“Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
~ Mark Twain
Cato groaned, and turned over in his seat. As it happened, Proxima and Cato hadn’t needed to go back to the Decagon to sort out the items they’d recovered from the Gallery – they’d been searching for Roderigo for nearly two weeks and Cato was getting sick of it. They’d searched seven spots on the map that was provided by the task-setters – almost all of them turning out to be red-light districts – and there was two more left to search. As they passed through, they’d met several legionaries and Cato had requested the Centurions to send word to him if they sighted Roderigo. On the brighter side, though, it had given Proxima plenty of time to train with her new sword – which she was excelling in.
As usual, thought Cato smiling.
Cato opened his eyes and yawned, squinting as the sunshine of dawn seeped in defiantly through the jeep’s tinted windscreen. He itched the back of his neck and his bearded jaw. He looked over to his side, finding the door open.
His eyes widened.
He threw open his own door, and jumped out of the jeep. “Proxima?” he called, looking around.
Where has she got to? he thought, worriedly.
A finger tapped his back, and he spun around sighing in relief.
“Cato!” Proxima scoffed, “If I had a mother, even she wouldn’t worry as much as you do!”
“Not funny,” said Cato, crossing his arms, “don’t do that!”
Amusement left Proxima’s face, “Sorry,” she said, “It was hot in the car.”
“Couldn’t you have stayed inside with the window open, or even the door?”
“I could have,” said Proxima, “But then I wouldn’t have been able to make breakfast.”
Proxima gestured behind her. She’d got a small fire going and a pair of eggs were frying over a thin slab of stone. There was also what looked like a dead squirrel – skinned and gutted – lying uncooked next to the fire. A flask of fresh stream water glinted in the early light of the dawn, also placed beside the fire.
Cato rolled his eyes and rubbed his forehead, but managed to smile.
“Next time, tell me,” he said.
Proxima pushed him towards the fire and got him to sit down, “I didn’t want to disturb you. As it is, you don’t get enough sleep.”
“But anything could have happened to you, Proxima! Blimey, do you think I can sleep any better if there’s that huge possibility of you wandering about?”
Proxima sat down opposite him and resumed cooking, “Cato, I’m fine. Besides, I know what to do when I’m in trouble.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
She shrugged, “Run around screaming your name until you come to rescue me.”
Cato stared at her.
Proxima laughed at the look on his face, “I’m kidding, Cato, drop that look! You’ve given me enough means to look out for myself, I’ll manage.”
“I’m just glad the squirrel didn’t kill you,” he replied grumpily.
Proxima covered her hands with a piece of cloth and passed the makeshift platter of eggs to Cato. She pushed a long, sharp stick through the squirrel flesh and held it over the fire.
Cato began eating his eggs, “How much longer will this wild goose chase last, do you think?” he said.
Proxima shrugged, “I’m more worried about how we’re going to get Roderigo to come with us – he’ll never come when he sees this,” she pointed at her tattoo.
Cato sipped at the flask, “He’ll come when he sees you.”
Proxima raised a brow and – thinking about all the whorehouses they’d had to visit – she said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Cato laughed, “Don’t take it the wrong way –”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“–Roderigo will recognize you as a Half-Caste.”
“Psht! He won’t believe me! I’m serving the Empire, after all, and he hates the Empire… right?”
Cato chewed his eggs thoughtfully, and swallowed, washing it down with more water, before saying, “Roderigo… we’ll just have to see what he’s like when we find him,” he pointed at the squirrel, “You might want to turn that over. It’s burning.”
Proxima turned the squirrel over, the said, “Cato… did you know Roderigo?”
Cato stopped chewing and looked at Proxima. He paused, and then swallowed, but didn’t say anything.
Oops, thought Proxima, I think I hit a nerve.
The silence remained a while, and Proxima continued to turn the squirrel over the crackling fire until it was fully cooked. Cato had his head bowed – thinking. Proxima glanced at him, and then drew a dagger to cut the cooked meat up. Cato’s head snapped up as he heard the shing of the dagger leaving its scabbard.
Proxima examined him warily, “Cato…?”
A murderous look passed through Cato’s eyes, but he closed them then it was gone. Proxima sighed in relief. He did that when he remembered something he didn’t particularly like. Cato straightened a little, but still didn’t say anything for a while.
Proxima sliced the squirrel in half and passed Cato’s share to him. He took the meat but didn’t eat.
Looks like I’ve really put him off, thought Proxima.
“I did know him,” said Cato, at last.
“Huh?” Proxima shook her hands and then started eating her food, “It’s okay; we don’t need to talk about this.”
“Yes,” said Cato, “We do.” Cato took a deep breath, “Roderigo… he and Ruict were the youngest to be included into the Project – which is probably why they’d survived – and Roderigo was from my cohort. He was a good soldier, and strong too. Always wanted to serve his country. But I didn’t want him to take part in the Project, but he insisted on being included. After the experiments were run… he wasn’t the same.
“He hated everything, and everyone. He went through more severe trauma than even you did…” Cato paused.
Proxima noticed his hands were shaking.
“When I recruited him back into the cohort… he… he started killing the other legionaries. Tiny little things would snap him into a blood feud – like when you drew that dagger. No one could explain why, except that it was because of his trauma. The Emperor wanted to get him executed, but I said no. It wasn’t his fault after all, but the Emperor insisted on doing something about Roderigo. There wasn’t anything to do, except discharge him – and I did that. But when he went back home he… he…”
“Stop,” said Proxima, “I don’t want to know.”
Cato nodded and closed his eyes, “He had a family – young though he was. He had friends. He had everything he could have wanted, Proxima. He destroyed all of it – because he thought everyone was against him. He won’t want to come back to the Decagon with us, Proxima, but we have to get him back. You heard what Legate Cornelius said – If you don’t do what the Emperor wants, he’ll want to get rid of you. Just like he wanted to get rid of Roderigo.”
Proxima nodded. “We’ll get him back,” she said with more conviction than she felt.
“We’ve got two more spots to look in,” Cato said, “We don’t find him there, then we go back to the Decagon.”
Proxima nodded again.
But Cato continued, “we go back to the Decagon and tell them he’s dead.”
* * * * *
Proxima shuddered when they reached the next search-spot. It wasn’t another whorehouse – it was tavern, in fact – but the place whispered of death. Though, there wasn’t particularly anything that showed any sign of a scuffle or killing had taken place here. Perhaps she was just put off by the fact that no one was wandering about. The other spots that Proxima and Cato had searched either had sentries patrolling them or businesses had reopened. But this place was deserted – you could practically hear the tumbleweeds rolling in the wind. It was also very dark, and the night chill was colder than it had been in days.
Proxima stood by the jeep, waiting for Cato to make a decision; but even he seemed to be unsure and wary of the place. The tavern looked like it was far too popular for its own good. The wooden shutters creaked off its hinges in the wind as the locks failed to keep them closed, the front doors had been ripped off by the look of it, the tiled roof had gaping holes, and the once white paint of the external was peeling off. The faded sign, creaking on the chains that held it, read, ‘The Buck’s Tooth’ [though, Proxima couldn’t figure if this was meant humorously]. The smell wasn’t altogether pleasing either, even from the distance that Proxima and Cato were observing the building at.
“Cato?” said Proxima.
“If we had all the time in the world,” said Cato, “I’d say we should come back tomorrow, when it was brighter.” He paused, “But time is something we don’t have, and the Emperor is becoming impatient – by what Legate Cornelius tells me.”
“So… what should we do?”
“It’s your mission, it’s your call.”
Proxima glanced at the tortured building, and nodded, “We might as well get this over and done with,” she laughed humorlessly, “We probably won’t find anything anyway.”
“Right, come on then.”
They approached the site, and the smell of stale beer and urine became harsher.
At least it doesn’t smell of blood, thought Proxima trying to be positive.
Or so she thought.
As soon as she reached the entrance, there was another smell. She sniffed and, being overwhelmed, had to use the ragged doorframe for support.
The passage was dark, but some distance in front of her a light was flickering on and off. There was also an uneven throbbing sound that she couldn’t quite make out… it sounded like a very large bear snoozing, but the sound was far too loud. She covered her nose and mouth with her sleeve, to block out the smell [which didn’t help in the least], and Cato did the same.
“Not good,” he murmured, “This isn’t good at all.”
“No kidding,” returned Proxima.
“Hug the walls,” said Cato, “we’ll go in back to back.”
Proxima nodded, and drew her sword from her scabbard.
She kept to the walls – as Cato advised – and she yelped any time the uneven floor cracked under her feet; but she didn’t dare look down at what she’d crushed. She jumped a few times when she realized her hands touched a cockroach or a rat scampered by. Proxima gulped and tried to be as rigid as Cato, continuing onward.
“So far, so good,” he whispered.
Or so he thought.
A pair of hands clamped their mouths from behind, and pressed the two hunters against a wall. Proxima’s sword clattered onto the floor. She tried to break free, but the hand felt like it was made of iron. Her hands went to her dagger, but Cato stopped her. She looked up at him, and he shook his head.
“Shh…” said their captor, “Shh, you don’t want to wake it…”
Slowly, their captor released his hold, and Proxima spun around to see him. She couldn’t make out any of his features properly, except his bright green eyes that glinted in the dark. Glinting green eyes… she’d seen that somewhere before. It had been some time since… but not too long ago… It was… It was on the night of the attack on The Gateway. The Dyonuxiot had jade green eyes.
“Rod… Roderigo?” she said testily.
He let out a muted chuckle, “Quite the guesser, are you?” he had a cockney accent.
“What don’t we want to wake up? What’s here?”
“You seem smart enough,” he said, “Give us a guess, why don’t you?”
“There’s a Dyonuxiot here, Proxima,” said Cato.
“Ah, a pair of guessers, is it? Wonderful. The guv’nor loves guessers,” said Roderigo sarcastically. He turned to Cato, “I’ve heard your voice before… Do I know you from somewhere?”
“Spear Centurion Cato, the Ninth Cohort of the Last Legion,” Cato replied, not sounding too proud of himself.
“Ah, yeah I remember you,” said Roderigo, not quite as bitterly as Cato expected, “Cato, yeah, I remember. You stopped me getting killed by the Emperor after I went gaga. Thanks, by the way,” he looked at Proxima, “And who are you?”
“That’s not important right now,” said Cato anxiously, “We have to get out of here.”
But Roderigo looked intently at Proxima, “You’re… you’re not human are you?” he sniffed the air, “You don’t smell human, like him. You don’t smell Dyonuxiot either–” he caught himself and narrowed his eyes, “The Empire’s been at it again, is that it?”
Proxima nodded uneasily. She could hear the snoring amplify and the rank smell of the beast wafted into her nose from the flickering room. They needed to leave now.
“Roderigo, we need to go!”
But Roderigo just shook his head. “When did they do it to you?” he said, bitterly.
And, though the situation was dire, Proxima found herself answering in his tone of voice, “Before I was born.”
“Ah,” he said knowingly, “You’re part of Project: Half-Caste – Phase Two, eh?”
“So,” he continued, “What can I do for you?”
Cato grabbed them both by their shoulders, “This is not the time for pleasantries. We’ll discuss it outside – please!”
Hearing Cato’s voice brought Proxima back and she said, “Cato’s right. We need to leave.”
“False,” said Roderigo.
“He,” Roderigo pointed at Cato, “might need to leave, but the Dyonuxiot ain’t got no argument with you and me. He might actually like the company.”
Proxima raised her eyebrows, “But we have to leave for Cato,” she said weakly.
“Depends, does he mean that much to you?”
Proxima’s mouth fell open, “Of course he does!”
“Will he still mean all that much to you when I tell you–?”
“That’s enough!” barked Cato.
Cato’s yell was returned by an ear-splitting roar.
“Ooh, now you done it,” said Roderigo, mischievously, “The guv’nor sounds mighty hungry.”
Proxima heard the beast grunting, and the floor shook as it dragged its legs towards them.
“Out!” Cato barked, “Now!”
He grabbed both Rodrigo and Proxima by their collars and, swiftly picking up Proxima’s sword, ran out of the tavern.
But the Dyonuxiot had seen them.
Its legs pounded as it broke into a run, yelling “Man-flesh!” It threw its claw-tipped tendrils, wrapping around Proxima’s leg. She screamed, as the claw dug into her calf, ripping through fabric then skin then sinew, and [if that wasn’t bad enough] injected deadly venom. Cato eyes widened. He dropped the two Half-Castes and faced the monster, ripping out his sword. The Dyonuxiot retracted his tendrils and laughed, his two long tongues rolling out of his mouth.
“Poor weak Human,” he said, in that awful double voice, “Love your kin so much, you’d die for them? Oh, so weak. Oh, so needy.”
Cato gritted his teeth, and didn’t say anything.
The Dyonuxiot sniffed the air, “Ooh, another Half-Caste. How cute. You Humans don’t know anything, do you? You think they’ll serve you?” the beast laughed again, “They’ll be the cause for your demise! I can’t believe–”
A diamond dagger struck its forehead. Its eyes widened. And the beast wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Cato looked behind him, as the Dyonuxiot crashed to the ground.
“He talks too much,” Proxima vouched, passing out.