[Author’s Note: I’m back! Short term I’ll just be writing and publishing as I get updates done, but long term I’m hoping to return to a weekly schedule, probably on Sunday nights. We’ll see. Critical Role consumed a lot of my free time these past couple months, but I’ve finally caught up with it.]
Ben and Olivia studied a map of Phoenix on the computer screen in front of them. Behind them, Quarrel checked the bowstring on one of her crossbows. The TV in the next room provided background noise.
“Phoenix is usually really nice,” she explained. “It’s got, like, no crime. There were only three of us in the Watch here for a reason.”
“Kinda kickin’ you in the ass now, ain’t it?” Ben replied over his shoulder.
“You could say that,” she grumbled. “We’re low on the national priority list.”
Olivia frowned, trying to imagine what the simple road map in front of her would look like in reality. The roads over there are all squiggly. That must be a hill. Why do the roads on hills do that squiggly stuff? It makes them so much longer.
“What’s so special about this part of town?” Ben asked Quarrel, tapping his finger on the map.
Quarrel looked up and said, “It’s a rougher part and it has a lot of Aztecs. It seems like a good place to start.”
Ben barked out a laugh. “We bein’ racist an’ profilin’?”
“Yep. Where else do you think the uber-nationalist Aztec priestess is hiding?”
“Shanty town,” replied Ben. “Aztec town is too obvious. She don’t wanna get caught. An’ where were the people she killed from?”
“Everywhere. She isn’t targeting any sort of demographic. None of them were Aztec, though. But you’re forgetting a certain someone.”
Ben grinned. “Who’s that?”
“The Tzontli are just fractured, not gone. She could be using them, so that’s where we’re headed first. Attacking Ix head on would be suicide if we’re not prepared.”
“Gotcha. What’cha thinkin’, Little Bird?”
Olivia looked up at Ben and Quarrel. She tapped her clawed hands lightly on the kitchen table. “Well, once we figure out what she wants, maybe we could talk to her.”
They stared at her for a moment. “What?” asked Ben.
“Talk to her,” she repeated.
“Yeah, I got that,” said Quarrel. “Talk to her about what?”
“Maybe we could convince her to, you know, stop?” That’s not too weird of an idea.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” said Quarrel.
Olivia sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. It would just be nice to not have to fight someone for once.” It was just a thought.
“I gotcha,” said Ben with a grin, reaching up and nudging her in the shoulder. “That ain’t gonna be this time, though.”
“She’s killed people already, I think the time for talking as passed,” added Quarrel.
“OK,” Olivia replied, voice quiet. Maybe someday we don’t have to fight someone. Maybe.
Quarrel returned to her crossbow. It let out a click as she slid a small steel panel on its side back into place. “The people were all victims of opportunity. No one saw them get taken, and they were only reported hours after, since they were taken in the middle of the night. They were all grabbed off the streets.”
“Well that’s a pain in the ass,” grumbled Ben. “No motive other than killin’ is a bit hard to pin down. I’m kinda gettin’ a taste for the misery of anti-terrorist shit.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Maybe Smith could help?” asked Olivia. She wanted to protect people. Even if she was kind of mean.
Ben burst into laughter. Sorry. Never mind. “She wasn’t exactly friendly, was she?”
“But she knew more about this kind of stuff than we did.”
“Smith?” asked Quarrel.
“Spooky government agent lady,” explained Ben. “Met her huntin’ down Overlord. ‘liv’ is right, she an’ her team would be super helpful here, but they ain’t exactly on call.”
“Huh. You guys get into a lot of shit don’t you?”
“Damn right?” said Ben with a grin. “An’ hey, shouldn’t you be with Amanda an’ Rob in the techie lair again?”
“You know I can only make crossbows, right? There’s only so much a crossbow can do. They’re working on stuff a bit outside my scope.”
“Could you staple a crossbow to a drone or some shit?” asked Ben. “That’d be fun.”
Quarrel paused, eyeing Ben. She waved a finger at him and said, “I’m trying that once I have some free time.”
Ben let out a laugh. “Let me know how it works.” He closed the laptop and leaned back in his kitchen chair. “So we good for the day? I gotta check my guns, but that’s all I got left.”
“Wait,” said Olivia. “We’re looking for these Aztec guys, right?
“Yes,” both Ben and Quarrel replied with slow nods.
“None of us speak Aztec.”
“We should be good. My Nahua is passable. I can’t speak it to save my life, but I can understand most of it. And Roach or Miya will be tagging along. We’ll see what they find at the temple.”
“Good enough for me,” said Ben with a shrug. “Hungry?”
Olivia nodded as Quarrel said, “I was hoping you’d say that. I forgot to eat this morning.”
Olivia looked around the kitchen and took a moment to appreciate the high ceilings of Quarrel’s house, letting her stand upright without having to twist and stretch her wings. It had everything the lair didn’t: an oven, a stove, a microwave on a counter instead of the cardboard box they’d bought it in. It must be nice to be able to make all kinds of food. We need a kitchen.
“Cookies, anyone?” asked Ben, holding a plastic container with blue wrapping
“Yes please,” said Olivia. Ben tossed her one.
“Really? I thought you could only eat meat,” Quarrel asked her.
Olivia looked Quarrel dead in the eye as she ate the entire thing in one bite. What’s your point?
Ben grinned and said, “Sugar is universal. An’ besides, you cooked pancakes for all of us once, remember?”
“Right, I forgot about that,” said Quarrel, a small smile playing on her lips. “How has Westward City been for you two?”
“Good, other than the whole robot invasion thing,” said Ben. “Weather is nice, gettin’ a little hot an’ dry though. Never gonna get used to the dry air.”
“I like it,” added Olivia.
“You’re not from Colorado?”
“Oh, that’s cool. Do you miss it?”
“Nope. Baghdadimore was a shithole,” said Ben with a grin.
Quarrel burst into laughter. “Baltimore can’t be that bad.”
“It is.” What? Oh, wait, there’s a war going on in Baghdad, right? Is that the joke? “Green Man lives,” Ben added under his breath. Olivia kept listening as she grabbed two slices of bread and loaded them with half a pound of ham and nothing else.
Quarrel didn’t appear to hear him. “Isn’t DC right next door, though? None of the good stuff rubs off from the capitol?”
“DC is shitty in a whole different way. Damn place is a fortress. Checkpoints every other street corner. Tried not to visit too much. Does keep the Klan out, I’ll give ‘em that.”
Quarrel’s smile slipped away. “The Klan is that big a problem over there? I’d heard things occasionally.”
“Yep. Real bad. Used to be a black man lynched every other week when I was growin’ up. They had a bunch of supers on their side. Blacks didn’t like that, they closed ranks. Not like some of them couldn’t shoot lasers out of their eyes too. An’ then their unofficial leader, Green Man, got it in his head that the cops were supportin’ the Klan. Lots of racial tension over there still. I was lucky to be livin’ on a military base at the time.”
“You lived there during the riots? Holy shit.” Quarrel leaned in.
Ben shrugged. “Not much to tell. Green Man decided to burn a church down that hosted the Klan, didn’t realize there was a teen group stayin’ the night there. Some retreat thing, I don’t remember. Point was, Klan finally had an excuse to go all out. Big, real big fight broke out durin’ some protest the next day, right in the middle of the city. Lasted for two days until the Army moved in an’ mowed down or arrested everyone. My dad was deployed to Afghanistan at the time, thank god. Don’t think he woulda liked that assignment.”
“There’s got to be a better solution to that besides the Army,” said Quarrel. She leaned back in her chair, a thoughtful frown on her face. “I find it hard to believe no one else could have taken care of that. What happened to the police? What happened to all the reasonable people? The citizens couldn’t do anything?”
“Yeah, that’s why I didn’t join the Watch or any other vigilante group,” said Ben. He jabbed a finger at her. “They can talk a big game, but against half the furious population of Baltimore? Against an organized group like the Klan? Wouldn’t have stood a chance. Wouldn’t have the manpower, or the time. Need the Army to make peace an’ then keep it. Not a force on Earth that can move an entrenched armored battalion if it don’t wanna move, doesn’t matter how strong your eye lasers are.”
“That’s not quite what I was talking about,” replied Quarrel. Olivia finished her sandwich.
“Sorry. By ‘the citizens’ I’m guessin’ you meant vigilantes.”
“Not quite. Maybe I didn’t phrase it right.” Her eyes drifted towards the ceiling. “There were no voices of reason, anywhere? Not from the cops or the black community or anyone else? No one tried to deescalate the situation on either side.”
“Hard to listen to reason when a friend of yours is kickin’ out their last from a noose. Hard to listen to reason when God is on your side.”
After a silent moment, Quarrel said, “I like you guys, but I think we’re drifting into conversation topics that aren’t quite meant for lighthearted lunch talk.”
Ben shrugged with a grin. “You asked.”
“I did, and I’m sorry.” She smiled again. “Want anything for lunch. Ben, Olivia?”
“You guys have been talking for a while. I finished mine.” Ben burst into laughter. Before Olivia could continue, something on the TV in the living room caught her ear.
Ben recognized her distant eyes and tilted head. He held up a hand to Quarrel and asked Olivia under his breath, “What?”
His shoulders relaxed as he realized they weren’t under immediate threat of attack. He motioned for her to continue listening.
From the living room, she heard, “Reports are coming in from all over Asia. Huge plumes of smoke can be seen across the Siberian-Russian border.”
“Something about aliens,” she said to the others. They rushed over to the TV.
A blond woman in her mid-forties stood clutching a microphone in hand in front of a huge throng of cheering people. The street and shop signs in the background looked bizarre to Olivia. She caught sight of a backwards R. A few people noticed the reporter and her camera and waved to it, huge smiles across their faces.
The reporter shouted to make herself heard over the crowds, “As you can see people are celebrating in the streets all over the country. One man told me he saw ‘Several Siberian fighters firing at a flying man. The man raised his arms and they simply dropped to the ground.’ I’ve heard the name Taauth, the current leader of Iraq, mentioned several times.”
“Why are they doing this?” asked Olivia, jaw dropped in horror.
“Cuz he just ended a thirty year war for them overnight,” muttered Ben. “Fuck.”
The news cut to a trio of experts, shown only from the shoulders up, with a question pjected above them saying, “How should the US respond?”
“Turn it off,” grumbled Ben. “Those three have got nothin’ to say.” Quarrel reached for the remote on the couch.
Olivia jumped nearly a foot into the air as the front door opened with a bang, Miya and Roach bursting in through it. Miya leaned heavily on the big man, head hanging. Dried blood matted her bangs.
“The fuck happened?” asked Ben as he teleported over to them.
“People at temple,” explained Roach. “She took bad hit to her head.”
“Did you lead them here?” asked Ben.
“No.” He snapped his fingers in front of Miya’s face as her head began to tilt to the side. “Stay awake.”
Quarrel and Roach led Miya over to the couch in the living room. Olivia lifted the coffee table and moved it out of their way. Miya mumbled something as they lowered her, something about a demon.
“Slow down. Define demon,” said Quarrel.
Miya winced, though she managed to say, “A ball of magical awful that doesn’t belong in reality, and eats or steals souls.”
“I saw nothing,” added Roach, his voice as painful and gravelly as ever.
“Of course not, you can’t use magic,” barked Miya, hand held to her head. Has anyone asked her if she’s OK?
“If you’ve never seen them before, how do you know it was a demon? It could have been some other ball of magical weirdness,” said Ben.
“It felt wrong. Not normal magic. You did see the blood circle around it, right Roach?”
“OK, blood circles are bad. Is demon summoning a normal Aztec ritual?” asked Quarrel.
Roach shook his head.
“You can’t summon a demon,” said Miya. “It’ll just kill you and vanish in a split second.”
“How’d Ix do it?” asked Ben
“I have no idea. The blood must have done something.”
“At least we figured out what the sacrifices were for,” muttered Quarrel under her breath.
“This before or after you took that knock to the head?” asked Ben.
Miya glared at him through the pain. “Before.”
“Just makin’ sure.”
Quarrel’s back straightened at the mention of Miya’s injury. She turned to Olivia, closest to the kitchen, and said, “Could you grab some ice packs from the freezer?” She hurried off, keeping an ear on the living room. How will ice make it better?
“Why summon a demon?” asked Ben.
“They’re really good at killing. They’re the ones who take you soul to wherever it goes when you die. Maybe she wants them as soldiers. But that’s insane.”
“Why?” asked Roach.
“Because you now know as much about demons as nearly anyone else on Earth. You can’t study them, they’ll kill you. You can’t negotiate, they’ll kill you. You see the pattern here, right?”
Olivia returned with the deep blue ice pack. She passed it to Miya, who pressed it up to her forehead. “Better?” asked Olivia.
“I’ll get there,” said Miya. “Thanks.”
The group fell silent, each now mulling over this new information. She said magic users could see demons. I probably can. But that means it’s just me and Miya who can see them, then. I don’t know how we’re going to fight them. But maybe we won’t have to fight them. Maybe we can just let them go back to wherever they came from instead.
“This change our plans at all?” asked Ben, breaking the silence.
“No,” said Roach. “Demons may be bad, but the people? Can deal with them instead. Just need to be fast now.”
“Gotcha. I’ll go tell my brother an’ Amanda.” Ben teleported off.
Quarrel leaned in to Roach and murmured, “We hashed out a rough game plan for tonight, if you’re willing to come along.”
Olivia took a seat next to Miya, now leaning back against the couch with a wince, and settled a wing across her thin shoulders. Just get some rest.
Even in the middle of the night, the July air of Phoenix was as hot as anything Olivia had experienced in Colorado. The breeze blowing past her face brought her only relief. Just another reason why flying is the best thing ever. She coasted slowly over a large van on the road on Amanda’s orders. They’d spotted several former Tzontli members get in. It took a turn, down a much smaller street.
She activated her comm’s mouthpiece and said, “Turn left, then take your second right.” A familiar red car a quarter of a mile behind and one block over followed suite. The others were packed inside, along with some large device Rob and Amanda had cooked up during the day. They drove on a separate, but parallel route to the van Olivia was tracking.
The comm in her ear crackled to life. “Understood. And Olivia, you’ve convinced me,” said Quarrel. “I’m totally making a drone with a camera and a crossbow on it when I have the time. It’ll be great. It’ll be super beefy, and quiet, and fly up…” She trailed off. “How high are you right now, exactly?”
“Kind of high,” Olivia replied, cupping her hand around her mouth so that the wind around her wouldn’t drown out her voice. I’m sorry, I don’t really know. I wonder how the people flying airplanes know.
“Perfect. It’ll reach the soaring altitude of ‘kind of high’. I can’t wait.”
“Later,” rasped Roach.
“How are Rob and Miya doing?” asked Olivia.
“Nothing has changed in the five minutes since you asked. They’re fine,” replied Amanda. “Miya is resting, and Rob will let us know the instant anything happens.”
“OK.” Sorry for being concerned for them.
The conversation died off. Olivia followed van for a few more minutes, occasionally correcting the course of the car with Quarrel, Roach, Amanda, and Ben. After a while, the van finally came to a stop. Olivia swooped down another twenty feet to get a better look. Three young men got out of the van. One kept a hand on his waistband, which Olivia had seen Ben do whenever he carried a pistol there.
“They’ve stopped. They’re going into an old building now.”
“Alright, just like we talked about,” replied Amanda
An opened window on the fourth story caught her eye. She tucked her wings in and dove straight for it. Before her face met brick, she pulled up and pumped her wings, nearly hovering a few feet from the wall. She hooked the claws on her hand and feet into the mortar of the brick wall before gravity could take her and held her breath, waiting. The wall held her weight. It doesn’t sound like anyone is near the window, either. Her right hand sliced open the screen of the open window beside her with no issues.
“Ready?” she asked under her breath into her comm.
“Ready,” replied Amanda. “Put it in when you’re ready.”
Olivia pulled out one of three listening devices Amanda had given her before they’d left Quarrel’s house. The moment she got it past the screen, it floated out of her hand and into the room beyond. Amanda would guide it to wherever it wouldn’t be noticed near the Tzontli.
“We’re good. Move on,” said Amanda.
Olivia repeated the process one more time, only able to find one more abandoned open window in the building. They’d judged simply breaking one too much of a risk. The others had parked in a narrow alleyway half a block away, out of sight of the van they’d followed, but close enough to get there in a hurry. She joined them.
Quarrel flashed her a quick thumbs-up as she landed. Amanda was glued to a laptop in the passenger seat next to her. Ben and Roach watched either end of the alleyway. Olivia joined Ben.
“Have a nice fly?” he asked with a grin. His silver mask hung from a cord on his hip.
“Kind of. How are you guys.”
“Oh, fine. Weird, tailin’ someone without bein’ able to see ‘em.”
Olivia nodded. I hate being exposed and on the ground. Everyone should fly. She closed her eyes and let her senses drift, trying to get an early warning for any threats. Something in the direction of the Tzontli van caught her attention. She sniffed the air, trying to get a bead on it.
“You smell somethin’?” asked Ben next to her, now on guard. “Overlord bot?” Quarrel’s head whipped around towards them at the mention of their old nemesis. She had her mask and goggles on, with a heavy crossbow strapped to her back.
“No,” said Olivia. Thank god. Not this time. The whiff of a person was gone amid the smell countless other people in the city, and the exhaust of two idling cars burned her nostrils the more she breathed in. “It’s nothing.”
“Quiet,” hissed Amanda at the two of them. “Roach, Quarrel, you’re our Nahua speakers.”
Olivia took over Roach’s place as he joined Quarrel in the car, a large headphone pressed to his ear.
“I think I heard the word separation? I’m not sure,” said Quarrel, shooting Roach a questioning look. He nodded, eyes still distant and unfocused as he listened.
Several minutes passed. Olivia could hear most of what was said, though it was incomprehensible gibberish to her. The whole group jumped into high alert when both Quarrel and Roach jumped half out of their seats.
“Shit, they’ve got someone in that van,” said Quarrel.
“Another sacrifice?” asked Ben, slipping on his mask.
“Yes,” rasped Roach.
“Then let’s get moving. Now.”
Next Chapter ->