Description: The opening cutscene to Chapter 1 of The Black Dragon TP. A betrayal within Kira's own ranks drives her to the brink of madness and forces her to take a terrible risk. Abandoning her childhood friend, she vanishes into the depths of her underground fortress, forcing those soldiers who remain loyal to her to track her down and discover the mercenary queen's fate.
"Of course, sir. It was nice to meet you too. Please, enjoy yourself to the fullest while you are a guest in my establishment."
Kira offered a bow from the waist towards the man standing in front of her, some Japanese cabinet minister or governmental advisor or some such, she had trouble keeping track at this point. The older man's face wrinkled slightly in something like disapproval but he returned the gesture in a slow and deliberate manner that had nothing to do with his age.
She had no idea what had caused the offense this time - her posture as she bowed, the way her thick Slavic accent colored the native language into something wholly alien to his ears, the fact that he felt the need to curry favor with a foreigner in the first place. These people seemed to go out of their way to take exception to anything that didn't fit into their narrow little view of the world. Not that they had to look very hard when it came to someone like her. She'd spent most of her life becoming the kind of person that any decent individual would be wary of but she was used to that being expressed as fear rather than scorn. The casual way that these bureaucrats disrespected her was annoying; even more so the grating fact that she needed to put up with it in order to keep things running smoothly.
The mercenary kept her bow until the man had risen once more and turned away to partake of the various vices available in the casino. Despite his clear disgust at her, he had no such objections to the expensive wine she stocked. Kira watched the man go, her jaw clenched tightly to keep herself from spitting out a curse at his expensively-tailored backside. A hand came to rest on her shoulder, its owner ghosting up behind her without a sound. She twitched, fighting against years of ingrained survival instincts that would have sent her spinning around to deliver a crushing blow to the throat of its owner. Instead, she exhaled a sharp sigh and turned to face her second-in-command with a weary smile.
"Is something the matter, Z?"
She voiced the question in their native language, the guttural words flowing off her tongue far more easily. Speaking out loud wasn't necessary; her long time friend and lover was a psychic of rather exceptional talent, able to pluck the thoughts right out of her head if she chose, but they saved such esoteric methods of communication for the moments when it was absolutely necessary. Zhenya's powers were a well-guarded secret and there was no point in giving her away to any random psychic that might be lingering nearby without good reason.
In response, the woman gave her a blank look, her features almost devoid of anything that might give away an emotion or trace of humanity. It was an unsettling talent that she possessed, the ability to bury all feelings behind an impenetrable mask, but Kira had long grown immune to its disturbing effect. Instead she focused on the small details in Zhenya's face, noting the way her eyes flicked to the side towards the nearby elevator for a brief moment. She wanted to talk in private.
Frowning, Kira nodded. She snapped her fingers and a pair of large men marched over to her side from where they had been standing nearby. Despite the fancy three-piece suits they wore it was clear what they were - thugs. They gave off an aura of passive menace that only those who are truly dangerous can achieve, moving with the fluid grace and calm certainty of a pair of predators stalking through a herd of prey.
"I'm going to my office. Make sure no one bothers me for a while. And if that damn chef comes up here to whine about the quality of ingredients again, shoot him."
The men both cracked faint smiles and let out a chuckle. She was joking but only barely. Dealing with the mundane aspects of running a legitimate business had started to wear on her nerves. Mercenaries whined sometimes but she could put them in their place easy enough. Civilians, on the other hand, proved far more frustrating as she couldn't just beat them senseless for being utterly incompetent or incessantly fussy. She sighed again and turned to enter the elevator.
The door to Kira's office swung heavily inwards at her approach, a suite of complicated state-of-the-art bio-sensors and A. I. operated cameras recognizing her unique presence as she stalked down the hallway. It wasn't as heavily armored as she typically preferred but a solid slab of titanium in the middle of a high-class casino might have raised a few eyebrows. Instead it was composed of heavy-duty oak and reinforced with metal struts that were only mildly disguised by the coat of gold paint on top of them. The interior of the office, by contrast, was the very picture of opulence. Dozens of pieces of hand-crafted marble wrought with intricate pewter inlays composed the furniture in the large room. Bookshelves, file cabinets, and small tables littered the outer perimeter covered with an assortment of equally ostentatious decorations. An ornate chess set was laid across the surface of one of them, its board and pieces flawlessly carved out of solid chunks of ebony and ivory. Every conceivable sitting surface was covered with cushions and fine velvet that was dyed the color of darkest midnight.
The centerpiece of the room was a large desk that took up nearly a quarter of the spacious office on its own. It didn't so much resemble the work surface of a wealthy CEO as it did the command center of a military general. A dozen or so monitors were stacked up on its polished surface, each one displaying various images of camera feeds from inside and around the casino and nearby hotel. Several small tablets were scattered across its surface, each one filled with multiple reports about the multitude of operations being conducted back in Africa by the bulk of her forces. A small porcelain mug sat on one corner of the desk, its interior stained black from a neglected batch of coffee.
Kira paused to survey her little throne room, wincing at the sharp smell of burnt coffee that filled the air. She must have forgotten to turn off the pot when she left. Damn. So much for grabbing a quick pick me up. It was going to be one of those days.
"So, Z, what's so-"
She turned around to face her companion, the question only halfway out of her mouth when she was cut off by the sudden impact of Zhenya tackling her to the floor. Her eyes went wide as time slowed down in that brief moment, adrenaline flooding her system as paranoid instincts keyed into high gear before she could even consciously react. She noted the look of determination on her friend's face and, more distressingly, the large wicked knife she held in her hand, ready to plunge into her unprotected chest.
As they tumbled to the ground, Kira recovered her senses and reacted. She rolled with the blow, flipping to the side so that she came down on top of the assassin with a snarl, pinning the hand holding the knife to the floor while drawing the pistol she kept hidden under her fancy jacket with the other. The barrel of the weapon was pressed right between her lover's eyes, hammer half-way cocked before she realized what she was doing.
There was another instant of frozen time as she tried to get herself back under control but before she could ask the question of what the hell was going on, the door to her office exploded straight off its hinges, evaporating into a cloud of confetti-like wood chips. The concussive blast of an explosive washed over Kira, knocking her sideways onto the floor as if she had been hit by a wrecking ball. Her vision swam for a few seconds, her mind dazed by the unexpected hammer blow. She barely had the wits remaining to notice the trio of figures that dashed through the fresh opening, each one wielding a powerful automatic weapon. The first figure lifted his gun and pointed it at her, a look of hate and purpose in his eyes. The bottom dropped out of her stomach as she realized that she was about to die - and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
Zhenya moved so fast that none of the attackers even realized she was there. Apparently unharmed by the blast thanks to Kira shielding her from the worst of it, she flipped to her feet with a cat-like grace and lunged forward, her knife whipping through the air in a blur of black steel. A spray of arterial blood fountain-ed across the wall in a fern-frond pattern from the stunned man's neck and he dropped to the floor, eyes wide with surprise. The gun fell from his hands and he dropped to his knees, fruitlessly attempting to clutch at his neck to stop the life from flowing out of him. The second assailant fared little better, Zhenya's killing blade joined by a second as she whirled her off-hand in a counter motion to her initial slash. Dying, the figure joined their ally on the floor.
The final attacker was far enough behind the others that she was able to realize what was happening in time to avoid being cut down without a fight. She threw herself backwards even as one of those deadly knives whistled through the air at her throat, unleashing the blast from a combat shotgun into Zhenya's chest. The mercenary was faster. Almost as if she had known what was going to happen, Zhenya flattened herself against the wall even as the weapon roared. A handful of pellets ripped into her as she caught the edge of the blast but her face betrayed no signs of pain, nor did the grazing hit slow her down. She fell upon the prone attacker in an instant, batting the shotgun aside with a single sweep of one of her paired knifes while the other plunged directly into the woman's heart. There was a sharp gasp of pain, a twitch, and then the body went limp.
Kira rose to her feet on unsteady legs, her ears still ringing. She watched as the last of the attackers fell with both relief and satisfaction, mildly ashamed that her own paranoia had allowed her to think that Zhenya of all people might betray her in such a fashion. Limping over to the first body, she scooped up the man's fallen weapon and kicked the body onto its back so she could remove the mask covering his face. Again, she found herself momentarily stunned by what she saw.
"That's... I know this man. It's Darren. He's one of ours. But, how...?"
Yet again, her question was cut short as Zhenya came flying down the hall, bounding over the trio of corpses to duck into the office. She reached out and grabbed Kira by the collar, yanking her sideways and out of the line of fire as yet another roar of gunfire tore down the hallway filling the space where she had just been standing with a storm of hot lead.
This time, she didn't hesitate. Kira offered no resistance when she was pulled to safety, allowing her assailants to empty their magazines in a hail of suppression fire. When their guns finally clicked empty she whirled around the corner and sprayed a trio of quick bursts of her own down the hall, catching the attackers by surprise. One of them went down under the first couple of bursts while the other managed to retreat around the corner in time to avoid death. Grunting, Kira ducked back into cover, teeth clenched in a snarl of pure fury.
"That was Harris and O'Maley! What the fuck is going on?!"
Zhenya merely glanced down at her, tucking one of the bloody knifes into her jacket and withdrawing a small pistol to take its place. "I believe we have been betrayed."
Kira felt a throbbing in her forehead, a vein pulsing in anger as she gave the woman a hard look. Zhenya smirked back at her for a moment, allowing a glimpse of the person underneath the mask as she taunted her for asking a question with such an obvious answer. Kira growled, but it lost some of its edge.
"Wise-ass. We need to get to the control center. It looks like we aren't going down the hallway and I don't think calling for backup is a good idea, considering the circumstances."
Zhenya suddenly stepped into the open as she responded, leaning out far enough to take aim with pistol down the hallway. The little gun let out a sharp *bark bark bark* as she cracked off rapid shots and a pained cry echoed into the office as she withdrew just as smoothly from sight mere moments before a fresh round of bullets filled the open doorway. She casually ejected the magazine and inserted a fresh one from her belt, then tilted her head towards the far wall.
Kira blinked at her owlishly, confusion written clean on her face. "Window? I don't have a..."
She stopped speaking as she turned to follow Zhenya's gaze, her voice catching in her throat. What had once been a solid wall on the opposite side of the room from the door was now a gaping hole. A fresh cool breeze that she had been too distracted to notice wafted in through the opening, its chill touch only partially responsible for the shiver that ran down her spine. Holy hell, what had they used to destroy her door? It must have been something incredibly powerful, likely expecting her personal office to be just as well armored as it was back in Africa. The explosive had over-penetrated and taken out the wall behind it - and she had been standing right in its path. Gulp.
"Good thing I put this office on the 2nd floor," she muttered, nodding her agreement to Zhenya. "We need an opening. Something to cover our exit."
Kira's eyes swept around the room, eventually coming to rest on the heavy marble desk. She grimaced at the idea of destroying something so expensive and well-crafted but better it than her. Rushing over to the desk, she started yanking the heavy monitors off its surface, sending them crashing to the floor in a noisy jumble. It only took about half a minute to get the thing cleared off. Wrestling it over to the door was another matter entirely. Zhenya kept up a steady stream of suppression fire as she worked, managing to scoop up the other assault rifle from the ground. After a couple tense minutes of heavy lifting, she got it into position next to the door, ready to be rolled over to cover the entrance.
"R...ready?!", Kira asked, panting heavily. "Fucking hell, next time I'm decorating in beanbags."
Zhenya smirked again and nodded, leaning out to spray the last of the rifle's ammo wildly down the hall before tossing the weapon aside. With a surge of effort, the two of them pushed the massive block of stone into the doorway, tilting it up onto its side so that it sat vertically and blocked most of the passageway. There was a cry of alarm and heavy impacts rattled the surface of the marble for a few seconds but the desk held firm.
Zhenya was already on the move by the time she got the command out, slipping her slender form through the ragged opening as easily as a snake. Kira had a bit more trouble, tired as she was, but she managed to extricate herself through the exposed rebar and jagged concrete mostly without slashing herself to ribbons though she got a few nasty scraps and cuts for her efforts. The drop down to the manicured lawn was enjoyable by comparison.
Outside, the crowds that filled the casino had already started to pour into the massive parking lot in a tidal wave of panic. The floor that her offices were on were heavily sound-proofed, so the gunfire wouldn't have been heard, but that initial explosion certainly didn't go unnoticed. Kira's eyes swept the area for signs of more of her employees but found none of them in sight. Likely they'd figured her trapped and hadn't bothered to post guards outside. She snorted, shaking her head in disgust. She'd taught them better than that. Perhaps it was a bit silly to be chiding her former allies for their carelessness since it was her ass on the line but she still had some professional pride to wound.
"Let's go. The back entrance will get us into the bunker fastest. I doubt they were expecting us to slip their noose and they certainly won't expect us to go back inside."
Kira quickly tucked the assault rifle under her jacket, hiding it as well as she could, then took off at a sprint towards the rear of the casino with Zhenya hot on her heels. As she'd expected, the crowd was too busy trying to escape the danger zone to be watchful enough to notice either of them. Nor were her predictions about the guards incorrect, either. She waved a small card in front of the electronic security reader next to a plain metal door that lead into the kitchens and it clicked open obediently. Both of the mercenaries slipped inside, their weapons coming to the ready as they did so.
It was abandoned here too, the kitchen staff evacuating as they were supposed to in the event of an emergency. A dozen stove-tops simmered with half-cooked food still sizzling in hot grease. The long island in the center of the room was covered with an assortment of trays each heaped with beverages or snacks or waiting to be refilled. Zhenya moved ahead to take point, her precognition making her a far better spotter than Kira. After a moment of rubbernecking around the exit that lead deeper into the casino she turned and nodded, indicating the coast was clear. Kira snagged a couple shrimp from one of the trays and stuffed them into her mouth, munching quietly as the two women stalked like silent panthers towards the secret elevator that would carry them down into the bowels of the fortress below.
Fortunately, her hunch was on point and they encountered no further resistance on the way. Twice they heard footsteps in the distance as security staff swept the area, barking orders to their subordinates, but each time they passed by without noticing the duo. Within only a couple minutes they stood before an unassuming door marked 'Janitor'. There were several signs hung up next to the door that warned about hazardous chemicals and poisons meant to dissuade snoopers from sticking their nose where it shouldn't be. Kira waved her card in front of the doorknob and again was met with success as it swung outwards, revealing a large cargo elevator on the other side. They stepped inside and descended into the depths.
When the door opened again, they stood at the ready, weapons pointed and prepared for trouble. What they were not prepared for was the wall of armored forms that were waiting for them. The barrels of nearly twenty gun leveled on the elevator car from behind armored riot shields and large crates that had been stacked defensively around the hall. Dozens of red points of light danced across both Kira and Zhenya as laser sights tracked to their chest, ensuring the aim of their weapons would be true.
Kira sucked in a deep breath at the sight, eyes going wide as she realized the depths of her mistake. They'd walked right into a trap; and this time they wouldn't be making any daring escapes. A stupid slip-up. She'd been arrogant. Of course, they'd have the entrance covered. There were cameras all over the damn building. She'd just assumed that the security staff had either evacuated or was trying to figure out what happened.
As she prepared to go down in a blaze of final defiant glory, Zhenya's hand suddenly reached out to rest on her wrists, pushing the barrel of her weapon down towards the floor. Kira blinked and turned to look at her but a moment later most of the armored figured did the same.
One of the armored figured stepped forward, waving the others to stand down. She recognized the voice even before the man reached up to remove the obscuring helmet and toss it aside. The face of a handsome man somewhere in his thirties appeared from behind the mask, his rugged Spanish features those of a charismatic matador. His expression lacked the smug smirk that usually roosted upon it, replaced with worry and confusion, but it returned just as quickly. Carlos stepped forward and extended a hand to her in a conciliatory gesture, head cocking to one side.
"What the hell is going on up there? You doing some aggressive interior design? Don't get me wrong, I'm as partial to C4 as the next man, but I think there are less messy ways to redecorate."
Kira glowered at him but her relief overpowered the annoyance at his typical irreverent banter. Hell, she was actually glad to hear it for once. The breath she had been holding slipped out in a long puff and she reached forward to grip his hand in a tight greeting that made his fingers creak even through the reinforced gloves. He winced and withdrew it, but the grin never left his face.
"Okay, okay! Geez, see if I ever give you some friendly advice again."
"Don't threaten me with promises you can't keep, Carlos," she retorted, her own grin fierce and toothy. It faded quickly, however, replaced by a grim and angry scowl. "Unfortunately, it seems like some of my boys have decided they'd like a change in management. They made some rather aggressive attempts at negotiation."
Carlos blinked at her in surprise. "Uh. That's... wow. How many?"
She rolled a shoulder in a nonchalant shrug but couldn't keep the heat out of her voice. "All of them."
The mercenary stared at her for a long silent moment before grimacing and shaking his head in exaggerated disgust. "See, this is what you get for refusing to add that free vacation to the benefits package."
Kira narrowed her eyes at him, growling like a rabid dog. Carlos held up his hands in surrender and took a step back but couldn't help getting the last word in. "Hey, all I'm saying is it's hard to lead a coup when you're relaxing in a hot spring resort with one of those drinks that have the little umbrellas."
She glared at him for another long second, her expression smoldering with internal fire. Carlos started to speak again but a pointed look from Zhenya cut him off before he could get a word out, the color draining from his face as he realized how close his superior was to shooting him in the face.
"I need to find out what caused this. Assume everyone not in present company to be compromised. Me and Zhenya are going to the control center to try and sort this out. The rest of you, sweep the facility."
Kira's eyes narrowed, her gaze becoming hard and a little wild. The grip on her gun tightened until her knuckles were white and her jaw clenched as a wave of absolute fury that she had barely been holding back boiled up to the surface. She hissed one final command through gritted teeth, turning to march down one of the long corridors.
"Kill them all!"
The interior of the command center was much as one would expect for a military CoC. Rows of computers and banks of monitors lined the walls around the outer edge, collecting, storing, and processing data from a number of different sources. Camera feeds showed images of the chaos still unfolding outside as well as the fresh conflict inside the casino as her elite guard went through the unpleasant task of killing their former comrades who had turned traitor. Kira watched the carnage for several minutes in silence, her expression dark and furious. She had prided herself on establishing loyalty among her own troops. She paid them well, treated them like family, retaliated against those who dared to harm them. This wasn't merely a betrayal of a few employees, it was something much deeper than that. What little trust she had been willing to give to others had been stained by this action and she wrestled with the aftermath of that shocking blow.
Fury, hot and red, ran like magma through her veins and with it no small amount of fear. She had trusted these people, placed her life in their hands more than once. She knew most of them by name, knew their backgrounds, their personalities, their families. She had been to birthday parties and weddings with them. Some she had even dragged out of missions gone wrong personally, wrestling them from the jaws of death with her own insane brand of fearless heroism.
"I don't understand, Z," she said, her voice low and full of emotion as she watched another pair of guards get gunned down by her strike squad. "What happened? Why did they make me do this?"
She received no reply, the silence of the room broken only by the beeps and whines of the machinery. She hadn't expected an answer, anyway. The question merely hung in the air like an oppressive cloud, darkening her already foul mood.
Which is why she was caught completely off-guard when a voice rang out from behind her. "I can answer that question for you, commander."
Kira whirled around, her weapon raising as she looked for the source of the voice. Zhenya merely frowned and turned to gesture at a nearby monitor, it's previously darkened surface now displaying the image of a woman's face. Like Kira, the woman appeared to be in her early middle age, though her dark skin was lined with far more creases and scars. Long black hair was tied back into a multitude of cornrows that joined into a single ponytail at the base of her neck. She had large eyes that were equally dark but they were narrowed into a hard glower that emphasized the crow's feet at their corners.
Kira's guard slowly relaxed as she realized there was no immediate threat but her face remained contorted into a deep scowl, her voice laced with suspicion. She walked over to stand in front of the monitor, allowing the camera perched on its surface to capture her face.
"You were supposed to be in the Congo. What the hell is going on?!"
Rather than flinch away from the furious outburst, Jayde's face only grew more firm, her resolve hardening as if preparing herself for something. She took a moment to chose her words carefully, then lifted her chin in defiance and looked directly at Kira.
"I have taken control of the Dragoons. You are no longer our commander."
Kira blinked at that, staring in open shock for several seconds. "What?" It took a moment for the information to process correctly but when she finally recovered her fury returned, redoubled. "WHAT?!"
This time the woman blanched and her expression became almost apologetic for a moment before hardening into stone once more. She shook her head and took a steadying breath.
"You heard me. You are no longer fit to be our leader. You have become... weak." She paused and closed her eyes. "For as long as I have known you, I have always looked up to you, Kira. You were powerful, dangerous... but even so, you were not a monster. You killed but you also showed compassion. You protected those you cared about. You gave me a chance to be more than just a dirty little orphan."
Kira snarled at that, leaning forward to shout directly into the camera.
"And your response to that is to betray me?! To turn my own men on me and try to assassinate me in cold blood?!"
Jayde frowned at that then nodded, her expression grim and cold.
"Yes. I took no pleasure in it but you have left me with little choice, commander. You are no longer what you were. You consort with demons. You have given them your fealty in exchange for your own survival." Her eyes narrowed, expression becoming one of open disgust. "You have become a coward and a traitor to humanity."
The words struck Kira like a punch to the gut. She staggered backwards, eyes wide at the accusation. It stung, all the more so for its accuracy. She had allowed herself to be manipulated by the demon lord Jedah in exchange for her survival. His armies had grown all the more dangerous under her tutelage and she knew that the day would eventually come when they would pour into the mortal realm and seek to conquer all that stood in their way. Through her own selfish choices she had made that fight far less favorable for humanity, quite willing to trade away the future of her species in order to avoid death.
"How dare you...?!"
Raw fury poured forth in an undiluted wave from the mercenary. Some of it was directed at herself for she could not deny what had been said. Most of it, however, was aimed directly at the figure on the screen and those who would dare support her traitorous rebellion. She trembled in place, shaking with madness and hate. Everything she had worked for, everything she had fought and bled and killed for, all of it was being taken away from her by some upstart bitch with a morality chip on her shoulder.
"Kill...! I'll kill you for this!"
Jayde looked down, genuine sadness on her features. "You have no one to blame for this but yourself, Kira. From this day forward, we are enemies. And I will not allow mankind to fall because of you. Have fun with your toys, I hope it was worth it. Good bye."
Kira roared as the screen died, the image of her former subordinate winking out with that parting taunt. She lunged forward, mayhem and fury overpowering her rational mind, fist drawn back in a wild swing that would have plunged it strait into the glass and machinery beneath. Zhenya was faster, or more accurately, saw it coming before it happened and was in motion even as Kira bellowed her outrage. Instead of the sound of shattering glass and crunching metal the sharp unmistakable noise of cracking bones filled the air as the blow smote her against the console like a sledgehammer, her torso offering a much softer target than the monitor.
Zhenya let out a soft grunt of pain, her blank mask cracking as she openly grimaced. Kira blinked, her vision full of a red haze, then staggered backwards in shock as she realized what had happened. It took her several moments to regain her senses and when she did she looked at her fist accusingly, as if it had acted of its own accord. Likely her girlfriend had just saved her from shredding her entire arm in a fit of outrage, sacrificing herself to keep Kira out of danger, as always.
Guilt almost drove the mercenary to her knees. In all of their years together she had never struck Zhenya before, even by accident. She was the one thing in the world that Kira truly cared about other than herself. She wobbled unsteadily but managed to step forward instead of falling and wrapped her arms around the other woman, gingerly helping her take a seat on the floor. Zhenya grunted again but didn't push her away, accepting the aid in silence.
"Z... I'm... I'm sorry."
Kira's vision went blurry as her resolve started to waver under the pressure of the massive tidal waves of emotion warring inside of her. She leaned her head against Zhenya's as the woman wrapped her arms around her in a soft hug despite her cracked ribs, each supporting the other in different ways. They stayed like that for several minutes, both too exhausted and wracked with pain to rise. When she finally managed to piece herself back together, Kira pulled away and stared at the floor, wiping her face with the back of a hand.
"She's right. If I hadn't been so weak... this wouldn't have happened. If I'd been... been strong enough to fight back I wouldn't have had to give in!"
She punched the ground in frustration, barely even noticing the pain that the impact sent rattling through her bones. She had always espoused a philosophy of strength. Lots of people in the world believed in nonsense like justice, karma, and good vs evil - a comforting but utterly naive set of fantasies. The unpleasant truth was that the only thing that mattered was power. Those with the power made the rules. And thus she had always labored to ensure that she was the one with the power. She had crushed those who stood in her way ruthlessly and without mercy and upon their bones built an empire in the shadows. For a long time, she had considered herself to be the at the top of the food chain, a queen in her own right over the kingdom she had wrought.
She had been wrong. The realization that there were powers far beyond her ken or control had struck her directly where she lived when Vega had casually assaulted her in the heart of her domain. Soon after she found herself at the mercy of yet another monster, this one of a more literal variety. In both cases she had discovered how painfully low on the totem pole she fell. For years she had been trying to reconcile that knowledge with her beliefs, not realizing that she had sacrificed her soul in order to maintain the status she had so painfully earned. She had done things that even she wasn't proud of, writing them off as necessary.
Zhenya stared back at her in silence, her expression one of mild distress. It wasn't due to her injury, she'd suffered far worse before, but rather an inability to offer the comfort that her companion so desperately needed. She had never been much for words; eloquence and charisma were not the gifts she had been given. But right that moment she would have given anything to know what to say in order to salve the pain that Kira was feeling. The commander saw that compassion in her eyes and it only made her lower her head in yet further shame.
Another long uncomfortable silence passed between them before Kira finally rose to her feet, her expression suddenly grim and determined. A sudden flash of insight buzzed through the psychic's mind, a quick glimpse into the maelstrom of anger, fear, and shame that was whirling through her friend's thoughts. From that chaos a single image rose to the forefront. She saw it for only an instant but the object was unmistakable - a small metallic canister with the symbols "DV-14" stenciled neatly on the side.
For many years, Kira had invested large amounts of her incredible wealth into keeping up with the latest trends in modern technology. Cutting-edge surgical techniques and nano-machine blood purifiers kept her soldiers safe and healthy even in the worst environments. The Dragoons' weaponry and armor was state-of-the-art, utilizing the latest in micro-fiber weaves and ceramics to create light-weight yet dependable protection while sporting high-tech and highly reliable armaments from highly-modified assault rifles to vehicle-mounted laser cannons. She had even explored the prospects of cloning technology in order to replace lost organs or limbs with vat-grown substitutes made from the injured's very own flesh, negating the possibility for cellular rejection.
However, the one thing that Kira had never been willing to use were things that 'enhanced' her soldiers. So called super-soldier serums had been all the rage for the past couple of decades for those who could afford them. But, what most of the popular science magazines and unclassified military reports left out was the appalling casualty rate that these unstable concoctions tended to have. Better than 70% of those who volunteered never woke up again after going under the needle or worse, suffered through the sort of horrific deaths better left to the minds of horror movie directors. Kira had been adamant that there was no need to impose the risks of using such dangerous technology on her soldiers when proper training and superior technology was just as effective.
But the temptation had always been there; that desire to push beyond the normal limits of one's body, to embrace a level of strength that would otherwise be impossible. It was a foolish risk, one more likely to result in death than any sort of gain, and yet its soft siren song was an omni-present lure to those who desired power. Kira had never needed it before. She was strong and confident, carving out her path through life with the strength of her own hands. Then came the monsters. This betrayal had been the final straw that shattered that confidence and through the cracks madness had flooded in to drown out all reason.
Zhenya's eyes widened as she realized what her companion intended and she tried to rise, but the pain in her ribs had grown deeper now that it had settled in. The breath exploded from her lungs in a sharp exhale as she rose and she was forced to slump back against the console. Swallowing the lump of agony that had crawled up into her chest, she reached out to grip at the hem of Kira's pants as she turned to walk away, stopping her mid-stride.
She gasped out the single word, fear written all over her normally impassive face. Her fingers clenched tightly around the small handful of fabric she'd managed to grab as if she might stop her friend from doing something she had long since written off as suicide. Kira paused, closing her eyes as fresh emotion played over her face. When she opened them again, she looked directly into Zhenya's terrified gaze and her eyes gleamed with the insanity that had consumed her thoughts. Her voice came out in a low whisper but there was steel behind the words.
"No choice. Not any more."
Turning away, Kira took a step, easily tugging herself free from the weak grip on her leg. Zhenya leaned forward, snatching at the air to try and grab her again but the mercenary was too fast and she started to make her way towards the exit of the command center. The effort sent the wounded woman sprawling onto the floor on her side and fresh pain blossomed in her skull like a bomb detonating in a closed room. Her vision swam unsteadily, nausea overwhelming her, but she turned and reached out for the retreating figure, fingers outstretched as if she might yet still grab hold and stop the madness from claiming the one person that mattered to her.
Kira did not look back as she stepped through the large door. Her hazy formed vanished into the dimly lit corridor beyond, marching towards what was almost certain to be her demise. For the first time she could remember since she was a little girl, shivering and alone in the bombed out ruins of an apartment building, Zhenya cried. She closed her eyes, hoping that she would feel the gentle pressure of a hand on her shoulder, that she would open them to find a blonde-haired angel there to hug her and tell it would be alright. Instead, she felt only pain and loss and sorrow as the darkness slowly closed in to swallow her up.
Consciousness returned to Zhenya in the form of painful stabs of light that sliced into the void. She winced at the sudden brightness and fluttered her eyes open by degrees until she could see clear enough to get a good look at her surroundings. She lay on a soft bed with a warm blanket draped over her body. Bright halogen ceiling lights illuminated a large room, though she couldn't see beyond the blue cloth partition which sectioned her off from the rest of it. As the drowsiness faded and her wits returned, she realized that she must be in the infirmary.
A quick check under the covers confirmed that her ribs had been bound. She sat up, testing her limits, and while a dull ache radiated outwards from her chest it wasn't strong enough to keep her from standing. She divested herself of an IV and heart monitor, dressing herself in the suit she had been wearing before which was folded up neatly on a nearby chair. Once she was decent, she wandered out into bay.
A hideous knot of dread formed in the pit of her stomach as she shuffled slowly through several rooms, each one littered with bodies in dark black bags. The remains of her former comrades, no doubt. Despite his joking and laid-back attitude, Carlos had earned his position as one of Kira's trusted personal guard. He had been thorough.
Zhenya shook her head and sighed. Dozens of lives wasted on something as foolish as an internal power struggle. She had no idea if Jayde truly believed that nonsense she had spouted at Kira. Maybe it was just the excuse she needed to justify her coup to the others. What was important, however, is that her words had broken something loose inside of her friend and driven her to the edge of insanity. There would be a reckoning on that account and it would not be quick or painless.
A disturbing thought slithered its way up out of that wellspring of despair and wrapped itself around her mind - was Kira inside one of these bags? She froze in place as the idea hit her, her heart ceasing to beat for a couple of painful seconds. Eventually, she started walking again, pointedly keeping her gaze low so as not to look at the bodies any more. No point in guessing. She had to know what happened.
As she pushed through a final set of doors leading out into the lobby of the infirmary, she almost ran directly into Carlos who was in the process of reaching out to push the door open himself. She hopped backwards just in time to avoid getting the door slammed into her face but the tall man wasn't so lucky. He tripped over her feet as she shuffled to the side, his balance upset with one arm outstretched to lean on the door. Down he went, tumbling into an undignified heap on the floor with a groan.
Rolling over onto his back, he frowned up at her and let out a sigh. "You and the boss have a really wicked sense of humor, you know that?" She answered him with a blank look and he sighed again. "Yeah, I figured you'd say that."
Pushing himself up, Carlos ran a hand through his hand and give her a skeptical look as she leaned on the door for support. "Sure you should be up and around? Your X-ray looked like someone shot you with a cannon from five feet away. What the hell happened in there?"
That made her wince, the memory of Kira's choice still fresh in her mind. She shook her head and took a deep breath, bracing herself for the answer to a question she did not want to ask.
"Where is she?"
Carlos blinked at that, rubbing at the back of his neck sheepishly after a moment. "Um... I was kinda going to ask you the same thing."
It was her turn to blink in surprise. He didn't know? But, how could that be? She must have let some of the surprise show because he offered her a shrug.
"After you two stormed off to the command center, I went around taking out the trash." He grimaced. "Nasty business. When we got back, we found you unconscious on the floor and the boss no where to be seen. We checked all the security footage but after she left the room she just up and disappeared. Poof." Carlos made a gesture with his hand, unfolding his fingers widely to emphasize his explanation.
Zhenya considered this information, chewing on her lip with worry. That at least freed her from the fear that Kira was among the counted dead, though if she had followed through on her intent it was merely a formality to find the body. Being the paranoid sort that she was, Kira had coded a fail-safe into the security system that let her become invisible to it whenever she needed, allowing her to move around undetected when sensitive business was afoot. Or when she wanted to avoid having to deal with some of the more aggravating chores that her position required. That would make finding her extremely difficult and time-consuming. Fortunately, Zhenya had a pretty good idea where to look.
Carlos studied her face in silence for a moment, letting her think before he spoke up again.
"You know something, don't you?"
She hesitated, then nodded. He held out his arms in a 'well?' gesture and she was about to lay out her concerns when a soldier in full armor came bursting through the doors behind them at a dead run. He spotted the two of them and sprinted over, panting hard as he tried to get his breath back.
"Captain! We've got a problem!"
Zhenya went statue-still, her heartbeat revving up to dangerous levels in an instant. Carlos noticed the change and frowned, turning to face the mercenary with hands on his hips.
"Well? Spit it out, man. Is something wrong?"
The soldier held up a finger, indicating he needed a moment, and took several more long wheezing breaths before pulling himself upright with a nod.
"Sorry, sir. Had to run across the whole complex. But there's a problem - well, two of them. We searched the base for the commander like you ordered but found no trace of her." The mask hid the expressions of the soldier from view but even through the tinny distortion of his helmet's microphone his voice became apprehensive. "Until we came to the commander's personal quarters. The door was open and when we looked inside it looked like the place had been hit by a miniature tornado. There's..." he paused, swallowing visibly. "There's blood everywhere. And it looks like someone was dragged out into the hall."
At the news, Zhenya's face drained of blood, going completely pale. Her knees wobbled shakily and Carlos turned just in time to catch her as she collapsed. He hissed a curse and looked around, spotting an abandoned wheel-chair near one of the walls. He bobbed his in that direction and the soldier retrieved the wheel-chair, helping Carlos settle her into it gently.
"Hey, take it easy. You aren't going to help the boss by injuring yourself further."
Once she was properly relaxed, he turned to the soldier once more with a stern frown. "Has anyone checked the blood trail? See where it went?"
The soldier nodded. "I sent Steel and Valentine to follow the trail. They traced it back to the Pens. But I haven't heard anything from them since then. That was about five minutes ago."
It was Carlos's turn to go pale. "Dios, you don't think...?"
Zhenya sat up straight even as he voiced the question aloud, her eyes widening as she remembered something that the traitor had said with her parting words. 'Have fun with your toys.'
"The cages," she whispered, turning to look up at him in a sudden panic. "Jayde sabotaged the cages! The dark stalkers are loose!" She wobbled in place, her head getting light and fuzzy. "And... and..."
Carlos finished the thought for her, his expression grim.
"And they have the boss."
It was eerily quiet as the small team made their way through the narrow hallways that filled the underground base. Only the sound of heavy boots on the hard concrete broke the silence as half a dozen fully armored soldiers moved in single file towards their destination, following a dark red smear that stained the otherwise featureless gray interior with color. Weapons at the ready, they moved deeper into the complex, their pace steady but cautious.
Several more attempts to re-establish contact with the missing mercenaries had been made without success. Attempts to use the control center's suite of security systems to scan for their bio-signs had proven futile as it turned out that most of them had been sabotaged by a powerful computer virus - a final parting gift from the treacherous usurper. It had not managed to take down any of the more critical systems but for the moment they were blind and deaf to the rest of the facility. Nothing to do except go in personally.
About thirty feet behind the fire team, a second pair of figures followed the trail, keeping well clear in the even that a firefight broke out. Carlos muttered to himself quietly as he had done for most of the way, pushing the wheelchair that contained the second most stubborn woman he had ever met.
"Even if we survive this, the boss is going to kill me for letting you come down here in this condition," he grumbled, trying only mildly to keep his voice low enough that it sounded like he was talking to himself. Zhenya ignored him, as she had done the other couple dozen times he had passive-aggressively whined about being forced to escort her down into a dangerous situation, instead clenching her fingers a little more tightly around the small submachine gun that she had procured from the armory. The idea of firing the weapon with broken ribs sent a shiver down her spine but if something had harmed Kira then a little pain wasn't going to stand in her way of making it pay.
Up ahead, the point-man of the squad held up a fist and everyone came to a sudden stop as they reached a T-junction in the tunnels. The dark trail turned smoothly to the right and even from their position down the hall both of them were suddenly very aware of the unmistakably putrid scent of death in the air. Carlos frowned and a moment later the radio in his ear crackled to life.
"Found something, sir. We're at the entrance to the pens. Doors are open and there's a body leaning on the wall."
"Can you identify it?" he asked, voice tight.
"No, sir. It's too badly mauled. Looks like something was chewing on it. Definitely one of ours though. Female, I think."
He grimaced, glancing down at Zhenya. Her expression was calm but he could see that her knuckles had turned white from how hard she was squeezing the weapon in her hands.
"Move up. See if you can't identify the face."
There was a meaningful pause before he got a reply and when he looked up to see why the soldiers of the fire team were all staring back at him through the opaque masks of their helmets.
"That's... going to be hard, sir."
Carlos frowned but his frustration and anxiety were starting to show and his reply came out more harsh than he'd intended. "Why? What the hell is the problem? Just move up and look at it, man, it's just a body!"
Another uncomfortable pause.
"It doesn't have a face, sir. Or a head."
Zhenya went completely statuesque at that, utterly still and silent. Carlos did the opposite, swearing up a storm as he paced angrily in a small circle. He hated it when comrades died. Sure, it was bound to happen. Part of the risk of the job. But he had made it a personal point of pride that his squad always took the least amount of casualties and he took every one of them personal. Now wasn't the time for this, however. Composing himself, he turned back to the fire team and pointed at the tunnel ahead.
"Move up. Eyes open. We still have at least two more bodies to account for and we aren't leaving until we find them."
The soldiers gave him a quick nod, shaking off their hesitation, and plunged one by one out of sight around the corner. Carlos waited for a tense minute without any way to know what was happening up ahead until his radio finally crackled again. "All clear. Entrance secured. It smells fucking awful in there. I think you need to see this, sir."
Carlos nodded, glancing down at his passenger. Zhenya didn't look up at him but her expression grew hard as if anticipating that he might suggest she stay behind. That clearly wasn't going to happen. With a grunt, he pushed her down the hall, nose wrinkling as the pungent scent of rotten meat and wet fur built into an invisible fog of rancid air. Even the stalwart assassin turned a little green around the gills as they plunged into the stench, neither of them wearing the protective headwear that their allies had brought.
"Mother of god, is it always this bad down here? How does anyone work in this?"
Zhenya's lips were tight but she answered him with a crisp shake of her head. "No. This is much worse than usual. It smells like death. The beasts may be killing each other."
Carlos snorted at that, sounding slightly hopeful. "If only we were that lucky."
When they finally rounded the bend, the full force of the disgusting atmosphere hit them like a brick wall. Carlos gagged, trying not to vomit, and Zhenya had to blink to clear the burning sensation in her eyes. Just how long had these creatures been unattended to create such a vile miasma? The captain fished around in his pockets and produced a pair of handkerchiefs. The first he tied around own face, covering his mouth and nose, then he offered the second one to Zhenya who quickly did the same. It didn't do much but it was enough to dampen the stink down to manageable levels. Once they were prepared, he wheeled them over towards the large archway where the fire team stood watch, their weapons trained on the dimly lit room beyond.
The Pens wasn't anything particularly fancy. A large concrete chamber, perhaps a couple hundred feet on each side, stretched out in front of them. Massive steel cages had been stacked in two layers and spread out around the bay creating long rows with the occasional gap to allow passage between them. A small security station had been installed near the entrance but the little kiosk stood empty, its surface stained with old dried smears of blood. Bright warning yellow lights spun in their housing above the open bay doors, staining the first few dozen feet with occasional splashes of neon color. The rest of the vast chamber was largely cloaked in shadows, the overhead lights either broken or disabled, leaving only the faint glow of emergency track lighting on the floors and walls to cast dim illumination over the rows of cages.
At least dozen of the cages nearest the door had been opened, their occupants no longer trapped within. The darkness obscured the status of the cages further in but faint hints of movement danced in the pools of shadow at the edge of the flickering lights. Even with such terrible visibility the carnage was impossible to miss. As she had predicted, it seemed as if the creatures, no longer bound by the constraints of their minders and electronic collars, had become feral and turned upon one another.
Half a dozen large shaggy forms lay sprawled out across the concrete, each one quite clearly dead and unmoving. Massive gashes covered their bodies where vicious claws and rending teeth had ripped them open in a dozen places. Some were so badly mauled that it was impossible to identify what they had been other than heavily-muscled and covered with fur. Others were missing limbs or heads. There had been so much blood spilt in the small area that it had created a miniature lake and its black surface glistened, still wet and slick with vitae.
Off to one side, leaning against the wall, was another human body. While this one yet retained all of its extremities, a large section of its stomach was simply gone. A gaping ragged hole shown all the way through as if something had punched or ripped a circle out of it in a single terrible blow. Carlos hissed another curse. Two down but still no sign of Kira.
"Looks like we're going in," he said. "The boss is in here somewhere, so watch your fire. She might... still be alive."
Even to his own ears that didn't sound like a convincing possibility. The traitors had been quite clever with their ploy. Even if Kira had escaped their ambush in the casino, they had predicted that she would retreat to her fortress and attempt to retaliate or wait it out in a fortified position. And even if she had chosen to simply flee the area, the beasts would have likely taken care of any support she would have left as all of her remaining loyal soldiers were those who rarely left the lower facilities. With their security temporarily disabled, no one would be the wiser that the cages had been unlocked until it was too late. A cunning and deadly trap and they had fallen right into it.
Carlos glanced down at the woman in his care and frowned. There was no way she'd be of any use in her present condition but she wasn't exactly in a reasonable state of mind at the moment. He wasn't particularly keen on the idea of getting shot if he tried to abandon her at the door or suggest that she remain outside. Instead, he shook his head and drew the large caliber pistol at his hip, motioning for the others to take the lead.
Small flashlights were produced and attached to the barrels of every weapon and together the stabbing lances of light managed to penetrate the darkness, giving them a better look at what lay ahead as they moved into the bay. A long breath escaped everyone at once as their probing lights revealed that the majority of the cages were still intact and sealed. Only those first few near the entrance seemed to have been targeted by the infiltrator. Or perhaps they simply got torn apart before they could open any more of them. With all the viscera lying around it was fairly difficult to tell one thing from another.
Another two motionless bodies lie face down in their own little ponds of crimson about halfway down the row. One of them had collapsed near one of the cages and its occupant had taken full advantage of such a bountiful offering of meat, leaving one of the creature's massive arms almost completely stripped to the bone. The monster now chewed happily on said bone with a content expression on its face, which might have been somewhat adorable were it not for all the blood and guts smeared liberally across its snout, like a child that has indulged itself in an unguarded tub of ice cream.
Carlos leveled his flashlight on the scene and the great shaggy thing glanced up at the gaggle of intruders, eyeing them. After deciding that they weren't about to come steal its prize, the werewolf lifted its head and its jaw dropped open in a great big doggy grin, slobber and other things best not thought about dribbling from its chin.
"Cute. Horrifying, but cute."
After that discovery, everyone shuffled a little closer together into the middle of the passage, making sure to stay out of range of any claws or teeth that might slip through the bars. Despite the great mess that cluttered up the floor, the bloody trail that they had followed picked up once again quite clearly on the opposite side of the blood lake. Carlos paused at that, frowning in thought.
"Wait, this doesn't make any sense. If the boss was dragged in here after all the things got out, wouldn't they have killed each other first and then the survivors gone out to hunt? This blood trail doesn't get any stronger on the other side and it doesn't look like anything was dragged through the big pool. Whatever made this did so before all the...", he gestured at the shredded bodies with a grimace,"fun started."
The soldiers glanced at each other and then scanned the area again, sweeping their lights around with fresh caution but they revealed no answer to this fresh mystery. Sighing, the captain shook his head and motioned for the group to move forward again. Nothing to do about it now but see where the trail led them.
It took nearly five minutes for the team to make their way to far side of the cargo bay. Not only was the size of the warehouse quite massive but they moved with utmost caution. Several times they stopped completely, falling into defensive formations as some bestial growl or high-pitched squeal came at them from beyond their sight. Only once they were sure that some monstrous terror wasn't going to come flying at them out of the darkness did they start moving again. Progress was glacial and nerve-wracking but they pushed on, driven by the need to discover the fate of their commander.
They were drawing near to the end of the central passage when Zhenya suddenly let out a strangled gasp. Everyone whirled around to stare at the woman then back out at the darkness around them, fully aware of her precognitive powers and that any sign of surprise from the psychic might be all the warning they would get before being ambushed. But no attack came. Instead, the woman pushed herself out of the chair, practically flinging herself to the ground in her haste. Fire blossomed in her chest from the effort but she ignored the pain, scrambling forward in a panicked rush to confirm with her own eyes what she had just seen in her mind.
At the end of the row of cages the bay opened up into a wide empty space, the far walls punctuated by three massive circular blast doors which served as entrances to the Southtown sewer system, providing a discreet method by which supplies and people could be smuggled in and out of the fortress. The light was much stronger here as it had been near the entrance to the bay, another set of whirling yellow warning lights spinning rapidly overhead. The stench of fresh death filled the air with renewed intensity here, a thick miasma floating over yet another scene of horrendous butchery. Three more creatures were stretched out in various poses of suffering and pain, their bodies littered with tears and savage cuts.
And there, slumped motionless against the wall in the center of the hurricane, was Kira.
It was obvious that she was dead, even from the fifty or so feet away where they stood. Apparently after leaving the commander center she had changed back into her tactical gear, likely in preparation to join the fight herself. Her arms were bare from the shoulder down, the intricate spider webs of tribal tattoos that normally covered them caked in a layer of gore that had dried into a solid mass of black all the way up to her elbows. The armored vest had been shredded into tatters, its layers of kevlar and ceramic plates offering scant protection against the savage claws of the dark stalkers. The thick military-issue cargo pants she wore were in a similar state, torn and ripped in a dozen places, each gap revealing a blood-stained slash or long line of furrows across her skin where razor-sharp claws had raked at her flesh. Her head was slumped forward onto her chest, hiding her eyes in shadow in the dim light, but her face and hair was drenched in a mask of blood.
Carlos and the rest of the team caught up to Zhenya only moments after she rounded the corner. She stopped so suddenly that the captain very nearly bowled her over but the curse he had been about to spit died on his lips as he swept his gaze up to take in the sight, the color draining from his face completely.
Zhenya stared, eyes wide and disbelieving at the sight. She felt something hit her knees with a painful impact and after a moment realize that she had fallen to the floor. She tried to rise, to push herself towards the body of her fallen companion but her legs no longer seemed to be responding to her commands, paralyzed into inaction as she tired to process the reality of what lay in front of her.
The room was dead silent for several seconds. Carlos was the first to recover, letting out a long sharp breath as he closed his eyes. He did his best to hide the emotion that attempted to overcome him but he expression and voice were strained when he turned to motion towards the fire team.
"Comon. Lets collect the boss and get out of here."
He got a few nods in reply and the soldiers formed up again, drawing upon their training and professionalism to push past the trauma. The captain knelt down and helped Zhenya to her feet, looping one of her slender arms over his neck to keep her steady. He glanced at the body of his former boss and then back at the woman, unsure how to handle the situation. She stared with vacant empty eyes at the corpse, silent and unresponsive.
"Let's go. You don't want to see this," he said, gently trying to turn her away from the grisly sight. In response she shook her head, swallowing hard before managing to get out a reply in a raspy voice. "No. I need to see it. Take me to her." Carlos stared at her for a long moment then nodded and together they made their way over to where Kira had died.
She had gone down fighting. As they passed the corpses of the dead dark stalkers they got a better look at the wounds that had destroyed them. Unless the messy mauling that had killed those near the entrance, these creatures were covered in slashes and cuts that were far more clean and narrow, each one placed strategically at the location of a critical organ or to hamper movement. The source of these injuries wasn't hard to guess. Kira's long-bladed combat knife was still clutched in her hand, its blackened steel blade as stained with dark blood as the rest of her and there were chips and gouges along its surface where it had bitten into hard bone.
"Damn," Carlos said, after inspecting one of the corpses. "She killed all of them with a fucking knife? I knew the boss was pretty bad-ass but these things are verifiable nightmares in close combat." He shook his head, disbelief writ large upon his features. "Crazy. But I guess you can do some pretty insane things when your life is on the line."
Instead of answering him, Zhenya stared down at the dead beast with a strange look on her face. Like Carlos, she found it quite surprising that Kira had managed such a feat. She had known the woman since they were children. While she was certainly reckless and dangerous, she had just been a normal human. There were limits that this should have imposed upon her capabilities and while her friend was quite dangerous in close combat she wasn't so dangerous that a trio of crazed werewolves only managed to break even against her. Something here didn't add up but her mind was still reeling and she struggled to put the pieces together as Carlos led her over to where Kira lay.
The body was in surprisingly good condition, all things considered. Unlike all of the previous corpses they had encountered, she still had all of her limbs and there weren't massive chunks of her missing, at least, not that Zhenya could see. She knelt down in front of her lover slowly, inspecting the damage to her body with as much clinical detachment as she could muster. Dozens of cuts covered the woman's exposed arms but the dried blood made it difficult to tell if any of them were particularly bad. The ruins of her armored vest were matted to the front of her chest in long ragged strips but again her attempts to discern any sort of mortal wound underneath the mess were foiled by the poor light and the sheer amount of blood.
Zhenya leaned forwards to rest her hands on Kira's thighs, pulling apart the various rips and gaps in her pants to see if one of the cuts had nicked a major artery. Again, no luck. She was about to let out a noise of frustration when a psychic insight flashed through her mind that stole away her breath in a sharp gasp. Her surprised noise drew the attention of all of the soldiers towards her at once and so none of them saw the hulking shape that detached itself from the shadows behind them, slinking silently along the edge of the flashing yellow lights.
Zhenya stared down into the face of the corpse, her hands trembling as they reached out to cup her cheeks delicately in each palm. Slowly, she lifted Kira's chin upwards, bringing her face up into the neon yellow glow of the emergency lights. Everyone watched her in silence, curious as to what had caused her surprised reaction, until a sudden bellowing roar announced the danger behind them. Everyone whirled around, weapons snapping to the ready - everyone, except Zhenya. A chatter of quick gunfire filled the air but the creature was already rushing them, its powerfully muscled limbs sending it hurling forward at incredible speeds.
None of that mattered to the psychic. She stared at Kira's face, eyes wide in surprise and confusion. Her hands trembled, fresh emotion surging into her chest, making it burn with something far more deadly than pain - hope. After a tense moment of subjective eternity, the corners of the mercenary queen's lips turned upwards, her mouth twisting into a wide smirk as she whispered a single soft word.
Kira moved, exploding from her seated position with a sudden powerful lunge, pushing Zhenya to one side as she rolled to the other. The werewolf's dive sent it crashing straight through the assembled fire team, scattering them and their weapons in a messy tangle. The sheer bulk of the creature would have flattened the two women had they moved an instant later but instead the massive wolf crashed head-first into the concrete wall, letting out a howl of frustration as its unsuspecting quarry eluded its trap.
The mercenary moved quite spryly for a dead woman, rolling gracefully to her feet not but a couple feet away from the snarling beast, her blade still clutched tightly in one hand. She feinted a swift pair of slashes at the monster as it scrambled back to its feet and it twisted to the side, trying to avoid them, only to unbalance itself in the process and go sprawling onto its face. The toe of Kira's combat boot slammed into the side of the werewolf's head, striking it with such force that the beast went sliding backwards several feet across the slick pool of blood.
The creature let out a dog-like yelp of pain but quickly regained its footing and whirled to face her again, hurling itself into another lunge. Kira was ready for it and her body writhed to the side, almost snake-like, evading its claws as it flew past her. Her blade whipped out in a powerful vertical strike as she did so carving cleanly through the outstretched forearm of the beast. Its claw came off at the wrist, spraying a fountain of dark blood as it clattered to the floor, still twitching and flexing.
The dark stalker snarled in pain once again and thrashed wildly as it turned to come at the mercenary yet again, overcome with a primal berserker rage. Kira avoided every strike, dancing backwards nimbly to stay at the edge of the creature's reach while batting away the swipes and snaps that came too close with the flat of her weapon. She led the wolf around in a small circle like a matador, being careful not to let its attention be drawn to her soldiers, who were still dazed and reeling from its initial surprise attack and would be unable to defend themselves.
After several seconds of this maddening game, the creature finally ran out of patience and threw caution to the wind, hurling itself bodily at the woman in a flurry of deadly claws. Kira had been waiting for this moment and she reacted instantly, ducking low to avoid the wild tackle. Her body coiled up as she did so and with a wild grin she whipped her arm up like a spring, driving the blade squarely into the beast's heart as it passed overhead. Claws and teeth raked at her and she received several more gashes across the arms and back for her efforts but dark stalker landed heavily when it came down, mewling pitifully in pain and panic as it quickly started to bleed out from the fatal strike. After several long seconds of thrashing and snarling it finally began to weaken and eventually went still and silent.
Kira watched the beast carefully, her stance loose but ready to react should it attempt one final act of violence. When it finally stopped thrashing she watched it for several more seconds then turned and faced the others. She greeted them with a smirk and a lazy wave of the hand, as casually as if they had dropped in for an afternoon chat and she wasn't covered from head to toe in wounds and blood.
"Took you long enough," she said, wiping her blade off on the leg of her pants. They were so drenched themselves that it didn't actually accomplish much but she hardly seemed to notice as she slid the weapon into the loop of her belt. "Do you have any idea how much of a cramp I have in my neck right now?"
No one answered her. They all just stared, eyes flicking between Kira and the fallen werewolf. Carlos was the only one whose face she could see but his expression was a reflection of what she could expect underneath those visors. He stared at her in open shock, eyes wide with surprise and no small amount of what might have been fear. She met his gaze, her own eyes half-closed with pleasure, much like a cat that has just indulged itself in a big bowl of cream. After several seconds of silence her smirk widened to a toothy grin and she let out a sharp bark of laughter.
"Carlos, completely speechless? Shit, I wish I had a camera right now. The look on your face is priceless."
She held up both hands, index finger and thumbs extended to create a small box with her fingers which she used to frame the mercenary captain's face, pantomiming catching his incredulous look with the lens of a camera. He blinked at her in confusion then shook his head, rattling his brains free with an almost audible clatter.
"Uh... boss. You're alive," he managed to say, somewhat lamely.
Kira sighed, resting a hand on her hip and shook her head slowly, a long suffering expression on her blood-stained face as she rolled her eyes.
"Obviously. I always knew you were a little special, Carlos, but I'm starting to think I may have to start making you wear a helmet like the rest of your men."
That did it. He gave her a wounded look and stood up straight, hands resting on his hips in an indignant fashion.
"What and deprive them of my rugged good looks? You already have a mutiny on your hands, now you're courting with a full blown riot."
He tried to return her smile but it faltered after only a couple of seconds, his jovial demeanor growing somber once more. He glanced around at the room and held out his hands in a gesture that clearly demanded that she explain the scene in some manner that at least attempted to make sense.
"What the hell happened here, boss? First you up and vanished, then we find a trail of blood leading out of your room. Your girl there refused to say a word about what was going on even though she clearly knows something. But every time your name even got mentioned she looked like she was going to collapse into a ball of nerves. Then we find you laying in a freaking ocean of blood and guts so you could... what, lure out a werewolf just to take it apart for fun?"
He paused to take a breath, his voice shaky and incredulous. He gave her another long look but her expression remained unwavering as he laid out their struggles. After a moment, he shook his head and took a couple of cautious steps forward.
"Since when," he said, peering at the woman, "are you that fast? Or that strong, for that matter? You were blocking strikes that would have snapped a normal man's arm. I know you're good, boss, but we've sparred plenty of times and I think I would have remembered if you had been that good since I wouldn't have ever managed to land a hit on you. What's going on?"
Kira responded to him with a lengthy pregnant silence. She pursed her lips in thought, as if considering her words, then dug a hand into the tattered remains of her armored vest. She withdrew a small white cylinder, nondescript in appearance save for some blocky lettering stenciled on the surface. She tossed the canister to Carlos and he caught it, frowning as he read the label out loud.
"DV-14. Hey, this is that stuff we snagged a few years ago for some high roller on the black market. Some sort of super virus or something, right? I take it the buyer reneged?"
He shook his head and tossed the canister over his shoulder towards the gaggle of soldiers. Several of them let out surprised gasps and lunged forward to catch it before it could clatter to the floor. Though they mostly got in each other's way, one of them managed to snag it out of the air, and they all slumped with a sigh of relief.
"Captain, what the hell?! You just said this stuff is some kind of killer bio-toxin!"
He grinned over his shoulder at them and waved a hand dismissively.
"Relax, it's empty. That stuff is always some sort of gas or liquid and it's hardly got any weight to it. Whatever used to be inside has already been used up." He turned his gaze back to Kira. "Doesn't really answer my question though."
"That's because you're an idiot, Carlos." Zhenya stepped forward, limping weakly as she moved over to collect the canister from the soldiers. She carried it back to the captain, turning it over to show him the reverse side of the slender cylinder. He read it, once more speaking aloud for everyone's benefit.
"Danger. Level 6 Biohazard. Um, and there's a bunch of little skulls and warning symbols underneath." He shrugged. "I have a jar of degreaser at home that looks pretty close to this. What's the big deal?"
Zhenya frowned at the man in annoyance, letting out a sigh. "DV-14 isn't a super virus. A level six biohazard refers to chemicals with mutagenic properties. It's a serum. One that turns people into what might be considered a 'super soldier'. Increased reflexes, metabolism and healing factors, strength, speed, enhanced olfactory senses, sharper vision. It basically makes someone better at everything you can think of."
Carlos blinked and looked at the can again. "Oh. Wow. Sounds pretty sweet but... don't most of these things have some pretty nasty drawbacks? I mean that's why the boss banned their use, yeah?"
Zhenya shivered slightly, gazing down at the floor, but her voice and expression had returned to their normal state of ice cold detachment.
"Lethal ones. The survival rate for those exposed to DV-14 was less than thirty percent. And those that survived the process often went mad from the pain of the transformation. That's why the buyer never paid for it. It had been discarded as a failure."
"Ah. So you'd have to be pretty suicidal to want to use this stuff. Still don't see how this is related to..."
His voice cut off in a sudden strangled choke as the realization hit home. Carlos's eyes expanded to the size of dinner plates, the color draining from his face as he stared at the canister. Taking that as her cue, Kira stalked forward with a slow sinuous grace, moving to where the dim light could properly illuminate her face for the two subordinates. Carlos inhaled sharply and took an involuntary step backwards. Zhenya just stared, her expression one of wide-eyed distress.
"Not suicidal," she said, her voice soft and relaxed. "Just resolved."
Kira's eyes had always been the most entrancing part of her, at least to Zhenya. Despite all of the pain and the hate and the rage that had shaped the woman into the merciless mercenary she was, they always seemed to glitter with a vibrant primal energy, wild and untamed. Her friend was courageous, stalwart, and defiant and that willful personality was reflected in vast depths of her sapphire blues. They did not make her beautiful, merely offered a glimpse into the core of Kira's soul so that others could see the powerful unwavering spirit within.
What stared back at her now was alien and unnatural. Though they retained their brilliant azure hue, Kira's eyes were something cold and reptilian, both literally and figuratively. Her dark pupils had elongated and stretched into tall vertical slits that far more resembled those of a crocodile or snake than anything human. Rather than glow with life as if stoked by some inner fire, her eyes were flat and glossy like chips of dark glacial ice - cold, pitiless, and deadly.
Zhenya stared down into their depths with a terrible sorrow, fresh tears threatening to pour down her cheeks at the sight. She moved forward, her legs carrying her unbidden to stand in front of her friend. With trembling hands she reached up to cup Kira's face as she had done before, as if afraid that the image before her was an illusion that might shatter at the slightest touch.
"Oh... my Kira... what have you done?"
This time the woman reached out in kind, mirroring the affectionate gesture as she pulled her down into a deep passionate kiss. The harsh taste of copper filled her mouth as dark blood hit her tongue but whatever reservations had held her back before evaporated as the warmth of her soul mate's touch flooded into her. She lurched forward, wrapping her arms around Kira and returned the kiss with a fiery passion of her own, hugging the woman to her so hard that she thought her ribs might break again. She ignored the discomfort of the pain and awful stench that assaulted her senses. They didn't matter in that moment, all she wanted was to cling tightly and never let go.
Kira pushed her away after what seemed like only a few moments but from the way both of them inhaled sharply it must have been well over a minute. She just stood there, breathing heavily, unsure of what to say or what came next. The mercenary smiled at her, those strange lizard eyes making the expression somehow wrong and disturbing.
"I stopped living in fear."
Silence reigned for another uncomfortable few moments. Carlos looked like he had a great deal to say but for once was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. The rest of the soldiers glanced among each other questioningly, clearly unsure of how to deal with this development. Eventually, Zhenya took a long slow breath and nodded. She looked up at Kira, meeting those bizarre eyes of hers directly and was about to speak when another low rumbling growl poured out of the depths, this one even more harsh and guttural than before.
Everyone went tense at the same time, reacting to the threat. Carlos and the others whipped their weapons to the ready, spinning about to stand back to back. Kira merely frowned as she turned to peer off into the darkness but her hand slid down to the hilt of her combat blade, clutching it loosely. The growl echoed around the open room as if coming from every direction at once making it impossible to pinpoint its origins. After several long tense moments, it grew sharper and more focused and they realized that the voice wasn't growling - it was laughing.
Without warning, a massive werewolf that was at least a foot taller than every other beast they had come across thus far stepped out of the darkness from less than ten feet away. Unlike the other monsters, who had reverted to their more animalistic nature after being broken, this wolf walked upon its hind legs like a man as it strode confidently into the open. A large red cloak hung from its shoulders, the surface crusted and flaking with old dried blood as if it had been used to mop up a giant pool of it. A large belt was wound around its waist on which a sawed-off shotgun sized for the creature's monstrous proportions rested in an equally over-sized leather holster. Several smaller loops lined its dull surface, each one holding a single bright red shell for the weapon.
"Finally," the wolf rumbled, his voice coming out like a barrel full of crushed gravel being shaken. "Finally, you have embraced it."
Kira whipped up a hand, her clenched fist warning the others to hold their fire even as several pinpoints of red tracer light converged upon the beast's chest. Instinctively, the soldiers obeyed her, their weapons lowering quickly though she could practically smell the fear wafting off of them as they did so. The commander turned to face the great wolf, taking a few steps closer without any sign of hesitation, her expression one of amusement rather than worry.
"Fenrir. I was beginning to think you'd scampered off to some remote mountain to terrorize the local sheep population."
The wolf's lips peeled back into what was probably supposed to be a grin but with all the sharp pointy teeth it sort of ruined the image. He barked out a harsh laugh again, the noise grinding up against the human's nerves like sand, and shook his head.
"No, my lady. Merely biding my time until you realized how pointless it is to pretend to be one of the flock. You are a predator, a hunter. By the strength of your teeth and claws should you rule, as you did when your great ships came to capture my people! And by your earlier display, I would say that the time has come."
Kira considered that for a moment then nodded once. "Yes, I suppose it has. Though we are not yet prepared to face the true foe. To that end, I have a task for you, Fenrir - one befitting your... special talents."
Fenrir's grin widened into something truly frightening. He dropped to one knee, bowing his head low to the mercenary queen in a gesture of fealty that might have looked comical were he not so capable of ripping apart anyone foolish enough to laugh. A look of eagerness glinted in his bloodshot yellow eyes, a hunger so primal that it sent shivers through the ancient primate brains of every human in the room.
"You have but to command me, my lady."
Kira reached into her pocket and withdrew a small remote, her thumb tapping a few buttons on its surface. A sharp series of warning sirens roared to life, the lights on the wall flashing from yellow to red as the lock on every single cage in the room released all at once with a terrifying click . Carlos and the others went absolutely still at the sound, eyes wide. Fenrir merely laughed again, his voice full of genuine mirth.
"Go. Indulge yourself."
Kira tossed the remote aside, letting it nosily clatter to the floor. Behind her the howls of dozens of dark stalkers, their minds broken into little more than feral beasts, started to echo through the room as a horde of monsters slipped free of their bonds. Fenrir rose, his claws flexing as he turned his gaze towards the far wall where heavy metal doors that lead into the depths of Southtown's sewer system began to swing open, providing a means of escape into the city's underbelly.
"Remind them that they have grown fat and lazy. Teach them to fear the monsters again, Fenrir! Hunt and kill and rip and tear until all they know is terror and pain!"
Kira smiled, her own bloody teeth flashing at the werewolf as she stepped closer to him. She placed a hand on his chest, feeling the powerful muscles underneath rippling with wiry strength. His heart hammered with such ferocity that she could feel it thrum through her arm, wild and terrible like tribal drums preparing for war.
"Let them learn the lesson that I had forgotten. The strong rule and the weak die. Make them strong, Fenrir. Force them to wake up."
The beast looked down at her, his size dwarfing her body by almost double. It seemed somewhat absurd that such a tiny figure might be the more dangerous of the two but his body language was not that of a predator about to strike. He was wary and cautious, as if afraid to make any move that might cause her to react violently. When he spoke, he framed his question with the deference of a commoner in the presence their queen.
"And if they refuse to do so?"
Kira threw back her head and laughed and there was nothing happy or pleasant about the sound of it. Her eyes narrowed, the slits of her pupils growing wide and inhumanly focused in the dim light. She lowered her voice to something soft and sinister, but her words cut through the growing chaos of noise around them with ease.
"Then we will be their worst nightmare!"
Log created on 08:58:07 03/01/2020 by Kira Volkov, and last modified on 09:42:37 03/01/2020.