Rip Out my Beating Heart – Butterfly

[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?”

“Nope. Maryland.”

“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?”

“The TV.”

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?”

He nodded.

“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.”

“Of course.”

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.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

<- Previous Chapter

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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.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

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?

 

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

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.

<- Previous Chapter

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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.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

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.”

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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.

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