to the hologram. "Why would she want to give a message to someone like him?"

"Confidential," Tres declared on cue.

"I can't imagine." Wordsworth returned to the chair next to D and sat down. Both his body and the seat creaked. He sighed loudly and added a groan. "How she knows anyone around here is beyond my knowledge."

"Tres," D said after taking a minute to think, "can you show us more of this recording?"

The cyborg's gaze never wavered. He did, however, take a moment to point to a small, round device on the back of his neck. Wordsworth hadn't noticed it before. This was a new piece of hardware. "The vampires installed a restraining bolt. It is possible that it is short-circuiting the playback function."

D raised an eyebrow. "How do I know you're not going to run off once I disable the bolt?"

"Where could he run to?" Wordsworth pointed out. "Besides, I have one, too." He pulled up the leg of his trousers to so the metal band around his ankle. The red light on it showed that it hadn't shorted out even after being submerged in hot water. The Pictavians were formidably resourceful.

"I would hope," Wordsworth continued with a smile, "that Tres wouldn't take off without me."

Tres offered no response. His silence left D to consider the two priests and his options. He watched the repetitious message from the lovely cardinal again. "Oh, all right," he grumbled. His decision forced him to leave the room again. More minutes passed this time before he came back with a screwdriver. D sat behind Tres and opened up the bolt. He utilized the tweezers again to carefully disconnect the wires inside it. "There you go," he said.

Just as he did, the light and the hologram disappeared. Wordsworth gulped but shied away from speaking. D peeked from behind Tres. "What are you doing? You said you could play the rest of it!"

"Statement unclear," said Tres. "Request input."

Wordsworth clapped a hand over his eyes. "Tres, just play the rest of the message, please!"

"What message?" The cyborg's voice was as unaffected as ever.

"What message!" D and Wordsworth both exclaimed.

A young voice from outside interrupted the unfolding fiasco. "D! D!"

"Coming!" D sighed and handed the tweezers and screwdriver to Wordsworth.

"I-I'm very sorry about this!" Wordsworth could guess what Tres was up to, but to let D in on it would not help. "He's probably experiencing a system flutter. From all we've just enduring in the last 24 hours, I wouldn't be surprised if some things have been knocked loose or jumbled up."

"Just do what you can until I come back," D ordered brusquely. He threw on his cloak and stormed out the room, heading to the front door.

For what felt like the fifteen time that day, Wordsworth's heart sank. He turned and snapped at the Tres. "Great work! Now he'll never trust us. You couldn't have just played it. He was our only chance of getting back to Rome!"

"We will manage on our own." Tres regarded Wordsworth with a cold, determined look.

Wordsworth shook his head. "You sound so sure. Well, even if you're right, I'm still angry with you."

The cyborg's right eyebrow twitched. "I do not understand."

"Exactly!" Wordsworth stood up. "If you or the Sherdales need me, I'll be looking for the outhouse." He too exited the room in a huff, leaving Tres still shirtless and wearing an expression of mild puzzlement.