Rip out my Beating Heart – Sacrifice

Once night fell, Olivia took to the skies as her friends below climbed into their cars. She followed overhead as they headed towards the first of five locations Amanda had pinpointed. If they failed, she had set up an automated alert to inform the police of everything they’d learned if they didn’t return in six hours. Maybe if we hand them all the information they’ll do something.

The cool night air rushed past Olivia’s face, sending her ponytail bobbing against the back of her neck. Three people. Three people are counting on us and no one else. Olivia sniffed, in vain hope she could pick up Ix’s scent. The tingling in her arm had faded, only noticeable if she concentrated on it. Roach had insisted he was back in fighting shape, though his poorly hidden winces and arm rubs hadn’t evaded Olivia.

The comm in Olivia’s ear picked up some ambient noise in one of the cars below before Ben said, “Comin’ up on the first spot, Little Bird. You’re our eye in the sky.”

“OK.”

The one thing she truly loved about Arizona weather was the absolutely clear skies at nearly any time of day. Olivia climbed about thirty more feet into the air, getting a higher vantage point on the low adobe building on the outskirts of a Phoenix suburb. A few dim yellow streetlights flickered over streets spiderwebbed with old tar repairs.

“Not seein’ anythin’,” announced Rob as his truck rumbled past. That thing really isn’t stealthy. “Closed. No one there.”

“Anything up there, Olivia?” asked Amanda.

Olivia focused on the rooftop. The AC wasn’t humming away, and nothing else stuck out. “No.”

“Miya?”

“Nothing on the cow skull,” she replied.

“Might not have summoned a demon yet,” pointed out Rob.

“Let me check infrared.,”  said Amanda.

“Would demons show up on that?” asked Quarrel.

“Doesn’t matter, they’re not what we’re looking for.” Amanda paused for a moment before adding. “Clear.”

The moved on to the next target. Phoenix was more active at night than Westward. In the more densely populated areas after dark, Olivia spotted far more people walking, and more cars on the road. None of them drove or walked erratically, though Olivia still kept a close eye on them until they were heading away from the others.

“Such pain in the ass,” grumbled Ben. “I miss when we just fuckin’ knew where they were.”

***

They pulled up to the fourth location after an hour and a half of flying or driving and two more dead ends. Are we going to be too late? The darkened neon sign in front of the building read “Groceries” beneath something in Nahua. Old, heavy plywood blocked the front sliding glass doors.

“That’s new,” murmured Miya over the comms the moment Rob’s truck drew close.

“What?” asked Olivia.

“The cow skull is freaking out,” explained Miya. “This has got to be it.”

“She’s doing something,” said Amanda. “We don’t have much time. Olivia, how does the back look?”

Olivia coasted over the building, getting a good look at the the closed metal doors and a loading bay for semi trucks. “Not boarded up. There is a car back here, though.”

“Alright, keep circling, I’ll let you know where you’re needed.” Over the comms, Olivia heard a few clicks from Amanda. “Infrared is showing about 25 people in there. It’s hard to tell. Most of them seem to be around the back doors. There’s a handful near the center right and… one is cooling.” What? Wait, oh no.

“But the other two are still alive?” demanded Quarrel.

“For now,” said Amanda. “Olivia, Ben, and Rob, you three go in through the front door and get their attention The rest of us will break in through the back.”

“They gonna fall for that again?” asked Ben.

“They will if Olivia is big and scary and you shoot them.”

“Fair enough. Don’t expect it to be perfect though.”

“I don’t.” Amanda continued, “There are a lot more of them than there are of us. We need to move fast and keep them on the defensive before they can overwhelm us.”

Rob parked his car a short ways down the street as Olivia coasted back towards the front door to the abandoned grocery store. The two triplets joined her as the other four circled around. The triplets slipped on their masks and drew their weapons.

“Ready, ‘liv’?” asked Gears.

With a nod, she took a deep breath and dug her clawed feet into the ground. With both hands, she struck out at the double doors. Something metal groaned in response on the other side, meeting her with far more resistance than she expected. A second blow sent the plywood and reinforcements tumbling back with the screech of twisting metal. Before she could even think about taking a step inside, at least three rifles opened fire, pummelling her with lead. She raised her arms to cover her head as best she could and pushed forward into the withering fire.

Inside, empty shelves were pushed into barricades in a semi-circle around front door. Four Aztec soldiers knelt behind them, with shouting in Nahua echoing deeper into the repurposed grocery store. Another handful of bullets hit Olivia in the sternum, sending a lance of pain deeper into her. She turned and hurled herself towards the nearest barricade twenty feet to her right, tumbling over the cheap grey metal into a heap of wings and limbs.

The simple act of drawing air into her lungs had become harder than it should have been. The gunfire had taken a toll on her chest. Bullets plinked around her cover, with the only return fire coming from a handgun at the front door. The triplets are still outside. She let out a growl and got back to her feet, wings tucked tight against her back. Still, a bullet grazed the bone a few inches from her head.

She dug her claws under the barricade and heaved it upwards, sending it spiraling toward the nearest pair of soldiers. With a shout, they dived in separate directions out of the way of the careening metal. She was on top of the nearest in two long strides. She wrapped her hands around his chest, lifted him high into the air, and slammed his back into the ground. His helmeted head cracked against the dirty linoleum tiles.

His partner screamed in anger, ducking under her grasping hand and driving an armored fist into her ribs. As she took another swing at him, he jumped back and pulled a knife from his belt. Renewed gunfire rang out around them, though none of it hit Olivia again. Through it all, she could hear slow, heavy footsteps stomping towards them.

The soldier directly in front of Olivia, a taller man with an old burn scar on his cheek, feigned at swipe with his knife at her chest, than jabbed it down towards her thigh. She let out a hiss of pain as it drew blood. Iron. Shouting from all around filled the whole store. He pulled back before her hand could connect. She backed away a pace, keeping her arms at the ready. The soldier took his chance, immediately scrambling back and out of her reach and reaching for his rifle dangling from a cord on his chest. Wait, no. She rushed forward, clawed feet scratching up the floor for traction. Her strides, nearly a foot longer than his own, put her right back on top of him in an instant.

He cursed in Nahua and dropped his rifle once again. Olivia’s swipe went wide again, as he slashed his knife at her, scoring a small cut on her hip. She turned her side towards him, getting him to jump back again. Her tail whipped around a second later, catching him unawares in the shin. He went down with a strangled cry of pain. She brought her foot down on his chest, enough to knock the wind and the fight out of him instead of simply crushing him.

More footsteps approached her. She turned with a hiss, before the smell caught her attention. The triplets hurried up to her.

“We’re with you,” said Gears, patting her on the shoulder as he passed. “This way.”

Skulker teleported ahead, leading the way past a low wall of empty shelves. “Wait,” said Olivia. They ran directly into the source of the heavy footsteps. A slab like figure stood before them, encased in thick armor from head to toe and wielding a gun the size of Olivia’s leg. His breathing came in slow, measured rasps beneath a heavy helmet and gas mask. A squad of soldiers flanked him on either side. If all of them are here, where are Amanda and the others?

Skulker fired his pistol at the armored figure as he jumped back. The bullet glanced right off, leaving little more than a small score on the breastplate. The armored man didn’t so much as flinch. “The fuck is this shit?” cursed Skulker under his breath.

With a wheezing grunt, the armored man lifted his massive gun and opened fire. A wave of bullets flew past them as Olivia and the triplets dove for cover. Shouting filled the air to either side of them, as the squads of soldiers who’d accompanied the armored man now fanned out around Olivia and the others.

“Keep ‘em off us!” yelled Gears as one of the soldiers fired a few shots at him. In a few moments, their cover wouldn’t cover them from anyone other than the armored man. He fired a few inaccurate bursts over their heads. Olivia poked her head over the top, and ducked back down immediately as another hail of bullets chewed up the air above her.

We can’t stay here. She stood in a low crouch and charged towards one of the groups of soldiers. A wave bullets chased after her, and the soldiers she’d targeted immediately backed out of her reach. She hissed in frustration as they fired at her, a few bullets catching her in the side. The air was thick with heat and gunpowder smoke. As the soldiers retreated in good order, half covering the backs of the others as they hurried away from her, Olivia pulled a nearby shelf between them and her. She took a quick look at the triplets. Skulker had teleported out from the armored man’s line of sight, though both he and Gears could only take potshots at the other squad of soldiers trying to flank them. No. Armored guy.

She took a deep breath before digging her feet into the ground and sprinting at the armored man, closing the distance before he could fire too many rounds into her already sore and aching chest. Instead of firing, he froze. The muffled breathing beneath his mask turned into low laughter as she made contact.

She may as well have taken a swing at the earth itself. Her claws raked against his chest, not even leaving scratches. His gun fired again. Olivia felt a massive burning pain in her shin, her knee nearly buckling. The barrel of the gun had turned cherry red, the air around it shimmering violently, though the man holding it seemed to have no issues with the intense heat. She instinctively backed away, an angry hiss in her throat.

Another swing, the man froze, and her claws raked right off of him. Movement. Olivia changed tactics, hooking two claw into the receiver of his gun. The gun was just as invulnerable as his armor, but she could push back if he tried to aim it in any way. He let out a frustrated growl. His arm moved, reaching for a sidearm. She pushed, again into an unyielding mountain. She let go of his main gun and grabbed for his other arm, getting shot three times in the arm for her trouble. Again, she backed away.

His breathing grew heavier and heavier. Olivia stalked around him, ready to strike the moment he moved. They circled a few feet apart, Olivia unable to get in close fast enough, he unable to aim without opening himself up to her claws. In the middle of another pivot, a crossbow bolt sprouted from the base of his skull, between the helmet and the upper back plate. He stood for a moment, before crashing to the ground with a great clatter of ceramic plates. Olivia blinked. Oh, OK.

“How did you know?” Olivia asked as Quarrel hurried up to her.

“Know what?” replied Quarrel, out of breath.

“When he could be hurt?”

“What?” repeated Quarrel.

“Never mind. Thank you.”

“Where the fuck were you guys?” demanded Gears as he regrouped with them, now that there wasn’t a massive gun or fight keeping them pinned. His brother fired a few shots behind him at the remaining soldiers.

“Busy, hurry up,” said Quarrel in a rush, leading them further into the store. Olivia brought up the rear, hobbling on her battered leg. One or two bullets hit her back, getting more hisses of pain out of her.

Roach and Delta had pressed themselves against either side of a partially opened door leading to the back of the store. Olivia couldn’t smell anything past the door besides gunpowder, couldn’t hear anything besides a high pitched ringing in her ears.

“You OK?” asked Delta. “We’re almost there. This is the home stretch.” Shouting in Nahua picked up behind them.

“Now,” rasped Roach. Gears stood beside him and patted him on the shoulder. Roach rushed in, followed by Gears.

Floodlights blinded Olivia as she entered last. She squinted through the bright light and spotted. Two people lay bound at a bloody altar of steel. One man, one woman, both dead silent. A third person, a man, lay in a heap at the foot of the altar, his chest a bloody mess.

And in the center of it all stood Ix, looking down on Olivia’s group with disdain. The small scar on her upper lip only emphasized her sneer. From the blood splatters coating her, she’d hacked the dead man’s chest open herself with the long, obsidian knife in her hand. Familiar patterns of blood coated the altar, as well as the floor around it.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” demanded Quarrel. She stepped to the side, her crossbow wavering between Ix and the closest soldier.

“They will not feel a thing,” replied Ix, her voice easily carrying through the ringing in Olivia’s’ ears. “Their deaths will serve us here, and they will serve the gods after.”

Olivia looked back at the captives. The woman’s head lolled around, her eyes blinking as if trying to focus. The old man beside her had his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling slowly. What’s wrong with them?

“We don’t give a shit. Step down before we shoot the fuck outta you,” snapped Skulker.

Magic in sickly green ribbons gathered around Ix’s arms. “Then you will be the first test for this new weapon.”

Everyone who could fired. Their bullets caught in the air in slow motion, as if shooting through syrup. Sweat beaded on Ix’s forehead as the knife plunged down into the chest of the bound woman. Magic shot from the altar through the blood, swirling and writhing with new energy.

“The blood!” said Olivia.

Skulker leveled his pistol at the floor to Ix’s right, as his brother fired his shotgun to the left just as the knife dropped. The bullet and slug skidded off the concrete around her, sending a handful of sparks flying. Ix flinched, releasing the magic. The glow in the blood pattern changed from green to pitch black as the bullets severed several ribbons of magic.

“What did you do?” asked Miya, backing away with wide eyes and a whitening face. Uh oh.

The air grew cold around them. Olivia felt the hair at the back of her neck rise. She let out a hiss, backing away from the ritual site as every instinct in her screamed danger. As the man let out his last breath, a darkness formed in the circle before Ix. In the blood circle, what Olivia could only describe as a black mass formed. Four reptilian eyes started at her from within. Then only two, than eight, with no discernible change. They were, and then they weren’t. The demon glided over the blood boundaries toward a paralyzed Ix. All light and sound vanished from the room.

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Rip Out my Beating Heart – Aftershock

“These trends transcend culture, and suggests that such metaphysical concepts are ingrained in the human… psyche, said Ben, reading off of the research paper Ix had taken an interest in. He slouched into the couch cushion, head resting on the palm of his maimed hand. “Any idea what the fuck that means?”

Olivia frowned. “Metaphysical?” she asked from the opposite end of the couch.

“That’s what I thought.” Ben grimaced and tossed his copy of the paper back onto the coffee table in front of them. “Amanda’s the only one of us with one of those fancy college degrees, ain’t she?”

“I think so. But she’s probably really busy right now.” I hope she’s having a better time than we are.

“I know, I know,” said Ben. He got up and stretched his legs. “We need to take a step back. We don’t give a damn about the nitty gritty nonsense. What’s the broad stroke of this thing?”

Oh, it had a pretty good summary at the beginning. I think it lulled us into a false sense of security. Olivia turned her copy back to the front page and skimmed it to refresh her memory. “I think… I think it’s saying that magic can be used to influence people’s minds. Unconsciously, through dreams.”

“OK, an’ later he’s saying there’s a human mental web thing, an’ that magic can fuck with it.”

“Yes,” she said hesitantly. Right there in the title. The The Effects of Magic on the Human Experience of Dreams.

“And there ain’t any mention of souls or demons or shit like that.”

“Yes.”

“Why did Ix want this? This don’t got shit to do with what she’s doin’. Why this?”

A half remembered memory tugged at the back of Olivia’s mind. “Taauth.”

“What about him?”

“She’s trying to hurt Taauth,” explained Olivia, the memory slipping from her grasp every time she tried to focus on it.

Ben snapped his fingers. “She’s tryin’ to get at Taauth with this. How?” He shook his head. “Never mind, don’t care. Point is, she wasn’t puttin’ all her eggs in one demon-y basket.”

“He can’t really get hurt physically,” said Olivia. “Like Cyrus.”

“So she was thinkin’ about goin’ after his mind. I gotcha. Who wrote this thing?” asked Ben.

“Jonathan Gizenga,” said Olivia, reading off the top of the page. The half memory faded from her mind once again.

“Got your tablet with you? Wanna see what else he’s written about.”

She grabbed her tablet form her room upstairs and set it on the table. One quick search later, she said, “A lot of dream stuff.” She skimmed further down the screen. “He has Ph.Ds in psychology and applied magical theory.”

“Applied? So he can actually use the stuff he’s talkin’ about.”

“It sounds like it.”

They settled back in silence for a few minutes, each reading Dr. Gizenga’s publication history.

Ben grunted and said, “This seems a lot less evil than demons an’ human sacrifice an’ shit. Let’s send this on to Cyrus, see if he can do somethin’ with it. I think this is a dead end for figuring out Ix, though.”

“We haven’t seen any mental magic stuff from her, have we?” asked Olivia.

“No,” replied Ben.

“Would we remember?” She’d better not have messed with our memories.

Ben grimaced. “Not somethin’ I wanna think about. Let’s see what Amanda pulled from her computer before we go further with that shit.”

“I give up,” announced Miya, cutting off Olivia as she was about to respond. She stomped into the living room and flung herself on the couch between Olivia and Ben. The papers she’d been given hit the coffee table a moment later.

“That bad?” asked Olivia. She kept her wings spread out behind them, keeping herself cool. The air conditioning of Quarrel’s house seemed to struggle with six extra people, along with the hundred degrees of mid July Arizona heat outside.

Miya flipped a couple pages with unnecessary force, coming just shy of slapping it and her hand into the table. “I don’t know all magic. Whatever Ix is doing, how she’s doing it, it’s miles above me.”

“Really?” asked Ben. Yeah. You always seemed to know before.

“I do simple stuff. Bones want to heal, I speed it up. Ix sent a stream of biological magic through nonbiological air to make a self sustaining acid in a person’s bloodstream. She’s fucking around with the fabric of existence with this,” Miya replied.

“Don’t got any guesses?” asked Ben. “That’s quitter talk.”

“Fuck off. I’ve got nothing. I know she’s doing the soul severing thing. That’s it. That’s my guess. I couldn’t tell you if it takes five minutes or five days. I couldn’t tell you if the person needs to be conscious or not. I couldn’t tell you where all the power for this comes from.”

But don’t you mess with existence too? “You do impossible stuff none of us can do, too,” Olivia pointed out.

“You can fly. If I showed you blueprints for an airplane, would you know what the hell is going on?” Olivia shook her head. Miya offered her the papers. “Here’s my thing. Take a look at it.” She stared in confusion at technical magical diagrams that seemed to be portraying a human body. Beyond that, the complex, color coded lines had no meaning to her.

“But you still do magic. It’s still amazing.”

“Thanks,” said Miya, sticking her tongue out at Ben.

“Maybe we all take a quick break for a little bit?” said Olivia, standing and uncurling her tail from around her legs. “It’s not going anywhere.”

“That sounds great.”

Ben shrugged. “I ain’t gonna tell you no, but I wanna spend a bit more time on this. Mind if I take this for a bit?” He held up Olivia’s tablet and wiggled it in his hands.

“Sure.”

Olivia had discovered Quarrel kept a large supply of ice cream in the back of her freezer. She and Miya helped themselves to a bowl each. She found herself reaching to scratch the thin scars on her forearms before stopping herself as they leaned against the kitchen counter. It hasn’t gotten any better.

“I have a question.,” said Olivia, halfway through a scoop of chocolate ice cream.

“What?”

“Well, Ix hit me with the same stuff she hit Roach with. Maybe it’s sticking around with me.”

“Let me check.” Miya lay her hand on Olivia’s forearm, her eyes turning a deep red. “It’s at about the same level as Roach’s right now. Your body is just stomping on it, while his has to take the burn and then heal. You should be fine, but let me know if you feel anything change.”

“OK. Thank you!”

They chatted about nothing in particular as they finished their ice cream. Olivia squinted as the setting sun passed in front of her, beaming between the shades of the window in the kitchen.

“Want to go check on the others?” asked Miya as they set their bowl in the sink.

Olivia heard several sets of footsteps approaching. “No. They’re coming.”

“We all hit a wall at the same time,” Miya murmured to herself.

“They might have had better luck,” Olivia pointed out. Come on. Try and stay positive.

The whole team assembled in the living room with various levels of energy. Amanda nearly bowled Miya over as she rushed over to the center, Ix’s old laptop in hand. Miya and Olivia, meanwhile, simply slumped back into their old seats.

“Everyone ready?” asked Amanda, once they were all settled.

“I’ve got nothing,” barked Miya, undercutting her.

Amanda bit back what she was about to say, though she shot a surprised look at her.

Miya recapped for the other what she’d told Ben and Olivia. “I will say this,” she said at the end of her spiel. “Ix’s plans don’t really matter anymore. She failed. She wanted to save Mexico, but Taauth beat her to the punch.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Olivia saw Roach nod in agreement.

“I know Cuauhtemoc was the king, but will it really be that bad?” asked Amanda. “Don’t they have a chain of command?”

“Oh, Mexico is fucked now,” said Miya, her tone of voice giving no room for doubt. “I give it two months for the whole thing to collapse. There’s a hundred different groups the Aztecs oppressed that only Cuauhtemoc kept a lid on. Without a walking god on the Aztec goernment’s side, they’re going to have rebellions everywhere. The Mayans will be having a field day.”

“Mayans?” asked Olivia.

“Yeah, durin’ the first Mexican-American war we learned real quick to not fight Cuauhtemoc out in the open,” explained Rob. “Whenever he got uppity south of the border we’d just ship boats of guns an’ ammo to the Yucatan. Mayans would take ‘em an’ keep doin’ that guerilla war they do so well. Cuauhtemoc would have to turn more of his attention there. Repeat as necessary.”

How did you know that? You never know history stuff? Ben nodded along to Rob’s mini lesson, looking unsurprised. Just me?

“She’s got a tiny window to get back to Mexico before they pass the point of no return,” said Ben. “Not sure if she can stop it, but she’ll try.”

Olivia leaned back and stretched, turning from side to side as Ben talked. When Quarrel thought no one else was looking, she shot a disgruntled glare at the back of Ben’s head. Did he ever apologize for leaving Roach unprotected? Olivia averted her gaze before Quarrel could notice.

“So,” said Quarrel, tearing her eyes away from Ben. “We’ve also got a small window to bring her to justice.”

“She might not go back,” said Amanda. “The Aztec government kicked her out, remember? She’ll need something to show them before she even has a chance.”

“Talked with a friend. Was part of temple,” rasped Roach. “About demons.” He grimaced and sat forward, a hand moving to his throat as he spoke. “Once we knew more, demons became sacred. People sacrificed were taken to gods. Demons take the dead. Therefor, demons do gods’ work.”

“So she’s basically fuckin’ around with the messengers of the gods?” asked Rob.

“She’s committed sacrilege. She can’t go back,” said Miya. “But she’ll want revenge and power. She’ll stick around here.”

Roach nodded as he cleared his throat. He’s sitting upright more, I guess he’s feeling better. After the group processed this new information, with and no one chipping in more information, Amanda asked, “Ben, Olivia, did you find anything?”

Ben shook his head and said, “It was interestin’, not relevant. Ix was lookin’ at fuckin’ with Taauth’s mind, but unless you found somethin’ in that laptop that says otherwise, she didn’t go further. It was an interestin’ idea, I sent it on to Cyrus.”

“I didn’t find anything about that,” replied Amanda. “But I have found a couple people she’s been emailing. One was the owner of that taco restaurant.”

“Anyone else interesting?” asked Quarrel.

“Absolutely. There’s one woman who’s an executive at some local company. But the thing is, she owns the deed to that house we found, as well as two others. There’s about three or four other people like that. Some she was talking with before she got here.”

“So we got a list of targets,” summarized Ben.

Amanda nodded. “And that’s not all. I found a bunch more magical plan things. You can take a look if you want to, Miya, but they looked just as complicated to me.”

“No. It would just be a waste of time,” grumbled Miya.

“It wouldn’t hurt, would it?” asked Olivia. “You might figure something out. You don’t have to beat your head against it.” I think that’s the right saying. Right?

Miya gave Olivia a long, hard stare before her shoulders slumped. “Fine. I guess I’ll take a look at them.”

“Roach? Quarrel? What did you guys find?” asked Amanda.

“Not much we didn’t already know,” said Quarrel. “This Chinese girl can make fire out of anything that can burn. She regenerates incredibly quickly. The Chinese military facility nearly ran out of sedatives on her while testing her. But other than that, she’s a normal human, and so I guess is Taauth.” And Cyrus.

Rob leaned forward and added, “They kinda brainwashed her. Make her kill Siberians day in day out. When things were quiet on the border they planned on usin’ her on their own people. Dunno if they have or not, those documents are old fuckin’ things. She could be at the center of the earth now.”

“Cyrus seemed to think she was still around,” said Amanda. “If anyone can get her out of there, he can, and the sooner the better.”

“Yeah,” agreed Quarrel. “They didn’t… they didn’t hold back on her.”

Amanda nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll keep digging into her laptop. I’ll see if I can find anything for you, Miya, because it sounds like the rest of us have hit dead ends for the moment.”

Miya gave a weary nod.

“But I think that can wait until we get a proper night’s rest. Roach, how are you holding up?” asked Amanda.

Roach grunted. “Better. Not best.”

“We could all use some rest, than. Oh, and Quarrel, our little project could use some fine tuning.”

Quarrel cracked a smile. “I’ll get started right away.”

The group dispersed. Olivia tapped Rob on the shoulder with the back of her finger as he passed. “How did you know that stuff about Mexico?” she asked.

“What? I ain’t allowed to know things?” asked Rob with a grin.

“It’s not that. You just never say anything about, you know, history stuff.”

“My dad had a ton of history books about US military history. Me an’ my brothers read all that shit when we were kids.”

“Oh, OK.” An awkward pause filled the air. I should say something. Anything.

“I gotta get our armor fixed up,” said Rob, his grin having gone nowhere.

Olivia nodded wordlessly as he passed. Don’t mind me, I’m just being stupid. Everyone else had scattered, with equipment to check on and old wounds to bandage. She flexed her wings in the now empty living room. They don’t feel sore. I can still fly, that’s all I really need. Where is Ben?

Olivia found Ben hunched over his sniper rifle. “Hey. What’s up?” he asked without looking up. Part of the casing of the rifle near the trigger lay on the table beside him.

“Ben, have you apologized to Quarrel yet?”

He stopped and shot her a confused look. “For what?”

“You know, abandoning Roach?” Please tell me you didn’t forget that.

Ben shrugged and turned back to his rifle. “I didn’t do anythin’ wrong to her. I talked with Roach already, we’re good. As far as I see it I got nothin’ else to apologize for.”

“But you kind of did do something. You weren’t being mean or anything, but you left him there and they’re close. But you just messed up is all. She’s really not happy with you.”

“Hey, if she don’t wanna say somethin’ to my face, so far as I care we’re good.”

“Things may be good for you, but not for her. Just talk to her. That’s all I ask,” pleaded Olivia.

Ben sighed and massaged his forehead with his full hand. “Alright, alright. Let me just finish this up.”

“You’re not going to forget or something, are you?”

He laughed. “I ain’t gonna do that, don’t worry.”

“Bad news,” yelled Quarrel. “Ix has kidnapped more people.”

“I guess that talk will have to wait,” said Ben as he and Olivia followed the urgent sound of Quarrel’s voice downstairs. Quarrel had her phone in hand. “A friend in the MHU just told me,” she added as the other rushed in. “Three people were abducted, so we all know what that means.”

“Three?” rasped Roach, eyebrows arching upwards.

“She’s never taken that many before,” said Quarrel.

“Why would she need three people?” asked Olivia.

“She could be in a hurry, whatever she’s trying could need more people” replied Amanda. “No matter what, it’s a bad sign.”

“So what are we gonna do about it?” asked Ben, standing up and heading for the gun cases.

“Do the same thing we did last time,” said Rob. “Scan for demons with Miya, search the area when we get a hit.”

“They were just captured. We won’t find her with a demon until too late,” said Quarrel.

“We’ve got a list of possible places, remember?” pointed out Amanda.

“Fuck. Right.”

“I’ll map out where we need to go, than we’ll find those people. Any questions?” Amanda asked the group at large. After everyone shook their heads, she said, “Then let’s get ready. We’ll move out after sundown.”

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Rip Out my Beating Heart – Respite

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did I let him talk me into this? Olivia circled around the apartment building she’d just escaped from. A squad of soldiers scrambled for cover in the streets below, rifles aimed up at her. The sun, nearly set, shone in her eyes as she looped back around to track down Ben.

The adrenaline was not enough to deaden the ache in her back muscles where Ix’s soldier had managed to land shots. Her arm, from the skin to the bone, also ached where Ix had shoved sickly black tendrils of magic into it. A couple shots rang out, one going wide, the other tearing through the membrane of her wing. She hissed in pain, falling as her wing reflexively tucked back in.

She forced her wing back out and dove to build speed. Before another shot could hit her, she arced and put the apartment building between them. She managed to hear more gunshots from inside the building. Ben! The gunshots had come from below, on the second floor. He can get out from there. Then, shouting picked up from the corner of the building. The squad of soldiers had followed.

No! She twisted to the side, curving sharply back towards them. With wings tucked in, she dived towards the center of the group. A bullet struck her in the shoulder, the rest went wide. At the moment of contact, she spread her wings again and pulled back up, striking at anyone in range. Her foot smacked against the side of the lead soldier’s head, the claw on her hands grazed another’s ear. The rest fired into the air after her. Another pass and the soldiers had scattered into four groups, covering each other’s backs so she couldn’t strike at a group without diving into their crossfire. Pay attention to me, not Ben.

She harried them for a few minutes, faking dives and circling around, keeping them on their toes. They were pushed away from where Olivia had last heard the gunshots from inside the building, though she’d heard no others since. Hurry, Ben. Please be OK. Finally, she saw a familiar hooded figure leap out of a window on the second floor and immediately teleported to the ground.

He’s OK. He’s OK. Olivia made one final false dive at the soldiers to keep them occupied as Ben continued to teleport away. She followed, high in the air, once he was clear. The sun had fully set, little more than a receding glow on the horizon, just as sirens began to draw closer and closer.

“Olivia, are you alright?” asked Amanda over the comms. Everyone else had packed into the cars below Olivia.

“Yeah.”

“Good, we’re moving.”

Olivia coasted through the air, too high up to be seen from the ground by human eyes. She, however, could see Amanda’s car and Rob’s truck just fine. They drove, quickly but reasonably, though the streets of Phoenix, heading back to Quarrel’s house. Instead of a direct route, they drove in an arc, at one point circling to mark any following cars for Olivia.

Eventually, they got back without incident. The others staggered out of the cars, leaning on each other for support. Rob wrapped his arm around Amanda’s shoulders, and Ben jumped to the back of the truck to help Quarrel with the unconscious body of Roach. Olivia landed in the backyard so Quarrel’s neighbors wouldn’t wonder why a massive feral was in her house and slipped in when Ben opened the door for her.

She tackled him with a bear hug the moment she was inside. “Don’t ever do that again,” she mumbled into his shoulder. “I was worried.” Everyone is always shooting us and you can’t get shot like I can.

“Yeah,” he managed to croak. After a moment he added, “Can’t breathe.”

“Sorry,” she said, putting him back down and releasing him. She felt herself swaying on her feet as the adrenaline finally faded completely.

“How you holdin’ up?” He reached up for a cupboard in the kitchen, grabbing glasses for water. “Want a drink?”

“Yes please. And I’m OK. Just tired.”

He nodded, handing her water and taking another into the living room. The others had circled around the prone form of Roach on the floor. Miya, looking half dead, blinked a few times as she lay a hand on Roach’s wrist, eyes unfocused and distant. Quarrel’s head snapped up as Ben passed her the second glass of water. Olivia flinches slightly at the sight of anger in her eyes.

“What the hell was that back there?” demanded Quarrel. She stood and jabbed a finger at Ben’s chest as she took another steps forward towards him.

“What?” asked Ben, a small smile flickering across his face. He still held the water towards her.

“You left him completely alone, out cold, in an alley, when there were tons of hostiles around. How could that possibly have seemed like a good idea?”

“I watched him regrow a fuckin’ head once. I thought he just needed a breather an’ he’d be right back at ‘em. An’ this is for him,”

“Obviously this was different. It doesn’t take him any more than ten seconds to recover. How could you not notice?”

“Well I didn’t fuckin’ know that.” Ben placed the water next to Roach’s head, opposite Miya. “An’ I had other things to worry about. There were guys with guns tryin’ to kill me at the same time.”

Stop yelling. Stop fighting. “Is Roach OK?” asked Olivia, raising her voice as much as she dared to be heard.

“He’s not going to die, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Miya, speaking up for the first time. “He’s not in good shape, either. There’s some freaky magic acid running through his system. His body and power are fighting it off and flushing it out, but it’s going to take a while.”

“Thank you,” said Amanda, voice tight. “Is there anything we can do?”

“No. You guys can’t really do anything and I’m tapped out.”

“But he’ll be OK?” asked Quarrel, her anger subsided for the moment.

Miya nodded. “Yeah.”

“Hey, we’re gonna take a look at the mega crossbow downstairs,” said Rob. “Wanna take a look.”

“I’ll stay with him, if that’s OK?” She turned to Miya, who had stayed awake just long enough to stagger over and crash on Quarrel’s armchair, her tiny form nearly swallowed by the cushions. “Never mind.”

The group came to an unspoken agreement and broke up. Quarrel remained sitting by Roach, while Ben teleported off to where the guns had been set aside. Rob headed straight to his truck, while Olivia followed Amanda back into the kitchen. She winces whenever she starts moving.

“Are you OK, Amanda?” she asked. “Is your stomach alright?”

“It’ll be fine,” replied Amanda. She zipped open a small black bag she’d tucked away in a corner on the counter and began rummaging through. Small, hard objects rattled against plastic cases.

“I thought you were mostly done with those.”

“Not all of them. And one of these is a painkiller,” Amanda said, popping a trio of pills into her mouth.

Olivia wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gently squeezed. “Well, I hope you get better.” Together, they headed to the basement as the front door opened to let in Rob.

“How’d that fuckin’ mega crossbow work?” called out Ben from across the room.

“Beautifully,” said Amanda.

“Nothin’ like puttin’ half a pound of sharp steel through a wall,” added Rob, hauling the contraption in question inside on his back. “Hurt the fuck outta my shoulder, though.”

“I can take that if you want,” said Olivia.

“Sure.” Rob offloaded the crossbow with a grunt. Olivia hefted it. Unlike most of Quarrel’s other crossbows, this didn’t feel like it had any plastic. She may as well have been carrying a solid block of metal. In the basement, Amanda directed Olivia where to put it, and Rob began taking it apart. The two techies launched into a technical discussion, something to do with magnets, as Olivia found the large armchair Quarrel had been sleeping in. She nodded off as the chatter turned into a soothing drone in the back of her mind.

***

Olivia returned to consciousness under a fuzzy blanket. Oh, this is nice. She kept her eyes shut and tried to burrow further into the cushions. She tucked her tail in so it could share in the fuzziness. The only thing spoiling the moment was the ache in her arm. The old wounds that Clone had given her in the feral institute felt warm.

Before she had time to savor the moment, she heard a low voice across the room say, “Is she finally awake?”

“What?” Olivia mumbled, still unwilling to leave the couch.

“You just slept for sixteen hours, Olivia,” said Amanda from somewhere ahead of her.

“Oh, wow. That’s a long time. Did I miss anything?”

“You sleep for twelve hours normally. And no, you didn’t miss much. We all got some sleep.”

“OK.” Olivia relaxed under the blanket again, eyes still firmly shut.

She enjoyed the silence, broken only by the occasional tink of metal as Rob adjusted the screws of something. Or maybe it’s the nuts and bolts. I should ask him about all that stuff one day. Olivia could only hear Rob and Amanda in the basement. No Quarrel?

“How is Roach?” asked Olivia.

“He woke up and was talking a couple hours ago,” replied Amanda. “He’s still pretty rough, though. He passed out a little later.”

“He’ll be OK?”

“Yeah, Miya figured out what Ix did. You know magic, right?”

“A little,” replied Olivia, before realizing Amanda’s question might have been rhetorical.

“Then her explanation might make sense to you. All I got out of it was chain reaction.”

After a while, Olivia finally mustered up the energy to open her eyes and crawl out from under the blanket. Despite the midsummer Arizona heat, the air conditioned basement was refreshingly cool. She took a moment to stretch her wings before heading upstairs to check on the others. Roach was awake when she reached the living room, Quarrel right beside him. From the dark rings under her eyes, she hadn’t slept much, if at all. Roach’s normally taciturn face looked exasperated as Quarrel lectured..

“It’s fine. Not dead,” Roach rasped to her as Olivia lumbered up.

“I know. You just need to start taking better care of yourself.”

“I’ll heal.”

“Do you hear yourself? Literally? Can you hear yourself? That knife wound never healed properly. Just listening to you is painful.”

“Not dead though,” he said, a teasing smile creeping across his face.

Quarrel didn’t smile. She gave him a light punch to the shoulder and said, “That’s not the bar you want to set!”

“Hi, Roach!” said Olivia.

His smile didn’t vanish. “Hey.”

“Are you feeling better?” she asked.

“Fine now,” he rasped. “Just need rest.”

“Do your scars ache?” she asked. Ix knocked him out, right?

He shot her a questioning look. “My chest. Why?”

“My arms do too. I think she tried the same thing on me, but Ben stopped her.”

“Lucky. It hurt.”

Quarrel grumbled wordlessly, a dark look on her face, and turned as Amanda and Rob joined Olivia.

“Ben, Miya! Got something for you!” shouted Rob to the house.

Once they’d all gathered around, Amanda produced a thick, tattered binder, with thick red tape at the corners. Olivia folded her arms near the back of the room. Miya was looking much more alert, no longer about to fall asleep at a moment’s notice.

“We grabbed a bunch of documents in Ix’s quarters” said Amanda. “I also stole her computer.”

“Oh, so she’s fucked? Back at square one?” said Ben.

“If she’s not a moron she has backups somewhere,” explained Amanda. She pulled a stack of papers out of the folder. “I gave these a quick look over to see what we had, but we don’t have a lot of time so I wanted to get as many eyes on this as possible. This is a research paper, ‘The Effects of Magic on the Human Experience of Dreams’. I don’t know what kind of scientific paper publishes hippie bullshit, but whatever, it’s magic. It’s by some guy named Jonathan Gizenga.”

She slapped the papers down on the coffee table in the middle of the group. Two columns of densely packed text covered the first page. Amanda pulled out another stack of papers, this one about an inch thick.

“There’s also a ton of papers written in some Asian language. I can’t tell if it’s Chinese or Japanese or what. There’s notes in Nahua in the margins, which I also can’t read.”

That stack also fell onto the table. Roach and Ben both leaned in.

“This mean she can read whatever this is?” asked Ben.

Amanda shrugged. “It seems that way.”

“It’s Chinese,” rasped Roach. He lay a thick finger on one of the handwritten note in the margins. “Beijing.” On to another. “PLA.”

Olivia leaned over to Rob next to her and whispered. “PLA?”

“People’s Liberation Army. Chinese army.”

Olivia returned her attention to Amanda just as she emptied the folder and said, “The last thing is some super technical magic thing. I have no idea what it’s saying. Miya, Olivia, this one is all on you.”

“You really can’t figure it out, genius girl?” groaned Miya. “I don’t know all magic.”

“No, I mean it’s almost all drawings. I’m guessing they’re magic streams, but that’s all I’ve got.”

Amanda passed the papers over to Miya, who grumbled wordlessly. Miya’s eyes widened. “Whoa, OK. This is… something.”

“What?” asked Rob.

“I don’t know. It’s definitely something.”

“Very descriptive,” said Ben.

“Fuck off. I’d like to see you figure this out, smart ass.” Miya sighed and grabbed the document, settling back in the corner of the couch and beginning to read.

Roach looked up from the paper covered in strange characters Olivia had never seen before. “Not about magic.”

“No?”

“A weapon. A super.”

“Hang on.” Amanda disappeared down to the basement, returning a moment later with her helmet and a laptop. “I have a translator. I’ve got it set to Chinese.”

She turned on her laptop and aimed the helmet at the paper. A first person view from the helmet showed up on screen. After a moment, text in English began overlaying itself on the Chinese characters.

Before Olivia could make any observations, Amanda said, “Whoa, 1967? This is an old, classified document. How did she get this?”

“Alright, I’ll scan these and get a couple English copies for us. Quarrel, where’s your printer?”

As they got everything settled, Olivia leaned back and read everything she could on the screen. Whoever had written this paper seemed to be referring to a younger girl as a weapon. The language was cold and distant, with no name given. Where is she now?

“So she was looking into dreams and a Chinese weapon,” Quarrel summarized.

“She’s researching how to sever a soul from a body,” piped up Miya. “I think.”

“Not just a standard person. The Chinese experimented with their girl,” said Rob.

“Come at the king it’s best not to miss. She wants to be as sure as possible on Taauth,” said Ben.

“And I doubt Cuauhtemoc was ever going to subject himself to organ removal,” said Quarrel, horror creeping onto her face as she read.

“Wait, ‘was?’ Past tense?” asked Olivia.

“What? Did you not hear?” When Olivia shook her head, Ben added, “Cuauhtemoc is dead. Taauth killed him while we were fighting Ix.”

Wasn’t he supposed to be immortal? And Taauth just killed him?

“That’s some dangerous shit she’s playing with,” said Miya to herself.

“What?”

“OK, OK,” said Amanda, raising her voice to be heard over everyone. “We’re jumping around. We’ll will never get anything done like this. Let’s get organized. We have a magic research paper about dreams. Olivia, Ben, you two are on that.”

She passed the first, thin document in Olivia’s direction.

“We know the Chinese have an immortal woman they’ve been using as a weapon. Quarrel, Rob, and Roach will go through everything in this Chinese stack and see how it’s relevant.”

She nodded to the laptop and helmet setup, with the thick stack of papers in front of Roach.

“Miya is on those magic schematic things. I’ll crack open Ix’s laptop. If you find something absolutely earthshaking in importance, let everyone know. If not, just note it and keep working. In two hours let’s bring it all together. Any complaints? No? Let’s get started.”

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Rip Out my Beating Heart – Warrior

Skulker’s eyes focused on the darkening sky above him, framed all around by the smoking and jagged edges of a roof. Acid burned his nostrils. Movement at the rim of the roof caught his eye. Ix strode forward with fire in her eyes, one of her soldiers close behind. Skulker chuckled through the pain, trying to muster the strength to move. His body responded sluggishly. That could have gone better. Fuck. The soldier took aim.

Something big moved in the way, blocking his vision, just as the shots rang out. Olivia crouched over him, hissing in pain. Not dead yet, bitches! Skulker rolled over, his shoulder screaming in agony. A small chunk of the roof covering one of his legs fell to the floor with a dull thud. Olivia picked him up the rest of the way.

“Thanks!” he gasped just before he teleported to under where Ix and the soldier stood. The gutted kitchen of the abandoned apartment they found themselves in offered no protection otherwise. “Move!”

Skulker led the charge through a broken door, Olivia’s clawed feet scrambling on the tiled floor as she followed. Dead wood clattered on the ground behind them as Ix’s golem dropped down and gave chase. They found themselves in a darkened hallway, doors lining either side. Skulker spotted a dull green Exit sign and rushed off to the side. Keep up, Olivia.

A few more rifle shots hit Olivia in the back as Skulker teleported to the end of the hallway. Skulker aimed his pistol back towards Olivia.

“Down!”

Olivia took the hint and ducked to the side, giving Skulker a clear line of sight to fire off a few more shots. The soldier pulled back into the doorway, one of Skulker’s shots taking out a chunk of the old wooden frame an inch from his chest.

“Here,” shouted Olivia, finally caught up to Skulker. She threw her weight against another door to a staircase, shattering it completely into four separate pieces. Skulker ushered her in first, pulling out a grenade from his belt. Just as the golem and soldier poked their heads around their corners again, Skulker yanked the metal pin out and lobbed the grenade. Rather than sticking around, he rushed after Olivia, teleporting to just behind her back.

They were only halfway down to the next level when the grenade exploded, setting loose clouds of grey dust all around them. Olivia’s clawed feet kept slipping on the edges of the stairs, nearly sending her tumbling down before she managed to catch herself.

“Here,” barked Skulker as they approached the next floor. Olivia took the cue and launched herself through the heavy door. “Techies, how we lookin’?”

A moment later, the comms crackled and Delta’s voice came through. “Quarrel’s with Roach. Me and Gears are almost done.”

“Roach still down?” Skulker asked as he ran. Shit, I thought he’d have healed by now. He and Olivia took off down the hallway

“Yes. Where’s Ix?”

“Right behind us. Gotta go.”

Olivia lumbered ahead, hunched over and wings tucked in close in the tight space of the hallway. As they reached the end, Skulker spun and threw himself at one of the doors. It burst open, the old wood giving way as the impact sent a lance of pain through his shoulder. Oliva stumbled after him, missing the top of the doorframe with her head by an inch. Her wings brushed against the scattered and torn furniture. Skulker spotted blood seeping from wounds on her back.  She needs to get in the air. She can’t get shot much more.

“Get out of here,” he said, pulling Olivia towards the window.

“What? No,” she said, staring at him in shock. Behind them, he heard the clattering of dead wood and the pounding of two sets of boots.

“No.”

“No time. Less arguin’, more movin’.”

“But…”

“I’ll keep them busy, you’re cramped an’ slow in here.” She hesitated, one hand on the window, looking back at him. “Now.”

As Olivia finally disappeared through the window, Skulker turned back towards the approaching sounds of Ix and her companions. He exited the apartment just as Ix and her golem reached the opposite end of the hallway where he’d come from. Hi! Skulker fired off a few more shots as he backed away. The golem simply surged forward, placing the bulk of its amorphous body in front of Ix and absorbing the bullets. Skulker spun and teleported to yet another staircase at the end of the hallway.

He scrambled down the stairs, as fast as his feet and powers would carry him. Two more stories down, he headed back into the building proper, only to find Ix’s remaining soldier waiting, rifle at the ready. Fuck, he headed straight down. Skulker leapt across the hallway and tucked himself in a doorframe as best he could as the soldier opened fire. He fired back until his gun clicked empty again.

Bullets flew past as he reloaded. Why this floor? I just picked this one at random. His eyes strayed back to the stairs he’d come from. Ix will catch up soon, got to move. The moment he heard a break in the gunfire, he jumped out of cover and teleported, just in case it was a feint on the soldier’s part. An open door caught his eye. Cool. Another teleport brought him into the apartment and out of immediate harm’s way.

This apartment appeared lived in. Several military issue cots lay scattered around the room, with packs beneath them and thin blankets scattered on top. Curtains waved ever so slightly by an opened window. Quick exit. A TV was set up on an old wire spool about three feet off the ground, its screen flickering with Taauth’s and Cuauhtemoc’s meeting. He tuned it out and turned back to the front door, preparing his last flashbang. Stun her, kill her, get this over with.

He poked his head out as far as he dared and listened. Ix, her soldier, and her golem closed in. With the pull of a metal pin, he tossed the flashbang out and ducked back, covering his head. He only heard a hiss, rather than an explosion. He turned back around to find a small puff of smoke leaked out of the flashbang. Ix glowered at him, now only a few feet away and advancing. Fuck. He backpedaled back into the apartment, pistol in hand.

The golem led the charge through the door, taking the first of Skulker’s reactionary shots. Great fucking plan, me. Black acid arced through the ceiling towards him, debris raining down in its path.  He ducked his head as a particularly large chunk fell a few inches in front of him.

Screaming came out through the TV, loud enough to cut through the sounds of fighting. Skulker, Ix, and the soldier all hesitated. That doesn’t sound like diplomacy. They met eyes, and came to an unspoken truce. They want to know too.  Keeping an eye on each other, they both maneuvered to where they could both see the TV screen and each other. Skulker made sure the window was no more than ten feet away, to his right. The soldier, rifle still raised, squared his shoulders facing him. Ix and her golem simply froze, transfixed.

A bright flash filled the screen, and the camera shook violently. It focused just in time to see a massive boulder the size of a schoolbus rise from the earth. Skulker caught the smallest glimpse of a person standing atop of it. There’s Cuauhtémoc. Most of the sound had cut out, whatever microphones had been set up for the meeting were too far from the action or simply destroyed, but even so an evil laugh seemed to fill Skulker’s ears. Another, smaller figure also took to the air on its own.

In the sky, a storm of obsidian filled the air around what Skulker assumed to be Taauth. The maelstrom closed in closer and closer. Then the shards stopped, like they’d hit molasses instead of air. A white beam lanced out from Taauth’s hand. Cuauhtemoc ducked underneath just in time. The lance struck another boulder he held in the air, turning half of it to dust. Magic can do that?  The camera shook again, waving around so that Skulker and Ix couldn’t see what was going on

Ben took the time to take stock of his surroundings. He checked on the open window, and his unobstructed path to it. I’m on the second floor, a teleport should keep me from breaking my legs. Ix also cast a sidelong glance at him, her hand clenching to a fist. The other soldier kept a tight grip on his rifle.

The camera steadied again. Cuauhtemoc and Taauth were higher in the air now, harder to see through the swirling mass of stones. Then, one broke from the whirlwind. It cracked and twisted, in complete defiance of logic, at a fixed point in the air. It spread rough wings as four legs jutted out from beneath it. The new, massive winged lion let out an ear shattering roar that nearly blew out the speakers of the TV. It flapped its wings and flung itself in front of a boulder flung at Taauth, shattering it as it passed through, looking unscathed. Another boulder froze and began shaking and twisting. Cuauhtemoc hurled himself forward, along with eight more boulders arrayed behind him in an arrowhead formation.

A black bubble formed around Taauth. Cuauhtemoc’s lead boulder crashed into it and disintegrated. He caught his fall with another, decent sized boulder as his arrowhead hammered and battered away at the orb, seemingly making no impact. Obsidian chunks began raining down near the onlookers. A third boulder began warping. The two combatants were very high in the sky.

The boulders seemed to slow, as Cuauhtemoc brought himself in front of Taauth’s bubble. The camera zoomed in, enough for Skulker to make out his arms raised to either side. He seemed to be shouting a challenge to Taauth, face red as his mouth moved. His stone drew closer and closer to the bubble.

In a flash, faster than Skulker’s eyes could track, the bubble disappeared and a flash of golden light shot from Taauth to the center of Cuauhtemoc’s chest.

Cuauhtemoc, five hundred year old emperor, savior, and protector of the Aztec empire, fell. The room fell dead silent, as the massive rocks and boulders tumbled to the earth, along with the much smaller form of a man. He’s going to get up, right? He always does. Everything stayed dead silent. No figure rose from the mass of obsidian shards. Skulker shot another glance at Ix. She and her soldier started, simply waiting. The rocks didn’t move, didn’t show any sign of external control, beyond the three winged lions still circling in the sky.

I’ve seen all I need. Skulker, slowly at first, headed towards the window. Ix and the soldier were slow to respond, eyes still fixed, disbelieving, on the screen as he teleported straight for the opened window. He leapt, tucked into a ball, and hoped he wouldn’t catch his foot or arm on the wall. As a belated shot rang out behind him, he bounced off of the window frame and found himself outside, three stories up, in the air. He teleported straight down before he could build up too much downward momentum and landed in a roll on the street below.

He sprinted, back to their original meeting point. He spotted Olivia circling above in his peripherals. The others were already back in the cars, engines idling. Quarrel cradled Roach in the back of the truck, his veins still dark, though not as jet black as they had been when Ix had first arrived in the taco shack. She had her goggles up on her forehead, and her eyes narrowed at Skulker as he teleported to Amanda’s car.

“Was it worth it?” asked Skulker, between heaving breaths. He checked over his shoulder at the still empty streets as her climbed in the car. Sirens wailed in the distance, growing closer and closer.

“I think so,” replied Amanda. “Get in, we’re getting out of here.” As she put the car in gear, helmet to her side, she looked back at him and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I think Taauth just killed Cuauhtemoc.”

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Rip Out my Beating Heart – Flower

The summer evening found Ben crammed in the back of Roach’s truck, long rifle on his lap and out of sight from the outside. Miya, in the seat in front of him, kept her drooping eyes glued as best she could to her freaky cracked cow skull. She ran a fingernail over the top of the skull, her wrist passing over the ragged lump where Ben and Roach had sawn off one of the horns. Roach, for his part, looked unaffected as always, keeping his stoic eyes on the road as he drove.

Ben tapped his fingers on his mask on the seat beside him along with the song on the radio. Looking for demons. Looking for them. That’s weird. So we can find an Aztec priestess. Also weird. So we can find info about the demon god thing that’s possessing my brother. Still weird. Just super weird when I lay it all out like that.

His eyes gazed over the unfamiliar streets of Phoenix, Arizona. He still sweated in his jeans and t-shirt, despite the old AC in the truck being cranked up a high as it could go. The clock was approaching six, just as Taauth and Cuauhtemoc would be meeting for the first time, in front of the whole world. Ix and her soldiers aren’t going to be that distracted. It’s better than nothing, but we shouldn’t pretend this is some perfect opportunity.

“Whoa, whoa, stop,” said Miya, snapping Ben out of his reverie.

Roach slowed down, parking in a spot on the side of the road. In the rearview mirror, Ben watched  as Amanda’s small red car did the same a block behind them.

Miya nodded to the building across the street. “That one.” The garish red, green, and white above the front door read ‘Montezuma’s Taco Shack.’ Are you fucking kidding me? Ben snuck a glance at the skull in her hands. It looked no different to his eyes.

“You sure?” he asked. Even Roach cast her a curious look.

“I’m pretty sure,” she replied. “This thing is lighting up like mad.”

“If you say so,” Ben muttered.

“What is it? The office building?” asked Amanda over the comms.

“No, it’s Montezuma’s Taco Shack,” replied Miya.

“How is it looking up there, Olivia?” asked Ben.

After a moment, the static reply of Olivia came through. “Is it that small brown building?

“Yeah.”

“Um, nothing. Wait, hang on, let me circle around.” A few second passed, before she said, “There are two guys in the back. They’re just standing there, talking. I think they’re soldiers.”

“OK. It looks like there’s somewhere out of the way we can park a block to the right,” said Amanda. “Let’s get there and get ready. Olivia, keep us up to date.”

Ben kept his eye on the taco shack as Roach drove. The neon open sign flashed in the door. This isn’t close to being a temple. Why here? They’ve got to know people there. Maybe the owner. A few moments later, Roach and Amanda’s cars pulled up side by side in a small, out of the way lot sandwiched between two buildings. They all got out, except for Miya, who massaged her closed eyes as she leaned against the car door.

Ben tapped on the window next to her head until she got annoyed enough to lower it. “You stayin’?” he asked.

“I’ve been awake for thirty six hours now. I don’t think you want me out there.”

“Don’t worry, just get some rest,” said Amanda. “Ben, Roach, do you think you can handle the distraction with Olivia.”

Roach nodded, as Ben said, “We should be fine.” We’ve just got to keep moving.

“Guys, there’s people watching the taco place,” broke in Olivia over the comms.

“What do you mean?” asked Amanda.

“A soldier is at a window overlooking the taco place. The window is all covered and stuff, I almost missed him.”

“Do you think he noticed us when we first parked outside the shop?”

“I can’t tell, sorry. I’m sorry,” she said.

“Was he talkin’ on a radio or somethin’?” asked Ben. Think, Olivia. “What was he doin’?”

“Nothing. Just watching.”

“He look super interested? Or like a dude on watch duty?”

“I think so. I mean, interested.”

“OK. That might mean they know we’re coming.” Amanda added, “Of course they don’t want to sleep five feet away from a captured demon.”

“We can work with this,” said Quarrel. “They’re obviously watching the demon shack. We move on that, they’ll be drawn out.”

“Or run.”

“Not if it’s just two of us. They ran last time because it was the two of them against all of us. But if it’s me and Roach, they’ll think they can take us. We just have to act like we’re scouting the place out. Then they come out an’ try an’ scare us off or take us out. There’s your openin’.”

“I like it,” said Rob.

Amanda nodded slowly, brow furrowed in thought. “OK. We’ll move on your go.”

Together, Roach and Ben started walking in the direction of the taco shack. Ben made sure his shirt covered his holstered pistol. He left his rifle in the car, a man walking down the street in broad daylight with a gun would attract the police. Behind them, the techies surreptitiously began preparing their equipment.

“Thinkin’ we go in through the front?” Ben asked him once they reached the street. “Be obvious about it?”

“No. Back.” Fake them into thinking we’re just scouts. I like it.

A handful of other people walked on the sidewalks around them, though none were close enough to eavesdrop on them. Ben cast a sideways glance at the sky. Olivia, at this distance looking no bigger than a dime, circled far overhead.

“Do we wanna fuck around when we’re in, act like customers, or just guns blazin’?” asked Ben.

“Soldiers probably inside. Guns blazing.”

Ben glanced over his shoulder with a grin just before he slipped into the alleyway after Roach. Give that lookout something to think about. They found the rear door next to a grimy dumpster with a few flies buzzing around it. Roach positioned himself squarely in front of the door and waited for Ben.

He drew his pistol and pulled the grinning mask over his head. “Let’s go.”

Roach drove his weight into the flimsy metal door. It gave way around the lock with a metallic groan, shooting back on its hinges. Skulker raised his pistol at the ready and rushed in right after him. Just as Roach crossed the threshold, the heavy thud of a shotgun rang out and shoved him back as he took a slug to the collarbone.

Skulker’s pistol whipped around, and fired, catching the soldier lying in wait next to the doorway with two of his three shots. He knelt down beside Roach and whipped his head around to take in the kitchen, on the lookout for any more threats. Two workers,eyes wide with fear, crouched behind a stainless steel table covered in kitchen utensils and bowls.

“Out!” barked Skulker as he moved away from the door. He eyed their simple white clothes and aprons as they passed. No hidden weapons. Just workers. Shouting in Nahua reached his ear from the front of the shop. “You still alive, Roach?” he asked, voice lower.

“Yes,” grumbled Roach as he got back to his feet, the front of his shirt a bloody mess. Beneath, his flesh finished knitting back together. “That hurt.”

“Doors ahead. More of them.” Skulker fired off a few more shots towards the double doors on the far end of the kitchen. Someone on the other end yelled in a deep voice in more Nahua. The door opened by a few inches, and a dark piece of metal came flying in.

“Grenade!” yelled Skulker, turning and teleporting out the door they came in through. Roach ducked his head and scrambled away. Skulker tucked himself away next to the doorframe and waited for the bang. A small explosion rocked the wall he leaned against, sending out bits of shrapnel and dust through the door. The sounds of the double door slamming open and boots pounding on the floor reached him a moment later.

Skulker turned the corner, ready to teleport with pistol raised, just in time to see a large, heavyset Aztec man in plain clothes barreling towards him. The butt of his rifle crashed into Skulker’s head. He blinked away stars and staggered away. Before he could react further, the soldier with the rifle rammed into him with his shoulder. Ben fired a couple shots blindly, giving himself enough space to teleport as far as he could to the side.

He squeezed the trigger three more times. Only two bullets shot out, both missing their mark. Ben jammed the gun back into its holster and drew a long, slashing knife from Rob. Skulker teleported right up the the soldier as he aimed with his rifle, winding up having to throw himself to the side to avoid a couple shots. He swung his knife, trying to keep the soldier off balance.

His knife drew blood along the soldier’s arm. He lowered his rifle and bulled into Ben again, though this time he was ready. The knife flashed down towards the soldier’s neck as he connected with Skulker’s chest. This time the knife struck deep, cutting into the soldier’s throat. He staggered back, choking on blood. One hand tried to staunch the wound to his neck, the other grasped for his sidearm. No. Skulker slashed one, two, three more times onto the man’s chest, until he finally stopped struggling.

Skulker found himself kneeling over the dead men. Roach. He teleported back inside, to find the two soldiers flanking Roach. One kept a pistol raised towards him, the other circled, looking for an opening. Roach whirled from one to the other, blood dripped from a shot to his knee. Skulker teleported again, right to the back of the second soldier. The one with the pistol’s eyes widened in alarm, but before he could warn his friend, Skulker jabbed his knife into this spine. Roach took the opportunity to lunge forward, his knee now healed, into him. Skulker yanked out his knife from the soldier’s back.

He looked up just in time to see Roach swinging a stool into the third and final soldier, knocking him off his feet. His head slammed into the tiled floor, knocking him out cold.

“Thanks,” rasped Roach, dropping the stool.

Skulker nodded, pulling his pistol back out and reloading. “That all?”

Roach looked out the double doors where the soldiers had come in from. “Looks like it,” he rasped. “You alright?”

“Head is killin’ me. Fine otherwise.”

They looked around the fairly standard restaurant kitchen. Other than the blood and three bodies, nothing stuck out. A rack of knives hung on one wall, various spoons and ladles on the other. Despite being a dingy little taco shack, it had two walk in freezers dominating the area. Well that sticks out. Skulker teleported over to examine them.

“This freezer is off,” said Skulker. “Why?”

“Might have demon,” replied Roach, cocking an eyebrow at the large shiny metal door.

“Neither of us can see it, right?”

“Was old blood on floor, last time,” rasped Roach in response.

“I guess it’s worth a look,” said Skulker with a shrug. He pulled the door open and peered in. Blood smeared the floor of the freezer. Skulker felt the hackles at the back of his neck rise as he put a foot forward further in. Nope.

“That’s freaky,” he announced, pulling back quickly and shutting the door. Roach nodded in agreement.

The two of them headed towards the dining area. A few chairs, four in fact, were overturned near some of the dozen tables scattered around. One for each of those soldiers. A news station, with a graphic of a Mexican flag waving in the background, played on all three of the small tube TVs set up around the room. Movement of a shadow at the door caught his eye.

“We gotta get ready,” said Skulker.

The comm in Skulker’s ear crackled to life as Olivia said, “They’re coming. I think Ix is with them. Wait…”

“What was that?” asked Skulker, already pulling out his pistol and backing away towards the kitchen.

Before Olivia could respond, the door opened. A twisted mass of dead wood tumbled through. It’s bleached white branches formed a serpentine figure, with a split piece of what was once firewood as the head. A tall woman, with distinctly Aztec features, stood behind it. Her long, uncut hair reached down to her waist. Two soldiers, also in plain clothes, flanked her.

“So you are the annoying ones,” she said, her thick accent nearly unintelligible. Her upper lip, marred by a small scar, curled into a sneer. With a small wave of her hand, Roach doubled over and vomited to the side. His veins turned black. Oh shit.

“Move,” Skulker shouted to Roach as the soldiers moved forward, in no particular hurry. The big man tried to follow his lead, struggling on hands and knees as he fought another bout of vomit. “Olivia, help.”

Without listening for a response, he leveled his pistol at the rough area where Ix and her soldiers stood and opened fire. The bullets bit into the body of the golem, sending out small splinters of wood. The construct shifted, putting more of itself between him and Ix as they advanced. The two soldiers jumped to either side, letting the golem take the lead. Then the door exploded as Olivia burst in.

She swung her claws into the back of the man’s neck, nearly taking off his head. Ix and the other soldier swung around just in time to catch Olivia roaring at them, claws uncurled and sharp teeth bared. In the chaos, Skulker took one of Roach’s arms over his shoulders and hauled him back. “Techies, need help. Ix fucked up Roach pretty bad.”

Roach tried to gasp something out, choking on something in his throat. Just keep moving. Skulker finally got him out back, next to the soldier Skulker had stabbed to death.

“I’m on my way,” replied Quarrel over the comms. “Everything is going well on our end.”

“Move,” barked Skulker. “Me an’ Olivia will keep Ix off.”

He heard another roar from the taco shack. He rushed back inside, teleporting to cover the distance. Olivia and Ix started at each other, the golem and the soldier circling around her warily to either side. Black began to creep up the veins of Olivia’s right arm. Nope. Skulker opened fire at Ix. The golem lunged, taking the bullets and shoving Ix to the ground. Skulker teleported just as the soldier trained his rifle on him.

“‘Liv’, run!” Olivia shook her arm, the black fading, and followed.

They burst out onto the streets. The surrounding pedestrians had vanished, no doubt at the first sounds of gunfire. They ran, Olivia struggling to keep up on her clawed and unbalanced feet. Just keep Ix busy. He spotted a short, four story building away from where the techies would be raiding Ix’s hideout. Behind them, Ix and the others

“Fly!” After a moment’s hesitation, Olivia jumped and took flight, leaving dust swirling in her wake. My turn. Skulker grinned under his mask and teleported up. His hands grabbed the metal of the fire escape. He pulled himself up and began dashing for the rooftop.

The golem formed a step ladder, allowing Ix and her remaining soldier to climb up its body and rush after him. I want one of those. Skulker fired a couple more shots to keep them on their toes as he continued to rush up and away from the angry priestess. Olivia landed next to him on the roof.

“What now?” she asked, breathless.

“Ideas?” he asked. She looked at him, panic visible even in her reptilian eyes. “That’s a no. Maybe just shoot her?”

The clatter of wood on concrete grabbed their attention. “Enough!” shouted Ix as she stepped onto the roof under the cover of the golem. “Your master will not stop me. He will not threaten the empire.”

Skulker stopped for a moment, pistol halfway to aiming at Ix. “Master?” What the fuck are you talking about?

“Don’t play the fool,” she spat. The soldier behind her climbed up, rifle aimed at Olivia. “That is his mask. Or maybe you’re just a simpleton, aping someone you don’t understand.”

“Oh shit. No, I got nothin’ to do with Taauth.” The moment he said the name, Ix’s frown deepened. “I plan on dealin’ with that fucker later. But he ain’t tryin’ to murder me at the moment, so I’d say you’re a bigger problem right now.”

“I am not a problem. I am trying to stop a madman.”

“You’re murderin’ people! The fuck was that for?” demanded Skulker.

“There is no life without sacrifice. It was necessary,” said Ix, eyes hard and unflinching. Right, Aztec priestess. Human life isn’t worth a nickel to her.

“She’s stalling,” whispered Olivia again. “More soldiers are coming.”

“Fuck that shit.” Skulker pulled a flashbang, one of his two remaining, and lobbed it low towards Ix’s feet. “Down!” He ducked and covered his eye with his arm, hoping Olivia would have the sense to look away.

The flashbang exploded in a bright flash and shockwave. Skulker teleported forward and drew his iron knife. Through Ix and the soldier both staggered back from the flashbang, the golem was unaffected. It reached for Skulker with long skeletal branches. He ducked under the first, clumsy branch and slashed straight at Ix. Her eyes widened at the sight of iron, and she barely managed to twist out of the way before Skulker could gut her. The knife still struck her in the side. A branch of the golem caught Skulker in the back of the leg before he could follow up. He stumbled, and the golem reared back for another blow.

Olivia swooped down in the nick of time. She lunged at the moving shape of wood and bark, her claws digging into the golem. She hurled it off of the rooftop. It tumbled over the edge, wood and bark twisting and grasping. She turned back to Ix with a snarl.

The priestess raised an eyebrow. “Very well, then.”

Ben grinned under his mask. He leveled his pistol at Ix and fired off a couple more shots, both going wide. Then the roof gave out below him.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Rip Out my Beating Heart – Plans

Ben tapped his foot as Amanda talked, fighting the urge to simply yell and shout until everyone understood. What the hell are we accomplishing right now? The others seemed content to watch him and Amanda talk back and forth, only occasionally chipping in. Roach was more interested in his phone than any actual planning. Everyone else stood or sat in a rough circle in Quarrel’s living room.

He caught the last words of Amanda’s sentence. “… just need to stall her.”

Ben felt a smile grow on his face. “I like how you just volunteered us for goin’ toe to toe with a high priest.” Make up your damn mind. On minute it’s ‘we can’t possibly fight her’, next it’s ‘just stall her’. The hell?

“You wanted a fight,” Amanda shot back.

Motion from Roach caught Ben’s eye. He looked up from his phone and said, “Just announced. Cuauhtémoc is meeting Taauth.” The room fell silent for a moment.

“OK. Great. What does that mean for us?” asked Ben.

“Not sure,” replied Roach. “Seemed relevant.”

“How?” asked Rob. At least we’re still kind of on the same page.

Roach shrugged. “Lots of diplomat talk in article. Both want to discuss mutual security.”

“Do you think this will affect Ix in any way?” asked Amanda.

“She’ll be glued to a TV screen when it happens. She may have been kicked out of Mexico, but old habits die hard,” said Miya.

“That’s a good point,” said Quarrel, straightening in her seat. “All of her soldiers probably will be. It would be a perfect time to hit them.” Now you’re talking!

“Where?” asked Roach. “Still don’t know.”

“Wait, back up,” said Ben, raising his hands. “When is this Taauth and Cuauhtémoc talk?”

Roach checked his phone again for a moment, then replied, “Nine hours. Six o’clock our time.”

Ben turned to Miya. “Will that give you enough time to do your demon radar thing?”

“No,” she replied immediately, eyes wide. “That’s still entirely theoretical.  And its demons. That’s not something we want to fuck up.”.

“Come on,” said Rob. “We got a good opportunity here. Don’t even need to make a distraction.”

“Nothin’ you can do?” added Ben.

Miya hesitated, biting on her lower lip as she thought. Amanda spoke up, “Guys, back off. She just took a head wound, she needs time.”

“No, I’ve been sleeping for the last twelve hours anyways. I might be able to. Might,” she repeated for emphasis.

“Didn’t you just say you needed a day anyways?” asked Quarrel.

“That was to answer the question if I could or not. You’re asking me to do that, then figure out the magic streams necessary, then use them, then hope we pick up something worthwhile. Apples and oranges.”

“So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance,” followed up Ben.

Miya rolled her eyes. “Sure. A small one, but sure.”

The others exchanged glances. Olivia, standing behind Miya’s seat, frowned at Ben. What? “Can I help?” she asked Miya.

Miya shrugged. “You’re the only other one here that can even see magical streams, so sure, why not.”

Amanda nodded. “We’ll see what you two come up with, then plan around that.”

***

Ben and Rob stood side by side, scrubbing the dishes from breakfast as the rest of the group dispersed. Other than a single area on a counter, Quarrel’s kitchen was remarkably clean. A jar of cooking utensils stood by the oven, untouched. She doesn’t use this stuff, does she? Techies.

“We didn’t invent the fridge to eat shit food,” Rob grumbled, loading a floral patterned plate into the dishwasher. “Why can’t anyone else cook? There’s more spices besides salt an’ pepper.”

“I think you’re the only one who cares enough. Besides, Roach ain’t bad.”

Rob grunted in response. The kitchen fell silent once more, save for the water running from the faucet. Ben watched as Rob’s eyes grew distant, his motions more mechanical and slow.

“How are you an’ Amanda doin’?” asked Ben.

Rob snapped out of his reverie. “Just fine. Railgun is almost done. Just gotta shoot it, really.”

“I can give it a shot, see if the average idiot like me can work it.”

Rob grinned. “Thanks. Amanda’s convinced that it should be easy, but me an’ her have been workin’ on the damn thing for a while now. We know that thing inside an’ out. I wanna make sure it’s easy to use.”

“Oh no, she one of those techies?” All the cool shit I’ve seen that’s fucking impossible to use. Heartbreaking.

“That don’t see the point of a user? Yeah, the person usin’ it is a problem for her. Don’t worry, I’ll get her to come around.” He shot Ben a curious look. “Why you askin’?”

“You seemed lost in thought is all.”

Rob nodded and said, “Nah, just worried about Sam.”

“Same. We’re wastin’ too much time.”

Rob stopped, facing Ben directly. “That reminds me. You gotta ease off.”

“Off what?” Ben rinsed the remains of coffee out one of Quarrel’s mugs as he spoke.

“Gettin’ real snappy an’ bitchy lately. Olivia noticed, I noticed. Others will.”

Olivia? Really? “Well we don’t got time to be nice,” replied Ben.

“Really?” Rob held up a hand. “They’re all helpin’ us, an’ there ain’t no money in this. Give ‘em a break, or this is gonna blow up in our faces. Doin’ this alone is gonna be a lot harder for us.”

“Still can, push comes to shove,” replied Ben. We’ll find a way. Always have.

“OK. OK. You’re smarter than this, Ben. What’ll we do? When we get to Taauth, what will we do? Do you have any idea how to get Taauth out of Sam? This ain’t somethin’ we can just shoot or punch.”

Ben paused as he scraped at a particularly stubborn bit of dried egg. “We’ll figure it out.”

“What if we can’t?” demanded Rob, voice hardening.

“There’s gotta be a way.”

“What if we can’t?” asked Rob again. “Ben, we don’t know shit about magic. An’ Taauth? He wiped out a race of advanced aliens on his own. The fuck are we supposed to do against that on our own? We need the others now. This ain’t a bunch of kidnappers.”

Ben grunted, “We’ll figure that out when we get to it, then.” They stood in silence for a moment, dishes clean and no one else around. I missed this.

“What the hell happened to us, man?” he asked out loud.

“What do you mean?” replied Rob.

“Our lives are super weird,” said Ben, waving his hand around to the world at large. “We’re talkin’ about helpin’ an old god kill another, even older god, who’s possessed our brother, while we’ve formed a team with a second techie, a mage chick, an’ Olivia. When did our lives get this weird?”

“I dunno. You called me, remember?” said Rob, his old grin back on his face. “Really you’re to blame for all this.”

“Me?”

“Yeah,” said Rob, nudging Ben in the shoulder. “I’d be happy chillin’ on the east cost if it weren’t for you.”

“Ain’t my fault you said yes.”

“Ha! True.” He wiped off his hands on a towel. “Well, I’d better help Quarrel an’ Amanda.”

Ben nodded. “I guess I’ll go check in on Miya. I’ll let you know if they’ve got anythin’.”

The brothers split up and headed in separate directions, Rob to the basement, and Ben to Miya and Olivia’s shared room. He poked his head in the doorway to find Miya and Olivia hunched over books on their beds, not even noticing his intrusion. Ben wandered away. A quiet house greeted him, broken only by the sound of a page turning behind him. Well this part is the worst. I hate waiting.

***

Ben woke up sprawled out on the couch, Roach snoring in the chair beside him. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes and checked the clock on his phone. Hey, I actually slept a decent amount. The house was still quiet, with no sign of the others. The late afternoon sun streamed in through the closed blinds of the living room.

In one smooth motion, Ben climbed to his feet and teleported out of the room, leaving Roach to his nap. After grabbing an apple from the fridge, he headed downstairs. In the dim basement, Amanda slept face down at her workbench, while Quarrel had curled up in a massive leather armchair in the corner. If the blankets were any indication, it had been set up for exactly that purpose. Rob twisted around in his chair at the sound of Ben descending the steps, metal file in hand. He nodded to his brother and returned to whatever metal part he was working on. Techie party never stops.

Ben headed back upstairs. How are the girls doing? Just as he reached the ground floor again, he heard small feet rushing down towards him. Miya rushed past him and pushed her way into the basement, two thick books held under each arm. Olivia lumbered behind a few moments later.

“What was that?” Ben asked her.

“I think she figured something out.” Dark rings circled Olivia’s eyes. Roach had woken up at the commotion, watching the exchange intently. “A way to find demons, or where they were, or something. I don’t know.”

“Well let’s go find out. They headed to the basement, Roach following behind. Downstairs, the techies had also stirred at the arrival of Miya. She pushed aside a trolley covered in different hand tools, sending some to the ground with the clatter of metal against bare concrete.

“Hey!” snapped Quarrel, climbing out of her armchair to stop her.

Miya ignored her, kicking aside a fallen ratchet with her foot and barking, “Marker. Now.”

“What are you doing?”

“And get me a cow skull. A real cow skull, with horns. I also need a paintbrush, and any cups you’re willing to spare, Quarrel.” She finally looked up at everyone else, a spark in her eye hidden under the haze of exhaustion. “Now!”

“Why?” demanded Amanda. Rob tossed a felt tipped marker to Miya. She nabbed it out of the air and knelt down at the space she’d cleared. Beside her, she spread out her two books.

“Well, there’s a type of stream vibrates a little bit when demons are around. I can’t use it, though,” said Miya as she flipped through pages.

“Why not?” asked Amanda.

“And what the hell are you planning on doing?” added Quarrel

Miya ignored her, instead answering Amanda’s question. “Because it has to do with air based magic. I use biological magic, remember? But there is a type of stream I can make that’s a rough equivalent. I just need to check on this one thing, though.” Miya’s voice trailed off as she buried her head back into the book. Her long, frazzled black hair formed a curtain over her face.

“And where are we supposed to find a cow skull?” asked Amanda, irritation peeking through her forced calm voice. It isn’t fun being on the other end of a bunch of snappy demands is it?

“I just need bone, any decent sized bone. This is the southwest, there’s got to be a cow skull somewhere.”

Roach rasped, “I’ll get it.” With that, he stomped away.

The others had spread out across the lair. Olivia stood looming behind Ben, swaying slightly. She and Miya haven’t slept for nearly a day, have they? Quarrel hovered over Miya’s shoulder, arms crossed. Without a word, Miya took the black marker and began drawing a circle on the concrete floor. Quarrel pursed her lips with a frown, though she said nothing. Once the outer circle had been finished, Miya moved on to bizarre geometric shapes inside, all connected in some way to the first outer circle.

“Do you have to do this in my workshop?” asked Quarrel, as Miya continued to scrawl.

“You don’t want this on your carpet and we don’t want to do this outside,” she replied, not giving Quarrel so much as a glance.

They spent the next forty minutes watching Miya with uncertainty. She shooed Olvia away when she stepped up to help. Rob and Amanda returned to assembling something basketball sized on the desk between them after a few minutes. Well, forward progress is happening now. Not sure what kind of progress, but progress! Roach eventually returned with a real cow skull, bleached white, tucked under his scarred arm. This better be quick, that meeting is happening in an hour.

Amanda apparently had the same thought as Ben. “We don’t have much time,” she said.

Miya looked up and said, “I’m close. Grind down one of the horns. Mix the powder with water. Three parts bone for every part water, and get me a gallon of that.”

Roach looked between her and the cow skull, puzzled for a moment, until Quarrel produced a large metal file and passed it to him. Between Ben, Quarrel, and Roach, they had the horn ground down and mixed with water into several plastic cups.

“Done,” called out Ben.

“Great, I’m almost done. Paintbrush?” asked Miya.

“Hang on, I think I have some.” Quarrel returned in an instant with some black foam paintbrushes. “What size?”

“That one,” Miya grabbed the inch wide one and began to work. She dipped the foam paintbrush into the bone mixture and began spreading it along the marker lines she’d drawn.

“Why do you have paintbrushes?” Ben asked Quarrel. Crossbows, paintbrushes. Not much overlap there.

She shot him an almost offended look. “They’re leftover from a project of mine. I take pride in my home.”

“Sometimes,” added Roach, a small smile on his face. Quarrel made a face at him, then turned back to Miya.

The bone dust twirled and twisted, and when it met another line Ben’s eyes seemed to glide right over it. He blinked. The hell? The more he tried to concentrate on the junction, the more his eyes refused to see. Olivia can see magic, right?

Ben turned around and looked up to see Olivia staring at the ritual, eyes wide. “Hey, see anythin’ cool?” he asked.

Apparently too loudly, as Miya shushed him. She kept her eyes glued to her work, biting hard on her lower lip as she concentrated.

Olivia leaned down, eyes still fixed on the floor, and whispered, “It’s hard to explain. Miya is putting magic into the bone dust as she paints, and the magic follows the line.”

“OK, I’m with you.”

“And then sometimes something happens and the magic changes.”

“And you lost me.”

“Sorry.”

“No worries. Back up. What happens?”

She pointed to one of the junctions that had been giving Ben’s eyes trouble. “There. Two magic streams meet, and then they combine into a different stream. I think.”

“So this is a bit like when she makes a golem.” She puts magic into a thing to make it magic. That easy?

“I guess.”

“You never seen that?”

“No,” said Olivia with a shake of her head.

The fell silent as Miya painted closer and closer to the center of the circle. “Cow skull,” she said as she finished painting over the last of the marker lines. Roach gently passed to to her. She caught it and put it in the center. Keeping her hands on it, she closed her eyes. Ben snuck another look at Olivia. To Ben, Miya was just sitting there with a cow skull, but Olivia’s eyes were wide once again. OK, she’s doing magic shit again.

Then, something he could see happened. Small cracks spider webbed along the skull, rising from the bottom without a sound. Some grew darker and deeper. Three on different sides spiraled around and ended at the same point at the very top. Cool.

Miya stood up with the lopsided cow skull with both hands. “Done.” The rest of them started at the marked cow skull.

“So, it’s a golem now?” asked Ben.

Miya looked at Ben in surprise. “No, this isn’t a golem. It is similar. It’s still drawing on my power, but I gave it some of its own. Kind of.”

“Kind of?” repeated Amanda.

“Kind of,” replied Miya.

“Why is magic so vague?” muttered Quarrel.

“Because it is,” said Miya, with a vague wave of her hand. “I’d like to test it, but I think it will work. Unfortunately, I just realized something. Only me or Olivia will be able to tell when this detects a demon. If it can detect a demon. But it should have a much better range than what me and Olvia would get normally. It will even give us a location, rather than just telling us ‘bad shit nearby’.”

“We don’t have time to test it,” said Rob, checking his wristwatch.

“I suppose we could just murder someone on the streets,” mused Miya.

Ben grinned. “That don’t seem like the best thing to do. Morally, you know?”

“Yeah, that’s awful,” said Olivia, staring at Miya with a horrified expression.

“Relax, Olivia, I wasn’t serious,” she said.

“I know. It was still awful.” Relax.

“Alright, back on track. We’re ready,” said Amanda, looking at Quarrel and Rob.

“Yep, just finished the final touches,” said Rob. Ben glanced at his desk. Beside a box of dark metal bolts sat a twisted metal monstrosity. Two bars stuck out of each side of the long rectangular shape, with two pulleys at the ends. On the bottom a massive power supply sat plugged into the wall. What in the hell have they made? Is that even a crossbow anymore? “Quarrel wouldn’t let me put little smiley faces on the bolts though,” he added with a fake pout.

“Get over it. Let’s meet upstairs in five minutes, ready to go. Sunset isn’t for a few hours, so we’ll have to be low key. Let’s get moving.”

The group broke up,heading in separate directions to get their gear. Ben wound up next to Quarrel, both grabbing weapons out of a large metal locker.

“You ready?” asked Ben her with a grin. He slipped a two knives into his belt, and another into his boot.

“As ready as I can be.” She slipped her goggles around her neck. “I just hope this doesn’t end in another running gun battle on the streets like last time. Our MHU really didn’t like that.”

“Hey, at least they don’t shoot you on sight. I was a vigilante on my own, they hated me on general principle.”

“The Watch does have its perks. And I know a couple of them. They’re not bad guys, but they’re not prepared for anything serious. All we’ve had to deal with down here is the occasional rogue mage or human trafficker. The Tzontli’s spooked them.”

“Good thing you two are here. Otherwise the city might be a crater now.”

“We’re not that good,” she said with a wry smile which quickly vanished. “It’s just me and Roach here. The way the whole world has been going, I’m worried. I’m sitting here with technology from a couple hundred years ago, Roach is getting older. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

“By takin’ it one step at a time. Track down a demon. Murder a high priest. Little things.” She snorted in laughter.

With that, he teleported ahead of Quarrel and out of the basement.

Miya leaned against the car door, eyes drooping. “I’m fine,” she grumbled before Ben could even open his mouth.

“You sure? Does little Miya need a nap?” He reached out to tousle her hair.

Her hand snapped out, catching him in the ribs. “Do you need a nice dirt nap?” she growled, drawing up all of her five feet no inches in height.

“Aw, so cute,” he said, wearing his best shit eating grin. He jumped back just in time to dodge the second blow.

Within five minutes, they had all gathered. Rob and Amanda both wore their armor.

Amanda said, “Roach has a couple targets for us. Miya and Ben, you go with him in the first car. Quarrel, Rob, and I will follow behind you in the second car. Once we find where Ix is, everyone in the first car creates a distraction.  Unless you think you have a perfect chance to kill her, just draw them out. Car two will get in and find what we can.

“You comin’ into the field?” asked Ben, shooting Rob a questioning look. He simply shrugged. Isn’t her stomach still giving her hell?

Amanda swallowed the two pills dry. “Yes.”

“Is that a good idea?” asked Olivia, head tilted slightly to the side.

“Yep. Let’s go. We’ll be thirty seconds behind.” Finally. Something is going to happen tonight. Not sure what, but something.

 

Next Chapter ->

Rip Out my Beating Heart – Shadow

Olivia flexed her wings, ready to take flight in a moment’s notice. She stared through the wall of the alleyway towards the white van that had the Aztecs’ latest victim. Ben tightened his mask across his face, and Quarrel loaded a bolt into the heavy crossbow she carried.

“Before we rush in, I have an alternative,” said Amanda. “We don’t swoop in quite yet. They need to take their captive to Ix. Only the priests sacrifice people, right?”

Roach nodded in confirmation, headphones still over one ear. Across the street from the alleyway the hid in, a streetlight began to flicker.

Amanda explained, “They’ll take their captive to her, and we follow.”

“Then we’re face to face with a high priest without a solid plan,” said Ben. “To much to go wrong an’ screw the person they got.”

“No, she’s on to something,” said Quarrel.

Skulker threw up his hands. “We can’t fuck up. Priority is gettin’ that person outta there. It’ll be a hell of a lot harder with Ix an’ the rest of her guard in the picture.”

“No time to argue. They’re finishing.” Roach turned to Amanda with thick, scarred arms folded. “Decide.”

“Olivia, what do you think?”

Olivia shot Amanda a curious look. Why me? “Save them.”

Amanda nodded. “Fine, let’s go get them. Quarrel, Roach, get to the van. Ambush the Tzontli when they come back for their captive.”

The two members of the Watch nodded. Roach climbed out of the car, while Quarrel slipped on her mask and goggles.

“Skulker, get to a good vantage point, cover them with your rifle.”

“Gotcha,” he said. He popped the trunk of the car, moved aside a couple weapons Roach had insisted on taking, and withdrew his sniper rifle. “I know it’s been a while, I ‘m sorry,” Skulker whispered to his gun. That’s weird, right? Yeah, that’s weird.

As the others hurried off, Amanda turned to Olivia and said, “You’ll be my eyes in the sky. You see anything, you tell me.” Olivia nodded and readied herself to fly. “Wait, before you go.”

Olivia froze, caught halfway into her jump. She steadied herself and asked, “Yes?”

“I know you said you didn’t want to fight. I’m not going to throw you into the fray unless it’s necessary. Alright?”

“OK. But don’t, you know, hesitate. We’ve still got to help that person.”

Amanda smiled, “I know. Now go.”

Olivia leapt out of the alleyway and took flight, her wings catching the edges of the buildings before she passed them. She climbed to her previous altitude and coasted in a circle around the parked van.

“So do you have some master plan for us, Amanda?” asked Quarrel over the comms in a hushed voice.

“Just the broad strokes. Everything else is up to you two. I don’t know Nahua but I’ll tell you if I hear anything from the drones.”

“Alright. We’re ready.”

Roach had pressed himself against the side of the white van, while Quarrel knelt on the other side. Anyone coming out of the door to the building wouldn’t see them immediately. Skulker had climbed to the second floor of a rusty fire escape overlooking Quarrel and Roach.

“One of the Tzontlis is chatting with the Aztec soldiers,” said Amanda. “The other two are coming your way. How are we looking up there, Olivia?”

Olivia scanned the streets for any cars or pedestrians. “Good. No one is coming.”

“Alright, you heard her. Good luck.”

Just then, the metal double doors opened. Quarrel fired. The bolt struck the lead man directly in the gut. He doubled over as the bolt clattered to the ground. Olivia spotted a rounded head on it instead of the usual razor sharp arrowhead. Quarrel pulled another bolt from her hip and began reloading, winching the bowstring back.

The second man, his arms covered in electric blue tattoos, immediately reached for his belt. Roach rushed forward, leaping over the fallen man trying to suck in breath on the ground. In a flash, the tattooed man had brought a knife across Roach’s chest. The big man grunted, feigning a much more serious wound. As the tattooed man brought his knife back around for Roach’s throat, he blocked the blow and wrapped his arm around the tattoos. The tattooed man let out a cry as Roach rained down blows on his head.

Just as the man Quarrel had shot recovered, a second blunt bolt hit him in the shoulder like a semi as he tried to stand. He staggered back a few paces before falling, the hand of his good arm trembling as it held his wounded shoulder. The tattooed man collapsed from Roach’s beating.

The comms crackled to life as Amanda said, “They heard that in there. Third Tzontli and two soldiers heading your way.”

Quarrel moved up to Roach, loading a third bolt into her crossbow. Roach yanked the back doors of the van open and disappeared from Olivia’s view inside.

“A kid. Male. Mid-teens. Tied up,” announced Roach over the comms.

A split second later, movement appeared in the doorway, Skulker’s rifle let out a crack. The newcomer’s leg, the only part of him exposed, nearly exploded.

“Got him,” said Skulker.

A silent moment passed over the scene, broken only by Roach hauling the captive out of the back of the van. Olivia circled to directly over the building, partially blocking her view of the van below. Nothing on the roof.

“It was just that Tzontli,” said Quarrel.

“Fuck. I know. My drones aren’t fast enough to keep up. I’ve lost the two soldiers.”

On the other side of the building, out of sight of Skulker and the others, a car roared to life and peeled out of the parking lot.

“They’re in a different car,” reported Olivia, diving a few feet to pick up speed and follow.

“They might lead us to something. Follow them, keep your distance, and let us know where they get out. We’re going to get this guy out of here and follow.”

Below Olivia, Roach hauled the bound teen back toward Amanda and their car. Skulker and Quarrel kept their weapons covering his back. The car Olivia followed slowed down after several blocks, driving normally. They put several miles between them and the building before they stopped at a house. She watched from above as two figures hurried out of their car and headed inside.

“They’ve stopped.”

***

The others caught up to Olivia’s position a few minutes later. They’d dropped off the captive they’d gotten from the back of the van close to the nearest police station. Olivia circled overhead in the meantime, watching for any sort of movement inside the house. There’s nothing in the front of back yards. Why did they come here?

“Alright, we’re here, Olivia,” said Amanda over the comms. One street over, Olivia spotted the headlights of her red car pull over on the side of the road. “What’s the situation.”

“The two soldiers from before are in there. No one else has come in or left since.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, it’s a small house.” The roof needs fixing. I don’t think that’s what she’s asking, though.

“I’m thinkin’ this is a safe house, but I ain’t sure why they’d go directly here from an ambush,” said Skulker.

“They had to go somewhere,” replied Quarrel.

“I know. Let’s just make sure we ain’t walkin’ into an ambush as well.”

Amanda spoke up, “That’s a good point. Olivia, notice anything around from the air?”

“No. What do you mean?”

“The houses around us?”

“Oh. No, no movement. This area isn’t very lively.” It’s also two in the morning. “I don’t hear anything, but I’ll take a closer look.”

“Alright. Let us know what you find,” said Amanda.

Olivia swooped down lower to get a better angle on the surrounding houses. Just as small as the one she’d been observing, only a few had cars in front of them, next to cluttered and dilapidated lawns. Half the lights on the street didn’t work. She breathed deep. No gunpowder. Not much sweat. I wish my ears still worked well. Maybe I could hear stuff. She checked the windows as she passed them, on the lookout for any human shapes.

“We’re fine,” Olivia announced to the others over the comms.

“What’s the plan?” asked Quarrel.

“Great question.” Amanda fell silent for a moment. “Do they have a fence around the backyard?”

“Yes,” replied Olivia.

“You three hop the fence and go in. If the windows are big enough I’d say use them instead of the door. They might be watching it.”

“Why the backyard?” asked Quarrel.

“Because it’s less visible and less likely for a neighbor to call the cops on us.”

“Right.”

From Amanda’s car, three familiar figures climbed out and hurried towards the house. Olivia didn’t see a heavy crossbow in Quarrel’s hands, or Skulker’s rifle slung over his back. Stay safe. They, along with Roach, quickly climbed over the low wooden fence. Their shoulders brushed against the walls of the house as they ducked below the windows. Finally, they stopped, forming a rough semicircle around a point on the wall. Roach suddenly lunged forward, followed by Quarrel and Skulker, to the sound of breaking glass. Silence fell over the comms for a solid minute. Guys?

“Fuck, there’s nothin’ here,” announced Skulker.

“What?” demanded Amanda. Olivia’s eyes widened as she scanned the area again. Trap? But I didn’t miss anything. I’m sure of it.

Quarrel spoke up, “There’s literally nothing in here. The whole house is empty.”

Oh no. Oliva’s heart sank. “That doesn’t make sense,” said Amanda. “Olivia tracked them here.”

“There ain’t anyone or anythin’ in here,” said Skulker.

“Alright, I’m coming in. Olivia?”

“Me too,” replied Olivia, her voice soft. How is there no one in there? I watched them go in. I watched them. She tracked Amanda as she climbed out of her car and walk, casting the occasional glance over her shoulder, to the front door of the house. Oliva landed behind her, tucking in her wings to keep from bowling her over.

“Are you absolutely sure this is the place, Olivia?” asked Amanda before they reached the door.

“Yes. I watched them get out of the car and walk right in here. They were two big guys. Dark skin.” She extended a clawed finger towards the car. “The car is still out there. I don’t know how they got out.”

Roach opened the front door. Olivia crouched through, then straightened and banged her wings against the ceiling. Why did they make this house small? Roach and Skulker stood in a bare and empty room. The pistol in Skulker’s good hand aimed towards the floor, as he leaned forward to peek out a window. Roach simply folded his arms and waited.

“Can you track them with your nose?” Quarrel asked Olivia from a nearby room. “Is that something you can do?”

Olivia breathed deep. “Let me try. They were here. There was a lot of sweat. They came in through there,” she said, pointing to the front door. Olivia sniffed the air again and led them into an adjoining room. “Then in here. Nowhere else.”

The room was as empty as the rest of the small house. No furniture, no decorations on the walls, and no dust. This isn’t abandoned. There always tons of dust in abandoned buildings. Olivia sniffed the air another time.

“It smells like dirt,” she murmured. “Weird.”

Quarrel spun around in a lazy half circle, eyes on the floor. “I don’t see any.”

“Dirt, dirt, dirt,” Skulker muttered to himself. Suddenly, he jolted like he’d been hit with a stun gun. “Tunnel,” he said, finally holstering his pistol. “Get out. Need to check the carpet.” That’s how! That’s how they got out. I knew I wasn’t crazy.

Amanda, Roach, and Olivia backed out of the room as Quarrel and Skulker tested the carpet at each corner of the room. On the third corner, to the right of the entryway, the carpet lifted when Skulker tested it.

“Got it,” he said with a laugh, pulling the thin, light brown carpet up to reveal a trap door. He handed the corner of the carpet to Quarrel to keep it up and yanked the wood and metal trap door open.

“Watch it!” yelled Quarrel as he began stepping down, throwing out an arm to stop him.

He froze, his lower leg halfway in. “What?”

“Tripwire,” she said, pointing.

“Oh fuck, I see it now,” muttered Skulker. He pulled his leg out slowly, as Olivia and the others surrounded the trap door.

Olivia now had a good view of the tunnel. Roughly cut in the earth, it would barely fit someone or Roach’s size, much less her. She spotted the tiny glint of half a dozen more tripwires in the few meters she could see before the tunnel curved out of sight. The others were silent, taking in the same view she was.

Skulker sighed. “Dirt looks like a different color in patches on the floor. Mines.”

“How did they get through all that?” asked Amanda.

“My guess: they knew where to step. We don’t.” Roach nodded in agreement.

“Fuck,” spat Amanda. She massaged her forehead as she paced a few steps. The others began spreading out around the room. Quarrel positioned herself near the window, keeping half an eye on the outside. “We need to keep on these guys. Olivia, Roach, could you run through them? They won’t kill you.”

What? No. Olivia and Roach both shook their heads. Roach rasped, “High limit, but a limit. It will kill me.”

“And I don’t want to find out the hard way,” said Olivia.

“Could we detonate them from back here?” ventured Quarrel.

“Probably collapse the tunnel,” said Skulker, leaning back with arms crossed as he examined the tunnel.

“Oh shit, I didn’t think about that,” murmured Amanda. “Any ideas?”

Quarrel shook her head. Roach shrugged.

Skulker let out a bitter laugh. “Tricky bastards, they’re long gone.”

As Roach nodded in agreement again, Quarrel looked at them and asked, “What makes you say that?”

“Think about it. This is probably gonna head to a car. One that we ain’t been trackin’. Could be anywhere. They’re gone. Even if we get through this tunnel.” Oliva felt her shoulders slump. So this whole thing was for nothing?

***

They returned to Quarrel’s house subdued. Rob opened the door for them with a quizzical look. Olivia noticed his shotgun close at hand against the wall. Miya sat up on the couch, head bandage now removed. Oh, she looks better!

“Fuckin’ nothin’,” spat Ben before his brother could say a word. His maimed hand was clenched into something resembling a fist.

Rob nodded and closed the door behind Roach, bringing up the rear of the group. They spread out in the living room, dropping weapons and gear to the floor. Guys, this is Quarrel’s house, thought Olivia before she watched Quarrel dump a bag of bolts on the coffee table.

“We hit a dead end. We’ll try something else tomorrow night,” said Amanda, a slight hint of worry on her face that vanished in an instant. “In the meantime, I think we all need some sleep. It’s late.”

“Agreed,” rasped Roach.

“Want to sleep on the couch?” Quarrel asked him. He nodded gratefully.

As everyone moved on to their room, Olivia tapped Rob on the shoulder. “Um, Rob?” she began.

“Yeah?” He leaned against the back of a massive armchair to the left of the couch.

“Is your brother OK? He seems…” How do I say this?

“Super piss-y?” asked Rob, finishing her sentence.

Sure. Let’s go with that. “Yeah. He doesn’t smile or joke as much. He’s angry a lot more often now.”

Rob grunted and said, “He’s worried about Sam.”

“Why aren’t you? I mean, I know you are. Sorry. But you aren’t angry. Are you?”

“Cuz I got shit to do,” said Rob, waving vaguely at the downstairs and Quarrel’s workshop. “He’s stewin’ in his own piss-y-ness right now.”

“Will he be alright?”

“Yeah, once this whole thing is over with. Don’t worry, I got my eye on him too.”

“OK. Well, thanks for listening. Good night,” said Olivia.

“Gotcha. Good night.”

Miya was already snoring when Oliva got to the room they shared. She climbed into her own bed, feet hanging off the bed even as she lay diagonally. So this is what a real bed is like. It’s so much comfier than that old mattress on the floor we have in the lair. She spread her wings out a few feet to either side and drifted off to sleep. At least we didn’t do nothing. We got that one guy out of there.

In the morning, Olivia woke up just in time to catch Roach making breakfast. What’s that smell? It smells amazing!

“Hi,” she said, following the sound of something frying on a pan.

“Morning,” he grunted with a nod.

“What’s that?” she asked, looking over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of several strips of meat on a pan, nearly submerged in oil and grease.

“Bacon.” He raised an eyebrow in question at her.

“It smells amazing!”

“Never had before?”

“No. Is it good? It smells good.”

“Try some.” He pointed to a plate by the stove, already covered in strips of bacon. “Making some for everyone.”

She grabbed several strips and ate them all at once. This is great!

“Usually eat something else with it,” he rasped as she inhaled another. “Eggs, ham, pancakes. Something.” He looked at her with mild concern.

“We have ham?” That sounds good too!

“No, you ate it all.” He pointed to another pan on the stove, one she hadn’t noticed, filled with a yellow liquid. “Eggs.” Olivia nodded as she took another strip of bacon. “Do they starve you?”

“No, it’s just that we don’t have a kitchen so we eat fast food all the time. Real food is so much better.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

Olivia settled back in the kitchen, occasionally passing Roach an ingredient or stealing food when he wasn’t looking.

Roach slapped her on the wrist with three fingers as she tried to steal her sixth slice of bacon. “Can you grab the techies?” he asked. “If I can’t make them sleep, I can at least make them eat.”

Darn it Amanda and Rob. “Oh no, did they not sleep at all last night?” That can’t possibly be good for them.

“A little. Five hours. Make sure you bring up all three.”

“OK, I’ll go get them. Is anyone else up?”

“Ben, a little before you. He’s out back.”

Olivia headed downstairs, to find Quarrel, Amanda, and Rob all huddled around a computer. Amanda turned around at the sound of Olivia’s claws scratching against the steps.

“Hey, glad you’re here. I think we have something,” she called out.

“Oh, good. Do you guys want breakfast?” asked Olivia, only halfway down the stairs.

Rob checked the watch on his wrist. “Shit, we lost track of time again.” He got up from his chair and motioned for Quarrel and Amanda to do the same. “Come on, I just noticed I’m starving.”

“Fine,” grunted Quarrel. “But first I’ve still got to-”

“No,” said Olivia, cutting her off. “Roach told me to get all of you.” As Quarrel opened her mouth to argue, she added, “I can just pick you up, you know. Or I could grab the spoon. You chose!” She smiled.

Quarrel gave her a long, piercing look. Olivia maintained her smile. Quarrel finally gave up the staring contest and followed after Amanda and Rob upstairs.

“Hey, can we grab everyone?” asked Amanda. Roach nodded as he passed her a plate. Rob went after his brother, and Roach headed to Miya’s room. A few minutes passed before Miya finally stomped in after him and claimed the massive armchair, giving the whole room the stink eye.

“I found something,” announced Amanda.

“You mean I found it,” piped up Quarrel.

“And I confirmed it,” added Roach, straight faced.

“We found something,” Amanda corrected. “The two soldiers mention taking their captive to something called the place of sacrifice. That was translated, but it sounded like it has some significance, the way they said it. Any ideas for what that could be?”

“That’s so fuckin’ vague,” grumbled Ben.

Quarrel talked over him, “I’d guess that would have to be an abandoned building.”

“That only leaves us with a couple hundred buildin’s,” pointed out Rob.

“Remember, we found the demon at the bottom of the temple,” said Miya, speaking up for the first time. “That wasn’t abandoned at all.”

“Why there?”

“I’m thinkin’ the real question is ‘why demons?’,” said Ben.

Everyone looked at Miya. She grumbled to herself and sat upright, preparing herself for another lecture on magic. “Here’s the thing about demons. They’re more or less made of magical energy. You know how I always use chicken or cow bones for my golems?”

The gang nodded, while Quarrel and Roach exchanged a quick, questioning look. Oh, right, I don’t think they’ve ever seen her golem. It keeps getting destroyed.

“Well, that’s because intelligent creatures, like humans, have… something different about us. We get powers. We have souls, for lack of a better term. We can channel magic. There are some things that feed on magical energy, but they can’t channel it. But when you use magic to animate something dead and sentient, demons notice. Demons try to come through. The leading theory is that demons are kind of like the grim reaper. They move souls, or whatever makes a person a person, from here to wherever they go.”

“She wants to use this shit on Taauth,” observed Rob.

“Yeah. I have no idea how, but if whatever it is she’s doing works, he’s twenty kinds of fucked. Demons are something so alien, so incomprehensible, that all scientific and lots of magical laws break down around them. They are death. If you want to kill something immortal, I guess they’re the best way to do it.”

“Ix is studying death,” said Quarrel. “That’s how she got the demon there in the first place. She killed someone and somehow trapped the demon that came.”

“I guess so. How is a whole different story,” said Miya.

“What do we do once we find her?” asked Olivia.

Ben grinned and said, “Kill her.”

“It won’t be that simple.”

“Really? Has been before. Remember Freedom Fighter? Remember the Undead? Overlord an’ that feral place? We murdered our way through all that just fine.” We did?

Do you remember Overlord?” asked Amanda. “We watched nearly helpless as he and Cyrus threw trees and buildings at each other.”

“Ix ain’t that strong,” commented Rob.

“No, which is why we’re here in the first place. But let’s not underestimate her, she’s going to be bitch.”

Ben rolled his eyes. “How the hell do we even know this? We ain’t even met her yet.”

Roach spoke up. “She’s bred for magic, been trained from birth. She served in the army, probably fought battles in Mayan heartlands, and killed many. Those of the war god’s cult, and she is one, have been infected with wildfyre, survived it, and become even more powerful.” I’ve never heard him talk that long.

“Did that hurt?” asked Miya. “That sounded like it hurt.”

“A little,” Roach admitted under his breath.

Ben rolled his eyes. “All that power don’t mean dick if she don’t see the bullet goin’ in her brain.”

“You’re assuming she’s a moron.”

“I’m assumin’ we’re competent.”

“And all the people around you who you’re assuming are competent are saying we need a very solid plan before we go in.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” said Quarrel, stepping in before Amanda and Ben could continue to argue. “Miya, you said you could sense the ddemons, right?”

“Kind of, yes. “

“Now that you know about the demons, now that you know what they are and have seen one first hand, could you make it so that you can sense them from further away. Could we use you like a sort of demon radar?”

Miya leaned back in the armchair, her tiny form nearly vanishing into the cushions. After a long, silent moment, the whole group watching her intently, she said, “Maybe. Give me a day. Oh, and I might ned to go book shopping, if I could borrow one of your cars.”

“I’ll drive you,” Roach volunteered.

“Sounds good.”

“An’ what are we doin’ if we stumble on Ix with this? Don’t we need a plan? People keep tellin’ me we need plans,” said Ben. Come on, Ben. Olivia locked eyes with Rob for a moment, who gave her a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. Out of the corner of her eye, Roach gave a small start and pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“If that’s the case we don’t need to beat her,” said Amanda. “I just need a little time alone in her quarters, and see if there’s any information to be had. You guys just need to stall her.”

“I like how you volunteered us for goin’ toe to toe with a high priest.”

Amanda gave him a disbelieving smile. “You wanted a fight.”

Roach looked up from his phone, his normally taciturn face even more solemn than usual. He grunted loudly to get everyone’s attention. “Just announced. Cuauhtémoc is meeting Taauth.”

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