Klein wished it’d been easier to get ahold of Mano sometimes.
While the two of them had spent a lot more time together after having run into each other at the Bolgia all that time ago, both recovering from their respective losses, they’d been too distracted by other things to have been talking as often as they’d used to over the past year or so. When she was in her sub, where she slept – Mano slept, even though fish didn’t need to – she was virtually unreachable. A lot of signal didn’t make it underwater, so it imposed a kind of ‘radio silence’ on her. The place where they saw each other most often was still the Bolgia.
He thanked his lucky stars to have been able to find her there when he and Fugue ran in looking for her. Klein quickly introduced him to her and she listened with rapt attention as he repeated to her what he’d told the skunk. As she heard about how her lost love’s vision had been turned into a tool of control and violence, her countenance darkened noticeably.
“We should hurry to Soma’s grove before anything else,” she said. “They won’t attack here, there are too many powerful fighters here.” Mano had had to take a few wounded to Soma over the years, even to stop by his grove a few times herself, whether because she was wounded or for chemistry ingredients. “But there’s no Bolgia without Soma.” Klein, while surprised by her insight, still had to agree with her.
“If people here didn’t know he was there, ready to fix them up when they got hurt, they’d stop coming,” he nodded. “If they want to do damage, that’s where they’ll attack. And, if they’ve already hurt anyone else we know, that’s where they’re going to be,” she finished. They hurried to Soma’s grove, seeing Rakim flying a chimera into the burnt, smoky battleground that the nearly incinerated forest had become.
“Oh shit, what happened here?” the bat asked as he untangled his friend from his chains. The snake gestured weakly with his head at the Siamese fighting fish, now wrapped up and hanging upside-down in a cocoon of his own vegetal webbing. “She did. What happened to him?” the spider-taur asked. “Eel shock,” the cyborg answered. “Working together?” Mandrake tilted his head. “Definitely,” Fugue informed them.
“This one here lost someone around the same time you did, Mano. She liked to say she related to you, if you can believe that. Atlan showed up for her at just the right time, just when she was at her most vulnerable. He gave her the direction she was looking for. She thought of you highly, well, of the version of you that she imagined from what he said, anyway. When this is over, I think you should talk to her,” the fish explained. Mano stopped, thought it over, and silently nodded.
“What about the eel?” Rakim prompted. “Oh, he had to take over her mind completely to get her to do that,” the blowfish shook his head, “he used tetrodotoxin to do it.” The dryad snorted derisively. “That’s the oldest trick in the book!” Soma grudgingly felt around for the chimera’s vital signs, not eager to play with fire after what had just happened to him. “I can fix that. Where did he even get that?” Fugue shuddered. “From me.” The snake would’ve blinked, if he’d had eyelids. “Not the idea... the blood. He got it from me... He didn’t ask.”
The spider-taur clicked his forked tongue in disapproval. “That doesn’t seem very considerate, now, does it? May I?” he added, shifting a fang/pine needle he pulled out of maw into a vegetal syringe over the fish’s arm as he did, only to push it in just after Fugue nodded in assent. “I’m going to need some of it to make an antidote, after I get him out of immediate danger,” he explained, indicating the passed out chimera as he spoke. “Don’t forget yourself!” the otter reminded his dryad worriedly. “Is there anything I can do?” the bat offered.
“I won’t, and yes, there is. While I deal with your friend, I want you to go back out where the attack happened, and I want you to use your chains to drag her back here.” The cyborg nodded, and he was about to take off to do so then and there when Soma twitched, holding up his finger at him. “Before you go, though... I’m going to need your help here for something else.” He moved toward Mano, feeling for her heartbeats as Rakim joined them, and when the snake placed the bat’s hand on her chest, her whole body convulsed as a shock was sent through it.
“Whoa, what are you doing?” Klein panicked, as the cephalopod slowly stopped trembling and regained her breath. The spider-taur looked into her eyes, gasping as he guided one of her six hands to where the cyborg had touched her. She nodded, seeming to understand something. The skunk didn’t know what had just happened, but whatever it’d been, Mano seemed okay with it then, and that’d have to be good enough for him. “Thank you,” she whispered as Rakim took off. Fugue’s trepidation over his friend on the waiting list was difficult for him to contain.
“Mandrake!” the dryad requested, his shoulders sagging from the sudden workload after almost having been burned down, “Stat.” The otter, seemingly knowing what he meant by asking for him as he would a piece of medical equipment, shifted to his water form to envelop Soma completely from head to toe, healing the spider-taur’s body everywhere, all at once. He was just able to regain enough magic to detect the chimera’s injuries and to direct Mandrake, infiltrating the chimera’s body carrying balm from the snake’s skin to soothe internal injuries.
Sparks of yellow and red flickered across his water-covered orange body as he pushed himself, hovering between relapse and recovery. “Is there,” he struggled to hiss, “anything else I can do to help?” he wheezed. “You’ve done enough for now,” the otter said, reforming just his head on Soma’s chest to talk sense into him before reabsorbing it into the rest of his fluid mass. “You said something about your friend being tortured,” Klein turned to Fugue, guessing correctly that he’d have been afraid to speak up inappropriately without prompting, even for this.
“Yes,” the fish sighed, “but it’s something that’s going to need more medicine than I have to fix, and our friend here seems to already be quite burned out,” he cringed. “I might be able to help with some of it, depending on what it is,” Mano interjected, hoping her chemistry skills could be of use. “I can too,” Mandrake added, his upper body seeming like it was bursting out of Soma’s chest as he spoke, “I’m a genetic engineer.” He looked up at the snake’s head back over his shoulder. “I’ll keep my lower body around you. Just get me near where the problem is.”
Fugue’s luck was looking better than usual for once, relatively to what a horrible situation he was in in the first place, he thought to himself as they all worked together to create the solution to his problem. The otter and the octopus quickly realized why he needed assistance to complete a task like that. It took them an incredible amount of concerted effort to be able to put something like it together in time.
“I’ll also need you around when Rakim comes back, and when our two ‘hostages’ and his chimera wake up,” the spider-taur asked Mandrake. “I won’t have the strength to talk to all four of them in my condition, and they’ll really need it in theirs. I’m going to need your training as a therapist... and to protect me if more of them come,” he conceded, ashamed of his earlier defeat. The otter, though wanting to go after those who’d done this to him, contained himself.
“So that makes going in up to us three, then,” Klein concluded, looking at Fugue and Mano by his side as he did. “Atlan’s headquarters are deep underwater,” the blowfish told the skunk dejectedly. “I might be able to do something about that,” the cephalopod countered. “You mean you’d let us onto the Géricault?” Klein gasped. In all those years since having built her sub right after Elizabeth’s death, Mano had never let anyone else aboard what had become her grieving sanctuary. “Well, don’t get used to it, but, in a situation like this... Yes. Yes, I would.”
While in the back of his mind, the skunk did find that the Géricault’s interior both met and exceeded his expectations, the situation didn’t lend itself to sharing or thinking about things like that for long. He’d probably get a lot more out of being in it right after a crisis than right before one, he told himself. After all, that was the situation with which it’d been built in mind. Fugue used one of his body’s needles to pick the lock of the large undersea complex they reached as they went out of the sub and into the larger metallic structure which awaited them.
The first room they walked into soon opened up into three separate paths. The left one had a small beige voodoo doll in front of it, covered in needles. “This one’s for me,” the blowfish said as he picked up the doll gingerly. “This one’s for me,” Mano said disgustedly, eyeing the raft in the center which led over a canal with cow carcasses hanging from each side of it, interpreting it correctly as a dig at her Hinduism. “I guess that leaves this one for me,” Klein finished, seeing hand shadows play a shadow play by the path on the right – black on white on black.
Fugue had twistedly made real friends through Atlan’s bizarre little eco-cult, that had been the worst part, in some ways. It had become part of what had made him hesitant to leave at first – he didn’t have a lot of friends, and he was reluctant to leave a group, even if there were things about it he questioned, if it meant that he’d been going to be a lot lonelier for having done so. By the time he realized that a lot of the other fish there were also there because they were scared, at first of losing their friends but later of losing their lives, he was already entrenched.
One of the best friends he’d made through Atlan had been Ammut.
A crocodile-shark hybrid, most of those who first saw Ammut found him terrifying, but while the blowfish had been intimidated by him at first, he’d quickly become one of his favorite people in the organization. For him the cause had always been almost an afterthought. He liked the group because it drew a lot of other fish, people who understood his experience as a fish, and who for the sake of the cause overlooked his frightening appearance. He believed in the cause instrumentally, because it was about improving his life and the lives of his friends.
He’d been even lonelier than Fugue had been. The blowfish had been surprised by that, because it applied to very few people. Ammut was as extroverted as Fugue was introverted.
Fugue had learned that if he got too close to people they were going to get hurt, so he tried to keep his distance. Ammut had learned that if he didn’t push as hard as he could no one would let him in at all, but that the few people who’d let him in hadn’t regretted it. Fugue had learned to equate people needing him around as an emergency; Ammut, to equate it with social victory (and vice-versa). So Ammut pushed and Fugue withdrew, each out of what they saw as consideration to the other, but, as time went on, they met each other halfway more and more.
Being eco-terrorists, being cultists, they got into dangerous situations together. Ammut always had Fugue’s back, and even saved the doctor’s life a few times on the battlefield itself, while the blowfish would patch him up after the dust would settle. They became a team for handling things, one that Atlan even seemed to trust, at least for a while. Ammut always looked so happy every time Fugue showed up, like it was the best news that he’d gotten on that day. Fugue soon found that Ammut filled the void that Klein had left, completely, and never wanted to leave.
When Atlan had started killing some of their own, Ammut had been the first one to speak out.
Atlan didn’t tolerate dissent within his ranks.
The blowfish knew the path he’d taken would lead him to The Pit, where the cult leader had thrown his friend to make an example of him, so as to enforce loyalty and obedience. He found the crocodile-shark with most of his face gone, still animated but looking like a skeletal mask of its former self. His hands had been cut off and replaced with hooks, with clotheslines hung diagonally throughout the room to encourage him to slide down them at ‘prey.’ The worst parts of the room were the skeletal remains that littered the floor around them.
Atlan had gotten it into his head to have his victims and enemies punished by throwing them in The Pit with Ammut. He called it ‘sleeping with the fishes.’ First he’d sent a surface dweller down, hoping to work his way up the food chain after the fact. The hybrid tried to talk or escape, again and again, but the over-grounder was terrified of him, knowing that they’d been thrown down there to be eaten by him. Eventually his ‘prey’ had slipped and killed themselves on his hooks as they fell. Ammut was starving but still went on hunger strike, sickened.
So Atlan saw it was time for him to up the ante.
Using twisted genetic engineering, he’d messed with Ammut’s metabolism so that it’d start creating an excessive surplus amount of stomach acid. The next victim that Atlan had thrown down, a fish that time, had dodged the crocodile-shark spitting acid around them just to get it out of his body in desperation. This time Ammut managed not to kill them directly but, seeing him screaming in pain as the acid ate him alive from the inside, they’d finally killed themselves so he could eat them because they couldn’t stand to watch him die.
So there were skeletal remains scattered around the room.
“Fugue... Can I ask you something?” he panted through his disfigured maw. “Anything,” the blowfish strained to say. “If you paralyze me with your darts... Please, kill me. Don’t just let the acid do its work. Don’t leave me here to die,” he cried. Fugue moved so fast that Ammut couldn’t have stopped him even if he’d tried. Before he knew it, one of the blowfish’s needles was, in fact, embedded in his shoulder. “Remember my words,” his raspy voice managed to let out as he lost most of his motor function.
“It’s a base,” the blowfish finally said. “It’s not just the paralysis stuff.” He could still read a look of disbelief on what was left of his friend’s face. “I worked with some of the greatest minds I’ve ever met to create this, Ammut. It’s witched up biotech,” he continued, hoisting the hybrid up on his shoulder as he spoke.
“It’ll counteract the acid for now. We’ll get you everything you’ll need until we can figure out how to reverse engineer and get rid of this for good. We can build you hands. We can grow you a face. You can see Mandrake. We’re good at this. You’ll see. I’m taking you back to the sub. We’ll have to wait for the others to come back,” he finished on his way back to set him up on a medical bed on Mano’s sub.
“Don’t you... don’t you think you should go back for them?” Ammut struggled to pronounce through the substance’s encroachment. “No,” the blowfish replied, “I’m staying right here.”