Amber stumbled along next to Missy in the rain as the three mutant brothers pushed them to go faster. Well, technically only two of the mutants were shoving them. Hansel, the youngest, left them alone, throwing them sympathetic glances every once in a while. Not that Amber's friend Missy noticed. The woman seemed to have lost herself and was now just an empty shell of the vibrant woman she had once been. Hades had done that to her. Behind the two women ran Chameleon and Letch. The two brothers felt no pity for the women who had not seen daylight in what seemed weeks (it was hard to keep track of time in the mines). It had been Hansel who somehow convinced Hades to allow him to take Missy and Amber for a walk late that evening. Chameleon had demanded to go along as well, since he had claimed Amber as his mate and didn't want to let her out of his sight. Hades, not trusting Chameleon to keep his hands off Missy, had then ordered Letch to tag along and keep an eye on his older brother. And so the five of them had exited the caves and entered the cool evening air. Missy and Amber still had to have their hands tied together, but even so, it was nice to be able to simply walk.
Unfortunately, fate decided that the weather for that night would hold one of the few and far between desert rainstorms. Though rain was rare in the desert, when it came, it held nothing back. Huge droplets were pounding down on all of them and thunder was heard in the distance. They were far closer to the town that Jupiter's clan inhabited than to the mines, as Hansel had pointed out, so they were heading in that direction. Neither Missy nor Amber had ever seen a mutant from outside of Hades' clan. From what information Amber had been able to get out of Hansel, the two clans had fragile peace between them and respected each other's territories for the most part. The three mutant brothers were obviously nervous as they entered the rival clan's village. Amber's gray eyes took in the rundown homes and creepy mannequin children on the swings. Missy's eyes took in nothing but the ground beneath her feet as she ran. Currently they were running down what seemed to be the main road, if the wide dirt path could even be called a road.
"Thar," Hansel grunted, pointing out a two-story house on the left. Amber ran up the three steps onto the covered porch and stopped to catch her breath. Chameleon pushed her roughly aside and cautiously opened the door. He poked his scaly head in. Apparently seeing nothing amiss, he grabbed the rope around Amber's wrists and dragged her inside. Letch gave Missy a hard push through the door, and Hansel entered last. No one seemed to know what to do next for a few seconds. They all simply stood in the bare entryway. Amber took the opportunity to look around. Immediately in front of the door was a staircase leading up to a second floor and there was also a hallway on the right side of the stairs heading back to a closed white door. To the left, there appeared to be a sort of living room and on the right was a dining room. Amber noticed more eerily cheerful mannequins like the ones she had seen on the swings sitting around the dining table. All the chairs were used except for the one at the head of the table, like the mannequins were patiently waiting for the guest of honor to arrive. For whatever reason, that empty chair sent chills up Amber's spine.
Finally Chameleon growled to Hansel, "Go ge' Plu'o's bitch." He nodded towards the stairs. Hansel seemed apprehensive. He wrung his hands in front of him.
"Bu'… Plu'o up thar," he mumbled.
Letch snorted a laugh. "S'why we sendin' you."
Amber was curious in spite of herself. Hansel was obviously afraid of whoever Pluto was. It seemed Letch and Chameleon were too, seeing as both refused to go upstairs themselves. The only person she had ever seem the three brothers afraid of was Hades, and he scared the crap out of her too to say the least. Perhaps she should fear this unknown mutant as well. And who was "Pluto's bitch"? Were there more women trapped in the hills like Missy and herself? She'd never heard specifics about Jupiter's clan other than Chameleon's grumblings about how they took the "good hunting grounds".
Hansel swallowed his saliva and cautiously crept up the stairs, which wasn't easy for him. He wasn't exactly what anyone would call "dainty". Every time a stair creaked, which was often, he froze, but eventually he made it to the second floor. He looked down at the four of them, swallowing again, before turning to the right and disappearing behind a wall. Amber strained to hear what was happening upstairs. It seemed Chameleon and Letch were too because neither made a sound. Amber heard a door creak open slowly. A few seconds later she heard Hansel's low, grunting voice and then a softer, seemingly feminine voice responded. Amber's heart raced. It was true! There were others here like themselves. She heard Hansel and the woman converse quietly for a few moments longer. Then she heard a deep growl. That was not Hansel. Chameleon and Letch's eyes widened in fear and Amber heard Hansel whimper somewhere upstairs. Yes, they definitely afraid of Pluto. Then the woman's voice came again and the growling stopped. The two mutants let out the breath they had apparently been holding.
Metal springs creaked and two sets of footsteps could be heard padding across the floor towards the stairs. Hansel appeared first, followed by… a girl! As they came down the stairs, Amber could see her dark eyes and long, probably brown, hair. She couldn't have been more than twenty, if that. Surprisingly, the girl's eyes held no fear as she took in the two mutants, though she seemed to avoid looking at Amber and Missy.
If the girl was afraid of the mutants, it didn't show in her voice either. "What do you want?" she demanded.
"S'rainin'. Can't make i' to mines. Need t's'ay 'ere." Chameleon grumbled.
The girl gave a very unfeminine snort and crossed her arms over her chest. "Why are you asking me? If you want to stay, you should be shaking Papa Jupe or Big Brain awake at this ungodly hour, not me."
Chameleon paused, seemingly embarrassed at having to say what he said next. "Need ya ta as' Big Brai'. Prolly say yes if you ask 'im."
"Oh, I see. You're afraid he or Papa'll say no if you ask 'em. Figures. Why shouldn't I do the same? Better yet, why shouldn't I call Pluto down here and have him throw you out on your rear ends? You and the rest of your clan ain't ever done us any favors from what I hear."
At this, Hansel spoke up. "Rainin' real har'. Can' make i' back ta mines. N' see. Got girls wit us too. Tired. Won' make it." The girl's eyes had softened as she listened to Hansel. It seemed she had a soft spot for the kind mutant.
She sighed. "Fine. Be back in a minute," she said. She turned on her heel and padded through the living room. Opening a set of wide folding doors just enough to slip through, she disappeared into the room beyond. A soft "Big Brain, wake up" could be heard through the open door, followed by the sound of a very raspy voice. The new voice was too quiet for Amber to make out what it was saying, but apparently the girl (whom, Amber realized, she still didn't know as anything other than "Pluto's bitch") understood without a problem. The girl and the unseen Big Brain conversed in quiet whispers for a couple minutes before the girl was once again visible in the doorway.
"He says you and Letch can stay in the blue one-story across the road," she said as she made her way back through the living room.
The usually quiet Letch spoke up. "N' wha' 'bout Hans'l 'n the gir's?"
"They'll be staying in the living room," she said with a smile.
Chameleon growled, "How cum we gotta go back ou' 'n the rain?"
"Because, dearest, I don't want you smelling up the house." She smirked. "Plus, the drowned rat look suits you so well. You want to stay here? That's the deal, take it or leave it."
Chameleon glared daggers at the girl as he and Letch reluctantly retreated out the door. Amber gaped after the two mutants. No one except Hades bossed them around. If she'd ever tried to talk to Chameleon like that, she probably would have wound up unconscious on the floor of the mines, if not dead. Yet here was this probably teenage girl, not only bossing them around, but openly insulting them, and their only rebuttal was skulk back out into the storm.
The girl sighed and her eyes drooped. She was obviously tired. Amber should have been too after walking for several hours and then running nearly a mile in the wet sand, but this new development was too interesting and too exciting to think about sleep. The girl gave the three of them an apologetic look.
"Sorry for being so curt with you at first. It's been a looong day. Mama decided to do her spring cleaning today, and she enlisted Ruby and the other girls to help, so I was stuck with twin-sitting duty." Amber's heart sped up again. Mama? Ruby? Other girls? How many potential comrades did she and Missy have in these hills?
"Plu'o no help?" Hansel whispered, seemingly afraid that the yet-unseen mutant would hear his name being spoken.
The girl let out a little laugh. "He'd be more likely to join in the twins' troublemaking than help me put a stop to it," she said with a smile. "I kicked him out for the day to help Cyst with yard work. Figured he would be of more help with the physically demanding stuff.
"C'mon," she said yawning, guiding them into the open living room. Inside the room Amber saw there was a very old but big couch, an overstuffed recliner, and a rather regal-looking Victorian-style chair along with a few tables and lamps.
"You guys can divvy up the furniture however you like," the girl said. She gestured toward the recliner. "Hansel, I'd suggest you take the recliner and let the ladies share the couch, but it's up to you."
"S'fine wi' me," Hansel replied before collapsing into the chair. He was instantly asleep. The girl let out another soft laugh. Then she turned to Amber and Missy.
"Well, I guess the couch is all yours. It's a lot more comfortable than it looks, and if you arrange yourselves right, you should both easily be able to fit on it." She walked over a dresser with a sizeable drawer and pulled out several ratty blankets. Two of them she tossed over to Missy and Amber. Amber caught one, while the one intended for Missy fell dejectedly to the floor. The third blanket the girl draped over Hansel's sleeping mass. Giving him one last smile, she turned to go back upstairs.
"Wait!" Amber blurted out. Her voice surprised her. It was very scratchy from a lack of use. There was no one to talk to in the mines, seeing as Missy was kept in a separate room, and Amber had given up on screaming long ago. The only people who could hear her either didn't care or enjoyed her tormented shrieks.
The girl stopped and turned back to look at her. Amber didn't know what to say next. She was becoming rather confused. Her initial excitement had given way to rational thought, and drowsiness. Why did this girl have free roam when she and Missy were tied to a bed most of the time? Why were her wrists free of both rope and rope burn? And who the heck could possibly even be concerned about "spring cleaning" in a mutant cannibal-infested place like this? But none of those questions escaped from between her ears. Instead she asked, "Wha… what's your name?"
The girl smiled again. "Kore," she replied.
So, this mysterious entity had an actual name. Suddenly more questions bubbled to the surface and Amber started blurting them out, her voice losing its harshness. "Who's Pluto? And Big Brain-"
"Whoa, whoa, slow down. I'm tired and I'd really like to go back to sleep," Kore said, putting her hands up. "I'll answer all the questions you can throw at me tomorrow morning, okay? Besides, you two should probably follow Hansel's lead and hit the sack too. Last time it rained this hard, the mines flooded and Hades and his clan had to move into the test village for a few days. Take advantage of the solitude while you've got it. I'll talk to Jupe tomorrow and see if we can keep the sleeping arrangements as is while Hades clan is here. Sound good?"
Numbly, Amber nodded. Missy just stood next to her, staring at the ground.
"Good," Kore said with an approving smile. "Oh, I never got your names."
"Um… I'm Amber," she replied. She nodded towards her friend. "And this is Missy."
"Well, Amber, Missy, it was very nice to meet you." With that, she once again turned around and exited the room. Amber listened as she padded back up the stairs. Then she turned to Missy. The poor woman was still staring blankly at the ground.
"C'mon Missy," she said as she guided her friend over to the couch. As soon as Missy sat down, she crumpled up into a fetal position, wrapping her bound arms around her knees and resting her head on the couch's arm. Amber sighed. Where was the old, Missy? The woman she had looked to for strength when this whole mess started and their fellow trainees were being killed off like flies? Then, it had been Amber who was panicking while Missy calmed her and kept a level head. Where was she? Perhaps she could still be found.
With a resigned sigh, Amber grabbed the blanket off the floor, tossed it over Missy, and joined her friend on the large old couch. She put her head on the opposite couch arm and wrapped the blanket as tightly around herself as she could with the limited movement allowed by the ropes. Tomorrow she was getting answers. Tomorrow she was going to find the old Missy. Tomorrow was going to be better. These three thoughts spun around in her head again and again as she drifted off to sleep, the rain pounding out a lullaby on the roof.