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The City's Dark Jewel
Years had passed since she last found herself in Moscow, but it was still home. Nothing much had changed in the dark jewel of a city, nor in all its beautiful shadows. She was well acquainted with those cool dark places of the Underground, and never found much fault with Ascendancy's blind eye towards its more illicit activities. Darkness need spread somewhere, after all.

The Custody paid for her flight home. An assignment would come, but for now she was simply instructed to convalesce -- though for someone like Nhysa, the word had something of a unique interpretation. Her body felt wasted, at least to the standards she was used to, and yet she discovered little in the way of challenge presented by tonight's entertainment. Perhaps they mistook leanness for weakness, or perhaps it was only that too many years had passed and her reputation here had faded into dust. 

Tonight Almaz gave her insufferably fragile opponents.

The rounds blurred beyond number before she even felt the first stings of sweat at the back of her neck. Smashed noses. Crunched bones. Split lips. Quick, efficient brutality. She might as well have been picking fucking roses. Then a blow caught her stomach, radiating a spectrum of pain that flickered a curl to her lips. She doubled over, wheezing a laugh. A moment later and the sharp crack of an elbow took him in the chin, whipping his head back. A sweep relieved him of his balance. Perhaps he hit the ground awkwardly, for he was disappointingly unconscious by the time she leaned over to peer down at why he had not yet gotten up.

She rolled her eyes, straightening. Her stomach twinged sharply. Handlers dragged the dead weight of her opponent away, until he became lost in the shadows of the concealed pit entrances (the darkness, it had to be said, watched a little curiously). Nhysa swiped a hand over the back of her clammy neck, eyes momentarily rising to the brightness above. The roar of music drowned the fussing of the crowd. Screens projected for those unable to capture ringside seats, though Nhysa didn't much care for the audience; or at least, it made little difference to her whether they were there or not.

When her attention lowered it was with impatience for the delay. "Next?"

"You're bleeding."

"And?" She looked down, and found herself faintly surprised by the amount of blood burst brilliant against the front of her tank. One of the handlers peered out of the shadows, beckoning her to move off, his face looking just about ready to puke. Nhysa's lips flattened disapproval, acquiescing only reluctantly. The darkness grew a little blacker as she passed. "It looks worse than it is."

Rooms for the competitors were nothing like those for the guests, who watched the decadent violence from thrones of luxury. Creaking pipes ran overhead, rushing on water to the communal showers. The light was sallow, better to disguise the blood, though you could smell it like iron in the air.

Ilya waited just beyond the entrance. Habitual black draped his shoulders (better to hide the blood), his bearded face like a disembodied skull above. He snapped the gloves on his hands, smiling faintly, brows lifting with the offer of assistance. He remembered her, if no one else; damn doctor was as old as the pitted walls. Nhysa waved him off with a wink. Rumour these days said the guy kept young girls whose fingers healed or mangled at a touch, but such was reserved for the highest earners (or those with the richest patrons). Most of those had the privacy of their own rooms anyway.

Cold tiles stung underfoot as she hit the showers. The slap of the water echoed like a rainstorm, the rip of its touch like little needles. She raised her face to the pain for a while before she inspected the wound. Some of the necrotic crust had ripped away, which explained the pain. Gooey red tissue peeked beneath, too shiny new to even be considered close to repaired skin. Blushing pink swirled away at her feet as she poked a little at the wound amidst a swell of frustration. How long until the fucking thing healed?
The witch in the park had gave him a card. He had been given his fortune too. But he hadn't wanted more of an explanation. That wasn't his thing. The monastery taught him to trust his faith. And that was voodoo... not his faith.

But the Alamz wasn't a place for either. It was a place for violence something the monastery would frown upon as well. But here Li was, and partially the reason why he wasn't still with the monastery. Faith hadn't been enough. His power called to him and it churned and beat at his soul with every use. But it was violent and abhorrent at times. The things it could do. And the Almaz was the perfect place to see that violence even if he didn't partake.

The girl in the ring was spurting blood and still willing to go. Li gave her credit she'd gone long rounds and fought giants of men. He had seen her before, but it had been a while. This wasn't a means to a career but it could be fun. But even though the Atharim would hunt him for being a god he still had the same thrill from the hunt, and the Alamz was using these creatures for their gain. It wasn't humane, but these people didn't know how dangerous it truly was either. Li didn't want to stop the profit but the wolfkin and the rougarou could have caused more damage if not for the gods here that night. The more dangerous creatures had to be destroyed, and Li would see to it. The more humanity the creature had the better the alamz would preform with anyway. The monsters were not going to give a show and once they were full they'd stop preforming. Enraging an Oni would be bad, they thought the steal ring would keep it in, but it was doubtful. The only true thing was death.

Li sat and watched as the girl left to the back. It'd been a while since he'd gone that way himself. Maybe in the future, when his mind wasn't strung out on finding the wolfkin of his last visit. But tonight nothing was happening out of the ordinary - at least not yet.
“What you must do," said Monkey, "is lure the monster from its hiding place, but be certain it is a fight you can survive.” 
― Wu Cheng'en, Monkey: The Journey to the West


He dressed for the event. Nothing like the black and white sported at that fucking ball, but well enough to slip beside the ringleaders of industry and overlords of the illicit. Almaz hadn’t the honor of Ryker Petrovic’s presence since before San Quentin. Before the meltdown. Before the betrayal. Beneath a dark suit was a black button-down shirt and black tie. None would know but him, but Ryker took the extra precaution of wearing a molded, second-skin body armor as well. The thin weave could diffuse the kinetic punch to the gut and only the hardest of fists would leave a bruise. He didn’t intend on entering the ring himself, but in Almaz, who knew what kind of shit might go down. You didn’t need a cage to find yourself in a fight.

He wasn’t the only one wearing black on black. In a place that attracted the sadistic of the most wealthy sort, the morbid scheme was a semi-favored combination. The difference was Ryker was the only one that didn’t give a fuck about impressing the assholes around him. The door-meat took one look at him, and the scars stretched uncomfortably across his face, and turned him away.

He offered them the opportunity to check his ID. Amusement rippled beneath those pink webs when the scan flashed approval. 

Before plunging into the hole that was Almaz’s entrance, he swiped another ID into the man’s system. “My guest tonight.” Ivan’s information was processed. Ryker trusted he’d encounter no resistance.

The grim, empty, industrial exterior gave way soon to a world sound-proofed to that above. Lasers colored the walls. Music thumped in his head. Ryker paused on the threshold, counting heads and body language as second-nature as breathing.

A hellish home he embraced with open arms. The circulation of underground air. The roars feasting on violence. The glitter of viperous eyes. The taunt of frenzy impending.

God it was great to be home.
Ivan woke. He didn't know what time it was. His stomach grumbled. He didn't remember when he actually got in bed, but he must have. Just him naked under the covers, boxers and pants at the foot of the bed. Free.

No hangover either. He checked the time. 4? Too early. His left hand slapped out looking for his wallet. 3 messages. One was work. Ignore. The other was Danya.

Bands constricted across his chest. No. He wouldn't look. But his fingers didn't listen. He stared. The smile was innocent. His brows drew down, the feel of something fighting in his chest. Danya's eyes. Baby teeth in the sweetest smile.

He studied the picture. Tried to find himself. So many maybes. So many nos.

But the picture was a hook. Ivan bled pain. And unlike blood, there was no substitution. No replacement.

He dropped the wallet and felt the tears drip to his ears. And the rage.

His hand flew out, grabbed the wallet. Another message.

A mean smile was on his face. The Tux was good enough. New t shirt though. Then a ride.

He wanted people to bleed.
She ruined a towel getting dry, then sprayed a liquid bandage on the wound before she got dressed. The coolness soothed, which was honestly more an irritant than the burning pain. The fighting hadn't stretched her; there'd be no pleasantly aching muscles in the morning. 

It made the whole endeavour rather pointless actually. 

Echoes travelled down from above. The screams and grunts were easier to hear here, the music too far above to penetrate. Even lower, in the deepest caverns of this place, was where she knew they kept the cages raised only for special nights; the darker things to titillate and awe, where she might sneak better sport. Nhysa stretched. Above her head the lights flickered while the dark slunk about her heels in a pool of her shadow. The purr of a little body, the curl of a tail to funnel her steps, and then gone. 

She wouldn't normally bother with the patrons; she didn't fight to earn money or curry favour. But the bowels of hell were the best place to put an ear to the city's undercurrents, and that she was curious of. Apparently the dark agreed. 

It hadn't been the plan; she didn't have clothes fit for the occasion, certainly not to shine as anything but the darkest of trinkets. Nhysa might not care for an audience to her sparring, but she did not mind admiring eyes of other kinds. But, tonight, simple black covered her body, svelte against hips, tight against her torso. Plain as night. 

Her hair curled damply at the ends, hanging blunt above her eyes. Freckles dotted the paleness of her cheeks, otherwise unblemished. No one had come close to creeping within her guard tonight. A smirk ticked her lips, gaze catching momentarily on something else in the mirror, hung back in the shadows. She knew if she turned it'd be gone. 

She headed up. 

It was lavish; another world from the rawness of the pits below. Her eyes flickered amongst the crowd, a cursory inspection; shuffling threats from peacocks. She didn't recognise many faces. It was not like she needed to follow the finer currents of Custody politics; she was only the end of the blade, instructed where to point, and upon whose chest to slide inside. Or conversely who to protect with her own beating heart. She didn't only devil in murder after all.

There was someone though, albeit they had never really done more than cross paths. She remembered a sleeve of tattoos in the cavernous dark, and skin warmed by a sun that never reached this deep. He didn't belong, not like some, and yet he always came back.

His face was familiar for other reasons too of course, from his films. She couldn't recall they had ever spoken though. China was no ally of the Custody, and Nhysa had killed many men with the same dark hair and tilted eyes. He reminded her in some small way of one of them, though since he had been quite beautiful, it was no bad thing.

The shadow of a smile welcomed her expression. She pulled a chair without asking or waiting for an invitation. "Only watching, tonight?"
The current show was two men pounding one another. Hardly worth watching though there was a crowd favorite - there always was. Li didn't particularly care one way or the other. The amusement was not what he was seeking. Nor was the fight, but tonight didn't seem to be a special occasion. Li wondered when they'd bring out the beasts. Then he might actually give it a go.

The chair scrapped next to him and dark and beautiful sat down next to him. This was their first conversation, though they'd seen much of each other over the years. It was hard to forget the regular faces. Some harder than others. "I came looking for the darker things tonight. More work than pleasure." He said coolly with a smile. "Disappointed they cut you short?" Li knew men and women like her who would fight with even more of an injury than they sported, but blood really was very hard to get out. And the Almaz was always about profit. Getting one of their prized fighters dead was not good for their pockets.

Li turned his attentions from the ring to his now companion. The fight still wasn't interesting. Two brutes pounding one another was nothing - an everyday thing. A small thing like her, and one of them, now that's a fight worth watching. Though everyone here knew who would win. Death came in small packages, and Li knew this one was dangerous. He didn't want to ever be on the wrong side of her.
“What you must do," said Monkey, "is lure the monster from its hiding place, but be certain it is a fight you can survive.” 
― Wu Cheng'en, Monkey: The Journey to the West


Ivan had never been to the Almaz. Nor to this part of the city for that matter. Another time, Ivan would have been staring, dazzled by the lights and the cars and the people. A whole other world.

Not tonight. Fire burned in Ivan's chest. Impotence only fanned the flame. He might have called Nox. Headed down into the tunnels. The need for violence flowed through his veins, inky black. The lure of the Almaz was too much to ignore, though. He'd heard of it, of course.

It occurred to him that members of the Syndicate would be there. The flame burned hotter and a cruel smile formed on his lips.

It wasn't that he knew what he was doing. He didn't have a fucking clue. It wasn't that he had a plan. There was none beyond each single step he took. It was that he just didn't fucking care right now. The small voice in the back of his mind cried out to him, threw up images of Ma and Pop, his brothers and sisters. And something new; a face with the sweetest smile filled with baby teeth and Danya's eyes.

And strangely each of those things stoked the fire. He would not be impotent in this city, not any more. Dangerous. Very dangerous. But the mantle had not slipped from his shoulders. The memory of Zoya's voice- her teasing him- stabbed him. He standing in her room, hands on hips posing like a goof, her on the bed laughing at him. Supercop. More burn. Wrong.

The wall of a bouncer at the door looked him up and down. The rental gave him away. He didn't fucking care. He looked at the man with challenge. The guy had no idea. His name showed, though. He didn't really think Ryker would have sent him there on a joke.

Finally, the man nodded, a hard look in his eye. "No recordings. Our security systems disrupt any attempt. But just trying will get you thrown out." A slight smile appeared on his lips. "And I'd enjoy that." Ivan smirked. Let him try.

He brushed past the man and descended into the bowels of hell, messaging Ryker. It was what he'd expected. And nothing like he'd expected. Balconies and bars scattered around the levels, opening on to pits where men and women fought. Boards lit up showing stats. The servers had been hired for their looks, obviously, the men tall and fit, the women appealing to every kind of appetite.

And of course the elite- the very types who'd been at the Ball- mingled arrogantly, luxuriating in their power. The flame was stoked higher.

He could smell the violence, could feel it in the air. And his heart raced.
A low hum of laughter left her throat, but she knew what he meant. Nhysa didn't know what schedule the Almaz ran to, but too much spectacle was never a good thing for profit margins. Usually rumours peppered the scene for days before a special fight, but occasionally the bomb dropped unannounced. It was a hunger that kept mouths begging at the table.

"A shame." A tease touched her smile; for the promise of work before pleasure, though behind that sultry darkness she considered what exactly he meant by it. The debrief following her psych evaluation had elucidated some interesting facts after she finally explained exactly what had happened to her in Odessa. "Because you're beautiful to watch." 

She had a taste for Asian men, but the compliment was genuinely meant. Nhysa generally didn't come here to observe; she enjoyed the heat and thrill of the fight, but not watching others partake of the same pleasures. There were exceptions though, when the violence transcended into elegance and it strung together almost like harmony. He had that gift.

She sat back a little at mention of her little issue. "Frustrated," she admitted blandly. Not that she did not have other tools at her disposal, but her life was a thing strictly of flesh and blood. She noticed the wound less than another might, but it only meant she delayed her body's work by pushing beyond normal limits. The fierceness of her training did not recognise such boundaries. One day it would probably kill her.

But all death served a purpose.

"Something of a work related injury, unfortunately. A nuisance, but I was hardly about to keel over. You're not filming at the moment? Another job to keep you busy?"
Ryker was seated at the bar, arm draped along the drink-rail. He sank into the curves of the seat with all the relaxation of a lion sprawled atop high rocks. Where his fingers wrapped a glass tenderly as a lover’s throat, a ring on his finger clinked rhythmically upon the glass. Nothing to draw attention, just a plain charcoal band. The only apparent ornament of decoration to his appearance. Hardly a symbol of wedlock. That was long ago confiscated from the raided flat left behind. He never attempted to find it again.

The lion sipped occasionally at perfectly clear, cold liquid that sparkled like diamonds filled the glass. Faces dredged deja vu from the ball. Captains of industry filtered around the room, descending to their base blood lusts to fulfill barbaric needs unmet in civilized society, ascending when the reprieve from brutality beckoned. He was recognized in return, but the silent promise of exclusivity did not draw them near. Ryker’s was a face not easily forgotten, though perhaps dismissed. He nodded once in a while when such moments of epiphany flashed recognition in lingering eyes. Otherwise, none lured conversation. 

A woman crawled the floor like a spider sniffing the best corner to cast her webs. The prey was fresh, Asian meat. He watched her languorous analysis even as she watched the tendrils soon to be her meal. Her selection was unknown to Ryker, but by the way that others shot him glances askance, his was a face apparently widely known.

The internal cross-reference did not place him at the ball, Ryker guessed, but he hadn’t the opportunity to study all 300 guests before they were so rudely interrupted. Ascendancy was suppose to hail Ryker a hero before his privileged gentry. Instead, Ryker slipped away another unknown. Perhaps it was for the best. Agendas should remain buried. Ryker’s plowed deep trenches.

Gaze gliding from the spider with all her emaciated, gangly limbs, he spied Ivan before the cop saw him in return. The way others stared dismissively plucked proud feathers from Ryker’s chest. Underestimating an enemy was one of the best advantages to hold in hand. 

He waved the young cop over when the chance came.
Ivan couldn't help the smirk that had formed as he saw the various looks and dismissals. He opened himself up to it, refusing to look away as an older hard looking man in a suit that- well, he didn't know materials, other than the basics. This was anything but- refused to look away as he narrowed his eyes, the question of his belonging more than clear.

If anything Ivan's smirk became a smile, though definitely one with curl to his lip. They had one kind of power. He was not so blind as that. But Ivan was drunk on the simmering resentment and anger that had been on a slow boil since that night in the red light district when Pol had opened his eyes to the world. Not enough to be impaired. But enough.

And none of these people had a clue as to what he could do. Oh, he might see the Commissioner here, maybe Chief of Police. Others who knew of Domovoi and so perhaps him. And at the Ball. But knowing of and experiencing were two very different things.

The sad part was Drayson might even be in on all this too. Bah! He had to be. The man had to know how the world worked. He'd found his path. His position was nearly one of autonomy. There was a road there, if Ivan knew how to navigate it it. Something he'd heard before came to him. A line. Sometimes you gotta have a little dirt on you for anybody to trust you. At the time it had seemed a cop out.

But now....

This was not Ivan's world. But he would have to become part of it. If he wanted to do what he needed to do. You wait. I might be crashing your party now. But there will come a time when I will have a place here. If Ascendancy wasn't gonna take care of things, Ivan would.

A wave of a hand caught his eye. Ryker, lounging at the bar, lazily watching everyone. And for some reason Ivan felt a thrill of excitement flow through him. The violence was there, filling the air. The violence of the fights. The violence of greed. The violence of arrogance. Potential.

He walked up to the bar and sat down, relaxed. He'd sat in the worst dives, among men who'd as soon kill you as ignore you. Mean with massive fists and the enjoyment of suffering. Men who probed for weakness.

The bartender came and looked at him, eyebrow raised. Yeah, Ivan wasn't ordering a $1000 bottle of scotch. "Amber ale, two limes." He looked at Ryker. It wasn't loud like a club where you had to shout to be heard. "Heard of this place. Glad for the invite."

Beer cold and frosty in the glass, Ivan raised it in toast before taking a drink.

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