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Rated: 18+ · Fiction · Fantasy · #1480707
Twisted tale of revenge in a STEAMPUNK setting.
Title: Best Served Cold (formerly 'Blood Feud')
By: Child of Loki
Summary:
A twisted tale of revenge in a somewhat steampunk setting. Lady Morgana's thirst for blood threatens to destroy all around her, but drives her ingenuity.
Status: Major WIP...Multiple additions and continuous edits...

Author's Notes/Portions in limbo or edit will appear in violet. Small/minor edits will not be color-coded.

Any and all help would be greatly appreciated!

Newly added sections will appear in blue

I think this "part" no longer has any gaps. (It's only split up because one static item will not hold any more.)  Will probably receive many, many more edits...

------------------
A full, luminous moon waxed high in the night sky, and yet it was black as pitch in the undergrowth of the ancient forest. What could be heard was far less terrifying than what remained silent...

"Renette?"

"Yes, mistress?"

"Are you detecting anything?"

"No, mistress."

"What about Jane?"

"I believe she is nearby, but I can no longer see her..."

"What about Paul?"

"I will contact him momentarily, mistress."

Seconds stretched on for what seemed like hours in the dark abyss. There were many noises, subtle and dreadful, but the only ones the pair of women could hear above the pounding of their hearts was their noisy breathing, and the ticking of instruments as Renette fiddled with their communications device. Then there was a hiss of steam and grinding of gears before a new, tinny voice flowed out into the dark only to be sucked into the dense obsidian vegetation.

::What is it, Renette?::

"The mistress wishes to know how things are progressing on your end. Comm."

::Edward is serving as expected. He has sensed several creatures in the vicinity and is attempting to track them. Apparently, our presence is making the process difficult. Comm::

Renette jumped as the mouthpiece of the short-range communication device was ripped from her grasp. She bit back her yelp of surprise, knowing the ways of her mistress, and knowing her place.

"Paul, this is Morgana. Don't let Edward wander off. We've invested too many resources in him to start all over." There was a pause, as if she were contemplating divulging some bit of information. "Is Edward close enough to overhear? Comm."

::No, mistress.::

"We may have already lost Jane. Comm."

::Understood. I'll keep an eye out for her, Morgana... Do you wish us to pursue the Creatures? Comm.::

"Affirmative. The plan must move forward. Terminate Communication."

-----------------------------

The hair on the back of Jane's neck had risen as soon as they left the castle walls, and hadn't gone down since. There was a tingling sensation all down her spine, and goose bumps covered most of her skin. Her heart raced and every instinct in her was telling her to flee.

She could feel them. Not exactly see them, although the new disconcerting abilities of her eyes made the darkest hour of night look like a strange sort of twilight dusk. Nor was it that she could smell them, like canids most likely could. No, they had told her it was cat blood flowing through her veins, its hormones altering her senses, her insides, probably her very soul.

She highly doubted she even still retained a soul, not after what they had done to her...

She couldn't remember exactly, and maybe that was a godsend. Then again, that was assuming God would still watch over her when she could hardly be considered human anymore. On the other hand, her life hadn't exactly been blessed before this hell-on-earth claimed her.

Her mother had been a prostitute in one of the larger towns, a "city" is what they had started calling it by the time she had found herself in the workhouse. Given how she was brought into the world and by whom, Jane had to assume she had already accrued more sin than most by simply existing. Still, growing up in such a harsh world she should have been much more wary of answering an ad for an "assistant to empirical research, pref. female." When she had first laid eyes upon the crumbling castle, she should have turned around right then. But she had been desperate, desperate not to die in the cold months of winter to come, desperate not to end up like her mother.

And yet, her life held so many similarities to the pathetically short one of her mother. She had been used and abused by others, and was living in sin. If the blood flowing through her veins wasn't an affront to God, then the creature growing inside of her undoubtedly was.

Was it a person? Was she even a person? Would it look like a real human baby?

They told her they hadn't intended for this to happen to her, but why would she ever listen to a word they said?! They had removed her god-given life-force, her blood, and replaced it with a mixture of feline blood. Everything from a housecat to a Bengal tiger was being pumped through her heart, their nutrients, hormones, instincts and all. That was why she had... how had they put it? gone into heat... like a dog.

Like a mindless animal she had been driven mad by carnal desires. She had resisted. Mostly because she had been alone. And it was killing her.

Then, there was Edward...

And he was sweet, and kind, and talked to her through the cell walls. Then they had put them in the same cell. He had tried to resist, as she had, but eventually her pheromones had driven him as mad as her hormones had her. And she had sinned.

All because of them...

And so she had slipped away at the first moment possible, and hid in the shadows...

---------------------

The world was a whole new place to Edward, quite literally. He had not told Jane, had not asked her if it was the same for her, but his life had begun when he awoke in the cell that day. For Edward did not retain any memory of his life before. He suspected Jane did, for she held onto such strange ideas, and was capable of a self-loathing only those who had a long history of oppression could acquire.

He supposed it wasn't exactly like being born yesterday, or a couple months ago, as it were. There were many things he knew, nothing he had to relearn. There just was no memory, no personal moments left to him. His life was a blank slate, and he was happy to put Jane there, and the others. Lady Morgana struck an instinctual fear and aversion in him. And always at her side, Renette was quiet yet disturbed. But Paul, Paul he liked. He enjoyed learning new things from Paul, exploring his new abilities.

Paul took him outside the castle walls for the first time. He smiled at him, made him laugh. Taught him to fight and when to run. He was a friend.

And that's why on this night, Edward was grateful to be at Paul's side. He was more than a little nervous to truly try out his new abilities, to receive his first real test as the New Edward.

Who is Edward? And what can he do?

At the same time, in the basest instincts that resided deep down, almost to the marrow of his bones, he was frightened. They urged him to flee, to hide. There were horrible things afoot on this night where the full moon presided over the sky and the earth. And the Dark Wood.

But somewhere in between the urge to flee and the desire to please, his mind was filled with worry, worry for her, his Jane. As much as he liked Paul, as significant a role Lady Morgana and Renette served in his new life, Jane was the most important to him. He could not fathom life without her. She was the only one in the world like him, the only one that could understand him, had suffered what he suffered, and could comfort him.

And she was out there, with the mistress and Renette, yes, but how safe could she be with such callous souls?

Edward found himself wishing Jane was with them as Paul instructed him to set up the trap. Or at least that she was with Paul, in his place. Paul had a compassion for others, for them, that the mistress of the castle and her faithful servant lacked. There was no doubt in Edward's mind that the rugged man would fight to protect her, to protect any of them. He could not begin to guess what the ladies' reaction would be, where their hearts lay, or if they even still had hearts...

How will this night end?

-----------------------------

"I can't see a damn thing! Renette, use the Lights."

"I thought they would ruin Jane's night vision," Renette protested politely.

"Jane's run off, Renette. Do as I say!"

"Yes, mistress."

Renette fumbled around in the large pack she had hauled all the way from the castle into the heart of the Black Wood. Her hand passed over familiar shapes and objects. She knew all the inventions of her mistress by heart. The same items kept revealing themselves many times before she finally found one of the items she was looking for in the very bottom of the bag. Pulling it out she felt for the handle and cranked the gears vigorously to the count of twenty cycles. The brass was warm under her touch as she ran her fingers along the edge, discovering the switch and flipping it on. Its innards buzzed gently, like a bee on the wind. But the beam of light did not reveal a flower filled meadow.

The trees of the black forest were revealed in fleeting glimpses as the light was moved about. They resembled tortured souls rather than their tall, steady counterparts in many another wood. Their limbs twisted out from great scarred trunks, reaching up towards the heavens in lamentation.

Renette shuddered briefly. Her nose had become accustomed to the dank, heady scent of rotting earth that lay about the forest in a heavy blanket, but her eyes had seen nothing, and she found herself suddenly appreciative of the blinding dark that had previously encompassed them.

"Where's the other one?" The Lady Morgana barked, breaking Renette's nervous contemplation of their surroundings.

She used the first light to search the bag for the second unit, before charging it up and handing it off to her mistress.

"Did you bring the mechanized crossbow?" Morgana asked, more calmly now. Somehow the presence of some light, no matter how ghoulish the appearance of the forest, seemed to ease both their nerves.

"No, mistress. It is still in need of repair." She didn't need to shine the light on the lady's face to know that frustration wrinkled the smooth olive skin of her forehead. She was a wonderful, stunning woman with a charm and intensity that had mesmerized Renette. Even after she had come to know her more brooding and mercurial side, the young woman still had vowed never to leave her.

"What do we have, then?"

"The regular, spring-loaded crossbow, mistress. Already loaded with the silver bolts, and the belt with spares." This time, Renette hazarded upsetting the temperamental lady and played her light gently over the intense features of Morgana's face. Even in the odd light put off by the portable lamps, the features of her mistress' face were striking. Sharp cheek bones, intense eyes, and just as Renette had suspected, her thin but shapely lips were forming a nascent and reserved smile.

She never failed her mistress.

After the crossbow and accessories had been handed over, and the pack reshouldered by Renette, they were ready to set off on their exploit once more.

The lady paused however, and turned briefly to Renette, surprising her slightly. There was a much more sober look in her mistress' eyes. And Renette could read her thoughts. She was asking her if she was prepared to do this, giving her a chance to return to the castle and safety without consequences. Renette set her jaw and with a nod of her head, performed the rare act of looking her mistress directly in the eyes. Lady Morgana nodded back, acknowledging the brave loyalty of her faithful servant.

And it filled Renette with pleasure, which almost matched her fear as they delved deeper into the Black Wood.

------------------

"Edward," Paul whispered, sneaking up beside the young man. Something about the confused and tortured soul had played on his sympathies more than any of the others. Maybe it was because the boy wasn't all that different from Paul himself...

But despite that, he couldn't tell him about Jane's disappearance. Paul could no more betray Morgana than cut off his own head. Sometimes, he loathed the woman, sometimes he loved her, but he could never leave her. That was the price of living longer than he should. And the price for a deal with the devil was always one's soul, wasn't it?

"They're definitely out there," the young, tortured hybrid replied. Some would argue what Morgana had done to him was inhuman. And it was. And she was. But even those that claimed the moral high ground had to admit Edward would've probably been dead by now if they hadn't taken him in, changed him, put him to the 'Lady's' use. And he was good. Paul was proud of his pupil who had not only survived the hybridization process, irrefutably the most brutal and grotesque experiment he had witnessed yet, but picked up on his training quickly.

"Can you pinpoint their exact location without giving away our position?" Paul asked. Just as he could never leave or betray the Lady Morgana, he could neither cause her mission to fail. It was as his own.

"I believe so," Edward whispered. They were on the edge of the forest, along the far side of the valley. The castle was a good ten minute run need they retreat. And from what Morgana had told him of the Creatures, Paul knew they would never make it back to the safety of the ancient stone walls, not even the boy with his enhanced abilities.

"Do it," Paul issued what he hoped wouldn't be the first and last official order the boy took, or his last to give. Morgana would need to know the creatures' positions if she was going to be able to flush them out of the forest and into the trap. Paul knew they would leave the safety of the dense vegetative cover of the forest. Since the feud between Morgana...and this man (whose name she never spoke) had escalated, late some nights when the moon was full, he saw the Creatures' ghastly silhouettes outside the castle. Reconnaissance...

Why, he wasn't sure. They could easily rip them all to shreds as soon as they set foot out the gate. He hoped this wouldn't be the boy's fate, as the smaller man disappeared from his sight. But just because Paul's unaltered human eyes couldn't see Edward, that didn't mean theirs couldn't...

So badly, he wanted to pace as the minutes stretched on, but Paul knew the wisdom of remaining still and silent while enemies were wandering about brash and unafraid. Stay still and wait for them to come to you...

"I know where they are, sir."

The whisper was barely audible, but Paul's heart leapt into his throat. It was only after years of living in Lady Morgana's castle that he had learned not to visibly jump.

"Good job, boy," Paul whispered a brief accolade, clasping Edward gently on the shoulder.

"Fall back to our original position and contact the Lady," Paul instructed. He had never liked using the title, not after he found out what Morgana was really about. Why Renette was so blindly devoted, he could never fathom. It rather disgusted him, the manner in which his servile counterpart always called Morgana 'mistress'. But in front of the hybrids, he knew he had to keep Morgana elevated to a position of respect. Feudal logic, he supposed. Keep the serfs in awe and there won't be a revolt.

"Shouldn't you..." The boy who was nothing more than an experiment that survived long enough to be a slave protested nervously. The 'awe' factor apparently was still functioning.

"No. You're a natural for stealth. Better than I'll ever be. They'll never see you," Paul explained. "Now do as I say. Go."

By the time the boy got back, Paul's heart was pounding at an alarmed rate, setting his nerves on edge and preparing his muscles to fight or flee, if necessary. He didn't need the blood of a variety of predatory felines flowing through his veins to sense the creatures' presence. Unfortunately, Edward did have the blood of a variety of predatory felines flowing through his veins...

And Paul could feel the waves of anxiety wafting off from the uninitiated to battle.

"Everything's going to be fine," Paul found himself comforting the frightened boy squatting beside him in the tall brush.

Famous last words. He should've known better...

----------

The Lady Morgana DelFontaine, last of her line. Rumors held that she was a hundred years old, older, immortal...

And for once, rumors weren't wrong. At first, she hadn't noticed when she stopped aging. But eventually, those around her, those she had grown up with, became old and frail. They had died, and she did not look a season past her prime. As with all curses, people envied it like a gift, and she was driven from the village where she had been born.

But that wasn't why she was out in the Black Wood when a moon sat full and high in the night sky... That was a much longer story.

However, she would have her revenge this night. He who had betrayed her would soon pay, in the blood of his Offspring. Her own pets that she had groomed, educated just for the purpose of destroying him were ready to be pitted against his. And now that it had begun, Morgana was surprised by the anxiety she felt on their behalf. The thought of losing Renette or Paul, or even the surviving hybrids...

It was a distraction from her mission, one she could not afford. She checked the crossbow for the twelfth time since Renette had handed it to her. The girl was good, the bow no doubt loaded properly and in pristine working order. But still she checked it, something to occupy her mind while they waited for word from Paul, that the trap was ready, and hopefully a pinpoint on the Creatures' location. It was far better than to think of the consequences her plans might hold for her companions, her creations...her family.

Huh, that was a strange notion... That they were the closest thing she'd ever had to family, other than her own parents, and siblings who had died so long ago. Of course, there had been him, the promise he had held for such a wonderful settled, permanent notion as 'family.' Damn him!

A clicking noise from deep inside Renette's pack alerted them to the others' desire to communicate. Stealth wasn't required of Morgana or Renette. In fact, they desired the opposite, so Morgana let her temper loose.

"Well, are you going to see what they want, girl?!" She snapped at Renette without an iota of guilt. The girl knew her too well, no longer taking Morgana's lashing out personally. Morgana supposed that 'girl' wasn't really the appropriate term for her younger companion. Sure, she still looked like a young woman in her prime, but she was what...fifty or sixty years old? It was hard to say, for like Morgana herself, Renette too had ceased to track time, in the manner of those who would soon run out of it, the day she received the 'gift' of some of Morgana's blood.

That made the girl her blood. And so was Paul. Wasn't one supposed to protect those who shared their blood? And yet, here she was using them for her revenge. Vengeance was so close, so many years of planning finally coming to fruition. She could smell the fragrant blossoms. Soon it would be harvest time...

::This is Edward. I can sense the creatures. Comm::

The radio was loud. The oil-less lamps were bright. Let the Creatures be aware of their presence, run from them, withdraw. The beasts' mission so far had been reconnaissance only. Morgana had tested this herself, venturing into the Wood at Full Moon. Knowing the place so well, she could recognize the foreign sound of the creatures following her but keeping their distance. No, they would not engage until their master ordered it. And the situation hadn't changed...yet...

But it would soon.

"What's their location? Comm." Renette inquired on cue. The girl knew the plan well. Heaven or hell love her, she adhered to Morgana's orders like a teacher's pet.

::About fifty yards southeast of where you entered the Wood. Comm::

"Is the trap set? Comm."

::Affirmative. Comm.::

"Mistress?" Renette inquired gently, but there were no thoughts to disturb. Morgana was focused entirely on the information Edward had given over the communication device. Her mouth was watering, the taste of revenge was so tangible.

She nodded her head.

"Phase II has been initiated. Comm," Renette relayed the 'proceed' signal.

::Understood. Comm.::

"Good luck, Edward. Terminate Communication."

Morgana smiled for a moment. Although hardened, the girl still could identify moments that called for the human touch. Morgana had lost this ability long ago, blinded by her vengeance and her hatred of the world that rendered her an abnormality. And frankly, she no longer cared. The only thing that mattered was hurting him.

And to hurt him, she needed to get to his Creatures first...

"Let's go," she ordered her faithful servant to press onward into the hellish Wood.

----------------

Fools!

Every instinct in Jane's body was urging her to hide, to make herself scarce, small and unnoticeable. Bigger creatures kill smaller creatures. Was it not an irrefutable law of nature? Did people forget that they were still in mother nature's purview, while living in their cozy manmade communities?

Apparently, they forgot that the one place this law would always apply was in ancient, unholy woods. No matter how much they lorded it over the rest of the world, here, here something else was in charge. Something else was doing the stalking. And they were lucky if it was only the one...

So what did the 0h-so-great Lady Morgana do? She shined great lights off into the perpetual darkness, like a beacon calling the hungry to dinner. Hey all, we're here where the light is. Plenty of food all 'round.

Not to mention the noise they made! No grace, these ones! Being as immortal as they claimed, you'd think they would've learned a little elegance. Or at least gotten used to their feet.

A particularly large branch, of the driest variety to add an extra kick to the very audible 'snap' it made, fell under Renette's heavy foot. The pair's presence was announced throughout the forest on the dead, almost stifling air.

But that's right, Lady Morgana wanted to be noisy and offensive. The purpose was to drive the creatures through the forest, into a trap. Jane had to correct herself as she leapt from the branch of one tree to the other. Since the evil witches had experimented on her, she had been fighting her newfound abilities all the way. She felt only slightly hypocritical at embracing them now, as she landed softly with little trouble on the moss-ridden limb.

Clinging to the gnarled trunk of the warped tree, Jane pressed herself as flat as possible against its undulating surface, willing herself to blend in with the distorted and sorry excuse for vegetation. The Creatures were getting closer. Sure, there were the ones that were allowing themselves to be pushed through the Wood by Morgana and Renette. But there were the others...

They were in full stalking mode, and barely detectable. The slow release of a massive lungful of breath... The precise placement of a paw... The dead leaves and ground cover sighing gently under delicately placed weight...

Jane closed her eyes, ignoring her racing heart, as well as the knot in her stomach that was bringing her to the edge of terror, and the feeling of spiders crawling about her skin. Her body wanted her to run, to save itself. But they weren't focused on her. And if she was very still, they might not even notice her presence.

How close were they?

Too close, and getting closer. A few yards, a few feet, passing by her, under her. Don't open your eyes. You don't want to see them. If you don't see them, then they might not see you.

Jane knew it was daft, but it kept her calm. If she laid eyes on them, there would be no controlling the anxious animal inside of her, the one that wanted to panic, to bolt.

And then there was the shouting. Morgana was at times impulsive and unwise, but despite Jane's disdain for the woman, she had to admit the lady was, in fact, no fool. She did not scream hysterically or run away futilely. And Renette, having little discernable emotion, did not cry out at all. Morgana simply scolded the creatures as if they were disobedient dogs.

Having sensed the raw, primal nature of the Creatures, Jane knew this tactic would not stave them off forever. The women were outnumbered, even though two of the beasts had continued on through the wood. No doubt to maintain the pretense that they were being flushed out, to prevent Paul and Edward from coming to the women's aide. Pick them off one by one, the weakest first. Just like a pack of wolves taking down their prey.

The idea of extending the lives of those who had stolen hers wasn't especially tasteful to Jane. But common sense told her that as soon as the creatures were done with Morgana and Renette, their focus would be free to move on to noticing other things... Perhaps the lovely full moon barely visible through the oppressive canopy of gnarled branches blotting out the sky like deformed hands grabbing at the purity of the unblemished heavens... Perhaps the distorted trees themselves... Perhaps the woman-shaped lump clinging to the side of one particular tree...

And the odds against one woman fending off four uncommonly large creatures was far less appealing than the odds of three women (one definitely in possession of a crossbow, the other possibly retaining some other concealed weapon, and a hybrid creature resembling a woman) fending off four horrifying creatures.

Jane forced her eyes open to survey the scene below her. Again, she had to give Morgana and Renette credit. They were standing back to back, with weapons clutched menacingly in hand. The faint rays of the moonlight capable of penetrating the dense canopy glinted off the silver tips of arrows. Renette possessed a miniature version of the crossbow Jane had seen her hand off to her precious mistress earlier.

The odds of survival might just have improved. But Jane would need to act fast. The element of surprise was the only thing she possessed. But still the Creatures were far more disturbing and intimidating now that she got a clear picture, one pieced together from what was visible of various members of the pack.

They were grotesque and unnatural. Every fiber of her being told her that they were just 'wrong.' They did not belong among nature, not even the dark and twisted Black Wood. Their heads and muzzles were vaguely wolf shaped. But Jane had seen real wolves before, in an exhibition open to the public. They were creatures of beauty, if however ferocious and feral. But these...these were ugly. Their chests were broad and muscular, their waists and hind legs disproportionately small. They looked uncomfortable on all fours and awkward standing on their hind legs. And their arms...They were muscular and slightly simian. But the most horrifying revelation was on their gargantuan hands, and not paws, were located opposable thumbs; Great, clawed monstrosities, but unmistakable thumbs, the appendage that defined human beings, God's beloved children.

The sight of them turned her stomach, but this was no time to be repulsed. If the women lost patience and acted before Jane did, she would lose the element of surprise. They could potentially take down two of the Creatures, but the other two would be upon them before they could reload their fatally accurate weapons. If Jane tackled the nearest creature, it might provide enough distraction for them to not only take down two immediately, but help her finish off the one. With much luck, although highly unlikely, the last creature, the smaller one hanging back further in the shadows would be frightened by the violence and retreat. Wishful thinking, but it was the only way Jane could see them surviving this confrontation.

She took a slow, deep breath, quiet enough not to draw attention and necessary to prepare her nerves for what she was idiotically about to attempt. Bracing her feet against the branch, she tensed her muscles and leapt...

----------------


Morgana was damned if she was going to let everything end like this. Well, she was probably damned anyhow. But none of that mattered if she failed. None of it mattered if she succeeded. The only thing that mattered was victory. And all her planning, all those years spent hating would be for naught if she and Renette were torn to pieces right there, in the middle of the Black Wood.

True, she was immortal. But what use was that if she was ripped to shreds by a pack of werewolves? His werewolves... Yes, she was more than aware that her body could heal itself. Her style of living hadn't exactly kept her out of harm's way. She had survived her fair share of stab wounds, beatings, arrows, and a number of lead balls and bullets. Not to count drownings, burnings and poisonings...

But a body couldn't heal itself if there was no body left. And judging by the savage power of the creatures surrounding her and her loyal servant...there wouldn't be much left.

Renette... The girl had never failed her, and here Morgana was letting her down once more. All because she put her own needs ahead, her own thirst for blood taking over ever waking moment of her life, and most of her nightmares, too. Maybe she could distract the creatures long enough to let the girl escape...

No, if Morgana had no chance of surviving this, Renette was already dead.

But that wasn't the type of thinking to which Morgana succumbed, at least not for long. She would stall for time until her mind came up with something. It always had, always would, until she finally reached the sweet release of her death. And she would only allow that to happen after she saw him defeated and dead.

"I'd stop and think about what you're doing for a moment, here," Morgana warned loudly, hoping that her rival hadn't altered these Creatures beyond the point of verbal comprehension. However much she hated him, she knew her enemy to be no fool. They would need to retain the ability to understand his orders.

Speech on the other hand, was optional... They simply stared voraciously, panting and salivating in the most disconcerting way.

"Your master won't appreciate it if you kill us now," Morgana continued, making sure she was enunciating properly. The lack of response and futile stalemate was beginning to grind on her nerves, but Renette was a welcome comfort at her back. Steady as a pillar, Morgana knew the girl had her gaze and mini crossbow trained unwaveringly upon their feral foes.

"He'll want us for himself," She continued her speech, still unable to see a way out of the situation that didn't end in their gruesome deaths.

Just when things looked absolutely hopeless, an angel descended from the heavens, startling Morgana almost as much as the creature it landed on with brutal accuracy. It only took a fraction of a second for Morgana to realize it was no angel, more like a demon, and one of her own creation...

"Jane!" she exclaimed as she unleashed the silver tipped arrow from her crossbow to tear through the chest of the werewolf she had identified as the leader and previously been facing down.

An anguished yowl from behind informed her that Renette had done the same. She left the Creature twitching and writhing at her feet, pulling out her trusty old hunter's knife, the one item she had preserved from her childhood. Turning to the Creature snarling and whipping about, desperately trying to buck the harpy from its back, she plunged the blade to the hilt in its gut, twisting it slightly just for the pure pleasure of it.

And it screeched...a noise worse than the death squeals of rabbits. Jane fell to the ground, trying to protect her ears from the horrible wailing. The creature fled through the woods, with the little frightened one fast on its tail. Morgana whipped around fast enough to glimpse Renette firing a second silver arrow at their backs.

"Thank you, Jane," Morgana voiced her gratitude breathlessly, helping the young hybrid up from the moldy forest floor. Her once white shift was stained and dirty, torn and tattered. No wonder she had looked like an angel, with her white gown flittering in the rush of air as she leapt gracefully from above, and the moon peeking through the canopy like a halo illuminating her presence.

More miraculously was how Renette appeared to not even have broken a sweat, her skirts and petticoats unmarred and without a wrinkle. Morgana couldn't help but check her own appearance in comparison to the unflappable girl's...some tears in her especially adapted men's trousers, dirt all over her bodice, and her white undershirt splattered with blood. All-in-all, not that out of the ordinary...

"Shall we pursue?" Renette asked, disrupting Morgana's meandering mind. The shock of the encounter had bemused her slightly and thrown off her focus. As she had asked herself a hundred times before, again she questioned what she would do without Renette...

Paul didn't know there were more than two creatures. And the trap was only set for two...

Setting another arrow in her crossbow, Morgana gave her reply.

"Hell, yes!"

She turned to Jane as Renette disappeared into the dense undergrowth.

"Coming, Jane?"

-----------

The trap worked splendidly. The Creatures came sprinting out of the woods, great masses of sinew with teeth, snarling. Their grotesque fur glistened with a sheen of perspiration, and their muscles pumped vigorously, carrying them directly into Morgana's Incapacitating Device for Large Animals. They stopped suddenly, as if they had hit a stone wall, but nothing barred their way. Instead, great arcs of blue light spanned across the two yards of ground between the generators, which whirred with an unaffected hum. And they were trapped in the middle of the miniature lightening storm, bodies spasming in their suspended state. The smell of burning hair and flesh swirled off the Creatures in pungent waves.

Admittedly, for all he had seen and done, Paul would've been in awe to behold such a sight, disgusted by the unearthly cruel efficiency of it. But he was given no such luxury to explore moralities. For almost directly behind the pair of Creatures, were two more...two more that they hadn't anticipated.

Shit, it was even one of his core rules: Anticipate everything. Assume nothing.

But Morgana had laid out the plan in that confident manner of hers. It had been indisputable fact that the Creatures were sent out in pairs.

So much for that.

He didn't even have time to loathe his boss' arrogance, or warn Edward to prepare. The creature was upon him faster than anything he had experienced before, knocking him to the ground with enough force to crack several of Paul's ribs. Sheer stubbornness kept him conscious despite the blow.

It was a blur of sharp teeth and claws, blinding pain... And the stench! A more repugnant animal he had never had the misfortune of smelling. But that was a thought for later, or for someone who wasn't desperately keeping powerful jaws from gaining access to the tender flesh of his throat. A forearm was a regrettable substitute for body armor that he hadn't thought of adorning.

Finally, he found his voice as he cried out in agony, large teeth puncturing flesh all the way through to the bone.

But Paul hadn't lived the better part of a century, just to be sent to eternal damnation by an unnatural beast with horrid breath. His left hand sought the blade he kept at his waist. He would've preferred the larger, sharper one tucked safely into his boot, but there was about 250 pounds of flesh and fur preventing its liberation. Instead, he gripped the tried and true dagger in his hand, and attempted to determine the most vulnerable spot into which to sink it.

And that's when Paul blacked out...

-----------------

It had been like the heavens had fallen to earth. Instead of gods battling in the sky with great flashes of light and cracks of thunder, a silent storm had raged upon the ground right before Edward's eyes. In his time at the castle, he had seen a number of Lady Morgana's inventions. None were so awe-inspiring or terrifying as this one.

And the most disturbing part was how quiet the trap was, beyond the whirring of the generators and the slight crackling sound as the blue streams of light licked at the flesh of the gruesome creatures. Neither did the creatures themselves make a sound, though they were in obvious pain.

The whole scene was beyond anything Edward's nightmares could even conjure, and he froze there, standing at the edge of the Black Wood, mesmerized by the vacillating lightening of Lady Morgana's trap. And it was a severe mistake on his part. Paul had drilled into him the need for constant awareness of the entirety of one's surroundings throughout times of danger or battle.

Within seconds of the trap going off, two more of the Creatures came bounding out of the woods on a crazed mission of destruction. The first was on Paul before Edward could even realize what was going on.

The second, slightly smaller, Creature had been a few yards behind the first. But the delay wasn't enough time for Edward to prepare himself for the engagement. He found himself knocked aside, flung to the ground, as the creature ran past, hitting him full in the chest with its massive shoulder. He heard it skid to a stop and turn, snarling, behind him. Despite the ache of the powerful collision, Edward forced himself to his feet to face the mad beast.

Its eyes glowed orange and malevolent. The blue light of the still active trap reflected off the white daggers it used as teeth. And it foamed at the mouth, great gobs of saliva dripping down onto the matted fur of its thighs as it prepared to pounce.

But pouncing is what cats did best... and that's whose blood flowed through Edward's veins. He reached for the dagger at his waist, and held it menacingly before him, locking his brown eyes with the flaming ones from hell. Tensing his muscles, he prepared himself to strike, as he heard the trap's generators wind down.

As suddenly as they had been triggered, the bolts of lightening ceased, returning the night to the purview of the much dimmer moon. Knowing the creature's eyes would have to readjust to the dark, the same as his own, he used the moment to strike. Springing at where he knew the enemy to be, he found purchase with his blade, and pushed it into the resistant flesh until it struck bone. An agonized yowl let him know he had done more than just nick the creature.

Being swatted at by an enormous hand was further confirmation of the successful strike. This time, Edward landed on his feet, feeling unnaturally agile but knowing he couldn't have done otherwise. He blinked his eyes in rapid succession, trying to force them to accustom themselves to the dark more quickly. It had been a good strike, but not a fatal one, and the fight was far from over.

Edward decided that being mostly human had its disadvantages. His eyes were taking several seconds to adjust, an eternity when but a yard or so away there was an injured and very angry beast near twice your size.

Why wasn't it attacking?

Edward counted the seconds until the shadows began to define themselves as shapes once more. One...two...Where was it?...four...there's the castle of the crest of the hill...six...was it behind him?...seven...

Edward whipped around, but there was no great looming shadow. Quickly he turned back to where it originally was, as the dark turned to a gray sort of dawn and his eyes finally let in an appropriate amount of light to survey his surroundings.

There!

The formerly snarling, yowling beast lay in a giant unmoving heap upon the ground, the moonlight shimmering off a silver arrow buried in its shoulder. But there was still something making disturbing noises in the night, crunching, slobbering noises... Oh, no! Paul!

Edward found his unfortunate friend, on the other side of the dormant trap that had two great, placid furry heaps in its midst. So badly he wanted to help the man, but Edward hesitated for a split-second, his instincts urging him to run from the place as fast as he could. The creature playing with Paul's unconscious body was larger than the one he had stabbed...where he had also left his knife.

Oh, God!

It picked the unaware Paul up by an arm and tossed him into the air, like a dog with a toy. Rather than catch the human rag doll in its gaping maw, the creature arched its back and howled, its mighty claws tearing at the arrow that had buried itself near its spine. Immediately, it crumpled to the ground writhing in pain with a loud 'thump' that made Edward jump.

And then relief washed over him in a great wave as he found the one responsible for felling the beast. Renette came running out of the woods, with Lady Morgana and Jane close behind, bobbing lights and crossbows at the ready. Running to him, Jane wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed him tight, breathing heavily from the exertion of chasing the Creatures through the wood.

"Thank God you're all right," she exclaimed. Edward was grateful for the attention, rather than receiving the oft hesitant affection of his Jane. But he was far more worried about the state of his mauled friend. Still, he couldn't refuse Jane the little comfort she actually desired from him. So he held her tightly, and gazed over her shoulder, glad to find the other two women at the fallen man's side.

But even so, it didn't look good. Had he not known the heap of flesh and bone to be Paul, he would never have guessed it was a man. There was blood and bits of torn tissue everywhere. Bone stuck up in jagged spikes, and shredded skin clung to various places like wet cloth. He could not see the man's face.

The only reason he knew that Paul remained unconscious was the lack of agonized screaming piercing their ears.

"Edward, Jane, help us get him back to the castle!"
--------------------

Continued In "Best Served Cold Pt II

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