"Gil? I think we lost Alice."
Gilbert Nightray bit back a curse and turned around. Behind him Oz was standing in the middle of the lane with hands clasped behind his head, looking terribly unconcerned at his own declaration. The towheaded lordling maintained a blindingly sunny expression to match the sweltering summer sun that beat down upon them, causing heat ripples to rise off the cobblestones.
Frowning, the black-clad agent of Pandora then looked beyond his master down the way they had come. Sure enough, there was no sign of any surly young female trailing along in their wake. Several more people traipsed around them on this busy thoroughfare, passing into and out of shops and restaurants, but the Chain was not in evidence.
"Damn nuisance," Gilbert muttered as he strode past, sweating beneath his black hat. The boy took up step behind him.
"Alice-chan!" Oz called out gaily. "Where are you, my dear Alice-chaaaan?"
For his part Gil kept his eyes peeled and mouth shut. He didn't want to risk losing his temper at this unexpected addition to an already unpleasant day.
Their group had been dispatched to this part of town to investigate strange happenings which might be the result of an unlawful Contractor. Apparently for some unexplained reason several violent incidents over the past five months had drawn the attention of Pandora. Having read the reports himself, at first glance it didn't look as though there was any supernatural element involved. Some stabbings, a shooting or two, and quite a few assaults. It was all pretty mundane. At least as mundane as murder could get. In addition, the perpetrators of these individual crimes had already been apprehended by the local gendarmes. To a man they were all regular humans. Jealous girlfriends and abusive spouses were the norm in this case. Hardly anything that indicated the presence of a Chain and their Contractor.
But somebody higher up had apparently grown alarmed by these occurrences and decided an investigation was in order. Which meant his ragtag gang of lowly misfits had been dispatched to do some snooping. Two orphans and a Chain. The most Pandora was willing to spare for something like this.
There came the sound of metal links rattling softly, and the rustle of feathers.
Sorry. I mean two Chains.
At any rate, further investigation yielded nothing that would lead them to believe an escapee from the Abyss was in any way responsible for these events. All they had gained for their trouble was a lot of gossip, scorn from the overworked self-important police force, and a view into the lives of several unrelated people. To top it all off, the weather today was hot and muggy, guaranteed to put everybody in a bad mood. Rain was predicted later on, but that hardly did him any good now. Just had to suffer in silence. And to top it all off, there was this to contend with. Absolutely perfect.
Gilbert was wrapped up in his inner cataloguing of all the day's displeasures when suddenly Oz gave a yelp beside him. "Hey, there she is!"
His attention moved to where the exuberant lad was pointing. Sure enough Alice the Black Rabbit could be seen standing in front of a small restaurant tucked between two glitzy-looking shops. The dark-haired demoness was gazing hungrily at the plates of some people eating out on the patio. Those poor patrons appeared rather unnerved by this menacing imp's single-minded focus on their meals.
Any relief Gilbert might have felt at locating their frustrating 'mistress' didn't last. As soon as he and Oz came up to that spot, Alice spun on her heel and regarded them with a frightful scowl.
"About time you idiots caught up!" the girl snapped. She then stamped one white boot and pointed into the chow shop. "Feed me. NOW!"
The urge to sling her over his shoulder and haul her rude little butt back home was so great it was making his hands twitch. Unfortunately Gil found his pleasant daydream cut off by Oz's ebullient declaration of, "Aye-aye, ma'am!"
With that the matter was resolved. A minute later found them all sitting at a bench inside the restaurant. It was a mom-and-pop type place, with only six tables indoors and two out front. A chunky balding chef busied himself at a stove behind the wooden bar. Meat and veggies sizzled in woks, and a large pot of soup bubbled away. Beer was on tap from kegs, while cold lemonade and water flowed freely, distributed by a lone waitress. For all that it was a small establishment, every available seat was full. The air was stifling and there was a good deal of noise, but it didn't seem like a bad place to grab a bite to eat.
Of course, when you had a tight budget to begin with, only selfish thoughtless little Chains thought it was all right to eat out whenever you liked. Sitting across from the two seeming children, Gilbert crossed his arms and glowered, mentally tabulating how much cash they could afford to part with.
Alice was under no such precautions. She inhaled deeply of the aromas coming from the kitchen area. "I want pasta!" she declared, red eyes glittering. "With sausage and bacon in it. And bacon-wrapped filet-mignon! And a hamburger, and an orange." She then put her feet up on the table and flicked out one gloved hand disdainfully. "Make it happen, Seaweed Head!"
"Alice-chan is so cute when she's giving orders," Oz sighed like a besotted schoolboy while playing with the silverware. This earned him a punch to the arm, which he took with a pitiful whine.
Meanwhile, Gilbert's teeth had clenched and his venomous eyes narrowed on the current source of his distress. "You get one entrée, nothing more. And get your dirty boots off the table!"
He knocked her feet away, prompting the unearthly pest to spring up and thrust a finger at his nose. "Watch how you speak to your master, fetch-monkey! Your only duty is to make my life easier, and don't forget it!"
His own opinions on their relationship had to wait, as the waitress came up to deposit a bowl of rolls and hand over some menus. A pretty young woman with curly chestnut hair tied up in a bun, she smiled and greeted them. "How are you all doing today?"
Oz's face lit up and he immediately adopted that cloying manner which might pass for charm in some societies. "Rather one might ask how we might be of service to you on this day, oh enchanting maiden! Your face is like a cool stream to the barren desert of my eyes."
"Aww, what a little cutie!" And she ruffled his hair while passing out pewter plates. The handsome youth leaned into her touch like a dog being petted, causing his servant to cringe inwardly as he looked over the menu. Certainly no need to wonder what Oz's weakness might be.
"Get me this," Alice declared, pointing out several dishes being offered. "And this. And that. And three of these!"
The waitress raised an eyebrow and sent an inquiring glance over to the only adult at the table.
"Any special deals you're offering?" he asked.
"There's the soup of the day for anyone looking to stretch their coin's worth."
"Three soups," Gilbert declared firmly, handing over his menu.
Across from him the irate monster-girl slammed her palms down on the table. "I didn't call for any watery soup, moron, I want MEAT!"
"It's turtle soup," their server added, smiling in a rather nervous way at this outburst.
"Giiiil!" Oz took this moment to whine, "Soup is too warm, and I'm hot! Can't we get something else, pretty please?"
Antagonism and wheedling caught their guardian in a crossfire. Finding himself too irritated to put up with any resulting temper tantrums, Gil leaned an elbow on the table and rubbed his sweating temples. "Fine," he groused and picked up the fare board again. "Make it one soup, a sausage platter…" His eyes raked the spread for something appropriate. "… and one fruit salad."
"And to drink?"
"Lemonade!" the Vessalius heir piped up.
"Lemon water," Gilbert growled.
Oz shrank into his seat with a most immature pout. The waitress didn't try to hide her amusement as she bent to collect the menus. "Coming right up, gents and lady."
"Peh!" Alice fumed, crossing her arms to glower in sulky fashion at the wall while ignoring all of them.
"What a pretty outfit you have on, dear," the waitress sighed dreamily and indicated the Chain's red leather coat. "Wish I had a nice boyfriend to buy me the latest fashions."
She threw a meaningful look at Gilbert, who stared uncomprehendingly right back. Was she expecting him to chime in somehow? As if he had an opinion on ladies clothes, and certainly not anything the ridiculous B-Rabbit chose to wear.
After a few seconds when he didn't respond, the girl shook her head and made a slight huffing noise. "Let me go get your drinks," and she sauntered off.
Relieved to no longer find himself under any scrutiny, Gilbert turned back to give those two brats a piece of his mind, only to have his nervousness return a hundred-fold at finding himself being glared at by a very unfriendly and extremely malevolent fifteen-year-old boy.
"You disappoint me, my servant," Oz whispered in a voice from beyond the grave.
Gilbert almost went down on his knees and begged for mercy right then and there before remembering he wasn't a little kid anymore. Not that this seemed to make a difference where Oz was concerned. His master's voice could still inspire a wealth of dread, regardless that Gil was now twice as tall and a good deal heavier than him. Apparently even growing up wasn't going to change that.
As it stood, the best he could manage was to stammer out, "W-what do you mean?"
Oz Vessalius clinked his fork slowly against the side of his plate. His dutiful manservant found himself sweating for a reason other than the heat now, gaze darting between those eerie green eyes and that innocuous bit of cutlery. The things Oz could do with it…
Memories of childhood trauma came flooding back, causing Gilbert to relive a thousand different torments the temperamental heir to the Vessalius Dukedom had inflicted upon him. Sitting beside Oz, Alice didn't seem to have noticed any of this, or if she had, her only reaction was to use it as an opportunity to steal their rolls for herself.
"Master," the elder Contractor fidgeted under that distressing stare, "I don't know what you mean!"
"Then I shall explain it to you," Oz hissed coldly. "That lady, that very pretty and obviously available young lady… she was interested in you, Gil! And how do you respond to her warm feminine invitation? By sitting there like a brainless lump! No servant of mine should ever spurn the advances of a beautiful woman, for whatever reason!"
"Interested in me?" Gil repeated, tugging nervously at the collar of his trench-coat. "How did you arrive at that conclusion?"
"Oh, please," Alice drawled, having apparently forgotten she was ignoring them. "You could practically smell it coming off of her. Only a simpleton like you wouldn't pick up on something so obvious! It was as plain as the hair on your greasy head!"
"What would you know about any such things?" he demanded hotly. Taking abuse from his Master was one thing, but this foul-mouthed Chain would get no such allowances from him.
"More than you, virgin-boy," she shot back. "I can't believe a man your age can be so dense about something so simple. Small wonder you don't have a girlfriend."
"My personal life is none of your business, stupid Rabbit!"
"No problem, because you don't have one, bootlicker!"
A scathing insult died on Gil's lips, and he turned fearful eyes back to Oz. His cherubic overlord then spoke in a voice both soft and lethal, making Gilbert's throat go dry with dread.
"Mark my words, for I am in no way anything less than serious here. A gentleman must always be courteous. If you ever treat a lady's heart with such disdain again, I will make you suffer for it!"
In the face of this very serious threat, the grown man could only nod mutely.
Once he did, Oz immediately turned on the charm again.
"Great! And be sure to give her a healthy tip when the time comes. Now then, let me tell you all there is to know about women, my servant!"
Things went downhill from there.
"Hmmm… very interesting… yes, indeed," Xerxes Break drawled as he lounged on a windowsill leafing through the report. His macabre sock-puppet Emily voiced her agreement every time he spoke. Sunlight streaming in through the huge bay window made his silvery-white hair shine, and right now, Gilbert would have given a lot for those rays to cause the man's head to erupt into flames.
"Mmm-hmmm… oh, look at that… how remarkable."
"Yes, truly," Emily trilled on his shoulder.
Knowing he would regret asking but quite unable to resist, Gil demanded, "What?"
The other man's lone lazy eye dragged itself up to look at him.
"I was just remarking on the fact that…" And here Break paused.
Gilbert ground his teeth and slammed a fist into the wall. "Godammit, spit it out already!"
At this, Xerxes smiled at him sweetly. "You're a rather hefty tipper, aren't you, Gil-kun?"
"Spends money like it's water!" Emily supplied.
His face flushed red. "That… that was only because my master told me to! I usually give a 15% gratuity, that's more than adequate, this was just a special case since I had…!"
The two freaks burst into sudden laughter. Even delicate little Sharon Rainsworth gave a polite giggle from where she sat sipping her tea at the center of the room. The dainty socialite covered this amusement behind her teacup, but Xerxes made no attempt to hide his good humor. Meanwhile their furious associate was forced to stand there with impotent fists clenched trembling at his sides.
"Oh, my dear Raven," Break finally relented. "It never ceases to be a pleasure, teasing you. Seriously, though, thank you for looking into this matter for me. The results were most illuminating."
That called for an explanation. "How so? I determined that there wasn't a reason for Pandora to get involved."
His facetious handler had produced a lollipop from the confines of his voluminous overcoat and now spoke around it. "Yes, there's that. But what I was actually referring to was the side matter that came up." He wagged a hand encased in the long coat cuff. "Really, Gilbert-kun, when was the last time you went on a date?"
There was simply no suitable way to answer this. However, the expression on Gil's face seemed to be all the reaction that lunatic needed, as he hopped up with a laugh and went skipping delightedly over to converse with Lady Sharon in quiet tones.
Gilbert remained by the window, gripping his arms to prevent him from going for the pistol holstered at his hip. Now is not the time to let him bait me. I can endure this, I have up 'til now. He stared resolutely at the city streets below them and wished dearly for a cigarette. As if to match his mood, dark clouds could be seen pooling on the noonday horizon, drawing forth to cast their shadow across the face of the land. Another hour, and they might just get some relief from the heat after all. That would be most welcome.
Observing this approaching storm, the Nightray adoptee found himself thinking about what everyone had said today. Was he really that much in the dark about women? 'Ignorant to the underlying flavor of the sex', as Oz had put it? But really, that should come as no surprise. The most persistent feminine contact in his adult life came in the form of a teenaged sorceress who was conceivably old enough to be his grandmother. Not to mention her taste in company.
Gil glanced over to where Sharon and Xerxes continued their discussion out of earshot. Could anyone blame him if he wasn't some smooth-talking lothario who charmed his way into lady's hearts? His job was not one that lent itself to social niceties. Despite being a member of the Nightray Dukedom, his major role was as an agent of Pandora. More often than not he was called upon to defend some poor woman from life-threatening danger, not flirt with her. Other members of the family took care of that. Come to think of it, though, he did get along well with Echo, his brother's servant. And that certainly said a great deal, considering how difficult it was to get that girl to so much as look at you if her master didn't order it first. That was something to point at in refute of their charges, right?
No. Somehow he got the feeling that wasn't what everybody had been getting at today.
All right. So I haven't been on that many dates in my life. That doesn't mean I don't know how to treat women. Nor am I completely clueless as to how one should respond to them. I can tell when a lady is distressed, or in need of help. Perhaps it isn't always clear to me why they act the way they do. Still, isn't that supposed to be one of the great mysteries of the world, women? The best we guys can do is try not to make too many blunders. I was raised among the nobility, of course I can behave like a gentleman! Certainly other people I know act far more suspiciously than me, just take a look at…
Gilbert turned his head then, and froze.
Standing by Sharon's chair, Xerxes was leaning down and whispering in her ear. Now, this in and of itself was nothing new, the man had very little regard for other people's personal space. What caught his attention was the way that seeming girl was holding herself. Stiff. Rigid. Like she was fighting very hard not to tremble. And the look on her face…
It appeared as though Sharon was about to cry.
As Gil stared in amazement at this unprecedented display, he saw Break's hand come up, sliding out of his coat to settle on one pink-clad shoulder. The noblewoman flinched and bit her lip as those pale fingers squirmed spider-like over her body in a way that no one could have deemed harmless. And all the while, Xerxes continued to hiss something soft and unpleasant in her ear, lips forming words that clearly were not welcome to the listener. He bent in even closer, one side of his face covered by the spiky white hair, and the other dominated by an eye narrowed down to a thin red slit of pleasure.
At that moment Sharon cast a pleading, imploring look over to where Gil stood rooted to the spot, and his response was immediate.
"STOP THAT!" Gilbert shouted, swinging a fist behind him. He felt glass shatter, the pain registered a split-second later, and then…
Xerxes and Sharon were regarding him from across the way. The tall magician still stood beside his mistress, one hand resting on her shoulder. But the lady didn't appear disturbed by his presence. Both of them looked rather surprised, was all. They watched him as though waiting for an explanation of some sorts.
"Gilbert?" Sharon repeated calmly. "Is something the matter?"
His heart was beating fast. Was I reading too much into it? Just my imagination getting away with me? Maybe. I don't know. It's been a long day.
"Sorry," he muttered. "Just a little jumpy."
"Your hand is bleeding," she pointed out, rising to glide across the ballroom floor. Sharon reached towards his injured arm with a handkerchief, but Gil slid away quickly before she got too close.
"It's nothing, my lady. Just a small cut. I think I'll go home and get some rest."
Rainsworth continued to regard him oddly. It made him feel like an utter fool. "Very well. If you think that's best, dear Raven. Take care of yourself, then."
With that she went back to rejoin Xerxes, and Gil left before they could look at him another humiliating moment longer.
What an absolute botch. He had completely lost his cool, and for nothing.
"Alice-chaaan, look at what I've got for you!"
Reclining on the sofa with his hat over his face, Gilbert obsessed over his bad behavior. Twice. Twice in one day I made a fool of myself in front of a woman! Is it some indiscriminate power of the sex that they can make us feel as if we should be crushed under a boulder for our faults?
"Come back, Alice-chan, don't you want to try it on?"
Maybe it's just me. Maybe I really am hopeless. Have I been beyond the pale of regular human company too long for me to ever fit in normally? Am I doomed to become yet another bizarre outcast, just like… like… Break? Lord, there's a frightening thought!
"Alice-chan, w-what are you doing? Put that down!"
No. I refuse to believe it. There are some people in your life whose only good quality is that they exist to show you how one should not behave. And if I have even the slightest bit of control over my own destiny, then I resolve to never wind up as a creepy sugar-sucking loon with a wisecracking dishrag on my shoulder.
"Ow! Please s-stop, Alice-ch-OUCH! Please s-OWW!"
I, Gilbert Nightray, do hereby affirm my independence from the crazies, and resolve to conduct myself in a more positive light. Whether it be towards women, crying babies, obnoxiously persistent salesmen, or gabby cabbies. Today, I am a new man.
"Gilbert, please stop Alice-chan! FOR MERCY'S SAKE, GILBERT, PLEASE STOP ALICE-CHAN!"
Without bothering to even look, Gil spoke from under the brim of his hat. "Don't make me shoot you, silly rabbit."
There, just like a gentleman would. I'm getting better already.
Some hostile muttering about how he wouldn't speak to her that way if she could use her powers followed, but the sound of abuse diminished audibly after that. Maybe now I can get some rest. The patter of rain outside could be heard, and this served to lull him back into a pleasant doze.
"There, see how much better it is when you play nice, Alice-chan?"
A drowsy snort came from the owner of the black hat. 'Playing nice' with Oz usually meant not screaming loud enough to bring the help running to discover what he was doing to you. There had been plenty of times back in their youth together when Gil had wondered if his beloved master and only friend was truly psychotic. He seemed to switch personalities at the drop of a hat. One minute kind and helpful, the next full of creative childish cruelty.
"Ha-hah, caught you now! What do you say we have a bit of harmless fun, Alice-chan?"
Oz certainly did have a rough idea of what constituted harmless fun. At least nowadays he had something to occupy his time beyond simply tormenting the helpless. Although one must wonder if murderous Baskervilles and crazed Chains could really be considered an improvement.
"Now, now, don't struggle, my little Chain. Come on, don't be that way. I thought you liked me!"
Still, he had held up admirably despite all that had happened to him. The ruin of his house, banishment into the Abyss, enslavement to the Bloody Black Rabbit, only to escape and find ten years had gone by on Earth. Oz Vessalius had weathered unforeseeable tragedy and come through it with a smile. That spoke volumes as to his strength of will.
Or maybe he was even more screwed up on the inside than anything this world could throw at him.
"Hold still, Alice-chan. Gosh, but you're a cutie! You know how sweet you look right now?"
I shouldn't think like that. He's my master, the most important person in the whole world! I have to defend him, support him against the monsters circling around us. There's truly horrible evil out there, much worse than childhood bullying. I sacrificed so much to be by his side, watch over and protect him, and I won't…
"Don't kick. It's not going to hurt… much. You can't get away, none of the girls did before. You'll like it, don't worry."
Wait a min...
What the hell is going on here?
In moments Gilbert had sprang up from the couch, looking wildly around the room.
And then he saw it. Alice, flat on her back with Oz crouching over her, one hand pinning her wrists above her head. The girl was struggling and crying, vainly trying to fight back as he stroked her bare thigh. His mouth was at her throat, nibbling and sucking on creamy white flesh.
As Gilbert watched in absolute horror, his master turned his head slightly, and smiled up at him.
"What are you waiting for, Gil? Come help me hold her down. I'm in charge, you have to do what I say. We'll take turns, it'll be fun!" And he nuzzled his face against Alice's tear-stained cheek, chuckling while she continued to cry. "Gotta listen to master, right?" Oz reached down and began to unbuckle his trousers.
The pistol was out of its holster in a flash, and then he was aiming at that grinning head still snickering evilly in pure childish cruelty. Alice was weeping, and Gilbert realized he was too. Can't do this, but I have to. Won't let him get away with it, it's wrong, and he has to be stopped, master, Oz, what have you become?
A terrific boom tore through the air.
"HEY! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING, SEAWEED HEAD?"
Gilbert gave a jerk of surprise.
Alice… she was standing up, glaring at him, and it was Oz down on the floor with her heel on the back of his neck. How had that happened? The thunderclap from before left his ears ringing slightly it was so loud, he could barely hear the rain anymore.
"Wow, that was a big one, ow," Oz laughed somewhat painfully from his spread-eagled position. He attempted to turn his head and failed. "Guys? What's going on, I can't see."
"Your stupid servant was pointing a gun at us!" Alice snarled, warily keeping her eyes locked on Gil.
"He was…!" Gilbert gasped, trembling frantically. "I thought you were… I didn't…!"
But there was nothing to say. He had absolutely no clue what just happened.
"Gil?" Oz asked from the same position. "Did the thunder scare you, maybe? Or did you have a bad dream?"
A dream? It had to be a dream. And even that made absolutely no sense. Had he really been about to…?
Swiftly he holstered the pistol and backed away from them towards the door. Alice kept watch on him the whole time, mistrust splayed large on her face. Turning Gil fled from the room and everything he could not explain.
Outside night had fallen. Sitting crouched on the bed in his darkened room seemed like the only sane solution. It was difficult to put into clear words just what he was feeling. His emotions were a mess, horrible, like somebody stuck an egg-beater inside his skull and scrambled his brains. Gilbert couldn't remember feeling this disjointed and unsure of himself since…
Vincent Nightray. His brother. This felt precisely like the times that devious wretch had manipulated him, with his sly words and false smile. That miserable heterochromatic bastard! He's doing it again, but I won't let him this time. How dare he try and get me to harm my master! I've got to stop him, now, I'll go back to the manor right this minute and put an end to all this!
A flash of lightning lit up the world outside his window, followed by an ear-splitting crack of thunder. Of a sudden the frame flew wide open, blown in by the force of the angry gale. Gusts made the curtains dance and set his hair rustling. Startled, Gilbert stared out into that impenetrable darkness. The rain was spattering against his skin, sliding down over his lips and into his mouth, into his…
There were eyes in the darkness staring back at him now, and feathers appeared to dance upon its fringes. Like an angel's wings. Something spoke to him. Staring at it, the answer came clear. He knew what he had to do.
Gilbert stood up and went to his closet. Removing his black coat, he made sure there was sufficient spare ammo. Double-check the pistol. Everything's in working order. After this he donned his hat and went out into the storm, careful to avoid anyone else in the house.
The torrent buffeted him, but he didn't call for a carriage. Instead Gilbert splashed through puddles past other people seeking shelter from the rain. His march carried him on towards the destination where everything would be resolved.
At half past eight it was obvious that no more customers would be coming this day. The storm kept them indoors for sure, where all decent people should be on such a night. Feeling immensely relieved that the workday was finally over, the owner of the restaurant extinguished the stove's fire and proceeded to shut the place down. He flipped the sign in the window to 'Closed' and drew the curtains, leaving only the light of a single candle to illuminate the environs.
He was closing the front door and preparing to lock it when a hand grabbed the doorframe, preventing it from shutting.
The balding proprietor peered astonished out into the rain. A figure swathed in black stood there. Cold fear settled into his bones, but he mustered his courage and spoke firmly, "I'm sorry, we're closed for the evening. Come back tomorrow."
"I already ate."
Before he could respond that figure shoved forward, flinging open the door and knocking him backwards. A cold wind blew in with him as Gilbert Nightray entered the restaurant. It extinguished the lone flickering candle, so that when he shut the door and turned the key behind him, only a faint bluish glow from the windows lit them both. The restaurant owner and his uninvited guest stared at one another for a few seconds.
The chunky man swallowed, sweating visibly. "You can't just force your way in here. Get out right now, or I'm… I'm calling for the police!"
Gilbert didn't move. Rain slid from his coat and pooled around his boots. His cold glare held the frightened man as surely as a hand around his throat.
"What… what do you want from me?" the terrified businessman finally rasped.
"What did you put in the soup?"
Squinty eyes blinked rapidly before darting over to the pot still bubbling on the stove. His voice when it came next was hardly more than a whisper. "Nothing. Nothing, I swear to God, I didn't do anything to it."
And Gilbert drew his gun. The click when he cocked the hammer back echoed through the room. His intended target seemed to lose control of his legs, slumping to the ground with a thud and sitting there trembling.
"I checked through the police reports," Gil continued calmly. "For all that they're a bunch of uptight pricks, those boys are still thorough. They even noted down where the criminals had eaten on the days they committed their crimes. Too bad nobody noticed that over a dozen of them stopped by your place of business. I'm guessing that if we were to retrace the whereabouts of everybody charged in this investigation, each of them had something to eat here before they went wild. But my two friends weren't affected. That's because they didn't have the 'special of the day'. So I'll ask again: what's in the soup?"
The man shook his head from side to side, mouth opening and closing, not making a sound.
Without another word, Gilbert raised his gun. The owner drew in breath to scream, and he fired.
There was a moment of silence, and then hot green soup was pouring out of a hole shot in the enormous pot. It spattered on the ground behind the bar, adding a counterpoint to the rain falling outside.
Gilbert calmly reloaded his sidearm. It didn't pay to be reckless, and one bullet might be the difference between life and death.
He frowned as he slid the metal slug into its chamber.
The pistol was full. And it looked like his suspicions had been correct.
"Show yourself, monster," he declared, drawing a bead on the bubbling cauldron once again.
Pale green fluid continued to spew out. The owner was sobbing and shaking on the ground, not daring to move.
Then something slowly emerged from the pot to hover in the air.
It was the size of a small child. The creature was completely covered in a thin layer of slimy green soup, and resembled nothing so much as a tortoise. Its shell boasted a profusion of spikes sprouting from its back. The hind legs were stunted with wickedly curved claws, while flippers waved lazily back and forth before its chest. A wrinkled head peered about, its vicious curved beak gaping, long donkey-like ears flattened back against its skull. Perched on this gruesome face were two shockingly blue eyes, like great sapphire stones glowing in its skull. Fat tears fell without stop from those orbs, drawing tracks through the stew and pouring down its body to fall back into the pot.
'Beauuuuutiful… soup. Beautiful… soooooup.'
The crooning voice sounded like someone speaking while inhaling instead of exhaling. Gilbert could not think of anything more repugnant. He knew this thing now, as well as its name.
"Mawk Turtle," he spit as a thunderbolt made the windows rattle, and sighting down the barrel, Gil fired two shots.
Immediately the Turtle's hands, head and feet shot into its shell. The bullets sparked as they bounced off that armor without so much as a scratch and ricocheted about, causing the gunman to duck down behind a table. When the danger passed he immediately sprang up and trained his weapon on the hovering parasite once again.
'Heh… heh… heh…' Mawk Turtle gave a sibilant giggle as its limbs slowly came back into view. 'Pandora man… you have… good aim. But don't expect… that little toy… to do me any harm… heh.'
"I've heard about you," Gil stated as he moved cautiously between the tables, never letting his attention waver for a moment. "It all makes sense now. You poison your victim with your tears, and find out what it is they care for, their most cherished convictions. Then you twist their feelings, mocking the devotion they once held and feeding off the screwed-up mess that results. After a while the chaos in their minds drives them to violence towards those they felt so strongly for."
'Yessss', the monster hissed, its endless weeping never faltering. 'Like beautiful… sooooooup… their heads seethe and… bubble. Such a tasty brew… exactly like the one…' And here its round blue eyes gleamed. '… in your head, Pandora.'
Fury awoke in his heart, along with despair, regret, and euphoria. The world seemed to spin and shudder, shadows morphing into dangerous animals. Desperately Gil strove to suppress the dementia that threatened to swamp his self-control. "You disgusting little turd… you scorn everything humans hold dear, and delight in watching them suffer!" There were tears now falling from his eyes as well, a sign of the havoc this thing wreaked within him.
'I'm inside you. You can't… get away from… me. Is that why… you didn't bring… help? Afraid you might… turn on them? It was a… mistake to… challenge me either way.'
The hunter considered his situation. Of course, the fastest way to defeat the Chain would be to kill its Contractor, automatically consigning Mawk Turtle back to the Abyss. Normally he didn't like resorting to such tactics. Unfortunately, with the state of his mind right now, calm logical reasoning was nowhere to be found. His limbs were shaking, he wanted to scream and cry and tear up everything! Dammit, look past all that! You have to keep hold of your soul, this thing can't touch that! Don't kill unless you have… to…
As he thought this, Gilbert found himself looking at the shop's owner. The man was rocking on the floor, keening and mumbling. At various times he would snap and spit in a frenzy, then lapse back into tearful whimpers. His head beat the floor in a savage paean and tears poured down his face. The surprise this scene registered was strong enough to momentarily sweep everything else away.
"It's in you too," he whispered in amazement. "You're… not the Contractor. Then who is?"
Gil's head seemed to clear all at once, and he spun about. Standing in the darkened doorway that led to the back of the shop was a woman in a white nightdress. She was barefoot, hair spilling down her shoulders in chestnut curls.
In spite of all this, he recognized her immediately as the waitress from that afternoon.
"Cynthia," her father moaned on the floor. He seemed to have regained control of himself just as Gilbert had. Coming to his knees, he gaped at her with panicked eyes. "Go back upstairs, please, don't come down. It's all right, everything's going to be all right. Please don't trouble yourself."
Cynthia didn't look at her cringing parent. Her eyes settled squarely on Raven. "Oh, it's you." She crossed her arms, head tilting to one side. "Did you come back to see me, good sir? A girl could get a swelled head at such attention."
The way she didn't react to the sight of a hovering monster, her father on his knees, or a man with a gun drawn told Raven everything he needed to know about this situation. While his head was still working clearly, he pieced it all together.
"It's you, then?"
A small smirk caused one side of Cynthia's mouth to lift. Her chin tilted up, and she regarded him down her nose. Then her eyes drifted over to where Mawk Turtle continued to watch them. "Mawkie, have you been having fun without me? That isn't very nice, you know."
The fallen soul floated over to dangle near its mistress like a gruesome fairy. 'Forgivenesssss, my… pet. I was only just… beginning to play.'
"That's all right," and she reached up to rub her shoulder. As she did, the neckline of her gown shifted slightly, and Gilbert caught a quick glimpse of something dark etched into the skin over her heart. There was no mistaking the sign of an incuse. "I was pretty tired from slinging hash around all day anyway. But then again, this isn't really work, is it? More like fun!"
"Cynthia," her father moaned, "Please, don't…"
"SHUT THE HELL UP, OLD MAN!" the girl shrieked as thunder rolled from the heavens. He quailed away, and her face twisted in scorn at the sight. "God, you make me sick! Letting this strange man into our home in the middle of the night! I swear, parents ought to take better care of their children."
Cynthia's blazing brown eyes turned again to Gilbert. "Guess there's no need to ask what brings you back, huh, your lordship? It wasn't my winsome face, I gather, and not even…" Here she reached out and scraped a finger down Mawk Turtle's shell before popping the collected soup into her mouth. "Mmm, not even this, though we did put a lot of love into it. Mawkie tells us you're from Pandora."
"Surrender, Cynthia," Gilbert intoned in as calm a voice as he could muster. "It's all over. Don't make me hurt you."
"Hurt me?" she blinked. "That's a laugh. Say, come to think of it, what happened to those adorable little kids you came in with?" Her face took on a truly evil cast. "Now don't tell me our lovely brew caused you to behave badly with them?"
'Beautiful… souuuuup,' Mawk Turtle sang, and giggled.
When Gilbert didn't respond, the Chain's host clucked her tongue. "Awww, how sad! And here the blond boy was so very flattering, I almost felt like paying him a host fee."
The way her mouth curved in hatred let him know there was only one way for this to end.
The trio of enemies paused. Behind them, Cynthia's father shuffled across the floor on all fours like a dog. He was still crying, though most likely this was his natural state of emotions, and not the Mawk Turtle's influence.
"Please, good master, don't hurt her. She's my daughter… I had to protect her!" He crawled to within a few feet of Raven and sat there gasping miserably. "I beg you, don't hurt her. She's not to blame. She needs help… she's sick."
Gil looked at the woman standing confidently before him.
"I know," he spoke in quiet tones. "I'm the cure."
In the blink of an eye Gilbert had her in his sights. The shoulder, aim for the shoulder and that's all!
He pulled the trigger, just as everything in his head went wrong.
A detonation of gunpowder let him know he had gotten the shot off. But even as he fell screaming to his knees, he saw the Turtle zipping in to shield its partner and deflect the bullet on its invulnerable body. After that there was only the uncontrollable urge to weep, and shout, tear at his own flesh in self-loathing, then laugh like a kid at the zoo. Beside him the same thing was happening to the other man. Both of them were near senseless with the deluge of conflicting emotions coursing through their brains.
'That's no way… to treat a lady… heh… heh… '
The inhuman pair responsible for this came to stand over them. Mawk Turtle swooped and spun in the manner of a bird in flight, keening in delight. Cynthia only looked on her victims with distaste.
"Men!" she spat, then kicked Gilbert viciously in the face. The pain only made him laugh. After this she picked up an empty bottle from the table and broke it. Examining the jagged edges, she continued speaking. "So vulgar. All of you! Even my own FATHER!" Her venomous gaze fell to take in her twitching sire. "If you only had the sense to sell this place years ago back when those developers made their offer, we would have been RICH! I might have actually been able to make something of myself, if not for my thick-skulled parent's devotion to making an honest day's living! Instead I had to watch as fancy shops were built all around us to cater to the wealthy. Meanwhile I'm stuck scraping dishes and hauling slop out to stuck-up blue-bloods that think they can GRAB MY ASS whenever they want to!"
Cynthia slashed the bottle over her father's face, watching him mewl and suck his fingers like an infant. The sight of his blood only made her anger boil even hotter. She flung the weapon away, before bending to retrieve Gilbert's pistol.
"I don't need to take your bullshit anymore," she rasped. "I'm going to get back the life I was meant to have! Nobody else's matters, and that's all there is TO IT!"
'That's right, my… darling,' Mawk Turtle cooed in her ear. 'Nothing matters… except for us. Don't ever… let anyone hold you back… again.'
Cynthia aimed the gun at her father. As she did, though, something brushed against her face.
Reaching up, she was surprised to come away with what looked to be a black feather.
Beside her, Mawk Turtle suddenly gave a gasp, just before the whole room was engulfed in a hurricane of black feathers. His Contractor flung up an arm to protect her face. She staggered and fell from the force of this maelstrom. A strong wind blew against them, so that it seemed the door to outside must have been opened. But this was not the case. Instead as she peered from between her fingers, it looked as though the darkness in the room was coalescing around the fallen man from Pandora.
At first she thought it was a sign of the storm outside, this sound that suddenly came to her ears. Only it was low. Even as Cynthia realized that, the noise began to swell, ascending swiftly to a roar that surpassed any paltry clap of thunder. Horror clutched at her heart.
Overhead, Mawk Turtle hissed and dove into its shell. The creature began to spin around then like a whirling dervish, going so fast that soon it resembled nothing more than a blur. Its voice was a shrill wail.
'Curse you… my sooooooup… beautiful… sooOOUUUP!'
Her Chain then shot straight for the source of that deepening pall, streaking like a spiked cannonball towards Gilbert's defenseless body.
There came a blue flash, after which Mawk Turtle went spinning away, screaming and rebounding off all sides of the room without any apparent means to stop.
Cynthia could not spare a thought to wonder about her Chain. All she could do was stare in abject horror at what just came into being inside her family's diner. Faced with this primal source of terror, her mouth opened wide.
Thunder drowned out her screams.
The front door slammed, and Alice poked her head up from the freezebox. A chicken leg was sticking out of her mouth, and her arms were loaded down with various meats, cheeses, and bread.
Cautiously she crept out of the kitchen and down the hall. In the foyer, she found Gilbert knocking water off his stupid hat. He looked up at her approach.
Alice popped the chicken leg out. "Where did you go?" she demanded without trying to hide her suspicion.
He only stared at her, then down at the hoard of food in her arms. Immediately she went on the defensive. "This is my stuff! You can't have any. It's for all of us, you said, and I'm staking my claim, so there, Seaweed Head!"
Expecting another lecture, she was surprised when he only nodded his head. "Okay. That sounds good."
He took a step towards her, and the B-Rabbit immediately took one back, hugging her foodstuffs tightly in anticipation of them being stolen from her. As she did, a length of sausage slipped out as a result. Before she could dive in recovery, Gilbert bent and picked it up. He then held it out before her. "Want me to help you carry some of that?"
"No, I want you to give it back!"
Alice lunged for her prize, but as she did, her grip loosened, and the whole lot fell through her arms onto the floor. Immediately she dropped and covered as much with her body as she could before he could confiscate them.
But all Gilbert did was kneel down and hold out his hand.
"What?" the girl demanded.
"I just want to help you."
She studied him. His features looked tired, and a little sad even. Being this close, one more thing became obvious.
"There's a bruise on your cheek."
His hand rose to hover over that spot then quickly withdrew. "I guess there is." And with that, he began to gather up as much as he could carry. "We should wash these before you eat them."
Alice watched him for a moment before bending to retrieve her goods. They both stood up together, facing one another in the quiet darkness of their home.
"Why are you being nice to me?" she demanded bluntly. "You really Gilbert, or some kind of evil copy?"
At this, he winced and looked away.
"I'm… trying to be polite to a lady."
Alice frowned before turning and stalking off. "Whatever. I don't like it."
"It's an acquired taste." And with that he followed in her wake, keeping a careful eye on the small Chain as she stuffed her face. Alice didn't seem to be aware that she had access to her full power once more. Thank heaven for small favors. But renewing Raven's binding on the sleeping Oz could wait until later. Right now, this was something Gilbert felt he had to do. Token recompense for what he had taken part in this night. Playing the gentleman was all he was capable of, and he in no way deceived himself into thinking it could ever remove the bitter taste from his mouth. The flavor of this dish was one he knew well.