Olivia huddled in the back of Gears’ truck, shoulder to shoulder with the red scaled girl. Behind them rose a wall of dust and wind. The truck hit a bump in the road, sending the nameless girl jostling into Buddy’s side. He bared his teeth and let out a low growl at her. Olivia’s foot shot out and caught him in the shin. Knock it off. He gave her a token, halfhearted hiss, then slumped against the wall of the truck bed.
She resisted the urge to reach over and smack him. He’s… he’s just confused. Tired. So am I. They passed an army checkpoint. Unlike the others near the city, this one was manned by dusty and worn out soldiers. They barely spared the truck a glance, eyes focused on the fight behind them. One did notice, and he stared openly at Olivia and the others in the back until they were past the checkpoint.
Olivia looked back at the maelstrom behind them. Someone, either Overlord or Cyrus, punched through a skyscraper, wreckage trailing behind them. I hope Cyrus is OK. The invisible laser Overlord had used before sliced off the corner of another skyscraper, sending twisted metal and glass careening back down to earth. What could we even do against stuff like that?
They hit another bump in the road. Gears didn’t slow down, putting as much distance between them and the fight as possible. Something pressed against Olivia’s shoulder. Her clawed fingers uncurled. The nameless girl slumped against her shoulder, eyes closed. Not attacking. And… how are you asleep? Olivia looked around at the other two. Buddy’s eyes drooped, though Red still watched him like a hawk. She tapped her extended claws against her leg.
Olivia returned her attention to the nameless girl. Too close. She nudged the girl with her shoulder, trying to jostle her awake. The girl’s eyelids didn’t so much as flutter. Come on. Oliva shoved her so she leaned up against the rear of the cab.
Olivia’s arms burned. Not with the familiar pain of bruises from gunshots or punches from one of the many super strong monstrosities they always seemed to run into, but an ache in the muscles themselves. Scabs had formed on her hands where the friction burn from the elevator cable and stripped the scales off. The various shops and shipping centers, most abandoned and covered in graffiti, began to look more and more familiar. Olivia yawned wide. What am I supposed to do with you three? And where is the other girl? The screaming one? We should track her down, I guess. Everyone’s being really… I don’t know. Aggressive. They keep hissing and just… I don’t know. Getting too close. Soon enough, they pulled into the lair; the stop jerked Olivia back to reality.
“Wind is dyin’ down,” said Gears as he stumbled out of the truck, halfway out of his armor. He smacked an armored fist on the side of the truck. “Wakey wakey.”
Buddy jumped awake, letting out a deep growl as he narrowed his eyes at Gears. Bad. Olivia’s foot lashed out, catching Buddy in the shin. He hissed in pain and whirled around. She locked eyes with him. Don’t you dare hurt Rob.
“You two lovebirds at it again?” called out Skulker with a short laugh, joining his brother.
Olivia sighed and shook her head. Not now, please. She shook the nameless girl awake as Buddy and Red climbed out of the truck. The girl woke and flinched, shielding her eyes from the rising sun. Sorry, but I’m not letting you sleep out in the open like this. Together, they followed Red and Buddy out of the truck.
“Is it over?” asked Red.
“I think so. The police seem to think so,” replied Delta, joining them in looking out at the city.
They’d formed a rough line, watching the maelstrom lost more and more of its power. The dust settled in the air, forming a dirty brown cloud rather than a swirling hurricane.
“Think Overlord is done?” asked Miya.
Delta shrugged. “Could we do anything anyways?”
“Asked me a couple days ago, I’d say everythin’ dies if ya shoot it enough,” replied Skulker, pulling his mask off. “Now? I dunno. I’d still say shoot him a bunch, jus’ don’ expect it to go well.”
“Overlord is dead,” announced Delta. Wait, what?
“What?” asked everyone.
“He’s dead. Cyrus tore off his armor and stabbed ten pieces of rebar into him. He’s dead. Holy shit. The army guys just confirmed it.”
“Fuck him,” said Gears, tearing his gaze away from the city and stomping off to the auto shop they called home. His free hand fiddled with whatever kept his gauntlet on his hand.
They filed after him into the lair. Ben peeled off his mask and gun holsters and sat with his back against the wall, not five feet from the door. Rob joined him soon after. Amanda removed her helmet and took a seat by her computer desks. Miya crashed on the nearest mattress. Olivia collapsed onto her beanbag. She didn’t even feel her face hit the cushion.
Something poked Olivia in the cheek. No. Something poked her in the cheek again. Stop. She scrunched her eyes shut tighter and curled up. Another poke. She burrowed her face into the beanbag. Warm.
“You look like shit,” said a voice above her.
“Go away,” she grumbled.
Ben poked the back of her head. “Come on. Gotta wake up sometime.”
Ben snickered. “Rise an’ shine. We got a whole new day today.”
“Five more minutes.”
Another poke, and more snickers. “Nope, gotta get up now.”
She cracked an eye open and turned her head to take in a bleary view of Ben’s grinning face. “Why?”
“Cuz I wanna wake Miya up an’ I need a shield.”
No. “Go get Chris.”
Silence greeted her statement. Ben’s grin vanished. What… oh. Her face went slack. Chris is gone. And he’s not coming back. He’s never coming back. And… and…
A hand rested on her shoulder. “Easy, easy.”
It took Olivia a few minutes to compose herself. Stupid, stupid… “Sorry, sorry. I just… It didn’t hit me until just… just now.”
“Know what’ll help?”
“Messin’ with a sleepy Miya.”
Olivia let out a surprised half sniffle, half giggle. “Don’t be mean.”
“I won’t.” He offered her a hand up.
The others lay sprawled all over the lair. Amanda snored softly at her chair, a small pool of drool forming on the desk below her head. Rob still sat with his back against the wall, chin resting against his armored chest. Buddy lay on the bare concrete, though Red and the other girl had claimed mattresses, Olivia couldn’t tell whose. Why are they… hrmph.
She followed Ben to where Miya had collapsed… When is it? When did we get here?
“What time is it?” she whispered.
“Midnight.” He looked over his shoulder to take in her surprised look. “Yeah, we were passed the fuck out.”
He stopped and nudged Miya, face down on the bed, with his foot. A second, more insistent nudge got her moving. Olivia stood back. I’m not messing with Miya right now. Ben knelt down and poked her in the cheek.
“How you doin’, Pokey?”
“I will end you,” said Miya, her voice serene, though muffled through the pillow. “I will end you, slowly, painfully, with no remorse. Your last moments will be those of suffering, and pain, and fear, and despair. Unless, of course. You. Leave. Me. The fuck. Alone.”
Ben grinned and poked her in the cheek. Why would you do that? Miya let out a remarkable imitation of Olivia’s hiss as her hand snapped out, aiming for his crotch. He twisted to the side and jumped back. As Miya climbed to her feet, murder in her eyes, Ben teleported past Olivia and ducked behind her.
“Move, I have murder to do,” Miya said to Olivia through gritted teeth.
Olivia stretched out a wing, blocking her way. “No murder.”
“Fine, I’ll just rough him up a bit.”
Olivia folded her wing back up and stepped to the side. “OK,” she said with a small smile.
“What? No!” sputtered Ben, teleporting away as Miya gave chase. “You traitor!”
“You woke me up, too,” replied Olivia.
The others began to stir with much grumbling as Miya chased after Ben around the lair. Olivia gave the other dragons a wide berth. Just… stay away. Too close. She joined Amanda as Ben Miya dashed behind her. Amanda nodded to her as she approached, reaching for a bag beneath the table.
“Hi,” said Olivia.
“Hey, could you grab that water bottle over there?” asked Amanda, motioning with her free hand. “Thanks,” she said once Olivia passed it to her. From the bag she produced a couple pill bottles.
“What are those?” asked Olivia.
“Sweet, sweet painkillers. I’ll figure out what to do with the digestive ones later.”
Behind them, Ben collapsed in a chair around the table. “I quit. Legs hurt. Everythin’ hurts.”
Miya stopped at the opposite table, panting heavily. “Yeah, me too.”
A knock on the back door silenced them. Olivia spun around and sniffed the air. Is that… Cyrus stood just beyond the door Rob opened, his MHU uniform battered to the point of being simply rags. Why is he here? Why is he here?
“The fuck?” said Rob.
“May I come in?” asked Cyrus, leaning on the wall.
“The fuck?” repeated Rob.
Rob stepped aside, wary gaze fixed on Cyrus. Everyone in the lair had observed their exchange. Ben and Miya had half risen out of their seats. The dragons, though they’d spread out to different ends of the lair, had their claws out, picking up on the general mood in the air. DOn’t do anything dumb.
Cyrus stopped a few feet into the lair and removed his helmet. “I’m not going to bite,” he said.
“What are you doing here?” asked Olivia. I’m not going to go crazy again, am I?
“There are things you need to know.”
“Way to be super cryptic,” said Ben.
“You know who I am,” stated Cyrus.
“The Haboob,” replied Amanda from beside Olivia.
Olivia couldn’t stop herself from letting out a giggle. Why would you call yourself that? It sounds like boob. Ben and Rob glanced at her and snickered. Olivia composed herself, her lower lip trembling at the effort. Sorry, sorry.
“It’s an Arabic word, not an English one,” said Cyrus in a mildly affronted voice. “In any event, there are four others besides myself. People who age extremely slowly, whose powers far eclipse most others. You know of at least two. Cuauhtémoc is the Aztec emperor, he has been for the past five centuries. The Mother is another such person.”
Ben let out a low whistle. Rob said, “Those are two very scary people. So is the Haboob.”
“Do you mind if I take a seat? It’s been a long day,” said Cyrus.
Rob laughed. “You’re tellin’ us.”
They slowly gathered around the table, the other three dragons hanging back, wary and uncomprehending.
“So, you were sayin’?” said Rob.
“Have you ever wondered how the Siberians never conquered earth?” began Cyrus. “Technology beyond most human techies? Mages that put the best of humanity to shame? How is is they haven’t overrun all of Asia, if not the world, at this point?”
“Fire.” Everyone stared at Amanda. “What? You have a wind person, Cyrus, an earth person, Cuauhtémoc, and a water person, the Mother. So there’s a fire person, too. It’s not that hard.” Wait, what are the Mother’s and Aztec guy’s powers? Like Cyrus? Just with water and dirt?
“Yes. There is a young woman in China. She can make any carbon ignite, regardless of what form it is in. I believe the only exception is carbon monoxide or dioxide.”
“Wait, any form?” asked Amanda.
“Yes. Keep in mind Siberians and humans are both carbon based.”
“Put her in, like, a vacuum or something. No oxygen means no fire, right?” said Amanda.
“You’d think so,” said Cyrus, with a small smile. “But she already throws all natural laws out the window, just like we all do. I truthfully do not know. The point is, we are tremendously powerful, able to shape events the way few else are able.” Weird, everything everywhere is weird. Got it.
“Wait, you said four others. You’ve only said three others so far,” pointed out Miya.
“Indeed,” agreed Cyrus. “I don’t know if you have been paying attention to current events in the last month or so, but have you heard of the warlord in Iraq? He goes by the name of Taauth.”
Olivia let out a small hiss at the name. Bad name. Where have I heard that before? Miya nudged her with an elbow and shot her a questioning look.
“Heard of him,” said Ben, a frown on his face. Damn it, where have I heard that name?
“What’s he control?” asked Rob, his expression mirroring Ben’s.
Silence greeted his statement. That’s not good. Miya’s eyes had widened, the others just looked confused.
Cyrus continued after allowing for a moment for his statement to sink in. “He draws near infinite energy from his surroundings. He is not a true mage, he does not draw it from himself. He does not follow traditional mage laws. He can maintain as many golems as he feels fit. He can incinerate a building, stitch any wound, and enter the land of dreams.
“So he’s basically a god,” said Miya.
“For the most part.”
You said he was back. Like, he was dead before. “How did he die in the first place? I mean, if he’s like you?” asked Olivia.
“A group of my king’s mages and I surprised him in his palace. He was occupied with his concubines.” What? Concubine?
“Where does magic even come from?” asked Amanda.
“Something something nuclear something,” replied Miya. “I’m not a scientist, I don’t fucking know.”
“Why you tellin’ us all this?” Rob demanded, his attention focused on Cyrus. Wait, yeah. You just ran off when I was mind controlled.
“You all have power. As well, you two have a personal stake in this,” said Cyrus, pointing to Ben and Rob. “I am no mage, but I believe he has somehow possessed your triplet brother.”
“I spoke with him. He wore a mask exactly like yours. He stood the same height as you two. He had the same build as you two. His voice sounded like yours, speaking at the same time at Taauth’s. As for how, a deal with a demon, perhaps. Again, I am no mage. I don’t know.”
“No, you don’t fuck with demons,” explained Miya, voice wary. “If you fuck with a soul, any sentient’s soul, anywhere, a demon appears and you vanish. You can’t fight, you can’t negotiate. You vanish. You don’t fuck with demons.”
“What are they?” asked Rob.
“No one fucking knows.”
“What? How?” asked Amanda.
“They appear when someone fucks with a soul. That’s all I know. That’s all anyone knows. That’s why I don’t use dead human bones for anything. That’s close enough to their domain for them to take notice. They’ll latch onto any magic streams and lash out.”
Cyrus nodded. “That would make sense. He was not truly dead, then.”
“Why you tellin’ us this?” repeated Ben. “The fuck can we do?”
“I am warning anyone who will listen. Taauth was the greatest threat of our time before. His malice knows no bounds. The greatest weapon is surprise. He learned this lesson long ago. I may have been an acne ridden teenager when we first me, but he will account for the passing of time. I need to think and reach outside the box.”
“You mentioned you’d talked to him recently,” said Ben.
“Yeah, why is that?” said Rob.
“Taauth wanted Overlord dead. Overlord had begun experiments into magic. Maybe he was close to something, though how Taauth would know would be a concern is yet another thing I do not know.”
“So what you want from us?” asked Ben.
Olivia’s eyes widened. “Wait, Slim Jim…”
“Hopefully, yes, he will assist me. Hopefully. If not I’m dropping him in a volcano.”
“You’re being very open about all this,” said Amanda.
“Yes, I enjoy things not blowing up in my face. It’s one of my favorite pastimes,” replied Cyrus with a wry smile.
Ben and Rob burst into laughter. “I knew there was a reason I liked you,” said Ben. Why are you two laughing?
Amanda shared her concern. “What are you two laughing about?” she asked. Do you two need a hug?
“There anythin’ we can do ‘bout Taauth, right this moment?” Rob asked Cyrus, ignoring Amanda.
He blinked and replied, “Not currently.”
“Then there’s yer answer,” Ben said to Amanda. “Nothin’ we can do ‘bout it right now, no need to get ourselves down over somethin’ outta our control.”
“I ain’t happy, don’t get me wrong,” continued Rob. “But if somethin’ else is funny, I laugh.”
“Weird,” muttered Miya under her breath.
Amanda shook her head. To Cyrus, she said, “Any other bombs you want to drop on us? Is the president a shapeshifting lizard?”
Cyrus smiled. “Not to my knowledge. Though I must ask a favor of you. I need to spend the night somewhere. I’ve spent hours fighting Overlord and making sure no one tracked me. I have no desire to be poked and prodded in some government facility under a mountain. I’ll be out of your hair come morning.”
Olivia nodded. No kidding. Miya and Amanda shrugged.
“Pick a bed, fall in it,” said Rob.
“We jus’ got up,” said Ben. “We ain’t sleepin’ for a while.”
Cyrus nodded to the group at large. “Thank you.”
The group dispersed. Olivia and Rob stayed by Amanda side. You look really pale. She looked at the two of them as Cyrus disappeared behind a curtain.
“You two want to help me with something?”
“You sure ‘bout this?” asked Rob, as everyone, sans Cyrus, gathered around Amanda’s workbench a few hours later. “What if you accidentally downloaded some crazy Overlord murderbot thing?” That sounds bad. That sounds very bad. Olivia stood off to the side, letting Red and the nameless girl get a good view of the screen. Buddy stood off, trying his hardest to look uninterested in the proceedings. Why doesn’t he want to know who he is? I would kill for this.
Amanda sighed. “These flash drives, brand new ones, have been in a pouch this whole time. This laptop I’m plugging them into is also brand new. It has zero information on it. And I’ve stripped it of all hardware that could be used to connect to anything on the outside. It is physically incapable of sending or receiving a signal. I will microwave it and the flash drives once we’re done. I know what I’m doing.”
“Why’s its battery over there?” Ben pointed to a black plastic box looking thing behind a low barricade Amanda had built out of scrap a few feet away. A couple cords over the top connected it to the laptop.
“If there’s some Overlord malware that tries to make it explode, it won’t damage the laptop or the flash drives,” replied Amanda.
“Batteries can explode?” asked Olivia. How? Why?
“Shit. Go for it, then,” said Rob. Amanda plugged in the two flash drives, one after the other.