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A note from tkayo

(in which the twins follow a trail and a fight begins on false premises)

The sign above the entrance to the lobby read ‘ARUSPEX’ in big, blocky red letters, which seemed eerily appropriate to Zarah.

“This is it?” she asked Kihri again.

“No, in the thirty seconds since you last asked, reality rewrote itself to make it a different building yes this is it.”

Compared to some of the other skyscrapers, it was fairly short – maybe forty stories at most. Which was still much much higher than any building Zarah was comfortable with, but it was something to note.

It had taken a few goes, throwing out random topics in the hopes that one would catch, but eventually they had managed to spark another one of the memories Kihri had already absorbed.

She described it as sitting at a desk in a corner office, fairly high up, but surrounded by taller skyscrapers – presumably, this Yanis Metzin at her job. They’d had a more involved plan for narrowing down the buildings that it could apply to, but as soon as they’d passed Aruspex, Kihri had stopped, staring up at the sign and insistently hushing Zarah whenever she tried to say something.

There was a reason they didn’t usually come to this part of town, though, and after just a few minutes Zarah was really wishing she’d paid it more mind. Being a an obviously homeless, obviously non-white teenage girl amidst a bunch of high-powered, predominantly white business-whatevers was a quick shortcut to having the cops called on her, and that was a quick shortcut to being another corpse rotting in a dumpster. Kihri’s eventual confirmation that it was the correct place had let them do another loop around the block, but she was beginning to feel the weight of the stares on the back of her neck.

That should have been enough motivation to get moving, but… every time she started to move, the image of the body under the power station flashed into her head again, stopping her cold. Whoever Yanis Metzin was, she was clearly capable of horrible, vicious brutality. And they were about to walk right up to where she worked, and… do what, exactly?

Her fingers tightened on the hammer. Be honest, Zarah. You know exactly what you are going to do.

“Oh, good,” Kihri commented as she began walking forward towards the entrance. “Nice timing, pretty sure someone over there was about to narc on us. Actually, you know what, they still are. Maybe move faster?”

Zarah didn’t bother to reply, ducking between a few small groups of people crowding the sidewalk, and managed to slide into a section of the revolving door just before it moved past. The people inside glanced at her suspiciously, but it was only a moment before they’d reached the other side and had to step out, distracting them. She used that moment to dart away, moving behind a pillar without actually looking like she was hiding.

It was something she’d had plenty of experience with, but, of course, having an invisible spotter didn’t hurt either.

“Okay, yeah,” Kihri was saying, “group moving by, lady at the desk is picking up her phone… now, go.”

Following her sister’s instructions, Zarah maneuvered her way across the foyer, keeping herself out of sight of the front desk, the security guard posted up near the entrance and the two cameras in opposite corners. There was no way to avoid being exposed when getting in an elevator, but it was only for a few moments, and Kihri helped her time it to minimise the risk.

“Which floor?” she asked once the doors had closed.

“…hm.”

“You cannot remember?”

“Didn’t come up, funnily enough.” She bit her lip, thinking. “Okay, try… 38, I think. We’ll work our way down from there if it isn’t.”

Zarah frowned at her as the lift began to move. “It is already risky being here, Kihri. I do not think moving through multiple floors is a good idea.”

“Just two, I promise. Once I have the view to compare, I’ll be able to figure it out.”

“You will better.”

“‘Had better’, not ‘will better’ – I know it’s weird, but-” Zarah fixed her with a withering stare, and she cut herself short. “Worth a shot.”

“<If it’s in the future, why isn’t it future tense?>” Zarah grumbled to herself as they rose. She kept it quiet enough that Kihri couldn’t hear, though.

Stepping out of the elevator was actually a little disconcerting. There had been barely any sense of movement at all, and yet, through the plate glass that lined the edges of the room, they had risen… higher than she’d ever been, now that she thought about it.

Probably best not to get too close to the windows.

Kihri had already floated on ahead, and Zarah did her best to catch up without looking like she was rushing. The actual layout of the floor was nothing special – unevenly-spaced gray cubicles, with offices along two of the parallel walls. The elevator opening had gotten a few glances, but nothing more than that – most of the workers were keeping their heads down, and the ones that weren’t were on the phone.

“Second from the left,” Kihri was muttering as she caught up, “double-Ls above the flowerpot, blue neon next to poster.” Her eyes kept flickering open and closed again, getting quick, repeated glances. “Zarah, how many offices on the other side?” She decided it would be better to stay silent, and held up five fingers. “Okay, and can you see a building in the reflection out that window? One with a grey and blue sign?”

She glanced behind her, quickly finding the one she’d described, and gave a quick nod.

“Awesome.” She stopped, right in front of another office, one with the lights off and the door closed. “That means this is it.”

Zarah blinked. “Wait- but-”

With a silent smirk, Kihri pointed to the nameplate next to the door, which read ‘YANIS METZIN’.

“Kihri-!”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she cut in, holding up her hands. “I did actually need to figure it out, I wasn’t messing with you. This just confirmed it.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Also, it’s not future tense, it’s unreal past. That’s why it’s ‘had’.”

“…you are truly insuffering, you understand?”

“Aww, I’m flattered.” She paused for a moment, looking incredibly smug. “But, it’s-”

“Kihri. I do not care.”

She stepped forward, free hand on the door’s handle, but found herself paralysed.

“Dude,” Kihri said, a little more gently, “it’s an empty office. There’s not gonna be anything in there where other people could see it.”

“…right, yes. You are right.” She nodded, steeling herself, then pushed down the handle and let the door swing inwards.

And at the exact same moment, a blaring alarm tore through the air.

Zarah spun around, heart racing, ready to lash out, but no-one was paying any attention to her. Instead, they were all standing up from their desks, looking surprisingly unconcerned. Most of them seemed… kinda grumpy, actually? Through the murmured complaints, Zarah thought she heard the words “not again” and “third time this month”.

“It’s a fire alarm,” Kihri said, having got to the solution first. “Weird timing, but I don’t think it’s got anything to do with you.” She began to move inside the room. “Come on, let’s take a look.”

Zarah glanced over her shoulder, at the crowd of people slowly disappearing through the fire stairs. “Should we not… leave? If there is a fire? I would very much prefer to leave, actually.”

“Ugh, you’re such a worrywart. It’s probably just a drill.” She darted over to the plate glass, and then stuck her entire torso out through it, looking down. “Yep,” she confirmed as she returned. “No smoke anywhere, no shattered windows. 99% chance it’s a drill. Besides, if it isn’t, you can just jump out a window and have your new magic powers fix you up.

Zarah shuddered. “I would prefer if we not test that.”

“Wuss.”

“Oh? Well, if I am died because of this, I will haunt you forever.”

“Honestly,” Kihri said with a shrug, “I’ve probably earned it.”

The office was dimly lit – while it had the same plate glass as the rest of the floor, there were thin grey shades hanging from what looked like automatic rollers, covering most of the windows and reducing the light to a dim dribble. Even with that, though, it became almost immediately obvious that this office was as uninteresting as everything else had been. An L-shaped desk took up the back half of the room, with a filing cabinet in the opposite back corner, and a dull red chair tucked underneath. Immediately to the left of the entrance was a dull red couch that was so close to the floor it looked like it had been designed for a child – to the right, a large potted plant that turned out to be fake. Two cheaper-looking black chairs sat in front of the desk, arranged neatly, and there were not one but two large and expensive monitors off to the left of the desk. There wasn’t a computer immediately visible, but cables leading downwards meant it was probably hidden underneath. Apart from that, the desk was sparse – a keyboard and mouse, a pen holder, a closed notebook, another nameplate, and a single framed photograph, face down.

Kihri voiced what they were both thinking. “Well, this is boring.”

“You said it is just an office. Were you expecting murder paintings?”

“No- …maybe. Okay, yes, a little bit.”

In unspoken agreement, they split off, Zarah going straight for the desk, while Kihri floated around the edges of the room, inspecting the details. With only one of them having the ability to actually physically interact with things, it made sense for Zarah to actually look through things, while Kihri tried to notice small details or things out of place. Admittedly, they usually used to determine how safe a place was, but the basic principles were the same.

The photo frame turned out to be of two women, both white, one tall and lean and the other average height and stockier. The taller one, who had straight black hair, was looking down at her companion, eyes crinkled and lips raised, one arm on her shoulder. She, on the other hand, was staring straight at the camera with a blank face.

“Which do you think is?” Zarah asked Kihri, angling the frame towards her.

Her sister poked her head out of the filing cabinet. “Which is Metzin, you mean? Mmmm, the tall one, I reckon. That smile creeps me out.”

“Who is the other women, then?”

“I’unno. Wife, sister? Friend? Fuck-buddy?”

“Fuck… buddy?”

Kihri winced. “…uh, I’ll explain when you’re older.” She ducked back inside the filing cabinet, and Zarah shelved it for later. She put the photo frame back where it was, and clicked on the mouse a few times to wake the computer. Unsurprisingly, she was met with a lockscreen over a generic background, with no hint function.

“Too much to hope for the password on a sticky-note, huh?” Kihri had floated over to her, and hovered just above and behind her shoulder.

“Is people do that?”

Do people do that, and sadly, yes.” She bit her lip, then darted in closer. “Okay, leave it, we don’t have the time to get in. These are nice monitors, though. Wanna take one? We could get like seven or eight hundred, easy.”

Zarah wasn’t a thief. She didn’t like the term – quite apart from the connotations, it implied that it was a primary source of income, or at least something she was committed or skilled to.

Sure, she’d stolen things before – that was just a reality of being homeless. But she didn’t do it regularly, and certainly didn’t practice at it.

The prospect of seven hundred nac, though, was enough to make her seriously consider it. “No,” she ultimately decided. “Someone will see.”

“Ah, good point. Shame, though.”

Zarah couldn’t agree more.

She was about to move on to the drawers underneath the desk when Kihri’s head jerked towards the door. “Someone’s coming,” she said tersely.

It was only a moment before Zarah could hear it too – footsteps, soft on the carpeted floors, but distinct. “Hide?” she mouthed at Kihri, who nodded.

“I’ll go check it out,” she replied, but before she even made it to the door, it swung open, and a figure stepped inside.

“Well,” they said, glancing at Zarah. “I have to admit, was not expecting this.”

They were dark-skinned, with vaguely Coastal features, and almost shockingly short – their head barely came up to Zarah’s chin. Despite that, they were wearing an obviously-bespoke suit, black with a white shirt and pale red tie. Their black, curly hair was pinned up in two messy buns, and they wore a pair of circular glass with smoky black lenses that completely obscured their eyes. The whole look managed, in spite of their height, to give them a mature, professional appearance – they reminded Zarah of a secret agent in a movie Kihri had made her watch years ago.

“The cleaners, I presume,” they said dryly, adjusting the watch on their wrist.

“I- ah,” Zarah stammered. “We- um-”

“Don’t bother,” Kihri said. “They obviously know we’re not.” She sounded distracted, and when Zarah tore her eyes away from the stranger, she found that she was staring intently, not at them, but at the ground next to them.

“I’m going to presume you’re not Yanis Metzin, then. Much too young, for starters.” Their eyes flickered downwards, and when Zarah followed them, she realised with a start that she was holding the hammer in front of her. It was still wrapped up, but a tiny portion of its surface was exposed.

“Then again,” they continued, softer still and even more intense, “you might still be who I’m looking for.”

Before Zarah could reply, they darted forward. She jerked away, but ran straight into the front of the desk, and the stranger used that moment where she was off-balance to grab the cloth wrapped around the hammer and rip it away with startling strength.

She instinctively lashed out, swinging the weapon awkwardly in front of her, but they had already stepped back out of reach, and it hit nothing but air.

The stranger’s gaze was locked on the hammer now, and their presence was so intense that Zarah almost thought she could feel it in the air, like a physical force.

“I suppose,” they said, voice tense and controlled, “I should give you at least a single chance to offer up some kind of explanation.”

“Oh shit,” Kihri breathed suddenly, “Zarah, they-”

“Nothing could possibly be sufficient, though” they continued, “so let’s not bother.” They raised a hand to their mouth and let out a piercing whistle, then pointed at Zarah. “It’s better than you deserve, anyway.”

“Zarah,” Kihri said urgently, “it’s the hammer! You have to tell them-”

Whatever she said past that, Zarah missed it, distracted as she was by the glow of red light forming in front of her. Just too late, she realised that it wasn’t just getting brighter, but closer as well. It slammed into her chest, toppling her backwards over the desk and knocking the monitors to the floor with a loud crash.

Splayed awkwardly over the desk, edge digging into her lower back, with… whatever it was crushing her chest should have been excruciating. It did hurt, but she could instantly tell it wasn’t as bad as it was supposed to be. Small blessings, I suppose.

There was another loud whistle, two descending tones, and Zarah gasped as the pressure on her chest suddenly increased, driving the air out of her lungs. Her one free arm flailed desperately behind her as the pressure continued to increase, until she finally managed to find the leg of the toppled chair.

With it as leverage, she pushed herself upwards, shoving the weight upwards and away with the arm underneath it.

As was quickly becoming a pattern, she had underestimated her new strength. Whatever the red thing was, it went flying upwards, slamming into the ceiling hard enough to dislodge one of the panels and send a cloud of dust pluming outwards.

It began to fall almost immediately, but Zarah, with a nimbleness that surprised even herself, kicked her legs up, rolling off the desk and dropping to the floor in a crouch, just before it landed and smashed the desk in half, and for the first time she got a proper look at it.

It was some kind of animal, that much was immediately obvious. Four legs, head, tail; she would guess it was some kind of dog, except that it was much bigger than any dog she’d ever seen, closer to a panther or wild cat in size. Like she’d assumed, it was made out of red light, identical to the hammer, and no longer glowing now that it had fully formed. As her brain properly processed what she was looking at, though, she realised that ‘made of’ wasn’t the right term. It wasn’t solid – geometric planes formed the shape of an animal, but through small gaps it was possible to see out the other side.

Like armour, the thought came unbidden, on an invisible dog.

And then it had recovered its footing, and leapt at her again, front… paws outstretched.

She swung the hammer, aiming to knock it aside, but it was faster than she was expecting, and the blow only clipped its side. It was still enough to adjust its course, though, which meant that in turn it only clipped her, sending a line of burning pain along the side of her stomach.

The dog – Zarah resolved to just call it that, regardless of what it actually was – smacked into the glass wall behind her, hard enough to send a few cracks shooting through it. Everyone froze, but after a moment of stillness, it became clear that they weren’t going to spread.

Regardless, it was as good a sign as any that this was not a good place to be. The dog was still getting up, so she risked taking her gaze off it for a moment, and vaulted back over the desk towards the door, where the stranger was still standing. She already had momentum, so she just kept going, barrelling towards them in a barely-controlled rush. She didn’t actually want to hit them, just get them out of the way so she could make a break for it.

Sure enough, they waited til the last moment, face inscrutable behind their glasses, then darted to one side with that same surprising speed as before. Zarah immediately tried to slow, but as she passed through the doorway, she felt something shove her from behind, sending her crashing straight into a cubicle wall. It toppled immediately, of course, but she managed to land on her feet on the other side – a feat that she wasn’t sure she could’ve explained the mechanics of if someone asked.

The dog was already bounding towards her, the segmented plates around where a mouth would be drawn back in a way that made her think of a snarl. The lack of sound accompanying it was a little off-putting, actually – it made it feel unreal. Because otherwise this would be totally normal, right?

Instead of swinging, she grabbed the hammer’s shaft just below the head with her other hand and brought it up just in time to catch the dog’s jaws on the bar. It immediately caught, and now that she was close enough, she could see that the plates were actually ridged in the vague shape of teeth, which was… disturbing.

The dog tried to pull the hammer away, whipping its head from side to side and creating a strange, muted scratching sound as the plates scraped against the hammer’s shaft. It was strong, too, and Zarah nearly lost her grip as it yanked around. She held on, though, and finally won the tug-of-war by planting one foot against the dog’s body and pushing it away as she pulled on the hammer.

It was sent backwards, rolling and tumbling over the debris, and Zarah took the opportunity to run away towards the elevator, down the row of cubicles, ducking low to hide from view. The floor was carpeted, so hopefully her footsteps wouldn’t be audible, but she couldn’t tell for sure over the blood roaring in her ears.

She rounded the corner of the last cubicle, skidding slightly to avoid crashing into the wall, and found her path towards the elevator – wait, no, no time – to the fire stairs a few feet beyond the elevator unobstructed. The stranger must have gone after their dog instead-

Pain spiked through her knee, and she collapsed as it buckled under her weight, sending her tumbling to the floor. She tried to turn it into a roll to recover, but the injured leg wasn’t listening to her anymore, and the best she could manage was an awkward skid on her elbows and one knee.

The stranger stepped out from behind a cubicle, one hand at their mouth, and released another piercing two-tone whistle, descending this time. They didn’t approach, though, so Zarah took the risk of glancing down at her knee to assess the damage, and then nearly threw up.

There was a knife stabbed through it. It was buried up to the hilt in the back of her knee, and the last inch or two was protruding from the front, dripping with blood.

Huh, was all she thought, and the incongruity of that was almost enough to make her giggle. Shock, probably. If so, it was a good thing, because if she’d been clear-headed there was no way she’d have done what she did next, which was to reach down, grab the knife’s handle and yank it out.

It made an unpleasant schlurping noise as it came free, and for the first time, the stranger was thrown off, their face full of disgust and confusion. You and me both. Zarah tossed the knife to the side, sending it bouncing away, and began hauling herself to her feet. Already, she could feel the pain fading, the wound presumably knitting itself back together.

She still couldn’t actually control the leg below the knee, though, but that was just because it was a more severe wound, and took more time to heal.

She hoped.

“What you think I did,” Zarah began to say, “it was-” That was as far as she managed to get before the dog came barrelling in from the side and smashed into her, slamming them both against the wall.

She threw it off with a growl, sending it flying back the way it came. Every time! Every time she thought she had bought herself a second, the other one came swooping back in. It was… infuriating. She felt like an animal, being hunted and hounded and-

The stranger took a step backwards, widened eyes obvious even with the glasses, and Zarah froze, foot halfway off the ground. She hadn’t even realised she’d been moving towards them.

The two of them stood frozen like that for a moment, until the sound of debris being tossed aside jarred Zarah into action. She turned and sprinted away towards the stairs, as the rhythmic gate of the dog grew louder and closer again. After a moment, there was the same whistle as before, which obviously meant ‘follow’ or ‘attack’ or something similar.

She made it to the door just before the dog, slipping through and slamming it shut just in time to catch the impact of its charge. There was no way to lock it, that would have defeated the whole point of a fire escape, so she didn’t bother trying, and instead started on the stairs, taking them two at a time in staggered hops, using the rails as pivots to keep up her momentum on the landings and turns. She could hear her pursuers above, but she didn’t bother looking back. Up, really.

“Well,” Kihri suddenly said from beside her, “that didn’t go great.”

Zarah jerked to the side as she spoke, nearly losing her footing. “Where did go?” she demanded.

Kihri gave a half-shrug. “Away,” she replied vaguely. “I was getting some seriously bad mojo from the freaky dog thing, and you know the K-Train’s safety always comes first.”

“Do not understanding most of those words, do not care.” She realised she hadn’t remembered to count the flights, and now had no idea how far down they were.

As usual, though, Kihri was one step ahead of her. “Ten floors down, only… thirty to go. Jeez. How you feeling?”

“Fine,” she said, and was surprised to find out it was true. Her knee was already fully healed, and barely hurt beyond a dull ache. “Good, even.”

“Ugh, this is still gonna take forever, though!”

“I will not throwing myself out a window, Kihri.”

Ugh.” She pouted. “You’re no fun.”

“And you are not funny, so I suppose none is perfect.”

“…was that a joke? Did you just crack a-”

With a metallic squeal, the door on the landing directly in front of them was thrown open, revealing the stranger and the dog behind it. Their face was drawn into a tight scowl, sweat beading on their forehead, but almost instantly it was replaced with a look of alarm, as they realised in almost the same moment Zarah did that she wasn’t going to be able to stop in time.

Which, of course, was just too late for either of them to do anything about it.

Zarah slammed into the stranger, lifting them off their feet as they were carried along with her momentum. Whether intentionally or not, their legs tangled with hers, and they were both sent tumbling, just as they collided with something hard. It was the wall, of course, which she figured out while they were approximately halfway through it, plaster shattering and dust pluming.

They hit the ground together, tumbling and rolling in a mess of flying limbs. Something hard smashed against Zarah’s skull, and she reared back, only for the back of it to then slam into something else, pinballing her back forward.

Bruised and battered, they came to a stop, and she immediately tried to get back on her feet, a process that was made more difficult by half of her limbs being stuck underneath the stranger, who was significantly heavier than they looked.

It took a good shove to free herself, and she finally managed to stand up, shaking out the pins and needles.

For once, something had gone in her favour: the stranger was having a much harder time recovering than she was. Their nose was bleeding, suit rumpled and torn, and as they staggered upwards, they spat blood to one side.

Zarah opened her mouth to speak, but something on the edge of hearing made her stop. Instead, instinct made her spin around, free hand outstretched, just in time to catch the dog as it lunged at her.

The impact jarred her arm and shoulder, but that didn’t stop her from slipping her fingers underneath the edge of one of the plates, and using it as leverage to throw it at the stranger.

An instant before it made contact, the plates on that side disintegrated into light, starting at the furthest point and moving towards her at a speed equal to its moment. The end result was strangely beautiful, almost as if the dog had disappeared into a portal in front of the stranger.

Even without the effect she’d been hoping for, though, it still have Zarah a second of leeway. She glanced back towards the stairwell, but then hesitated.

They got ahead once, they can do it again. 30 more stories gives them plenty of opportunities, too. But, they don’t actually seem to have any abilities themselves, like the tentacles or-

She spun the other way, towards the plate glass windows. Outside, she could see the roof of another building, about 10 stories down.

-like healing.

…Kihri’s gonna be so smug.

The dog had begun to reform, red light seeming to flow out of the ground to form its plates. The stranger’s hand was inside their jacket, rummaging around, but they froze as Zarah looked at them.

“I did not make this,” she found herself saying, even though she hadn’t intended to speak. “ I did not do things that you think I did. Or anything.”

For a second, it seemed like maybe she had gotten through. Then, their face twisted, and their hand reemerged from the jacket.

Zarah had already turned away, though, sprinting towards the windows at the end of the room.

Compared to the other floors, this one was relatively undamaged, most of the cubicles and furniture still in place apart from where they’d crashed through some. With her free hand, she grabbed a desk by the metal leg as she passed, crouching slightly, and used the pivot it provided to begin a spinning throw, planting her foot and dragging the desk around behind her. She spun fully around once, building momentum while still moving forward, and released it just as it broke in two, sending both halves flying towards the glass at incredible speed.

There was a deafening crack, and for a second she thought she’d broken it on the first go, but a moment later the pieces actually impacted with a much duller crunch. Cracks spiderwebbed through the glass from where they hit, as well as a third point, but it didn’t shatter completely.

An instant later, her mind connected the first noise and the third impact point, and chanced a glance over her shoulder. Sure enough, the stranger was holding a small pistol in one hand, walking forward as they aimed.

Aren’t you supposed to hold it with both hands? a small part of her mind wondered. Only a small part, though, because the rest felt like it had just fallen into ice water, panic and adrenaline and fear coursing through her. She’d already been reaching for another desk, but now instinctively she tossed it behind her instead of throwing it forward. Another shot rang out, and she flinched and nearly tripped, but she hadn’t been hit. It didn’t feel like she’d been hit, at least. You knew when you were shot, right? Wait, or do people keep on going and not even realise until they’re dead? She thought she’d heard that somewhere, but- Where was Kihri? She’d know the answer, and what to do, and what the stranger was doing and-

Her vision blurring around the edges, she managed to grab onto a cubicle wall and throw it backwards. The short yelp of surprise and anger that followed would have probably brought her a little vindictive satisfaction, but she could barely hear it, let alone process it.

The window was right ahead now, barely holding itself together, and outside was the sky and the air and gravity and-

If she’d been given a choice in that moment, Zarah probably wouldn’t have gone through with it. Fortunately, or un-, though, momentum and physics made the decision for her. An incoherent scream tearing out of her throat, she lifted her arms to cover her face, smashed through the glass, and went soaring out into the air.

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tkayo

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