Saturday, December 15, 2007

Page 10

The group stood, shocked and shaking, staring at Madison, mouths agape, eyes saucerlike. After what seemed like years, Lily and Samson looked from Az to Mad and back again. What just happened here? seemed to loop thru everyone's mind at once.

Mad sat, still regaining her strength after reviving Samson, holding the heavy harpoon after having caught it right as it threatened to pierce the skin that guarded her heart. Didn't even mark the skin, or if it had it had already healed. The harpoon dully thudded as it hit the ground. Devoid of strength and energy, Mad collapsed onto the wet, cool earth, eyes open yet unfocused. Samson moved to her side in long quick strides, swiftly lifting her light body off the ground and heading for the van. His plans have changed, his purpose shifted. Samson no longer sought the easy refuge in the south, but knew his destiny was with the young, chosen one.

"Such is life in the whale's belly/it's soft and cushiony like raspberry jelly/if you look straight up you can see the stars/thru the blowhole and past the bars

I gotta roll, can't stand still/got a flame in my heart, can't get my fill/Eyes that shine burning red/Dreams of you all thru my head

Ring around the rosey/a pocketful of posey/ashes, ashes/we all fall down

Accipere quam facere praestat injuriam*

Mens agitat molem**

How can I see with stones in my eyes? Thou canst expect me to weave magic when thou doest hide from the light."

Samson drove at a feverish pace, sometimes on the road, mostly not, but Az knew better than to open his mouth. In fact he pretty much sat dumbfounded over what had occurred this afternoon. As they listened to the ramblings of Mad, who lay in the back swaddled in Lily's arms, a cold compress on her forehead for lack of anything better (none of them have ever experienced anything of this magnitude before; since they managed to grip a tiny ounce of sanity, they considered themselves ahead of the game) they only hoped that she would come to enough to explain what had happened. Lily and Azrael had no idea she was capable of that, but what he had seen renewed Samson's drifting faith in a higher power. All he knew was they couldn't get to New Promise fast enough. His brother would just have to understand his detour. He might never make it out alive, but he knew that this was where he was meant to be right now. The hole in his shirt told him that.

*It is better to suffer an injustice than to do an injustice

**The mind moves the matter. (Vergil)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Page 9

Madison stood hunched over, hands on her knees like a demented baseball umpire, back alternately arching and swaying like a drunk heaving in the streets, sweat pasting her hair and clothes to a body wracked with spasms panting like she'd just run a marathon. Lily took a step toward her before Az and Samson both reached out and put a hand forcefully on her shoulders. She started to turn to them, briefly tried to pull away, until her eyes found the source of their restraint. Mad's belly swelled abnormally, as if she ran the gamut of pregnancy in the matter of seconds. Something squirmed inside of her, something that would eventually find its way out.

As the trio stood unable to move, unable to speak, and unable to process what they witnessed, Mad's head flew up so that she stared at them, only she didn't look at all like the young girl they knew. Her moist skin was pallid, dark circles hung in half moons under eyes that blazed red, her mouth twisted into an evil snarl. If this were a movie, I'd be covering my eyes right about now Lily thought, but her hands stayed melded to her sides. That's when the sound--a rumbling they could almost feel, started deep within the girl, moving up toward her mouth swiftly. She looked at them, no, thru them, and in a low echoing voice that sounded like something dubbed in a bad Godzilla movie, she shouted loud enough to be heard over the weather raging around them.

"They're coming they're coming for you. get down get down now dddduuuuccccckkkkkkk!" and with that winged insects burst from her mouth, her nose, even her ears. The swarm headed straight for Az, Samson, and Lily, who until that very moment were paralyzed until Samson shoved the other two straight down to the mud. Before he could join them, these insects, which seemed like a cross between a fly and a bee, flying with stingers curved and pointed in front, flew right thru Samson, leaving a baseball sized hole in the middle of his chest. Before he even realized what hit him he fell straight back, like a deathly Nestea plunge; he never felt a thing.

Mad collapsed on all fours, blood trickling from the corners of her mouth, nose and ears,her eyes once again a soft violet, skin peaches and cream, half moons resorbed. Lily and Az, no longer hearing the deafening hum of mutant insects, lifted their heads to see the storm was also clearing. Shakily regaining their feet, Lily let out a "whew" as she attempted to brush the thick mud from her clothes and then her hands. Az started to chuckle, a warped joke about this on the tip of his tongue, until he turned and saw his old friend. "What the---" was all he could muster. "Wha--?" Lily turned and joined his speechlessness. They stood on either side of Samson, who lay no longer breathing, the crisp clean hole filling with muddy puddle. Mad moved in lunges and lurches, a living zombie, until she stood at the size 15 feet of the corpse formerly known as Samson.

"What is it? Why is he laying here? Shouldn't we be going? Shouldn't..." her eyes drifted down, down, to the man, the hole, to death and defeat.

"You!" Az pointed at her unforgivingly. "You did this!" He grabbed her by the back of her small head, his hand cupping it like a football. With one flick of his wrist he threw her down on top of his oldest and dearest friend. "You killed him, you fucking freak of nature! And I'm supposed to save you? I should serve you to the gods on a skewer! I should--" A resounding slap echoed thru his head as Lily's hand connected with his cheek, leaving a nicely shaped hand-print in red. He glared at her, lips curled upward in a disgusted snarl. "Fuck you too! Damn you both to hell!"

Az stormed back to the van. Lily figured he meant to leave them there, and she wouldn't blame him. She didn't see him climb in the back, digging in the chest, past the flare gun, the AK 47, the MM-201 rocket launcher, searching for the harpoon gun, the closest thing to a skewer that his enraged mind could find.

"I...did....this...I did this? I did I did I did this I did...this, I? did? this?" Mad babbled, still kneeling on the dead body of a man she wasn't even introduced to. Lily, sobbing, dropped to her knees and running her hand across Mad's forehead in a vain attempt to soothe her. "No, honey," she said, nearly choked with tears. "Whatever possesses you did. Not you."

"Me me me me me me, that's not me, that's not me, I'm not death. I'm life! I'm life! I'm not evil, no no no, I'm not evil...I'm good. I, I, I, I'm good! I have to be good!" blood stained tears streamed down Mad's cheeks, leaving pinkish trails like clown make-up gone horribly wrong. "I can fix this! I can, yes, I can!" She looked Lily directly in the eyes, and the power the young girl projected terrified her. Like a candle inside a jack-o-lantern Mad's eyes flickered and glowed, the whites turning into shining silver. "Move away" she told Lily, putting her hands on her shoulders and moving her back, just a little, pointing in the hopes that Lily would move herself more. She did. She wasn't sure why she was so complaisant, but right then she felt it was her only viable option. The van in the distance shook, but neither noticed the movement, no one saw the flashlight shining this way and that. No one knew what Az really had in mind.

Mad climbed the huge man who, if he had a blanket one would think he merely slumbered, until either hand rested next to the perfectly round hole. A bluish white conic light shot from her eyes creating a glow around the hole. Lily watched in disbelief as this bright light welded Samson's body back together. No stitches, no needles, just light closing the hole in his body; his clothes, however, could not be mended. Somehow Lily didn't think he'd care. Once humpty dumpty was put back together, Mad leaned forward and delicately pressed her thin pink lips to Samson's much larger brown ones, holding the pose for just a few seconds, just long enough for his massive chest to fill with air. She climbed from him and slumped on the cold, wet earth, eyes closed, energy drained.

Samson sat up, blinking his eyes and looking around for anything to remind him of what just happened; he got that reminder when his hands found the perfectly round holes in his jacket, flannel shirt, and long underwear top. Just then Azrael jumped from the van, only one thing in his line of vision as he cocked the harpoon gun, holding it close to his shoulder. His strides led him straight to the girl, drained and empty sitting on the cold, wet earth, unaware she was about to become a shish kebab. He stopped about ten feet away from her, but his eyes hadn't shifted or he would have seen his old friend sitting next to the girl, still fingering the holes left behind in his clothes.

"Hey!" he shouted, his voice a scary mix of rage and pain. Mad's head slowly bobbed up, her eyes locked his for a moment before drifting to the glinting harpoon perched ominously in her direction. As if in slow motion his finger closed, clamping down on the trigger, a slow moaning "pppffffffttttttttsssss" as the harpoon was released, a dull thud when it landed, the strangled voices of Lily and Samson as they screamed "NNNOOOOOO!" in unison.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Page 8

The wind continued to whip up around them, blowing scraps of paper, leaves, and twigs all around, specks of grime stinging their eyes. The world had become a very dirty place, despite well meaning alleged environmentalists who insisted their war be fought for the good of the Earth. Look where it got them. The good Earth adapted, Mother Nature arm wrestled global warming and won, and enough people found after brief bouts of sickness that they were truly immune from Strain XL8-1100, for lack of a better name, since the founder of this very virulent and resistant bacteria? virus? STD? all of the above? Dwight D. Kramer succumbed to it a week after stating he discovered the ultimate cure--completely herbal and organic to boot.

Lily held her breath, envisioning the wheels of reason and insanity cranking in Az's head, as he ran thru all the possibilities in his future, with or without them. Could she deliver Mad to her destiny by herself? Sure. No doubt. Now, ask her if she wanted to. If truth be known, Lily feared what lie ahead in New Promise. She feared her own destiny. She knew that didn't necessarily deem her a coward; if anything it made her smart, attentive, careful. One little slip along the way (no one noticed Mad as she tumbled from the van, hunched over chest heaving right hand clutching her heart eyes rolling back in her head) one wrong turn (Mad dropped to her knees in the mud electric jolts spasming her body as she throws herself forward) one slip of the wrist (Mad lurched forward on one hand and her knees the other hand gripping her chest as if she intended to rip out her own heart to spare herself the pain of destiny daring fate to strike her dead on the spot and let someone a little more qualified save the world why did it have to be her?) and this trek, this pilgrimage to the unholy land would end all for naught. Their lives would end in vain. So she held her breath and waited while Azrael debated. She didn't know he'd already made up his mind.

"My dear old friend," Az shouted, trying to be heard over the wind that screamed with more lung than he could muster. Lily had to move closer to hear him. Samson didn't move because he already knew he would continue on his own. He knew Azrael, he knew Az would never waiver from the path of greater good. And he admired that about him.

Lightning strobed around them, followed quickly by the guttural growl of thunder that quickly erupted into a full fledged war cry. The clouds appeared ready to burst forth a belch of rain with enough intensity to wash their van away like it was nothing more than a child's toy. And still no one noticed Mad, who had struggled to her feet, still clutching her chest, left hand reaching out her eyes normally a light violet, glowed red.

As soon as he decided to tell his friend he understood, Samson caught a glimpse of something moving behind them. The look of sheer terror on this behemoth's face caused Lily and Az to follow suit. They had seen a lot in this crazy, upside down world, the lot of them, but nothing quite like this.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Page 7

"How did you fare during the Environmental War?" Samson asked, believing he knew the answer, fighting to stifle a grin.

Azrael snickered. "You know me, rarely do I commit to any cause I can't believe in. Of course it's hard not to fight for something when they force you to."

"Amen, brother. Though how a war could possibly help the environment..." Samson shrugged. "Beats me."

"So, where are you headed?" Az asked, glancing around at the gathering storm clouds. The wind began to whip them, a little harder with each pass.

"Frankville. I hear it's the only free land left for those who only want to be. What about you?"

Azrael sighed. Frankville, created by Frank Novice and truly the only free land left in the world, spaned across the southern United States, or the country formerly known as the United States. Now it stood a divided country, one that had fallen and is now up on its knees again, struggling for the strength to stand. But can a country stand divided? Or is it truly what they say--united we stand, divided we fall?

"We are going to New Promise," He said, and held his breath, waiting for the screams of protest from his oldest and dearest comrade. Instead, Samson, squinting in the wind, just glanced around and nodded.

"Somehow I knew it wouldn't be an easy finish for you, my friend. You always did have the knack for finding trouble, especially behind enemy lines."

"If life was easy, would it be like this?" he asked angrily, spreading his arms wide and turning a circle. "Life is anything but easy, and if it's going to be hard I might as well go for brutal and really earn it."

Samson shook his head. "I think, after all we've endured, we owe it to ourselves to retire to Frankville. If you can't trust your brother, then who can you trust? There is a place waiting for me in Sunny Wallace. My own place, Man. I can't remember the last time I could say that. It can be your place, too. There is enough." He knew even as he offered this that Az would pass it by. Az had a mission, and that would be all he could see until it was over. Then, perhaps, if he still lived, he would consider it.

Azrael knew his friend was right. He knew it and that pissed him off. He should be going to Frankville, he should! He had found his share of wars and it was time for him to live his life for himself. He didn't choose this, this pilgrimage! This isn't his battle! This is some crazy little skinny psychic bitch's fight, and her flame-haired obstinate protector's. Not his. NOT HIS. And, it also wasn't his way to shirk his responsibility, whether he felt he earned it or had it thrust upon him. Lily listened to their conversation, and for the first time since this mission began, since they first met up with Azrael, she feared his response. She swallowed hard, afraid he would leave her and Mad and for once do his own thing simply because he wanted to. Simply because he could. He was not bound to them, he owed them nothing. Yes, the powers that be (whatever they were anymore, no one knew) guided them together, as their meeting was not by chance. But that doesn't mean a prophecy can't be broken, can't be re-written, can't be changed. And God or Satan or Allah help them all, after that, after Azrael discovered his own free will.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Page 6

"When last I saw you, the dissidents were dragging you away in ropes and chains with all the others still singing songs of Allah," Az said. "And I was being dragged in the other direction, with those who claimed there were no gods, only savages bent on destruction."

"You always had a way with words, old friend," Samson said and laughed, a loud booming that seemed to carry on the wind, strong enough to cut through the clouds and echo through the mountains. He clapped Az on the back, sending Az, who at 6'3 seemed slight next to Samson, reeling forward a bit. "Sorry, old man, but I forget my strength at times."

"Quite forgivable, my friend. Just glad to see the strength remains" Az commented, grateful that this behemoth was on his side. They shared another quick laugh before noticing an annoyed Lily tapping her foot in a puddle. She exaggerated a sigh, glancing at her wrist as if she wore a watch, as if time was still of the essence in this world.

"Right, right. Lily, this is my oldest and dearest comrade, Samson. We fought side by side in the Race War of 2010, the war of no winners. You were probably too young to remember, Lily, when the Illegals held President Swartzeneggar hostage and demanded change. When Mexico burned like Atlanta, and California demanded to be its own country. What a fun time that was, huh, Sam?"

Samson grunted, understanding the dripping sarcasm of Az's explanation. Lily shifted on her feet, arms crossed in front of her. She absolutely hated it when Az used the age card! She had seen a great deal in her 30 years on this planet, things that the average young woman wouldn't survive. Just because she was only seven when the Race war ravaged the world and separated families doesn't mean it didn't impact her life. Her mother was a flaming Irish debutante, her father, an Illegal of mixed heritage himself, having a Japanese mother and a Hispanic father, who chauffeured her family around to numerous high profile events. Her parent's love affair guaranteed banishment, not only because of the class differences but the race ones as well. When they took off on their own, choosing to live a simple life amid the hills, life was sweet. Lily remembered her and her sisters Jasmine and Rose, and brother Thorn running through rich green fields sprinkled with a rainbow of wild flowers, laughing and hiding from their father, who pretended he was a troll who ate small children for dinner. She can still picture her mother standing atop the hill, shielding her eyes from the bright sun, squinting and smiling, hair and dress fanning in the wind, while their dog Parsley watched lackadaisically from the porch. The next thing any of them knew, men dragged their father in one direction, their mother in the other, and her and her siblings ended up in different camps, fighting for different causes, not because they believed in them, but because they were told to.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Page 5

The girl lay still, only the rapidly heaving of her chest indicated life. Az and Lily began to clean up the camp, knowing it was time to move on. A feeling of unease invaded him, causing restlessness and an itchy trigger finger over every sound or movement in the brush. He didn't trust this world, or the mixture of beings that inhabited it, and sometimes he wasn't even sure he could trust himself. He watched Lily hurriedly working, deep in thought, probably mulling over the latest ramblings of their crazy cohort. She had studied ancient traditions and languages, but what spewed forth from the young one's mouth were unknown, uttered before history acknowledged these things. Or perhaps they were of a time that had yet to occur, a glimpse of a possible future among many waiting to be pulled out of a magician's hat like a suffocating bunny. Only time will tell, but for now its lips were drawn tightly against savage teeth, driving them to answers that may or may not lie in New Promise. But that was as good a place as any to begin. All journeys have a beginning and an ending, with many stops along the way, and perhaps no one knows where they lead until they actually arrive, or die trying.

Azrael and Lily secured everything before Az effortlessly hoisted the girl from the ground and placing her in the back of the rusted, worn van they used as transport. Barely reaching 40 mph, it served it's purpose, saving them days and aching muscles, teaching them this cowardly new world had no place for useless complaints. Once upon a time he drove a silver Jag, complained about bird poop on the windshield, a tiny ding in the door, acid rain, and gas prices. Now he was grateful the floor hadn't completely rusted through on the EconoVan that really had no color, bloody with rust and blackened with fire, gray from steel and tortured by weather uncontrolled. But it saved them days and aching muscles.

The sky turned dark gray as they rolled down a road now unknown, in a town that lost it's identity, a rumbling of thunder and a roar of something else in the distance. The rain usually moved swiftly and violently across the land, wreaking havoc and rendering any moving object useless against the torrents. They would lose time, but stay dry at least; the ones moving on foot were the ones in real danger, of being washed away, beaten to death by winds and ravaged by sheets of gray rain, blinded by flashes of lightning, deafened momentarily by crashes of thunder that seemed to settle around them.

They came to a slight bend in the road and could make out a figure in the distance that appeared to be human, waving hands overhead signaling them. Lily cocked her gun on her lap just in case, hiding it under a tattered shawl. They neared the figure slowly, a man black as night, bald, yet very tall and very wide, appearing to hold no weapons, a dirty sack on the damp ground by his feet. As they pulled within ten feet of the man, Az stopped the van abruptly, sending Lily forward with a loud bump.

"Damn, Az! A little warning next time would suffice!" Lily exclaimed as she rubbed her head.

"It can't be! I thought he just can't be," Az mumbled as he threw open his door and jumped out right into a puddle.

"Be careful, Az!"

"I was hoping for a ride, if you'd be so..." but the deep voice from the man black as night trailed off as recognition set in. "Well I'll be a..."

"Samson! My God, is it really you?" Azrael asked incredulously as he moved toward the formidable tower of a man before him.

"As I live and breathe, I never thought I'd see you again! How is it, Azrael?" Samson asked as he reached his friend and stuck out his hand, which was refused by Az and replaced by a bear hug. The men clapped each other on the back, staring at each other and laughing at the good fortune of finding each other again after so many wasted years. Lily uncocked and placed her gun on the floor beside her seat, jumping out of the van to better assess the scene unfolding in front of her, leaving Mad to sleep, chest heaving, in the back of the EconoVan.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Page 4

In the midst of small talk that consisted of Lily naming the scientific names of plants, insects, and reptiles with Az trying to name the common name, the girl stood, her plate falling to the ground upside down. She clutched her head, eyes wide and panicked, sweat beads forming and clinging to her forehead and upper lip. She stumbled forward toward the water.

"They scream! Agonizing cries, so many all at once," Mad whispered. She turned to them. "Make them stop! I can't take the pain! Deafening, they plead but there's nothing I can do! Why me!" Upon uttering the last two words, Mad threw herself to the ground, curling into the fetal position and, oddly enough, speaking in tongues. A few languages they understood--French, German, Spanish, even Yiddish--but a few sounded ancient, unearthed only in horror movies or satanic cults, or rare cases of demonic possession. They didn't even bother to try to decipher it anymore. Lily just recorded what she could in a notebook, misspellings and all, for posterity's sake. Who knows, they might run across someone along the way who could make sense of it all. Az went to Mad and checked her vitals, which seemed to be running on a razor's edge. He wondered how long it would be before Mad's heart burst in her chest. These crazed episodes grew more frequent, the closer they traveled to New Promise. Azrael was convinced the dark one was there, but couldn't understand where Mad fit into the puzzle. He wasn't sure he wanted to find out, either.

Something bound them together for this mission, and he knew others would join along the way. But why? For what? To rescue a humanity that seemed content to suffer? To save the world? From what and for what? These were just some of the questions that sprang to his mind, but none of them seemed to have tangible answers. And even though that stirred his frustration, still he plunged ahead toward the unknown and a probable certain death.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Page 3

Just as he divided up the breakfast on three plastic plates, the girl drifted from her tent, walking on tip toes led by her nose, like Toucan Sam on the old Fruit Loops commercials he remembered from his youth. Just follow your nose, it always knows...

"I smell heaven," she whispered.

"No, just breakfast," Azrael said, flicking his cigarette.

Lily frowned, walking over and snuffing it with the toe of her boot before picking it up and putting it in the garbage bag. He snickered and shook his head.

"The world is goin' to hell in a hand basket and you worry about the occasional litter. You never cease to amaze me, Lil," he said.

"Well, I have to do my part, even if no one else does his," she stressed, sticking her tongue out at him and sitting next to the girl.

"Is that a promise?" he said, licking his lips.

"You'll just have to wait and see," she said, winking. The girl was oblivious to their obvious flirting, choosing instead to concentrate on shoving huge forkfuls of food into her mouth. The bad dreams always left her drained, of energy and mental stability. Food seemed to get her back on track.

"You could try tasting it before you swallow," Azrael said, tossing a water bottle toward the girl. She barely acknowledged that he was even there, nevermind that he spoke. He snorted. Lil stifled a grin. She couldn't decipher how Az really felt about Mad. Sometimes he seemed fatherly, at times protective, and at others he treated her as burdensome, like caring for her was a job, a chore, something shoved on him without warning. She supposed it really was. An odd connection linked them; Lily felt it from the very first day, but she had yet to understand what it involved. She wasn't sure she wanted to find out. Ignorance is bliss if it's timed right.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Page 2

Lily came up behind Azrael startling him even though he knew she was coming. She had that effect on him, though he would never say this outloud. She smelled sweet, like wildflowers, the aroma wafting to his nose, tickling it, toying with it, tempting it. When he turned to face her he nearly sucked in his breath. She wore a blue sweater that really brought out her cerulean eyes, her best feature by far. Her face had hardened a bit over the years, but her eyes were always soft. They betrayed her emotions, her lingering innocence, her everlasting hope for a better tomorrow. It never wavered, even when she held a gun against someone's skull promising to plaster his brains on the wall if he even thought about moving. He smiled. She would, too, in a heartbeat. She knew what it took to survive and wasn't afraid to get the job done. "My first kill was hard," she told him once. "It really tore me up inside. But after that, it was just a part of life."

"Hey, you," she whispered, rubbing Azrael's back before standing next to him, inhaling deeply. "Seems the wind took the smell of burning city somewhere else for a change."

"Yes, but that doesn't change the fact that another city has been burned. The natives are restless. They want change. We need to get to New Promise in one piece, and the sooner the better. Sleep well?" Az asked, lighting a regular cigarette and offering one to Lily. She frowned but took it anyway.

"The little one had bad dreams again. Couldn't make out what she said, but a lot of movement with them."

What piece of the puzzle is she? Azrael thought, but kept his question to himself. He didn't want to alarm Lily until he knew for sure, and he felt the answer was somewhere in New Promise. His gut told him that. His brain told him not to care. His heart knew better than to listen to his brain.

"She sleeps now?" he asked.

"Yes, until we wake her, or she stirs, whichever comes first." He relished Lily's modern British accent. Subtle, like a whiff of jasmine on the night breeze, yet effective enough to make him crave more. Though a man of his rough stature would never admit it. How would that look?

"Hungry?" he asked.

"Famished!" she replied, rubbing her stomach. "Please say we have eggs and bacon."

"We do, and bread and fruit as well. Is that all the food groups?"

"Veggies," she mumbled while reaching the coffee pot. "I will never understand your perpetual need to rough it. I swear, one day I'd like to stay in a nice hotel."

"Hey, what can I say?" he threw his arms in the air as if surveying his surroundings. "I am a natural man. Besides, I just have this strange feeling it's better to travel incognito with the girl. And if there's one thing I trust it's my gut."

"Yeah?" she asked, putting the coffee on to boil. "Well my gut tells me you aren't cooking fast enough."

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Beginning of the End

Azrael bolted awake, drenched in cold sweat and warm tears, remnants of a nightmare swirling in his head before dissipating. He sat upright as he regained control of his breathing, quick pants lengthening into deep breaths, his heart calming. He tried to remember the nightmare, but all he could seem to remember was the terror. An impending sense of doom invaded him, and even the soothing sounds of a cool night in the mountains did little to ease his mind.

He dressed hurriedly, unzipped his tent and worked on the fire. When he had it blazing, he put on some coffee, lit a hand-rolled cigarette laced with just enough weed to keep him in check. He dubbed them "lacies", and since law was scarce in these parts lacies were pretty much legal, but also nearly as scarce. Unless you really know where to look, a talent he shared with rogues, outlaws, and the other undesirables. But it was his ability to blend in, to adapt, to befriend those who had been banished by what was left of society that kept them alive this long. Azrael likened himself to a chameleon, able to change his appearance at the drop of a hat, become someone else without thinking, with the brain power (despite the lacies or maybe because of them) to keep it all straight. Blessed with a photographic memory and an uncanny though sometimes fleeting ability to read minds, Azrael felt almost invincible...almost.

With the cigarette extinguished but his breath still coming in white puffs, Azrael walked to the stream, splashing cold water on his face. The coldness felt good after so long before the fire, so he did it a couple more time for good measure, drying his skin on his jacket. He was not conventionally handsome, but rather quite ordinary. A square chin, one hazel eye and the other ice blue, brown hair, his whole being marred by the scars of many battles, most of which he won. No, at first glance a woman would simply walk past him, finding him almost brotherly in appearance. But if he smiled at them, genuinely smiled, followed by deep rich laughter rippling across the miles or so it seemed, they would turn around, wondering what was so funny, what could they have possibly missed? If introductions were made, if he spoke to them at length, they wouldn't want to leave him. He oozed charm and chivalry in the sincerest form, from the Ruler's daughter down to the Butcher's, he made them all feel as if they were the only one in the world he could see. And just when they thought they had him wrapped around their finger, when they were convinced he loved her and her only and no one else, the chameleon would change, adapt, and disappear, leaving them with warm memories and a cold bed.

He heard Lily even before she knew he did, stirring awake, careful to leave Madison sleeping as long as possible. Madison was a handful, worse when cranky, and no one needed that. Moody and sullen, you'd have thought she suffered so much more than her 16 years permitted. Lily had stumbled across her quite literally four years ago when Madison hid in a ditch, narrowly avoiding becoming someone's slave in and out of bed, a fate that befell a lot of the young women who were found wandering alone. Lily hesitantly became the girl's surrogate mother, knowing she couldn't live with the guilt if she hadn't. Madison barely spoke the first year, and when she found her voice she refused to disclose anything about where she had come from and what she had endured. Lily didn't push; she had her own demons haunting her, and the last thing she needed was the weight of the girl's demons as well. They stumbled across Azrael a year after that, and the duo became a trio, traveling together and keeping each other safe. He dubbed them Fire and Ice--Lily with her flaming red mane, Maddy with her short white 'do. Both fell in love with Az immediately, and although he would never admit it he had fallen quite hard for Lily. If he was that kind of guy he might even say he loved her, but he prefered the unspoken bond they shared.