Once night fell, Olivia took to the skies as her friends below climbed into their cars. She followed overhead as they headed towards the first of five locations Amanda had pinpointed. If they failed, she had set up an automated alert to inform the police of everything they’d learned if they didn’t return in six hours. Maybe if we hand them all the information they’ll do something.
The cool night air rushed past Olivia’s face, sending her ponytail bobbing against the back of her neck. Three people. Three people are counting on us and no one else. Olivia sniffed, in vain hope she could pick up Ix’s scent. The tingling in her arm had faded, only noticeable if she concentrated on it. Roach had insisted he was back in fighting shape, though his poorly hidden winces and arm rubs hadn’t evaded Olivia.
The comm in Olivia’s ear picked up some ambient noise in one of the cars below before Ben said, “Comin’ up on the first spot, Little Bird. You’re our eye in the sky.”
The one thing she truly loved about Arizona weather was the absolutely clear skies at nearly any time of day. Olivia climbed about thirty more feet into the air, getting a higher vantage point on the low adobe building on the outskirts of a Phoenix suburb. A few dim yellow streetlights flickered over streets spiderwebbed with old tar repairs.
“Not seein’ anythin’,” announced Rob as his truck rumbled past. That thing really isn’t stealthy. “Closed. No one there.”
“Anything up there, Olivia?” asked Amanda.
Olivia focused on the rooftop. The AC wasn’t humming away, and nothing else stuck out. “No.”
“Nothing on the cow skull,” she replied.
“Might not have summoned a demon yet,” pointed out Rob.
“Let me check infrared.,” said Amanda.
“Would demons show up on that?” asked Quarrel.
“Doesn’t matter, they’re not what we’re looking for.” Amanda paused for a moment before adding. “Clear.”
The moved on to the next target. Phoenix was more active at night than Westward. In the more densely populated areas after dark, Olivia spotted far more people walking, and more cars on the road. None of them drove or walked erratically, though Olivia still kept a close eye on them until they were heading away from the others.
“Such pain in the ass,” grumbled Ben. “I miss when we just fuckin’ knew where they were.”
They pulled up to the fourth location after an hour and a half of flying or driving and two more dead ends. Are we going to be too late? The darkened neon sign in front of the building read “Groceries” beneath something in Nahua. Old, heavy plywood blocked the front sliding glass doors.
“That’s new,” murmured Miya over the comms the moment Rob’s truck drew close.
“What?” asked Olivia.
“The cow skull is freaking out,” explained Miya. “This has got to be it.”
“She’s doing something,” said Amanda. “We don’t have much time. Olivia, how does the back look?”
Olivia coasted over the building, getting a good look at the the closed metal doors and a loading bay for semi trucks. “Not boarded up. There is a car back here, though.”
“Alright, keep circling, I’ll let you know where you’re needed.” Over the comms, Olivia heard a few clicks from Amanda. “Infrared is showing about 25 people in there. It’s hard to tell. Most of them seem to be around the back doors. There’s a handful near the center right and… one is cooling.” What? Wait, oh no.
“But the other two are still alive?” demanded Quarrel.
“For now,” said Amanda. “Olivia, Ben, and Rob, you three go in through the front door and get their attention The rest of us will break in through the back.”
“They gonna fall for that again?” asked Ben.
“They will if Olivia is big and scary and you shoot them.”
“Fair enough. Don’t expect it to be perfect though.”
“I don’t.” Amanda continued, “There are a lot more of them than there are of us. We need to move fast and keep them on the defensive before they can overwhelm us.”
Rob parked his car a short ways down the street as Olivia coasted back towards the front door to the abandoned grocery store. The two triplets joined her as the other four circled around. The triplets slipped on their masks and drew their weapons.
“Ready, ‘liv’?” asked Gears.
With a nod, she took a deep breath and dug her clawed feet into the ground. With both hands, she struck out at the double doors. Something metal groaned in response on the other side, meeting her with far more resistance than she expected. A second blow sent the plywood and reinforcements tumbling back with the screech of twisting metal. Before she could even think about taking a step inside, at least three rifles opened fire, pummelling her with lead. She raised her arms to cover her head as best she could and pushed forward into the withering fire.
Inside, empty shelves were pushed into barricades in a semi-circle around front door. Four Aztec soldiers knelt behind them, with shouting in Nahua echoing deeper into the repurposed grocery store. Another handful of bullets hit Olivia in the sternum, sending a lance of pain deeper into her. She turned and hurled herself towards the nearest barricade twenty feet to her right, tumbling over the cheap grey metal into a heap of wings and limbs.
The simple act of drawing air into her lungs had become harder than it should have been. The gunfire had taken a toll on her chest. Bullets plinked around her cover, with the only return fire coming from a handgun at the front door. The triplets are still outside. She let out a growl and got back to her feet, wings tucked tight against her back. Still, a bullet grazed the bone a few inches from her head.
She dug her claws under the barricade and heaved it upwards, sending it spiraling toward the nearest pair of soldiers. With a shout, they dived in separate directions out of the way of the careening metal. She was on top of the nearest in two long strides. She wrapped her hands around his chest, lifted him high into the air, and slammed his back into the ground. His helmeted head cracked against the dirty linoleum tiles.
His partner screamed in anger, ducking under her grasping hand and driving an armored fist into her ribs. As she took another swing at him, he jumped back and pulled a knife from his belt. Renewed gunfire rang out around them, though none of it hit Olivia again. Through it all, she could hear slow, heavy footsteps stomping towards them.
The soldier directly in front of Olivia, a taller man with an old burn scar on his cheek, feigned at swipe with his knife at her chest, than jabbed it down towards her thigh. She let out a hiss of pain as it drew blood. Iron. Shouting from all around filled the whole store. He pulled back before her hand could connect. She backed away a pace, keeping her arms at the ready. The soldier took his chance, immediately scrambling back and out of her reach and reaching for his rifle dangling from a cord on his chest. Wait, no. She rushed forward, clawed feet scratching up the floor for traction. Her strides, nearly a foot longer than his own, put her right back on top of him in an instant.
He cursed in Nahua and dropped his rifle once again. Olivia’s swipe went wide again, as he slashed his knife at her, scoring a small cut on her hip. She turned her side towards him, getting him to jump back again. Her tail whipped around a second later, catching him unawares in the shin. He went down with a strangled cry of pain. She brought her foot down on his chest, enough to knock the wind and the fight out of him instead of simply crushing him.
More footsteps approached her. She turned with a hiss, before the smell caught her attention. The triplets hurried up to her.
“We’re with you,” said Gears, patting her on the shoulder as he passed. “This way.”
Skulker teleported ahead, leading the way past a low wall of empty shelves. “Wait,” said Olivia. They ran directly into the source of the heavy footsteps. A slab like figure stood before them, encased in thick armor from head to toe and wielding a gun the size of Olivia’s leg. His breathing came in slow, measured rasps beneath a heavy helmet and gas mask. A squad of soldiers flanked him on either side. If all of them are here, where are Amanda and the others?
Skulker fired his pistol at the armored figure as he jumped back. The bullet glanced right off, leaving little more than a small score on the breastplate. The armored man didn’t so much as flinch. “The fuck is this shit?” cursed Skulker under his breath.
With a wheezing grunt, the armored man lifted his massive gun and opened fire. A wave of bullets flew past them as Olivia and the triplets dove for cover. Shouting filled the air to either side of them, as the squads of soldiers who’d accompanied the armored man now fanned out around Olivia and the others.
“Keep ‘em off us!” yelled Gears as one of the soldiers fired a few shots at him. In a few moments, their cover wouldn’t cover them from anyone other than the armored man. He fired a few inaccurate bursts over their heads. Olivia poked her head over the top, and ducked back down immediately as another hail of bullets chewed up the air above her.
We can’t stay here. She stood in a low crouch and charged towards one of the groups of soldiers. A wave bullets chased after her, and the soldiers she’d targeted immediately backed out of her reach. She hissed in frustration as they fired at her, a few bullets catching her in the side. The air was thick with heat and gunpowder smoke. As the soldiers retreated in good order, half covering the backs of the others as they hurried away from her, Olivia pulled a nearby shelf between them and her. She took a quick look at the triplets. Skulker had teleported out from the armored man’s line of sight, though both he and Gears could only take potshots at the other squad of soldiers trying to flank them. No. Armored guy.
She took a deep breath before digging her feet into the ground and sprinting at the armored man, closing the distance before he could fire too many rounds into her already sore and aching chest. Instead of firing, he froze. The muffled breathing beneath his mask turned into low laughter as she made contact.
She may as well have taken a swing at the earth itself. Her claws raked against his chest, not even leaving scratches. His gun fired again. Olivia felt a massive burning pain in her shin, her knee nearly buckling. The barrel of the gun had turned cherry red, the air around it shimmering violently, though the man holding it seemed to have no issues with the intense heat. She instinctively backed away, an angry hiss in her throat.
Another swing, the man froze, and her claws raked right off of him. Movement. Olivia changed tactics, hooking two claw into the receiver of his gun. The gun was just as invulnerable as his armor, but she could push back if he tried to aim it in any way. He let out a frustrated growl. His arm moved, reaching for a sidearm. She pushed, again into an unyielding mountain. She let go of his main gun and grabbed for his other arm, getting shot three times in the arm for her trouble. Again, she backed away.
His breathing grew heavier and heavier. Olivia stalked around him, ready to strike the moment he moved. They circled a few feet apart, Olivia unable to get in close fast enough, he unable to aim without opening himself up to her claws. In the middle of another pivot, a crossbow bolt sprouted from the base of his skull, between the helmet and the upper back plate. He stood for a moment, before crashing to the ground with a great clatter of ceramic plates. Olivia blinked. Oh, OK.
“How did you know?” Olivia asked as Quarrel hurried up to her.
“Know what?” replied Quarrel, out of breath.
“When he could be hurt?”
“What?” repeated Quarrel.
“Never mind. Thank you.”
“Where the fuck were you guys?” demanded Gears as he regrouped with them, now that there wasn’t a massive gun or fight keeping them pinned. His brother fired a few shots behind him at the remaining soldiers.
“Busy, hurry up,” said Quarrel in a rush, leading them further into the store. Olivia brought up the rear, hobbling on her battered leg. One or two bullets hit her back, getting more hisses of pain out of her.
Roach and Delta had pressed themselves against either side of a partially opened door leading to the back of the store. Olivia couldn’t smell anything past the door besides gunpowder, couldn’t hear anything besides a high pitched ringing in her ears.
“You OK?” asked Delta. “We’re almost there. This is the home stretch.” Shouting in Nahua picked up behind them.
“Now,” rasped Roach. Gears stood beside him and patted him on the shoulder. Roach rushed in, followed by Gears.
Floodlights blinded Olivia as she entered last. She squinted through the bright light and spotted. Two people lay bound at a bloody altar of steel. One man, one woman, both dead silent. A third person, a man, lay in a heap at the foot of the altar, his chest a bloody mess.
And in the center of it all stood Ix, looking down on Olivia’s group with disdain. The small scar on her upper lip only emphasized her sneer. From the blood splatters coating her, she’d hacked the dead man’s chest open herself with the long, obsidian knife in her hand. Familiar patterns of blood coated the altar, as well as the floor around it.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” demanded Quarrel. She stepped to the side, her crossbow wavering between Ix and the closest soldier.
“They will not feel a thing,” replied Ix, her voice easily carrying through the ringing in Olivia’s’ ears. “Their deaths will serve us here, and they will serve the gods after.”
Olivia looked back at the captives. The woman’s head lolled around, her eyes blinking as if trying to focus. The old man beside her had his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling slowly. What’s wrong with them?
“We don’t give a shit. Step down before we shoot the fuck outta you,” snapped Skulker.
Magic in sickly green ribbons gathered around Ix’s arms. “Then you will be the first test for this new weapon.”
Everyone who could fired. Their bullets caught in the air in slow motion, as if shooting through syrup. Sweat beaded on Ix’s forehead as the knife plunged down into the chest of the bound woman. Magic shot from the altar through the blood, swirling and writhing with new energy.
“The blood!” said Olivia.
Skulker leveled his pistol at the floor to Ix’s right, as his brother fired his shotgun to the left just as the knife dropped. The bullet and slug skidded off the concrete around her, sending a handful of sparks flying. Ix flinched, releasing the magic. The glow in the blood pattern changed from green to pitch black as the bullets severed several ribbons of magic.
“What did you do?” asked Miya, backing away with wide eyes and a whitening face. Uh oh.
The air grew cold around them. Olivia felt the hair at the back of her neck rise. She let out a hiss, backing away from the ritual site as every instinct in her screamed danger. As the man let out his last breath, a darkness formed in the circle before Ix. In the blood circle, what Olivia could only describe as a black mass formed. Four reptilian eyes started at her from within. Then only two, than eight, with no discernible change. They were, and then they weren’t. The demon glided over the blood boundaries toward a paralyzed Ix. All light and sound vanished from the room.
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