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The Brutal Reality
Last night had been different.  Never before had Nox gotten up on stage.  Never before had he danced for others much less provocatively.  But the girls were so great to work with.  Nox hadn't had a chance to catch up with Raffe after the night ended, he was so fucking tired and he had an early morning so Nox had pretty much crashed after.  Thankfully he hadn't put it on multiple times.  They still had some things to work out but all in all it went well and the girls raved about the final cut of music.  Nox was proud of his work.  

Nox woke up sore but nothing a good stretch and workout wouldn't cure.  Sore was a way of life most days.  And being sore from dancing well while new was completely worth it.

The routine of morning was simple and Nox tried to keep the noise down, he was up earlier than usual, and probably much earlier than the late night people were used to.  But Nox didn't sleep much anyway.  He yawned as he sipped at his coffee and pulled Sage's contacts from the storage unit he kept all his hunting things in since leaving Dorian's.  There was no point in trying to haul it around when he moved a lot.  Or at least that had been the plan. 

Nova followed at his heels and yipped at the person passing by the locker to their own.  Nox checked his bag a third time to make sure he had everything he might need.  An ammo sling was slung over his body carrying several vials of ordinary things.  Nox wished he had time to make a batch of napalm but he didn't.  He'd have to fix that later, hunting was going to be a thing again - and he knew with his new job it was going to be.  

There was baby powder, glass shards, metal pellets, pebbles to name a few things that were stationed in each vial.  Each one meant to do damage or disorient a person with diminished use of the power.  When the strength to stand became paramount or to conserve if it was going to be a long fight.  Either way Nox would be prepared.  He strapped a few guns to his belt and put the rest in the bag.  The compact cross bow was folded and stored in the bag too.  Fighting these little creatures, a cross bow wasn't going to come in handy, but against an Oni it was safer to use with the right aim.

Nox was early to their meet up point.  The sun was still asleep as he sat down against the wall of the mouth of the tunnel.  He sipped his coffee and dipped into the power of the gods and pulled a discarded glass bottle to him and started the process of crushing it into a fine powder.  Breathing glass shards wasn't a fun prospect.  And Nox had found another use for it in scattering the laser from a sniper.  it came in handy as long as you didn't breath it in.  It wasn't something you could use around people - that would be dangerous.

Nova sniffed around the tunnel entrance as they waited.  This was the first time that Nova was going hunting with him.  Hopefully the pup listened and didn't get wrapped up in the chaos of it all.
Lih left his flat, and headed south into the rendezvous point. He moved south, bow ready, to where Nox was waiting by the tunnel. Nox had brought Nova to their hunting party.

He stepped toward Nox. There was something in Lih’s hand. “Donuts, if you want,” he offered. “How’s Ivan?” he asked Nox.

“Hello, you,” he said, kneeling down next to the friendly beast. “All right, Nova?”

He got to his feet and peered into the gathering dark. Damn, it was making his skin crawl. He couldn’t see anything, except… except he felt a sense of unease. Was it just him?

There are some things that won’t fit into nice, ordered boxes. Gut instincts. Feelings. As Dorian had been quick to point out, the Viktor Lih who went to Boda’s came back different. You don’t spend time with monsters and not have it affect you. It changed the way you fight. It changed the way you live and think, the way you trust. All of those changes forced on you by the simple need to survive. It left its mark on Lih.

Just to stay alive, Lih developed a … a hunch. Ah instinct. A little inkling that rang alarm bells well things weren’t right. When things weren’t what they seemed, or certain powers were playing tricks or about to strike. He’d gotten that inkling now; he’d had it since he first set foot in this place. He didn’t think the tunnels was just an old ruin with monsters hiding inside it. Something else was going on. He thought about the missing scientist. Where in the name of the creator did he go?

Nobody knew. Dorian suggested it was high time someone did. He assembled a team because he thought it was a job ideally suited to the domovoi, to Ivan and Nox especially. If they couldn’t track this thing to its source, no one can. Lih wasn’t happy, but Dorian had convinced him—if there was even a shred of truth, this was important.

What did Dorian expect they’ll find? Lairs and dens? Natural hiding places that nobody had yet detected. He hoped they'd all be empty.

But Lih’s inkling told him… something was wrong. He couldn’t explain it. And Nox wasn’t really interested in anything Lih had to say. 

In any case he should check in; the domovoi channel should be within range at the tunnel entrance. He keyed the send button.

“Sir? We’re here. Respond.” Lih delicately adjusted the dials of his microbead, boosting its signal. “Sir? This is Lih. Do you read me?”

Lying on the 30 degree angled bench, arms out, muscles corded and straining with 110 pounds dumbbells in each hand, sweat trickling down the side of his face, Ivan concentrated. Slowly he lowered them until his upper arm was on the same plane as his torso, arms iron hard as they came to a stop. Then, carefully, methodically, he pushed back up in a sweeping motion, straightening his arms as he pressed up, bringing the weights together, focusing on his upper chest, trying to feel the fibers contract tightly, holding it, feeling them bunch. Lower, hold, raise, focus. Lower, hold, raise, focus. He could lose himself in the work as he visualized every movement, enjoying the burn and the strain, the thundering pounding of his heart, could feel the blood flowing, the hold and burst of inhale and exhale.

Working out was how Ivan cleared his mind. It was probably similar to when people meditated. Even though he wasn't consciously thinking about his problems, somehow the workout would sometimes leave him with answers. And even if not, it gave him something productive he could do. Something he could control.

An hour later, he headed home, showered and then ate- a simple chicken stew mixed with sour cream and rice and a big glass of milk. Post workout nutrition was important, otherwise what he done would be wasted. The body had to repair itself. And he was fucking famished. Despite the morning- Dorian- he felt better. He was in a peaceful place as he rinsed his dishes and put them away. He thought about going to Danya and Zara's but Nox's warnings rang in his ears. If they weren't already on Yun's radar, visiting them without care would do it soon.

Instead, he video called them and they talked, Zara's little face filling the holo-screen, gap toothed smile- she'd just lost her first- making him laugh. She was sitting in Danya's lap, obscuring part of her mother's face, but Ivan could see the twinkle of a smile in her eyes. Danya had been teaching her to read and Ivan listened, heart warm, as she struggled to work her way through "The Little Sea Lion". He and Danya didn't say much, tonight. This was enough. Later, when Zara was asleep he might call her, maybe explain the situation he was in- that they- were in. But something about doing that bothered him. This wasn't a conversation he wanted to have over the phone.

He did call, later, but mostly to talk about Zara. He was sure she knew he was holding something back. But she didn't press him. More and more, he wanted to tell her he loved her. He was being pulled, as sure as gravity pulled the weights that had been in his hands. But saying it- putting it out there- scared him. Part of him knew she had to be feeling this too. There was no way she was saying and doing things the way she did- treated him the way she treated him- without feeling it too. Intellectually, he knew this.

But insecurity was never based in logic. It grew from fear. From uncertainty. He knew she wasn't playing him. But perhaps she didn't know her own heart. And for him to say it- to try to define this thing between them- could pop this bubble that currently surrounded him like a warm blanket in a soft bed in a cold room. He wasn't sure he was ready to find out the reality. Not yet.

"Take care, Danya," he said softly, his voice earnest with unspoken love.

"You too, Ivan." And in her quiet voice he thought he heard the same tenderness.

That night Ivan slept hard, his mind no longer plaguing him with endless churning that had usually required a drink before he could drift off.

The next morning, he was up before dawn. Not his favorite, no sir. He hated getting up before the sun was out. But Nox and Lih would be there and waiting for him. And he had a job to do. Only....which one was it? Yun didn't want the missing scientist found. The text had led to an envelop, single sentence on a piece of paper, her spidery signature sharp and unflinching. And yet they were headed down to fight whatever was down there that threatened the surface. And also to find that scientist.

Ivan's stomach churned as he tried to eat. He knew he would need his strength, but he didn't feel hungry. Removing footage or something from evidence was one thing. Quick and momentary. This was something altogether different. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to keep them from finding this man. Dorian had shot him in the head. But the body was missing and there were no fragments. So if they found it, what was Ivan supposed to do? Burn it up?

The man could channel and was turning into those creatures. Ivan had seen how hard they died. Maybe he was still alive. How was he supposed to do this? Because he knew he would do what he was told to do. At least for now. Until he figured a way out.

Still, it didn't make the queasy feeling go away.

When he parked his car, he sat there for a moment. Finally, "Gotta do what you gotta do, Ivan," and he got out. His side piece was there, of course. He also had a small container of quarter inch diameter iron ball bearings. He'd thought about what Nox had said.

His feet crunched as he walked up to Nox and Lih. Nox had an ammo bag that seemed be filled with stuff, while Lih had a crossbow and some bolts. He breathed and forced a smile. "I guess it's time to party."
Nox watched as Viktor Lih came up to him with donuts. Of all cliche's he could have brought coffee. Nox set his cup down and watched as Lih talked to Nova. It was odd that the man knew his dog. But then he had been to the mansion before and Nova would have been there. It was slightly off putting but Nox let it slide didn't mention that or the donuts, but he didn't take one. He'd had breakfast enough and coffee was about all he really wanted in his stomach as they went down into the depths of the earth. The smells and the power didn't mix and sometimes it made the stomach sick up. Nox didn't want to taste sweet donuts coming back up. He shuddered at the thought.

Lih went off to try to contact the police on his comms he could hear him trying to get though so Nox spoke loudly. "We don't want back up. Too many guns and we'll all die. So just check in and give us a few hours but don't coming looking for us." Nox knew this was dangerous. He knew the kid had to be scared. Again Nox was reminded that didn't always equate to experience.

Ivan arrived with only a gun. He was either confident in himself or expected Nox to have more. But then both men weren't armeed to the teeth as he'd expected. It was good that he'd brought more than enough.

Nox unpacked his bag. But first things first. "Sage said you went offline a while ago." Nox held up a small oval container with a pair of land warrior lens that Sage had give him. "I can't help you use them, but the controls are linked into my land warriors so I can manipulate the maps and things you see, but how you can do it yourself I don't know. That's something you'd have to take up with Sage's guy cause even Sage won't know."

Nox pulled out his own trusty land warriors, the lens were a little scratched in the front but it didn't get in the way and he was used to them. The second pair - the pair Aria had used were in perfectly good shape. "These were Aria's. They should do you well." Nox put them aside for Ivan.

Nox pulled the collapsed crossbow and stood up hanging it on his left belt loop. The bolts were slung through the ammo pouch like the small vials of stuff was. He pulled out the glass shards and dumped in the handful of glass he'd made earlier. then stuck it in it's little compartment for later use.

He checked his gun and strapped a second beretta to his belt. He pushed a few other guns at Lih and Ivan. "You can never have too much." Nova trotted up to Nox and he ran his fingers through the Husky's thick fur. "you stay with me now." He said as he strapped remander of the weapons to Nova's back on his harness. Today Nova would go leashless but he listened most of the time, hoopefully in the heat of battle things would be alright. This was dangerous, but it was also very necessary. Nova needed experience, no better way than with others to help just in case.

"So this is how it's going to work. I'm going to take point. Ivan you got the rear. The land warriors have a visual and detailed map of where I've been and what I've found. The location where Dorian thinks he left Pavlo's body is marked on the map. It's a bit of a way in. But not too far. He was running from Atharim and was using it as a trap, so that's where we start." Nox started up the land warriors and got their positions. "The land warriors also so our vitals, so pay attention, if one of us goes red we get the fuck out." Nox started in to the tunnels. "And now we move. If we get into a mass of these things. Ivan, you take the far ranges. Lih, it's your job to watch our back and try to catch any that get past Ivan. I'll help you with that but I'll be taking on the ones that come in close. No wild shooting. A bullet to the head is a far better shot than center mass. Roug's hearts are shifted so even though they look human they aren't."

Nox drew upon the source and wove a thick wall of air in front of them. It only needed to be completed in order to stop whatever was in front of them. The land warriors cameras saw nothing, but he wasn't looking through the feeds. He had them off. He couldn't zoom in like Sage could he needed to see in order to weave. And that was why he was here. Nox split his flow and made good old stand by fire and air razor whip and tied it off at his side. He would be ready.

Nox spoke quietly but he rambled on about what they might encounter to break up the silence. Silence was good but at this present moment Nox didn't want there to be silence. A missing body was not a good thing. And Nox wanted to look around to see what they could find. A trail, a patch of darkened rock anything that said this thing was true and dead, but he didn't hold out hope. The cops found nothing and Nox didn't like that one bit.
Really? Well, damn.

Lih stared at the atharim in amazement. There was no denying it. Nox was serious about this. He watched in bemused wonder as Nox worked.

Due to his proximity to Dorian, Lih had been drafted to assist with searching. He was dutifully and seriously moving from house to house along the search perimeter, knocking on doors and asking the locals if they recognized pictures of Alistair’s face or had seen anything untoward. But that had not been fruitful, so here he was with Nox.

As the search party got ready to switch its focus, Lih caught a moment alone with his check-in, manned by one of the domovoi officers.

“Big boss says no backup,” said Viktor Lih, “don’t come after us even if we don’t come out.”

“Oh, right, yeah. Why?” asked the voice at the receiving end.

Lih recognized it instantly. The sound almost brought a spontaneous tear to his eyes: not a tear of sadness or weakness, but a sudden upwelling of emotion. To be here, so many days later, and to hear his oldest friend coming to his aid, on this very spot…

Lih did not cry. It was a design feature his new lenses did not possess.

He blinked.

Once again Lih could see him, as clear as day:

Costa was smiling his shit-eating smile, his “let’s blow the rest of the day off and go to this little bar I know” smile. His cap was on at its trademark, almost jaunty, entirely nonconformist angle.

Everything was going to be okay.

“Costa,” he breathed. He swallowed. It was very hard to stay professional.

“Viktor, can I come with you? Help you in any way?”

Lih stared at Nox, who was standing nearby. There was a great deal unspoken in the stare. Nox’s instructions were clear. They were already risking the lives of two officers, and that was two too many.

“Thank you, no. I’d like to keep you out of danger.” Lih replied. He turned and walked away briskly to continue his conversation.

“I had a horrible feeling you were going to say that,” said Costa. “Seriously, man, it’s great to get good people on your side. Something’s going on. I think I overheard something about an atharim is leading the way with your operation? Is that right? You think you can handle it?”

“I’m happy to serve. You’ll be informed any developments in due course, should they concern you. What have you figured out?”

“That Dorian has friends in high places, Viktor,” Costa mocked. “And he has friends in very low places too. How’s the atharim, this Nox?”

“Experienced. Eager to hunt. He’s—“

“What?” asked Costa.

“A good man,” Lih whispered to Costa. “He couldn’t risk putting anybody else in danger. This man is as bad as you.”

“It must be contagious,” said Costa. “A lot depends on this, Viktor, and I won’t be there to hold your hand all the way.”

“Really?” he mocked, “I don’t remember you giving birth to me, mother.” He looked down at his gloved hands, and sighed. “And you will cry like a little girl if I die, so I’ll do as Nox says and be coming back from this alive.” He looked at his wallet. It was half-to, almost. ”We have to move, anyway.”

“Right,” Costa nodded, “you’d better get moving then.”

“Don’t come after us.”

“See you later. The light protects.”

“Thanks, Costa. Lih out.”

Lih looked over his shoulder, and spotted Ivan standing with Nox, watching him from a distance. Lih began to walk towards them.

Closing in on them from this angle, he saw a strange expression on Ivan’s face. The smile didn’t make it to his eyes, as if in the extremity of the moment, a civilized veneer had become hard for Ivan to maintain.

But then again, Lih’s new lenses had been showing him an awful lot of noise. Every step he’d dismissed the images as system errors, as glitches, as optical reconciliation, as patterns of his eyes getting used to Aria’s land warriors. They weren’t as intuitive as Sage’s lenses were, and would be hard to control with any finesse on the go.

Nox was finishing repacking his bag. He was ready to go. Lih could see that Nox and Ivan were armed. Their weapons were held low but ready.

“Well, I can tell you,” said Lih, flashing a quick grin at the big officer, “that there won’t be any gatecrashers to the party. Not from our side anyway. Glad you could join us, Ivan. Nox is giving away guns like candy.”

Lih had left his automatic before leaving his flat. He reached down to where his knife was strapped to his thigh under his camo jacket.

He then drew his pistol, and checked the load. Then he holstered it and checked the charge of the small handgun from Nox that he kept in a shoulder rig under his camp jacket as a backup piece. Given the sledgehammer effect of the standard issue officer’s pistol, Lih reasoned that he might soon have need of the handgun’s finesse.

With Nova, Ivan and Lih in tow, Nox walked away in the direction of the tunnel entrance. Crossbow up and aiming, Lih came in over the threshold, hunting for a target.

They were moving, spaced out a distance from each other. He was swept up in it now, the real thing.

Though it was hard to see with the new lenses, Lih was backing up Ivan and Nox with the bow readied at his chest. Twice, he stopped and aimed it at what appeared to be movement behind them.

He raised his weapon again, but avoided loose and haphazard shooting. Besides, he wasn’t going to waste precious bolts on a target he couldn’t see.

Nox was telling him and Ivan both, that rougs look like humans, and the words had made Lih shiver in remembrance.

He flexed his thin shoulders to settle the strap of his heavy crossbow, and imagined pumping its fat bolts into another person. Headshots.

Could the other two see the fear on Lih’s face, he wondered?

Lih felt the air chill.

Putting away the bow, he reached for the reassuring grip of his pistol. It felt comfortable in his hand. He kept close to the group, and picked up his visual checking. He noticed that both Nox and Ivan were scanning the area too. They’d felt something as well, and whatever they were, both of them were fighters first. They had keen skills that could never erode.

Lih kept his hand on his gun as he let the lithe atharim guide his party into the shadows of the underground tunnels.

He sidled close to ‘big brother’ Ivan while Nox was talking to kill the tension.

“Ivan,” he hissed. (Yes, so now he’s Ivan to Lih)

“Uhm. Are you 'channeling' right now?” Lih whispered to Ivan as the atharim banged on. “Is he?”

“Any idea who's Aria?” Lih asked Ivan quietly, “I’m wearing her lenses, apparently.”

Of course, Aria might reference something that Ivan didn’t have any knowledge of. Lih should have asked Nox about Aria, but she might be very specific to his relationship with Dorian, and Lih didn’t want to piss off the atharim or his partner.

After all, Nox and Dorian had known each other for a long time. 

armed with crossbow, 2 guns, knife, curiosity
Ivan listened to everything quietly, nodding at Nox's orders. He wasn't looking forward to heading down into the tunnels again. That claustrophobic feeling made him feel panicky. It was like he could feel the air compress at the weight of however the fuck many tons of earth and steel and concrete and whatever would be above them.

But this was part of the job. The image of a slobbering horde of creatures pouring out from the tunnels onto the streets ended ANY thought of not going. Not on his watch. He took a couple of the pieces Nox had- idly wondering if the man had the proper registration for them. Being Atharim, probably not. Nox had hinted that he was going to doing some work in Domovoi. And Ivan had heard rumors that Domovoi was being placed directly under the Consulate on Channeling. So maybe that meant Nox was gonna have a position with them.

Point being, he was going legit and would have some clout. And still running around with unregistered firearms. Which was mildly amusing.

He wasn't sure about bringing the dog. He loved animals. Bringing them into harms way seemed kinda cruel. Unless..."Not sure I'd like to know what kind of training you've been giving the dog so that it'll handle what we find." It was an offhand comment.

Nox was all decked out Rambo-like or something. He set a pair of goggles down for him. Ivan took it up and tried it on. It was tight against his face and would take some getting used to. The display didn't actually jack up his peripherals either, which had been his first concern. He could see nearly 270 degrees display on the projected screen. He noted the mapping overlay Nox had mentioned, it becoming larger if he focused his eyes on it. Tracking his gaze, then. Nice. And there were the vitals too. Probably pulling pulse and stuff from his temples. Or maybe some vein in the eye. Very nice. He shifted it so that he saw clearly as through glass as he felt the man embrace the power.

It had happened enough that it didn't bother him too much. was what it was. Nox wove a wall of air, or at least the beginning of one. Ivan filed that away, the idea of preparing weaves in advance. Then a whip of air and fire. That was cool. Course if he started flinging that thing around, he could hit them accidentally. He doubted it felt good.

Ivan thought about it for a moment. What should he do? He remembered that bastard Volodin, back at the market. Those burning arrows that were falling around everyone, him desperately try to cover Zo so she didn't get hurt. He formed a small one, like a dart, then tied it off and launched it at a wall a few meters away. The spark and small explosion satisfied him. He prepared a handful of weaves for them, each one getting formed more quickly. Ok.

So with Nox at the front Lih next and Ivan at the rear, they headed in and on toward their destination. At Lih's question, he nodded. "Yeah. We're both channeling. Nox has a shield half formed in front of him that is moving ahead of him. Will give us time to react. I have some arrows ready." He also had the bearings in his pocket. They would fly like a bullet through any monster head. It made sense, after Nox explained.

As to who Aria was- the previous owner of the goggles he war- he didn't know. The air began to compress and chill at the same time, the deeper they went. The blinking red light on the map drew closer, but at a snail's pace.
The tunnels were quiet. Almost too quiet. Nox didn't like the silence. He was talking mostly because it made him nervous that everything was so quiet. Even the dripping water in the distance wasn't comforting. But he guessed it was better than scratching and clawing at the walls. The very thought made him shudder.

Lih asked Ivan a question in a hushed whisper. Nox smirked. "I can hear you with the power drawn. Aria was my friend, a fellow Atharim, I had to kill her because she became a monster we hunted." It was only a partial truth. Aria was dangerous, and he'd made a promise. She'd gone on a killing streak. It wasn't pretty. All because Dane had died. Nox still blamed himself for bringing the man back from Mexico with him. Or had it been the other way around. Either way, Dane was here because of him.

Nox sighed and pushed the dangerous thoughts from his mind. They rounded a corner and passed an old Rougarou nest. Nox checked inside the old cavern. There was no new stench of the dead. And there were no sounds coming from it. Nox split his flow and threw up a light orb and tied it off in the room. Nothing but the remains of old victims. And probably the Rougs themselves. The charred spot still marring the ground where he'd burnt the bodies. Nox marked the room as cleared on his map. Part of keeping the tunnels clear was making sure no new ones cropped up after he'd cleaned them out.

Down deeper into the tunnels they went. Commercial Wireless services was still viable here. Sage had given him a few military grade repeaters that he'd placed deeper in the tunnels, and as long as the batteries stayed charaged they'd enhance the signal deeper. But only on the paths that Nox had traversed already. Thankfully they had been going that route for now. At least until they reached the spot were Dorian killed Alistair Pavlo.

The quiet was too thick. It few heavier as they moved towards the blip on the land warriors. it was like all living creatures were gone from the area. Not a single creature was around. That was never good. The drip drip drip grew stronger and the blip drew closer. Until they were on top of the spot that Dorian had marked on the map. It was a simple intersection. Nox drew up another orb of light.

A pair of eyes popped open from the wall. He'd been dead silent in the area. His skin was slough off and he looked hungry. He wore the remnants of a suit and a leather wallet with the crest of the CCDPD hung from his belt open carelessly. The IA guy Dorian had lead into the tunnels to his death....

The sudden appearance and the proximity to the creature Nox tumbled backwards, his wall of air falling into place in front of him as he landed against the wall behind him smacking his head with a loud thump before he caught himself with the wall. The man pawed at the wall of air - a gruesome mime looking for a way out.
“Aria was my friend,” Nox said, smirking at them both as though it didn’t matter. Even though Lih was talking to Ivan. Nox heard their quiet exchange with a channeler’s mind now patched for whispers. It was the first time the atharim addressed Lih directly since they walked into the tunnels.

Lih looked at him. He liked the bones of his face, the lean strength. His cheekbones were angled and his jaw was tight and well-shaped. He reminded Lih of the sails on his father’s boat. Relentless, driven by the wind, but never knocked down. He managed a half-smile, like it was something he was allergic to, or a movement that caused him pain. Lih could almost hear the fhup-fhup of the wind sails.

Yeah, Lih kinda liked the look on Nox’s face right now. He seemed certain he could pull this off. Lih hoped so.

For himself, he didn’t care so much. But for Ivan, he had a family, loved ones. Ivan looked strange with his head up and the land warriors on, as if staring at something invisible in front of his face.

“Then I better not talk shit about you. Not before we find fucking Pavlo and ask him, or secure his body before whoever took him got their hands out of their asses,” the pale man replied.

He grinned and said softly, this time in Russian. “Maybe only speak in national tongue from now on, eh?” Peering at the two channelers, fascinated by their abilities “or can Nox’s power translate languages?”

Light, blindingly white, loomed with little warning.

Shit, I can’t see!” Lih complained.

He took off his lenses, adjusted the low-light setting, and slipped them on, cocking his head and pouting like a covergirl in sunshades.

Then he made a soft, chuckling sound, delighted by the way the world ahead of him had resolved. In the green wash of his lenses’ view, he had depth and distance, a better perception of the rocks spacing, of what had previously been coming up blind behind the immediate dazzle of light.

And he saw.

From the very first moment, Lih had known it was a rougarou nest. A nest, of rougarous and their victims, like the one that Costa and he found at the nightclub.

But the sight was too much. He had to hold on to the wall just to stay upright. His head swam. He was pretty sure he was about to be very sick. Images were pinned to the backs of his eyes, shocking and grisly, the bodies Nox’d disintegrated with fire; his intense gaze fixed on the way ahead.

He considered what a hopeless cliche he was. Fucking pathetic, soft centered moral outrage, the squimish sensibilities of his safe, normal lifestyle recoiling from contact with ferocious actuality. But it wasn’t disgust. It wasn’t shock at what he had just seen. Nor was it, as the inspector in him would have been eager to confess with calculated sincerity, revulsion at the glee with which he had assumed his new role within the domovoi.

What Lih was experiencing was adrenaline built up from the stress and tension of what he’d done. It was that simple. He had gone face to face with the two rougarous who had been prepared to kill him and Costa, and he had killed them first, and in order to navigate a path through that uncompromising state, he’d taken a giant hit of adrenaline. Lih didn’t give a fuck about the rougarou bastards Nox burnt. It was just biochemical overload from the effort to push past normal, everyday brakes like fear and hesitation.

Whatever the case, Lih was feeling very odd. It was hard to think what to do. It was hard to clear his head. He felt like he was clenched, everything clenched. He hung back for a second, and tired to force himself to shed the tension. The feeling of being clamped as tight as a fist was almost more than he could bear.

He could feel Ivan there, hear his breathing.

“God, Ivan, did you see this before?“ Lih asked, shaking his head; his vital signs flashed excitedly. “Sorry, I went off the charts didn’t I? I’ll be okay, though.”

He glanced at Nox. He could see how fixed and intent the man’s expression was. Lih understood that they had entered, miserably, one of those non-negotiable states where even fear was no longer currency.

Nox marked the nest as “clear” on their maps, then indicated a direction next to this area before taking point and walking them down.

Following, Lih tightened his grip on the gun. It was so matter-of-fact, so... routine! The ordinariness of it made it so much more sinister. Go in there. Look around the tunnel. If you see anything, shoot them. We’ve got things to do.

Time to go.

At the intersection Nox stopped, listening.

Lih adjusted his lenses, and played back the clip. He saw the rougarou nest, framed against the white light of Nox’s magic.

Lih played it again. He played it again.

He zipped through the playback, froze on a decent frame and frowned.

He was such a fuck-tard sometimes. This was just normal shit that happened out here.

It wouldn’t surprise him if they weren’t even Russian nationals. He’d seen this kind of thing before. Migrants looking for work, trying to stay off the CCD grid. No one misses them. They were victim statistics.

Why was he taking this so hard?

He took a few deep breaths.

He accessed the maps file, and went back through the folder of images he took with the lenses. He’d shot a lot of images since they started, a lot of them. The map they’d been using had been recent, and the most local, a large scale area map. Others were older, more general, larger range, smaller scale, records of above ground scans, flood plans. They were a compilation of different surveys at different times, all recording different aspects.

But Lih hadn’t seen any intersection like this on any of his maps, not even this most detailed one.

“What is this?” he said. “Which way, then?” He knew which way, it was the way Nox led—it was the atharim’s fucking show—but he wanted to make the decision too.

He could picture them, the three of them, edging the boundaries of the tunnels, after days of only their own company, hoping to see someone, afraid that they actually might. Finding the intersection by accident one day, thrilled by its implied promise. Too scared to choose the direction.

Okay, okay, he went wherever Nox went.

Then they were moving again, following Nox down the long, steep gradient. The intersection wasn’t not he map he had been using. The map had given spots of interest, and had even shown the nest, which already Nox seemed to know was there.

But no intersection. And the omission was considerable. Ahead of them, where did it go?

The two channelers had been advancing to take positions on either side of Lih, to check and enter. Both men held the power. One had a wall of air up, the other produced arrows both of which Lih couldn’t see or feel. Reborn gods like Cruz and Aiden. He pulled back sharply. He didn’t want to touch it, this power.

Lost in thought, Lih almost pushed Nox out of the way as he followed him through, spinning him up and around like a street dancer executing a drop roll. He was turning right, his boots sliding in the wet ground. Nox tumbled backwards before he had time to register anything, surprise, alarm, anger. Lih who had been rushing forward wheeled around at the atharim, surprised, horrified.

He reached Nox, and held him up by his shoulders. 

“You okay?”

His voice was tinged with disbelief. He checked Nox for injuries; none. Coming right towards him was a…

They were both looking at the monster suddenly, rising out of their stances as it beat against an unseen barrier.

“Fucker’s still alive—“ yelled Lih, as he ran back toward Ivan. This room smelled of blood. Not nice.

There’s trouble, and it’s started for real.
Ivan swallowed, his eyes focused, head deliberately swinging about in careful fashion. The land warriors' response time was instantaneous, but holding the power had amplified every one of his senses and time seemed to have slowed to the point that he still perceived a slight lag. Like when audio and video were off almost imperciptably. Distracting.

Slow deliberate movements minimized it, allowing him to be thorough and focus. Yeah yeah ok. Wuss. And it helped him to avoid the fact that they were heading deeper into the earth. The concrete seemed to give off little heat and the air smelled dank and stale, occasional scents of rot or something else tickling his nose.

Not surprisingly, the faint odor of death still hung in the air when they came to the old nest. Ivan was reminded of that time with Xena when they had come down here, the fresh pool of blood. The carefully splayed handprints that indicated that something had bent down and drank, as if from a pond of spring water. He had burned an entire room of the creatures when they found them. He wondered if he'd see her again down here. She had been a good person to have at your back even if she was delusional

You had to be crazy to live down here, after all. Slither on you crazy diamond, he thought.

But now, this smell was old, the rot and decay and char only faint. Nox marked the room and they continued.

The kid- Lih he should call him, but he really did seem like one. Rookie, he decided. Rook. There we go. Anyway, Rook seemed to be bouncy, trying to be on alert and everywhere with his eyes. He hoped he didn't get shot with one of those bolts or whatever in his bow. Getting laid up down hear would royally suck.

Tunnel connected to T connected to outflow connected to abandoned line. It was a maze and thank god Nox and his mapping app was dropping breadcrumbs. If this turned into a shit show- and it would, he knew. One way or another, it would, he thought darkly. Fucking Yun...- they'd be high tailing it outta here and those blinking lights would be their life line.

He laughed a bit harder than he should at Lih's quip. Nerves had him on edge alright. The half formed fire darts- pregnant with fire and earth- were ready to go.

At Lih's question, he answered. "Yeah. Been down here before. Cleared out a few rooms of these things. Fire works wonders." Why hadn't Nox given Rook one of those? Hehehehe. Maybe he doesn't want to be burned alive either. Itchy trigger finger and all that.

The land warriors had the time on them. And he could see they were all amped up. Heart rates were high. It seemed like they spent forever advancing on that red goal post, the place Vega had flagged as where Pavlo went down. Ivan tried to suppress his heart rate by breathing but of course that zen shit didn't work for him.

What if Pavlo was there? Alive or dead, what would he do? Those dart weaves seemed to fade in and out almost as if he could feel them with his fingertips. Imagination, he knew. But as they got closer, he got more worked up.

Zara and Danya's face kept floating across his mind. And ma and pop. And all the rest. But Zara and Danya foremost. And he felt guilty, his eyes on Nox's back as he shifted, thinking. The guy was more experienced, no question. But without the power, Ivan wouldn't even break a sweat beating him to a pulp. So far, nothing Nox held of the power had made him feel small. Not like Ascendancy.

Ivan paused. He hadn't thought of him as Ascendancy in a while. Brandon for the longest time. But when it came to power, the man was the peak standard. Like it happened without thought. The man was cool at all times.

Evading. You asshole. What would he do? How could he do it? The Ivan in him thought he could be upfront with Nox. Tell him what he needed. It appealed. There was no love lost between Nox and Vega. As in, Nox's goals weren't Vega's. And both had been....well, running in their own version of right and wrong for such a long time. They weren't rookies or by the book mooks like he....fuck! It had happened. Somewhere along the way he had crossed a line.

He wasn't a by the book guy. Not when his family was on the line. Is this how it starts? Odd, while his attention was focused he could have this look at himself. Like he had split. The animal Ivan. And the other Ivan. Soul? Spirit? He hadn't ever been religious. He didn't know how it worked. All he knew is that he empathized with his father. And he had learned something in the last few weeks.

The world was fucking complicated. And sometimes you did shit you weren't proud of. Crossed lines. Ivan had. Already, he had. So...the question was, how far was he willing to go?

Zara and Danya came to him again.

As far as I have to.

And like that his minds merged. And he realized his heartrate had dropped to normal, as if he were sitting on his couch. Odd, as he was hyper aware of everything around him. Time had slowed. The pressure from above no longer bothered him. He saw and was aware of everything. And seemed to have time to think.

He was deliberate and mindful and in that place. Zen. Before any elation came to him, he flicked it away. He was in a void of perfect concentration.

They entered the dead zone and panic swelled from those around him. Nox was startled and fell back as the wall sprang up to block the thing that was once human that beat at it in a frenzy.

Lih screamed at him and the words came to him through the jellied air. He was already considering. His darts wouldn't make it through the wall unless Nox dropped it. He wasn't sure if Nox could do that without getting attacked.

Why do I need to get through the wall, anyway? It was obvious.

Dart weaves evaporated as a weave of air ripped a chunk from the wall behind the thing and slammed it at the creature's head crushing it against Nox's wall of air. Blood and brain splattered everywhere, though it was strange to see it seem to stick to something flat and invisible.

What remained fell to the ground and Ivan looked at Lih and Nox. "You both ok?

The heart rate on his land warriors hadn't changed.
He was spooked.

The encounter came as a surprise, which in turn terrified him. He knew what the domovoi did. Of course he did. Active missions, weeks of conditioning and training: he knew what it felt like when you face your fears. What the hell was wrong with him that it came as a genuine surprise?

He lurched backwards, feeling the panic attack hitting him like a truck. He was aware of his own tongue, his own breathless wheezing.

It was airless. The stink of damp was nauseating. He took a breath, another, sucking hard, fighting panic. Head bowed Lih saw Nova.

“I don’t get scared,” he whispered to the dog. “I just don’t. Not ever. I get pumped. I get ready. Not scared. Never scared.”

Another breath.

“I didn’t break,” he said quietly, “I haven’t broken. I need to do my job.”


He switched around, gun gripped and aimed high. Nox was up ahead. Ivan wide to the right. He moved towards them and fired.

Lih stood blinking for a second, ears ringing.

His lens fixed on the humanoid shape, and the flag went white based on perceived threat intensity—none.

Lih’s shot had missed him because his target was already falling by the time he fired. He’d killed the tunnel ceiling instead. Nox’s shield protected them from the fallout.

His target’s head already pulped in a spray of pink meat and bone, like a watermelon smashing. His face disintegrated before the force of the blow threw him into Nox’s shield, broke his ribs, his collar bones, his neck. He rebounded and fell a few feet away from Lih, (what remained of his) face-down.

“Fuck,” said Lih.

Lih half expected the tumbling body to make a huge “ooofff” grunt as the ground struck him, like the comedy gasp of a winded cartoon character. His lens showed—

“Clear,” he told them.

He holstered his weapon cautiously and adjusted his lens. Review playback. Movement. Red flag turned white. Thud. Flash flash. What the hell was that anyway?

Slow it down. Flag alert. Thud. Flash flash. Back a little. That shadow blur, just before the flag changed. A second of movement. What was that? A rock projectile, moving on its own? Enhance. Nothing, something.

From the replay, Lih couldn’t see they did anything with their weapons at all. Unless you count the ability to throw a chunk of the tunnel and stone a guy to death. It was one of those things, just one of those damn things that happened sometimes when you’ve got the powers of a god. Best guess was that one of the two had blown his head off. There was a loose flap of skin, and blood everywhere, excessive amounts that had, at first, looked like a killshot to the skull. Only it wasn't, not with a gun anyway.

He looked at the two of them. The new look on their faces he liked less than the old one. It wasn’t even clear from their focused expressions how they felt. Meanwhile they could all feel how wired he is from their land warriors.

He didn’t know what to say. He went with, “which one of you killed him? You, ah… you brained him.”  

It felt stupid.

Though it made his belly knot up, he took a step towards the corpse.

The rookie looked very pale, pale as death. His breathing was so shallow, you could hardly see it. The blue in his eyes had dimmed, and he looked like a crazy person.

He bent down beside the body. He could smell blood, tacky on the clothes, matted in the ground and along the walls. The smell was worse. Overpoweringly worse.

“The suit’s CCDPD,” he said, “he was one of ours.”

He pointed at the embossed leather wallet on the belt, “yeah, IA. See?”

Then he leaned in. 

He indicated small, plastic window pocket on the breast of the police suit. “No ID tag,” he said, “no badge.”

And he looked in the pockets. “Nothing. I don’t even know who he is.”

Lih shook his head, frowning, “why would he take the badge out? Fuck’s going on? You think somebody’s brought down an IA officer here? What the fuck happened?”

And JUST what was that look on Ivan’s impassive face anyway? It made him want to scream.

Stop it! This has got to stop. He didn’t know what the fuck this was. Was he such a baby he’s infecting their search with his fear? He had no right to do this to Ivan, Nox and Nova. They’ve only just started. They haven’t even gone hot, and he was already fucked.Was he too fucking scared for this? Was that Lih?

He couldn’t think. He couldn’t center. He needed to get his fear out of him so he could do this. He had to sort himself out before he got one of them pulped.

He got up and walked away, balling his fists to stop them quivering. He banged his hand into the broken slabs of the wall where the rock came from.

The bad stink lingered.

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