Olivia flexed her wings, ready to take flight in a moment’s notice. She stared through the wall of the alleyway towards the white van that had the Aztecs’ latest victim. Ben tightened his mask across his face, and Quarrel loaded a bolt into the heavy crossbow she carried.
“Before we rush in, I have an alternative,” said Amanda. “We don’t swoop in quite yet. They need to take their captive to Ix. Only the priests sacrifice people, right?”
Roach nodded in confirmation, headphones still over one ear. Across the street from the alleyway the hid in, a streetlight began to flicker.
Amanda explained, “They’ll take their captive to her, and we follow.”
“Then we’re face to face with a high priest without a solid plan,” said Ben. “To much to go wrong an’ screw the person they got.”
“No, she’s on to something,” said Quarrel.
Skulker threw up his hands. “We can’t fuck up. Priority is gettin’ that person outta there. It’ll be a hell of a lot harder with Ix an’ the rest of her guard in the picture.”
“No time to argue. They’re finishing.” Roach turned to Amanda with thick, scarred arms folded. “Decide.”
“Olivia, what do you think?”
Olivia shot Amanda a curious look. Why me? “Save them.”
Amanda nodded. “Fine, let’s go get them. Quarrel, Roach, get to the van. Ambush the Tzontli when they come back for their captive.”
The two members of the Watch nodded. Roach climbed out of the car, while Quarrel slipped on her mask and goggles.
“Skulker, get to a good vantage point, cover them with your rifle.”
“Gotcha,” he said. He popped the trunk of the car, moved aside a couple weapons Roach had insisted on taking, and withdrew his sniper rifle. “I know it’s been a while, I ‘m sorry,” Skulker whispered to his gun. That’s weird, right? Yeah, that’s weird.
As the others hurried off, Amanda turned to Olivia and said, “You’ll be my eyes in the sky. You see anything, you tell me.” Olivia nodded and readied herself to fly. “Wait, before you go.”
Olivia froze, caught halfway into her jump. She steadied herself and asked, “Yes?”
“I know you said you didn’t want to fight. I’m not going to throw you into the fray unless it’s necessary. Alright?”
“OK. But don’t, you know, hesitate. We’ve still got to help that person.”
Amanda smiled, “I know. Now go.”
Olivia leapt out of the alleyway and took flight, her wings catching the edges of the buildings before she passed them. She climbed to her previous altitude and coasted in a circle around the parked van.
“So do you have some master plan for us, Amanda?” asked Quarrel over the comms in a hushed voice.
“Just the broad strokes. Everything else is up to you two. I don’t know Nahua but I’ll tell you if I hear anything from the drones.”
“Alright. We’re ready.”
Roach had pressed himself against the side of the white van, while Quarrel knelt on the other side. Anyone coming out of the door to the building wouldn’t see them immediately. Skulker had climbed to the second floor of a rusty fire escape overlooking Quarrel and Roach.
“One of the Tzontlis is chatting with the Aztec soldiers,” said Amanda. “The other two are coming your way. How are we looking up there, Olivia?”
Olivia scanned the streets for any cars or pedestrians. “Good. No one is coming.”
“Alright, you heard her. Good luck.”
Just then, the metal double doors opened. Quarrel fired. The bolt struck the lead man directly in the gut. He doubled over as the bolt clattered to the ground. Olivia spotted a rounded head on it instead of the usual razor sharp arrowhead. Quarrel pulled another bolt from her hip and began reloading, winching the bowstring back.
The second man, his arms covered in electric blue tattoos, immediately reached for his belt. Roach rushed forward, leaping over the fallen man trying to suck in breath on the ground. In a flash, the tattooed man had brought a knife across Roach’s chest. The big man grunted, feigning a much more serious wound. As the tattooed man brought his knife back around for Roach’s throat, he blocked the blow and wrapped his arm around the tattoos. The tattooed man let out a cry as Roach rained down blows on his head.
Just as the man Quarrel had shot recovered, a second blunt bolt hit him in the shoulder like a semi as he tried to stand. He staggered back a few paces before falling, the hand of his good arm trembling as it held his wounded shoulder. The tattooed man collapsed from Roach’s beating.
The comms crackled to life as Amanda said, “They heard that in there. Third Tzontli and two soldiers heading your way.”
Quarrel moved up to Roach, loading a third bolt into her crossbow. Roach yanked the back doors of the van open and disappeared from Olivia’s view inside.
“A kid. Male. Mid-teens. Tied up,” announced Roach over the comms.
A split second later, movement appeared in the doorway, Skulker’s rifle let out a crack. The newcomer’s leg, the only part of him exposed, nearly exploded.
“Got him,” said Skulker.
A silent moment passed over the scene, broken only by Roach hauling the captive out of the back of the van. Olivia circled to directly over the building, partially blocking her view of the van below. Nothing on the roof.
“It was just that Tzontli,” said Quarrel.
“Fuck. I know. My drones aren’t fast enough to keep up. I’ve lost the two soldiers.”
On the other side of the building, out of sight of Skulker and the others, a car roared to life and peeled out of the parking lot.
“They’re in a different car,” reported Olivia, diving a few feet to pick up speed and follow.
“They might lead us to something. Follow them, keep your distance, and let us know where they get out. We’re going to get this guy out of here and follow.”
Below Olivia, Roach hauled the bound teen back toward Amanda and their car. Skulker and Quarrel kept their weapons covering his back. The car Olivia followed slowed down after several blocks, driving normally. They put several miles between them and the building before they stopped at a house. She watched from above as two figures hurried out of their car and headed inside.
The others caught up to Olivia’s position a few minutes later. They’d dropped off the captive they’d gotten from the back of the van close to the nearest police station. Olivia circled overhead in the meantime, watching for any sort of movement inside the house. There’s nothing in the front of back yards. Why did they come here?
“Alright, we’re here, Olivia,” said Amanda over the comms. One street over, Olivia spotted the headlights of her red car pull over on the side of the road. “What’s the situation.”
“The two soldiers from before are in there. No one else has come in or left since.”
“Well, it’s a small house.” The roof needs fixing. I don’t think that’s what she’s asking, though.
“I’m thinkin’ this is a safe house, but I ain’t sure why they’d go directly here from an ambush,” said Skulker.
“They had to go somewhere,” replied Quarrel.
“I know. Let’s just make sure we ain’t walkin’ into an ambush as well.”
Amanda spoke up, “That’s a good point. Olivia, notice anything around from the air?”
“No. What do you mean?”
“The houses around us?”
“Oh. No, no movement. This area isn’t very lively.” It’s also two in the morning. “I don’t hear anything, but I’ll take a closer look.”
“Alright. Let us know what you find,” said Amanda.
Olivia swooped down lower to get a better angle on the surrounding houses. Just as small as the one she’d been observing, only a few had cars in front of them, next to cluttered and dilapidated lawns. Half the lights on the street didn’t work. She breathed deep. No gunpowder. Not much sweat. I wish my ears still worked well. Maybe I could hear stuff. She checked the windows as she passed them, on the lookout for any human shapes.
“We’re fine,” Olivia announced to the others over the comms.
“What’s the plan?” asked Quarrel.
“Great question.” Amanda fell silent for a moment. “Do they have a fence around the backyard?”
“Yes,” replied Olivia.
“You three hop the fence and go in. If the windows are big enough I’d say use them instead of the door. They might be watching it.”
“Why the backyard?” asked Quarrel.
“Because it’s less visible and less likely for a neighbor to call the cops on us.”
From Amanda’s car, three familiar figures climbed out and hurried towards the house. Olivia didn’t see a heavy crossbow in Quarrel’s hands, or Skulker’s rifle slung over his back. Stay safe. They, along with Roach, quickly climbed over the low wooden fence. Their shoulders brushed against the walls of the house as they ducked below the windows. Finally, they stopped, forming a rough semicircle around a point on the wall. Roach suddenly lunged forward, followed by Quarrel and Skulker, to the sound of breaking glass. Silence fell over the comms for a solid minute. Guys?
“Fuck, there’s nothin’ here,” announced Skulker.
“What?” demanded Amanda. Olivia’s eyes widened as she scanned the area again. Trap? But I didn’t miss anything. I’m sure of it.
Quarrel spoke up, “There’s literally nothing in here. The whole house is empty.”
Oh no. Oliva’s heart sank. “That doesn’t make sense,” said Amanda. “Olivia tracked them here.”
“There ain’t anyone or anythin’ in here,” said Skulker.
“Alright, I’m coming in. Olivia?”
“Me too,” replied Olivia, her voice soft. How is there no one in there? I watched them go in. I watched them. She tracked Amanda as she climbed out of her car and walk, casting the occasional glance over her shoulder, to the front door of the house. Oliva landed behind her, tucking in her wings to keep from bowling her over.
“Are you absolutely sure this is the place, Olivia?” asked Amanda before they reached the door.
“Yes. I watched them get out of the car and walk right in here. They were two big guys. Dark skin.” She extended a clawed finger towards the car. “The car is still out there. I don’t know how they got out.”
Roach opened the front door. Olivia crouched through, then straightened and banged her wings against the ceiling. Why did they make this house small? Roach and Skulker stood in a bare and empty room. The pistol in Skulker’s good hand aimed towards the floor, as he leaned forward to peek out a window. Roach simply folded his arms and waited.
“Can you track them with your nose?” Quarrel asked Olivia from a nearby room. “Is that something you can do?”
Olivia breathed deep. “Let me try. They were here. There was a lot of sweat. They came in through there,” she said, pointing to the front door. Olivia sniffed the air again and led them into an adjoining room. “Then in here. Nowhere else.”
The room was as empty as the rest of the small house. No furniture, no decorations on the walls, and no dust. This isn’t abandoned. There always tons of dust in abandoned buildings. Olivia sniffed the air another time.
“It smells like dirt,” she murmured. “Weird.”
Quarrel spun around in a lazy half circle, eyes on the floor. “I don’t see any.”
“Dirt, dirt, dirt,” Skulker muttered to himself. Suddenly, he jolted like he’d been hit with a stun gun. “Tunnel,” he said, finally holstering his pistol. “Get out. Need to check the carpet.” That’s how! That’s how they got out. I knew I wasn’t crazy.
Amanda, Roach, and Olivia backed out of the room as Quarrel and Skulker tested the carpet at each corner of the room. On the third corner, to the right of the entryway, the carpet lifted when Skulker tested it.
“Got it,” he said with a laugh, pulling the thin, light brown carpet up to reveal a trap door. He handed the corner of the carpet to Quarrel to keep it up and yanked the wood and metal trap door open.
“Watch it!” yelled Quarrel as he began stepping down, throwing out an arm to stop him.
He froze, his lower leg halfway in. “What?”
“Tripwire,” she said, pointing.
“Oh fuck, I see it now,” muttered Skulker. He pulled his leg out slowly, as Olivia and the others surrounded the trap door.
Olivia now had a good view of the tunnel. Roughly cut in the earth, it would barely fit someone or Roach’s size, much less her. She spotted the tiny glint of half a dozen more tripwires in the few meters she could see before the tunnel curved out of sight. The others were silent, taking in the same view she was.
Skulker sighed. “Dirt looks like a different color in patches on the floor. Mines.”
“How did they get through all that?” asked Amanda.
“My guess: they knew where to step. We don’t.” Roach nodded in agreement.
“Fuck,” spat Amanda. She massaged her forehead as she paced a few steps. The others began spreading out around the room. Quarrel positioned herself near the window, keeping half an eye on the outside. “We need to keep on these guys. Olivia, Roach, could you run through them? They won’t kill you.”
What? No. Olivia and Roach both shook their heads. Roach rasped, “High limit, but a limit. It will kill me.”
“And I don’t want to find out the hard way,” said Olivia.
“Could we detonate them from back here?” ventured Quarrel.
“Probably collapse the tunnel,” said Skulker, leaning back with arms crossed as he examined the tunnel.
“Oh shit, I didn’t think about that,” murmured Amanda. “Any ideas?”
Quarrel shook her head. Roach shrugged.
Skulker let out a bitter laugh. “Tricky bastards, they’re long gone.”
As Roach nodded in agreement again, Quarrel looked at them and asked, “What makes you say that?”
“Think about it. This is probably gonna head to a car. One that we ain’t been trackin’. Could be anywhere. They’re gone. Even if we get through this tunnel.” Oliva felt her shoulders slump. So this whole thing was for nothing?
They returned to Quarrel’s house subdued. Rob opened the door for them with a quizzical look. Olivia noticed his shotgun close at hand against the wall. Miya sat up on the couch, head bandage now removed. Oh, she looks better!
“Fuckin’ nothin’,” spat Ben before his brother could say a word. His maimed hand was clenched into something resembling a fist.
Rob nodded and closed the door behind Roach, bringing up the rear of the group. They spread out in the living room, dropping weapons and gear to the floor. Guys, this is Quarrel’s house, thought Olivia before she watched Quarrel dump a bag of bolts on the coffee table.
“We hit a dead end. We’ll try something else tomorrow night,” said Amanda, a slight hint of worry on her face that vanished in an instant. “In the meantime, I think we all need some sleep. It’s late.”
“Agreed,” rasped Roach.
“Want to sleep on the couch?” Quarrel asked him. He nodded gratefully.
As everyone moved on to their room, Olivia tapped Rob on the shoulder. “Um, Rob?” she began.
“Yeah?” He leaned against the back of a massive armchair to the left of the couch.
“Is your brother OK? He seems…” How do I say this?
“Super piss-y?” asked Rob, finishing her sentence.
Sure. Let’s go with that. “Yeah. He doesn’t smile or joke as much. He’s angry a lot more often now.”
Rob grunted and said, “He’s worried about Sam.”
“Why aren’t you? I mean, I know you are. Sorry. But you aren’t angry. Are you?”
“Cuz I got shit to do,” said Rob, waving vaguely at the downstairs and Quarrel’s workshop. “He’s stewin’ in his own piss-y-ness right now.”
“Will he be alright?”
“Yeah, once this whole thing is over with. Don’t worry, I got my eye on him too.”
“OK. Well, thanks for listening. Good night,” said Olivia.
“Gotcha. Good night.”
Miya was already snoring when Oliva got to the room they shared. She climbed into her own bed, feet hanging off the bed even as she lay diagonally. So this is what a real bed is like. It’s so much comfier than that old mattress on the floor we have in the lair. She spread her wings out a few feet to either side and drifted off to sleep. At least we didn’t do nothing. We got that one guy out of there.
In the morning, Olivia woke up just in time to catch Roach making breakfast. What’s that smell? It smells amazing!
“Hi,” she said, following the sound of something frying on a pan.
“Morning,” he grunted with a nod.
“What’s that?” she asked, looking over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of several strips of meat on a pan, nearly submerged in oil and grease.
“Bacon.” He raised an eyebrow in question at her.
“It smells amazing!”
“Never had before?”
“No. Is it good? It smells good.”
“Try some.” He pointed to a plate by the stove, already covered in strips of bacon. “Making some for everyone.”
She grabbed several strips and ate them all at once. This is great!
“Usually eat something else with it,” he rasped as she inhaled another. “Eggs, ham, pancakes. Something.” He looked at her with mild concern.
“We have ham?” That sounds good too!
“No, you ate it all.” He pointed to another pan on the stove, one she hadn’t noticed, filled with a yellow liquid. “Eggs.” Olivia nodded as she took another strip of bacon. “Do they starve you?”
“No, it’s just that we don’t have a kitchen so we eat fast food all the time. Real food is so much better.”
Olivia settled back in the kitchen, occasionally passing Roach an ingredient or stealing food when he wasn’t looking.
Roach slapped her on the wrist with three fingers as she tried to steal her sixth slice of bacon. “Can you grab the techies?” he asked. “If I can’t make them sleep, I can at least make them eat.”
Darn it Amanda and Rob. “Oh no, did they not sleep at all last night?” That can’t possibly be good for them.
“A little. Five hours. Make sure you bring up all three.”
“OK, I’ll go get them. Is anyone else up?”
“Ben, a little before you. He’s out back.”
Olivia headed downstairs, to find Quarrel, Amanda, and Rob all huddled around a computer. Amanda turned around at the sound of Olivia’s claws scratching against the steps.
“Hey, glad you’re here. I think we have something,” she called out.
“Oh, good. Do you guys want breakfast?” asked Olivia, only halfway down the stairs.
Rob checked the watch on his wrist. “Shit, we lost track of time again.” He got up from his chair and motioned for Quarrel and Amanda to do the same. “Come on, I just noticed I’m starving.”
“Fine,” grunted Quarrel. “But first I’ve still got to-”
“No,” said Olivia, cutting her off. “Roach told me to get all of you.” As Quarrel opened her mouth to argue, she added, “I can just pick you up, you know. Or I could grab the spoon. You chose!” She smiled.
Quarrel gave her a long, piercing look. Olivia maintained her smile. Quarrel finally gave up the staring contest and followed after Amanda and Rob upstairs.
“Hey, can we grab everyone?” asked Amanda. Roach nodded as he passed her a plate. Rob went after his brother, and Roach headed to Miya’s room. A few minutes passed before Miya finally stomped in after him and claimed the massive armchair, giving the whole room the stink eye.
“I found something,” announced Amanda.
“You mean I found it,” piped up Quarrel.
“And I confirmed it,” added Roach, straight faced.
“We found something,” Amanda corrected. “The two soldiers mention taking their captive to something called the place of sacrifice. That was translated, but it sounded like it has some significance, the way they said it. Any ideas for what that could be?”
“That’s so fuckin’ vague,” grumbled Ben.
Quarrel talked over him, “I’d guess that would have to be an abandoned building.”
“That only leaves us with a couple hundred buildin’s,” pointed out Rob.
“Remember, we found the demon at the bottom of the temple,” said Miya, speaking up for the first time. “That wasn’t abandoned at all.”
“I’m thinkin’ the real question is ‘why demons?’,” said Ben.
Everyone looked at Miya. She grumbled to herself and sat upright, preparing herself for another lecture on magic. “Here’s the thing about demons. They’re more or less made of magical energy. You know how I always use chicken or cow bones for my golems?”
The gang nodded, while Quarrel and Roach exchanged a quick, questioning look. Oh, right, I don’t think they’ve ever seen her golem. It keeps getting destroyed.
“Well, that’s because intelligent creatures, like humans, have… something different about us. We get powers. We have souls, for lack of a better term. We can channel magic. There are some things that feed on magical energy, but they can’t channel it. But when you use magic to animate something dead and sentient, demons notice. Demons try to come through. The leading theory is that demons are kind of like the grim reaper. They move souls, or whatever makes a person a person, from here to wherever they go.”
“She wants to use this shit on Taauth,” observed Rob.
“Yeah. I have no idea how, but if whatever it is she’s doing works, he’s twenty kinds of fucked. Demons are something so alien, so incomprehensible, that all scientific and lots of magical laws break down around them. They are death. If you want to kill something immortal, I guess they’re the best way to do it.”
“Ix is studying death,” said Quarrel. “That’s how she got the demon there in the first place. She killed someone and somehow trapped the demon that came.”
“I guess so. How is a whole different story,” said Miya.
“What do we do once we find her?” asked Olivia.
Ben grinned and said, “Kill her.”
“It won’t be that simple.”
“Really? Has been before. Remember Freedom Fighter? Remember the Undead? Overlord an’ that feral place? We murdered our way through all that just fine.” We did?
“Do you remember Overlord?” asked Amanda. “We watched nearly helpless as he and Cyrus threw trees and buildings at each other.”
“Ix ain’t that strong,” commented Rob.
“No, which is why we’re here in the first place. But let’s not underestimate her, she’s going to be bitch.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “How the hell do we even know this? We ain’t even met her yet.”
Roach spoke up. “She’s bred for magic, been trained from birth. She served in the army, probably fought battles in Mayan heartlands, and killed many. Those of the war god’s cult, and she is one, have been infected with wildfyre, survived it, and become even more powerful.” I’ve never heard him talk that long.
“Did that hurt?” asked Miya. “That sounded like it hurt.”
“A little,” Roach admitted under his breath.
Ben rolled his eyes. “All that power don’t mean dick if she don’t see the bullet goin’ in her brain.”
“You’re assuming she’s a moron.”
“I’m assumin’ we’re competent.”
“And all the people around you who you’re assuming are competent are saying we need a very solid plan before we go in.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said Quarrel, stepping in before Amanda and Ben could continue to argue. “Miya, you said you could sense the ddemons, right?”
“Kind of, yes. “
“Now that you know about the demons, now that you know what they are and have seen one first hand, could you make it so that you can sense them from further away. Could we use you like a sort of demon radar?”
Miya leaned back in the armchair, her tiny form nearly vanishing into the cushions. After a long, silent moment, the whole group watching her intently, she said, “Maybe. Give me a day. Oh, and I might ned to go book shopping, if I could borrow one of your cars.”
“I’ll drive you,” Roach volunteered.
“An’ what are we doin’ if we stumble on Ix with this? Don’t we need a plan? People keep tellin’ me we need plans,” said Ben. Come on, Ben. Olivia locked eyes with Rob for a moment, who gave her a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. Out of the corner of her eye, Roach gave a small start and pulled his phone out of his pocket.
“If that’s the case we don’t need to beat her,” said Amanda. “I just need a little time alone in her quarters, and see if there’s any information to be had. You guys just need to stall her.”
“I like how you volunteered us for goin’ toe to toe with a high priest.”
Amanda gave him a disbelieving smile. “You wanted a fight.”
Roach looked up from his phone, his normally taciturn face even more solemn than usual. He grunted loudly to get everyone’s attention. “Just announced. Cuauhtémoc is meeting Taauth.”