Part Twenty Five: Haruspex Analytics, Also Not
Artemis’ form blurs, then silvers as he assumes his battleform—a humanoid shape consisting entirely of an alloy that, aside from his instantiation, exists only in theory. He turns to the side, sweeping his right arm across the hall. Humanoid monstrosities scream in fear and rage as his arm, currently a razor-sharp blade almost the length of his body, cuts them in half. Their screams end abruptly, though the monstrosities taking their places shriek all the louder for it.
One of the people behind him gasps in shock. He thinks it’s the young woman, the one in the hooded sweatshirt, but he doesn’t have time to check. He turns again, his other arm sweeping across the width of the hall, and a second line of creatures is cut in half. It is not an elegant strike, but he has no time for finesse.
He sweeps his arm across the hall. Bodies fall. He spins, letting the force of his turn carry his other arm around. Bodies fall. He faces forward, crouching slightly, shortening his forearm blades as he prepares for closer work.
There’s no end to them that he can see. A seething mass of headless, faceless, shrieking creatures, intent on tearing them limb from limb, and he is the only line of defense between the oncoming horde and the three who rescued him from his prison. He’s not confident of their chances: He’s tired, and sluggish, and still shaking off pieces the odd, comfortable haze that was worming its way into his soul as he sat in that damned room. Even now, knowing what it was, he yearns to return to it.
He sweeps with both arms. Bodies fall to the ground in two pieces. He ignores the smell filling the hall, and concentrates on the still-living monsters still bearing down on them.
Twist. Cut. Turn. Slice.
His head swims. His arms feel heavy. He’s not sure why he still gets tired in this form: at the moment he literally doesn’t have cells. But despite the complete lack of a biological structure, he still feels an ache in muscles he currently doesn’t have, and burning in lungs that are not there.
Twist. Cut. Slice. Spin. Stab.
He grunts in pain as one of his arms-turned-blades passes through the intensely cold purple-black fire erupting out of a creature’s neck. He notes with alarm that the initial, sharp stab of cold fades into a general cold numbness… and that the numbness is slowly spreading.
The shape of the blade wavers a moment. His mind conjures an image a comfortable chair by a window with an ocean view. He can almost hear the crackle of a warm, inviting fire in a fireplace as the cold metallic color of the blade softens into something close to flesh.
And then there is shrieking, many hands grasping at his arm, a mob of blue fire surrounding him, trying to knock him over or tear him apart. The blade reforms and he spins once, knocking bodies away and cutting them to ribbons in the same motion. The struggle begins anew.
He can hear the three people behind him talking in low, even voices. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but he notes the lack of panic in the back and forth: they’re discussing their options, making use of the time Artemis has given them to determine their next steps. That impresses him, even as he’s sure they’re deciding there’s not much they can do beyond trying to make for the stairwell that isn’t blocked by an army of monsters.
It would be better if they did. I can be more effective if I’m not protecting them.
But he is protecting them, at least for the moment, and whatever the tactical advantages might be, he doesn’t want them wandering off. If it weren’t for them, he’d still be sitting in that chair believing he was looking out the window, staring at the ocean…
The fog in his mind grows a little thicker. He can almost smell leather-bound books.
He pushes the thought away and cuts savagely at the crowd in front of him. He overextends as he attacks, momentarily putting his balance at risk. He’s in no real danger—so far the only thing that hurt him was accidentally touching the strange fire that takes the place of their heads—but it requires more energy to pull back. He sucks in a breath and tries to convince himself his arms don’t feel heavier.
The voice—electronically distorted, but almost familiar—comes from behind the creatures. The ones closest to Artemis don’t react, but even as he cuts more of them down he can see the ranks at the very back burst open: a figure covered in blue-gray armor grabs one of the creatures and throws it into a group of others. They all collapse in a heap, howling in rage.
“LaFleur!” The voice is coming from that armor, which is absolutely Thorpe’s work, though he’s positive it isn’t Thorpe wearing it. He watches the armored figure duck low and perform a nearly flawless spinning kick that knocks two of the creatures to the floor. He recognizes the style immediately: it’s very close to how Liberty used to fight, which would make the armored figure Jenny Forrest, or “Zero.” She’d been wearing a makeshift armor before; apparently Thorpe decided an upgrade was in order.
He takes advantage of the new confusion to cut out a little more space between himself and his foes. The attention of the shrieking mob is divided now, roughly half on him, half on Zero. That’s better news for him than it is for Zero—while he’s certain Thorpe put actual armor in that armor, it doesn’t look like it can withstand half a crowd of supernatural monstrosities.
Another, more familiar voice shouts out a single command, and Zero drops to the floor. Artemis turns, gesturing sharply, and his three liberators immediately drop to the floor without comment. A rapid succession of ear-splitting booms echoes down the hall, and Artemis feels bullets impact across his lower back. Creatures scream, and fall, and scream again. Street Ronin, he assumes: someone who clearly knows Artemis won’t be hurt by small arms fire in this form.
Interspersed between the rapid discharge of Street Ronin’s rifle is another firearm: a semiautomatic pistol, firing a steady, rapid stream of shots… steady, but the sound travels up and down the hall in a pattern that doesn’t track with linear movement.
Teleporter. Agent Grant, most likely.
He turns to view the room. It is indeed Agent Grant. He and Street Ronin are coordinating their attacks surprisingly well. As soon as Street Ronin stops firing, Grant teleports into the midst of the creatures, shoots, relocates, and shoots again. This disrupts their initial surge toward Street Ronin, at which point Grant teleports back behind him who begins firing again. Zero stays close to one wall, avoiding the spray. Before Artemis has time to gather his strength and rejoin the fight, it’s over.
The last creature falls, the last shriek ends in a rasping, choking cry. All that is left is silence.
“Overmind…” Zero takes a step forward, her foot landing in something wet that squelches audibly as it lands. She stops, looks down, and shudders. “You all right?” Her voice is tight, almost strangled. It looks like her gaze is fixed on the blades extending from his arms.
He allows the blades to shift back in to hands, but maintains the rest of his battleform. “Recovering. I was confined for…” He frowns. “I’m not sure how long.”
“Couple weeks,” Grant says, stepping carefully over portions of bodies as his shoes squish in the carpet.
“A couple of weeks…” Artemis is suddenly overcome by the smell of tea and old books. He sways momentarily. “I’m still shaking it off.”
Street Ronin stands twenty feet down the hallway, rifle raised, trained on Phyllis Tanner and her two companions. For their part, the trio stands completely and utterly motionless. None of them look afraid, but they are all paying their undivided attention to his rifle.
“Who are you, and what are you doing?”
Zero turns to face Street Ronin, helmeted head cocked to one side in curiosity, then her gaze drifts to the three new faces. Agent Grant, despite not covering his face at all, is even more unreadable—he has that bland, non-committal “cop face” that isn’t quite anything.
It’s interesting to see the government agent read the room and agree with the terrorist’s tactical assessment. Artemis wonders if the tactical assessment is wrong. It’s a trick question—the assessment is wrong, but there’s no way for them to get the right answer with the information they have.
Besides, he didn’t immediately open fire. He’s making allowances for being wrong.
He considers jumping to their defense, but holds back.
“Phyllis Tanner.” Phyllis doesn’t take her eyes of the gun. “My colleagues are Simon and Michelle. We worked here.”
“Past tense?” Street Ronin sounds skeptical.
“That’s right,” Phyllis says. “But not too far past. When we found out what they were planning to do to us, we tried to escape. Only made it this far. I think there’s something about this floor—or maybe just this hall—that kept us from turning into…” her eyes drop to the floor, her gaze resting on one of the creature’s bodies. “…them.”
“How’d you find out what they were going to do?” Street Ronin asks.
“We broke through their network security,” Phyllis says. “Specifically, Simon did. Those things are part of something called the ‘Incursion Protocols.’ We decided we didn’t want to be part of that.”
Street Ronin appears to relax a little, but he doesn’t lower his rifle.
“We would like to defect,” Phyllis continues. “I don’t know if we have any specific information that will be useful to you, at this point, but whatever we have is yours.”
Street Ronin stares at them for a long time. Nobody speaks. Finally, Artemis breaks the silence.
“They are responsible for freeing me from my prison. We had planned to seek the rest of you out together. We were interrupted by this ‘Incursion Protocol.’”
“I think it checks out,” Zero says. Street Ronin nods but doesn’t otherwise react.
“Seriously, I think we can—“
“Hold on a moment.” Agent Grant raises one hand, waving away the rest of Zero’s words. “We just breached the ritual site.”
“Really? What’s it like?” Zero’s voice is brimming with excitement and worry.
“Really annoying. They’re doing something—it’s hard to describe—but everything’s bent and turned sideways. Can’t really get a tactical picture. Magic is creepy and sick, just in case you were wondering.”
“What can you notice?” Zero says.
“Shit. Uh… well, this better work. The Senator isn’t doing too hot. I think they’re about to break through whatever it is Doctor Enigma did.”
“What?” Genuine alarm from Zero. “What’s happening?”
“He’s thrashing around, like in a nightmare. Except it… uh… looks like it hurts. Sorry.”
Artemis frowns. “What Senator? Who’s Doctor Enigma?”
“Not now,” Grant says. His brow is furrowed, his voice frustrated. “I’m trying to get to the center, to get a clear shot at the leader, but something keeps—Jesus, the room keeps tilting sideways every time I flip…”
And then his eyes widen in surprise, and a slow grin spreads across his face. “Holy shit. I think we did it!”
Zero sucks in a breath. Street Ronin has actually half-lowered his gun at this point.
“Yeah. Yeah! Curveball and Brother Judgment worked out some kind of play in advance. The cultists were trying to hide the identity of the ritual leader, but apparently it’s hard to do that when you have a fucking telepath on your team. Brother Judgment just really ruined their day.”
“What about my—” Zero stops herself. “What about the Senator?”
“It’s like throwing a switch.” Grant smiles at Zero. It’s a genuine smile, not a trace of mockery in it. “He’s, uh, unconscious, but he’s definitely not in pain. Breathing normally. Pulse steady. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen an unconscious man look relieved before.”
Zero sighs, relaxing slightly. Street Ronin nods approvingly and lowers his rifle. Phyllis Tanner stares at Agent Grant, brow furrowed, calculating. Artemis wonders how much intelligence she has on everyone. Does she know of Grant as a teleporter only, or is she aware of his other, more obscure gift?
He notices one of her eyebrows lift slightly. What ever she didn’t know, he’s certain she just figured it out.
“Wait.” Phyllis takes a step forward, then stops when Street Ronin immediately raises his rifle in reply. “Look, not trusting us is a smart play, but it’s a bad one right now. If you’re right, and you just disrupted some kind of ritual of theirs, that means they’re about to escalate everything.”
“Oh…” The Asian man exchanges glances with the woman in the hoodie. “Oh… that.”
“That what?” Agent Grant looks from the Asian man to the woman in the hoodie, then back. “Simon and Michelle, right? What’s going on, Simon and Michelle?”
“The Incursion Protocols,” Phyllis says.
Agent Grant looks at the bodies on the floor. “Looks like they’re not much of an issue just now.”
Phyllis shakes her head. “There were more than one.”
The entire building begins to shake.