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~:: A Darker Shade - Chapter III ::~

Returned from his errand, he gave her a sarcastic smirk. "Guess where we are going?"

She shook her head with a puzzled look. "I have no idea."

"Dark Astoria," he groaned. She sighed softly and followed him across the azure blue sky of the late summer afternoon towards the gate to the eerie milieu. 

Once inside, she found it hard to keep up with him. Moments later she heard the muted sound of his breath being forcefully exhaled upon a soft, thudding impact. "Ow, faceplant," he explained, as she approached him to make sure he was all right. The place was called Dark Astoria with good reason. The perennial fog that enshrouded it was so thick that one could barely see his hands before his face.

They reached the door to the lab and slipped inside. It was apparent that the angry drill team that was the Nemesis army was catching on to them. A brightly clad Cuirasseur and three of his little mechanical lapdogs were marching through the halls patrolling for invaders. Taking them by surprise, he morphed into the hulking Dwarf form and teleported himself directly in their midst. This produced an expression of unpleasant surprise from the Cuirasseur and a melee of attacks from the little pot-bellied Jaegers. The Warshade shrugged off their efforts easily while proceeding to give them the beat down they had so obviously come looking for.

Morphing back to human form, he smiled wickedly at her as he extracted the last dregs of the life essence from the limp form that had once been the Cuirasseur. As the eerie ball of energy hovered above the still warm body, she turned away and shuddered involuntarily.

"Some of your powers are just…a bit morbid," she blurted, softly. He gave her a strange look but no verbal response, as he cloaked himself with dark energy. They silently moved onward. She stared down at her feet as she concentrated upon quieting her steps and fell into contemplative thought.

She tried to gently scan the upper thoughts in his mind. She was not a mind reader, per se, but an empath could often read the emotions, basic urges. and intentions of most other beings. A burst of jumbled energies struck her mind, causing her to stumble as she shook off the link. Two minds, she noted in surprise. One mind seemed very arcane, much like the mages she'd lived with in the cave. The other presence was powerful and very dark. Both of them were working as one. She had to take a closer look, she reasoned, as she gently probed his consciousness once more.

For all the negative energies flowing through his synapses, she found neither malice nor ill will within him. His feelings toward her seemed to be openly protective. Just as she began to feel a little guilty for sneaking around within his mind, she felt him answer: Don't be. I can feel your thoughts at times too.

The link dropped instantly as the shock reverberated through her neural fibers. The mental plane of a demoness could be a frightening place. Even to one who lived there. But finding another being strolling through unexpectedly was a startling experience.

He turned to face her, giving her a reassuring smile. As his eyes bored into hers, she felt him very gently pressing for her to accept his mental energies. For reasons she could not yet fathom, she willingly dropped her mental defenses.

In tune with each other, they moved silently through the halls. Without the need for conversation, they were effortlessly dispatching any foe that got in their way. She preferred this wordless cooperation. Since his communication skills were quite challenged in two of his forms, he appreciated it as well.

He broke the silence, as a surge of adrenalin fired his synapses. "Save a squid…" was all she needed to hear. She used his mind to locate the threat and her mind to quickly render it blinded and helpless.

They wound their way through corridor after corridor until they finally arrived at the core of the lab. Wordlessly they worked in perfect sync.

In the last chamber, the lab equipment exploded before she could break clear. She stumbled out of the protective cubicle amid a haze of noxious fumes. "I am woozy," she breathed, as the room began to spin.

Grabbing her gently, he steadied her as her knees buckled. He whispered softly, "It'll be over soon." She swallowed hard as she tried to shake off the effects of whatever chemical she had been exposed to. As soon as he was sure she could maintain an upright position he released her, but remained close behind and ready to catch her should she lose her balance again.

A quick trip around the lab showed that it was now uninhabited, so they moved on to the next floor. They came upon a small group pacing the length of a railing leading to a ramp that descended to a lower level. He turned and looked into her eyes, wondering if she'd recovered enough to resume their battles. She nodded silently. He rushed towards the mob, blasting powerful dark energy in a spray that threw them all to the ground. "Watch out for the one I blew over the edge," he warned her as she stepped into the melee.

Her armored books clinked against the cold metal of the floor as she deftly leapt over the edge. She laughed softly as she saw the now disoriented Lieutenant staggering around as he tried to figure out how he'd gotten to where he was now from where he'd been. She bent down to meet his eyes forcing her mind's power into his eyes in a blast of white light. He caught the slightest glimpse of her face just inches from his own before his mind exploded in searing pain. Clutching his head as he doubled over, he quickly succumbed to the assault that she expertly played out within his own thoughts.

As they moved to the end of the corridor, it opened up into an area the appeared to be some kind of power grid. Four pillars stood in the center of the room, pulsing with blue energy. A quick visual inspection showed a group of soldiers tucked in an alcove to the left. He morphed into the colossal Dwarf form and materialized in their midst. Startled, they produced their antiquated but effective firearms and turned all their attentions on him. She targeted the closest one and quickly forced him to succumb to a flash of blinding energy flooding his optical nerves. She had just incapacitated a second one when she heard a deep voice from directly behind her.

"Fighting Lord Nemesis is as useless as battling the very wind and tides, Dark Cenotaph!"

"Oh SHI….." Before she could think, she'd screamed. She had not expected the towering metal monstrosity that was the Fake Nemesis who had stepped from behind the nearest pillar to loom over her. His eyes narrowed as he sought the source of the feminine shriek. He produced his massive staff, and aimed it in the general direction from which the expletive had come. It exploded with a torrent of powerful energy, striking her and knocking her against the opposite wall. The impact stunned her and she reached down the front of her armor for the small packet she kept tucked in the safest of spots for such an event. Popping the tiny, pale purple pill, she felt its effects surge through her mind, granting her sudden clarity. Now able to shake off the dizzying effects of the stun, she leapt to her feet and did a few fast calculations. The tin plated giant had knocked her senseless enough that her mind could no longer maintain the illusion of invisibility. He could see her now and was bearing down on her at a fast but lumbering pace. His huge stride quickly covered the ground between where he'd blasted her point blank and where she'd slammed into the far wall.

The Warshade was still occupied in the midst of the group of soldiers. In a split second she closed her eyes and cast the illusion of three spectral warriors at her side. She reached skyward, calling forth her phantasm. He materialized instantly, putting himself between the oncoming metal monstrosity, and the frightened demoness. A blast of blue-white energy knocked her assailant back against the pillars. This gave her a brief second to collect herself as she launched a counterattack on whatever kind of mind drove the metallic beast. The first strike was not enough to incapacitate him. He merely blinked and shook his head, rising to his feet to tower over them. With the second pulse of mental energy he clutched his temples and doubled over in pain as Leeroy blasted him once more.

At that point, the Warshade rushed to her side, having already incapacitated the large group of goons he'd been battling. He launched into their gleaming leader with a fury born from seeing the demoness being blasted violently across the room. It took him mere seconds to reduce the monster to a pile of crumpled tin.

She collapsed on the floor at his feet, panting wildly. "Say something?" he quipped with a grin, obviously amused by her terrified expletive.

"I saw… him …run around the corner…" she began, breathlessly, recalling the moment of blind terror that resulted in her surprised scream.

 "What," he retorted with a gesture towards the crumpled form of the Fake Nemesis, "the big tin wuss?"

He didn't seem like much of a wuss when he plastered me to the far wall, she thought to herself. "I think I need clean panties… " she murmured weakly. He laughed loudly at this admission. Maybe she wasn't the uptight, humorless little prude he had previously assessed her to be.

Looking around the room, she realized her phantasm had wandered off. "Where the hell is Leeroy?" she asked anxiously, knowing his forays were usually followed by a hasty retreat to her side accompanied by a horde of enemies she inevitably had to battle to defend them both.

"Running for clean panties," her partner chuckled, as he stooped to offer a massive hand to help her to her feet.

Half a second later they heard the burst of Leeroy's energy torrent nearby. Their eyes met in a knowing glance. They ran towards the sound of combat. This time it was only one lone Cuirasseur. The Dwarf descended on him before he could react and quickly demonstrated what it meant to receive due recompense for his deeds, Warshade style.

She shook her head with a soft smile. She suddenly realized how glad she was that he was on her side. Dismissing Leeroy, she followed the Warshade back the way they'd come as they worked their way back to the door.

"Roger, Dallas, we are out of here," he quipped with a smile, as he held the door for her. She nodded her gratitude as she stepped back out into the foggy, eternal twilight that was Dark Astoria.

"Shall I escort you home?" he asked.

Her first instinct was a bristling urge to rebuff his offer. She was perfectly capable of making her way home even if she were to be ambushed by Nemesis soldiers for her part in helping him clean out those facilities. But for reasons she could not yet fathom, she found her lips forming the words, "Please. That would be kind of you."

They walked silently together through the darkened streets. With the usual cursory greetings, they flashed their security IDs to the bored looking sentries at the gate to Talos and passed from the gloomy surroundings out into the waning sunlight of the cloudless afternoon.

To Chapter IV