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Chapter XV

Torama - posted on 12 Jun 2016 @ 4:54pm

Helios huffed in annoyance as he stared at the clash of colours littering the gallery walls. There was too much stuff crammed into this room, but it and the other galleries were the only places that were safe enough to store the paintings until the main rooms could be repaired. Then he'd have to be careful with what got put out as his mum had freaked out when she found out he'd transferred all the artwork from her father's palace. The Royal Family were in Elysium House rather than Firestorm Palace partly because Firestorm Palace needed a lot more repairs than Elysium House, and mostly because his mother simply didn't want to reside in the beautiful if frighteningly imposing gothic structure. Too many ghosts, she said. And if not actual ghosts, there were definitely some in her head.

Vinnie didn't care about them at all and while Midnight and Silverfire had at least agreed that preserving history was important, Midnight wanted nothing to do with it and Silverfire didn't rate it as being among the particularly important things they had to deal with.

They didn't get it. This stuff was irreplacable. Once it was gone, it was gone.

The fur on the back of his neck prickled. Someone was in the room with him. He huffed again in annoyance and glared around the room, pretending to be looking at the paintings there. He couldn't see anyone. Was it just his imagination? The presence retreated out the other door.

There were three long galleries in this wing and the last one was a dead end. Taking his time, Helios strolled into the middle one. It was even more cluttered than the previous one, as he had started at the dead end gallery and stacked outward, not being certain of how much room he had. He paused at the doorway as he detected a flicker of movement, but again saw no one. Whoever it was, was pretty good at hiding. He didn't want to make it too obvious yet that he was aware of their presence by searching, so he merely stood in the doorway, again glowering at the clash of styles and colours here. As in the previous gallery, he had done the best he could with arrangement, but he couldn't make it look good.

Casually, he moved towards where he had seen the flicker of movement. There was no sound, but he felt quite sure he felt the presence scamper into the next room.

It could be one of those assassins Stoker always seemed to be worried about, luring him deeper into the galleries. He'd be trapped just as easily in the end gallery as the person he was chasing, if it was indeed a person. It could be a ghost. He smiled slightly. When they were kids, he and his siblings had been quite convinced the place was riddled with the things. Then no-nonsense Eos had been quite determined to show them that there was NO SUCH THING and hothead Silverfire was not to be outdone in the bravery department, so they had explored the place after lights out.

Then there had been a loud thumping sound and Selene's squeals of terror had set off Kitai which had set off the rest of them, though Silverfire declared to this day that he hadn't actually been scared, he had just run after them to make sure that they all stayed safe. Eos had at least admitted to being spooked though she was equally adamant that something had just blown over and they had let their imaginations run riot.

The place was always going to have a bit of an odd feel because it was so old, but the "ghostly" feeling had slowly receded as time went by, maybe because they were getting used to it or maybe because it was a lot less creepy when it was properly cleaned and lit up.

The final gallery was a headache of too much information. One could barely see the wall for the amount of paintings Helios had managed to mosaic on there, and all of them screamed for attention so much it was hard to appreciate any of them. He would not go into this one, better be in the doorway where he could retreat if there was any actual danger.

"I know you're here. Show yourself," he commanded the seemingly empty room.

Nothing happened. Maybe there hadn't been anyone. Maybe someone was playing a prank on him. Not any of his siblings, Eos wouldn't waste her time on such frippery, Selene was only graceful on the catwalk and in front of a camera, Silverfire at least saw the advantage and uses of guerilla tactics but was hopeless at it. It had been pretty much the only area Helios had been able to outdo him in. Kitai? It was one of her days off.

He didn't know how he knew or why he was so certain, but he knew it wasn't Kitai.

"Don't make me come in there." He wanted it to come out in a low, threatening growl like Stoker and Vinnie did when they were serious about something, but all he sounded was semi-serious. He sighed internally. Whatever he was perceived as, it definitely wouldn't be a threat.

His eyes were attracted to a movement, and not dissimilar to a ghost, a pretty little slip of a girl appeared at the edge of the gallery next to the antique chest she had presumably been hiding behind. Her white fur seemed to glow with the backlighting and her long hair tumbled down her back in a cascade of liquid fire. Her ruby eyes were frightened. She was dressed simply in a plain black t-shirt and dark red camo pants. There were some black shiny scar-like tendrils snaking up her shoulders just past the neckline of the shirt. Slung across her body was a little shoulder bag. She didn't look any older than 15.

He etched the scene into his memory. Even though he was reasonably certain the kid wasn't a ghost, with the way she was shimmering in the sunbeam, it would still make for a slightly creepy picture especially if he gave her a hint of transparency.

"Am I in trouble?" she asked in a small, scared voice.

"Depends what you're here for." This could be an ambush. Nobody ever suspected the cute little kid. He'd read and done enough child assassin characters to know. Helios casually leaned against the doorframe so he could keep an eye out behind him as well. He felt stupid for being as paranoid as Vinnie and Stoker.

"I was looking at the stories," the young girl replied. "Stoker told me not to get in trouble."

Stoker was in a closed council meeting. Helios was supposed to be there too. He had disappeared to the bottom of the garden where Selene had used to leave chocolate for the fairies in the mushroom ring and done some sketches there, and after it had gotten hot had retreated inside via the kitchen for a drink and a snack and decided to check the gallery pieces to make sure that no one would try to pull him out of his room again. "Where is Stoker?"

"Talking to people."

Very generic response, but happened to be true in this case.

"How long's he been gone?"

"We arrived at midmorning. He said he hoped to return at noon but was unsure if he would be able, and to come in here and see the stories at noon if he had not returned yet."

The meeting had started at about 10am. It seemed strange that Stoker would have brought some random kid to the palace with him.

"What's your name?"

"Windsong."

"I'm Helios."

Her face went blank for a moment, but he could see thoughts tumbling behind her eyes. Reactions to people finding out who he was often fell into three predictable paths. There were the squealing fantards who wanted to be his best friends and/or sex slaves and they were often the ones he invariably didn't want to shag, there were the ones who tried too hard to be too cool, and there were the people who tried to get all political on him. It was rare but it did happen that some people just took it in stride and these were the ones that became friends. This kid didn't seem to know him from a bar of soap. It was strangely refreshing. Then, she timidly walked up to him and carefully, as if she were afraid she might not be saying the right thing, she said, "It is good to meet you." She held out both hands to him.

Her formality was kind of cute and kind of amusing.

"Likewise," he said, wondering about the double handshake but taking her hands nonetheless.

He gasped as a warm, tingling, pleasurable feeling shot up his arms and through him. He felt the need to return the favour, and felt it happen as he willed it, and felt their respective energies expanding slightly, he felt more energised and hers flared ike crazy it seemed. No amount of Eos' rationalisation was going to convince him anything else had happened. He couldn't stop himself from staring at the kid in amazement for a little while. She smiled up at him, appearing to be pleased that he had noticed the energy transfer.

"What was that?" he blurted.

Her smile shrank a little. "It is how we greet. You are the first to notice the first time."

Where the hell was this kid from? She was definitely not a local. And he could stand to be more polite. "It's a pretty cool greeting. I've never done one like that before. Thanks."

The smile widened again. "I'm sorry for scaring you earlier. Were you enjoying the pictures before then?"

He sensed a language barrier when she paused, her eyes displaying confusion a split second before they narrowed slightly in a puzzled frown.

"Yes. I like the pictures."

Anyone appreciating art was a rarity. Kids even moreso. Helios blamed the war, because he blamed the war for everything that he felt was wrong with life.

"You know much history?"

"A little bit." She moved the shoulder bag around to her hip to access the contents and pulled out a tablet. "I want to learn more. I was looking up information before you came."

Amazing. If she was older, he would so start flirting with her. Seeing as she was just a kid who wanted to learn, he was quite happy to share what he knew.

"Here." He walked to the back of the gallery, where he'd been heading originally anyway. A huge family painting dominated the back wall. It comprised of a gun metal grey man, a regal looking woman with a pinched face and classic evil queen look, and three children, two girls and a boy. The oldest boy stood by his mother's side, one hand on her knee. The middle girl sat between her parents on the couch, and the youngest girl, standing out dramatically from the rest of the family with her black fur, silver hair, golden eyes and cheerful smile where the others were busy looking formal and regal, was perched on her father's knee. Helios looked somewhat distastefully up at it.

"This big one here, this is my grandfather's family. King Gunfire, that's my maternal grandfather. His wife Queen Agrona, who isn't my maternal grandmother, more on that later. Their kids Prince Marlin and Princess Sterling, and my mum, Lady Myadi. She's known as Midnight now. She was 'Lady' rather than 'Princess' pretty much coz Queen Agrona was by all accounts a right bitch, and my grandfather had an affair with one of the ladies in the court which resulted in my mother. Gunfire wanted her recognised as a princess, Agrona didn't." Helios shook his head, getting back to the point. "Anyway Gunfire's the reason the war started." He didn't bother to hide the bitterness in his voice. He sensed rather than saw the kid looking at him.

"I do not understand how a war can start from..." she hesitated a moment, "...signing over?" She seemed confused.

Helios walked into the back corner of the gallery. The alignment of the galleries and the positioning of the windows meant that the sun never struck this particular corner. Because it was constantly cold, as kids they had been convinced that this was where the ghosts were, even after Eos had explained that it was cold because it was never sun warmed.

Now it was a convenient place to store ancient documents that really should be kept in a temperature controlled room, but the museum was packed to the rafters and in dire need of repair itself. It was another thing being sorely neglected because of this stupid, pointless, endless war.

Fortunately he didn't need to open any of the chests containing those old documents at the moment. He pulled out a large, rolled up chart from an umbrella stand full of similarly rolled up charts, turned around and spread it out on the floor. Windsong knelt down beside him, holding down one side so it didn't roll back up again.

"We are here." Helios couldn't help but inject a little ironic drama into his voice as he pointed out the city of Firestorm, where the palace was located. "As you can see we're located on top of the plateau, so we have uphill advantage on all sides should anyone attack us. If we sent out tanks and LAMs we could hold down the surrounding farmlands for a while. We're also in a good enough position that we could in our heyday simultaneously attack Brimstone and hold off Tecton back over here, or the other way round, or defend against both, if we ever needed to." Helios pointed out each item of interest on the map as it was labelled. "Which is why when the Plutarkians invaded they made Gunfire sign the city over to them. They used here as a base and took down Tecton, then Brimstone, and kept moving from there."

Helios' muzzle wrinkled briefly, then relaxed. Some days, he was glad his grandfather was dead. It had been his fault the war had started. But then again no one knew what was running through the old man's head when he signed that deed. Maybe he had just been a simpering coward. Maybe he thought that there could be a peaceful resolution and there wasn't. He lifted up his end of the map and rolled it back up neatly, retying it with its elastic band and putting it back in the umbrella stand with the other charts. He glanced around at the paintings from his kneeling position, targeted one and rose to his feet, pointing at it.

"That's the Battle of Elysium," pointing out a large, prominent, dark and dramatic piece showing mice on motorbikes and some other vehicles hooning in to face off against the piscean Plutarkians, with lasers blasting everywhere. "This one's the Fall of Brimstone." He had a love/hate relationship with this
one. Unlike the Battle of Elysium it didn't glorify anything. There were buildings burning, Plutarkians storming the streets, unarmed mice of all ages fleeing before them and being cut down as they ran. If one looked carefully one could pick out other horrors of war going on in various pockets of the picture.

He glanced sideways at Windsong. She was staring wide-eyed at the paintings with horror and a touch of actual fear. Maybe he wouldn't show her the Catatonian Landing series then. He put a hand on the girl's shoulder and turned her away from the pieces to look back at the family portraits. As well as the big family one there were some slightly smaller ones of individual portraits of the royals. There was a couple of Midnight as a toddler and then an older child, and her half-siblings nearing pre-teen, and none that depicted any of them as adults.

"Gunfire, Agrona, Marlin and Sterling were murdered by the Plutarkians. Fortunately for me and my siblings, my mum managed to escape somehow. She met my Dad here and followed him when he and his bros went to Earth to fight the cats there. My siblings and I were born on Earth."

She was still looking a little blank from the war pictures so he skimmed the contents of the gallery for something else to show her.

"This is what Mars is supposed to have looked like before the war."

She perked up a lot at the sight of the pastoral, with its sweeping, endless fields of purple grass and smiling young mice joyfully engaged in agricultural activities in very Renaissance poses, with carefree children skipping gaily among them.

"It is beautiful," Windsong breathed, looking enraptured. "The colours are beautiful."

"Yeah, it is," he agreed. "There were supposed to be farms like this spread out all around the Elysium Plains. They supplied Firestorm of course, and we traded with pretty much the rest of Mars. Where you from?"

Windsong froze for a second before vaguely answering, "Far away."

Helios frowned very slightly but didn't probe. "Um. Here's someone you should be familiar with." He took her through the door to the middle gallery, showing her a full portrait of Stoker standing in a heroic pose. Unlike the previous pictures they had looked at, which had been various paints on canvas or board, this one was done in smooth airbrushed strokes with an almost obsessive attention to detail. When it had been done Stoker had been pretty thrilled with it but these days seemed to find it somewhat embarrassing.

"Stoker!" Windsong exclaimed with a bright smile.

"He used to be some officer in the king's army. My grandfather's army, that is. Then when war broke out, he gathered what soldiers were left and ran for the caves. They regrouped there and gathered in a lot of other people willing to fight and trained 'em up. They called themselves the Freedom Fighters, and they did their best, but it's kinda hard when your own government's against you. He did the best he could with what he had, and if it hadn't been for him, Mars would have just capitulated."

He let his bitterness shine through here. He was part of the government and felt fully justified in hating everything about it.

"I do not understand 'capitulated'." She pronounced the unfamiliar word with care, looking to him as if seeking approval for the pronunciation.

"It means to not resist. If not for Stoke, we'd have Plutarkian overlords and probably wouldn't be having this conversation right now."

The next picture across was a pano shot of Throttle, Modo and Vinnie racing towards the camera, done in the same obsessive detail as the picture of Stoker. Throttle had his fist in the air in victory, Vinnie had a devious grin on his face and sported a flare, one of his favourite weapons, in one hand, Modo simply looked quietly pleased with himself as he often did. In their wake were the remnants of a Plutarkian company.

"These guys are pretty big heroes around here. That's Throttle, he's in charge of the Freedom Fighters now that Stoker's back in the king's army. Modo works with him. Vinnie...is my dad." Helios pointed out the well built tan mouse, the huge, burly grey mouse who had then sported an eye patch, and the wiry, devilish albino as he named them.

Most people knew Vinnie had been one of the famous "Biker Mice from Mars" as they were known as on Earth, so Helios did not really feel the need to explain that one further. Windsong simply acknowledged like it was no big deal, and he was glad for it.

"These ones are different," she commented, leaning close. Helios took a breath to tell her not to touch when he realised both her hands were clasped around her tablet, and not only that, she didn't appear to be even breathing as she leaned close.

Girls this age were troublesome. Even if they were legal, he couldn’t help feeling just a little bit dirty for being attracted to them.

"Most of these are oil on canvas. There's some acrylic, some gouache, some tempera. We have a few watercolours and pastels and pencil drawings but I've stashed most of those in the boxes so they don't fade."

Windsong straightened and looked from the picture of Stoker to a small painting of another one of Helios' ancestors beside it.

"These two are CG."

Windsong looked up at Helios. "Are you a Storyteller?"

Helios blinked. "I...well, I write sometimes. Mostly I draw."

Windsong's eyes lit up. Helios couldn't help smiling. "I got a couple of pieces in the outer gallery. Most of my stuff is in my room. I can show you if you want."

If only she was a bit older, he wouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to show her a hell of a lot more.

"I would like to see your stories. Pictures. Is that okay Stoker?" Helios' heart jumped so hard it actually stopped him breathing for a moment, so he couldn't even gasp in shock, when she suddenly directed her question to the door of the gallery. Helios spun and was both embarrassed and annoyed to find Stoker leaning smugly at the entrance to the three galleries.

"You know a lot more than you let on, doncha kiddo," Stoker grinned. "You should see your face."

Helios glowered and turned away. "How long have you been there."

Stoker smirked and stood up off the doorway, holding out both hands. Windsong skipped over and latched her arms around his waist. Helios blinked as he felt a tingling on the tips of his fur. She had just done the same energy transfer thing with Stoker as she had done with him when they had met. And Stoker seemed to know that this was a thing. Helios felt himself rile slightly as Stoker put his arm around her. He felt uncomfortable about the age difference, this would be full on paedophilia with...Helios looked properly. If Stoker had had a daughter, this was probably how he'd have his arm around her. There was nothing more in it.

"Long enough." Typical annoying Stoker, answering without answering. Helios huffed impatiently.

"He came while you were showing me the map," Windsong supplied helpfully.

"Windsong!" Stoker complained, smiling fondly down at the girl.

"You coulda let me know," Helios tried not to sound too petulant.

Windsong looked puzzled. "You did not know?"

"None of us are as good as you, sweetling. We should probably just keep that between us. If someone doesn't notice, just let 'em not notice, okay?"

"Okay." Windsong nodded. "Please can I see Helios' stories...pictures...Stoker?" Windsong gazed up at Stoker with eyes that could melt the coldest heart. Stoker glanced at her, then fixed Helios in a glare.

"The art's all you're showin' her, right?" his voice contained a strong enough warning.

Helios drew himself up with a mildly indignant air. "There are some who consider me a work of art."

Stoker snorted. "Whatever you need to tell yourself, punk. Go on then."

Windsong grinned. "Thank you Stoker!" She hugged him tightly around the waist, then trotted to Helios' side. Helios gestured for her to accompany him and began to walk down the corridor toward the main hall. He blinked in surprise when he felt her small hand slide into his, but in somewhat childish defiance of Stoker, he closed his hand around hers and continued walking like it was all perfectly normal.

"Bring her to the training courtyard at three," Stoker called after them.