Bennett wasn’t a fool. He wasn’t going to take the Resistance leader at the man’s word. He did what a spy did. He investigated.
It took days of standing in the shadows outside of the house that he had met the bearded man. He waited until the man finally showed up.
Bennett guessed that the house wasn’t the resistance’s headquarters. They seemed competent, so that meant they wouldn’t actually take an unknown into their real headquarters. If they were really good then they probably didn’t have one. They’d be operating in cells, like in the TV shows and movies.
With all that to consider, Bennett settled on following the bearded man home.
The man’s home was nice. From what Bennett knew it would’ve gone for over a million back before the world ended. He waited a few hours until the lights, electric, fancy. The man was connected.
Bennett didn’t like the vibes he got. Was he being tricked?
He felt anger suddenly bubble up. He hissed, which snapped him back to his senses. What the fuck? He had never done that before. It was beyond disturbing. He hurriedly downed a flask full of blood. It calmed him.
Bennett dashed across the street and slipped into the shadows on the house’s wall. He emerged inside a decent sized library. Two walls had shelves filled with books. More books were scattered around on the desk.
His eyes were drawn to the side table next to the reading chair. There was a stack of books. He made out the titles thanks to the star light from outside.
The Prince, a condensed version of The Art of War, and a dog-eared paperback of A Clash of Kings. The three looked like they had seen plenty of wear.
It didn’t paint a favorable picture for Bennett. Perhaps he wasn’t dealing with competent people?
Bennett crept up the stairs. He sensed the sleeping man in one of the bedrooms. Oddly enough he wasn’t in the master. There were no other people in the house. Good. He didn’t have to worry about being too loud when he questioned the bearded man. He felt a thrill run through him. He stopped and reminded himself to stay in control. He wanted information. Nothing more.
The door to the bedroom was shut.
Bennett slipped through the shadows and stepped right into a gun barrel and light in his face.
“Deal’s off then?” The bearded man said.
“That depends on you.”
“You got second thoughts, figured you needed to vet me. I thought you agreed too quickly. I guess you aren’t as green as you look.”
“Now I’m green?” Bennett frowned. “Look, man. I’m starting to think you’re playing a trick on me.”
“I’m not. Everything in our deal was legit. You keep up your end, I do the same. We both get what we want. Quid pro quo.”
“Then prove that you know what the fuck you’re talking about. Prove that you’re legit and not some random dude, playing at resistance fighters,” Bennett snapped. “You can start by getting the gun out of my face and telling me your actual name.”
“The gun stays, but as to my identity. In my desk. The main drawer.”
The bearded man kept the gun on Bennett as he slowly moved to the desk. He opened the drawer and pulled out a badge and an ID.
“Agent Dalton Bratt, FBI.”
“Technically I was a SAC. Suppose I still am if the bureau still exists out there somewhere. I was in intelligence in my Navy days.”
“So, I guess that’s your provenance. Alright, so you’re legit. The question now is whose side are you on?”
“Unless you can read my mind with those vampire powers then you’re just going to have to trust that I’m not on the scions’ side. The things I’ve heard about what they get up to…” Dalton shook his head. “Those fishmen aren’t right. Everything about it triggers all my instincts.”
Bennett sensed the man’s heartbeat. It was steady, which didn’t reveal much since it had been steady the whole time.
“How did you know I was here?”
“I’m assuming your class is your former job. I wonder what sort of skills that gives you.”
“That information is not part of our deal.” Dalton lowered his shotgun. “Our deal still on?”
“Yes, but if you screw me, I’ll stop being so nice.” Bennett put as much menace into his voice as he could. Judging by Dalton’s reaction it worked.
“I will not intentionally jeopardize your mission. Don’t forget, I want the information just as much as you do. We need to wake people up. Everyone is just happily going along with the scions’ cult.”
“You’ve got good reason to be concerned.” Bennett hesitated. “I’ll give you a freebie as a sign of good faith. I know for a fact that the cult is capable of summoning a fishman to a specific location through something like blood sacrifice.”
Dalton nodded. “That tracks with what information we’ve been able to gather. What happened to the fishman? The cultists?”
“It got away. The leader escaped. The rest died.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I suppose I’ll have my chance for a good look at the lot of them in a few days. Assuming your source is good,” Bennett said.
“It is. It has to be.”
Bennett wasn’t reassured by the desperation in Dalton’s voice. He slipped out of the house without further word.
Bennett felt a sense of wrongness seep into his skin. It had only grown stronger the deeper he slipped into city hall. It was as if an oppressive presence was watching him. Like his old academic adviser that had a tendency to stand over his shoulder in violation of his personal space. The memory brought a silent snarl to his lips. He had to stop to compose himself.
The presence lessened, but Bennett still felt it pressing in on the edge of his thoughts.
According to Dalton’s information the cult meeting was supposed to take place in the North Light Court on the first level. The map showed that there were offices and restrooms surrounding the space on three sides. The rotunda was to the south. There were plenty of shadowy spaces in which he could hide.
Bennett had scaled the side of the building to enter from the roof. It allowed him to mark the patrolling guards as he fully surveilled each floor before proceeding down to the next. He noted the glass roof over the court that he could access from above.
The meeting was scheduled for midnight because, of course. It wasn’t a proper cult unless they had their get-together at the most atmospheric hours. Bennett supposed that the curfew also meant that any fishman attendees would be able to travel the city streets unseen by the general population.
He had a few more hours so he settled into the shadowed alcove on the second level overlook above the meeting space’s glass roof. The patrols in the area were light. It gave him the best opportunity to avoid detection until the meeting started. At which point he planned to slip down through the shadows and begin recording with the cell phone the resistance had provided.
People dressed in everyday clothes started to file in thirty minutes before the scheduled time. Bennett was mildly disappointed. There was nary an ornate robe nor elaborate mask in sight. Not a very proper cult. Was it?
Bennett’s preferred hiding place was nixed as bartenders walked behind the bars and commenced serving drinks to the swiftly growing crowd. Was this a super secret cult ceremonial meeting or a party? He grimaced. An empty bar would’ve been the ideal location to hide and film from since it was covered in shadow and had a view of the entire space.
Fortunately the cult had elected to use lanterns, torches and candles to light the space. There were plenty of shadows along the walls and corners that he could use. He decided on the southeast corner.
He consumed several blood packs to fill his reserves to capacity before he slipped down into his hiding spot. He began filming. He hoped that the light on the phone was dim enough that no one would detect it.
All he had to do now was record, watch and listen. On the surface it didn’t sound all that difficult. Mistakes were made.
A woman in a deep blue robe strode out of the back to the podium in the center of the room, between the two bars. Now that was proper cultist attire. Bennett felt like he was staring into the depths of the ocean when he looked at the woman’s robe. It seemed to undulate like the motion of the waves and currents. He chalked it up to a trick of the light combined with how spooked he was by the foreboding sense of doom and pressure pushing in on him from all directions.
“Welcome, my fellow Touched and Aspirants,” the woman began. “For the latter this is your first step on the path to true understanding. To be touched by the Deep Azure. Some of what you will see and experience tonight may be unsettling at first, but know that it is the key to your ascendance beyond your mortal shells.
Okay, Bennett thought, now this is definitely a cult. He fought the urge to cover up the cell phone camera’s light. There was an even stronger urge to leave and run all the way back to Davis. The pressure grew. The wrongness in the air was palpable. He could smell and feel it.
“The scions light the path. They are our guardians, shepherds and fathers. Only through them are we able to become one with the Deep Azure.”
The robed woman led the crowd, which had grown to around a hundred, through a prayer of some sort. The words made Bennett shiver and he forced himself to ignore it lest he join in unwilling.
After the robed woman finished she smiled brightly. Like a kindly grandmother. It was incongruous to the scene, which made it all the more disturbing. “Please enjoy the food and refreshments. The ceremony will begin in an hour.”
The woman went back from where she had emerged. Bennett saw that several other people followed her. He stuck to the shadows on the walls as he did the same. If the woman was some kind of high priestess then he needed to see and record her activities.
“I’m sure we all want to enjoy the festivities before the ceremony starts, so let’s make this quick.” The woman said to the other twelve people as they took seats around the table.
There was a roughly even split of men and women of varying ages. The range went from young to old with the bulk of their number falling within the median.
“Sounds good. I’m going to want to get properly drunk before things start.” A man with an ugly scar across his face sat tall in his chair even as he pulled a silver flask out of his suit jacket and took a long pull.
“You’re already halfway there,” the old man seated next to him said.
“I’m a big man. It takes a lot to get me black out drunk.” The scarred man tapped his flask. “Cheap stuff, might as well be drinking pure alcohol. They’ve actually got the good stuff at the bar.”
“Not looking forward to the sacred ceremony?” The priestess woman said blandly.
The scarred man didn’t say anything.
“Like you said, let’s not waste time,” a sharply-dressed, pretty young woman said. “And to preempt the questions I have nothing new to report on the hunt for the infiltrator. My guys are on the trail, but he’s a slippery one.”
“Are you even sure that it’s a ‘he’ and not a monster?”
“Most likely a transformative Class. Similar, but different from my guys.”
The scarred man laughed bitterly. “Seems weird that your puppies are having so much trouble getting this supposed infiltrator. It’s never taken them this long to get their teeth into outsiders that slipped past the checkpoints.”
“I have nothing further to add.” The pretty young woman didn’t take the bait.
“Thank you.” A middle-aged man that looked like a politician or a car salesman smiled at the pretty young woman. “I move we discuss the Davis situation. We’ve ignored it for too long.”
“Still on that?” The scarred man grumbled. “We can’t go to war. We don’t have an actual army. And that Cruces guy will easily destroy us if even if we did.”
“The numbers of Touched grow and there are thousands of potential soldiers outside our city now that we’ve confirmed the magic the Deep Azure grants us can affect unbelievers against their will. Cruces is just one man. I believe we can induce him to surrender or leave if we threaten the safety of everyone else.”
“Listen to yourself, Mitch. How do you think their community will react to us threatening them? That’s not how you get them to willingly join us,” the scarred man said flatly. He seemed to be controlling himself well despite the frequent sips out of his flask. Contrary to his earlier words he didn’t seem to be getting drunk.
“You know, Barry. I’m starting to think that your losing your faith,” Mitch said.
“Go fuck yourself,” Barry said. “If that was true then we’d all know it. The Deep Azure wouldn’t allow me to be on this council.”
“I believe those are the key words to this particular debate,” the high priestess woman said. “The scions have indicated nothing to us in regards to the Davis community. It is a message that they don’t concern us at this time. If it changes then we will be informed.”
“Great! Then we can talk about meeting stuff at our actual meeting.” A fat man stood up. “I’m going to go eat, drink and be merry. This is a celebration!” He looked at the priestess woman expectantly.
“I suppose.” The woman had a placid smile on her face. “Any objections?”
No one spoke up. The scarred man was already walking toward the door.
“Adjourned,” the priestess woman said.
Bennett waited for the room to empty before he slipped back out into the court. The party was indeed in session. A string quartet had even appeared and was providing live music.
Bennett returned to his hiding spot in the corner. He was starting to think that he had gotten the important information when the hour’s passage was signaled by the priestess woman’s return to the podium. She rang a bell to draw everyone’s attention. The music stopped. The conversations died down a few seconds later.
“The sacred ceremony of life will commence.”
A line of scantily clad young women emerged from the somewhere behind the priestess. They filed into the center of the court as the party attendants moved back toward the walls and cleared a large space.
Bennett counted about thirty young women. They looked mostly nervous and confused. He remembered the blood sacrifice and got worried. There was no way he could save them. He wasn’t strong enough, nor brave enough. No. The best thing he could do was to record it and get the truth to those that were capable of doing something about it. That’s what he told himself.
He sensed their presence before he saw them file in from the main entrance into the court.
This wasn’t going to be a blood sacrifice thing. It was another kind of sacrifice. An even more terrible violation in Bennett’s mind.
The fishmen burst into the court like hungry hunters. They made straight for the young women. Screams and pleading echoed throughout the space.
They weren’t going to be killed. They were going to be hurt in the most heinous of ways.
Bennett was too horrified and scared to do anything beyond recording. He had to show this to Remy and the others. Only they could make the fishmen and cult pay for it.
As he watched the horror unfold, he felt the pressure grow all around him. He could feel another presence watching as well. It was an enormity beyond what he could comprehend.
Bennett held on as long as he could before the presence began to pull him down into its cold, dark depths. He left then. He slipped into the shadows as quickly as he could and ran out of the building as fast as his legs could take him.
He could never forget what he saw that night. Despite all of the terrible things he would go on to experience and witness, he would always remember what they did to those young women.
He cursed his cowardice.
“It’s been three days. I keep coming back to your home and you keep telling me you need more time. Well, I’ve waited long enough.” Bennett bared his fangs at Dalton. He was done waiting. He wanted the agreed upon information and he wanted out of San Francisco and back to his home where he was free of depraved cults and fishmen.
The former federal agent backed up.
Bennett smelled fear.
Dalton’s voice was calm and steady despite this. “I told you it’d take time. Fortunately, I’ve got your information.” He pointed at a backpack next to the kitchen table.
“Everything we know about the Scions of the Deep Azure and the human cult. Complete dossiers on key people, along with verifiable skills and magic usage. How the city is run. The reason it took a few more days is because I added my thoughts on how the city can be attacked, from inside and out,” Dalton said.
“I don’t know who you represent, but I’m willing to open up a dialog. The Resistance is willing. After that video… they have to be stopped.”
Bennett decided to be honest. “We don’t have an army. We can’t just come and kill the scions and the cultists. There’s something… worse… behind them all.”
“Yeah, I read what you wrote. Part of me doesn’t want to believe it, but I can’t ignore my own Skills and instincts. I’m inclined to agree with you on that. It seems impossible, but that hasn’t mattered much in the last seven years.”
“Scientific impossibilities are commonplace now,” Bennett nodded. “Since the spires appeared.”
“My take is that it’s actually getting worse as time goes on.”
“Sorry, Agent Dalton, but you shouldn’t expect an army to come in and save the day,” Bennett said as he reached for the backpack.
“From what you wrote, it doesn’t sound like the scions and the cultists are content to remain here in the Bay. Wherever you’re from I doubt that you can escape their reach. I know it won’t keep us from resisting. Now that we know the true stakes…” Dalton sighed. “I’m going to bed. Feel free to look through the information to confirm that it’s legit. For what it’s worth, thanks. We wouldn’t have known without you.”
“Good luck to you and your people.”
“We’re all going to need it.”
Bennett didn’t say anything as he settled into the chair and opened the backpack.
Now, Threnosh World
The cragant squad of legionnaires from the 3rd Legion was on their last patrol of the night. The dawn was but a few hours away and they’d finally be back in their forward base for a hot meal and their turn in the sleeping quarters.
“And you’ve been saying it for the past two hours, Regaar. You sound like a bleating bovinorus.”
“Shut it, Aurastra or I’ll make you bleat!”
“I’d pay a week’s wages to see you try, Regaar. She kicks your rocks all over the place in the practice pit. What do you say, Jologor? You want to take that bet?”
“Give me one plus half on the odds, Henosk. I seen them in the pits, same as you.”
“You going too cheap, Jologor,” Menolet grunted. “I wouldn’t bet anything less than one to four on Regaar.
“Shame on you, Menolet. We womenfolk should stick together,” Takelos said. “I’d go three to one on Aurastra,”
“Practice ain’t the same as the real thing,” Regaar graveled.
“That’s the first smart thing you’ve said in days,” Aurastra said. “Can I wager on myself?”
Henosk bellowed a braying laugh. “She’s even better than you in a real fight.”
“The only wager I’m willing to make is that you loud lot can’t shut your maws for more than a three notches on a candle.”
“Sorry, Decanus Senem,” Regaar said. “It’s just me being bored.”
“Just keep quiet. We’re giving away our position to every enemy within earshot,” Senem said.
Aurastra tapped her boot on the metallic ground. “Sorry, Senny, but we ain’t exactly quiet.”
“Too heavy. Maybe if we wrapped our boots in cloth,” Menolet shrugged.
“She’s right, Decanus,” Jologor said. “The little gray ones will hear us coming, loud voice or not.”
Senem frowned. He was young for a decanus roughly the same age as his squad. A couple, like Aurastra, were actually a little bit older. She was the worst since they happened to come from the same crag and had known each other since they were children. He’d have to speak to her about using his old nickname in front of the others during official duties. It was unseemly and a violation of protocol. If he called her out over it now he would be seen as weak and petty.
“Wouldn’t mind some action,” Henosk said.
“Bah, the gray ones just shoot their little pellets and run when we get anywhere near them,” Kresk said.
“Then they go to ground like burrowing breglets,” Regaar nodded.
“Would you welcome the encounter if it was one of the strange gray ones? The yellow-armored one that glides across the ground too fast to hit. Or maybe the black-armored one that can’t be killed as it drains your blood?” Senem said.
“I heard there was one with tentacles that can suck the life right out of you,” Takelos said.
“Hey, Takelos… if you’re scared you can hide behind me. I’ll block the avalanche with my strength,” Henosk grinned at her as he draped an arm over her shoulders.
The cragant woman bared her teeth at him as she roughly threw his arm off.
“You’ve been warned before, Henosk,” Menolet said as she deliberately placed her hand on the handle of her sword.
Henosk’s eyes darted to Senem. “Just messing around. Didn’t mean nothing by it. I swear on the Savior.”
“I might believe you if you swore on something else,” Takelos said.
“Watch what you say, never know who’s listening,” Jologor warned.
“I thought it was the short one that was impossible to kill. I’ve got a cousin in the fifth. She said she stabbed it right through the gut. After she pulled it off her spear and tossed it across the street she saw it back in the fight not even a notch later,” Regaar said.
“Might be more than one of those then?” Aurastra said.
“The point is our main objective on this patrol is to maintain perimeter security. We are on the look out for infiltration. We are not out here to seek out engagements,” Senem said.
“Aura, shut it,” Senem said flatly. “I was getting to that. If the enemy engages then naturally we defend ourselves… after alerting our legion.”
Several squad members roared in delight.
Senem cringed. He wasn’t starting out well as a new decanus.
“Suppose that’s something to look forward to,” Regaar said. “Might keep me from falling asleep on my feet. Truth be told, decanus I can’t wait for us to rotate back to day light hours.”
“I agree,” Senem said.
“Yeah, Senny. Cragants aren’t made for the black hours. We’re meant to face our enemies in the light.”
Senem wanted to slug that smirk off Aurastra’s face. She knew exactly what she was doing. Just like when they were growing up. Poke and prod until little Senny flipped out and made a fool of himself.
He was a decanus now. A true professional kept his control and sought redress at a time and place of his choosing.
The legionnaires carried out the rest of the patrol in relative silence. The short structures of the Threnosh made it easy to see all the way to the edge of their torches. The cragant’s great height allowed them to see over most of the structures. If any gray ones were hiding they wouldn’t be able to do so for long.
Henosk had been relegated back to the rear of the formation with Jologor for his earlier transgression against Takelos. He didn’t want to provoke Menolet further. He had seen her draw blood at lesser offenses before.
“Not as stupid as you pretend to be most of the time,” Jologor kept his voice low, which owing to his great size meant it carried pretty far anyways.
“Shhh,” Henosk warned. “Decanus Senem’s looking back here.”
Henosk was more concerned with his squad leader than watching his step. He banged his knee right into one of the structures. He barked out a curse. The squad, including Decanus Senem turned back and shot him glares that ranged from warning to disdainful.
“They’re made of thin and light metal you’d think they’d be flimsy,” Henosk whispered.
Jologor nodded. “You ever hit one at a full run?”
Henosk winced in sympathy.
“You have to give it to the gray ones’ smithing. They make strong metals and whatever else they’ve mixed into their tiny living quarters. Tripping over my little ones’ stone blocks didn’t hurt half as much,” Jologor said.
“Didn’t know you had offspring,” Henosk said. “Why are you here?”
“The pay. My youngest has the wasting. Can’t afford the workings keeping her alive without active off-world duty,” Jologor sighed.
“Truth. The bonus for a brand new world is very nice,” Henosk said. “Plus, we’re only locked in for two years. We beat these gray ones quickly and we’re free to do what we wish for a year.”
“I’m counting, hoping on it. I don’t want to miss my eldest’s first fight.”
“That must be rough, who’s teaching him to fight in your stead?”
“My sister.” Jologor laughed. “My son is lucky. She’s a better fighter than me by far. Just wish I was there to see it. I remem—”
“Remember what? Jologor?” Henosk turned around. “Alarm! Alarm!” He tossed his torch to the ground and readied his shield and spear.