Your mind will be destroyed
This article (Lights in the Underworld), or a section of this article, deals with mature content or language.
Though nothing one couldn't find on the internet anyways, we felt it necessary to warn you.
May 14, 1969Edit
Amsterdam, FutureTech Headquarters
The intruders moved fast - they knew exactly where they were going. The raid had been perfectly timed. Ten minutes to six - ten minutes before the night guards were due to clock off. Ten minutes before the day guards were due to clock on. FutureTech had very covertly hired Legion Security to guard their most important assets, but not even Legionnaires are immune to fatigue and boredom.
The intruders ran down the white-lit corridors, holding their bizarre weapons at the shoulder, each hunting for targets.
A Legionnaire's brain flash-boiled inside his skull and his head exploded in a gout of steam and vaporized tissue. The Allies used directed microwaves in an anti-air role, considering their use against infantry a war crime. The intruders operated under no such restrictions, and the mere existence of their microwave rifles violated more than a dozen international laws.
By the time the Legionnaire's body hit the ground, the intruders were already past. One swiped the DNA-locked keycard to the vault while the other pushed the door open. They were on the fourth sublevel of the building, having already passed seven maximum-security checkpoints requiring voice, DNA, and retinal identification.
The eight-inch-thick door into the vault opened, and FutureTech's last internal line of defense rumbled to life. The Hector Suppression Armor died moments later as six microwave rifles focused on it and cooked the battlesuit's organic components from the inside out. Steam vomited from the machine's vents as it slumped over, its core organic parts vaporized within the armored husk.
Without missing a beat, the intruders bypassed the final checkpoint. FutureTech employees - the rare handful who even knew about this sublevel - called this lab The Vault with good reason. Its walls were two feet thick and lined on either side with six inches of lead. Radio waves couldn't penetrate it. Listening devices couldn't penetrate it. A spectrum cannon would barely dent it. Until this moment, it had been one of the most secure facilities in the world.
The intruders found their prize in the center of the room, hooked up to a medusa's head of wires. It wasn't very big, despite what it could do. FutureTech and Allied Nations insignia were proudly emblazoned on its upper and lower surfaces. The intruders wasted no time, slicing it free from its mountings with monomolecular edged knives and placing it carefully into a man-portable transportation unit.
Only minutes later, the intruders escaped the building and into a complicated maze of underground tunnels that FutureTech had intended as an escape route for its own personnel, a secret unknown except to its own board of directors. Or so they thought.
The team leader checked her watch as she entered the team's escape vehicle. The entire operation had taken eight minutes.
St. John's, Antigua
Name: Julia Chavez
Age: Seventeen (estimated)
Cause of Death: Exsanguination
Murder Weapon: Blade (type unknown)
Rogue-At-Marque Domingo Hernandez crouched over the body of the slain prostitute, looking carefully at the surrounding environment for clues to the girl's death. This was no ordinary street killing, that much Domingo knew for certain. Normally, knife killings were very messy. Unless one is a true master of knife-fighting, killing someone with a short blade usually leaves a great deal of blood at the site of the murder... or evidence that a clean-up had occurred. The streets of a small Caribbean island's capital are a most unlikely place to find a master of the blade.
Something had crept into Domingo's home city, and he intended to find out what. The girl was completely naked, and the chilling manner of her death robbed whatever beauty she may have had in life. As near as Domingo could tell, Julia Chavez's exsanguination had been total: she had that peculiar and absolute lack of pigment that comes from prolonged and massive bleeding. Except the only wounds on her body were a series of small incisions along the girl's carotid artery and at blood vessels near her groin. Sexual assault?
It was distasteful, but Domingo unclipped a small flashlight from his belt and examined the girl's genitals. No fluids that might signify that she had been raped, and her total exsanguination meant that there was no discoloration to mark bruises. The rogue frowned. He was no forensic specialist, just an affiliate of the Order of the Talon who stumbled into something ugly on a visit home.
The police probably didn't even know about this case, and wouldn't care if they did. Local media attention was focused on a pretty blonde thing from England who had come to Antigua for the beaches and gotten her throat cut. Unpleasant, yes, but the media frenzy, especially from the British and American reporters, spiraled things out of control and the police were all but forced to focus all their efforts on solving that girl's death. Besides, who mourned for a dead hooker?
Domingo believed that God did, and quietly prayed over Julia Chavez's body. He would find out who did this. And then... well, then Julia Chavez would be avenged, one way or another.
Later That DayEdit
FutureTech Headquarters, Amsterdam
"You did WHAT?!" de Jong demanded. "Let me get this straight: you ran off with your tail between your legs, took over FutureTech, and then hired SYNDICATE MERCENARIES?!?!"
"As opposed to the affordable and trustworthy security forces I could hire from the Allied Nations?" Thornley asked while rolling his eyes. "You told me to keep Project Heimdall as close to the vest as I could and to take no chances with its security. I did so. Twenty-four Legionnaires, a Hector Suppression Armor, and a Titan Security Armor are all dead at their posts, slain by what we believe was a directed microwave weapon. More than one, in all likelihood."
"And would you care to explain yourself?" The prime minister of the Netherlands asked coldly. "The only company authorized to research and build weaponized microwave weapons is that Austrian group, and they've already presented their books."
"I don't know who built one or more microwave weapons, and I won't sit here and be accused of helping cause this catastrophe!" Thornley shouted. "Mister Prime Minister, look at the facts. Whoever stole Project Heimdall, he, she, it, or they were able to provide complete voice, retinal, and DNA identification for half a dozen different senior officers of FutureTech. Along the way, they killed two dozen veteran combat infantry and two heavy support units, and left nothing behind but the bodies. They then broke into one of the most heavily secured labs in the Allied Nations and stole a device that less than five people outside the immediate research team knew about. And did it all in less than ten minutes."
de Jong leaned back in the luxuriously appointed chair in Thornley's office and shook his head. "Rupert, I get that somebody with a lot of resources did this. But in two hours I'll have to tell the rest of the committee that Project Heimdall was stolen, and they're going to want answers. Now what do you think I'm going to tell them? The truth - that someone or several someones broke into an Allied lab classified above top secret in a company that hired goddamn Syndicate mercenaries to protect it? And that highly advanced and highly illegal weapons were used in the attack, and we have no goddamn idea who was responsible or where their weapons came from?"
"I wouldn't say we have no idea." Rupert allowed himself a smile as he withdrew a prize Cuban cigar from the box on his desk. "Ever since we became aware of the breach, we've been running down everyone whose identities were used in the breach, and everyone who might have had access to that information. We don't have anything conclusive yet, but..."
Thornley tossed a folder across the desk to de Jong. The folder was stamped with the FutureTech logo and several classification markings.
"Two weeks ago, one of our directors drew our suspicion." Thornley smiled. "He recently bought a rather sprawling estate in Spain. Very beautiful. Very expensive. Too expensive for his salary, as a matter of fact. And his tax records showed no sign of where he might have acquired the funds to buy his new home."
"God damn it, Rupert!" de Jong shouted. "You should have told us immediately!"
"And risk spooking the quarry?" Thornley answered smugly, then lit his cigar. "A little corruption is nothing to be ashamed of, Piet, as long as it doesn't hurt the company. We left Dieter in place. As long as we knew about him and could watch him, while he thought he was still in the clear, we could watch what he did and learn who might be paying him, and why."
"You are an obnoxious, greedy son of a bitch, and I feel unclean sharing a room with you." de Jong glared hard at the CEO of FutureTech. "I still don't see any reason you aren't the one to blame for this disaster."
"Patience, patience." Thornley chuckled. "I'm just now getting to the good part. You see, one benefit of introducing the concept of a free market to backwards places like the Empire of the Rising Sun is that some in the Empire have decided that checks from FutureTech are a much better thing to receive in return for one's hard work than the mere thanks of the Emperor's servants. You see, Piet, we've managed to hire an Imperial psychic. He's a telepath, and is not of course anything like as dangerous as Yuriko, but for the right price he's perfectly happy to do as directed."
"It's also a violation of about ten different international laws on privacy and then an extra four or five laws right here in the Netherlands." The Prime Minister glowered. "Get. On. With it."
"Oh, if you insist. Well, it turns out that my little friend Dieter had been dealing with a crisis of conscience, you might call it, over Project Heimdall. Didn't really want to be part of it all. So he started making some inquiries about who might be interested in something like Heimdall. Interested in getting it, interested in blowing it up, he apparently wasn't too picky. Just wanted to get it out of our hands."
"And do you know who he was dealing with?"
"We're still tracking that down." Thornley smiled. "Don't want to make any premature accusations. Stealing something like Project Heimdall, well, we'll want to follow the full process of the law, of course."
"Of course." de Jong echoed dryly.
"Now that we understand that, it seems Dieter attracted the attention of those American roustabouts. They were quite interested to hear what he had to say, as you might imagine."
"Oh, Christ!" de Jong stood up, his face darkening even further. "The American rebels with Project Heimdall is going to haunt my nightmares for weeks to come! Rupert, you are a God. Damn. Idiot. And I'm going to tell the committee exactly that."
Thornley stood up with his guest, and smiled calmly. "I wouldn't advise that, old chap. You throw me under the bus, I'll pull you in right behind me. You know I can do it, too. Why else did you give Project Heimdall to FutureTech, after all?"
Piet de Jong glared daggers at the FutureTech CEO, but reluctantly nodded.
Saint John's, Antigua
Julia Chavez had died the previous night at V. C. Bird International Airport, Domingo had learned, one of many young women who provided certain entertainments to tourists visiting Antigua. Chavez had been rather successful at it, too, according to her coworkers. She was a mulatto with unusually pale skin and European features, and spoke flawless English tinged with an exotic - to American and European ears - touch of Caribbean Spanish. And now she was dead, no longer providing her pimp with regular income but providing Domingo Hernandez with a mystery.
He had found her body next to a supply shed at the small American medical college in St. John's. Someone had moved her body there. The only one of Chavez's coworkers who had seen anything - or at least was willing to talk to the Talon rogue about it - claimed that Chavez had been working her usual evening at the airport when she disappeared for a few hours. The coworker thought that Chavez had simply found a client for the eve, but later saw a figure garbed in black walk out of the airport with Chavez slung over his or her shoulder and already with that distinct pallor of complete exsanguination.
Domingo frowned as he considered what he knew. Chavez's coworker had not been very helpful in identifying the killer or at least the transporter of the body. Could be anywhere from five and a half to six feet tall. Gender unknown. Black suit, described as a uniform or armor of some kind. Dark hair, long. White skin, Caucasian features. Eye color unknown. No known weapon. Got into a black car - four door, European make. License plate number unknown. At least one accomplice had been with the suspect, identical description save that this one was described as having light hair.
At least he had found what was probably the site of the actual murder. It was a lonely little corner of the airport, overlooking the main passenger terminal, but almost impossible to see unless you had a forged identification card and made a habit of checking roofs. Both of which Domingo possessed. Gravel roof. Imprint of a body, right size for Julia Chavez. And some blood on the gravel, around the imprint. Not much. And at least one other person had indeed been here, from the imprints on the gravel. Away from the primary impring, the gravel was all sorts of messed up. Probably the rest of either frenzied activity or a deliberate effort to disturb and scatter the gravel.
If the latter, interesting that the killer(s) took the precaution there and not in the more telling primary imprint. If the former... where they subdued her? Possibly. Not many people had authorization or reason to be up here. But then again, the ease with which Domingo got up here was proof that those factors didn't mean much...
Wait. Back up. Why had Julia Chavez died in the first place? Robbery was unlikely. Even a relatively successful street prostitute like Julia Chavez didn't earn enough money to warrant robbery. Her pimp would have been a more likely target in that case. Crime of passion for whatever reason also seemed unlikely. Such people usually don't make an effort to conceal the body. Deliberate assassination for whatever reason equally unlikely for opposite reasons. Chavez's killers had made some effort to hide the body, but not much. A serial killer? Made the most sense of any motive Domingo could imagine. Such people tended to target prostitutes, and with reason. Not many people mourn for a whore.
And then there was the complete exsanguination. That had not been accidental. No, wait. Had probably not been accidental. Rule nothing out - or in - at this point.
Domingo frowned. He had an ugly suspicion that he'd stumbled into something very unpleasant. But if there was anyone on Antigua qualified to crack open whatever had killed Julia Chavez, he figured he fit the bill.
May 15, 1969Edit
The Green Monastery, Andorra
The Green Monastery was so named for a heavy layer of soil atop the medieval-era Catholic monastery's roofs, heavy enough that grass grew thickly over it and gave the monastery a half-overgrown appearance. Andorra had declared the Green Monastery a national historic landmark some years back, and a recent series of bomb threats had lead Andorra's government to post a detachment of Reservists to guard the monastery.
That both the bomb threats and the monastery's classification as an important piece of history were the result of the Order of the Talon's Chamber Epistolary was understandably not widely known.
The intruders arrived aboard a tour bus, one of many such double-decker buses that ferry curious tourists throughout Europe on pre-packaged tours of landmarks, scenic vistas, and more. Every tourist aboard was dead, and the team leader checked her watch as the bus raced towards the Green Monastery. The minor delay in securing transportation had been more than made up for with a suitable degree of aggression in driving. Their microwave rifles were ill-suited to precision work like clearing a bus without harming the bus itself, but they had other tools as well. That the interior of the bus resembled an abattoir mattered not at all.
Two Retriever APCs were deployed outside the monastery, the transports for the two squads of Defenders guarding the monastery. The armored vehicles, their drivers, and their gunners were the first to die. The six intruders split into two teams, and three microwave rifles each focused on each APC. Retrievers were justly liked by their crews for being rugged and reliable, but they were a common enough vehicle that finding schematics for the machines wasn't difficult, and no vehicle's fuel tank reacts well to high-intensity microwave bombardment.
Flames engulfed both APCs and the intruders leaped out of the bus. They hit the ground running, and two Defenders running out to investigate the APCs died next in the typically gory fashion of those shot in the head with a microwave burst.
The intruders moved quickly and decisively. Monks, tourists, and Defenders alike died as four of the intruders moved into the monastery and two spread out to cover stragglers outdoors. Only one Defender managed to get off a burst of rifle fire, but the only one of her bullets that hit was stopped cleanly and effectively by the intruder's armor.
Once inside, the monastery quickly started to resemble the bus outside. Without a word, the intruders raced through the monastery and dispatched every living soul they encountered with a burst of microwaves. Then they reached the monastery's library, and without missing a beat pulled five wall sconces in a specific order to open a fiendishly well-hidden trapdoor in the floor of the library.
Below, Sir Bernat of the Knights Templar evaluated his options quickly. There weren't many. He reached for his thermobaric cannon.
The intruders navigated the winding stairwell and labyrinth of subchambers with ease, and reached the monastery's secret archive in less than a minute, only to find a figure in ornate metal armor pointing a bizarre-looking weapon of some sort, connected via cables to a large canister on his back, at the prize the intruders had come for. A burst of microwaves exploded Sir Bernat's head like all of the monastery's inhabitants before him, but not before he pulled the trigger on his canon.
A cloud of noxious smoke billowed forth, enveloping the prize the intruders had come for, and a half-second later, a spark from the thermobaric cannon ignited the cloud.
Sir Bernat's act of defiance did not kill any of the intruders, who had dodged out of the way with contemptuous ease, but the team leader realized as the smoke cleared that the intruders had not been the Templar's target. Nothing remained of the secret he had died to keep but cinders and ash.
The team leader hesitated for less than a second before the intruders purged the rest of the monastery's hidden sublevel and exfiltrated the monastery. None had survived to tell others what had happened at the Green Monastery, but it had all been for naught, courtesy of one insane Templar.
St. John's, Antigua
Name: Isabella Garcia
Age: Nineteen (estimated)
Cause of Death: Exsanguination
Murder Weapon: Blade (type unknown)
Domingo took the Lord's name in vain under his breath. Another prostitute dead, same wound pattern, same total exsanguination. Also dumped in a similar out-of-the-way place and similarly left in the nude. Talking with the girl's coworkers revealed a difference, though. Isabella Garcia had worked the docks, not the airport. Physiological differences, too. Isabella Garcia's skin was black as night, and her hair was done in classic dreadlock style. Barely even spoke English, according to her coworkers. He had found the site of her murder, too. Also eerily similar to Julia Chavez's.
Their deaths were not accidents. Domingo felt safe establishing that now. Frankly, he doubted there was anything accidental at all about either murder now. Both women had been prostitutes, but that seemed to be all they shared, and Domingo didn't buy that this was simply a serial killer stalking prostitutes. He still hadn't identified what kind of bladed weapon made the injuries on either girl. Something else linked these girls... but what? And who had killed them? Domingo needed to figure those things out, soon. It seemed all too likely that the killer(s) would strike again that evening, and two murders was two too many already.
But what was the connection? And why had they died?
Afternoon, May 15Edit
Mission Active. Proceed as planned.
For a moment, the team leader had trouble believing it. She had seen the maniacal Templar destroy the objective.
Mission Active. Proceed as planned.
The bus pulled away from the Green Monastery, heading west.
The Vatican City
Grand Inquisitor Guiseppe Margottini scowled at his etheric communication device. He'd learned of the disaster in Andorra less than twenty minutes after the intruders left, courtesy of a Rogue camping in the mountains nearby. Sir Bernat had done exactly what he was expected to do, in his situation, but that didn't mean Margottini was at all happy. What the Green Monastery had protected for nearly four hundred years, gone in an instant... better destroyed than taken, but he would need to inform the Grand Council of this debacle. They would not be happy.
St. John's, Antigua
Domingo studied what his comrades had been able to dig up about Julia Chavez and Isabella Garcia. Off-duty, the Rogues generally operated by themselves, but could call upon each other for a bit of help now and then. Domingo's friends had done their part in finding what information was available about these two murdered women, but expected him to do the rest. Only if Domingo thought the situation was truly of great importance could he call upon more direct assistance, from his brothers in arms or from the rest of the Order, and at the moment, he didn't have any proof to that end.
What he did have was a set of facts and suppositions. Chavez and Garcia were known to the St. John's police as prostitutes, but as in much of the Allied Caribbean, the local government turned a blind eye towards prostitution. Chavez was not a native Antiguan. She was from Trinidad with a background as a farmer, and had come to Antigua to marry her fiance. Her betrothed was a native Antiguan and a sailor in the Allied Navy as a hydrofoil gunner, but he had died during the war. Alone in Antigua and with few marketable skills, Chavez had been forced to turn to prostitution. Sad, but not atypical - she had at least been fortunate enough to avoid traveling to the Aztlan Sprawl. What was interesting was that she seemed to be at a crossroads at the time of her death - she had caught the interest of a wealthy Portugese businessman, and he had been preparing to buy her off from her pimp. Interesting.
Garcia, however, was a native Antiguan, and her story was no happier. It had all the hallmarks of an unfortunate life in the shadows of Antigua's wealthier tourist sectors - mother regularly beaten by the father, neither held a legal job for any real length of time, father eventually died in a drug deal gone bad and mother and daughter were forced into prostitution. However, Garcia, too, had been on the verge of finding a way out. She had apparently converted to Catholicism at some point, and had sought shelter in a small convent on the island. The sisters there had rescued more than one unfortunate young woman from the streets, and by all appearances Garcia would have been another such success story.
Still... things didn't add up. Pimps or gangs killing girls trying to escape the streets was, unfortunately, nothing new. But these murders had none of the hallmarks of such killings. Such incidents were almost always loud and public, a clear message to the other girls of what happened if one tried to escape. These murders, however, were precise, quiet, and completely anonymous. And still there was the riddle of exsanguination.
Domingo had looked up local religions to see if any placed unusual value on blood like this. Near as he could tell, none did. Relatively high-profile religions such as Rastafarianism, Vodou, Santeria, and other syncretic cults didn't seem to offer any answers, and most of them seemed like they would in fact condemn the killing of a human being for the sake of blood. Sacrificing animals was another story. But, in any event, the murders were probably not cult-related. He had sent requests through various channels for information on similar killings that may have been reported in Antigua and elsewhere in the Caribbean for the last few years, but that information, if there was any, would likely take days to arrive.
At the moment, there simply didn't seem to be anything else Domingo could do. He paced back and forth in his apartment, next to one of the big hotels for tourists in the city. There simply wasn't enough information...
Three figures were leaving the hotel, according to one of the security cameras that Domingo had hacked and copied the feeds from. All three between five and a half and six feet tall. All three wore black bodysuits, which did have the characteristic appearance of an armored suit likely capable of stopping or at least blunting pistol fire. Two had long, dark hair. One had long light-colored hair. Their faces were turned away from the camera. Gender indeterminate from this angle. And they were heading for the back entrance... in the rear parking lot was a black car with four doors. European make.
Domingo Hernandez sent an alert to his colleagues that he was on the hunt, and gathered his longbow, arrows, silenced pistol, and rapier.
The hunt was on.
7:00 PM, May 15Edit
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
This time, the microwave rifles were not necessary. Unlike the Green Monastery and FutureTech Headquarters, a bloodbath at the Sagrada Familia was not desireable. Each intruder had a variety of additional weapons, the most important [and illegal] of which was also the most innocuous. Witching lights, the intruders called them.
No one at Barcelona's spiritual pride and joy would recall the six figures who leapt off a bloodstained tour bus and moved into the cathedral with speed and absolute certainty in their movements. They had not come to worship at the cathedral nor admire its fantastical architecture. The missing six minutes in the lives of everyone else present, marked only by the blink of an eye, would be a mystery for decades to come.
Nor was the objective of the intruders death, destruction, or even theft. Instead, each intruder's tool on this assignment was a camera, and for some, a spectrum range finder. With grace and agility that would put even the most accomplished circus performers to shame, the intruders scaled the interior of the cathedral and began to take a very precise series of measurements of very precise details of architecture.
To someone with the right background and set of data, the results of the intruders were as surprising as they were intriguing. But not many people could appreciate what they discovered, nor a select few architectural details very cunningly concealed indeed from visitors that the intruders also passed along.
Not many people knew that the Sagrada Familia had originally been intended to serve as the new headquarters for the Order of the Talon, ready to finally return home from exile. That that plan had been canceled and the Order was fortifying its positions in the Holy Land and Australia was irrelevant.
The Order had a self-destructive habit of marking its territory with certain sigils and patterns. Patterns that betrayed them, if held by the right person.
St. John's, Antigua
Domingo's car was held together by rust and prayer more than anything else. It was virtually impossible to tell what make it had originally been, and the fact that the car ran at all was a minor miracle. The car's performance was not the point, however. One looked at Domingo's car and remembered an ambulatory pile of scrap, not details like the driver or its license plate. And it was excellent practice for someone who enjoyed tinkering with cars for a hobby like Domingo did.
It was a good evening for a hunt, the rogue decided. Clear, cool (by the standards of May in the Caribbean, at any rate), and relatively quiet. The car he was following was nothing special, he decided. A rather fancy rental, by all appearances. Nothing unusual there. Tinted windows, though. A bit unusual.
Fortunately, the car's driver didn't seem to be concerned with a possible tail. Which was good, because Domingo was as rusty as his car when it came to such chases. It had been a rather long time since he left the Antiguan police to follow his priest's invitation to something greater.
Fifteen minutes later, the black car stopped at a large bus depot and its driver and passengers got out. They were women, Domingo realized. Their bodysuits were quite blatant about having light protective armor integrated into the suits, but the armor couldn't hide the shapely figures underneath. And all three women were very pale-skinned. Caucasian features. Couldn't identify the eye color in the evening light.
Domingo parked a safe distance away and dropped into his familiar, silent gait as he approached the bus depot and made his way onto the roof. Only two of his targets were visible - they had moved to a side of the depot that most people who simply needed to catch a bus somewhere didn't normally visitand were talking to one of the rather inappropriately dressed - or undressed - young women there. After a minute of talking, the two women lead the prostitute around back. Domingo followed them on the rooftop.
The women chose their site well - a very isolated corner of the depot. And it was only then that Domingo realized that the women were armed - what looked like knives sheathed at their boots and shoulders, and both carried pistol-size weapons of unknown manufacture and design at their hips. They cornered the prostitute, and watched with faint smiles as she began to disrobe. Then one of them removed her boot knife. It was a strange blade, unlike any Domingo had seen before - and he was quite familiar with knives and blades, even those used by the Empire and Syndicate.
Domingo took his bow in hand and began to nock an arrow as the women leaned in closer to the prostitute and the knife-armed woman began to trace the knife across the young woman's neck...
The superheated arrow struck the armed woman in the gut. A painful and certain death, Domingo knew from watching a dozen such kills before. Then the woman looked up, straight into Domingo's eyes, and again was the faint smile on her face.
The struck woman simply gripped the arrow and broke it in half with a snap. She threw the back half away, and pulled the front out. It had lodged deep in her abdomen, but there was no blood from the wound, and very little on the ambiaric arrow itself...
Domingo's mind raced, and finally noted other discrepancies. The women had static smiles on their faces... and almost identical faces. Their eyes were different, he realized... the slight disconnect around those eyes... masks. The women were wearing masks...
"I do so love that look in a man's eyes as he realizes the truth."
The female voice, a rich purr more than human speech, came from directly behind Domingo.
A black rod, perhaps eight inches long, was in the third woman's hand, and one end of it was beginning to glow.
Domingo realized that this woman also wore the same mask, of a pale woman in a faint smile, before the light in her hand grew bright.
The light invaded his mind, and Domingo knew no more.
11:00 PM, May 15Edit
Somewhere Over France
A partial success, the team leader decided. Perfectly planned, perfectly executed. All but for one insane Templar.
Others might call the Templar noble, even a hero. To the team leader, the Templar was simply inefficient.
The team leader hated inefficiency.
All that remained was for Team Two to report in.
Unknown Location, Antigua
Domingo woke up with a splitting headache. Everything had simply gone dark after the intruder's light had gone off. Strange. Domingo had never heard of such a weapon before. It wasn't a flashbang-type weapon.
He attempted to get up, but his inability to do so informed his still-racing brain that he had been tied down somewhere in a spread-eagle position. Grass beneath him, but the only other thing he could see was the sky above. Still night-time, and well away from civilization by the lack of ambient light. Then, movement.
"How did you like the bait, little hawk?" A low female voice asked.
Domingo hadn't seen them until they moved. The three women who had captured him were circling around him like vultures above fresh carrion. Their masks were porcelain, he realized, or something like it. More disturbing, however, were the faintly glowing red eyes behind each mask.
"No answer? We caught a churlish one, it seems."
It was impossible to distinguish between the dark-haired women speaking.
"Setting bait for a hawk is more an art than a science, sisters." The light one answered. "A pretty thing first, to draw the hounds away. Then the bait has to be obvious, but not too obvious. Obscure, but not overly so. Then add a touch of spice. A mystery, an enigma, something to stir the noble spirit and ensnare the mind. Make the hawk think like a predator, not like prey."
Domingo spat a glob of saliva at the light one's boots. "And now you're going to kill me. Get on with it already."
A throaty chuckle from all three.
"It's not yet his time, is it?" One of the dark ones asked.
"No, I think not."
"We are already well fed, sisters." The light one agreed, then leaned down over Domingo.
The intoxicating smell of her perfume and closeness of her body inflamed Domingo's senses. He fought back against his body's natural reaction.
"Ah, he struggles. Why deny yourself, little hawk? Your time as a predator is long gone. Let yourself be prey. It will be... easier."
Domingo simply glared at the woman. He would neither submit nor subject himself to her mockery again.
"Nobility. Such an intoxicating nectar. You don't want to, but you fear us, don't you? And... desire us."
The woman's touch was a silken caress across Domingo's cheek. Then it reached lower, and even as Domingo's mind raged against it, his body signalled that the woman was correct.
"He hasn't known the touch of a woman in a long time, sisters. Denial of the self is what the hawks teach, subservience to a higher cause. And do you see what their master rewards them with, in the twilight hour? Nothing."
Domingo raged as the woman teased and caressed him. He would not let himself be - be aroused - by this succubus!
"Look closely, little hawk. This is the weapon you were looking for."
The rogue watched in horror as the woman's fingernails twisted and morphed into long knives, which quickly and efficiently cut away Domingo's clothing and left him bare beneath the woman. Then the knives retracted into normal, if silver, fingernails, and she touched her captive more directly.
"He still fights. Amazing." One of the dark-haired ones observed with a chuckle.
"The hawks are stubborn beyond all reason, sisters." The light-haired one, whom Domingo now realized was probably their leader, answered between strokes of the rogue's lower regions. "Take this one, for example. He is helpless beneath me. He knows he cannot stop me from taking what I want. Even his body wants me to take him. And still his mind and spirit, laughable as they are, resist. But all things can break, with the proper leverage."
The woman unzipped her bodysuit with excruciating slowness, and revealed that she wore nothing beneath it. Her skin was pale as ivory, and... no! Domingo cursed himself as his eyes followed her zipper downward, to the woman's perfectly shaped breasts, full and firm as the woman freed them from the bodysuit. Then still lower...
Domingo's will to resist was only a faint whisper as the woman finally stepped out of her bodysuit and teased Domingo's masculinity.
"Yes... that is it, little hawk. You are now... mine."
Then the woman removed her mask, and the rogue began to scream.
Domingo Hernandez screamed for hours.
Of all the mercenaries, assassins, scum, and other killers employed by the Mediterranean Syndicate, Minerva hated working with the Lampades the most. Probably because their idea of working with you was telling you what they were going to do and expecting you to stay out of their way. They refused to take orders even from Minerva.
As a matter of fact, the only people they did take orders from, to Minerva's knowledge, was the Board of Classics.
Which was why Minerva was distinctly uncomfortable, waiting with nine of them in the antechamber before meeting with the Board. Three of them had been with her in the Caribbean. Six had been deployed to Europe. Minerva had never seen more than nine Lampades at a time, and for that matter didn't know if there were more than nine. They were almost - but not quite - identical. All of them were women, tall and shapely. Black and teal armored bodysuits. Porcelain masks displaying a pale, smiling woman. Red eyes. Microwave rifles. Witching lights. Fingerblade implants. Implanted neural enhancements.
The only way to distinguish Lampades was by their hair color. The shade seemed to denote seniority - the leader of the Lampades, or at least the one Minerva had always seen act in charge, had hair white as fresh snow, while her adjutant had pale blonde locks.
Still... Minerva had to admit that they were an effective force. The three who were with her in the Caribbean were testament to that. Being told to attract and then distract the Order of the Talon without provoking a full military response would have been a tall order for Minerva, but the Lampades accomplished it with their usual ruthless efficiency... and their usual, disturbing sadism that smacked of ritual. How they had turned one of the Order's sanctimonious zealots into a gibbering wreck, Minerva hadn't asked. But they had done their job, and Minerva had done hers.
The doors to the Board of Classics opened.
Tall. Pale. Aristocratic. Could have been carved from marble by an artist of phenomenal skill. Pale wraiths. All of those were ways to describe the Board of Classics. Only one of them rose to meet Minerva and the Lampades, a male figure Minerva knew only as the Director.
The leader of the Lampades handed over first what appeared to be nothing but a black gym bag, then a micro-soft.
"You failed in Andorra." The Director's voice was a soft, cool whisper.
"A Templar destroyed the artifact." The Lampade answered. "He was armed. They suspected we would come."
"Project Heimdall and the Barcelona data are secure."
Strange. Minerva had never heard a Lampade sound... nervous.
"You are dismissed. Return to Yoshiwara and await further instructions."
Without a word, the Lampades turned around and left. Minerva allowed herself a moment to think. The Lampades were based in the Yoshiwara Sprawl? That would, if nothing else, suit their... temperments.
The Syndicate commando handed the micro-soft she had been carrying to the Director. His hand was icy cold.
"As requested. The location of the Order's undersea facility in the Caribbean, their stronghold in Martinique, and the tunnel linking them."
"Romulus will be pleased." The Director answered quietly. "You are dismissed."
In Greek mythology, the Lampades were nymphs of the Underworld and companions of Hecate, the titan goddess of witchcraft and crossroads. Zeus gave the Lampades to Hecate as a reward for her loyalty in the Titanomachy - the struggle between gods and titans - and they accompanied Hecate on her nighttime wanderings. They bore torches that could drive anyone who beheld them mad.
Conceptually here, the Lampades are the Board of Classics' mysterious and deadly enforcers. Superbly trained executioners loyal directly and only to the Board, they are sadistic killers with access to the Syndicate's most advanced weapons. Your typical Sprawl dweller knows the Lampades only as rumor, shadowy killers who work for the top of the top, more myth than fact.
As for their vampiric motifs, well... who can say, really, what is sadistic ritual and what is all too real? It's a big world out there in Paradox...