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datatime: 2022-10-06 12:46:11 Author:RDwGcGyA

"I don't know if I am going back. You're going to need me in your new life with the underground. And dear Daddy can go to hell. I would have disappeared into the subsystems long ago, if it hadn't been for you. And if I hadn't been such a useful contact for the underground. I think that part of my life is over now. Whatever happens from now on, we'll be together. And that's all that really matters."

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

"Oh, yes. Robert's a lot tougher than he used to be, poor fellow. What will your father say when you do finally go back?"

"No," said the hog. "It doesn't." Its voice was deep and harsh and seemed to echo on in Finlay's bones. "There are always spies and traitors, seeking to destroy us from within."

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

She still didn't look round, but her hand was in just the right place to receive his when he reached out to her.

"There's a place along the way where we can get fresh clothes," she said, looking straight ahead at the closed doors. "Neither of us are in any state to meet people. Are you badly hurt anywhere? There'll be first aid stuff there, but that's all."

Finlay looked around the meeting place with interest. An abandoned workstation by the look of it, bristling with half-repaired, obsolete equipment. Dangling cables hung from the high ceiling, and battered viewscreens lined the walls, hissing with static. Evangeline had said he'd be meeting the esper leaders here, so that they could check him out, but as yet there was no sign of them. There was no sign of anyone, and Finlay didn't blame them in the least. The place was a dump, and filthy beyond belief. He had a strong suspicion he was in danger of catching something unpleasant just by being there. If this was typical of the subsystems, he'd have to think twice about staying. There were limits, after all.

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

"No," said the hog. "It doesn't." Its voice was deep and harsh and seemed to echo on in Finlay's bones. "There are always spies and traitors, seeking to destroy us from within."

"How angry is he likely to be?" said Finlay.

"The dressing table will move itself back into position. There'll be no trace to show where we've gone. Daddy will be surprised when he finds I'm not waiting for him, but by then your cousin should have gotten to Adrienne."

They stood comfortably, companionably together as the elevator sank into the depths. The doors finally opened out onto the subcellar, a dark and dank empty concrete box littered with junk. Evangeline led Finlay to another hidden door, and they made their way through narrow tunnels into the undercity, the interconnecting subsystems where the underground had dominion. Evangeline usually felt a surge of freedom and pleasure on the downward journey, as she left her Family self and obligations behind her, but it was muted this time. For all her brave words, she knew she'd have to return to Tower Shreck at least once more, to keep her promise to her father. If she didn't, if she just hid herself away in the subsystems forever, as she wanted, he'd take an awful revenge on Adrienne and Robert and all the lesser Campbells he could reach. She'd seen his rages before. No one ever crossed the Shreck and got away with it. And it wasn't such a hard price to pay. She'd paid it often enough before. The first time, she'd thought she'd kill herself, but she didn't. She wasn't that strong. Finlay must never know. For his own good.

"Oh, yes. Robert's a lot tougher than he used to be, poor fellow. What will your father say when you do finally go back?"

"My name is Hood," said the tall man with no face. "I advise."

"There's a place along the way where we can get fresh clothes," she said, looking straight ahead at the closed doors. "Neither of us are in any state to meet people. Are you badly hurt anywhere? There'll be first aid stuff there, but that's all."

Finlay looked around the meeting place with interest. An abandoned workstation by the look of it, bristling with half-repaired, obsolete equipment. Dangling cables hung from the high ceiling, and battered viewscreens lined the walls, hissing with static. Evangeline had said he'd be meeting the esper leaders here, so that they could check him out, but as yet there was no sign of them. There was no sign of anyone, and Finlay didn't blame them in the least. The place was a dump, and filthy beyond belief. He had a strong suspicion he was in danger of catching something unpleasant just by being there. If this was typical of the subsystems, he'd have to think twice about staying. There were limits, after all.

Finlay didn't blame them. A waterfall splashed down from high above, gurgling and splashing. An abstract pattern folded in upon itself endlessly. A giant hog with bloodstained tusks glared at him with tiny crimson eyes. And a ten-foot woman wrapped in shimmering light looked down on him with cold disinterest. Evangeline had warned him that the leaders hid their true identities behind illusions for security reasons, but he hadn't expected them to seem so... real. He swallowed hard, and held his head high.

"No," said the hog. "It doesn't." Its voice was deep and harsh and seemed to echo on in Finlay's bones. "There are always spies and traitors, seeking to destroy us from within."

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

"Interesting friends you have, Evie," he said brightly. "Usually to see something like this I'd have to ask Valentine for something from his private stash."

"I am an outlaw now," said Finlay. "That means they have to take me, doesn't it?"

"No," said the hog. "It doesn't." Its voice was deep and harsh and seemed to echo on in Finlay's bones. "There are always spies and traitors, seeking to destroy us from within."

She nodded briefly, because she didn't trust herself to speak, and led the way into the elevator. The doors slid silently shut behind them, and Evangeline hit the down button with her fist. The elevator began its descent, and for the first time Evangeline relaxed a little. They were committed now.

Finlay decided to let Evangeline do all the talking. He put on a respectful face while she talked to the leaders and carefully kept his hands away from his sword and gun. He looked across at the few relatively normal-looking people in the chamber with him, and moved over to join them, bowing respectfully.

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