Ash – Mercy

Quarrel distributed granola bars and bottles of water. She’d taken off her mask and goggle combo now that she was in her own home and away from a potential fight. She flicked her head for the umpteenth time, trying to get a loose lock of light brown hair out of her eyes that she hadn’t pulled into her loose ponytail.

Miya caught the bar Quarrel passed to her and nodded in thanks. Don’t know her name, and it’d feel weird to call her anything else. Besides, she hasn’t volunteered it yet.

“Thank you,” said Olivia, next to receive food.

“No problem,” said Quarrel, moving on.

Miya leaned back on the stuffy brown couch and stretched her legs, munching on the granola bar. One step above dirt. Whatever, it’s free, quit bitching. Quarrel left to join Chris in the kitchen nearby, leaving Olivia, Ben, and Miya scattered around the living room.

“Not going to eat that?” Miya asked Olivia, who sat cross legged on the ground next to her.

“Um, no thanks,” murmured Olivia in response. “Doesn’t, um, doesn’t smell very good.”

“Could ask her for somethin’ else, ya know,” chipped in Ben, leaning on the wall on the opposite side of the living room beneath a small hanging cross.

“Yeah, but, um, she already gave us these. She has some stuff here, but she didn’t, you know, offer it and I don’t know is she’s busy and I don’t want to be greedy-” babbled Olivia.

“You hungry?” asked Ben, cutting her off.

“Starving,” said Olivia, the conviction in her voice catching Miya’s attention. She’s been shoveling down food lately.

“Then jus’ fuckin’ ask her,” said Ben, throwing up a hand in exasperation.

Olivia got up off the floor. She froze. “Wait. But… what should I say?”

“Just explain you need something meatier. She’s not going to shoot you down for asking for food. Don’t worry,” said Miya. Quit being so damn timid.

Olivia nodded and fled the room. Miya met Ben’s eyes. He simply grinned and returned to eating his dirt bar. She heard some stammering from the kitchen. No, too awkward. No.

“So where is Rob?” Miya asked Ben.

“Told ya already, he’s out for a walk, so far as I know,” said Ben. I don’t buy that. He’s been broody ever since he woke up, and now he’s gone?

“Really? Just a walk?”

His smile vanished. “I told ya. I don’ lie. So far as I know, he’s out for a walk.”

Miya shrugged and let the conversation drop. Fine. Whatever. He doesn’t have his armor here so he’s not much help. After a few minutes, a significantly happier Olivia came back with a toasted ham sandwich on a plate and a small smile on her face. She returned to her place on the floor, putting the plate on the coffee table before her.

“Everythin’ work out?” asked Ben.

“Yeah.” Olivia took a massive bite of the sandwich.

“They makin’ any progress in there?” he asked, jerking his head towards Chris and Quarrel in the kitchen.

Olivia thought for a moment, then shook her head. She finished her mouthful and said, “I don’t know. They were talking about different places we could go.”

Ben sighed. “Let’s see if they can talk faster,” he said, walking off to the kitchen.

“Oh, yeah, Miya. I had a question,” said Olivia.

Miya suppressed a sigh. Just ask. “Yes?”

“Is everyone OK without the masks and stuff?” asked Olivia.

Miya looked around. “Why would anyone besides Quarrel be wearing a mask right now?”

Olivia’s brow furrowed. “Well, everyone else always wears them whenever we’re doing stuff like this. But no one has cared since the Watch came to the warehouse.”

“Well yeah, they knew where we were and who we were. If they wanted to screw us, they didn’t even have to show their faces, they could have just called the cops, or plastered our faces and names all over the internet. And besides, we’re in Quarrel’s house now.”

The last part made Olivia tilt her head. “So?” Oh, OK, I see what this is now.

“No. Wearing a mask in someone else’s house is a real big no-no. A mask mean you’re there for a fight. And if they ask you to take it off and you don’t, that’s pretty close to using your power on someone without asking.”

“Oh,” said Olivia, looking down at her knees and pulling her wings in closer behind her.

“No, no. Not the wings or anything. That’s just you. Your power I would say is more hacky slashy crush crush.”

Olivia blinked. “Oh. So, is that why you don’t wear a mask then? To avoid that?”

You’re adorable. “I didn’t wear a mask because I didn’t want to hide. Because it was me that robbed that armored van or me that knocked over that gas station. Not some mask, it was me, and like hell anyone can deny it. As for the others, I don’t know. I’d be willing to bet Ben and Rob just wear those grinning masks for the fun of it. But Rob made them, so they could do something cool for all I know.”

Olivia digested that in silence. In the kitchen, Chris, Ben, and Quarrel argued over a map of the city on Quarrel’s computer. Everyone’s getting cautious. Each and every suggestion they make will be met with a ‘but what if they’re waiting for us?’ from the other.

“Are you ready?” asked Miya.

Olivia looked down. “I… I think so. They’re talking about an ambush in there right now. And… I guess we’ll be doing… stuff. I don’t know, but I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to, you know,” said Miya. Mind you, you are usually super helpful in fights, but dragging someone off to fight against their will is fucked up.

“I mean…” said Olivia trailing off. Miya sat back, waiting. “Everyone is always shooting at each other, and I don’t care. I just don’t want you guys to get hurt. Before it was just minor cuts and stuff, but now Amanda’s really hurt and I don’t want that to happen to any of you guys.”

“Yeah. That sounds about right.”

“But… I should feel bad. I killed someone. Again. And… I don’t feel that bad. I just wanted Amanda to be safe and… and…”

Shit. I’m no shrink. What the hell do I say? “Hey, I appreciate it. You shouldn’t feel bad about those hitmen. You know there’s a good chance they were there to kill Amanda.”

“I… I guess. I don’t know.”

They sat in silence, until Miya’s phone rang, Rob’s number appearing on the screen. This’ll be good. She answered.

“Hello?”

Chris?” asked Rob.

“What? No, this is Miya.”

Shit, my finger slipped. Whatever, they’re after me. Need help.

Miya jumped off the couch, Olivia following suit. I guess she heard that. “Well, where are you?” And what the hell did you do? The two of them rushed into the kitchen

Near the house, I think. I’m just fuckin’ drivin’, really. Fuck!” Miya jerked her head away from the phone as the piercing sound of shattering glass came through the line. “So yeah, help.

Shit. “Hey, guys, Rob is about to be murdered,” she said to everyone else. They all froze. “He’s in a car somewhere nearby.”

Everyone jumped into action. Olivia immediately headed for the door. Chris asked, “What weapons do we have?”

“I got a knife off of one of the hitmen,” called out Ben, following Olivia.

“Give me a minute,” called out Quarrel. She bolted through the door leading to the basement.

“We might not have a minute,” Miya called out after her. Fuck it, she’s a techie, she needs something to fight with. So do I, actually. “OK, where are you?” she asked Rob.

Uh, fuck!” She heard more sharp sounds, distorted by the phone. “Uhhh, if I press this button… yeah! There’s the GPS.” He rattled off the street he was on and the direction he was going.

“OK, I know that area. That’s not too far. Stay alive, we’re coming to get you.”

He laughed. “‘Stay alive’ she says. Yeah, no shit. The Tzontlis already carved up a couple police cruisers that tried to get involved. Hurry.” The call disconnected.

Quarrel returned from the basement, goggles and mask in place and toting two crossbows. She offered the smaller one, Miya recognized the larger one she kept close to her chest.

“Which one of you wants it?” Quarrel asked Miya and Chris.

Chris nodded to her. “Take it, my power is better suited for combat.”

Miya blinked. “I don’t-” she began as Quarrel shoved the crossbow in her hands. No larger than most other two handed guns she’d used, the crossbow had a cylinder wrapped around the central column thing. I don’t know how to use this.

“It’s semiautomatic,” explained Quarrel, leading the way outside. Ben and Olivia waited by the door. “Pull that lever back like any rifle, that’ll load the bolt. Then just point and shoot. It’s super simple. Also, the bolts will light on fire. Don’t panic about that. If you need to reload…” Quarrel stopped. “Damn it.”

Chris stopped her from turning around. “No time.” Quarrel nodded and ran out the front door to her car. “Olivia, get airborne. Follow us, but if you spot Rob don’t hesitate to help him out.”

Olivia nodded. Dust swirled as she took flight. The rest of them piled into the car.

“Where are we headed?” asked Quarrel. Miya fed her the directions as she backed out of the driveway. In half a minute they were hurtling down the mid-morning Sunday streets.

“I thought you said he went for a walk, Ben,” said Chris from the back seat next to Miya. Hey, wait a minute. Chris is right.

“Yeah, what the hell?” added Miya.

“If I were him, I’d have gone for a walk. An’ that walk woulda led me to trouble.”

“You’re saying he just waltzed into Tzonti territory and picked a fight.”

Ben shrugged. “Vigilante justice can be cathartic.”

“What, did he just murder a bunch of people?” asked Quarrel.

“Probably.” You know, I’m kind of glad I never ran into any when I was active here. I’ll take petty robberies over murder any day.

“That’s not how-” Quarrel cut off as she swerved around a very slow van. “That’s not how vigilantes operate.”

“Yeah, if you’re talkin’ the Watch. Us independents don’ got that luxury.”

“You all are vigilantes?”

“No. Jus’ me. And Rob, I guess. A little.”

Rob called Miya again. You are so fucking lucky I didn’t have this thing on mute.

“I’m here,” she said the instant she got the phone to her ear.

Where you guys at?

Miya glanced out the window, then rattled off a couple street names as they passed them.

Cool! I’m comin’ in over the rooftops.

“Wait, what?” Miya asked. Chris shot her a questioning look. “He said something about rooftops.”

“Stop! Oh my fuckin’ god,” said Ben, pointing at the sky. Quarrel slammed on the brakes, earning her a honk from the person they’d passed. Everyone crowded over to Ben’s side of the car.

Amanda’s car drifted over the houses. No fucking way. The car rotated a few degrees during its flight so that the front didn’t exactly point in the direction the car was headed. It began its descent, barely clearing the roof of the house nearest to the street. That’s not how cars work.

“Shit, out of the way,” said Ben, smacking Quarrel’s shoulder. They’d been sitting around like slack jawed idiots at the flying car, failing to notice it would plow right into them in a moment or two. Quarrel sprang to life, gunning the engine and getting her car out of the way of Rob.

Amanda’s car hit the ground. Rob corrected for the rotation that had occurred in flight, the wheels squealing as the car fishtailed for a couple yards. He hit the brakes, jerking the car to a stop. The smell of burnt rubber and the thin grey smoke coming up through bullet holes in the trunk filled the air behind him.

Rob rolled down the window and poked his head out, a massive grin on his face. “It works!” he exclaimed with a wave. Everyone stared at him. Words cannot do justice to how unexpected that was.

Quarrel pulled up next to him, rolling down her windows. “Where the hell have you been?” asked Chris.

“Fixin’ this. Was on my own, so it took a bit longer.”

“It was at the scrapyard.”

“Yeah, I went in an’ killed the fire guy an’ the big guy. Shotty, yeah.”

“You killed Shotty and Xi on your own?” asked Quarrel.

“Yep. But some other people showed up when I was almost done fixin’ this thing. Been hell ever since. Also, I’ve done this a couple times now. They’re gonna be right behind me. Can’t fuckin’ shake em, don’t know why. I blame the robots.” Not those things again.

As if on cue, two cars barreled down the wide street, both large, battered SUVs. The couple of onlookers that had gathered out of earshot near behind them turned in curiosity at the sound of their roaring engines.

“Yep, that’s them,” said Rob.

Right at that moment, Olivia landed on the engine of the lead oncoming car and tore off the roof. The car swerved and collided with a store on the side of the road, throwing Olivia off.

The other car passed the wreckage, heading unerringly for Miya and the others. “That one’s got three robots in it,” called out Rob. Three? Fuck.

“Get us out of here,” said Chris.

Quarrel burst into action, gunning the engine and driving off, tires squealing on the pavement. Rob followed right behind.

“Wait, Olivia,” shouted Miya.

“They’re ignoring her, and she’ll be in better shape than anyone who was in that car,” replied Chris.

The stoplight ahead of them began to bend, the horizontal beam wobbling. In fact, a bunch of streetlights ahead of them were also bending. What the…

“Oh shit,” muttered Quarrel.

Space seemed to warp, then in front of them appeared four cars. Armed men began piling out of them. Fuck.

Quarrel twisted the wheel, hitting the curb and driving down the sidewalk. Everyone ducked as gunfire shattered the windows. They pulled away, Rob and the robot car right behind them.

“Everyone OK?” asked Chris.

“I’m fine,” said Miya.

“Good,” added Ben.

“Same,” said Quarrel.

“How much do we owe ya for gas?” Ben asked Quarrel.

“Not the time,” she shouted back.

The streetlights began bending again, all in the same direction. Five cars appeared this time. With no apparent opening, Quarrel slammed on the brakes. Before Miya could think of a way out, Quarrel simply spun the car around and bolted down a side street.

They ducked again as the gunfire resumed. The robot SUV came within a foot of T boning Rob as they tore down the one way street. Miya chanced a look over the back seat. The white SUV was gaining on Rob. Wait, is that… it is!

Olivia descended from the sky and collided with the roof of the SUV, yanking it to the side. The upper body of a robot burst out of a window and stabbed at Olivia’s hand with a knife. She grabbed the offending robot and pulled it out of the car. Then her head jerked back. Through the window Miya could see a second robot aiming a rifle at the roof.

Olivia fell off the top of the SUV, the robot in her hands tumbling alongside her. “Shit!” screamed Miya. “Olivia!”

“What?” asked Ben.

“She just got shot in the head trying to get rid of those robots. I didn’t… I can’t see her.”

“Fuck.”

“We have to keep moving. She’s taken bullets to the head before, she’ll be fine,” said Chris.

Again, the nearby streetlights began bending.

“I know where he is,” murmured Quarrel. “I know where he is,” she repeated, louder. She slammed the brakes again and shot down another road.

“What? Who? How?”

“Samedi, their leader. He’s never used his power like this on such a large scale. But the street lights are bending in the rough direction of where he is, I just realized. I have the layout of the city memorized, I know the corner of where he is.”

How do you… techie, whatever. “You sure?” asked Miya.

“Positive.”

“We need to escape,” said Chris.

“How? This is just going to continue until we get rid of their mobility like this.”

“With what? We have two crossbows and a knife between all of us.”

“We have to do something,” Quarrel shouted back. “I’m taking us there.”

They dodged around three more imperfect blockades of cars, drawing ever nearer to where Quarrel insisted Samedi was hiding. Good thing he can apparently only make one blockade at a time, otherwise we’d be dead in a crossfire a long time ago.

At this point a couple helicopters were circling overhead, though none drew close. Hell, everyone’s probably staying indoors now. And the MHU may arrive in force soon. By the looks of the area, they were in the shantytown. A couple of the more quick witted gunmen from the last two blockades had joined the pursuing robots behind them.

“Here, just ahead.” A couple dilapidated apartments stood ahead. Men stood outside. Armed men. Quarrel stopped the car about ten yards away. Two glowing Aztec carvings began forming on the walls of the apartment. Between them stood a short, thin man, in a hoodie despite the Arizona summer heat. Is that Cynic?

The gunmen near the apartment opened fire, forcing Miya to duck. The robot’s mangled SUV screeched to a stop nearby, and two robots emerged.

“Out of the car” shouted Chris.

Miya yanked on the door handle and rolled out, crossbow in hand. She found herself between a concrete barrier separating the road and the parking lot of the apartments and Quarrel’s car. Ben teleported over to her, knife drawn.

Quarrel tumbled out of the front seat, next to Ben. Liquid Chris flowed over to join them.

“Ben!” shouted Rob from behind his car. His car was between their pursuers and them. He held up a rifle and a long, curved knife.

“Take this,” said Ben, shoving his knife at Miya. He teleported over to Rob.

“Happy birthday,” said Rob, passing Ben the gun and another knife.

“Huzzah!” he said. Looking at Miya, he shouted, “Go on, we got this.” They heard a roar, and saw Olivia flying over the rooftops towards them. Ben grinned. “Yeah, we definitely got this. Go!”

Miya scrambled towards Chris and Quarrel.

“They got another fire mage, we can’t get through,” shouted Chris as Quarrel held her crossbow over the top of the barrier, firing a couple bolts.

“He’s staying behind cover, runes are messing with my bolts,” added Quarrel.

“Fiery rocks?” I thought I recognized Cynic.

Chris nodded. Miya drew Ben’s knife and hacked at a fallen man’s finger. “What the fuck are you doing?” asked Quarrel.

“Want to know why I always use cow bones for my golems?”

“What?” Oh yeah, you’ve never seen my golems.

“Because the bones of humans are super magically volatile.”

She finally wrenched the man’s finger free of the rest of his hand. Don’t fuck this up, me. She summoned a couple simple golem streams, like the strings of a puppet, and sent them through the exposed bone. My brain just twitched. At least, that’s what it feels like.

The finger bones twisted and bubbled. I should definitely not be holding this. She tossed the finger, now warped and ballooned to over three times its original size, in the general direction of the Tzontlis. Gift for you, Cynic.

A man screamed. I’d be willing to bet that finger has grown legs and teeth. Or tentacles, that’s a magical classic. A bright flash of light. Aw, he tried to fight the magical abomination with magic. Cute. The gunfire from the base of the apartment stopped.

“Wait,” said Miya, grabbing Quarrel and Chris. Still feel brain twitching. And… there it is. Abomination dissipated. “Go,” she said, releasing them.

Chris shifted to liquid and flowed over the concrete barrier. The final two robots fired at him, their guns near silent. Miya and Quarrel jumped the barrier a moment later. One of the robots immediately disengaged from Chris and aimed at them.

Chris slammed the robot into the ground and into a small pile of ash surrounded by mauled bodies.

“Come on. He might get away,” shouted Quarrel as they rushed past the robots and Chris.

“You know he’s inside?”

“Yes, come on,” insisted Quarrel. “It’s gotta be him. We have to finish this.” Someone’s intense.

They burst into the ground floor of the apartment building, Quarrel immediately leading them to the stairwell. They ran up a flight of stairs, then past a couple rooms.

Quarrel tapped her goggles. “Come on, work. Here, this room.” She stopped in front of an old, warped door. Still looks solid.

She shot three short, stubby bolts next to the hinges of the doorframe. She sidestepped, and the bolts exploded. Miya kicked the door. It collapsed with almost no resistance. Fuck yeah. She and Quarrel rushed into the apartment, crossbows held high.

“Hello.” Samedi threw back his shot glass. “You’re here to kill me?”

“Don’t move,” said Quarrel, moving to flank him.

“Pah.” Samedi spat at her and poured himself another shot.

The glasses and bottle sat on a rickety old kitchen table in the darkened room. Other than the peeling walls and pile of milk crates in the corner, the room was entirely devoid of any furniture or decoration. Only the morning light coming in through the dirty windows illuminated the room.

“I said don’t move,” said Quarrel, advancing another step, crossbow pointing at Samedi’s face.

He looked her directly in the eye and drank his shot. “You think I care? You’ve taken out half my men. I nearly gave myself an aneurysm throwing all of them at you. They kept giving me orders on where to send them.”

“They? Who are they?” asked Miya.

“Overlord. And, more specifically, those robots who were chasing you.”

Motherfucker. “Why are you working for him?”

“Working for him? No. Not by choice. You see, Overlord has a very extensive medical program. It was no accident those robots are here, working for us.”

“I’m familiar with it,” said Miya. Quarrel shot her a glance, her crossbow not leaving Samedi’s chest.

“Hm? I recognize you,” said Samedi, his brow furrowed in confusion. His hand rested on his bottle. “Though I’m not sure from where.” Of course you don’t.

“I’ve met you once or twice. I was Don’s student. He sold me out to Overlord, they were trying to control magic.”

He nodded, a knowing smile on his face. “Ah. You too?” His shoulders shook with a mirthless chuckle. “I should have figured. I’m surprised you’re not dead.” He poured himself another shot.

“It was close.” Wait, ‘you too’?

He inclined his head and drank his shot. “Congratulations. You’re in better shape than me.”

“You said ‘you too’. Does that mean…”

“That I have the same wires and devices under my skin too, I presume? Yes, I am acutely aware of them.”

“How? You’re the leader of a group of war mages. You teleported tons of people trying to kill us. How did Overlord snag you?”

“I could ask the same of you. When were you kidnapped?”

Miya bit her lip. Should I tell him? Fuck it, we’re here to kill him anyways, won’t hurt. “Beginning of December.”

“Ah, so a couple weeks before myself. One day, I’m eating Christmas dinner, the next, I’m strapped to a hospital bed with no access to my magic.” Samedi’s face soured. “I would love to find the man who put me there. But alas, it is too late for me.”

“We found Overlord’ gold in Don’s safe.”

“Don? That son of a bitch. I don’t know about the others in the Underground. Cynic? No, he’s not very powerful. Xi? He would go along with anything, so long he could light it on fire at the end. No need for control. But I believe your friend killed him, so I suppose it’s a moot point.”

“Why are you telling us this?” demanded Quarrel. “You’ve shown so much interest in killing us all, why are you giving up?”

“You all? Bah! No, this was because the idiot muscle heads. Don was their uncle. They wanted revenge. Why not give it to them?”

“You tried to kill us. You did kill one of us,” spat Quarrel, her voice hard.

“Yes. Why would I give a shit about you? The robots didn’t care. Hell, two volunteered to go along.”

“Volunteered?” asked Miya. Robots can do that?

“That’s what it looked like. I assume they had orders. From what I’ve seen they have no real autonomy, just extensive programming.”

“Just like you,” said Quarrel.

He laughed. “Just like me? I tried to shoot myself last week. The devices paralyzed me. One of the robots came in, took the gun, and broke a rib as punishment. I pass on the orders they give me, try not to rock the boat.” He poured another shot. “I drink too much, robots come and take it away.” He smiled eagerly and drank.

He continued, “I tried to fight, tried to keep on living.” He poured and drank another shot. “And you know? It wasn’t bad. Got to live well, lorded over half the city.” He smiled. “Not now. I’m a lost cause to them now.” He tossed the shot glass aside grabbing the half full bottle and sitting down on a milk crate.

“I see… three ways this can go,” he continued, his voice slurred slightly. “I drink the rest of this bottle and die in a pool of my own vomit. You shoot me. They blow me up. Three choices.”

“You’re a good little minion to them, why would they blow you up?”

“You’re too young. You don’t remember when he was called Slave Driver. A dictator, I don’t remember his name, he used him to control people. He’s always been about control. Robots, they’re really easy to control. The word robot comes from slave. He’s always been successful, but he’s always been a control freak. How else do you explain Control?”

He knows about that fucking thing? Miya bit her lip.

“Yes, you know what I’m talking about. So no, I’m not obedient. They probably have this whole conversation recorded. My eye is not my own,” he said, tapping his left temple.

“That doesn’t answer the question. Why would they blow you up?” repeated Quarrel.

His smile grew wider. “Because they failed. Because they did not break me and they did not control me fully. Because this is proof.” He took a long swig from the bottle. “Because I’m not begging them for life. Because I may not want to die, but because this life is worse. Because I want to die on my terms, not theirs.” He looked Miya dead in the eye. “So, what’s it going to be?”

Quarrel glanced at Miya. Shit. I kind of want to help this guy. There are very few people that deserve to go onto that operating table. And he didn’t have some people to swoop in and save his ass.

“You know why I’m not dead?” asked Miya. Without waiting for a response, she said, “Because someone cut some wires that needed cutting. You know where they are now? In a coma because of that attack you commanded.”

Samedi stared at her for a moment, then burst into laughter. You don’t regret it. So neither do I. Miya fired.

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Ash – In the Eye

“… has signed the bill allowing for armed drones to patrol over US airspace after a year of debate,” droned the TV. “While unarmed surveillance drones have been in use for the last decade in the United States, this bill marks a new era in law enforcement, as missile armed drones will allow authorities to react in a timely manner to any threat to public safety.”

“Coming up, unrest in California and new developments in the Middle East. More on those stories after this short break.” The pleasant jingle of a car dealership commercial began playing.

Olivia snuggled up closer to Ben, who’d taken Miya’s place when he’d called her out of the room close to an hour ago. Chris had joined them soon after. Are those the tiny flying things that I always see really high up in the air? I remember spotting one when I flew into the city. They’d turned on the TV in Olivia’s room for lack of anything better to do.

“About time,” said Chris.

“Wha’?” said Ben.

“I said about time,” repeated Chris.

“Yeah, heard ya. Why do ya say that?”

“I was only in the police force for maybe four months, and there were a good half dozen times where we weren’t able to stop a getaway car or a super because we didn’t have the manpower to be everywhere at all times. Think of what we could have done when F.F. attacked. Triangulate and bomb.”

“I dunno ‘bout that. Collateral damage’d be pretty bad,” pointed out Ben.

“Have you seen some of those smart missiles they have?” asked Chris, eyebrow raised. “You can program one to take out one room and one room only. It’s not like they’d coat half the city in napalm or Agent Orange like it was Vietnam.” Who?

“Tha’s assumin’ they bother to program it all special like that. They could jus’ say ‘hey, fuck those guys over there’ an’ bam, explosions. An’ I guarantee they’ll fuck up at some point.” Olivia frowned. Bombing people? The police aren’t supposed to do that, right?

“But there’s so much oversight already. I had to fill out twenty forms for a couple of grenades and a few magazine’s worth of rifle ammo for just a couple patrols.”

“Yeah, but you were random new grunt number 158. If the higher ups want somethin’ to happen, it’ll happen. Ya didn’t see what happened up top when you were there.” Olivia pulled her wings in closer. Why are you guys arguing?

Chris shrugged as the news returned. The two news anchors sat behind the desk with the news station’s logo plastered on the front. An image of a screaming masked man holding a handmade sign appeared on the upper right of the screen.

The Asian man on the left began the report, “Welcome back. Protesters seized the city hall of Los Angeles last night, as well as two police stations and other municipal buildings. A similar attempt at seizing the MHU headquarters in the city was repulsed by officers there. After weeks of mostly peaceful protests against unemployment and the increase in the national security budget over healthcare and education, this move marks a radical change in their strategy. We go now to our reporter in the field, Jonathan Marshall. John?”

The TV cut to a man crouched on the floor. One hand held his mic, the other fidgeted with the shoulder of his black bulletproof vest. He looked up at the camera; Olivia noted a couple beads of sweat stuck to his forehead.

“We’re here at the site of the protest,” the reporter said, his voice loud enough to be heard over the background noise. Something exploded, drowning out whatever the reporter said next. “However, calling this a protest is an understatement. A few minutes ago, the police began their attempt to storm the building.”

Olivia’s eyes widened as she recognized the rattling of gunfire in the background. That sounds really weird through a TV. But why are they fighting? Over unemployment? Why would you try to kill someone over that?

The reporter continued, “The protesters have returned fire, and have begun preparing what appears to be a techie device.” The camera zoomed out and moved to the left a bit. Through a doorway, two people hunched over a sleek, gunmetal grey cylinder. One woman fiddled with something the camera couldn’t make out on the top; the other man rubbed his hands together.

“What the…” Chris murmured under his breath. “That’s not a homemade techie thing.”

The woman finished whatever she was doing and snapped a lid on the top of the device. The man grabbed the device and hefted it upwards. He moved out of the view of the camera. What’s he doing?

The camera shook violently, then stabilized, looking out the window in time to catch sight of the device rocket out the window and collide with the ground. It blinked out of existence, Olivia couldn’t see a trace of it. Then three massive armored vans and dozens of officers on the street floated into the air, the gentleness at odds with the ongoing gunfire all around. People around the camera and reporter cheered.

“What the hell?” said Ben, a serious look on his face. “Didn’t Roach an’ Quarrel say somethin’-”

“Shush, hang on,” interrupted Chris, his eyes glued to the TV.

The gravitational distortion grew, catching a couple more officers and a car and sending them drifting helplessly upwards. Whoa. How is that possible? The screen cut back to the newsroom.

The anchors reappeared, still smiling. What the… why are they smiling? “The National Guard has promised to restore order in the area,” said the woman on the right. Wait, what? What about the reporter? What about the fighting? What about all those people?

“Are they fuckin’… no, don’ fuckin’ move on. Fuck,” swore Ben at the TV.

“Government doesn’t like news showing civil unrest,” said Chris with a sigh. “Only when it’s in another country.”

“Really?” asked Ben.

“Yeah, sergeants told us in training to not worry about cameras, someone somewhere would take care of them.” Olivia frowned. That doesn’t seem right.

“Wait, what’s this?” said Ben, motioning to the TV.

“The entire city of Mosul has vanished,” proclaimed the Asian anchor, the creepy smile never wavering. The image above his shoulder showed a map of Iraq, with a dot labeled Mosul. “The city has been under siege from Lionhead for the last month. Lionhead has taken over Baghdad in recent weeks and seeks to expand their influence north.”

Ben grunted. I think he said his other triplet was in Iraq. Olivia leaned into him, wrapping a wing over his shoulders. He leaned away, even as a small smile flickered on the corner of his mouth. Sorry.

The news person continued, “US trained forces and Kurdish fighters had held some parts of Mosul in the last week. Now, however, US officials say that there is no trace of the city from plane or satellite imagery, and no contact can be made with people within.”

That’s awful. How are you smiling? I’ve never seen a news person not smile, no matter what they’re reporting on. And even the people in different cities. The ones in Colorado and Houston did the same. Olivia glanced to either side, at Chris and Ben. They don’t seem to notice. What? Should I ask?

“Um, Ben?” said Olivia.

“Yeah?”

“Why are the news people always smiling?”

Ben gave a small frown and turned back to the TV. “Huh, never noticed that. They’ve always done that, I guess,” he said with a shrug.

Olivia nodded, her frown deepening. I guess if it’s normal… It’s still is super weird, but whatever.

Chris glanced at her and grabbed the remote. “Alright, I can only take so much depressing news,” he said as he hit the power button. “Food?”

Food! “Yeah!” said Olivia, sitting upright. “Wait. Well, what about Miya and Rob?” she asked. “Shouldn’t we wait for them?”

“Rob’s still asleep,” said Ben. “I’d give him some time.”

“He can’t sleep forever,” said Chris.

Ben nodded. “I’ll text him. If he don’ get back to me, he’s still out.” He leaned back to pull his phone out of his pocket.

“How long do you think Miya is going to be?” asked Chris.

Ben shrugged. “Does magic take long?” he asked.

Olivia glanced at Chris, who didn’t look like he had any idea either. “I don’t know,” said Chris.

“Miya didn’t say anything about it,” added Olivia.

“Let’s give her a half hour.” OK, that sounds good. Ben nodded in agreement. “Pass me the box of donuts?” Chris asked.

Olivia passed him the box sitting on the nightstand beside her.

“Olivia?” asked Chris, shaking the few remaining donuts in the box. “How many donuts did you eat?”

“Um, four, I think? No, five.”

“Someone hungry?” asked Ben with a grin.

“A little.” I’m starving, actually. Donuts are great and all, but meat is better.

She scratched her back at the base of one of the spikes. Why are they so itchy lately? She scratched a little more, trying to get a feel for its length. That’s longer than I remember. Almost a centimeter now? Darn it. Stop.

“You OK?” asked Ben.

“What? Oh, I’m fine,” said Olivia. They’ll just think I’m weirder if they knew.

“Healin’ up OK? Looked like Shotty’d given you a beatin’ when ya flew in last night.”

Olivia paused. I feel OK, I guess. The bruises are still there, but they don’t hurt. “I’m fine. My tooth still hurts, though.” She tapped her lip under the tooth in question. It’s got a chunk missing. Hurts whenever I poke at the exposed part.

“Ask Miya ‘bout that. She regrew one of my teeth once, I bet she can patch that chipped tooth up,” said Ben.

“OK. Thank you.”

Olivia looked out through the partially opened shades of the hospital room’s window. It’s bright and warm here. I kind of like it. Miya’s been so angry looking since we got here, though. And Amanda… Olivia bit her lip. She’ll be OK. She has to be OK. They said she’d be OK.

Olivia caught Miya’s scent, breaking her train of thought. Miya knocked on the door, and Ben jumped off the bed and stood by the door frame.

“Hello?” he said.

What? “It’s Miya,” said Olivia.

At the same time Miya said, “It’s me, open up.”

Ben opened the door and stepped back to let Miya in. She immediately staggered in and collapsed on the bed behind Olivia. Olivia curled her tail out of the way as Miya sunk into the thick blanket. She’s not saying anything; what’s wrong? She smells like sweat, too.

After a silent moment, Ben asked, “So, how’d it go?”

“Dunno,” answered Miya, her voice muffled by the blanket. “We’ll see.”

“Is, um, is Amanda OK?” asked Olivia. Please say she’s OK.

“Dunno. We’ll see.” Miya sighed. “She wasn’t in pain at least.”

That doesn’t sound good. “Are you alright?” asked Olivia.

“Tired. Altering magic is hard.”

“Really?” asked Ben. “That’s kind of an underwhelmin’ thing to be so difficult.”

“That’s what I thought. Fucking hard. Wouldn’t fucking do what I told it to. What have you three been up to?”

“Watchin’ the news. Mosul vanished.”

“Wait, what? A whole city vanished?”

“That’s what the oriental gentleman said.” Silence greeted Ben’s statement.

“Is that racist?” asked Chris. What?

Ben blinked. “What? I called him a gentleman.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Miya. She got up and plopped down on the other side of Olivia, her legs dangling off the side. She’s so tiny. Olivia moved her tail out of the way again.

“How would that be racist?”

“I don’t know. The oriental part?” said Miya. “That’s like saying it’s rare for an Asian person to be a gentleman. Or woman, whatever. And where the hell did you even get the term ‘oriental gentleman’?”

Ben thought for a moment. “My dad, I think. Yeah, him. But anyways, it’s jus’ a rough physical description. Don’ see how that matters.”

“So says the white, heterosexual male,” said Miya with a smirk.

Ben tilted his head to the side. “The hell does that have to do with anythin’?”

“That means you are part of the least discriminated against group of people in the country, if not the world.”

“I’mma go ahead an’ repeat myself. The hell does that have to do with anythin’?”

“Means that you don’t see it nearly as much as anyone else,” said Miya, her voice raised.

“Hey, guys, keep it down,” said Chris.

“Kay,” said Ben.

“Fine, but this isn’t over,” said Miya. Thank you, Chris.

They settled down in silence for a moment before Miya asked, “How are you doing, Olivia?”

“I’m fine.”

“Ears aren’t giving you any trouble? No tinnitus?”

“No, that’s gotten a bit better. It’s really quiet here. There’s no music or anything.”

“Wouldn’t you hear basically any music in the area?” asked Chris.

“Yes. Um, I think so.”

“No thanks,” said Ben. “Most music is terrible.” It’s not the worst thing in the world.

“So says you,” said Miya.

“Most music isn’t bad,” said Olivia. Except the loud, violent songs. Those aren’t fun to listen to.

“What kinda music do ya like? Amanda had me an’ Chris rig that MP3 thingy they gave ya. Had a pretty good selection if I recall.”

“Well, um, there were a couple songs that sounded kind of similar that I liked. Um, they had… drums? And singing. Yeah.”

Ben and Miya burst into laughter. What? What’d I do?

“Drums and singing,” Chris repeated with a straight face. Olivia nodded, unsure of what else to say. “Would you care to elaborate?” asked Chris.

“Um, it sounded happy. It wasn’t too loud.”

“OK, what genre?”

“What?”

“What genre?” repeated Chris.

I heard you, I don’t know what you’re talking about. “Um… happy?”

“You fuckin’ with us, Little Bird?” asked Ben.

“What are you guys talking about?” asked Olivia. What music genres are there? Genre means type, right?

“OK, there’s different types of music. Rock is a pretty broad one, but there’s also country, rap, pop, and so on. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“I think so.”

“So what genre of music did you like?”

I don’t know what it’s called! “I don’t know. It was mostly drums, it wasn’t loud, there was singing, but I didn’t really pay attention to the words.”

“Drums… drums. Hang on,” said Chris as he pulled out his phone.

“I… I don’t know what that could be. Do you?” Miya asked Ben.

“I’m thinkin’,” he said. Why is everyone so curious about this?

“Alright, I have something. This?” asked Chris as he held up his phone. He hit the play button. The music began playing over the phone’s speakers, not quite as well as they had with the headphones Olivia had been given in her cell.

“Oh, this!” Olivia smiled. She tapped the claw of her toe against the ground with the beat.

“Reggae? Really?” asked Ben.

“Yeah!” She stopped tapping when she realized everyone was staring at her. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just wasn’t expecting that. At all. Very mellow of you,” said Miya with a laugh. So why is everyone still looking at me? Olivia shrank back a bit.

“So that’s it, just reggae?” asked Ben, a wide grin on his face.

“No. There were some others that, um, that sounded different.”

“How about this song? It’s on the radio all the time lately,” said Miya, tapping a button on her phone.

Olivia recognized it immediately. “Oh my gosh! This song!”

“Oh yeah, this,” said Ben. “It’s by what’s her face. King or somethin’?”

“Lorde,” said Miya, reading from her phone. “You know you can listen to songs on your phone if you have a listener thingy, right? Can listen to anything you want, really.”

Oh, that sounds so cool! “You can?”

“Yeah, do you have your phone with you?”

***

Olivia glided over the rooftops through the night air, keeping out of view of the ground. Quarrel had pointed them towards a good and cheap hotel near the hospital. They’d managed to get a room near the roof for Olivia. I could have just landed on one of those patio things. They didn’t have to go through the trouble. At least, I think that would have been trouble. I don’t know.

The emergency wing of the hospital loomed before her, a white, six story building. She angled herself upwards and flapped her wings to gain altitude. It’ll take the others a little while for Quarrel to drive them here. I can fly around a little. Yay!

She kept going up, well past the roof of the hospital. I wonder how fast I can stop without hurting myself. I don’t want to re-chip that tooth or something if I mess up. Miya would be mad. It took the others about ten more minutes before they waved up at the sky to signal her. She landed about ten feet away to avoid accidentally smacking someone with a wing.

Rob and Miya sat on a dormant air conditioning unit. The others, including Roach and Quarrel, stood in a semicircle, backs to the door. Quarrel didn’t bother with a mask, but Olivia and the others didn’t recognize her anyways. Olivia stood behind Ben, keeping an eye on Rob. He hasn’t said a word since we woke him up.

“Alright, we need to figure out what to do,” began Chris. “We,” he motioned to Olivia and the rest, “have nothing but the clothes on our backs right now.”

“Your cars will be long gone. They probably took everything from that warehouse and moved on. They didn’t really have an interest in that area before,” explained Quarrel.

“So what are we doin’? What are you doin’? There’s two of ya now in the Watch here,” said Ben.

“Regroup?” rasped Roach. “Strike back?”

“Honestly, we were right about to leave when you people came calling,” said Chris.

“How can you leave now? I don’t think your friend can be moved for a while,” said Quarrel.

“Not our fight. One of ours is already hurt,” said Chris. Olivia frowned.

“Tzontlis made it our fight,” said Ben. “They’re gunnin’ for us, remember?”

“Yeah, you killed a member of the Underground, and the uncle of the gang leaders,” said Quarrel.

“Are those the same groups of people, or separate?” asked Chris.

“Both. Work together,” said Roach.

“The Underground’s leader, Samedi, is kind of a jackass,” said Miya.

“Yes,” agreed Quarrel “But a neutral jackass. He was never this aggressive. Then, in about January, they suddenly swooped down on a bunch of different street gangs. Forced them in line, or slaughtered them,” explained Quarrel. “Tzontlis are just dumb muscle, for the most part.”

“I thought they were jus’ a magic club,” said Ben.

“You’re not all that familiar with Aztecs and magic, are you?” said Miya. “It’s all based on war and killing. The Underground here is less of a club and more of a militia. If you have magic, you use it to fight. These mages aren’t with the usual universities and covens. Hell, some cults south of the border purposely infect their members with really bad strains of wildfyre.” Roach nodded in agreement with Miya.

Olivia blinked. I’ve heard that word. I think Dr. Ruskov said something about that being a disease I could get. “Wait,” she said. “What…” she trailed off. Is this a dumb question? Now Quarrel and Roach are looking at me. I think it is. Um… say something.

“You don’t know what wildfyre is? That’s like saying you don’t know what the black plague is,” said Quarrel.

“The… the what?” I mean, I can guess that a plague is bad, and black also means bad, but I don’t really know what it is.

“Wildfyre is a disease native to the Americas,” said Miya. “I think it wiped out about… ninety percent of the mage population in the rest of the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, everywhere. It’s a bit like the flu, if the flu overloaded your metabolism and burned you out.”

“Crippled the European mage guilds, right?” said Chris. “That’s why the tribes and reservations have some of the best mage universities in the country. Their mages weren’t all killed off at once, since they were able to fight the common European diseases better than the Europeans could fight wildfyre.” I thought Miya was the one who knew all about magic.

“Yeah. And you need a teacher for magic, a lot can’t just be learned out of a book. And… how did you know all that?” said Miya.

“Learn something every day,” murmured Quarrel under her breath.

Chris’s brow furrowed. “I thought I said this. I took a couple history of metahumans classes as MHU electives.”

“Ew, history,” said Ben with a fake grimace masking a grin.

Chris shrugged. “Each to their own. I like history. There’s actually some theories about wildfyre and the Haboob.”

“The who?” asked Olivia. Did he just say boob?

“Heh, he said boob,” said Ben with a snicker. Miya smacked him upside the head.

Chris rolled his eyes at Ben. “To answer your question, Olivia, a haboob is the Arabic word for a really bad sandstorm. The Haboob is a man who occasionally shows up throughout history and destroys everything. He was last seen sometime around 1920 and leveled a quarter of Istanbul singlehandedly. And-”

“OK, OK, OK, enough, back on track,” said Miya, cutting Chris off. “As for why a cult would purposely infect themselves; if you survive wildfyre, it usually leaves you either a lot stronger or a lot weaker. Usually that last one. Anyways, back to the topic of what we’re supposed to do.”

“I think we were talkin’ ‘bout the gang fellas,” said Ben.

“Yes, right,” said Quarrel. “They attacked MHU headquarters and killed five officers a month ago, and since then the cops have been very cautious with them. We were thinking, if we cut out the mages, they rest will be easy pickings for the police.”

“Cops ain’t done that?” asked Ben. Something on the wind caught Olivia’s attention. What was that? She looked out over the roof, not seeing anything out of the ordinary. Hrm.

“Nope. Well, yes. When they tried that, it went south, fast. We think someone important is being paid off.”

“Dumb,” added Roach.

“Yes, they went in with a convoy, guns blazing. They didn’t meet any resistance, just snipers and bombs on the side of the road.”

“Note to self, don’ do that,” said Ben. Why are you trying to make a joke about that?

“We have no idea where the Underground could be. The only known location we’ve staked out for a month. They stopped using it a while ago. We also have no idea why they started all this in the first place. ‘Because they could’ isn’t a good reason.”

“Which place are you talking about?” asked Miya.

“The gas station on the corner of 7th and Osborn,” replied Quarrel.

“Not the big-ass abandoned movie theater in downtown? Or the backlot between the old grocery store and the closed furniture shop? That’s where they usually met when I was with them.”

Quarrel stared at her. “What?”

“You didn’t know that?” asked Miya. Roach’s phone rang. He mouthed sorry and withdrew, pulling out his phone in the process. Olivia studiously avoided listening in on his conversation. Eavesdropping is rude; don’t be rude.

“No. No we didn’t. How did you know that?”

“I was Don’s student for a while.”

“I thought you killed Don.”

“I did.”

Roach tapped Quarrel on the shoulder. “Preacher’s body,” rasped Roach, his face impassive.

“Oh,” said Quarrel, starting towards the door. She paused and looked over her shoulder at the others.

“It’s fine. We’ll go get food in the meantime,” said Chris.

Quarrel and Roach nodded gratefully and Olivia sniffed. Oil. Well, it smells bitter, but also kind of like that oil Rob uses sometimes. Very faint. She followed Roach and Quarrel into the hospital.

“Olivia, what are you-” said Ben.

“Oil,” Olivia murmured in response. Robot oil.

“Oh shit,” said Miya. “Robots,” she told the others.

“No,” said Olivia, stopping at the top of the stairs. Roach and Quarrel had paused a flight below. “Not that strong.” What are they here for?

“OK, someone who’s spent time around the robots. What are they here for?”

“Your friend,” rasped Roach. Amanda! He vaulted a railing and fell a flight of stairs. Quarrel followed.

“Miya and Rob, head for Amanda’s room. Ben, you and me try and find these guys. Olivia, stay here.” Olivia marched down the stairs.  I smell them, but the air vents are messing it all up. Where are they? Ben teleported past her.

“Olivia!” repeated Chris. Rob and Miya managed to rush past her on their way to the fourth floor.

Olivia sniffed the air again. They’re still lower. She leapt down to the bottom floor five steps at a time. Stay away from Amanda. Chris and Ben used their powers to keep up.

She ripped the door leading to the rest of the hospital off its hinges. There. Three people who’d been hurrying towards the stairs stopped at Olivia’s entrance.

A buzzing noise filled the air. The man in the center threw a knife as the man and woman on either side drew their guns. The steel knife hit Olivia in the shoulder. It bounced off, drawing a little blood.

The two flanking people fired at her as they backed up. She snarled and charged. The man threw another knife. Olivia ducked her head so that it bounced off her forehead instead of hitting her eye. The man on the right turned and ran.

The center man drew a machete from beneath his coat and ducked under Olivia’s swipe as she came within range. He delivered a shallow cut to her ribs and rolled out of the way of her follow up swipe.

She swung her tail to the side, catching the man in the hip. The blow slammed him into the wall of the corridor. Before he could recover, her uppercut tore through his ribcage. Done for now. Other two?

Chris, in liquid form, slammed the woman’s head into the ground. Not a threat. Ben had teleported past them, and wrestled with the last man for a gun. You. She shouldered her way past Chris and stomped the last couple steps to Ben and the other.

Olivia grabbed the man by the neck with one hand and hauled him off his feet. Chris grabbed Olivia’s arm. He said something as he raised a placating hand. Ben walked up to the man and said something else. Why are you talking? He was here to hurt Amanda. The man in her hand nodded vigorously.

Chris released his grip on Olivia’s arm. She crushed the man’s neck and slammed his body into the floor. Stay away from Amanda. Chris and Ben both backed up a couple steps, both yelling something. Olivia hissed, watching the unmoving body. Stay down. Things keep moving when they should be dead. The man’s body continued to be dead; she couldn’t hear any breath or heartbeat. Finally.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

 

Ash – Keep Away

The roof behind Ben exploded. He tore his attention from the peeling wall before him to twist around, catching sight of two metallic figures jumping down the new hole in the ceiling. Aw hell. The barrels of the rifles they held flashed, though Ben saw no sign of recoil. Roach’s head jerked back. Amanda collapsed.

“Shit!” Ben yelled, alerting Rob and Preacher, who still watched the wall.

Preacher flipped the table towards the gap in the wall as the figures from the roof hit the floor. Quarrel shot one of the figures in the chest, the bolt simply bouncing off the metal chest plate. Metal plates encased the lithe figure, with plenty of joints and seams to allow for a whole range of motion.

“Robot!” yelled Miya from across the confusing mill of people. A gunshot rang out.

Olivia hissed and grabbed one of them; Chris shifted to liquid form and barreled towards the other. The one closest to Ben jumped out of Chris’s way,  far faster than even its small stature would have suggested. Ben drew one of the two knives in his belt.

Chris, still liquid, squared off against the nearest robot. It backed up a couple steps and aimed at Ben. Nope. Ben teleported to his left as Chris moved to cut the robot off on the right. Just before Ben teleported again, fire burst in from the ruined wall.

Ben teleported, taking himself out of the worst of the flames. However, his sleeve had caught fire. He clamped down on the urge to flail in panic and swatted the flames down while keeping moving with another teleport. Hot, hot, fire hot. Movement in his peripherals caught his attention. Ben turned, and the robot aimed at him. Enough of that.

He teleported to the robot’s right. As the robot swiveled, tracking him, he jabbed his knife into its stomach with a laugh. Surprise! The knife tip barely brushed the joint he aimed for before the robot bashed his hand away with the butt of its rifle. The knife clattered to the ground. Ben ducked as the robot aimed back at him.

Without time to draw his second knife, and the garrote in his pocket worthless against an opponent without a nice soft windpipe, Ben instead closed the gap between him and the robot.The instant he passed the end of the barrel, the rifle would only be good as a bludgeon. He grabbed the barrel of the rifle and the robot’s trigger hand, pushing up.

The robot’s shot went up, well away from Ben. The robot pushed back, nearly knocking Ben off his feet. His hand, his three fingered hand, slipped. The robot’s free hand released the rifle and struck him in the ribs. Ben saw stars. The next blow fell and Ben blacked out.

***

Ben regained consciousness, his head pounding. Someone was screaming. Something burning crackled. Something was buzzing. He suppressed a groan of pain and forced himself up to see just how bad things were.

Preacher lay dead beneath a door, a beam of wood jutting from his still chest. The robot and the unseen mage beyond the wall who controlled the flames tormented Chris with bullets and fireballs in the center of the room. Chris tried to keep to the center of the room for more options to maneuver, but the projectiles inched him ever closer to the corner of the warehouse.

On the other side of the warehouse, an absolutely enormous man closed in on Quarrel. Miya and Olivia had their hands full with the second robot. People popped up from behind the torn wall and shot indiscriminately into the warehouse. Oh, well this sucks.

The closest robot started sobbing, even as it fired a couple more shots into liquid Chris. He flowed out of the way of a fireball, and the robot turned its back on Ben to track him. Enough of that.

Ben drew his switchblade from his boot, ran a couple steps, then teleported to the robot’s back. The robot twisted around. He stabbed down into a kink in the armor of the robot’s neck. Its head twitched. He withdrew the knife and wrapped his other arm around its neck, stepping back to keep behind the robot and pull it off balance.

The robot let out a desperate scream and dropped its rifle. Its metal hands struggled to find purchase on his arm as he pulled it off its feet. You like knives? He shoved the knife into the joint in the stomach area he’d aimed for before. One of its hands withdrew from his arm and elbowed his hand. The knife stuck in the robot broke from the hilt as its elbow collided.

Damn it. Ben pulled it a couple more paces away from its discarded rifle. The robot twisted. Ben moved with it, keeping his grip. Its other hand quit grabbing at his arm. Uh oh. Ben threw the robot to the side and released it. It slammed face first into the ground. Ben caught sight of a knife in one of its hands. No fair.

The robot pushed itself up and on its feet faster than Ben ever could. Something roared in the background. Right as the robot advanced, Ben turned and teleported away. I ain’t sticking around to get stabbed. Someone across the warehouse roared. Then Ben glimpsed a bright flash of orange light.

He teleported again, and a fireball hurtled through the the air where he’d just been standing. The fireball careened into the far wall, leaving it warped and melted.

Someone shot at Ben. He teleported again without thinking, and barely dodged a swing of the robot’s knife. Then liquid Chris grabbed the robot from behind, lifted it into the air, and slammed it headfirst into the ground .

Ben blinked. I just watched a ball of goo suplex a robot. These are glorious times we live in! Chris shifted back to human and tackled Ben to the ground. A couple fireballs flew overhead.

“We need to leave,” yelled Chris as he climbed off of Ben.

“Yep,” Ben shouted back.

The gunmen seemed focused on Olivia instead of Ben and Chris. The fire guy, however, lobbed another fireball. Chris jumped out of the way and Ben rolled on the floor. How do you have so much magic juice still?

Quarrel joined them. “Roach and the others are gone,” she called to them, shooting off a long bolt into the arm of the robot. The bolt pinned it to the ground. The robot pulled at the bolt, metal creaking in protest. A small pool of brown oil formed on the concrete floor.

“Door,” yelled Chris, pointing at the ruined door.

They ran. “Preacher,” said Quarrel as they passed his body. She stopped.

Ben grabbed her and pushed her forward. “Not worth it.” A fireball hit the wall a bare foot behind him. “Move!” Fire hot.

She hesitated for a second, then obeyed. Chris shifted to liquid, then burst through the ruined door to the outside. Gunfire. Good man. Take those bullets. Quarrel went next, growling something angry at the gunmen outside. My turn.

Ben ducked through the door in case anyone still happened to be aiming at it. Chris had everyone fairly occupied, tossing a couple men aside like rag dolls. Quarrel shot the gunmen he didn’t have wrapped up. One man about two feet from Ben held one hand to the bolt in the leg, the other hand scrambling for a dropped handgun.

Ben kicked him where the bolt stuck out. The man screamed and collapsed. I bet that hurt. Ben grabbed his handgun off the ground. He looked around and spotted a small group of gunmen, five strong. Oh, hi guys. Hope this works. He froze time.

One.

Ben broke into a sprint through the colorless world.

Two.

He ducked under a bolt, frozen in midair, and kept moving.

Three.

Still sprinting. His eye twitched. He shoved a hand in his pocket for his garrote, little more than a length of fishing wire strung between two bits of dense foam to keep his hands relatively intact.

Four.

His head pounded.

Five.

Blood roared in his ears. He reached the men. The two in front aimed at Quarrel.

Six.

Make it stop. He squeezed between the front two.

Seven.

Fuck this. He wrapped one end of his garrote around the index finger and pinkie of his maimed hand and let time resume.

Before the gunmen could react, he shot the two aiming men and a third. Another swung his rifle towards Ben. He batted the rifle out of the way with his left hand, then shot two bullets into his chest. The gun clicked impotently the third time Ben pulled the trigger. Something slammed into his shoulder.

Ben jumped back. The fifth man swung his gun like a club. Ben backed up a pace and dropped the now useless handgun. The man froze in indecision. Ben faked a jump to the man’s right, then teleported to his left. Ben smiled. The man fell for the fake, turning his back to Ben. He wrapped his garrote around the man’s neck. His full hand caught the other end. Ben pulled and the man went down gurgling as the garrote bit deep into his throat. Easy day.

Quarrel shot another gunman, unaware of what had transpired behind her. Chris finished the final two men in his grasp and reverted to human form.

“Come on,” Chris urged. No one else appeared to try to kill them. And the annoying buzzing had stopped as well.

Way is clear. Fuck yeah. That’s everyone, right? Hold up. “Wait, wait!” Ben called to Quarrel and Chris. They hesitated. “Olivia,” Ben reminded them.

From within the warehouse, Ben heard Olivia roar. Then she was thrown through the wall. She came to a rest a teleport away from Ben. She did not move. Fuck. About to have company, too. Ben teleported to Olivia. She raised her head.

OK, movement is good. Olivia snarled as he approached. Damn it. He took a cautious step closer. She hissed and slammed a hand down towards his foot. He jumped back a couple inches. How the fuck did we forget you back there?

“Come on, it’s me. Get up, we gotta go.” He crouched down to get to eye level with her. She continued hissing, watching him beneath a black eye. She struggled up onto hands and knees.

“Olivia!” he repeated. “You remember me. You remember me, right?” He glanced up. The robot climbed through the hole Olivia had made. The massive man strode through the doorway, his shoulder shattering the remainder of the frame. Shotty?

“Ben, Olivia!” shouted Chris. He charged towards them and shifted to liquid. Quarrel stood between the empty streets and the enemy infested warehouse.

Olivia hissed again, even as Chris passed her and collided with Shotty.

“Olivia,” Ben shouted at her, leaning forward. “You are Olivia, remember? I am Ben. Come on, you know me.”

The hissing trailed off. Olivia hesitated. The robot jumped down from the wall, and three more bolts immediately struck it. In the meantime, Shotty waved at Chris like an annoying fly.

“Come on, Olivia, we gotta get out of here.” Ben extended his hand to her. Please don’t take more fingers. After a moment, she took it.

He pulled her to her feet. “Come on,” he said. Fuck, she’s heavy. She took a step and stumbled. He guided her away, her leaning heavily on him. OK, I can’t carry you. “Olivia, can you fly?”

She nodded. “Sorry,” she murmured. Sorry for what?

“Get out of here, we’ll meet up later. Go,” he said, letting her take her own weight.

“But-” she began.

“GO!” he repeated. He slapped her on the back for encouragement.

She jumped into the air and spread her wings. She kept climbing, even as men flowed from either corner of the warehouse and opened fire on her. Ben soon lost sight of her in the night sky.

“Quarrel, Chris, outta here,” Ben shouted over the sounds of fighting. Quarrel began to back up, but Chris stayed stuck to Shotty, who growled in frustration and continued to try to pull Chris off of him. “Chris!” repeated Ben.

Chris oozed off of Shotty, though he kept most everyone’s attention.

“What is he…” said Quarrel.

“Distraction. Run,” said Ben. Don’t think much can hurt him, besides the fire guy. The two of them ran off down the street.

“Our cars… this way. I drove,” said Quarrel between breaths.

They rounded a corner, passing another boarded up warehouse. Distribution center? Dunno. Ben heard a slithering behind them. Chris, still a liquid, caught up with them. He shifted to human, then promptly collapsed. Ben skidded to a stop, Quarrel following suit a moment later. Uhhh…

Chris lay in the street, unmoving. Not even breathing. The hell? Ben teleported to him and checked his pulse. Nothing. Right as Ben began to worry, Chris drew in a long gasping breath.

Chris groaned and began to get up.

“What the hell is wrong with him?” asked Quarrel, behind Ben.

“Power… kind of die every time I use it,” answered Chris as he struggled to his feet. “I’m good, can’t use my power much more though.”

Rapid metallic footsteps caught Ben’s attention. The robot sprinted after them down the street, closing the distance. Ben smiled. “Go,” he said to the others.

They ran, Chris managing to keep pace with Quarrel. Ben waved to the approaching robot. Its head hung to the side, swaying slightly as it closed in. You wanna play? Ben let out a low laugh, raised his leg, and teleported. His kick caught the robot in the chest.

Ben chuckled as the robot staggered. He stopped laughing when the robot pulled its knife back out and slashed. Nope. He teleported past the robot. Ben felt a grin form on his face once again. I can play the keep away game too. Another teleport put him further down the street. The robot gave chase. Speedy motherfucker.

Ben teleported again. He reached a chain link fence topped with razor wire. He teleported along the fence twice more. The robot stopped. Eh? The robot considered him for a moment, then ran in pursuit of Chris and Quarrel, ignoring Ben completely. I’ll have none of that.

Ben ran and teleported off. Right as he got in range, he lunged. The robot turned. Ben teleported. The robot grabbed him and slammed him to the ground.

He lay stunned for a moment. The robot walked up to him and struck. Bad.

Ben raised his arms, taking the brunt of the blow with them. The knife cut between his forearms. He rolled out of the way of a kick. The pavement cracked where the robot’s foot slammed down. He tried to jump to his feet, but a kick to the stomach sent him down again.

An engine roared, and a car sent the robot flying. Bwah? Chris opened the back door. “In, get in!” No complaints here.

Ben staggered to his feet and climbed into the car. “Go!” he yelled the instant his feet left the ground.

Quarrel hit the gas and sped away. The robot simply stood there, until she rounded a corner and Ben lost sight of it. Oh thank god. He sighed and leaned his head back with a smile. I’m going to be feeling this city for the next month.

“Know anythin’ ‘bout the others?” he asked after a minute, after regaining his breath.

“Roach got them to a hospital,” replied Chris.

“He’s friends with a couple of important people there,” explained Quarrel.

“That where we’re headed,” said Chris. They drove in silence for another minute.

“Preacher’s dead, ya know,” said Ben.

“I know,” snapped Quarrel. She took a breath. “Nothing I can do about that right now,” she continued in a more level tone. Well, I suppose that’s as healthy an attitude as one can have about that.

“Hospital people OK with us?” asked Chris, steering the conversation elsewhere.

“Yes. They’re good, and discrete. We should have a waiting room to ourselves,” replied Quarrel.

“Amanda alive?” asked Ben.

“Hopefully,” answered Chris. Ben closed his eyes. Fuck.

***

They walked into the waiting room of the hospital. The nurse who’d escorted them from the main office left them. Inside were Miya, Roach, and Rob.

Quarrel joined Roach, the two of them stood off to the side. Ben took the seat next to Rob. “How’s Amanda doin’? Do ya know?” he asked.

“They rushed her off to surgery the moment we got in,” replied Rob.

Miya hung her head. “Haven’t told us anything else,” she murmured.

“Did they say anything else?” asked Chris.

“Nope,” replied Rob, his face stony.

“She was struggling to breathe when we brought her in. I did what I could. I don’t… I don’t know,” said Miya, her voice cracking.

“Gotta wait,” said Rob.

Ben nodded. I’m not a surgeon.

“Wait, what about Olivia? She can’t come in here,” asked Ben. I ain’t forgetting her again, either.

Chris sighed. “I don’t know. Do you think she could have followed us?”

“She could. I hope.”

“Roof access then?”

Ben nodded. “Sure.” He walked off, looking for a staircase.

On the roof of the hospital, he looked around. Nothing. Fuck. Wait, cell phones are a thing. If hers is still intact. He texted her the name of the hospital. After a minute, he got a reply. Oh, cool, she’s still alive, and so is her phone.

Olivia landed hard on a clear strip of roof. She stumbled, then turned to Ben.

“Whoa, you OK?” he asked. Never seen her land that sloppy.

“Um, Amanda, is she… you know…” began Olivia, her words slurred.

“We’ll find out after surgery.” Olivia’s eyes widened. He blocked her from the door. “Nothin’ we can do, it’s up to God an’ the docs now.”

“But-”

“Nothin’ we can do.”

Olivia collapsed next to an AC. She yawned wide. Is that a chipped tooth of hers I see? Ben squinted. Yep. “Sorry,” mumbled Olivia. “Tired.”

Ben looked around for cameras. I think this place is safe enough. “You fine with here?” he asked.

No reply. She sat with her head hanging, back to the AC. Is she… she is asleep. Good conversation. Now what? Maybe we can get her into a hospital room. Dunno. After a second check of the roof, he returned to the inside.

Ben walked back into the waiting room. Roach and Quarrel had rejoined the rest of them. Why do they care? “Olivia’s passed out on the roof.”

“You just left her there?” asked Miya.

“Dunno what else to do.” Too tired to think anymore. “Oh yeah, she had a chipped tooth. You may want to check it out.”

Miya sighed and pulled herself out of her chair. “I’ll take a look at her.”

Ben collapsed in her newly vacated chair.

“Would it be possible for her to have an unoccupied room?” Chris asked Quarrel and Roach.

Quarrel looked at Roach, who shrugged. “Maybe. I’ll check,” he rasped, getting up in search of some hospital staff.

The room fell into silence once he left. We’re a woman down. Don’t know what the Watch is going to do. We sure as hell aren’t just leaving her here, so we’ve stuck here for however long it’ll take her to patch her up. If they can patch her up. Nah, don’t think like that. She’ll get through, if only so I don’t have the last laugh. Don’t know what to do now.

Ben broke the silence. “Now what?”

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Ash – Silence

What’s this about oil again? “Olivia, what is it?” asked Miya.

Olivia’s face scrunched up in concentration. “I’m trying to hear something,” she answered, her voice distant. She never tells us what she hears and smells. Something going on?

Meanwhile, the conversation had picked back up again after Amanda’s recognition of the Overlord robot. “Guys, shut up, shut up” shushed Miya.

They looked at her oddly, though everyone besides the Watch quieted down immediately. “Is something wrong?” asked Preacher.

Miya motioned to Olivia. “She hears something,” she whispered.

Preacher nodded and kept quiet.

After a silent moment, Olivia murmured, “People outside, all around.” Shit. Miya grabbed her pistol and saw Quarrel heft her bulky crossbow. Everyone turned to face the two doors to the warehouse.

“Someone, no, two people on the roof,” continued Olivia. “Smell like oil.” A couple people, Miya included, turned their attention to the ceiling. Up?

At that moment, a portion of the ceiling exploded. Two dark figures rappelled from the brand new hole, aiming rifles on the way down. It took Miya a moment to realize they were firing, the muzzle flashes the only indication that bullets were coming out of the barrels. Roach took two bullets to the head. Amanda dropped. To Miya’s left, the back wall began to peel away like tin foil.

“Shit,” yelled Ben.

Miya backed away as the figures hit the floor feet first. Fuck, what? Quarrel’s shot plinked off the chestplate of one of the figures.

Miya raised her pistol. One of the roof figures snapped towards her and raised his rifle. Miya met his eyes. Except he didn’t have human eyes. Instead, his metal face was locked in a perpetual scream.

“Robot!” Miya yelled in warning as she threw herself to the side and fired.

Olivia roared and grabbed the robot that Miya shot at and threw it to the ground right as its rifle tracked Miya. The robot took Olivia’s throw in stride, twisting its rifle around and firing a burst point blank into Olivia’s face with unerring aim. Olivia growled and staggered back, holding up a hand to ward off any more bullets.

The robot rolled to its feet and backed away, still aiming at Olivia. Miya climbed back to her feet, pistol in hand.

Before she could shoot the robot, the wall behind Olivia and the robot stopped peeling and a cone of fire burst into the warehouse. Someone had flipped the table they’d been using previously towards the wall, and people, Miya had no time to recognize them, ducked behind it as the flames washed over them. Miya threw herself to the ground again. The mass of fire above her sucked her breath out.

Miya patted down her hair. Not on fire. Move. She climbed to her feet once more, this time to the deafening sound of gunfire from all around. In front of her, Olivia and the robot had paid the flames no mind. Olivia rushed forward and rammed into the robot with her shoulder. It’s rifle took the brunt of the blow, bending down the middle. The robot staggered back a few paces before righting itself.

Miya took aim. Right as her finger touched the trigger, Olivia closed the gap between her and the robot. Damn it.

The robot dropped its useless rifle, ducked under Olivia’s follow up swipe, and rolled behind her. Before Olivia could turn, the robot pinned her tail to the ground with a dark knife it had produced from a slot in its wrist. Olivia hissed and tore her tail free as she whirled around to face the robot again. The knife, now twisted and useless, clattered away.

Miya fired at the robot. Most of her shots went wide, but two made contact. The robot ignored the two new holes in its leg, simply shifting its weight to the undamaged one. Miya’s pistol clicked as she pulled the trigger a final time.

“GO! We need to leave,” shouted Preacher as he retreated to the front door, Quarrel a ways behind him, crossbow aimed at the torn wall. How?

Miya took a split second to assess the rest of the situation. She, Olivia, and their robot had drifted about fifteen feet away from the others. Rob crouched over Amanda’s prone form; blood tricked from beneath her on the concrete floor. Roach had rolled over to his side, a hand pressed to his head. Beyond them, Ben lay unconscious near where Chris rapidly shifted between liquid and human forms as he fended off the second robot, fireballs raining down all the while.

Right as Preacher grabbed the door handle, the door itself exploded backwards, taking him with it. Oh god. Oh god he’s dead. A massive man bulled through the wreckage of the door with a laugh, toting a gun about as large as Miya. Shotty? Quarrel shot three bolts into him as she backpedaled. The man rumbled with laughter and took aim as a buzzing noise filled the air. No way out.

Miya backed away from Shotty, though his attention remained on Quarrel. Her crossbow shot five more bolts into him in quick succession with a high pitched squeak. A roar from Olivia caught Miya’s attention. Right, shouldn’t just be standing here. She reached for her pocket, where she normally kept a spare magazine. Nothing. Shit. She dropped her pistol.

Olivia collided with the robot as Miya rushed towards them. The robot went flying, but managed to tumble and roll to its feet.

Just as Olivia charged again, the robot let out a piercing scream of pain. “WAIT! No, please don’t. Please don’t. NO.” The screams dissolved into ragged sobbing. Fuckfuckfuck what the fuck is that?

Olivia hesitated for a fraction of a second, just long enough for the robot to slash at her face with another knife. Damn it. Magic’s no good against that thing. Miya noted the holes in the robot’s leg as it dodged and twisted around Olivia’s blows, leaving another cut on her upper arm. That thing is too fast. Idea.

From across the room, beneath the incessant buzzing and gunfire, Miya could hear the other robot sound like a woman begging for her life. Miya lunged for the robot engaged with Olivia, aiming a low tackle at the back of the knee of its damaged leg. The robot screamed again and leaped out of the way of Miya’s tackle. She only managed to deal a glancing blow to the leg. A jolt of pain shot through her shoulder. Olivia, however, caught the robot’s extended arm as the robot leapt and ripped it off.

Something exploded behind Miya. The robot shifted to a more defensive stance as Olivia followed through. However, when the robot tried to sidestep again, its leg seized up, and Olivia’s hand went through its chest plate. A large amount of wiring and electronics came free. The robot spasmed and collapsed in a heap, the screaming going silent. Oh thank god. Then Olivia flinched as people started shooting her. God damn it.

Miya scrambled on her hands and knees towards where the peeling had stopped at the wall. I don’t have a gun. I don’t have a knife. I can grab someone and kill them, but that’s assuming they have exposed skin. Roach pushed the remains of the table between Amanda and the shooting people, blocking Miya’s view of her and Rob.

Deep laughter caught Miya’s attention. Shotty cornered Quarrel, even as she loaded a heavy bolt. The laughter caught Olivia’s attention, who’d been caught between charging the gunmen or retreating from their gunfire. Shotty still laughed despite the bolt sticking out of his eye. Finally, he lunged and knocked the crossbow out of her hands.

Quarrel kicked Shotty in the stomach as he raised her by her throat. His massive shotgun thing lay ruined on the floor a few feet away. His shoulders shook in a chuckle. He tore one of Quarrel’s bolts out of his shoulder with his free hand, then gripped it like a knife. He raised the bolt to stab Quarrel when Olivia tore off a chunk of that arm.

He roared in pain and dropped Quarrel, then elbowed Olivia. She staggered back several feet while Quarrel snatched her crossbow up and sprinted out from behind Shotty.

Shotty screamed something incomprehensible at Olivia. She hissed and lunged at him. He sidestepped and slammed a fist into the side of her head.

A couple gunmen came in through the ruined door on the opposite side of the warehouse. They immediately shot at Olivia. What the fuck am I supposed to do?

Roach burst from behind the overturned table and sprinted towards her. A couple bullets hit his chest, Miya saw the blood blossom on his clothes, but Roach pressed on. He grabbed Miya.

“Go!” he rasped in Nahua, pushing her towards the outside. Why aren’t you speaking English? Behind him, Rob followed, carrying Amanda’s motionless form.

“Where?” she yelled back.

“What?” he yelled back. He gave an impatient grimace and pointed outside. “Follow.”

“What about the others?” she shouted.

“Escape or die,” he barked. Then he vaulted over the remains of the wall to the sound of gunfire.

Rob reached Miya, arms wrapped around Amanda. Amanda’s chest rose and fell, but her stomach was a mess of shredded fabric and blood. “Come on,” shouted Rob. They’re right.

Miya forced herself to get off the floor and follow Roach. Two gunmen, both Aztecs with dark blue tattoos of skulls on their necks, lay with necks bent at severe angles. Roach had the attention of three more men. Roach had his hands on one, but the other two backed up in different directions, shooting wildly.

Miya scooped up a dropped handgun, then fired at one of the gunmen. Her newly acquired weapon turned out to only have three bullets, but the three were enough to make the gunman dive. Miya led Rob through the scrap yard as Roach kept the attention of several other gunmen who had been drawn to the commotion. There’s the fence. Gate should be close. The building behind them rattled again.

A wayward bullet grazed Rob’s leg. He tumbled, nearly losing grasp of Amanda. Miya’s breath froze in her throat.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Rob muttered under his breath. He pushed himself back to his feet as Miya joined him, letting him lean on her to take some of their weight. They passed through the fence, until Rob collapsed. Miya managed to keep Amanda from hitting the ground too hard, but that didn’t change the fact she had two wounded people she couldn’t move on her own.

Footsteps approached. Shit. Miya jerked her head up and stood, adrenaline spiking. Roach appeared from around a pile of scrap. Miya released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.

“No time,” growled Roach as he took in the situation. “I’ll take her, you take him,” he said, lifting Amanda like a child.

“You awake?” Miya asked Rob.

“Yeah. Help?” he replied. She grabbed his outstretched hand and hauled him to his feet. He leaned on Miya, letting her help him limp away from the warehouse. The sounds of gunfire, roars, and thuds faded behind them as they put as much distance between them and the scrap yard as possible. Eventually Miya could only hear Rob’s ragged breathing.

“Stop,” said Roach as they reached an empty intersection. He lay Amanda down and removed his tank top. He waded it up and pressed it to Amanda’s stomach. He looked up at Miya and Rob. “How bad?” he asked, motioning to Rob.

Miya checked Rob’s leg. The bullet wound on his leg formed a short but deep gash. It bleed, but the volume of blood did not indicate a major injury. Not so bad, thank god. “Hurts like hell,” said Rob, noticing her gaze. “What’d he say?”

“Sit down,” said Miya as she released him. “Need to bandage your leg.” After a moment of standing on his own, his leg buckled.

“Whoa, that… that ain’t good,” said Rob as he sat. Thank you for stating the obvious.

“I’ll check,” said Roach. “Could hurt her more.” He motioned to Amanda.

Miya hurried over to take his place, pushing the ad-hoc bandage into Amanda’s stomach. Amanda, though unconscious, twitched a bit. Her head rolled to the side.

“Oh, this is a lot of blood,” said Miya.

“Pressure,” repeated Roach as he tore a length of Rob’s shirt off for a bandage. That’s not what I said. Can you understand me?

She spoke in Nahua, “This better?

Roach nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

Amanda started coughing. Oh shit. “Amanda, Amanda, can you hear me?” asked Miya.

Amanda’s breathing quickened. “Hurts,” gasped Amanda. She coughed again, then let out a choked scream.

“I’m going to knock you out, OK?” said Miya.

Amanda didn’t answer.

Fuck, she’s bleeding out. Fuck. Dark blood. Um… um… platelets. Those stop stuff like this. Miya freed a hand from the sticky, blood-soaked mass of cloth and grabbed Amanda’s arm. Work, work, work. She gathered as much magic as she could. Platelets stop bleeding. Platelets come from bones. Um… more platelets. Go. She laid the streams of magic over Amanda’s major bones. Please work, please work, please work.

<- Previous Chapter

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Ash – A Car Battery

Miya and Ben had spent the past several hours staking out Don’s shop and planning accordingly. So far as she remembered, the little free standing adobe building didn’t have a basement. However, other than the glass door out front, someone on the street had no way of seeing inside. Good. Don’t have to drag Don someplace else.

The area wasn’t quite a shantytown, but close enough that Miya would have been more surprised if Don didn’t have some sort of security, magical or otherwise. Normal security would be overridden once he’s in the shop. Magic is a bit trickier. Using magic on inanimate objects in there might backfire, horribly. Even an anti-theft type magic stream he’d use could react with something I’d try to do. Then again, the shop sold magical oddities and paraphernalia, enough to trigger any overzealous security system. We’ll see. If I tamper with it, Don would know the instant he shows up.

Miya fidgeted, tapping the baton she’d borrowed from Amanda against her knee. She hadn’t exactly told Amanda she’d borrowed it, but she figured Amanda and Rob were too busy to be bothered with such a trivial things as that. They’d picked up a couple other important items as they waited for daybreak.

The baton was actually the same one Delta had made for the MHU, Miya had found the little MHU stamp on the handle while searching for a way to turn it on during the car ride. It also didn’t explode in her hands when she did finally manage to find the on switch. It’s a nice to have. A knife would work just as well, but the baton is less messy.

Miya repeated the plan in her head. Knock him out, drag him inside, make sure no one accidentally comes in, interrogate, then probably kill. If anything goes wrong, just kill him and run.

They waited. Eventually, the old beat up car Don drove pulled up to the back of the shop. Don stepped out and Miya’s fists clenched. Motherfucker. Don unlocked the back door to the shop and entered. Miya waited a few minutes. Don occasionally took special orders from clients for various items. She’d only ever seen those people arrive right at opening. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the store right now.

Miya took a deep breath from behind the old, degraded fence of the backlot behind Don’s shop. She waved to Skulker, sitting on an adjacent rooftop and able to watch the front door as well as the back. He waved back. Cool, no one. “Let’s do this,” she murmured to herself.

Knocking out Don turned out to be easier than expected. After checking that the abandoned backlot bordering the back of the shop remained abandoned, Miya chucked a rock through the windshield of Don’s car. The car alarm blared. Soon after it shattered, he came out, murder in his eyes and shotgun in his hands. Miya, who’d hid out of sight, heard a low snap beneath the car alarm as Skulker fired.

Don choked as all of his muscles convulsed, including the ones that let him breathe. He hit the dirt. Good. The convulsions stopped, and Don coughed and started to get up. Not good. Another snap, and Don went down again. That was easy. Then again, you don’t go to work expecting something like this. He was never really involved in all the Aztec politics going on around here.

Miya rushed forward to where Don lay and kicked the shotgun well out of his reach. Skulker teleported to join her, aiming his rifle at Don’s prone form.

“Tha’ shoulda only taken one shot. Got an iron slug if it’s a trap.”

Miya nodded. She turned Don over, face up. No reaction on Don’s part. She reached for her magic and probed at him. What’s this? He’s got a couple streams of magic going through him. What do they do? Oh shit, it’s reacting! She pulled back, avoiding a magical trap that would have knocked her out for a minute. “I think he’s out now.” So far as I can tell. She rifled through his pockets, emptying them. Not much in this wallet. Keys, I’ll hold onto those. Nothing else.

“Cool,” said Skulker, slinging his rifle over his back and grabbing one of Don’s legs to haul him inside.

Miya stared down at Don. You fucker. I’ve still got those wires in me because of you.

“You OK? Ya look kinda sick,” said Skulker with a sidelong glance in her direction, breaking her train of thought.

Miya grimaced. Bad memories. “I’m fine.”

She grabbed Don’s other leg and helped Skulker drag him inside. They pulled him to the back of the shop proper, the dirty shelves full of some of the most random object obscuring the view of the streets. A couple people walked past outside, but no one bothered to check out the shop. Easy enough. Need to make sure no one walks in now.

Her phone buzzed as she broke off to find a chair. She checked the number. This won’t take long, Chris can wait. She slipped the phone back into her pocket.

“Found one,” said Skulker, pulling up a large wooden chair from a corner.

“OK. I got the door,” replied Miya.

She flipped the Open sign to the Closed side, then pulled down the blinds of the front door. Her phone buzzed again. Damn it, what? Chris had sent her a text. “Where are you?

“Somethin’ wrong?” asked Skulker as she returned. Don slumped in the chair where Skulker had hauled him.

“Nomad is asking where we are.” There’s a reason it’s just us two. The rest of them would probably pussy out.

Skulker shrugged. “Eh, we’re technically grownups. We can do whatever we want.”

Chris isn’t my fucking dad. “True. This shouldn’t take too long. Want to go grab the stuff?”

Skulker nodded and left the building to grab the bag he’d left on his roof. Miya resisted the urge to just slit Don’s throat while he lay there. He’s probably guilty, but I don’t know for sure.

“Pass me the duct tape?” she asked as he returned.

“Yep,” he said, tossing the thick roll of duct tape to her. He put a large car battery off to the side.

They wrapped several layers around Don’s chest, then strapped his feet to the legs of the chair and his hands to the armrests.

“I’m going to check the back,” said Miya.

“Bueno. I’m good here. Let ya know if he starts kickin’. Might wanna grab a cup of water if there’s anythin’ like that back there, wake him up,” he said, nudging Don with the toe of his boot.

Miya nodded as she pulled aside the ratty old curtain leading to the back room of Don’s shop. A single fluorescent light panel lit up the back. A couple flies flew off from the light before buzzing around it. Her nose wrinkled. Someone doesn’t know how to keep clean. Coffee stains marred the old, faded counters. The trashcan in the corner overflowed with papers and discarded food.

Need information. She couldn’t find a computer, but did crack open one of several filing cabinets against the wall.

With the papers of a random folder spread over a desk, she started sifting through the numbers of what appeared to be tax forms. After about thirty seconds, she stopped. What the hell am I doing? This isn’t a movie. This is a needle in a haystack situation. And it’s not as though I’m going to find his diary saying “Today I sold Miya to Overlord” or anything like that.

Miya sighed and swept the papers off the desk. Damn it, what am I even doing? I’ve got to get the information directly from him, I guess. Where are his drugs? Could threaten to overdose him. She opened a cupboard. Hello there. A safe took up the whole cabinet. This doesn’t look mobile. Maybe Rob could get it open if I manage to drag him out of that scrap yard. It’s steel, magic doesn’t take to steel all that well.

She heard a sharp whistle from Skulker. Don awake? “Hey there, Mr. Kidnapper!” exclaimed Skulker from the main shop outside.

Don groaned, “What the…”

“You awake? Feelin’ alright?”

Miya pressed against the doorframe and peered around it. Skulker leaned over, right in Don’s face. His head twitched slightly towards Miya. She circled her hand in a “continue” motion.

He gave a slight nod as Don tried to stand up from the chair. “The hell? Who the fuck are you?” he snapped at Skulker. He tried to twist his head backwards, to look to where Skulker had nodded.

Skulker grabbed Don’s dark grey hair and yanked it back towards him. “Skulker,” he replied, releasing Don’s hair.

Don took another moment to struggle against the duct tape before saying, “I’ve never heard of you. Let me go, right now.”

“Nah. You an’ me, we’re gonna have a chat.” Skulker pulled up the office chair that had sat behind the counter of the shop. On it he placed the car battery.

“What? You think hollow threats are going to make me talk? I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, but I promise you’ll regret whatever it is you’re about to do.” Playing dumb. Wait, no. He has no idea Skulker is with me.

“An’ what is ya think I’m ‘bout to do? Notice anythin’? No wires. No cables,” said Skulker in a hushed voice. “An’ you might be thinkin’ I’m jus’ gonna splash acid in yer face. Wrong.”

What the hell is he doing? Miya turned the corner. Skulker stood in front of Don, a car battery at hand. He swung it over his head, and sent it crashing down on Don’s knee. Don bit his lip, stifling a scream. Skulker stood before him, swinging the car battery. Don recovered his composure after a couple of huffs.

“You ain’t a good actor. Tha’ shoulda hurt a lot more. Hell,” said Skulker, grabbing Don’s knee. “Ya didn’t even wince when I did that. Magic shit? Wanna see how long it’ll take me to break that pointy-ass nose of yours?” Don remained stoic.

Oh, OK. He probably has a lot of personal magical protection in this place. Miya unhooked Amanda’s baton from her belt and examined the butt. There’s the dial. Miya turned on the baton, then turned a dial until a red light blinked at her. Red means danger. Good. The baton hummed in her hands. Whatever I do, don’t touch the hurty part.

Miya turned the corner. “Yes, magic shit,” she said, walking over.

Don took a couple seconds to react to the sound of her voice. He twisted around as much as the restraints allowed. Skulker made no move to stop him. Don mouthed, “What?” silently.

Miya nodded to Skulker. “Thanks. There’s a safe in the back, you might want to take a look at it.”

“No problem. I’ll be around if ya need me,” said Skulker, offering the free chair to her. He strode out of the back of the store.

“Hi, Don,” said Miya, once Skulker left.

“Miya? Where… where have you been?” said Don as Miya sat down across from him.

She tapped the baton against his knee. He flinched slightly. “Oh, out and about. You know. You seem sweaty all of a sudden.” He’s a lot more nervous with me than Skulker. And Skulker’s got that weird grinning mask thing.

“Yeah, I’m tied up. What do you expect? Come on, let me out. Why are you with that guy?”

“Why do you think? Come on, you’ve got a brain, right?”

“I don’t fucking know-”

She cut him off. “Answer the question.” Enough fucking games.

Don stared at her for a moment. “I. Don’t. Know.”

She tapped his knee with the baton again. His knee jerked. He grimaced, but didn’t break eye contact with Miya. “I. Don’t. Believe you,” she said in a near whisper.

His brown eyes hardened. He leaned back as much as he could in his chair and kept his mouth shut. New tactic.

“I wasn’t paying you any money for the last six months. No more opium for you? No more alcohol? You were in rough shape six months ago. Your cheeks aren’t nearly as hollow now. Hell, you’re probably not dangerously underweight anymore.”

“Still can’t believe the opium thing. Not heroin?” commented Skulker, walking behind Don with a can of gasoline in each hand and an empty duffel bag slung over one shoulder.

“He’s old fashioned like that,” replied Miya. That’s code for I have no fucking clue why.

“None of your business,” said Don. You freaked out every time I was late on a payment. I remember your shaking hands.

Skulker put the cans of gas down, then went into the back room with his duffel bag.

“Oh, but it is, addict,” said Miya. “I really don’t think you would have ever spoken to me if I wasn’t an easy way to your next fix. Kind of pitiful, really. The great, powerful mage couldn’t go a day without a smoke or a hit.”

“I’m sober. Quit cold turkey. Have been off that stuff for six months now,” answered Don with some pride. He froze when he realized his mistake.

“Six months? That’s exactly when I was here last. Funny.”

Miya tapped his knee again. “Ow,” he muttered. There’s the reaction I was looking for. No defense is infinite. On the other hand, damn, Amanda put a lot of power into this.

Miya leaned forward about two inches from Don’s face, able to take in every wrinkle on his face. “I was kidnapped six months ago. By Overlord. They said they knew all about my potential. I wonder how they knew that.” She said it more as a statement than a question.

Don’s eyes flickered left, then right.

“Look at me,” commanded Miya. “What do you know about all of that?”

She tapped his knee again. This time she heard a zapping noise, and Don jumped. “Fuck.”

Skulker walked out of the back room, his duffel bag his duffel bag now weighing down on his shoulder. He took a second to assess the situation, then left through the back door.

“That looked like it hurt. Want to see if that was just a fluke?” she asked, sitting back down.

Don glared. “They offered me more than you ever could.”

Skulker walked back in, carrying Don’s shotgun. “Wanna use this?” he said, offering it to Miya.

In response, she took the shotgun and leaned it against a shelf, barrel pointed down. “Maybe. Depends on how talkative he is.”

Don rolled his eyes. Miya turned down the power of the baton a little bit, then tapped his knee again. He convulsed. A burning scent filled the air as the baton incinerated his pants around his knee.

“Answer me,” she said, her voice flat and calm.

“Fuck you.”

Another knee tap.

“Fuck!” he yelled. He spat in her face. She wiped it off.

“Answer me.”

Another knee tap.

He screamed.

“Answer me.”

Another knee tap.

“I did it!” he screamed. There it is.

“Why?”

“They offered me chemical treatments,” he said, rushing the words out. She ignored her buzzing phone.

“Oh, I see. Overlord got you off your precious drugs, did he?”

Don nodded. Miya turned off the baton.

“Now, what to do with you?” she asked herself aloud.

“That wasn’t me. Whatever they did, that wasn’t me.” Miya saw red for a brief moment.

She shoved a finger in his face. “I spent a couple months strapped to a hospital bed so they could cut me up because of you. You really think I’m just going to take that lying down?”

“Whatever it is you think you’re going to do, you’ll pay for it,” he said, his voice ragged and desperate. Bark bark, little doggy.

“I know. But I’ve got something planned for you.”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” spat Don.

“Oh, you think the guys in the Underground are going to help you out of this?”

“They’ll be here any minute.” That’s cute.

“That’s nice. This won’t take long at all.” She grabbed his hand. This is going to take a bit out of me, but I’d say this is worth it. She reached for as much of her magic as she could. “I was going to have your own skull lobotomize you, but I’ve thought of something else. Fun fact. You know where blood comes from? Marrow. Bone marrow. It’s that stuff I’m permanently burning out right now in your bones. And my friend has a lot of knives.” She motioned to Skulker, who’d taken a position behind Don.

Realization dawned on Don’s face. She released his hand and leaned back. “No, no, no. You bitch,” screamed Don, thrashing against his restraints.

Skulker cut his screaming short by swinging the car battery against his head. It collided with Don’s skull, something snapped, and he stopped moving. She spat on his bloodied face.

“I’m done,” said Miya as she stood. That’s over with. Finally.

“Bueno,” said Skulker, putting the bloody car battery on the ground. “Got the gas cans outta the car. Want a hand?”

She nodded silently. They splashed gasoline over the interior of the shop. Crime scenes are much harder to analyze when they’re a pile of ash and rubble. They finished outside. Miya tossed the last two cans through the opened door as Skulker produced a lighter.

“Wanna do the honors?”

“Fuck yeah.” She lit the lighter, then tossed it into the door as they both backed up. The gas caught fire instantly.

She watched the dark smoke rise. The magic of something didn’t agree with the flames; something started an inhuman shriek from within before cutting off. Slim Jim, Doctor Orange, Overlord.

“Outta here. This ain’t subtle, an’ it’s daytime now,” said Skulker, looking around.

She nodded mutely. Don said something about reinforcements. I think that was just bluster, but we should get out of here in case it wasn’t. Though he wasn’t too concerned right up until the end. They jogged through the back lot and into an alleyway.

“Ya know he woulda told you anythin’ to make the pain stop, yeah?” said Skulker.

“I am aware,” replied Miya.

“Found some stuff in his safe you may wanna take a look at,” he said, motioning to his duffel bag.

“Why?” Shit, did I kill the wrong person?

“It proves ya right.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Solid gold in-” The walls of the alley warped inwards, cutting off both whatever Skulker had been about to say and the way to Skulker’s car. Shit, what?

Skulker grabbed Miya’s shoulder right before she collided with the now distended walls. “Down,” he yelled, pulling her to the ground behind a dumpster. Something exploded very close by right as she hit the dirt. It took her a moment to refocus her eyes and for the ringing in her ears to recede into the background. She gritted her teeth to distract herself from the pain.

Skulker hauled her to her feet as people behind them began shooting. Where the fuck did these guys come from? “Come on, come on,” he urged her, pulling out his own pistol and returning fire. The incoming bullets hammered against the metal of the dumpster, beneath the far louder cracks of Skulker firing.

Right. She pulled out her own pistol and turned around, squeezing off a couple shots. Masked men fired at them from the other end of the alleyway, no surprise there. Then another man jumped out from behind a corner and tossed a glowing rock.

“Magic bomb,” she screamed at Skulker, grabbing him and pulling him down. Is that Cynic? Who the fuck are the gunmen then?

She and Skulker ducked down as the glowing rock burst in midair. The bright flash of lights would have blinded them had Miya not pulled them back behind the dumpster. A cloud of dust hovered in the air where the detonation had occurred.

“Don’t touch it, it’ll fuck you up,” she yelled as Skulker as he started to get up. The gunmen kept up the fire at them. Don’t know how much longer this dumpster will last.

“Can’t stay here. That way,” he yelled back, pointing to a small hole in the stretched wall one of bombs had made.

They climbed through, the cloud obscuring the gunmen’s aim. Another rock exploded in the alley they left behind. They sprinted through an old video rental store and around two or three terrified customers huddled on the ground or running to a way out.

Skulker turned to make sure no one followed them through the hole. As she dashed to the front of the store, Miya noticed about four cars blocking the street through the front windows. More gunmen lay in wait behind them. Goddamn it.

“Down!” she screamed over her shoulder.

The hail of bullets shattered all of the windows. Skulker whirled around and ducked as Miya dropped to the ground once again, taking cover behind the solid part of the front wall. She heard a meaty thunk sound.

“Fuck!” roared Skulker, holding his hand close to his chest.

He crawled over to her. She pulled him against low wall and noticed blood spurting from his hand. Shit.

“Fuck!” roared Skulker, holding his hand close to his chest.

He joined her in leaning against the low wall, blood spurting from his hand. Shit.

“Put pressure on that,” she yelled, holding her pistol above the wall and blindly firing a couple times.

“Fuck!” he replied.

She stiff armed him against the wall, and shot the two men trying to get in through the front door. That just bought us maybe ten seconds.

She grabbed Skulker’s arm. More platelets for you. I’ve got a basic healing method, maybe that’ll slow the bleeding. “Pressure,” she repeated to Skulker.

“Fuck!” he replied.

They heard a roar and a scream. Bullets stopped shooting towards them. Wait. That was familiar. Miya poked her head around the corner. Olivia had torn up one car, trying to get at the two men behind it. Another of the gunmen lay bleeding in the street, crawling away. Where the fuck did you come from? Also, yay, we’re not going to die now!

To Miya’s right, liquid Nomad slammed another gunman into another car, scattering the remaining gunmen. An armored Delta behind him tossed something, and two went down convulsing. Nomad moved to backup Olivia against the other dozen gunmen as Delta rushed directly towards Miya. The baton on Miya’s hip started humming. Oh, that’s how they got here so quick.

“The hell is going on here?” said Delta as she reached them. What do you think?

“Skulker’s hurt,” Miya shouted back over the gunfire. A ball of fire sailed across the street, prompting another roar from Olivia.

“Fuck!” he added helpfully. He had a wad of his shirt pressed tight against his hand, which he curled his whole body around.

“Shit,” said Delta, producing a strip of bandages from one of many pockets she had worked into her armor. “We’ve got to get out of here. Cops are en route.”

Miya checked on the situation on the street. Nomad, back in human form since someone started throwing fireballs, fired from behind the car Olivia had wrecked. Olivia herself appeared to be anchored to the ground. She roared again, struggling to move her feet. Damn mages.

She noticed an unarmed man in the background, hidden in another alley. He looks like he’s trying to take a shit, so he’s concentrating. Miya glanced at Olivia, still trapped in one place and fighting. That’s not an insignificant thing to do. That would take a lot of concentration.

About half a dozen gunmen and a mage throwing fire had Nomad pinned. Miya vaulted the wall, cutting her hand on the broken glass. Ow. Fuck. That’ll heal. She ducked and sprinted past him and into the little grocery store on the opposite side of the street. I didn’t get shot.

She scrambled for the side door and poked her head into the alley. The man still hid there. Here we go. Got a nice iron knife for you. She broke into a sprint, knife in non-bleeding hand.

Miya collided with his back, ready to warp bones. Damn, still has magic defenses. Oh well. She stabbed her knife in the back of his knee. He screamed and thrashed as his knee buckled, throwing her off him. Miya recovered and hacked at him, not aiming anywhere in particular. The knife made contact with his side, and he went down on hands and knees.

Miya delivered a kick to his face, putting him fully on the ground. He tried to roll away, and Miya brought her foot down on his ribs. Another couple kicks to the temple and he stopped moving.

She whirled around. Anyone else? Nomad was back in human form, rifle aimed down the street. He wasn’t firing, so she assumed the others had finally fled. Then she heard sirens in the distance. Olivia was nowhere to be seen.

“Come on, this way,” Nomad called out to Miya, waving her over.

She ran to catch up with him. Behind him, Delta lead Skulker out of the other, now bullet ridden building.

“We’re getting out of here, then we’re going to have a chat,” Nomad continued to Miya. Fuck me, I’m an idiot.

Olivia circled overhead as Miya and Nomad joined Skulker and Delta at Chris’s car.

“How’s Skulker?” she asked Delta as Chris started the car.

“I’m alive. Take a look,” he said, holding out his hand.

He had two ragged bloody stumps where his middle and ring fingers should have been. Fuck me.

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