Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did I let him talk me into this? Olivia circled around the apartment building she’d just escaped from. A squad of soldiers scrambled for cover in the streets below, rifles aimed up at her. The sun, nearly set, shone in her eyes as she looped back around to track down Ben.
The adrenaline was not enough to deaden the ache in her back muscles where Ix’s soldier had managed to land shots. Her arm, from the skin to the bone, also ached where Ix had shoved sickly black tendrils of magic into it. A couple shots rang out, one going wide, the other tearing through the membrane of her wing. She hissed in pain, falling as her wing reflexively tucked back in.
She forced her wing back out and dove to build speed. Before another shot could hit her, she arced and put the apartment building between them. She managed to hear more gunshots from inside the building. Ben! The gunshots had come from below, on the second floor. He can get out from there. Then, shouting picked up from the corner of the building. The squad of soldiers had followed.
No! She twisted to the side, curving sharply back towards them. With wings tucked in, she dived towards the center of the group. A bullet struck her in the shoulder, the rest went wide. At the moment of contact, she spread her wings again and pulled back up, striking at anyone in range. Her foot smacked against the side of the lead soldier’s head, the claw on her hands grazed another’s ear. The rest fired into the air after her. Another pass and the soldiers had scattered into four groups, covering each other’s backs so she couldn’t strike at a group without diving into their crossfire. Pay attention to me, not Ben.
She harried them for a few minutes, faking dives and circling around, keeping them on their toes. They were pushed away from where Olivia had last heard the gunshots from inside the building, though she’d heard no others since. Hurry, Ben. Please be OK. Finally, she saw a familiar hooded figure leap out of a window on the second floor and immediately teleported to the ground.
He’s OK. He’s OK. Olivia made one final false dive at the soldiers to keep them occupied as Ben continued to teleport away. She followed, high in the air, once he was clear. The sun had fully set, little more than a receding glow on the horizon, just as sirens began to draw closer and closer.
“Olivia, are you alright?” asked Amanda over the comms. Everyone else had packed into the cars below Olivia.
“Good, we’re moving.”
Olivia coasted through the air, too high up to be seen from the ground by human eyes. She, however, could see Amanda’s car and Rob’s truck just fine. They drove, quickly but reasonably, though the streets of Phoenix, heading back to Quarrel’s house. Instead of a direct route, they drove in an arc, at one point circling to mark any following cars for Olivia.
Eventually, they got back without incident. The others staggered out of the cars, leaning on each other for support. Rob wrapped his arm around Amanda’s shoulders, and Ben jumped to the back of the truck to help Quarrel with the unconscious body of Roach. Olivia landed in the backyard so Quarrel’s neighbors wouldn’t wonder why a massive feral was in her house and slipped in when Ben opened the door for her.
She tackled him with a bear hug the moment she was inside. “Don’t ever do that again,” she mumbled into his shoulder. “I was worried.” Everyone is always shooting us and you can’t get shot like I can.
“Yeah,” he managed to croak. After a moment he added, “Can’t breathe.”
“Sorry,” she said, putting him back down and releasing him. She felt herself swaying on her feet as the adrenaline finally faded completely.
“How you holdin’ up?” He reached up for a cupboard in the kitchen, grabbing glasses for water. “Want a drink?”
“Yes please. And I’m OK. Just tired.”
He nodded, handing her water and taking another into the living room. The others had circled around the prone form of Roach on the floor. Miya, looking half dead, blinked a few times as she lay a hand on Roach’s wrist, eyes unfocused and distant. Quarrel’s head snapped up as Ben passed her the second glass of water. Olivia flinches slightly at the sight of anger in her eyes.
“What the hell was that back there?” demanded Quarrel. She stood and jabbed a finger at Ben’s chest as she took another steps forward towards him.
“What?” asked Ben, a small smile flickering across his face. He still held the water towards her.
“You left him completely alone, out cold, in an alley, when there were tons of hostiles around. How could that possibly have seemed like a good idea?”
“I watched him regrow a fuckin’ head once. I thought he just needed a breather an’ he’d be right back at ‘em. An’ this is for him,”
“Obviously this was different. It doesn’t take him any more than ten seconds to recover. How could you not notice?”
“Well I didn’t fuckin’ know that.” Ben placed the water next to Roach’s head, opposite Miya. “An’ I had other things to worry about. There were guys with guns tryin’ to kill me at the same time.”
Stop yelling. Stop fighting. “Is Roach OK?” asked Olivia, raising her voice as much as she dared to be heard.
“He’s not going to die, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Miya, speaking up for the first time. “He’s not in good shape, either. There’s some freaky magic acid running through his system. His body and power are fighting it off and flushing it out, but it’s going to take a while.”
“Thank you,” said Amanda, voice tight. “Is there anything we can do?”
“No. You guys can’t really do anything and I’m tapped out.”
“But he’ll be OK?” asked Quarrel, her anger subsided for the moment.
Miya nodded. “Yeah.”
“Hey, we’re gonna take a look at the mega crossbow downstairs,” said Rob. “Wanna take a look.”
“I’ll stay with him, if that’s OK?” She turned to Miya, who had stayed awake just long enough to stagger over and crash on Quarrel’s armchair, her tiny form nearly swallowed by the cushions. “Never mind.”
The group came to an unspoken agreement and broke up. Quarrel remained sitting by Roach, while Ben teleported off to where the guns had been set aside. Rob headed straight to his truck, while Olivia followed Amanda back into the kitchen. She winces whenever she starts moving.
“Are you OK, Amanda?” she asked. “Is your stomach alright?”
“It’ll be fine,” replied Amanda. She zipped open a small black bag she’d tucked away in a corner on the counter and began rummaging through. Small, hard objects rattled against plastic cases.
“I thought you were mostly done with those.”
“Not all of them. And one of these is a painkiller,” Amanda said, popping a trio of pills into her mouth.
Olivia wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gently squeezed. “Well, I hope you get better.” Together, they headed to the basement as the front door opened to let in Rob.
“How’d that fuckin’ mega crossbow work?” called out Ben from across the room.
“Beautifully,” said Amanda.
“Nothin’ like puttin’ half a pound of sharp steel through a wall,” added Rob, hauling the contraption in question inside on his back. “Hurt the fuck outta my shoulder, though.”
“I can take that if you want,” said Olivia.
“Sure.” Rob offloaded the crossbow with a grunt. Olivia hefted it. Unlike most of Quarrel’s other crossbows, this didn’t feel like it had any plastic. She may as well have been carrying a solid block of metal. In the basement, Amanda directed Olivia where to put it, and Rob began taking it apart. The two techies launched into a technical discussion, something to do with magnets, as Olivia found the large armchair Quarrel had been sleeping in. She nodded off as the chatter turned into a soothing drone in the back of her mind.
Olivia returned to consciousness under a fuzzy blanket. Oh, this is nice. She kept her eyes shut and tried to burrow further into the cushions. She tucked her tail in so it could share in the fuzziness. The only thing spoiling the moment was the ache in her arm. The old wounds that Clone had given her in the feral institute felt warm.
Before she had time to savor the moment, she heard a low voice across the room say, “Is she finally awake?”
“What?” Olivia mumbled, still unwilling to leave the couch.
“You just slept for sixteen hours, Olivia,” said Amanda from somewhere ahead of her.
“Oh, wow. That’s a long time. Did I miss anything?”
“You sleep for twelve hours normally. And no, you didn’t miss much. We all got some sleep.”
“OK.” Olivia relaxed under the blanket again, eyes still firmly shut.
She enjoyed the silence, broken only by the occasional tink of metal as Rob adjusted the screws of something. Or maybe it’s the nuts and bolts. I should ask him about all that stuff one day. Olivia could only hear Rob and Amanda in the basement. No Quarrel?
“How is Roach?” asked Olivia.
“He woke up and was talking a couple hours ago,” replied Amanda. “He’s still pretty rough, though. He passed out a little later.”
“He’ll be OK?”
“Yeah, Miya figured out what Ix did. You know magic, right?”
“A little,” replied Olivia, before realizing Amanda’s question might have been rhetorical.
“Then her explanation might make sense to you. All I got out of it was chain reaction.”
After a while, Olivia finally mustered up the energy to open her eyes and crawl out from under the blanket. Despite the midsummer Arizona heat, the air conditioned basement was refreshingly cool. She took a moment to stretch her wings before heading upstairs to check on the others. Roach was awake when she reached the living room, Quarrel right beside him. From the dark rings under her eyes, she hadn’t slept much, if at all. Roach’s normally taciturn face looked exasperated as Quarrel lectured..
“It’s fine. Not dead,” Roach rasped to her as Olivia lumbered up.
“I know. You just need to start taking better care of yourself.”
“Do you hear yourself? Literally? Can you hear yourself? That knife wound never healed properly. Just listening to you is painful.”
“Not dead though,” he said, a teasing smile creeping across his face.
Quarrel didn’t smile. She gave him a light punch to the shoulder and said, “That’s not the bar you want to set!”
“Hi, Roach!” said Olivia.
His smile didn’t vanish. “Hey.”
“Are you feeling better?” she asked.
“Fine now,” he rasped. “Just need rest.”
“Do your scars ache?” she asked. Ix knocked him out, right?
He shot her a questioning look. “My chest. Why?”
“My arms do too. I think she tried the same thing on me, but Ben stopped her.”
“Lucky. It hurt.”
Quarrel grumbled wordlessly, a dark look on her face, and turned as Amanda and Rob joined Olivia.
“Ben, Miya! Got something for you!” shouted Rob to the house.
Once they’d all gathered around, Amanda produced a thick, tattered binder, with thick red tape at the corners. Olivia folded her arms near the back of the room. Miya was looking much more alert, no longer about to fall asleep at a moment’s notice.
“We grabbed a bunch of documents in Ix’s quarters” said Amanda. “I also stole her computer.”
“Oh, so she’s fucked? Back at square one?” said Ben.
“If she’s not a moron she has backups somewhere,” explained Amanda. She pulled a stack of papers out of the folder. “I gave these a quick look over to see what we had, but we don’t have a lot of time so I wanted to get as many eyes on this as possible. This is a research paper, ‘The Effects of Magic on the Human Experience of Dreams’. I don’t know what kind of scientific paper publishes hippie bullshit, but whatever, it’s magic. It’s by some guy named Jonathan Gizenga.”
She slapped the papers down on the coffee table in the middle of the group. Two columns of densely packed text covered the first page. Amanda pulled out another stack of papers, this one about an inch thick.
“There’s also a ton of papers written in some Asian language. I can’t tell if it’s Chinese or Japanese or what. There’s notes in Nahua in the margins, which I also can’t read.”
That stack also fell onto the table. Roach and Ben both leaned in.
“This mean she can read whatever this is?” asked Ben.
Amanda shrugged. “It seems that way.”
“It’s Chinese,” rasped Roach. He lay a thick finger on one of the handwritten note in the margins. “Beijing.” On to another. “PLA.”
Olivia leaned over to Rob next to her and whispered. “PLA?”
“People’s Liberation Army. Chinese army.”
Olivia returned her attention to Amanda just as she emptied the folder and said, “The last thing is some super technical magic thing. I have no idea what it’s saying. Miya, Olivia, this one is all on you.”
“You really can’t figure it out, genius girl?” groaned Miya. “I don’t know all magic.”
“No, I mean it’s almost all drawings. I’m guessing they’re magic streams, but that’s all I’ve got.”
Amanda passed the papers over to Miya, who grumbled wordlessly. Miya’s eyes widened. “Whoa, OK. This is… something.”
“What?” asked Rob.
“I don’t know. It’s definitely something.”
“Very descriptive,” said Ben.
“Fuck off. I’d like to see you figure this out, smart ass.” Miya sighed and grabbed the document, settling back in the corner of the couch and beginning to read.
Roach looked up from the paper covered in strange characters Olivia had never seen before. “Not about magic.”
“A weapon. A super.”
“Hang on.” Amanda disappeared down to the basement, returning a moment later with her helmet and a laptop. “I have a translator. I’ve got it set to Chinese.”
She turned on her laptop and aimed the helmet at the paper. A first person view from the helmet showed up on screen. After a moment, text in English began overlaying itself on the Chinese characters.
Before Olivia could make any observations, Amanda said, “Whoa, 1967? This is an old, classified document. How did she get this?”
“Alright, I’ll scan these and get a couple English copies for us. Quarrel, where’s your printer?”
As they got everything settled, Olivia leaned back and read everything she could on the screen. Whoever had written this paper seemed to be referring to a younger girl as a weapon. The language was cold and distant, with no name given. Where is she now?
“So she was looking into dreams and a Chinese weapon,” Quarrel summarized.
“She’s researching how to sever a soul from a body,” piped up Miya. “I think.”
“Not just a standard person. The Chinese experimented with their girl,” said Rob.
“Come at the king it’s best not to miss. She wants to be as sure as possible on Taauth,” said Ben.
“And I doubt Cuauhtemoc was ever going to subject himself to organ removal,” said Quarrel, horror creeping onto her face as she read.
“Wait, ‘was?’ Past tense?” asked Olivia.
“What? Did you not hear?” When Olivia shook her head, Ben added, “Cuauhtemoc is dead. Taauth killed him while we were fighting Ix.”
Wasn’t he supposed to be immortal? And Taauth just killed him?
“That’s some dangerous shit she’s playing with,” said Miya to herself.
“OK, OK,” said Amanda, raising her voice to be heard over everyone. “We’re jumping around. We’ll will never get anything done like this. Let’s get organized. We have a magic research paper about dreams. Olivia, Ben, you two are on that.”
She passed the first, thin document in Olivia’s direction.
“We know the Chinese have an immortal woman they’ve been using as a weapon. Quarrel, Rob, and Roach will go through everything in this Chinese stack and see how it’s relevant.”
She nodded to the laptop and helmet setup, with the thick stack of papers in front of Roach.
“Miya is on those magic schematic things. I’ll crack open Ix’s laptop. If you find something absolutely earthshaking in importance, let everyone know. If not, just note it and keep working. In two hours let’s bring it all together. Any complaints? No? Let’s get started.”