Chapter Six

"You again," Genoma drawled, seemingly disinterested. "Are you so eager for that rematch?" Genoma ran a critical, assessing eye over Leo. "You are in no condition to fight me. Not now—your tyora is weak. I've no wish to fight you at anything less than full strength. Stand aside, friend, and save yourself for another time, a time when you might stand a chance of defeating me."

Leo shook his head. "There would be no point to defeating you later if I stood down now."

"So be it, then. But I take no pleasure in this battle."

"Which is as it should be," Leo shot back. Only a monster would find deadly combat pleasurable. Only a monster…or a Cado agent.

Leo leapt forward, his sword singing free of his sheath. Genoma's only real advantage came from his tattoo, but that helped to defend him from vidra. In close combat, they stood on equal ground, as far as Leo could see. And besides, Genoma had left his sword laying in the street last night.

Genoma reached now for a hilt that wasn't there, then sprang back just in time to avoid being sliced open from shoulder to hip. He began to sign, but Leo came too quickly, and he was forced to give more ground and abort the effort.

Wondering which of them would tire first, Leo decided to try another tact, unwilling to gamble on his already- depleted stamina. Under normal circumstances, he would never do this, but…well, desperate times called for desperate measures, so Leo tossed aside his sword and dove for Genoma's throat.

Stunned by the abrupt shift, Genoma failed to react, and they tumbled together to the grass. Genoma tried to disengage, but Leo struggled to keep hold of him.

Puck and Daryl were long gone, hopefully far away by now. All Leo had to do was but them as much time as possible. The longer he kept Genoma rolling around on the ground, the safer they would be. Genoma's death no longer really mattered. Leo was concerned with life now, Puck's and Daryl's and maybe even his own.

But then Genoma did something, pulled some tricky maneuver Leo failed to follow, and, quite suddenly, Leo found himself flat on his back, out of breath, his arms pinned beneath his opponent's knees. Genoma began to sign rapidly, and Leo, near to panic, bucked wildly, twisting to one side. Genoma overbalanced and hit the ground hard. Instead of reversing their positions, Leo contorted his body, swinging one leg over Genoma's shoulder and tucking the other up under his armpits to trap one arm between his knees. He caught the limb in both hands and threw his weight back, lifting his hips to force Genoma's shoulder up into the air.

A terrible crack and a scream of sheep agony told Leo that the move had worked. He rolled over, twisting the obviously broken arm he still held, and knelt, crushing the shattered bone beneath one knee. Genoma began flailing at him with his good hand, but Leo just leaned forward. This fight was over.

Leo switched knees, freeing his left leg so that he could use it to stomp—hard—on Genoma's shoulder. The man screamed again, throwing his head back with the force of his pain. Now to finish this.

Maintaining the pressure on Genoma's mangled arm, Leo moved his foot to the man's face, forcing his chin up until he could get a toe onto his throat and push with all his strength. Genoma tried to cry out once more, but he could not find the breath to do so. His left hand—the good one—twitched, and Leo realized too late that he had lost track of it.

A blast of frigid wind tore Leo off of Genoma and sent him flying up into the air. He smashed against a tree and slid a good five or six feet down the trunk to land in a rumpled heap on the ground. Leo tried hard to scoot or crawl or roll away from the follow up he was sure would come, but his battered body refused to obey, shocked by the sharp impact, and all he could do was stare blankly at the sizzling bolt of lightning that sped toward him.

This is it, then. This is the end. All right. I'm ready for it. I always said I wanted to die saving others. Here's my chance. Still, Leo could not quell the desperate urge to keep fighting, to survive. But it was no use.

"No!"

Leo's head whipped around as Puck came bounding out of the brush nearby. He tried to warn the boy off, to urge him back, but Puck skittered to a halt before him, spreading his arms wide as though to embrace the deadly lightning that blasted him full in the chest.

"You idiot!" Leo cried as Puck fell back against him. The stench of seared meat filled his nostrils, but only for a moment. Then Puck vanished with a puff of smoke and a soft popping noise.

A…clone…?

Suddenly, Puck was all over the place, a dozen, three dozen, maybe more of him. It was impossible to count them—they never stood still. They emerged from the trees all around and converged on Genoma, dog piling on top of him in swarms. Then one more Puck—the real one?—appeared at Leo's side, pressing something cold and hard into his hand.

"Come on, Leo, get up."

"What are you doing still here?" Leo demanded, staggering to his feet.

"Uncle Daryl tried to get me to leave, but I had to come back. I had to give this back, take it!"

"You should have left," Leo grumbled, taking his sword nonetheless. "You need to get away from here, now!" Every time Genoma touched one of the clones with his left hand, it vanished, and he was slowly working his way through the tide of Pucks. Le grimly realized that he had broken the wrong arm.

"Why?" Puck demanded. "Why should I run away? I'm not scared of him!"

"Well, you should be!" Leo resisted the impulse to strangle some sense into the boy. "Look, it you are what I am becoming more and more convinced you are, you must not fall into the hands of Genoma and those like him. If you are who I think you are, your safety means more than any thousand lives, including my own. Now go, and don't come back!" Leo prepared himself to reengage Genoma, but Daryl's sharp voice stopped him.

"Wait!" The old man stepped around a nearby tree, his haggard face stony and expressionless. "Let me take him."

Leo nodded. "Yes, you take him. Take Puck far from here and keep him safe. I will—"

But Daryl shook his head. "No, not Puck. Let me take on this man, this Genoma."

"But—"

"No! I am an old man, friend Let, and my usefulness is nearing its end anyway. You are young and full of promise and talent and wisdom beyond your years. Of the two of us, you are the better suited to care for and protect Puck against those who wish him harm. It is my job to see him safely through life, even if that means passing him into your care. That is," and he paused, suddenly unsure, "if you will take him."

Leo considered quickly. Taking charge of Puck would be a huge responsibility, but, as he had said before, the boy's safety was critical, especially if Cado was after him. And Daryl did have a valid point. Leo was the best suited to defend Puck from Cado, though Daryl could not possibly know all the reasons why.

And then there was the more personal side. Leo had no great wish to embroil himself in anything involving Cado, and even without that consideration, caring for a young boy would require a personal commitment Leo wasn't sure he wanted to make. But somebody had to do it, and right now, Leo was the only one available. Right now, he had to set aside his personal feeling and act. Right now, he had to get Puck out of here.

Leo nodded sharply and grabbed Puck's hand, dragging him away. Puck cried out in protest and tried to resist, but Leo yanked hard and set him off balance so that he could only stumble placidly along.

"But—Uncle Daryl!"

"He made his choice, Puck," Leo snapped. "Let it go."

"But—he's supposed to take care of me!"

Leo stopped suddenly, and Puck ran into him. The man whipped around and took the boy's shoulder. "It's not all about you, Puck! Daryl made a choice for Daryl, not for Puck! He's given so much for you, why can't you give him this one thing?"

"What if he dies back there?!" Puck demanded, furious.

"Then he will know that you are safe, and his life kept you that way."

"I'm going back to help him!"

"If you do that," Leo informed the boy, very quietly, "then you will most assuredly die. Are you willing to throw away all the pain and suffering and torment and distress Daryl has gone through since your father's death, all for you foolish pride? Are you truly willing to toss aside the sacrifice he is making right now, just because you don't want to lose?" The man shook his head, almost sadly. "If you can do that, if you can honestly walk all over someone like you propose to do, then maybe it is best if you die here today. A person with your power and a heart like that could bring only more despair, and there is nothing Cado could ever do with you that would be worse than what you want to do now."

"But…"

Leo let him go and turned away coldly. "It's your decision. It's about time you starting making them on your own."

He had gotten but three or four steps before Puck caught up with him.