Moonclaw trudges along 87th, barely noticed by anyone; the streets are mostly abandoned here, probably because of the cold. Usually these metahume slums are lousy with invalids and burnouts, looking to make some quick yen however they can.
Eight blocks east takes her under the Gresham Metra, long since decommissioned by the Free City because, basically, it enables poor orks to get around and rob rich humans. The concrete roof running above 87th acknowledges that its time of service is past, and goes about the long process of decaying with dignified resignation. The shaman slips into the shadows on one end and emerges from the other after a short trek through darkness.
Another ten blocks brings her to the I-94 junction, a roaring artery of cars and trucks, so many cells in a giant urban circulatory system, carrying their payloads to whatever corporate organ requires them. The bridge over the highway is wide and bare. Nowhere to hide, no fencing along the sides, enabling juveniles to pelt the commuters below. She pauses, examining her surroundings, gauging the safety of the crossing before setting off again. It would be a serviceable ambush spot, but nobody has taken an interest in her for miles and the few homeless in the area seem to be preoccupied with their own problems: drugs, simsense burnout, hunger.
Row upon row of the same one story house greet her, going on for a thousand miles in every direction. Their similarity to each other really is incredible: the same brickwork, the same low, slanted roof, the same slapping screen door and shitty, dying lawn. Nobody is to be seen. Occasionally, a child’s bright playset breaks the monotony. The repetition puts her into a trance, and she meditatively places one foot in front of the other for what seems like hours, turning events of the morning over and over in her head. Her equipment starts to rub at her shoulders and body, and she shifts it uncomfortably.
Ten more blocks brings her to the Woodruff Metra. A sloped wall of dirt runs North-South here, supporting the still active Woodruff public rail transit, obviously deemed highbrow enough to remain in service. She must make it through this tunnel and then just a few blocks; the construction site is just South of 87th, near the disused rail lines between Dobson avenue and S. Greenwood. A furtive glance through the tunnel is enough to set her mind to paranoia again. This tunnel is longer and darker than that of Gresham; she should exercise caution during her crossing.
Moonclaw pauses a few feet from the entrance of the tunnel, reading herself for the dangerous crossing. Given the events of the day, the idea of entering into the murky shadow of the underpass seemed. . . somehow more dangerous.
It was an auspicious day already. She had no doubt the smoke-walker was still alive, prowling to strike again somewhere in the city. She only wondered which heads he would claim next.
Not wanting to take any chances, the street shaman readies her pistol, letting it sit free in its hip holster. She drops her smartgoggles and toggles the thermographics, the eyepieces humming with the strain of amplification.
Starting in, she sticks discreetly to the far wall, her senses tensed for movement.
Her progress along the underground passage is slow, at first, as her eyes become adjusted to the modified light coming in from her goggles. The first thing she notices is a pair of bright shapes on the opposite side of the tunnel from her. It turns out to be two homeless people sleeping off last night’s BTL run. Relieved, she continues, keeping close to her side of the walkway.
The way ahead looks clear: nothing on the scope but the grainy, washed-grey absence of the heat of life. She picks up her pace and starts to make good time. Around the midway point in the tunnel, her foot hits a stick lying across her path, and she stumbles. Regaining her footing, she looks back; the cold stick blends almost perfectly with the surrounding concrete, making it impossible to see on the ’therms. It protrudes from a small service alcove carved into the sidewall. Inside it, a grey metal fusebox is locked with a tiny padlock. Under that, a small bag or cloth backpack shifts, the stick somehow attached to the base of it…
She realizes after a moment that she is looking at the remains of a body, and retches inwardly. The flesh is so far decayed that there are bones and ribs visible through the thin clothing. She doesn’t notice anything else strange about it, other than the fact that it is a corpse on a public thoroughfare, seemingly having been left here long enough to rot away to almost nothing.
Unable to overcome her curious nature, the shaman stops to inspect the gruesome pile. She takes a step back to get away from the overpowering smell, then gives the remains a prod with the tip of her composite bow to see if it might be concealing something more interesting.
She retches on instinct—then stops, noticing something curious. Despite the state of the corpse, there doesn’t seem to be a strong stench of death. There is a stale odor in the air, but nothing like what she would have expected from being able to peer inside something’s body cavity.
She cautiously tests the air again, puzzled. Even if the body had been dumped here, it would still reek strongly. Put on edge by the discrepancy, Moonclaw withdraws her bow and keeps her distance, suddenly suspicious. She closes her eyes and inhales deeply, letting her senses drift across the metaplanar divide. Looking now upon the astral realm, the shaman carefully inspects the alcove and its occupant for signs of magic.
Astral motes rise up around her like little lamplights, bathing the dead concrete around her in a weird, offcolor hue. The lights play against the body before her, and it glows in her sight: this is a dual-natured being, a physical shell inhabited by a spirit. The body itself was of a caucasian human in his late twenties or early thirties, although the thin skin around the eyes and jaw has tightened and ripped, destroying the once-human face. It wears tatters of clothing, and scraps of its own flesh contain internal organs gone cloudy with suppuration.
With a shift of joints dry as the wind, and a dusty rasp, the old bones wake themselves, and the eyes open, unseeing. The creature lifts itself up and the arms pinwheel slowly, reaching out for a grasp of warm, life-giving flesh.
Moonclaw gasps, stumbling backwards at the sight of the abomination. She lashes out reflexively with the weapon in her hands, aiming a desperate two-handed swing at the corpse’s head with the length of her bow.
She bats back at the thing’s questing arms, shattering one along the exposed length of the ulna. It slouches to the side, efforts temporarily defeated, and almost appears to give up the chase altogether. When it starts to raise itself onto its other arm she bashes it back down to the ground with her bow, swinging mightily into its soft, decayed belly.
Grave dust whispers out of its mouth as it whispers a desultory sigh, merely putrid air escaping its lungs as the body moves. It appears quite broken but is still capable of some movement. It writhes slowly on the ground in front of the shaman.
Emboldened by her physical supremacy over the beast, Moonclaw pins the undead creature to the concrete with the tip of her bow, keeping it out of arm’s reach. She collects her willpower about her as if it were a shawl, then sends it jabbing like a spear into the heart of the spirit. “Where do you come from, corpse-dweller? What brought you here?” The street shaman commands as she drives her attack home.
She flays the captive spirit with the strength of her personality, and it recoils in its shell, writhing in pain. Its astral arm tries to lash out at her, feebly, but cannot, nor does it appear to respond to her spoken demands. Either the spirit was too wild or powerful to be tamed and taught language, or its time trapped in this decaying prison has arrested it of its higher faculties. The corpse squirms under her bowpoint.
Moonclaw frowns, her initial efforts fruitless. She leans her weight against the bow, watching the thing struggle on the ground with mild enjoyment. The being’s dual nature meant that she could examine its astral signature at her leisure, so long as the meat body was controlled.
The street shaman bends in closer, determined to glean some meaning from the zombie’s existence. Taking her time, she assenses the hapless spirit again, searching for some similarity between it and the anti-magic Culexus technology which seemed to be the source of all her recent troubles.
There isn’t a thing that the zombie and the knowsoft have in common, in fact, it is their differences which more ably define them. The Culexus work had been done to an inanimate object; by contrast, binding a spirit to a living thing—even a formerly living thing—is much more simple, the magic behind it more understood. A corpse already has the blueprints and circuitry for maintaining essence, and she cringes to think of the experiments that were done to replicate this behavior in a plastic and metal machine.
Additionally, the spirit inhabiting the Culexus knowsoft was a ravenous, powerful worm. Parasitic creatures in the astral plane are not mere pests or nuisances like mosquitoes or leeches; they are ruthless killers who bleed their victim’s souls away, and that one was a powerful specimen indeed—bred (or engineered?) to be a mage-killer. By contrast, the spirit inhabiting this run-down body is a simpering, pitiable thing. It is probably a lesser city spirit or a corpselight, caught skulking around the shadows of the astral plane and forced into this prison. Now the enchantments that bind it here are causing its force to bleed out, and it must consume the essence of others to survive.
Moonclaw takes note of the astral signature used to create the binding between spirit and host. She would recognize it if she saw it again.
The cat shaman stands upright now, looking down at the pitiable spirit with mixed emotion. It was unlikely this wisp of a being deserved to be so entombed, beyond the mere crime of being vulnerable to whatever voodoo spell had made it this way. It was not unlike discovering a rat caught in someone else’s trap. Another example of man’s twisted ways corrupting the natural world.
In a rare moment of benevolence, perhaps tempered by greater curiosity, Moonclaw decides to free the spirit from its binding. She leans in close, giving the zombie a firm warning jab with her bow, then places her free hand upon its forehead, palm first, then bearing down with her fingers, their astral presence becoming claw-like as she digs into the meat of the spirit in order to wrench it from its cage.
The conjuration magic holding the spirit to the body is strong, and the casting thorough and complete. The zombie may have left its master’s side, or been discarded, but the magical bond has been sustained by the essence consumed by the corpse. The original conjurer still has control over this construct, but Moonclaw could feel his or her hold slipping—the bond isn’t that strong. One more attempt at banishing might be enough to free the spirit into her own custody.
The street shaman’s astral aspect shifts as she draws strength from her totem, her hands becoming dark paws terminating in silvered claws as her eyes flash emerald set with black diamonds. Redoubling her efforts, Moonclaw takes a fresh grip on the spirit’s form, raking her free hand through the sorcerous binds that keep the spirit caged.
She reaches down and can feel the life force of the little spirit beating in the heart of the body. Plucking apart the magical fetters keeping the thing chained, she frees it from its prison, and it happily gathers its lost energy about, replenishing itself with the energies of the astral world.
In the meatrealm, the zombie goes slack, and becomes just another pile of putrid, decaying flesh. The stink already grows more noticeable, and the limp finger bones bounce and skitter on the ground as they lose their life essence a second time.
The little spirit bobs and floats in front of her. In exchange for its freedom, it has taken a karmic debt, and is now beholden to Moonclaw for one service. She can feel it tensing and braying, eager to get out from under a magician’s thumb, more eager still to hunt down its imprisoner.
“Free at last, little one?” The shaman stands to her full height, stretching her arms above her head to work out the ache of the astral exertion. “Cat tells me such encounters arise from the blessing of Wohpe.” She eyes the spirit warily, gauging its response. “She brought mediation to the Lakota and the spirit world. It is said that someday she may bring the same to the realm of man, when the Falling Star heralds the return of our people.”
Moonclaw collapses the arms of her pull bow, flipping it back into its sheath with ease. “Or so it is said.” She turns to continue on her way beneath the bridge. “As for your debt, you may resolve it by telling me of how you came to be so entombed.” She adjusts the hang of the pistol at her hip. “Preferably while I walk.”
The spirit chirrups to itself quietly, and then feeds Moonclaw a few quick images and feelings, a short emotional trideo show which plays out in her mind’s eye.
A dark figure shimmers through the fog of memory, a man with the white V of a business suit blazing across his chest. He gestures to one side, and the view shifts, showing a dark body lying on a table, surrounded by a team of shadows.
The body amongst them is a corpse. One of the shadows turns and calls out Moonclaw’s name, and the words seem to reach out through astral space, gripping her by the heart and pulling her across time and space. The shadow grows closer, and as she comes within arms reach, a magical word seizes her and lifts her over the cadaver.
The dead man’s head rolls to one side, lifelessly. There is a stirring in the lips, and then the eyes snap open and the mouth opens wide, and she is plunging into it headfirst, sliding into the freezing cold clutches of the mortal skin.
Now trapped within the decaying remains, her lifeforce rails against the walls of her prison, racing up and down, up and down, wearing itself thin in an attempt to escape. The man with the white V speaks a moment with the men ringing the body, then the walls of memory collapse into smoke.
The visions end abruptly, and Moonclaw feels the presence of the spirit within her retreating. Her mind reels for a second, getting a foothold on a more rational perspective of the world. The message from the tiny astral denizen was not very clear, the thoughts and emotions not well developed. This is the difficulty with communing within the ether realm; only the most powerful spirits know how to convey their thoughts in a controlled manner, while the lesser ones exhibit a firehose of consciousness that the human psyche has difficulty perceiving.
She presses on, but the white-hot V of the business suit still lingers, fiery, in her mind’s eye.
The street shaman shifts her perception back to the material plane, trying to shake the unsettling memories. Her eyes swim with the colors of the visible spectrum, her mind once again seeing the gradated blue of the Chicago sky, the cut of a shadow across the sidewalk, yet the images persist, the terror of the man’s suit, the sinking feeling of entombment.
She continues on, sifting deeper into her memories to take her mind away from the present. She thinks first of the Lakota myths she had described to the spirit in exchange for its own story. She had learned them as a child, sitting cross-legged in communion with her totem. As she sat in a trance, Cat would show her how Wophe had come down in the form of a comet to teach the Lakota the ways of peace, to pass the pipe and unite first the Lakota and Dakota as the great Sioux nation, and then to bring into harmony the Comanche, the Navaho, Cheyenne, Chippewa, and Apache. How Wophe, heralded by a white buffalo calf, had taught the Sioux to call upon the spirits, to conjure them and seek their council. She remembers being told as a child that Wophe would return again upon a comet, to bring unity to the new world, as she had brought unity to her people and to the spirit world.
Yet in the light of recent events, she was beginning to doubt that this was the whole story. There was too much left unexplained, too much that the prophesy of Running Water had left untold. Images flashed in her mind, memories she had stored away for further inspection. There was the Wuxing megacorp, able to bind toxic spirits to circuitry in a way she had not thought possible. And then there was the blood magic, practiced by the elves of Tir Tairngire right here in her city. And the smoke-walker, more dangerous than all of their enemies combined. And now zombies, roaming freely on the streets of Chicago.
And Mesay, she had almost forgotten her last encounter with him. The Semitic diagram of ten drawn on his ceiling, ‘Ein Sof’ splashed in blood. What had that meant? The Endless One, an existence prior to Gaia, yet another anomaly unaccounted for by the Lakota. To meet with it was to cast out what was human, he had said. And now he was nearly dead, attacked by yet another thing she did not understand.
Moonclaw clutches at the sachel of foci she had taken from his shop, taking some small comfort in their energies. Her run-in with the zombie confirmed what she already felt to be true—she desperately needed the guidance of her totem. The cat shaman quickens her pace, anxious to collect the proper materials and begin the construction of her lodge.
Moonclaw thinks that the lodge materials she needs are in the construction site to her South, immediately after the tunnel. She will need to gather at least one kilogram of construction materials, more if possible, and the more lived-in the materials were, the better. She should be on the lookout for the ruins of old public places or places of gathering; private residences will not do, as these are the domains of the hearth spirits.
The urban environment and the spirits that dwell within it team with life, but it is not the life which occurs naturally in powerful places of nature like the Amazon, the Marianas Trench or the Western NAN deserts. Urban spirits distill their power from the concentration of humanity around them, a phenomenon which is not fully understood, and likely never will be. Nevertheless, the resonance of millions of people living together draws otherworldly beings like moths to porchlight, and their presence in turn shapes the ebb and flow of mana around the cities of the world, creating a feedback of life energy which draws yet more spirits. Luckily, most places in the UCAS are still positive, growing and hopeful places. In darker corners of the world, places where hope and faith have fled, concentrations of urban mana can be a very dangerous thing indeed.
She breaks free of the haunted shadows and onto the open road once again. Passing the intersection of 87th and Dobson, she skirts around a bum and continues on to her destination, S. Greenwood avenue. If her memory is correct, there is an old trainyard here which may provide her with the materials she needs.
Moonclaw turns down Greenwood, following the vague memories of a lifetime spent prowling the city streets. The haggard row of trees to her right seems familiar, their bare forms outlined despondently against the afternoon sky. Another block or so brings her to the entrance of the trainyard, just how she remembered it.
The cat shaman steps casually into the shade of a nearby oak, leans against a lamppost, and surveys the entrance for signs of surveillance and a means of ingress.
The compound is surrounded by an eight foot tall fence, topped with barbed wire. The wire, and the fence, have rusted and decayed away in some places, which makes the place defenseless against the legions of invalids and homeless which besiege it nightly. This morning, the rabble are out elsewhere, getting food, or drugs, or dying the deaths of lonely men. One such opening in the fence is close to Moonclaw, on the right of the main entrance where the fence takes a ninety degree turn and heads towards the back of the installation.
To her left is the main entrance, wide enough for two large vehicles to pass each other unimpeded. Arching over it is the large metal outline of a gate; perhaps it once played host to doors, but these have since been removed, inviting in all who may pass.
It is quite obvious that this trainyard—or service station, or whatever the necessities of a dying transportation industry turned it into—has not been used for industrial purposes in years. The rusted hulks of tractor trailers, trucks and forklifts are strewn about like bones in an elephant graveyard. On the one hand, this will disrupt lines of sight, aiding infiltration, but by this same quality it creates pockets of shadow and blind spots in which the varied evils of 2061 lurk.
A single, large building in the distance dominates the skyline, the only portion of the yard which is not designated for the (de)construction of trains or occupied by train tracks. It looks to be of solid construction, corrugated metal siding and sturdy I-beams. Anything that is still standing has to have been made to a decent standard of safety, at any rate. There is about one hundred meters of open ground between the front gate and this building. To the left of the building, running away to the South, are three sets of train tracks. Even from this great distance the shaman can see that weeds and scrub brush have overgrown the tracks; the presence of some bark-bearing species seems to indicate that trains have been absent here for a long time. There are wide metal platforms nearby for the loading and unloading of cargo, and more fence and trees beyond those.
The entire place is quiet. Not even a stray dog or shadowcat is to be seen in the confines of the fence. Moonclaw, ever vigilant and suspicious, senses something poking at the back of her mind. That instinctual, animal part of her is saying, ‘Be careful here, cat. Tread lightly, this place is not as it seems.’
Moonclaw has been on the streets long enough to know when to trust her gut. She gets low, slinking to the corner of the fence, her fingers mechanically checking the chamber and safety of her pistol as she moves. Reaching the edge of the fence, she gives the grounds a check on the astral plane, ever cautious of the dangers less mundane.
There is a certain sensation detected by magicians, a sense of power which they receive in places where mana is strong, universally described as being drawn or summoned forth. It is this feeling Moonclaw gets from this place, but very subtly, like standing at the top of a gradual downhill and feeling the pull of gravity ever so slightly. The motes of astral light around her seem to be pushed forward, too, tumbling in wide arcs whose asymptotes converge in the direction of the building in the rear of the yard.
The grounds look clear of life. Of her varied filters for the world, astral vision is perhaps best suited to the detection of living threats, and it reveals none.
The street shaman pauses at the gap in the fence, weighing her options. Such founts of mana are rare, especially in an area so suspiciously undefended. She reasons that if anything is here, it will be astrally sensitive, negating the benefits of an invisibility spell. She will have to sneak in on both planes at once.
Moonclaw takes a moment to screw on her pistol’s silencer, testing the weapon’s new heft in her palm. She ducks through the opening and steals forward, keeping her presence on the astral plane as she moves. Advancing cautiously toward the shelter of the first chassis, she feels no fear despite the unknown, almost eagerly anticipating what may lie beyond. Her left hand tenses, shimmering with destructive energy, poised to strike out and rend her enemies.
Three more burned out trucks lie along the perimeter of the fence leading to the back building. They are offset from the wall by a couple feet, creating a corridor mostly shielded from the view of the open yard. Closer to the middle of the yard is a large semi trailer with an empty bed parked engine towards her on the road leading through the front gate, oriented as if on its way on a delivery. This creates another long, if low, way to stay out of sight, but the ~70 meters between the end of the truck and the building is open to view save for one large, broken down industrial courier truck at the halfway point.
Off to her left, light gleams off the rail ties leading out of the station, which she can see along with the whole left side of the yard, which terminates at the leftmost fence and transforms abruptly into a stand of trees, and from this to a scrubby suburban neighborhood.
Moonclaw sees no movement.
Ever cautious, Moonclaw steals forward along the edge of the fence in an espionage stance, shoulders hunched, her steps the silent ball-heel gait of her native blood, hands poised to deliver a stunbolt or silenced round. She diligently checks her corners as she passes between each truck, taking her time as she approaches the abandoned building.
The way ahead is quiet and still. After travelling past the first two truck trailers, she ducks quickly between the last gap and is on the home stretch to the shelter of the building, about 30 meters of open ground terminating in a small metal door in the front of the building low on the right side.
She tenses for the short journey, but then stops, noticing something by her bootheel, stuck underneath the truck tire. Peering down closely, she sees that it is a human foot half-buried in the mud and dirt. The exposed toes have been nibbled on by night crawlers and rodents, the flesh is pallid and sickly, and the interior of the marrow is black and hardened. The break in the flesh and bone is jagged and rough, certainly not the result of a blade.
Moonclaw’s stomach tightens, her neck bracing as she gags at the sight of the decaying foot. Remembering her training, she takes a determined breath, returning her mind to the task at hand. She breaths out, slowly, feeling the sensations of the world—the weight of her body against the ground, the balanced presence of the Fichetti in her fingers, the chill of the afternoon air against her face.
The shaman sets out across the open space, pistol leveled at the door, closing the space with light-footed strides.
She reaches the door quickly and quietly. Taking a look around, she is confident that no one has seen her approach, and her astral sight shows no signs of life.
The yellow door is rusted in great brown patches across its surface, but other than that, it is a plain, metal door. There is a padlock on it attached to a standard lock, a half-ring of steel sticking through a slot in a punched metal tab. The padlock has a keyhole, whose counterpart key is nowhere to be seen.
Moonclaw curses under her breath, confounded by the antiquated device. Locks were common enough in her line of work, but they were almost always digital, open to an easy short circuit or hotwire provided you could pry the casing open. For all her shadow talents she had never learned to pick a key and tumbler, as they almost never guarded anything of value. For once, she wished the ork were with her—his great steel fist would make short work of the whole assembly.
But for now she was alone, her natural state in the world. Resigned to find another way in, she takes a step back from the wall, peering up its surface for other options, a window or some sign of a rooftop entrance.
The front of the building has no windows to speak of; a sheer corrugated steel wall rises up thirty over her head and terminates sharply in a ninety degree angle to form the roof.
It would be impossible to scale the wall by hand, and it’s not immediately obvious there is roof access at all; however, a building this size surely has another means of ingress.
Frustrated again, Moonclaw continues her search, the metal siding cold against her shoulder as she slinks forward to the corner of the building. She puzzles for a moment over the nature of the crude padlock—it could only be locked from the outside, making it unlikely there was anyone inside… unless they were trapped there by someone else. Her mind flashed back to the zombie, lunging towards her, then to the decaying foot she had stumbled upon moments before.
The street shaman shakes the images from her mind, struggling to focus herself once again. She advances to the nearest corner, taking a quick glance around it before continuing on in search of another way in.
She is in luck. Peering around the corner, she can see that there are large bay windows facing the woods on the right side of the building. They are situated in the center of the large side wall, 40 feet wide, about 10 feet off the ground, and paneless, maybe used for moving long pieces of equipment in and out of the factory floor. A small metal cargo container is up against the wall near the base of the one of the windows, creating a convenient step up. The wall continues on for 30 meters, featureless, before turning left at the back of the building.
From here, it is impossible to see the ground floor of the factory, but by looking up through the windows she can make out structures near the ceiling: catwalks and long I-beam struts that are supporting a heavy-duty lifter fabricated into the structure of the building. It looks like it was once used to move pieces of machinery around inside the building, but its long disuse has rusted away any hope it had of bearing weight again.
Moonclaw thanks the stars for their blessing—with an entry like this she could be in and out in no time. She takes the distance to the cargo container in short strides, pace emboldened by her apparent solitude among the abandoned hulks.
The cat shaman vaults onto the box, keeping her shoulders below the window’s edge. She lifts her head just enough to peer into the belly of the old factory.
From Moonclaw’s vantage point, the factory floor is laid out as a large square, about 50 meters on a side, with a raised metal platform running along three walls, about level with the box she is crouching on. The fourth wall, opposite her, is mostly empty space: a giant cargo entrance opens onto the trainyard, and recessed, gleaming metal tracks run into the building for the construction and maintenance of trains.
The walls of the structure describe a very large, wide open space; the roof soars darkly overhead, divided into a grid by a canopy of girders and bearing low-hanging suspensor cables like vines. A gigantic industrial lift hangs from some of these vines, big as a house and rusted through to its joints. It must have been capable of moving entire freight trains through the air at some point, but now it looks to be one small tremor away from collapsing thirty feet to the ground below.
The working floor is mostly empty: workbenches and odds and ends are scattered around the tracks embedded into the concrete, and some broken tools and metal scraps shine dully in the corners alongside spent oil drums, a broken forklift, and shreds of wood in the shape of pallets. Moonclaw notices a doorway leading off of the floor, in the back of the building to her right. The door is ajar, and all she can see is darkness. The building appears to have some kind of extension opening off of the main space, perhaps housing offices or storage space.
She can see no movement, within the building or without. Not even a breath of wind stirs the grasses growing amongst the rail ties in the yard. A feeling of unease approaches her on silent wings, but she ignores it, convinced that she is simply being paranoid.
Moonclaw sighs as she considers the old train hanger, knowing that some part of her would not rest until the back room had been investigated. She grasps the lip of the large window and mantles easily, swinging her weight over the edge and dropping down onto the catwalk.
The shaman shifts her Sight to the mundane, then takes a few hesitant huffs with her nostrils to test the indoor air.
She lands on the metal grate softly, landing one foot first along the edge of her sole, gradually distributing her weight to muffle the noise of impact. She crouches down again, into the shade of the wall, and sniffs the air.
Aside from the odor of animal droppings and old machine oil, she detects a stale, decaying smell coming from somewhere nearby. It is not strong enough to be overwhelming, but it is definitely the stench of death. Probably just a rat or other animal which got stuck inside and starved, or was eaten, but the scent is unnerving nonetheless.
The street shaman does not like what she smells, but she has come too far now to turn back before exploring the old building completely. She skims through the afternoon shadow, traveling to her right along the walkway to position herself above the open door.
Moonclaw drops to her knees, inclines her head through the handrails, and takes another strong whiff of the air. Although the zombie she encountered in the underpass did not stink, if this was the place where it was bound other corpses might be within, vessels waiting to be imbued with another undeserving inhabitant of the umbra.
As she expected, the stench of death is stronger here, near the back of the building. Since she can’t see any signs of decay on the floor here, she deduces that the smell must be coming from somewhere in the rear offices. It is still a faint odor, not quite strong enough to be very recent.
There is a staircase leading down to the factory floor to her right, angling down through a rectangular opening in the walkway. Taking it would put her just on the other side of the door.
She is close now, and the thought of taking what is not hers fills the cat shaman with excitement. She slips her smartgoggles down and slides the jack into the butt of her Fichetti, pausing as the crosshair and ammo count swim into view. She pads gingerly down the steps, taking care to place each footfall, her shoulders hunched in a firing stance.
Moonclaw pauses at the entrance, listening and testing the air for unseen prey, her senses alive with the thrill of the hunt.
Stooping underneath the metal steps to get closer to the door, she sniffs the air again. The death smell is still present, and stronger here—it seems to be emanating from somewhere beyond the door.
The wooden door hinges on the right and opens inward, so she cannot see past it from here even though it stands ajar. The interior is very dark, and silent.
Moonclaw presses her back against the wall to the left of the doorway and quietly engages the low-light filter of her goggles. She leans out across the opening and gives the door a light push with her fingertips, allowing her to peer into the room through the hazy green wash of the amplified light display.
Moonclaw peers around the angle of the door to find herself staring down a hallway. The low-light goggles wash out all the color, but she can see down the darkened corridor as if it were bright as day. The hallway dead-ends to her right and extends left in the direction of the rail yard. There are two doors on the right-hand side of the hallway which lead into little offices; Moonclaw can see into the one directly across from her. There is a desk and a metal filing cabinet, and nothing else.
The end of the hallway has no doors, but opens onto another space, presumably a break room or cafeteria, which extends into the gloom beyond. Moonclaw can see the far wall of this room, but a larger part extends right, out of view of the hallway and hidden from her sight.
She hears a steady breathing coming from the break room.
The cat shaman ducks back behind the threshold of the entryway, conscious of the shadow her body would create if she entered a dark room with a light to her back. Considering her recent encounters, she was somehow glad the quarry drew breath.
Moonclaw draws up, then blankets herself in the satiny sheen of an invisibility spell, taking refuge in its privileged empowerment. Better to be seen second, her totem seemed to purr in her ear as she ducked through the entryway, her thoughts on silent footsteps and the dancing reticle of the pistol in her fingers.
Invisibility drifts over Awele Claws-the-moon like a shroud, and she is unseen. She concentrates on maintaining the spell, keeping her grip steady on the pistol in her hands as the wave of drain washes over and through her, leaving her out of breath.
Moving like a shadow, the trained shaman slinks past the offices on silken footing. She balances the pistol in both hands, its weight off of true because of the heavy silencer on its muzzle, and creeps forward towards the end of the hall. Nary a whisper of a sound does she make, but she can hear the breathing sound grow louder, and it has a kind of… desperateness to it now, she can tell. When an athlete is tired at the end of a long match, and he draws hoarse gasps into lungs ragged with exertion; that is the sound that she hears now, played over and over in slow, laborious gulps. There is something else odd about the sound, difficult to describe, which makes its location hard to pinpoint.
The room at the end of the corridor is empty, like the rest of the warehouse, and everything that can be moved without disassembly has been sold or stolen. A large industrial fridge sits in the near corner, with two smashed glass doors and a broken handle. The only other furnishings visible are a set of white polyresin tables with foldout benches, which lie in pews extending off to Moonclaw’s right.
She can’t see further into the room without revealing herself, in some small part at least.
Although she is invisible to the mundane eye, Moonclaw knows she is perfectly noticeable to any creatures perceiving the astral plane. Given the series of strange events leading to this point, she would not be surprised if whatever was breathing in the other room had some sort of dual perception. She feels no greater connection with her totem than when stalking the shadows, and she can feel its presence bearing down on her psyche, urging caution and padded steps.
The street shaman hugs the right-hand wall of the corridor and looks out beyond the angle of the wall, searching for her quarry.
Zombies! Four of them, huddled in the far left corner of the room, swaying and bobbing on their feet, heads down as if in prayer. They do not stir or look up as she peeks around her corner, but they do not seem to be concentrating on anything in particular, either; just the ground at their feet. Fat globs of vitreous flesh hang sickeningly from their slack joints, and the gleam of white bone is visible through the viewfinder her low-light goggles.
Moonclaw surveils the rest of the room. There are ten rows of the white polyresin tables, trash strewn about their benches and in the spaces in between. Half-eaten rats, raccoons and other small creatures of the night adorn the tops of the tables, almost picnic-esque but for their grisliness. The bones of the previous meals lay about as ubiquitous as dust.
The breathing sound is not being made by the zombies; it is coming from yet another room opening off of this one. There is a door in the middle of the far wall, past the rows of tables and just near the zombies’ corner, which stands open. Inside is darkness which even her low-light goggles cannot penetrate at this distance. The hoarse breathing rings like bells, cacophonous, in the dark space around her, and she feels the primal breath of fear on the nape of her neck.
Moonclaw recoils at the sight of the zombies, and the pace of her heart quickens at the new-found danger and the sounds coming from the room beyond. She ducks back behind the wall and takes a few deep breaths to sooth the ache of fear in her chest.
When she has gathered what courage she can, the street shaman calls upon her Sight, carefully drawing her smartgoggles above her totemic mask so she can have a proper look at the astral presence of the room.
Investigating the ether, Moonclaw can see that the pathetic auras of the huddled zombies barely give off enough astral light to illuminate their shabby corner. There is something interesting on the ground at their feet, something at which they endlessly stare, sometimes grasping at but never being able to touch.
A small mana fountain bubbles there, a raw source of Earth’s life energy, like a tiny volcano of magic Essence. Blue fog-smoke drifts around in whisps, and the frost-white ‘flame’ gives off bright motes of light every now and then, simultaneously flowing like water, yet guttering like fire. She can see the auras of the spirits trapped in the zombies, pulsating as they race about in their prison, searching for an escape. They feed off of energy coming from the fountain, too, bathing and basking in its power like a sauna.
There is another astral form here, something lying on the ground in the dark room. Its aura is brighter than the zombies’, and lights the interior of the smaller space, but she can’t make out what it is from the small sliver of it that is visible from her position.
The sight of the zombies being attracted to the mana fountain confirms Moonclaw’s suspicions: the zombies, as trapped spirits, can astrally perceive, so her invisibility would be useless against them. She drops the enchantment and brings her awareness back to the mundane, her senses enveloped once again in the inky dark of the unlit rooms.
The cat shaman leans against the wall, forcing herself to think through her options. The labored breathing of the creature in the other room combined with its prone position give her the sense that it is not an immediate threat, but before she investigates it or starts to toy with the mana fountain she will need to deal with the zombies.
An idea springs to mind. She draws her smartgoggles down over her eyes and turns back down the corridor, taking care to keep her steps quiet. She comes to the door of the first side office and looks it over, checking for sturdiness, locks, and a good set of hinges.
It’s a solid, wooden door, about an inch and a half thick, which opens inward on rusty metal hinges. The door handle is a plain brushed aluminum affair, with a push-button lock that can be locked from the inside. There are no windows or other openings into the room.
The door should serve, Moonclaw thinks to herself. She carefully depresses the lock on the door in until it clicks, then steps inside the room, scanning the refuse for a reflective surface, a shard of mirror or something chrome.
Inside the room is nothing but a beaten metal filing cabinet and wooden desk, neither of which is reflective. She recalls seeing some shards of broken glass out on the factory floor, however.
The shaman frowns to herself, frustrated by her inability to find the last tool for her trap. The broken glass outside might work, but she would prefer a truly reflective surface to allow her to see around the corner without sticking out her head, which might attract the attention of the zombies with their astral sight.
She kneels on the floor to begin her task, first holstering her pistol, then drawing her compact grapple gun from its sheath on her lower back and an arrow from the quiver slung across her shoulder. Slowly, ever mindful of the noise she is making, she uses the edge of the arrowhead to cut the grappling hook from the end of the line, then slowly spools out the corded rope, measuring it against the length of her arm until she has about twenty feet before making another cut. As she works, she realizes the metallic face of the arrowhead should be reflective enough to act as a mirror. Good, she thinks to herself, then I have everything I need.
Her preparations complete, Moonclaw tucks her things away, leaving her hands free, then stands with the length of cord, tying one end around the outside of the door handle. She lays the rope flat against the face of the door, making sure to keep it flush where it meets the floor, in case one of the shambling zombies trips on it.
Pacing backwards, she runs the line down the hallway, back towards the light, and leaves the other end at the entrance of the office space before lays her arrow down next to it.
Returning to the small office, she puts both hands against the dented file cabinet and gives it a hardy shove, hoping the crash will make enough noise to draw the walkers away from the astral fountain.
Before the cabinet can hit the ground, Moonclaw has already taken off, hustling back to the hallway entrance. She ducks behind it, grabs up the end of the rope in one hand and the arrow in the other, and sticks the tip of the barb beyond the entrance, angling it to get a view down the hallway as she waits for the zombies to react.
A great sound rings out from the little office space, certainly making enough noise to be audible to anything in the building with ears. Ducking behind the corner just as the cabinet hits, Moonclaw winces instinctively, and then there is silence.
Wait… there is silence. The hoarse breathing sound has stopped. For a split second, there is pure quiet, as even the vermin and insects play dead, waiting for the next move.
She hears the zombies first, groaning softly to themselves and beginning to shuffle in her direction. Their lopsided gait is very distinctive, and the squelching of organs and whispering tatters of clothing make it even more so.
There is another sound, a rapid slap of bare feet on linoleum, and a silhouette appears in the entry to the break room. Humanoid, with long, thin forearms, it crouches down and cocks its head toward the side office. She can hear an audible sniff sound, and then the head whips around, birdlike, to face her.
It begins approaching the doorway leading to the factory floor, moving on all fours like an animal.
For a heartbeat, Moonclaw is paralyzed with fear, her blood racing as she contemplates the extreme danger her failed gambit has placed her in. But it is only for the briefest moment, before her training sets in, driving her to act.
Taking advantage of whatever element of surprise she has left, Moonclaw drops the rope and arrow, whips around the corner, and punches the air in front of her, sending a rippling ball of destructive energy down the hallway at the ape-like creature.
She rounds the corner to face her assailant, and finds herself confronted, not by a man, but by a gaunt, pale and hairless thing, almost human. It is naked and covered in leprous, scabbed skin, with claws at the end of each of its fingers. Raising eyes gone almost white with cataracts, it opens its mouth wide to show rows of razor-sharp, pointed teeth.
The sight of the ghoul recoils her, and she loses her concentration for a moment. Only a heartbeat, but long enough for the thing to coil its long legs and begin a headlong charge towards her. Mouth set in a grim line, Moonclaw stares down death one more time, then gathers mana around her and blasts it down the hall, into her target’s very Essence. Drain washes through her again, barely noticed through the fog of combat; she shrugs it aside and braces herself as her opponent presses the attack. The abomination shudders and stumbles, but does not fall; bracing itself on all fours, it executes a clumsy running leap, claws outstretched and aimed for the shaman’s throat.
Moonclaw’s mind is quick, her hands quicker, and she catches the pale arms by the wrists, grunting with the physical effort of controlling the thing’s animalistic strength. The ghoul is now terrifyingly close to her, and the smell of necrophagic feces and dead flesh rolls off of it in waves. It gnashes and slashes at her with black teeth, but cannot get close enough to wound. She realizes with fear that it is much stronger than her, and it bears down on her with the surety of a predator stalking its prey.
As she struggles to hold the ghoul back, Moonclaw quickly realizes she cannot best the thing in close quarters, especially not before the zombies would be upon them. She pushes off the slavering monster, dancing backwards as she draws her SMG and chambers the first round in one practiced sweep. Firing from the hip, she squeezes off a burst at the beast’s gangling legs, desperate to slow its frenzied assault, then looses another blast as the recoil carries the muzzle upwards.
The ghoul bucks forward at her, grasping in a languid way as she releases its wrists and dodges away from the infected claws. Her hand goes to the submachinegun holstered at her side, and she yanks upward on the grip, popping the holster clasp, then pushes downward and back, clearing the muzzle by centimeters. The Ingram’s sudden report is deafening in the enclosed space, and the burst scores three pockmarks in the floor near the ghoul’s pallid feet.
Pulling the barrel up and wheeling backward, Moonclaw pulls the trigger again, and her off-balance shot finds its mark. The ghoul roars in pain, clutches at three crimson blossoms on its chest and topples backwards, long limbs splayed out on the ground. It scrabbles sideways like an insect and rolls over onto all fours, blood flying from its damaged torso. Attempting to stand, it falls back to one knee, coughing a monster’s cough, and finally pushes itself up with its arms to glare up at Moonclaw, hate replacing hunger in its eyes.
The four zombies shamble around the corner of the hallway and catch sight of the shaman’s tantalizing essence. They hesitate at the sight of the ghoul, but are emboldened by appetence, and after a moment’s hesitation, start after their next meal, with arms outstretched and skeletal smiles hanging on decayed lips.
Breathless, Moonclaw mutters a silent prayer to Wophe for guiding her shots as she checks the length of the hallway, trying to gauge how long she has until the zombies are upon her before making her next move.
The zombies are mere seconds away, moving purposefully but slowly.
Moonclaw continues to backpedal away from the approaching monsters, her mind scrambling for a way to survive against the odds. She can see no way out of this trainyard-turned-deathtrap, save to stand and fight, hair raised and back arched.
But if she must fight, she will give herself every advantage she can muster. The street shaman snatches a pouch from her belt and upends it into the air, watching as the finely-ground cat bone powder swirls in front of her on invisible currents. She can feel the presence of Cat asserting itself through the material fetish, filling the space between them with the cunning and secrecy of her totem.
She draws a deep breath, filling her lungs with hatred, fear, vanity, and shame, holding them in until the toxic emotions threaten to destroy her. When she can bear it no longer, she releases them, the sickly energies burning her throat, blowing out in a black miasma of doubt and confusion. The powder hanging in the air buffets and curls at the touch of her breath, the spell’s power amplifying as it passes through the lattice of magically charged particles, rushing out to confound her enemies with shadow and despair.
Magic rushes out of her into the hallway and blankets her target’s minds; she can feel it taking hold on each one of them in turn, except the ghoul, whose strong willpower penetrates the illusion. She can’t see the spell’s effects, but she knows what a powerful confusion spell can do to a mind, and hopes that it has at least slowed the already tainted brains arrayed before her. The cat-bone powder hangs in the air and absorbs the astral backlash from her sorcery, sparing her the effects of drain completely before wafting away on the air.
The ghoul blinks its white-scarred eyes and stumbles forward, barely on its feet. It takes a half-hearted swipe at her with its claws, but the wounds in its belly and chest have slowed its movements to a crawl, and Moonclaw barely has to step back to stay out of harm’s way.
The shambling undead continue on, heedless of the swirling colors and blaring noises which assault their dual-natured senses. The world swims in and out, crazily, and they falter and stumble like drunks, but come on nonetheless. The lead two zombies were formerly men, one still in a ragged business suit, the other, fatter one in overalls and a plaid buttoned shirt, ripped at the collar and covered with blood. Drawing close enough for their smell to be overpowering, they look hungrily upon Moonclaw, and the dead smirk on their faces grows into an evil smile.
The cat shaman’s head swims with the exertion of her awakened powers; but her fatigue is drowned out by the endorphin rush of the life-or-death melee, her body reacting with the confident ease of an athlete in the heat of a match.
Moonclaw takes a skip back and draws her Smartgun in, clutching the small-bodied weapon with both hands. She draws a bead over the ghoul, then hesitates. This one I will take alive.
She drops her sights down, aiming low at the beast’s clawed feet, away from the major arteries and vital organs. The shaman gives the trigger a squeeze, her ears ringing as the SMG’s staccato voice echoes through the cavernous enclosure.
Her shot is well placed, and the lower portions of the ghoul’s gangly limbs are splattered across the floor and down the hallway. She backtracks and warm sunlight brushes her shoulder as she steps out of the doorway into the main room. For a moment, the zombies are obscured by the sudden brightness, but she squints and can make them out, stuttering and shambling along, past the body of the unconscious ghoul. Cold fingers grasp out at her as they move forward; the businessman and farmer leave the other two behind as they quicken their pace.
Moonclaw wipes a fleck of the ghoul’s blood from her cheek as she backpedals away from the zombies, taking frantic glances over her shoulder, searching for a wheeled toolbox or generator close at hand, anything big and heavy enough to slow the zombies and keep them contained in the corridor.
No such luck; everything in the warehouse that could have been moved easily was stolen and sold for scrap years ago. The only outstanding features of the ground are pieces of broken glass, broken tools and pieces of wire. She spies the rusted frame of a forklift in the corner to her right, but the wheels have been removed and the engine block is missing, rendering it immobile.
The gleaming metal rails in the floor slide away from her on the left, out the bay doors into bright sunlight.
The shaman snarls in frustration; her instinct is to flee from the building, to get out under the open air where Cat holds sway. The hearth was not her domain, after all.
Yet there was something else, a voice urging her to stand her ground, to hold the beasts at the hallway.
Moonclaw casts about for a suitable bludgeon, anything with reach and enough heft to knock limb from limb.
There is a piece of the silvered track near her which has been jarred partway out of its mooring. It looks like it might come loose with a good tug.
Moonclaw plants a foot at the base of the loose track and wrenches at the length of steel with her free hand.
The track is held to the floor by a pair of rusted-out bolts. The shaman puts her weight behind her and one pops free; the railling lifts a little in her hands, but does not come loose. The zombies are so close she can feel their putrid odor on the hairs of her neck, and her skin crawls. With a last, desperate heave the other bolt comes free and the three-foot piece of machined steel comes away in her hands.
The shaman wrestles with the weight of the I-beam, struggling to find her balance with the improvised weapon. She adopts a batter’s stance, stepping into her swing as the first zombie comes in range.
Moonclaw hefts the heavy piece of metal and twists her body hard into the blow, catching the fat, undead farmer square in the chest before he has a chance to grapple her. She hears his breastbone fracture, but the damage barely slows the magically animated creature, and she dances back out of the reach of the businessman, who makes a clumsy grab for her as he closes the distance.
The weaker two zombies are women, two teenagers dressed similarly in filthy jeans and low-cut tank tops. They are, or were, two of the nameless street urchins who disappear from the streets everyday in Chicago, to suffer a fate worse than death. Perhaps their un-lives are a reprieve from the real tortures they had undergone before finally succumbing to oblivion. They move from the back of the pack to either side, attempting to surround the shaman completely.
Moonclaw’s bloodlust quickly fades as the abominations continue to shamble forward, edging around her flanks. Her childhood of back-alley muggings and territorial scraps left no room for things like honor or a warrior’s dignity, so when she drops the metal beam and runs, it is only the flight of a wild animal who knows it has lost, free from the human trappings of shame or cowardice.
She stumbles at first, batting away the grasping, bony fingers, then settles into an all-out sprint, angling down the tracks, into the light of the afternoon and the shelter of her domain.
Her headlong hurdle brings her to the threshold of the door, leaving the zombies shambling after her, about 12 meters behind. The warm sunlight, and her totem’s domain, is just in arm’s reach.
Moonclaw skids to a halt and wheels to face the slowly pursuing zombies, drawing her Smartgun once again. Her flight takes her just beyond the threshold of the abandoned railway hanger, the skittering sounds of its hearth spirits replaced with the familiar background noise of the city.
With the threat of the fast-moving ghoul eliminated, the cat shaman takes her time, flipping out the SMG’s shoulder stock and jacking in the lead of her smartgoggles. As she raises the gun to her shoulder she takes a deep breath, which feels like her first in hours. With her outbreath she releases the confusion spell, its absence a clean quiet in her mind, like hearing the sound of an empty room after a trideo player has been flipped off.
The street shaman centers the bead in her goggles on the chest of the lead walker, leaning into the stock to compensate for the kick of the first burst.
The empty quiescence in her mind is driven out by the triple-report of the gun going off in her hands, and she snaps quickly back to the now. Her shot is well placed, and the farmer’s rotting chest and neck explode, showering his companions with viscera. His head flies off and lands at his feet, his body crumpling to the floor beside it a moment later. The others take no heed and shamble on, arms outstretched again.
The shaman can’t help but smile at her power over the simple beasts. Briefly, she wonders at how they could be so fearful up close, yet so helpless at range. But Moonclaw just as quickly grows bored with their linear approach, anxious now to see what secrets she can coax from the ghoul.
She finds the torso of the second male in her sights and gives the trigger two metered squeezes, the muscles in her arms aching from the exertion of the afternoon’s combat and the recoil of her weapon.
The businessman’s suit was stylish during his days amongst the living: black and elegant, with platinum-chased lapels fitted tightly over a shirt made from a single piece of cloth, not sewn by needle but woven via chemical adhesion into its final shape. It offers little protection now.
Six bullets blow the imported fabrics through the undead wageslave’s stomach, and black streams of rotten vitriol splatter on the ground. When the smell hits, her nose wrinkles instinctively.
The two teenage zombies plod forward, heedless of their companion’s demise. They are about 8 meters away, moving slowly.
Moonclaw adjusts her grip to bury her nose and mouth in the crook of her elbow, the freshly-laundered smell of her camo jumpsuit doing an adequate job of filtering the graverot stench.
The street shaman adjusts her aim with casual nonchalance, the last two targets almost impossible to miss at this range. She aims for the walker’s upper chests this time, not wanting to perforate any more digestive tract than she can help.
Her Ingram lets loose again, the barrel smoking with burnt cordite. The first zombie in her sights goes down, her pale-pink braids tangled in the ruined mass of bone that used to be a skull and neck. Death is present here, performing its tireless duties, and the shaman pans her sights to the next target, squeezing her trigger and feeling the lightness of a near-empty mag.
The burst clips the zombie, punching a pair of holes in her left shoulder and ruining the daisy-yellow halter which served as her impromptu funeral attire. Inhumanly, she goes down without a word or grunt of pain, and struggles to her feet again just as silently, swinging her ruined arm as if it had never been injured. With a sickening, wet noise, the shoulder socket gives out and the limb flops to the ground, completely separated from her torso.
She takes a tentative step forward, the spirit within her struggling to balance an asymmetrical body. A glasgow smile rips at the corners of her mouth, and Moonclaw sees for a moment why necromantic arts are banned in civil circles of magic.
The shaman grimaces at the gory spectacle, taking another perfumed breath through the sleeve of her camo suit. Her palm sweats openly from the heat of the SMG’s exhausts, soaking the lining of her glove with a clammy dampness. Moonclaw finds the last walker’s head in her crosshairs and squeezes the trigger again.
The burst destroys what is left of the pathetic girl’s brain and sends her reeling backwards into blissful slumber once again. Moonclaw takes a breath, alone with the bodies of her defeated enemies; after the deafening gunfire, the silence of the trainyard fills her like a hot drink on a white winter’s day. The sun shines and the world trudges on, now five abominations lighter.
The shaman looks up into the sky, offering another silent thanks to Wophe, the Goddess of the Falling Star, imagining the Sioux deity riding down between the rolling clouds, her fiery mount ablaze.
Moonclaw turns her attention back to earth, and trots off toward the abandoned building, slipping a fresh magazine into her Ingram as she walks. She pauses to consider searching the handful of corpses, sprawled violently where they fell, but decides she would not touch their bodies for all the precious gems in the world, and continues on.
Her gun still hot in her fingertips, Moonclaw searches out the crippled ghoul in the shadows of the empty space. She stands over her quarry, regarding it with no small amount of satisfaction before giving it a prod with the tip of her toe to see if it still has life.
The ghoul lays on the ground at her feet, unconscious and bleeding out from the massive wounds to its legs and torso. It still clings to life, but that grasp will slip in the next minute or so. There is nothing she can do.
She stops to consider its form: long, sinewy arms and legs are clothed in scabbed and scalded pink skin. Predatory knots of muscle line its jaw, and fingers curl into talons where the fingernails should be. She can tell that before the virus ravaged it, this was the body of a male elf, and a particularly tall one at that, judging by the length of the loping limbs. Normally, the Krieger virus leaves the mind of its host somewhat intact, but in other cases it drives them howling mad, hungry for flesh and abandoned of their former humanity. Had he known the fate that lay before him, he might have taken his own life to avoid becoming abomination.
Moonclaw had hoped to keep the ghoul alive, to see what secrets she could learn from the exotic being. But in this state of near-death, the creature proved little interest. The shaman draws her pistol and puts a round through the beast’s head, ending its miserable existence.
She kneels at the edge of the ghoul’s pooling blood, holstering her firearms and drawing a half-dozen arrows from her quiver. She does not know much about ghouls—this one is the first she has seen, let alone fight. She had heard they ran free in the Shattergraves, but she has never been herself, ever wary of prowling where she knows dual-natured beings stalk.
Mesay once told her tales of ghouls in the Congo, hunting in great packs through the jungle, the offspring of a vampire aristocracy gone horribly wrong. If ghouls were born of the Krieger virus, their blood could be infectious, a terrible curse upon anyone tainted. Although the ghoul proved to be of no interest for her in life, at least in death it could provide her with a new weapon. The shaman dips the arrowheads carefully in the ghoul’s blood, then stands, flicking away the excess fluid and holding the shafts splayed out between her fingers to dry.
Her memories of Melese bring her mind to his shop and the foci she took from him. Part of her wished he never turned up again—a decent talismonger lost for a wealth of valuable trinkets was not a bad trade. There were other shopkeeps in the Windy City. She ventures into the back room to inspect the mana fountain, one hand holding the tainted arrows at a safe distance, the other toying with the satchel of foci at her belt.
Suede leather swims silkily through her fingers as the bumps and knobs of her stolen goods roll in their bag. The signature of them burns through the material on the astral, illuminating her for the world to see, as a criminal and turncoat. Around the items shimmers an aura of care and devotion, and they exude the raw willpower from which any focus draws its strength. That power is hers, now, with which to shape and create her own magic.
Finally, she stops at a point in the concrete floor where mana escapes from the essence of Earth. Its supernatural wonder is exceeded only by its brilliance: blue-white steam hisses from a tiny fissure, and a purple and teal aurorea borealis plays about the base like a halo. She can feel it rejuvenating her, lifting the drain from her tired mind and reconnecting her with Cat, the very essence of her totem, a being from Nature and so also a part of Gaia’s essence. The totem speaks to her then, just a brief moment in a tongue no man can understand; it congratulates her on a job well done and a life lived according to Cat’s inscrutable principles. A feeling of radiance washes over her and she finds her mind and body at peace.
Moonclaw basks in the life-affirming joy of her totem’s approval and stands with her eyes closed, soaking in the healing energies of the mana fountain; yet as Cat’s voice fades her eyes fly open, desperate to commune more with her transcendent guide. In her mind, she grasps out at the fading voice, begging for direction and guidance, for answers to the mysteries which swirl around her.
The astral mind that consorts with her drifts out of her conscience. As it goes it imparts a single, simple impulse: West. She must go West. How far, Cat cannot say, only that the next phase of her journey would take her out of her city, away from her home. The feeling fills her with trepidation, but she knows that the spirit animal has not guided her wrong so far; her interpretation of its message will be just as it needs to be to place her feet on the right path.
The cat shaman stands for a moment, taking in the silence of the room, the absence of her mentor spirit, the low, steady hiss of the mana fountain on the astral plane. She plays her fingers through the blue flames, lost in their otherworldly, ephemeral play.
Moonclaw turns from the fountain, her plans made. She carefully gathers an armload of material from the abandoned break room before returning to the mana spring. She arranges the refuse into a summoning circle adjacent to the flow, a ring of crumbled trash inscribed with a triangle of rat spines. She kneels by it, bringing her hands close as if warming herself by a trashcan fire, and gingerly pushes a portion of her life force into the diagram, an offering for a guardian spirit to protect her while she works at its hearth.
The hearth spirit scampers forth eagerly, a stooped little humanoid made of bits of paper, metal and glass. It salutes with a tiny little screwdriver that it has found to use as a cane, and starts to pace around her feet, busily tidying the summoning circle she has made. The summoning was almost effortless, she notices, and feels the warmth of the mana fountain in her hands as the magic flows through her like blood.
Moonclaw kneels by the spirit and commands it firmly. “Keep watch over this home and warn me if anything enters.”
The shaman turns to the fountain, finally alone with its power. She settles into a cross-legged position before it, then draws the pouch of foci from her belt and carefully opens the small sack, upending its contents onto the concrete. She picks up the most powerful of the objects, a ring of bone, and slips it over her index finger.
Immediately, the talismonger’s heady scent fills her nostrils. Moonclaw holds her hand in the dancing blue flames and exerts her influence over the focus, bonding it to its new master.
The Hearthshard nods its bespectacled head and zooms off into astral space, eager to seem helpful.
The shaman’s attention is then fully absorbed in her task, the wisps and wails of power soar through her like a song as the vent in Gaia’s energy lends its strength to her. It blossoms and grows in size, enveloping the focus and driving out the thoughts of Mesay Melese and replacing it with her feline form. The weight of the power behind the focus is lifted somewhat by the energies. The focus’ energy waxes and wanes and Moonclaw finds that time ceases to have meaning for her, as she concentrates wholly on her task.
Minutes pass and she breathes but a whisper. Ten, fifteen, thirty, then two hours pass as she sits in complete stillness. Suddenly, raucous ceremony and astral lights play about her and she invokes her spirit into the item, which stands before her, empty, yearning but for the words of power which will give it life.
[The binding ceremony costs two karma and takes two hours. Now she must imbue the focus with its new sustained spell.]
Moonclaw lifts her hand up, pointer and index fingers raised, then executes an invisibility spell with practiced ease. She can feel the ring’s essence being etched with its new task. Better to be seen second.
She collects a second item from the ground, this one a ring of brilliant ivory. The shaman slips the focus on, then engulfs her hand in the blue flame once more.
The quarterback is calling an audible again. Feels like a bad idea, they’re cheating off too much to one side. But it’s too late to shift the line. Before he can react the QB hikes the ball. The world slows as his adrenaline releases—he can feel the hot Kentucky sun on his arms, the smell of grass in his nose. The familiar crash of bulk-on-bulk sounds as the lines collapse into each other, and then they break through—he knew it—a blitz.
Number 78 is closing on the QB, but he is faster. His cleats tear once, twice into the turf, and then he is airborne, fists extended. The brute force of his tackle lays the Holy Cross player out with a sickening thud. He lies moaning on the ground beneath him. The crowd gasps, and then he is on his feet over him, and the crowd is chanting his name.
He spots Shannel on the track, with her black and yellow cheerleading uniform on. He jabs his finger at her, like a gun, it’s stupid but he does it anyway, and it feels great. She winks back at him. That was it, that was when he knew, damn, I’m going to marry that girl. Even Shannel is calling his name now. “Cruuusher! Cruuusher! Cruuusher. . .”
“Crusher!” The voice is tinny, too high pitched, like it was coming through a TV far away. It wasn’t Shannel anymore. “Crusher! I think we’re here.”
The mercenary jolts awake, tensing against the seatbelt across his lap before finding his bearings. He smells blood. One arm is cold, and sore, the other lifeless, dead. His chest hurts when he breaths.
The ork adjusts the ride of his rimmed hat with two fingers, then waves the rigger forward. “Just pull up to the gatehouse. Shouldn’t be a problem—Rawls and I go way back.”
Boxcar Rebellion comes to a stop at the front of the Chicago-area military pavilion, a sprawling semi-town of corrugated steel buildings, done up in beige and camouflage. The civilian areas of the town are lined with makeshift, cookie-cutter suburbs and too many jeeps, and the military areas resound with the rattle of automatic fire. Ling Fei rolls down the thick densaplast window and an armed guard steps toward the vehicle.
He puts one hand to his sidearm casually, “Excuse me, ma’am, this is private property. Do you have a registered appointment or contact?”
The ork leans across the van and inclines his hat to the guard. “We’re here to see Lieutenant Rawls. You tell him Crusher is here.”
The guard pulls a sour face for a moment, an involuntary consequence of racism, then remembers himself and steps back into his booth. He slides the door closed, slides a matrix phone out of its receptacle and places a call. He appears to be put on hold for a minute, during which time a CCTV camera regards them closely, but eventually he has a short conversation and hangs up. Opening the door again, “The Lieutenant is in the officers’ mess, go down the MSR and your first right.” The heavy, banded-steel gate arm swings up, the tire shredders in the concrete retract, and Boxcar is moving through into the guts of the compound.
Sure enough, the Main Service Road skirts two aircraft-hangar-sized metal buildings, then Ling Fei cuts the wheels at the first right, turning down onto a lane rife with activity. Two platoons of men parade up and down this street in lockstep, moving as one to the tune of comically foul-mouthed gunnery sergeants. Canvas-covered trucks and jeeps with missing doors veer around the drilling platoons, delivering men and weapons to different parts of the base. Everything is so mechanical and official here; it’s hard to believe these are private contractors—essentially, mercenaries—and not a real government army. They certainly dance the dance and talk the talk.
A helpful white-and-blue sign labels a large cookie-cutter building as the officer’s mess. Ling Fei parks her civilian monstrosity as best she can on the side of the road; some privates on kitchen duty shoot her icy stares as they haul their loads of carrots and potatoes. The engine idles noisily and the fat purring of the armored van dials down a notch, blending in with the hubbub of activity around her.
Crusher opens the heavy armored door and steps down onto the packed dirt. He jerks his head at Ling Fei. “Come on, the van is safe here. You should meet this guy, he’s got the best toys in Chicago.”
“Whatever you say, big dog.” The rigger jacks out with an unpleasant twinge, shaking her golden hair loose from the cord. Boxcar gives one last rev before winding down. The elf rushes to catch up with Crusher’s long strides.
The mercenary pushes through the mess hall’s heavy swinging doors, Ling Fei close behind. As the noise and hubbub of the barrack hall fills his senses, he is swept back in memory, to his early years eatin’ slop with the 1st Marines without a care in the world. Then, just as quickly, his mind races forward to Iran, to the fields of fire, to the dragon.
He shakes his head, pulls his shades off and rubs at his eyes. He looks up to find himself surrounded once again by the officers of Rawl’s mercenary outfit. He scans the lines of tables for the Lieutenant’s hulking form.
He spies his old buddy sucking down a plateful of mashed potatoes and army-grey mystery meat, elbow-to-elbow with two hulking officers of indeterminate rank. The clatter of forks and knives plays counterpoint to the percussive bang of cyberlimbs hitting the flimsy plastic trays, and all around a choir of gruff voices sing tales of battlefield exploits, acts of heroism and valor.
The lieutenant sees them enter and waves them over, gesturing to the empty spaces across the table from him. Some giant men shift and they take their place. Rawls smiles a wide smile and extends a metal hand. “Crusher! How’s the ‘private contractor’ life treating you?”
Crusher grasps the lieutenant’s fist, thumb over thumb, their augmentations ringing loudly against each other. “Hey, Rawls. Works’ good.” He lowers himself onto the bench. “That’s actually what I came to see you about. Got mixed up in some kind of spate between Wuxing and a buncha daisy-eatin’ Tir Tairngire.” The ork glances awkwardly at Ling Fei. “Uh, sorry. Buncha. . regular-type Tir Tairngire.”
The elf shakes her head at him. “Melegit samriel qua, trog?”
Crusher stares at her incredulously. “Did you just call me a trog?”
“Did you just call me a daisy-eater?”
Lieutenant Rawls’ loud guffaw breaks the awkward silence. “This one’s got a lip on her!”
Crusher shakes his head. “Yea, Rawls, meet my rigger, Ling Fei. She drives good enough when she’s not talking back.” The mercenary waits patiently while they exchange greetings.
“So anyway, that brings me to question one: you heard anything about Wuxing, the Tir, or a man all in black pajamas with a wushu sword, fights like the world’s most slippery elf?”
Rawls scratches his scruffy cleft chin. “You know how the soldiering life is, Crusher. We just get word from the top, and I don’t have any intel on anybody sounds like the guy you’re describing. Seems to me it’s somebody’s watched too many trid shows and has a nasty environmental streak in him. Ha!”
“Now what else can the Wind City Free Militia do to accommodate you and your young lady friend here?”
Crusher rubs at a tusk with one finger. “Ah, that’s a shame. Well, my second question is related to the first.” The mercenary leans in over the table. “I’m in the market for area control weapons—flamethrower if you got it, incendiary grenades, that kind of thing.”
Ling Fei chimes in. “I’d pay good money for a launcher system that could fit on UAVs. Some sort of multiple rocket tube, for dealing with enemy armor and targets in cover.”
“Well, little lady, even if I knew where to find something like that, you’d have a hell of a time fitting a launcher system like that on an aerial drone. If we had some of those Lashers lying around I’d sell you one but we’re clean out since some of our boys ran into a little light armor down in the CAS. And Crusher, that’s a mighty strange request, but we do have some incendiary grenades. Give me a few days to get them out of my man in Provisions and you can have ’em for ¥100 apiece.”
Crusher nods his consent. “Sounds good, Rawls. Better get me a dozen of them—whole egg carton. I gotta ninja ta’ fry.” Something in the ork’s memory triggers as he stands to leave. “Say, you ever get your hands on that Ay-pod clip I asked for a while back?”
Rawls rocks back so his gleaming bald head reflects his thoughts, and thinks for a moment. “You know, I did requisition that ammo awhile ago. I remember, he was bellyachin’ because it ain’t street legal. But that private sumbitch has it in the back, somewheres… I can get it for you, personally, for—” he does some quick mental math, “— ¥1300 a mag fer’ that bullpup of yours. He probably only has a box of about 100 rounds though so no more’n two.”
Crusher and the lieutenant stand as one, clanging the knuckles of their fists together in the solemn solidarity of ex-Marines. “Shit, I’ll take both of them—as many rounds as you got, I’ll buy ‘em. Thanks again, brother. I haven’t forgotten about your interest in urban work either; I might be having a major conflict sooner or later.”
The mercenary turns to leave. “Sooner, if you can get me those incendiaries.”
Ling Fei stands with him. “Right, thanks anyway. Peace.”
The pair bursts out into late afternoon chill, discussing their next move. The elf braces in the cold. “Well, where to now?”
Crusher shrugs. “I ain’t got shit else to do. Back to the safehouse?”
Boxcar Rebellion roars to life as they climb aboard, then throttles down to a low rumble as the rigger jacks in. “Your little shopping spree got me thinking about upgrades. Look, if you’re not busy, why don’t we go see what kind of toys my friends have for sale?”
Before the ork can even respond, Ling Fei whips the van around and guns for the exit. By the time they clear the gatehouse, Captain Winters’ address has already been entered into the autonav. She swings her nose left, back towards the expressway and the long haul uptown. The autonav routes her onto 94, but she swerves right onto I-90, opting for the scenic coastal route. She had had enough dense, urban driving for one lifetime already.
The mechanic’s square orange shop occupies its corner of the metro area like a large shoebox, twin garage doors facing outwards onto the parking lot. Boxcar pulls up, blending immediately with the other clientele vehicles, everything from an armored GMC 4201 to a sleek Leyland-Zil Tsarina. Ling-Fei stops to admire the collection of impressive machinery on display, letting her eye wander over every customization and tweak. She pulls herself away and opens the door to the shop.
Captain pulls himself out from under a VW Superkombi that looks like it took a direct mortar hit; the fat and balding dwarven man is in the process of removing the engine from its brackets. He wipes oily hands on his beard and looks up at her, “Chi Ling-Fei. Nice to see you, as always. And this a new partner? Or something more?—” He laughs a belly laugh and shakes Crusher’s metal hand vigorously. “I’m kidding, course, Ling here is all business.”
He rustles up to his full four-foot-something height and puts on his fixer face. “Now, please step into my office.” And he holds the door open to his cramped glass cubicle, slanting the venetian blinds shut.
The rigger shrugs and blushes a little before ducking into the office after Winters. She leans against the fixer’s short-legged desk. “Captain, this is my buddy Crusher. Crusher, Cap—Cap, Crusher.” The mercenary gives the dwarf a terse handshake, then Ling Fei continues. “Listen, I’ll keep it short. I’m in the market for AT hardware, solid state or self-propelled, doesn’t really make a difference. Been coming up on some light armor recently, and I’d like to be prepared next time. Figured I’d come to you, make the upgrade. What can I walk out of here with?”
Cap shakes his head, “Sorry, Ling, I don’t have anything like that here today. You know I try to keep my head above water with this shadow stuff—” he gestures around, to his office and business, “—and I can’t risk too much looking around for heavy gear like you’re asking for.” He sees the elf begin to look crestfallen, and chews his lip nervously, honestly wanting to help them out.
“I can probably find some rocket launcher tubes and regular commercial explosives by tomorrow. ¥1330 for the launcher tube, ¥55 for a kilo of the explosives. I don’t know about actually finding rockets for the launchers, though. That’s the sort of thing a guy shouldn’t do for just anybody—if you know what I mean.”
He thinks to himself for a moment. “Now, here’s one thing I could do for you. See all them junkers out there? I know a guy that presses his own ammo, was here a few months ago saying how the structural metal in these old ferrous junkers is dense enough to make nice bullets. I could have him whip up a custom batch for you when we melt these things down; it would take a while, but he could probably make a handful of anti-vehicle slugs in whatever caliber you want. Call it ¥100 a round, up to a dozen bullets, probably take him two weeks.”
Ling Fei twirls a lock of golden hair idly around one finger. “Okay Cap, I understand. I don’t have much use for demo charges or AT rounds since I’m not running anything heavier than an LMG right now. I’ll take that launcher tube and a mounting bracket if you’ve got one handy though, might need a 3rd party targeting processor to get the tube’s sight linked to my drone’s pilot CPU.”
The rigger wanders out of the office, excited to fiddle with her new toy. “Cap, you think you could help me get it bolted on straight while I’m here? I’d like to put it on one of my Ares Guardians, but I know my GM-N Dobermans have an open forward arc firmpoint if the flyers won’t take it. Crusher, you think you could call your friend to see if he has any spare rockets?”
The mercenary shrugs, somewhat overwhelmed by the gearheads’ babble. He wanders off to call Rawls, inspecting the variety of vehicles with passing curiosity.
Captain Winters cautions her, “Well, let me tell you, these are one-shot only tubes. If you put them on drones you’re going to have to reload them manually to fire them again; they weren’t designed for mounted work but it’s possible if you want to do it anyway. Womack over here—” and he points out his office at a fat dwarf with a lionish red mane, “—he’s always had a flare for the adventurous, and he’s good with guns. Shouldn’t take him more than 8 hours to replace the hardpoint on your drone. He might even walk you through it and teach you a thing or two, if you pay him real nice.”
He scribbles some figures on a ledger and looks up at her, “So that’ll be ¥1330 for the tube, call it ¥1600 even for parts & labor. Deal?”
[Womack can train Vectored Thrust B/R to 4 for 6 karma and a trainer’s fee of ¥400.]
Crusher trails a metal finger over the rounded hulls of a half-dozen streetbikes, a BMW Blitzen, Gaz-Niki White Eagle, and Yamaha Rapier, then the stripped chassis of an Artimis Nightrider light aircraft. The tiny phone in his hand rings, and then the Lieutenant’s voice sounds on the other end. Crusher relays his needs, and Rawls says, “Sure, we got LAW rounds for days, can never have too many of those things. Ain’t cheap for a small civvy outfit like yours though. ¥1500 each, no negotiations on that price either, pard. Use ’em sparingly.”
Ling Fei takes the notepad and looks over the fixer’s deal. She considers her current financial state, realizing with pleasant surprise that she has more money than she has had in years—since university, since the Awakening, since living with her parents back home and the times after.
Besides the fact that she could afford it, Sparrow-1 had practically earned the damn thing itself. They were her little steel knights and castles, reaching out to touch her foes in far away places and protect her friends in combat. The same Guardian had taken down Big Jack, had covered Crusher and Grendel against the Tir bladesman.
She really was becoming a rigger, she thought to herself. Thinking of her drones like pets, giving them personalities. The VCR only sealed the deal. “Alright, I’ll take the drekkin’ thing. Swipe it for two thousand, for labor and a finder’s fee for yourself. I really would like to stay and help, but I just don’t have the time or energy to learn something new right now.”
Ling Fei boots her remote systems and ejects Sparrow-1 from Boxcar’s depths, then wanders off in search of Crusher. She finds him admiring the chassis of an old Japanese crotch rocket, one of the low slung electric models painted in a shiny crimson red. Some kid had covered it bumper stickers.
The ork turns around, still holding his comm to his head. “I got Rawls on the phone, says he’s got as many as you want.”
Ling Fei cranes her head indecisively. “Alright, get three—no, four of them. Never know when those Wuxing motherfuckers will come sniffing around.” Crusher nods and relays the message dutifully.
She switches to manual control in order to guide the Guardian into one of the shop’s harnesses, then steps in to inspect the mini-turret housing alongside Womack. “Yeah, getting the light arms mount off of there shouldn’t be too hard, just a couple bolts along the casing. It’s getting the tube on straight that’s going to suck. And make sure you wire the hard circuit on that safety right—the last thing I want is that thing going off because I thought about it wrong.”
The rigger thanks the tech and heads back to her van, hoping the dwarf doesn’t screw anything up too bad. Crusher climbs in after her, slamming his door.
She throws the van in reverse and pulls out deftly into the busy intersection behind her. “Back to your army buddy’s place, then we can grab my drone and head to the safehouse?”
Crusher folds his arms across his huge chest. “Marine buddy, but yeah, that sounds like a plan. Should probably pick up the shaman somewhere along the way.”
Ling Fei shakes her head in wonder. “Jesus, Moonclaw, I totally forgot about her. I wonder what she’s up to?”
The armored van sets off into the fading afternoon light, making the long drive back south, past Gary and it’s many airstrips. Boxcar’s senors ping as the passing planes come in and out of her radar space. For once that day, their trip turned out to be uneventful.
Crusher and Ling Fei collect the rockets, then the newly-equipped Ares Guardian, and finally refuel the transport’s massive diesel tanks. The ork and the elf then head south, to collect the third member of their group.
The cat shaman is waiting at the gate of an abandoned train yard when they pick her up. She slips into the back seat without a word and watches them expectantly. Ling Fei shrugs, then begins the last leg of their drive.
Crusher turns to look at her. “You look like you’ve been in a fight. Kinda smell like powder too.”
Moonclaw snarls back. “I was in a fight, remember? We all almost died?”
“I mean more recently,” the mercenary responds. “Whatever. What have you been up to?”
“I have been making. . . changes,” the shaman says dismissively.
Crusher grins. “Well, we been making purchases. If this ninja piece of drek shows his face again, we are going to fuck him up. I Can’t wait to see what those other ’runner teams dug up, if any of ’em are still alive, and stupid enough to stick around, that is.”