Rip Out my Beating Heart – Obsidian

Miya followed Roach, unable to shake the inexplicable growing sense of unease gnawing at the pit of her stomach. The interior of the temple wasn’t what she expected. They trod on normal carpet, under normal lightbulbs keeping the place well lit. No skulls?

The only concessions to adornment were two paintings hanging on either side of the entryway. Vaguely humanoid figures at their centers contorted themselves into impossible positions. Others, more recognizable as people, knelt before them, arms outstretched. Their eyes watched Miya as she forced herself to keep walking. There’s the creepy. Fuck this.

The feeling in her stomach only grew worse. There’s something here. There’s something wrong here and it’s not those paintings. She checked over her shoulder. Where is it?

Roach noticed. “Problem?” he rasped down to her. If he was being affected like her, he didn’t show any sign of it.

“Bad, there’s something bad here,” she managed.

He raised an eyebrow at her inarticulate sentence. “Stay calm. We get cleansed, then we go in further.”

She stopped in her tracks. “Whoa? Cleansed? With fire? No, no way.”

Roach shot her an odd look. “It’s a steam bath.” He put a hand on her should. “Are you alright?” His eyes briefly glanced toward the door they’d come in through. The soldier watched them out of the corner of his eye.

She took a deep breath. I don’t know what that damn thing is and I don’t care. I’ve faced worse. “I’m fine.” Slightly raising her voice for the benefit of their watcher. “I’m just a little nervous.”

Roach nodded and resumed their walk towards a trio of doors. The center door, a heavy wooden thing, towered over the other two. He pointed to the unlabeled door on the right and said, “Women’s.” Under his breath, he whispered, “Just get hair wet. Two minutes.” With that, he disappeared into what she presumed to be the men’s.

Miya cast one more nervous glance at the now empty entryway before she slipped into the women’s room. Around a corner, out of sight of someone at the door, she found a row of five glass doors, covered in condensing water on the other side. Full towel racks lined the opposite wall. Steam baths? Really?

Miya stood in front of an open door for a moment, just long enough for some steam to accumulate on her skin and hair. She shut the door before it could start dampening her clothes. I knew I should have paid attention when Grandma started droning. This wouldn’t have been a fucking surprise.

Her head whipped around towards the sound of water dripping at the other end of the shower room. I hate this. I hate all of this so, so much, she complained to herself. She paced, whiling away the time until it would be acceptable for her to rejoin Roach. How was he able to just walk in here? That guy at the door knew him. He recognized him. Does Roach actually believe in all this crap?

She bit her lower lip. That door guy seemed fine with that soldier by him, too. Oh fuck, is Roach with them? Like a double agent? What if they’ve got some sort of magic trap thing for me here? I’m not getting captured again, fuck that. Not by Overlord, not by some psychotic Aztec priestess.

She checked her phone. Two minutes had passed. Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this, she thought as she wrenched the door open. She weaved streams of magic into her hands, ready to lash out to warp and ruin bones at a moment’s notice. An empty hallway met her. She gritted her teeth and waited, shoulders tense.

Finally, the door to the men’s steam room opened. Out walked Roach, running a hand through his short, damp hair.

Miya jabbed him in the upper arm, just above the elbow. “The fuck is going on?” she hissed.

“Here for worship,” he rumbled back. “Must be clean before the gods.”

“Like I give a shit.”

Roach frowned and replied, “People here do. I do. Stick out if you don’t do it.”

“How do you know this. How often do you come here?”

“Once a month, like most,” he said with a shrug. He checked over his shoulder at the empty hallways. If there’s no one here I don’t see how we’re going to get any information out of people. There’s no witnesses here either.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes, it matters if you’re a murderous asshole. It matters if you believe in the same shit Ix does.” She regretted the words the moment they left her mouth, though outwardly she kept her hands clenched into fists. Come on, show me your true colors. Roach’s eyes hardened.

“Not the same,” he said, voice dangerously low. “At all.”

“Apparently you go to the same temple these guys are hiding out at. How is this not the same? Why the hell do you have a guy at the door?”

“The soldier?”

“No, the normal guy.”

“Lots of people don’t like us.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Miya replied, acid dripping from her voice. This bullshit is why people spat on me in this city.

Roach took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a brief moment. “We have a job. Sorry for not telling you.”

The momentarily forgotten sense of dread returned to Miya as he spoke. She bit her lip and stayed quiet. Roach grabbed the handle to the large central wooden door and pulled it open.

The vast, circular room they entered would have been dim if not for the massive glass skylight built in about five stories above Miya’s head. As it was, the high noon sun beamed down on the center of the room. There, a stone altar, cut from some grey stone and polished to a sheen, stood in the center of the room. Two modern gas powered braziers flanked it. Wooden church pews lined the outer walls.

“Should be more people here,” rasped Roach. The only other person in the temple was a withered, silver haired old man in the back, stooped over with head bowed on one of the pews.

“Why?” Miya whispered back.

“High noon. Sun at its highest. Is Tonatuih’s month.”

Which one is that? “Who?”

“Sun god.” He moved towards the center of the room, head turning as his eyes raked over their surroundings.

She hurried to keep up with his longer stride. “I thought that was-”

He cut off her question. “Long story.”

“So is that were you rip out people’s hearts?” she asked, nodding to the stone altar.

“No. Just place offerings there. Maybe burn them.”

“Offerings?” Is that a code for hearts?

“Used to be blood. Unsanitary. Now it’s food or money. Usually.” They circled around the altar. Miya checked the ground beneath it for bloodstains, finding none. The tiled floor was perfectly clean, not a trace of dirt or blood.

“No shit.”

“Must be worth something. But small bills, not life savings.” He smiled, eyes distant. “One smart ass tried to burn a check he’d written.”

“What about all the smoke?”

“No problem.” He pointed to two unobtrusive vents built into the walls above the braziers, midway between the floor and ceiling.

They stared out at the empty temple for a moment. Miya caught a whiff of strong incense. “I always wondered why this place wasn’t a pyramid or something,” she said.

“Too expensive. And the city wouldn’t let us.” Roach shrugged.

“What’s the point?” Miya asked herself aloud. “Why burn stuff? You could just keep it.” She kept checking over her shoulder, expecting something to pop out at any moment.

“No life without sacrifice.”

She turned to him, hands on her hips. “OK. And all that human sacrifice? Is that all just fine to you?” The old man in the back had noticed their heated conversation, looking up for a moment before bowing his head once again.

“No,” replied Roach with a slow shake of his head. “Not something you can force. Must be willing.”

“You’re OK with people killing themselves,” she said, as a statement instead of a question. Roach nodded. “There’s so much wrong with that.”

“Or what? Kind, all powerful god? Not my experience.”

“You’re not a psychopath,” she hissed. At least I didn’t think so. “You really believe what they’re selling you here?

He checked over his shoulder again. “Theology later. Want to ask local priest questions.”

“That old guy?” she asked, nodding to the other end of the room.

“No. Not sure where he is. Office is there.” He pointed to another door set in the gaudy red walls.

“Are you sure?” she asked, gazing warily at it. Who knows what’s behind that thing?

“Yes.”

She let him take the lead, sweat gathering on her palms. Roach tapped his knuckles on the closed door.  After a moment with no response, he tested the door handle. It opened. The hairs on the back of her neck rose once they stepped inside. She looked around for any magical residue, anything that might be a threat.

A brightly colored skull sat on the standard office desk on the far side of the room. The few pictures on the walls featured a short, stocky Aztec man. One of the other people in the pictures with him was Roach.

“Not right. Basement door shouldn’t be open,” Roach rasped. Miya followed his gaze to yet another door, this one ajar. The primitive, caveman portion of her brain began to scream at her as they approached it.

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” she said, hanging back.

“No bodies or hearts stuffed away,” he grumbled. “Come on.”

His broad shoulders vanished through the door, leaving her alone with nothing but a fight or flight instinct screaming in her head. You absolute asshole. She bit her lip and forced herself after him.

Down the stairs, she found herself a long hallway that branched off to the right and left, a single dim light above keeping it lit. The first few rooms they checked were storage for folding chairs and tables. Then, they turned a corner and came to a room roughly beneath the center of the main temple. They stopped dead.

Her eyes were drawn, not of her own will, towards the center of the room. A black mass hovered in the air, no light reflecting off its surface. Blood smears covered the ground below it. She backed away in horror.

“Oh fuck. Oh fuck that’s a demon.”

Roach, who’d been studying the blood, turned to her with a confused look, asked, “What?”

“That. Right there.” She jabbed a finger at the blood in the center of the room, where the mass hovered and swirled. Two, then five, then one eye stared back at her. How do you not see that?

“Nothing there.”

“We need to leave. We need to leave or we’re going to die. Right now, right now.

“Hold on,” he rasped, raising an arm to bar her escape. “Explain.”

“It shouldn’t be here. It can’t be here. It eats and distorts magic or something, I don’t know. Nobody knows. We need to get out,” she said, pushing him towards the door.

“How do we stop it?”

“You can’t fight a demon. You can’t study a demon. We need to run.”

He narrowed his eyes at the blood circle around the demon. He backed away, finally listening to Miya. The demon simply watched without a sound, staring a hole in Miya’s back.

“Freeze,’ thundered a voice from down the hallway. The soldier from the door, aimed a pistol at Miya and Roach.

Roach let out a low rumble and charged. Miya whipped her head over her shoulder, checking for any other soldiers he might have brought along, finding no one. The soldier put three bullets in his chest before Roach collided with him, crashing him into the wall.

Roach’s fist shot out, directly for the soldier’s head. The soldier tucked his head behind his shoulder, the brunt of the blow glancing off of the top of his skull. Pinned as he was against a wall, he shot another two bullets into Roach’s foot. The flesh knit itself back together soon after. Miya darted off towards the soldier’s left, gathering magical power in her hands.

The soldier dropped his pistol and jabbed a punch into Roach’s throat, the force sending the large man stumbling back a pace. He pushed off of the wall and to his right, putting Roach’s bulk between himself and Miya. The next punch Roach threw he stepped into, wrapping his arm around Roach’s.

Damn it, move. Miya tried to jump out from behind Roach’s back. The soldier twisted Roach’s arm until something popped, eliciting a low grunt of pain from the big man. His other hand grasped for something at his belt. Roach brought his forehead down on the soldier’s nose, getting a spurt of blood for his troubles. Before he could follow up, the soldier drove a knife up his gut and into the dead center of his chest.

Miya looked away and desperately lunged, while the knife was still in Roach and not heading towards her. She got a hand around the back of the soldier’s neck. Just before he spun and sent the back of his elbow into her head, she released the streams of magic. Stars danced in her eyes as she was flung a few feet away from the soldier.  Roach staggered to his feet, pulling the steel knife from his chest. He took in the sight of the spasming soldier on the floor for a brief moment, then shot Miya a questioning look.

“His joints are fucked,” she managed. She cradled her bruised head in one hand as she unsteadily tried to climb to her feet. Roach hauled her upright halfway through. “Bastard got me in the head, hard.” Her words sounded slurred, even to her dazed brain.

Roach put a hand on her shoulder as she swayed. “Might be concussion,” he rasped. “Let’s get back to Quarrel.”

She heard footsteps, heavy footsteps, rushing down the stairs they’d come in through. Backup.

Roach pushed her away from them. “Back entrance. This way. Will set off fire alarm.”

Together, they hurried towards a glowing red exit sign, gunshots and shouts in Nahua chasing after them.

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Rip Out my Beating Heart – Storm

Miya stepped out of Amanda’s small red car and onto the parking lot of a familiar church. She breathed in the hot, dry air of Phoenix. If I survive all this, I’m living in Alaska. Or Maine. Maine sounds nice. To her left, Amanda climbed out of her car with an ill-concealed wince. I’ll check up on you later, once we’re settled.

Rob and Ben pulled up a moment later. The engine let out little popping noises as it cooled, once Rob turned it off. “Last time I drive all night,” he grumbled. His brother just laughed.

Air rushed over their heads as Olivia passed by overhead. Her clawed toes scratched against the asphalt as she landed by the others.

“Have a nice fly?” Amanda asked her, once the dust settled.

“Yeah,” Olivia replied, hesitantly.

“Something wrong?” asked Miya.

“No. I just like Colorado more,” she replied. “The mountains look cooler. And it smells nicer.” You’re not wrong.

“Try not to lose any fingers this time around,” Rob said to his brother with a pat on the shoulder as he followed Amanda to the front door of the church.

“Ha fuckin’ ha,” replied Ben, clenching and unclenching his maimed left hand, missing its ring and pinkie fingers.

“I could grow the bones back for you if you like,” offered Miya, fighting to keep the smile from her face.

He grinned. “Just the bones? Freaky. I might take you up on that.”

Olivia shuddered. “Relax, we’re just messing around,” said Miya.

“I only sorta was.”

“I know,” said Olivia. “Just thinking about it though. Ew.”

They settled back, leaning against their two cars and waiting. Miya, however, took advantage of their first opportunity to stand in hours to stretch her legs, getting the blood flowing again. At least it’s night. July is super shitty here. Ben’s eyes constantly shifted, never looking in the same place for more than a few seconds, even though Miya had only seen one car and a handful of pedestrians since entering the city.

A few yards away, the back door to the church opened, revealing Quarrel’s mop of brown hair. A wide, cheery smile split her face. “Hey guys! Good to see you again.” She slipped out to join the others, followed by the much larger and scarred form or Roach.

Miya smiled and waved along with the others. Roach’s eyes narrowed as he took in the group.

“Nomad?” he asked, his voice as raspy and painful to listen to as ever.

“Oh yeah, where is he?” added Quarrel.

“He didn’t make it,” replied Amanda.

Rob grunted and said, “Overlord hit Westward pretty damn hard.”

The smile slipped form Quarrel’s face. “I’m sorry.” Behind her, Roach bowed his head for a moment.

“Thanks,” said Amanda.

“We stayin’ here again?” asked Rob, bringing them back on track.

“No, this was just a good meeting point since we’ve all been here,” said Quarrel. She pointed to their car, a white truck with a construction company logo stenciled on the door. “If you’ll follow us.”

“Why meet us here?”

“Just making sure there were no complications or anything. It would have been bad if you were followed, for example. Sorry, we’re just being cautious. Again, it’s just the two of us.”

Rob looked over his shoulder to Olivia and asked, “Were we followed?”

She froze. “I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention if there was anyone. I’m sorry, I should have-”

“No worries, you’re fine,” said Rob, cutting her off.

“We don’t believe so, we drove pretty hard from Colorado to here,” Amanda said to Quarrel.

Quarrel nodded. “Then we can set you up at my house. Well, not really my house, it’s the Watch’s, but it’s fine. I think you’ve been there before.”

“Sounds good. We’ll follow you,” said Amanda.

The four of them walked over to where Miya and the others stood. Olivia nodded to Amanda as she took flight again, gaining a high enough altitude to be nearly invisible from the ground unless someone was specifically looking for her.

“We’d just come up with a plan, an’ now we’re out here on a hunch a day later,” grumbled Rob, once Quarrel and Roach were in their truck and out of earshot.

“Our lives need better writers,” replied Ben with a grin.

“Thanks, Calvin,” muttered Rob.

“What?” asked Amanda. I’m with her. What?

“Don’t worry about it.”

***

A short drive later, Miya and the others found themselves in the driveway of a large cookie cutter suburban home.

“Well this don’t suck,” said Ben, taking in the sight of the house and its large front lawn covered in tastefully arranged rocks. If I remember right this is a pretty nice neighborhood. “The two of you live here?” he asked the two members of the Watch.

Roach shook his head. “Apartment. Closer to downtown,” he rasped.

“I do,” added Quarrel.

They hauled their things inside and out of sight form prying eyes. The TV in the living room was on when Miya passed by. She stopped and listened.

“All satellite footage over Siberia has gone dark. Our sources on the Chinese-Siberian border are telling us of, ‘huge pillars of light shooting into the sky.’ The Pentagon has declined to comment on what this could mean, though they assure us everything is being heavily monitored.”

“Hey guys, have you heard about this?” she called out to the house at large. The others had dispersed, taking their things to the rooms Quarrel showed them. Roach disappeared to the kitchen.

“No, what?” called out Amanda from down a hallway.

“Something weird is happening in Siberia.”

“Define weird,” said Quarrel.

“I don’t know. The news people don’t seem to know.”

The news anchors droned on some more, though they had nothing helpful to say. Miya couldn’t help but notice vindictive smiles on their faces surface from time to time. Wait, I didn’t grab anything.

“Hey, Quarrel, where’s my room?”

“Up the stairs, second on the right. You’re with Olivia.”

“Thanks.”

Miya climbed up the stairs. She slowed once she approached her room. Is that Olivia? Singing?

“… on my doorstep, singing sweet songs, a melody-” Right, she likes reggae. Because that makes nothing but sense.

“Hey,” said Miya, tapping on the doorway as she did so. Olivia leaned over to one of two beds on either side of the room, pulling out a few oversized shirts and pants.

She let out a small squeak as she spun around, cheeks turning red. “Oh. Hi.”

“Hi. Did you grab my bag?”

“Um, yeah, I, it’s right there,” she said, pointing a claw at Miya’s bag, neatly laid out on the other bed.

“Just wanted to make sure it wasn’t sitting out in the back or Rob’s truck. Thanks.”

Reggae, she thought to herself as she left with a small shake of her head.

They all gathered around the kitchen table a few minutes later, Amanda and Quarrel taking the lead.

“So, before we all turn in for the night,” began Quarrel. “Let’s get on the same page. We need to find, and stop, an Aztec high priest from sacrificing any more people in this city. Me and Roach have a name and a picture.” She nodded to Roach, who produced a small stack of papers and passed them around to the others. The woman on the paper seemed to stare back with wide, intense eyes. She had a fairly noticeable scar on her lips

“Ixcatzin,” he rasped.

“I just call her Ix,” said Quarrel. “She is, or was, a higher up in the Mexican government. From what we can tell they’ve disavowed her.”

“That just means she fucked up,” said Ben.

“You’d think so, but we can’t figure out what the purpose of these sacrifices are. If they were trying to cause fear, they’d been a bit more threatening about it on their end.”

“That it?”

“Yep.”

“We need more information,” said Amanda with a small worried frown.

“Agreed,” rasped Roach.

“We’re flying blind,” added Quarrel. “We’ve been gathering as much info as we can, but there isn’t much, neither of us are any good at it. That was Preacher’s job.”

“You mentioned Taauth when you called us?” asked Ben.

“Right, when we first ran into her she was ranting to her officer. At least we think he was an officer for the temple guard, he had a couple fancy patches on his uniform.”

“What’d she say?”

“’It will take the power of the gods to stop Taauth.’ There was a little more, but nothing relevant,” replied Quarrel.

“Insults,” added Roach.

“That is true, we interrupted her a moment later. She doesn’t like us. We thought it was worth mentioning, that dude is scary.”  Ben and Rob simply grunted. After a pause, Quarrel said, “That’s all we got, we just wanted to give you all something to sleep on.”

“Sleep?” Rob asked indignantly. “Sleep is for the weak.”

“He’s right. There’s some things I want to work on. Your workshop is in the basement, right?”

“Yeah,” said Quarrel, leading the way. “So you two are working together? Those new armors look badass. I wish my power was a bit more useful. Crossbow are kind of limited.

“Don’t worry, I have no idea how an engine works. I just do what Rob tells me to.”

“Need some help with somethin’?” asked Rob.

Olivia, Roach, and Miya watched as the techies wandered off, babbling excitedly among themselves.

“And they’re gone,” said Ben with a grin.

“To this day I have no idea what that girl is talking about,” grumbled Roach.

“Oh please, you only have the one. Our two practically feed off of each other. They never shut up,” said Miya.

Roach let out a low chuckle in response. “I can see that.”

“At least they’re happy,” said Olivia.

“At least they’re happy,” repeated Miya with a sigh.

***

Miya grumbled into the pillow. People kept making noise around her, and the light of the morning sun shone in, despite the best efforts of the blinds she’d closed tight over the window. Fuck everything. She peeled her eyes open and twisted her head to the side. Olivia’s bed was empty. I should probably get up.

She pulled the covers off and trundled downstairs, blinking sleep out of her eyes the whole way. Ben, Roach, and Olivia stood at the bottom of the staircase, staring down into the basement.

“Every fuckin’ time we come here, they do this. Last time around they completely took apart Amanda’s car, an’ kept us here a couple extra days.”

“Are they lost in their own little world?” asked Miya.

‘Yeah. Good morning,” replied Olivia with a small smile. Miya grunted in response.

“We have a solution,” rasped Roach, stomping into the kitchen. He returned a moment later with a large wooden spoon in hand, heading down the stairs.

“I gotta see this,’ said Ben, following him to the basement. Miya and Olivia crowded the stairway behind them. Please, Roach. Please do what I think you’re about to do. Quarrel sat at the edge of her seat, face a mere inch from the surprisingly delicate inner workings of one of her crossbows on the desk.

“Quarrel, it’s time,” said Roach, standing right beside her.

“Five more minutes,” she replied, not even sparing him a glance.

“No, now.” Roach brought down the spoon on her wrist, getting a hollow thwacking sound.

She jumped in her seat, scooting as far away from him as possible without falling off of it. “Not the spoon, not the spoon. OK, OK. I’m going.” She set her screwdriver down and hurried away.

“This brings me no joy,” Roach called out after her.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” she mumbled as she pushed her way past Miya’s group clustered on the stairs.

Roach lumbered over to Rob, too busy with his armor to hear the sounds of his fellow techie’s suffering. “You, upstairs.”

“Gotta finish this first,” grunted Rob.

“Go. Now,” said Roach, punctuating his command with a slap on Rob’s wrist with the spoon.

“Ow, the hell?”

“Go. Now,” Roach repeated, smacking his wrist again. Rob’s wrench clattered to the ground.

He twisted around to look Roach in the eye. “Cut that shit out.”

“Now.” Slap.

“Fuck off.”

“Now.” Slap.

“Fuck. Fine. God damn, the fuck is wrong with you?” said Rob, jumping out of the way of another potential spoon slap.

“Now.”

Rob hurried off, throwing glares over his shoulder at Roach. This is everything I ever wanted, thought Miya with a maniacal grin on her face. Roach loomed over Amanda next.

“You too, miss.”

“Just let me finish this one thing.”

Slap. “Upstairs.”

Amanda slammed her laptop shut. “See? It’s gone now.”

“Up.” Slap.

Amanda jumped out of her chair, desperately backing away from Roach. Miya, Olivia, and Ben waited for her to pass them by before following after her, Roach bringing up the rear with the fearsome spoon.

Miya stopped just short of the kitchen. All three techies stood around the kitchen, massaging their wrists with identical sullen expressions. She burst into laughter. “I can’t, I can’t. Too funny.”

Ben, next up the stairs, joined her in hysterical laughter. “Oh god, just give us a minute.” They leaned against each other, nearly doubled over, shoulders shaking uncontrollably.

Once they’d finally composed themselves, Amanda cleared her throat and said, “As much as I hate to admit it, Roach was right. We got sidetracked, and I do apologize for that.” She turned to Roach and said, “Fuck you, by the way.”

“I will survive.”

Without missing a beat, Amanda continued to the group at large, “But he’s right.”

“We were talking last night, and we have a couple ideas,” said Quarrel. “Our first one was to send a couple people to the Aztec temple in town, see if they can pick anything up.”

“You and Roach want to take that?” Rob asked the two of them.

“Why us two?” demanded Miya as Roach nodded.

In Nahua, Roach said, “Who would follow the old gods, us or the whiteys?

So? You stick out with all those scars and I’ve never set foot in the temple before.

What they speak Nahua? We’ll understand.

“Fine,” Miya grumbled in English. “My Nahua isn’t that good, though.”

“Better than ours,” said Ben with a grin.

“Just to be clear, we’re not asking you to take everyone on singlehandedly,” said Quarrel. “We just need an ear to the ground, just in case the faithful there might have heard something.”

“I’ve been working the more technical side of things,” said Amanda. “I’ll start monitoring the cell towers and radios in the area, in case Ix is using those to communicate with her people.”

“An’ cameras,” added Rob.

“Well, that might not work out,” she said. “in any case, Rob is going to help me with that. Ben, Olivia, Quarrel had something for you two.”

“Yes,” said Quarrel. “I have a couple of spots I’ll need you two to be patrolling tonight. It’s not a guarantee she’ll show, but eyes on the ground always helps. I’ll be right there with you, but you two might want to get the lay of the land.”

“Got it,” said Ben. Olivia nodded behind him.

“Everyone clear?” asked Amanda. The group voiced their agreement. “Then let’s get to work.”

A large hand rested on Miya’s shoulder as the group began to disperse.

“I’ll drive,” rasped Roach. He led the way to his truck, parked on the side of the street to make room for Rob and Amanda’s cars.

“Of course the Aztec girl knows everything about the Aztecs,” Miya grumbled as he started the engine. “They couldn’t tell me who the 22nd president was off the top of their head, but no, I’ve got the whole damn pantheon memorized.”

They envy our cheekbones. And skin,” said Roach in Nahua, a mischievous smile playing on his lips.

Skin?

They burn easy in the sun.

Miya sighed and settled back in her seat. “I guess they’re usually not so bad. Other than that one time where they were freaking out about the tl thing.

“They always do that,” said Roach with a shake of his head.

“Exactly! It’s not that hard. They look at every Aztec name and just automatically go ‘well I can’t pronounce that’.”

“Usually can’t.”

Miya snorted in laughter. After a silent moment passed, she switched to English and asked, “What’s the plan?”

“Simple. I get us in, we look. Anyone asks, you’re my niece, out of town. Curious about the temple.”

“Anything specific we’re supposed to be looking for? I’m assuming we won’t find Ix with a knife in her hand at the altar.”

“Follow my lead, I know what to-”

A car cut Roach off. He hammered the car horn and snarled a curse in Nahua that Miya had never heard before. I’ll be saving that one for later.

“Sorry,” he grumbled, still glaring daggers into the back of the other car. “Follow my lead, watch my back. Don’t panic.”

“Don’t panic. Thanks.”

Finally, they parked before a sturdy building covered in colorful, swirling murals. Are we just going in through the front entrance? Miya asked herself as Roach led the way to the door. How the hell is this going to work?

A man with the barest hints of a tattoo on his bicep beneath his shirt stopped them. All the plain clothes in the world couldn’t hide his rigid posture or thick muscles. Temple guard? Local or Ix’s? He looked over his shoulder at another man, under the shade of the entrance.

“I don’t recognize her,” he said, his lack of discernable accent marking him as American.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve come here,” she admitted. Why lie when I can tell the truth?

“Roach,” he said, nodding to the large, scar covered man. “Is she with you?”

You two know each other? She shot Roach a wary glance. “Of course,” replied Roach, not so much as glancing in her direction.

The man nodded to the soldier, who stood aside to let them in. The hairs on the back of her neck rose the moment she stepped inside. She paused, feet unwilling to take another step.

“Something wrong?” the soldier asked.

“No, no,” replied Miya, forcing herself to continue. What the fuck?

 

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Rip Out my Beating Heart – Red Flag

The team gathered around their table, Rob helping Amanda haul over a large monitor and a computer. Olivia took her seat, a plastic folding chair with the backrest sawn off, and waited alongside Miya and Ben. She curled her tail under the table as Rob passed by behind her, cords dangling from his hands.

Ben drummed his fingers on the table, his usual half smile looking somewhat strained, not quite reaching his eyes. Olivia rested her wing on his shoulder. We’ll get your brother back. The screen Amanda and rob were fiddling with turned on, showing a still image of Taauth when he’d interrupted a presidential address.

“We need to bring everything together. What do we know about him so far?” began Amanda as she stood by the head of the table. Rob stood at the other side of the monitor.

“According to Cyrus, he’s ancient. He was old when Cyrus was young, apparently. When did the Persian empire first start?” asked Miya.

“500 BC, more or less,” said Amanda.

“How’d you know that off the top of your head?’ asked Rob, shooting her a questioning look.

“I looked it up. I figured it would be good to know when Cyrus knew all of this about Taauth.”

“So Taauth is stupid old,” said Ben.

“And he apparently can control any kind of magic that’s just sitting around. Miya, Olivia, does that mean anything to you?” asked Amanda.

Olivia shook her head. Sorry. I don’t know enough about magic still. Miya said, “I’m not quite sure. Magic is everywhere. Mages are able to draw out more and control it. Olivia is constantly drawing magic out, but it automatically goes to making her, you know, her. That’s why she’s not really able to use it like a normal mage.”

“Oh, is that what was happening?” asked Olivia. I was wondering about that. I should tell Beth and Red.

“Yeah, that ache you felt was probably your hand feeling weaker, you didn’t have the magic keeping it near invincible anymore.”

“OK, back to Taauth,” broke in Amanda. “What does that mean about what Cyrus said his power is?”

“Right, sorry,” apologized Miya. “The real question is whether Taauth is drawing out any magic or not. If he is, then he’s limited by what he can before it melts his brain. If not, then all that’s left is that he can use the magic all around. All stuff has it, the air, animals, but it’s unusable to mages.”

“But you think Taauth can use it?” asked Amanda.

“Yes. Except for iron, that’s completely magically inert,” replied Miya. As everyone’s attention turned to her, Olivia spotted Amanda wince, a hand drifting towards her stomach.

“So I gotta make a bunch of iron weapons an’ bullets?” asked Rob.

“A mage doesn’t have to heat up the iron directly, he can just throw fire from somewhere else at it and melt it. I don’t think that’s going to be the answer,” replied Miya.

“Fuckin’ magic,” he grumbled. What are you talking about? Screw iron, that stuff hurts.

“There’s also the question of how he knows how to use all the magic streams,” added Miya. At the sight of the confused looks on Ben, Rob, and Amanda, she said, “Think spells. You have to take the streams of magic and weave them in specific ways.”

“No, I know that,” said Amanda. “But how hard is that to remember?”

Miya’s face darkened. “Very, very hard,” she replied, her voice flat. “It sounds simple, but takes a lifetime to get truly skilled.” She wasn’t trying to be mean, Miya.

“He’s had a thousand lifetimes,” pointed out Ben, fingers still hitting the tabletop.

“Remember what Cyrus said? He’s can’t remember more than a century. That means Taauth can’t either.”

“Maybe he magic-ed his way to a better memory,” said Ben.

Miya burst into laughter. “It’s insanely hard to figure out even the most basic shit on your own,” she said. “I wouldn’t even know where to start with the brain. I don’t think you can work on that for under a century and get it right.”

“Yeah, but you work with bones.”

“And in comparison to the brain, bones are simple. Have you ever taken a biology class? Even I know that.”

“Sorry,” said Ben, holding up his hands. “Just spitballin’ here.”

“And if he messes up during an experiment, he might mess up his own memory,” added Amanda.

“And then it would take a long time to figure things out again,” said Olivia. “He didn’t have writing, did he?”

“That’s a good point,” said Miya. “Magic is hard to translate to writing, but he didn’t even have that option for however long he was around.”

“So we’re going to go with Cyrus like memory?” Amanda sked the group at large, receiving a series of hesitant nods.

“Think he knows any more than that?” asked Rob.

“I don’t think Cyrus knows any more than he’s told us. He’s definitely an ally, though,” replied Amanda.

“Sure about that?” asked Ben, eyebrow raised. What are you talking about?

“Of course.”

“I don’t want my brother dead. He does.”

“He’s right,” added Rob. “He’s lookin’ for a way to kill, just like we’re lookin’ for a way to get Sam free. If he finds it, he’ll use it, an’ to hell with Sam.” Olivia frowned. I thought he was a good guy. He wouldn’t just kill Sam, would he? He’s Ben and Rob’s brother, and he’s on our side.

“Maybe we could just ask him,” said Olivia. “We could tell him we want Sam back.”

“You want to sow that seed of doubt? Cyrus will start questioning how ‘on his side’ we are. No, I’d say we go with business as usual with him,” said Amanda.

“We ain’t fuckin’ killin’ my brother,” said Ben, his voice low.

“Cyrus isn’t wrong. Taauth is a serious risk to everyone, we need to have every possible option available,” said Amanda.

“Fuck that, an’ fuck you,” shot back Ben, fist on the table.

“Ben,” barked Rob. “You know it might come to that. Keep your head straight.” Ben shrugged off Olivia’s wing and stormed out of the lair, the door slamming shut behind him. What are you doing? “Give him some time,” Rob said as Olivia began to rise from her seat to follow him.

“The question now is what exactly do we need to do?” asked Amanda, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“You an’ me, we’ll work on gear. For everyone. We need to throw everythin’ we got at this,” said Rob.

“Yes, but we need more information. I think that was the limit on what we know,” said Amanda, shooting Olivia and Miya questioning looks. They nodded.

“Olivia can help with that. I think Ben could help us test our gear.”

“What about me?” asked Miya.

“You’re our magic expert,” said Rob. “Research. Anythin’ an’ everythin’ that might help. An’ this goes for everyone: ask if you need help. A fresh set of eyes never hurt.”

Amanda beside him nodded in agreement. “I think that’s all we have for now. Let’s get some rest. Or if you’re an owl, get started,” she added, glancing at Olivia.

The group dispersed. “Hey, ‘liv’, give me a hand?” called out Rob by his workshop. Do you need something heavy lifted again? She mutely walked over to him. “Gimme your arms.”

She held them out. “Are you about to give me something heavy?” she asked as he pulled out a tape measure.

He laughed. “Nope. Gonna give you some shin an’ arm guards, just gotta know how big to make ‘em. You take a lot of scuffs an’ shit like that.”

“Do I really need those?” she asked.

“Won’t hurt. If someone’s got an iron knife, it’ll just bounce right off. I’ll make ‘em light, don’t worry about flyin’ with ‘em.”

“But don’t the others need stuff like that more?”

“Yeah, but they’re gonna be gettin’ more,” he admitted, gesturing to his chest. “Yours will just be quick an’ easy to get done first.”

He pulled the tape measure away from her forearms and knelt down by her shins.

“Should I tell Ben what he missed?” Olivia asked him.

“Don’t worry about it, I got it,” said Rob with a shake of his head. “He’s just mad.”

‘Just mad’? “I hope he’s OK.”

“Don’t worry, he’ll get over it.” The tape measure snapped shut. “There, you’re good to go.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“Should be good, thanks.”

Olivia nodded and wandered over to Miya, at the table with one of Amanda’s laptops.

“Where should we start?” she asked.

“That’s a great question.” Her phone began to vibrate. “Hang on,” she said, raising her phone to her ear. “Miya here. Oh, hey Quarrel!”

Quarrel! The smile quickly vanished from Miya’s face. Uh oh.

“What, is he giving some nasty sermons at the temple or something?”

“Oh, she. Same question.”

Behind Olivia, the door opened. Ben teleported to her side a moment later. “Who’s she talkin’ to?” he asked in a hushed voice with a gesture to Miya.

Olivia leaned down to his level and whispered back, “Quarrel, I think.”

“Can you hear ‘em?”

“My ears aren’t cooperating right now. Her phone is too quiet, all I hear is ringing.” That’s probably not good.

“That’s bad. Why?” said Miya into her phone.

She frowned, softly biting her lower lip as she listened to Quarrel.

“And the temple guard? What do you expect us to do about this, again?”

Temple guard?

“Yeah, I watched it.”

“Repeat that! Taauth? She mentioned Taauth?”

At that six letter word, the lair went still. All eyes locked on to Miya.

“It’s a long story. Let me talk to the others. Actually, hang on. We’re all here. I’m going to put you on speakerphone, you can tell them what you told me.” Her phone let out a beep as she pressed a button on the screen. The others hurried over, crowding around Miya.

“Hey everyone, it’s me, Quarrel,” spoke up a familiar female voice from the phone speaker. “Listen, we need your help. A high priest has come into town from Mexico City. She’s not on an evangelizing mission, though, she’s killing people.”

“Ain’t that illegal now?” asked Rob.

“Technically. This girl is old school, though. Very fire and brimstone-y. She’s sacrificing people to her god.”

“Which god?” asked Miya.

“Huitzilopochtli,” said Quarrel with a slight pause every syllable. “I think I pronounced that wrong, Roach is shaking his head at me. You get the point.”

“That’s the… fuck, which is that one?” asked Miya.

“The war god.”

“The war god,” Miya repeated, deadpan. “Wonderful.” Why would they have a god of war? Isn’t war bad?

“Exactly. The police aren’t prepared for this in any way, they’re still mopping up the Tzontli and Overlord mess here. The Watch hasn’t been willing to send us anyone else. Me and Roach need help, bad.”

“You said somethin’ about Taauth,” spoke up Ben.

“Yeah. She mentioned him, I think.”

“You think? In what context?” asked Amanda.

“We couldn’t tell you, we were too busy running. She’s a high priest, you don’t get that title by being a kindhearted being of kittens and puppies.”

“She’s right,” said Miya. “I’ll explain later.”

“Don’t worry about a place to stay or food or anything. Me and Roach can keep you covered there. We can’t offer much, but we can pay.”

The group exchanged glances. In response to some unspoken question, they all nodded. “We’ll be down there in a day, two tops,” said Rob.

“Oh my god, thank you all so much,” said Quarrel with a palpable sigh of relief. “We’re sorry to drag you into this mess.”

“No worries, just don’t get yourselves killed,” said Ben with a grin.

Quarrel laughed. “We’ll try. Talk to you later.”

Miya hung up the phone and sighed. “Damn it, I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to go back there again.”

“Phoenix ain’t a bad city. We do kind of stumbled over the absolute worst of it, but that’s just cuz god hates us,” said Rob.

“You know, I’ve talked with people in the security business before,” said Amanda, weary resignation on her face. “You know what they describe it as? You stand around, look intimidating, and keep your client safe. Then you get your paycheck and go home. That’s it. No mass murder, no alien conspiracies, no ancient gods. Just a paycheck at the end. It sounds great.” That does sound great.

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For the Record – Fortress

Amanda hung up her cellphone, and hung her head. Sorry, Sarah.

“How did that go?” asked Miya across the lab from her.

Amanda set her phone down on the counter in front of her and replied, “Fine. She’s getting to a police station now in case the Siberians try to kidnap her.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Because she designed that brain wave and they might want her to do more. Oh, and the others should be back soon.”

Miya nodded. With all of the equipment shut down, the lab was an unnaturally silent room. Now that night had fallen, there wasn’t even the occasional summer student passing by.

“So…” began Amanda, trying to fill the lingering, awkward silence between her and Miya.

“Yeah?”

“How’s it going?”

Miya shrugged and replied, “Alright.”

Another pause. Come on, work with me here. “So I guess we haven’t talked much. Ever.”

“I guess not.” Or don’t work with me. Whatever.

“The others should be back soon,” said Amanda, refusing to let the conversation die in its infancy.

“Great. I’m starting to hate this place,” said Miya, a finger idly curling through her hair.

“What’s wrong?” asked Amanda.

Miya grimaced and said, “This place is weird.”

Amanda looked around the lab, at the solid blacktop counters and empty fume hood. Her own laptop sat nestled between two heftier desktops. “What? This is a pretty standard college lab.”

“No, not the lab. Never been here before. At a college, I mean,” said Miya, waving her hand around vaguely.

“Everything you ever dream of?”

Miya let out a humorless laugh, still refusing to meet Amanda’s eyes. “Never thought I’d step foot in a college,” she said, her words getting sharper as aimless anger rose in her voice. “I keep get the feeling I don’t belong here.”

“Really?” Where the hell are you getting that feeling from?

“Are you fucking kidding me? You’re talking to a high school dropout who’s never had more than a hundred dollars to her name. College? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“You dropped out?”

“Yeah. Didn’t see much of a point,” replied Miya.

“Much of a point to your education?”

“Who the fuck would hire me? Little Mexica girl with a criminal record? No, I’d rather save myself some time.”

“How about now? You could get a GED,” pointed out Amanda.

“Again, what’s the point? It won’t change anything.”

“That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy right there.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Seriously. Hear me out. If you give up on yourself, you’ll never get anywhere. So by approaching life thinking ‘I’ll never get a job’, then guess what? You’ll never get a job. You have to at least give it a shot. Do you really want to go through life having to tell people you don’t even have a high school degree?”

Miya nodded, biting her lower lip. I’ll shut up now. Just please don’t ignore me. Amanda returned to her laptop, keeping watch in case anyone suspicious tried to get in again.

Olivia, Ben, and Rob filed back into the lab a few minutes later. Ben kept hand on the pistol hidden in his waistband. Rob immediately stood beside Amanda, while Olivia approached Miya with a large red blotch on her arm.

“Let me see that,” said Miya, gesturing to Olivia’s scorched arm. “What happened?”

“One of the aliens had a laser gun thing. I tried to grab it from it, and it broke. This weird red gas came out of it, and the alien tried to get away from it. It got all over here,” replied Olivia, waving her free hand over the red blotch.

Miya glanced at her. “Why does every bad thing happen to you?’

Olivia gave a weary shrug. “I don’t know. But I’m fine. It’s better than it hitting you guys.”

“Incorrect,” said Amanda. “The best case scenario is none of us getting hit with anything, you included.”

“No problems getting’ back,” announced Ben, right beside the door. “I’m thinkin’ we’re good for now.”

Miya’s eyes grew unfocused as she laid her hands on Olivia’s arm. The red color lessened, though not disappearing completely.

“I’m not sure what the fuck this is. It’s not doing anything too bad, but it’s not exactly good.”

“It could have just been poisonous to the Siberian and not us,” said Amanda. “They are aliens after all.”

“True,” replied Miya. Her eyes refocused and she let go of Olivia. “I’ve stopped the worst of whatever it was doing. I’ll take a longer look once we’re out of here.”

Olivia nodded and said, “Thanks.”

“Now what?” asked Ben.

“If there’s any more Siberians they could come back here,” pointed out Amanda.

“Let’s call the cops, get them to lock this place up,” suggested Rob.

“Would they?” asked Olivia.

“This is half the human race at stake, they’ll figure it out real quick. We did, an’ we’re idiots. Hell, we can spell it out for ‘em, tell ‘em this is where the lab for that brain ray thing they found came from.”

“That sounds good,” said Amanda. The cops have more manpower than us, too.

“Are you OK to fly?” Miya asked Olivia.

She nodded.

“Alright,” said Ben. “I’ll make the call an’ we can get out of here.”

***

Amanda didn’t sleep that night. She volunteered to keep watch over the lair as the others drifted off to sleep with a pervading sense of unease. She tinkered with the railgun prototype for an hour It just needed one more part from Rob, he said he’d have it done by tomorrow night. She examined a bullet they planned on using. It wasn’t much different from a standard rifle round without the powder. Neither of them knew enough about ballistics to feel confident about developing their own munitions.

She moved on, hunching over the laptop she’d taken with her to the lab and trying to figure out how the Siberians had evaded her fail-safes so easily. I hate aliens. They got a head start on us. The weak rays of the early morning light caught her eye as she examined a USB port for the fifth time, learning absolutely nothing. I just pulled another pointless all-nighter, didn’t I?

Ben teleported to her side and poked her in the cheek. She jumped in her seat, her right knee slamming against the bottom of the solid desk, sending a couple stray bits of wire and her glasses into the air

“God damn it, you jackass,” she hissed for the benefit of the others still asleep, massaging her knee.

“Surprise,” he said with a grin.

“Fuck you and your teleportation.”

“Keepin’ a good watch?”

Amanda flipped him off and returned her attention to her laptop. Fuck it, I’m too tired to get anything done at this point. She blinked the sleep out of her eyes. Need to get these contacts out, too. Ben hopped up to take a seat on a nearby desk as she pulled out her contact case from a drawer.

He shivered as she peeled her eyelids open and popped her contacts out. “I couldn’t fuckin’ stand contacts.” A sudden grin split his face. “Good thing I don’t need ‘em.”

“Well aren’t you just a special snowflake?” Jackass.

“Damn right. You nearsighted? Farsighted?”

“Neither. Just some mild astigmatism,” Amanda replied. She screwed her contacts case shut and slipped on her thin glasses.

“Wait, astigmatism? Ain’t that just stigmatism?” He grabbed a long, thin length of metal Rob had left lying around and twirled it in his fingers.

“No, my eye doctor got kind of annoyed when I pointed that out to him. It’s actually astigmatism.”

“Huh. Learn somethin’ every day.”

He hopped down from the desk, stick of metal still in hand. What are you doing with that? He teleported over to Olivia’s beanbag, where she lay face down.

He poked Olivia in the back of the head with a, “Boop!” Aftera brief pause, Amanda spotted Olivia’s tail twitch.

Ben poked her in the head again. “Boop!”

Olivia let out a soft mumble, trying her best to ignore him.

“Come on. Why don’t you do that to Miya?” asked Amanda, fighting back a smile. Let’s see if you’re dumb enough to do that.

“Because she’ll fight back. Olivia is like a giant teddy bear that makes funny noises when you poke her.”

To illustrate his point, he poked Olivia in the back of the head again with another, “Boop!” eliciting a low, muffled grumble from the girl. He’s not wrong. Sorry, Olivia, I tried. Her right wing snapped out, catching Ben in the shins.

He laughed and hopped to the side, poking her in the head a couple more times. She flailed her hand pitifully in the air, trying to ward off Ben.

“The boops don’t stop,” she said. “I tried to fight back but the boops don’t stop.”

“Olivia, you may as well wake up now,” said Amanda.

“You underestimate my power,” mumbled Olivia, burrowing further into the beanbag. Did she make a joke? Have we cracked the shell? Ben doubled over laughing, tears now streaming down his face.

“You harassing her isn’t that funny,” Amanda said to him.

“Yes… yes it is,” he managed.

“What the hell?” asked Rob from behind him.

Ben simply pointed at Olivia with the stick. “Boop!”

An identical grin split Rob’s face. He rushed over and said, “Gimme, I wanna try.”

Olivia let out a low, threatening hiss. “I’m up,” she grumbled as she sat up, messy brown hair covering her eyes.

“Aw. I got up for this?”

“Next time,” said Ben.

He finally put the metal stick down and returned to the desk he’d been sitting on. Rob wheeled up a seat next to Amanda and sat down.

“I’m sorry they woke you up,” she said to him.

“No problem. I wasn’t really sleepin’ anyways. Miya still asleep?”

“Yep. You’re getting that last railgun piece done, right?”

“It’ll be done by tonight, then we can get to testin’ the gun.”

“Didn’t you do that already?” asked Ben.

“That was just to see if it could shoot in the first place. This’ll be to see if it works as a gun.”

“We’ll have to call ahead and find a range to test this at,” pointed out Amanda. This will be fun. I’ve never really done weapons tests before. Rob nodded in agreement.

“Why?” asked Olivia.

“People don’t like techies just showin’ up an’ testin’ out new shit. Good to call ahead an’ make sure the owner is OK with it.”

“Gonna make some armor piercin’ shit, then? Weren’t you talkin’ about electro-bullets, too?”

“Ain’t that hard to make a bullet that’s good enough. Now if we wanna make some exotic ammo, I got no fuckin’ clue, but we can deal with that when we get there,” explained Rob.

“Yeah, that’s what I figured we’d do,” added Amanda.

“Wait, what happened to the aliens?” asked Olivia.

“What? What about the aliens?”

“Well, why aren’t we worrying about them? There were a bunch of them, and now it’s back to normal? They were trying to kill us all.”

“It’s not exactly our problem anymore,” said Amanda. “That’s a problem for people way higher up the food chain than us.”

“Have you heard of anything happenin’?” Rob asked Amanda.

“Nope.” Out of curiosity, she opened up another free laptop. She’d set it to monitor any and all news organizations. “Most news agencies haven’t posted anything new at all since our little stunt.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing. Not even celebrity gossip. A couple of them have gotten back up and started posting, but they only have a little bit piece on aliens so far.”

Ben broke the resulting silence. “This is super underwhelmin’. I was expectin’ missiles to fly or some shit.”

“Now what?” asked his brother.

“I don’t know,” said Amanda. “Do we have to do something else?”

“Didn’t we already do some stuff?” asked Olivia. “I was just wondering if we had to do more.”

“It just don’t feel right,” said Ben.

“Yep, you’ve said that before,” replied Amanda. A notice caught her eye, one from the White House’s website, no less. She read it and announced, “Well, this might be more interesting. The president is supposed to give a speech about the Siberians soon.”

“How soon?”

She checked the clock. “In, damn. In five minutes.”

“We don’t got cable, they streamin’ it?” asked Rob.

“Yes, it looks like they are.”

She pulled up the video and moved her chair to the side so the others could see. They didn’t talk, instead fidgeting, waiting for any answers. After a few minutes, the presidential seal on screen faded away, replaced by a spokesman standing behind a podium. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, the camera shook violently. The microphone picked up shouting, not in English. It finally stopped with a view of the press room’s carpet.

“What the fuck?” someone said. The others in the room sat on the edges of their seats, eyes glued to the screen.

The background noise died down. The camera panned back up to the podium where a man in an impeccable suit and familiar grinning mask stood.

“I am Taauth and I speak not only to the people of the United States, but to all of mankind.” He paused. “For too long, the aliens, the Siberians, have profaned the surface of our planet. For too long, they have plotted to annihilate all of us, all of humanity, and the leaders of the world have done nothing. This must end, and soon.”

“Is he insane?” Amanda murmured in another pause by Taauth.

“They have developed a new weapon, a ray which can go through any armor, any material, and destroy the brain matter of any human in its way. The president here,” said Taauth, nodding to some point off camera, “would tell you that the situation is now contained. He would tell you sweet, empty, and cheap words of reassurance. I offer actions, not words. Even if the situation is truly contained now, the threat is still out there. It is only a matter of time before they develop anew weapon. I will end that threat, and I ask all of humanity to assist me. And if your government does nothing, is content with letting aliens threaten your lives, ask yourself, ‘Are they truly worthy to rule you?’”

With that, he stepped away from the podium. More shouting broke out as he stepped out of view of the camera. The feed cut to black a moment later.

“Alright, fuck it, enough of that shit,” said Ben. He and Rob got up simultaneously and spread out across the lair. What?

“Think we should pack guns?” called out Rob.

“Nah. Can’t get those on a plane,” replied Ben. “We need cash to get some once we’re there. It’s the Middle East, there’s guns everywhere I bet.”

“Gonna need cash for that.”

“How much we got?”

“Dunno. I got couple hundred. You?”

“Same, a little more.”

“We’re gonna need passports,” pointed out Rob.

“Think we can get some fakes, or we wanna get ‘em legit?”

“What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” demanded Amanda, breaking up their rapid fire conversation.

“Goin’ to talk to our brother,” said Ben.

“An’ maybe kill him.”

“Ain’t gonna come to that.”

“Whatever you say,” replied Rob with a shrug.

“What is you plan?” continued Amanda. “Do you have one. One at all?”

“Get there, wing it.”

“Did you two not listen to Cyrus?” she asked. Olivia had stood up, concern written over her face.

“Yeah, he’s got no fuckin’ idea why Taauth is here. But I know for a fact that’s my brother behind that mask.”

“Been waitin’ too long to do this,” said Ben.

“No more waitin’,” added Rob.

“We need a better plan than wing it,” said Amanda, folding her arms.

“We?”

“This ain’t your fight,” said Rob with a shake of his head.

“Ain’t none of yours,” added Ben with a vague gesture to Olivia and Miya, just now starting to stir.

“Bullshit,” spat Amanda. “We’ve been working as a team for a while now, haven’t we?”

“Yeah,” said Ben. He pulled out a duffle bag and began shoving some of his clothes into it.

“But we don’t wanna drag you into the ugly family fight that’s comin’ up,” said Rob.

“And I don’t care, you two aren’t charging off after Sam on your own.”

“You ain’t even met him,” said Ben.

“He’s your triplet,” said Amanda.

“I don’t really see why-”

“Enough!” demanded Olivia, raising her voice.  “Sorry,” she continued, her voice returning to normal. “But you two are being kind of dumb.”

“Come on, you too? This ain’t your fight,” said Ben.

“Why did you care? When you first met me, why did you care?”

Where are you going with this? Ben shared Amanda’s sentiment, shrugging his shoulders and exclaiming, “I don’t fuckin’ know.”

“You didn’t have to, though. I’ve never met Sam, but he’s your brother. I care.”

The brothers slowed to a stop. They exchanged a long, shared look. “You two sure about this?” they asked.

“Of course,” said Amanda, Olivia nodding in agreement.

“What, did you guys forget about me?” asked Miya as she joined them. “Before you start bitching at me, what they said,” she said, pointing to Amanda and Olivia.

Ben and Rob cracked identical smiles. “Fine.”

“We can’t just rush in without a plan,” said Amanda. “We need more information if you want to get to a head of state like that.”

“Shit, she’s right,” said Rob, glancing at Ben again. “Didn’t think about that. I guess Sam is a ruler guy now. Can’t just walk in through the front door an’ talk to him.”

“Exactly,” said Amanda. “We’ll figure it out together.”

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For the Record – Smiley

Olivia ducked down, angling her wings through the doorway in the TV station. Ahead of her, Gears and Skulker kept checking over their shoulders, guns at the ready. Janice, a worker at the station, led them to where she said the alien Siberians kept their equipment.

“So why exactly are you three here?” she asked, slightly out of breath. She cast a nervous glance at the triplets’ guns. “I didn’t think anyone else knew about the aliens.”

“They stole somethin’ of ours. Well, not really ours, a friend of ours. You get the picture,” replied Skulker.

“We had no idea there were fuckin’ aliens involved until an hour ago,” added Gears.

“What did they steal?” asked Janice, confusion all across her face. “What could they possibly need?”

“Brain meltin’ ray. Goes through damn near anythin’,” said Skulker. Were we supposed to tell her that?

After a moment of consideration, all Janice could manage was, “That doesn’t sound good.”

“Ha! You got that right.”

The group came to a stop by a set of large double doors. “Here,” said Janice. “This is the newsroom. I’d be willing to be this is where they’re keeping whatever it is you’re looking for.”

“Thanks. Anythin’ else we should know?” asked Skulker.

She shook her head.

“Then get outta here an’ to safety.”

“Should I call the police?”

Gears grunted, “Give us a half hour.”

“Alright. Good luck.” With that, she hurried off, her footsteps fading as she turned a corner and vanished from sight.

Olivia and the triplets exchanged glances. Let’s find out what new awful thing is here. Gears cocked his shotgun and burst through the doors, Skulker and Olivia following close behind. A completely empty and deserted room greeted them. Half of the flood lights overhead kept the stage in front of them brightly lit.

Well this is a nice change of pace. Skulker backpedaled, keeping an eye on the door they just entered from as Olivia and Gears weaved their way through a set of desks with headsets and papers scattered on top of them. Her wing brushed against a massive black board covered in lights and switches. Four cameras ringed a long desk on the set.

“Got any idea what to do?” Skulker asked his brother over his shoulder.

“Not yet.”

“You’d think a spacefarin’ species would be able to figure shit like this death ray out on their own,” muttered Skulker.

A few light, near inaudible taps caught Olivia’s ears. While any building she’d ever been in had those, these taps came from inside the room, rather than the wall. “Stop,” she said. The triplets’ grips on their guns tightened as they obeyed. She sniffed the air. “There’s something here,” she announced.

Skulker looked around. “I’m not seein’ anythin’.”

“It’s faint, but it’s not old, if that makes any sense.” Her head whipped around at the sound of a couple more taps. “Something is moving.” The trio stood, frozen in concentration. Why can’t I find it?

A pair of telltale whines broke the silence. Skulker teleported as Gears threw himself to the floor. Olivia whirled around to the nearest source of the noise, just in time to catch sight of a laser lance through the air where Skulker had stood a moment before. Another caught her in the back, sending her stumbling from the sharp, burning pain.

“Down!” yelled Skulker.

He and Gears ducked behind some desks. A flurry of lasers glanced off of Olivia’s arm as she joined the triplets under cover. She snarled in pain, the repeated burns marring her arm. Silence fell over the room again.

“This is a problem,” called out Skulker.

“No shit,” barked Gears.

“Shush,” cut in Olivia, kneeling down as far as she could behind a sturdy desk. “Let me listen.” They stopped shooting for a reason. That… That’s how we could tell where they were. Her head tilted as she listened. There.

She wrapped her hands around the edges of the desk and stood, keeping it between her and the circling enemy. A trio of lasers hit the desk, sending up puffs of acrid smoke. She flung the desk at the empty air. It collided with an unseen figure, breaking in half. Lasers from across the room forced her back.

Silence fell once again.

Grenades,” Skulker muttered to Olivia. “Point me in the right direction.”

“There’s at least two,” whispered Gears. “Pass me one.”

Olivia ignored the sound of a metal grenade exchanging hands and focused on the noises around them. They’re trying to get a good angle on us. They must be moving slow if they’re that quiet.

“One by that camera on the far right. It’s going right. The other…” Where is it? That’s the one I hit with a desk. A soft tap caught her ear. Got you. “Two feet in front of that chair, going left.”

Skulker patted Gears on the arm. “Cover your ears,” he muttered to Olivia.

Olivia clasped her hands tight over her ears, ducking down as low as she could fit herself.  The shockwaves, barely a second apart, rocked the whole room. I hate explosions, she thought as her tinnitus made itself known again.

She stood. A pair of Siberians shimmered into sight, clad in thin matte grey armor. She rushed for the nearest one, clawed toes digging into the floor as she closed the distance. Behind her, the triplets targeted the second alien. The alien before her let out a guttural roar and brought it’s rifle to bear. Patches of its four arms were still invisible.

Olivia flipped a desk towards the Siberian, blocking its rifle. Before it could recover, she moved in close. Her hand swiped down its chest, leaving four long scratches in the armor. One of the alien’ free hand pounded her in the ribcage, knocking the breath out of her.

She bared her teeth and blocked the next punch to her chest with her elbow. Her free hand hooked towards the Siberian’s rifle. She grabbed the body of the laser gun and punched her claws into the sleek metal. A faint red mist hissed as it escaped the gun. The Siberian let out a panicked growl and released it, backing away from the expanding cloud.

Bad, bad. Her skin tingled where the mist touched it. The gun had gotten stuck on her claw. Get away.  She flung her arm to the side, freeing the gun from her fingers and lodging halfway through a wall thirty feet away. She returned her attention to the Siberian, just in time to catch sight of it vanish.

Stupid armor. She wrapped her arms around the alien before it could escape and lifted its feet off the ground. As she slammed its upper body into the ground, it shimmered back to visibility. She brought her foot down on its head. It let out a high pitched yelp, even as two of its arms wrapped around her knee and yanked. Off. Her claws only scratched the surface of the armor on its arms.

The alien climbed up her even as she backpedaled, bringing itself upright. She brought her clenched hands down on the back of its short neck, doing nothing to stop it. A seam in the armor, near its neck, caught her eye. She hooked her claws into the seam and pulled. The metal shrieked as she peeled it off of the Siberian, even as it drove punch after punch into her gut. Finally, her claws met a soft target.

She worked on an arm next. The Siberian realized trying to grapple with her was useless, it held one of its hands over its exposed skin and tried to tear itself free of her grasp. She held on, her claws pulling on her hands as she peeled back more and more of the Siberian’s armor. Go away. She broke the arm, then dug her claws into exposed base of its neck. The alien went still.

Guys? She turned around. The brothers were barely holding their own against the alien. Skulker teleported again and again, keeping the alien’s attention fixed on him. Gears fired again and again with no effect, the spent shotgun shells clattering to the ground with every pull of the trigger.

She twisted and flung the mauled Siberian at its friend. The bulky body hit the other alien in the legs, sending it toppling down. Skulker and Gears jumped at the opening. Gears ran around to behind the Siberian’s head, while his brother lunged at a chink in the arm of its armor with a long knife.

By the time Olivia had rushed over, Skulker had found its head as it struggled to get out from under its comrade. A deep red, nearly black, stream of blood pooled beneath the two bodies.

“I think,” said Skulker, trailing off for a moment to catch his breath. “I think those are soldiers, not whatever the fuck we’ve been fightin’ before.”

“Fuck that,” groaned Gears, leaning heavily against the wall. “Fuck that so hard.”

“Are you guys OK?” asked Olivia.

“In one piece,” replied Gears. “The fuck’s up with your arm?”

She took a look at her right arm, the skin of which had turned blotchy and red. “Oh, there was some gas coming out of that things gun.”

Is it still there? She spun around. The red cloud around the embedded gun had dissipated.

“I guess it’s gone now,” she said, turning back to Gears and Skulker. “It kind of tingles.”

The brothers exchanged looks. “We need to get that checked out real fuckin’ soon.”

She prodded the red portion of her arm. “Its fine. Just tingly. For now.” I hope that red goes away soon. And that it doesn’t do something awful.

“Alright…” said Skulker, trialing off again. “Shit, what were we looking for?”

“Somethin’ to do with their death ray thing,” said Gears.

“Right. Anyone else comin’, ‘liv’?”

She shook her head. “Not that I can hear. Those grenades kind of hurt my ears though, sorry.”

“Shit, sorry.”

“We need to get you earplugs or somethin’,” said Gears.

“But then I won’t be able to hear people coming,” replied Olivia.

“Discussion for later,” said Skulker. “Let’s get what we came for.”

They spread out across the room, looking for anything that might be connected to their missing brain melting ray schemes. Olivia stopped by a blank space of wall. This smells kind of alien-y. She tapped a knuckle on the wall, meeting far more resistance than normal drywall would have given.

“Here,” she called out.

The brothers rushed over. Together, she and Gears tore the door down, while Skulker watched their back.

Skulker looked inside, laughed, and said, “Never stop bein’ awesome, ‘liv’.”

“I’ll try.”

They stepped into the dimly lit room, with a large camera in the center. It looked normal, so far as Olivia could tell. But there were several sleek metal cables attached to it, as well as a tiny chip on the side.

“Well, you’re the techie, the fuck’s goin’ on here?” asked Skulker.

“I got no clue. Lemme take a couple pictures an’ shoot ‘em over to Amanda, see if she’s got anythin’ to say.”

Olivia and Skulker spread out across the room as Gears circled the device with phone raised. One entire wall was covered in flowing alien scrawls. Olivia could only spend a few seconds looking at it before it felt like it was twisting her eyes in knots.

“They got it to work,” announced Gears, eyes fixed on the screen of his phone. “Rough guess, she says it can kill people through their TVs now.”

“They’re gonna wipe out a whole lot of people if they got every one of their TV stations with one of these things. They might not kill important people, but they’ll kill a whole lot of people,” said Skulker.

“US ain’t the whole world. Can’t exactly do this without someone else nukin’ them,” pointed out Gears.

“Yeah, this kind of ray don’t just work in the US. What if they got every TV in Europe covered? Or Australia, or Asia? They could be fuckin’ anywhere.”

“Wouldn’t it be a better idea to tell, you know, the world?” asked Olivia. This sounds like a super big problem.

“That’s what I’m thinking. Let’s wrap up here, then we gotta get to the cops. This ain’t about us anymore. Siberians could kill a stupid amount of people very soon if we keep our mouths shut.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

For the Record – Hive

“What’re you thinkin’?” Gears asked his brother.

“I’m thinkin’ we might need to go to the cops with this.”

Olivia frowned, her tail twitching behind her. Why is it always the police? They really don’t like me. Isn’t there someone else we could call?

“Honest, think hard about this now. Can we do this on our own? Those aliens ain’t fuckin’ around. They’ve got a news station under their thumb for some damn reason.” And those laser guns hurt. “But this is our fuck up in the first place.”

Skulker grunted noncommittally in response. Olivia winced to herself as she paced next to Gears’ truck, the burns across her body red and inflamed. “I’m wonderin’ if the cops would even believe us,” said Skulker.

“Well, there’s a Siberian corpse down there,” said Gears, jerking his thumb in the direction of the old gym with an underground base they’d stumbled across. “They’ll believe that.”

Olivia stopped and asked, “Could we call Cyrus? He seems like a good guy, and he’d believe us.” Oh, and maybe he’ll bring Hank. We haven’t seen him in weeks. Since he left with Cyrus, actually.

“We gonna drag Cyrus into our shit every time we come against somethin’ tough? This is our fuck up,” said Gears.

“I’m with him,” said Skulker. He and Gears both seemed to make up their minds, standing up a little straighter. “We got tricked like scrubs. An’ if word gets out Sarah made this weapon, she’s gonna get dragged down with us. I say we try this on our own.”

“We need to let Delta an’ Miya know what’s goin’ on. Then we come up with a game plan,” added Gears.

Skulker and Olivia nodded in agreement. She kept an ear out for anyone approaching their abandoned car lot as Gears called the others. We can do this, she thought as she resumed her pacing, tail dragging along on the rough and cracked asphalt of the lot. It’s OK. We got out of this one OK. I just can’t do anything stupid next time. We’ll be fine.

“Alright,” said Gears, hanging up his phone. “No problems on their end. An’ I just thought of somethin’. We could sell the shit down there like the lasers to the Company. They’d pay real good for any alien shit.”

“Let’s see if we can get this done on our own first. If we can, sure. If not, we gotta give the cops somethin’ so they’ll believe us,” replied Skulker.

“True. Let’s do this,” said Gears, hand on the door handle.

“Hold on. You guys keep saying ‘this’. I get the general meaning, but what exactly do we need to do?” asked Olivia. Just so I’m not messing anything up in my head.

“We need to go to that TV station an’ figure out what exactly the Siberians are doin’ there. We take out whoever we need to, an’ we figure out why they have a fuckin’ TV station,” replied Skulker. “Then we figure out where to go from there, an’ if we can put a stop to this brain meltin’ ray thing.”

“OK,” said Olivia with a cautious nod.

“You feelin’ up to this?” Skulker asked Olivia, motioning to the laser burns on her chest.

“I’m fine,” she replied. “They’re not that bad.”

“If you say so. Want a ride or you gonna fly?” he asked.

“I’ll fly.” I hate sitting in cars.

“Alright. It’s towards downtown. Be careful.”

***

Now that night had fallen completely, Olivia could fly far lower on their way to the news station. The skyscrapers of downtown Westward City towered above them, reaching the heights Olivia usually cruised at. Why do they always have lights on? Doesn’t that just waste electricity?

A few cars passed below her as she circled over the TV station. The triplets had parked behind an old car dealership across the street from it, their massive matte black truck towering over the smaller Japanese cars. I’m not seeing anything immediately strange. It’s just a normal building, actually. She tucked her wings in and dove, landing behind the truck.

“How are we lookin’?” asked Gears, once she’d dusted herself off.

“Fine. I couldn’t see anything weird,” she replied.

“People?”

“It’s just after ten. The night news crew should have wrapped up their show about now,” said Skulker. “Probably still here.”

“It smells weird,” added Olivia. “Like those guys back at the gym.”

“So more of those spooky guys,” said Gears. “You know, I’m not sure those guys were real people.”

“They smelled kind of like the Siberian.”

“We’re dealin’ with some weird, weird shit, then.,” said Skulker with a shake of his head. “There any actual people in there?”

“Yes. Mostly normal people, actually.”

“Why this place?” muttered Gears.

“It’s not as though there’s a ton of security around a normal local news station. Not exactly a national defense priority. Must have been easy to take over. But why? I don’t fuckin’ know why.”

“I guess we can figure out why later,” said Gears. “How do we wanna get in there?”

“We gotta be careful about this. Don’t want the cops bargin’ in.”

“And what about those other people who are still there. We don’t want them getting hurt,” said Olivia.

“We wanna wait for ‘em to leave?” asked Skulker.

“That just means the aliens have longer to do whatever it is they’re gonna do with that laser thing. I say as soon as possible.”

Skulker and Olivia nodded in agreement. The waiting is always the worst part.

“Back door might be best,” said Skulker, nudging Olivia. “Less obvious. Won’t matter if it’s locked or not.”

“I can do that,” she said.

“Then let’s get movin’,” said Gears.

Olivia took flight as Skulker and Gears weaved through the cars of the dealership and hurried across the street, masks off to keep from tipping off the few cars driving past. They circled around the TV station to a back door, a bright red exit sight lit up over it. Olivia landed, keeping balanced on her clawed feet. Skulker and Gears jogged up a moment later, slipping their masks on over their faces. Their leering, grinning faces nodded as Olivia wound back a kick and demolished the door.

No alarm sounded, once the racket of the ruined door crashing to the ground died down. Olivia stepped aside for Gears to go in first, shotgun held at the ready. They followed him inside, Olivia keeping an ear open for any movement. Yeah, it smells a lot like those guys from the gym. A small set of lights, near the ceiling, began silently blinking. Footsteps rushed towards them.

“There’s the alarm,” muttered Skulker, bringing up the rear.

A squad of long faced men in cheap dark suits, all nearly identical to the men they’d dealt with in the secret lair in the gym, met them with laser rifles in hand. Gears opened fire, his shotgun blasting the first man off of his feet. Skulker teleported in, knife in hand. Olivia charged after him. She toppled over another handful of men, a single laser blast glancing off of her shoulder.  She grabbed a man by the throat and slammed him against a wall. Her tail mindlessly whipped back and forth behind her, slamming into more of the spooky men as they tried to stand upright.

She tossed aside the broken man and spun around, ready to tear into another. The triplet and her tail had taken out the rest. Gears kicked the last man in the chin. His head hit the ground with a hollow thunk as he went limp. Oh, it’s over. They got them.

“Teamwork!” said Skulker.

They continued on, further into the TV station. Various posters with staff announcements or upcoming events plastered a cork board they passed. Gears led the way through a set of double doors.

A Siberian whirled around as they entered. It snarled and flung a coffee mug in Olivia’s face before leaping at Gears. Skulker lunged after it, long knife digging into its scaly leg and bringing it to the ground. Olivia wiped the ceramic shards from her face and brought her claws down on the Siberian’s chest. Bones cracked as the alien let out a high pitched yelp. A blast from Gears’ shotgun brought it down.

They stepped around the Siberian’s corpse and took in the room. Rows and rows of desks and computers filled it. Is this where the reporters worked? Or writers? Or whoever does the stuff for the news? Family photos and other small knickknacks rested on most of the desks.

“He was messin’ with this one,” said Skulker, leaning over to get a closer look at a computer screen. “They ain’t real low key in here, are they?”

Olivia and Gears joined him. A mess of technical diagrams   After a moment, Gears said, “That’s lookin’ like the plans they stole.”

“Really?” I got no fuckin’ idea what’s goin’ on here,” said Skulker. Same here, thought Olivia.

“I could be totally wrong, but that’s my best guess,” said Gears.

“So these guys have got it, too. Didn’t think about that. They could have copied the plans a hundred times an’ sent ‘em to their home by now.”

Some muffled murmurs caught her attention. “Hang on, I hear something,” she broke in, following her ears to a door to the left of where they’d come in.

Skulker gripped his knife tight as he opened the door with his free hand. A group of half a dozen ordinary people huddled before them, spread out in a large conference room. The two groups locked eyes for a moment, taking each other in. They’re just normal people. Then an older man stood up and screamed “Intruders!” He rushed towards Olivia.

What? The man’s fists bounced off of her. She looked back at the triples. What am I supposed to do here? Skulker teleported, tacking the man to the ground and pinning his arms against his back.

“Get off of me,” the man pleaded as he struggled against him.

The other people in the room had sprung to life. Rather than attacking, they crowded around

“Don’t hurt him!” said a young man, pinning the older man’s legs down.

“He’s been here too long!” shouted a woman, standing between Gears and the others. “He’s been brainwashed!”

“You’ve got some explaining to do,” growled Gears, not lowering his shotgun.

“An’ get me somethin’ to tie up this fucker with,” added Skulker.

“OK, OK,” said the woman, raising her hands in front of her. “I’m Janice. We’re not with the aliens. When the alarm sounded off, they herded us in here and told us to stay put.”

“You mentioned brainwashin’ or somethin’?” asked Skulker, pressing his forearm against the back of the neck of the older man.

“That’s what they’re trying to do,” said Janice.

“They own every news network,” said the younger man as a third person passed Skulker some electrical cords.

“It’s slow, very slow,” said Janice, pointing to the older man. “Some of the people who have been around here longer, they change.” She shuddered.

“We always thought they were with Overlord, but it’s been weeks since Overlord died and they haven’t gone anywhere. They seemed almost happy about it, actually.”

“They couldn’t have been with Overlord. Everything got taken out when Overlord attacked, even for our building,” added someone else.

“I saw a squad of robots try to get in. The spooks fought them off.”

“How did you know?”

“I heard those robots screaming.”

“Hold up, hold up,” said Gears, shotgun now pointed towards the floor. “One, how do you know it’s brainwashin’?”

Janice pointed to the older man and said, “How else do you explain that? He was always super loyal to the spooks, even when the aliens started coming around.”

“OK, fair. Second question. They just let you know all this shit?”

“This is recent,” said Janice. “After Overlord died, the Siberians came in. It got a lot worse. We always thought the spooks were just some weird super in management or something. Then when Overlord invaded they pulled out these freaky laser guns. They threatened to kill us if we told anyone.”

“Those spooks,” said Gears. “They just brainwashed or somethin’? There’s somethin’ real off about ‘em.”

“They’re not people, just organic robots. They’re all exactly the same, just with those different things, like skin color.”

“We’ve seen a lot of them. They usually just change the face a little bit between the clones,” added the younger man, finishing tying down the older man’s legs.

“Who is he? The original one?” asked Olivia.

“We have no idea. There might not have been, they could have just cobbled the together from a dozen different humans,” said Janice with a shrug. “we’ve only really seen a lot of them in the last two weeks. It had something to do with Overlord, I know it.”

“Maybe Overlord spooked the aliens. I got no idea though,” mused Skulker.

“They can control any information. They keep a low profile, so they let politicians do what they want, but they usually spin it for whatever reasons they have. You’ve got to stop them,” said Janice.

“Hold up. Why ain’t we all like this guy?” asked Skulker, nudging the now quietly weeping older man with the toe of his boot.

“Like we said, it’s slow. They really didn’t care too much for what we did until two weeks ago.”

“Where do they keep this brainwashin’ shit?

“We don’t know where they store it,” said Janice. “It’s probably near the recording studio or the editing room. Do you know where those are?”

“Nope.”

“Then I can get you there. But don’t expect me to be able to open every door.”

“Olivia, you’ve got lockpickin’ skills,” said Gears with a laugh. What? I just knock down… oh.

“Rest of you,” said Skulker, pointing to others. “Pick up the old timer an’ get outta here. That back exit we came in through should be safe.”

“Let’s go,” said Janice with a deep breath. She led the triplets and Olivia out of the conference room as the others behind them headed for the exit.

As they passed by the rows of desks, Olivia spotted a decorated skull on screen out of the corner of her eye. It’s like that one on Dr. Sullivan’s desk, the one she said she got from Mexico. “Come on,” called out Skulker, breaking her train of thought. She followed after the triplets and Janice.

<- Previous Chapter

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For the Record – Source

Beside Skulker, Olivia let out a snarl and dug her claws into the partially bent door. The hell are you doing? he thought. The thick metal door half groaned as she tore it back inch by inch. A series of short, high pitched whines rang out from the other side, proceeding a flurry of barely visible lasers. The ruined elevator shaft behind them shimmered with heat for a brief moment.

“The hell?” barked Gears, gaze fixed on Olivia. That door was half of what was between us and a face full of death laser.

Olivia ignored them, raising an arm to shield her face from the incoming fire and charged forward. More high pitched tones pierced the air. Skulker grimaced beneath his mask and locked eyes with his brother for a moment. We gotta back her up now. As Gears hefted his shotgun, Skulker twisted around the remaining half of the door and teleported after her. He ducked his head as another telltale whine rang out. Olivia let out a roar of pain, her charge unbroken.

Bank after bank of what looked like advanced computer servers filled the room they thundered into. One of the thieves they’d been tracking, the white man in a cheap dark suit, held a smooth, grey patterned gun like a rifle. Olivia rammed into his partner, the black man, and drove him straight into one of the severs, leaving a sizable dent in the metal. The white man swiveled to aim at Skulker as he ran up behind her.

As the telltale whine rose up again, Skulker raised his own pistol and teleported, squeezing the trigger three times from five feet away. The first and last shots sparked off of the server behind the man, but the second struck the man in the shoulder. Without a flinch, the man fired. Heat flashed past Skulker’s ears, bringing with it the acrid smell of his singed hair. Behind him, Gears’ shotgun fired off in the enclosed space, filling Skulker’s ears with piercing ringing.

Before Skulker could fire again, the man lunged forward, driving the butt of his rifle into Skulker’s chest. He twisted with the blow, dropping his pistol to take the brunt of a follow up hit aimed at his head with his forearm. His maimed hand clutched his lower ribcage where the rifle had connected and his lungs struggled to replace the air that had been forced out of them.

A short teleport got him out of the range of the man’s blows. Strong fucker. Skulker pulled out a switchblade from his belt with his good hand. He twisted around to face his opponent. The man recovered from a third strike that hit only empty air. Very little blood seeped from the bullet hole in his shoulder, and no panic or anger showed on his now expressionless face as he took aim at Skulker.

He teleported to the man’s side instead of directly in front of him. The man’s shot went wide. Skulker slashed at his face, leaving a shallow gouge on his cheek. He followed up with a stab towards the underside of the man’s throat. The knife jabbed into flesh.

A ghost of a smile flickered on the man’s long face as his fingers wrapped around the knife jutting out of his palm. Skulker tore it out before the unfazed man could grab it. The man sucker punched him, rifle clattering to the floor. His other hand wrapped around Skulker’s shoulder. Before he knew it, Skulker lay on the ground, the man looming over him with fist raised.

Skulker slashed his knife into the man’s knee. Rather than collapsing from pain and severed tendons, he drove a kick towards Skulker’s gut with his other leg. The fuck? A bizarre, guttural roar, nothing a human or Olivia could make, filled the room. Double fuck. What? Skulker curled up and blocked his gut as best he could with his elbows, the man’s kick sending a painful jolt down them.

Skulker rolled away, the man shuffling to keep up on a bad leg. He climbed to his feet, another kick from the man landing on his hip. Before the man could follow that up, Skulker teleported forward and stabbed into the man’s stomach. His knife punched right through the dark suit. He pulled back and stabbed him again, and again, and again. Die, die, die. Soundlessly, the man stopped struggling, his sightless eyes staring at the ceiling.

Very little blood seeped from the half-dozen wounds Skulker had inflicted on the man. Another guttural roar echoed through the room, snapping him back to reality. He spun around to find Olivia wrestling with a scaly, four armed creature nearly her own height. Fucking… is that a Siberian? It kept one of its arms twisted around Oliva’s right wing, yanking her from side to side every time Gears tried to shoot it. She thrashed, failing to dislodge its hold. In response, the Siberian twisted her wing further, prompting a low hiss of pain.

Enough of that. Skulker teleported forward, ducking under Olivia’s flailing wing and running his knife along the length of one of the arms. Unlike the spooky man, the Siberian actually recoiled, enough for Olivia to pull another foot of her wing free before it tightened its grip once again. Skulker smiled, right before a punch from the Siberian’s non-injured arm caught him square in the chest.

As he struggled to regain his breath for the second time that night, Olivia managed to twist her arm around and drive her claws into the Siberian. Gears had moved to its other flank, shotgun at the ready. The Siberian let out another howl as Olivia wrenched her wing free. She brought her second hand to bear, slashing down on its head. With a noticeable crack, its neck jerked around at an awkward angle. It slumped to the floor.

Gears pumped three more shotgun rounds into its chest for good measure. “Please tell me it’s dead,” he said after the echoes died down.

Skulker staggered forward and nudged a splayed arm of the Siberian with the toe of his boot. “I think so,” he said, lungs burning with the simple act of talking. It’d better be. Bastard can throw a punch. “Where’s the second guy?”

“Over there,” said Gears with a jerk of the head. Near where Olivia had driven him into one of the computer servers, the second thief lay with a massive hole in his chest, courtesy of Gears.

Skulker chuckled, which his bruised and battered ribs made him immediately regret. “That takes care of that.”

“Yeah. I’ll take a look for that hard drive,” said Gears, pointing to Skulker, then Olivia. She leaned her back against a wall, nearly doubled over. Shit.

He teleported over to her. “You alright?”

“I’m fine,” she said after a moment. He could practically feel the wince in her voice.

“Lemme see,” he said, nudging her upright.

Through the holes burned into her shirt, Skulker spotted red and blistering skin. Damn. She doesn’t usually feel heat.

“Looks like second degree burns. Not much we can do ‘til we get a first aid kit. We’ll need to clean an’ bandage those soon as we can.”

“OK,” she managed. “They hurt.”

Skulker joined her in leaning against the wall. “Why’d you charge in there?” he asked. We could’ve just shot ‘em or thrown a grenade or somethin’. Would’ve been hell of a lot safer.”

“They were shooting at you two,” she mumbled, eyes fixed on the floor.

“Don’t worry about us. I don’t plan on eatin’ a bullet any time soon.”

“Yeah, well neither did Chris,” she shot back, voice cracking.

Skulker sighed. “Hey, you ain’t the only one who lost him. An’ we sure as hell don’t wanna lose you, OK? Keep that in mind. You ain’t invincible.”

“I found it,” called out Gears.

Skulker patted Olivia on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s see what the hell’s goin’ on.”

They followed Gears’ voice to behind a set of servers. They found the hard drive hooked up to a series of wires. I got no clue what the hell this is.  Gears ripped the hard drive free.

“They got a Siberian here. There’s no way in hell this thing stayed secured.”

“So homicidal aliens have got a brain meltin’ ray,” said Skulker, sounding far calmer than he felt.

“Why couldn’t they have made it on their own, though?” wondered Gears aloud. “They really need Sarah’s thing for this?”

“If they did have this China an’ Russia would be gone by now. Wipin’ out two giant countries worth of people wouldn’t exactly go unnoticed,” said Skulker. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Olivia tilting her head, brow furrowed. “Question?”

“Yeah,” she said, pausing for a moment. “So that thing back there is a Siberian, right?”

Skulker checked the large scaly creature, making sure it hadn’t moved. “Yep. Only ever seen ‘em in Cold War documentaries or somethin’. Haven’t seen ‘em in the news in forever.”

“It’s an alien. What is it doing here?”

“They crash landed in Russia sometime in the sixties,” replied Gears.

No, not Earth, right here. “Why this one is outside of Siberia, I dunno,” added Skulker.

“So they don’t like us?”

“No. Hate us, actually. They fucked up their home world with nukes, an’ survivors just happened to land on ours. They nearly wiped everyone out, except Russia broke out some nukes, so they backed down, cuz they didn’t want to wind up with another nuclear hell planet. Them an’ China have been fightin’ low key ever since.”

Olivia pointed back to where the two thieves lay. “Then who are they?”

“Excellent question. I dunno.” Skulker teleported over to the black man that Gears had shot. He knelt down and rifled through the man’s pockets. Other than a set of car keys, he found nothing. A metallic glint caught his eye. “Jesus.”

“What is it?” asked Gears as he and Olivia joined him.

Skulker pointed to the man’s shredded chest, eyes looking anywhere else. “There’s some wires an’ shit in there.” I didn’t wanna have to look at a bunch of shot up organs today.

Olivia shuddered. Gers said, “So I’m gettin’ the feelin’ these guys ain’t what they seem. An’ is it just me, or is there no blood in ‘em?”

Skulker glanced back at the body. “Yeah, noticed that when I was fightin’ the other guy. He bled a little bit, then it stopped super quick.” He drummed the three fingers of his left hand against his leg. Why do we always find the worst shit in the world?

“These guys ain’t fully human. I dunno what they are, but they ain’t human. We need more info.”

Skulker nodded as he stood. “Yeah, let’s check this place. How much time you think we got?”

“Well, I picked the lock out front. No one passin’ by is gonna call the cops. But they might have some sorta silent alarm.”

“Alright, we’ve wasted enough time talkin’. Let’s do this fast.”

They split up, each searching a portion of the underground base. Gears returned to the desks he’d found, freeing the hard drive and slipping it into his back pocket. Some screens built into the wall flickered to life, displaying a series of bold, squiggly characters Skulker didn’t recognize. The rows and rows of servers were dead silent.

Skulker teleported along the perimeter of the room, searching for any sort of closet or storage cabinet. He stumbled across another room, with a thick sheet of memory foam large enough for the Siberian. Why aren’t there any sheets? Aliens, whatever.

He teleported over to a highly relined chair wedged deep beneath a wide shelf desk. What do we have here. He brushed aside some papers covered in more alien writing until something familiar caught his eye. Tax forms for some place? Rent payments? The fuck?

“Got an address here,” he called out to the others.

Claws scratched at the concrete floor as Olivia approached, Gears’ heavy boot steps following soon after. Skulker held out the paper. “Recognize it? I don’t”

They both shook their heads. Gears pulled out his phone and said, “I got no signal down here.”

“Nose tellin’ you anythin’?” Skulker asked Olivia. She shook her head once again.

“Then let’s get back up top, see what we got.”

They climbed out of the elevator shaft and slipped out of the back door of the gym Olivia had torn down. Damn, she really hates doors. They stopped once they reached the truck, parked behind several closed or abandoned buildings and away from prying eyes. Gears pulled out his phone and typed in the address. His brow furrowed after a moment. That ain’t right. “Repeat that?” he called out. Skulker repeated the address. “We got a weird problem then.”

“What is it?” asked Olivia.

“That’s a local news station.”

Skulker threw up his hands, paper fluttering in the air. “What the fuck?”

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