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Shadowrun - Broken

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By KeitaHaruka
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     I don't like the dark. Ever since that night in '54 when I found my parents slain, and the assassin fudged the shot that was meant to take me out, dark indoor spaces held little appeal to me.
     Ironic, isn't it? My whole existence is lived in figurative darkness. Officially, I am dead. I'm in this place illegally. I'm doing highly illegal things working with outlawed or underground organisations.
     Some would say I've fallen from grace. I can't argue with them. My children are dead. My parents are dead. I've been hunted across continents before deciding to hunt the hunters.  I've lost more than any person should ever have to and killed more people than I care to remember. By the definition of those who employ me, I am more than just dark. I am evil. They justify using me by saying I'm the lesser of two evils. I make no such defence on my own behalf. I know who and what I am...and I am far beyond caring.
     My name is Xerena Suelo Rubruquis.
     What the fuck ever, Father. Forgive me or not for my "sins". I don't care.

     My current location has no official name. It's a few dozen kilometres outside of Belize, Aztlan. I don't particularly care where it is except as far as its proximity to a teocalli and a fovea is concerned. Most magicians avoid foveae. I don't. They make great hiding places. Sure you can't use your magic in them, but neither can anyone else, and while you're inside, you can't be targeted by ritual magic. To one such as I, that is a major attraction.
     There are dozens of villages around Belize. Close to one of these, there's an underground catholic church. I really do mean underground. The locals dug it out of the dirt and made it habitable. A Christian Theurgist warded it, and the local bishop installed a priest: Father Cristobal. He's a weedy-looking man with a friar's haircut, the usual priestly robe and hard brown eyes. I don't like him very much. He's one of those fire and brimstone priests, so the feeling is entirely mutual. He hates me because I came from the "old country" and was raised in a good Catholic home in a good, Catholic country, but wasn't a good, obedient Catholic daughter. I was a Theurgist turned Chaos Mage. An apostate. To a man like Father Cristobal, I was worse than a pagan.
     Still...he was civil enough. We needed each other, even if neither of us would ever admit it. At least he didn't call me Delilah.
     I sat down on the wooden bench in the earthen room as Cristobal closed the curtain behind me, and activated the communications console. It was an ancient device that managed to interface with the wired matrix only through extreme ingenuity. The hard face of my contact in Bogota appeared on the screen. He wore a crew cut and black fatigues. There were many people like me; people who for one reason or another had a beef with Aztlan – or Aztechnology, to be more precise. We were the children, siblings, parents, friends or lovers of people who'd been touched in one way or another by the Azzies. Some had lost loved ones to blood sacrifice, or lost their livelihood, or simply felt they disliked Aztechnology. I didn't much care what the reason was. We were all united, and we used every ally we could get, even if it was the catholic church.
     His expression was almost apologetic this time when he saw my face appear on the screen. As usual, he took a moment to look me over. I suppose I wasn't too bad-looking. There's enough Gitano blood in me to give me the look of a gypsy woman: the strong face, crazy black hair and deep black eyes. I wasn't beautiful, or even pretty, but I was striking. Probably because of the Gitano blood in me, I didn't look particularly elfy. My face wasn't quite that thin, and my body certainly wasn't. I had the kind of hips that shouted "broodsow", and the crazy gypsy hair neatly concealed the pointy ears. I dressed to match too whenever possible. I like bright colours.
     I stared blankly at him, merely waiting for him to get started. I wasn't known for being very hospitable. None of us really were. The darkness, you understand.
     "I ah...that is, we...regret to inform you that we can't send you any more reinforcements at this time. We don't have anyone available..."
     "Don't lie to me, Luis." I snapped. I glared at him and had the satisfaction of seeing him recoil. There was barely controlled rage in my voice, and I knew my eyes would be ablaze. It didn't take much to take the leash off my internal dynamo. It spun and spun around, generating rage faster than I could expend it. It was a never-ending source of energy for me, and I embraced it fully.
     "I'm not lying, Zee. We don't have anything available...none that would be willing to work with you, anyway."
     I sat still for a moment, silently counting down from twenty. I gripped the pistol in my hand till my knuckles turned pure white.
     "No one willing to work with me?" I repeated finally, my voice hoarse from rage.
     "Yes. Zee, you go through teammates like a scythe. Very few people live long when you're around. You don't take orders well, and you never consider anyone's weaknesses..."
     "I'm not a fucking nursemaid, Luis!" I burst out and slammed the pistol down on the console, cracking the wood with an audible snap. "And I'm not running a tea party here. We're hunting blood mages, and we're doing that in the fucking Azzie heartland! If they can't handle the heat, they shouldn't be running with me! I'm not their mother, to coddle their weakness. If they can't handle it..."
     "Fuck it, Zee! We don't have so many people that we can afford to lose..."
     I half rose from my seat and shouted at the screen, "I will do as a damn well see fit! Now, I need six more fighters. Get them, or I'll start recruiting them off the streets!"
     "You will do no such thing...!"
     I slammed my hand down on the console and cut off the transmission. No one, and I mean no-one, tells me what to do. I sat there shaking for the next ten minutes, trying to get hold of myself, rage boiling through every vein.
     I've been in Aztlan for four years now, hunting blood mages just like my parents before me...only I was better at it than they had been. They'd gotten caught, and that had prompted Aztechnology to come down on our family, hard. As far as I knew, the Azzies had no idea who I really was. As far as they, or anyone else knew, I had died in a plane crash while on my way to Caracas in response to a humanitarian call issued by Doctors Without Borders. Xerena Suelo Rubruquis was listed as deceased. The name on my fake SIN now read Xerena Veracruz.
     Sometimes I hated my parents. I hated everyone, really, but none more than anyone connected with Aztechnology. In my hunts for their blood mages, I rarely cared who lived and who died. In my mind, they were all guilty.
     This time, the rage did not subside. It kept roiling and burning until the urge to kill something became too hard to bear. I fled outside, ignoring Father Cristobal and his altar boy. They didn't follow, knowing better than to try and talk sense into me.
     It was dark outside. No stars were visible...not this close to a city, and of course, we didn't advertise our presence here by having beacons outside.
     For some reason, the rage inside turned to unbearable pain the moment I got outside, and I sank to my knees, trying to keep from sobbing. I hugged myself hard, trying to stop myself from shaking, but it was too much. I couldn't keep the pain inside from spilling over. I wanted to howl and scream my pain for the whole world to hear...but somehow I kept it inside. I lay on the ground, shaking for a while longer, and then got up and dusted myself off.
     No use crying. I never cried. I wasn't going to now. I'd die before I let them see me hurting...
     My anger returned then, and lent me the strength I needed to go on.
     So...no one was willing to work with me? Very well...then I would go it alone...

     Of course I couldn't do that. I simply didn't have all the skills that running alone would require. I had no real skill with code slinging. I couldn't shoot straight to save my life, and my survival skills were rudimentary at best. I relied heavily on outdoorsy types to help me navigate and on the skill of hackers to keep us undetected. It galled me having to rely on others, but I knew I had no real choice. I needed them. My only consolation was that they needed me too. I was the unit's mage.
     My team wasn't big. Even so, I didn't know all their names. What was the point of learning it when they'll be dead next month anyway? Teammates came and went. The work was what was important. As long as we were all on the same page, everything was fine on my end. I had as much chance of dying as anyone else I ran with. Truth was...I didn't really care whether I lived or died. I just wanted every last blood mage to die before I did.
     I took out my tally rope and slowly uncoiled it. It was a simple silk cord braided in red and white, with fourteen small knots tied in it at one centimetre intervals. Each knot represented a blood mage we'd taken out. A double knot indicated a kill I'd made personally. There were nine of those. In seven years, I'd personally killed nine blood mages. Not all of these had been priests, but every last one of them had had ties to Aztechnology. The Azzies were very protective of their blood mages, but not nearly protective enough. Over the last few years, we'd taken out a few teocalli until the Azzies wised up and increased security. Now we were trawling the hinterlands around the Yucatan, taking out blood mages as we found them.
     Nine deaths. Fourteen knots. I closed my fists and ground my teeth, then carefully folded the tally cord and replaced it in my coat.
     Ever since that cold night in '54, I'd honed my skills, taking every opportunity to learn. Everywhere I'd gone, all across Europe and the Caribbean League, I'd learned, and in many cases, adapted what I learned to my own particular vision. Cold hatred kept me focussed, and hot rage kept me going.
     If only the infernal visions would go away...
     They came upon me at random times, and always involved a ghostly grey wolf running beside me, or staring expectantly at me, as if waiting for me to do something.
     I told no one of these visions. Visions were for crazy people and the sadly deluded. The world wasn't a cozy, warm place where mother earth fought the good fight against the evil corruption of man. The world wasn't a battleground between the forces of the evil devils and goody-two-shoes angels. The world was simply what the world was. There was no higher purpose, no guiding principles. There was only what every person wanted, and their attempts to get it. That was all.
     I caught sight of wolf from the corner of my eye. His ghostly form seemed to convey great sadness and disappointment. Anger flared in me once again, but I quelled it. It didn't exist. It wasn't real. No need to get angry at visions.
     I snorted and returned inside the earthen church, to the bare little cubicle with its lumpy mattress.
     Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

     Burning skies and blackened earth...Dark silhouettes stood shrouded in the dusty haze as the shadows deepened with the setting sun. I shivered at the stark beauty of the land. If nothing else in this world was worthy of admiration...sunsets still had the power to keep me spellbound.
     I breathed in the warm air, savouring the slight burning sensation as the acidic air touched delicate nasal membranes. There was something primal about open land that couldn't be explained. It had to be felt. I closed my eyes and meditated for a few precious moments...my private ritual before every run.
     Either my quarry went down...or I did. Either way...I was okay with it.
     A soft hand touched my shoulder, and I opened my eyes. A young woman stood there, holding my gear out to me. In the dim light, only her silhouette was visible to me. She looked deceptively frail, but I knew that her wiry frame was packed with tough sinew. I had no idea what her name was, but I knew what she was capable of.
     I nodded my thanks and took my pack from her. It contained my back-up pistol, my back-up knives and my Bat'Leth. The Bat'Leth had been a joke; the gift of an indulgent parent to a daughter who could still dream.
     After my father's death, I'd had a real one made, hand-forged from the very best steel, and learned how to use it. The Bat'Leth was like a staff with two slashing and two stabbing blades attached. Very versatile, but also very difficult to use effectively. You had to remain in constant motion. It was an all-or-nothing kind of weapon, and as such, it suited me perfectly.
     I smiled grimly, and rammed two knives into the tops of my boots and two more into the leather belt at my waist. I tied my hair back with a simple blue bandana and strapped the Bat'Leth to my back. Dressed in military khaki fatigues, I looked more like a mercenary than a mage. With any luck, none of the guards would be able to pinpoint me immediately as the first target to be geeked.
     We waited, tense in the falling darkness. A soft wind soughed through the grass and trees, bringing blessed coolness from the ocean about six kilometers away. This was to be our biggest hit yet...and we were six team mates down. To take out the priests in a teocalli such as the one we were targeting, you needed a crack hacker, three riggers to operate vehicles and drones, twelve hired guns to keep us safe...and a power-mage to take on the priests. That was me.
     The Azzies had some really strange ideas. History shows us that mixing politics with religion almost inevitably led to stagnation. Add corporate interest to that...and you had absolute power that made the old Soviet states look positively anarchistic. Still...to get that power, you didn't have to go to the lengths Aztechnology went to integrate religion into their corporate and political structures. Certainly there was no logical reason why ancient archaeological sites should be restored and put back into use...especially when there was no nearby population.
     There was something strange going on there, and try though we might...we've never managed to find out exactly what. One thing we did know: blood magic was practiced, and seemed to be centred around these ancient sites. What we didn't know was why.
     I put on my HUD goggles and keyed in the map overlay. A blinking green dot showed our target: Altun Ha. Fifty kilometres north of the city of Belize. In that ancient building, an Aztechnology blood mage was doing his foul work...work that had cost my whole family their lives. Tonight, I would add a fifteenth knot, and if I was very lucky, the tenth double.

     Altun Ha was a Mayan construction, but that didn't seem to phase the Azzies much. Mayan, Incan, Aztec...it was all part of their 'glorious past'. They should have left it there. I mean, imagine if every nation on earth suddenly decided to revive their 'glorious past'. Almost everyone had had an empire at some point. Imagine the Egyptians, Greeks, Iranians and Italians all trying to revive their 'glorious pasts' by taking back territories that had once belonged to them...excuse me...that they had once taken from somebody else. The whole Eurozone, Middle East and North Africa would be at war. With each other.
     I have to admit, though. It's a pretty impressive sight. I could only imagine what it must have been like back in its day, when it was a major trade link housing ten thousand people. There were thirteen major ceremonial sites arranged around two big plazas, and a further seventy five smaller sites scattered around those. In my mind's eye, I could see houses and storage facilities, roads and shops, all in the shadow of the big stepped pyramids that housed the priests, the warriors and the leaders of this thriving metropolis. There would have been fields of corn all around the city to feed its population and the traders who came to call, or who merely passed through.
     I took off the HUD and shook my head. That was the thing about the Azzies that irritated me most. They did indeed have a glorious past, but instead of reviving the best parts of it, they'd glorified the worst of it: the blood sports, the superstition and fear, and combined that with corporate control and greed. It was a terrible, terrible combination. It led to the death of all I held dear in this life, and for that...they would pay. The dead would be counted in the thousands by the time I was through. I was an elf. I'd live for hundreds of years. Hundreds of years of Azzie blood to expiate the deaths of those they'd killed.
     We rode in near silence. The only sound was the tires crushing the undergrowth and the soft whirr of the electric motors as our pick-up truck carried us ever onward. We followed logging roads through the forest, back ways and even game trails to keep us off the main roads. It was still early in the night, and the sea was just six kilometres away, so it was hot, and humid. I could only imagine what it was like in the armour the muscular types wore.
     A kilometre or so out from the outskirts of Altun Ha, I raised my hand and the truck came to a stop. It was here that my senses told me the first watcher spirits patrolled. I closed my eyes and opened the Third Eye, or astral sight, as the more learned magicians would call it. There were many of them, each apparently patrolling a small section of where the priests decided the border of Altun Ha was located. I watched them through the Third Eye as some of them fluttered around at random. Others just hung there in mid air. A bit further along, two neighbouring spirits seemed to have taken a dislike to each other, and were trying to have a fight without crossing their assigned borders, like two dogs fighting through a fence.
     I shifted my attention elsewhere, watching for paracritters or other magical defences. I knew there would be some. These Teocalli usually did. I couldn't see any further spirits on the astral, and that struck me as unusual. Watchers were only useful if there was something to back them up, but I couldn't see anything. I signalled for everyone to get out. We'd be going in on foot from this point forward.
     Our driver concealed the truck amid some thick undergrowth and covered it. Don't ask me how he did it. I have no idea. That's his part of the job. I have enough trouble keeping current in my own field of expertise. It didn't take long for everyone to assemble themselves and gather up their gear. I made sure I had my power focus and my Bat'Leth. The knives were of course always present and I had my gun. That was all I really needed.
     The young woman who'd handed me my pack earlier checked my cammo and I checked hers. Hers needed a little touching up, and I took care if it quickly.
     Everyone was ready. Our hacker had his deck, the riggers had their surveillance and attack drones, and our six muscle-men had their weapons. One of them took point as everyone took their positions. That was my cue to get started.
     I returned my attention to the watchers. They were silly little things. Some said they were about as intelligent as dogs, but even in dogs, there's a range of IQ. These spirits were no different. Some were easier to distract than others. The problem with letting a number of spirits watch only one small stretch of border each was that they would do precisely that. If something slipped past one spirit, the rest wouldn't raise the alarm. That made my job much easier.
     I smiled grimly and formed the image of a bat in my mind. Bats could be found everywhere in the world, and the spirits would be accustomed to seeing them. I closed my eyes and projected the image in my mind's eyes outward, infusing it with mana as I did so. The image took up solid appearance, and was soon followed by dozens more. This would of course not be enough to convince a watcher that the bats were real. To do that...they needed to be a bit more than mere illusions.
     Surreptitiously, while my team watched the spectacle of dozens of flightless bats appearing in mid air, I slid one of the knives I held up my sleeve into my hand, and made a small incision across my left wrist. Pain flared hot for a moment and I gritted my teeth, forcing my attention away from the pain. Blood welled up quickly. With astral sight, blood came alive with power...power you could harness if you knew how...
     You see...some spirits need to be fed to retain their powers, even to keep on living. Free spirits especially were always on the lookout. Even for spirits like these, hoping to gain their freedom, a free meal would be difficult to pass up.
     I worked quickly, siphoning off the power of my blood and infused a few of the bats with its power.
     Be prepared to run on my mark, I signalled to my team before unleashing the swarm of illusory bats at the spirit.
     On they flew, heading up and over the spirit. It showed no reaction. Once I was sure it was ignoring the bats, I released the first of my 'enhanced' bats, flinging it past the watcher so fast it barely had time to register. I gave it just enough time to sense the free meal it had just missed before tossing a second one at it. This time it took the bait and flung its astral body after the bat.
     Now! I signed and streaked for the now unguarded border. I flung the blooded bats rapidly now, at random trajectories that forced the spirit to concentrate all the harder to catch them. No matter how hard it tried, it never managed to catch even a single one.
     We ran through the underbrush without stopping. I wouldn't advise running with only astral sight. Things look hazy and psychedelic at the same time. Trees become amorphous blobs of grey, and rocks barely stood out. Only magically active creatures showed up in colour, and these tended to draw your attention like a flame drew a moth. They were not visible in any grater detail, but it was still distracting when you're focussed on keeping a watcher spirit occupied. Beside me ran the brightly coloured shape of the young woman. She was an adept, and one of our muscle-men. I really ought to learn her name. She'd been with me for four runs now. That made it longer than anyone except that surly ork whose tusk-rot I'd healed last month.
     I was panting heavily by the time I was sure we were clear of the spirits. We came to a halt and I bent over, leaning my hands on my knees, shaking with fatigue.
     I was forty seven years old, and used to a far more sedentary lifestyle. What did you expect?  It may not have been a physiological fact, but mentally, I was old. I'd grown up in a time when no one really knew much about my kind, where the perception of age still mattered. I wasn't meant to be out here at this age, running borders, getting into fights...
     But if I didn't do it...who would? There was no one else left.
     I straightened, and looked around, scanning the area with the Third Eye, but I saw no signs of anything. I signalled our senior rigger and he nodded. His boyish grin and playful wink made me momentarily forget my age and his, and the situation we found ourselves in. He couldn't have been into his third decade, judging by the smooth chocolate skin and tightly curled black hair. He was muscular too, and had run easily with the muscle-men and our resident adept. Pity. Such a big, enormous pity he was male.
     I shook my head and removed my HUD. High above, the silvery tail of the Comet was still clearly visible. So was the moon. It must have been a full moon...
     I tore my gaze quickly away.
     Focus, Zee. I berated myself. Visions of wolves, a preoccupation with the moon and lustful thoughts about a male young enough to me my son. I was definitely going crazy.
     I sighed softly, and watched as the three riggers did their work. The muscle men scouted the immediate area, looking for signs of patrols. We'd of course done our homework on what defences the teocalli might have, but of course there was always the chance of changes being made...or mistakes.
     I crouched down and watched, resting, thinking. One of the positive aspects of the magic I'd used was that there was little to no drain. I used it only when I had to, and I never used anyone's blood but my own. It's given me an edge that none of the other hunters had. I could compete with blood mages on their own ground, and the last seven years of hunting had proven me correct. Know your enemy, and he will teach you how to defeat him. There is no teacher like the enemy.
     Of course I knew the risk. I could become the enemy. But I was sure I could resist the temptation. After all, I wasn't after personal power. I just wanted them all dead.
     A few minutes later, the lovely boy delivered his report.
     "There's a patrol six hundred meters to the North West and another on the opposite side of the compound, eight hundred meters East North East. If they continue along their present course, they'll cross within sixty meters of our current position. According to the aerial photos we obtained, there's a dense thicket right behind Plaza B at B2. We can easily cut across from there and come up on A1 from the front," he said, referring to our numbering system for the site. A1 was the main complex where the mage probably resided. It was directly next to A6, the main pyramid where offerings to the gods were made.
     I put the HUD back on and keyed in the map, studied what he'd said, then shook my head.
     "No. There'll be a mana barrier there, preventing entry to the plaza. I'm not sure I can break it, and even if I could, the priest will know it the second I do. We could skirt around Plaza B and enter at B1."
     "That's on the opposite side of where we want to be!" he protested. "And if Plaza A is barriered, wouldn't they block it from that side too?"
     I nodded. "Yes, they would. But B1 is connected with A4. That's where the lesser priests reside. If we can subdue a few of them, we can infiltrate the main complex. You're all fluent in Nahuatl and know enough about the ceremonies to blend in."
     "True, but they'll all know each other. The moment they saw us, they'd know we didn't belong."
     "True. But I can confuse them for long enough for our dearly beloved hacker to copy their keycards and snatch their biometrics. Plus...I've brought some Thiopenthal. It's an old-fashioned drug, but still effective...especially when used in conjunction with magic."
     He looked at me strangely and shook his head. "Hayibo! You are audacious, I'll give you that. Do you think there'll be enough time to pull that off? That's even assuming we can get inside."
     I shrugged. "If we can't, we'll wait for him to come out. I'll take him on one on one, and one of you can shoot him."
     The cold-blooded delivery of that last statement silenced him. I think it brought all of them up short.
     I stared icily at them, and one by one they looked away.
     "So...the original plan, then...?" the lovely boy offered timidly.
     "That might be wisest." I confirmed.
     Sometimes, being the babushka had some advantages...

     We moved silently, following the lead of our muscle men. The black boy and the adept remained close to me as we crept through the undergrowth. It was creeping up on midnight by the time we reached A7, the building complex that had been the original destination according to the plan. It was right next to the A6 sacrificial pyramid, opposite to A1 where our target was located.
     I kept a close eye out, but A1 was the only building with magical defences. Spirits infested the air around the main temple complex. The whole aura of the building glowed so brightly I could barely look at it. The very air seemed to cringe back from it. I shivered, and felt a reassuring arm going around my shoulders. The young male was definitely trying his luck. For a moment, I allowed myself to accept the comfort he offered before shrugging him off. I needed to concentrate.
     There was magical items scattered all around me. Some were simple foci. Others had properties I couldn't even begin to guess at. Most of the items in the main complex had horrible auras, stretching into the ultraviolet and infrared spectra. Nearly all the colours were interlaced with dark threads that pulsed as if strangling the life out of everything it touched. I could feel the coldness of unfeeling, and the intense red satisfaction of the power-crazed. There were several figures moving inside, but only one showed magical ability.
     They were all gathered together around an aura that pulsed bright with fear and pain. As I watched, its light flared for a moment, then went out. A second later...
     I nearly screamed and fell back as I closed my Third Eye.
     "No...no...no..." I whimpered.
     "Zee! Zee? Are you all right? Are you hurt? Zee? Talk to me!"
     Cooler, softer hands stroked my brow as I wept, and shoved the young man away from me. The cool blue aura of our adept filled my vision, and for a moment, I clung to her.
     She held me for a moment before letting me sit up.
     "What did you see, Xerena?" she asked softly. Her voice floated like smoked honey to my ears...so soft and deep and velvety...
     I shook my head.
     "They...they just called and bound a blood spirit. I...I saw it in the astral...Oh gods..."
     More than that. I'd seen how they do it. For a moment, I'd joined my thoughts with the priest inside as he revelled in his dark power. I'd read the formula in his mind as he called forth the man's soul...twisted now to the purpose he'd been created for.
     For a moment...he'd looked me in the eye and offered me the chance to join him...he'd shown me absolute power...offered it to me. No...he hadn't just offered. He'd shoved it right into my mind where I would never get rid of it: how it felt to wield such power, how such power could change my life.
     I retched violently and shuddered.
     "They...know we're here."
     "Then we have to get out of here. Now!" The boy grabbed my hand and tried to pull me up. I surged upright and delivered a blow to his face that sent him to the ground with a yelp.
     "No! We must go in now! This is the only chance we'll get! That...thing in there cannot be allowed to live. We all swore we'd hunt these creatures down, and that's exactly what I'm going to do. Live or die, I'm going to end him!"
     "Zee...!"
     I turned and grabbed my gear. I was done talking. No one ever, EVER tells me what to do. I stalked away, making no effort to conceal myself. What was the point? The priest already knew where I was. He could send Jaguar guards out to kill us any time he chose to. The fact that he didn't choose to told me that I was dealing with a very arrogant man. He underestimated me.
     "Zee...!"
     I ignored my team and strode forward, head held high. I threw my cammo cap to the ground and unbound my long, frizzy black hair, letting it fall free like a proud Spanish woman should. I might as well look my best for this meeting. Pity about the awful clothes...
     As I drew near, I could feel the faint hum of well-made mana barriers. I tested them, and found them to be formidable.
     Well well...have you come to accept my offer?
     I could feel him linking his mind to mine. I could easily have resisted him...but I chose not to. I let him see how much I desired power. I felt him smirking as he withdrew, and the barrier went down.
     Stupid, stupid man.
     My adept friend was ever so good at concealing herself. She had never for a moment left my side and stepped with me past all the security into the building. I heard one last "Zee, no!" shouted behind me before the barrier went back up, and I found myself inside a teocalli for the first time ever.
     I didn't waste any time looking around, but followed the powerful pull of strong magic. The adept strode along behind me, confident in my ability to keep whatever was ahead of us away from her. She'd seen me confront and defeat these mages before and had every confidence in me. As well she should.
     We came to a chamber in what I assumed was the centre of the teocalli. A single altar stood in the very centre, and over it hung the limp body of a young man. His face was contorted in a rictus of pain, and his chest gaped wide and bloody where his heart had been cut out of him. I barely spared him a second glance. I dared not, or I wouldn't be able to do what I had to with a clear head.
     The room was lit only by primitive torches, and the light from the very latest access terminals. There was no one seated there now. The walls were carved with Mayan and Aztec symbols. Under any other circumstances, I might have been fascinated, but here, now, my rage roiled close to the surface. The priest I'd come to kill stood a few meters away, dressed in a feathery costume of blue, red and yellow. His face was unmasked, and showed a remarkably youthful countenance considering the power I felt emanating from him.
     "So...you desire power, woman? Too bad you do not possess intelligence the equal of that need."
     I stared at him, then screamed.
     He didn't move a single muscle, but hammer blows of power rained down on my body. I could barely counter them, and soon, I could feel myself weakening with drain. Beside me, my adept friend drew her gun and took aim. The bullet seemed to strike a titanium wall in mid air, and a moment later, she crumpled to the ground, gasping.
     "So much for the formidable Xerena Veracruz. You really are a big disappointment to me."
     He struck me several more times with his magic...so much more powerful than his aura had suggested. Still...in the light of all that was happening, I could still sigh in relief. They had not managed to uncover who I really was. That was something at least. Not that it really mattered.
     I summoned what energy I had left and threw a bolt his way that momentary sent him staggering back. It took nearly everything I had left.
     "Better. Much better. Such a waste. You could have done well in our order had you been born here. Alas...I shall have to kill you. Did you not realise it was a trap?"
     I hadn't, and it seared my soul to know the depths of my arrogance. I should have seen it. He hadn't offered me any power at all. He'd simply used my own rage and hatred against me, show me what he knew would enrage me, and then dangled a way for me to defeat him in front of my nose.
     Know your enemy. He will teach you how to defeat him.
     It had never occurred to me that anyone could use that knowledge against me. He'd manipulated me from the start.
     Part of me shrivelled up inside in shame, but the rage won out. Fine. You may have lured me this far, you've still given me the means to defeat you...
     The adept lay still beside me. Her aura showed me that she still lived, but that she had internal injuries that would need medical attention. I shoved aside my medical training and drew a knife from my sleeve.
     "And what will you do now, little girl Kill me with your knife?" He smirked and raised his chin as if offering me his throat. "Come and get it. If you can!"
     More powerful blows rocked my battered body, but I ignored them I grabbed the adept by the hair, exposing her throat. I had no other choice. There was no other way out. My knife was in my other hand, and I stood poised to plunge it into her throat. I had the satisfaction of seeing the smirk momentarily wiped off the Aztec priest's face. He hadn't thought I might actually use his dark art against him, pure lily-white flower that I was. Well...I wasn't. I gripped the knife tighter to stop my hand from shaking. I was really going to do it...
     NOOOOOOO!
     A shattering howl split the air and both the Aztec priest and I staggered back. In the centre of the room, two shimmering animals appeared. One wolf, and one Jaguar. The Aztec priest yelled a victory cry and raised his hand to heaven. I just tood, shocked at the sight before me. The who animals circled each other, floating just inches above the ground.
     I could hear wolf clearly in my head.
     I will not permit this! You are in my pack, and you will submit to my authority!
     I stood there, dumbfounded. Me...pack...? Submit...me?
     Rage flared once again.
     Oh no, you won't! I wasn't going to let a silly hallucination get the better of me, Clearly I was damaged. I'd finally lost it and gone stark raving mad. Well...that was okay. But I'll be stone cold dead before I let ANYONE beat me...least of all a hollow hallucination.
     I lunged forward, the knife still clutched in my hand. I could see the girl's eyes opening, focussing on me. She looked at the laughing priest, and back at me. She must have seen what I had planned. Fear bloomed in those dark pools, and then relieved acceptance. Finally, it is over...
     Maybe I was legitimately crazy at that point. Her acceptance of her fate only drove me onward. When I couldn't walk, I crawled. It was such a short distance, but I had nothing left. I reached her side and raised my hand to end her life and steal her power.
     No!
     Wolf growled and momentarily turned away from Jaguar. His massive grey-furred form smashed into me and I felt his fangs sink into my shoulder. I screamed and battered at him, but my knife had no effect on him. He growled and savaged me, his claws and fangs sinking into me. I could feel my power draining away with each bite I suffered. I had a momentary vision of the Jaguar spirit wavering and vanishing. There was no sign of the priest.
     I screamed and sobbed as I fought, now more out of disappointment that my quarry had gotten away. I was bleeding all over, and the medical side of me knew I'd be disfigured for life. I didn't care. My quarry had gotten away. I'd been thwarted and humbled, tricked, beaten. I'd failed. I'd failed at everything.
     Something inside me broke then, and my screams of rage and pain turned to heavy sobs. All of a sudden, the pain was so great I couldn't contain it. The wounds on my body reflected the horrible scarring I carried inside. I cried out and beat on the ground with my fists, screaming and crying. Tears streamed down my face as, for the first time since that terrible day when I found my parents and my children killed, I cried for them, and cried for my loss. I cried for the lost futures my children should have had, for the love they should have shared, and the gifts they'd have given the future in the form of children of their own.
     It took me a long time to notice that there was chaos all around me, that my gasping for breath was not just because of all the crying, but also because there was so much dust and smoke in the air.
     My mind couldn't take any more, and I sank into unconsciousness.

     I have no idea what happened next. It's all one big blur to me. I remember drifting in and out of consciousness; there were soft hands and words of concern, and harsh ones filled with reproach.
     The gods know I deserved it...
     I don't know how long I was suspended in that state between wakefulness and sleep. It could have been hours or years. I was aware of only one solid presence: wolf.
     He was even worse company than I was, but I was grateful for his presence. I really didn't like my own company. I think deep in my mind, I'd accepted my insanity and welcomed wolf. After all, what use was being insane if you couldn't conjure up a companion or two?
     Wolf looked at me with his yellow eyes. You are not crazy, Xerena.
     Yeah, right. It's perfectly normal for people to constantly see talking wolves, and floating Jaguars.
     They do if they're magicians. Surely you've heard of Shamans? And Nahualli?
     Yeah. Like I said. Crazy people. I swear wolf rolled his eyes at me.
     You are not crazy, Xerena. You just woke up, that's all. Your rage blinded you.
     I shuddered. I really didn't want to be reminded of that. Finally, it occurred to me to ask; to talk with wolf.
     So...what are you? And why are you hanging around me? And what was with all the biting and snarling?
     Wolf looked at me solemnly. You were broken. I fixed you. As for what I am...I think you know the answer. Do not fear to be truthful to yourself, Xerena. You are more like me in spirit than you care to admit, but with that acceptance of yourself, you will know me.
     I nodded uncomfortably. He was right. I did know exactly who he was, and he was also right that I didn't want to admit it. At the end of the day, I knew exactly what he' done for me, and why: because I was wolf. Deep inside, that was who I was. I was nahualli. I was a magician in the Aztec tradition. The last thing I wanted.
     I shivered. Wolf just looked at me, waiting.
     I'm so ashamed. I said finally.
     I know, he said.
     I...I can't face them...Not after what I have done.
     Wolf nodded his great head. There are always consequences to our actions. We all must face what we have done, and submit to the justice of the pack. It may be that you will have to run alone from now on, but you cannot begin to fix what you broke without admitting that you broke it.
     Such simple profundity. Who would have expected that from a wolf?
     Only another wolf, little sister. Be well. Wolf loped away, and I opened my eyes to the real world.

     "Zee? Zee? Come on...talk to us, honey!"
     I could feel someone softly tapping my cheek.
     "Someone! Get me some water! Zee? Come on, Zee...please...Can you hear me?"
     I groaned, wanting his infernal tapping to stop. I was in enough pain as it was.
     "Zee! Thank god! There you are! Come on, honey..."
     I had some difficulty focussing on his face, but I recognised the voice. It was one of the muscle-men...the big surly ork. Now what was his name...
     "Here's some water. Do you want to drink?"
     He brought the glass to my lips and I took a few grateful gulps before nearly drowning myself.
     "You idiot! Get away from her! What are you trying to do? Kill her?"
     "Now see here...!"
     "Stop...please stop..." I croaked. My throat was raw from screaming. I could feel my voice grating. It hurt like hell. Like a dozen of the deepest, hottest hells.
     "Shh! Listen! She's talking!"
     Oh hell...now they'd expect me to say something. All I wanted to do was die. Sadly, that was not an option anymore.
     "Wh...what...hap...pend?"
     I felt Mr. Tusk Rot pull me into a sitting position. On my other side I could feel a softer presence: the adept.
     I looked away. There was no way I could face her. Not now and not yet. Fortunately for me, Mr. Big Bulge the Sexy took up the tale.
     "Well...after you slugged me and stalked off like a lolo, we had a little democracy going on..."
     "Yeah. We all voted that we couldn't let our mage get geeked!"
     "So we came up with this here plan..."
     "Shush! Let me tell it! Anyway...you were inside, and the Jaguar guards were coming, so we had to shoot a few of 'em. We could hear you screaming inside, so we knew we had to work fast. The trog took the 'splosives and took a run at the door with it. He took a few bullets but managed to place it. It blew a hole in that barrier thing, we think, because afterwards, we could enter the place no problem..."
     "But we couldn't find you. You were yelling your head off before, but then you sort of went quiet, so we had to look for you. We found some feather fag lying on the floor not far from you with a knife sticking out of his eye. Sinead was trying to pick you up, but...well...not to put too fine a point on it, Zee, but...you're kinda hippy...oww! Fuck man! What was that for?"
     "Fer talkin' shit t' th' lady."
     "Oh. Well. 'Kay. Anywhoo...the trog lugged you onto his shoulder and carried you out like a sack of beans while the rest of us shot the Jags. We figured mission accomplished, so we got the fuck out of there!"
     "Yeah. And it wasna easy-like neither!"
     "We had patrols coming down on us, so we fled into the woods. Somehow we got away. Sinead took out the bullets and bandaged us up. Then the kid over here got the truck, and we drove off. I figure the death of the priest dissolved all the spirits or some such. We drove up back to the church, and here we are!"
     I shook my head, amazed, and not a little bit humbled. I mean...what have I done to deserve such loyalty?
     "Sinead told us what happened. But she also said she didn't have the whole story and that you were going on and on about a wolf and jaguar, and apparently the feather fag was too. She figured it was some magic thing, so she decided to trust you."
     "She said that when you made to kill her, the priest was so distracted he didn't even notice her take the knife from you. It was a good throw. Got him in one shot. So yeah. That's that."
     From her right side, Xerena felt a soft squeeze at the small of her back...a small pat of support from the girl she now knew was called Sinead. There would be much to say between them...
     "Now...come of guys. Give her some rest. She had a massive dual with the priest, and besides...I'm sure she'd like a nice cool bath. Out! None of you need to ogle her, what's wrong with you? Out I said!"
     The guys all left in a noisy mass, full of complaints and jokes. My heart nearly broke, hearing it. Gods...such loyalty, and I didn't even know their names...
     Now it was just Sinead and me in the underground room. I looked away at first, but then gathered my courage.
     "I...was going to do it. I tried. I...couldn't."
     Sinead nodded and limped over to me. She sat down beside me and lay down, resting her head in my lap.
     "I know," she said.  "So. How long have you been using blood magic?"
     I lowered my eyes. "Not long. Just a few months. I...always before, I just used my own blood. But...when I couldn't defeat him..."
     She nodded again. "So what made you stop? I could see...I could feel something inside of you, as if you were fighting yourself. What pulled you back? I was almost sure you'd...gone down a dark path."
     I winced, remembering how close I'd come, how very nearly I'd allowed my pain to twist me. Only wolf's intervention and his infinite care had reached me, and shattered the walls I'd built around myself. But how could I ever explain that to her? Finally, I settled on the truth.
     "It...just wasn't who I was. I never had been one to make others pay for my mistakes. I...was made to realise that as I stood there with your life in one hand, and the life of the blood mage in the other. I was made to see that I...need not be alone. I cannot even begin to explain it, Sinead. How I felt...how badly I was broken...At the end of the day, your life was not mine to take. Not for my own selfish reasons. It...it is going to take me a while to sort all of this out. I...I...I'm sorry, Sinead. I'm...sorry..."
     She nodded, and closed her eyes.
     "S'okay."
     She fell asleep then, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
     "Hey Zee! You wanna beer?"
     "I smiled and gently slid out from under Sinead.
     "Sure, guys. I'd love one. By the way...what's your name again...?"
Xerena Veracruz is a broken woman hell-bent on revenge. But sometimes life can play some strange tricks on you, and your luck can turn at any moment...

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NotAPagan's avatar
I absolutely love this story. It's such a great piece of work. Best read i've had for a while now.