1. Portion of the central nervous system enclosed in the cranium, formed of a soft, spongy mass of gray and white.
2. the center of thought, understanding, etc.; mind; intellect.
Agent Elisa Morales had served in the FBI's FACT Team for long enough that she'd been able to ignore the tautology. When fully expanded, the acronym read "Faerie Artifact Control Team Team." Someone in the House of Representatives hadn't quite caught that prior to the Grimm Act being signed into law nearly two hundred years previous, and generally speaking once the Eastern United States of America put something in motion, rarely would they admit it was silly to begin with.
But silly name or not, the FACT Team was critically important to homeland security. Even if the hot war had gone cold and then finally died off, even if there was a human sitting on the throne of the Faerie Court, the dangers of enchanted Fae artifacts in the wrong hands persisted. Unlike search and seizure of illegal conventional weapons, such as abandoned Frontliner and merc gear from the Fringe, Fae artifacts were a weird breed that required quick thinking. When someone comes at you carrying what looks like a teacup and a feather duster, you need to be quick to react, quick to analyze, and quick to find a weakness you can exploit.
It was quickness of mind that brought Agent Morales to the New White House, in the shining city of Philadelphia. In a matter of minutes, she would be face to face with the commander in chief, President Petersen. The first elected leader to coast into office by popular vote riding a platform of peace policies, after two centuries of tough-on-Fae leadership. Needless to say, he wasn't particularly popular with staunch defenders of freedom in the other two branches of government, but Agent Morales didn't exactly fall one way or another on that issue. All she cared about was public safety. Whoever assured it, regardless of means, would get her approval.
That nonchalance didn't apply to her mood right now, no matter how it may have seemed outwardly. Inside, her emotional knees were shaking, even as she sat cool and collected awaiting this fateful meeting.
"Agent Morales? The President will see you now."
Everybody here was wearing sharp suits, making for a sea of Business Formal, but you could still identify Secret Service easily. They wore their suits sharper than any others, more grim, more severe. One of the most severe persons Agent Morales had ever met escorted her onward into the heart of the Oval Office, without another word. He remained wordless as he closed the door behind him... leaving her alone with the most powerful man in the, well, known world.
Who was busy surfing on his laptop computer.
Petersen was young, by presidential standards. He clocked in at only thirty eight years, three above the legal limit for election; Elisa herself wasn't far behind him. Even so, his hair was prematurely graying, and you could mistake him for a man of more advanced years... the press had wondered if he toned his hair specifically to go for that look of age and wisdom. Any time someone asked him (jokingly, of course) Petersen just offered one of his trademark chuckles.
The President turned his laptop around, to show the screen.
"NASA-dot-gov," he explained. "Under new management. The governor of Florida, Kanthi F. Kennedy, just relaunched the website after our own stagnant remnants of that organization agreed to give up the domain name. It's even connected to our Internet by their satellite network, the ElfStars. It both delights me to see progress on planet Earth's future in space resuming with youth and fervor, and saddens me that humans have given up that path to the stars. That Faeries have to pick up our slack."
"The young Fae, particularly in the Floridian peninsula, see us as role models," Agent Morales spoke, as if reading from an unwritten analytical text pulled from a back-mind shelf. "They're rebelling against their own people by embracing us. In a way, humans are responsible for this new development, if indirectly."
"Even so, I plan for Eastusa to be a bit more directly involved. I've issued orders for the remains of our NASA program, including any personnel willing to go, to be transferred to Florida. Diplomatic ambassadors of science, of course, although that hasn't kept my critics from calling foul on 'booting people out of America' and into the hands of the elves. Shortsighted. Shame, really..."
He flipped his laptop closed, and pushed it off to the side, where it could recharge on an induction pad. After smoothing out his jacket, he rose to properly greet Elisa Morales, with a firm handshake.
"I trust your superiors told you about the mission already?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. I have the files I'll need when I give my presentation to the Faerie Queen."
"Emily. Call her Emily, if you happen to be talking to her alone. She hates being called Queen, even if she can't admit it to outsiders," Petersen said, with a wry grin, as if she'd asked about his hair color. "I think you'll like her. Very businesslike, very to the point, but she puts her heart in her work. Which means she can also have a hell of a temper, as well as a hair trigger when she senses stupidity in the room. Won't be a problem for you, of course -- you come highly recommended. Quick on your feet when dealing with the Fae. Bright young mind at work."
"I do my best, sir."
"So, why is it that you have the third lowest success rate of any member of your team when it comes to planning raids?"
To her credit, this spontaneous challenge only threw her for 2.3 moments. She swallowed once, as her head quickly put together the words she wanted to say...
"Because I don't consider any number over zero to be an acceptable margin for casualties, sir," she spoke... right before her heart waved an angry little fist, demanding the floor. "...and frankly, sir? I'm not going to let FACT's standard approach of overpowering force dictate my approach. I won't sacrifice men needlessly when a subtle plan would work better. If that means backing off sometimes rather than going for broke, then so be it."
"Your peers consider that to be cowardice," the President pointed out. "That you aren't willing to go for the brass ring. You let smugglers walk with their artifacts rather than give chase. Looks bad for the us in the fourth estate when the bad guys win."
"Sir, I may have the third lowest success rate, but given that rate is ninety one percent--"
"Relax, Morales. I'm just busting your chops. Truth is, I like your methods," he explained, leaning against his desk in a more casual poise. "You don't leave men behind. You don't charge in without forethought. You get the job done right -- meaning if someone does slip your net, they don't slip twice. The bad guys DON'T win, not in the long run. Every smuggler you've gone after, you eventually got, and the final takedowns were flawless. You're tenacious, but thoughtful."
"Ah... um. Thank you, sir," she spoke, needing 1.7 moments to deal with the switch from criticism to praise. "That is what I was trying to explain, with... right. That would better describe my methodology, Mr. President."
"And that's why I wanted you for this mission. Like NASA, we are getting directly involved in Fae matters. Hell, we're getting directly involved in the world stage," he explained. "Emily's pushing to explore the world, to see how far she can take it with our borders locked down by those damnable Kraken. She's calling the initiative 'the anachronauts'."
"Anachronauts, sir...? Explorers of anachronisms? I thought scientists agreed the Pandora Event wasn't time travel..."
"It's just a working title," he insisted. "But the problem is, Eastusa's been marginalized. The Faerie already started exploring, pushing on without us. America needs to look beyond its domestic affairs and its archaic siege mentality. So, you're going down to Mexico with her team not just to help translate Spanish, but to let the Faerie know... we are here. We are ready. And we will be participating in the affairs of planet Earth again."
the second age
by stefan gagne
Another waiting room, another world leader. More time to sit around and fidget.
Exuding confidence was a learned skill. With enough practice, you could work around any anxieties or concerns and just dive into the fray of a power meeting such as this without fumbling. But that didn't mean she wasn't fumbling on the inside, no matter how polished her persona of analytical intellect was.
It was like having two minds; the one you carried with you from home which guides your heart, the one that clocks in on the job and sits down at the desk in your head. Elisa knew when to let one take command over the other. When you're about to give a presentation to a supernatural personification of royalty that was once a young girl with command over powers arcane, let your head do the work. Made sense.
...although, in her preparations for this meeting, a theory kept coming to mind. According to Eastusa's reports, Emily Moonthistle was only nineteen years old when she had the twin crowns of the Faerie Queens forced onto her head. She'd been planning and scheming ever since, which made some Philly thinktanks assume she was showing signs of power-mad megalomania... but that wasn't what Elisa's heart was seeing. She imagined a girl in a desperate situation, trying to make the most of it and do her best with the responsibility she was given. That was a better fit, especially as she tried reaching out across the world not for domination, but to reassure herself by turning unknowns into knowns. Would someone like that be the proud and regal Faerie Queen that Eastusa's media portrayed? After Petersen's few words on the subject... it wasn't looking likely.
And when her husband, the strange young man in the Frontliners uniform, escorted Agent Morales in... her theory gained considerable weight. Because Queen Emily had a cold.
Wadded up tissues had started to pile at her left hand, while a cup of warm tea steamed away at her right. No servants were at her beck and call to tidy up, and she didn't make any attempts to push her illness aside in favor of confident, regal airs, given her opening statement.
"I've got a headache the size of Canada, my nose is running a New York Marathon, and now I'm sending my allies into an area of Mexico likely infested by brain-eating zombie freakjobs," Emily said, rather than 'Good day to you, representative of the Eastern United States of America. Please, have a seat.' "...so if we could keep this briefing nice and short so I can go lie down and feel horrible, I'd really appreciate it. Grab a chair and let's get to work."
Elisa had a reputation for being quick on her feet, so she immediately took a chair, popping her briefcase and preparing her files. Even if inside, she was boggling at the sights around her.
The embodiment of nature's seasonal wrath, the powerful figure of the Faerie Queen... a young woman with puffy eyes and a runny nose. A clear case of a seasonal cold, to forgive the pun. Her unassuming and expressionless husband, who files said was a nigh-unkillable soldier who once hunted Faerie nobles for sport. And the others... the others defied easy description.
The most normal looking fellow was a young man with unnaturally white hair, and a long, robe-like garment that looked to be both made of metal and cloth at the same time. His eyes moved about nervously, as he offered Elisa a sheepish smile and a tiny wave with a few fingers on his right hand, clearly trying not to catch the attention of the others. Although he had no identifying tools of the trade... somehow, Agent Morales got the impression he was a doctor. Something about the clothes suggested it, despite being six or seven cultural steps removed from her experience.
Second most normal was an elf with a mild green tone to his skin, wearing a long coat made out of dried seaweed. His hair was wild, hanging in dreadlocks all around his head. Occasionally peeking through that mess was his one good eye, bloodshot and surrounded by his wrinkled skin. The other eye was only a smoothed over patch of skin. He guffawed in a friendly manner in response to her glance, before resuming puffing away on an elaborately carved wooden pipe.
Finally, there was the naked savage. It was a harsh stereotype to use, but it fit her head to toe -- the very image of this Fae hunter was enough to jolt Elisa's ancestral memory of fleeing from vicious Aztec raiding parties. She was a very pale skinned Fae, who wore only two things... various cords and belts decorated with trophies from her kills, such as teeth from every stripe of carnivorous species out there including ones that didn't exist on Earth prior to the Pandora Event. On her right arm, incongruous with her complete lack of body armor elsewhere... she bore a gauntlet of golden metal, with shielding running up her arm, and a five-fingered clawed hand that looked like it could gut a man in under a second. If not for those pointed tips drumming irritably on the table top and the light sheen of sweat betraying her irritated discomfort with the heat of New Orleans, she'd be menace incarnate.
Queen Emily of the Fae introduced everybody in short order. "I'm Emily, that's Scout, he's Biologist Tay, that's Captain Alagos, and the one who refuses to be sensible and wear some damn pants is Daelyn of the Winterhounds. Everybody, this is Agent Elisa Morales of Eastusa. She's going to make sure we grok Spanish."
"A useless talent," Daelyn the hunter spoke, the tapping of her metal claw on the table increasing in speed and annoyance. "Fae can rapidly pick up any language. Or if we had a spellcaster, we could deal with this 'Spahn-Ish' instantly. We could have left days ago if we weren't waiting for her, as well--"
"She's coming with you guys and that's final," Emily declared. "Eastusa were the first ones to hear the signal, they notified us about it when they could've kept it to themselves, and I'm with Petersen on this. I want to work with them more. Hell, we share the same land mass, there's no reason we can't pool our resources. Now, then, Elisa, give us your impressions of the broadcast while I get this gunk out of my nose."
Slowly, Elisa opened up the top folder on her stack. "Ah... the broadcast utilized an ancient means of communication known as short wave radio," she began. "An amateur radio enthusiast found it entirely by accid--"
"ACHGRRNNNNNKNKKK," spoke Emily's nose, as her tissue fluttered lightly.
"--accident. It's a repeating loop, which would be appropriate for a distress signal such as this. We've translated it from a Spanish dialect and accent heard only in Mexico prior to the Pandora Event; modern Eastusa Spanish has changed considerably after two hundred years of urban isolation. Ah, we've updated our translation since the preliminary findings we related to you, Q-- Emily."
"I'm all for accuracy," Emily spoke, crumpling her tissue in one hand. "So, what's it mean, in plain English?"
Elisa didn't need to look at the paper; she'd memorized it after numerous readings and re-readings. "The broadcast says, 'This is Doctor Ruiz. My family and I are descended from survivors of the invasion, two hundred years ago. We need your help. We are trapped in the Veracruz Naval Hospital. I request help from Lady Summer of the Faerie. We need you.' ...but Eastusa doesn't understand why he would specifically reach out to Lady Summer."
Next to speak was Scout, who had brought folders of his own, albeit ornate leatherbound dossiers instead of the cheap manila dividers Elisa used. "Odds are, the few humans left in Mexico two centuries ago witnessed Fae history. It was called the Undying Battle," he summarized, from his notes. "Lady Summer tried to push south. Wanted to grab more land for Fae settlers. Soon after crossing the Rio Grande, the army of Summer encountered hordes of what seemed to be... human corpses. Ambulatory ones, which attacked with ferocity. Didn't have any weapons, but they managed to dismember and even devour much of the Fae army. Any Fae they killed got up and killed. The tide turned fast."
"Zombies. Freakin' zombies," Emily muttered. "The Fae didn't know about our wacky horror movie monsters, of course. Actual walking dead... likely overlayed into our world during the Pandora Event. Believe me, I didn't want to believe it. It's... insane. Stupid. Like, well, like a Nazi T-rex or something. But there's no denying it, zombies apparently are real. We're going to run into a lot of these supposedly imaginary things as we open up doors around the planet, I think..."
"Lady Summer figured it out quickly enough," Scout continued. "Abandoned the injured and wounded, since they'd likely turn into the enemy. The Lion of Summer in charge of the fight pulled out with the few remaining uninfected survivors, and then the Rio Grande was lit on fire. A fifty foot tall wall of flame's kept the horde at bay ever since then. Apparently they can't swim--"
"It's the sharks."
Captain Alagos's voice was like gravel scratched over sandstone ground underneath raspy sea coral, as he tapped out his pipe into an ashtray provided by the Witching Academy's staff just for such a purpose. He twisted his gnarled old lips into a grin, as he reloaded the pipe.
"I've crawled the shorelines all my life, fishing the shallows and ferrying cargo, tryin' to avoid notice of the Kraken. I've seen all manner of sea beastie both Earth native and World of Faerie native. An' what's keepin' those ugly bastards at bay ain't just a wall of flame, but the rage of the sea. The sharks run thick around the Gulf coast... almost as if they were patrollin'. Until today, I wondered what they were patrollin' for. Looks like we know now, eh? Earth's sea king, Poseidon, he's not one to let that scourge into his oceans..."
A sneeze from Emily drew attention back to her infected highness. "Hffff. Alright. So, in short, we've got survivors of a zombie apocalypse to evacuate. Captain Alagos will ferry you down there on his ship. Scout commands the mission. Elisa plays middleman with any survivors you find. Daelyn keeps you all safe; she's a bit new to playing defense, but Scout's got faith in her, and so should you. Finally, if the good doctor's already dead, we'll need Tay to tend to the wounded and to interpret any notes he left behind... because you might need that information on the ground if things go bad."
"What if it's not zombies?"
The bit of her hiding out from this scary weirdness panicked when all eyes in the room turned on her -- but her head stayed cool. The logic of the question was sound, after all. Those sorts of questions had to be asked.
"All we know is what you've dug out of the Faerie histories, right?" Agent Morales asked. "That what looked like living corpses attacked, and were able to convert Summer's forces during the attack. It has the earmarks of zombies, yes, but zombies are an imaginary creation of the human intellect. If we focus too much on that construct, it could leave us unprepared for the reality of what we'll be facing. The enemy could have capabilities we're unprepared for, because we have this cultural baggage called 'zombie' firmly in mind."
The Winterhound scoffed, a rough snort like some beast. She leaned back in her chair, arms folded under her breasts. "Surprisingly enough, I agree with this human," Daelyn spoke. "My Queen, we talk and talk, and play guessing games. All of it meaningless. Enough sitting around, enough waiting. We should go on the hunt immediately. In the end, I will kill them. I'll adapt to whatever this enemy is; I've no 'cultural baggage'. We will be victorious where Lady Summer failed!"
"Of course, if we do encounter this enemy, I suggest avoidance at all costs."
"--what?" Daelyn asked, her mirth dropping like a rock.
"My point wasn't that we should keep an open mind while fighting them, my point was that we should keep an open mind and NOT fight them," Agent Morales spoke, holding her ground at the table. "This is a rescue mission, right? Get the survivors out. Recover any research data, so we can be prepared for future encounters. That's all. If this infection spreads like a fictional zombie infection -- and again, we can't assume that, but if it does -- then after two centuries, all of Mexico and South America would be flooded with the undead. There's no victory to be found here unless you plan to personally empty the continent of unlife all in one go."
Daelyn offered her toothiest smile, which was 12% toothier than Elisa was comfortable with. "I could try," she offered.
And her expression fell, on hearing that voice. The Winterhound sat up straighter... as Scout pinned her in place with a single word and a glance.
"You have the mission parameters," he added. "This is a rescue. Only a rescue. You're defending us, Daelyn. You know what you have to do to impress me, and it's not losing yourself to the Wild Hunt. Understood?"
Her voice came out far meeker than Elisa was expecting. "...understood," she said -- no mumble or whisper, but without the savage bravado she apparently prided herself of.
The last word, of course, would come from the Queen. Emily rose, to make her point felt.
"Honestly, I wish I could send a larger team than this, but speed is a factor," she said. "We don't know when the good Doctor Ruiz started his broadcast. We might find an empty camp, no survivors. But we'll definitely find no survivors if we sit around gathering up and equipping an army for round two of the zombie war. So, be quick and be smart. No heroics, no theatrics. ...you leave tonight, so get packed. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go chug some green flavored cold medicine and pass out. Good luck to you all."
Despite the emphasis on speed, the journey to Veracruz was anything but speedy.
Captain Alagos's vessel was of elven make, as streamlined and beautiful as Eastusa's most impressive coast runners, but it was still a coast runner. It was fast, but not fast enough to make a beeline straight from New Orleans to Veracruz... since to date, nobody had been able to outrun the Kraken in their home turf, the oceans.
The boat bounced lightly, constantly, and sickeningly. Elisa was hoping her bottle of motion sickness pills would last the whole trip and back, but she was more than halfway through her supply, and still slightly green around the gills. Not as green as the captain, of course.
"The sea is my blood," he explained, while working the strange system of wheels and pulleys that served as the runner's control system. "That's the way with the various stripes of Fae... such as the Noble Fae, Snow Fae, Desert Fae, and my line, the Ocean Fae. Puts us apart from the elves, you know? Poor fellows don't have anything special about them. We Ocean Fae have been fishers and sailors since the old days, before Pandora. We pass our teachings down, even knowin' they won't be usable until someone finds a way to hunt the damn Kraken. One day... we'll be free to carve our way across the seas. What a glorious day that'll be, missy..."
Never one to turn down an opportunity to gather more intel, she opened a mental notebook and began. "What do you know about the Kraken?" she asked. "Eastusa oceanographers have studied them for two centuries, but we're nowhere near cracking the mystery of how to avoid drawing their attention..."
"Bah. It's because humans aren't creatures of the sea," Alagos explained, glancing his good eye over his shoulder, hands still on the wheels. "We smell wrong to them. We move wrong. They know we're the Other, and they don't like the Other much, do they, missy? Even the oceanside Fae, as tightly bound as we are to the seas, we're the Other in their eyes. No illusion spell, no stealth enchantment, no metal deception can convince them otherwise. They know the waters. They even know the skies ABOVE the waters. They know we don't belong. If anything, we should be thankful the beasties let us run the coasts and the shallows. Can't imagine a Fae banquet without a proper bounty from the sea!"
"What about the rumors, then?" she tested.
"Rumors? I hear all kinds of wild stories on the sea, missy. You'll have to be specific."
"Rumors about a ship that sailed across the Atlantic, all the way to Florida. Straight through the herds of Kraken."
The sea-salt encrusted ropes creaked in protest, as the captain shifted the angle of the ship's passing. He kept his eyes to the waves, guarded.
"Not my place to talk about that," was all he would offer. "That's queenly business."
Addendum (Friend or Foe): The Fae interpretation matches the theory our scientists have recently been working to prove, that the Kraken have a "friend or foe" detection methodology. Magic hasn't been any more successful at slipping through the detection network than our own experiments have.
Addendum (The Tourist): No information yet on the radar blip that managed to land in Florida recently, or what it could mean in terms of bypassing the Kraken. Given Queen Emily's tendency towards straight talk, perhaps after Eastusa proves its commitment to her world exploration initiative, she would be willing to discuss what we've been calling "The Tourist."
"I'm... really not sure how much I'm supposed to be telling you about things. Anything. Everything," Biologist Tay noted, clearly uncomfortable with the questions.
"If it helps, I've been briefed on the Orbitals," Elisa pointed out, as they chatted quietly over bowls of seaweed stew, in the cramped galley below decks. "I know you come from another Earth, just like the Fae, and presumably the 'zombies'. I know your science is incredibly advanced, and that you have an encampment outside of New Orleans."
"By the good graces of our host, yes," Tay added. "Queen Emily. She's promised us security against... er. Well, we don't usually LAND on worlds, see. We just observe from above. I mean, these worlds are far too savage and brutal to ever consider settling on them! --ah... no offense, I mean, it's not that ALL humans are savage and brutal, um... um. You know what I mean."
"If you had concerns about your safety, why settle on planet Earth, then?" she asked, while trying to nonchalantly put away more of the hideous green soup.
"I... yes, I don't really think I should be talking about these things," Tay repeated, nudging his own smelly meal away. "I mean, I don't even know all the details. Just rumors, that's all. The official word from the Council is that we owe Earth a debt. We're going to repay it, using our advanced sciences. I mean, one day, we will. Eventually. Once we figure out the safest way possible, of course. It's very important to be careful, to not contaminate a primitive culture. --ah, no offense, not that humanity is primitive! Or the Fae, for that matter!"
Sensing she'd lose him if she didn't shift topics, Elisa dropped to a fallback question. "I was wondering why you volunteered for this mission--"
"Was volunteered, you mean," Tay spoke, sagging slightly.
"Assigned to the group by your superior officer, then? Like me?"
"No helping it. I had two hobbies relevant to this outing. One, comprehensive knowledge of human biology, and some understanding of Earth native medical equipment. It's, ah, something I study in my free time. It's fascinating to me that you're able to frequently avoid dying of some horrible ailment before you reach fifty years, using such invasive and backwards technologies! --ah, no offense--"
"And what's the other hobby, then?"
"Marksmanship, much to my despair," Tay admitted... padding the lump at his hip, hidden away beneath this robes of office. "On weekends I enjoy target practice using energy pistols, for sport. I thought it'd help me be a better surgeon, you know, hand eye coordination, finely controlled movements. Unfortunately it also means I'm apparently the only combat biologist around. Exactly what Queen Emily needed."
Elisa glanced to the hidden weapon. Tay hadn't exactly been gunslinging or even letting his robes open enough to show it off to anyone. "So... you do target shooting? Have you ever shot at a living person?"
"...no. No. Why would I ever want to do that?" he asked, genuinely puzzled at the question.
Addendum (Mission?): Other than a vague reference to owing Earth a debt, I was unable to get any concrete details from Biologist Tay. However, the "debt" could fit our working theory that the Orbitals were somehow responsible for the Pandora Event, given we have no proof their travel to other worlds involves interstellar transit. Interdimensional transit would apply. Still, I recommend more research before drawing this conclusion. All we have are hints.
Addendum (Warlike): Contrary to popular theory, I do not believe the Orbitals are part of an interdimensional invasion force, here to conquer this world with their superior technology. While secret monitoring of Quicksilver Security proved they do in fact have weapons, and Biologist Tay is in fact armed, I'm just not getting the feeling from them of an invasion force. Examples like Tay and Doctor Zee in Twin Cities (also under secret monitoring) seem to be the dominant philosophy, from my limited observations.
The Orbitals seem more uncomfortable with being on Earth than anything else. However, as he's mentioned plans to repay the debt to Earth, and concerns over contaminating our culture, I believe we can expect to see a larger Orbital influence in the world stage, and soon.
The next day, as she was busy granting the sharks that had started following their boat around a free semi-digested sample of the seaweed stew that didn't quite work out, Elisa Morales got another opportunity for study.
"You're as good as dead, you know."
With nothing better to use than the back of her sleeve, she mopped up to avoid looking sickly and repulsive to the Winterhound in residence. The few attempts she'd tried interacting with Daelyn so far had been abject failures; the savage Fae didn't react well to friendly banter or conversation starters. At least this time, the conversation had been pre-started.
Daelyn had taken to sharpening the talons on her glove, using a stone rasp hanging from one of her many belts. As a result, her chosen weapon glinted quite dangerously in the baking sun... menacing even when it was merely dangling loose at her side, as she sized up the human before her. Her pale skin hadn't sunburned one inch, even if Elisa's had gone red in spots.
"As a mortal human, you're quite vulnerable here. The Scout and I are immortal; we will endure. Even the Ocean Fae is made of harder stuff than you," she explained. "But you, you have the false bravado of your kind. You carry a projectile weapon as if it will keep you alive. You think your skills and talents are sharpened, but in the end, you're just meat. I don't expect you to survive the enemy any more than I expect the soft spaceman to survive."
Friendly was not working with Daelyn. She was an outsider, a predator, and proud of it... from her non-dress to her poise to her constant demeaning language. This wasn't a person who wanted reason and logic and friendly discourse, Elisa decided. She wanted something else...
Her heart crossed its proverbial fingers, as her head tested a theory. Elisa straightened her back, covering up all outward signs of seasickness, and began her attack.
"In other words, you're saying you're incapable of carrying out this mission," Agent Morales declared.
Expected reaction; Daelyn on the defensive. Which in her case, very much resembled the offensive, a snarl curling across her lips. "How DARE y--"
"Winterhound, your objective is to defend the team," Elisa reminded her -- using species instead of name. Giving as little respect as she was given, in turn. "If I'm as good as dead, that'd be because you can't cut it in your role. I'm surprised you think so little of yourself that you'd be willing to concede that defeat so soon--"
The sound of metal scraping on metal cut her challenge off, as the taloned glove was raised high, pulled back. Aimed directly at a Elisa's chest. Despite her game plan of standing her ground against this alpha-personality... she found herself involuntarily stepping back, pressed against the wooden rails of the ship...
"Human, I could pull out your heart before you could utter a single scream," Daelyn warned... a voice like blood pouring from a wound, wet and unpleasant. "I was trained to murder far more dangerous prey than you. I hunt Wendigos for sport. How dare you push your lies on me?!"
"Because they're valid questions."
...the glove faltered, at that voice.
No more words needed to be said. Scout, looking as if he was simply passing by on his way below decks even if he probably wasn't, offered nothing further. He continued on his way, and was soon gone from eyesight and earshot.
Much to the surprise of Agent Morales... the Winterhound not only backed down, but she backed up, leaning hard against the wall of the nearby cabin. A more passive stance. Humiliated.
Carefully, Elisa pulled away from the railing, picking over the words of her response well before saying them. "It wasn't my intention to disgrace you in front of the Scout. For that, I apologize. As long as you understand... I'm just as committed to this mission as you. Discount me at your own risk. Alright?"
"...very well," Daelyn agreed, the hand within that glove relaxing. "I cannot put blame on you for lowering my standing with the Scout. You couldn't know of my situation. ...I will leave you be."
"What situation are you speaking of?" Elisa asked, quickly, before the Fae could depart.
For a moment, Daelyn hesitated... not considering whether or not to kill the impudent human on the spot. Just considering whether or not she could bear the shame of answering truthfully.
The Fae stood upright, trying to recover her pride. Not aggressively posturing... just gathering it up, so she could hold her head up high again.
"You think me a brutal, aimless savage," she said. "Do not deny it. I know you do. And it's an image I've cultivated... the purest expression of what I was trained to be, by Lady Winter herself. A wondrous example of the Wild Hunt, feral without being feral. My kind were designed to be her assassins. ...me, specifically... I was trained to kill the Lions of Summer."
She extended her glove... and slid it off her arm, her skin showing marks where the straps had bit into her skin. Possibly for months, or years, given it was unlikely the immortal ever had reason to remove it before. Removed, it looked less like an extension of the Daelyn's murderous intent... and more like a simple Fae artifact. Like any Elisa had chased down before; no more or less dangerous.
"This weapon does exactly what I said it would do to you... it removes hearts. That's the only way to truly murder an immortal," Daelyn explained. "The Lions of Summer are the epitome of life, of good health. Never getting sick, never growing old, never dying. Any wound is healed near instantly, right before your eyes. It takes some work to extract their hearts. Some determination. I was trained to have that determination."
Now, Elisa felt a need to interject. "The seasons were at peace, though. Why be trained to kill Lions of Summer?" she asked. "The truce between Lady Summer and Lady Winter was established very shortly after the Pandora Event..."
"Yes, yes, it was," Daelyn explained, as she pulled her glove back on. "Lady Winter knew it was an obsolete art, but she had me trained in it all the same. I do not know why. I would not question why. ...but now... I am even more obsolete than before. I don't even have humans to hunt. I have nothing I can hunt, not under Queen Emily's decrees and morality. Until the Scout approached me, I was assuming I would simply be executed, or perhaps hunted down like Dylan of the Ice Pack. As old and useless a relic as the former Archmagus."
"And Scout is trying to teach you how to do something else with your life..." Elisa released. "Defending the lives of others, instead of simply taking the life of an enemy."
"At first, it seemed simple enough; a more directed form of assassination. Kill those who would kill your protectee. I have been having... trouble with the concept, however. ...please understand. This is extremely difficult for me to talk about. The only reason I am bothering is because I want you to know... when you do die? It is not because I did not make an effort. I WILL defend you, Agent Elisa Morales of the humans. But even the most skilled hunter cannot always protect a defenseless lump of a creature--"
The gun only made a clicking sound because Elisa wanted it to. That was the only thing which drew Daelyn's attention to the weapon pointed upwards from the hip, aimed squarely at her heart.
One moment later, and the safety was back on, the weapon in her holster.
"Then you have nothing to worry about, since I'm no defenseless lump," Agent Morales declared, with a smile.
For her part... Daelyn was smiling, as well.
Addendum (Civil War): Queen Emily's approach to the Winterfae has been an interesting one. When she took command, she did immediately impose a very human moral code upon the Fae, which could have led to civil war -- and may very well, if the Braid of Dawn ever get any serious momentum. However, our number one concern for unrest, the Winterfae, appear to have been largely co-opted into her causes.
It took considerable work, as well as a highly suspicious and unsafe use of my personal sidearm to demonstrate my points, but I believe I understand the problem of the Winterfae and the Winterhounds in specific. They do in fact want to follow their Queen's wishes, but need to be given directions that run both parallel to their traditions and Emily's traditions. Much as her husband, once one of the most notorious vigilante murderers in the Fringe, has been brought under her banner... the Winterfae, at least the ones that survive her regime, will be strong allies as well.
Night was falling on the final day, when Scout knocked at her cabin. She looked up from her work with a gun cleaning kit, to open the door for him.
"Files coming along well?" he asked, casually.
Elisa did her best to look puzzled. "Files? I didn't bring any paperwork with me. We're traveling light."
"You don't need a pen and paper to take notes," Scout reminded her. "Next time, just approach us directly. That's how Emily does things. We'll talk after this is over."
The young man walked away, not waiting for reply.
File: Scott Reinhold, aka Scout
Don't underestimate him.
The explosive charges they'd brought along, safely stored away well below decks, would stay behind. They were only in the equipment roster in case of desperate, last-resort style gambits... hardly the card you play in your opening hand. For that, Elisa had other cards.
One Frontliner style bulletproof vest. Technically it would stop bullets, yes, but it was designed to be far more versatile than that -- optional ultrathin arm and leg wrappings would help minimize damage from Faerie blades and blunt instruments, and would provide some protection from extreme temperature changes as well. It was advanced weave technology, far beyond the kind law enforcement was using before the Pandora Event. The Frontliners often said war was the mother of invention, after all.
One FBI issue service weapon. Not Frontliner style, something more traditional, but with a string of lightweight ammo magazines in a belt around her waist, designed to slide the next available one into place like a candy dispenser. More than enough bullets to lay down suppressing fire for a considerable amount of time... but likely not enough to stop a zombie horde.
Honestly, other than maybe preventing zombie bites directly to her chest or limbs, little of this would help if things went as badly as they presumably could. It was designed to stave off human attacks, or humans using Fae artifacts, or in a pinch, the Fae themselves. Against something alien, something completely unknown... it could end up being as useful as wearing rolls of toilet paper.
This was not thinking conducive to a good frame of mind, so Agent Morales pushed it aside as she studied the ruined city of Veracruz.
The ravages of time were brutal to urban landscapes. Pandora Event era buildings weren't designed to stand for two hundred years without someone to take care of them... replacing fixtures, cleaning up the after effects of harsh weather, or outright demolishing old structures to make way for modern construction. Generally speaking, any unoccupied city would be eventually reduced to a set of metal skeletons, at best, overgrown by nature.
So it was with every ruined city they passed, as they skimmed the coast of Mexico on the way to Veracruz... mostly.
Clearly, survivors had been here. A few buildings were maintained as well as they could be, given a likely small population size with a siege mentality. They passed an oil tanker remained docked at the remains of an industrial site, one with fresh metal patches riveted into place to cover up what were likely rusted out gashes in the hill.
"Seems seaworthy, if a bit gargantuan," Alagos had commented, eyeing the thing with suspicion with his one eye. "If they had that tub, why not leave on it? No shark could puncture THAT hull."
"Might've seen others try to leave by sea, only to be eaten by the Kraken," Scout hazarded a guess. "Or not enough people left alive to crew it. Have to ask the doctor, I suppose."
Several blocks along the coast, a glass tower loomed over the skyline -- one that ancient maps identified as a Pemex corporate office building. A structure of tarnished white and endless windows, it stood isolated, surrounded by dirt fields that likely once held greenery... and ringed on the roof by spotlights, likely to keep an eye on the movements of the undead below. Along with the lights, a number of satellite dishes and antennae had been freshly installed, likely the same ones that were broadcasting the distress signal.
But the one building with the most attention and care was the one they came for... the Veracruz Naval Hospital, only two blocks away from the Pemex building, and surrounded by the skeletal wrecks that filled the rest of the dead city. The hospital, a hulking figure of concrete, had been barricaded and boarded up all over the first two floors. Only the windows on the top two floors were open to the air... and were well polished and largely unbroken, unlike the empty windowframes in every other building they passed, glass finally giving way to the march of time. Someone was in there -- or at least was in there recently enough.
In the broad daylight, there was only one detail missing from the picture. A detail which should have been impossible to miss.
A nice open dock awaited them, a clear shot right to the hospital. Even so, Captain Alagos kept his vessel offshore... watching through a collapsible spyglass, studying the city landscape.
"Not a sign," he confirmed. "Nothin' moving. Nothin' at all. Could be the beasties sleep during the day...?"
Scout shook his head. "Doesn't match the records of the Undying Battle. The horde was shuffling around aimlessly in the noon sun, before they turned on the Fae and attacked. Summer prefers to attack during the day, in the intensity of the heat. Zombies aren't smart enough to spot us coming and hide out for an ambush."
"They might not be zombies," Agent Morales felt the need to remind.
"We'll proceed as if the entire city's infested," Scout said. "We dock, move slowly, as a unit. Alagos stays on the boat. You see trouble, head to open water, but stay in sight so you can swoop in for evac. Rest of us head to the hospital."
"You mean the barricaded, impossible-to-breach structure yonder?" Daelyn asked, gesturing.
"That's a zombie barricade. We're not zombies," he reminded her. "All we need to get in is some rope and a crowbar."
The group moved down the docks. No zombies.
They slipped silently between the husks of buildings, down cracked pavement and around lumps of metal that were once cars. No zombies.
On they went, with Scout on point (as the Lions of Summer could take plenty of damage if need be), Elisa and Tay in the center, and Daelyn taking the rear guard position without complaint. Which wasn't a terrific arrangement for Elisa... if a fight did break out, she'd be in the center of the group, along with a barely armed civilian. Getting a clear line of fire could be difficult... fortunately, no zombies.
No zombies approached them as Scout tossed a grappling hook up to the rooftop. They would have been sitting ducks as they scaled the side of the building, one at a time, but the slathering undead did not charge them while they were vulnerable. Within minutes, all four were on the roof of the hospital, presumably well out of reach of the enemy.
The rooftop access door wasn't locked, which meant the crowbar wouldn't be required... but Scout kept it anyway, despite being armed with a pair of Frontliner pistols.
"Decent enough for close quarters," he explained, once they were inside the hospital, and feeling 17% safer. "Messy enough to draw attention. Need to fight like a Lion of Summer. One of the girls at the academy, a young witch named Gwen, calls it 'tanking'. Probably a video game term."
"And you used to be the silent hunter of shadow," Daelyn commented. "A legend. Stalking your prey, terrorizing them, dragging it out until that one ultimate and brutal moment..."
"Long time ago. And someone else," Scout said. "Biologist Tay? What do you make of all this...?"
'This' being the hospital hallways. The emergency lighting was on... some generator hummed away, providing minimal power to the building still, giving some illumination to the rooms they passed.
The hospital wasn't in ruins, but clearly it was falling apart. Whoever occupied the building now, assuming they were still here, had been more focused on scavenging for supplies than touching up the paint and plaster. Many rooms were filled with rusted and useless medical equipment, gnawed away by decades of neglect... while other rooms subject to less water damage and less oxidization had been stripped near bare for parts.
Tay palmed his handheld light source, aiming the beam in one doorway, then another. "Someone knew what to take and what to leave behind," he spoke. "I'm seeing nothing worth keeping in these rooms. It's all wrecked. Human medical devices are fragile things, and not designed for extended wear and tear -- and chances of drug compounds surviving this long are slim. I'd guess maybe 10% of this hospital was still useful after as many years. But I'm not seeing any signs of habitation... no patient rooms that were used for, well, patients. Could Doctor Ruiz already be d... um... gone?"
Scout paused the party, considering it. "Hard to say. If--"
A horrible sound scraped its way across Elisa's ears. A scream, of some kind, high pitched, hideous, inhuman--
--mechanical. It wasn't a scream. It was feedback, echoing down every hallway, through every door...
Quickly, she gestured to the others for quiet... Daelyn, who already had her glove raised and ready to strike, did not look ready to abandon a solid combat stance, but for her part she remained still.
Several clicks and thumping sounds followed, going on seemingly forever, as they bounced along the walls, before...
"...¿Hola?" the hospital P.A. system toned, through dozens of scratchy and malfunctioning speakers.
Agent Morales looked to Scout for direction -- or rather, for confirmation that she should go ahead. One brief nod got her to work, as she switched language bases, calling out to the unseen speaker in his native language.
"¡Hola!" she replied, trying to cast her voice down the hallway, hoping the echo would do the rest. "We mean no harm, Señor. We heard your distress call. My friends and I are from America, we're here to help, Doctor. Where are you?"
A laugh rang out across the entire hospital. There was a small amount of madness tingeing it, which Elisa chalked up to desperate glee; a reasonable reaction to hearing from living humans. Well, living people. Still, it was enough to make Daelyn, already on edge and ready to fight, perform a full body twitch.
"¡Madre dios...!" the intercom called out. "I was beginning to think no one would ever find me, and now, Americans! Yes, yes, please come! I can barely hear you from here. We should meet! I'm on the fourth floor, in my lab. Take the stairwell and go left. Tell me, are there also Faeries with you?"
"That word I recognized," Daelyn whispered. "'Faeries'. What is this crazy man saying...?"
Elisa holstered her gun. ...when had she drawn it...? She frowned internally, before shaking it off. "It's going to be okay," she insisted. "It's the doctor. He'll meet us one floor down."
The coffee did not help her nerves.
It wasn't coffee, exactly. It was brewed like coffee, it used dead plants of various stripes to simulate coffee, but it was not in fact coffee. The good doctor apologized profusely for that; apparently proper coffee hadn't been available in the wastelands of Mexico for over a hundred years.
He picked through the piles of clipboards and notes on his work bench, until he found a corked specimen bottle full of a milky white fluid. "Cream," he described, swirling it around a few times. "Or... mostly cream. It tastes like cream. Good, though, I promise!"
Elisa declined the 'cream'.
Everything in Doctor Ruiz's lab was almost but not entirely like the real thing. It was almost a medical research lab, if not for using salvaged components, jury-rigged centrifuges, and bunsen burners everywhere cooking everything from samples to dinner. The research itself was a mess; scattered notes and diagrams and rotting notebooks filled page after page with scrawled spanish medical jargon. And, of course, the doctor himself was a mess... wearing a patchwork lab coat, repaired with needle and thread and whatever rags he could find, over and over again. A scraggly beard flowed seamlessly into his scraggly, aimless mass of hair -- through it, patches of sun-dried skin and a slightly broken pair of glasses could be seen.
"I must apologize for not using english," he apologized again, as he added "cream" to his own mug of "coffee." "I have not had need to speak english in so many years. I taught myself based on old books, mostly for hobby, partly to better understand medical books I find along the way... but so used to spanish. I must apologize."
Scout glanced back over, from keeping a steady eye panning over the city horizon, through the floor to ceiling windows that lined the research lab walls. The room was on the corner of the building... affording a good view of any oncoming hordes. Not that there were any.
"You will not see anything, of course," Doctor Ruiz spoke, picking up on Scout's activity quickly enough. "Los Muertos left Veracruz years ago, to hunt other survivors. Not many left. Not much food around. Spotlights stay up, just in case, but no sign in so long. I hide, they can not find, they go away. Alone here for very long time. Nothing else. Is for the best, nothing interrupts work, yes? So busy here..."
"So, it is zombies?" Scout asked, purposefully using the english word.
"Zombies? Ah. Los Muertos, yes, they are supposedly like the legends," Doctor Ruiz confirmed. "The old survivors, they tell of stories of stories. Humanity warned about the dead rising, but doing nothing. Now, they rose. Not many survivors left. Places with old names... Mexico, Panama, down into Brazil, all of South America... all Los Muertos. ...was thinking entire world Los Muertos. But, heard the legends of Lady Summer, of how she nearly defeat Los Muertos, so my family sets up the old broadcast devices in hopes... and now, you are here! Not humans, and Faerie! And... a human leading the Faerie?"
"Lion of Summer," Scout explained, pointing to the patch on his shoulder. "It's like a commanding officer. Long story."
"Ohhh... the Lions. Yesss," the Doctor said, smiling. "The legends survivors tell say you fought bravely at the battle between Faerie and Los Muertos. The Lions survived the fight! No doubt went on to grow strong and come back to win the war, eh? And a human Lion of Summer! Amazing. I wonder how the biology of that is working...?"
Agent Morales looked into the murky depths of her coffee cup. The depths did not look back, but nevertheless... she had a feeling in her heart. And her head.
The head and the heart often disagreed. In the end, one had to win, otherwise you'd be in deadlock for too long and the consequences would often be fatal. The winner in that contest of wills might be proven wrong in the long run, of course... but when they agreed, that was a sure sign that you were on the right track.
Both were wondering where his family went. They kept drifting in and out of his narrative.
"Doctor? Is your family somewhere else in the hospital?" she asked. "We didn't pass anybody on our way here..."
This made the situation awkward, but it was a reasonable question to ask. Nothing suspicious about it at all. For his part, Doctor Ruiz acted much as expected... his giddy joy at seeing rescuers turned to a moment of sorrow.
"...my family have passed on," he explained, setting his mug aside. "I lost my wife long ago, but my last remaining family, my daughter... my beloved daughter... it was an infection. Not Los Muertos... just ordinary infection. So hard to find medicines that will work. She is buried there... in the fields around the Pemex corporate building. ...I do not blame you for being too late to save us. This is simply how it is. But I know... one day she will be with me again. I have kept faith."
As he spoke, the doctor pulled out a small photograph from the pocket of his lab coat... holding it out, for Elisa to see. Through the wrinkled and ruined image, a smiling face behind light curls beamed out at her. She couldn't have been more than three years old...
Time to move to less painful subjects.
"Did you plan to leave on the oil tanker?" Elisa continued, trying hard not to sound like she was questioning a suspect.
"Tanker? What is 'tanker'?"
"The big boat. The one at the industrial docks."
"Oh! The big boat. No... that... was a project of another group of survivors, long ago," the doctor explained. "Wouldn't know how to make it go. Couldn't escape. Such a big boat, probably couldn't do it even if I knew how. Not by myself. ...you brought a boat, yes? We will leave on your boat in the morning?"
Scout turned away from the windows.
"We will leave on our boat now," he specified. "Let's get moving. Elisa, watch over the doctor; we'll take flanking positions--"
But the Doctor held up his hands, in protest. "No, not now, we can't leave right now," he insisted. "Not done. I am close to finding a cure! A cure for Los Muertos. New thinking. Built on doctors before me, passed down. Samples are cooking. If you had not come, I would have set out tomorrow to test them..."
"You can finish your research back in New Orleans," Scout suggested. "Biologist Tay would be happy to assist you, once we're safe and sound back home."
"...erm... I agree with Biologist-- err, Doctor Ruiz, actually."
Tay leaned in, studying one of the bubbling beakers, trying to make sense of the compound as he explained.
"Earth medical equipment is quite fragile, and drug compounds doubly so," Tay said. "This lab, I mean... wow! Sir, it is amazing you were able to accomplish so much with so little! But we need time to load the samples for transit. And these notes...! All on paper. Written down with primitive ink styluses onto paper! That needs to be organized and packed as well. I don't mind staying up without rest for the duration, if that's what it takes, but we do need to make sure we get as much as possible out of here if we hope to make a cure. ...we are going to want a cure, Scout. Just in case Los Muertos head north, or maybe even to save this continent from its fate!"
"No harm, no harm!" Doctor Ruiz insisted. "Los Muertos have left. We are safe, Señor Lion. Plenty safe until morning. Please, stay, some rooms are still comfortable. You can rest--"
"Suppose we can't grab what we can carry and come back for the rest," Scout mused.
"No, no, the drugs will spoil before you can return. And too many papers, I must apologize, just too many papers to take an armful and have enough."
Scout considered his options, weighing them carefully. The look about him was the same one Elisa spotted in the mirror time to time, when she was planning a raid... trying to find the option that will keep the most people alive, and will accomplish your goals.
"Would call on Esrever... but he can't reach this far south. Could call on Alagos to help move the materials, more hands to do it... but that'd leave the boat unguarded. No Animate spells to levitate the materials out. Don't trust that Los Muertos are gone for good; we'd be sitting ducks if we tried that, anyway. ...would be sitting ducks moving things out in the morning, for that matter. ...Doctor Ruiz. Biologist Tay. Can you prepare the most critical drugs and notes for transport? One load only, one run to the boat in the morning. We'll use carts or stretchers to ferry items out. Everything else stays put. Sorry, I won't risk any more than that."
Ruiz let out a deflated sigh. "Will need time, to sort through, to decide what is most important... but yes. We can do it. Napped plenty today, I can get it all done in one night."
"That's what we'll do, then," the Lion of Summer spoke, nodding to confirm. "Three defenders on task. I'll stay with the Doctor, help how I can with the packing. Agent Morales, you and Daelyn patrol the building... take shifts, resting an hour, walking an hour. Just in case Los Muertos move at night--"
"--the spotlights on the Pemex building would point them out, and I have not seen--"
"Thank you, Doctor, but as Agent Morales pointed out... they may not be zombies as we remember them. And I know for a fact that at least one kind of hunter exists that can move from shadow to shadow. We'll patrol. We'll pack. In the morning, we'll leave. Understood? Good. Let's begin immediately."
Of course something's wrong! I'm in the middle of a Mexican wasteland, probably surrounded by the undead! I'm freaking out! I mean, not visibly. You know. Freaking internally.
That's not what I mean. Something's logically wrong.
Well... I did get a funny feeling off the doctor. His english was somewhere between good and horrible, and not even consistently. Very "lackey" in tone, too...
I don't mean a funny feeling! I mean something is... look. Did you see a sign on that building?
Elisa woke, when a hand roughly shook her shoulder. Fortunately, Daelyn had chosen to use the hand without the bladed glove. The gurney Elisa was sleeping on, parked in the hospital's first floor lobby so she could be on rapid response if the zombies happened to attack at ground level, rattled back and forth from the effort.
"Your shift," Daelyn spoke. "I'll stay up. I could walk with you, if the darkness frightens you. The Scout overestimates my need for rest... and I am quite at home in the shadows."
"Pemex," Elisa said, since the word had jammed into her mind.
She sat up on the gurney, balancing herself on the edge carefully, until her sleepy head stopped spinning.
"The name of the building two blocks from here. The one with the open fields around it," she clarified... trying to put the pieces together. "We know it's called the Pemex building, but we only know that because the word was still floating around the Internet all these years. There's no sign on the building. How could a multi-generational descendant of Mexico's survivors know what the building was called?"
Daelyn gave her a flat look. "Does it matter? Perhaps he read it somewhere. Some colorful printed advertising humans are so fond of..."
"Almost all of which would have rotted away by now. It's been two hundred years. Nothing's left in cities like these but scrap."
"Almost all of which, you say? What does any of this matter? Perhaps the name was handed down through the generations, like his medical knowledge. ...we need to begin the patrol. If you are so scatterbrained as to babble on about buildings and names, perhaps you should sleep and I take a double shift. I don't mind, honestly. I enjoy nights like these, even if I'd prefer less heat..."
"I'm just saying that something feels..."
Vibration. Feeling a vibration. More so, when she got to her feet, without the padding of the gurney absorbing it...
Elisa knelt down, pressing a palm to the tiled floor. Over and over, light rumbles. Not an earthquake. Not an explosion. More like... the sort of rumble that goes through a building when it's heavily occupied. The sort of ambient rumble you don't even notice, until it's gone, as it was for the hospital until now...
The Winterhound was ready, fingers flexing, in a low crouch. "I feel it too," she confirmed. "People, on the move. Many of them. A steady march..."
The service weapon was drawn and loaded, held to the side for now, finger off the trigger. "Los Muertos about to rush the building?" Elisa suggested, keeping an eye on the barricaded front doors of the hospital. It seemed too thick, too stacked over with items and spot welded metal plates for any zombie to break through from outside...
...fresh welding. Quite fresh, no signs of rust or wear. Not the sort of barricade set up by a team of survivors years ago and left in place, unattended as Los Muertos supposedly were absent for so long. The barricade had only been set up recently. Maybe even days ago...
Daelyn closed her eyes, to focus -- and they snapped open only one moment later.
"The stairwells," she recognized. "Moving up from the basement. We never checked the basement...! They were lying in wait! MOVE, human! At last, tonight, we are on the hunt!"
The glove made short work of the metal stairwell door, five ragged gashes slicing inch thick steel in half. Shreds of door collapsed to the ground, along with the bottom half, top half only hanging on by a hinge.
Elisa Morales saw dead people.
They didn't meet her expectations. In the movies, the living dead looked like car crash victims... gaping bleeding wounds, maybe missing a limb, wearing the tattered remains of whatever clothes they were wearing upon death. Sometimes, they'd have nasty looking open sores or wads of pus bursting from beneath their latex skin, for maximum ick factor. Less corpses and more severely mauled people.
Los Muertos were corpses. Naked corpses, as realistically, clothing would be the first thing to go as the years passed onward... while the bodies were preserved chemically by some inhumanly wrong biological process. They no longer smelled; there was nothing left to be smelly. Almost nothing left but skin and bone, shriveled and dried, utterly revolting not for their appearance but for what they embodied.
They were death. Pure, finely aged and distilled death.
For one terrifying moment, she remembered back to her forensics training, to the mummified and decayed bodies pulled from cold case drawers in the morgue. Raisins. They're like raisins, she logical part of her head thought while her heart stopped...
In a blur, a dried and blackened heart appeared in Daelyn's metal hand. And another. And another.
She was tearing out their hearts. After all, it was the only way to truly kill an immortal.
"FIGHT, human!" Daelyn screamed, as thick, syrupy blood began to pour from the dying zombie bodies, twitching and spasming as they fell backwards. The Winterhound crouched low, snarling, slashing, stabbing, and mauling everything that approached the doorframe... staying low, so Elisa could fire her weapon.
Headshots. In the movies, you needed to destroy the brain. Would that apply here?
Her gun went off. She couldn't remember pulling the trigger, but something in her calmly and carefully lined up a perfect headshot.
The brains were wrong. They weren't gray or red. They were... yellow. And they splattered yellow, a strange mash that sprayed backwards into the oncoming onslaught. But each one Elisa killed went down, hard and fast, not like the ones that twitched and thrashed from having their hearts removed by Fae steel...
"The head! Go for the head!" Elisa shouted, loading a fresh clip. When did she empty the first one? "They aren't Lions of Summer! The heart isn't important. Destroy their brains!"
Aim down the sights and shoot. Reload. Aim down the sights and shoot. Wait for your moment, avoid shooting Daelyn, who danced and moved around Los Muertos, as if doing some sick supernatural tango... seemingly diving between shadows, appearing inside the stairwell, then back in the doorframe, then above, then below. Or rather, no seemingly about it, she WAS teleporting around... using the movement and momentum as another weapon to turn the tide.
Agent Morales clicked through a another full magazine, until dry, before all movement stopped.
Los Muertos were dead. ...had been killed. However it could be called. The bodies were stacked three deep... leaving only one standing, a nude form, bathed in black blood, with a pure white smile.
For one brief moment, seeing that image of the Fae woman standing amidst a demonstration of her absolute power... Elisa got a bit trembly in the knees. For some reason, a random thought suggested she take up smoking again.
Daelyn flicked a considerable amount of blood from her blade. She had better sense than to do something insane like taste the kill on her fingers, fortunately.
"Let us see how the Scout is faring, shall we?" she suggested.
The harpoon sailed pure and true, striking down the enemy in one swift blow.
Whisper-mumbling a sea shanty of victory, Captain Alagos pulled his kill from the water, onto the deck of the boat. It had been a long time since he'd had raw sharkmeat... tonight, he'd feast well indeed. It was something to do, at least, given how utterly boring guard duty had been.
A shadow tickled the corner of his good eye. As he turned, he saw close to three dozen zombies running right down the dock.
No sound. They ought to make sound, he pondered, pulling his harpoon from the dying shark's body, using it to slice cleanly through the docking ropes. No concern, no worry. He'd put out to sea, and if they followed, well... he hadn't fished out ALL the sharks, after all. The one who waited beneath the waves, of the watery kingdom, he'd make short work of these abominations. He tolerated no intrusion on his domain, by human, Fae, or now by the undead. Ophelia had said as much, when he last spoke to the water witch. Alagos had nothing to be concerned with.
Which is why he didn't notice the rowing craft pulling up alongside his boat, with three zombies aboard. Not until it bumped lightly into the hull. And not until he felt teeth cracking through his skull.
Alagos had enough thought -- even though the pain, even through the devouring of his own brain as the yellow tumors began to replace what was eaten -- enough thought to fling himself to the side, over the railing, taking his attackers with him. Into the sea, his beloved sea. The embrace of it was a cool relief, washing away the agony of his own death.
As the sharks swarmed to devour Fae and zombie alike, he felt a certain measure of smug satisfaction. The ocean would see justice done today, even if he would not live to appreciate the results.
Whatever bravado the Fae held and terror the human held, both were stunned flat by the sight of the lab.
Granted, it was a mess before -- but now, it was a disaster zone. And what's worse, a crime scene... a place where crime had already come and gone. While they were busy carving and shooting up zombies in the stairwell, the rest had already bumrushed the floor.
It was a distraction, Elisa realized, far too late. They gave us a fight so we would be delayed...
Her mind raced, to take in the details, analyze them... because this one moment of quiet could be shattered at any moment.
Tables had been overturned, chairs smashed. The doors were torn off their hinges, footprints in the spilled chemical compounds showing dozens and dozens of bare feet, pounding through the room. The horde had made a beeline for someone... and the shattered windows, the floor to ceiling windows, showed the ugly reality. They'd run straight through the room, and out the window. Carrying away anything in their path.
Elisa pushed ahead of Daelyn, moving to the window -- leaning out to see the carnage below. Plenty of ruined bodies of Los Muertos... some still moving, albeit weakly. They'd poured out like lemmings, and from the bloody footprints, most of them carried right along... beating pavement, on into the night. Off to the north, along the road...
The sound of shattering glass drew her and the muzzle of her gun back towards the center of the room.
Hands flew up from behind a table -- surrendering hands. One held a tiny silver gun, like some sort of child's toy...
"D-Don't shoot!" Biologist Tay called out. "It's... it's just me. I, I tried to shoot them, they moved too fast, they just, they ran through, they--"
Daelyn had him up by the throat, inches off the ground -- thankfully with her unarmored hand. Elisa moved swiftly, pushing that arm down, to forcibly lower Tay, but Daelyn's anger was still a tangible thing.
"Where. Is. The Scout!?" she demanded.
"Th, th, they grabbed him!!" Tay warbled, after Elisa's interference caused the Fae to drop him. "Him and Doctor Ruiz! They grabbed the both of them, and, and they went out the window. I tried, I really tried, I fired some shots, a few of them charged me, knocked me down, but... then they turned and went out the window. All of them..."
The shaken man reached up to wipe away some sweat and blood from his brow. His tattered robe sleeve hung away, as he did so...
Agent Morale's grip tightened on her weapon.
"Did they bite you?" she asked.
"Wh-what? This?" Tay asked, showing the red jagged scrape on his arm. "Well... yeah, a little, when one knocked me down, but... they left. I'm okay. Why do you..."
Knowledge Tay wished he didn't have came flooding back in.
"...no. No, that can't happen," he protested. "A biological infection, it... it can't spread that rapidly. One hundred percent infection, a rapid rate of mortality, that's not the kind of virus that can spread itself. That's why the common cold is so persistent, because it incubates slowly and spreads. It stands to logic--"
"You will die. When you die, you will rise again, and kill, and kill... and spread it further," Daelyn bluntly spoke. "Perhaps in seconds, minutes, or hours. But that is how Los Muertos spreads. ...for what it is worth, human... I am not unsympathetic. If you wish, I can end it now, and painlessly--"
"Shut UP! This... this human ignorance, so little understanding of biology, it has to be incorrect! I can... diagnose. I can make sense of it. --the cure! Ruiz was working on a cure--"
The voice which questioned suspects rose again, unbidden, to Elisa's lips. "Could you understand his notes?" she asked.
"I'm a genius! I'm a ninety eight!" Tay insisted. "I could easily understand the scribblings of an Earth Biologist! ...it was... it was just... scribbles. I looked. I tried to understand, but it didn't seem to be saying anything... so many notes and none of them really saying anything. The drugs, they weren't anything. I think one was just water boiling. I... I didn't want to question, I mean, professional courtesy, but... buuhh..."
"There's no cure. All of this was a setup," Elisa concluded. "The fake barricades. A fake cure, to keep us here overnight doing pointless busywork. A doctor who knew too much about the area for someone supposedly born less than a century ago. He even used deliberately bad english to look... absurd, silly, harmless. Doctor Ruiz is either Los Muertos himself, or something else entirely, but... I'm sorry, Tay. There's nothing we can do for--"
Her head bounced against the floor.
A weight, pressing down on her chest. So wrapped up in her own realizations, she didn't see the suspect when he made his move.
Snarling, screaming, all teeth and yellow eyes, grabbing, grabbing at her head, bashing it to the floor. Crack the skull. Consume the brain. All becoming Los Muertos...
Just like that, the weight was gone. A gray blur formed, as Daelyn hurled what was once Biologist Tay against the wall -- and pinned him there, gloved hand ramming right through his chest and into the concrete wall behind him. The undead Biologist flailed, trying to scrabble for the Winterhound -- until two well placed bullets punched through the back of his head.
Yellow mess trailed down the wall. His brain had already been replaced by the infected matter.
I don't consider any number over zero to be an acceptable margin for casualties, sir.
One hand grasped hers, pulling the agent to her feet.
"Later, we will mourn for fallen comrades -- and for our mistakes, and our failures," Daelyn spoke... an unusually quiet tone, for her. "But for now, Elisa Morales... we will hunt. For the Scout."
Veracruz was an urban wasteland, stretching from horizon to horizon, at least from ground level. It had millions of nooks and crannies and locales to hide away in... they could "hunt" for days and still not found Scout.
Which Daelyn was all for, of course. After scaling down the side of the building using the same climbing ropes they'd hit the rooftop with, down into the pile of zombie corpses that hadn't come out of the lemming-like rush through the bay windows intact, Daelyn was intending on following the bloody footprints all the way to Scout. Problem was... the footprints had scattered here, there, and everywhere. The surprisingly organized undead purposefully left them too many trails to follow.
After a brief but spirited debate, Elisa got her way -- instead of scrambling around the city on foot and likely never finding them, they would "recon." It was a word Daelyn was completely unfamiliar with.
It seemed to involve sitting around on the rooftop of the abandoned Pemex tower, searching the city landscape using a miniscule but powerful pair of binoculars with a night scope attached. This also did not involve gutting zombies left and right, which left the Winterhound quite discontent.
"There's no sense in rushing into this without a plan," Elisa explained, as she checked one building after another... and the movements of tiny figures around them. Zombies on the move. "We lost the first encounter--"
"We were victorious! Scores of the enemy lay crushed at my feet!"
"And I'm not discounting your performance. But we've got a man missing, and if he's immune to the infection as you feel he is..."
"The Lions are life incarnate," Daelyn repeated. "Whereas I am death incarnate. They survived the first battle unharmed generations ago; Scout will be well enough for a lengthy and invigorating hunt."
"We may not have time for that. The Doctor set us up. Fake distress call, fake barricades, fake cure. He didn't want you or me, or even Biologist Tay. He wanted Scout, and Scout's what he has, now."
"Bah. The Scout will not fall to the likes of these mindless corpses."
"No, but enough strong arms will restrain him nicely -- and the Doctor's not a mindless corpse. ...we don't know WHAT he is. Look. My point is, we have to be smart about this. Because your real prey, your real enemy, is Doctor Ruiz. And he's not going to pop his head up so you can yank it off. We need to find him... study his lair, infiltrate, and make a smooth takedown before he can do... whatever it is he wants to do to or with Scout. ...question is, where is that lair..."
Her lenses swept across the skyline. From about a dozen stories up, higher than the hospital roof, getting an overview of Veracruz was trivial. She'd seen a few repaired buildings on their way in, any one of which would be suitable for being Doctor Ruiz's true base of operations. If it wasn't the hospital, wasn't the Pemex building (which had been unoccupied by the living or the dead when Daelyn smashed in the glass doors) then where would...
Elisa's eyes fixated on the oil tanker.
Freshly repaired. Mobile, if need be. Shark-proof. One man couldn't flee Mexico alone in it, but with an army of unusually talented zombies... in fact an army would fit very nicely in there, all set to float safely along the shore past Lady Summer's wall of fire, then spill over the shores of America...
"...we need to hurry," Elisa realized, lowering her binoculars, and turning to face her companion. "Doctor Ruiz is going to..."
A darkened form, a shriveled body. Looming over the unaware Winterhound.
If they can sneak up on HER, what chance do I have here?! her inner panic screamed at the worst possible moment...
The rest of her mind immediately pointed over Daelyn's shoulder. No word would come out fast enough to alert her. And with practiced ease... Daelyn swung her gloved arm around, eviscerating the enemy before it could move another inch.
A neat trick, but six more of the approaching corpses would not be relying on sneaking, not anymore. They blitzed her, roaring their dry-throated screams that were so quiet they sounded like someone screaming through a blanket, as the Winterhound began to dance...
Elisa quickly armed herself, trying to take aim... but the spotlights ringing the edge of the building were pointed outward, not inward. The rooftop was awash in darkness, and her eyes had until now been peering through the unnaturally green optic filters of her night binoculars. All she saw was shadow and shape, terrible lurking things that moved like oil against the night sky. If not for Daelyn's pale skin and the glint of her gauntlet in the moonlight, she'd have been just as invisible--
As she sought a target, focused so completely on the fray... a great weight pressed against Elisa's back, and a breath like old gym socks flowed down her neck. Her weapon trembled uselessly in her hands. No time, no way to point it backward, nothing she could do...
Her talons sunk too deep in the flesh of her enemy, unable to be pulled free in time, Daelyn couldn't reach over and pull the attacker's head off. With no other options remaining... she pulled the twitching body with her, while her unarmored hand grasped at the zombie on Elisa's back.
"I am a defender, and you will NOT have her!" the Winterhound's defiant voice bellowed into the night... as the zombie peeled off Elisa, and fell upon the Fae.
As the other zombies fell upon the Fae. Six of them, all told. And the biting began.
Bullets pumped into them, round after round, not focused enough to go for headshots as Elisa's anger exploded. She might have said something, might have screamed incoherently, but if she had it was inaudible over the cracking bursts of gunfire. The rage flowed until her trigger finger got nothing for its efforts beyond sad little clicks of metal clacking on metal, the magazine completely emptied in one go.
The pile of dead flesh stopped writhing, for one sickening moment. And then... the bodies parted, falling away, as the blood-soaked Winterhound rose. Covered in tiny gashes, tears, gouges. Mauled in her efforts to keep Elisa from this fate.
More oil-dark shadows formed behind her... as Daelyn rushed directly at Elisa. For a single second, Elisa assumed she was going to die.
In the next second, she was scooped off her feet and tucked neatly under Daelyn's spare arm -- while she hurled the both of them over the edge of the Pemex building.
The gauntlet found stone, digging in hard, pulverizing and shredding the concrete as it slowed their descent. Not particularly much, and there were touch and go moments as a finger or two would slip, before Daelyn could reassert her domination over the structure. A dozen stories rapidly counted down, the ground rushing to meet them, zombies pouring off the roof to zoom past them, clawing at the air and getting nothing before squelching to the cobblestones below...
Soon, vertical became horizontal, as Daelyn sprinted across the open fields around the Pemex tower. She hurled herself up and over a hedge, coming down hard on the other side... finally, finding cover and refuge from anyone who might be seeking them. Time enough to breathe.
The two women sat on the grass, hearts pounding. Well. One heart pounding, at least.
Sweat was pouring off Daelyn's brow, her teeth gritted through an intense wall of pain. "It... it's infecting me," she narrated. "I can feel it. Trying to gnaw at my mind. A hunger... such hunger--"
A fresh magazine was in her gun was in her hand was pointed at Daelyn, before she could finish that statement. But the barrel wavered, Elisa's eyes wide in fear... at what was happening and at what she was about to have to do.
But Daelyn raised her gloved hand, a signal to stop. "The life-in-death," she spoke, quickly. "The gift of winter, the resurrection. It... might clear the infection. ...do not be alarmed at what I am about to do."
In one swift gesture, Daelyn tore out her own throat.
It landed in a quivering little lump on the grass beside her, as she fell backwards, dead.
Agent Morales did not lower her gun. Not completely, at least. She kept it focused on the body before her, even as it toppled gracefully away...
The gun very nearly went off when Daelyn let out a brief shriek of pain, and sat bolt upright. Her neck was restored... every wound had closed. Daisy fresh, some gibbering part of Elisa's mind commented...
Still, the sweat poured. Her eyes looked clouded, unfocused. Aside from the healing... nothing had changed.
"...death incarnate. That's what I was meant to be," Daelyn whispered. "I can't purge the infection. It... LIKES this Winterhound body too much. It's not being rejected. ...Elisa Morales. Please. You have to put a stop to it. Before I become... one of his. The Doctor's flock. He wants into my mind, I can feel it, a desire to join his hive-brain, to consume everything before me..."
Elisa's gun snapped to focus, steady on target instead of shaking in terror. Even if her voice didn't join suit. "D... destroy the brain. I understand," she spoke. "I'm sorry. You... you're going to die because of me. I'm just a human, I was a liability to the team--"
Daelyn held up a hand again, to silence her... before starting to unstrap her armored gauntlet, one buckle at a time. "You hunted well, Elisa Morales. We both did what we do best. I went into this to defend my honor and my purpose to the Scout. To defend, instead of merely kill and slaughter. ...better to die serving my Queen than to be put to pasture, obsolete. This is not unwelcome. ...to end this... you must pull out my heart, THEN destroy the brain. It's the only way to truly kill an immortal. Do you understand?"
Her hands moved of their own accord... taking the cold Faerie metal, and running through the process of strapping it over the blood-soaked sleeve of her FBI standard field armor. The straps seemed to bind themselves... the metal itself shrinking, even, to better suit her. Soon... it was like the glove wasn't even there. Except it was. Oh, how it was...
Daelyn, spread her arms wide... exposing her chest, and closing her eyes. "Aim for the heart. Be swift and true. The Hand of Winter knows what to do, it will guide you. ...afterwards, resume the hunt. Defend the Scout. You can do this. You have proven your capability. ...please. I've lived long enough. Finish it."
Afterwards, Elisa couldn't look at what was left of Daelyn. It wouldn't be proper, to have her last image of the proud and beautiful warrior being a wretched, mutilated body.
Her feet moved of their own accord, just as her hands had done before. Walking, holding to the shadows. Making her way down the twisted alleys around Veracruz... towards the docks. To finish the mission.
There would have to be a plan. Elisa did not charge in without a plan. You back off, you marshall your resources, then you move in for the takedown.
Her entire team was dead, which complicated matters. Even Captain Alagos, whose body was floating in pieces, all around the docked Faerie craft. But the boat itself was no longer occupied by the enemy -- they'd done what they came to do, clear off the decks of any life. They weren't bright enough to take any of the supplies from below decks and hurl them into the ocean. They weren't even bright enough to undock the rowboat they'd paddled out here and set it adrift.
Agent Elisa Morales moves swiftly across the surface of the harbor, armed with two oars, a grappling hook gun, a fresh belt of ammo, her gun, and the Hand of Winter. It would be enough.
Now, the head was in control. The heart had run off the corner to hide, and would likely need to be coaxed out later, probably during many, many sessions with an agency therapist. That was the reality of the situation, which once accepted, made everything else much easier to deal with. The horror could wait. The mission was now. Daelyn, Tay, and Alagos gave their lives for this. Elisa would see it through.
...Daelyn. She was dead. Murdered, at Elisa's hand, because they had no choice. Agent Morales felt a pang of sadness and fear leak through that armor -- before it asserted itself anew. Use that emotion... parry it into determination. Daelyn will be avenged by finishing what she'd started. Good.
The undead were flocking to the boat. That was clear, from her tower-top observations. They wandered the streets near haphazardly, but the general direction was towards the industrial sector, towards the docks. They would walk up cargo ramps, loading themselves in neat little rows within the guts of the tanker, ready to be deployed. That meant if she wanted to sneak up on the boat, she couldn't do it from the streets. She would have to do it from the least expected direction... the water.
For their part, the sharks seemed okay with this. They circled her boat, in a manner she mistook for menace at first... but decided later, as her arms burned from the effort of paddling, that they were in fact defending her. They avoided the oars. They flanked, the led, they covered the six. Smart sharks. ...too smart. Something to consider, later.
When she pulled up alongside the oil tanker, the sharks remained, keeping watch as she prepared to grapple up to the top. A quick binocular scan from far away showed this edge of the boat to be unoccupied... nobody above decks. No need to guard the ship, not when you were confident your plan was coming along nicely. A mistake.
Once the hook was secure... Elisa began to pace herself. Climb up there nice and steady, unlike the mad rush of paddling from before. The Doctor could launch the tanker if he wanted to... even at sea, Elisa could put an end to this. The explosives she'd planted on the hull would see to that, if she failed to rescue the Scout. Better a complete team wipeout, even taking her own life, than letting these things invade America.
There was a freedom, in that. Knowing you had a fallback, a failsafe. She could be smart and quiet and careful, since in the end, she knew she would win. Getting out alive was of course the preferred option... but she would take whatever win she could get. There were larger issues at stake.
Elisa eased herself over the railing, touching down carefully. No audible footfalls. Creep along. And find what you need to make this work out for the best...
A squadron of Los Muertos shambled along the corridor. They moved in a diamond formation, four to the set, laboriously hauling themselves along with purpose.
All the zombies were headed below decks, to the vast and empty storage tanks. Exactly the place Elisa didn't need to be... she was headed towards the bridge, or at least where she assumed the bridge would be located, based on observing from afar. Confront the Doctor, if he was there. Sabotage the boat, if he was not. See where things go from there...
Although seeing was a bit of a non-option, as she hid inside the empty metal oil barrel. It was working, the unfocused zombies ignoring her, as she snuck around feeling rightly silly in such a transparent disguise. The ones that were sent to kill them before were hit squads, the best of what Los Muertos had to offer... these were tired and used up corpses, done with their days work, needing some rest before the final onslaught would begin.
Progress was slow, as she moved inside her ridiculous disguise, but was quite safe. Pass through the decks. Past the galley. Past the crew quarters. On to...
The lighting in the hallways was poor. The doors she passed were almost all closed off, and the few that were open revealed nothing but darkened, empty rooms. So where was the light ahead coming from...?
Carefully, Agent Morales marched her metal cylinder down the corridor, taking care not to bang against the walls or make any other noises that might alert any zombies in the area. The light grew brighter, cleaner... an open door, ahead. Pouring out from a room deep within the crew quarters...
The tiny slot she'd carved out of the barrel using her taloned glove wasn't enough to see into the room. Too bright. She'd have to risk coming out of hiding. Elisa rotated left, rotated right, no enemy in sight... and emerged into the light.
Before her... was a sight that made her logical mind skitter around for a handhold, while her heart, kept in reserve as a safety precaution, poured out one tiny note of sympathetic misery.
It was an insane thing, in this place. An industrial oil tanker in the middle of zombie infested Mexico, a war machine of the oceans, a terrible place of fear and death. This room had absolutely no business being here, and yet, here it was.
A little girl's bedroom.
Unmistakable. Someone had even slathered pink over the corroded metal walls of the cabin room ahead of her, installing various industrial light fixtures with brightly colored handmade lampshades. A bed with lacy pillows and frilly sheets, complete with hand-stitched plush dolls of bears and unicorns and smiling little girls in fluffy dresses...
A nearby music box played a sickly little melody of cheer and comfort. A lullaby, endlessly playing as metal pins played over little pitches in a cylinder.
One figure occupied the room. She wore a dress, handmade, similar in style to her room. The girl couldn't have been more than two or three years old... a toddler, at best. Soft brown curls from a poorly made wig draped over gray shoulders, as she sat by the bed... nudging wooden alphabet blocks back and forth, before picking one up to gnaw on it lightly.
Doctor Ruiz had a daughter. Had, as in the past tense.
As Elisa entered the room... the girl dropped her block. And lunged, smelling fresh brains, pulling hard at the chain that kept her lashed to her bed. The wig fell askew, as the undead child strained to reach Elisa, arms flailing, her throat emitting a sad little cry of desperation and need...
What I'm about to do is insane, monstrous, and sorrowful, Elisa realized, as she flexed the fingers within the Hand of Winter. But it's what has to be done. It's the right thing to do.
The glove flashed in the room's lighting, slashing cleanly.
Los Muertos gave her pass.
She moved slowly, carefully. Making sure the zombies got an eyeful of her, as she followed the path they'd laid out for her. The withering corpses moved with her... leading her onward towards what could only be Doctor Ruiz himself. The mastermind behind them all.
Not one of them made a hostile move towards Agent Morales. Some hissed, as much as their dried out throats could allow for, but no lunging and no biting. Even so... she made sure they saw her gun. Just to ensure none of them came off the leash and disobeyed their master's cease fire orders.
Five minutes passed, during this slowly paced march towards the confrontation. Elisa was fine with that. Her mind was laying out the possibilities, drawing up the plans. Making sure she was ready for every predicted outcome... and a few of the unpredicted ones, for that matter. She would ask her question, get her answer, and from there she knew exactly what had to be done. No matter how insane, monstrous, or sorrowful it may be...
In the end, she arrived at the spacious control center for the tanker. The controls were illuminated, ready to go whenever the Doctor was ready to launch his ship off to war. For now, it remained docked, bobbing near motionless on the waves... because the other purpose of this room was incomplete.
While the bridge steered the ship, it had also been turned into a makeshift surgery.
Scout had been strapped to a gurney, although he wasn't pulling at the restraints. Whatever was in his IV drip bag clearly was powerful enough even to push through his supernatural constitution, leaving him groggy and groaning... stripped to the waist, covered in blood. The numerous skullcaps, complete with hair, were testament to Doctor Ruiz's ongoing efforts to carve his way into the Lion of Summer's brains... and the Lion's regenerative powers restoring the damage, each time. That was a grotesquery Elisa could honestly have done without.
For now, the saws were silent, and the good Doctor stood perfectly still as his enemy approached.
He didn't have a choice. Elisa had his daughter at gunpoint, after all.
One quick slash to the undead toddler's shackles had freed her, but the child was too weak, too small. Not nearly powerful enough to attack Elisa and conscript her into the ranks of Los Muertos. Oh, the girl struggled and snarled, biting away at the metal-coated arm which she was being held by... ineffective, of course. But the gun pressed directly against the child's head, that could splatter her brains all over the walls in an instant. It could put her out of her two hundred years of misery.
Doctor Ruiz knew this. Elisa knew he knew this. It's why she was given safe passage... if any zombies reached for her, all she had to do was apply a few pounds of pressure to her trigger finger, and Ruiz would lose the one thing he valued most in what passed for his life. With that... Elisa was untouchable.
She was also completely surrounded by zombies, a dozen of them alone in the bridge with her. It wasn't like she held ALL the cards. But she held enough.
Elisa pressed the gun down hard against the child's wrinkled and ruined flesh. The girl howled, flailing her legs. Useless. Her captor's voice, on the other hand, was level and calm.
"Before I explain to you how this is going to go down," Elisa said, "I have only one question. Why?"
Doctor Ruiz set his bonesaw aside, as he considered the question.
"You know why, don't you?" he asked... looking down slightly, to the squirming figure in Elisa's clutches. "I did it for her, first and foremost. I want to see her whole again... beautiful again. Alive, and happy."
"And you call what you are right now 'alive'?" Elisa asked. "Or 'happy', for that matter?"
"Alive enough! ...happy enough. I am myself, not a mindless zombie!" Ruiz protested. "Once, I was one of them. I barely remember my time spent with Los Muertos, but I remember the attack that took me, my family. ...then, one day, my corpse took part in the battle against the Fae. I ate the brains of a Lion of Summer! It changed me. The regenerative magic didn't get along well with the parasite... eventually, they found balance, leaving me with the best of both worlds. I am immortal. I am powerful. And my daughter could be the same!"
"By eating Scout's brains. That's why your distress signal called out for Lady Summer..."
"I felt the changing of the guard. Somewhere in the part of me that is a Lion of Summer, I knew Lady Summer was dead, and someone new held the crown. Someone who could be gullible enough to give me exactly what I wanted... if I set up a scenario that some compassionate sort couldn't resist. And you fell into it so perfectly... giving me your 'Scout'. Now, I can bring her back. I can bring my whole country back...!"
"But you're exactly right. Queen Emily IS compassionate," Elisa pointed out. "You didn't need to do any of this. The tricks, the traps, anything! You didn't need to kill everyone! She would have helped cure your people if you'd only asked her for help!"
At that, the Doctor's smile faltered.
"...you don't understand. It's not a cure," he explained. "It's a hybridization. I am still Los Muertos... I have the hunger. I've had it for two hundred years! Los Muertos must spread. It exists to spread to everyone and everything... I wanted my daughter to live again, yes -- but I also want what Los Muertos wants. Now, with the power of the Summer Court, we can organize. Without me, they're mindless, shambling, useless. With me, I can lead an army to devour the world!"
"An army of sentient undead. An army to murder and convert and consume everything."
"Yes! It will be glorious!"
"And you'd turn your daughter, an innocent, into part of that murder machine."
If there was tension in the room before, now it was wound so taught it was near snapping. Even the zombies, surrounding her on all sides save directly ahead, had stopped wobbling and shambling in place... they were watching. Listening...
Doctor Ruiz... swallowed. His bravado had collapsed completely, in that one horrible moment.
"...it... it needs to be done," he declared. "She'll understand. I can help her understand that--"
"If you were still human, would you want her to live like this?" Elisa asked... nudging the corpse of his daughter forward, as if showing it off to him. "Immortal, but starving and murderous, with both hands dipped in blood as war rages across the world? Would your wife have wanted that for her? For you...?"
"...there is no choice. Los Muertos is a will. I have to--"
"I've asked my question, the question of why you're doing this. Now. As I promised, let me explain how this is going to go down."
She uncurled the fingers of her gloved hand... revealing a tiny plastic tube, with a suitably threatening red button on the end.
"If you don't do exactly what I say, not only will I put your daughter out of her misery, but I'll send your ship down to the bottom of the bay," she stated. "I've planted explosives on your hull. The sharks are out there, doctor. They're waiting to chew your army to pieces. Your efforts fail, your family dies--"
"What?! --you would die, as well!"
"If it comes to it, there is one acceptable casualty -- me. Scout would survive the disaster. He'll live, he'll return to the Faerie Court, and they'll come here armed and ready to exterminate Los Muertos. ...Doctor Ruiz. You aren't going to win today. Los Muertos has lost. The first one of your minions makes a move, I push the button, and it's all over. Once you accept that fact... we can talk about how you can save your daughter."
His eyes darted, wavered around. Madness behind them, desperately searching for a rope to cling to... and finding it, in those last words.
"...what do you mean?" he asked, quietly.
"Let Scout go, help me end this army right here and now, and I'll promise your daughter's safety," Elisa said. "I'll find a cure for her and she can have a normal life. Scout and I walk away, we bring her with us, and you go to your final rest knowing that she's saved. TRULY saved, not enslaved. ...don't make me end this day on a note of death, doctor. Let's get something out of this. One true deed of compassion, so we can say we were human, in the end."
"Are you mad, woman?! There is no cure! I've... I've searched for one for years, despite Los Muertos tormenting me, trying to make me stop..."
"And yet Faerie magic brought you most of the way back to the man you were. You know nothing of their miracles, doctor. I've studied them and analyzed them all my life. I'll bid on her behalf with the Faerie Queen. I promise you this."
"...impossible. She's Los Muertos. If you even bring her near America, you risk every living soul there. The Faerie Queen would never allow that. It would be--"
His voice warbled, as if he was speaking underwater -- but Scout managed to make his words firm, despite the drugs being pumped into his system.
"I speak for Queen Emily," he declared. "She won't turn away from saving an innocent, no matter the risk. She'll uphold the bargain, someway, somehow. You have my word as well."
"And I swear by God above, I will not rest until I've brought one pure and innocent soul out of this hell intact," Elisa declared. "I'll never be able to sleep again if I can't say we accomplished something good here. All it'll cost you is the end of Los Muertos. Which is more important to you, Señor Ruiz? Her, or them?"
Los Muertos had ceased their shuffling earlier. And now... their attention was firmly focused on the doctor.
A hive mind, that's how Daelyn had described it. Ruiz at the head, but one thought, one mind pulsing through the horde of the undead. What if that mind turned against the one they were using to lead them...? Who called the shots in the end, Ruiz, or Los Muertos itself...?
One man had the answer -- and it drove him to take up his bonesaw, and slash through Scout's IV tube in one swift stroke. Doctor Ruiz spread his arms, pushing his chest outward.
"Kill me quickly," he spoke. "Without me, they can't coordinate. Hurry! For Maria! DO IT!"
This time, Elisa was the one swift to the battle.
Summoning all her strength, she hurled the body of young Maria to Scout -- who, freed from the constant flow of the drug, managed to tear through his restraints and have his hands up ready for the interception. The child of course immediately sank her teeth into his arm, but Scout showed no reaction at all to the attempt at infecting him.
Her arm now free... Elisa sank the Hand of Winter directly into Ruiz's chest. A beating heart pulsed in her fingers, pushed out through his back. In an impossibly slow arc... her other hand came around, pressing the barrel of the gun underneath his chin.
In the doctor's eyes, she could see the reflections of the zombies behind her, rushing, clawing, ready to save their chosen puppet from its fate... exactly one second too late.
The ceiling turned yellow. Ruiz's body slumped to the floor, having completed its two hundred year fall into the grave, at last.
The fury of Los Muertos was unimaginable. The dry-throated howls of hundreds, thousands, maybe millions echoed across the tanker... across Veracruz... all of Mexico, and down into South America. The beast had lost its eyes, its hands, and most importantly its head. The thinking head. They still had their hearts of darkness, the madness and hunger and anger... but had lost the ability to aim that weapon.
Two and a half figures raced from the tanker, easily plowing through disorganized mobs of the undead. Perhaps if they weren't so blinded by the pain of losing Ruiz, they could have at least coordinated enough to tell each other "brains getting away"... but tonight, the only suffering Los Muertos could inflict was on itself.
The tanker's hull ruptured ten minutes later. As the water poured in, so did the sharks. And somewhere deep beneath the waves, where no man had been in generations (at least, no man who was not also made of water and a witch), there was satisfaction.
They waited until they were well past the Rio Grande and the wall of fire. Only then would Scout dare enter the room below decks on Alagos's craft where they had locked the corpse of Maria Ruiz. Elisa did her best not to pay attention to the horrible snarling and the sound of skulls being cracked open below decks, that night.
In the morning, Scout led a young sleepy-looking girl out of that room by the hand. Her smile, her soft curls, and her gentle voice broke Elisa's armor. The tough FBI agent found herself crying for an hour. Tears fell both for what was lost, and what was found.
The girl didn't know what she was, at the core -- a hybrid of a human, a Fae, and a cannibalistic abomination. When she said she was hungry, Scout fed her from Alagos's galley, and they didn't say a word as to why she was always so hungry, or what she was truly hungry for.
Several sleepless days later, much to her surprise, Elisa found herself in the Twin Cities. Hundreds of miles away from the scorching city of Veracruz, deep in the Fringe, and pacing circles around a hospital waiting room...
The attending doctor seemed a bit young, and yet he had unusually white hair. His name was Doctor Zee, and Scout assured Elisa he was the right man for the job. If her head-mind wasn't taking a well deserved vacation right now, she would've put two and two together.
"The procedure was a success," the doctor explained. "Maria's physiology has been rendered completely human. She should age normally, and the... cravings won't be there anymore. ...we got some very, er, interesting samples from the body she left behind during the process, which Queen Emily says we need to send back to the Arcology for further study..."
Queen Emily. Ah, yes.
In the blur of days, Elisa Morales had spoken again to Queen Emily. It was a strange conversation, to say the least.
"So, not only did you lose three members of your team and get my husband kidnapped, but you also dragged an infected girl out of the hot zone and risked contaminating the entire northern continent?" Queen Emily pointed out.
"Aaaand... why, exactly?"
Elisa couldn't come with a sensible answer. Because it was the humane thing to do? Because Agent Morales wanted to win in the end, like she always does? Because Elisa couldn't let death be all that they found down there? All of it was silly. But Emily didn't seem to need an answer.
"I'd probably have done the same thing, honestly," Emily admitted. "Besides, it's not like it was a wash... Los Muertos lost their mastermind. The undead are contained on all sides, neutralized. Once we figure out a proper cure using the samples we got from Maria, maybe we can do something to help them out, too. We've taken a black eye, obviously... and I mourn for the loss of two members of my Court, and for the loss our friends from the stars are feeling right now. But in the end, you did what you could. Sometimes, doing the right thing means doing the insane thing."
"...President Petersen called me earlier, you know. I've been assigned as Eastusa's liaison to the Faerie Court," Elisa said. "I'll be stationed in New Orleans. After a leave of absence and mandatory counseling, I start my new duty station. ...I was thinking of bringing Maria with me. She's going to need a family again."
"Hopefully she won't find her Auntie Emily too much of a fuddy duddy," the Queen spoke, with a smirk... before taking on a serious expression again. "As long as Eastusa is willing to do the right thing, the Faerie Court will stand by them. But make no mistake, Agent Morales... once the doors to the world start opening, doing the right thing is only going to get harder. Are you ready?"
This time, her head and her heart were in firm consensus.
copyright 2010 stefan gagne
The Second Age series are one-shots and stand alone tales within the world of anachronauts. The next set of stories, starting with sa05, take place during the year of London's Fog.