(DEATH WARNING - This chapter will contain scenes of death and mild gore. Read at your own risk)
As they approached the intimidating building, Junjie caught sight of something shiny that Perry was fiddling with.
"Why do you have that?" he asked.
"While you were oh so fascinated by the graveyard otherwise known as Dead Man's Dardanelles," she said, "Lenny told me she wouldn't feel good knowing we were heading into this hellhole if I didn't have this with me."
She held up a pot that Junjie recognised as the Boon Doc salve which had healed his hands.
"And considering what happened the last couple of times we tried a thing like this," she continued, "I get the feeling we might need it."
The building seemed to grow even more looming and eerie as they approached, and Junjie could have sworn he heard a not-too-distant groaning.
"I have a feeling they won't want us walking in through the front door," he mentioned.
"Not to worry, JJ," said Perry. "It's a factory. There'll be plenty of entrances and exits for emergencies and maintenance. The trick is finding one that opens without letting the whole of Slugterra know where we are, because with how old this place is, I'm betting it'll squeak."
Junjie looked up at the monstrosity as they drew closer. He could see a thin, flimsy-looking set of steps zigzagging up one side, chimneys that towered above like massive snuffed-out cigarettes, surprisingly lush green vines reaching up the concrete and steel walls and the few visible windows were long since shattered and opaque with caked-on dirt.
"We'll check round the sides," said Perry. "There's bound to be a way in somewhere along here."
The building groaned again, unsettling in its volume, as the pair crept along the rusting steel walls. Despite its obvious disrepair, Junjie somehow got the feeling that this place wasn't going to collapse anytime soon. It seemed like it had definitely been built to last, as opposed to the theatre and the power station, which would have had round-the-clock repairs and maintenance during their heyday. And there were certainly some parts that were obviously newer than others, so despite Perry and Lenny's explanation of its liquidation, it was clear that someone
had meant for the place to stay in business.
Perhaps, then, they really should have reconsidered their hiring practices and not made 12 years old the maximum age.
"Over there!" Perry suddenly whispered.
She grabbed his wrist and pulled him over rough rocks and sharp saplings to where a door labelled "Emergency Exit" stood out from the steel wall.
"This will be troublesome," he pointed out. "Doors like these are designed to open outward, so breaking it inward may be a challenge."
"Not to worry," said Perry, and she pulled up one of her canisters. "Fury will be able to handle it, won't you?"
The reddish Infurnus nodded confidently, and she slotted him into her blaster, took aim-
-and the door opened.
Both slingers stared in befuddlement at the teen who now stood there, staring at them both.
"You came," they said, their voice a mixture of resignation and relief.
Fury hopped out, taking a place on Perry's shoulder, and she holstered her blaster.
"Of course we did, ladsie," she said. "It's my job to make sure folks like your sisters don't get away with what they're doing."
"I knew you would," said d'Artagnan, and stood aside to allow them entrance. "I knew you'd come for us. I've been going around this whole place opening doors for you because I knew you'd want a way in."
"Your sisters will be angry that you've betrayed them," Junjie pointed out as they entered the building.
"Not as angry as our parents would be if they could see what we've done!" cried d'Artagnan. "If Mom and Dad knew the horrible things we've had to do and what we're still trying to do, they'd sell us all over again!"
"Sell you?!" Perry could barely contain her outrage.
"This isn't the time," Junjie said, and he tried to subtly press her back. "I assume there's a drill here trying to access dark water, correct?"
"It's true," said d'Artagnan. "But it hasn't actually dug anything up yet. Those ghouls you've seen Athos, Porthos and Aramis using? They're left over from when we worked for Dr Blakk. We haven't been able to ghoul any slugs since we got here. We just haven't found enough dark water. Or enough slugs to use it on."
"Thank crivens," Perry sighed.
"But they won't stop," d'Artagnan said. "I already told you they won't stop. Listen; Athos is on the main factory floor, Porthos is in the refinery and Aramis is standing guard near the front entrance. Please try to talk them down and tell them what they're doing is wrong!"
"We will," Junjie assured the frightened youth. "We'll find them and we'll put a stop to this whole operation."
"Thank you," d'Artagnan sighed. "I'm sure they'll thank you too once they realise what they were doing. I'll go and find Aramis and try to keep her distracted while you guys move in, is that okay?"
"That would be very helpful," Junjie replied as he recalled his and Perry's first encounter with the braided woman.
"Hang on a tick," Perry said.
Before d'Artagnan had a chance to run away, she presented them with the pot.
"This stuff was made for cuts and bruises, so I'm not sure how much help it'll be," she explained, "but it should at least take the edge off on your neck, okay? And don't worry about giving it back. We can always find a way to make more."
Still nervous, d'Artagnan accepted the pot.
"Thank you," they repeated.
And then they ran.
"Poor kid," muttered Perry. "Wish there was something else I could do for 'em."
"For now, we should focus on the sisters," said Junjie. "Do you have a plan?"
"Actually, this time, I do," Perry said, and Junjie couldn't avoid feeling a little annoyed by how surprised and proud she sounded. "If that bairn can keep the one by the door distracted, that just leaves the refinery and the main factory floor. If I head to the latter, will you be able to go to the former and talk the mad lass down?"
"Talk down?" Junjie was confused by the order. "You aren't interested in fighting anymore?"
"Not if they're sick and dying, no," said Perry, and she pointed at directory signs on the wall nearby. "Got a problem with that?"
"No," Junjie said. "You just caught me a little off-guard, that's all."
"Well, for criven's sake, get on-
guard," said Perry. "Meet up with me here afterwards if you make it out alive, got it?"
"Got it," Junjie said with a nod.
The determination in his heart now feeling rather grim, Junjie followed the arrow labelled 'refinery' while Perry hurried in the other direction.
The walls were still groaning, but Junjie forced himself to ignore it. The building was old, sure, but if it was structurally unsound it would likely have collapsed by now, as he could feel the same vibrations in the floor as he had felt in the theatre and the power station.
He took a deep breath. The air was musty and smelled of iron and rust, and it chilled his nostrils to breathe, and he could have sworn that right on the edge was the faintest possible scent of rotten meat.
He tried to ignore it. It wasn't possible for it to exist. It was just his mind playing a trick on him.
Focus. Focus on the job. Focus on the goal. He had to focus
So he did. He narrowed his mind and reached forward, and he noticed the presences of corrupted slugs in the room he was making his way to. A very small number of them. The woman he sought had a very small arsenal.
Behind him, something moaned.
Quick as a whip, he looked round.
There was nothing and nobody.
'It's in my head,' he told himself as turned back and kept walking. 'There's nothing there. It's all in my head.'
Steeling his resolve, he kept walking, and when he finally reached a large set of double doors labelled "Refinery" he pushed them open.
The ceiling reached so high that it was lost to darkness, thanks in part to the narrow streaks of daylight that streamed in and didn't even touch the ground. The massive vats that had once brimmed with molten metal towered overhead, long since emptied if not sitting with hardened residue in their corners and draughts whistling around their walls. Dust was drifting down from the ceiling and only barely magnifying the light from the boarded up, broken windows.
After a few more tentative steps forward, Junjie looked up. He could see a catwalk high above, suspended by cables and stretching over the abandoned vats, and when he focused, he could tell that up there was where the corrupted slugs were.
And over there, on the far side of the huge room, was a narrow spiral staircase.
If that woman was up there, she would definitely
Nothing else for it.
He took a deep breath, forcing himself once again to ignore the scent of blood.
And he ran for it. He pressed forward as hard and fast as his legs would allow him and sprinted across the floor. Above him he heard a yell of alarm as the woman noticed him, but by then he was already at the staircase and climbing as quickly as he could.
"STOP WHERE YOU ARE!" the woman - Porthos - shouted.
Junjie didn't obey. With the state of the woman's arm, there wasn't any way she'd be able to fire very many slugs at a time, so he considered himself relatively safe.
About halfway up, he paused and looked up at the catwalk, where Porthos was struggling to reload her blaster with only one hand.
It didn't take him long to figure out what to do. He slotted his Thresher into a blaster and fired, and guided the rapidly spinning Megamorph through the air, slicing through the catwalk's floors and railings until the woman was left on an isolated stretch no more than three metres long, swinging slowly from side to side.
Knowing she was contained, Junjie ran up the rest of the stairs and jumped onto the secured end of the catwalk.
"You don't have anywhere else to run," he told her. "So let's talk."
"Talk?" Porthos didn't seem happy, to say the least. "What the hell do we have to talk about?!"
She fired. Junjie got a glance of something angry speeding towards him before he dodged aside and it slammed into the wall.
"You should know by now that Ms McLinden and I will be able to defeat you and your siblings," he told her. "So the least-"
"How do you know we're siblings?!" Porthos demanded. "Was it d'Artagnan? D'Artagnan told you, didn't they? They always were the weakest. I swear, if you hurt them-"
"We didn't," Junjie interjected. "All we did was talk to them. And they wanted us to talk to you too. They're very worried about you... Porthos? Is it alright if I call you that?"
At the mention of her name, the woman's anger seemed to ever-so-slightly subside.
"Listen, Porthos," he continued, taking a few steps forward onto the groaning catwalk. "D'Artagnan told us about how you've all been hurt by dark water. If you stop trying to continue Dr Blakk's work, or at least explain why you're doing it, we can try to help you. I'm sure it isn't too late for us to find some kind of cure for the Deep Caverns' effects on your bodies."
He continued moving towards her, even though he did not
like how the cables seemed to be groaning.
"You should know what will happen if more ghouls are created," he told her. "Your actions have already made people sick and corrupted plants and the land they grow on. Ghouls were never supposed to exist and the presence of them and the dark water that creates them is hurting Slugterra. Is the destruction of this world really what you and your siblings want?"
He halted right where his slug had cut through the floor, and he offered his hand for the woman to take.
"Please," he said. "Allow us to help you. Whatever happened in the 99 Caverns, please don't allow it to continue here."
The severed catwalk continued to swing gently to and fro as he waited for her response.
Porthos' face creased into a scowl.
"Your precious 99 Caverns never did anything for us," she snarled, "and neither has the rest of this wretched world. So if we're going down, we're taking this hellhole with us!"
She raised her blaster again. At this range Junjie would have no chance of dodging in time.
Unfortunately, he didn't need to.
As Porthos' reddened, weeping finger tightened on her trigger, the cables supporting the section of walkway where she stood gave a final, almighty, heaving groan and snapped, and she fell forward with a yelp of shock.
Not even thinking, Junjie dived forward and caught her wrist, and only just managed to grab hold of the railing in time to avoid falling with her. The snapped off-catwalk dangled freely as Porthos' blaster toppled down and bounced twice on the ground far below before smashing to pieces.
Junjie could feel his teeth grinding and arms screaming with the effort of holding onto her weight. He could barely even breathe as he opened his eyes and saw her staring up at him in shock, seemingly amazed that somebody was honestly and unironically trying to save her life.
"Just hold on!" he gasped, forcing his feet back onto the walkway. "I can pull you up, just hold on!"
Porthos glanced from his desperate face to her arm, where the sleeve bore a growing patch of crimson.
"Please," she said, "tell Athos-"
She never got to finish.
The sound of ripping flesh was sickening as her withered, bleeding arm finally gave way, and while Junjie's body was relieved to no longer bear the stress of another person's weight, he could only watch in horror as Porthos fell, eyes wide and mouth gaping in a final silent scream.
Her body slammed into the ground with a stomach-churning crunch
Seconds ticked past as Junjie hung there, clinging to the railing, looking down past the arm he still held at her crumpled, lifeless body.
His glove was wet with her blood.
Numb with shock, he pulled his body up onto the catwalk, then fired his Arachnet at the ceiling and held onto its silk. He couldn't tear his eyes away from Porthos, who lay motionless in a small pool of blood, as he was lowered down to the ground beside her corpse.
He'd agreed to talk her down.
Now he'd failed.
She was dead.
She was dead.
Her eyes were still wide and her mouth hanging open in confusion. She stared up at the ceiling, her eyes glassy and devoid of...
And he still held her torn-off arm in his hand, leaking her blood all over his fingers.
Junjie couldn't breathe. He felt bile rising in his throat and quickly turned away, finally dropping the disembodied arm, and only managed to stagger a few steps before he fell to his knees and vomited onto the floor, clutching his stomach as it writhed painfully inside his body.
He felt disgusting.
Once the last foul-tasting dregs were gone, he wiped his mouth on the back of his glove.
He felt Joo-Joo leap onto his shoulder, and when he looked, the greying Infurnus was eyeing him with worry.
But Junjie couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't sound like an excuse.
He stood up, even though his legs barely seemed strong enough to hold his weight, and he forced himself to walk back to where Porthos lay, still staring emptily into nothingness.
"...I'm sorry..." was all he could mutter. "...I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..."
He kneeled beside her, reached forward with a trembling hand, and closed her eyes.
Had this been inevitable?
Had this woman been doomed from the start?
Had his promises been as empty as he had been trying to avoid?
He didn't know.
In any case...
He reached back and picked up the arm he had dropped, and rested it across her stomach.
Then he slipped his arms under her chest and knees and pulled her from the ground.
Forcing himself to ignore the blood now spreading across his clothes and struggling a little to support her weight, he carried her away from the refinery.
Her fists were clenched as she strode through the building, ignoring the deep groaning from the walls that seemed to surround and follow her with every step she took.
The building was
haunted. She knew that for sure. Every single person who had insisted that believers were just silly, imagining things or jumping at shadows hadn't actually come to this hellhole, and everybody who had
come here left saying the same thing. That there was something WRONG
with this island and the building that sat upon it like an incurable disease.
But right now Perry was far too pissed off to actually think about that, and much more focused on getting these bastards to stop what they were doing and leave her homelands.
Upon finally finding the appropriate door, she decided that simply opening it - or even kicking it in - was far too soft for the likes of them
She loaded up Fury and fired him, and the Infurnus' flames plunged into the door, heating it until it glowed a vivid cherry red.
Then she loaded Dave and fired him too, and the Frostcrawler spat sub-zero blizzards onto the door, rapidly freezing the metal until it splintered and cracked.
And then she fired Graeme, who punched forward, smashed into the crystallized metal and shattered it into smithereens.
Hoping that had got her point across, she stepped over the threshold and onto the factory floor, her slugs leaping back up to join her as she strode.
"Oi, bitchface!" she shouted. "I know you're in here somewhere, d'Artagnan told us you'd be! So come on out where I can get a good look at your ugly mug!"
She could see the drill grumbling up ahead, in an empty space surrounded by conveyor belts and assorted constructional machinery from days long past, and her fists clenched even tighter as she walked briskly over to where it was attacking the ground.
Along the way, an idea occurred to her, and she picked up a long exhaust pipe that had long since been left to rot and was now coated in a thick layer of reddish-brown rust that had made it almost as hard and heavy as a rock.
"Fine then," she decided, making sure her voice was as loud as possible. "If you ain't here to stop me-"
was when she was quite rudely cut off by blaster fire and a ghoul came rushing at her, screaming a high-pitched yowl of rage and hatred. Rather than standing there like a thick moron and letting herself get hit, she raised the pipe and whacked it aside, and it careened away and slammed into the wall.
"If you even think about damaging that drill-"
"Too late!" Perry shouted at the approaching woman - Athos was her name, right? - who still held her blaster aloft. "I'm already thinking about it! And you know what else I'm thinking?"
She brandished the rusty pipe again, the familiar heat of anger and power burning her face like a wildfire.
"I'm thinking if you try to slug me again," she said, "then I'll whack whatever shot you make straight into this thing and let you
be the one to bring it down. Sound good? Or are you going to put that bloody blaster down?"
"As if I'd yield to you!" Athos scoffed, and she fired again.
Perry whacked the ghoul to her other side and it smashed into the side of the drill, which emitted a worrying low-pitched whining noise as a result. Athos glared at it in annoyance, then looked back at the woman who had caused it.
"What, you thought I was joshing you, did you?" Perry demanded. "Your next shot'll go right back in your face!"
Athos still didn't lower her blaster.
"Look, lass," said Perry, trying against her own will to calm down and lowering her improvised weapon as evidence. "You know this ain't ever going to end well for you. Stop now and you'll only have the rest of Slugterra hating you forever. Keep fighting me and you'll be beaten black and blue and
you'll have the rest of Slugterra hating you forever."
"So what?!" said Athos. "He
was one of the most hated men ever to live, but people were still afraid to speak his name!"
She fired again, and Perry knew all too well that she probably wouldn't be able to redirect it if she wasn't ready to, so she dodged aside with a quick spin on her toes and used her momentum to strengthen her arm as she threw the pipe in Athos' direction. When the brunette simply kicked it aside out of the air, Perry sighed in exasperation, slotted Brian into her own blaster and fired. The Arachnet spun a web which barreled into the scarred woman's chest and pinned her to the floor.
"And who would he
be then?" asked Perry. "You're acting like I actually have a clue what you're going on about!"
"He took care of us!" Athos screamed as she struggled to get free. "He took us in when nobody else would! And all we had to do was a little manual labour! It's more than our parents ever offered us!"
As she shouted, Perry found the rusted pipe.
"People like you are the reason he's gone!" Athos continued as the Highlander walked back over to the drill. "People like you are the reason my siblings and I had to come here in the first place! People like you are the reason we had NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!"
"And what the bloody hell do you mean by that?!" Perry demanded, pausing in her approach. "What, you think you owed him, do you? Whoever this shithead was that inspired you to do this, you think you owe him some kind of favour?!
"HE PRACTICALLY RAISED
US!" Athos screamed. "HE GAVE US FOOD! HE GAVE US CLOTHES! HE GAVE US A ROOF TO SLEEP UNDER! AND PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE THE REASON HE'S GONE!
PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE THE REASON WE'RE HOMELESS! PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE THE REASON HE ISN'T HERE TO STOP US FROM DYING!!
Perry had had enough.
She dropped the pipe, ignoring how it thudded on the cold concrete floor, and felt herself once again empowered by white-hot coals of rage burning in her body as she walked over to where Athos lay pinned to the floor, struggling uselessly against the sticky silk that bound her there.
Funnily enough, she stopped quite abruptly when she saw the blaster being aimed in her face, plus the angry little Infurnus that was scowling at her inside its barrel.
"How old were you when this bloke took you in?" asked Perry.
Athos seemed speechless.
" Perry prompted, forcing herself with all her might not to shout.
She tightened her finger on the trigger as a warning.
"Fourteen, okay?" Athos told her. "I was fourteen. Porthos was twelve, Aramis was eleven and d'Artagnan was only seven."
"And is this bloke, whoever he is, the reason you're dying?" asked Perry. "Mind telling me why?
"I already said we worked for him!" Athos snapped. "We were old enough! All we had to do was pack up dark water and move it from place to place!"
"And in repayment, he treated you like human beings?" asked Perry.
"Yes!" cried Athos.
"So what the fuck do you owe him?"
After her question, Perry waited.
She shifted her finger off the trigger. After all, she didn't want to kill this woman.
But as seconds ticked by with no sound other than the rumbling and whining of the drill, Athos didn't reply.
"You don't know, do you?" asked Perry. "It's his work your trying to continue, isn't it? And you don't even know why?"
"Of course I know why!" Athos replied. "If we don't nobody else will!"
"Probably because nobody else wants to!" Perry pointed out, forcibly restraining herself from firing. "Drilling into the depths of hell for some magic bullshit that turns slugs evil, damages the land and makes people sick? Who the fuck
in their right minds would WANT that?!"
The hatred she felt at this moment was almost indescribable. The fact that anybody could have raised children in such a way that they would be dedicated to destruction at the cost of their own lives...
...it was something she could barely even think about. It just pissed her off too much.
"Your name's Athos, right?" she asked.
"I'm going to stop that machine, Athos," Perry told her. "I'm going to wedge that pipe into its gears and I'm going to bring the whole thing down. And you're going to lie there and watch me."
She turned away, anger once again fueling her steps, picked up the pipe and wrenched open an access panel in the side of the drill.
And was extremely annoyed to discover a strong presence of wiring and electrical boards and a distinct lack of gears, cogs or anything else she tended to associate with heavy machinery.
Nearby, Athos chuckled, her voice rasping and rough.
"You didn't honestly think a Blakk Industries machine would have such low tech, did you?" she asked. "By now it's on automatic. Even I wouldn't be able to turn it off! You'd need a pretty damn powerful bomb to disable it!"
A powerful bomb, eh?
Good. This had almost been boring and anticlimactic.
"Steve!" she said, and took out her Fandango. "Go find us an old mecha core. This place used to build 'em, so there should still be a few lying about."
She slotted him into her blaster and fired, and the pale Velocimorph sped away in search of the required part.
Perry took a few steps back, away from the drill until she was a safe distance, and pulled up Graeme again.
"I know you've been working a hell of a lot lately, Gray," she said, "especially for a newbie, but after this you can have a good long nap, okay? For now, I need you to make a nice deep dent in this son of a scuggan."
The one-legged Rammstone smiled and saluted, and Perry loaded him into her blaster and fired him at the machine. After hitting velocity, his fist plunged deep into the metal, which folded like paper under his rock-hard fist.
"What're you doing?" Athos demanded.
When Perry looked, she saw that the scarred woman had almost freed herself from Brian's web.
"Putting you out of business, what does it look like?" she said. "Ready to go, Mike? Make sure she's good and cozy."
The one-eyed Bubbaleone saluted and leaped into her blaster, and she fired him straight at Athos as she brushed off the last of the silk. The look on her face as she suddenly found herself encased in a bouncy pink prison was nothing short of priceless.
As Perry stood admiring her handiwork, Steve made his return. He came cruising in carrying a single still-glowing globe and dropped it into her hand.
"Nice work!" Perry made sure to give him the praise he'd earned as he landed on her shoulder in his protoform. "Looks like this one weren't used! 'Course, it'll probably be a bit unstable by now, so..."
As hard as her arms could manage, she shoved the core into the dent Graeme had made for her.
"Stop!" Athos shouted, her voice echoing off the walls of Mike's insides as Perry took cover behind a conveyor belt. "Stop it now! You're ruining EVERYTHING!"
"No," said Perry, and she loaded Greg into her blaster. "I'm saving
She took careful aim at the half-hidden glow and fired, then ducked behind the conveyor and clutched her hands over her head.
Even so, the resulting blast was strong enough to rock the ground she lay on and dislodge several abandoned parts to fall on her in a few rather painful places. She was glad she had her eyes closed tightly, because if she'd been dumb enough to try to watch the explosion, it was likely she would have been blinded. She could tell by the red glow behind her eyelids and the rush of hot wind that swept over her body.
Only after the deafening blast had dissipated and the light had faded did she dare to look back at her handiwork.
From where she knelt behind the conveyor belt, she could see Athos, still safely encased in Mike, staring at the shattered, charred remains of her machine, which crackled with small flickers of fire in an odd shade of green.
Perry stood up and dusted herself off.
"Okay, Mike!" she called. "You can let her go now!"
Obedient and happy, the Bubbaleone returned to his protoform and the scarred brunette thumped to the floor.
"So then," Perry said as her faithful slug hopped back to her. "No more drills and no more ways to make 'em. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you and yours have to live for yourselves now, rather than trying to avenge some bloke without even knowing why you're doing it. Don't you agree?"
She watched as Athos got to her unsteady feet.
"But I'm afraid you'll have to do that outside me North," Perry helpfully informed her. "I don't think anybody in these caverns will be happy to see you once I let 'em all know what you were doing. The folks in Firewall in particular might not be very pleased what with how many of 'em got sick thanks to you."
Athos didn't respond.
She reached up to her side - to the clasps which held a thick-looking reddish-black plate over her torso - and with two snaps, it was loose, and clanged loudly onto the ground.
Without it, she was worryingly skinny.
"What's the point?" she asked.
Something in Perry's mind told her she should ask her what she was doing, or at least move a little closer, but all she could do was stand in paralysed confusion and watch as the unarmed woman walked over to the burning wreckage of her machine.
"We don't have anything left," she explained. "This was our last chance. To go down strong and take the rest of this world with us. What else do we have without that?"
Perry felt a thrill of horror rush through her body as Athos picked up a sharp, jagged shard of metal.
"At least I'll know for sure you didn't get us!" she said, smiling at the Highland woman with teeth lined with blood.
"No, DON'T-" Perry shouted uselessly.
She had no chance to stop Athos as she plunged the shard into the softened, weak flesh of her chest, choking and smiling as it pierced her heart, and then she collapsed by the side of her beloved drill.
Perry stared in shock at the growing pool of blood.
Somehow, even though her feet suddenly seemed to weigh a thousand tonnes, she walked around the immobile conveyor and approached the now-lifeless Athos.
Of course she wasn't moving. Or breathing. It would have been stupid to expect otherwise. With her eyes closed and a gentle smile still locked in place on her face, she almost looked as though she could be sleeping.
But the truth was that she was gone.
Gone for good.
Her body had already stopped bleeding.
Fingers feeling numb, Perry took Keith off her belt.
"You think you could clean her up a little?" she asked.
The melanistic Aquabeek responded with a despondent nod and once his slinger had retreated to a safe distance, he was fired and squirted out a jet of water which washed the blood away from the lifeless Athos.
"Brian," Perry said, and loaded up her Arachnet, "we'll need some way of moving her."
She fired, and her loyal slug wove a thick sheet of webbing of the non-sticky variety which was large enough for an adult human to lay upon.
Still feeling numb, though a little relieved that at least she could manage this much, Perry pulled the sheet over to Athos' body and rolled her onto it.
"I'm sorry," she muttered. "I wish I could've done more for you."
Time to stop thinking like that.
She didn't want to go there.
She straightened up, rubbed her eyes of any intruding tears, took hold of the corners of the sheet and pulled the body of the scarred brunette along the floor to the exit.
A pang of guilt shot through her heart as d'Artagnan came running down the corridor to her, their face written with worry.
"What happened?" they asked. "Did you talk to Athos? What did she..."
They trailed off when they caught sight of the look on Perry's face, and their gaze wandered to the sheet she dragged and the person who lay on it.
"Is..." they said weakly. "...is that..."
"I'm sorry," Perry told them as they approached their lifeless sister. "I thought if I just took the drill down, she'd find some other thing to do with her life."
D'Artagnan fell to their knees beside their sister's body.
"What did she do?" they cried. "Athos, what did you DO?!
Their tears streamed fast and heavy and their sobs were wretched and near-silent.
"I promise I did talk to her," said Perry. "I made sure she wouldn't get hurt when I blew up the drill. I guess she just..."
D'Artagnan gulped. It sounded painful.
"You tried," they said. "You tried, right?"
But before she could offer any more words of comfort, she heard the sound of a blaster charging up to fire.
She and d'Artagnan looked up the corridor and saw Aramis standing there, glaring at them both in rage and aiming a ghoul right at Perry's face.
"Aramis, NO!" cried d'Artagnan.
They jumped up and ran towards their elder sister, holding up their hands to dissuade her, but Aramis didn't even flinch as she pulled the trigger and a Grimmstone blasted out and smached the teen in the chest. They were punched right in the chest with a stomach-churning crunch and fell painfully to the ground next to the Highland woman who held his sister.
Still holding the sheet bearing Athos, Perry couldn't bear the thought of just dropping her. Plus at this range, and still holding onto her, the odds of her successfully dodging were pretty damn low.
Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on perspective - she didn't need to.
A Slicksilver flew past the masked woman from behind, snatching her blaster clean out of her hand, and in her confusion she looked round just in time to see an extremely angry-looking man with slightly ragged earmuffs throwing a fist at her face. He hit her in the cheek hard enough to splinter the mask that covered her nose and mouth, and she fell to the floor struggling to breathe.
Perry stared in alarm at the man who had just saved her.
He was staring down at Aramis, trying to catch his breath, his eyes wide and empty like he was looking right through her. Somehow almost his entire midsection and his arms up to the elbow were covered in drying blood, some of which was even smeared on his cheeks.
"JJ...?" Perry said hestitantly.
He looked up at her, still wearing a face of horror.
"Blue..." he muttered.
On the floor, Aramis choked.
"No," Junjie said suddenly, and he crouched down beside her. "No, come on, keep it together, no."
There wasn't anything he could do. After a few more coughs, choking splutters and weak, rasping breaths, Aramis fell silent and still.
"No..." Junjie whispered weakly. "...not you too..."
"JJ," Perry said, "whose blood is that?"
When Junjie looked up at her, his face was a mixture of terror and desperate apology.
If he'd managed to successfully talk down that other woman - Porthos - then surely she'd be with him...
"You couldn't talk her out of it, could you?" she asked.
"The cables broke," Junjie said softly. "I tried to save her but her arm came off in my hand... she was bleeding so much..."
Beside Perry, there was a sudden cough.
She quickly lowered the sheet to the ground and knelt down beside d'Artagnan, and rolled them onto their back as Junjie hurried over to join her.
"Hey," she said gently, and carefully cradled their head. "Look at me, okay?"
D'Artagnan looked up at her, their brown eyes wide and fearful.
"...Ms McLinden..." they choked.
"You're going to be fine," Perry told them, brushing their hair out of their eyes. "Don't look down, don't look at the sides, just look at me."
As they struggled to breathe, Junjie pulled away their scarf away from their neck, revealing the spreading patch of blood that was staining their slim chest.
"Your sisters are right here," said Perry, trying to keep her eyes on their face. "They're not going anywhere. We ain't going anywhere either. We're right here, okay?"
"...M-Miss..." d'Artagnan struggled to speak.
"Don't try to talk, love," Perry told them. "Just breathe."
Trying their best to obey, d'Artagnan reached into their pocket and pulled out the pot of Boon Doc salve.
"...thank you..." they sighed, and Junjie gently took hold of their hand. "...it doesn't hurt so much anymore... thank you..."
They blinked once, slowly, as though straining from the effort.
And then, with one final coarse and rasping breath, the slow rise and fall of their chest came to an end.
Resigned, Junjie rested their hand across their body, and Perry softly closed their lifeless eyes for the final time.