The summer evening found Ben crammed in the back of Roach’s truck, long rifle on his lap and out of sight from the outside. Miya, in the seat in front of him, kept her drooping eyes glued as best she could to her freaky cracked cow skull. She ran a fingernail over the top of the skull, her wrist passing over the ragged lump where Ben and Roach had sawn off one of the horns. Roach, for his part, looked unaffected as always, keeping his stoic eyes on the road as he drove.
Ben tapped his fingers on his mask on the seat beside him along with the song on the radio. Looking for demons. Looking for them. That’s weird. So we can find an Aztec priestess. Also weird. So we can find info about the demon god thing that’s possessing my brother. Still weird. Just super weird when I lay it all out like that.
His eyes gazed over the unfamiliar streets of Phoenix, Arizona. He still sweated in his jeans and t-shirt, despite the old AC in the truck being cranked up a high as it could go. The clock was approaching six, just as Taauth and Cuauhtemoc would be meeting for the first time, in front of the whole world. Ix and her soldiers aren’t going to be that distracted. It’s better than nothing, but we shouldn’t pretend this is some perfect opportunity.
“Whoa, whoa, stop,” said Miya, snapping Ben out of his reverie.
Roach slowed down, parking in a spot on the side of the road. In the rearview mirror, Ben watched as Amanda’s small red car did the same a block behind them.
Miya nodded to the building across the street. “That one.” The garish red, green, and white above the front door read ‘Montezuma’s Taco Shack.’ Are you fucking kidding me? Ben snuck a glance at the skull in her hands. It looked no different to his eyes.
“You sure?” he asked. Even Roach cast her a curious look.
“I’m pretty sure,” she replied. “This thing is lighting up like mad.”
“If you say so,” Ben muttered.
“What is it? The office building?” asked Amanda over the comms.
“No, it’s Montezuma’s Taco Shack,” replied Miya.
“How is it looking up there, Olivia?” asked Ben.
After a moment, the static reply of Olivia came through. “Is it that small brown building?
“Um, nothing. Wait, hang on, let me circle around.” A few second passed, before she said, “There are two guys in the back. They’re just standing there, talking. I think they’re soldiers.”
“OK. It looks like there’s somewhere out of the way we can park a block to the right,” said Amanda. “Let’s get there and get ready. Olivia, keep us up to date.”
Ben kept his eye on the taco shack as Roach drove. The neon open sign flashed in the door. This isn’t close to being a temple. Why here? They’ve got to know people there. Maybe the owner. A few moments later, Roach and Amanda’s cars pulled up side by side in a small, out of the way lot sandwiched between two buildings. They all got out, except for Miya, who massaged her closed eyes as she leaned against the car door.
Ben tapped on the window next to her head until she got annoyed enough to lower it. “You stayin’?” he asked.
“I’ve been awake for thirty six hours now. I don’t think you want me out there.”
“Don’t worry, just get some rest,” said Amanda. “Ben, Roach, do you think you can handle the distraction with Olivia.”
Roach nodded, as Ben said, “We should be fine.” We’ve just got to keep moving.
“Guys, there’s people watching the taco place,” broke in Olivia over the comms.
“What do you mean?” asked Amanda.
“A soldier is at a window overlooking the taco place. The window is all covered and stuff, I almost missed him.”
“Do you think he noticed us when we first parked outside the shop?”
“I can’t tell, sorry. I’m sorry,” she said.
“Was he talkin’ on a radio or somethin’?” asked Ben. Think, Olivia. “What was he doin’?”
“Nothing. Just watching.”
“He look super interested? Or like a dude on watch duty?”
“I think so. I mean, interested.”
“OK. That might mean they know we’re coming.” Amanda added, “Of course they don’t want to sleep five feet away from a captured demon.”
“We can work with this,” said Quarrel. “They’re obviously watching the demon shack. We move on that, they’ll be drawn out.”
“Not if it’s just two of us. They ran last time because it was the two of them against all of us. But if it’s me and Roach, they’ll think they can take us. We just have to act like we’re scouting the place out. Then they come out an’ try an’ scare us off or take us out. There’s your openin’.”
“I like it,” said Rob.
Amanda nodded slowly, brow furrowed in thought. “OK. We’ll move on your go.”
Together, Roach and Ben started walking in the direction of the taco shack. Ben made sure his shirt covered his holstered pistol. He left his rifle in the car, a man walking down the street in broad daylight with a gun would attract the police. Behind them, the techies surreptitiously began preparing their equipment.
“Thinkin’ we go in through the front?” Ben asked him once they reached the street. “Be obvious about it?”
“No. Back.” Fake them into thinking we’re just scouts. I like it.
A handful of other people walked on the sidewalks around them, though none were close enough to eavesdrop on them. Ben cast a sideways glance at the sky. Olivia, at this distance looking no bigger than a dime, circled far overhead.
“Do we wanna fuck around when we’re in, act like customers, or just guns blazin’?” asked Ben.
“Soldiers probably inside. Guns blazing.”
Ben glanced over his shoulder with a grin just before he slipped into the alleyway after Roach. Give that lookout something to think about. They found the rear door next to a grimy dumpster with a few flies buzzing around it. Roach positioned himself squarely in front of the door and waited for Ben.
He drew his pistol and pulled the grinning mask over his head. “Let’s go.”
Roach drove his weight into the flimsy metal door. It gave way around the lock with a metallic groan, shooting back on its hinges. Skulker raised his pistol at the ready and rushed in right after him. Just as Roach crossed the threshold, the heavy thud of a shotgun rang out and shoved him back as he took a slug to the collarbone.
Skulker’s pistol whipped around, and fired, catching the soldier lying in wait next to the doorway with two of his three shots. He knelt down beside Roach and whipped his head around to take in the kitchen, on the lookout for any more threats. Two workers,eyes wide with fear, crouched behind a stainless steel table covered in kitchen utensils and bowls.
“Out!” barked Skulker as he moved away from the door. He eyed their simple white clothes and aprons as they passed. No hidden weapons. Just workers. Shouting in Nahua reached his ear from the front of the shop. “You still alive, Roach?” he asked, voice lower.
“Yes,” grumbled Roach as he got back to his feet, the front of his shirt a bloody mess. Beneath, his flesh finished knitting back together. “That hurt.”
“Doors ahead. More of them.” Skulker fired off a few more shots towards the double doors on the far end of the kitchen. Someone on the other end yelled in a deep voice in more Nahua. The door opened by a few inches, and a dark piece of metal came flying in.
“Grenade!” yelled Skulker, turning and teleporting out the door they came in through. Roach ducked his head and scrambled away. Skulker tucked himself away next to the doorframe and waited for the bang. A small explosion rocked the wall he leaned against, sending out bits of shrapnel and dust through the door. The sounds of the double door slamming open and boots pounding on the floor reached him a moment later.
Skulker turned the corner, ready to teleport with pistol raised, just in time to see a large, heavyset Aztec man in plain clothes barreling towards him. The butt of his rifle crashed into Skulker’s head. He blinked away stars and staggered away. Before he could react further, the soldier with the rifle rammed into him with his shoulder. Ben fired a couple shots blindly, giving himself enough space to teleport as far as he could to the side.
He squeezed the trigger three more times. Only two bullets shot out, both missing their mark. Ben jammed the gun back into its holster and drew a long, slashing knife from Rob. Skulker teleported right up the the soldier as he aimed with his rifle, winding up having to throw himself to the side to avoid a couple shots. He swung his knife, trying to keep the soldier off balance.
His knife drew blood along the soldier’s arm. He lowered his rifle and bulled into Ben again, though this time he was ready. The knife flashed down towards the soldier’s neck as he connected with Skulker’s chest. This time the knife struck deep, cutting into the soldier’s throat. He staggered back, choking on blood. One hand tried to staunch the wound to his neck, the other grasped for his sidearm. No. Skulker slashed one, two, three more times onto the man’s chest, until he finally stopped struggling.
Skulker found himself kneeling over the dead men. Roach. He teleported back inside, to find the two soldiers flanking Roach. One kept a pistol raised towards him, the other circled, looking for an opening. Roach whirled from one to the other, blood dripped from a shot to his knee. Skulker teleported again, right to the back of the second soldier. The one with the pistol’s eyes widened in alarm, but before he could warn his friend, Skulker jabbed his knife into this spine. Roach took the opportunity to lunge forward, his knee now healed, into him. Skulker yanked out his knife from the soldier’s back.
He looked up just in time to see Roach swinging a stool into the third and final soldier, knocking him off his feet. His head slammed into the tiled floor, knocking him out cold.
“Thanks,” rasped Roach, dropping the stool.
Skulker nodded, pulling his pistol back out and reloading. “That all?”
Roach looked out the double doors where the soldiers had come in from. “Looks like it,” he rasped. “You alright?”
“Head is killin’ me. Fine otherwise.”
They looked around the fairly standard restaurant kitchen. Other than the blood and three bodies, nothing stuck out. A rack of knives hung on one wall, various spoons and ladles on the other. Despite being a dingy little taco shack, it had two walk in freezers dominating the area. Well that sticks out. Skulker teleported over to examine them.
“This freezer is off,” said Skulker. “Why?”
“Might have demon,” replied Roach, cocking an eyebrow at the large shiny metal door.
“Neither of us can see it, right?”
“Was old blood on floor, last time,” rasped Roach in response.
“I guess it’s worth a look,” said Skulker with a shrug. He pulled the door open and peered in. Blood smeared the floor of the freezer. Skulker felt the hackles at the back of his neck rise as he put a foot forward further in. Nope.
“That’s freaky,” he announced, pulling back quickly and shutting the door. Roach nodded in agreement.
The two of them headed towards the dining area. A few chairs, four in fact, were overturned near some of the dozen tables scattered around. One for each of those soldiers. A news station, with a graphic of a Mexican flag waving in the background, played on all three of the small tube TVs set up around the room. Movement of a shadow at the door caught his eye.
“We gotta get ready,” said Skulker.
The comm in Skulker’s ear crackled to life as Olivia said, “They’re coming. I think Ix is with them. Wait…”
“What was that?” asked Skulker, already pulling out his pistol and backing away towards the kitchen.
Before Olivia could respond, the door opened. A twisted mass of dead wood tumbled through. It’s bleached white branches formed a serpentine figure, with a split piece of what was once firewood as the head. A tall woman, with distinctly Aztec features, stood behind it. Her long, uncut hair reached down to her waist. Two soldiers, also in plain clothes, flanked her.
“So you are the annoying ones,” she said, her thick accent nearly unintelligible. Her upper lip, marred by a small scar, curled into a sneer. With a small wave of her hand, Roach doubled over and vomited to the side. His veins turned black. Oh shit.
“Move,” Skulker shouted to Roach as the soldiers moved forward, in no particular hurry. The big man tried to follow his lead, struggling on hands and knees as he fought another bout of vomit. “Olivia, help.”
Without listening for a response, he leveled his pistol at the rough area where Ix and her soldiers stood and opened fire. The bullets bit into the body of the golem, sending out small splinters of wood. The construct shifted, putting more of itself between him and Ix as they advanced. The two soldiers jumped to either side, letting the golem take the lead. Then the door exploded as Olivia burst in.
She swung her claws into the back of the man’s neck, nearly taking off his head. Ix and the other soldier swung around just in time to catch Olivia roaring at them, claws uncurled and sharp teeth bared. In the chaos, Skulker took one of Roach’s arms over his shoulders and hauled him back. “Techies, need help. Ix fucked up Roach pretty bad.”
Roach tried to gasp something out, choking on something in his throat. Just keep moving. Skulker finally got him out back, next to the soldier Skulker had stabbed to death.
“I’m on my way,” replied Quarrel over the comms. “Everything is going well on our end.”
“Move,” barked Skulker. “Me an’ Olivia will keep Ix off.”
He heard another roar from the taco shack. He rushed back inside, teleporting to cover the distance. Olivia and Ix started at each other, the golem and the soldier circling around her warily to either side. Black began to creep up the veins of Olivia’s right arm. Nope. Skulker opened fire at Ix. The golem lunged, taking the bullets and shoving Ix to the ground. Skulker teleported just as the soldier trained his rifle on him.
“‘Liv’, run!” Olivia shook her arm, the black fading, and followed.
They burst out onto the streets. The surrounding pedestrians had vanished, no doubt at the first sounds of gunfire. They ran, Olivia struggling to keep up on her clawed and unbalanced feet. Just keep Ix busy. He spotted a short, four story building away from where the techies would be raiding Ix’s hideout. Behind them, Ix and the others
“Fly!” After a moment’s hesitation, Olivia jumped and took flight, leaving dust swirling in her wake. My turn. Skulker grinned under his mask and teleported up. His hands grabbed the metal of the fire escape. He pulled himself up and began dashing for the rooftop.
The golem formed a step ladder, allowing Ix and her remaining soldier to climb up its body and rush after him. I want one of those. Skulker fired a couple more shots to keep them on their toes as he continued to rush up and away from the angry priestess. Olivia landed next to him on the roof.
“What now?” she asked, breathless.
“Ideas?” he asked. She looked at him, panic visible even in her reptilian eyes. “That’s a no. Maybe just shoot her?”
The clatter of wood on concrete grabbed their attention. “Enough!” shouted Ix as she stepped onto the roof under the cover of the golem. “Your master will not stop me. He will not threaten the empire.”
Skulker stopped for a moment, pistol halfway to aiming at Ix. “Master?” What the fuck are you talking about?
“Don’t play the fool,” she spat. The soldier behind her climbed up, rifle aimed at Olivia. “That is his mask. Or maybe you’re just a simpleton, aping someone you don’t understand.”
“Oh shit. No, I got nothin’ to do with Taauth.” The moment he said the name, Ix’s frown deepened. “I plan on dealin’ with that fucker later. But he ain’t tryin’ to murder me at the moment, so I’d say you’re a bigger problem right now.”
“I am not a problem. I am trying to stop a madman.”
“You’re murderin’ people! The fuck was that for?” demanded Skulker.
“There is no life without sacrifice. It was necessary,” said Ix, eyes hard and unflinching. Right, Aztec priestess. Human life isn’t worth a nickel to her.
“She’s stalling,” whispered Olivia again. “More soldiers are coming.”
“Fuck that shit.” Skulker pulled a flashbang, one of his two remaining, and lobbed it low towards Ix’s feet. “Down!” He ducked and covered his eye with his arm, hoping Olivia would have the sense to look away.
The flashbang exploded in a bright flash and shockwave. Skulker teleported forward and drew his iron knife. Through Ix and the soldier both staggered back from the flashbang, the golem was unaffected. It reached for Skulker with long skeletal branches. He ducked under the first, clumsy branch and slashed straight at Ix. Her eyes widened at the sight of iron, and she barely managed to twist out of the way before Skulker could gut her. The knife still struck her in the side. A branch of the golem caught Skulker in the back of the leg before he could follow up. He stumbled, and the golem reared back for another blow.
Olivia swooped down in the nick of time. She lunged at the moving shape of wood and bark, her claws digging into the golem. She hurled it off of the rooftop. It tumbled over the edge, wood and bark twisting and grasping. She turned back to Ix with a snarl.
The priestess raised an eyebrow. “Very well, then.”
Ben grinned under his mask. He leveled his pistol at Ix and fired off a couple more shots, both going wide. Then the roof gave out below him.