Bearing the weight of the fate of every world was a heavy task. One which Alexandria had shouldered for decades undaunted as a member of Cauldron.
Grimly, she clarified to her own inner monologue. She hadn't been strictly alone, Cauldron and the other two members of the Triumvirate helped her bear the weight. Yet, there were many times when she was bereft of guidance and had to rely solely on the oblique guidance of Contessa. Furthermore, she was the steady rock the other two rested upon, her lack of emotion allowing them to ground themselves, even as the world chipped away at its idols.
Alexandria was off-center, in a way that she hadn't been for a long time. There were other greater sins that she could've related to the priest, but they felt more private. Greater, middling, many weighed on her mind worse. Many more she could speak of, but none gathered the gist of her deeds exactly. Already she was pushing the envelope, telling what little she did. It was an abominable failure of her own information control.
The only reason that she didn't turn around and remove the threat to her secret life, the threat to her image was because here nobody knew her. There was precious little chance that any of her new enemies would have installed surveillance inside a Church she made no indication of even visiting. Of course, the priest could be cajoled or forced to divulge what she said, but without the proper context to match her words against they were lost. What she said would just be words.
She supposed she must feel off-balance from her earlier introspection. The guilt was still fresh from the death of Myrddin, driving her down to confront religion for the first time in at least a decade and a half.
The despair that was enforced upon her, perhaps it clouded her thoughts? It was a disturbing concept, one which she was forced to consider. Carefully, she paused on the outskirts of Chicago, examining her thoughts with a single-minded focus. There was nothing, none of the whispering tendrils of despair that had proven so adept to slipping into her thoughts.
Her mind was still pliable, despite the enduring strength of her body. Not normal at all, but still mutable. One of their contracted thinkers, before their periodic mindwipe, postulated that someday in the future her mind would grow gradually more and more static until she became a statue in truth.
Of course, another thinker contradicted that reading, which was par the course. Precognitives were not always able to predict the future with perfect accuracy, in fact, perfect accuracy was rare. Contessa was granted such sight except when it came to the three Endbringers, the golden man himself, and Eidolon.
Dinah… Alexandria felt an uncharacteristic string of emotion shoot through her mind. Loss and anger warring with each other for an instant before Alexandria smothered both, crushing them down into the recesses of her mind. Dinah was a powerful precognitive that dealt in probability, seeing a cascading fracturing reality and assigning numerical likelihood to her readings. Even she never, and Alexandria doubted she ever would, gave full one hundred percent positive readings.
Such a thing was impossible. There was a small chance that she walked to her death for no reason. The margin of error was one of the smallest that Dinah had ever gotten, and that brought Alexandria some small comfort. It wasn't enough to completely quell the anger that bubbled in her breast, one of the few emotions not dulled by the nature of her body. Some part of her wanted to last till the end, to see the destruction of the golden man. The other part, the part that held her own death wish, her own desire for redemption. The part that whispered to her that she lived for a greater purpose, was satisfied.
She had given all she could to Cauldron and the world, which had given her precious years onto her once fragile life. Once she had believed she never could repay Cauldron. Then she had never thought she could repay the world for what Cauldron did. It turned out she paid with her life, or at least that was what this new reality seemed to convey.
She stared up at the heavens, the blue sky that hid the white stars, the suns and nebulae of the solar system. For all the small size of humanity in the cosmos, they still had the greatest task of all. After all, they were the ones that had to slay a god or die trying.
"I cannot bring you with me," Alexandria spoke out loud. The words hung in the chill spring air for a pregnant moment before a small form pushed her way out of her overcoat pocket, gossamer wings fluttering like fine silver filigree caught in the sun's gleaming rays.
"I'm tough!" The little pixie protested, puffing out her chest, brandishing her little pine sword. Alexandria allowed a soft smile to grace her lips, ignoring the way the motion pulled at the ruined flesh of her eye.
"It is not my lack of confidence in you," Alexandria started to say, locking gazes with the little pixie, who stared up at her with mournful eyes, her wings drooping backward.
"Instead, you could be-" Alexandria paused a moment, well aware of how to bend others to her will with words alone. Playing into their hopes and dreams, the insecurities that they held close to their chest, "A herald of mine."
Ever since she had arrived on this world there had been a curious blending of myth with the modern world. The pixie in front of her was the product of such a union. Therefore, it seemed that appealing to a more archaic idea might appeal to her.
The pixie's wings flickered, she seemed doubtful. With tiny fingers she brushed her minuscule blue locks out of her hair with tiny white hands, looking up at Alexandria with her little blue eyes.
"A herald of mine must have a name," Alexandria added, softening the blow a little bit, adding emotion to her face.
"I must have earned that privilege, at least?" Alexandria asked, semi-sardonically.
The pixie nodded shakily, rubbing at her eyes, "I'm Syri Inge."
"Syri," Alexandria intoned it, providing the exact emphasis the little fairy had to her name as she repeated it. The pixie shivered in her hand, twisting on her little bare feet, leaving pinpricks of cold on Alexandria's palm.
"Hey!" The pixie said loudly, her voice chiming, "You're not supposed to say it like that!"
Ah, yes, names had power. Alexandria just raised an eyebrow, fixing Syri with a little look of quant amusement. Inwardly, though, she took the admonishment in the spirit it was given. Perhaps it would be best if she refrained from any namedrops until she had a chance to research just how extensive the issue of proper names actually was. Already, she walked a thin line drawing allusions to her past to emphasize points. Her frown deepened, as she considered the matter.
She had been operating under the assumption that the world was merely accented by the trappings of myth and legend. Vampires, fairies, and wizards were all generic fantasy characters. They were placed in a modern world, but they were still fundamentally only the background theme of a world. However, Alexandria had encountered Jenny Greenteeth and the Leanansidhe. Cat Síth as well. If the figures of fairy lore existed then where was the line drawn?
"I'm sorry," Alexandria replied, none of her inner ruminations slipping free to disrupt her stalwart frown. The words were said in the exact tone she intended, it was an apology for politeness sake rather than any belief she was wrong.
Syri stared at her intently for a moment and then 'humphed' crossing her arms.
"A herald," Alexandria explained with the infinite patience of a woman that had been subject to countless public relations events which involved small children, "-is a bearer of important news, or the harbinger of events yet to come."
"A harpsichord?" the pixie replied, her tiny human-like face screwed up in a frown, "like a bunch of icicles banging together?"
"No, a harbinger," Alexandria corrected deftly, not bothering to explain it even more. Why did she know what a harpsichord was and not a harbinger? Alexandria's spared barely an instant of an instant on the idle thought.
"Meanie Malk, the one who's uncle was a butterfly, tricked me once," Syri shared, words cast in a little tinkling bell whisper, "he said there was a harpsichord…"
She trailed off. Alexandria inclined her head just slightly, silent encouragement all that she was willing to show to indulge the miniature hyper-active creature.
"...but he was just banging icicles!" Syri yelled, her pale cheeks pink with anger. She huffed, "And he was bad! So bad!"
"It must've been just awful," Alexandria noted out loud, slightly amused despite herself.
"I'm gonna be the best herald you've ever seen!" The pixie crowed, little voice tinkling, changing the subject abruptly. Her face was screwed up into a truly determined expression.
"Just you wait, I'm gonna tell everyone!" she brandished her pine needle sword aloft in the air, her wings shining behind her, "All about Alexandria the Library Lady!"
Syri's face shone with utter adoration, a ray of sun light catching on her gossamer wings, scattering its light into a rainbow on Alexandria's hand.
Alexandria actually paused, her thoughts looping for just the barest fraction of a fraction of an instant.
"Maybe try to leave that part out," she suggested, still permitting herself to be amused at the pixie's antics. The only other option was a cold indifference that only spoke about how she could use the innocent little being, and that voice was not one she was that indulged to humor at this point. The hour would come, undoubtedly, just like it always did, but not yet.
The pixie hung in the air, watching her with luminous little eyes for an instant, then the wings fluttered once, catching the light once again. The clear light refracted into its composite spectral colors, letting rainbow hues dance over the roof below.
There was something profoundly different about the pixie. It was slight, and a less trained eye might have dismissed it as errant thought. A mistake of the mind. Alexandria, however, was sure of one thing in life, and that was the innate accuracy of her mental acuity. The pixie had grown. Sparse centimeters, barely a difference, but it was there.
The pine needles were sharper, Syri's teeth sharper, more needle-like, the wings more defined. It was as if someone had taken a drawing of a fairy and added detail and depth. She was at once something more and something deeper.
Alexandria's brow twitched. She had no time to pursue the multitude of theories that danced around her adamant mind at this new revelation.
"Try and keep an eye on the vampire and the wizard," Alexandria added, almost as an afterthought. The ability of the pixie to act in her favour was still in flux, but at the moment, Syri was the most staunch and potentially benign ally she had, and Alexandria would use her for all her worth.
"You can count on me!" The pixie screamed, little chest actually seeming to deflate with the force of the air expelled. Alexandria spared a glance into the pixie's eyes, which shone with adoration, and something else, beyond adoration, akin to deification. It made her gut twist, a sour feeling welling up in a body that had no bodily reactions.
"Very well then," Alexandria said, voice quiet and sure. She turned on a dime in mid-air, the cloth of her sleeves slapping against her arms with a whip-crack sound and then she floated away. Her eye shifted to the sun, then to the horizon. She spared barely an instant to glance back at the pixie, just to make sure she was clear and then she accelerated.
The air boiled around her for a fraction of an instant, the edges of her clothes almost smoldered, threads fraying until she reached the minimum velocity she needed. It was only in the sparse in-between state where her clothes would be torn from her invulnerable body by the sheer wind shear. The Manton limit protected her body after that point, an invisible shield against the heat and kinetic energy. If she didn't have it, it would be impossible to fly for any length of time, since for all her power, she still needed to breathe. If reality actually worked like it was supposed to, then her speed would ignite the oxygen in her lungs when she breathed.
Obviously, the agents, in their infinite wisdom, couldn't have their toys expiring before they grew tired of them. The Manton Limit was a cruel farce, leading some to assume benevolence when instead they should see malevolence.
The clouds parted around her, wisps of water vapor dispersing from the strength and drag of her passage. She ascended, taking a deep breath of clear air, watching the city of Chicago diminish, growing into featureless patches of grey and brown far below. The horizon stretched away, the blue of the Great Lakes fading away into the green and brown of spring. A green and brown that gave way to the icy tendrils of frost and winter's remnants.
What month was it? June? Alexandria spared a moment, slowing slightly. The extent of the snow upon the reaches of lower Canada would imply that it was still within the first forays of Spring, or just at the end of deep Winter. It was not how Canada should look in June, at all.
The air cracked again, as Alexandria accelerated, returning to her previous speed, she had places to be, and time was of the essence. The white stretches below her become a featureless white plane, only broken by patches of the blue sea. Hudson's Bay stretched below her, still in the grasp of Winter, but that was more normal. It would not unthaw until August and would be back to frozen by October or November.
Alexandria slowed her flight again, this time dialing it down just until the Manton Limit that kept her clothes safe started to fray, at the moment between where it had trouble distinguishing between what she was and was not. It was easy for whatever parasite resided in her mind to tell the difference between her and her clothes at high speeds, less so for it when she slowed.
A grey shape hung in the air, on a direct route between her and Archangel, two grey shapes, straight and arrowlike, wings jutting out from its side, the planes wobbled in the air, sweeping over the ice. They moved slowly, like moving through syrup as Alexandria's mind, unburdened by normal thought, considered them within the depths of her own supersonic speed.
Red stars gleamed on grey and blue silver hulls. Russian Navy fighter jets. Suhkoi. A Sukhoi that she could not identify on sight. It had the traits of the Soviet Union's Su-24, but refined, taken in a direction that Russia's most prevalent fighter jet on her world had not taken. Trading armament for speed.
She could see from her vantage point with her ever-sharp eye, how the planes suddenly juked, attempting to fly erratically. Russia knew she was out here then, creating a diplomatic incident was not something she wanted, so she scowled slightly, venting her emotions in her thoughts about diplomacy, then continued on.
By the time the pilots could have pinpointed where she was, she was long gone and the stretches and steppes of northern Russia and Finland stretched before her.
The cobblestone was cool under her touch, she just barely spared a moment to touch down. Grass clutched at her feet, sprouting from in between the cobblestone. The wreck of the fortress of Novodvinskaya stretched before her. In fact, it looked even worse than the Novodvinskaya back on Earth Bet. Dilapidated white stone paired with a crushed metal gate. Was this the best possible place the White Council could have as their outpost in Russia?
"For some reason," Alexandria spoke in the still silence, "I expected something more."
Of course, there was no answer, just the looming doorway and the darkness of a building's interior before her. She stepped forward, each footstep more like a bound. The stars clung to the sky overhead as she approached the building, shining downward with a cruel pale light. The grounds were deserted, but there were signs of recent fire-fighting work. A discarded firehose, trodden and long-smoldered grass.
Alexandria pushed forward, up to the threshold, there was a sound that was not a sound and she paused. The tinkling of glass that was not glass, like glass dust crunching under her feet. Her dark eyes probed at the doorway, experience warning her not to step forward without making sure that there were no hidden traps.
It appeared to be a mundane doorway. Old and unused, ravaged by time, and forced entry. Alexandria lifted off the floor, just slightly and floated forward, the tips of her toes just off the ground. The snap of elastic filled the air and Alexandria paused again, there was nothing that she could see with her eyes in the gloom.
Her eyes passed over the interior once, and she almost turned in disgust, it didn't look like the building had been lived in for decades, perhaps even centuries. Not even signs of tourists to what should've been a historical site. But there was something wrong, some wrongness that nagged at her mind, some trick that kept her from focusing.
Almost immediately as she realized it, a film peeled back from her eyes. A sound of shattering glass filled the air, and Alexandria realized what she had missed, the sound of eight breathing. Seven men and one woman, all in green and brown, the woman with the patch of the Federalnaya Sluzhba Kontrrazvedki on her sleeve. Her grey eyes were wide with fear, and the green and brown-clad soldiers clutched Avtomát Kaláshnikova, common AK variant rifles.
The room itself faded away from a dilapidated condition and expanded, braziers and polished marble cobblestone stretching forward, space twisting and the floor receding as the walls rose up around her. An illusion, one that even she had been deceived about for a moment, clung to the room and doorway. It was insidious and subtle, and Alexandria couldn't help the tiny shard of irritation that gnawed at her for falling for such a basic trick.
"Стой! (Halt!)" One of the soldiers barked, the Russian words thick with a Chechen accent, "Определить!" ("Identity!")
"I am Alexandria, I am looking for Simon Pietrovich," Alexandria replied, her Russian immaculate, adopting the most common accent that she knew, a central Russian Moscovian accent, as it were.
The soldier's face stayed blank, ever so slowly, his rifle still trained on Alexandria, his eyes slipped down to her feet, which floated above the cobbled stone. Ever so slowly, they drifted to the grey-eyed woman to the left.
"I come on behalf of the White Council," Alexandria deigned to elaborate, her own eye in turn roving over the undergrown chamber that the doorway seemed to open into, the braziers smoldered, casting a heavy smoke to curl around the great timbers of the ceiling. The shadows along the walls danced and twined like living things.
Thick smoke drifted idly from the braziers and up along the yellowing cracked walls of the inside of Novodvinskaya, staining them with soot.
The flames snapped against wooden fuel, tongues of the dying fire fighting to light the dim insides of the interior, newly revealed from its cloak of illusion.
Alexandria acted with deliberation, just as she always had after her resurrection-in-spirit as Alexandria. There were no intermittent expressions that graced her face to reveal how surprised she was to be taken unaware. No twitching of her brow unless she willed it, no display of weakness that could be fixated on by a probing enemy.
No. Instead, Alexandria stood statuesquely, floating in mid-air, bare centimeters from the ground, and fixed the head guard with her one good eye. Not for the last time, the barest fraction of the barest fraction of thought was spared to grieve over the loss of her fake eye.
Not because of vanity, or even because of the way it marred her timeless features. No, she wished for her fake eye because its absence marred her stoic image of invincibility. She could not count on the fact that many would not even dare to try their weapons and power against her due to her strength of reputation.
Back in her own world, there were many in the know that knew the Siberian had bested her, but the Siberian was akin to the Endbringers, more force of nature than a scheme of man. Being bested by a hurricane was a different matter than being bested by a common human.
She was Alexandria. The Alexandria and all on Earth Bet knew it. She did not have that reputation to precede her in this world. Here, none knew of her status as one of the three greatest heroes of the modern era.
In a way it was nostalgic, hearkening back to the early days when Cauldron first gifted her with power and released her on the world as a force of justice. Simpler days, when all she needed to know was how to break the criminals of the world. Forcefully pulling together the shattering edifices of society through sheer strength of will, and the not insignificant guidance of Cauldron, came later when she was on the upper ascendancy of power and reputation.
"Какой?" The Russian soldier in front of her asked, an expression of genuine confusion crawling over his face. It was hidden behind an expression of steel, but the minute twitches of his face and the tightening of his lips, curling toward a snarl, gave ample warning of his demeanor.
Her introduction had fallen on barren ground, it seemed.
"Белый Совет?" White Council. The Chechen accent pulling through clearly in the plosive way he uttered the Russian language's consonants. Alexandria debated inwardly whether he would discern her meaning if she used the actual Chechen language, but dismissed it. Chechen was not a language she had more the barest passings of fluency in, and even then several of the dialects were indistinguishable to some of the language's speakers.
The grey-eyed woman exhaled, eyes widening microscopically, she relaxed just a fraction, the patch on her uniform creasing just slightly. The double eagles and sigil of St. George, the once coat-of-arms of the city of Moscow. A curious choice for what appeared to be a field agent, why would an operative signal their allegiance for all to see?
"Римляне?" she asked, the barest trace of a Ukrainian accent in the words that followed, which were tinged with relief, "Маги Императора."
The Romans? Imperial Mages? Alexandria's eye glimmered with understanding as she drew the connection. It was foolish of her to think that the White Council would be known by its "American" name.
"Yes," Alexandria responded, the Russian word for yes slipping from her mouth, short and sharp, letting them see that she desired the conversation to move along quickly.
"Английский?" the woman asked, stepping forward, her eyes drifted down, taking in the whole of Alexandria, before they snapped back upward to take in her face. Her slate-grey eyes lingered over the ruined part of Alexandria's face for the barest fraction before slipping over to a point just below Alexandria's intact eye, focusing on her cheekbone.
It was a deliberate gesture. The White Council members had done the same. Harry Dresden had done the same. In some cultures not meeting the eyes of your betters was considered a sign of respect, in others a sign of disrespect. Alexandria did not know which one to apply here.
Yet, the woman's new question also revealed something else. It was a simple question, one no doubt revealed by her choice of "White Council" as the moniker of those that sent her.
"No," Alexandria answered, "Not English."
"Yes," Alexandria responded. She did not nearly have the patience to pretend to be a native if her cover was blown simply by her use of the wrong nomenclature. It showed the danger of spy work, that was a given. Back when East and West still saturated each other with hidden spies, such an admission would see her shot. Admitting to being an American on Soviet soil?
But she was Alexandria. She didn't have time for half-assed denials. There was no doubt in her mind that if she needed to, these eight would be nothing more than a moment's work. It was not an option she would relish taking, but it was one she would take if necessary.
The lead soldier's face twitched at her admission, his eyes darting toward the intelligence officer, but she only nodded, the slightest hint of a smile on her face.
"Irina," she offered, not extending her gloved hands. It was spoken with long practice, of a mask slipped on as easily as breathing. Alexandria could see the little details that would be lost to any but the most observant human interrogators. Irina was not her real name, but it had been her name for so long that she was more the mask than her original name.
"Alexandria," Alexandria answered, in English. Her voice was very carefully unaccented, very deliberately plain. She could have denied being American, or claimed to be English, which the Russians at least had a slightly better foreign policy with, but it was another mask to wear, which she could not be bothered to do.
Irina chose her words carefully, this time speaking in English, "Pietrovich, and the White Council, have not broken contact with Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution."
As a sign of diffidence, she seemed willing to use the English term for the White Council, which Alexandria noted carefully. Her Ukrainian accent came through more clearly in English than in Russian.
Alexandria allowed her gaze to linger around the dimly lit interior of the building again, at the scorched walls, embers still smoldering within them, and the smoking, heavy haze from the braziers.
"You are a wizard, yes?" Irina asked, tone quietly questing.
Magic. Yes. Once, not to long ago, Alexandria would've smiled a Mona Lisa smile and said 'Parahuman' to such a question. Here, magic at least seemed to be the prevalent term and nomenclature for people with power. It appeared not so different from what she knew of parahuman powers, but with the existence of obviously supernatural creatures, she was not willing to discount claims of magic entirely. Time would reveal everything she needed to know. Perhaps scouring the internet would reveal other hidden details as well.
"Perhaps," Alexandria answered with a non-answer, "You are the liaison with the Russian government, why have you not reached out to the White Council?"
Irina adopted a slightly chagrin expression that was fake all the way through, "Colonel Sokolov unexpectedly expired, he was the connection between the state and the Pietrovich."
"Expired," Alexandria stated, floating forward into the room. The brazier's rippled in place, like a glass mirror and doors appearing on the soot-covered walls, hidden through some kind of space-warping shaker effect. There was a pop from the floor, barely audible as she floated across it. The new vantage point peeled away the floor as well, steadily revealing first once shriveled corpse than another. Each locked in a fetal position faces stretched in agony.
"These bodies, who were they?" she asked, looking down at a newly revealed corpse, lips stretched back over monstrous teeth, tightened by the throes of fire-ridden death.
"The fortress is a crypt," Irina answered, stepping carefully withing the light cast by the braziers, "They cannot come back into this level. They are trapped below."
Vampires? Alexandria carefully regarded the body with a new eye. It was twisted and baked by fire, but the talons and teeth were familiar to her.
"We trapped them in the darkness yesterday," Irina responded, "They cannot venture into the light of the braziers now that their masters are absent. It is a holy light."
"Do you know what the White Council used this fortress for?" Alexandria kept her tone light, questioning. Rhetorical, as if she already knew and was merely asking to make sure they knew.
"Da," Irina answered. The soldiers behind her shuffled, one pulled a glove away from his wrist to reveal a watch. His expression soured at what he saw, and his grip on the handle of his Kalishkinov tightened.
"President Yeltsin holds Pietrovich's advice highly," Irina replied, quite matter-of-factly, "The White Council is quite reasonable."
It was not quite an answer. Alexandria floated forward, the yawning doorlike chasms beckoning her forward.
"I'm sure you know," Alexandria clarified, "Pietrovich is missing."
The head soldier, the Chechen swore, the curse word unmistakable in the sudden silence. There was a click, the sound of a safety ebing switched off in the still dark of the underground chamber. Another layer of illusion shredded away, the darkness dissipating the longer Alexandria stared into it.
The shadows scuttled away like loathsome beetles, umbral movements just enough to draw the eye. As they receded they revealed faintly shining white runes, elder futhark mixed with Egyptian hieroglyphics and the block script of written Hebrew. Alexandria blinked, inhaling dusty air, drawing it into her lungs.
For just a moment her eyes had stung. A forgotten sensation, from back when she was still mortal in form and mind. Back when she was still a bog-standard human. Just one of countless millions that Cauldron could have taken from dying hospital beds. The sting of the winds in her eyes.
Alexandria would have dismissed it as errant fancy, a trick of a nostalgic mind if she was less cautious.
Instead she spoke, words soft but rising to fill the room, "Now, who are you?"
The Russian soldiers shuffled around her. The officer from the FSB clutched at her holstered pistol, the sound of her leather gloves squeaking against the leather around her pistol. Alexandria could hear all that and more, could hear their heartbeats in the silence so close, could hear the crackle of dying flame in the braziers.
The rock shifted, shadows drawing away like a nebulous shadow. Alexandria resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose as a familiar smell hit her nose. The sickly sweet smell of human rot. Dust seemed to flow together, forming a figure. Its flesh was a mixture of patchwork, it might have been a woman once, but now it was little more than a corpse.
Alexandria heard one of the soldiers whispering, the words hung in the air like a spectre in the still air. The litany to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost seemed almost poignant. The creature shifted, shadowy form staying just out of the light.
"My my," it hissed, the sound like nails on a chalkboard, as if its teeth had to gnash and grind against each other with each word, "Those lackless fools could not come to reclaim their lair themselves? What are you, creature, that they would send you instead?"
Alexandria regarded it, eye drifted upward to meet its own eyes, half-rotten but at the same time impossibly, unfathomably dark, blending with the ask, soot, and darkness.
"Вампиры," Irina groaned, her tone sounding almost child-like as the creature seemed to grin, revealing white teeth.
"Vampire," Alexandria stated, examing the thing in front of her for the barest fraction of a second, thoughts already whirling in her head. Discarded almost as fast as they germinated. It was obvious that this thing in front of her, a walking corpse, was different than the bat-faced creatures she had already slain.
"Tell me, beast," Alexandria asked, floating forward, "By whose permission have you entered here?"
"By the invitation of the Red Court, naturally," The thing responded, almost jovially, hissing, crouching away, shying away from Alexandria and the light.
"And Simon Pietrovich," Alexandria asked, allowing herself to continue appearing relaxed. Not a muscle twitching in her body as she watched the walking corpse with a half-lidded eye, "Where is he?"
The creature tensed, body blurring to the side, skirting around the brazier. Alexandria tracked it easily, as if it was taking a stroll in real time. Its dead eyes widened from its new position. Their was another muttered curse from behind Alexandria, from the soldiers.
"Огонь," the Chechen murmured, his heart beat rising. Fire. Fire.
"Не трогайте костры!" Irina answered. Alexandria could see out of the corner of her eye as she stepped stepped up close to one of the braziers until her jacket was almost smoldering from the edges of the bronze bowl. Almost smoldering but not enough to touch.
Alexandria exploded into movement, the stone under her feet shattering into shards. The runes on the wall screamed. The vampire twisted like an eel. But it was not enough. Alexandria's steel fingers closed over the vampire's twisted rotten throat like a vise. She tightened feeling the flesh give underneath admantine fingers. The vampire screeched, twisting, there was a crack and her sleeve tore. There was a sensation of wetness on her arm, muted by both time and memory.
The vampire went still.
"I," Alexandria spoke, tone sure and full, "Am Alexandria."
The vampire wiggled, squirming anew. In turn, Alexandria tightened her grip. Its nails scratched at her arm, trying to find purchase. Its form twisted, fur sprouting as its form shrunk. Alexandria's grip tightened. Locked between her fingers she held a squirming bat.
Alexandria smiled and tightened her fingers, the bat squeaked, and in an instant she held the rotten corpse of a woman again.
The bones of the vampire creaked in her grip, small snaps and pops as it tried to free itself. But it was not Leviathan. It was not the Siberian. It was not the Simurgh or Eidolon.
It was not Scion. It was not greater than she.
Alexandria held it in her grip, floating serenly, her toes three centimenters from the ground.
"I will ask this once, wretch," Alexandria said, ultimatum delivered swiftly and quietly, "Where is Simon Pietrovich?"
The scent of rot permeated the air like an oversaturated blanket. Flakes of skin peeled away under Alexandria's fingers, like sunburned skin. Alexandria was no stranger to decay, she'd investigated countless murders, and examined scenes that would make the gorge rise in a hardened coroner.
The abattoir of horror left behind by the slaughterhouse were images that would not easily be buried in her psyche. The unpleasant smell of a rotting human body and the glimmers of disgust at the way its flesh seemed unmoored, disconnected with its own skeleton, each was not enough to even move her.
The vampire hissed a warped gurgle. Pale eyes, rheumy with the appearance of death glared up at her with almost fanatic vitroil. Its mouth snapped, teeth closing over open air, seeming almost feral, if not for the words it spoke just before.
Alexandria stayed quiet. Her grip neither loosening with fatigue or tightening in irritation. For now, she had the weight of time on her side. Unlike so many events over the past year, she wasn't scrambling to get to the next emergency. She didn't have the omnipresent, monotone voice of Contessa whispering in her ear, instructing her where to go next with barely a moment's pause.
Not to say that her entire year was devoted to such expenditures. She had the PRT to run, and so even she, the untiring arbiter of justice had to have downtime. Of course, her downtime was office work, the endless minutia of a perpetual bureaucracy.
The thing was, she could wait forever for the thing to speak, to answer her command. She had no need to cajole, or bargain, or try to coerce it to speak. It may not be human, but Alexandria felt she could warrant that the same kind of gnawing fear filled it that filled a quiet silence when a Blade of Damocles hung on the spoken word.
Of course, popular legend attributed immortality or at the very least long life to vampires, and bearing in mind the concept of changed mental states, a vampire might be more willing to wait her out. To try and avoid answering her question through silence.
She had caught it, yes. But it had no need to fear her. Yet.
The rheumy eyes stared into hers as the seconds ticked on. She was glacially still, no tremors, no movement, just staring dead into its eyes. It broke the gaze first, eyes flicking to the right, straining against her grip.
One of the soldiers murmured something, a muffled curse. The click of a safety being finally switched off came a moment later.
"I would think it wise to answer the . . . Imperial Mage, vampire," Irina said, and Alexandria considered it admirable the way her voice wavered but did not break. She did not need to turn to see Irina's surprise, she could hear it in the way she inhaled one gasp of air after the other.
The vampire tried to laugh, almost, not daring to take its eyes off Alexandria, still twisting in her grip, but it came out as a strangled rasp.
"Witchling," it said in English, voice barely a wheeze, then continued, speaking in Russian, "I fear my Masters, nothing you and the Council can do can break me."
"Perhaps," Alexandria said then, tone low and quiet, almost considering as if she was weighing something on her mind.
She stepped away, stepping around the ring with the creature, carefully keeping it out of the light cast by the brazier. As much as she disliked the idea of magic, when it was staring her in the face she did not see a reason to distinguish it from a potent shaker effect. She did not quite know the way it worked, beyond somehow excluding her quarry from entering. Considering that it was a vampire, it might just be immolated by crossing the barrier.
She stopped in front of the door, the gaze of the sun peering in with an almost warm light. Alexandria could not help but push her mind back to the figure made of the sun, which she first saw when entering this world. It brought an interesting concept of how exactly the metaphysical concepts seemed to mesh with the world at large.
Magic. Folklore. Who was to say that gods did not exist as well.
If Alexandria was a lesser woman, she may have felt her knees tremble, or her eyes shutter, but since she was Alexandria, the inviolable, not an iota of her thoughts graced her visage.
Instead, she decided to do something inherently productive. The soldiers clambered around her, boots scraping over the ground, leather snapping on pouches.
"Do not let it go!" Irina said, almost seeming worried, her voice reaching toward a higher pitch.
Alexandria held it out, letting its legs be hit by the solar light. The Vampire's glazed eyes widened and it screamed, the noise rising as its flesh seemed to smolder.
The shriek rose higher and higher, and it squirmed in her grip, nails scraping against her flesh. One of its nails, already yellowed in its bed, came free, hanging on only by a tendril of grey pallid flesh.
Alexandria pulled it back.
"Tell me," Alexandria commanded, tone even, not even a waver for a second.
The vampire gasped. It bit at its tongue, blackish blood oozing free from between its blackened teeth. Here, at least, the reek of its decaying flesh was eased by the stiff breeze that entered the door from the west, sending Alexandria's hair flowing to the right. The soldiers were not as lucky. One retched, the sound seeming almost garishly visceral and unnatural in the room that gleamed with golden runes and blazing braziers.
"Have you seen Earth from space?" Alexandria asked, tone conversational. In a very 'discussing the weather' kind of manner. In the tone reserved for making small chat, almost disinterested, as if she did not even care for the answer just that she asked the question.
Alexandria continued, "Imagine the Earth spread before you, the green of life and the deep blue of the oceans. And above it all, you will float, staring into the void, with only the stars for company."
Her voice petered off, dropping pitch for effect, ensuring that the vampire had to focus all the harder to hear her voice, "And there you will be, left naked before the harsh, uncaring light of the sun. Tell me, how do you think it would feel?"
The vampire's fingers twitched. Alexandria gave it a full second of poignant silence to consider the ultimatum.
It made no real coherent response.
"So be it," Alexandria said and floated forward, toes almost grazing against the floor. The vampire, fingers dug into the cloth of her upper arm, nails popping free as they failed to find purchase against the adamantine surface of her skin.
"Best to step clear for now," she noted.
She ignored the shuffle of cloth behind her and leaped into the air, accelerating within a fraction of a second. Green forest spread beneath her eye, and the blue of the sea followed soon after, as the air cooled.
A cold wind caressed her body.
Alexandria inhaled, sound hidden by the rush of air and the dying wail of the vampire in her hands. Chunks of it seemed to be breaking apart, wherever the light of the sun hit naked flesh.
The vampire's eyes burned away, the vitreous boiling away, leaving two empty sockets. The nose followed shortly after, leaving a pockmarked skull, skin smoldering.
Higher and higher, Alexandria soared.
She counted the seconds.
She let go. Chunks of powder and bone showering from her hands, the vampire breaking apart under the light of a solar sun. The face was caught, almost frozen like horror writ across its features for a plain second, and then it crumbled into ash.
The dust seemed to float.
Alexandria paused over the world, taking in the gleaming marble below. Green and blue. So much green and blue.
For the first time in a long time, Alexandria felt like she might cry. It wasn't because of loss, and it wasn't strictly because of joy, it was just an overflowing of emotion that welled up inside her.
She seldom came this high. Her lungs already smarted with the loss of oxygen, the slow sharp sting of carbon dioxide already building up in the back of her throat until the reflex would force her to breath.
Perfect control except for respiration. Perfect control of every muscle and function except one.
Yet, it was almost peaceful to look down at the world and see all the wonder that could be. All the green that had been burned away on Bet was here, and oceans didn't hide the lurking menace of Leviathan. What dangers they did hold were not the ones she knew.
She floated, lungs burning, and then every so slowly oriented herself back toward Russia.
They would fear her.