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MATURE RPG


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.

April 27, 2019 - Family emergency finally calming down. Hope to get going again shortly. Thanks for understanding. ~ZEPH

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“Other than kicking your ass?”

 

          “Focus,” Ryan whispered to Rorye.  The woman shivered lightly, but the room was more than warm enough. 

 

Harker already had a plan to infiltrate the venue’s secured areas.  He wanted to assess Rorye’s ability to operate in the field.  Could she think on her feet; adapt, improvise and overcome?  He listened to her observations regarding the cameras.  She was looking beyond the basics he had already provided.  A good start. 

 

“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 had arrived to another correct conclusion.  To conduct this operation cleanly they would need to separate.  She would need to cause a diversion so that he could go undetected.  Rorye pulled away from him slightly.  Concern marred her features as she looked into his eyes, then it vanished.  Had the worry been genuine?

 

“I don’t want you going by yourself,” a lighthearted smile had replaced the apprehension, but it felt forced.  Ryan was learning to read through her professional façade.  Either that, or she was manipulating him masterfully.  The agent wondered what she might have to gain from feigning an appreciation for his wellbeing.  He could think of only a few reasons, and they all seemed unlikely.

 

          “I can handle myself,” Ryan reminded her gently.  Rorye leaned in against him, resting her chin on his shoulder.  Dark brown locks brushed against his face and the woman’s scent managed to overcome the smoke lingering in the air.  It was more alluring than she realized. 

 

“Just… for the record, tell me you’re not going to blame me if something happens to you.”  Ryan knew there was a complicated undertow beneath Rorye’s guilt sodden words.  As if they weren’t spoken to him alone.  Her arms seemed to tighten around him ever so slightly.  A deep sigh escaped her lips.  This evening had been the first time the two had really ever met.  A mission presented itself and now they were two actors playing their parts on a live stage...  but for a moment, if just a moment, something felt real between them.

 

          “I won’t,” Ryan assured her.  A pause before he added, “I will be fine, just focus on the task at hand.”

 

“Also for the record I think we should go back at the car and rethink this. If you did want to move forward…”  Seconds passed as she devised her plan.

 

          “If you want to go back to the car, that’s fine.”  Harker’s words were fair, there was no judgment in his voice.  “I will meet you outside in 30 minutes.”

 

Rorye ignored his invitation for her to withdraw from the mission.  Instead, she went on to explain her plan for diverting the guard’s attention.  The ARMA operative listened without interruption.  It wasn’t a bad plan, it might even work, but it could be refined further.

 

          “Not a bad plan, but let’s make it simpler.”  Blue eyes met her auburn hues.  Ryan grinned, “You don’t need my help to distract anyone in this place.”  It was an honest compliment.  “Go to the bar without me.  Bat your eyes at the pit boss, get his attention but don’t engage.  Make sure your sitting somewhere the guard at the hallway can see you.  Allow some poor sap to hit on you, then freak out and accuse him of doing something terrible.  He grabbed your ass, tried to slip a roofie in your drink, something like that.  When the bouncers rush to your defense, just keep playing it up to distract as long as you can.”

 

          “When its done, I will meet you back at the car.”  Ryan slowly pulled her arms away from his neck.  He held her hands against his chest and leaned in close, “If I don’t meet you at the car within 30 minutes, take a cab.  I will just meet you at your shop tomorrow.”

 

          A confident smirk, then he was gone.  Disappearing into the sea of people on the crowded dance floor.

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 “Focus”

 

She was. Sarcasm helped her focus dammit. It was all she had sometimes to keep from completely going insane.

 

“I can handle myself”

 

The worry flickered again on her brow. This was such a fucking bad idea. This morning she had been ready to cut ties, now she was back in bed with ARMA in the same internal fight for loyalty. They all told her they could handle themselves, and every single damn one that walked out got hurt. Jesse. Michael. Ali. Nina. Damn it! The guilt thing... that was a year in the making, milling around inside her thoughts with nobody to express them to until that moment.

 

“I won’t”

 

…yes he would. He’d blame her. She’d blame herself.

 

“I will be fine, just focus on the task at hand. If you want to go back to the car, that’s fine. I will meet you outside in 30 minutes.”

 

What? Wait? No! They were both supposed to go back to the car. Goddam it!

 

Breath pulled in and out carefully, focusing on what he was saying. Eyes flicked to him at the compliment, a brief blushed smirk of bashful disbelief scrunched her nose. He was so full of shit. Still, she listened intently to his revisions, not bad. She wasn’t certain he could get past the camera, but then again he probably had some crazy magus mojo up his sleeve. They all did, lucky bastards.

 

“Go to the bar without me.  Bat your eyes at the pit boss, get his attention but don’t engage.  Make sure your sitting somewhere the guard at the hallway can see you.  Allow some poor sap to hit on you, then freak out and accuse him of doing something terrible.  He grabbed your ass, tried to slip a roofie in your drink, something like that.  When the bouncers rush to your defense, just keep playing it up to distract as long as you can.”

 

She could do that, after all she was a master at manipulating surroundings to her advantage.

 

“When its done, I will meet you back at the car.”

 

Hands resisted the urged to grip onto his shirt when he put her hands on his chest. If she didn’t let go, he wouldn’t right? Her temple instinctively found his when he leaned in.

 

“If I don’t meet you at the car within 30 minutes, take a cab.  I will just meet you at your shop tomorrow.”

 

That would not happen. If he wasn’t out there in 30 minutes all hell would break loose. She'd tear the place apart.

 

"Don't die Ryan," she whispered quietly, catching the blue devils one last time before he let go. "Please."

 

She could feel the heat leave with him, and it was everything she could do to not reach after him and grab his arm. Blow both their cover by following, or move forward? She really had no choice. He’d put a lot of faith in her, and the weight of it was suffocating for a split second. In that sliver of a moment, the long stride found its way to the bar with fresh vigor.

 

Leaning on it to get the bartender’s attention, she placed herself right next to Mr. Boss, knowing how absolutely close cut her mini was getting to being a different kind of club as she stood on her tip toes and spoke with the bartender to order.

 

Within moments, a familiar face from outside was at her left. Boss on her right. The bouncer from the line. Ahhhh great. What she’d said to get in wasn’t exactly the most lady-like thing in the world. It was evident very quickly that he’d been watching and waiting for Harker to step away… because she’d kinda made an offer he couldn’t refuse. This might go a lot better than anticipated, but... He leaned in and whispered something in her ear.

 

Yup.

 

This was going to be less than enjoyable. She picked up her drink

 

She turned and half slid onto a stool, long legs crossing as she sipped the fru fru through the straw. Two glasses of whisky and absinthe before she got there, this watered down margarita would barely dent a thing. Small talk was boring. He had an absolutely filthy mouth, most of which was spoken directly for only her to hear.

 

Christ.

 

To be fair, she’d started it and honestly if Harker ever asked she’d never in a million years tell him what she’d said to the guy. Mr. Boss was trying to listen to the conversation, she could definitely pick that up.

 

She didn’t even have to do a thing. The bouncer was handsy, and on one pass got too close to one of her sheaths.  Her reaction was half reflex to keep him from feeling she had a weapon, half acting that he’d been too handsy. She spilled her drink on Mr. Boss. He freaked, jumped up, got angry at the bouncer and demanded him off the floor. She tried to calm him down.

 

It was just an accident after all.

 

The scene was getting bigger by the minute. This many people, this close. Glasses fell. People got bumped. Drunk, charged people made for the worst domino effect. Two more employees had appeared at the fringe, trying to break things up.

 

Well this was getting righteously out of hand… she hoped Harker had enough to work with. Eyes flicked through the crowd that was surrounding the bar briefly. She couldn’t see him.

 

She hoped that was a good thing…

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Harker made his way toward the far-left corner of the room.  Eyes occasionally picking Rorye out of the crowd, checking on her.  She had already made her way to the bar.  All doubt had been left behind; the poised Valkyrie now seated herself by the club’s head of security.  A few moments later, there was the sound of glass breaking followed by commotion near the bar.

 

          Ryan moved to the restrooms near the club’s back exit.  The bouncer near the backroom had seen the commotion and passed the agent on his way to the bar.  Ryan pushed open the men’s bathroom door, but didn’t cross its threshold.  Instead he glanced down the hall to ensure the coast was clear, then he moved to locked door across the corridor.  There was an electronic keypad on the door, but the lock also accepted a standard key.  Enchanted ‘bump key’ was inserted into the keyhole, a light tap, and the operative was through the door.

 

          A long staircase made of grated steel led down into the basement below the “Avenue” nightclub.  The door closed quietly behind Harker and he started down the steps.  He had crept about halfway down the staircase, when he heard a gruff voice below.

 

          “Ay, new guy, watch the cameras.  There is some shit going down at the bar, imma go check it out.”

 

          “I don’t work for you,” answered a young voice.  The young man’s words emboldened with prideful attitude, “I work for him.”

 

          “Man!  Just watch the fucken cameras!”  Retorted the gruff voice.  Harker heard movement at the bottom of the stairs.  A muscular black man, wearing the club’s security uniform grabbed the guardrail and started jogging up the steps.  When he noticed the agent, their eyes met for just a second.  “Who the fuck…”

 

          Spartan kick struck the man in the chest, launching him from the staircase.  The bouncer landed flat on his back at the base of the stairs, head bouncing off the cold pavement with a dull “crack.”  Harker leapt from the stairs, straddling the guard when his boots connected with the ground.  The operative grabbed the man by the shirt and gave him a solid punch to the jaw for good measure.  Having disposed of the guard, he quickly turned his attention to the rest of the room.

 

          The basement was cool and dimly lit, with concrete walls and a polished floor.  A workstation with computer monitors displayed the various camera angles from throughout the club.  Past the workstation, three rows of metal workbenches were staged horizontally across the rooms center.  The workbenches were divided down the middle by a large walkway.  Path leading to a large executive desk at the far end of the room.  The desk was vacant, but two men stood at the steel workbenches nearby.

 

“Who the hell are you?”  Ryan recognized the voice, though it was more nervous than before.  It belonged to the businessman from the “Book of Kells.”  The man was probably in his late 30’s or early 40’s.  An expensive suit with a classic fit, professional tie, the man was well dressed.  His graying hair neatly trimmed.

 

          “I am an associate of Remy’s,” Ryan answered as he strode toward the two men.  A Russian growl now accented his words.  It was one of the few accents he could convincingly fake, though he had no Russian heritage.

 

          The younger man stepped forward to block the agent’s path.  Fair skin, spiked blonde hair, clean shaven face, the boy was only a couple years past twenty.  No tie, tailored suit fit his slender frame handsomely.  The confidence of an immortal marked his gait.  The boy stopped in the center of the room, feet squared, hands folded smugly at his waist.  This must be the “pup” Rorye had been referring to earlier.

 

          The older man closed a briefcase on the table in front of him and secured its clasps.  “Kill him,” the man commanded nonchalantly.  The room fell silent, well insulated from the roaring party above. 

 

          Ryan’s eyes met the pup’s, neither moved.

 

          “Tell you what,” the kid said with a sly grin.  “I’ll let you draw first.”  The boy was obviously showboating.  Hands were still cupped in front of him.  The young man was either extremely stupid, or a speedster and just somewhat stupid.

 

There were two things in the world Harker hated hunting; vampires and speedsters.  Their super speed countered his own abilities well enough, and ARMA had nothing in its arsenal to slow them down.  However, if said adversary was unaware of the operative’s abilities, they could certainly give him a competitive edge.  Regardless, if he lived through it, this would be a painful experience.

 

“No one needs to die today,” Ryan offered, though he knew his attempt to negotiate would be in vain.

 

“Stop screwing around and just…”  The old man’s voice faded into a distant silence.

 

Tingling chill rolled down Harker’s spine, his sixth sense alerting him of the coming danger.  Time slowed to a near halt.  Stare still focused on the young man standing in front of him.  The agent moved first, though his motions felt slow.  Left hand lifted his shirt, right hand drawing his concealed pistol from his waistband. 

 

The pup was a fraction of a second behind, but his maneuvers were accelerated.  Already he had swiped aside his suit jackets lapel, reaching behind him to draw his own gun.  Arm swung around; Springfield 1911 gripped in hand.  Precious milliseconds wasted by improper form, though it didn’t seem to matter.  The young man took aim and fired.

 

Ryan had yet to finish punching out his own weapon when the .45 caliber slug struck him the chest, just above the heart.  He had been anticipating the impact.  Recoil ripped his left shoulder back, but also jutted his right hand forward.  Sights aligned on their target; slack had already been squeezed from the trigger.  Ryan returned fire once.  Bullet traveled fast enough to hit its mark, impacting the boy squarely in the solar plexus. 

 

The young man’s eyes were wide, fraught with disbelief.  He managed to squeeze off another panicked shot, but his wrist had yet to recover from the .45’s kick and the projectile whizzed harmlessly over Harker’s shoulder.  Harker returned fire a second time.  Recoil from his 9mm was more manageable, and the second round struck the pup just above the first.

 

Ryan staggered backward as time resumed its normal pace.  The boy collapsed to the ground; handgun discarded as he clutched futilely at his chest.  Gargled gasps escaped the boy as he began to choke on his own blood.  Chest forced a strained heave, then his body lay still.

 

The businessman stood frozen, dismayed by the scene before him.  Gun battle had started and ended in less than two seconds.  Evidently, no one had ever bested his speedster in a dual.  Fearful eyes looked to Harker, then darted to the felled boy’s gun a few steps away. 

 

“Reach for it and you’ll be dead before you hit the ground.”  Ryan snarled through gritted teeth.  Pain in his chest was intense.  He had almost forgotten to maintain the deceptive accent. 

 

The elder gentlemen hesitated for a moment, then stepped away from his fallen subordinate.  “What do you want?”  Words were spoken calmly, the man seemed to have accepted his current situation.

 

Harker glanced back at the computer monitors.  Scanning the cameras to ensure the gunfire hadn’t been heard.  The nightclubs security team was still engaged in handling the diversion at the bar.  No indications in the crowd either.  It appeared the firefight had gone unnoticed, drowned out by the relentless techno music above.  The agent still had a little time.

 

Ryan winced as he struggled to catch his breath, but managed keep his pistol pointed at the businessman.  “Have a seat, you and I are going to have a little chat.”

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It became quickly apparent how not prepared this place was for this sort of thing, there was no way this could be a base. Maybe a weigh station, a temporary stop to pass along information, a neutral meeting place, but definitely not a stronghold. The amount of people crammed into such a small environment was enough turn over to not draw attention to faces. It had to be a passing point; which meant there was another place out there. More than one probably. The size of this was quickly becoming apparent.

 

An event disrupting the natural ebb and flow of the packed club was positively chaotic. People were trying to leave and people were trying to get closer to rubberneck, creating a jam that wasn’t moving. Bouncers and security couldn’t get close enough to quell the confrontations. Everything was at a charged standstill made worse by the music that wouldn’t shut up. Almost twenty minutes in, she was finally able to squeeze between two people and make a beeline for her coat. She had ten minutes to get back to the car. About three minutes to get outside and a two minute walk to the car and she would be good to go.

 

Jacket slid on, she caught the door after several others leaving, a stream of people behind her still. Cutting left, long strides took her to the sidewalk and away from the club toward the car that was parked far enough away as to not draw attention.

 

Her senses were wide, but she didn’t have the mojo to know everything. Street smarts… but not enough to avoid a face full of brick building. Flash was bright as her temple hit the wall and she was held face first against it, right hand pinned behind her back by hands much stronger than she. Her left had moved quick enough to try and catch herself and was now caught between herself and the wall. Cold plastic zipped around her right wrist controlled one hand, her left pinned in by his forearm and full weight on the back of her neck.

 

“Knew you were trouble when you came through, we’re going to keep you here until the cops can deal with you,” he grunted slightly as he tried to fish her other hand from in front of her and still maintain his grip on the zip-tie secured on her right. The more she struggled the tighter it got.

 

Fuck, she was not going to make it easy.

 

“Get your fucking hands of me,” cliché, but what did one say in a situation like this? Brick ground into her left cheek, a jerk of her right arm freeing it up for a split second to send an elbow straight in to the asshole’s nose. This was seriously fucking up her escape time…sarcasm, it got her through the day.

 

Now he was pissed, the scrambled struggle against the wall painful sounding. If she hadn’t been wearing leather, the fight would be over and her skin would be shredded. He snapped hold of the zip tie on her wrist again and slammed her against the wall, full weight leaning on her. She’d drawn blood, she could smell it.

 

“Give me your other fucking hand,” he was trying to pry it from in front of her. “Stop resisting, or I’ll have to make you give it to me.”

 

There was no way out of this. Yes, yes there was, but she’d promised. No killing. No emotional outbursts...

 

“Fine,” he snapped.

 

She saw stars. He had the strength to jerk her back and slam her against the wall again, grabbing her other hand and snapping a zip around it to put them together.

 

“What did you paw off people…?” holding both of her wrists in one hand, he started to search her pockets. “Fucking pick pockets in the damn club starting shit to make it easy, you just don’t get the message do you.

 

He came up with nothing, then yanked her lapels open to search the small inside pockets. A little too close for comfort, handsy… nice, but as he bumbled around inside her jacket to find non-existent wallets she’d pulled a karambit free from the sheath at the back of her hip and cut herself loose.

 

"Where's your boyfriend?" he reached and pressed a button on the earpiece whose cord ran down his neck into his suitcoat. "We'll find him."

 

Ah hell, time to break promises. Heel of her hand upward into his nose made him stumble backward, grabbing the back of his neck she brought his face into her knee.

 

Of course the risk was always… damn it! They never tell you it hurts like hell in self defense classes.

 

He keeled over, out like a light. Knife back in its sheath, it took a few steps to shake off the impact pain from her knee as she made her way to the car. Her face was bleeding, awesome. Harker wasn’t at the car yet, glancing at her reflection in the window. Damn it. She backed between two buildings to wait for him, staying out of sight in case sleeping beauty came to. Untying her jean shirt, she pulled the front tail up to wipe her split lip. Thumb over it a few times, it wasn’t stopping. She might need stitches. Biting it between her teeth, she wiped her eye. Brow and cheek were scraped, but okay. Definitely would be a nice shiner on the cheekbone. Knee was brushed off. Bruise there too. Hard headed bastard.

 

“C’mon Harker,” she mumbled to herself, zipping up her coat and rubbing her hands together as she kept her lip pressed in her teeth. She was freezing.

 

Fuck this mission, he better have had more luck.

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By the time Harker had finished interrogating the business man, he had put a bullet in the man’s right knee cap and pistol whipped him into unconsciousness.  The man hadn’t possessed much information, but the pieces he provided had colossal implications.

 

The businessman, identified as ‘Thomas Hanes’, worked for the crime lord that owned the “Avenue” nightclub.  Nothing illegal was produced at the club, instead it served as a neutral ground for meetings and the exchange of goods.  According to Hanes, his employer was using his influence to discretely acquire assets on behalf of a high-ranking member within the Order of the First Light.  Hanes offered some information on the crime lord and stated they used warehouses near the ports for more important dealings, but couldn’t provide any specifics about the Orders involvement.  The fact the Order was involved at all, was enough to confirm Harker’s suspicions.

 

Hanes’ briefcase had contained a series of identical metal coins.  The coins appeared ancient, imprinted with familiar markings, though Ryan couldn’t place where he had seen them before.  A single piece of silver was plucked from the others and placed in the agents coat pocket.  A sample for analysis at ARMA’s labs later on.

 

A digital copy of Hanes’ cellphone was taken for duplication.  Cloning the phone would allow Harker to continue gathering intelligence until the businessman replaced the phone for another.  Computer hard drives were fried by a magical surge from another of the agent’s covert trinkets.  The cameras in the nightclub might be functional, but there would be no recordings available for anyone to review.  A hasty sweep of the basement was conducted, but Harker found nothing of significance.

 

          All of this had been done quickly.  As a Cloak operative, Harker was used to working within a timeframe.  Gunfight, interrogation, search of the basement, and sabotaging the computers had all been accomplished in about 12 minutes.  This was about two minutes longer than the agent had originally intended, but given Rorye’s success in diverting attention he had the time.  Harker scanned the camera’s display to ensure there were no guards in the hallway.  Security seemed to be oriented to the front of the business, no doubt trying to throw people out of the establishment.  Once his route was clear, the agent emerged from the basement and slipped out the backdoor.

 

          Ryan was fairly certain his exit had gone unnoticed.  Nevertheless, he was cautious.  The operative stayed in alleys away from the street, walking two blocks away from his vehicle before eventually circling back.  When he approached the car, he did so from the opposite direction of the club.

 

          When he didn’t immediately see Rorye by his sable Challenger, Harker checked his watch.  The agent had spent longer avoiding being followed than he had actually spent in the club’s basement.  Still, by his watch he had five minutes to spare.  As he drew closer to his vehicle, he noticed the feminine figure lurking in the shadows.  “Good girl,” he thought to himself.  Then waved Rorye toward him with a quick gesture, “Get in.”

 

          Once both of them were in the car, Ryan gave Rorye a quick look over.  She had clearly been roughed up a bit, but otherwise appeared to be okay.  He would get to that in a minute.  Mission first.  He turned the car around and drove away from the nightclub.

 

          “Remy’s dead,” Ryan stated unsympathetically.  “Those guys from your shop are sending muscle to his place now to clear it out and then burn it down.”  The agent was thoughtlessly rubbing his tender pectoral, when he felt the bullet still embedded in the fabric of his silver-thread jacket.  The inside of the vehicle cabin was dimly lit, she probably hadn’t noticed it yet.  Casually, he placed the mushroomed piece of led in the compartment on the driver side door.

 

          “Give me directions and I can start toward his place now,” Ryan continued.  “We’ll stop once were closer and rearm,” he wasn’t asking.  The agent spoke as if explaining the next phase of an operation during a mission brief.  “Chances are we might be walking into a fight.  And once the boss wakes up, I am sure he will be sending reinforcements.  So, time is not on our side.”

 

          The ARMA operative wanted to call this into headquarters.  A tactical team would be the perfect asset to deploy and rapidly secure the apartment.  Unfortunately, requesting assistance would mean informing ARMA of the investigation.  Based on the conditions of their alliance, the Order would also be alerted.  Which meant the Order would know ARMA was close to discovering their involvement in the “unseen threat.”  They would purge any and all loose ends.  Harker’s leads would be eliminated, as would any chance of him obtaining the proof he needed to destroy the deceptive faction.  For now, they would have to go it alone.

 

          Blue eyes glanced back to Rorye’s face as he drove.  Having addressed the mission essential information, he now addressed his concern for her.  “Are you okay?”  Voice was softer as he made the inquiry.  “What happened to your face?”

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Hands in her pockets, she was pulling her jacket closer to her. Leather was warm, but when there was no heat underneath to keep in it was positively wicked cold. Neck was tense, more so from waiting if he was going to show up. Movement caught her eye, hands out of her pockets and back on her sheaths until she realized it was him.

 

“Get in.”

 

Sense of relief was unexpected. Didn’t have to be told twice. She slid in gracefully, pulling the door shut with a quiet, firm snap. It was the only time in history she was happy to be in a vehicle. Hands rubbed down the muscles of her legs to warm them up, glancing across the dashboard for a heater. Presumptuous to touch his car, she was going to change instead. Right now. Cars took a while to warm up anyway, that she knew.

 

“For the record, mini-skirts are bullshit,” she said under her breath, rolling her lip again through her teeth. It was better, but still tasted like iron.

 

Ankle slid over her knee and she started to work one boot off. Damn muscle cars were only good for one thing, driving, most definitely not trying to change in the front seat. Compact and secure. Her demeanor was unusually reserved; she’d truly expected him not to make it back. In the back of her mind she also didn’t expect to have to explain the things she’d said to him. She didn’t like people thinking she cared. Of course everyone in her neighborhood knew she’d walk through fire for them, but she didn’t go telling them that. She always carried her thoughts close to the vest.

 

“Remy’s dead. Those guys from your shop are sending muscle to his place now to clear it out and then burn it down.”

 

Damn it. She focused on pulling off her boots and what was probably coming next.  The best thing to do was tell him to take her home and she would deal with it. Letting ARMA into her business highway was never going to be a good idea. She needed to do it alone. That’s not how this was going to go down though, she was sure of that.

 

“Give me directions and I can start toward his place now,”

 

There it was.

 

“We’ll stop once were closer and rearm. Chances are we might be walking into a fight.  And once the boss wakes up, I am sure he will be sending reinforcements.  So, time is not on our side.”

 

First boot was slid off and put on the floor. Boots were not easy to get on and off, contrary to pop culture portrayal. They were great to wear, especially over the calf, but positively sucked getting on and off.

 

“Of course we’re walking into a fight. ARMA is always in a fight.”

 

She was not pleased, but her tone wasn’t irritated or snarky; it was quiet. Melancholy almost. She wasn’t going to tell him that they did have time, if only a little. Remy wasn’t a moron, and he knew how to use the things he trafficked. His place wasn’t an open door and if you didn’t know it, the first few visitors would be turned to shredded beef. He was a freaking groundhog, always a back way in. Friends knew it. Others didn’t. Even if they found it, it was still protected. Damn old timer thought he was Indiana Jones. Hell, he could have been the inspiration for him.

 

The other slid off as she let the silence get heavy. She had to tell him.

 

Fuck it all.

 

“Take the 78, we’re going toward Easton Pennsylvania.”

 

It was off 78 somewhere, half way to Easton. Give or take a half hour or so if the roads were still clear of debris. That was all he needed to know for now. The 78 was one of the only roads that wasn’t a death trap nowadays. It was once they left the beaten path it got dangerous, hence why she didn’t want to be on her bike. She unbuttoned the bottom of her shirt and unhooked the sheaths at her waist, setting the small blades on the floor next to her boots.

 

 “Are you okay? What happened to your face?”

 

“Probably the same thing that happened to your chest,” still quiet, but definitely held a bit of sting. She avoided his eyes as she unwound the sheath on her back under the shirt.

 

She was incredibly observant. Owning a business on its own was a constant struggle to watch the palmers and shoplifters. Before the end of the world, stealing from an occult shop was just bad karma. Afterward, it was downright stupid. People still did it. The thrill. The necessity given the world was now charged with the unbelievable. Her dark eyes could see movement when they were focused somewhere else, hands specifically a point of attention. It never really turned off. He’d fiddled with something on the left side of his chest, something that bothered him. Hit by something? Had to be wearing Silver Thread or some shit like that, ARMA had all sorts of toys. Probably shot. Dumbass got himself shot.

 

She couldn’t deal with this again. Get close, care about friends, only to watch them end up dead.

 

“I’m changing, it’s freezing. I’m not wearing a seatbelt so don’t kill me ARMA,” she said quietly without answering him, deftly turning and pulling herself to slide between the two seats into the darkness of the backseat.

 

Leather coat off, jeans went on first up and under the mini, buttoned and zipped. She slid the black cami up and over her shoulders, buttoning the shirt back up and leaving it untucked. Getting dressed without tearing everything off was a woman’s magic. All could do it, and it always looked like sorcery. Hair braided in a loose plait down her back, she sat barefoot in the darkness for a bit on the passenger side in the backseat, holding a handkerchief to her lip that she had in her jeans pocket to tie up her hair when she was working in her shop. Feet were tucked up under her thighs as she sat cross legged to warm up; the shivering was miniscule, more tense than anything. It would stop when she warmed up.

 

“I got beat up trying not to kill anyone,” she thumbed her lip again. It seemed to be stopping, might need a stitch. Superglue would work just as well. Her cheek stung, it was definitely turning into a shiner, the bone hurt. Her wrists were stinging too. She pulled her cuffs up, welts from the zip ties. They’d heal. “Bouncer followed me out and tried to zip tie my hands and take me back inside. I ended up against a brick wall. I didn’t kill him, but he’s not getting up for a while.”

 

Should have done more damage. She’d promised not to though.

 

“Guys always go right for the cheek. Busted lip is a bonus,” she wiped her lip again and stuffed the bandana in her pocket, climbing smoothly back into the front seat. Pulling her boots back on, she watched out the window as the darkness whizzed by. Soon, very few lights. Coat in her lap, arm was relaxed on top of it, other elbow on the sill. Head leaned back on the headrest.

 

She was contemplating taking him in a roundabout way as to not divulge any more of her suppliers, there were a lot out this way, networking outward as the Midwest became more accessible again. But, decided that was going to be counterproductive in the short term.

 

“Exact directions for what you found out in the basement,” she said quietly, looking at him for the first time since they got into the car. “What did you find out? How screwed are we?

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“For the record, mini-skirts are bullshit,” Rorye said through chattering teeth.  Poor girl was freezing.  Ryan wondered briefly how long she had been waiting for him in the cold.  Taking the hint, the agent tapped a couple buttons on the console to activate the heat and electric seat warmers.  It would take a second for the engine to warm up.

 

“Of course we’re walking into a fight. ARMA is always in a fight.” An unfair, but accurate statement.  Harker couldn’t remember the last time he had been at peace.  A Soldier transitioning from one faction to the next, one war to another, each cause as important as the last.  Somedays, war felt easier than the alternative.  

 

“Probably the same thing that happened to your chest,” Rorye said without looking at him.  Observant, but something was wrong.  She was acting distant, refusing to make eye contact.  Her demeanor toward him differed drastically from when they had last spoken in the club.

 

A pang of guilt stirred in Ryan’s gut, a dissatisfied sigh as the realization swept over him.  Of course.  Rorye was a strong woman, a fighter even, but she wasn’t an operative.  He had asked a lot of her this evening already.  Now, she discovered one of her colleagues had been killed, and they were about to march headlong into another battle.  She wasn’t trained for this, and this wasn’t her responsibility.  Ryan was ARMA.  This was his mission, his duty, his responsibility to protect people like Rorye.  No wonder she unsettled.

 

“I’m changing, it’s freezing. I’m not wearing a seatbelt so don’t kill me ARMA.” She had succeeded in removing her boots.  The struggle almost amusing to watch.  Olive skin and long legs finally revealed in their entirety.  Despite the seriousness of their situation, Ryan allowed his eyes to wander as she swam into the backseat.  From the bottom of her skirt, down to the tips of her toes, there was much to behold. 

 

          “You can call me John,” Harker said softly.  “When we are in public I mean,” eyes glanced up at his rearview, searching for hers in the darkness.  “Ryan is fine when we’re alone.”

 

          “I got beat up trying not to kill anyone,” she answered from behind him.  Another pang of guilt in the agent’s chest.  She recounted her interaction with the bouncer whilst nursing her wounds in the backseat.  Ryan gritted his teeth in frustration.  Glad she hadn’t murdered anyone and that she was safe, but frustrated he had placed her in such a position.

 

          Eventually, Rorye rejoined him in the front seat.  She was silent for a time, voice low when she spoke, “Exact directions for what you found out in the basement.” A deal?  An exchange of information?  She was a black-market dealer and an informant.  The offer made sense.  Still, Ryan couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.  Just another one of her contacts.

 

          “What did you find out? How screwed are we?”  Her eyes looked to him for answers.  “We,” she said.  If they were partners, then why leverage her information?  Out of habit maybe?  She confused him.

 

          Harker had planned on stopping to reequip at some point anyway.  They were on a safe stretch of route 78.  This was as good a time as any.  He pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road, parked, and cut the engine.   

 

          “I’m not one of your clients.”  Ryan’s voice was calm.  “I am trying to save lives, yours included.” Aqua blue eyes found hers in the cabin’s darkness.  “We can bargain on merchandise, artifacts, or any other material object.  I will even let you rip me off from time to time…” he smirked lightly, but there was a sincerity to his words.  “But never try to bargain with me for information, not when lives are at stake.  Trust, remember?”

 

          Driver door was popped open, “I have to stage my gear, but take a look at this and tell me what you think.”  Harker handed the occults expert the coin he taken from Hanes’ briefcase back at the nightclub.  He stepped outside and closed the door behind him.

 

          The operative stood at the trunk of his car for longer than was required.  He exchanged the silver-thread suit jacket for his typical enchanted attire.  Donned the arsenal he had discarded earlier and staged the rest of his equipment in preparation for his assault on Remy’s hideout.  This was all second nature to him.  His mind focused instead on considering what information he should share with Rorye. 

 

          Ryan had mentioned trust, but he wasn’t sure that meant he could tell her everything.  Even ARMA couldn’t be trusted with all the information he had collected, not yet at least.  Sharing the information with a seller of secrets, was an objectively bad idea.  Despite this, Ryan felt he could trust Rorye’s moral character.  Perhaps he had been fooled by her charm.  In the end, he decided he would tell her everything he could without compromising his mission or her safety.

 

          Harker grabbed a small metal tin from trunk safe, before securing the hidden vault and closing the compartment.  When he got back in the car, he started the engine and looked to Rorye.  “So, what do you make of the coin?” he asked as they merged back onto the highway.

 

          Once she had answered his inquiry about the talisman, he delved into the intel he had obtained at the club.  “Two of the guys from your shop were in the basement downstairs.  The businessman and the kid.  The muscle I assume, is at Remy’s as we speak,” he paused for a moment as he considered his words.  “These guys are working for a crime lord, who has put out a high reward for the acquisition of magus blood and other select artifacts.” 

 

Ryan shook his head, “Remy must have been foolish enough to do business with these guys.  When they discovered his connections, they captured him and tortured him for information.  Which led them to your shop.”  A glance was spared in Rorye’s direction, “I told them I was an associate of Remy’s.  A hired gun who is supposed to locate him should he fail to check-in every 24 hours.”

 

“They forced Remy to take them to his place, but when he refused to help them get inside…  they killed him.”  Blue hues flashed at her once more, “Evidently, Remy’s place is pretty well fortified.  The muscle is leading a special breach team there now to force entry.” 

 

The ARMA operative leaned back casually in his seat, “So there you have it.”  He had withheld specifics about the crime lord, and the Orders involvement, but he hoped it would be enough to sate her curiosity.  She might suspect he knew more than he let on, but he had tried to paint a fairly complete picture.  

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The heat was welcome, heated seats. Damn. Maybe she had to reconsider this car thing. Public transportation in the winter was a bitch. It at least stopped the shivering as she nursed her lip.

 

“You can call me John,”

 

Had her sarcasm upset him? His tone was... quiet. Maybe she’d misjudged him. Cavalier had a heart other than his mission?

 

“When we are in public I mean. Ryan is fine when we’re alone.”

 

“Fair enough ARMA.”

 

The impersonal tag was a term of endearment, really. Ryan wasn’t back in her vocabulary yet after her encounter with him in the club. It seemed too personal at the moment, like what she’d said to him was wrong... too familiar... cheating. She caught the eyes trying to find hers in the mirror, her dark ones looking back toward the bandana as she folded it again and stuck it to her lip. A flick of muscle at the edge of his jaw was telling, he was upset perhaps. Muscles like that moved when guys were clenching their teeth. Observant as always, she could tell he was also bothered she’d gotten hurt. Good. Now he knew how she felt. He could be pissed at her, which was fine too.

 

He was quiet after she pulled herself into the front again. That troubled her, so did the fact he pulled over after she asked her question. Silence was loud, as odd as that was. The club, the pulse of adrenaline, the car engine, now nothing but the empty edge of the civilized world. Her breath sounded loud to her ears.

 

“I’m not one of your clients.” 

 

She was listening, truly, watching him with calm undivided attention. He had her all wrong; it was okay. He didn’t know her yet.

 

“I am trying to save lives, yours included. We can bargain on merchandise, artifacts, or any other material object.  I will even let you rip me off from time to time…”

 

Smile was easy. Smartass. Ow. She seethed in a quick breath and rolled her lip in again, touching her finger to it. It had stopped.

 

“But never try to bargain with me for information, not when lives are at stake.  Trust, remember?”

 

Tempted to reach across and close his door again when he opened it to get out, she shoved the urge back down. It was warm in the damn car. Just… another minute of warmth would be awesome before letting in the outside. But… duty.

 

“I have to stage my gear, but take a look at this and tell me what you think.”

 

Taking the coin, features became curious. Coins and books. They were always fucking dangerous. It was the weird shit that rarely was. Turning it over in her palm, it was just a coin. Coins were never just coins. Odd. Setting it on the dash, she seethed in a brave breath and cracked her own door, stepping out and adjusting herself from head to toe. Dressed, yes. Situated, no. Sheaths were replaced along her waistband. Shirt pulled off, arms crawling in goosebumps as she made quick work of the harness over her cami and slid her blades back in. They were not at all comfortable to wear when driving. Shirt, jacket back on, she made sure jean cuffs were pulled down over her boots and she slid back in and closed the door, a quick shiver as she reached to pick up the coin again.

 

The ping of it hitting her ring as it rolled into her palm was almost externally soundless, in her head it rang like a bell. Echoing; into her skull and vibrating her bones. Cassandra. Cassandra Greene, clear as day in her thoughts. Other shuffled faces she didn’t know flew by like flickering pages in a book, then nothing but silence after. Her head hurt, the budding headache most likely from her temple meeting a brick wall.

 

Weird. She wasn’t sensitive, but there were parts of her that were. Charged even. They’d been silent for a long time until now. When he returned she was rolling it through her fingers, watching the darkness beyond the passenger window. She knew who would know, and she didn’t want to offer that conversation up yet. To allow Red to talk through her was to be vulnerable, and she didn’t like it. Red also tended to tattle on her personal thoughts, she didn’t like that either.

 

“So, what do you make of the coin?”

 

To answer, or not.

 

“Not sure yet,” it was honest. “Not seen anything like it before, but I know someone who might. I'm not going to do it out here though. I do know the mundane is almost always the most dangerous because it’s seen as normal.”

 

Eyes moved to him as he started to fill her in. The coin was disorienting as it rolled through her fingers. Hypnotic even.

 

 “Two of the guys from your shop were in the basement downstairs.  The businessman and the kid.  The muscle I assume, is at Remy’s as we speak. These guys are working for a crime lord, who has put out a high reward for the acquisition of magus blood and other select artifacts.” 

 

She’d figured as much.

 

“Remy must have been foolish enough to do business with these guys.  When they discovered his connections, they captured him and tortured him for information.  Which led them to your shop.”

 

Eyes narrowed slightly at his glance. If they came to her shop again, the not killing promise was off.

 

“Remy did business only with a select few, not strangers. He had buffer dealers, a hierarchy. These guys are climbing the ladder to the major arcane dealers to get into the pipeline and make themselves the top of the food chain. Someone lower down in the business sold him out.”

 

Her status was suddenly apparent. Remy had given her up after terrible circumstances. Remy was not her main supplier, they were both the heavy hitters. She hadn’t lied to the agent; she just hadn’t told him everything, which she was suspecting he’d just done to her. Many things in Remy’s hoard had come from her; she knew what was in his hold. They needed to get it first.

 

“Evidently, Remy’s place is pretty well fortified.  The muscle is leading a special breach team there now to force entry.” 

 

Coin was held up for him to take back, her thumb moving to wipe off the lipstick that was still on his neck and gently nudge the tight jaw out of its grump.

 

“I know you’re not a client,” the statement was clear, this time it was her who gave his arm a prod out of his seeming funk. “If you were I wouldn’t be talking to you. This isn’t a bargain for information, it’s getting things I need to know in order to give you the information you need so you don’t walk into a clusterfuck and die. You’re walking into my world, any information you withhold could be your ass. My colleagues don’t defend ourselves, we defend our hold. We all have fallout plans.”

 

Fingers went up to linger over one of the heater vents, rubbing her hands together.

 

“They force entry, they are going to lose and keep losing until they get smart. There are, were, three of us major dealers. One hub in Alexandria, Remy, and I,” eyes were watching what was left of the mile markers. There was a turn off coming up. “If something happened to any of us, we had a deal to clear out the other’s hold. Except I don’t drive, so… that’s where you come in. Plus you can shoot a gun, which I can’t well, so that’s helpful too.”

 

They were like an underground version of Pharos of sorts… except they made money.

 

“My place is a minefield of security, so is Remy’s, so was Alexandria. I know the way into Remy’s,” another mile or so. “For the record, don’t ever try to sneak into my place. With Remy gone I don’t have a back-up now, so I guess if something happened to me it will have to be ARMA. If you ever pull me onto a dance floor again it will never be ARMA.”

 

The words were serious, but the intent behind them was sarcastic humor.

 

“The turn is right, after the next mile marker. It’s going to get bumpy, we’re going to have to park a ways out and use his emergency tunnel.”

Edited by Rorye Shannon-Kearney
Typo and clarification
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“I know you’re not a client. If you were I wouldn’t be talking to you. This isn’t a bargain for information, it’s getting things I need to know in order to give you the information you need so you don’t walk into a clusterfuck and die. You’re walking into my world, any information you withhold could be your ass. My colleagues don’t defend ourselves, we defend our hold. We all have fallout plans.”

 

          Ryan was glad for the clarity.  Each knew where the other stood.  As he had hoped, the dealer had just been using familiar language.  This reaffirmed some of the decisions he had already made regarding their arrival at Remy’s hideout.  “I’ll admit you probably know more about artifacts with bad mojo, but this isn’t my first rodeo.”  A sideways grin, “You worry too much.”

 

          “They force entry, they are going to lose and keep losing until they get smart.”

 

“I think they already did,” Ryan offered.  “They took casualties from some boobytraps when they first arrived.  The team there now is supposed to include some kind of supernatural safe cracker.”

 

          Rorye didn’t seem surprised at all by the information, instead she just nodded and continued, “There are, were, three of us major dealers. One hub in Alexandria, Remy, and I. If something happened to any of us, we had a deal to clear out the other’s hold. Except I don’t drive, so… that’s where you come in. Plus you can shoot a gun, which I can’t well, so that’s helpful too.”

 

          “Yep,” The agent agreed.  Sarcasm dripping from his words, sideways grin showing itself once more, “That’s why they pay me the big bucks.  Because I can drive AND shoot.”  Harker wasn’t offended, just poking fun at her over-simplification of his abilities.

 

          “...If you ever pull me onto a dance floor again it will never be ARMA.”

 

          Ryan chuckled joyfully, “It wouldn’t be the first time I disappointed ARMA.”  Playful eyes glanced to hers, “I guess they will just have to do without.”

 

          Harker followed her directions, pulling off the highway and proceeding down a dirt road.  Once they were close enough the bunker, the agent stopped and backed his car into a walking trail less traveled.  He was careful to ensure the vehicle was out of view of the road, but faced toward it should they need to make a hasty withdrawal.

 

          The ARMA operative reached into the glove box and removed a set of earpiece radios.  He handed one of them to Rorye.  “Take this,” He said as placed the radio in the palm of her hand.  “I am going to need you move up to the tree line and watch the road.  Stay out of sight, but use this to let me know if anyone is coming.”

 

          Ryan knew she would argue about being left behind, so he tried to address her protest before she could voice it.  “It’s very important you let me know if anyone is coming up behind me.  Also, make sure to listen carefully.  If the place is as well defended as you say, I will probably need you to talk me through some of the traps.  Once the place is clear,” the mage-hunter meant once he had killed everyone, “I will call you in to defuse and secure whatever artifacts are inside.”

 

          Sensing her objection, Harker raised a calming hand.  “I am only concerned with items that pose great danger to the public, or are items of evidentiary value to my case.  The rest is yours.”  The arrangement was more than favorable for the occults dealer.

 

          Ryan again popped open the driver side door.  Leaving before Rorye had the chance to argue had proved an effective tactic thus far, but he hadn’t escaped the cabin just yet.  Sly smirk as the man’s eyes met hers, “You deal with the Arcane stuff; I do the shooting.  That’s why you brought me, remember?”

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 “You worry too much.”

 

The side stare was long, dim light of the dashboard catching a shimmer in her eyes that looked almost amber. They lingered on him a moment and then shifted to the darkness outside the car to cool. She hated those words. He was explaining things to her as she swallowed down more worry than he could know at the moment, and she still felt herself listening and interacting. Walking through the motions. The poignant comment remained heavy in her thought process.

 

Supernatural safe-cracker. A possibility perhaps. Her ‘colleagues’ of sorts were not just peddlers, they knew how to use the things that passed through their hands. There might be progress into Remy's place, there might not be. They all had their own ways of doing things; her heavy hitting items were in very specific places that varied. Some chose to cluster, others to divide and ward. Remy was one of those. Everything he had was fun and useful, but he organized in a weird pattern of high to low. His high risk items were always in one spot. She’d always thought it was incredibly stupid; now… not so much. It made his fall out plan one stop only. He'd done it to make sure his dangerous shit was easy to remove.

 

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks.  Because I can drive AND shoot.” 

 

She glanced at him again.

 

"Smartass," light smile perked on one edge of her lip.

 

Darkness on the off road felt oppressive. It always did when she went out “past” civilization. In reality it wasn’t that far from the city, it just wasn’t safe much farther past the city. The borders were getting wider as the world got back on its feet. This direction, nada. Up and down the coast were growing quickly, west toward the center of the country was taking a bit longer to bounce back.

 

She took the earpiece from him, spending a moment to pull her hair from its braid and smooth it to a ponytail at the back of her neck. Winding it around one more, she secured it in a bun. She knew this game, and had taken down rival smugglers before, the tighter it was the less people had something to grab onto. Plus, she was fast. Faster than he knew. Movement was key.

 

“I’m not staying here to watch the road until you're safely in,” comment was absolute as she put the earpiece in.

 

“It’s very important you let me know if anyone is coming up behind me.  Also, make sure to listen carefully.  If the place is as well defended as you say, I will probably need you to talk me through some of the traps.”

 

“I’m going in first to get you in. If I can’t see them, I don’t know if they’ve been tampered with or changed. I’m not going to listen to you fucking die through an earpiece. Remy’s stuff is no joke and it's stupid effective.”

 

She reached behind her to click the release on her blades.

 

“IF they haven’t been disturbed, I will fall back to here and talk you through the rest. For the record, I think I need to go with you. I don’t know if or where Remy has moved his stash.”

 

“I am only concerned with items that pose great danger to the public, or are items of evidentiary value to my case.  The rest is yours. You deal with the Arcane stuff; I do the shooting.  That’s why you brought me, remember?”

 

She was strong; stronger than most expected, faster than was humanly possible. Her fingers snapped onto his arm to keep him from exiting, expression not one of weakness or apprehension.

 

“This is not my first rodeo either. I cleared Alexandria with Greene when my colleague went crazy and couldn't be trusted with what he collected.”

 

…and not the Greene Harker answered to now. The heaviness of that weighed on her words. He trusted her, Harker needed to trust her.

 

“You kill who you have to, however you need to. Destroy whatever is necessary. There is one box that needs to be retrieved. One. After that, burn it all down. I care about that one box, and I care about you. If push comes to shove, burn the box too and get the fuck out. Remy was an old school asshole. These guys push too deep and the whole bunker will implode.”

 

The glare was not asking permission, and she didn’t explain her choice of implode instead of explode. Remy was a sadistic asshole. If people got that far in, he always figured they deserved to die in the worst way possible because of what they had done to him to get there.

 

“It’s located in the lowest level, looks like a file room. The last file cabinet on the right is a safe. Green and scuffed, you can see the blue paint underneath. Bottom drawer. If it’s been opened, mission is over. Burn it down.”

 

She let go and got out, standing a moment to listen. Water was still flowing, that meant the tunnel hadn’t been closed off. That was good news. There were other sounds, his place had definitely been breached and they were not being delicate about it. She was agile, silently sliding down an embankment to pause crouched on a concrete footer, eyes level with a lock that was preventing access into the gate of a five foot high storm drain. It was still locked, that was good… as was no evidence anyone had been this far away from the main building.

 

Completely still, she was studying the lock, numbered buttons old school. Gaze wandered down the gate from it, then right to the hinges. Avoiding the lock completely, she reached through the bars about a foot from the ground. Face scrunched slightly as she glanced at him, not really wanting to know what the damp squishy stuff she was touching was around the edge out of sight. Something clicked, and the gate moved slightly. She got up and carefully pulled it open. It had never been locked in the first place, trying to unlock the lock would have blown someone’s face off. Nothing had been changed, she was certain. Remy liked to mindfuck.

 

“Gentlemen first,” she smirked at him. “Now I’m going back to watch your six. I can walk you through the rest over the com.” She reached up and cupped the side of his cheek and left him with a soft pat. “Don’t die.”

 

Light footsteps disappeared back up the embankment to leave him to it.

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“You kill who you have to, however you need to. Destroy whatever is necessary. There is one box that needs to be retrieved. One. After that, burn it all down. I care about that one box, and I care about you. If push comes to shove, burn the box too and get the fuck out. Remy was an old school asshole. These guys push too deep and the whole bunker will implode.”

 

          “Alright, I’ll bite,” Ryan said somewhat seriously, “what’s in the box?”  The question remained until it was addressed.  A mental note was made of the “I care about you” comment, but he would revisit the topic another time.  Rorye resumed her brief.

 

“It’s located in the lowest level, looks like a file room. The last file cabinet on the right is a safe. Green and scuffed, you can see the blue paint underneath. Bottom drawer. If it’s been opened, mission is over. Burn it down.”

 

          Harker sensed the severity in her tone.  On the inside, he smiled.  Earlier he had been concerned about overburdening Rorye with the hasty operation.  He had forced her well outside of her comfort zone.  Yet, despite her reservations, she continued to rise to the occasion when the mission demanded it.  She lacked training, but she had the makings of a good agent.

 

          Rorye released his arm; her grip had been firm.  The two of them exited the vehicle at the same time.  Harker walked around to the trunk, while his partner assessed the unsettling darkness.  Opening the rear compartment, the agent asked, “So is there anything special about this safe?  Is it going to explode if I use a laser cutter on the lock?”

 

          The operative equipped himself accordingly based on the woman’s answer.  Another pistol was holstered on his left thigh, mirroring the right.  Magazine pouches were synched to the front of his enchanted vest.  He debated briefly on whether to take his modified AR-15 rifle, or his Benelli M4 tactical shotgun.  The Benelli was excellent for close quarter breaching, but the rifle’s reload speed and ammo capacity made it far better suited for extended firefights.  In the end, he chose the ever-dependable AR-15.  Bolt slammed home with a satisfying “clack” as a round was chambered.  

 

Harker slid the rifle sling over his shoulder but kept the weapon in hand.  He skimmed the contents of his tactical safe, looking for anything that might keep Rorye safer in his absence.  The reinforcements from the club would likely come from the front of the bunker.  He didn’t anticipate anyone attempting to use Remy’s concealed emergency entrance.  Having his rear covered was important, but he had given Rorye the task mainly to keep her out of the fight.  He knew she could handle herself, but having provided the information was the extent of her obligation.  This work was his responsibility.

 

Ryan made his selection from the trunk and closed it.  He walked to stand beside his guide.  A hand was extended toward her, Sig Sauer P226 grasped with the barrel pointing down.  “Take this,” he said.  “I know you don’t know how to shoot, but it will make me feel better.”  A warm gaze found her amber eyes, “There is already one in the chamber, so just point and pull.”  The agent knew she preferred knives, but conventional wisdom still dictated bringing a knife to a gun fight was a bad idea.

 

Harker followed his partner down the water channel and to the flood gate.  Despite the gear weighing him down, his stride was both graceful and quiet.  Once the entrance to the aqueduct was open, Rorye stepped aside and chimed, “Gentlemen first.”

 

“Always,” Ryan smirked.

 

“Now I’m going back to watch your six. I can walk you through the rest over the com.”

 

          Harker nodded and stepped toward the entryway.  Then she caught him unprepared.  A hand was placed gently to his cheek.  His blue eyes met hers, searching, though he knew not what they sought.  The couple seemed to share a moment, until an unceremonious pat landed on the agent’s cheek.  “Don’t die,” she whispered before marching off into the night.

 

          Ryan shook his head to stifle a laugh.  He was uncertain if she had said the words in jest, or seriousness.  Knowing Rorye, it was probably both.  As the operative moved into the large water channel his voice quipped over their shared radio channel, “You know, if this whole occults-dealer thing doesn’t work out, you should definitely become a motivational speaker.”

 

          Harker proceeded through the tunnels and drains leading to Remy’s hideout.  His end of the radio remained mostly silent, except for whispered acknowledgements as Rorye guided him through the deadly maze.  Eventually, he reached a wooden door.  The dark oak reminded him of the bookcases he’d seen in ARMA’s vast library.  Rorye instructed him on how to gain entry through the doorway.  Harker readied his rifle and took a slow, calming breath.

 

          Upon activation, the door slid open to reveal a clean, but cluttered museum of artifacts.  Heads swiveled in Ryan’s direction, his entrance catching the attention of everyone in the room.  Men clad in black suits were dispersed unevenly throughout the space.  Each was armed with a varying handgun, though none had brought them to bear.  All of them were frozen in mid movement, their search of the bunker interrupted without warning.  Ryan counted five in total.

 

          Time stood still.  The operative had all the time he needed to accurately place each shot.  Rifle swept swiftly from one side of the room to the other, without any apparent pause.  The report of the first four rounds could be heard throughout the aqueducts outside.  Though it almost sounded like an automatic burst, a discerning ear could tell each shot had been fired individually.  A half-second later another burst echoed throughout the tunnels as another five rounds were fired.  For a time, there was only silence.

 

          Four men lay dead inside the bunker.  A small hole bore through the front of their skulls, brains blown out the back in splash of bone and brain matter.  The fifth thug had managed to duck behind a wooden desk across the room, though it proved poor cover.  The second volley fired from Harker’s rifle had splintered through the frail timber and riddled the man’s back with bullets and wood chips.  The gangster’s body lay slumped against the desk that had failed him, just as lifeless as his deceased colleagues.

 

          Ryan moved methodically through the rest of Remy’s abandoned sanctuary.  Each room cleared thoroughly for potential threats.  After a short time, he found himself back in underground shelter’s main room.  He had been listening to the radio in his ear to ensure Rorye was safe, but refused to say anything himself until the bunker was secure. 

 

          “All clear,” Harker said finally.  The agent moved to the lair’s main entrance and braced himself in sturdy firing position.  “Move up to me and secure whatever artifacts we need.”

 

Rorye had told him what to look for.  However, now that he was inside the brimming bunker, locating the items seemed a cumbersome and time-consuming task.  Admittedly, she possessed a greater knowledge of arcane artifacts than he did.  Their chances of success would be greater with her joining him inside.  If the mission went sideways, she could always use her speed to secure the artifact while he covered their withdrawal. 

 

“Try to hurry, their reinforcements should be here any minute.”  Ryan set his sights to cover the hideout’s entrance.  If the emergency tunnel was a secret kept, their enemy would have to come through him to get inside.

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“What’s in the box?” 

 

Honestly… the worst. Brow furled, watching him a moment. She knew exactly why Remy had been targeted. They’d traced meticulously through all of his dealings, everything he’d ever sought and purchased. It was just a matter of time before they tracked him down. The worry may have been apparent on her features. What did they know about her?

 

“It’s bad,” there wasn't a lot of time to explain how bad. “Remy was a myth chaser. All the things that we see as ultimate stories and fakes he tracked down. In some cases they were real. I never knew exactly what he’d found, but I have an idea.”

 

They never divulged what each other really sought in their endless hunt for the forbidden. There were rumors and bits that could be pieced together. Herself, she was a book chaser. Remy liked power, ancient things that weren’t supposed to exist. She opened up a bit to the agent; a glimpse into the inner circle, albeit brief.

 

“The things he told me he’d gotten his hands on I thought were just bullshit. He told me once he had a piece of kibisis, -the- kibisis, the one that Perseus carried Medusa’s bloody head in. Supposedly found it in a stash in Europe. He also had a gold serpent vial, always bragged there were dried crystals of ichor inside of it, ambrosia, nectar, blood of the ‘Gods’.”

 

She got out with him into the darkness, voice low as he added to his arsenal. Dark eyes watched him quietly.

 

“These guys are looking for blood. If what Remy bragged about was true, they’re potentially getting their hands on the mother load. Who knows what else he stuffed in there. It seems outlandish, but with everything that’s happened in the last ten years…”

 

She left it at that.

 

“So is there anything special about this safe?  Is it going to explode if I use a laser cutter on the lock?”

 

“No, it's just a safe. The box is just a box... wooden, black, about shoe box size. There’s an ouroboros on the top, a small lock latch. Very innocuous, it’s meant to look that way. It’s not even locked last I knew.”

 

The amount of weaponry he was pulling out was concerning. She knew it was necessary.

 

“Take this, I know you don’t know how to shoot, but it will make me feel better.”

 

A faint smile pressed to her lips, reaching beneath her coat under her left arm to click a snap open. She'd always had a spot for one.

 

“...never got around to asking the dragon if he could do firearms to go with my blades,” she left that tidbit a mystery for now. Yes, a real dragon made her stuff.

 

“There is already one in the chamber, so just point and pull.”

 

Hand hesitated, glancing at him, and then took it, checking the safety and sliding it into the holster. Not as inexperienced as one would have thought, still not enough to be considered proficient or even knowledgeable enough to carry.

 

“Have only fired a 1911,” the comment was more to herself than anything. Once upon a time.

 

Jacket was smoothed and she was moving forward to the gate ahead of him, if she didn’t start getting this death wish on the road she would have... what exactly? Backed out? Here she was, getting into trouble again. Dangerous trouble. People getting hurt again. Killed. It was that memory that pulled out the confident sarcasm like nothing was bothering her. Danger flipped a switch that brought out the expertise she couldn’t seem to link into without it… long story, one she was going to have to come to terms with. Soon.

 

It felt like a goodbye. She was always fucking saying goodbye.

 

Resisting the urge to look over her shoulder as he went into the darkness, she pulled back to the car, finding a place that she could sit and monitor it while still keeping tabs on her surroundings. Calm pressed in on all sides, it was unnerving, even when quiet her city was always alive. Alone out here, she truly felt alone, jumping slightly at the sound of his voice in her ear.

 

“You know, if this whole occults-dealer thing doesn’t work out, you should definitely become a motivational speaker.”

 

She was silent for a moment.

 

“Smartass,” the amusement was infused in her single word.

 

Twice in one night. Damn.

 

Long breath was drawn in and let out slowly, tapping into memory that she really wished she’d never have to use as she guided him through the old maze. Fallout plans were always in hopes that shit like this really would never come to fruition. The worst wasn't ever supposed to happen. The entrepreneur had nobody left to carry out hers if so needed.

 

She knew he was at the final door, chewing on her lip as he went through. Shots that followed echoed through the drainage tunnel, seizing her chest and vaulting her to her feet toward the embankment, suddenly twirling silently out of the path to press against a tree in the darkness.

 

Movement. Voices. Close, investigating the noise.

 

Shit. Shit!

 

Breath was held, unable to even say a word and confirm if he was okay. Muscles that had just fired into an incredible burst of speed were now buzzing under her skin from immobility. Burning to move.

 

The gunfire echoing in the tunnel had drawn attention; making her wonder if they had been out in the darkness already around the building. They moved down the embankment to the gate. It was closed. Flashlights were shined in and they came back up, three. Armed. Of course they were armed.

 

“All clear.”

 

The flush of relief crashed against the violence itching in her limbs. They were moving toward her and it was not going to lead to anything else but confrontation. It had to, they couldn't be left alive to find the car or impede their escape route.

 

She lowered to a taught crouch on one knee, hands behind her head to slowly pull the twin short blades from their perch.

 

“Move up to me and secure whatever artifacts we need. Try to hurry, their reinforcements should be here any minute.”

 

She couldn’t answer. Calm breath exhaled, form deathly still as she waited. These moments felt eternal, senses flushing out wide to feel the veil of time thin. Blood slowed, neurons fired with echoed memory. Blades flipped backwards in her hands along her forearms. Sensation nothing she could ever explain, maybe this is what magus felt when they drew mana...

 

It was over in seconds.

 

Backs of knees on the first were sliced, throat opened as he fell, twisting toward her. Hilts were released as the flesh split, strikes still in motion, hands reversing to tighten their grip again and instantly change the blades' direction. The second turned at the sound of his partner’s gasp, chest split open by a downward cross strike. He jerked backward, knocking the other to the ground as he fell. She stepped over the second and finished the third easily, nearly severing his head from his body.

 

Chest heaved once, wiping her blades on the third’s coat and re-sheathing them. They were off the beaten path; casting a glance over each shoulder. She wouldn’t waste her time dragging them anywhere, but she did grab one of their earpieces. She was up and moving, sliding down the embankment and reaching in to release the gate and close it behind her. If someone tried to get in, they would hear it.

 

“On my way. Exit is compromised but still passable. Car is still clear.”

 

The world was bright to her senses, adrenaline thrumming so loud in her veins she could almost hear it. Footsteps light, she moved quickly, reaching the heavy door and into the ultimate supernatural man cave. Blood. The scent of blood fired a rush deep in her gut, thumbing her ring. Eyes took stock of everything. Dead. Eclectic trinkets. Remy was quite the hoarder.

 

She blinked at Harker, quickly placing the earpiece next to him.

 

"Might be useful."

 

She made a beeline to a door at the far side of the room, moving downward. Stepping off the landing, her gasp was audible. Good god the books… the file cabinets were piled with tomes, papers. Scrolls. There was so much... There was no telling what else the man collected. The only choice was to burn it all.

 

Footsteps quickened to the end of the row in the small basement room, kneeling and getting to work. Drawer face opened, she twirled the dial, going through every code she could think of.

 

“We have to burn it all," she said as she kept spinning through codes, searching for the right one. "We can’t let them take anything more than what they already have. This place is a tinderbox with all this. Won't take much to set it off."

 

Code finally clicked and she opened it. It was still there, thank god. Pulling it out, it was heavier than it should have been; spending a moment securing the latch. No time to look. Eyes scanned the room, so much would be lost. His personal ledger. She needed to get it, it could point them to where these assholes were going next. Taking the steps two at a time, the box under her arm, she shoved the body leaning against the desk to one side with her foot and and pulled all the drawers, rifling unceremoniously through each and sliding her hand underneath. It should have been there. Eyes slid over the room, head cocking at his bookshelf, rushing over to pull out several tomes that were at one time hers. Right next to them, his ledger.

 

"This is everything," she grabbed his old messenger bag that still hung on his desk chair and stuffed everything inside, slinging it over her shoulder.

Edited by Rorye Shannon-Kearney
Typo and clarification
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There was no answer across the comms channel.  Seconds passed and the fear something may have gone wrong began to creep into Harker’s mind.  He usually tried to use plain English when speaking to non-military personnel over the radio, but as doubt added stress the Soldier instinctively leaned on his prior training.  “I say again, move up to me and secure the target.  How copy?  Over.”

 

          “On my way. Exit is compromised but still passable. Car is still clear.”  Rorye’s voice soothed the operative’s concern. 

 

          “What do you mean it’s compromised?”  Harker asked, the details of her answer would be important.  Her definition of ‘compromised’ or ‘passable’ might be very different from his own.  In order to accurately assess their situation, he would need further detail.

 

          “Might be useful,” he heard over his shoulder.  Off hand was held open, but the operative’s gaze remained trained on the entrance.  An earpiece was placed into his palm.  Then his partner set to work.  Fast paced footsteps echoed softly behind him, back and forth as Rorye searched the dwelling.

 

          Harker monitored the enemy’s radio traffic.  They had two teams on the objective, a roving perimeter team, and an entry team.  Unsurprisingly, neither element was responding.  Reinforcements were on their way.  “They have reinforcements enroute, ETA two mikes.”

 

          “We have to burn it all. We can’t let them take anything more than what they already have. This place is a tinderbox with all this. Won't take much to set it off."

 

          “Once you’ve secured the artifacts we need, set this place to blow.”  Ryan directed over comms.  Rifle was topped off with a fresh magazine. 

 

At the direction of the Order of the First Light, these criminals had managed to track down a paranoid occults-dealer like Remy.  They captured him, tortured him, killed him, and then raided his coffers.  Now, the same people had found Rorye.  A process destined to repeat itself if action wasn’t taken.  Ryan was a man of action.

 

“I’m taking the fight to them,” he said rising from his crouch.  “Stay alert just in case one of them gets past me.  Let me know when your ready to light the fuse.”

 

Cheek to his rifle’s buttstock, Harker strode briskly out of the bunker and into the small clearing outside.  Encountering no resistance, he then turned left and trotted into the tree line.  Sliding into the dirt near the base of a tree, the Soldier propped himself up into a prone fighting position. 

 

A hurried hand reached into one of the pockets in the lining of his coat.  An 8-inch matte black cylinder was produced from the hidden pouch.  Ryan threaded the silencer onto the end of his barrel.  An extra quarter turn to ensure it was fastened tight.  The additional length was a bit unwieldly in close quarter engagements, but perfect for maintaining concealment on an open battlefield. 

 

Harker surveyed the clearing that led to the hideout’s entrance.  Two black SUV’s were parked not far from the main doorway; abandoned with their owners now deceased.  Aside from the deserted utility vehicles, there wasn’t much else in the way of cover along the open expanse.  Headlights could be seen in the distance.  The enemy was close.  The operative hunkered low into the dirt and took aim at the approaching convoy.

 

“This is everything,” Rorye’s voice crackled in his ear.

 

          “Copy, let me know when you’re set,” Ryan answered quietly.

 

          Two more dark SUV’s broke away from the main road and drove into the clearing.  The vehicles paralleled one another, rolling slowly into the field and parking behind the first set of trucks.

 

An instant before the vehicles came to a complete stop, a cloud of gray smoke plumed suddenly in front of the bunker’s entrance.  Harker raked the closest SUV with an automatic burst from his assault rifle.  A muffled sputtering sound escaped the silenced barrel, but nothing else.  Windows fractured and shattered, and holes were punched along the utility vehicle’s flank.  Empty magazine was exchanged for a fresh cartridge and the Soldier was on the move.

 

          Disorganized shouts bellowed into the indifferent night as men extricated themselves from their vehicles.  “Contact front!  Contact front!” and “Fuck, I’m hit!” were distinguishable amongst the chaotic cries.  Sable clad mercenaries stooped behind their vehicles, facing the bunker.  Many of them were firing aimlessly into the veil of smoke concealing the shelter’s entrance.

 

          Within seconds of the initiating the ambush, Harker had maneuvered behind the enemy’s reinforcements.  Creeping out of the shadows, he advanced on their position, rifle at the ready.  Another magazine was emptied into the men’s backs, catching most of them unprepared.  There was a second’s pause in operative’s rate of fire as another clip was loaded seamlessly into his weapon.  His forward movement unhindered by the reload.

 

          “Contact rear!”  One of the mercenaries managed to cry out before being felled by another burst from the agent’s rifle.

 

          The two remaining men turned and began spraying bullets in Ryan’s direction.  The Soldier continued to press the attack, slipping and ducking sporadically as he relied upon his sixth sense to guide his path.  When his rifle clacked empty, it was cast aside.  Proximity between him and his foe was too close to reload. Pistols were pulled from their holsters without hesitation, and Ryan killed the next man with sheer weight of fire.

 

          One mercenary remained in the fight.  He and Harker were on opposite sides of the second vehicle, exchanging fire through the SUV’s windows.  They circled the vehicle clockwise, taking turns crouching and shooting for a few moments.  As they moved, Harker’s boot caught on one of the many bodies that now littered the battlefield.  He cursed aloud and fell almost comically before rolling smoothly back to his feet.

 

          Hearing him stumble, the last fighter attempted to seize the advantage by charging hastily around the vehicle.  The mercenary was already firing when he rounded the SUV’s rear corner, but Ryan was waiting.  A single, well placed shot took the last man’s life.  Head snapped backward and he toppled lifelessly to the ground.

 

          The entire engagement had lasted only about sixty seconds.  Ryan inhaled deep and then let loose a heavy sigh.  Time resumed its normal pace as the operative’s adrenaline began to calm.  Pistols were swiftly reloaded and holstered.  Then he strode calmly back to his discarded rifle and recovered the weapon.

 

          Radio in Harker’s ear squawked.  Someone was demanding a status update for the slain strike team.  The agent recognized the voice, the boss from earlier that evening.  He answered with a false Russian snarl, “Your men are dead.  If you come after anymore of Remy’s property, or his contacts, I will kill you…  I found you once already Mr. Hanes…  I can find you again.”

 

          Ryan removed the enemy’s radio from his ear and tossed it carelessly.  Hopefully, the man would be fearful enough to avoid going after Rorye.  At the very least it would buy her some time.  Ryan then spoke to Rorye, voice resuming its normal tone.  “Outside is all clear.  I’m walking through the front door now.  How are we looking inside?”

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