95 - "The Hole: Part 2"
May 23rd, 10:45 pm
"Ye look well." It was that distant tone that'd quickly demonstrated how awkward their relationship had become in the last two weeks, outside of the refuge of stone, iron and a buffer two thousand feet straight up from the rest of the world. She was already halfway undressed and pulled an unbuttoned shirt together to veil the bare hint of black lace and a freckled breast, before she realized the simple gesture and all the connotations that came with. "You startled me." Maria whispered.
"I didna mean to." Hudson replied from the balcony's sliding door, his eyes backlit, one charcoal and the other gold.
She swallowed and eased her hand from the material of her blouse. Then, quickly, as the silence between them lengthened, she decided to do or even say something at least to fill the void. in, Hudson, in."
The gargoyle took the same steps he'd taken before, only unusually indecisively, before testing his claws on her carpeting. He noticed her state of undress. "I'm sorry I didna knock." he said, humor coloring the drawl.
"It's all right."
"Ye do realize," he started as she fumbled for her buttons, "I have seen ye naked before..."
She stopped on the second button, licked her lips and couldn't help but laugh. "A lady has her dignity, m'lord."
"Aye." he smirked and wandered closer. "I thought...I'd check up on ye. 'Tis been a while since we've even talked."
Maria stroked her stomach and lifted the lapels to reveal her stomach and the sinuous line of scar tissue running up from underneath the waistline of her skirt. A finger slowly, reminiscently trailed the thickest. "The pain's gone. All that's left are a few red lines."
Six horns dropped on an intuitive gaze that, despite the unevenness from an old injury having cleanly scored his brow, saw more than the captain was willing to give through an oblique expression. "That not be all that's left."
"I'm fine, really..."
He stepped closer. "Then why did ye leave during th' day?"
"Because at the last minute you'd probably try to talk me out of it."
Hudson snorted, a rush of air that echoed deep off his lungs. "Then ye truly dinna know me too well."
Tucking the shirt back into her skirt, she bit her lip and buttoned up to one below her collar. Every movement no matter how subtle, kicking off her heels, running a hand to smooth errant hairs, was under her visitor's unyielding, slightly phosphorescent scrutiny. "I just didn't want to leave an argument as the last thing between us," Maria admitted, "that's all."
"Ye know I supported yuir decision."
"Did you?" she asked over her shoulder, heading towards the kitchenette. "Or did just grit your teeth and suck it up without telling me how you really feel?"
"Ye had yuir life t' get back to, and I didna want to stand in th' way of that," he answered grimly, and then softened, "but havin' ye under my roof, if only for a while, 'twas nice."
She smiled a hidden smile against the almond beige of her fridge and opened the door. "Beer?" she offered.
Maria pulled out a large glass mug kept chilled on the top shelf, a can and a bottle of wine empty to the top of the label. Within seconds, she'd uncorked the bottle with uncanny skill, poured herself a glass of Arcadian Estate and Hudson his favorite beer.
A clawed hand swiped the mug, approvingly felt the weight in his hand (like the iron cups so long ago) and the old soldier allowed his companion to lead him towards the couch.
Maria took one side and steadied herself with her free hand as Hudson took the other. They clinked in quiet cheer, sipped and, knowing the other was waiting for someone to initiate conversation, both started in at the same time.
Once the awkwardness had eased off a little, a mellow banter took the place of relative unease.
They went on for a while and almost, just almost, had forgotten how easy this relationship was on the alcohol-insensate periphery of all the pain and loss. She'd related how hard it was to walk back through the doors of the twenty-third, cross through twenty detectives' desks and try to reach her office before the whispered rumors hit a fever pitch.
Her interim replacement hadn't done much to stem the bedlam the twenty-third had descended into (he'd thought the job was permanent and thus, thought he'd have more time to acclimate before the bombshell dropped of her survival and his hasty reassignment), and she'd spent the last few weeks sorting out the clutter.
And as she spoke (her words getting a little freer with every nip at the glass), Hudson listened, and watched with every sophisticated resource of his gaze, and immediately saw the change in demeanor as she relaxed and let her guard slip. This wasn't the woman who'd convalesced in the Eyrie infirmary and cried into his caped wings on more than a few bad nights, this was the never-seen, hard-edged captain of the detectives Elisa had both admired and complained about, especially when her orders didn't afford either her or her lover and his kin any freedom outside of proper procedure.
He didn't realize he was giving anything away until Maria noticed the dissecting gleam in his eye.
"What?" she stopped the conversation cold. "What is it?"
Hudson resettled on the couch and let his tail uncoil from underneath and lash to the opposite side. "Yuir...different."
Eyes thinned; a finger squealed on curved glass. "How?"
He could've drummed his claws into her chest with less shock to the system. "That's a little harsh." she shot back on wine-fragrant breath.
"It be as if yuir a different person when in that garb. Maria vanishes as captain Chavez takes her place." He took a good gulp and eyed the rest of his ale, a scrying pool looking back at him with a reflected, mismatched gaze. "Like dark magic."
"I'm the same woman you've always known."
"No." Hudson shook his head. "Not for th' last two weeks. You're afraid, of others seein' a chink in th' breastplate an' so ye bury yuirself underneath a stone skin, locking everyone out. Again."
Maria made a sound off her fingertip around the edge of the slender goblet, and stared at the ripples the vibrations sent through golden liquid. "I need to be strong right now." she said hoarsely. "For them. My officers. They've lost so much as well, family, friends, co-workers, and losing Maza and Bluestone especially, it's hurt them."
"An' does that mean ye must hurt th' ones ye care for as well?"
"Damnit Hudson!" fire lit her tongue. "I won't be condemned for the way I conduct myself, and I will not be demeaned for trying to hold together what little hope and morale we have left."
"Aye," he understood the circumstances, especially trying to hold his clan together after the death of King Malcolm and then, his mate, "I know."
A leg swung over the other and provided a place to lean her elbow and wrap a restless glare around the room. "The city and every single officer under me is the most important thing right now. More important than me, you..." her breath caught, "or us."
His chin rose, then fell into an indiscernible nod. Hudson pensively notched a fore-talon into the mug's handle, took a swig to finish the drink and stood up rather abruptly. "I should let ye rest."
Surprised, Maria looked at her own glass, dangling from her fingertips and still half full, and quickly thought back on a Dark Age custom he'd once told her about (and observed every time they shared a drink) of always waiting until the woman finished before taking leave. But she'd already shoved a sizable wedge between them, and he had no reason to stay. "It's all right..." she tried, futilely, before he unfurled those war-torn wings and resigned himself to the act.
"Nay," his eyes didn't meet hers, "yuir tired. And busy."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
"It's all right." It was the neutral grin, a show of tooth and the nervous gesture running through stiff digits that told her he wasn't about to stay. "Ye have yuir wars t' fight, an' so do we."
He made a determined bead for the sliding doors with Maria watching helplessly from the couch, and debating whether or not she should call out to stop him before he followed the brick and stucco straight down, towards the third floor and swooped across light traffic into a cluster of neighboring buildings.
Forcibly moving the sliding door from his way and looking close to crushing the aluminum frame, Hudson mantled his wings and turned his head into the breeze. No doubt he'd scented the ash and dirt stirred up by the construction still taking place in and around the Hole.
She watched as he climbed onto the railing and, certain no one was about to watch him launch from a twelfth story apartment, hit the wind with as much expertise as a gargoyle half his age. Maria remained focused on the balcony for a little while then slumped back, secure in the fact the cushions would support a weary body and tipped the glass to polish off the last of her wine in one delicious, anesthetizing swirl.
Her sleep that night would be troubled.
May 27th, 2:43 am
She'd heard war stories from her father. Of how dead bodies were lined up in what little space was available in and around the Allied med-evac tents, all draped in white, blood-soaked sheets and reaching as far as the eye could see.
Now, a little past three in the morning, the carnage around her seemed similar to the image she'd formed. And she thought humanity was supposed to have evolved since then. Ankle deep in corpses, blood on her heels, Maria slowly walked the dancefloor of the Tempest, the club with the history reaching back eighty years, a loyal Asian clientele and suspected ties to the Triad.
Over eighty confirmed dead, fifty wounded; there were so many bodies the coroners had already spent an hour and a half loading them into hearses and ambulances and still, twenty more were left to go. She kneeled to pull a sheet from a young girl, eyes open, three holes in her chest and one in her head and if she had to guess, about nineteen. A fake ID and her revealing clothes (and the fact she was Chinese) was probably all it took to get in.
Replacing the sheet, her hand hit her upper lip and tried to block some of the smell; pools of blood lay like it'd rained from the ceiling and splattered up the walls as high as fifteen feet (bile had risen when first walking in, but she swallowed and was glad for the fact she hadn't eaten for several hours).
But what Maria had keenly observed was the amount of bullet holes peppered in every surface. The estimate was already over a thousand shots fired and rising with every body, table and piece of furniture overturned.
Morgan stepped over a draped form with baggie-covered boots and approached the captain from behind. He didn't announce his presence until she stood back up and seemed to compose herself, running through the shakes until she had controlled every muscle and every visible sign of infirmity. "Mob hit, captain." he said quietly. "Definitely."
"Numbers?" she choked out.
"Eighty two confirmed dead, twelve more DOA at Manhattan General and a few more have just gone into surgery as we speak. But..."
She noticed the hesitation on his voice, and didn't like it, especially from a veteran. "What is it, Morgan?"
"We found more bodies in the back room." he answered, stepping alongside and gesturing with a flick of his chin to a far corridor behind a few tattered silk screens and angling off into darkness. The aquariums that had once lined the hall were shattered and empty, and all the fish that'd probably run a few hundred dollars apiece were dead on the floor. "And they weren't your typical club-goers."
"How do you figure that?"
"They were middle-aged and all dressed in robes, all silk." he explained. "Looked official. Hell, they looked like goddamned samurais."
"Samurais are Japanese, Morgan, I happened to play a good game of chess with one just a few weeks ago. Get them ID'ed." Maria ordered fervidly and swept the club with narrow eyes. "Get every one of them ID'ed. If the Triad did run this place, I want to know. Now."
Morgan could've sworn he saw that last breath spit and curl like a snuffed flame.
He'd noticed her behavior worsening ever since she arrived in front of the club on four squealing tires and charged inside, and decided not to test that thin thread of patience. "Yes ma'am."
Maria started whetting her nails together in an anxious gesture, and then, inexplicably, turned and headed towards the exit. "Excuse me," she fumed, "I have to make a phone call."
Aiten Charles was flexing his right hand, the trigger hand, since it'd cramped up from the successive, concussive kick of his gun (he'd fired for more than twenty minutes straight, stopping only to reload). And the fingers were sticky; blood had a tendency to splatter when hitting an artery, especially up close.
He figured he'd killed at least thirty and a few well-dressed suits that had to be Triad, and of all things to do after a massacre, he was humming, and singing a tune on his way to report back to Barnes.
The double doors that led into his employer's opulent penthouse suite lay ahead and his hand was an inch from the handle when it swung away and opened into an indigo gaze.
A young woman stopped short as she tried to creep through the doors. High heels dangling from her fingers, the spaghetti strap of her red glitter dress an inch from slithering off her collarbone, she looked as if she'd been made to dress in a hurry.
Charles leaned back, took the coffee curves and soaked in the sight of her, his gaze appreciatively running her five nine frame, curiosity mostly.
She brushed a coiled lock from skittish, timid eyes, aware of not just Charles' leer but the dead-cold one of the taller, facially scarred man behind. It didn't take much to figure out just what had been going on behind closed doors. "E-Excuse me." she breathed and quickly nudged past them.
"Gotta love the perks." Charles harrumphed, and pushed the door from his way.
The entire suite was dressed in liquid moonlight, high and between the windowpanes drawing skewed lines against the floor and opposite wall and tracing the neckless, all-shoulder contour of Lucian Barnes.
He was at the window, shirtless and drink in hand.
Charles leisurely walked the two steps into the sitting area, toes on the edge of blue light. "You know, Dawg, it almost seems like the ladies are getting younger and younger."
"She's almost as old as you, Aiten." Lucian responded quickly, eyes aglow. "I don't fuck children."
"Of course not."
Cubes clinked against glass, and he took a drink. "I've heard," Barnes started, his first breath visible over the ice, "there was a shooting at the Tempest tonight."
He moved, and the mountain of shadow moved with him, towards a bottle and a decanter on his desk. "How many dead?"
Ice slipped beside Charles and answered in the gravel voice, "Too many to count."
"And what of our little excitable friend? I'd hate to go to all the trouble of a slaughter without the actual intended target."
"Zhu wasn't there." Charles forced out, looking sheepish in the fact they'd missed the one man they wanted out of a hundred people. "We shot our way through the entire place before the cops got there, offed a few of the senior Chinks in the back but he was gone. Either he made it out or wasn't there in the first place."
Lucian breathed hard, but there was an odd kind of expectancy muddled somewhere in between. "Then I suggest we get ready for one hell of a reckoning, Mr. Charles." he smiled. "Zhu's going to be angry."
Maria had a shadow from the bullpen, down hall the corridor and into her office, one that kept the same pace and followed every move with glacier-eyed scrutiny.
She was halfway in before whirling on her stalker, and Iliana stopped with a jerk before the captain simply took to her desk and chair and wheeled up close, gathering her belongings. "Can I help you, detective Starr?"
The rookie delicately approached. "Just wondering who's going to be on the other end of that phonecall."
It was about now that Maria realized that the loyalty between her officers was a double-edged sword, especially in the gossip that somehow circulated through the entire building quicker than the air conditioning. Morgan must have told Iliana or, odds-on, she must've cornered him and forced the truth by leaning up against him and staring, leering, until he cracked. "That's really none of your business." she deflected, still looking down at her briefcase. "But I think you already know."
"It isn't their fault."
"They didn't pull the trigger if that's what you mean, but they might as well have."
"Pretty harsh," Iliana observed, "coming from the woman whose life was saved by them."
Maria grabbed a file from the stack on her desk and opened it to the coroner's photos fresh from the developing fluid. Blood had turned black in the monochromatic hues, with the sheen of a flashbulb on the viscous puddle behind the young girl's head. "She was an honor student," she whispered, "with a full scholarship to NYC."
Iliana's gaze was settled at the bare edge of the photograph and the dark hair matted with little chunks of skull. She grimaced, and felt the six-pack of McNuggets tugging at her throat. "Captain..."
"How many more have died, Iliana?"
She shifted uncomfortably, but the unblinking glower laid into her like the knuckle-side-up of a boxer's glove loosened her tongue. "According to Morgan, three more in the last half hour."
The file was quickly closed, placed back onto the pile and Maria stood to leave, feeling rather justified. "If you'll excuse me, detective." She was nearly to her own door until she stopped, and turned her head over her shoulder. "And for the record, I'm acutely aware of what the clan has done for us and this city. And for me." Maria added hurriedly, in seeing the arch of plucked red subtly rise and frame a piercingly Socratic pair of eyes. "And I know what I may be sacrificing in order to keep both this city and myself from drowning under all the blood that's been spilled."
And before the expected response could even be voiced, her captain had stalked off, becoming little more than fading footfalls on the linoleum.
Iliana set her jaw and gulped the riposte, then settled on the desk and Maria's letter opener that had a remarkable resemblance to an old English blade (it was, in fact, plucked from the private stock of David Xanatos). Hudson was a little rusty when it came to the courtship rituals of modern times, but Maria'd accepted it more than graciously. "Let's hope so..."
"...You really stirred the hornet's nest this time..."
Brooklyn had never quite heard her this incensed, but the tone had that charge like fingers of electricity through his joints. "We were trying to send a message to Barnes."
"...What? That he has to increase the bloodshed before he gets out-muscled by another Dracon wannabe?..."
"Captain Chavez...Maria..." he tried diplomatically, but was getting nowhere considering he hadn't even gotten a word in edgewise since he'd answered the phone.
"...Let us handle this!..." she barked, and the potency of it nearly gave the gargoyle whiplash. "...I've never been comfortable with your brand of vigilante justice–"
"That vigilante justice has saved the world–hell, saved the universe on more than a couple of occasions! Your molecules are still cohesive because we've risked our lives every goddamned night since we woke up here."
"...Well this time it's blown up in your face. You've forgotten how delicate the little battles can be..."
Again, a little more forceful, "Listen...!"
Like trying to hold back the tide with a pair of hands and a hope, Brooklyn couldn't help but feel a little ineffectual. "You're making my explanation a little hard to get out."
Something crackled over the connection; to a gargoyle intimate with every shimmy and octave of a woman's vocal cords (human or not), it sounded like a growl.
"...I don't need an explanation..." Maria chided. "...I already know what it is..."
"Protection." Brooklyn said resolutely, all the clarification either of them needed.
"...Right, and working outside of the law, I know..." A pause, a breath, a noise in the background and then, "...I've allowed this to go on because I knew the difference you were making. Damnit, there were some nights I finally felt safe in my own home and bed knowing you were out there on the streets. But it's different now..."
"...It just is..."
He growled, "Define 'is'."
"...I...I-I don't think we need you anymore..."
He leaned back and the plastic casing of the telephone buckled under crimson talons; Brooklyn was struck silent at the unapologetic tone.
And somewhere across the city, fingernails drew soothing circles into a forehead just slightly creased. Maria had stammered. She'd never stammered in her life. "...I never thought I'd hear myself saying that, but I never realized just how bad it had gotten out here. I've already lost an officer in the last week...he had a wife and two children..."
A hand rubbed his left brow in sympathetic remorse; it wasn't ever easy to lose anyone, even from the lower ranks. Unfortunately, where Brooklyn's clan was concerned, there were no lower ranks, just family. "I'm sorry." he rasped.
"...So am I..." Maria said faintly, a transitory hint of softness that would quickly disappear. "...You just concentrate on finding the Guild, and we'll take care of our city..."
The receiver clattered against the speckled laminate, she bristled and, realizing the glass in her hand, it would've found its way across the apartment living room if she hadn't quickly reigned in the impulse and laid the little crystal cup to the adjoining kitchen counter.
She'd wanted to stay angry and in the right, wanted that sustenance of her injuries, her surgery, of a voice against blurred images telling her a bullet had severed the baby's umbilical cord, but in the end, she really didn't know who to be mad at more: the clan, or herself.
Stiffing her upper lip, Maria loosed the topknot and let the cinnamon tendrils frame either side of a molten glare, enough to melt two holes about eye-high in the window overlooking the river, a wrinkled, black banner of starlight that would every so often whistle into the night.
It was enough coming back into work to shocked expressions and a room gone silent even as far as the bullpen, to the rumors of just what had happened to her, to see the inbox completely full and her office, like the rest of the precinct and city, in total chaos. But having the clan drop a match into the tinderbox with their self-styled brand of protection was a little more than she could bear right now. She'd ridden the line for years (years, she dwelled for a moment), allowing the gargoyles to skulk through the city and circumvent every civilized edict and law her species had carefully, painstakingly, excruciatingly devised to keep from all-out killing themselves.
In some ways, in a lot of ways, it'd succeeded (the world was almost destroyed a few times, not to mention existence at least once), and also failed miserably ("His name would'ave been Malcolm", Hudson had whispered once).
But little wars needed subtlety, and whenever the clan was involved things had a way of exploding or at the very least catching fire. And in all the turmoil she'd gone through the last two months, especially seeing her own son sitting in a jar somewhere in the mess Dr. Pierce claimed as his office, she needed a little order to her life.
Heading towards her bathroom and a hot shower, Maria passed the living room and noticed a glint of light catch the faceted edge of a glass on her coffee table. She stopped, stared and eventually moved closer.
It was Hudson's (at least, the old, dusty mug of Carlos' she'd pulled from the back of the cabinet for him); he'd left it the other night and she must have forgotten to put it in the dishwasher.
She sighed, grabbed the hefty glass mug and with a whiff, could still make out the ephemeral scent of the gargoyle's favorite beer. Knowing just how he favored a heady ale like they made a thousand years ago, she'd stocked the fridge specially for him and his semi-frequent visits.
The last words they'd exchanged were angry and over a telephone. And thinking on the theme it hit her, that line, the in-between she couldn't afford to walk anymore.
That girl flashed through her mind; Maria tensed, and headed for the shower.
Hearing the connection sever on the other end, Brooklyn held the phone away from his ear, looked at it with a cocked brow and then laid it back to its cradle. He'd really begun to admire the woman in the little time he'd been able to get to know her, but outside the castle the passive, almost soft-spoken demeanor she'd worn for her recovery had all but transformed or completely retreated back under the armor.
He'd heard the adage of adapting to one's environment whether by choice or a matter of sheer survival, and it seemed Maria had to re-grow that thick skin to keep from crumbling.
As he coaxed his ridges into a knitted position, a new scent led his eyes to a thick, contoured line of aquamarine standing at the door.
"Think we screwed up?" Broadway asked.
"No." Brooklyn answered earnestly. Forty years spent risking his life for a species that would probably skin him for a rug had taught him the good fight was always worth it, even if a few didn't think highly of their tactics. "But I think I've severely underestimated Lucian Barnes." His features creased, and he caught his own reflection in a dark, powerless computer screen and showed a bit of fang. "No one's scared of us anymore, Broadway."
He shrugged, "It's hard to be scared of monsters in the dark when the world around you is full of them."
A brusque harrumph filled the chamber.
"Maybe we should let it go." Broadway continued. "Focus our efforts on the Guild."
"And leave the city to its own protectors." Brooklyn added a spin of sarcasm.
"I can hear Elisa's voice in my head, 'we were doing just fine before you got here'."
Brooklyn's gaze tapered to faintly glowing slits and strained on a line six and a half feet high, as if he was trying into see through the interlock of stones and into the city two miles down. "I'd really like to believe that, I really would."
"The humans are tough."
"A thousand are dead." he countered.
"Because of something they didn't understand. This is one of their battles, on their turf, on their terms."
In all his travels, being dragged from one epoch to another, the urge to protect was what kept him motivated to stay alive and hang on to what little shreds of sanity he had left. Brooklyn didn't like it, but he resigned himself to the fact he couldn't do a damned thing. "Yeah." His tone carried the weight of his duty, one that was ironically, practically stolen. "I just don't like them facing a fight alone."
"There're eight million of them." Broadway prompted, walking forwards and towards the smaller monitor left on a news network higher up in the channels. Their continued footage on the Hole had run for all but two months straight and he'd watched as civilians bloodied their hands alongside the rescue teams lifting piles of rubble and rebar to find survivors. He'd watched a general public that used to hate each other risk their own lives to save total strangers. "They're not alone."
"Then why do we continually imperil ourselves for them?"
For a moment they both thought the other had said it, until Brooklyn looked off his left shoulder towards the presence that'd sent his hair on end and a shiver though his wing membranes without knowing why.
Something dark and black-boned stared at him through thin, disembodied eyes.
One voice couldn't be picked from the droning chatter that filled the air.
It was abuzz with the lilt of revenge, in either English or Chinese or a broken combination of the two. Their committee, such as it was and the purpose it served to merely cater to a petulant, high-strung young man with the proper blood to rule this particular chapter of the Triad, had been cut down to barely half.
The only survivor from the Tempest (at least, the only one who'd made it back so far) was slowly bleeding into his bandages in the corner. Teeth gnashed into the casing of a bullet, an old woman calmly sewed his shoulder closed as comfortably as her celebrated satin stitch; the embroidered tapestries adorning the walls of the safehouse were work that'd taxed old hands to the bone, though she never did like to boast.
" Wipe them out! "
They were arguing in a circle, reeling from the news of the shooting at the club and fueled by adrenaline as the clock ticked towards half past four.
" I agree! " a woman with braided hair and a blood-red sash cried out. " They did all they could to kill us, we should return the favor! Call in our support from Shanghai! "
Another was particularly outspoken. " We don't need any more help to exterminate Barnes and the rest of his dogs. "
His taller friend had cheered in his favor until glancing instinctively towards the door; the blood drained from his face. Chilled to the spine with what he found, he elbowed the ribs of the man beside him to shut him up. " Chang... "
" They will pay for this... "
" Chang. "
Chang mistook the urgency for a fear of reprisal, and didn't see that his friend's gaze had enlarged. " Every last one of th–"
He reached a hand to his companion's shoulder, squeezed tightly and snapped, " Chang! ", then gestured towards the far end of the room.
" Oh, shit... "
Lei stood at the doorway with a body in blood-soaked hands, one of his cabinet members he was able to drag from the crossfire before catching a bullet upside the temple (the whole world had exploded with a hail of gunfire making splinters and shrapnel of the Tempest's delicate Chinese screens and paneling, and he was barely able to roll from bullets tearing the air and drag one of twelve unlucky faithfuls into the back alley to die). Teeth gleamed through the vermilion spatter across one side of his face, and his eyes burned brightly against the paint of war.
A grenade could've gone off in the room and nobody would have noticed, even with a face full of napalm. In the silence that followed, only the needle still methodically piercing human flesh and the grunt of the wounded could be heard.
Lei took a few steps and relieved himself of the body by simply lowering his arms and rolling it to the floor; it hit with a sickening, amorphous thump.
A few dark globules struck the far wall.
A woman turned her head away, and someone else in the back cleared his throat.
He stood over the body for a moment, breathing through the back of clenched molars and none dared to even make a sound until he did. Images floated to the congealed surface of the blood still pouring from the corpse and Lei was, for a moment, rapt. Until, two fingers carved a line through the drying, caking fluid on his sharp-boned cheek. " I want Barnes' head. " he hissed, rubbing warm blood between his fingertips.
His council nodded mechanically, all but one.
And Lei could see just who had remained deathly still, refusing to acknowledge any sort of response through any sort of body language. " You disagree? " he asked of the old man, tucked away in the corner.
A lined hand gripped to the handle of a sword sheathed up to an inch of the delicately fire-forged, brass hilt, showing a glint of Damascus steel. As he spoke, a brow would contract along the fine, razor edge. " You see what has happened and what will happen if we continue to escalate things. "
" Yes, Lucian Barnes' imminent death. "
The old man turned his features into the light. " This is because of you. "
Lei lifted his head, an instinctive motion to the challenge of his authority. " What? "
" I advised you not to go to war. And now look what you've brought upon us. "
A finger shot in his direction, and a growl brushed the rigid limb, " You have been warned. "
" The people who so loyally serve you will continue to die if you wage this foolish war. " the old man hoarsely persisted.
" Foolish?! " Lei answered, incredulous. " You didn't think it foolish when freely spilling blood at my father's side. "
The nascent wince about to appear at either side of the old man's eyes never appeared; he'd swallowed it. " That was...a long time ago. "
" But the principles of the struggle are the same. I did not start this war, but I will finish it. "
It was true of course; he too had shed blood all for the glory of the Triad, staking a claim in the U.S. with a gun and sword, and was once as proud and pompous as the leader he'd help create from pieces of an angry, steel-willed child who'd watched his father decline into compromise. His argument crippled, it'd lost most of the momentum behind it and he lethargically moved his eyes towards the wall. " And how many more will die? "
It was almost as if Lei actually took the time to deliberate on his advisor's counsel, but something else was churning in the dark depths of his head. " As many as need be. " He whirled on them, the small clutch with the taste for blood still and so fresh they'd run screaming into Hell. They seethed as he did, and didn't quite think on the consequences (maybe later, if they survived, some would). " Dracon is dead, Thomas Brode is facing a life sentence in prison for killing a guard, and I'm going to stab Lucian Barnes' through the eye socket. We can't hesitate or falter, we can't lose the grip the Triad's had on this city for decades and if we have to kill every single person who even slightly resists us, we will do so! " Something smoldered behind Lei's eyes, turning sable to amber like molten glass. " Manhattan is ripe! And we will take it! "
A cheer rung to the rafters and the deaths had quickly been forgotten.
" Gather everyone you can. " Lei ordered. " Including my Elite. "
" Damnit, boy! " the old man tried as a last resort, wobbling his way to his feet. " You risk losing everything. "
" Or gaining it all. " Lei roared out, mostly to the rest of his followers, if they had any lingering doubts. He extended a hand to his advisor. " Will you come? "
" No. "
" Then the rest of us shall go. " With a frantic wave, he herded the rest of them out the door and followed with a fury-laced vigor in his step.
Even the wounded one lying on the floor and being dressed by the old woman stood up against her better advice, entwined with a bit of irritation at his recklessness. They tromped out, thinking themselves immortal, and left the advisor alone with sunken eyes looking into the nothingness that'd drawn itself as a distant point on the wall.
He rubbed his aching shoulder, thumbing the old scars through his robe and damning his body and voice, both gone frail with age.
" He is on a path to his own destruction, husband. " the old woman muttered, packing up the first aid kit and idly wondering which cleanser best lifted blood from a varnished wood floor.
" I know. " the old man breathed sadly.
The woman hobbled to the sink and eased her hands under the spout; the spiraling water turned a few shades shy of ruby. " I am tired of the blood. "
He turned, and watched his wife serenely pick the last remnants from under her fingernails. She was used to it, the bloodshed, and the smell of it. " As am I. But we are bound to serve. "
She chuckled dryly, " Yes, because of that old promise to a man now dead. I hope we don't end up the same. I'd like to see our daughter at least once more. "
" You know she hasn't spoken to us in years. "
" Yes...it's been a while, hasn't it? "
He was behind her in an instant, without sound or effort. " Yes, it has. "
She could almost hear Zhu's rebuttal in her mind, said low on the wolfish, fang-filled growl that'd help charm his way into some sort of acceptance among the elder Triads and warned off any potential contenders. The boy in charge of an army that rivaled Alexander's or the young fool Achilles had too much anger in him to think straight; he was all ego, and led by his instincts.
Juno would have admired that, if his instincts led true.
She knew by now he was preparing to take out his rival to the throne, and with the slaughter of his higher-ups, he'd go so far as to myopically tear another hole into Manhattan if only to strike as costly a blow to Barnes. And while they killed each other, the opportunity to pick off the vulnerable corners of their respective empires piece by piece presented itself quite nicely.
Like the ten-foot GMC box truck currently smoldering, shredded and lying at an angle on a broken front axle. And six thousand dollars worth of weaponry, and a few disorientated guards that had no idea what would punch a hole through their back doors and rip them from the hinges.
A few shattered bones, a dislocated jaw and a skull fracture later, she'd just added to her stockpile. She'd watched it all from the back end of her limousine, through tinted glass and with a glass of cold Russian Cristall at her bottom lip, then sipped and exited with languid grace to study her employees throwing the coffin-sized crates from the back end of the Jimmy.
Eyes clouded and almost in a stupor, they took to their tasks silently, moving with all the grace and speed of a revived cadaver. But as one of them easily lifted a crate probably weighing in over five hundred pounds, their worth jumped tenfold.
And the bodies strewn about the ruined truck, some crushed, others ripped in half, they'd torn through the convoy's security in merciless efficiency.
One had unspectacularly stepped out in front, glanced dead eyes off the high-beams and held out his hands against the speeding vehicle's front grill, bringing it to a stop (he'd left prints in the chrome and a fifty foot gash in the pavement) as his partner attacked from behind.
A firefight ensued. Bullets bounced off flesh with a necrotic gray hue, the sound of rapidly emptying cartridges was replaced by screams and the men were overrun by creatures that simply couldn't be killed.
Juno was pleased with their work and, loath to admitting, glad she'd stolen them from her ex-husband. A little modification and the mystical equivalent of a lobotomy and she needn't waste fragile human flesh where pallid skinned demi-gods would do.
Supervising her men's efforts (transferring crates from one truck to another), she stepped over a body and got close enough to see skin and vein bulging under identical suits at the exertion.
Diminutive footsteps behind her preceded the feeling that bristled the hairs on her neck, and Ambrosine toddled up beside her. "What if the men find out you took their guns?"
"They'll be angry." she answered succinctly.
"Won't they try to hurt you?"
"If they happen to pull their heads from their collective ass to even notice...perhaps. Humans are proud creatures, they'd rather die than be seen as weak." But to sate her daughter's fear, Juno kneeled down and ran her hands through her hair, and as with every instance before, her fingertips went a little numb. "What did mommy do to Antigone, when she once boasted about having hair more beautiful than me?"
She smiled, showing unnaturally white, flawless teeth. "Turned her hair into serpents."
"Revenge, dear child, all the intricacies of aggression and sadism are not just human pleasures. I hope you learn that. And I hope you remember I have learned to survive for more than half an eternity."
Ambrosine turned her head on a strangled sound from near the damaged truck, and noticed one of the men still alive. Alabaster lips curled. "May I?"
Her mother nodded, "Of course."
She skipped over in black patent Mary-Janes and stood at the man's feet, watching as he groaned and fought to stay conscious even with the gash on his forehead opened up to the bone. Her interest wasn't on whether he lived or not, but the cleanly flowing runnel of blood and the scent of iron on the air.
It charged the senses (somewhere in the distance, a lamppost threw off sparks).
He spotted her from the corner of his red-blurred gaze and flinched, until he realized it wasn't one of the subhuman attackers, but a young girl out of place on the streets at four a.m. He stared.
He didn't quite know what to make of her, only that he had to get out of there. Going to move he felt something on his leg, where part of the pant had been ripped away.
The man quailed as the little girl placed her hand to exposed skin and sent a shock of energy through every nerve from his hand to brainstem. But by the time the signal that would've told him to run returned, his body was numb from the waist down and his skin, already starting to blister and boil, peeled from the inside out.
He would've screamed but his esophagus had already melted into his stomach.
Bones cracked as they re-shifted to suit a new grotesque form, internal organs squeezed through his pores and oozed onto asphalt and the small girl responsible watched it all through a black, cow-eyed gaze that didn't seem to reflect any of the incandescent scenery. If possessed of any emotion, she hid it well as the bloody, boneless pile gurgled in its last throes.
There was more a curiosity than regret or horror of what little hands had done. Every synapse in her body fired at once with the amount of endorphins released, and she almost convulsed; it seemed little Ambrosine got off on death. "I want to do more violence, mother." she gasped, as the street wrinkled underneath her.
"And so you shall." Juno replied, a calming hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Come child, we must leave before your handiwork garners the wrong kind of attention." She snapped her fingers towards the oddly palsied henchmen. "Force, Violence..."
The crack off two manicured fingers was enough to completely grab her henchmen's attention. As if lightning had made a scorch mark at their feet they spun on their heels and stiffened at the smaller woman's electric glare.
"Gentlemen," she smiled, a wicked emphasis on the word, "we have to go."
They nodded in unison and each took to a different driver's seat, one in the limo and the other in the freshly loaded truck. Juno ushered her daughter into the rear door, eased into double-stitched leather and delicately plucked her unfinished glass from the mini-bar as if there was nothing wrong in the world.
June 15th, 2000
"We are creatures of honor, of minimalism, freedom and nobility. Of the earth and air. We are also creatures of habit, we cannot escape our most fundamental instinct to protect the ones we love, our home and those who cannot protect themselves."
Goliath stood in the center of the library, intent on Annika and Shadow (the former huddled on one end of a couch that could comfortably sit five, and the latter a few blurred, violet lines somewhere in the corner).
The two strays had asked of a race they just recently learned they'd belonged to, and Goliath had warned them of two versions: the short, and the long. They'd looked at each other and then chose the latter. After half a lifetime living as something undefined and more along the lines of an urban legend in their respective countries, they felt they deserved every little detail, from stone sleep to the elusive subject of the breeding season.
Annika surreptitiously glanced towards and up the rigid, thorned frame of her new housemate; he was scowling, and hung in an array of Japanese steel. They'd barely exchanged a few words in the two months they'd known each other (at the most, he was barely a flicker in the torchlight at the end of a hall and the female mysteriously named Desdemona would joke the castle was haunted).
She had a feeling the young man who'd saved her life was dangerously close to getting his head ripped off in his attempts to crack the glower.
"And what if we choose not to protect humans that would rather see us dead?" Shadow rasped. Clearly by the stance and protruding lower jaw, he wasn't in the least impressed with this clan's predilection towards the throwing themselves in the path of bullets and knives for a less than appreciative species.
Goliath sighed, "Then that is your choice."
Annika shifted on the couch; she wasn't quite used to the new clothes and snuck a talon under the collar, tugging at the material. "But they hate you," she muttered, "hate us. Why risk your lives night after night to get nothing but fear and hatred back?"
"Because sometimes, there is no one else who can." he answered. "Just because they do not understand us doesn't mean we should condemn them."
"They have already condemned us." Shadow cut in. "Let them–"
"Suffer?" Goliath presumed to finish for him, and pinned him with his patent granite glare.
Shadow's features deepened, and compressed so much as to practically implode.
"Pay for their hubris, their arrogance, their misplaced fear?"
"Why not?" he suggested, more to test the reaction of the clan's alpha male.
"No." Goliath bristled, shaking his head fervently. "My relationship with Elisa proves humanity can and will accept us..."
"She is but one."
"There are many others, and I will not allow such a rift to grow between us because of unfounded lies and propaganda that are spread by a small percentage of the population." He crossed the wide path of the firelight, and the ninja was struck by his physical prowess as his musculature danced in the heavy gleam and a shadow enveloped half the library. "But I cannot force you to do anything that you yourself are not willing." his tone softened. "The choice is yours and yours alone, to either join us, or make your own way in this world, hiding, and forgetting of the innocents that are threatened by forces you could never possibly imagine."
Annika was quietly pensive, Shadow hardly reserved. One had found the explanation a little more than uplifting after a lifetime under the hard-calloused hand of her father, and the other, if his expression (or lack of) read true, wasn't swayed by the sermon.
"I still don't see the point."
Goliath hinted at a smile on his lantern chin before it melted into an indiscernible line. His eyes seemed to stir, blending charcoal with the tangerine light and giving credence to how well hidden his thought process was under the stone-faced pretense. "Your caretaker was human, was he not?"
"Yes, he raised me," Shadow replied cautiously, wondering if he was talking himself into a precisely structured trap, "while the neighboring village was nearly up in arms against the 'creature'. It's hard to become motivated to protect the humans when seven thousand branded me a monster."
"Do you hate them?"
His tail lashed, and from her vantage (seeing his backbone practically ripple) Annika was becoming acutely aware of just how hot and cold he ran. "Because I don't wish to!"
Goliath decided not to push. He merely sighed, and moved a loose hair from his brow. "Perhaps one day, there will be someone out there you care for enough to freely risk your life."
"I doubt it..."
Like he'd melted from between the seams, or had somehow always been there (without the two leaders even noticing), Shadow gleamed fang off the monitor light.
Broadway could've sworn he'd locked the door behind him, and cast a quick, lop-sided glance to double-check.
"You and Goliath have indoctrinated the rest of us in the subtle art and glorious tradition of protection," the figure rasped, tattoos clenching, "told us we should do all we can to defend the humans and now, even after you engineered a mutiny, we are to leave them on their own?"
Brooklyn leaned against the desk, rubbing a talon thoughtfully underneath his beak. He himself was defined by a crescent of light and his eyes stood out, miserably reflecting the pain of the choice he was forcing himself to accept. Like eating acid and trying to keep it down. "We'll only do more harm now." he said in a downward nod.
"Only if we abide by the humans' rules."
"If letting you play by your own rules means letting you loose into the city, I'd rather keep you on a leash."
If wind or fire, or the distant, rumbling nor'easter just over the horizon had a physical form, it would've probably looked exactly like the creature stomping up towards the crimson gargoyle. At hair's length, hide rippling and blending like a storm cloud between murky shades, Shadow leaned down, and in, and snarled, "I beg your pardon?"
Brooklyn didn't flinch. "You have the tendency to be a "
"Remember the Pack?" Broadway said to the side.
Shadow did. The pooled scent of blood and hydraulic fluid had been burned on his senses since he'd spilled their cybernetically enhanced entrails on the desert sands. He quickly repressed the urge to run his tongue hungrily over his incisors. "I do what must be done."
Brooklyn found the mask slam down over what looked like a touch of satisfaction on either side of dark lips (he knew the ninja had enjoyed it). "This is a hell of a lot more delicate than we ever thought." he continued. "There're more lives at risk."
"Exactly." he huffed. "We need to intervene now."
"Odd, coming from the guy who at one time didn't give a damn."
That quieted him, for a moment, as he swallowed and balled a fist. A knuckle cracked, enough power running through the single joint to spear through bone. "There is someone out there I care about." Shadow admitted.
"There're a lot of people out there we care about!" Broadway snapped, moving in on a fleeting charge that ended an inch off Shadow's talons.
"Then why do we stand here and do nothing?!"
A hand threw itself in between the two largest of the Wyvern clan before they tore the entire chamber apart, including several million dollars worth of equipment. "We've got to trust Maria on this one." Brooklyn intervened.
Shadow's lips peeled back so far they nearly tore off his skull. "I don't trust anyone." he growled sub-octavely. "And besides, she must work by regulations that can be often played in anyone's favor if they have enough money."
"That's–", Brooklyn stopped himself, thought about it, and then conceded the point, "–only sometimes true."
"How long do you think the men we captured will stay in jail?"
As if to save Brooklyn from an impossible response, a glint off stone caught their attention, sparking to the side and drawing translucent curves in lavender and a light beam until the form of Mother touched to the stones. "Not long, apparently." the hologram reported. "They have been released from police custody as of an hour ago."
"Let me guess." Broadway sneered. "Barnes' lawyer got them out on a technicality."
She nodded and leaned into the gesture, eerily in the fact the computer-generated fabric of her tunic gown made no sound as it rumpled and swayed. "Lack of evidence."
"Damn!" Anger thundered through Shadow's veins, so much so as to blind the ninja to the hologram he mowed through on his way to get to Brooklyn. "Do you see now?!"
Mother re-coalesced, features a little cross. "I beg your pardon."
Shadow ignored her and instead focused on his leader. "Working within human law is useless!"
"Not to the humans."
"No," he scoffed, "just lethal. They've constructed themselves a nice little judicial deathtrap with their so-called progress, and their so-called legal system."
Suddenly thrust between two valid viewpoints, like a slap to the face Brooklyn had found himself with a newfound respect for Goliath's position and the crusade he wordlessly, determinedly undertook. But even with the dragon's breath down his back, he didn't cringe, or hesitate on his decision. "We're only going to make things worse."
"It cannot get any worse."
Brooklyn rose up against him with a white streak across his glassy gaze, and something just as potent as the raw ferocity and power the ninja held. "Yeah," he hissed, "it can."
If Lei Zhu could've been accused of anything, it wasn't subtlety.
Especially when seven black Lexuses rode bumper to bumper in a straight line through the light, late-night traffic. A car tried to sneak out from a side street and nearly had its front-end torn off by the train seven vehicles long and determined to ride right up to Lucian Barnes' front doors.
Face loosely sketched by the cherry of a cigarette in his cupped hands, a lookout had taken his eyes off the road for only a second. He didn't think anyone could've crept into his field of vision that fast until the stylized L and surrounding grill of a Lexus GS suddenly appeared from out of nowhere, and would leave a mark on his crushed ribcage distinct enough for coroners to quickly identify the cause of death.
The body hit the building fifteen feet away, and the car first in line skidded halfway up the sidewalk.
Lei was first out the passenger side door.
He'd forgone such an impersonal weapon as a gun and clenched the scabbard of his father's six hundred year old sword, a small jade dragon near the hilt and matching the ink up his spine. He wanted to see it impaled through Barnes' fat throat. His Elite followed, and anyone else they could gather for a total of fifty angry men and woman swarming outside of the brownstone and all starved for payback.
Two of Barnes' lower-end lackeys shot through the front doors, weapons drawn and Lei didn't even give them the opportunity to get a shot off (and maybe later brag over a few drinks they'd taken out the leader of the Triad). He circled on his heel, slashed, hit the jugular of two men on either side and nearly took off their heads, then continued the impatient stride up the staircase.
They didn't even feel the metal swipe through their flesh, until touching around their throats. Blood seeped through fingers and panic set in; they were even afraid to scream lest their heads separate at the neck and instead quietly, flaccidly slumped to the ground.
"Kill everything that moves." Lei hissed, wiping the entire length of his blade clean across his coat. "But leave Barnes for me."
"Maria's point is valid."
"I do not care about her point!" Shadow bristled. "She is too entrenched in the human hierarchy to effectively see what is truly at stake here."
"You're right." Brooklyn nodded in some kind of consent, but the enigmatic smile that'd crept along the length of his beak was leading the conversation in an entirely different direction. "Because she's forced to see things that we may never get to. Every casualty, every death, every little nick and cut on innocent people. We fight the big wars, and she fights the little ones and let me tell you Shadow, I think she sees plenty well."
He didn't have a rebuttal, at least not yet, and as Broadway was silently intrigued and somewhat mollified he'd felt the same as his rookery brother (like he was straddling some high-wire between two distant ends of a moral bottleneck), Shadow remained broodingly tacit.
"We never think of the little battles anymore," Brooklyn resumed, "we're too busy trying to save the city, the world, or our own species from extinction." He looked up, by a good foot. "We just can't do everything, Shadow, and expect perfect results."
"You wanted to be pro-active."
"And look where it got me. Got us. Smack-dab in the middle of a mob war!"
"Speaking of a mob war," Mother chimed in, "gunfire has been reported."
Brooklyn whirled around, knowing the hologram was tuned into every frequency on the police band. "Where?"
"The corner of Columbus and West 77th street."
Broadway unfolded his arms. "Isn't that near...?"
"Lucian Barnes' residence, yes."
And then ran a hand down his face. "Fifty bucks says it's Zhu."
Brooklyn fell silent, and ground out a mangled sigh. This was what he'd feared most, a small war breaking out, tearing the city in two and he was forced to sit back and watch it happen.
"Well?!" Shadow asked impatiently, hovering over him. "What are we going to do?!"
"Nothing." Brooklyn said austerely; apparently his decision had already been made. "Nothing at all."
One would think he'd suffer complete atrophy in every ribbon of sinew the way his muscles kept clenching in disgust. Shadow was obviously irate. "I don't believe this..."
"I thought the same as you," Broadway approached delicately, "but...maybe..."
"We'll get in the way," Brooklyn cut in, reinforcing his point with Broadway's seeming uncertainty, "and I won't risk anyone else either under my command, or Maria's."
Shadow immediately turned and stomped out, but a sharp voice caught him at the door as if someone had lodged a knife into his back.
"Shadow," Brooklyn snapped, "where the hell are you going?!"
He stopped at the threshold, but ignored him. Even as convincingly unremorseful as Shadow was, a guilty gesture trickled through his hand.
Brooklyn realized; his ridges shot up and then down. "Don't even think about it."
"You are not my keeper." he whirled around, and clasped his fists. "No one is."
"You want to be a part of this clan?" Brooklyn hissed, marching towards the door. "Then you're going to do every goddamned thing I say."
Standing at full, roof-scraping height, the ninja met the challenge. There was an unspoken dare between their respectively powerful gazes, one that could get either of them killed depending on who acted on the impulse first.
Broadway knotted; he thought these two were going to go after each other's throats just as he and Shadow almost did minutes before. Seemed he had that effect.
But the ninja did something no one expected and simply, frighteningly leaned in, breathed a hot breath and seethed, "Why I even decided to support you is beyond me."
Brooklyn straightened out some, and the sting registered as a quick change of color in his eyes. Before he could counter, Shadow tore off in a huff and was gone before words could even coherently form and dribble out the end of his beak.
"I want every available clan member with me. We're going to drag him back kicking and screaming if we have to."
Othello was having trouble keeping up to Brooklyn as he screamed down the hall, lugging with him a few hundred thoughts that would coalesce into a single question, "Why should we stop him?"
"I'll give you several reasons why." Brooklyn quipped back.
"He's the perfect weapon for this kind of situation." Othello was a little more forceful, practically breathing down Brooklyn's neck. "All we have to do is point him in the right direction."
"And let him slaughter everyone."
"Those men would do the same to anyone else without hesitation."
Skidding to a halt, he sighed, "When did homicide become our means?"
Othello had already realized the extent of his words but he'd seen too much war already, and never had a weapon so potent as a short-tempered killing machine at the end of what little patience he possessed. "What else can we do?" it leaked out as a slow whistle. "Our clan has already lost so much, and now the humans..."
Brooklyn resumed his stride. "I don't want to lose Shadow." he answered sharply. "As good as he is, he's flying into a warzone."
"Brooklyn." Mother was suddenly beside him, walking on air and phantom legs in time with his own tread. It would've been a creepy sight if Brooklyn had noticed. "Detective Starr is on the line. I've routed it to your personal communications channel."
Brooklyn tapped the little device hooked behind his ear. "Iliana?"
"...What's going on?..." a voice echoed through the commlink's receiver. "...I'm a little busy here..."
"We've got a loose cannon heading your way."
There was a pause over the line as Iliana digested the news. "...Shit..." she mumbled. "...Eyes all glowy, slightly salivating? Did his tattoos kinda smolder?..."
"...Then it means he's about to rip some gangsters a new collective asshole. How long do you think it's going to take him to get there?..."
He smelled blood.
And could already hear the gunfire from three blocks away, echoing on the airstreams that were promptly obliterated by his own fast-flying form; as fluid as a wingless, steeringless shuttle reentering the atmosphere, the wake left behind him was superheated and throwing the eddies that rolled from the folded membranes into chaos.
In the throbbing need to sate his bloodlust, he wasn't thinking on the aerodynamics.
Skulking past the lower floors of skyscrapers, forced to constantly watch their backs, he was getting sick of it. And if there was anything more perfect to take his anger out on, it was a cadre of humans going to war for some stupid purpose.
And something perfectly corporeal that was a little more satisfying than some random wall in the castle.
Shadow banked on a particularly strong current, angled his wings and shored them close, then dropped into the upper West side.
A blade cleaved flesh, screams eventually faded into whimpers and Lei hit the fourth floor landing.
Slowly but surely he was climbing towards the top of the brownstone. As men and women fought, dropped and died around him, clearing a path up five flights, he seemed particularly centered, pausing only to expose his sword and draw blood in single, lethal swipes.
They'd lost more than half of their contingent when reaching the top floor, but loyalty ensured an honorable death and a name that would be spoken reverently, long after the body had turned to dust. Thus they died in droves.
Reaching the last few steps, Lei caught sight of the double doors that housed Barnes' private suite. They were pinned down, shielding themselves from chunks of the wood banister being chew apart by gunners up top. He happened to glance to a boy even younger than he was (eighteen, maybe) and somewhere, somehow between their gaze, the kid got the wrong idea.
He screamed, shot out from the safety of the wall and took at least ten bullets to the chest before making it to the last step and spraying shots wildly as his body drained out.
Lei grinned; it was nice not to have to always ask men to die for him.
Given the opportunity, he and a few others that had managed to avoid a couple holes in the gut raced up the stairs to find the kid had dropped five guys before the bullet through the neck had finally killed him. One was still alive, gurgling and trying to dislodge his weapon from underneath his dead, fat friend, until Lei tapped him on the shoulder with his sword.
He turned, saw who it was and coughed up blood in what sounded like a chuckle. "Fuck you, slant-eye."
He hesitated, before the blade slowly, not to mention painfully, rotated until it was biting into his flesh.
The man braced himself against the doors and shivered against them, as Lei raised his blade, tracing every organ from crotch to throat before finally deciding on the head.
A swordtip plunged through one of the doors, trickled fresh blood and then slipped out. A heavy thump was heard outside.
Lucian had seen it (his own private army reacting with a jerk), and calmly ground Honduran tobacco between his teeth, spitting smoke. That was one of his guards most likely, run through by the blade. Zhu was angry, and had arrived earlier than Barnes' ever anticipated; the Tempest was probably a favorite of his.
The doors burst open and Lei stood there heaving, in all his wolf-mawed glory, one foot on the neck of the dead guard and a hand clutched to his sword. There was a sizable pile of bodies behind him.
As his men pulled weapons from every pocket and behind every coat lapel, Lucian stood to greet his visitor. He appreciated the antique touch, as someone only as gutsy as Lei could've thought he'd get this far with just a blade, but he was convinced the Chink wanted to gut him by hand. "If it isn't the little thunder." he rumbled deeply. "That is your nickname, isn't it?"
Lei didn't say anything, but his own small army had gathered behind. A pseudo-standoff on either side of the suite had arisen, and one itchy trigger finger would set every weapon off in the place like a string of firecrackers.
Barnes cocked his head to the nearest window, to what sounded like a war going on several stories down. "Are you the one making all that noise outside?"
Lei landed a stare that could've raised the dead and lifted his sword. He screamed, and raced towards Barnes in between a protective column of bullets fired from behind.
And in the wave of his loyalists following, screaming, shooting and running blindly into a hail of gunfire, no one saw a dark shape hurtle past the window and rattle the panes.
He could've landed in the alley. Could've disguised himself and nailed each one with shuriken, or throwing daggers or another suitably lethal long-range weapon. Or waited until they happened to move close enough to grab, but he just wasn't in the mood to hide anymore.
Subtlety be damned.
A whistle on the air was the only warning before something big, black and frothing at the mouth collided with the largest group and sent bodies flying into the air. Shadow found the sidewalk, dug in and started swinging.
Whoever wasn't initially hit shot at shadows and wind and their own friends climbing over each other to escape as, one by one, by claws or leather-wrapped batons, they were picked off by something that used the chaos and spatters of blood to disguise itself (and the fact it was somehow able to avoid any source of light, all except the intermittent flashes of gun powder).
The whirlwind of motion was razor sharp and flecked with dark hues and flashes of steel. Three tried together, only to watch the middle one first catch a short blade through the throat and then the world go suddenly dark.
And in the middle of everything, Ice managed to extricate himself and whirled around to see Barnes' handpicked squealing like children and some thing tearing through them. He noticed tears in his suit and scratches on his exposed skin, and had no idea where they'd come from. But in the time it took to look and raise his eyes back up, everything had gone quiet.
It'd been less than seven minutes total, and thirty from both sides had been trampled.
Ice saw the creature climbing off from what looked like one of Lei's; a few bones cracked under the weight of a single foot. It seemed to sense the gaze and quickly turned its neck, staring with smoldering eyes and they connected.
"I knew you were real..." the human breathed.
Allowing only a glimpse along its sinuous seven and a half foot frame before blurring with movement, it leapt towards him.
"Damnit!" Ice hissed and fired into the air enough times to drop a passing plane.
Nothing. He'd hit nothing, even with his flawless aim.
The street was as empty as it'd been a few minutes before the creature had dropped on them with as much force as an A-bomb. Just a few staggering survivors and groans from the bodies lying scattered as if a bus had exploded.
"Where are you?!" he screamed, replacing the cartridge. Of all the little sounds around him, anything could be footsteps or a telltale breath. Ice stood his ground, calming every lungful and resting the barrel of his gun against his forehead, listening. "Where are you?" he whispered.
And a small wind would answer.
Behind him. Just enough across the back of his neck, turning hot sweat cold, to feel the sudden change in direction. He turned and stared into the darkness of an approaching figure; instinct led his hand towards an indiscernible center and fired, catching a bullet on something hard that soared above him and plowed into the pavement with enough force to cause it to shake.
He'd got it, Ice was certain. It may have been a lucky shot, but it was a hit nonetheless.
The creature got to his feet, and a revealing trickle of blood gleamed on dark skin near what looked like the abdomen.
Shadow growled in response.
Ice raised his gun and turned a sneer. "Good."
"I've never seen anything like it, captain. Everyone was slaughtered, and one guy...well, it looks like he was flayed open."
"Gutted like a fish..." another added from the background.
Maria noticed the reporting officer looked like he was going to be sick, and perusing the photographs again she felt a little green herself. Her tongue went dry, and she fought back the nagging feeling of déjà vu. "Were they Barnes' men?"
He nodded, "What's left of them. Looks like they were gunrunning and got ambushed."
"Good god...what are these maniacs doing to each other?"
One the end of Maria's horror-struck comment her door burst open, nearly taking a few officers with it and the pocket-sized red streak that followed. "Captain!" Iliana shouted, pushing her way through the thin crowd to reach the end of her superior's desk.
Maria turned the photos over and leaned back in her chair. "Detective Starr, this had better be important."
"Looks like Barnes and Zhu decided to make the fight personal." she said between heavy huffs. "There's a massacre going on uptown–"
"Jesus," Maria whispered, before Iliana could get to the real problem, and then yelled to the closest cop, "get every available officer ready in full riot gear."
"There's something else, captain, a certain someone," she emphasized clearly, "is on his way too."
Maria's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Who?"
Iliana made a quick scan of the room and, seeing her fellow officers, hunched her back, flapped her fingers and mimicked a scowl with her lower jaw shoved out. If there was anyone in the clan who fit the description...
"And it looks like his friends are also on their way, to stop him, but they may be too late."
Maria formed an odd expression. It was funny, in her attempt to focus solely on the officers underneath her, at the moment she could only think of the one man she was purposely distancing herself from.
The thought ricocheted around her skull until embedding itself as a sharp pain in her temple. "Damnit...okay, people," she shot up, "let's move!"
"I smell blood."
There were only a select few in Manhattan who could sniff out the spilled guts of a human from half a mile out.
Chin on the sill, Ambrosine had watched the sun set. Her fingertips on the window glass, every bullet fired caused ripples through the surface as if she'd laid herself a spider-web across town, and every time a strand danced it was probably someone getting part of his face blown off. Nearly impeccably concentric and humming, the oblivion between every molecule shivered inside the grain of her fingerprints.
"They're all shooting each other." she whispered, and luminous cat eyes turned towards her from the back end of an office. "Do you think they'll all be dead?"
"I'm sure a few will live to inspire others," a voice assured her, "and their little war will evolve, kill more, until they need to recruit."
One finger made a line, squealing on an octave nearly shrill enough to crack the glass. "Wouldn't it be easier if they were all dead?"
A chortle hit still air, grew, rung and eventually trailed off into a smile. How wonderfully simplistic of her daughter, reducing the complexities of human rivalries to an equation begging for as simple a solution. "Yes," Juno whispered, "it would."
She turned around, facing her mother in an uncharacteristic bout of delight. "Can I go play now?"
Juno was leaned on her elbow on the edge of her desk, and could almost see in her mind the devastation of her daughter unleashed. It would prove invaluable an insight to see where her limits lied, if any, and of course rid her of the mortal irritants, her competitors. "Of course..."
The neighborhood was like a de-militarized zone.
Reinforcements had shown up, saw their friends lying in haphazard piles and, of course, assumed it was the handiwork of the other side. Tempers flared, and bullets filled the air. Anything not bolted down had either been overturned for cover or outright destroyed, and anyone unlucky enough to be outside had fled.
And the sight above was a little more than disturbing considering it easily echoed the destruction of the Hole a couple months ago. It looked like another few blocks were about to be wiped of the map.
The clan descended in full force, nine to bring home one. Brooklyn led the charge as they touched down and crept towards the ledge, affording a birds-eye view of the street below. There were more bodies than men standing and they wondered if it was the work of spent cartridges or an angry gargoyle having hacked his way through.
But Shadow was nowhere to be seen (they were at a poor vantage to actually spot him around the other side of the building).
"Dragon..." Desdemona breathed. "This is insanity."
"This is humanity." her mate rolled between his lower fangs. "At their worst." He turned his head partways towards Brooklyn. "And we are to do nothing?"
He didn't return the look, just let off a hard glint from his eyes. "Right. We can't afford to escalate this any more than we...than I already have."
"Innocents could be hurt."
"According to Maria, that's what the police are for. And at present, I don't see any innocents."
"What about them?" Angela prodded, directing a collective gaze along her arm and pointed finger to a family that'd either wandered into the barrage or were caught trying to escape.
Brooklyn saw them huddled behind a car, freshly pierced holes extending dangerously close to the gas tank. One chance hit and they'd have their skin blown off. "Damn...any cops yet?"
Katana had already scanned the horizon. "None."
There was a spilt-second of indecision as Brooklyn weighed the choice in his mind. But there was only one considerable option; the instinct couldn't be denied. He hopped up onto the ledge and readied to jump. "Stay here."
"I thought we weren't going to get involved."
"We're not. I'll be back in a second. Keep looking for Shadow." Brooklyn dropped before the inevitable protest, flipped and slowed his descent by parachuting his wings and riding the updraft that licked the building's brick side. He could feel the air spiral around every bullet that got even remotely close to him, but kept his eyes on the humans cowering behind rapidly diminishing sheet metal.
He skimmed the asphalt by the bare tips of his wings and shot towards a neighboring SUV shoulder first. He nearly separated his arm from the socket in hitting the rear panel, digging in his talons and flipping over the roof. His momentum and anchored claws took the top-heavy vehicle with him.
He tumbled to an eventual stop, at the feet of the young father while the SUV tipped, spun and laid itself across the sidewalk, offering a partial shield into a nearby alleyway.
The mother hugged her child closer, went to scream but nothing came out. The father hunched in front of them both and eyed the slightly groggy creature stirring and growling and rubbing a hand through a shock of white hair.
"W-What are you...?!"
Brooklyn didn't have time for pleasantries. Only to flash his eyes and stab a talon towards the path he'd cleared. "Move!!"
More afraid of the creature than wild projectiles tearing up the scenery around them, the father quickly ushered his family along the underside of the Chevy and out towards the alley.
"Humans." he huffed, before noticing a sudden reek on the air that wasn't there before.
The gas tank had been punctured, and a thin runnel now trickled its way towards him as sparks danced off the sidewalk.
His eyes widened. "Shit..."
He heard the fuel ignite; it was an odd sound, almost as if a match was struck.
The air went orange and every oxygen molecule burst from the inside out. Brooklyn didn't remember moving, didn't remember whether or not he was able to coax his stunned form into any kind of movement before a dark shape had split the flames and smothered him.WHAM!!
The collision registered a few seconds later, when he was rolling into a boneless heap several meters away from the flaming wreckage of what used to be a car. His shoulder still throbbing, Brooklyn rubbed his brow and looked up to find his rookery brother standing over him with an all-too-comfortable smirk. He'd just saved his life, despite his order to the contrary. "Broadway..." he sighed.
"Need a hand?"
In the blink of an eye a few blocks would've come and gone.
It took only a few minutes for Ambrosine to reach Manhattan's upper West, thick with old brownstones and narrow streets, lined with cars, planted poplars and black rod-iron fencing. Her particular method of travel was unique, jumping through portals in an abstract technique of teleportation that she hadn't quite gotten down to a science yet.
The last tear in reality dropped her in the middle of a neighborhood currently under siege, but little steel projectiles hurtling through the air didn't pose much of a threat to someone who could pervert the very substance of air and space to her whim.
She started on a bead towards the building she sought, and right in between the crossfire.
Unbelievably, she was walking through unscathed. The bullets that got too close were actually warped, in mid-air, trajectories deflected from some invisible source at right angles.
A few would actually stop and blink before trying again, only to fail miserably and have their guns suddenly, inexplicably backfire and take out a few fingers. Men had mild strokes, aneurysms, a healthy kid of twenty-two felt a stabbing pain shoot through his left arm before the coronary dropped him like a stone.
As he wheezed and clutched helplessly at his chest, she walked through his shrinking field of vision and he thought the rippling, crackling, crumbling asphalt following behind was a trick of the eyes near death. Lampposts squealed in the background and curled down to the ground, and it looked like the entire city was melting around him.
She moved on and onto the wide concrete staircase, passing a few of the bodies and through the doors of the brick-trimmed building.
The war was inside as well, but a little more intense, considering there wasn't much to hide behind in such close and cramped quarters. What was once a foyer draped in luxury had been reduced to the consistency of Swiss cheese; walls covered in blood, vases shattered, paintings in tatters, every carved African statue either toppled from its place or broken in half.
As she took the stairs, she stepped over both the writhing and the still and ran her fingers through a few pools of blood that hadn't yet soaked into the carpet. It was cooling; the corpses had been here a while. If she wasn't quick, she might miss the two most powerful creatures under this roof killing each other.
So she hurried her pace, as fast as little legs would take her, and if anyone alive had happened to see her (more bodies, littered on every landing), they would've thought she was floating above the stairs.
Ambrosine reached the top, snatched a stray bullet from between a few men on either side of the hall and crushed it. The remnants of gunpowder made a last desperate flash from between her fingers. She clenched her teeth, and both ends of the corridor imploded, catching whoever it was in the atmospheric equivalent of the ocean floor two and a half miles down.
The doors to the suite opened on their own, and she walked into what looked like a warzone. Men, women and children were killing one another. But she didn't seem interested in the puppets, just a more powerful force, somewhere behind the anarchy she so craved.
Ambrosine followed like a moth to the flame and found two warriors at each other's throats, one with a sword, the other trying to get a shot in without losing his head. Light and dark, they thirsted, far more than the rest.
These were the leaders.
With a sadistically cherub smile she moved forwards, effortlessly sidestepping the others until someone fell into her path. Dead before he hit the floor, his killer stood over him.
Charles turned around when sensing a presence behind him. He swiveled on his heel and found a girl no more than eight years old (he guessed); he was first struck by her eyes, then by the eerily tranquil attitude even as the drywall and wood trim shredded around them.
"You're not one of the ones I seek. You're...unimportant."
Charles didn't quite catch the meaning of her statement, nor did he particularly care. "Uh, Dawg? There's a little girl here..."
"Shoot her!" Lucian screamed, ducking a blow that could've been fatal.
He shrugged, "okay," and pointed his gun, aiming for the brain between her eyes.
Ambrosine stared down the barrel, deconstructing every molecule with her gaze. Before the bullet even fired, before the electro-chemical signal that would've told Charles to pull the trigger struck the right set of nerves, she twitched. And time slowed to the point where it seemed everything around the small girl in a five-foot radius was completely frozen, including the man holding a gun to her head.
From his vantage, Lucian thought Charles had hesitated. It was a child after all.
Until she raised her hand, reality (to Lucian) looked as if it stopped, skipped a second and resumed with a kick, and the bullet shot straight out the wrong end, catching Charles in the face.
"Aiten!" Lucian screamed, seeing his friend's head blow apart at the crown.
Satisfaction draped over her young face, so much so as to age her fifty years in the bloodlust she showed.
The faraway thought of her familiarity was lost in the rage that followed and Lucian swiped a lucky fist off Lei's head and charged towards her, bursting at the seams of his blood-splattered suit. "You little bitch!" He started firing, struggling to aim in the haze.
She absorbed the bullets into one hand and shot out another to catch the man running towards her in a wave of energy that kicked like a mule, nearly took his head off his shoulders and knocked both him, Lei and any survivors currently in the room back against the far wall. If he wasn't so big she might've killed him, but he'd ingested spicier food that had more oomph and struggled to a sitting position as his lungs re-inflated.
Little feet left the floor. Ambrosine floated up towards the ceiling and with as much effort as it took to blink she opened a hole in the roof.
Both Lei and Lucian watched her ascend in a shower of wood, plaster and ductwork, and then looked at each other, and then their respective weapons lying a few feet away.
A pillar of light extended into the troposphere.
Brooklyn saw the world light up, and in the nexus, a tiny body took shape in the second sun rising above the neighborhood. Parked cars shriveled with a scream of sheet metal and carbon fiber, manhole covers as far as two blocks shot up into the air, and every atom seemed to loosen for a moment.
He nearly puked.
The war was quickly ground to a halt, as everyone in and outside of the brownstone looked up or out a window, feeling the embryonic charge on their skin intensify.
"What the hell is that?!" Broadway hollered, feeling the wind pick up.
Brooklyn shook his head. "I don't know, but I think things just got a hell of a lot more complicated..."