Book VII Ch 24: Damned If You Drew
The Limbo Peninsula, Chimre
"Oh my freaking Chapter," Cazwell murmured, wriggling helplessly from atop the robot's back as it carried him through the eerie, crystallized landscape just over Dreamsong's border. "You work for the fucking Silent Rose, Drew. How could you hide this from the family? This... everything is your fault!"
"Woah, hang on," the voice from the robot protested. "You needed work and I pulled strings like a Lassen shadowbox performer to get you a nice, relaxed, well-paying job because I cared and I wanted to help, you know? I wasn't secretly planning to get you turned into a rampaging leupak for my insidious master or anything. I won't deny you your bad luck or anger, but don't go pinning this on me, Caz.
"Sometimes stuff just happens, and there's no one you can rightly blame."
Cazwell gritted his teeth, staring up into the sky.
Strange, winged beasts with ribbonlike tails flew overhead, rustling the shining leaves as they pursued spherical birds and gargantuan, armored insects. He shivered, pressing his chin against his chest and closing his eyes.
Chimre was the last place on Valenth he had ever wanted to return to, and now he was being carried there against his will by his own blood-- the familial black sheep.
"But why lie? You said you'd gotten an engineering job, not--"
"I never lied, Cuzwell. I am an engineer. I just happen to be an engineer for the Rose-- and I do a bit of leupology work on the side. It was a hobby at first, but they liked my research, and human leupak rights advocates are rarer than pacifistic Renatus," Andrew laughed. "... probably because most of them don't stay that way."
"...L-leupology." Cazwell's stomach twisted. Could Andrew have saved his humanity if he had known...?
"Is this about the miratoxin thing when we were kids? Because seriously, I don't--"
"You never had anything against leupaks-- or, well, anyone-- when we were younger, Caz. This sounds like it's all a product of your accident, which is sort of understandable... but it still doesn't make it fair.
"That said," Drew admitted, "the miratoxin 'thing', as you put it... it probably tweaked my brain a little bit, yeah. It's hard not to take an interest in leupaks when you--"
"...ate every venom sample in the house? Yeah, I guess not."
The robot leupak's steady gallops only served to emphasize the awkward silence.
"...Dreamwaker, did you know about that? And here I thought I was a master at subtlety."
"Our parents were always in fits trying to find somewhere to hide the samples where 'we' couldn't get into them. We meaning you-- it's like you could smell the stuff or something," Caz laughed derisively.
"So the whole family knows... Ohhh man, they probably think I'm turning into a leupak!" Andrew laughed. "...oh. Sorry, Cuz."
Cazwell realized his bitter expression was only on display for the sky.
The robotic leupak marched into a tiny clearing where an unassuming shed sat among the glittering trees. Unlocking the door with a claw, it entered, descending into a laboratory filled with metal parts, toolboxes, half-full jars of colorful goo and baskets of dimly-glowing miracrystal.
Near the back of the room, a well-dressed and chubby man sat behind a button-laden console, tapping and turning and switching the controls as he carefully watched on his monitor.
"Aah, home sweet ho-- whoops, I forgot."
The man turned in his chair, smiling brightly and adjusting his glasses as he got to his feet, guiding the robot across the room and to a stop before him.
"It's been a while, Caz. I'd ask how you're doing, but I just replaced my favorite glasses a few days ago. I might cry if you punched me and broke them!"
Pleased to have the opportunity at last, Cazwell glared furiously at him. "I'd love to, Drew, but I'm a little tied up. I'll have to save it for later."
"Aw, see? You're still a nice kid." Andrew smirked.
"Mmm. How long has it been? Two or three years?"
"Yeah, that sounds about right."
"That's pretty impressive, Drew. What've you, doubled your weight since the last time I saw you?" Caz sniffed, raising an eyebrow.
But Andrew was unfussed; he grinned widely, shuffling closer to look his reptilian cousin in the eye as he drummed his sides appraisingly.
"Oh, do you think? It must be something in the water-- you know what they say about Chimre.
"But I can't say for sure; no one's said anything to my face at the past few family reunions. Speaking of, it's a shame you haven't been coming to those anymore, Cuz. We all miss your little woobie face so much!"
"I'm not letting anyone see me like this. It's bad enough Elliot had to deal with me before I joined the Firestarters," Cazwell grumbled.
Andrew snorted. "You accidentally get turned into a leupak, and you think anyone'd give you a hard time about it? Caz, you realize you're a Christoph, right? Passive aggression is our lifeblood!
"If anyone says anything about you, it'll never be with you in the room-- hell, I promise you I've been wining and dining with the best of them out here since I came, and the worst I've gotten back home for my stunning new figure were a few frankly hysterical looks, even when I try to goad them into talking.
"It makes going to family gatherings worth it-- I've bugged every house they've been held at so I can giggle at all the crazy nonsense that gets said behind the scenes and play up my performance for next time.
"Anyone worth bothering with will keep their shitty opinions to themselves, or at least be honest and upfront with you. The rest of 'em? Laugh, and get on with your life."
"Um... thanks, I think?" Caz said, confused. "So, can I get down now? I think my circulation is cut."
"Right, right. Forgive me-- I love catching up with the family, after all. How's Ellie?"
Andrew leaned back over his control panel, directing the robotic leupak towards a small room in the back, furnished with a bed, a shelf full of books, a miniature bathroom and an odd, buttoned panel in one wall.
The robot turned, backed carefully into the doorway, and unraveled its tail from around Cazwell.
As he dropped onto all fours, the door slid and locked firmly into place behind him; he slammed into it several seconds too late to make an escape.
"Sorry, little buddy. I have to rehabilitate you before you can go anywhere. Tough love sucks, but I promise I'll take the best care of you I can," Drew explained apologetically as Caz snarled and pawed at his aching head.
"I don't need any damned rehabilitation! I don't care who you are, I'll tear you apart when I get out of here!!
"You're a fucking Rose sympathizer anyway-- You're a disgrace to the family name! You're everything that's wrong with Valenth!"
"Cazwell," Andrew said with a hint of sadness, "you're not well at all, and I definitely don't think you mean that.
I don't think you meant to hurt anyone, either, knowing how you've always been.
"I'm going to get some proper food into you, and you'll see what a massive difference it makes afterwards."
"I don't want your fucking Chimri food, either. I won't take your poison! I won't!" Cazwell cried, throwing himself against the glass again in a blinding rage, trying in vain to break it any way he could.
But he only succeeded in exhausting himself, dropping back onto the floor and gasping for breath.
Andrew watched with his arms folded across his belly, waiting patiently for him to finish.
"...Caz. Listen to me, please. Think whatever you want about the Silent Rose, alright? I don't care if you think we go around eating babies all day and kicking puppies into vats of miraplasm, if that's what gets you up in the morning.
"But I'm not here to spread propaganda or poison you or any of that. I do what I do because I care about something most people refuse to think about, and I'm doing this because I don't want you or any other innocent people to be hurt for no reason. I don't want to try and change your point of view about anything.
"But what you believe or don't believe won't change the reality of the fact that you're really freaking sick, and if you don't take the medicine I have to give you, you're not going to be a person anymore."
Cazwell froze, looking up at his cousin through the glass door.
"Wh... what do you mean, 'not a person anymore'?"
"What you need to understand about leupaks, Caz, is that they're people, but they're not human. They're not like other species naturally born on Valenth, either... really, they're more like aliens than anything else. There's something about them that makes it necessary for a leupak-- any leupak, not just natural-born ones-- to eat the flesh and blood of other people to stay sane.
"It's why Chimre is full of blood banks and donation centers and, yeah, clone farms. The country does everything it can to make sure leupaks don't have to hurt anybody to exist.
"But the thing is, if they don't? They eat away their own consciousness instead, until there's nothing left and they go rogue, rampaging around like mindless beasts... well, because they are at that point. That's how you get the real monsters, Caz.
"Worse, that's exactly what's happening to you-- and by the sound of it, your anger over your involuntary transformation has made a hell of a convenient cover for it."
Cazwell backed away from the door, lying his ears back flat against his head in shock.
"I... I don't want to eat people!"
"I know, Caz. But this is the only way to do it without hurting anyone-- or in a few more months, you'll be doing it whether you want to or not and lots of people will die, and it'll probably be the ones you used to love, first.
The little leupak burst into tears, curling into a ball against a far corner of the room.
"No... no, I can't-- I don't know what to do, Andrew. I'm so tired of all this... this anger, but I... but you said..."
"It's not you, little guy. It's the disease, I promise. I've seen this so many times," Andrew said softly, settling on his knees beside the door. "Will you let me help you? If I fail, I'll open the door and you can eat me first. You'd be full and okay for a little while longer, at least," he laughed with a pained little smile.
"O-okay," Cazwell said miserably, pressing his paws to his face. "But... but, Drew. If it works, what then? C-can I go back home?
...will I even belong in the Firestarters anymore? What have I done with my life?"
Andrew sighed, shaking his head. "I honestly don't know, Cuzwell. After your rehab's complete, I'm legally obligated to turn you in to the Government for multiple counts of non-predatory murder."
Next Chapter: Book VII Chapter XXIV
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