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May, 2010... Fantasy became reality. Worlds overlay for the briefest moment. Outworlders became stranded on earth as more than half the human populace vanished. Our World, our universe, was transformed.

Fiction is now reality. Humans and those now bound to this world will either learn to coexist, or battle for supremecy.

JUNE 13, 2019 - Family emergency  took a bad turn so had to stay away but now things are finally calming down. Hope to get going again shortly. Thanks for understanding. ~ZEPH

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January 3, 2022

Evening

The Book of Kells Occult Shop

 

Lips pursed as she blew out the flame on the Nag Champa stick.  The scent was her favorite, it always clung to skin like a sensual swath of warmth... bringing her back to center wherever she was.  The smoke curled upward, then spun in a tight coil as she placed it into a gold burner.

 

She lifted tea to her lips, eyes still on the smoke that left her bookshop of the arcane always in a lazy and intoxicating haze.  Almost the end of a long day, the regulars in the teashop the next room over were deep into books and late day conversations.  She, was on her favorite stool behind the main counter, eyes wandering over the Sky Disc on the wall she'd risked her ass... Alistair's as well, to go retrieve.  Her addiction to collecting everything dangerous and powerful hadn't abated, but without her 'partner in crime' the task had been much less fun and a lot more dangerous.  Magus had the ability to kick ass.  She on the other hand, was just... fast.  Enhanced her ass.

 

Lately... she was regretting throwing her hat in with Arma.  A lot.  The entrepreneur dealt everything to anyone, if they couldn't use it safely that was their business.  Arma had kept her straight.  Gave her a code to honor.

 

That code hadn't been seen in over a year.

 

Long sigh preceded her rise from the stool, taking her empty tea mug with her as the pillar of Hell's Kitchen went to retrieve another cup.  She needed to pay Arma a visit.  Soon.  Time to sever ties.

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Ryan knew he could go to ARMA for all his supernatural supply needs, but he enjoyed touring the local occult shops throughout the city.  Often, he could find intriguing trinkets or amusing charms, and occasionally he stumbled upon items of true magical merit.  Another benefit of visiting such establishments was to maintain relationships with the shopkeepers.  They were privy to much within the supernatural realm and often overlooked by the major players.  Eyes and ears of the magus community can be an invaluable asset for a covert operative.

 

            Ryan walked casually into the “Book of Kells,” the bell at the front door chimed excitedly as he crossed the threshold.  The hunter’s attire fit naturally in the shop’s mystic ambience.  A long black jacket, dark garments, and black boots; all were aged from travel and war.  His brown hair was short and kempt, but not clean cut.  A days’ worth of scruff still clung to the agent’s face.  Blue eyes nonchalantly scanned the business as he made his way to the counter.

 

          Harker recognized the beauty behind the counter, though they had only ever spoken in passing.  Rorye had been an associate of ARMA’s for some time.  Rumor had it she was romantically involved with the faction’s founder before his disappearance.  Ryan hadn’t been tasked with finding Alistar, but if he had been, she would be a good place to start.  He wondered if ARMA was even keeping tabs on her these days.

 

          “Hey gorgeous,” Harker said with a warm smile.  He leaned against the front desk as he spoke, crossing his hands one over the other.  A familiar face was likely all he was to her.  “Anything new or exciting in stock?”

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Halfway through the next cup, the heel of her hand slid over the ledger with ease as she did her books for the week, cursive barely readable to anyone but herself.  Everything was always by hand, she didn’t trust computers anymore.  Punching a few buttons on the register to pop out the drawer she went back to writing, hitching her heel up on the rung of her the stool when the glittering chimes of the door sounded.  She was an attentive host, but she wasn’t a nosy one, preferring to let visitors shop themselves.  This one, was familiar.  On the rare occasion she had visited Alistair at headquarters to bring lunch and usually a beer, she’d seen this one.

 

Great.  Fucking great. On the eve of quitting the team, the team shows up.  She closed the drawer with a quiet click.

 

Pencil slid behind her ear as she pulled her hair over her left shoulder and braided it quickly into a thick plait, tossing it back behind her again.  Cold air from the outside prompted her to slide on a comfortably frayed large knit gray cardigan over her silky deep blue tunic, the sleeves long enough to reach her fingertips.  Oversized and bohemian, it was her favorite and it definitely showed.

 

Brow quirked at his greeting, but her expression was amiable, pencil plucked from behind her ear to continue the book keeping.  Eraser tapped as she paused.

 

“Always new and interesting, but never free, even for flattery,” she said quietly with a soft smile, sliding off the stool and closing the ledger to put it under the counter.  “Something for business or personal use?”

 

The question was a logical one.  She knew who he was associated with.  Every ARMA member also had their own personal interests too.  It was a thing with them.  Always in search of a bigger, faster, stronger weapon.

 

“Coffee?” she asked as she picked up her coffee cup to go retrieve the third refresher from the small cafe on the other side of the shop, “It’s on the house.”

 

She was going to add some whiskey to hers.  ARMA here meant a problem, a complicated need, a complaint, essentially a long night.

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“Always new and interesting, but never free, even for flattery,” the shopkeeper replied, turning her attention to Ryan.  For a moment, he was taken away by her beauty. Even with her hair in a braid and bundled in a comfortable sweater, the fact she wasn’t trying made the allure feel even more genuine.  “Of course,” Ryan said with a nod of his head.

 

          “Something for business or personal use?”  Rorye asked.  The woman was acting nonchalant on the surface, but Harker suspected thoughts were racing through her mind.  She was almost too at ease with his appearance.  It felt like an act.  The agent wondered if he was just being paranoid.  Always looking beyond the surface.  Occasionally, chasing ghosts.  Phantoms created by his own pessimism and hyper attention to detail.  Ryan braced his hands against the counter and stood up straight, letting out a sigh, “These days it feels hard tell one from the other.”

 

          “Coffee?”  Rorye picked up her coffee cup and turned away from him.  “Its on the house,” she said over her shoulder as she moved toward the café adjoining the store. 

 

“Yes please.”

 

Harker waited for her to return.  He looked about the store, staying near the counter and making sure to keep the woman in sight.  His thoughts wondered.  Alistar had been missing for nearly a year.  Surely, if Royre had any connection to his disappearance it would have been discovered by now.  Fighting past his cynicism, Ryan thought for a moment about the impact the disappearance likely had on her.  If they were together, had anyone from ARMA reached out to her?  The operative thought back to his time as a Soldier in the United States Army.  The vows he and his brothers had made to each other.  A promise to look after loved ones, should some of them never make it home.  Had anyone done that for Alistar? For her?

 

Ryan gave Royre a gentle smile as she returned to the counter with coffee in hand.  “Thank you,” he said taking the cup from her.  His curiosity getting the better of him, “It’s Royre, right?”

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 “Of course,”

 

Brow quirked briefly at the answer, amiable or just trying to placate? Interesting. Here’s to interesting.

 

 “These days it feels hard tell one from the other.”

 

“That’s because you don’t put enough whisky in your coffee.”

 

Lips curled upward at her own quip, soft footsteps shuffling up the few steps into the tea house addition. Behind the counter she added a refresher to hers and poured him a fresh one. True to form, she reached into the cupboard above it and splashed something into hers, then actually made up a small tea tray. His mug, her mug, interesting looking fancy-pants sugars and cream…

 

“Aw fuck it,” she said under her breath and clinked the small whisky bottle on the tray too. He might like whisky. He might like it black. Cream. Sugar. Who the fuck knew these days.  New customer, better to be prepared.

 

Trot down the few steps was light. She set the tray on the main counter where she’d been sitting and handed him the cup.

 

“Thank you,”

 

“Anytime.  Help yourself, cheers,” she tapped her mug against the whisky bottle and took a drink, wrapping her hands around hers for the warmth. The fireplace in the library room needed to be stoked.

 

“It’s Royre, right?”

 

"Mhm," she nodded, sitting back on her stool, lips pursed and eyes a bit cynically curious. There were no qualms about studying him. He was ARMA, sure, but she didn’t know which one of the many flavors this one was. She'd never paid enough attention to learn them all.

 

“ARMA business?” she asked quietly, taking another drink from her mug. “Do I have to turn in my secret decoder ring?”

 

The quip was amused, but warm. She hadn’t been in contact with them since the young gentleman came in with his intriguing item. Since then, old regulars of the not-ARMA-friendly variety had been pressing to resume business. She wasn’t sure if the white knights were keeping tabs on her like that.  Honestly, she didn’t give two shits if they were.

 

“Or, are you here for something else?” she took another drink, settling in for what seemed to be shaping up as a rather interesting conversation.

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“Mhm.”  The woman leaned back in her seat, dark almond eyes felt like they were trying to see through him.

 

          Ryan set his cup down on the counter and plucked the whiskey bottle from the tray provided.  The agent flashed his hostess a sly grin.  He added a sizeable splash to his coffee, filing the cup to just below the brim.  Setting the bottle down, Harker picked up his cup and placed it to his lips. 

 

“ARMA business?”  Rorye asked as he sipped from the mug.  He winced happily and then let out a soft, blissful gasp.  The drink was strong, but it wasn’t the coffee.  She had already deduced he was from ARMA.  She was smart, he would wager clever even.  Perhaps she recognized him from around ARMA as well. 

 

“Do I need to turn in my decoder ring?”  She teased, her tone warmer than her eyes had felt just a moment earlier.  “Or, are you here for something else?”  The inquiry was inviting.  Harker was surprised she had shown such hospitality so close to the day's end.  He suppressed his desire to assess her motives, and instead focused on answering her question. 

 

“Like I said, business and pleasure are hard to keep separate these days.”  Ryan leaned forward on the counter, resting his elbows on its surface.  He cupped the coffee in his gloved hands.  Ocean blue eyes meeting Rorye’s chocolate hues.  “I’m here for two reasons I suppose.”

 

Ryan savored another sip of his coffee, “First, I am here to see if anything new has hit the streets that could be useful to me, or cause problems for ARMA.”  He paused for a second.  Considering how to phrase his next words. 

 

Alistar was dead.  ARMA was finally coming to accept this fact.  A fact Ryan had come to accept just a couple months after his disappearance.  No Soldier goes missing in action for over a year and is found alive.  Surely, Roryre had come to this realization as well.  Ryan wanted to know how she was handling life but risked opening old wounds.  A risk he would take cautiously.  Especially, since he still didn’t know the full extent of their relationship.  “Second, I came to check on you.”

 

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Whiskey drinker eh? Brow quirked slightly, he was either a pretender or a legit connoisseur. After a few more loaded coffees she'd know that much. Her blood was pure Scot, she could drink anyone under the table.

 

“Like I said, business and pleasure are hard to keep separate these days.”  

 

Blink was slow.

 

Mhm.

 

The sly counter lean prompted her to also lean in slightly. She resisted the urge to decide whether or not he needed a throat punch. ARMA were almost always cocky, but they could also be adorable... mostly.

 

Two reasons to be here? Well then.

 

“First, I am here to see if anything new has hit the streets that could be useful to me, or cause problems for ARMA.”

 

"Always," she took another drink as he seemed to switch gears.

 

 “Second, I came to check on you.”

 

Candle twinkled in the chamberstick on the skull behind her. God damn it, she resisted the urge to glance at it.

 

"Did you now?" she said. "And who are you exactly?"

 

There was still quite an amiable expression on her features, sultry even... but a hidden edge licked the air with electricity. The feeling right before a cobra struck was poignant, and she was waiting patiently for the right answer to decide whether or not to go for the jugular.

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“Did you now?”  The shopkeeper had leaned in closer.  A tingling sensation brushed the back of Harker’s neck, sending a faint chill down his spine.  He resisted the urge to shudder.  The altered human’s sixth sense had perked gently.  He wasn’t in immediate danger, but it loomed nearby.  Casually he glanced over his shoulder in either direction, taking another sip from his cup to veil his survey of the room.  There was no one else around… only her.

 

          “And who are you exactly?”  There was a slight edge to the woman’s tone.  Her expression remained friendly, but her natural movements ceased.  Once more her eyes felt piercing.  There was more to her than she was letting on.  Ryan had distinct impression that her ARMA file was intentionally missing information.

 

          Harker’s first instinct was to lie.  Normally he would have and without a second thought.  Yet, now he felt compelled to tell the truth.  Not because of anything specific to Rorye, but out of a sense of duty to Alistar’s loved one. “Ryan,” The agent smiled and held out his hand.  “Ryan Harker.”

 

          “Alistar and I weren’t exactly friends,” said Ryan.  A true statement.  Alistar probably knew of Harker and his missions, but their personal interactions were limited to passing nods of acknowledgement at ARMA headquarters.  Ryan’s gaze shifted down to the coffee cup he held in his hands.  The playfulness in his demeanor replaced by a somber sigh.  “But we were brothers.” 

 

The ARMA operative looked to Rorye and then back to his coffee mug.  “I have been a Soldier a long, long time.  I have lost a lot of brothers…” Ryan shifted his stare back up to the woman before him.  “There is a code, if one of your brothers doesn’t make it back, you’re supposed to look after their families."  He paused for a moment, thinking back to a time before the Resonance.  Returning to the present he said, “you’re supposed to look after their loved ones.”

 

Ryan knew the answer to the question he was about to ask.  ARMA has been fighting wars on multiple fronts for years.  Doing everything in its power to protect the people and maintain its legitimacy as an organization.  Simple, important, but overlooked traditions sometimes slipped through the cracks.  “So Rorye, has anyone else from ARMA been checking in on you?”

 

          Harker had a feeling the woman could handle herself, but this wasn’t about that.  She had probably made enemies when she sided with ARMA.  Refusing to deal to their enemies, providing the organization information, risking her own wellbeing to assist with locating dangerous artifacts.  Then to have her loved one taken.  Though most of this was deduction, Ryan suspected she had given much to the cause.  And after all her sacrifice, what had she been left with?  This wasn’t how Soldiers honored their fallen.  This wouldn’t be how ARMA did either.

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Lashes lowered slightly, she wasn't the most subtle of creatures, and she preferred to let people know she wasn't the one to fall for or take bullshit. That's how she'd stayed alive so long with her unusual after hours black market dealings. With an off the street customer though?  Never, she was a gracious angel. He wasn't an off the street customer though...

 

His glance around was noted.  Sensitive perhaps. People thought her candle on a "fake" vampire skull was a fun novelty. Not many could feel it's weirdness.

 

Interesting.

 

“Ryan, Ryan Harker.”

 

Never heard of him. Not surprising, she wasn't the "joining" type. Other than Alistair, his sister Cassandra and her boyfriend Alec, she didn't know many. She liked it that way.

 

"Nice to meet you Ryan," she held out her hand, glint of a flat bluish metal ring on her middle finger dusting across his fingertips as she slid her hand into his to shake once.  Intentional. If he was sensitive, Red's containment ring might catch his attention. Would he mention it?  Probably not.

 

“Alistar and I weren’t exactly friends"

 

She settled in, both hands on the coffee cup to soak up it's warmth. Weren't. Past tense. She hated this shit. Not having contact with ARMA kept that twinkle of hope alive. Expression wasn't particularly hidden; not annoyed, but not happy either as she stared at the coffee in her cup a moment.

 

“But we were brothers.” 

 

She took a drink, surveying her shop a moment.

 

"Alistair takes care of his own, protective to a fault. I don't doubt he feels the same about you."

 

She wasn't going to buy into the gone and dead game.  He may be, but she didn't have to acknowledge it.

 

“I have been a Soldier a long, long time.  I have lost a lot of brothers…”

 

The dark lashes narrowed again, what exactly was this? An intervention?

 

“There is a code, if one of your brothers doesn’t make it back, you’re supposed to look after their families."

 

Fucking hell...

 

“You’re supposed to look after their loved ones.”

 

Side of her lip curled into a smirk. She finished the coffee and set the mug back on the tea tray. Time to break out the big guns for this conversation.

 

“So Rorye, has anyone else from ARMA been checking in on you?”

 

She flipped a small key ring from her back pocket as she slid off the stool and moved to an ornate, dark cabinet behind the counter. Thumb flipped to a small skeleton key on the set to unlock it and lift the top. Smokey, silver decorated oddly shaped glass bottles with opaque green, red and even amber liquid inside were nestled like treasure. Arranged on a glass bottom tray, she lifted them out and set it directly next to the other on the counter.

 

As if on cue, one of her employees quietly moved down the stairs and flipped off the sign, turning a placket that pointed to enter through the tea house. They returned up the stairs and closed the door to the shop, effectively closing them off. Pulling out the absinthe was some kind of signal for privacy, discretion a well oiled routine. Without the clink and murmur of conversation in the tea house, the small shop was a muffled silence, crackling fireplace in the library room now audible.

 

"Nobody checks on me.  Never have, never need to."

 

She set two glasses on the tray. No time like the present to break up with ARMA.

 

"I was just an informant, I didn't go to the Christmas parties."

 

The sense of humor and playful cynicism was familiar- she'd given the ARMA commander a run for his money.

 

"Is the part where you remind me not to leak ARMA secrets?"

 

Two absinthe spoons and two sugar cubes found their way to the tray as well. Whether or not he chose to partake, she at least needed something more than whiskey for this conversation. Especially if he kept poking about Alistair... oddly enough she wasn't ready for these questions. Nobody should hahave be to deal with something like this twice in a lifetime. 

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Ryan’s evening had been derailed from his original plan.  He had come to the occult’s shop for information and out of curiosity for the arcane black market.  Now he found himself having a discussion that no one ever wanted to have.  This was going to be a longer night than he had anticipated. 

 

          Harker found himself alone with Rorye within the “Book of Kells.”  Her staff’s attention to her desires was acute, almost to an ominous degree.  When the shop keeper pulled out her fine spirits and delicate glassware the entire store vacated.  The lights seemed to dim, the “open” sign faced inward, and the fire had been reinvigorated.

 

            Glasses clanked together as she placed them on the tray beside the crystal bottles.  Ryan wasn’t very cultured.  He eyed the unlabeled bottles cautiously.  He had heard of absinthe in the past, but the closest he had come to drinking anything like it was Everclear.  A decision he later regretted.  He had told the woman his real name, and only drank the whiskey after she had.  A loved one of Alistar or not, that was the extent of his trust.  He would watch her drink from the mysterious bottles before he partook in the spirits himself.  For now, he would stick with whiskey.

 

          “Nobody checks on me, never have, never need to.”  While she spoke, Ryan refreshed his coffee with another spill of whiskey.  “I was just an informant, I didn’t go to the Christmas parties.”

 

          Ryan noted her use of the present tense when discussing Alistar earlier, and her use of the past tense when discussing her relationship to ARMA.  She believed her connection to ARMA was in the past, yet held out hope for Alistar’s future.  She was in denial on both counts.  Her cynical satire a deflection from the reality she refused to accept.

 

The woman’s body language suggested she was uncomfortable with where the conversation was going.  It was to Ryan’s surprise when she had pulled out the fancy drinks and continued the conversation.  Deep down she must have known it was one she needed to have.   “Jesus Christ,” he thought to himself.  This wasn’t a discussion he was comfortable with having either.

 

“Is this the part where you remind me not to leak ARMA secrets?”  Rorye quipped.

 

She misunderstood his intentions.  He wasn’t there to ensure she safeguarded ARMA’s secrets.  If he believed she truly represented a threat to ARMA, he would already have taken more extreme measures.  This was her second mention of him “taking her decoder ring,” or “leaking secrets.”  Coupling those comments with her past tense phrases he deduced she wanted to break ties with ARMA.  Did she really think it would be that easy?

 

“I think you’re misinterpreting my intentions,” Ryan said before taking another sip from his coffee.  He grinned at the taste.  The beverage was more like coffee flavored whiskey at this point.  “I’m not here to make sure you keep ARMA’s secrets.”  He studied her expression for a moment before he continued, “I am sincerely checking on you.”

 

          The Cloak operative set his drink down on the table and stood up straight.  The fire was warm and from the look of things he would be here for a while.  Might as well make himself comfortable.  He removed his jacket as he spoke, setting it on the counter beside him.  “I’m sure you made enemies when you threw in with ARMA.  How long do you think it will be before they realize Alistar’s gone, and he’s not coming back?”

 

          A black long sleeve shirt, and the agent’s arsenal had been revealed when he removed his coat.  Gun holstered on his right thigh, magazines bristled along his belt, small grenade satchel on his left hip, and two long blades were sheathed on his vest.  He hoped the weaponry wouldn’t be off-putting.  She knew who he was and what he represented.  However, he also knew he was considerably more equipped than the typical ARMA agent.

 

Harker found a chair and seated himself at the counter.  He picked up his drink and again let his arms rest the counter’s surface.  Once more he locked eyes with Rorye.  Curious.  Inquisitive.  He wasn’t certain how she would respond to his inquiry, or if she believed his intentions.  More than anything else, he wondered if she would speak honestly.  He took another taste from his “coffee” and readied himself for more sarcastic deflections.

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Absinthe was a veritable myth. Too much lore, too many idiots in search of a rush, and too much misinformation... she watched his cautious curiosity a moment, then set to work on her own glass as he went for the whiskey again. Absinthe for one it was then. The pale green liquid was poured into a small glass, sugar spoon over it. Nina had made her way quietly from the tea house with a tiny silver pitcher of ice water, setting it on the tray and moving back to the tea shop.

 

The proprietor set the glass under a small silver spigot, pouring ice water into the dainty tank above it, and turned a small lever. The ice water began to drip, ever so slowly, over the sugar cube and into the green liquid. It was like watching coffee brew. Hell, it was about the same thing.

 

“I think you’re misinterpreting my intentions, I am sincerely checking on you.”

 

“Because that’s what soldiers do,” her voice was quiet, the quirk of an eyebrow not poking fun but definitely letting him know she was on point. Seemingly comfortable in her company, he was taking his coat off, armed to the teeth. They always were.

 

“I’m sure you made enemies when you threw in with ARMA.  How long do you think it will be before they realize Alistar’s gone, and he’s not coming back?”

 

“They can kiss my ass.”

 

It hung in the air, the rum rich smoky timbre of her voice was genuinely not concerned as she checked on her absinthe again and the tiny flame on her little candle behind her twinkled and died out. It was either connected to her moods, read her aggression, or was her own personal exclamation point. Maybe all of the above. She sat on her stool at the counter, as comfortable as ever, watching the water dissolve the sugar so she could partake in one of the most potent drinks in the world.

 

They piss me off, they don’t get the special prizes.”

 

The spoon stirred the now diluted mix of death, and she took a small drink, eyes closed for a moment as she swallowed.

 

“That’s good.”

 

Glass was set quietly in front of him to try if he wanted. Elbows leaned on the counter across from him, feeling very much like they were across a dinner table from each other.  She intertwined her fingers, thumbs tapping on her chin a moment.  Lashes lowered, the same grace and easy comfort that heralded an artistic flair still gave him an expression that she wasn’t fucking around.

 

“I appreciate the checking up on, I do.  But, everyone who is anyone has always known I do business with whomever I want. If they don’t like it they can fuck right off. That includes ARMA."

 

She slid from her stool, the key ring finding its way into her fingers again, unlocking a door at the back of the shop proper. Pushing it open quietly, the light clicked on.  Dark eyes cast a glance over her shoulder.

 

“Well come on ARMA,” she said with feigned impatience, a playful lick at the edges of her words as she gestured with her chin to follow her into her back room. “Time to see the other reason you said you were here.”

 

Toe held the door open for only a moment before it quietly slid closed again behind her; leaving him alone to either finish his boozy coffee in silence, or follow her down the rabbit hole.

 

((Rorye’s back room is a workshop, a large wood top workbench in the center.  Pegboard on one wall is loaded with tools, scattered projects -particularly stained glass- everywhere.  There are antique boxes on shelves, odd trinkets hanging from hooks on the walls, antique bladed weapons hung on another wall, stacks of old tomes. On the side opposite the door is the exterior exit that leads outside to her private courtyard.  This is where she receives her shipments, innocent or otherwise, and determines what goes out on the floor, what gets locked up in the shop, and what stays in her massive safe to sell to the highest bidder.))

Edited by Rorye Shannon-Kearney
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“They can kiss my ass.”

 

The abruptness of the statement caught Ryan unprepared.  Candles flickered, then died, and the rooms lighting appeared to dim slightly further.  Silence permeated the air.  The “Book of Kells” felt as though it had taken on the character of its keeper, albeit almost imperceptibly.  The ARMA operative was giving further thought to abilities the woman might possess.  She was connected to mana or an aura; something unique.

 

Ryan cocked an eyebrow to stare questioningly at Roryre.  From the corner of his eye he watched the absinthe brew, but his focused remained on the woman before him.  She seemed to enjoy the delicate process.

 

“If they piss me off, they don’t get the special prizes.”

 

“Is that right?”  Harker grinned and took another drink from his cup. 

 

The connoisseur of spirits stirred the emerald mixture in her own glass.  She then placed the crystal glass to her lips and took a slow sip, savoring the draft, “That’s good.”

 

          She leaned across the counter to mirror Ryan, her elbows resting on the woods surface.  Their eyes met again as the gap between them closed.  This time the mage-hunter held his ground.  Rorye placed her glass beside his left hand, inviting him to sample the beverage.  A sensual tension filled the air between them.  She seemed at ease with the intimacy.  Fingers interlaced, she set her chin on her thumbs.  Deep brown eyes unflinching as she stared him down.

 

Without breaking his gaze, Harker grasped the glass and raised it to his nose.  The absinthe’s spicy aroma filled his nostrils.  If it was poisoned, he wouldn’t be able to smell it.  The agent took a short drink from the glass.  The spirit was strong, but smoother than he had expected.  

 

“I appreciate the checking up on, I do.  But, everyone who is anyone has always known I do business with whomever I want. If they don’t like it, they can fuck right off. That includes ARMA."

 

Rorye’s quiet, soft-spoken façade had been abandoned.  Ryan was beginning to realize she was far from helpless.  She was strong, independent, and certainly not looking for anyone to rescue her.  She may not have fully acknowledged Alistar’s demise, but she had moved on in her own way.  By this point in the conversation, her words, tone, and body language had communicated to Harker a ground rule for their relationship moving forward.  If they were going to have any dealings, business or otherwise, it wouldn’t be out of pity or any sense of duty.

 

"Fair enough." The revelation came as a relief to Ryan.  There was something about the woman that enamored him, and he didn’t want to feel guilty about it.  She was astute, and her allure went beyond simple seduction.  The merchant’s charms would certainly be useful in her line of work.  Harker knew she likely employed the same practiced manipulation on many men, clients, buyers, suppliers… ARMA agents.  The cynical part of his mind told him, Rorye was teasing him out of professional habit.  That was fine, two could play at that game.  Nonetheless, he allowed himself to entertain a genuine interest in the woman.  Life was short, and in their shared career fields, even shorter.  These days even a glimpse of happiness was worth taking a chance.

 

“Well, come on ARMA.”  The shopkeeper said with a sultry glance over her shoulder.  She paused in the doorway near the back of the room and motioned for Harker to follow, “Time to see the other reason you said you were here.”

 

Rorye disappeared beyond the door, a soft creak as the door shut slowly in her wake.  The Soldier took another drink from the absinthe she had left behind.  He rose to his feet and placed the glass back on the counter in front of him; grabbed his coat and folded it over his left arm.  As he followed the woman into the back room the operative acknowledged he was playing a friendly game of cat and mouse.  Though, he wondered which he was presently.  Time would tell. 

 

“So, are you going to tell me about the ring your wearing?”  Ryan asked as he entered the back room.  His tone was jovial, but the question demanded answer. “My instincts tell me its for more than fashion.”

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“Is that right?” 

 

A smirked smile took over.

 

“Invariably.”

 

And she let it go. If people didn’t believe her, they’d find out the hard way. She was just courteous enough to give it to them the easy way. She wasn’t surprised he finally went for the drink, but in those small gestures she found out so much about people. He was like a feral puppy. Needed something to eat, could be adorable and cautious in order to get it, trusting enough to take a bite, but still skittish enough to run. That’s where the feral came in, there was no skittish enough to run with him- that she was sure of. He was a biter. Interesting. That could be either from the ability to handle himself, or be just plain suicidal.

 

"Fair enough."

 

“Don’t care if it’s fair, that’s just the way it is,” thumb played with another ring on her pinkie a moment, just a run of the mill gold band. “People die, life goes on. People piss me off, life goes on. Alliances rise and fall. I don’t sway with the tide, I am on the side I’ve always been on. I do whatever I want, when I want, how I want. Life’s too short to wait for anyone else to make up their damn mind.”

 

It was under her breath but not inaudible as she unlocked her back room, pretty sure ARMA was not a good nickname for him if she was going to be doing business. Mentioning factions in here made people uneasy whether or not they could trust her. And a name? A name could betray his trust in her. Right name, wrong time, caused problems if overheard. Ali, had been sensitive to it but in the end didn’t give two shits. She did, because it dented her business for a time. Harker was right though, they had come sniffing around, trying to run that fucking “territory” crap with her. Hell’s Kitchen was hers. They’d gotten the point really quickly after she’d stabbed one in the neck.

 

Another light clicked on as she knelt and spun the lock on the small safe, waiting until the door had closed behind him to say anything.

 

“So, are you going to tell me about the ring your wearing? My instincts tell me its for more than fashion.”

 

Lips smirked slightly. So he was sensitive, bully for her. Magus maybe. She hoped not. Magus in ARMA tended to be dicks.

 

“Which one? The wedding band resized on my pinkie because I killed my husband and made his skull into a candlestick on the front counter or the blue one that keeps me from killing you?”

 

It was said with such ease it almost sounded like a joke, the clink of a wood and metal box on her workbench. It was ornate, the copper top tarnished long ago to a pale blue. About a foot tall, it looked like it was stacked together, smaller sections all attached making up the entire thing. She knelt back down to fish out the skeleton key that went with the box. It was a strange multi-step lock. Key, then roller combination. She set to opening it.

 

“I’m not cool enough to play with the big kids, but some of us are still trying to figure out exactly what the Event did to us. My crazy is I’m just fast. No hocus pocus, just… fast. Nothing like you magus. There was something else, almost like Outworlder weird that got stuck to me, like something tried to come through and just decided to haunt my ass instead. This other ring just keeps it from saying hello and using me as a meat puppet. Binding ring. I really didn't want to end up in Alcatraz as a schizophrenic killer so I just bound it.”

 

She held up her hand a moment to show him the blue ring again and set back to work. A slight click was heard and she slid the top section to the side.

 

“Though on the rare occasions I’ve let her drive, it was quite interesting.”

 

Pulling out the delicate necklace on the top container was obviously something she’d done already, pulling a soft towel over and laying it on the work table for him to look at. The chain was almost a whisper of metal, barely anything, but the charm was exquisite, blue so brilliant it looked like a drop of clear ocean. Faceted. It looked like just expensive jewelry.

 

“To answer your business question, I caught a box a while back coming up from what was once New Orleans that had been delivered from the Caribbean somewhere. Sent them off to the client. Never heard anything again. They were just, tourist trap stuff. Tiny dead pretty bugs, seahorses, starfish, scorpions in resin on black cords. Then this came through the same route from the same source.”

 

She found a glass in the sink and warmed it up with her hands.

 

“I picked the lock, found this.”

 

She blew into the glass like she was fogging it and then flipped it over the necklace, holding it down. After a few moments, the stone cleared translucent from the warmth, and a tiny scorpion could be seen moving inside the stone wriggling to life and stabbing at the towel beneath it. After a moment, the air inside the glass cooled and it went back to its blue color, immobilizing and obscuring the tiny death inside it again. If someone were to wear it, the body heat or someone's breath would activate the little shit and kill them after a bout of paralysis.

 

“Haven’t gone any further into what's in the ones below yet, but that is fucked up hoodoo. Artifacts can just be curiosity and collectors, but this is specifically to kill somebody. Somebody contacted me yesterday about purchasing the whole container. I’d like to tell them the original client already purchased it and have ARMA lock it up instead.”

 

She really did have a conscience, except she wasn’t gonna let it go to ARMA for free. She still had bills to pay. Funny thing though about weird shit like this, those that really wanted it seldom thought they needed to knock. She wanted it out of her shop. Yesterday.

 

“The original client that bought the tourist trinkets is MIA. Rogue magus. I’ve known them for years, and that’s not normal to disappear.”

 

Eyes moved to a small blue light over the door leading back into the shop. She had a customer. One of THOSE customers. Not now dammit.

 

“Stay in here,” features were clearly annoyed, putting the evil shit back into the box and locking it. “Don’t you dare touch anything. I mean it.”

 

She peered out the privacy curtain on the door slightly, thumbs running across the waistband at the back of her comfy Levi’s, snapping the strap on both karambit sheaths loose and pulling her sweater back over them. Jittery about the hot stock, maybe, stupid enough to trust someone that needed to see her unannounced… not a fucking chance.

 

"The light above this door is the silent alarm. Just means someone is here to talk to me. I meet them in the tea house and bring them into the shop to chat. You know the drill, I just did it with you."

 

Caution wasn't unwarranted as she pressed the button to shut it off and let the tea shop know she knew. She opened the door to the shop, the twinkling skull candle bright. It was a warning.

 

That was not good.

 

"Don't touch anything," she muttered again quietly as the annoyed expression flicked on a dime to a good hostess and she moved into the shop toward the tea house.

 

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“Which one? The wedding band resized on my pinkie because I killed my husband and made his skull into a candlestick on the front counter or the blue one that keeps me from killing you?”

 

“Glad to see I’m not the only one with issues,” Ryan said jokingly, though he knew she had spoken the truth.  He set his coat down out of the way and surveyed the arcane workshop.  The center of the room was occupied by a large wood workbench.  The pegboard wall to his left held an assortment of craftsman tools, and the others were lined with shelves and cupboards.  The operative noted the exit door at the back of the room, which he already knew led into the courtyard behind the business.  Mystical relics, weapons, trinkets and other projects cluttered most of the available workspace.  A sturdy looking safe had been placed in one the corners of the room.

 

The shopkeeper approached her workbench, an ornate box awaited her there.  The wooden box stood about a foot off the table.  The chest appeared old; its wood was tarnished, and its copper lid had been corroded by time.  The box was comprised of several sections that seemed to stack together, one on top of the other.  Rorye produced a key from somewhere under the workbench and started working to open the small treasure chest.

 

“I’m not cool enough to play with the big kids, but some of us are still trying to figure out exactly what the Event did to us.”  The woman continued speaking as she fiddled with the box’s lock and key.  “My crazy is I’m just fast. No hocus pocus, just… fast. Nothing like you magus.”

 

Harker didn’t bother correcting her false assumption in that moment.  Truth was, the ARMA operative possessed no more magical aptitude than she did.  Instead he asked, “So how is the ring important then?” 

                  

“There was something else, almost like Outworlder weird that got stuck to me, like something tried to come through and just decided to haunt my ass instead. This other ring just keeps it from saying hello and using me as a meat puppet. Binding ring. I really didn't want to end up in Alcatraz as a schizophrenic killer so I just bound it.”

 

Rorye held up her hand to display the ring she spoke of.  Ryan caught her wrist before she pulled it away.  The movement was swift, near instant.  His grip just firm enough to hold her in place.  He looked first to her eyes, then to the ring she had presented, “Interesting.”

 

Harker held her hand for just another moment before releasing it gently, “So has the thing ever actually possessed you?”

 

“On the rare occasions I’ve let her drive, it was quite interesting.”

 

“Interesting how?”  Ryan pried as she opened the box.  He watched as she set the stage on the workbench for her presentation.

 

“To answer your business question, I caught a box a while back coming up from what was once New Orleans that had been delivered from the Caribbean somewhere. Sent them off to the client. Never heard anything again. They were just, tourist trap stuff. Tiny dead pretty bugs, seahorses, starfish, scorpions in resin on black cords. Then this came through the same route from the same source.”

 

He observed Rorye’s demonstration of the deadly artifact.  “Hmm,” There was insincere frown as he nodded, “That could end some lives discretely.”

 

“Haven’t gone any further into what's in the ones below yet, but that is fucked up hoodoo. Artifacts can just be curiosity and collectors, but this is specifically to kill somebody. Somebody contacted me yesterday about purchasing the whole container. I’d like to tell them the original client already purchased it and have ARMA lock it up instead.”

 

“I can take it off your hands,” Harker assured her, “but first I need to know who contacted you looking for it.”  The agent casually leaned back against one of the shops counter tops.  Arms folded over his chest, as he eyed the relic dealer.  Acquiring the artifacts was good, but getting the buyer would be the real victory.

 

“The original client that bought the tourist trinkets is MIA. Rogue magus. I’ve known them for years, and that’s not normal to disappear.”

 

Ryan pondered what Rorye might think if she knew he hunted and killed rogue magus for ARMA.  Of course, officially he was trying to “bring them to justice,” but it rarely worked out that way.  Based on his interaction with her thus far, he doubted she would be surprised or even bothered by it at all.

 

The woman’s eyes darted to the flashing blue light above the entryway.  She was surprised and not in a good way.  “Stay in here,” she said, obviously annoyed at the untimely intrusion.  The dealer placed the necklace back in its locked container.  “Don’t you dare touch anything. I mean it.”

 

“What’s wrong?”  Ryan looked to the door leading back to the storefront, but he didn’t bother to adjust his relaxed posture.  Rorye walked to the door.  Blue eyes caught her adjusting the blades concealed beneath her waistband, though his gaze had been aimed slightly lower.  This girl was so far from normal.  Then again, these days, who wasn’t?

 

The shopkeeper peered behind the privacy curtain that hung in the doorframe.  She whispered back to Harker, "The light above this door is the silent alarm. Just means someone is here to talk to me. I meet them in the tea house and bring them into the shop to chat. You know the drill, I just did it with you."      

 

“And here I thought I was special,” Ryan quipped with a sly smirk.  She spoke as though the situation was routine, but Rorye’s body language had already spoken the truth.  The store had been closed by the assistant earlier in the evening.  The alarm had come as a surprise.  She had ensured her weapons was situated properly should she need them.  All accounts indicated the new arrival was unexpected, unwelcome, and quite possibly an enemy.

 

"Don't touch anything," she muttered again before leaving him alone in the workshop.  The command was practically an invitation for the operative to touch everything in the room.  Like leaving a child alone in a candy store and expecting him not to eat anything.

 

Harker chuckled under his breath.  As soon the hostess was out of sight, he jumped to his feet and started his inspection of the workshop.  He moved silently, each step deliberate.  The mage-hunter poked, prodded and scrutinized the many tomes and talismans spread throughout the room.  Careful to put each item back in its proper place when he was done with it.  He wasn’t looking for anything specific, just anything of significance.  Weighing clues of the supernatural and clues of Rorye past with even importance. 

 

Throughout Ryan’s investigation his attention had been divided.  Despite the task at hand, his primary focus was listening to the events taking place in the next room.  He listened intently, doing his best to make out the words spoken.  Eavesdropping to glean any helpful information, while keeping himself entertained with the search.  He waited for a need to break from hiding and enter the fray; should the need arise.

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“Glad to see I’m not the only one with issues,”

 

The small laugh was quiet. Ain’t that the truth. She was chattier than she probably should have been, it was all part of her charm. The shopkeeper knew everyone, talked to everyone, and kept everyone’s secrets. When people were comfortable, she could read them; what they wanted, things they would enjoy. It was her job as an entrepreneur to figure out what people wanted before they even wanted it, or tell them what they needed before they realized they needed something. She was amiable, always.

 

Then he grabbed her wrist. Speedster, and not an issue with showing it.

 

Lashes snapped down briefly, pretty sure he didn’t realize how close he was to actually getting his nose broken. Take care of family huh? Smile was curt at his question of possession, and after he let go her hand remained there a moment before moving to show him her fun toys. She’d always been irritated by people grabbing her. Past experiences were never positive.

 

“I can take it off your hands, but first I need to know who contacted you looking for it.” 

 

Her gentle laugh was genuinely amused.

 

“Of course you can,” quiet voice was rum rich as she began to put it away. “But that’s not how this works. I can’t pay the bills that way, and I don’t give up names. If you get the fun stuff, I have to get something in return. I don’t work for free.”

 

Interrupted. After hours clients were rare.

 

 “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing,” she readied herself to meet unannounced clients. “I just don’t like unannounced clients after hours. They tend to be entitled dicks. Double O Seven syndrome.”

 

She reassured him the routine was normal, her place really did run like an oiled machine. It had been a while though since someone had just decided to drop by. Same time frame as an ARMA visitor? Interesting coincidence.

 

“And here I thought I was special,”

 

“All my customers are special,” the charm was again smooth, sarcastic smile flashed quickly at him while dusting off her cardigan and tucking any loose locks behind her ears. “Even the ones that almost get their noses broken and then get caught looking at my ass.”

 

Brow quirked at him with a curt smirk as she opened the door and mouthed again not to touch anything. Of course she knew he was going to play with everything. That’s why the good stuff was never where people could see it.

 

There were three. One was playing with the glittering stone necklaces that were hanging in a beautiful front display, spinning them and watching the tiny rainbows twinkle on the ceiling. Another was standing just behind the shoulder of a man waiting for her quietly at the counter, watching the twinkle of her chamberstick.

 

*npc* Neat trick, he commented.

 

“Thanks, just a party trick,” she smiled, setting to clearing the drink trays from the front counter. Lie. The thing was twinkling consistently, which meant only one thing. Harker didn’t need to know it was real either. Whiskey, absinthe. They had definitely seen what was there, but didn’t seem concerned with it. “I apologize, I’ve just finished with another client and didn’t have time to pick up. What can I do for you gentlemen?”

 

After clearing the counter, she settled in on her favorite stool.  No introductions. No names. This was normal.

 

*npc* I’ve heard you can get anything.

 

She studied him a moment, serious expression. Maybe a few years older than she, dressed relatively well. Dark eyes, blond, a bit of scruff, dressed in nice dark coat and clothes to match. The man behind him was a bit more formal, older, hands folded in front of him. The third was pacing the shop, hands folded in front of him, just looking at things; he was definitely younger than her.

 

Great. Boss, lackey and cocky young lackey-in-training.

 

“I can,” her voice was in absolute business mode. “Discretely.”

 

*npc* What are the limitations of what you will get?

 

It sounded awful, but this was actually a typical question. How far was she willing to go… this was not just a job interview for her, it was for them as well.

 

“Legitimate deals only, I don’t steal and I don’t kill for items. I don’t traffic living things. Where they’ve been before they’re sold to me is not my concern. Where they go when they leave my hands is not my concern.”

 

*npc* You do business with the Order, ARMA?

 

“I do business with everyone.”

 

He was quiet a moment, eyes wandering over the shop.

 

*npc* You come highly recommended, it was almost said as an afterthought. Do you deal in the dead?

 

“Yes.”

 

Also sounded awful, but it was normal. Hands of Glory, animal blood; she’d moved a mummy once. He nodded. He seemed aloof and didn’t look her in the eye when he spoke. Now lackey one? He was staring her down. Lackey two had picked up a book. Lackey two also had a sunburn. His nose was peeling. There was no way to get a sunburn at the moment. Wind burned, or burn burned, yes. Not sunburned. What could they have been doing to get a sunburn?

 

*npc* Can you get blood of magus?

 

“It’s not something I’ve seen come through my network for obvious reasons, but I have several contacts that may be able to point me in a direction.”

 

She hadn’t skipped a beat, but in her head she was ready to launch over the counter to punch him in the face. There was something about his question, some unseen connection her brain had not made yet. In her gut, she wanted to put her hands around his throat and squeeze the life out of him.

 

“Living donor?”

 

Magus missing. Powerful magus missing. They were on alert now, harder to get their blood now they were watching their backs. This man could have… dark eyes narrowed at him slightly. This man could be responsible for the disappearances, or knew who was.

 

*npc* It doesn’t matter.

 

The only reason people wanted magus blood was for one purpose. Mana was not transferable. A mage couldn’t simply give someone their juice. A normal human couldn’t become a magus with mana. They literally had to become the mage, use the magus’ very life force. Blood magic. It was impossible to gain a magus level, at least as far as she knew, but there had been rumors lately. This was not the first request she’d gotten for blood, so far it had been just been a few drops in a vial. Hoodoo type things. Approaching her would mean they wanted it on a regular basis. They were definitely up to something, or had already done something, or someone and found it to work.

 

She nodded, “are we on a time frame? What amount are you looking for?”

 

*npc* Let’s see how quickly you can obtain a lead, then we can talk about an amount.

 

Nod came again, “this type of request is not an inexpensive one.”

 

*npc* Of course. Is two days long enough to send out ‘feelers’

 

“Plenty, same time here in two days?”

 

He nodded, then paused a moment as she pulled her keys to let them out a private side door. His eyes wandered over the trays of whisky and absinthe for the first time.

 

*npc* I can’t stress how sensitive this issue is for our privacy.

 

“Of course, that’s why I come highly recommended. I'm just a weigh station. What you do and who you are is your business. Follow me gentlemen.”

 

He smiled at her, and she let them out a private side door. A quick scan of the dark street as she closed the door told her they had come in one car. Once the door closed, she was moving, pushing her workshop door open quickly and already pulling her sweater off.

 

“You have to go,” she said quickly to Harker. “I’m leaving.”

 

No, she was following. She would follow those bastards back to where they were operating from. There could be information there. Information on the missing. The missing themselves. What if they were capturing and killing, or keeping them alive and bleeding?

 

It was unthinkable. Could the missing still be alive?

 

Toes had pulled off her slip on ballet flats at the heel and she yanked up the cuffs of her jeans, sliding on a pair of Harley riding boots that were sitting behind the door, slamming her heels each once to the floor to seat them on her feet and snapping her jeans back down over them. Gauzy tunic was yanked off, racerback cami beneath revealing the actual karambits as she snapped the straps back in. Custom.

 

She was shaking. Anger. The anger was hot in her blood. This was her own anger, and Red’s as well.

 

Lifting a leather jacket from the hook on the wall revealed she wasn’t just a shopkeeper. Jacket was tossed on the workbench and she lifted the spine sheath for a pair of short blades off the hook and pulled it on.  Harness quick-clipped in front, a blue button down shirt pulled over it and the black biker’s jacket over that. Braid flipped as she pulled it out from under the jacket and zipped the wrists down to her knuckles.

 

“It’s been awesome. I hope you come again. Nina can show you out.”

 

They would hear her coming, her bike wasn’t exactly silent. She wasn’t exactly going to just look either. She was going to kill them. They couldn’t be the top dogs. She would cut off their runners, then they would come to her for questions. She would kill them too.

 

The flurry of movement came to a sudden stop, and she kneaded her brow with her fingertips. She should ask him to go with her. He couldn’t go with her. He would stop her from what she really wanted to do to these bastards. If she found his colleagues he should be there. She wasn’t the greatest with covert shit. Ali had saved her ass more than once. She needed back-up for this.

 

But he would stop her from killing people. Goody fucking two shoes ARMA. Sigh was sharp as she fished her keys from her pocket, dark eyes with quite a sinister purpose falling on him. Time was of the essence.

 

“How good are you at tailing someone?”

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At the mention of “magus blood” Harker donned his coat and quietly exited the workshop through the back door.  His Dodge Challenger was already parked near the courtyard to the rear of the establishment.  The agent moved quickly and without hesitation.  Pulling open his passenger door, he grabbed an item from the glove box and then strode down the alleyway beside the teashop. 

 

The alley was dark.  A single vehicle was parked outside the side entrance to the occults shop.  Characters looking for something as illicit as mage blood wouldn’t park out front, and Ryan hadn’t seen any other cars parked behind the business.  He deduced the vehicle in the alley belonged to the men inside.

 

Harker grabbed an empty bottle from a nearby trashcan as he approached the vehicle.  As he drew closer he began to stagger, gait unsteady, arms swinging haphazardly for balance.  Head hung low as he reached the front of the car.  Stumbling forward he fell to the ground, careful not to let the bottle strike the asphalt.  He didn’t want the noise to attract attention.  Bracing himself against the vehicles bumper, Ryan climbed back up to his feet.  The apparent drunk then turned around and wobbled back down the alley from whence he came.  The tracker was planted.  The act a cautious façade in case someone had been observing the vehicle.

 

Rorye reentered the workshop just as the mage-hunter did.  “You have to go,” She said without looking at him. “I’m leaving.” 

 

The shopkeeper was obviously flustered.  She scrambled to change her attire, swapping her flats for boots and throwing a motorcycle jacket on the table between them.  She was visibly shaking.  Moving with a quickness that was just slightly faster than humanly possible.  The woman armed herself with additional blades and concealed them beneath a collared shirt.  The desire for violence practically radiated from her.

 

“And where do you think you’re going?”  Ryan asked rhetorically.  He already knew she intended to go after those men.  He had seen it before.  The anger, the rage, the hate.  The emotions made a Soldier fearless, but they also made them vulnerable.  When you get emotional in combat, you make mistakes.  When you make mistakes in combat, the wrong people die.

 

“It’s been awesome.  I hope you come again.  Nina can show you out.”  Rorye dismissed him as she pulled her arms through the motorcycle jacket.

 

“Tell me what they told you.”  Harker demanded.  He didn’t raise his voice, but the order was stern.  “Did they give you a time frame?  Who are they working for?”

 

Ryan waited for answers, stepping between Rorye and the door leading out to the courtyard.  “What are you going to do?”  The agent tried not to sound condescending, but he needed to walk her through the course of action.  “Go after them, catch them, kill them?”  He paused for effect, “Then what?  You take out a couple of small time Soldiers and the shot callers walk.  We have to follow these guys to the top and take out the head of the snake.”

 

Rorye stood still for a moment.  Head in her hand, she was clearly thinking.  Ryan closed the gap between them.  He considered placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but recalled her “broken nose” comment and decided better of it. 

 

“How good are you at tailing someone?”  She asked, looking him the eyes for the first time since they had entered the workshop.

 

“Look, this is what I do,” Ryan replied, “and I am the best at what I do.”  There was no bravado in his voice.  The statement was made with the same certainty someone would have in stating the sky was blue.  A simple fact.  “Let me handle this and I will let you know what I find out.”

 

The ARMA operative turned and walked to the door to leave.  He stopped in the doorway for a moment and looked back at her with a smug grin.  “Besides, you’re not going to be able to tail anyone on that noisy crotch rocket.”

 

Harker marched purposefully to his car.  Enough time had been wasted.  The tracking talisman was effective, but its range was not unlimited.  He needed to catch up to the target before it got too great a lead. 

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Her shop, a modified Victorian building nestled in the old neighborhood, still had all the modern amenities she needed. The last decade of absolute stupid crazy had made security a necessity. When he left through the back door, she knew. The front counter wasn’t her favorite perch for nothing. Underneath the counter had the security pad, when sitting at the counter she could see every door code that opened. She could lock down the front of the shop on full moons, slam the storm doors, and even set the silent alarms.

 

Out and back in again. What the hell was he doing?

 

Too many things were racing through her mind as she tried to juggle business and keep an eye on what the hell Harker was up to. He had to go, for now anyway. Clients safely out of the building, she was going to finish up business with Harker and go after them.

 

“And where do you think you’re going?”

 

The taught half smile was a knowing one, lashes low as she changed quickly. She didn’t have to answer shit. This is why she never wanted to deal with ARMA. She answered to nobody. Ali had been pushy at first. He learned. It was definitely a sad unwelcome rush of nostalgia, and a fond one at the same time. Weird.

 

“Tell me what they told you. Did they give you a time frame?  Who are they working for?”

 

She also didn’t have to tell him shit.

 

“What are you going to do? Go after them, catch them, kill them? Then what?  You take out a couple of small time Soldiers and the shot callers walk.  We have to follow these guys to the top and take out the head of the snake.”

 

“Relax,” pupils flared as he moved closer, the glisten of green spilling into her normally russet irises like ink. Hands were now at her sides calmly, the stillness a stark contrast to her movement before. She’d allowed the balance in her muscles to tip, now hair triggered and blindingly fast at a moment’s call. She was absolutely capable of taking care of herself, and he needed to realize when to be a hammer and when to follow her lead.

 

She’d asked if he could tail someone as a courtesy, not as an invitation to take over.

 

“Look, this is what I do, and I am the best at what I do. Let me handle this and I will let you know what I find out.”

 

Bingo. He was a motherfucking Cloak.

 

“This is what you do? I don’t give a shit if this is what you do. You walked into my house. This is what I do. I convince people to trust me, and I get information without tipping them off. Sometimes I even punch them in the face when they deserve it. Ali trusted my skill, if we’re going to have any kind of working relationship, you need to also.”

 

“Besides, you’re not going to be able to tail anyone on that noisy crotch rocket.”

 

“I don’t need to tail them, you do.”

 

Words were definitively melancholy. She didn’t like talking about Ali, especially in past tense.

 

She rolled out the Ducati silently as he marched to his car; the sleek black bike parked right in front of his bumper as she straddled it and pulled the helmet from its perch.

 

“I know where they are. I’ll be there before they will. That’s what happens when you use your brains instead of bullets.”

 

Truth. She’d watched the lackey-in-training. The things he played with in her shop, what he picked up and looked at. Reading people was her job. Plus, the fact they all hinted of a scent she knew since she was a kid helped pinpoint their hang out. There was only one place in New York that smelled like that, and it was in her stomping grounds. She knew exactly how to get there, ahead of everyone.

 

Helmet rested on her thigh a moment. But, he was right. Sigh was impatient.

 

“I promise I won’t kill anyone until you get there, and afterward I’ll buy your first beer.”

 

Lips pursed and she thought a moment.

 

“Or I could put my bike away and give you directions in that thing, because I don’t drive. If we do it your way, you don't leave me behind and you follow my lead.”

 

So much for breaking up with ARMA.

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“This is what you do? I don’t give a shit if this is what you do. You walked into my house. This is what I do. I convince people to trust me, and I get information without tipping them off. Sometimes I even punch them in the face when they deserve it. Ali trusted my skill, if we’re going to have any kind of working relationship, you need to also.”

 

The room was quiet for a moment.  Rorye’s spunky attitude had been charming at first, but in the face of a real-world mission, it was starting to get on Ryan’s nerves.  The mention of Alistar seemed to drain the atmosphere of any residual contentment.  Ryan resisted the urge to make a callous retort at her expense.  She wanted his trust, as Alistar had trusted her.  Despite having only known her for an evening, Ryan did have faith in Rorye’s character.  However, he seldom trusted anyone’s tactical capabilities if they weren’t a trained ARMA operative.  That kind of trust could only be earned through shared experience.

 

Harker pointed a finger at the possessed woman.  Gritted teeth held back words as he glared into her emerald infused eyes.  The agent composed himself, and then turned to leave.

 

“I don’t need to tail them, you do.”

 

“No shit,” Ryan muttered under his breath as seated himself behind the wheel of his beloved Dodge Challenger.  When the spirited woman rolled her Ducati out in front of his car, Ryan threw up his hands in mock disbelief, “Aww… what the fuck?”

 

“I know where they are. I’ll be there before they will. That’s what happens when you use your brains instead of bullets.”

   

Harker rolled down his car windows.  He didn’t bother to hide the annoyance in his voice as he corrected her, “No, you know where they might be going, but you don’t know where they are now. I do.”  The agent hitched his elbow up to rest his arm on the car door.  Leaning his head out of the window he said, “and who said anything about bullets?” 

 

“I promise I won’t kill anyone until you get there, and afterward I’ll buy your first beer.”

 

Ryan could tell she was trying to compromise, though her intentions for the mission were almost laughable.  This needed to be a reconnaissance mission, not a tactical assault.  Ryan had no problem with killing people that needed to die, but he wanted the people at the top of this outfit.  He wasn’t going to settle for the hired muscle.  “No one should be doing any killing tonight.”

 

“Or I could put my bike away and give you directions in that thing, because I don’t drive. If we do it your way, you don't leave me behind and you follow my lead.”

 

Harker considered Rorye’s proposal for a moment.  Even if she was a modern-day Indiana Jones, he didn’t want that kind of action in what needed to be a covert operation.  That said, he already knew the girl was too stubborn to be sidelined.  If she was going to involve herself, it would probably be better if he kept her close.  An unpredictable, extremely pissed off, woman possessed by a supernatural spirit, roaming through his area of interest like a loose cannon, would probably reap catastrophic results.  At least this way he could maintain some level of control over her actions.

 

“Fine, bullets-for-brains,” Ryan conceded with a bothered sigh.  A hand gestured toward his car, “Get in.”

 

Harker drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel while he waited.  Once Rorye was seated inside and the passenger door was closed, his head swiveled to her.  “Alright, I am trusting you, but we are doing this my way.  I don’t give a fuck how much skill you have.  Trust works both ways.  I know what I am doing, and if you want to work with me, you need to trust me too.  That’s the deal.”

 

Ryan shook his head as the Challenger’s engine came to life with a hearty growl.  This whole situation was far from ideal.  ARMA informant or not, Rorye was someone he had never worked with before.  Undertaking an on-the-fly mission with an unknown quantity was unsettling.  Far outside of his standard operating procedure.  Part of him questioned why he was going through with the mission at all.  For some reason, his instincts told him he could trust Rorye.

 

“I can already tell you’re going to be a pain in my ass,” Ryan said aloud as he shifted the gear into “drive” before accelerating away from the “Book of Kells.”

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Chin lifted slightly in defiance as he pointed at her, the room chilled from her callus words. She would not back down. This was the argument she should have had a year ago. She should have refused to buckle and let people walk out the door without her. For a moment, she thought all hell was going to break loose… she expected it… and then he was gone.

 

Blink was soft, eyes hot. She couldn’t in good conscience give him the information he wanted and let him go off on his own terms. Huff soft, she went after him. She could have gone off on her own, she SHOULD have gone off on her own and left him to figure his own shit out. Things would have been taken care of by the time he got there once she got her hands on them.

 

 “Aww… what the fuck?”

 

She adjusted her wrist zippers and yanked her hair from the braid to bundle into a bun at the back of her neck to fit under her helmet as he bitched, spilling it once and bundling it again.

 

“No, you know where they might be going, but you don’t know where they are now. I do.”

 

Touche’

 

“No one should be doing any killing tonight.”

 

Her expression as she stared at him from her bike was all business, but the vibration of her blood against her skin was still angry. No, nobody should, but knowing the type of people that came to her requesting specific unspeakable things, there was a good chance he would be on the wrong side of the killing. Last time she’d sent someone off with this kind of information, they didn’t come home. She couldn’t deal with that on her conscience again.

 

He was thinking about her offer though. That was a start

 

“Fine, bullets-for-brains, Get in.”

 

Leg swung over the side of her Ducati and she expertly pushed it back into her courtyard with more grace than a normal human would, throttle lock on within seconds, and she was sliding into the passenger seat and whisking her helmet nimbly on the floor behind her seat merely a few moments later.

 

“Alright, I am trusting you, but we are doing this my way.  I don’t give a fuck how much skill you have.  Trust works both ways.  I know what I am doing, and if you want to work with me, you need to trust me too.  That’s the deal.”

 

She said nothing, shifting slightly to get the pressure from one of the sheaths off her shoulder blade as she let the swanky seat envelop her... so much nicer than hers that she never drove. She’d never really been comfortable in cars, they gave a false sense of security and could be entirely too intimate. But, she’d won the argument and gotten herself exactly where she wanted to be so she’d deal.

 

“I can already tell you’re going to be a pain in my ass”

 

…only after she potentially just saved his ass.

 

“I don’t do seatbelts so don’t get me killed ARMA.”

 

She was unusually quiet for some time, watching the buildings of her neighborhood as they moved past. It felt strange being back in the loop. Her shop made it easy to keep everything at a distance. She didn’t have to walk into a headquarters every day and see empty desks and phones that rang and didn’t get picked up by people that should have been there. People in her world kept coming in the door, giving her every excuse to continue business as usual. She wasn’t exactly putting out a beacon to ARMA that she needed a grief counselor either. There were a lot of reasons she didn’t want them around, Harker just seemed to not have gotten that memo. She’d dropped off the face of the earth tangled in confidential information, and it had seemingly stayed buried with her.

 

When she finally said something, her voice was almost too quiet. Jumping back into this saddle just felt, heavy, like time hadn’t made anything better. Nothing had healed.

 

“I don’t have conversations with ARMA in Kells. It’s an echo chamber, a thousand conversations that linger to be picked up by any magical item that can scoop them up, absorb their emotions and energy. People that know how, can listen in,” she watched his hands on the wheel for a moment then glanced at him before her attention went back to the world beyond the car. “Last time someone from ARMA came to see me and we had a serious conversation, they never came back. I wasn’t enough of a pain in the ass to insist he take me with him.”

 

She was quiet again. She didn’t need his disappearance on her conscience too. Regardless, he needed to be brought up to speed. She was pretty sure he was Cloak, but not sure how much he knew about what was happening before everyone had vanished.

 

“Don’t ask me sensitive questions in the shop area, there’s another location on the premises we can go. For now, this car is fine. I don't know how much you know, so I'll go all the way back.”

 

Sigh was soft.

 

“Over a year ago, ARMA, Vanguard and the Order called a truce under the table to work together against a common enemy they couldn’t yet define. There was substantial evidence that humans had broken through the magic barrier and were successfully practicing blood magic. They needed magus blood to do it. I was tasked with keeping my finger on the pulse of moving magic items and keeping them informed. Almost immediately after the truce, everyone disappeared.”

 

Thumb was turning the ring on her finger, her other hand resting on her thigh. She couldn’t find a good place to put it. Elbow on the center console seemed weirdly close to him. Crossing her arms would put her elbow almost on his arm. She fucking hated cars…

 

“After that everything went quiet. Trade chatter, artifact chatter, it all slowed down. Over a year now, no weird requests or happenings until my contact Remy vanished a few weeks back. These guys tonight…” she shook her head, a furl through her brow as she looked at him. “…knew when to show up, when I’d be free because Remy hasn’t been here and that I can get magus blood in large quantities. His disappearance is not an accident. It’s no secret to people that want things that I can get them anything, but magus blood… that’s only something Remy would know and he wouldn’t give me up unless he was forced to.”

 

Fingers rubbed the bridge of her nose, then swiped across dark lashes. Arms finally crossed as she leaned her head back on the headrest and looked at him.

 

“They’re coming back in two days. I told them I’d check my sources, which was bullshit. They’re going to try and strong-arm me into getting them what they want for free, or force me to give up my contacts. Either way they were here to assess if Remy's intel was solid and figure out if they could threaten me. I wanted to follow them back to wherever they’re holed up because I had some idea in my head that any magus they have could still be alive.”

 

Blink was slow and she turned her head to look back out the window.

 

"It's ridiculous, I know."

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Ryan and Rorye sat in silence for a time.  Ryan’s eyes stayed focused on the road in front of him.  He didn’t bother to explain how he had placed a tracking charm on the vehicle they were pursuing.  Nor did he explain how the talisman in his coat pocket was linked to the charm, or how it allowed him to see the otherwise invisible trail of magical residue the charm left in its wake.  The agent’s lack of communication an indicator of his frustration toward the woman beside him.  Rorye shifted uncomfortably in her seat.  Ryan presumed she was either equally frustrated or sensed his irritation and felt awkward for it.  For the moment, he didn’t care.

 

When Rorye finally spoke, it nearly surprised the agent.  Her words were soft, almost a whisper.  The sentences laced together with a faint, but unmistakable sorrow.    

 

“I don’t have conversations with ARMA in Kells. It’s an echo chamber, a thousand conversations that linger to be picked up by any magical item that can scoop them up, absorb their emotions and energy. People that know how, can listen in,”

 

Harker’s gaze remained fixed on the world outside the vehicle’s cabin. 

 

“Last time someone from ARMA came to see me and we had a serious conversation, they never came back. I wasn’t enough of a pain in the ass to insist he take me with him.”

 

The girl fell silent again.  A chink in her armor revealed.  Ryan spared a glance in her direction.  Thinking back to when the first Resonance had sundered the earth, and how he had felt.  When he finally understood he had lost his family, the pain had gripped his heart so tightly he couldn’t breathe.  Even now, years later, when he thought about it… the agony was there. 

 

“ARMA operatives are amongst the most highly trained in the world,” he said.  Speaking for the first time since they had left the Book of Kells. “On top of that, Alistar was a first-class mage.  He didn’t need your protection… and you being there wouldn’t have changed anything.”

 

Harker spoke definitively.  His tone almost offended by the inference ARMA needed her protection at all.  In truth, he wasn’t insulted.  He could appreciate Rorye’s feelings on the subject.  Survivors guilt was a bitch.

 

Ryan listened quietly as the woman recalled the history of the Order-ARMA armistice.  She was surprisingly well informed.  The Cloak operative already knew the information she provided, but he waited for her to finish nonetheless.  He was curious as to the extent of her knowledge.

 

“After that everything went quiet. Trade chatter, artifact chatter, it all slowed down. Over a year now, no weird requests or happenings until my contact Remy vanished a few weeks back. These guys tonight…” 

 

          Rorye shifted uncomfortably in her seat as she spoke; anxiously twiddling with the ring on her finger.  A shake of her head before she turned to look at Ryan.  He met her gaze for a moment, then his eyes shifted back to the road.

 

“…knew when to show up, when I’d be free because Remy hasn’t been here and that I can get magus blood in large quantities. His disappearance is not an accident. It’s no secret to people that want things that I can get them anything, but magus blood… that’s only something Remy would know and he wouldn’t give me up unless he was forced to.”  She seemed genuinely upset at her own conclusion.  Arms crossed over her chest, she leaned back in her seat and sighed. 

 

Ryan could feel her stare.  He peeked out of the corner of his eye, but otherwise remained focused on the road.  They were in Manhattan now, south of Harlem, not far from Hell’s Kitchen.  Ryan wondered where the tracking talisman was leading them.  He hadn’t physically seen any of the men from the shop, but they sounded serious enough.  A slumlord hideout in Hell’s Kitchen wasn’t far from the realm of possibility, if not a little cliché.  Though from the middle of Manhattan, they could have been headed anywhere.

 

“Is this Remy guy a friend of yours?”  Harker asked, car rolling to a stop at yet another traffic light.  He scanned the intersection and checked his mirrors for any potential threats.  He found none.  Not paranoid, just a casual habit.  The agent looked to the woman beside him, one hand on the wheel, the other resting on the center console.

 

“They’re coming back in two days. I told them I’d check my sources, which was bullshit. They’re going to try and strong-arm me into getting them what they want for free, or force me to give up my contacts. Either way they were here to assess if Remy's intel was solid and figure out if they could threaten me. I wanted to follow them back to wherever they’re holed up because I had some idea in my head that any magus they have could still be alive.”

 

She meant, Alistar might be alive.  As if ARMA hadn’t already tried to locate their missing leader by all available means.  If he was alive, they would have found him.  Though if they were on the right trail, perhaps they could recover the magus’ remains.  Have a proper funeral to pay respects and put the man to rest.  Alistar deserved that much.

 

“It’s ridiculous, I know.”

 

“Yeah, I suppose it is,” Ryan’s reply was candid and a little distant.  “If we’re lucky though, we might be able to find your friend Remy alive.”

 

The sable Challenger slowed as Harker pulled up to the curb and parked.  “We’re here,” he said, shifting the vehicle into “park.”

 

          They were stopped to the front of an unimpressive apartment building.  The streetlight overhead was out, leaving the duo to bask in the night’s gloom.  Noticing Rorye’s expression, Ryan pointed a finger from the hand that still gripped the steering wheel.  A block and a half south of them, on the left-hand side of the road, a black SUV was parked to the front of a nightclub.  “See the black Cadillac, SUV up there?  That’s their ride.”

 

          The outside of the night club wasn’t extravagant.  A plain gray, warehouse styled front faced the street.  A restaurant and a café pressed seamlessly against the club on either side, giving it a narrow appearance.  A single door was centered to the front of the building, above it hung a bright sign that lettered a single word.  “Avenue.”  There was large man, dressed in black, posted by the front door.  A velvet red rope separated the doorman from a line people waiting to enter the club.  Every time the door opened music would resonate down the street in either direction.

 

          “The Monday after the New Year weekend, and these guys are still going.”  Ryan shook his head in disbelief.  “See how their SUV is the only car parked out front?  I am willing to bet they either own the place, or they are VIPs.”

 

          The agent gave an exasperated exhale and leaned back in his seat.  “Chances are, the club is front, and their actual business takes place in the basement beneath it.”  Ryan looked to the supernatural woman beside him, “Well, we can either stake out the car to the front, or… we can go inside and scope the place out.”

 

          Ryan nudged Rorye’s arm with his elbow playfully, “but if we’re going inside, your going to have to change up your outfit.”  A sly grin spread slowly upon the operative’s face, “I don’t think the ‘biker chick’ look is going to get us through the door.”

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“ARMA operatives are amongst the most highly trained in the world, On top of that, Alistar was a first-class mage.  He didn’t need your protection… and you being there wouldn’t have changed anything.”

 

The edges of her eyes tightened as she watched the darkness of her neighborhood slide by. First instinct at a response was a biting, quiet retort that was stopped before she said it. She was always getting a reminder that she wasn’t part of the Super Friends club. His tone was not one of condescension however, and that saved him from a bit of wrath. She said nothing for a while.

 

“It would have changed everything,” the answer was quiet, definitely loaded with more history than she was going to elaborate with a relative stranger.

 

It would have changed everything. He still may have died, but he wouldn’t have died alone. It would have taken away the wondering, the small skip in her chest that would happen every time someone knocked on her back door unannounced. Hope that fell to nothing but bitter cynicism had been stuffed down so deep she hadn’t even thought about it for some time. It was business as usual, and usual of late was particularly lonely… and even more indifferent to anything outside her immediate neighborhood. When was the last time she’d even been off her block?

 

As she moved on from her own quiet regret and explained everything she knew, she felt a bit of that spark again for a moment. There was a part of her though that wanted to squash it back down and not involve anyone. When she involved people, they got hurt. Not because of her, because of the things she dealt with. Bringing people into that world no matter how trained was dangerous, especially when they didn’t know how to navigate in the dark world she knew her way through. Though she hadn’t completely formed an opinion on him yet, she didn’t feel he needed that danger brought down on him. She couldn’t deal with someone else disappearing because of her knowledge.

 

The glint of blue in the dim glow of dashboard lights that focused on her for a short moment tripped her from her spiraling thoughts. Her devil always had been blue eyes, kinda like red head kryptonite for almost every man she ever knew. Something about the color had always been a calm trigger for her. A trap. They always ended up being a trap. A particularly enjoyable trap, but a trap nonetheless.

 

“Is this Remy guy a friend of yours?” 

 

“No,” a subtle smirk finally ghosted over her lips, the dark eyes catching the blue again that gave her more than a glance before watching the street. “He’s a dick. But, he pays well and doesn’t screw me over.”

 

She didn’t pull punches when it came to clients. They weren’t her friends. Business relationships could exist without friendships. It was cleaner that way, if not a bit survivalist. There was no playing nice in the sandbox when it came to moving artifacts. It was an underground job that had no mercy for the meek, and was addictive as hell. Poker, with more than just money at stake. If Remy was out of the picture, she’d fill in the hole he’d left. More chips on her table if she could get out to his hold and see if these assholes hadn’t ransacked the place. There was a treasure trove there for the taking. But, she didn’t dare take her bike out into that mess. Too loud, and not protective enough if something went wrong. She would need to drive. She hated driving, and didn’t do it well. It was her turn to cast a glance at a potential chauffeur, trying to figure out if he could be of use and not take all her toys away if the place was still stocked.

 

“If we’re lucky though, we might be able to find your friend Remy alive.”

 

“He’s a tough bastard, maybe.”

 

“We’re here, See the black Cadillac, SUV up there?  That’s their ride.”

 

“You’re going to teach me that tracking trick.”

 

It wasn’t a suggestion, the quirked brow intent on watching the place as her arms unfolded and she leaned her elbow on the sill, thumb running absently across her lower lip as she soaked in the obnoxiousness of the place. Other fingers tapped her knee rhythmically to the music spilling out of the doors every so often. She wasn’t the least bit surprised if something mojo had been pulled with him tracking them here. Damn magus. Then again he just might be good at tracking, but again… damn magus had all the good toys.

 

“The Monday after the New Year weekend, and these guys are still going. See how their SUV is the only car parked out front?  I am willing to bet they either own the place, or they are VIPs.”

 

They didn’t feel like VIP’s when she’d talked to them. They felt like newbs. She kept that little tidbit to herself for a moment, the side-eye glance thoughtful. The damn guilt was creeping up on her again. She didn’t like this game, it was making her question everything leading up to the disappearances; the things she divulged, the information she should have passed along, and the things she should have seen coming. Sigh was almost imperceptible, mostly at herself. ARMA was a business relationship if it was to continue, but maybe that was the problem- she never thought of them as family until it was too late. Maybe her insistence on keeping things to herself had caused all the issues in the first place.

 

Damn it all.

 

“They felt like newbs to me. A businessman, a hired gun and a pup. Businessman was scripted, almost like he’d been coached exactly what to say. Hired gun. Pup was definitely green.…” she thought a moment. “Not from here, their clothes were infused with something... distinct. I’ve smelled it before, I just can’t place it yet. This place is only one stop.”

 

“Chances are, the club is front, and their actual business takes place in the basement beneath it. Well, we can either stake out the car to the front, or… we can go inside and scope the place out.”

 

Eyes flicked to him at the nudge, narrowing slightly at the corners with a sarcastic smirk as she glanced back to the line of people. She’d left the club scene a long time ago. Plus, they’d probably make her.

 

“But if we’re going inside, your going to have to change up your outfit. I don’t think the ‘biker chick’ look is going to get us through the door.”

 

He was right, but women could change up that sort of thing.

 

“I can get in, question is will I get in with you,” she was patting the pockets of her jacket, clearly looking for something. “This is not my first club rodeo. Bouncers like girls, not guys covered with guns. They like the alpha wolves outside.” It was her turn for the sly grin as she pulled a few things from her pockets. She almost never used them unless she knew a client liked that sort of thing and it would help with a buy. Chameleon, she could be. She also could make do with a pretty simple rearranging of what she was wearing. Her pause after she’d located all of her things though was heavy. The lipstick tube clinked against the other bits of make-up as she closed her fingers a moment. Her attention turned to him, true seriousness in her expression. “This is a crap shoot. If they’re out front, they may leave while we’re trying to get in. Or, they could be here all night and we could learn more inside. Or, they could be snitching on me against intel they already know and be heading back to Kells to kick my ass.”

 

The thought pissed her off to no end, and she almost wanted them to try it. She knew what she would do, fingers playing with the eyeliner tucked in her hand. People who were trying to lay low never really were prepared for someone to walk in the front door right in front of them. Whatever way they went, she wasn’t letting him do it without her.

 

“This’ll take a minute if we go in, so what's the plan? One way or the other...” she was going to hate herself for this. Maybe she was turning a new leaf. "I have to find out if Remy is alive. He has an artifact hoard and contacts that cannot be swallowed up by these guys. But... I need someone to take me there. Bike is not safe into the wild, and I don't drive. I'll even let ARMA keep some. Maybe."

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“I can get in, question is will I get in with you.”

 

          Ryan couldn’t help but chuckle at the retort.  Meanwhile, Rorye began rummaging through her pockets.

 

 “This is not my first club rodeo. Bouncers like girls, not guys covered with guns. They like the alpha wolves outside.”

 

          She was right about that.  The agent was going to have to significantly downgrade his equipment if he was going to make it into the nightclub.  When clad in his complete kit, his stature could be… intimidating.  A reduced arsenal would mean reduced capability.  Reduced capability meant an increased risk.  This would definitely need to be a reconnaissance mission.

 

          “Trust me, I can get in,” Ryan said with a smug grin. “I just have to grab some things out of the trunk.”  The mage hunter opened his car door and started to get out, but was stopped by the defeated sigh of his new partner.

 

“This is a crap shoot. If they’re out front, they may leave while we’re trying to get in. Or, they could be here all night and we could learn more inside. Or, they could be snitching on me against intel they already know and be heading back to Kells to kick my ass.”

 

          “If the car leaves, I’ll know, and I should still be able to track it.”  Harker said assuredly, closing the cabin door.  “If these guys aren’t VIP’s, then they are likely reporting back to their boss on the information you gave them.”  The protector in him showed itself once more, “And if they are, I would rather know who we are dealing with before they come after you.”

 

“This’ll take a minute if we go in, so what's the plan? One way or the other... I have to find out if Remy is alive. He has an artifact hoard and contacts that cannot be swallowed up by these guys. But... I need someone to take me there. Bike is not safe into the wild, and I don't drive. I'll even let ARMA keep some. Maybe."

 

          “Ok, ok.”  Ryan conceded.  Palm facing down, he motioned with his hand as he spoke, as if to say ‘take it down a notch.’  “Here’s the plan, we go in the club and recon.  We see what we can see, and we get out.”  Ocean blue eyes gazed into hers, his tone serious.  “If we do this, we do it professionally.  No fighting, no emotional outbursts, no killing.” 

 

          Harker paused for a moment to let his words sink in before he continued.  “When we get in there, just follow my lead.  First, we will survey the area.  Before we make any moves, we need to know how many men they have inside, and we need to know where all the exits are located.  If we get a chance to get behind some locked doors, then we are just a couple trying to find a spot to be alone.  If we need to get out quick, you pretend to be sick and we move to the nearest exit.”

 

          The agent spoke as though they had already completed a mission brief and conducted rehearsals of the operation.  He had clearly done this before. “If we get separated, we get out and rendezvous back here.  If things go sideways, use your speed to get out and I will meet you at the shop… I can handle myself.”

 

          Ryan reached for door handle and eyed Rorye “Questions?”  After waiting for a response, he added, “Once we are done here, we can go check on Remy’s place.  Chances are they already hit the place if they broke him.  Best bet is to follow these guys and try to find Remy before they kill him.  If this lead is a dead end, you already know where his place is, we can follow up there afterward.”

 

          Harker opened the car door and exited the vehicle.  “Be right back,” he said before closing the door behind him.

 

          The agent walked around to the Challenger’s trunk.  A careful glance in either direction before he opened the compartment.  Inside was a black metal floorboard.  The floorboard an obvious addition to the compartment, as it consumed more than half of the available trunk space.  Harker placed his fingertips on the bottom left corner of the matte black plate.  A second later, the metal floorboard opened to reveal the hidden arsenal within.  Two rifles, a shotgun, multiple pistols, body armor, magazines, and an assortment of magic talismans were all neatly packed into designated partitions inside the floor safe.

 

          Ryan removed his enchanted jacket and undervest, and tucked them away into an unoccupied space deep inside the trunk.  He unfastened the buttons at the top of his collared black shirt, then rolled the sleeves up to just below the elbow.  A tactical knife was slid into the inside of his left boot.  A compact 9mm pistol was concealed in a discrete holster to the front of his waist.  The operative slid on a black suit jacket made of ARMA’s signature silver thread.  It fit him perfectly.  The material didn’t offer nearly the protection of other his enchanted garments, but it was also much discrete.  Harker stuffed an extra magazine in one of the coat’s inner pockets.  Finally, he checked to ensure his espionage trinkets were all in their proper place before closing the trunk all together.

 

          Ryan walked to the passenger door of the muscle car and opened it for Rorye.  “Ready?”  He asked with a grin.  “Oh, almost forgot.”  Before she had a chance to step out of the car, Ryan leaned inside.  Reaching across her body, he opened the center console and began rummaging through it contents.  His face came close to hers.  A second passed before he realized just how close they were, head swiveled and his eyes met hers, “Got it.”

 

          Harker withdrew from the cabin with a gold chain in his hand.  He pulled the necklace over his head, and allowed the cross it bared to flaunt openly outside of his shirt.  “What do you think?  Douchey necklace complete the look?”

 

          “Alright,” Ryan extended a hand to the Rorye.  It was mission start.  That meant getting into character, chivalry and all.  “Ready for this?”

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Her smirk was amused as he chuckled at her comment. It was the absolute truth. Girls got in, guys didn’t. They just shook the guys down for serious tip cash if they wanted into a lady packed house. It was all such a game. You just had to be good at it.

 

“Trust me, I can get in,”

 

It was her turn to be amused. This venture though came with distinct risks and different desired outcomes. She wanted the idiots to above all keep their asses out of her shop and her neighborhood, gaining Remy’s stash was a bonus. It was entirely futile to think anything would come out of following them, or anyone. Harker had his own goals; she just needed to decide if they were compatible with hers without getting either of them fucked over. She didn’t like where it was going though, the way he seemed to take her safety on his shoulders. Protective, she could feel it. A sizzle of apprehension ghosted over a furled brow.

 

“If we do this, we do it professionally.  No fighting, no emotional outbursts, no killing.” 

 

If. She rolled her lower lip through her teeth thoughtfully.

 

“When we get in there, just follow my lead.  First, we will survey the area.  Before we make any moves, we need to know how many men they have inside, and we need to know where all the exits are located.  If we get a chance to get behind some locked doors, then we are just a couple trying to find a spot to be alone.  If we need to get out quick, you pretend to be sick and we move to the nearest exit.”

 

She nodded.

 

“I can handle myself.”

 

That brought her eyes to him, a melancholy seriousness still across her features. He was going in regardless because he’d decided to be the good Samaritan and walk into her shop to check on her. She truly should have told him she was fine and to go. Whatever happened here would be her fault. Again.

 

“Questions?”

 

She shook her head, his next words glossing over her as she looked at the things in her hand. Made sense. So what was she going to do? Be involved and potentially get answers? Or pull out and let ARMA ghost away into her memory and nurse her guilt.

 

Fuck it all.

 

After the door closed behind him she pulled her jacket off, setting it in the driver’s seat and pulling off her boots. Shimmying out of jeans in a damn car was nearly impossible. She’d done it before, just never in the front seat. Coveted Levi’s were folded quickly and put behind the driver’s seat, jean shirt was unbuttoned and she looped her arms out of the black racerback cami, the maneuver strictly girl magic. Some creative rearranging of her karambit sheaths were necessary, but achievable and still hidden. Racerback neckline was folded into a beltline and she pulled the cami down her hips to just above mid-thigh. Black cami to a black mini was also top secret girl magic. Fitted jean shirt was buttoned up, left too low to be anything less than intentional, black lace peeking out if the angle was right. Eyes were smoked out with liner in the dim light of his rearview, lipstick popping, everything put back in the pockets of her jacket and she pulled on her boots again. Even with the knee high boots, she had legs for days. She’d always been tall, just some days she felt taller than others. Hair was shaken from its braid, waves loose and effortless.

   

“Ready?” 

 

She checked herself again the rearview, thumb wiping off the tiniest bit of lipstick on her top lip to make a better cupid’s bow. Another girl trick.

 

“Oh, almost forgot.”

 

Unconsciously, she found herself pressing back into the seat as he leaned over her, hand near her face slightly to keep from getting the lipstick on her thumb on him. Suddenly, the insecurity licked down her arms in a flare of goosebumps. What the fuck was she about to do?

 

Answers. She was getting answers.

 

“Got it.”

 

Brow cocked.

 

“You sure?” there was humor in the playful sarcasm.

 

The gold chain was pure icing on the cake.

 

“What do you think?  Douchey necklace complete the look?”

 

She smirked, suppressing the eye roll, “Perfect.”

 

“Ready for this?”

 

Hand placed into his, she got out of the car with her leather jacket only to slide it on. It completed the look. Edgy, but club worthy… plus it would hide the sheaths on her back easier.

 

“I apologize in advance for what I have to do to get us in,” she said quietly as long legs made their way toward the entrance, quick flick of her thumb transferring the lipstick to a swipe just under his ear. "I'm a saleswoman."

 

She was getting in as quick as possible, it was fucking cold outside. Still had the knack? They would find out.

 

Already the catty eyes from other women in line burned at them, she knew she caught attention. Everyone else had dressed to be seen; she’d dressed to party and made people see her. That was the secret. Clubs wanted the alcohol to flow and no drama in the corners. They wanted people on the dance floor and preoccupied with having a good time, not in the bathroom checking their make-up. Before the first minute as they joined the end of the line, they were motioned up about half way.

 

Score. Now, feign cold and bat eyes at the bouncer over the boyfriend’s shoulder.

 

Fingers slid around Harker's waist from behind, clasping her fingers together over his belt buckle, chin coming to rest on his shoulder near his ear. The cascade of auburn waves slid off her shoulder. Surly curl of her lips and eyes were on the head doorman, but voice was only in Harker’s ear.

 

“Nice gun,” temple pressed against his and she laughed slightly, tucking her chin into the nape of his neck in that spot that made guys shudder. All for show, but amused just the same. “Wondered where you were going to put your toys.”

 

Beckoned up again.

 

Next phase. A little more space between them. More interest in the doorman but definitely still attached. Fingers were lightly looped in Harker’s as she smiled at a bouncer, leaning over to say something inaudible into the employee's ear. The bouncer blushed. Honest to god blushed before he nodded to the doorman and the rope was pulled aside for them. Wink to Harker preceded a curt flick of her brows.

 

Show time.

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When Rorye stepped out of the car, Ryan looked her over.  The woman’s outfit was entirely different from what she had been wearing just moments ago.  Hair down, a little makeup and a field crafted mini-skirt had achieved the desired effect.  Sexy, seductive, and a little dangerous.  Ryan grinned.  She might have some talent for field work.  Maybe her usefulness would extend beyond being a prop to distract from his own reconnaissance.  Time would tell.

 

          “I apologize in advance for what I have to do to get us in, I’m a sales woman.” Rorye said as the “couple” made their way to the club.  Ryan cocked a puzzled eyebrow when she smudged the lipstick below his ear.  The agent had intended to approach the doorman directly, slide a pair of Benjamins to the bouncer and be done with it.  When Rorye guided him to the line however, he rolled with it.  They could afford to try her way first.  Perhaps they would attract less attention if they meandered in with the rest of the flock.

 

Harker could feel the stares from the men standing in line as they walked past them.  Their eyes not on him, but on his companion.  Perfect.  Already she proving an effective distraction.  Harker glared back at the coveting stares, his scowl conveying a message of “keep looking and I’m going to knock your fucking teeth in.”  Just as any self-respecting club douche would.  Most the men’s heads gave a satisfying turn away from her direction.  Ryan was careful not to direct any of the bravado at the bouncer.  Security at these establishments were usually more accommodating if you submitted to their authority.  Thus, the doorman was allowed an uninterrupted view of Rorye.

 

          When her hands slid around his waist, the notion was a little unexpected.  Her chin came to rest on Ryan’s shoulder as she embraced him.  The intimacy was nice… very nice, but also a little disheartening.  It had been some time since the ARMA operative had felt such a closeness, without the accompanying expectation of a casual hook up.  The lifestyle of a covert agent hadn’t been conducive to a meaningful relationship.  Funny how the companionship in the moment, even false as it was, shed light on the loneliness that had gone unseen for so long.

 

          Ryan brushed off the momentary feeling and he refocused on the mission before them.  His hands slid casually over hers as they neared his buckle, ensuring they didn’t travel any further south.  She was playing a part and he wasn’t about to let her get into his head.  Then she nestled her chin in the nape of his neck, pressed her head against his and whispered into his ear, “Nice gun, wondered where you were going to put your toys.”

 

          “Well, fuck.” Ryan thought to himself, as he resisted the goosebumps that prickled the back of his neck.  A half-second pause to strengthen his resolve.

 

          “There’s more where that came from,” Harker replied coolly, before they walked to the bouncer at the door.  Rorye stepped forward and whispered into the doorman’s ear.  The man blushed excitedly and then looked to Ryan for confirmation.  Chin lifted slightly and he gave the bouncer a permissive grin.  When the velvet rope lowered, Rorye led the agent into the club by the hand.  Definitely not how he had planned their entrance, but he couldn’t argue with the results.

 

          Upon entering the establishment, Ryan’s senses were immediately assaulted.  Fast paced techno music buffeted his ears; pounding base reverberating through the ground beneath him.  A melody of colored lights strobed sporadically from the vaulted ceiling, reflecting off random mirrored surfaces to compound the chaos.  The scent of cigar smoke, sex, and alcohol was pungent in the air.

 

          Harker was already conducting a tactical assessment of the venue.  The club itself was narrow in width, but relatively deep length wise.  A hostess and coat check were to the left as they entered, with another bouncer standing casually off to the right.  Booths with fancy leather seats and bottle service lined the walls on either side of the club.  Occupying the room’s center was a long wooden dance floor, filled by a sea of partaking patrons.  Across the dance floor was a crowded bar, complete with top shelf liquor and draft beverages.  Above the bar was what appeared to be a VIP lounge.  Dimly lit and near the ceiling, the lounge overlooked the dance floor below.  Harker could see silhouetted figures on the balcony above, but the lighting made it impossible to discern anything more.  To the right of the bar was a staircase that lead to the lounge above.  To the left was a short hallway with an “EXIT” sign posted clearly overhead.

 

          Harker waited a moment to give Rorye the option to check her coat, before taking her by the hand and guiding her to the dance floor.  When the music transitioned to the Latin pop genre, floor space became a little more available and Ryan was able to find them a spot without too much difficulty.  The Soldier had taken dance classes for over a year while he was stationed in States before the Resonance.  At the time he might not have been winning any dance competitions, but he had gotten pretty damn good.

 

Ryan took Rorye’s right hand in his left and placed the other on her lower back.  He pulled her close, pressing her pelvis firmly against his own.  Their bodies intertwined naturally as they began to move to the beat of the music.  Ryan started with some simple Reggaeton, turning slowly so that each could survey the club.  After a moment, his eyes met hers, a feint smile spreading across his lips.

 

          “I see only two exits,” Ryan said so that only she could hear.  “The way we came in, and the door straight back to the left.”

 

          The agent allowed a little space between them, as he progressed the dance into something that resembled an informal Merengue.  He manipulated her form confidently, adding some salsa spins and turns for flavor, but nothing too fancy.  Harker didn’t want to attract attention, but he also wanted test where security’s awareness was focused.

 

          A sharp spin brought Rorye into his arms.  Her back to his chest, hands melting away from hers as they slid slowly to her waist.  Left hand gripped her hip, locking her in step with him as they swayed with the music.  Right hand glided upward along her abdomen, leaning her body back against him.  Nose brushed the back of her ear, breath flowing over her neck as he spoke.  “I count four guards.  One outside at the entrance, one inside by the door, one by the steps leading up to the lounge, and one near the backdoor.”

 

          The DJ transformed the music once more, this time into something slower and more mainstream.  Ryan turned Rorye slowly to face him, guiding her arms up around his neck, before his hands found their way back down to her hips.  When he looked at her, he was reminded again of her beauty.  Also noticing for the first time that evening the woman’s graceful height.  The two of them stood nearly eye to eye as they danced. 

 

          “The two near the back of the club are packing heat, and their ‘pit boss’ is relaxing by the bar.”  Ryan continued, “I am pretty sure there is a door by the restrooms that leads downstairs.  If we can get the guard away from the back door, I can get us down there.”  He pressed his forehead gently against hers, “Any ideas?”

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He was playing the part well. Of course, that was his job… or so he said. It brought into question everything he’d said and done thus far. Was he just faking concern? Not sure yet. With how upset he’d been back at the shop when she wouldn’t hand over her intel, maybe. The thought she was just being played to get to these guys hung pretty heavy in her thoughts. Hell, he might not even be who he said he was. She could play that game too when it came to it.

 

Didn’t like her close to his guns it seemed either, she didn’t miss the goosebumps.

 

“There’s more where that came from,”

 

She chuckled quietly.

 

“Hope so,” was said under her breath. The guns. She was talking about the guns.

 

By the time they were in her ass was freezing. Damn weather, fucking skirts. The music, well the music was positively obnoxious. Good god. She had either forgotten how bad clubs truly were, or had been too young and drunk to care. Maybe a bit of everything. She internally cringed at the scent of cigars. Always hated them.

 

She got rid of the coat, leather got positively suffocating in a place like this. Most people that had something that they proclaimed was leather were usually bullshitting for props. Nobody in their right mind would wear good leather in a place like this. It would stink for days and smell like sweat after that. She already was going to have to air the damn thing out. More than likely the leather seats she’d seen his eyes travel over weren’t leather either. A front. From one business owner to another, this place looked like a false face. Bright, shiny, faux luxe and disposable. She highly suspected it was also a fantastic money maker. Fucking brilliant.

 

It was her turn to be caught with the unexpected. Dance floor. She was hoping for some drinks, maybe a little flirting with some other club goers. Mouth opened to protest but shut quickly, realizing she didn’t know what to call him and by that time he’d committed and she had to also in order to keep up the illusion.

 

Mother. Fucker.

 

Of course he knew what he was doing too.

 

The narrowing of her eyes at the close proximity played off as a seductress, the quick whispered quip that she was going to kick his ass later if they didn’t kill him first was only half joking.

 

Remember the steps. Remember the steps. Shit. The blue devils smiled at her and she forced a smile back.

 

“I see only two exits. The way we came in, and the door straight back to the left.”

 

“I hate you right now,” it was serious but held humor. What the fuck had she gotten herself into? If she wasn’t doing the dumbest damn stunt in the world, she would have been enjoying the push from the comfort zone she’d sequestered herself into for a year.

 

A spin. She knew the steps to this one.

 

It was her turn to slide her fingers on his to stop them at her stomach, casting her chin over her shoulder.


“Blades,” she whispered quietly through her teeth after he brought her attention to the guards. Did he really know how much skill it took to hide sheaths in a mini?

 

Breath was let out when she turned back to him, fingers intertwining lazily behind his neck. Okay. No more steps to remember. She was listening intently, mapping it out in her head.

 

“The two near the back of the club are packing heat, and their ‘pit boss’ is relaxing by the bar. I am pretty sure there is a door by the restrooms that leads downstairs.  If we can get the guard away from the back door, I can get us down there. Any ideas?”

 

“Other than kicking your ass?”

 

Yes, she knew this was a serious situation… she just had to get it out there.

 

Eyes closed a moment when his forehead came to hers, he was warm. She was still fucking freezing, the shiver through her shoulders partially from it, partially just… dunno. Not being a damn recluse for a change.

 

“There's a shit ton of cameras. The cameras on the front and back entrances are crap. Low resolution quality wireless to monitor probably in a back room somewhere being watched by a sandwich eating idiot. It’s lazy and useless for crowds, easy to avoid. There’s one going up to the VIP entrance that’s the same and another over the bar. The one in the hallway to the restrooms is different. Hardwired and infrared with a battery back-up. I have a similar one in my library room and the workshop because regular cameras tend to short out when magic items or magus are around.”

 

She was starting to think there was really no way to get to anywhere in this place.

 

“I know how to get you back there without being noticed, but you better have a way to deal with the camera. They’re gonna see you coming. I wouldn’t be able to go with you.”

 

She pulled back away from his forehead first, the darkness of pupils deep as she caught his eyes.

 

“I don’t want you going by yourself,” brow furled and she quickly tucked her expression away, replaced with such an easy smile it was almost as if the worry never existed. Chin came to rest on his shoulder, hiding the furl again as she spoke quietly next to his ear and watched the pit boss. “Just… for the record, tell me you’re not going to blame me if something happens to you.”

 

A large sigh was pulled in and shuddered out quietly, more answers divulged to his unasked questions than she’d said all evening.

 

“We don’t know what’s past that door,” she said quietly. “Also for the record I think we should go back at the car and rethink this. If you did want to move forward… "

 

Pause was long.

 

"...we’re going to go get a drink at the bar, I’m going to flirt with the pit boss... all he's been doing is watching women anyway. You’re going to get impatient waiting for me to stop talking and take my drink to the petite blonde third wheeled in the booth directly next to the bathroom hallway. Get her into the back hallway… make out with her or something, wait for me to get there and be ready to get through that door. I’ll take care of diverting attention.”

 

She picked her head up and found his eyes again, a smirked grin.

 

“That’s easy, but I'm gonna get escorted out and I can meet you back at the car.”

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