It had been quiet since he woke up that morning. SICA seemed unaware of their location in London, but they had to be careful. As explained by the tattoo-techie, Bruno, SICA possessed a backdoor to London’s vast security camera network, and many similar networks in NATO influenced nations. Thus in the west, The Association historically did not operate in large cities where such video surveillance existed. Their strategy at the moment in hiding in London was that it was the last place Sentinel would suspect them to be. Such reasoning did make Aleksei feel any less uneasy. London and New York were the twin centres of SICA, and it was foolish for any jinn to be near them. He looked ahead when he heard his sister’s voice.
“Privet!” she called from the opposite end of the hall.
Aleksei broke his vigil at the window and waved back, and was about to return her greeting, along with a gentle jibe at her circular shades. Before he could Bruno abruptly entered the hall near her. Even at the considerable distance, his bushy eyebrows betrayed to Aleksei a mixture of worry and confusion.
“What’sss the matter?” a voice gurgled, causing Aleksei to make a less than masculine cry, and side skip away from a suddenly present, dark hoodie-clad Messenger at his side. Bruno replied from the opposite side of the hall. “It might be nothing, but a couple of our cameras are experiencing interference.”
Aleksei composed himself after a quick shudder, and was about to give his two pence, but the shadowy thing beside him cut to the chase.
“Need me to take care of it?”
Mashka began to breach the gap between herself and her brother.
Scratching his beard, Bruno replied. “Yeah, I’ll go with--,”
Aleksei and The Messenger stopped listening. Something was wrong, and they both felt it. Mashka continued to walk towards her brother, having about fifteen metres to go. Her soles clicked on the tile. click, click, click… click… click……click.
Her steps slowed. Her face twisted slightly as if she heard something unpleasant.
Through trembling lips, her brother called to her, “Get d--!”
The wall erupted beside Mashka, powdered plaster billowed into clouds and rebar hurtled like matchsticks. This was followed a half second later by the ceiling collapsing and the floor above falling down until it resembled a park slide that would never pass a safety inspection.
“Mashka!!!” Aleksei screamed as his sister and Bruno vanished from view.
Aleksei gasped in relief, short-lived relief. As the dust began to clear, he could make out a large figure in the midst of the debris.
“M-mashka…” he began nervously.
It shifted, turning its hulking silhouette.
“Run! Get out of here!” he cried.
He turned to run the opposite way, but spotted The Messenger trapped underneath a beam.
“Are you alright?” he asked, looking at how the beam had trapped it.
“I’m fine!" it snapped, "My legsss are jussst ssstuck ssso I can’t leverage.”
Aleksei strained against the beam and pushed it aside. The Messenger hopped up and sped off, Aleksei thought it prudent to pursue.
The young man hazarded a glance over his shoulder. The dust had cleared enough for him to make out that the shadow was a man, a huge man. Standing almost three metres tall with broad shoulders and thick limbs. He raised some big, rod-like object, still obscured by the dust. As Aleksei dove around the corner, a dozen bullet holes punched through the wall causing\ an entire panel to topple, followed by a bone-rattling 'BOOM', eliminated the mystery of what the massive man was wielding.
Looking around as he ran down the hall, Aleksei found that he was alone. The much faster Messenger had vanished. Up ahead there was a door into a small kitchenette break-room. He took refuge against the wall beneath a table and peaked back through the door the way he came. The huge man wore a red hooded sweater, much the same way The Messenger wore its black one to conceal its face. His head scraped against the ceiling as he lumbered down the hall and cast aside his giant-sized shotgun.
Aleksei’s eyes shifted in search of an escape, but he had unwittingly dashed into a room with no other doors. He looked at the sink, and knew he had only one option. He jumped up and turned the faucets to full blast and plugged the drain. All the while the huge man walked closer.
Hands shaking, Aleksei tried to evaporate the water. Precious seconds passed, nothing happened. The man could not have been more than twenty metres away now, every step vibrating the floor.
Finally, he did it, the water burst into a cloud, and Aleksei’s face transformed into an almost eager expression. He walked to the door and aimed at the approaching juggernaut, and shot his hand out, a portion of the mist following his motion. This was followed three more times with alternating hands. The hissing clouds struck full force, leaving curious arrays of cuts through the hoodie. However, they barely slowed the man’s advance, and if they caused any pain, he was not showing it.
Aleksei was not going to try again, he had enough water now. In a wave, the coffee room vanished into the billowing mist, followed by the hallway. Dashing out of the dead end, he ran down the hall into a giant office, still half filled with low cubicles. He heard a smashing sound behind him, and a second later his displaced vapour field spurred him to find cover. He ducked behind a cubicle, as right beside him, a wooded beam flew through the air, and embedded itself into the floor like a dart. With his mist Aleksei could sense the plaster and portions of wall stuck to the makeshift missile, and realised it was a wall stud the man had ripped out bare-handed. He heard and then sensed the man punch his hand through the wall, and rip out another stud. With one hand he raised the next two-by-four stud, and pointed it in Aleksei’s exact direction.
The youth could not move fast enough, as the beam punched through the cubicle like a spear. Despite the dense fog screen, the man had aimed exactly at Aleksei’s position. Next doors, chairs, shards of window glass, and desks all whistled through the air with supernatural speed and accuracy, had it not been for Aleksei's sensory foresight he would not be able to avoid the onslaught.
'He must be like Mashka! How else can he know where I am?'
He dodged, just as lamp stand pierced the wall beside him. He tripped over a knocked over chair and tumbled, facing upwards, next to a window which was letting light stream in, and possibly leaving a more than visible outline of him in the mist. Suddenly he saw his face staring back at him and he heard a cringe-inducing shriek. A wall mirror had pierced right through the window, just above his face, so quickly the glass did not have more than a few cracks radiating from the breach.
He had to try something else, fast. He caused two cyclones in the mist and intensified them to produce cover noise. To his satisfaction, the giant aimed his makeshift projectiles at them. Silently, Aleksei hurried into position, not breathing.
'So, he was using his hearing?'
He touched his eight fingers together, then tore them away from one another diagonally, a narrow blade of mist formed between his hands, but something else did as well, a high-pitched whistle of the compressed vapor.
His next dodge was closer than all the previous ones as he felt some unidentifiable office furniture brush his arm, leaving an angry friction burn.
Throwing caution to the wind, Aleksei had the mist propel him off the floor, and toss him over a few rows of cubicles. He landed feet first with a thump on a tile surface, but the sound was covered over by the leftover cloud rushing around him and dashing itself against a pile of boxes. Reacting to the noise, the man turned his back to Aleksei, and the boxes were promptly cratered by a printer. Aleksei took his chance, dashing closer, a shrieking scythe once again forming between his hands, and then with a flick of his arm, the vapour blade zipped towards its target.
The man turned, raised his forearm, and knocked the blade aside almost casually, even though his sweater sleeve was instantly tattered by the hungry mist.
'Is his skin made of rocks?' Aleksei wondered.
Being unable to stop his charge, the young man was forced to slide between the giant’s legs. He rapidly condensed the water before and behind him, leaving a thin layer of ice on the floor, as the giant raised a foot in surprise. Catching him off balance, Aleksei sent a burst of mist at the man’s head, causing him to step down on the icy floor, and slip, sprawling backwards onto the floor.
Hopping back up, Aleksei guided a serpent of fog to spiral around his body, up his arm, and then down towards the prone giant, the fog reaching a near deafening pitch as the serpent became a blade, ready to slice the hulking menace lengthwise.
Before Aleksei’s eyes, the man became a blur. Aleksei felt a massive tunnel be punched through his mist field. In a storm of motion; desks, chairs, boxes, and papers parted, like the Red Sea for Moses, across the room, pushed aside by an invisible force. The giant was gone, and his scattered fog could not tell him where he went.
What followed were a couple seconds of complete silence. Then Aleksei’s hair and clothes were blown from behind by a wind, reminding him of the feeling of standing beside a bus as it passed at high speed. He looked back in time to see a head-sized fist aimed at his face.
Hearts pounding and breaths bated, Bruno and Mashka hurried with light steps and pressed their backs against a wall, taking an indirect, but evasive path out of the building. Bruno pulled out a small, convex mirror to see around the corner. He sighed when he saw the hall was clear.
“Mashka, ve’re almost out.” He urged, the tension of the moment causing him to fall into his native accent. “Vallow me.”
“What about my brother?”
“He vit' creepy, trust me, he’ll be fine.”
Mashka jumped at the distant cacophony. The walls and doors hummed with reverberations. “How can you be so sure?! It sounds like the building is collapsing!”
“Vhich is vhy ve are getting out.”
“Niet, my brother could be in trouble.”
Bruno pulled at his short hair in frustration. “Look, I don’t know vhat ve’re up against, but it’s probably SICA, vich is bad, especially for you.”
The building rumbled again, making up Mashka’s mind. “I’m going back for him. Show me the way, or I’m going by myself.” With no further warning, she ran in the direction of the commotion.
“Vait!” he shouted after her.
She rounded the corner, and halted in surprise.
A short, sable-skinned woman stepped out of one of the side rooms and looked Mashka’s direction. Her black eyes opened wide at her discovery, and she promptly raised a gun.
Before Mashka could even start to realise her predicament, she was tackled by Bruno and they both tumbled into a large office room, the sickening thud of bullet cracking bone echoing in their ears.
They rolled once over each other, before Mashka disentangled herself, her eyes glancing over her body.
“Are you alright?” Bruno asked in a strained voice.
Mashka turned to him, her shades gone and her golden cat eyes displayed her fear. “Y-yes.” When she saw a moist darkness show through the man’s hip, turning a widening spot of his jeans violet, she reached out, but stopped herself from touching him. Her fingers were now tipped with sharp talons.
She would have been panicking, the beast was back, and she had lost almost all control, but the silent steps of her huntress frightened her more. She was close, and Mashka knew she was the only one who could stop her.
Out of the darkness, the eye opened. A misty breath rolled out between four curved fangs, and obscured the starry sky.
Lifting the brawny Bruno with ease, Mashka carried him in her arms and ran full speed down the corridor. He would have protested against the princess-carry, but he knew silence was needed. Her eyes shifted everywhere, seeking a place to hide.
A pale, crescent moon grinned down on the black sea, and wicked laughter filled the chill air.
She whispered in Bruno’s ear as she laid him down in a cubicle in a side room, “How is the wound?”
He nodded and replied, “The bullet missed anything vital, or it would be bleeding more.” He lifted his gun to her. “Take it.”
She shook her head, a strange grin on her face.
That’s right… give me my body!
Through sharp teeth, she replied with a grotesquely deep voice, “I won’t need it.” Mashka could feel reality slipping, but she held on. She needed the beast’s destructive power, she could not do this on her own. Stepping out of the room and into the hall, she took her place, ready to confront the enemy, flexing her spine and joints as her range of motion increased.
The dark woman rounded the corner. She took one look at Mashka and holstered her gun. “I read your file, Miss Sharov. Anything short of a shotgun would not slow you down.” Her hand fell to the other side of her belt, from which she drew a large hunting knife. “My name is Nyra, and I have come to slay you.” With a flick of her wrist, the blade extended to thrice its original length and locked into place. She raised the sword-like blade before her face, and bowed.
Mashka was stunned. The woman’s face was so calm and indifferent. She saw no hatred in Nyra’s eyes, nor remorse in her voice. Her attention returned to the blade as Nyra flicked it aside, and then charged.
Even with her enhanced reflexes, Mashka was taken off-guard by Nyra’s speed. There was a metallic clang and Mashka found the edge of the blade just a few inches from her face. Fortunately, the beast had taken control of her hands and caught the blade in the V of her interwoven claws.
Nyra pressed her blade against the smooth talons, but they did not give. Her eyes shifted about, betraying her fascination. After one more push forward, Nyra pulled back, preparing to slice from another angle. Mashka seamlessly advanced, lashing out with her claws and a swift kick. Nyra tucked back, stopped a stab to her face with the flat of her blade, then flipped to retreat from the kick. As she rolled in the air, she retrieved her handgun from its holster. Immediately after landing, she aimed to shoot out one of the beastly woman’s eyes. But before she could, Mashka stabbed her claws into the wall then flung a chunk of plaster at Nyra’s face.
On reflex, Nyra smacked the plaster aside with her sword, but she could not stop the white dust exploding and getting in her eyes. She was blind, but did not panic. She was a warrior, a hunter, a monster slayer, no matter what part she lost. Relying only on her gut, she stepped left and brought the blade down on the fare blur which she imagined was her prey’s neck.
Mashka backed away and felt a line of pain from the corner of her chin to her jaw. With ease she dodged Nyra’s frenzied, but calculated slashes and thrusts. She could tell that the woman was blinded, but her assault was enough to give even the beast within pause from recklessly attacking. Mashka struggled with every fibre of her soul to hold onto her impulses, but still felt almost removed from her body. She tasted the blood which flowed down her right cheek, and focused on the metallic flavour to keep herself in reality.
A sharp pain burned in her side, so Mashka took control for a moment to leap and flee down the hall. Once she was a few metres removed from Nyra, she felt her side and cheek. She could feel her flesh pulsate as it slowly closing the wounds, though they had not been deep, she did not want to overestimate her own healing capability. She looked up at Nyra, who took the brief respite to wipe her eyes.
The two women stared at each other, then Nyra advanced, and Mashka once again surrendered her body.
A midnight silhouette rose from the glassy orb, reaching for the hooked moon.
Aleksei was disappointed that his life failed to flash before his eyes, robbing him of a path down memory lane before his looming death by skull-imploding fist. Without time to utter a prayer, a dark shadow flew overhead.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Three bullets, one after another, embedded themselves in the back of the giant’s hand. The force of the shots knocking the fist down, sparing Aleksei from a gruesome death. The Messenger landed upon the massive forearm, its smoking gun aimed directly at the giant’s eye. In the briefest moment, as the Messenger squeezed the trigger again, a look of recognition spread on the giant’s face.
With the speed of a jackhammer, the giant punched The Messenger with his other arm, sending it hurtling across the room and through the twin doors into a dark storage room. The bullet The Messenger fired left a hole in the wall behind the giant, a testament to the speed at which the smaller combatant flew from the blow.
Taking the opportunity The Messenger gave him, Aleksei attempted to flee, but the huge man defied his size and moved in a blur, and stopped before Aleksei. The force of the motion, knocked the youth on his back. The giant stood over him with two fists held high. Scrambling with all his might, Aleksei tried to avoid the meteoric slam.
The titan smashed down, centimetres from Aleksei’s waist, and the floor erupted in an explosion of debris. The force caused Aleksei to tumble back, ears ringing and head rattled. When he could stop himself, he felt the floor shift beneath him, and though the dust blocked his vision, he could hear that the floor was collapsing. In a mad, four-limbed scramble, he made for where he remembered the dark storage room was. He finally rose to his feet, and just as the floor began to slide down beneath him, he leapt, and tumbled through the swinging doors, and rolled on the linoleum.
Once he regained his footing, he examined his surroundings. The room was extremely dark, with no windows.
'If that thing has enhanced sight too, I’m in a boatload of trouble.'
He composed himself long enough to beckon the moisture he had been using from the other room. It took significant concentration to extract the water vapour from the air and what had soaked into the dust and papers. But, in less than a minute, a fog bank flooded into the room, giving Aleksei the visibility he needed.
'Now, to take care of his hearing…' With a deep exhale, he spun his wrists and wove his arms back and forth. Two miniature cyclones moved about, producing a low hiss. With a push, he sent them deeper into the room, where they split into four, producing more noise by rustling whatever loose material they came in contact with.
Once satisfied, Aleksei darted into the shadows and crept his way to The Messenger. His mist could feel its form amidst a jumble of knocked over boxes and shelving. He could feel breaths disturbing the thick fog screen, but he wanted to be certain it was not seriously injured.
Aleksei’s heart beat in his ears, and he wondered if his cyclones were loud enough to cover it. As of yet, the giant had not invaded the room, causing him to wonder what he was waiting for, either that or the giant had fallen to the lower level and could not jump.
After a couple moments of cautious crawling, Aleksei was within a metre of the cryptic being. He paused, uncertain of how he was going to ensure that his ally was well. He was not going to speak, knowing that the slightest sound might guarantee a makeshift missile through his skull.
“Boy,” it hissed, surprising him, “He’sss above usss.”
Aleksei looked up as the ceiling blew asunder.
Nyra’s blade danced as she assaulted her target, using every martial skill and acrobatic trick at her disposal, but still, she only succeeded inflicting minor surface wounds.
Mashka, though only versed in the basics of self-defence, was fast and reckless enough to avoid serious injury. Her golden eyes tracked Nyra's swift motions as she tried to formulate a strategy. Despite many hours of one on one instruction with Evan, he taught her how to deal with an opponent armed with a sword. Why would he given it is the twenty-first century?
Still, she was learning her enemy. Nyra’s favourite targets were her wrists, upper abdomen, neck, eyes, and inside her thigh. Her enhanced senses and reactions made every attack seem much slower than it really was, giving Mashka time to formulate a plan to get rid of the blade, she just had to wait for the right moment.
Once more Nyra tried for her eye, but this time Mashka was ready. Instead of backing away, she moved herself forward while bending her head to the side. With one palm against both flats of the blade, her right towards the tip, the other towards the base, she pressed. The extension blade snapped with ease.
Nyra’s face flickered with astonishment. From her perspective she had slashed, and her blade broke all by itself, her eyes had not even seen Mashka’s hands until after the act. But she recovered quickly, snatching Mashka’s wrist, twisting it into a hold, and propelling her body so she could smash the smaller woman’s head against the wall.
Mashka gasped as her head punched into the plaster, but her body moved despite her dazed state, spinning, breaking from the hold, and after a quick manoeuvre she landed a vicious kick to Nyra’s collar bone. The force of the kick caused Nyra to leave the ground, and hurtle into a row of cabinets some five metres away, denting them along their middle.
Ignoring bruises and broken bones Nyra stood, drawing weighted knives and throwing them. Mashka, with near casual ease, caught all three.
“Please,” the beast said darkly through Mashka’s lips, “I know that trick.”
She stopped, feeling herself slip from her own body. She pulling back with all her will, forcing her teeth, and claws to recede, while trying to withstand the immense pain. She knew that was the beast’s ploy, somehow whenever it took over, her pain disappeared, making it so hard to fight against the instant relief. But she could bear even less the terror she felt from watching her body be used by something else.
Nyra took advantage at the slight hint of her target’s resolve weakening. Now was the chance to slay her.
Stuck with her own battle of wills, Mashka nearly forgot the battle at hand. Nyra was upon her. She tried lashing out, but the woman slipped past her, brought her fist up to crush her oesophagus and snap her neck in one blow.
Mashka heard a scream, and she knew it as her brother’s, he was in trouble, and here she was, about to die. Blood splattered on her face, and the world was lost to her.
Nyra gasped, and for the first time her face expressed a human level of emotion. She bent over as she was kneed viciously in the stomach. On the floor, she stared in shock at her right arm, or at least up to where her elbow used to be.
“I’m finished with this amusement.” The beast spoke with almost bored disdain.
Nyra watched as Mariya Sharova walked away. After a few paces she cast aside Nyra’s severed forearm as if it was nothing more than a tarnished rag and disappeared around the corner.