Ben tapped his foot as Amanda talked, fighting the urge to simply yell and shout until everyone understood. What the hell are we accomplishing right now? The others seemed content to watch him and Amanda talk back and forth, only occasionally chipping in. Roach was more interested in his phone than any actual planning. Everyone else stood or sat in a rough circle in Quarrel’s living room.
He caught the last words of Amanda’s sentence. “… just need to stall her.”
Ben felt a smile grow on his face. “I like how you just volunteered us for goin’ toe to toe with a high priest.” Make up your damn mind. On minute it’s ‘we can’t possibly fight her’, next it’s ‘just stall her’. The hell?
“You wanted a fight,” Amanda shot back.
Motion from Roach caught Ben’s eye. He looked up from his phone and said, “Just announced. Cuauhtémoc is meeting Taauth.” The room fell silent for a moment.
“OK. Great. What does that mean for us?” asked Ben.
“Not sure,” replied Roach. “Seemed relevant.”
“How?” asked Rob. At least we’re still kind of on the same page.
Roach shrugged. “Lots of diplomat talk in article. Both want to discuss mutual security.”
“Do you think this will affect Ix in any way?” asked Amanda.
“She’ll be glued to a TV screen when it happens. She may have been kicked out of Mexico, but old habits die hard,” said Miya.
“That’s a good point,” said Quarrel, straightening in her seat. “All of her soldiers probably will be. It would be a perfect time to hit them.” Now you’re talking!
“Where?” asked Roach. “Still don’t know.”
“Wait, back up,” said Ben, raising his hands. “When is this Taauth and Cuauhtémoc talk?”
Roach checked his phone again for a moment, then replied, “Nine hours. Six o’clock our time.”
Ben turned to Miya. “Will that give you enough time to do your demon radar thing?”
“No,” she replied immediately, eyes wide. “That’s still entirely theoretical. And its demons. That’s not something we want to fuck up.”.
“Come on,” said Rob. “We got a good opportunity here. Don’t even need to make a distraction.”
“Nothin’ you can do?” added Ben.
Miya hesitated, biting on her lower lip as she thought. Amanda spoke up, “Guys, back off. She just took a head wound, she needs time.”
“No, I’ve been sleeping for the last twelve hours anyways. I might be able to. Might,” she repeated for emphasis.
“Didn’t you just say you needed a day anyways?” asked Quarrel.
“That was to answer the question if I could or not. You’re asking me to do that, then figure out the magic streams necessary, then use them, then hope we pick up something worthwhile. Apples and oranges.”
“So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance,” followed up Ben.
Miya rolled her eyes. “Sure. A small one, but sure.”
The others exchanged glances. Olivia, standing behind Miya’s seat, frowned at Ben. What? “Can I help?” she asked Miya.
Miya shrugged. “You’re the only other one here that can even see magical streams, so sure, why not.”
Amanda nodded. “We’ll see what you two come up with, then plan around that.”
Ben and Rob stood side by side, scrubbing the dishes from breakfast as the rest of the group dispersed. Other than a single area on a counter, Quarrel’s kitchen was remarkably clean. A jar of cooking utensils stood by the oven, untouched. She doesn’t use this stuff, does she? Techies.
“We didn’t invent the fridge to eat shit food,” Rob grumbled, loading a floral patterned plate into the dishwasher. “Why can’t anyone else cook? There’s more spices besides salt an’ pepper.”
“I think you’re the only one who cares enough. Besides, Roach ain’t bad.”
Rob grunted in response. The kitchen fell silent once more, save for the water running from the faucet. Ben watched as Rob’s eyes grew distant, his motions more mechanical and slow.
“How are you an’ Amanda doin’?” asked Ben.
Rob snapped out of his reverie. “Just fine. Railgun is almost done. Just gotta shoot it, really.”
“I can give it a shot, see if the average idiot like me can work it.”
Rob grinned. “Thanks. Amanda’s convinced that it should be easy, but me an’ her have been workin’ on the damn thing for a while now. We know that thing inside an’ out. I wanna make sure it’s easy to use.”
“Oh no, she one of those techies?” All the cool shit I’ve seen that’s fucking impossible to use. Heartbreaking.
“That don’t see the point of a user? Yeah, the person usin’ it is a problem for her. Don’t worry, I’ll get her to come around.” He shot Ben a curious look. “Why you askin’?”
“You seemed lost in thought is all.”
Rob nodded and said, “Nah, just worried about Sam.”
“Same. We’re wastin’ too much time.”
Rob stopped, facing Ben directly. “That reminds me. You gotta ease off.”
“Off what?” Ben rinsed the remains of coffee out one of Quarrel’s mugs as he spoke.
“Gettin’ real snappy an’ bitchy lately. Olivia noticed, I noticed. Others will.”
Olivia? Really? “Well we don’t got time to be nice,” replied Ben.
“Really?” Rob held up a hand. “They’re all helpin’ us, an’ there ain’t no money in this. Give ‘em a break, or this is gonna blow up in our faces. Doin’ this alone is gonna be a lot harder for us.”
“Still can, push comes to shove,” replied Ben. We’ll find a way. Always have.
“OK. OK. You’re smarter than this, Ben. What’ll we do? When we get to Taauth, what will we do? Do you have any idea how to get Taauth out of Sam? This ain’t somethin’ we can just shoot or punch.”
Ben paused as he scraped at a particularly stubborn bit of dried egg. “We’ll figure it out.”
“What if we can’t?” demanded Rob, voice hardening.
“There’s gotta be a way.”
“What if we can’t?” asked Rob again. “Ben, we don’t know shit about magic. An’ Taauth? He wiped out a race of advanced aliens on his own. The fuck are we supposed to do against that on our own? We need the others now. This ain’t a bunch of kidnappers.”
Ben grunted, “We’ll figure that out when we get to it, then.” They stood in silence for a moment, dishes clean and no one else around. I missed this.
“What the hell happened to us, man?” he asked out loud.
“What do you mean?” replied Rob.
“Our lives are super weird,” said Ben, waving his hand around to the world at large. “We’re talkin’ about helpin’ an old god kill another, even older god, who’s possessed our brother, while we’ve formed a team with a second techie, a mage chick, an’ Olivia. When did our lives get this weird?”
“I dunno. You called me, remember?” said Rob, his old grin back on his face. “Really you’re to blame for all this.”
“Yeah,” said Rob, nudging Ben in the shoulder. “I’d be happy chillin’ on the east cost if it weren’t for you.”
“Ain’t my fault you said yes.”
“Ha! True.” He wiped off his hands on a towel. “Well, I’d better help Quarrel an’ Amanda.”
Ben nodded. “I guess I’ll go check in on Miya. I’ll let you know if they’ve got anythin’.”
The brothers split up and headed in separate directions, Rob to the basement, and Ben to Miya and Olivia’s shared room. He poked his head in the doorway to find Miya and Olivia hunched over books on their beds, not even noticing his intrusion. Ben wandered away. A quiet house greeted him, broken only by the sound of a page turning behind him. Well this part is the worst. I hate waiting.
Ben woke up sprawled out on the couch, Roach snoring in the chair beside him. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes and checked the clock on his phone. Hey, I actually slept a decent amount. The house was still quiet, with no sign of the others. The late afternoon sun streamed in through the closed blinds of the living room.
In one smooth motion, Ben climbed to his feet and teleported out of the room, leaving Roach to his nap. After grabbing an apple from the fridge, he headed downstairs. In the dim basement, Amanda slept face down at her workbench, while Quarrel had curled up in a massive leather armchair in the corner. If the blankets were any indication, it had been set up for exactly that purpose. Rob twisted around in his chair at the sound of Ben descending the steps, metal file in hand. He nodded to his brother and returned to whatever metal part he was working on. Techie party never stops.
Ben headed back upstairs. How are the girls doing? Just as he reached the ground floor again, he heard small feet rushing down towards him. Miya rushed past him and pushed her way into the basement, two thick books held under each arm. Olivia lumbered behind a few moments later.
“What was that?” Ben asked her.
“I think she figured something out.” Dark rings circled Olivia’s eyes. Roach had woken up at the commotion, watching the exchange intently. “A way to find demons, or where they were, or something. I don’t know.”
“Well let’s go find out. They headed to the basement, Roach following behind. Downstairs, the techies had also stirred at the arrival of Miya. She pushed aside a trolley covered in different hand tools, sending some to the ground with the clatter of metal against bare concrete.
“Hey!” snapped Quarrel, climbing out of her armchair to stop her.
Miya ignored her, kicking aside a fallen ratchet with her foot and barking, “Marker. Now.”
“What are you doing?”
“And get me a cow skull. A real cow skull, with horns. I also need a paintbrush, and any cups you’re willing to spare, Quarrel.” She finally looked up at everyone else, a spark in her eye hidden under the haze of exhaustion. “Now!”
“Why?” demanded Amanda. Rob tossed a felt tipped marker to Miya. She nabbed it out of the air and knelt down at the space she’d cleared. Beside her, she spread out her two books.
“Well, there’s a type of stream vibrates a little bit when demons are around. I can’t use it, though,” said Miya as she flipped through pages.
“Why not?” asked Amanda.
“And what the hell are you planning on doing?” added Quarrel
Miya ignored her, instead answering Amanda’s question. “Because it has to do with air based magic. I use biological magic, remember? But there is a type of stream I can make that’s a rough equivalent. I just need to check on this one thing, though.” Miya’s voice trailed off as she buried her head back into the book. Her long, frazzled black hair formed a curtain over her face.
“And where are we supposed to find a cow skull?” asked Amanda, irritation peeking through her forced calm voice. It isn’t fun being on the other end of a bunch of snappy demands is it?
“I just need bone, any decent sized bone. This is the southwest, there’s got to be a cow skull somewhere.”
Roach rasped, “I’ll get it.” With that, he stomped away.
The others had spread out across the lair. Olivia stood looming behind Ben, swaying slightly. She and Miya haven’t slept for nearly a day, have they? Quarrel hovered over Miya’s shoulder, arms crossed. Without a word, Miya took the black marker and began drawing a circle on the concrete floor. Quarrel pursed her lips with a frown, though she said nothing. Once the outer circle had been finished, Miya moved on to bizarre geometric shapes inside, all connected in some way to the first outer circle.
“Do you have to do this in my workshop?” asked Quarrel, as Miya continued to scrawl.
“You don’t want this on your carpet and we don’t want to do this outside,” she replied, not giving Quarrel so much as a glance.
They spent the next forty minutes watching Miya with uncertainty. She shooed Olvia away when she stepped up to help. Rob and Amanda returned to assembling something basketball sized on the desk between them after a few minutes. Well, forward progress is happening now. Not sure what kind of progress, but progress! Roach eventually returned with a real cow skull, bleached white, tucked under his scarred arm. This better be quick, that meeting is happening in an hour.
Amanda apparently had the same thought as Ben. “We don’t have much time,” she said.
Miya looked up and said, “I’m close. Grind down one of the horns. Mix the powder with water. Three parts bone for every part water, and get me a gallon of that.”
Roach looked between her and the cow skull, puzzled for a moment, until Quarrel produced a large metal file and passed it to him. Between Ben, Quarrel, and Roach, they had the horn ground down and mixed with water into several plastic cups.
“Done,” called out Ben.
“Great, I’m almost done. Paintbrush?” asked Miya.
“Hang on, I think I have some.” Quarrel returned in an instant with some black foam paintbrushes. “What size?”
“That one,” Miya grabbed the inch wide one and began to work. She dipped the foam paintbrush into the bone mixture and began spreading it along the marker lines she’d drawn.
“Why do you have paintbrushes?” Ben asked Quarrel. Crossbows, paintbrushes. Not much overlap there.
She shot him an almost offended look. “They’re leftover from a project of mine. I take pride in my home.”
“Sometimes,” added Roach, a small smile on his face. Quarrel made a face at him, then turned back to Miya.
The bone dust twirled and twisted, and when it met another line Ben’s eyes seemed to glide right over it. He blinked. The hell? The more he tried to concentrate on the junction, the more his eyes refused to see. Olivia can see magic, right?
Ben turned around and looked up to see Olivia staring at the ritual, eyes wide. “Hey, see anythin’ cool?” he asked.
Apparently too loudly, as Miya shushed him. She kept her eyes glued to her work, biting hard on her lower lip as she concentrated.
Olivia leaned down, eyes still fixed on the floor, and whispered, “It’s hard to explain. Miya is putting magic into the bone dust as she paints, and the magic follows the line.”
“OK, I’m with you.”
“And then sometimes something happens and the magic changes.”
“And you lost me.”
“No worries. Back up. What happens?”
She pointed to one of the junctions that had been giving Ben’s eyes trouble. “There. Two magic streams meet, and then they combine into a different stream. I think.”
“So this is a bit like when she makes a golem.” She puts magic into a thing to make it magic. That easy?
“You never seen that?”
“No,” said Olivia with a shake of her head.
The fell silent as Miya painted closer and closer to the center of the circle. “Cow skull,” she said as she finished painting over the last of the marker lines. Roach gently passed to to her. She caught it and put it in the center. Keeping her hands on it, she closed her eyes. Ben snuck another look at Olivia. To Ben, Miya was just sitting there with a cow skull, but Olivia’s eyes were wide once again. OK, she’s doing magic shit again.
Then, something he could see happened. Small cracks spider webbed along the skull, rising from the bottom without a sound. Some grew darker and deeper. Three on different sides spiraled around and ended at the same point at the very top. Cool.
Miya stood up with the lopsided cow skull with both hands. “Done.” The rest of them started at the marked cow skull.
“So, it’s a golem now?” asked Ben.
Miya looked at Ben in surprise. “No, this isn’t a golem. It is similar. It’s still drawing on my power, but I gave it some of its own. Kind of.”
“Kind of?” repeated Amanda.
“Kind of,” replied Miya.
“Why is magic so vague?” muttered Quarrel.
“Because it is,” said Miya, with a vague wave of her hand. “I’d like to test it, but I think it will work. Unfortunately, I just realized something. Only me or Olivia will be able to tell when this detects a demon. If it can detect a demon. But it should have a much better range than what me and Olvia would get normally. It will even give us a location, rather than just telling us ‘bad shit nearby’.”
“We don’t have time to test it,” said Rob, checking his wristwatch.
“I suppose we could just murder someone on the streets,” mused Miya.
Ben grinned. “That don’t seem like the best thing to do. Morally, you know?”
“Yeah, that’s awful,” said Olivia, staring at Miya with a horrified expression.
“Relax, Olivia, I wasn’t serious,” she said.
“I know. It was still awful.” Relax.
“Alright, back on track. We’re ready,” said Amanda, looking at Quarrel and Rob.
“Yep, just finished the final touches,” said Rob. Ben glanced at his desk. Beside a box of dark metal bolts sat a twisted metal monstrosity. Two bars stuck out of each side of the long rectangular shape, with two pulleys at the ends. On the bottom a massive power supply sat plugged into the wall. What in the hell have they made? Is that even a crossbow anymore? “Quarrel wouldn’t let me put little smiley faces on the bolts though,” he added with a fake pout.
“Get over it. Let’s meet upstairs in five minutes, ready to go. Sunset isn’t for a few hours, so we’ll have to be low key. Let’s get moving.”
The group broke up,heading in separate directions to get their gear. Ben wound up next to Quarrel, both grabbing weapons out of a large metal locker.
“You ready?” asked Ben her with a grin. He slipped a two knives into his belt, and another into his boot.
“As ready as I can be.” She slipped her goggles around her neck. “I just hope this doesn’t end in another running gun battle on the streets like last time. Our MHU really didn’t like that.”
“Hey, at least they don’t shoot you on sight. I was a vigilante on my own, they hated me on general principle.”
“The Watch does have its perks. And I know a couple of them. They’re not bad guys, but they’re not prepared for anything serious. All we’ve had to deal with down here is the occasional rogue mage or human trafficker. The Tzontli’s spooked them.”
“Good thing you two are here. Otherwise the city might be a crater now.”
“We’re not that good,” she said with a wry smile which quickly vanished. “It’s just me and Roach here. The way the whole world has been going, I’m worried. I’m sitting here with technology from a couple hundred years ago, Roach is getting older. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“By takin’ it one step at a time. Track down a demon. Murder a high priest. Little things.” She snorted in laughter.
With that, he teleported ahead of Quarrel and out of the basement.
Miya leaned against the car door, eyes drooping. “I’m fine,” she grumbled before Ben could even open his mouth.
“You sure? Does little Miya need a nap?” He reached out to tousle her hair.
Her hand snapped out, catching him in the ribs. “Do you need a nice dirt nap?” she growled, drawing up all of her five feet no inches in height.
“Aw, so cute,” he said, wearing his best shit eating grin. He jumped back just in time to dodge the second blow.
Within five minutes, they had all gathered. Rob and Amanda both wore their armor.
Amanda said, “Roach has a couple targets for us. Miya and Ben, you go with him in the first car. Quarrel, Rob, and I will follow behind you in the second car. Once we find where Ix is, everyone in the first car creates a distraction. Unless you think you have a perfect chance to kill her, just draw them out. Car two will get in and find what we can.
“You comin’ into the field?” asked Ben, shooting Rob a questioning look. He simply shrugged. Isn’t her stomach still giving her hell?
Amanda swallowed the two pills dry. “Yes.”
“Is that a good idea?” asked Olivia, head tilted slightly to the side.
“Yep. Let’s go. We’ll be thirty seconds behind.” Finally. Something is going to happen tonight. Not sure what, but something.