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Maya Rowen

Cold night in hell...

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Febuary 13th, 2022


Waterfront Warehouse


A lot had changed since the first resonance. Sometimes Maya barely recognized the world she lived in anymore. So it was comforting when something familiar survived a brush with their near apocalypse. Or it normally was anyway.  It seemed even the near end of the world didn’t really change how those on the other side of the law operated. That was why Maya was freezing her ass off instead of relaxing at home. Snow fell so thick that the dockyard was even darker than normal, the few lampposts illuminating the area lost under the sheer weight of it, the moon and the stars blocked by the clouds above. Most would have trouble finding much of anything in this, but it wasn’t much of a problem for Maya. The warehouse in front of her was a beacon of neon colors that painted the place like the site of a rave to her sight.  


That was far from comforting. When Graft had dragged her out of bed a few hours prior with a phone call and a job he’d been brief. According to him the people who had what she was after were everyday street trash being handled by a couple of thugs who’d managed to get a little bit of power after one of the changes. It seemed like that information was out of date. Dammit this was supposed to be any easy score she thought with a frown. It made sense now why the money was so good. Apparently whoever her client was had had an inkling this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. She’d have to tell Graft to burn him after this job. In the meantime though…


She studied the buildings wards in silence, pulling her coat tighter around her as she began to shiver.  She was dressed for both the weather and the job in dark military surplus, but even her thick coat wasn’t a match for an hour in a New York blizzard. Her hood and and balaclava protected her face from the worst of it, but snow and wind stung at her golden eyes. Despite her best efforts snow kept working its way between her cargo pants and her boots. The storm would help hide her approach to the building better than anything she could have managed herself but damn if it wasn’t a miserable experience. As bad as the storm was the wards on the building seemed worse.


Nobody really used old school security systems anymore. Well not on an individual basis anyway. It was too expensive, too unreliable since the resonance. Most of the plants that made them  had been lost overseas, and with magic even the best of them weren’t exactly what one would call reliable. Technology and the arcane just didn’t mix. Wards had popped up as a decently reliable alternative. If you had the skill and the patience you could theoretically ward a building against pretty much anything. In Maya’s experience though that tended to be more of an academic point.  The average gifted didn’t have the skill to lay down ward after ward on top of each other without eventually running into...issues. Occasionally the fatal kind. Good warding was expensive, but it was usually worth it. It could keep out your average thug, or any gifted careless enough to set them off. This wasn’t good warding. It was great warding.



Either her client had completely lied to Graft about the kind of people she was dealing with, or they’d gotten taken over by someone new. Both options were bad news for her. Part of her was tempted to split. To just go back home and crawl into bed under a pile of blankets. Or a warm shower. As tempted as she was though it would have been bad for business. Graft would handle her client after he’d finished payment, but until then they had an agreement. If she didn’t keep up her end it made her look unreliable. Even if she’d been OK with that Graft certainly wouldn’t have been. Their partnership was a fragile thing. She wouldn’t have been able to manage what she did without his security, his connections...but if things went south between them she had no doubt she’d rather deal with every petty thug and crime boss she’d angered than Graft himself.  Plus the money for this job really was good. It almost made her curious what she was stealing. Almost.


She didn’t bother trying to hide as she trudged towards the warehouse. If something could find her in this than anything she could do wasn’t going to change that. She stopped a few feet away from the building near a side door and took a resigned breath. She’d been all around the place but there weren’t any breaks in the wards she could exploit and they were well done enough she didn’t dare try to tamper with any of them. That meant making her own entrance was out. She’d have to use one of the actual doors. That was going to be risky. If they were good enough to have guards at all the entrances this was going to be a short job. She pulled off her gloves and pulled her lock kit from a pocket on her coat. Cold bit at her fingers and she clenched her teeth as she bent down in front of the door. She’d have to do this fast before her fingers got too numb to manage it. Or frostbite set in.


She pulled out a rake pick and slid it into the keyhole, gently strumming it against the pins inside. It seemed whoever was in charge had put more confidence in the wards than decent locks and a few seconds later the latch gave way. Too bad they hadn’t worried about someone getting through the lock the old fashioned way. She peeked inside as she slowly swung the door open, her heart pounding. Thankfully it seemed deserted.  It wasn’t really surprising. Even criminal types weren’t likely to be going out with the weather as bad as it was. Hopefully it stayed that way. There were far fewer wards inside as well. With all the traffic that probably came through here they probably wouldn’t have been much use...that was good. Mostly. The wards were a pain in the ass to get around but they also made it a hell of a lot easier for her to see.


She kept low as she worked her way further into the building. Aside from the sheer number of wards on the place it almost looked like a normal warehouse. These guys weren’t sloppy. Her eyes darted constantly as she carefully moved through what looked like a loading dock. The biggest problem she had breaking into places like this was open spaces. They were a dangerous thing when you couldn’t tell if you were standing in pitch black or lit up like a Christmas tree. Usually she could hear the soft hum of the bulbs but it wasn’t something she really liked to chance. Her best option was to keep her head on a swivel and spot anyone who might spot her first. It did mean she noticed though when that humming stopped. When every man made sound in the place stopped in fact.


The roar of the storm outside was deafening in that sudden silence. Power outage?  That much wind and snow definitely could have managed it… that was a mixed blessing though. She might not have had to worry about the lights, but whoever was left in the place was going to be paying close attention now that was for damn sure. Paranoia had a way of doing that. Of course, paranoia might not have been a fair description. It wasn’t paranoia if it was justified. Her golden eyes were all that could be seen of her as she crept into the darkness.


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Missions for ARMA’s Cloak Division were rarely clean cut.  Never black and white, always shades of gray with the greater good in mind.  This was something a Cloak operative had to come to terms with before joining the Division’s ranks.  The faction itself was pure in purpose, with clearly defined goals and objectives.  The Cloak Division kept the faction righteous by fighting the subversive and reprehensible battles that needed to be fought.  Not all, but some Cloak agents had essentially become the “sin eaters” of ARMA.


It’s not uncommon for an ARMA Cloak operative to ask then, what makes ARMA any better than the Order of the First Light?  The answer is simple.  The Order’s goals while pure on the surface, are much darker beneath.  The Order’s leadership was corrupt since the organization’s inception.  Their true mission to accumulate unchallengeable power amidst the greatest peril the world has ever seen.  Power that would hold them above those without it.  ARMA was founded on the Order’s superficial principles, but those principles were its true objectives. 


No war in the history of mankind has ever been won without a side sacrificing their ideals at some point.  Despite their recent internal struggles, ARMA still holds a strong presence within the supernatural police community.  However, the reality is they are few in numbers.  Amongst other world powers their faction is one of the smallest and arguably the weakest in outright warfighting potential.  For ARMA to maintain its position of power, and to limit the First Light’s growing influence, sacrifices needed to be made. 


Agents like Ryan Harker made that sacrifice.  If ever they were captured while conducting an operation ARMA could not openly support, the agent would be disavowed.  At best a nameless Soldier lost in an unspoken battle, at worst a traitor to the cause.  This culpability meant that Cloak agents operated with a lot of autonomy and little oversight.  It is for these reasons Cloak is viewed with mixed regards by even its own sister Divisions.  Some revere them as the most elite operatives in ARMA’s arsenal; others view them as half-cocked cowboys who believe themselves above the law.  As always, the truth was somewhere in the middle.


This mission was part of an ongoing investigation Harker had been conducting on the “unseen threat.”  His objective was to secure an artifact he believed the hidden faction was trying to attain.  The “unseen threat” was not yet public knowledge.  Outworlder registration had sparked enough civil unrest.  If the public was made aware non-magus were murdering magus, stealing their blood, and using it to conduct black magic in pursuit of an unknown goal, it might start a war.  This mission was a black operation, completely off the books.


Truces were a delicate thing.  The Order of the Light provided ARMA with secret information when they wanted their assistance, but withheld it otherwise.  ARMA managed their information sharing similarly.  Harker wasn’t convinced the Order of the Light wasn’t connected to this new threat, and neither was ARMA.  For this mission to have been sanctioned and official, the information would have needed to be have been shared and made public.  A search warrant would have been issued and the warehouse would have been stormed by an ARMA tactical team in cooperation with the Order, the NYPD, and possibly the Pharos.  Too many potential leaks, too many problems, too many points of failure.  A black operation like this violated the many treaties between ARMA and the other factions of the world.  Which is why ARMA knew nothing of the operation.      


Clouds filled the night sky, blotting out the moon’s luminance.  The blizzard outside was uncharacteristically strong even for this time of year.  The wind howled, a constant wall of snow buffeting anyone unwise enough to be caught outdoors.  A blanket of fresh powder lay over anything left outside for longer than a moment.  The ambient temperature was well below freezing, and with wind chill it felt even colder. 


The storm concealed Harker’s movement to the warehouse.  A white poncho covered his black tactical gear, camouflaging him amongst the night’s snowy veil.  When he reached a maintenance door near the southeast corner of the building, he braced himself against the structure and took a knee. 


The gale tore through the chinks in the agent’s thermal armor; slithering across chest and arms like icy snakes.  Nose was numb, hands struggled to stay warm as he reached into a cargo pocket for his “master key.”  The key was essentially a charmed bump key, the enchantment allowing it to defeat most mundane locks.  A useful tool for a supernatural spy.  Once the door unlocked, he stripped off his white cloak and discarded it. 


A press of button activated the communications jammer Harker had set up on a fire escape across the street.  Radios, cell phones, Bluetooth and wireless internet within a quarter mile radius would be disabled until the jammer’s battery died.  Charges had been placed on the power transformers that provided electricity to the entire block near the warehouse.  The charges had been rigged to detonate on a timer.


Ryan gritted his teeth and embraced the bitter cold. Ski mask and thermals felt as though they were doing little to protect him from the elements.  Just a few more seconds.  Gloved hands pulled his tactical goggles down over his eyes.  Like most of his equipment, they too had been spelled.  The operative’s night vision would be perfect, even in the absence of ambient light.


Harker threaded the silencer to the barrel of his Sig 229 pistol.  These gangsters had gotten themselves in over their heads.  The loss of life could not be helped.  The mission was too important.  By taking the lives of these few, he would be saving the lives of many.  Ryan reminded himself of these facts as he readied himself for what was to come next.  A fox in the hen house.


The agent looked to the watch on his wrist.  He gripped the maintenance door handle with his left hand, his gun with his right.  A whisper under his breath, “Three… two… one…”  The “pop” of the detonating charges wasn’t audible over the screaming storm.  The transformers sparked, the power failed, and the entire street fell into darkness.  Warehouse maintenance door slid open, and Harker crept inside.


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The sudden void of quiet was far from filled by the distant sounds of the storm, and it raked at Maya’s already frayed nerves. She was used to being on edge. It was part of the job. It kept her alert. It kept her alive. She was used to that. This was different. She didn’t know why, but it was. She felt it in her gut. It was possible, even plausible the storm had knocked out the power. In fact if she’d been anywhere else she likely wouldn’t have even batted an eye. Now though? The timing of it all seemed far too convenient to just be a coincidence. The storm. The power outage. The urgency of the request. The wards. They all added up in a way she wasn’t comfortable with in the least.  She was quickly beginning to regret taking this job.


Unfortunately that wasn’t a good enough reason to end it. Graft had built her a reputation and a big part of it was her reliability. When people hired her to get things, they got them. End of story. Now though she was beginning to wonder exactly what it was she was supposed to be getting. She worked with as little information as practical.  The kinds of people she stole things for rarely did so with good intentions. It was better if she didn’t know what the things she took were going to be used for. Better for Graft’s clients, and better for her conscience. What was left of it anyway. She took a steadying breath and forced herself to focus on the task at hand...and not to listen to that whispering doubt, that dread that sat in the back of her mind.


Finding what she was after was likely going to be simple enough. If whoever was running the show had the cash, or the juice to ward the entire warehouse so heavily then she should expect her prize to be behind the same kind of protection. She’d just have to wander around until she found more neon. From the sound of things there hadn’t been a generator. She probably didn’t have to worry about the lighting anymore. She also didn’t have the sounds of the warehouse to mask her. That was fine. On a nice solid concrete floor like this she’d be practically silent, even without the layer of material she’d put on the soles of her boots to absorb any excess sound. With it she was a ghost in the dark. She moved easily throughout the place, room after empty room. It should have relieved her, but each one only strummed her nerves that much more.


If what she was after was really here then there should have been muscle here to keep it safe. Even with the storm. A light crew would have been understandable, but so far she wasn’t seeing any crew. Nobody was dumb enough to leave something this valuable totally unguarded...so where was everyone? She found an answer in the next room. Or part of one. She almost tripped over it as she came to some kind of loading dock. She hadn’t really been looking at her feet, after all why would anyone leave something on the floor out in the open like this? She stopped and pulsed it to get a better look at what it was and her blood ran colder than the storm outside. It was a body. The cold seemed to sink into her as she noticed something the edge of her pulse had illuminated and she sent out another small burst of mana. Another body.  She’d been keeping herself in the dark. If she started throwing mana around the place she was likely to trigger some kind of ward, and it would be impossible to miss the aura of anyone she ran into...or so she’d thought.


She put her hands to the ground and sent  a gentle wave of mana a few feet in every direction. Golden dust spread out  before slowly settling and painting her surroundings with a soft glow. The pleasant glow clashed horribly with the horror show it revealed.  At least a couple dozen bodies had been dumped along the length of the dock. Unreality had taken hold after she’d found the first one and as she stared at mound of corpses she wondered briefly if she was dreaming. If she was it was a nightmare.  She bent down by the nearest body, examining it with a sense of morbid curiosity. She smell any blood. Not even a little. They didn’t seem to be rotting yet either which was probably how she’d gotten so close without noticing them. That meant whatever had killed them managed to do it without breaking skin, and had done it recently. All of them. Well she‘d likely found the crew her client had been expecting.  As she was mulling it all over she noticed something odd. A buzzing. Or maybe it was a scream. It dug at her, incessantly pressing against her consciousness. She noticed her hand was trembling and reached out to steady it with her other before she noticed it was trembling as well. In fact it wasn’t just her hands.. Her whole body was violently shaking. Shivering. As she realized that she understood. It wasn’t a scream. Not out loud anyway. It was in her head.


Something broke as she realized that and terror she’d never felt washed over her. It drowned her. There was no thought. No rationality. Only the primal instinct to get away. She sprinted through the warehouse so fast it felt like her muscles might tear. Sneaking was done. This was a frantic mad dash to the nearest door. To escape. Away from whatever the hell was in this warehouse. Luckily the soles of her boots muted the pounding of her feet on concrete as she darted from room to room as fast as her legs would carry her. It didn’t take long to find a door. Maybe a minute or two. It might as well have been an eternity.  She was so focused on it that it took her a second to notice the thing beside it.


She’d seen it before. Nothingness. A void her sight couldn’t reveal. A void wearing a cloak that seemed to burn with magic.A mage hunter. If she’d been in her right mind she would have remembered new years eve. Remembered when she’d seen them that night at the Satyr. She wasn’t though. Beneath the all consuming panic that seemed to close in on her there was very little right in her mind. She only saw another monster.  It was too much. She’d frozen when she’d seen him. Stopped so suddenly she’d fallen backwards. As she stared at him the panic pressed in on her. It settled in her chest like a weight. It was hard to breath. She pushed herself away from him desperately, not even standing, only stopping when her back hit the wall behind her. Her eyes were wide and full of fear as she struggled desperately to take a breath...

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The target would likely be located near the center of the warehouse.  Aside from the warding on the building’s perimeter, there was nothing extraordinary about the facility’s security.  A squad sized element of 10-15 men would be guarding the target inside the warehouse.  They were equipped with small arms and likely possessed some military or paramilitary tactical training.


          Harker moved into the building and closed the door quietly behind him.  Weapon at the ready, he scanned the area for immediate threats.  Finding none, he pushed further into the warehouse.  Slow was smooth, smooth was fast, as the agent began methodically clearing his way through the empty aisles of shelving.


          The ARMA operative wasn’t far from his point of entry into the warehouse, when he saw the first body.  Then a second, and then a third.  Someone had beaten him to the punch.  Ryan cursed silently in his mind.  The agent moved to the nearest body and checked for a pulse.  There was none, but the corpse was still warm.  No blood, no gun shot wounds.  The man’s neck had been snapped.


          Suddenly, there was movement down the aisle in front of him.  Harker was already on high alert.  Sights came up on target, and he nearly put two rounds center mass before he identified what he was aiming at.  A young girl in dark clothing was sprinting toward him at full stride.  Terror streaked the girls features.  She wasn’t running to him; she was running from something else.


          The girl looked as though she might run straight into the covert agent.  Harker’s weapon was still trained on her when she finally noticed him.  Abruptly, she came to a halt.  Feet planted and then slid out from underneath her as she failed to stop her own momentum.  She fell on her ass and then stared up at him.  Eyes fearful.  The panicked girl then skittered backwards, until her back found a wall.  There she sat, in a state of shock.


          Ryan looked to the girl and placed a finger to his lips, “shhh,” he whispered softly.  What was she running from?


          A feint tingling sensation brushed across the back of Ryan’s neck, a chill stemming from the base of his skull.  His sixth sense.  Danger was close.  The girl?  No, it was something else. 


          As if to answer the agent’s questions, a figure emerged from the shadows.  A man walked toward them now; from the same direction the girl had come.  Slicked dark hair, pale skin, and a muscled frame stood about six feet tall.  The mysterious man wore a skin tight black shirt, charcoal black pants, boots, and body armor.  Harker couldn’t see any weapons on the stranger’s person, but his instincts told him the man was deadly regardless.


          Only a creature of the supernatural could have killed all these people without the assistance of modern firearms.  Ryan aimed his Sig Sauer at the man with his gun hand, while his left hand reached into the pouch on his hip.  Gripping the dispelling ward in his fist, he kept his hand hidden in the satchel.  If the man’s abilities were magic based, the agent could dispel them with the ward and execute him before he recovered.


          “Are you a hunter?”  The man asked coolly as he continued to walk toward them.  Harker responded only with the metallic ‘click’ of his Sig’s hammer cocking back.  The man froze, “My night just keeps getting better.”


          “Run,” Ryan said to the girl out of the corner of his mouth.  An icy chill ran down the length of his spine.  Danger.  Eyes remained fixed on the creature in front of him, “Run now!”


          The creature leapt forward, closing the 15-yard gap between them in an instant.  Harker had already activated the portable ward in his pocket.  A supernatural EMP blasted out in the area around him, disrupting the flow of mana and neutralizing any functioning spells.  Unfortunately, this had no effect on the monster that barreled toward him.


          For Harker, time slowed.  His mind continued to work at normal speed, but the world around him was in suspended animation.  All except the man charging toward him.  The man continued driving forward in a slow-motion trot, much faster than any mortal creature should be able to move.  Not a magus, the ward had no effect.  Too fast for a werewolf in human form.  That left only two possibilities.  A speedster, or a vampire, and vampires were ‘supposedly’ extinct.


          The girl remained in place, motionless.  That was to be expected.  Even if she was moving it would look as though she was sitting still.  The creature was definitely coming after Ryan, but it would kill her as soon as the operative was disposed of.  He wouldn’t let that happen.  Though he wondered what she was doing at the warehouse in the first place. 


          Initially, Ryan had been aiming at the man’s head.  However, its head weaved much too quickly as it sprinted toward him.  The agent didn’t have time to anticipate his movement and line up the shot, which is what he would have done against anyone without super speed.  The man wore body armor as well, which meant that even ARMA’s enchanted rounds likely wouldn’t penetrate with enough force to fell the creature.  Instead, the agent lowered his sights to the man’s pelvis, below the bullet-proof vest.  His own arm moved at a painstakingly slow pace as the monster rushed forward.  Finger squeezed the trigger and fired a single round.


          The shell casing hung in the air as it was ejected from the pistol.  A blue flame flowered from the barrel.  Ryan’s eyes followed the azure glow as the enchanted bullet was propelled into the man’s lower abdomen.  Surprise flashed across the stranger’s face.  The round struck his hip, bone fractured, and his leg buckled beneath his own weight.  Lowering his shoulder, the man thrust himself onward with his last sturdy step.  Harker tried to brace himself for the impact to come.


          When the creature collided with Ryan, he felt as though he had been struck by a car.  The man collapsed to the ground where Ryan had been standing and the agent was launched across the room.  His body slammed hard against the warehouse’s sheet-metal wall, leaving a deep impression when he slumped to the floor. 


The agent’s pistol had been sent sprawling elsewhere, its location eluded him for the moment.  Bursts of light had flooded the darkness around him.  He shook his head and blinked his eyes as he struggled to refocus his rattled brain.  A sharp sting tore at the back of his head.  He felt the warmth of his own blood as it soaked the back of his ski-mask.  His hand moved to the wound instinctively to assess the damage.


An anguished growl brought Ryan back to the present.  It wasn’t his, the bellow belonged to the creature he had shot.  Definitely a vampire, he thought to himself when realized how far the creature had knocked him.  The vampire lay on the ground where Ryan had been standing a moment ago.  It climbed to all fours, already beginning to recover from the crippling wound. 


Now, the vampire was only a few steps away from the girl.  Its head swiveled, eyes locking onto the young woman.  Fresh blood would no doubt expedite the healing of his wound.  “Fuck…” Harker groaned as he willed himself to move.  He had to get back into the fight before the vampire fed on her, otherwise they were both dead.

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Maya struggled to breath as the figure approached her, but it was a losing battle. Panic swallowed her as the enchanted items seemed to float towards her and it peaked, crashing in around her as she felt a finger press against her lips. A finger she couldn’t see. She started hyperventilating. Her vision flickered even darker than normal as she fought to stay conscious. She managed somehow. It wasn’t easy. Far from it. It took everything she had to clamp down on the fear. The terror that had a hold of her. That primal fear that drove away thought and pressed in until all you could think about was escaping. Surviving. Her breathing still came shallow, ragged, but it was coming now. Before she could truly pull herself together though her boogeyman seemed to  have turned his attention elsewhere. A stray unformed thought told her it was now. She should get out of here while he was distracted. While she still could.


Then she heard the footsteps. Heavy. Unhurried. Her head snapped around as her eyes darted frantically looking for whoever was making them. No...not whoever. Whatever, because whatever she was looking at wasn’t a person. It looked like a person. A corpse to her really. Ashen gray skin shone where it’s clothing didn’t cover. Dead. People didn’t look like that. They were vibrant. Alive. People weren’t empty. Neither was this thing. Not entirely. A spiderweb of sickly red light seemed to bleed across its skin. From its eyes.She shrunk back against the wall as it approached and began gasping for air once more. Her boogeyman had been terrifying. When she’d first seen his kind a few months ago on new years eve it had scared her senseless. She’d had nightmares about him. Him finding her. Busting down her door and hauling off to a prison for people like her. A prison for gifted...and other dreams. Dreams where she went to sleep..and he made sure she never woke up.


It had been hard to sleep after that. Still was some nights. It was completely irrational. He likely hadn’t even realized what she was, or not what she did, who she was.That didn’t stop him from getting in her head. Didn’t stop the fear of the man she couldn’t see from creeping into the back of her skull like poison. Her boogeyman. That was what she called him. Nameless. Formless. Omnipresent. Like a bad story come to life. He was the worst thing she could imagine. This thing was worse. Her boogeyman was dangerous. This was...EVIL. Her throat burned as her dinner threatened to show itself. Whatever semblance of control she’d regained vanished when she laid eyes on that thing. Her boogeyman told her to run, but he needn’t of bothered. She was already in motion. She just wasn’t fast enough. The creature darted forward so fast she barely saw it as she began to push herself to her feet.


Then the world went black. Not the dark, shadowy landscape she’d learned to navigate. Just. Black. She screamed. A keening anguished sound that seemed to burst from her without end as her hands shot to her eyes. Their golden glow flickered slightly as the mana jammer washed over her. The screaming continued as she buried her face in her hands, unable to think, unable to move. She’d been blind before. Back when her sight first began to manifest. Several times since when she’d run out of mana. Never like this. Never so abruptly. So unprepared. Without her cane she couldn’t run even if she wanted too. A gunshot echoed and her scream cut off abruptly in it’s wake leaving the warehouse suddenly disturbingly quiet. Her hands came away and her eyes darted frantically as she tried to see something. Anything. Instead she heard, what exactly she had no idea but whatever the noise was it was getting closer.


She shot to her feet and started to run, but she only made it a few steps before her shoulder collided painfully with something and she went sprawling back to the floor. She blinked and wasn’t sure if it was the pain or the sudden shades of grey that brought tears to her eyes. Her relief was short lived. As her sight returned she saw that the thing was only feet away from her. Her blood ran cold. Her boogeyman was nowhere in sight.  Before she had anymore time to think, any more time to react he was on her. She stumbled to her feet only to come crashing back down as he grabbed her ankle so hard she thought he might have broken bone. As she went down it pulled itself over her, and its fang filled mouth lunged towards her throat...and sank into golden flesh.


The ethereal layer of golden skin that surrounded her was all that had saved her life, and the hole from the creatures assault bled golden light as mana flowed from the wound in her projection, quickly becoming whole once more. The monster snarled and continued to savage her, its fangs coming a hairsbreath from the skin that lay beneath the golden aura. It was agony. She felt every bit of it as the thing tore the conjured flesh from her neck again and again. Every nerve as those fangs dug into them and then stripped them raw. She couldn’t hear anything over her own screaming and the creatures guttural snarls.It seemed like it would never stop. The things need to feed seemed to have stripped away it’s ability for rational thought it seemed incapable of concerning itself with anything aside from tearing out her throat. Tears streamed down her face as she lay pinned beneath the thing. Unable to move. Unable to escape.


Was this it? Was this how she was going to die? Trapped in a dingy warehouse? Eaten alive? Eventually her projection would fail. It couldn’t hold up to the assault of the creature on top of her, and when it did the thing would eat her alive. It’s fangs sunk into the aura around her neck again and she screamed. As much as she could anyway. Her throat was raw. She thought she taste blood. She was going to die.Here. Alone.No one would ever know. As the thought flitted across her racing mind a trickle of anger began to flow with the pain. With the fear. No. SHe hadn’t survived, hadn’t suffered to die here. Forgotten. Alone. No. She wouldn’t allow it. No.No.NO!


A snarl escaped her every bit as feral as the thing atop her as the rage flared within her.  It recoiled, likely surprised. It wasn’t much but it was enough. Her right arm bulged within the sleeve of her jacket, tearing through the material as new muscle seemed to ripple across the limb. The creature was utterly unprepared for strength or speed of that arm as it lashed out at its face. It darted back and almost managed to evade the blow,  would have if not for the golden claws snapped out from her fingertips and sank deep into the creatures flesh. It howled in agony as a torrent of red poured down the left side of it’s face as it was reduced to bloodied meat, mixing with the golden ichor that stained it’s jaws. She pushed herself up and swung at the thing again but it had more time to react and it skittered away, once again moving on all fours.


In a heartbeat it was gone. Out of sight. She took a shaky breath as the anger and adrenaline kept burning through her. Her fingers trembled pushed herself shakily to her feet, letting her arm fade into a cloud of golden dust. She needed the mana more. She needed to get out of here. She’d gotten lucky. Insanely lucky. She wasn’t stupid enough to believe she’d done any real damage to whatever that thing had been. It was probably going to be back, and it was definitely pissed off.


She started towards the door when she noticed the enchanted arsenal that was all she could see of her boogeyman up against a wall. Unmoving. She bit her lip. She should run. Now. She didn’t want anything to do with a mage hunter...but she might not have a choice. They were a lot more likely to survive together than alone. If nothing else she could run away while the monster was snacking on him. A slight smirk crossed her features as the wry thought flashed through her mind and faded just as quickly. “You alive?” She rasped, her throat burning from the effort.

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“You alive?”  


          “I’m fine,” Harker answered, though he wasn’t really.  Body ached in painful protest as he climbed to his feet.  The girl seemed to recoil away from him when he did.  The Soldier took a moment to evaluate his condition.  Bones were rattled but intact, laceration on the back of his head, vision and breathing were normalizing.  Mechanically everything was working well enough, though he probably had a concussion.


          Ryan looked to the girl.  She was frightened, but otherwise appeared to be unharmed.  He had witnessed the vampire’s attempt on her life.  Seen the aura of mana that scaled her flesh to withstand the assault.  She was a magus, though not of the typical variety.  Her manipulation of energy into physical form was instinctual, not a spell cast.  This made her unique, unlike anything he had seen before.     


          The mage-hunter searched the immediate area, enchanted goggles still allowed him to see through the lightless dark.  Swiveling head stopped when he found his displaced weapon.  He walked a few steps and scooped his pistol from the floor.  A quick function check of the firearm was conducted, then he glanced back to the girl.  When he spoke, irritation laced his words.  “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”


          Harker ejected the magazine from his pistol and performed a tactical reload.  Magazine of enchanted silver munitions was exchanged for one loaded with wooden bullets.  They would be more effective against his current quarry, but the single clip of wooden rounds was all he had.  If he could put just one of them into the vampire’s head, or heart, he would be able to slay it.  Otherwise, his only chance of killing the creature was to burn it alive or decapitate it in hand to hand combat.  Neither option had a realistic chance of success.  The hunter would have to be disciplined with his shot placement.


          “Stay close and stay behind me,” Ryan told the girl.  He wasn’t wasting any time.  They had to kill the monster before it healed enough to resume the offensive.  Now that it knew their abilities, Ryan doubted they would survive another confrontation with the vampire at full strength. 


“It has our scent,” He explained as they moved deeper into the warehouse.  “If we run, it will hunt us down, and kill us both…” Weapon was at the ready as the agent paced quickly through the warehouse corridors.  “I shattered its pelvis, but if we let it feed, it will heal, and it will kill us both.  The only way we live through this is if we find it, and kill it, before it has a chance to feed… It won’t run, it needs us dead.” 


Their pursuit of the creature took them deeper into the building.  Outside the storm raged on.  Furious winds still howled against warehouse’s metal walls.  The sheet-metal creaked and moaned but refused to yield to the violent gale.  The noise made it difficult, if not impossible, to hear movement or footsteps within the pitch-black structure.


          They were nearly at the warehouse’s center when Ryan finally happened upon the monster he hunted.  The vampire was mounted on one of the victims it had slain earlier that evening.  It drank passionately from the corpse’s neck, never mind the heart no longer pumped life through its veins.  The creatures head snapped to attention as the ARMA operative leveled his sights.  Fangs bared angrily, blood dribbling down the vampire’s chin. 


A flash of movement.  The creature bolted to escape the Harker’s aim, but he anticipated the trajectory and adjusted accordingly.  The agent fired three rounds in rapid succession, striking the creature twice in the leg before it managed to slither out of sight.  Harker chased after the vampire, but when he rounded its cover, it was gone.


“Fuck!” Ryan cursed under his breath.  He turned to glare back at Maya.  The operative knew he had sprinted away from her, but he chose to vent his frustration nonetheless, “If you don’t want to die, you need to fucken keep up.”    

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“I’m fine.”


Maya flinched as the mage hunter climbed to his feet. The tide of rage and adrenaline that had carried her through the vampires assault had all but burnt out. Without it the fear had begun to press in again. She wasn’t used to this. Ever since the world had gone to hell she’d done her best to keep her head down. Avoided danger. Some days that worked out better than others, but this? The bodies, and violence, and the goddamn monsters around her? She wasn’t used to dealing with that. She’d been shot at before when things went wrong on a job, and she didn’t much care for it. A couple of times she’d even had to slip away from Gifted employed by whomever her target happened to be. As shitty as those things were she could handle them.

They were still in the realm of normalcy. Not this outright madness.


“Who are you, and what are you doing here?”


Ice filled her veins as the question hung in the air as the mage hunter went for his gun. Part of her didn’t want to let him. Wanted to make sure he never got to use the thing on anyone ever again. She didn’t though. Partly because she knew it’d likely get her killed. Mostly though it was because she was more scared of being alone in the warehouse with whatever that thing was. Besides, as dangerous as he was her boogeyman was still human. Probably. That didn’t mean he scared the shit out of her any less.


He might’ve been invisible to her sight, but his gear was a different story. The man was a walking magical armory. Everything on him seemed bathed in the soft glowing patterns of enchantments. She flinched as mag he ejected clattered to the floor, her gaze fixing on the weapon as he loaded a new one. Both of the magazines glowed softly to her eyes. She could see the spellcraft laid into the bullets. She had a feeling those would punch right through her projections. She hoped they’d fare as well against the creature.


“Could...ask you the same.” She ground out, her throat burning from the effort.  A wasted effort apparently. If he heard her he didn’t make any indication of it. Irritation prickled underneath the fear.


“Stay close and stay behind me,”


He didn’t offer her much choice in the matter. As soon as the words left his lips he was off and running deeper into the warehouse. Maya mentally cursed and reluctantly sprinted after him. Her mage hunter was quick. She was more fit than many, but she found herself running to keep pace with him. Of course from what she could tell he was about a foot taller than her too.


The storm outside drowned out most of the warehouse’s typical sounds and anxiety pressed in as she ran after the man, stoking her fear. This was probably the worst situation she could be in.

The fear that strummed at her nerves was all too familiar. She wasn’t a fighter. She’d learned to take a beating in prison, but fighting back? Most of the time it just shut her down. Any number of things would do it. The crack of bone. The wet, meaty sound flesh made when it was being beaten on. Mostly she froze up. Her mind went blank. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breath.

Some of the others had had fun with it. Thought it was entertaining to kick the shit out of her and watch her freeze up while they did it. The first few times anyway .Eventually she got even more afraid of them, afraid of the beatings and all other shit they did to her. They pushed her till she finally pushed back.


She didn’t remember much of that. It was fragmented. Half remembered. Like a dream. When she came to she was sitting on top of one of the girls who’d been tormenting her and bawling her eyes out. They were both covered in blood. Not much of it was hers. She was in solitary for a little while after that. It was good. She was afraid to be around other people. After that she’d ended sharing a cell with Alex. Things got better. She got better...but she wasn’t ever fixed. Not really. The freezing up was bad. It rattled her. Made her remember things she didn’t want too...snapping? That was so much worse.When she came down she felt...unclean.

Like an animal. Like a monster. Maybe that was what they needed right now.


“It has our scent,If we run, it will hunt us down, and kill us both…”  Maya wondered briefly how he knew that. Maybe mages and gifted weren’t the only things he hunted. If he was right she was glad she’d decided to stick around. The thing would have made short work of her out in the snow at full strength.


“I shattered its pelvis, but if we let it feed, it will heal, and it will kill us both.  The only way we live through this is if we find it, and kill it, before it has a chance to feed… It won’t run, it needs us dead.”  He seemed to know a lot about the thing. The way he described it sounded a lot like a vampire. She wasn’t sure why that seemed so odd to her. There were already zombies and werewolves. Vampires? Why not. It still seemed to tame a description of the creature. As they ran her nerves continued to fray. He though seemed remarkably composed if his tone of voice was anything to go by. The creature seemed to have caught him off guard...but if he wasn’t here to kill it what was he here for? She didn’t dare to ask.


It didn’t take them long to find the thing, but they weren’t quick enough.  She could see the veins of light across it’s skin flicker more brightly as it drank hungrily from the corpse. As they closed on it she felt for her fingertips, focusing on the sensation as golden light pooled into the empty sleeve of her coat, slender golden fingers escaping it a moment later. Her magehunter pulled on the vampire and her hand shot for her own gun holstered on her belt at the small of her back. Before she could draw though the creature was off running and the sounds of the storm were momentarily drowned out by the incredible cacophony as the man opened up on it. She didn’t see if he’d hit the thing and he didn’t give her time to ask, chasing after the thing without a word.She darted after him but couldn’t keep up. He stopped just as suddenly as he had started, apparently having lost track of the thing and she frowned as he cursed under his breath.


“If you don’t want to die, you need to fucken keep up.” Had she been paying attention to him his attitude would have probably gotten him a snide reply even if the comment didn’t. Terrified of him or not she didn’t let people walk all over her.  Not anymore. Fortunately he attention was on the direction the creature had gone.The thing was fast but she didn’t think it could just vanish like that. Especially if it was wounded as he made it out to be. These spaces were large and it would have had to have gone a ways to get out of the section they were in...so what if it hadn’t?


Her eyes darted up, scanning the darkened rafters and the industrial shelving. She spotted it there, crouching among the crate laden pallets. IT glared down at them, and as she spotted it it bared its teeth and snarled. She raised her sidearm and fired at it. The shot’s were barely aimed and she was too panicked the creature and the unfamiliar kick of the gun in her hands to compose herself. She fired three more rounds rapidly. Panic fire. She didn’t actually hit the thing but she got surprisingly close, hitting a crate a few inches away from its head. The thing snarled as splinters dug into the side of its face. It braced itself and pushed against the crate, sending it tumbling over the edge and right toward them.  


Maya dove out of the way landing hard on her side, her arms wrapping around her face to shield her from splinters of wood and glass as the crate and whatever was in it shattered into a scrap. She gingerly got to her feet and looked around. The Vampire was gone, she didn’t see her magehunter either. His gear wasn’t mixed in with the shattered remains of the crate so he hadn’t been crushed at least. “Still alive? “ She rasped . As she looked for him she noticed a faint glow from the floor nearby. She bent down for a better look and realized it was the same color as the foul magic that seemed to run though the vampires veins. It was bleeding. She could track it. “ I think I...can find it.” She called softly, hoping that he could heart her.


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The girl had produced a handgun from somewhere on her person.  Her glowing eyes shifted toward the ceiling, then widened in terror.  Harker followed her gaze.  When she started cranking off rounds, he stepped away from her and engaged the foe as well.  Caught off guard, the operative fell back on his training and fired a controlled pair.  Though the girl’s rounds ricocheted chaotically around the creature, Harker’s both punched into the ten-ring center mass.


          The vampire reeled backward over the scaffold shelving and kicked a large wooden crate down toward them in the process.  The young female magus dove to safety.  Harker stepped to the side casually and allowed the crate to smash harmlessly against the pavement, wasting no effort. 


          “He’s wearing body armor dumbass,” he scolded himself mentally.


Ryan quickly found an empty space in the shelving.  Gripping the shelf above with his offhand, the mage hunter swung himself through the gap with impressive acrobatic form.  He landed feet first on the other side.  Gun was ready, but so was his prey. 


The vampire lunged forward, parrying the agent’s pistol with one hand and slashing at his throat with the other.  Harker back peddled hastily, free hand deflecting the creature’s attack in kind.  He circled his wrist and grasped the demon’s forearm, just as it clutched his bicep on the opposite side.  For an instant, the two were locked in a deadly struggle.


“Fucking hunter,” the undead mercenary spat through bloody fangs.  The crimson ichor sprayed into Ryan’s eyes, and they snapped shut naturally.  Seizing the advantage, the creature pivoted and slammed the operative into a nearby wall of industrial shelving.  Sig Sauer discharged unintentionally as the agent fought to keep control of the weapon.


With his back against steel rafters, Harker knew a prolonged grapple would end only in his demise.  The vampire was driving the agent’s gun hand toward the ground.  He countered as best he could by pushing its other arm upward, away from his neck.  Even wounded, the fiend’s supernatural muscles were immensely stronger than his own, and slowly its claws inched toward his throat.


Bending his wrist awkwardly, Ryan aimed his pistol upward and squeezed the trigger twice.  The rounds struck the arm reaching for his windpipe, blowing out the vamp’s joint at the elbow.  A viscera of bone, tendons, flesh and blood spewed through the backside of the creature’s arm.  The limb went limp in Ryan’s hand and he wrenched it away from his face.  Still, the vampire managed to maintain control of the hunter’s other arm.


The demon’s head arched backward in anguish, and then lurched forward with fangs bared.  In a single motion, Harker released the monster’s arm and drew one of the tactical blades from his hardened leather carapace.  Knife was braced against his forearm when its magic infused steel met the bloodsucker’s teeth.  The creature’s jaw clamped down on the blade, just inches from their intended target.


A rod of molten iron seared through Ryan’s right arm, when the mortal bone finally gave way to the vampire’s fearsome grasp.  The snap was audible.  Ryan couldn’t help but cry out, even as he guarded the creature’s fearsome maw with the knife in his other hand.  Gun dropped to the floor with a metallic clack.  Molten rod replaced by a thousand superheated needles tingling through his immobile limb.


          Unfortunately, the ARMA operative’s unique abilities transformed an instant of agony into an hour of torture.  The only benefit of his time expansion, being that it afforded him time to accept the pain, deliberate the circumstances, and decide on a course of action.


          A knee was thrust into the vampire’s groin with as much force as Harker could muster.  The demon faltered partly; the blow having jarred the preexisting fractures in its pelvis.  A second knee strike buckled the creature’s legs even further.  Enchanted blade was still pressed across the fiend’s mouth.  Ryan charged forward with all his might, roaring ferociously through his gritted teeth.


          Magic steel sliced against the edges of the vamp’s mouth, but its clenched jaw kept the knife from cutting any deeper.  Harker pressed onward, picking up momentum until they collided hard against the wall of shelving on the opposite side of the aisle.  Enchanted blade slipped through the vampire’s teeth and cleaved smoothly through its open maw.  Upper half of the fiend’s skull was severed from its body, leaving only a bloody stump and sagging lower mandible.


          Decapitated corpse slumped lifelessly to the ground at Ryan’s feet.  He stood there a moment, crimson stained blade lowering slowly to his side.  Panting breathes heaved his chest, but otherwise he remained unmoving.  The operative stared blankly at the scaffolded shelves ahead of him.  Time resumed its normal pace.


         It had been a close call, but the deed was done.

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It seemed her mage hunter had survived, and from the sound of things he hardly needed her help to find the thing.  She was still looking for Harker and had just rounded the end of the shelving and nearly stumbled into the pair as the creature cursed the mage hunter. 


"Fucking hunter"


The two were so totally consumed with dealing with eachother she doubted the two of them even remembered she existed, much less noticed her at that moment.  She shifted into a practiced marksmens stance and lifted her sidearm at the creature, her grip shaky. She froze for a  moment before slipping the weapon back into the holster in the small of her back. No way she was risking that. Even if she could see the man she'd probably be just as likely to hit him as the monster. She watched the struggle unfold, rooted to the spot as she was torn between the desire to run, to get as far away from this mess as possible...and the urge to help mage hunter. It surprised her honestly. Even if she had been a fighter the man wasn't a friend. Wasn't someone she had any particular reason to care about. If anything it was probably better for her if he didn't make it out of the situation...and yet the urge to help was winning. 


She clenched the golden fist at her side and the limb began to ripple, shimmering as it thickened, serrated claws springing from it's fingertips as she crept quietly towards the two monsters as they struggled to kill each other.  She was only a few feet away when the world exploded in a flash of pain and sound.  If she'd been more aware she might have screamed, but her mind was crushed beneath the weight of it. Pain was an old friend. She was used to it. Could deal with it usually. Most of the time actually considered it a good thing. Pain let you know you were alive. This? This wasn't that kind of pain. She fell to the ground mid stride, her muscles going slack as the two continued to grapple. Her arm faded away,  a golden burst of  stardust that seemed to scatter away from the spot where the bullet from the mage hunters weapon tore through the elbow like wet paper.  


When the second resonance had hit one of her fellow inmates had come into their powers and the first thing they'd done was bring cell block down on top of them. She never found out who'd done it, or if they'd meant to. Not that it mattered much. She didn't remember the ceiling coming down on her. There was a faint memory of heat.  Of pressure on her back that seemed to drive the air from her lungs...Falling. Mostly she remembered the weight.  It didn't hurt. Not at first.  It was too strong to hurt. The weight was everything. Everywhere. On her chest. Her legs...but mostly her arm. Like it was pinned under a mountain. It might as well have been. Eventually the weight started to fade. Then came the pain. It was everything.  Moving was pain. Breathing was pain. She thought the pain itself would kill her if nothing else. It was so consuming, so total she couldn't imagine surviving...but she did. Even now the memory of that pain was never far from her thoughts.


This was worse. It bit deeper. Harsher. It didn't strike at her flesh. Flesh was temporary. Insignificant in comparison.  This pain seemed to dig deeper. Past her flesh and bones and down into her soul. The golden glow in her eyes flickered and died as she fell unmovingly to the warehouse's concrete floor.  For a few moments she was so absolutely still it didn't seem possible she was still alive. Her eyes stared sightlessly ahead. She didn't see. Didn't hear. Didn't even breath.  She was utterly lost to the battle of life and death that was unfolding just a few feet away from her.  


Then the Sig fired again. Her senses came back to life, each one hitting her like a truck. She gasped, breathing deeply as she tried to make sense of what she was feeling. Hearing. Smelling.  The crack of breaking bone seemed to echo in her ears, threatening to pull her  back to that moment. The moment she hated. The moment she regretted. That terrified her. The thick cloying scent of fresh blood pressed in on her, overwhelming. She teetered, barely managing to keep it together. To keep herself here. Now. Something clattered to the floor and fear jolted through her.


Fear. That was it.  She was afraid. Of the mage hunter. The vampire. Their fight, and mostly the darkness that filled her vision.  Her sight was gone again. The smells and sounds threatened to overwhelm her and she moved away from them, crawling frantically along the ground until her shoulder collided with the framework of the shelving on the opposite row. She put her back to it, her face turning toward the struggle, her eyes darting rapidly,  


One of them let loose a battle cry that seemed to echo in her ears, and it grew louder as footsteps, uneven and stumbling brought it closer.  She scampered to the side and dropped low to the ground as the sound of the two monsters colliding with the shelving near where she'd just been echoed through the warehouse.  Beneath the din she hear a wet and meaty sound of tearing flesh and solid thud followed by a much heavier one a moment later. Each one made her flinch as she stared emptily in the direction the noises  came from. One way or the other it sounded like that fight was over.


She tried to pull on her mana. Reached for the familiar sensation of her fingertips slipping through the sleeve of her jacket and found...nothing. Nothing happened. Emptiness flooded her and her eyes were hot as silent tears ran down her face. The mage hunters bullets might have killed the vampire. They'd certainly killed her magic, though she didn't know for how long. It didn't matter much.  Without her gifts she was nothing but a blind little cripple. Whichever of them had won their bout would have little trouble dealing with her.  She trembled slightly as she lay on the cold concrete, her hazel eyes dark as they sought her savior or her doom...and found nothing but darkness.

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Harker wiped his blade on the leg of his pants before returning it to its sheath.  Right arm dangled uselessly at his side; every miniscule movement of the limb overwhelmed the dull throbbing with a fresh spark of searing pain.  The hunter walked a few paces and knelt to recover his weapon for the second time that evening.  The motion was slow, accompanied by a series of pauses and deep breaths.  Once the pistol was securely in hand, he tucked it into his waistband behind his back; as he unable properly holster the gun on his right thigh.


          Pained sigh escaped the ARMA operative.  This mission had gone from covert to complicated, and the potential ramifications were monumental.  A vampire meant the involvement of the Sheut Nation.  Harker knew of the organization’s existence, though he had never personally associated with them.  Information he had gleaned on the Sheut Nation throughout his career, led him to loathe its existence as passionately as he loathed the Order of the First Light.  The Order had considered them to be a necessary evil.  Harker disagreed.  The existence of a subversive, immortal entity amassing power and influence through material gain was diabolically evil.  If such an organization was left unchallenged… world domination wasn’t just possible, it was inevitable.


          Ryan noticed Maya sitting on the ground, huddled against the shelving near the vampire’s corpse.  The girl stared blankly in his direction, her face fraught with fear, tears streaming intermittently down her cheeks.  Cautiously, he approached her.  “It’s over,” he assured her softly.  “You’re safe.”


          Earlier the agent had noticed the girl’s missing arm.  She wasn’t bleeding or clutching the afflicted shoulder, nor had its absence seemed to affect her gait when they were running.  All of which led him to believe the absent limb was a pre-existing injury.  A tragic loss.  One Ryan would wish only upon his enemies.  No doubt the girl’s deepest scars went unseen by the naked eye.


          The hunter extended his unhindered hand toward Maya, “Are you hurt?”  A momentary pause for her answer as he evaluated her condition for himself.  “What’s your name?”  Despite the agony of his own afflictions, Ryan’s words were gentle, kind even.  “Alright Ashley, now I really need you to answer me.  What are you doing here?”


          Harker needed answers.  The incident would need to be reported to ARMA.  However, the details of his report were still open to “interpretation.”  Before he made an official call, he would conduct his own investigation.  Once he had ascertained all the facts, he would determine what information would be presented to ARMA headquarters.  Sadly, he still wasn’t certain if ARMA could be trusted not to share his true findings with the Order. 

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The quiet darkness seemed to stretch on for eternity. Quiet, not silence. Silence would have been good. It would’ve likely meant that her two monsters had ended each other, although if she’d been in a clearer frame of mind she would’ve been surprised to find she would’ve felt a bit bad were her mage hunter to die. Instead the silence was buried beneath long deep breaths. The kind you took when you were afraid to breath because you thought it would hurt. She knew that sound from unfortunate experience. The fear threatened to press in on her again. Her breathing quickened, eyes darting frantically in an attempt to spot something, anything. It only got worse as the noise continued. A scrape of metal on concrete. Footsteps coming towards her. Too close. They were too close!


The mage hunters voice split the quiet painfully loud, and she flinched away, his words lost to her as she struggled to keep from losing it completely. As his tone softened though the words began to make sense. She answered reflexively, without thought when he asked her name.




That was her. That used to be her. Before the madness and the monsters. Before everything went to hell. She wasn’t sure about now. What he asked next took a moment for her frantic mind to process. She was here for an artifact. She’d almost forgotten. It didn’t matter much now. The job had already gone so far south her client would be lucky if Graft settled for putting them in a body bag. She’d been told to expect risks. Risks were unavoidable. This? This was a fucking death sentence. Oh. Graft. He was going to be upset. Not just with the client either. The thought of meeting him empty handed would have filled her with dread if she’d had any extra to spare.




The words were mumbled, spoken not for his benefit but for her own as she tried to make sense of everything again. Tried to reel in a mind that was dangerously close to unraveling  She tried to stand but the world seemed to rock beneath her feet and she slipped, falling against the shelving and clinging to it to keep herself upright. Out. She needed to get out of here. Away from the mage hunter. Away from the darkness. Away from the tang of blood and rot that she knew now was the vampires corpse. She needed to see. She let go of the shelving, her eyes glazing slightly as she stared ahead. Stared almost directly at the mage hunter. For a moment she didn’t move. The  only sound her ragged breathing as it began to slow. Began to even out.


Then her eyes glowed gold once more. Softly at first, then brighter until they stood out sharply against the darkness. The darkness changed, not vanishing but twisting into the familiar featureless landscape she’d come to know. Relief flooded her and she took a deep breath as her eyes settled on the mage hunter. Or his gear anyway. Even now she couldn’t see him.She didn’t really need to. As the panic began to recede she found herself able to think once more. Her mage hunter wasn’t doing so well. His breathing was labored. She could hear the pain in his voice. The crack she’d heard during the fight echoed in her ears  again as she studied him. If she had to guess the vampire gave as good as he got.


She took a slow cautious step back from him, her expression guarded. This could go a lot of ways. Many of them didn’t end well for her. She didn’t know him, but she knew what he was capable of. He was a killer. One with experience.Not only that but he was practically invisible to her. The cold logical part of her brain said she should end him now. Kill him before he got the chance to end her...but she couldn’t. Even if he was beat to hell she knew if it came to a fight he’d win every time  because he could pull the trigger, and as much as she wished she could, she couldn’t. Despite everything she still wasn’t a killer. She still wasn’t a monster. It would have been so much easier if she was.


You’re…..You’re not with them?” She asked her tone skeptic.


There wasn’t a good answer to that. Not to her. It didn’t matter if he was an enforcer or a badge. Both got their hands dirty. The only difference was the badges acted like the blood washed off.When she’d seen him at the Satyr on New Years eve she’d assumed he was with them. Now...now she wasn’t so sure. Either way she didn’t plan on ending up another body to bag tonight.  She slowly began edging away from him while taking hold of her power to prepare for whatever happened next...


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“Why?...... What?”  The girl stammered as she stumbled backward away from him.  She nearly fell but managed to catch herself on the wall of shelving behind her.  Panic still streaked her features and she gasped desperately for air.  Frightened and alone, she reminded Harker of a cornered animal.  People and animals were alike in that sense; when backed into a corner, they could often be dangerous and unpredictable.  Of course, he hadn’t forgotten she still had a handgun at the small of her back.


          “What are you doing here Ashley?”  Ryan repeated himself calmly.  Though it was difficult to maintain his composure.  Adrenaline was subsiding and the pain of his injuries was gradually becoming more difficult to manage.  Quivering fingers of his left hand reached for his broken arm, pausing as they gingerly touched his jacket sleeve.  Instinct told him to do something, anything to ease the pain.  Reason prevailed over the impulse, knowing full well moving the injured limb would cause only further pain.


          “You’re… You’re not with them?”  The girl stammered awkwardly.  She was still backing away from him, but at least she was talking.


          “No, I’m not with them.”  He answered quietly, an occasional labored breath as he spoke.  “This is going to sound made up, but I promise it’s the truth.” he continued, realizing how outlandish the explanation would sound when spoken aloud.  “I am an agent with ARMA.  I am on a mission to recover a very dangerous item, from some very dangerous people.”


          “Now Ashley, I need you to tell me how you got mixed up into all this?”  Harker’s patience was growing thinner by the second.  Frustration not toward the girl, but at the situation.  The more he analyzed the circumstances, the more he was beginning to feel like the entire event had been a carefully orchestrated trap.  Then it dawned on him…


          For weeks he had been hunting down leads pertaining to this “unknown threat.”  The trail had led him from the “Book of Kells,” to the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and then to several other locations throughout New York.  People had been killed, others badly hurt, but eventually the bloody path had led him to this warehouse.  A warehouse being leased by a shell corporation.  A shell corporation with a majority shareholder who also happened to be a ranking magus within the Order of the First Light.  A magus who by all accounts had been attempting acquire an immensely valuable artifact, which was set to be delivered to this port, on this night.


          All the evidence had eventually led the operative to this specific place, at this specific time. 


          These people had known Harker was pursuing them.  Hell, he had warned them he was coming.  While they may not have known his name or who he represented, they knew someone was coming for them.  Based on the havoc left in his wake, it wouldn’t have taken them long to discern he was a motivated individual with a distinct skill set.  The Order, the “unseen threat,” whoever was calling the shots had been following his progress from a distance.  Harker had been getting close to answers, and when he started getting too close, they went to extraordinary lengths to ensure he reached a dead end.  Literally. 


The circumstances surrounding his current predicament had fallen into place far too conveniently.  As if someone had been making calculated moves in a game of chess.  Harker’s talents had been measured, his operating procedures assessed, and they had used them against him.  They had locked him in a cage with the most lethal of foes, and worse still, the trap had been of his own design. 


Harker had been the one to sabotage the power transformers providing electricity to the warehouse.  He had emplaced the signal jammer to prevent any communications in or out of the facility.  He had even disabled the vehicles outside to prevent any realistic chance of escape. 


Now, the agent found himself caught in a trap of his own making.  Wounded, confused, alone, and unable to call for assistance.  Fucking perfect.  Having reevaluated his current situation, new questions pricked at his brain. 


Had this all been a ruse to lure him here?  Did these people really possess the influence to set such a trap?  Were they willing to sacrifice so much, just to eliminate a single threat?  The questions he feared more than any of the above… how much of this had been real?  And, how much of his investigation had been corrupted by orchestrated deception?


          Ryan’s eyes darted back and forth as the repercussions of his conclusions began sink in.  “No, no, no…” he muttered to himself.  He had to confirm his new theory before any further action could be taken.  An aggressive step was taken toward the girl, cutting off her path of escape.  A finger from his unhindered arm was jabbed just inches from her face, “How did you know to be here?”  A furious rage tainted the words as he spoke.


She didn’t answer.


          He shoved Ashley hard against the shelving behind her.  A firm hand grasping her shoulder and pinning her in place.  Fractured arm hadn’t been used, but the residual movement brought renewed agony to the injury, nonetheless.  He ignored it.  Anger triumphed over any notion of heroic chivalry and he repeated the question.  This time bellowing with venomous menace, “WHO TOLD YOU TO BE HERE?!”


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Too much. It was too much. The bodies. The vampire. Whatever that bullet had done to her. And now an ARMA agent. Of course he was. She had no problem believing that. None at all. Of course he was with ARMA. That wasn’t it though. Not enough. While her mind was reeling the man, the “agent” snapped.  She didn’t know what set him off. Didn’t have any time to think. One second he was muttering to himself and a moment later he was inches away, demanding to know why she was there. He didn’t wait for an answer, not that she had one. Not one he would like to hear.


A hand she couldn’t see lashed out and shoved her back into the shelving. She stumbled and would have ended up on the ground if the same hand hadn’t pinned her in place. Panic. Pain. Rage. They all seemed to blend together as the agent’s voice echoed in her ears again. Then it happened. Her magic slipped away. Again. It shouldn’t have surprised her. When the bullet had hit her arm it had drained the mana she’d had, left her utterly empty. Spent. She’d only managed to draw up enough to see because of the fear. Then she’d reached for more like a drowning victim reaching for a lifeline. Too much more. There was nothing left to take. She had nothing more to keep her afloat.


She went limp against the shelving, the last of the fight going out of her with the dregs of her magic. The golden glow in her eyes dimmed, then died leaving them dark once more. Her eyes grew wet as the darkness returned. Since she’d gotten them her gifts had made her feel safe. In control. Even with the loss of her arm she felt whole. Then she’d lost her eyes. It’d taken time to get over that, and  she had for the most part, but the change had made her more dependent on her gifts...and made her feel so very alone without them. Like now. Alone with the boogie man.

Helpless. Useless.


As the last of her magic slipped away it broke her. The tears escaped, wet and hot as they ran down her face. There was no way she could get away from him now. Even if she could shake him then what? Wander out into a blizzard?They wouldn’t find her body for months. She was out of magic. Out of fight. Out of time. If the mage hunter took her in they’d find her DNA in the system. The identity Graft had set up for her was good, but it wouldn’t hold up under that kind of scrutiny. They were going to find out she hadn’t really died. They were going to send her back.

Not there, no. She knew about Alcatraz. About how it had been reopened to keep people like her.


She couldn’t do it. When she went to prison she’d lost a lot. Her dignity, her freedom...and a part of herself. The part that woke up thinking things would be okay. That this new world still had pockets of good hidden in among the nightmares. But she’d survived. This time she wouldn’t.There were a lot of things she’d found she could live without since the first event. Her gifts weren’t one of them. She would sooner lose the rest of her limbs. Without her magic just be a cripple. Broken. Incomplete. Consigned to live the rest of her life in a cage. In the dark. All alone.No. She didn’t have much, but she had a choice. Just one. She wouldn’t let them take anything else from her.


“You’re all the same. None of you care about the damage you do so long as you get what you want. ” The words seemed small in the wake of his shouting. Fragile.


Then she kicked him. She wasn’t sure where she hit him. Didn’t much care. That wasn’t the point. She was just trying to throw him off balance. Give herself time. Just a little. Just enough. Her hand shot to the small of her back, her fingers brushed the grip of her sidearm and she yanked it free. She didn’t waste any time. Didn’t hesitate. It didn't matter that she couldn't see. She didn't need too. Not for this. She put the barrel to her temple and pulled the trigger.




It was quiet, but somehow in that silence it seemed so deafening, that sound.




It was the sound of her last choice dying.




The gun tumbled from her fingers, landing with a clatter on the concrete. Tears streamed down her face as she slowly sank to her knees...


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The girl went limp in Harker’s grasp, barely staying on her feet.  The fight had left her, and it felt as though she might collapse at any moment.  Magic glow in her eyes dimmed, replaced by overflowing tears of defeat.  She was silent for a time before she spoke, “You’re all the same. None of you care about the damage you do so long as you get what you want.”


          “What the fuck are you talking about?”  The agent was genuinely perplexed by her response.  It hadn’t addressed his questions at all.  Clearly, she was going through her own shit.


          A familiar chill crawled down the length of Ryan’s neck and time slowed.  To his surprise, instincts told him the threat was emanating from the fragile girl before him.  Then he saw it, she was reaching toward her waistline behind her back.  She was reaching for her gun.


          The kick to the groin had been unexpected.  He had been focused on her hand movement and when he noticed the incoming strike, his body was simply too exhausted to react in time.  The tiny woman’s foot caught him squarely between the legs.  Despite the relatively weak blow, the sensitive area elicited an understandable response. 


Harker heaved forward slightly, the pain forcing some of the air from his lungs.  The recoil set in motion a cascading wave of agony throughout his body; ribs, back and mangled arm all protested the movement.  The collateral suffering afflicted by the attack far outweighing the damage cause by the actual kick.  He suspected he had broken than his arm. 


The operative remained focused on the girl’s hand.  Her diversion had succeeded in delaying his response, but not enough to permit an actual attempt on his life.  As she drew the firearm from the small of her back the agent snatched her wrist.  Using her arms upward momentum, he slammed her hand against the shelving behind her.  Action was swift, and he ensured the weapon remained pointed in her direction throughout the effort.  Gun was pointed at her own temple when he heard the sound.


“Click, click, click.”


“Jesus Christ,” Ryan cursed in disbelief.  Then he twisted her wrist sharply, forcing the pistol from her hand.  The weapon clattered uselessly to the floor and a moment later, the sobbing child did the same.


“What the fuck is the matter with you?”  The hunter scolded, kicking the weapon out of arms reach.  Hand vanished under his coat, then remerged with holding an item.  There was a flash of steel as he slapped a handcuff onto her wrist.  Ratcheting metal echoed in the deathly quiet warehouse, then again as he secured the other end to a steel beam supporting the industrial shelves.


“Those cuffs are enchanted,” he explained as he turned to walk away.  This was probably unnecessary, as by now she could likely feel the effects.  “They are designed to disrupt any magical abilities of the wearer.”  The ARMA agent had taken another several steps before he mentioned over his shoulder, “Also, they’re pretty much unbreakable and unpickable.  So just sit tight, I’ll be back.”


          Ryan reached into a pocket and withdrew a small tactical flashlight.  Night-vision goggles had been lost sometime during his fight with the vampire, so he would have to do without.  Beam of light scanned the darkness within the forsaken warehouse.  Revealed was a ghastly portrayal of the vampire’s deeds, bringing life to the sickly smell of dead flesh that filled Ryan’s nostrils.   


          Corpses littered the warehouse.  A dozen at least, probably more.  Automatic rifles and pistols lay discarded by the fallen bodies; little good they had done them.  There wasn’t as much blood at the scene as Harker had expected.  Most of the demon’s victims appeared to have been slain by feats of strength in hand to hand combat.  Snapped necks, caved skulls, collapsed rib cages, and broken spines had been the results yielded from the vampire’s methods.  Had the agent not encountered the creature at the warehouse himself, ARMA investigators would have little to work with.


           Harker strode casually through the carnage, turning heads with his boot to inspect the men’s faces.  He recognized most of them, they all worked for the criminal organization he had been investigating.  The same organization that had approached Rorye at her shop in search of magus blood.  The same syndicate that had killed Remy and raided his bunker.  The same group that he suspected was working for a Mr. Steven Ramirez, an Arch Magus for the Order of the First Light.


          Amidst the chaos there was single chair placed in the center of the warehouse.  Tied to the chair was another corpse, clad in an expensive gray suit.  Hands and feet were bound, crimson stains speckled the front his otherwise neat clothing.  Of all the dead, this man alone had been tortured prior to meeting his untimely end.  Long blonde bangs covered the man’s bearded face, but Ryan suspected he already knew who he would find beneath.  The ARMA operative held his breath in apprehension as he lifted the man’s head and shined a light in his face.


          “GOD DAMN IT!”  He bellowed in a fit of untamed anger.


          Of course, the mutilated corpse belonged to none other than Arch Magus, Steven Ramirez.  That had been Ryan’s connection to the higher echelons of leadership within this “unknown threat.”  The agent had hoped Ramirez would lead him to a Hi-Arch Magus of the Order.  If a link between the Vatican and the “unknown” faction could be established, ARMA could bring their entire force to bare against the Order.  They would dismantle the traitorous organization and assimilate those who believed in ARMA’s cause.  With Ramirez dead, Harker had nothing.


          The mage hunter bit down on the end of is flashlight, freeing his functioning hand to pull out his cell phone and check for service.  No signal.  An anticipated inconvenience.  The jammer outside would need to be deactivated before he could make any calls.  Phone was shoved aggressively back into an available pocket.


Light was removed from his mouth before he muttered angrily, “Fucking perfect.”


Agitated and in pain, Ryan limped toward the buildings nearest exit.  Before long he made it to an emergency door.  Wind howled violently against the frame and its metal push-bar was ice cold to the touch.  Hand braced against the bar, the operative allowed his head to hang for a moment, shaking it slowly from side to side.  Murphy’s law was in full effect tonight.  The series of unfortunate events was almost comical.


“Could this night get any worse?” he thought to himself.  Answer to this question was always “yes.”  Still, he couldn’t help begging the question anyway.  A moment was taken to regain his composure.  A deep breath, then he pushed open the door and stepped out into the night’s unsympathetic chill.

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She couldn’t stop the tears once they’d started. She’d never really felt in control. Even before the world went to hell? After? Ha. Sometimes she barely felt sane, let alone in control. The closest she’d come since had been in prison of all places. It had been a routine. Relative safety. She’d almost started feeling like a person again in there. Till the god damn ceiling fell on her and she lost her arm. Her powers had been a blessing. Without them she doubted she’d have managed to pull herself together long enough to stay alive. Even those hadn’t come without a cost. Another thing taken from her. Her eyes, her arm. Those had hit her hard, but with her gifts she’d never felt crippled, even broken and battered as she was. Not physically anyway. Mentally? That was a different story entirely.


The flashbacks, the nightmares, they ate at her like a festering wound. They dug at her every day, never really letting her know peace. Worse their was no fix, no pill that would make it go away. She knew. She’d tried. Despite that, despite everything she’d been through she’d never wanted to die. Not really. She’d never despaired so badly she tried to end it all. Until now. So of course it didn’t work. It was ironic really. A sick cosmic joke. She’d fought so hard to make a place for herself. To get over her past and start something new. She’d risked everything for it. Nearly gotten herself killed or worse more than once. Now it was all going to end because she got grabbed by an ARMA spook who hadn’t even been looking for her. God, it was so wrong, but so totally unsurprising. 


Pain flared in her wrist as he grabbed and twisted and the empty gun went clattering to the floor taking her last shred of hope with it. She didn’t answer when he spoke, her unfocused gaze remaining firmly on the floor.She barely reacted when he slapped the cuffs on her. She didn’t feel any different. She was so drained she couldn’t even tell the difference as her powers were sealed. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t get away from him. Not now. Or it seemed that way anyway. Surprise ran through her as he told her to stay put. He was leaving her alone? Part of her was terrified. The vampire was dead, but there were plenty of other things that could have been lurking around the warehouse, and he’d left her cuffed to a god damn shelf? Anger flared through her white hot. She would have told him how stupid that was, demanded he take her with him, or beg if that was what it took. She wasn’t prideful. She didn’t though, because of the other reason it was a terrible decision. Leaving her alone meant she might be able to get free.


Sure he’d said that there was no way out of the cuffs, and even without them she was blind, but it was a chance. A chance was all she needed. Hope was all she needed. She couldn’t reach her picks. If she could she’d probably have tried them despite the warning. He was hardly likely to tell the person he was cuffing they could be picked even if it was possible. Mostly she would have tried it because their was only one other alternative. It was going to hurt. A lot. That was okay. She could deal with pain. At least this one would be temporary. She wiped the tears from her eyes and took a deep steadying breath. She pressed her thumb against beam the cuffs were closed around and took another second to ready herself and bit into the sleeve of her coat before shoving her entire weight against her hand. There was a slight popping noise and a muffled scream she couldn’t hold in. Tears streamed down her face once again and her breathing was shallow, her heart hammering in her chest. 


She gingerly tried to pull her hand through the cuff around her wrist, her newly dislocated thumb pressed against her palm only to bite back another scream as the steel bit into the digit. It hadn’t been enough. Frustration and despair wracked her before melting away beneath the fury. She refused to accept it. She wouldn’t. This wasn’t how things were going to go. She wouldn’t let it. She bit into the sleeve of her jacket again and this time she didn’t try to slip her hand through. She yanked on it. God it fucking hurt. She nearly passed out from the pain that radiated away from her thumb, but she didn’t stop. Not as the steel dug into her skin. Not when it began to peel away, or when blood began to well from  freshly torn skin. If anything she tried harder. Blood ran from her wrist down the length of her leather glove coated it. Still she didn’t stop. 


She heard a yell echo from the depths of the warehouse and her heart began to pound even louder in her ears. She braced herself and pulled against the steel around her wrist with everything she had. Her hand slipped from the cuff, her glove falling to the floor as it was peeled off along the way and she fell straight back on her ass. For a moment she just lay there stunned. She had to be dreaming. The ache from her wrist told her different. She sat up and without any other options she ran her lips gently along the gash she’d torn in her skin and tried to gauge how bad it was. It sure as hell wasn’t good. She could feel a lot of blood pouring out of it. She wasn’t sure if she’d hit deep enough for it to be serious. She licked her lips, grimacing as the taste of blood filled her mouth. That was getting to be a far too familiar taste tonight. She spit it out on the floor. 


She spent a few precious seconds thinking before grabbing her glove from the ground and turning it inside out so the wool lining was exposed before pressing it against the flow from her wrist and pulling her sleeve down over it. It wasn’t a great solution but it was the best she was going to manage with one semi functioning hand.  She pushed herself to her feet and nearly fell back on her ass as a wave of dizziness washed over her. Shit. She had to get out of here. She really wanted to stop and find her gun. Replacing it would be easy, but she didn’t really want to give the agent any more help finding her than she had to. She didn’t have the time. He wasn’t going to get any prints off of it. Hopefully he wouldn’t be able to trace it back to her any other way. Honestly her bleeding all over the place was far more concerning, but there wasn’t much she could do. She’d just have to get out of here as fast as possible. 


Turned out that was pretty damn slow. She found the closest wall and started following it, but without her cane she had to move at a snails pace or run into something hard enough to get even more banged up. She wished she could do something, anything to steady the rapid beat of her heart as it pounded in her ears.She kept expecting something to find her as she stumbled about. Another vampire. Her agent. Hell at this point she wouldn’t be surprised if a god damn zombie just popped out of nowhere to take a bite out of her. Miraculously none of that happened. It took a few minutes but she finally managed to find a door. She was just about to head out into the storm when it opened and heavy footsteps lumbered through. 


She heard labored breathing. Her boogeyman. God damn it! She’ been so close!. Her bloodied hand tightened into a fist at her side, her nerves screaming at the motion. She was exhausted. It showed. So did the blood loss. She was ghostly pale. Her eyes seemed to look right through him as she froze.


“Please move. Look, I had no idea what was happening here, okay?  I was supposed to come pick something up.That was it. I don’t even know what. This...thing. The bodies, the monsters, I don’t know anything about that.” She told him flatly.


It was the truth, or the next best thing. She hadn’t told him who she was supposed to be grabbing the thing for. She wouldn’t either. Graft was going to be pissed about this. He’d have been more pissed if she got caught. Snitching on him? That wouldn’t sour their relationship. That would earn her a bullet. Not just her either. Fuck. She could feel the cold setting in. She had to force herself not to start shivering. If she didn’t walk out of here soon she wasn’t sure she’d be able to at all.


“Look, you can put a bullet in me if you want, but if you don’t i’m getting out of here.” 


To him it might have sounded like a threat if not for the sheer resignation in her voice. She didn’t care anymore. She didn’t have the energy left. Either she was getting out of here, or he was going to end it for her. Either way she wanted nothing more than for this god forsaken night to end. 

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As Harker crossed the threshold to enter the warehouse, he sensed something to in the shadows to his right.  Pistol was aimed at the girl in an instant, then a sigh of relief before he lowered his weapon.  “Oh, it’s you…”


          “How did she slip her cuffs?” the agent thought privately.


“Ashley,” or whatever her true name was, stood frozen in place.  Her stare seemed to gaze beyond the hunter, a pleading expression in her glowing eyes. “Please move. Look, I had no idea what was happening here, okay?  I was supposed to come pick something up. That was it. I don’t even know what. This...thing. The bodies, the monsters, I don’t know anything about that.”


          Ryan remained silent a moment, contemplating the girl’s involvement in the situation and the other involved factions.  ARMA, the Sheut, the Order, and whoever else might have a hand in this plot.


          “Look, you can put a bullet in me if you want, but if you don’t I’m getting out of here.” Ashley probably intended to sound defiant, but her resolve was clearly half-hearted.


          Metallic “click” from the hammer of the hunter’s Sig Sauer halted the girl before she had really even begun to move.  “Don’t tempt me,” he growled.


          “You’re not in a position to dictate anything to me girl,” Ryan continued in a most irritable tone.  “ARMA reinforcements are already enroute.  If you’re still here when they arrive, chances are you’ll be arrested for whatever outstanding warrants you have.  Additionally, you’ll be charged with any crimes your deemed to be involved with here.”


The agent paused for a moment, “I’ll go out on a limb and say you’re an unregistered meta, which means you’ll have an enhancement added to the sentence of each crime you’ve committed…  You will be in Alcatraz for the rest of your life.”


Harker didn’t particularly enjoy being so callous, but they hadn’t the luxury of time.  He needed to get his point across quickly, “Of course, that won’t be very long.  Because the people who sent that monster, will have you killed before you ever have a chance to testify in open court.  Just the mention of you in an ARMA investigative report would pretty much ensure your death.”


          Cold, hard, blue eyes fixed themselves onto the girl’s glowing hues.  “So, you have two options.  Answer my questions honestly and I’ll let you leave this place.  None of those bad things will happen to you, and you can go on living your life.  Or, you can refuse to answer my question, I’ll keep you here, and I promise you all of those things will come to pass.”


          “I suppose you could try and run.”  The hunter glanced away from the girl for a moment, the idea was not one he relished.  “But, then I would hurt you.  And even if by some miracle you got away.  I would just have my people scoop you up.  You wouldn’t even make it a mile down the road.  Not in this blizzard.”


          Ryan knew the “choice” he had offered Ashley wasn’t a choice at all.  She would comply, or her circumstances would go from desperate, to dire.  “Now, I need to know… specifically… Who sent you?  What did they send you to retrieve?  And how can I find you if I need more information?”


          “The clock’s ticking,” the operative added darkly.  “Oh, and if you lie to me… I’ll know.”  Muzzle of his pistol was waved lightly, before settling to aim at the girl’s leg.  “And I’ll put a bullet in your fucking knee cap.”


          Fear was a powerful tool.  Harker hoped it would help motivate the girl to make a good decision.  Because whether he liked it or not… he wasn’t bluffing.

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