A Cloud Over Lichtenberg
rating: +14+x

RECEIPT OF INTERNAL EXCHANGE

ON BEHALF OF THE BENEFICIARY, Acolyte Dunst

  • €400 has been provided to cover the costs of summoning and binding a Gehennian entity
  • €30.000 has been provided to develop an appropriate chassis with which to anchor a Gehennian entity to the material world
  • 100 liters of BLACK FLY has been procured as proof of capability
  • A seminar has been conducted in order to acquaint select initiates with BLACK FLY

TO THE BENEFICIARY, Acolyte Dunst

  • Fifteen initiates have been allocated
  • Three specialists have been allocated
  • Two instances of UNTERDAEMON-▲B5621 have been allocated
  • UBERDAEMON-▲A1878 has been allocated

BENEFACTOR'S COMMENTARY

[null]

BENEFICIARY'S COMMENTARY

A pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Rass.

- Acolyte Dunst
RH/4R


Theresa Petrucci woke up at 6:30 sharp. Following her morning exercises, Theresa brewed herself a nice cup of black tea and checked each of her three phones.

Her first phone, an iPhone 5S, told her several things: the time, business meetings, texts from whoever was lucky enough to have gotten her personal phone number. Reminders to practice her German and opportunities to apply her language skills in a practical environment. Theresa smiled to herself; it looked like Ozone Laboratories wouldn't see much action today.

Her second phone, a prepaid flip phone, didn't say much: as of yesterday, two of her dealers had secured deals with their regulars. A third hooked a whale. Not much else, but it wouldn't be too hard to catch up to last week's expenditure.

Her third phone, a jailbroken Prometheus Torch 8S, didn't say anything. Not yet. Theresa didn't expect it to, not for a few hours.

Theresa turned her phones off.


The Stagehand's laptop crackled with the voice and face of the Botanist. 'Can you hear me now?'

To the left of the Stagehand sat the Mason, who presently nursed the bruises of months past. "Yes, good. Thank you very much, Stella."

"I don't see the point of this." Across from the Stagehand stood the Critic of Outer Lichtenberg, who had been the Organizer but a week before. "If the Botanist can't bother to come out of her room, what business does she have at the war table? Counter-terrorism is not a study session, you can't just skip out on it."

'Sorry, Stefan. We can't all be "right in the head", can we?'

"Both of you shut the fuck up." Readjusting his ice pack, the Mason leaned back into the ratty sofa. "Stefan, don't talk shit about Lindholm when she's feeding half the city, and Stella, do not get into that fucking argument with the new guy. If the two of you are not nazis, and I have good reason to believe you aren't, your energy's better spent on the fucking nazis. Clear?"

Silence.

"Good, perfect." With a clap, "I, the Mason, call this meeting of the People Who Are Not The Bosses Of Outer Lichtenberg to order. This is normally where I talk about what the hell went down three days ago to call such a meeting, but given that I know jack shit about the situation, I would appreciate being filled-in. I am to assume Stagehand does?"

The Stagehand cleared her throat. "Well..."

***

"… all in all, bad night."

"Fuck me, doesn't sound like a good night. Five deaths on our people?"

The Stagehand's next words were interrupted by a seething "Five casualties, two fatalities," punctuated with the creaking of ancient wood against the Critic's white-knuckle grip. "Monika Edelmann, and I shouldn't have to tell you who the other was."

"Please say it for the record."

It was a miracle the Mason's head hadn't burst into flames, the way the Critic stared back at him. "Take a wild guess, Fats."

"Fine, fine. Stagehand, did we at least get the bastard responsible?"

"That depends on the meaning of 'get', Mason. By the time we knew it was him, the specter had already had its way with his intestines."

'Her way. Treat vengeful ghosts with respect, especially while they're rooming with me.'

"Apologies, Botanist. Should I amend the second part of that statement as well?"

'If what she's saying is true, Tamiko has every reason to be proud of her work. Man was a piece of shit beyond being a nazi. From what I hear, the incubi halves weren't fond of him either. He…' A pause. The indistinct pixel mosaic contorted into an expression that the Stagehand could only figure was different from her past expression.

"Don't worry about it, Botanist. We don't need the details of that man's crimes, not when-"

'No, sorry. I was just… thinking.'

The Mason leaned forward, only to wince in apparent pain. "About what?"

A pause.

'… they called him an "initiate". If they escalate, what should we expect?'


"Good morning, Dr. Kaufman. What should I expect today?"

Dr. Friedrich Kaufman was the kind of man who, in her sorely misspent youth, Theresa might have appreciated. He was honest in every aspect of his life, from his earnest demeanor, to his deep-set egalitarian convictions, to his peculiar fashion sense that culminated in a ponytail he should've cut about 25 years ago. All this, without an inkling of arrogance or imposition. So gentle. So passive. It made her sick.

"Ah, Theresa." Dr. Kaufman smiled. He looked like a monkey. "You're a bit earlier than usual. I'm sorry to say that there's not much more work to be done at the moment. It might actually be a slow day for once."

Perfect. "Damn, best part of the day ruined."

"Well, don't get too comfortable. Once Dr. Müller finishes his forensics, he'll most likely have you working on that disinfectant of his."

Theresa feigned a smile. "Guess I'll get ready."

Feeling for the Torch 8S in her purse (and good, she hadn't forgotten it), Theresa headed for the lockers.

***

There was an odd sense of bemusement whenever Theresa looked at her locker nameplate. On one hand, it was proof that she'd made it, from a soapboxing loudmouth in Nowhere, Ontario, to a magic soapboxing loudmouth in Toronto, to a vigilante anartist in the BackDoor, and finally to an actual, respectable job as a lab assistant (and drug queenpin + vigilante, she supposed). On the other hand, such a thing would never be allowed to exist in the world she fought for; Theresa would no longer need to sacrifice her womanhood for the sake of a just, orderly world. Would it disappear, vanish between the nameplates of her degenerate neighbors? Or would it be kept, as a testament to the Fourth Reich's sacrifices?

In the far future, she'd have all the time in the world to worry of such things. For now, she had a labcoat, a Torch 8S, earbuds, and thirty minutes before her shift was supposed to start.

Theresa looked around the room. Nobody was staring at her.

The first app she opened, NtWrk, gave the position of 18 points on a map of Outer Lichtenberg. Theresa mentally mapped abstract square to what she remembered from her scouts, and dragged each point to a suggested destination.

Next, Hephae. Presently, the drone it monitored was in perfect working order, aside from a poorly-attached chestpiece.

Then, SummonLink. "MOSQUITO SNITCH" was informed of the drone's defect. Minutes later, Hephae reported the all-clear. Good.

One last look at NtWrk. Slowly, surely, every dot moved into position.

No fancy app for the last step. A group text message would suffice.

Theresa plugged her earbuds in, and put on some Tartini.


"-and turn that shit off, the incubus thing likes it more than I do."

The Postmaster, Judas al-Zaman, rolled his eyes, switching off the dulcet tones of Yellowface. "If you say so, boss."

Fats grimaced, either from the open air of the rooftop garden or the (entirely deliberate) appellation of "boss". "Thank you. So, the shit say much of anything yet?"

The shits in question were presently tangled in a rope mesh hung from a crane, one wrong answer from a seven storey drop. While visibly uncomfortable, they weren't nearly as jumpy as when they'd been when first strung up three days ago. Judas liked to attribute that to his famously personable demeanor, but maybe it was that he hadn't actually done much interrogating until yesterday.

Initially, Judas had been certain it was an artpiece: the two of them looked too much like a pair of abnormally small lilits forced to split its most distinct features between them. Only one of them, the black stick-figure… thing with two uncomfortably large mouths, actually talked; the other, stout and blue like actual lilits, had been sewn shut everywhere but the eyes. Neither could make itself look human, not alone or together. They weren't even that good at seduction; closest they got was a pity date with a hinn, to hear it from Andrea.

Judas stepped forward, prompting the black one to tense up. "Do pleas for mercy count? There's been a lot of those."

The black one barred its teeth with one mouth and gulped with the other. "Yeah, yeah, I'm, I'm very good at talking, boss. You know me, the, uh, the Snitch, they tell you everything, you know?"

"Fuck me, it sounds like that?" Fats, eternally incapable of standing like a normal person, rested one foot on the railing as he knelt to examine them. "You think the nazis wouldn't rely on such ugly fucks. Aren't they apeshit for aesthetic?"

"Oh, you know, you know. I was prettier in my youth. You know, the 4th Reich isn't a very good workplace environment, what with the, and note that I'm trying and please don't kill me, what with the things that they'll immediately know that I'm talking about, you know?"

Fats shot a glance back to Judas. "Time for the bad partisan, or does good partisan want to pick up where he left off?"

Judas sighed. "That's the thing, Fats. I've been good partisan, bad partisan, worse partisan, jinn magic partisan, parmesan partisan, everything under the moon. Food, money, sex, the chance to live, I'm reaching my limit on what I can offer this thing. The most I've gotten out of it is that it's a snitch detector, and it's not alone in that regard."

The blue one's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. "Oh! Fats! Yes, hello! I would just like to apologize for what the, that big guy did to you, and that if I had it my way you'd have been perfectly fine. Also, that was a great party, you know? I wish it could have ended without the death, but you know how the… how the wood things are. I don't support their life choices."

Fats rolled his eyes. "You think it'd know its place."

"It does, Fats. But whatever we do to it, it's not as frightening as whatever the nazis have threatened to do to it."

"And do we know what the nazis will do it?"

"They won't say." Judas gave an experimental tug of the rope. "But I have a few ideas. First, if half of what the ghost said is true, the nazis didn't exactly treat them well on the best of days. Lots of… let's say invasive surgery. It's possible that these things were fleshcrafted for purpose, and knowing nazis, they also use it for torture. Secondly-"

The blue thing's eyes went wide as something clattered to the ground behind Judas and Fats; the Snitch had but a moment to scream:

"COVER YOUR MOUTH AND-"

The world went black.


Closing the printer, Theresa activated her bluetooth microphone and pulled her mask to the side. "Hey, Austin."

Initiate Glaus crackled over the comm. "Area secured, Acolyte Dunst."

"Good to hear. Sorry, I'm at work. How's Ontario?"

"Two of them, Acolyte. Looks like they were tormenting Fels' Snitch. One of them… what did you say Fats looked like again?"

Theresa feigned a smile, heading back to her desk. "Right, you were supposed to meet her around now. Yeah, alright. Short, around 4'11'', brunette with short hair. Awful sense of fashion, dresses like a man."

"Looks like her."

"Oh, great. Could you drop her off with Uncle Rick? Sorry, I've got to get back to work. See you!"

Glaus abruptly cut his mic, and Theresa's fake smile gave way to an entirely genuine frown. How hard was it supposed to be to end a call properly? She'd need to have a talk with his specialist, this was becoming an issue.


Had his mouth not been filled with sand, Judas might've screamed. He could worry about that later, along with whoever he'd just blasted off the roof.

Judas's skin, his eyes, his everything, all of it burnt, corroded by the blackish-grey mist that had inexplicably fallen over the rooftop. Instinct kicked his legs into gear; the rational part of Judas, the one that screamed for him to stop before he ran over the edge, didn't reach him until luck put him back into the stairwell, and even that was interrupted by the sudden shout of a stranger.

Judas stumbled blindly through the apartments, directed only by touch and the arrhythmic beat of too many footsteps. That he hadn't already impaled himself on an errant bit of furniture was the grace of Allah; given his history with Him, Judas wasn't sure how long said grace would last.

His breath relented; Judas coughed up the sand, and bile with it.

The first shot missed, hitting something that resolved in a shatter. Judas opened his eyes to a light blur, barely in time to duck away from the tear-obscured figure's line of sight and into another room (?).

Not a room. A closet.

The second shot didn't miss, and the floor gave way to an indistinct blackness.

***

"Hey. Wake up."

Well, that was one existential question Judas hadn't needed to worry that much about. Opening his eyes-

Judas, as well as his train of thought, was interrupted by three key factors:

  1. His entire body, currently spread across a splinter-ridden futon, hurt to high hell, but especially hurt was his right calf. In fact, Judas would venture to think that "hurt" didn't quite describe the desperate shrieking coming from those particular nerve cells.
  2. His eyes, less pained than before, still hurt, and he wasn't sure if that was because or in spite of the odd, sticky feeling around them.
  3. Before him, standing on his chest like a sleep paralysis demon, was the black Snitch thing.

Judas screamed, except he coughed instead of screaming. His lungs (or more accurately, their respective nerve cells), those screamed instead.

Something covered his mouth from behind as the Snitch interrupted. "Quiet. It's not safe, not yet."

No, it certainly wasn't. For one thing, Judas was lying in a broken-up room, right under a hole in the ceiling (which explained the sinking feeling from his last coherent memory). For another, he was alone, save the two demon's he'd been alternatively bribing and tormenting for the past forty-eight hours. Oh, and he couldn't have forgotten the third, that he'd been hit with a chemical fucking weapon by some, some terrorists who were after his very good friend and arguable linchpin to a nazi street war. So no, it wasn't safe!

'What the fuck is happening', he desperately wished he could say, but the blue thing had him in a tight hold.

The Snitch cleared its throat. "Okay, okay, first, first of all. My partner, the Witness, is going to release his hands from your mouth. Before he does that, and this is really important, I need you to acknowledge that sound is a medium by which bad people can hear things far away, and I guarantee that while they will not kill you, they will hit you with that BLACK FLY gas, and you will wish you were dead. Nod yes for 'I understand', twice for 'Please explain more', or three for 'I will scream', in which case I will be forced to leave you like that because I don't want 4R to find me either. Okay? Okay. Please nod."

… Judas nodded.

… twice.

"Okay, okay. So, you, my friend, you have pissed off, uh, a really, really scary woman. They… screw it, I'm dead to them. Theresa Arianna Petrucci, very good chemist. Very bad person. Goes by 'Acolyte Dunst'. Got that?"

A pause. "Once for yes, twice for no, this question only. Sorry." One nod. "Right, good."

"So, Petrucci. She… okay, so there's this chemical she makes. Far as I can tell 4R's made it for a while, but most of them are chumps. Used it as disinfectant, maybe a chemical weapon. Her? She perfected it. Refined the formula. The things she uses it for…"

The Snitch trailed off, sharing an unsteady glance with the Witness behind Judas.

"I don't want to talk about it. Long story, but… I don't know how you managed, but you're stupid lucky. If they find out we're here, or god forbid an uberdaemon finds you? I guarantee your friends will be mailed a video tape of your body, with or without whatever parts of your personality Petrucci mutilated for fun. Understand?"

One nod.

"Good." The Witness released their grip on Judas. "So with-"

"Where the fuck is Fats?" Judas tried putting the necessary pressure on his legs to get up, only for his wound to shut that down. He wasn't sure how to feel about being kept steady by the lilit halves, but he'd take what he could get.

"Easy, easy. Right, Fats. Your friend is, uh," the Snitch trailed off, pausing for something unseen and unheard. "Okay, Fats is safe. I don't think now is the time to tell you where, because you need to let BLACK FLY wear off before interacting with him."

"And what does this BLACK FLY do, e-"

clink


Outer Lichtenberg wasn't one to stay consistent, even in the best of times, but while Judas would have loved to say that was just the pipes rearranging themselves, some errant clinking had just elicited a sudden, almost practiced shock from the Snitch.

clinkclink

"… you need to hide."

"What do you-" Judas winced as the Witness bent his legs as if helping him stand back up, prompting his nerves to complete the move and subsequently scream as hard as they could. "Fuck, fuck, you can't just, just tell me to hide if you-"

And like an air-powered robot (minus the air and plus the Witness), Judas was walking on screaming legs across the room and towards a blinds-obscured closet. It was almost enough to make him forget that his arms and head also existed, though the difference between leaning against the door and a (thankfully theoretical) concussion left the ever-increasing scraping sounds that much clearer.

Judas was shoved into the closet, and the door closed.

clink clinkclink clink skrpp clink


Normally, Judas would have made a joke about not having been in a closet for so and so years; whatever part of his brain that controlled the silly thoughts was preoccupied with the sheer uncomfort of the closet. For one thing, it stank of… of something, acrid and bitter and sharp. From what? Judas was beset by all sides by trash and… and something warm. Too warm.

clink click skrpp skrpp creeeeeeeek skrpp

Over him. Something was over him. Not directly, no, something above. Something… something like metal dragged over wood. No, not "like"; that had to be literal. Metal on wood was common enough in Outer Lichtenberg to be seared into its inhabitants minds, but…

thud

clink clink

Silence.

Judas closed his eyes, and offered a prayer to-

"Ohhh, hello! That's a really nice tattoo, you know that?"

The Snitch was answered by two more clinks, and a low rumble, to which it responded "Oh, yes, yes, forgive my manners. I am… I am a captive to these people, you know? I, uh, got lost with Initiate Andino and, you know, Fels, sorry, Acolyte Fels, wanted me to stay."

A low rumble.

"Okay, he probably did, didn't rescue me and oh, where are my manners, Witness, meet… what's your name?"

A wet smack as

something thudded against the closet door. Judas bit his lip to keep from yelping.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck, sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

A low roar.

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry, I'll be better! I just… you know, they're stronger than you think. They-" The Snitch coughed. "-you know, they were prepared. You know Alonso? He snitched. He snitched out, and they knew. R-rats, am I right?"

Another low rumbling.

"F-Fats? Fats Burg?"

As if on cue, something stirred from behind him. Limbs lazy, almost mindless, like a dismembered octopus tentacle, laying themselves on Judas.

"Ohhh, him! Well, you know, there was this, this initiate who had him, but that t-tricky rat just… wormed his way out! Ran towards the center of town, like a coward. Looked almost immune to BLACK FLY; he's that much of a degenerate, you know?"

Several more thuds, followed by a sharp cry of pain from the Snitch.

Its next words, muddied by choked sobs, might have been "I'm sorry, she, she's a she! Please stop, I'm pathetic but I can be good, my heart's trying to be as pure as it can!", though the

fingernails suddenly digging into Judas pulled his thoughts back into the closet.

The hands, sluggish (and small?) though they were, gripped Judas with a mindless strength, as if whatever horror wrapping itself in Judas were resisting the stormy summons of an angry jinn. Had Judas the liberty to move, escape would have inevitably tore strips of his skin from under the thing's fingernails. To even turn to look (and not that he could see in the first place) was impossible.

The back of his neck was warm. Breath. It was alive.

But the panicked screaming of the Snitch, the constant pleas and begging, the sudden escalation of desperation and the wet sound of something tearing apart, all of that had a way of invading the background of Judas's thoughts.

For the first time since he left Balochistan, Judas closed his eyes and prayed to Allah.








The door to the closet opened, and out stumbled Judas.

If the room had been a mess before, Judas lacked the German word to describe its present state. Most of the furniture had been smashed, or otherwise dented by some impact. Meanwhile, much of the floor (and even the lower half of the walls) was stained in some kind of black liquid, runny like ink where it hadn't coalesced into semisolid globules. In the center of the room laid the Witness, clutching its chest in an ever-growing pool of ichor; past it, a hole in the wall the size of a brown bear.

Judas stood to his feet, summoning a crutch of hardened sand from his reserves when the weight of the thing on his back dragged him down.

"Hey," the Snitch limped into view from the other side of the door. "Get out of the way. Or get me some fabric, my-" a wet cough cut it off.

"What happened?" Judas hobbled aside, like the floor was a loose fabric suspended over a pit and he'd been stuck in the center. "What the hell was that?"

If the Snitch had an answer, it was too preoccupied rooting through old clothes to give one to Judas. It certainly didn't stop to look at him as it collected a pile of old coats and scarves to bring to the Witness. Judas supposed it need the attention.

In the fourty-eight hours Judas had been acquainted with the two, they'd never been as serious as they looked right now. The Snitch examined the clothes, stopping occasionally to tear out chunks of fabric into one of two piles. Then, with an unexpected finesse, the Snitch tied taut the fabric around the Witness's midsection.

The Snitch looked back up to Judas. "Promise you won't scream?"

One nod.

"Good. Please remove Fats from your back and put him back in the closet."

***

At the direction of the Snitch, Judas only got a brief look at Fats, and that alone was too long.

Judas wasn't new to gas; his uncle had taken him to a number of protests in his childhood, and even his adulthood had seen Germany stoop to Pakistan's lows. This wasn't gas. Gas didn't leave little sucking wounds on the surface of your skin, or turn your face into an indistinct blur, or make you a zombie.

But Fats was eventually stuffed back into the closet, and Judas could finally rest for a bit.

Judas slid down the blinds to a seated position, careful not to put pressure on his bad leg. "Snitch? What is that?"

"BLACK FLY." The Snitch looked up from their Witness, who was presently grumbling through the pain of a gouged chest eye. "The 4th Reich has, uh, many uses for it. Lots of cleaning. Lots of… psychecrafting? Lots of that, yes."

"I don't know what that word means, Snitch."

"'s fine, 's fine, one of those… the words the Germans do when they take two words, and then combine them in a, well, unholy matrimony." Wincing, the Snitch felt their way across the room in an aimless search of… something. "So, the idea is that your soul is a lot like a… like a more malleable body. You can add limbs, which is hard, subtract them, which is easy, do all sorts of things. If you're good at it, if you're that good, you can even…"

And the Snitch paused to look back at the Witness, before turning back to face Judas.

"… split something in two."

Judas opened his mouth, but none of his words were there to back him up. Silence, instead, as Outer Lichtenberg hummed through the hole in the wall.

The Snitch coughed. "… I'm sorry, man. Nobody, nobody deserves this."

"How many?"

"Hm?" The Snitch tilted their head. "'How many'?"

"Yes, how many. How many people did the nazis send?"

"Ehhh, well," apparently the Snitch had physiologically-distinct shoulders, or had learned to imitate the act of rolling them. "I don't know, but I can guess? Normally, the 4th Reich, they're the kind, you know, not to waste people. Now, they sent… five or six after you, one of them a specialist, unless Petrucci loosened standards. Fats is… can be seen as slippery, so, that makes sense.

"But," continued the Snitch, punctuating their words with unfocused gesticulations. "They also sent… they call them 'reichdaemons'. Things they make, or bind, or summon, make-bind. Normally, they're troubleshooters, but that one wasn't originally there. So if this is the work of Petrucci…"

A sigh. "You think there's more?"

"… I don't think they're here for Fats. Nobody breeds reichdaemons that nasty for anything less than scorched earth. For that… at least ten more."

"Ah, fuck." Judas pinched the bridge of his nose, wincing his way to standing. "One more question?"

"Hrm?"

If everything the Snitch said was true, his friends and found family were presently being tortured by nazi demons. The dumbest sort of Western pulp-fiction had come to life before his eyes, and he had to keep everyone alive with a bad leg and a fractured narrative to go off. The what and why could and needed to wait. But…

"… why did you help me?"

The Snitch opened their mouth, then paused. "What? What do you mean?"

"You could've turned me in. Fats too. Probably saved you and your partner the trouble. And… we haven't been nice to you, at all." Punctuated with a sigh. "So, why stick your necks out for us?"

Another pause, before the Witness responded: "I, uh, I don't know. But…" And the Witness trails off once more, before smiling for the first time in hours. "But I don't regret it."


"Ms. Petrucci."

Theresa frowned, then feigned a smile before turning to face her boss. If Dr. Kaufman was a monkey, Dr. Müller was a crow: pestering, squawking, miserly, and too smart for his own good. That was before Theresa had begun reappropriating lab equipment; the years that followed saw a permanent, goblin-like sneer etched onto his disgusting subhuman face.

"Hello, Dr. Müller. Any progress on the case?" None whatsoever, of course. Theresa made sure of that.

"Eh, not quite. Whole lab is going rather slow today, yeah?"

"Tell me about." But in all seriousness, please don't.

"Well," and Dr. Müller scratched at his beard. "We're actually going to close out early, if that's alright. Don't worry, your wages won't be docked, but there simply isn't enough work to keep an open shop right now."

"Oh." Theresa's smile got just a bit more genuine. "Oh, that's perfectly fine."


Oh this was great.

Standing was hard, but walking was far worse. Walking down stairs, measuring his steps so as not to attract nazi torture squads? Even better, sang his nerves in a painful duet of left foot, right foot. All the more appropriate that Judas was still a man without a plan.

Priority number one was ensuring the safety of everyone in this building; given his impromptu blackout, that particular poodle might already have been porked. Priority two would be getting in contact with one of the more combat-capable OL residents, of which there were painfully few and no guarantee he'd even stumble upon one. Priority three? That left running to the Mason (who was presently sleeping off a chemical attack), the Critic (who was murdered by a tree monster), the Stagehand (who he hadn't memorized the 'address' or phone number of), or the Botanist, so they can put out the Alert.

On the fifth floor, Judas dove into an alcove and felt for the phone in his pocket, pulling up Lindholm's number before pausing and switching to the text app.

"Nazis invading OL, message wgen get this"

The cell towers were still up, if the delivery was any indication, but Lindholm gave no indication that she was up in-turn. By the fucking Prophet, that woman was just the kind of inappropriate enigma he needed.

It was ten or so minutes staring at the screen before Judas sighed, putting his phone away and lightly slapping at his face. Lindholm would see it when she saw it, to be sure, but the nazis had already begun their operation. If anything was to be done, it was to be done now. And yet…

Judas's brainstorming was interrupted by the conspicuous sound of footsteps, and the necessary wheeze that accompanied his injuries seized itself.

Boots, they'd been wearing, and it was almost definitely a they, unless Judas was to believe a quadruped walked on rubber soles. Tentative: they were searching for something, or someone. If Judas listened intently enough, he could discern the soft clicks of a dangling metal against something hard. And though they were far enough that Judas had to focus, they were definitely on the same floor he was.

One of them was male. Spoke English, in a deep, unfocused drawl that betrayed apathy.

His friend, also male, also English, sounding less of a drawl and more of a stroll through a minefield. Inquisitory, probably annoyed. Judas wondered exactly how much noise that… that thing had made.

Drawler took a few steps before speaking. He wasn't as agitated as Minefield, from the sound of it; whoever he was, none of this phased him.

In turn, Minefield took a few more steps, briefly shouting a much more natural "There's five of us down there, Rickert!" There was a pause, and Minefield said something in English, a little less angrily than his previous exclamation.

Judas had heard enough. He was going to die.

Judas searched his memories for prayers, scattered non-remembrances of a life left behind eight years ago. Daily prayers, inapplicable to the here and now, came up in fragments; the final prayer, to be said in mere moments, in absence. No salvation for Judas, the black sheep, the boy who turned his back on Allah and consorted with the Jinn. Not in Pakistan, and not in Germany.

He whimpered.

The two of them stopped.

Drawler said something in English, preceded by several footsteps in Judas's direction.

Closer.

Louder, less hesitant.

Nearer, nearer, nearer and nearer and nearer and-

Judas saw black and pink, and lunged without quite knowing why.

"Imminent death" was more than a little complicated. Judas fought like a man who hadn't just resigned himself to a torturous end, wrestling for control of the large device hung around the nazi's torso. A crack of thunder to his right and a sudden storm of ricocheting rubber buckshot confirmed his worst suspicions, and sent the two of them to the floor.

Judas couldn't give up now; certainly, the nazi hadn't. But it was different once the element of surprise was lost, when it was Judas and a man with half a head and a lanyard over him. Pain was no equalizer when Judas had a head start on getting shot.

So when a shot from down the hall was followed by a sudden force against his head, Judas's first instinct was to go very still.

… so why was he still conscious?

Judas held his breath, laying still and focusing on the silence. The man atop him lay still with him, expression vacant and posture too relaxed. A line of blood snaked down from his scalp down his face.

Judas heard the other man step forward. The steps were careful, calculated; evidently, he might not have known whether he'd even hit Judas, rather than his friend.

So Judas waited, still. Silent. Struggling not to gasp with each step.

And the moment he saw the whites of the nazi's eyes, Judas threw forth the last of his sand reserve into those very eyes.

Adrenaline kicked in immediately as Judas forced himself out from under the unconscious one, getting to his feet just in time for the nazi to regain his bearings. Judas wasn't so lucky with his right hook, the nazi ducking and countering with an uppercut with his pistol, but it wasn't enough to take him out of the game.

The nazi backed away, trying to get a clear shot on Judas, but as bad as his leg was his situation only deteriorated with distance, and Judas made sure to keep close. Without too much martial arts training, all he could really do was try to wrest the gun from the nazi; all the nazi had to do was back away.

But Judas knew this building inside and out, and the nazi, suddenly backed into a corner, didn't.

The elbow to the face that knocked him cold was more of a consequence of Judas wrestling for control of the pistol than anything else, but he wouldn't be complaining for right now.

Or at least, the whole of him wouldn't, because the moment the adrenaline wore off his leg went right back to screaming. Judas grit his teeth; if the Snitch was right, there were whole squadrons of nazis downstairs, too much to weather on luck alone.

Judas looked back to the fallen nazis, and noticed the adjustment straps on their armor and helmets.

***

"Ah, there you are, Rickert.", spoke someone with an unfamiliar, distinctly Swiss intonation as Judas descended to the second floor.

He froze, of course. As much as (apparently) Rickert's balaclava and goggles were a godsend for racefaking, it didn't impart knowledge of the English language.

The nazi at the bottom of the stairs stood alone, dressed like his friends and carrying some kind of… the pole you catch animals with, however you said it in German or Urdu. Slung across his back was an unnervingly lethal-looking firearm, accompanied by a variety of knife holsters on his belt. In short, trouble.

Judas wished he'd learned how to use a gun.

The nazi tilted his head, like he expected something. Right. English. He could do that.

"It is nice to meet you." (That was how you said "hello", right?)

Whatever he actually said, it put the nazi's posture at ease. "Something happen to your translator? Man, I told Jonas he should be hitting the gym more." The nazi let out a hearty guffaw, like he'd just heard a particularly clever joke. "Can't be helped."

The nazi gestured to the left-facing hallway with his pole, disappearing down it as Judas descended the final steps. Something in the denser part of the residential wing, no doubt. Something they did. Something he'd have to follow and see for himself.

Nowhere to go but down.

Pole Nazi hadn't gotten far, stopping just inside the hallway in apparent wait for Judas. "Hope you don't mind if I talk to myself." He walked with a saunter, albeit a guarded one where a hand rested on one of his knives. "You know, I tried to bring it up with Dunst. 'We should have a medical team on standby, in case one of our own gets hurt'. Americans. It's like arguing with a stump."

Judas caught himself nodding along, only to remember he wasn't supposed to understand German. Luckily, he walked behind Pole Nazi.

"Twenty-four seven fights. Respect to a red-lace, but that chick needs to how to keep a crew healthy. We're building something here, yeah?" Pole Nazi looked back at Judas with a look of apparent frustration, before going right back to grinning. "Good thing the others already left. Bet I look like a head case talking to you."

Judas didn't nod.

Pole Nazi stopped in front of… one of the meeting rooms, Jude thought. "Specialist von Krantz is going to kill me if he sees this. Couldn't be helped. Good thing he doesn't speak English, yeah?" Pole Nazi kicked open the door.

"Holy fucking shit.", Judas shouldn't have just exclaimed.

Inside the room, herded as tightly as possible into one corner of the room, were the various residents of the complex. Some of them, Judas could recognize; others were dotted with pinprick markings, faces blurred into nothing. All` were bound, hand and foot, with uncomfortable looking zip cuffs, and silenced with a thick duct tape.

‘This excluded… fuck, this excluded Rudy. Rudy, who helped Judas moved in, who introduced him to Fats, who hadn’t given a shit whether he was Arab or Balochi or German as long as he was a neighbor, who presently laid still in the opposite corner with his throat slashed to pieces. His face wasn't blurred, but it wasn't returning Judas's vacant stare, and perhaps that was worse.

Judas wasn't sure how long he'd been standing there before Pole Nazi spoke. "… Jonas didn't tell me you spoke German."

Was that what he said, actually? Judas wasn't sure. Waterline over his head, numb like he'd already drowned with a breath that merely vouched for his nerves. He was going to be sick. Already sick, nauseous and burning and red, red red red red red like Rudy's thro-

Something poked his side. "Why did Jonas have to play translator for so long, huh?"

The first words came without thought. "Because I fucking hate…" The rest of the words drowned in too much thought.

Pole Nazi stared at him. Didn't return the glare that seared from under the goggles, curdled under his balaclava. You. You. I hate you for all you've done, for what you can't even acknowledge that you've done, for taking almost five years of history and gutting it like poultry. Words that would die on his lips.

He laughed. Hard. As he should've. Judas wasn't a threat. Wasn't big enough to be intimidating or magic enough to work with the minuscule grains of sand in reserves. Destined-

"Holy shit, Rickert. That's legend."

Judas blinked.

"You forced Jonas to waste all that time just because you hated him, eh?" Pole Nazi touched his shoulder. "That's fucking hilarious."

Hot went cold.

"And the… I'm impressed, man! That takes some self-control." Pole Nazi smiled underneath his creased skull bandanna. Amusing, this was all supposed to be.

Judas was floating in the clouds, sick and dizzy. He needed to say something or do something.

"What's the matter? Not as…" Pole Nazi might have scratched the back of his head. "… look, please don't tell anyone, alright? If they know I killed one of them, they're gonna… I'm sorry, I'm freaking out right now."

A distant part of Judas's mind retorted with sneering contempt. Oh, poor nazi, you're freaking out over your own murder. Boo-hoo. Judas isn't at the phone, leave a message on Jahannam's answering machine, to be read after a time-frame not to exceed however long Allah purifies sin-through-inaction.

In lieu of thought-to-word, Pole Nazi kept talking. "Man, I'm sorry, but is this what it felt like to waste someone? I don't like it. I mean, I know 4R loves putting pure hearts to use, true-believers, but fuck, I don't know if I'm ready to be a killer, yeah?" Footsteps from the distant room in which Judas stood.

Nothing, really. Just noise. More noise. More noise and static and bright lights and screaming thoughts and-

"What was it like?"

Judas blinked awake.

"For you and Sergey. What was it like?"

"… what was what like?"

"You know," Pole Nazi made a gesture against his neck. "What it was like to… do that."

There was a window to the streets below, on the opposite wall. Judas tried to avoid looking out of it.

"… I… well, it's not something I try to think about."

The nazi before him was actually shaking. Judas didn't know they could do that. "But you do remember it, yeah? How did you, you know, cope?"

Judas's mask, which he had unconsciously licked in an attempt to get at his lips, tasted of stale ash, subtle and stinging, melting the surface of everything around him until it was two nonexistent faces that Judas could barely recognize. Words came out of Judas's mouth, and he wasn't sure whether they were his or Rickert's. "… it's what I did in the moment. It's… it's us versus them. You see an act of invasion and maybe it's not… it's not the easiest way. But it's what you did, and you can't take it back."

There was a pause, so routine as to have become almost imperceptible, before Pole Nazi laughed; at least, it sounding like laughing.

He wasn't laughing when he took rubber buckshot to the chest.

***

Securing the door's lock, Leoni turned around, scratching at the indentation on her wrists. "And how long is this "BLACK FLY" supposed to last?"

Judas blew a stray hair out of his eyes. "I, uh… I didn't get specifics. Sounds like a few hours, give or take. I guess if they're not asking out in a day, we go in and see what we can do?"

Leoni grimaced, crooked and contagious. Obviously, this wasn't anyone's fault but the nazis, but they weren't the ones isolating their tripping friends across an inconsistent maze. Judas couldn't help that it felt like she was directing it to him, personally. Like Judas was Rickert, instead of someone hiding in his cloth and metal skins.

(But it's what you did, and you can't take it back.)

Leoni sighed. "This is a lot to take in, Judy. I mean… I mean hell, chemical torture warfare? Leave it to fash."

"It's… I don't know if I can say I expected it from them. I feel like if I attempt to process more than I've seen I'll do something I regret."

She eyed Judas with a look of pity at that; he hadn't expected it to feel worse, and if he'd known it would then his possibly theoretical past self who'd possibly attempted to manipulate Leoni would've saved his present-tense abstraction the trouble.

(But it's what you did, and you can't take it back.)

Leoni opened her mouth and clicked her tongue like she was about to say something, and waited a few seconds before she actually did. "We'll give them a few hours. In the meantime, I'll see what we can do to fortify. If the Fats recovers too late, putting out the Alert will be pretty much useless, but I'm not about to force anyone outside to contact the others."

"Well, I texted Stella. Though…" Judas checked his phone, fingers fumbling the passcode three times, like he was mangling a stone. Fourth time's the charm. "… she hasn't seen it. Damn."

"Great, perfect. So Lindholm's out, Critic's dead, and knowing the Stagehand, I bet she doesn't have a phone."

"I…" Judas licked his lips. "… I run mail around the city."

Leoni quirked an eyebrow. "You expect us to mail her something? I know your hammer-"

"No, no, it's just that I've gotten… you know, half of these people are fairy worshipers, and people think that because I know sand magic, that applies to glitter bombs. So I have to know my way around the city." A pause. "I'm good at running."

And Leoni quirked her other eyebrow. "You're going to go out there, yourself."

"Yeah."

"You're being stupid, Judy."

"Yeah."

"You'll die."

"… yeah."

One of them broke eye contact; Judas wasn't sure which.

"… I worry about you, Judy."

"… yeah."

Judas didn't give her time to respond. Didn't have time. Time was of the essence of the situation of everything beating around his head like illegal firecrackers. So he turned, grabbing a broom for support, and walked off.

(But it's what you did, and you can't take it back.)

Heading to Lindholm's was paramount, not just for the Alert, but for Judas. As OL's chief producer of gardening utilities, it wasn't unreasonable to think she had a few bags of sand to spare. On top of that, if anyone had something for Judas's leg, it would be her.

So Judas tried not to look at his neighbors crying out their recent traumas. Tried not to hear it. He definitely tried not to think about how every step of his foot brought him closer to the sun-soaked outside of Outer Lichtenberg, about the nazis that were out there, about how he deliberately conjured the phrase "the nazis that were out there" in his head to obfuscate the nature of the nazi or nazis that were out in a place that would very quickly become "here". Tried not to remember what he hoped he wouldn't see outside.

(But it's what you did, and you can't take it back.)

Judas stepped outside to see a man lying in a puddle of sandy blood, limbs twisted into bloodied branches and skull shattered against the pavement.

Judas had killed a man.

Judas was screaming.


Hans screamed as he hit the mat. Theresa wasn't sure if the dopamine rush came from suplexing him into it or if she'd let her 4R work get to her head.

Any respectable member of 4R knew their way around violence. Whether that be a boot party, clashing with antifa, getting out of an arrest, or just plain giving it to a degenerate, you were expected to know how to defend yourself, and anomalous airborne chemical powers took you only so far. Some of the others compensated through honing their powers for violence; as for Theresa, a gym membership at a nearby "dojo" suited her just fine.

Either way, she helped Hans back up to his feet with a smile only somewhat restrained. "Sorry to beat you on off-hours. Guess today really is my day, huh?"

"You, Ms. Petrucci?" Hans smiled back; unlike nearly everyone else Petrucci had met in Germany, he loved smiling. Didn't freak her out. One of the biggest reasons she chose him as her PT. "Feels like every day is your day. I gotta envy that, you know?"

"What can I say?" Not much.

Theresa checked her phone. The capture teams had already secured a couple of identified SWJC nests, and the scouts hadn't reported anything off-putting. She could stand to relax for a bit.


Your name is Judas al-Zaman. It used to be Ya'qoob el-Asmar, and sometimes your inner thoughts slip up and remind you of such. Not that it matters: you're still a Judas.

When you were seven years old, your uncle, Fareed, introduced you to the writings of Bilqees Shambhani. You were always good at reading, and your favorite genres were fantasy and history. Bilqees wrote of a great many fantasies, of a world of cunning young boys who, with the help of love, understanding, and just a bit of magic, fought back against violence, against empires of wicked eagles and brutish bulldogs.

You loved her work so very much. When you finished her catalog of fantasy, you searched for everything even remotely tied to her name. In time, Fareed introduced you to her other books, thicker, less colorful, full of big words and bigger ideas; even so, as you loved her fantasies, so too would you learn to love her realities. You were very proud of yourself; many of your poorer friends struggled with the written word, yet here you were learning of Faiz and Jalib, of Sankara and Marx, of Fitzroy and Nadox and Jafari. In your head, you dreamed of the worlds she wrote of, of good will and equality and the end of violence.

When you were ten years old, General Musharraf took control of your country. He preached of revitalization; you and Fareed saw violence.

Much violence.

When you were fourteen years old, you attempted to join a group of like-minded youths who opposed the violence of the beast that wore the skin of Pakistan. But you were not like them; they spoke Balochi and Urdu, while you spoke Arabic and Urdu. A finger of Salafism, to be broken before it clawed at Balochi skin.

As you came out of the hospital, you would learn of what happened to Fareed.

When you were sixteen years old, you who were alone in a storm of violence sought the means to defend yourself. You knew the stories; of strange storms that blew in from the West, coalescing into men of smoke and sand and fire. Perhaps they intended such stories as metaphors for your kind.

Or perhaps not; Ghifa was quite real.

You were still sixteen when your parents discovered where you sneaked off to in the dying light. Though they did not kill you, you knew yourself to be dead.

And so you were born anew as Judas, traitor to all who walked the Muslim World, a pariah to all who knew your face.

You knew only a little German when you sought asylum in Germany, but it was far beyond the violence you once knew. Perhaps this was to be a new start.

When you were seventeen years old, you were bruised by the grip of an officer, assaulted by a gang on your way back from a German tutor, and shot with balls of searing gas. When you were eighteen, when you were nineteen, when you were a million ages that couldn't logically have been more than twenty-four, the cycle of violence repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated.

Now you are twenty-four, and you've killed a man. Undeniably he was slain, pushed off the edge of a building by the very magic that ruined Ya'qoob, and in seconds you've enabled the cycle that-

***

It was the Witness that snapped Judas out of his thoughts.

The Witness crawled over the dead man's body, torn between eyeing it and Judas. Its Snitch was nowhere to be found; come to think of it, Judas hadn't noticed either of them coming down with him. Perhaps it was this that belied something… off, about it.

"… -" Judas's first words were caught on a dry throat. Swallowing some saliva, he began again. "… you probably shouldn't be out here, Witness. If they-"

Something in the Witness's stare cut him off. An intensity, absent from Judas's scattered memory of the past two days, as if it was attempting to start a fire from its eye sockets. How could it have been that not long after being violently thrashed about, this creature could summon the energy for such fury?

Judas got his answer when he'd finally observed that this Witness was entirely unharmed.

The Witness let out a pained gurgle as it lunged towards Judas, who'd barely stepped out of the way as he limped as quickly as possible down the street. It missed a second lunge, barely, and then only because Judas had fumbled.

Judas swatted it with the broom-handle on the third lunge and immediately regretted it. For as small as it was, the Witness had lunged with enough force to shake Judas where he stood. By the time he'd regained his bearings, the Witness had already made its fourth lunge, and found purchase against Judas's torso.

Now clung to Judas, the Witness was clawing at everything it could, leaving the pain and weight to disorientate him. Judas ran, though his path spiraled into a haze, a mess of colors and blurs and swirling brickwork.

Judas bumped into a wall, bracing himself with his broomstick to keep from falling, yet the Witness continued. He attempted to lift is broom to strike the Witness, yet the weight of it kept his arm at bay. Shadow clouded his vision as he stumbled into what must've been an alley.

ah.

Judas slammed into the wall again, deliberately this time. The blow was softened by the Witness, who let out a gurgled scream as it redoubled its efforts against Judas. Then, Judas shifted his weight to slam back into the same wall.

The Witness let go after the fifth slam, and Judas bolted away.


Theresa's phone was buzzing as she returned to her locker. So much for rest and relaxation, no?

One of the Witnesses was blowing up her SummonLink. Early notifications consisted entirely of the word "SNITCH", before abruptly transitioning into "IMPOSTER 15". Theresa rolled her eyes, and booted up NtWrk to check up on Point 15.

According to NtWrk, Point 15 (which initiate was that, again?) was currently alone, moving quickly away from a building where two other points stood motionless. Obviously, someone thought they were being clever. If they survived, they could tell Theresa all about their cunning plans, and how her underlings ripped them apart.

Theresa opened the group chat, and began typing. The others would have a general direction on what to do next, at least.


The general direction of Lindholm could be expressed as "a maze", even before the Witness had given chase.

It'd almost become a game: look where you where, look where you could go, look to the ground as you ran so you never tripped. Rinse and repeat as fast as possible, and hope you aren't falling behind the gurgling terror that trails your every step. If it wasn't one gigantic bet with Judas's life as the collateral, it might almost have been fun!

How much progress was Judas making? Not much. Even where the stonework hadn't shifted, it was hard to tell one alley from another. Too much of his time was spent looking for landmarks and placing himself on new mental maps. Plus, unlike Judas, Lindholm's building didn't huff up a racket.

Judas stumbled, finally, on a straight shot alleyway that lead back onto the streets. An increasingly louder gurgling told him all he need to know, and Judas bolted.

Time slowed to a crawl in contrast, playing every clunk of his broom against concrete as an explosion in miniature, every gurgle an invisible tick on a graph of convergent lines. Judas ran and ran and ran, and for the most minute of instances, he was sure it wasn't enough.

Judas emerged from the alleyway, and only barely dodged the jeep that plowed into the Witness.

The jeep, which had to have already been speeding by the time Judas had emerged, was blackish green, open-roofed. Atop it were four others, dressed like the nazis he'd encountered in the apartment. One of them had been standing by the time the jeep stopped, barely able to hold onto the frame as the jeep screeched to a halt. That one was the first to jump off, making his way towards Judas with a brandished rifle.

Judas ducked into another alleyway.

Three pops sounded just as Judas turned into the alley, but Judas didn't stop to hear the footfalls. The next corner was inaugurated by another pop and the feeling of wind past his ear, which only served to drive run Judas faster.

Exhaustion wasn't a word, or a concern. It was a luxury. Payment for services rendered to the continuation of Judas al-Zaman. But, his body was itching to cash in. There would be no delay in such gratifications, unless he got some rest soon.

Judas stumbled onto a four-way courtyard, with a dumpster in the middle. One of those big plastic ones, with a lid that made a loud noise every time it opened or closed.

A very loud noise.

Judas shifted his weight onto his good leg, and opened the lid with the handle of the broom. Then, withdrawing the broom, he quickly ran into the left-hand ally and hid behind the corner.

He waited. Took in the precious few seconds granted between now and whatever happened next.

Judas nearly wept with joy at the sound of gunfire tearing through plastic. There was no time for tears, of course. Instead, Judas rushed around the corner to clock the nazi with the broomstick, and took off down the opposite ally.

The sitrep was that he hadn't been shot to pieces, which was good. That the sound of footsteps gradually disappeared was also ideal, giving him time to catch his breath and assess his location.

According to the brickwork, he was currently somewhere between the Old Town and Downtown, as useless as those words were to describe anything more than Outer Lichtenberg's various architectural styles. Lindholm's building was typically situated in either the Market Square or Waterfront, depending on how happy OL was with her that week. Given it got invaded, probably not much, which meant… Market Square, most likely.

A straight shot from the nearest Downtown road, then. If he was wrong, it wasn't much farther either way.

Judas exited the next alley that lead into the street, and barely avoided getting run over again.

This time, the jeep didn't stop, instead curving into an impromptu u-turn and attempting to paste Judas once more. Judas dodged to the side, sticking to the walls of the surrounding buildings in the hopes that they'd be too afraid to try again lest they crash. All it really did was buy him a few moments as the jeep lined up with the wall and pushed forward once more, the sound of plastic grinding against stone as the jeep called far closer than it had before.

Because Outer Lichtenberg was a harsh mistress, Judas and the nazis found themselves in a traffic circle. Unlike actual Lichtenberg, the streets, empty as they almost always were, meant there weren't too many stops. Judas wasn't sure if that was supposed to help or hurt him here.

The jeep circled around and nearly flattened Judas. Right, "hurt", like everything else he'd seen today.

One of the exits would take him where he wanted to go; the problem was figuring out which, while also avoiding the jeep out for his blood.

Judas dodged to the left. Then, without much room to maneuver, he dodged once more to the left. Again. Again, again, again and again and again and soon he stumbled into the center of the traffic circle. Encircled like an animal.

The jeep turned to run Judas down one last time… and because Outer Lichtenberg was a harsh mistress, it turned too fast and tipped over, barely missing Judas as it skidded to a halt against the building front behind him.

Judas looked forward to see a rectangular "NO PARKING ON THE GRASS" sign and a vegetation-coated building down the road. He bolted.

Nothing was important as much as the building. Every step, every clack, every minute movement was but a culmination of Judas's body finding itself in Lindholm's building.

It was after around a minute of running that the distant sound of something being sucked through a chute echoed through the streets. Not long after, something clacked to the ground behind him and hissed; Judas looked back to see a growing cloud of black mist fizzing from a canister, and redoubled his efforts.

Another sucking, another clack, another hiss. One landed closer; another, further away.

Finally, mere meters from the building, a canister clacked in front of him and hissed its payload. The gas sprayed forth, a cloud of death and horror, filling the everything before and around him. But Judas couldn't afford to slow down, not when he had no reliable means of handling his inertia.

So Judas closed his eyes, covered his mouth, and leapt.

***

Judas's first act upon slamming the door behind him was to bar it shut with his broom and collapse to the floor. His second act was somewhere between vomiting and crying, curled onto his side in blissful agony.

He waited. For Lindholm, for one of her girlfriends, for a nazi or a monster or anything that could force him to his feet, because he sure as hell wasn't getting up for a while.

… several minutes into his pain-clouded rest, Judas decided that that was a lie; his leg(s), on the other hand, emphatically declared it to be the truth as he tried to stand up, leaving him clinging to a shelf as he took note of his surroundings.

Judas hadn't actually been inside Lindholm's building; she didn't like visitors, or men, or visiting men, so there wasn't much reason to go beyond her postbox. In fact, Judas never actually met the woman, as she rarely left her apartment to begin with, let alone the building. Judas only had her number because he delivered most of the packages too and from, and even then only because Fats was a mutual friend. So he hadn't been sure what to expect.

Outer Lichtenberg must have intended this room to serve as a foyer, of sorts. There were some chairs, a few doors, a hall that lead further in, and even a staircase leading up to the next floor. Lindholm certainly hadn't fucked with it too hard (you learned not to push OL's patience), but her choice in decoration brought to mind a warehouse.

The first thing that stuck out was the lighting arrangements; most everything that wasn't some wicked-looking plant was shrouded by a dim gloom. That naturally lead into the matter of the plants, of which there were many. Crawling vines, gravid fruits, pitchers fattened with feed or vermin, and all of them carefully arranged across a complex lightscape.

This woman was incapable of not being the love interest of a western tragedy.

At the far corner of the room, illuminated by a single spotlight, was some wall-mounted call button. But, much to the chagrin of his legs, Judas had come too far to let leg pain stop him.

Judas pressed the button. "Hello, this is the Postmaster, I need to speak with the Botanist as quickly as possible." He paused, briefly, to little avail. "OL's been invaded by the nazis, and we need an Alert as soon as-" Judas winced as his weight inadvertently shifted to his bad leg. "As soon as possible, and if I may request a-"

"Is that you, Judas? What the hell is going on?"

Judas winced again, for an entirely different reason. "Sandy? Oh… fuck, can I get someone else on the line?"

"Seriously, Judy? Yeah, I'm dating Lindholm, get used to it. Christ, sometimes I can't believe you were my comphet."

Judas slapped at the wall in frustration. "I don't even know what that word means!"

"'Compulsory heterosexuality'."

"If that means what I think it means, well fucking likewise!"

A somewhat digitized sigh emerged from the speaker. "Alright, we're getting off topic. You said you needed an Alert? Something about nazis?"

"Yes, nazis. And if I'm not asking too much, I'd really appreciate some herbs, and maybe a bag of sand if you can spare to help out the messenger. Lindholm keeps those, right? Nothing urgent, I've just been shot twice and mauled by a lilit."

"Christ, Judy, that's a tall order. Normally I'd ask for more detail, but I'm guessing the smoke clouds outside aren't some sick art project. I'll speak Lindholm, try to finagle some healing herbs and get her to sound the Alert. I don't know if she has any sand, per se, but I know she stores the mulch down the… are you facing the intercom?"

Judas licked his lips. "Right now? Yeah."

"Cool, cool. Take the left-hand hallway, and keep playing the left-hand rule until you see stacked bags. She might have sand, there."

"And if she doesn't?"

"Bar the door behind you? It's not… I guess it is our problem, technically, but we can't help that you put all your chickens in the same basket. Just hit the call button if you get stuck in there, and we'll see what we can do, okay."

Judas furrowed his brow and grimaced. "Yeah, no worries. One more thing?"

"Shoot."

"How clean is the plant water?"

Sandy actually laughed.

***

Judas wiped at his mouth; as important as proper hydration was, water took on a peculiar taste after wrapping one's mouth around a metal faucet.

One rubber bullet was enough to call his right leg "the bad leg"; a mini-marathon wasn't so much the cherry on top as it was the three-layer frosting. That was the primary purpose of the broomstick crutch, of course, but only before he'd been chased into Lindholm's. Removing the broom wasn't an option if the nazis were still chasing him.

As for the "foyer" itself, there was precious little in the way of replacement. The plants here were primarily potted, or else growing along the walls; there was little need of a spade or hoe big enough to suit Judas.

At least he had his precious walls.

Judas pulled himself along the line of shelves and pots towards the left hallway door, careful enough to avoid knocking over a pot but not careful enough to avoid moving the lightscape a little. Small victories.

The hall itself, as Judas opened the door and waited for his eyes to adjust, was somewhat better lit than the foyer. None of the fluorescent bulbs were on, of course, but the paper taped over the windows was just sheer enough to allow illumination through. Ideally, whoever was outside wouldn't be able to see Judas's shadow in the mid-day sun as he crossed the halls.

Left-hand rule. Judas shifted his weight to lean against the wall, and began his-

clink


There were three primary reasons Theresa didn't bother to track her uberdaemon's location:

  1. Implanting two-way location tracking into reichdaemons, especially those sourced from Gehenna, was actually rather tricky. Something about their bodies was antithetical to 3-dimensional triangulation, and that was before you started messing with cybernetics.
  2. Unlike most of the idiots who messed with daemonics as mere initiates, Theresa was thorough when it came to bondage. Even the potential "failure states" following lapse of control were precisely factored into the function; whatever it did, the Mosquito was always doing exactly what Theresa intended.
  3. The sweetest words were those which were never spoken, but known intimately in their absence. In this case, Point 15's sudden stillness.

There was a shape blocking the sunlight.

Judas couldn't make much out from the paper; whatever it was, it was larger than a person, and only vaguely shaped like one. It was… swaying? Something about it was still moving, though it hadn't clinked since its first.

Logic dictated that Judas move, but something kept his legs in place. Fear? Judas certainly feared the shape, but had it even noticed him? Perhaps it sensed movement; yet, perhaps it already sensed Judas. Even so, how valuable was his movement? Could he even escape in time? That was before you factored in the mysterious mulch room.

So he waited, watching the splotch on the window shift and sway.

And waited.

And waited.

Something tapped at the window, right beside his head.

Judas ducked, nearly in time to avoid the thing that broke tore through the window and clasped onto his helmet. Whatever it was pulled with inhuman force, nearly lifting Judas off the ground and leaving harsh indentations where the straps of the helmet met his neck. Though his arms left the windowsill, he did not fall; the thing that clung to the window would not allow slack.

His hands went to his neck on instinct. Fingers, frantic and blind, grasped at the straps of the helmet. Judas wasn't sure how they found its clasp.

He didn't complain.

The beast on the window yanked the helmet off of his head, screeching like an alarm in triumph or frustration or whatever emotions applied to this monster. Better not to divine reason from motivation; it was all Judas needed to push past the haze of pain and limp down the hall.

Judas ran, and the clinking followed along the walls, a cloud over Outer Lichtenberg's sun. The burning in his thighs and lungs faded into the background, filed away with every other abstraction of pain or fear or exhaustion or any words that denoted what wasn't a long, straight hall.

The next time the beast tore through a window, Judas was just behind its point of entry and dodged to the right wall. He didn't get a good look at it: his attention was preoccupied with the screams of his bad leg and remainder of the corridor before him. Whatever it was was dark and gnarled and just out of reach, and if Judas knew what was good for him he'd focus on the latter.

The beast tried several more times to grab at Judas from the windows, with no regard to accuracy or personal safety. Judas never got a good look at the parts of it that tore through the windows like wet tissue; all he knew was that he couldn't recognize it by sight.

Judas rounded a corner, only to find more hallway. Outer Lichtenberg was a harsh mistress and her mother was a fucking whore.

Judas kept to the right wall as he ran; in theory, the corner should have given him more time on the beast crawling the outside wall. In practice, all it did was drive the smashing sounds behind Judas; the beast would almost certainly catch up.

From the sounds of it, the beast had shifted tactics. There was now a semi-regular cracking, like a whip, followed by the sound of punctured plaster. Judas didn't have time to look behind him, nor did he particularly want to look back at the violent noise drawing closer, closer, ever closer.

There were barely a few seconds to process the split of the path. To the left was a stairwell, spiral, metal; forward, more of the hallway. Damn it, did the left-hand rule apply to stairs?

Judas, legs screaming for release, answered "no", and charged forward. The whip-crack that preceded the screaming of metal answered "yes". Post-survival high almost kept him from noticing how close he was to the end of the hall, or the door leading to anywhere fucking else.

Praise Allah, it was a push door.

Judas fell face-first onto something plastic, or rubber, or whatever had been soft enough to break his fall. His feet refused to return to standing, so he settled for pushing himself to kneeling.

Jackpot. Judas had stumbled into a room packed with bags of all sorts, each of which was neatly labelled with German-language infographics. As if the universe was apologizing for the last few hours, there was also a myriad of gardening tools along the walls, including spades, hoes, and… well, there were others, but they didn't function as both a weapon and a crutch.

Judas spotted a lovely and deliciously sharp-edged shovel sitting behind a package that read "COARSE SAND", and pushed himself forward with all that remained of his will. The world melted into meaningless sludge, could've exploded into a billion shards for all he cared, and he'd still have found himself dragging forward, forward, forward.

He didn't die when his fingers dragged the packaging back, calling on the sand within to tear forth and submit to his heretical magics, before going blissfully unconscious. But he could have. He absolutely could have, and it'd have been a happy death.


Point 15 had been flung several meters away to a spot where they lay perfectly still, from the looks of it. Theresa hoped it had been a prolonged and violent death.

Damn it. Theresa knew she wouldn't be clearing all of Outer Lichtenberg's filth in a single day, but even a single point of weakness meant perfectly good lives down the drain. People died, and you didn't come back from death. But that was the thing about war, what those degenerate squatters must've forgotten when they attacked Salz.

Something she'd learned, in 4R or "radical feminism" or wherever the thought first came up, was that you could ogle every bit of good truth you could scrounge up and you'd still be drawn to the bad truths. It didn't matter how contradictory they were, because both of them were true. But good news came and went. Bad news, you actually had to do something about.

The good truth was that Specialist Holland alone was raking in all-clears. Sure, cool, she'll send someone over to retake the buildings. But what's to be done of the bad truth, that at least six of the points on NtWrk, a good third of the human force, stood completely still? Deaths meant more recruitment, more contracts, more incentives and training to worry about. Asking 'What's to be done?' was no less than six separate issues, and that was before one had to do.

At least she had her doner kebab.


Judas awoke from the worst nightmare of his life to the bitter taste of (medicinal?) herbs and the realization that it hadn't, in fact, been a nightmare.

It took Judas a few seconds to recognize several key facts:

  • Judas was presently laying in… a greenhouse? At the very least, it was a high-ceiling room infested with a fantastical assortment of vines, fruits, and even the occasional tree, though one with but a single, ceiling-high window to the outside.
  • Surrounding him was his ex-girlfriend, what looked to be some sort of J-Horror ghost, and an unfamiliar woman who was presently applying something to his leg.
  • Speaking of his leg, if there was some superlative, semi-biblical way to rephrase "it stung like a motherfucker", it would 100% be exactly what he thought of the mind-numbing pain that clung to his right leg like a rabid and horny dog.

For the second time today, someone (of course it was Sandy) put their hands around Judas's mouth to prevent him from screaming. "Easy, Judy. I could hear your screaming from the 1st floor, and I feel like you'd appreciate having a voice, you know?"

He spoke the moment she took her hands off his mouth. "God, you don't change. Why is it that-" The unfamiliar woman did something to his leg, and Judas bit his lip to avoid screaming. "… fuck, and I thought the nazis were big on torture."

"I'm sorry, did you want to lose this leg?" The unfamiliar woman spoke with a soft voice mangled by an almost cartoonish Scandinavian accent. "You should be thanking her, Judas. She got you from mulch storage to my room in under 10 minutes. Didn't even bump your head."

Judas blinked, looking back and forth between the heavy greenery and the high ceilings. "Your room?"

The unfamiliar woman didn't respond, continuing to apply the… the whatever to his leg for another minute or so, before standing up. From this angle, Judas could make out more detail.

She was… not exactly short, per se, but she was stout. Muscular, too, at least in her arms (which her short-sleeve cotton top eagerly showed off). Her long and frazzly hair was tied in a net, and her denim overalls looked relatively well-kept aside from the grass and dirt stains. Almost as pale as the ghost girl beside her; she definitely wasn't an outdoorsy type.

The woman who was almost certainly Stella Freja Lindholm shrugged. "Technically it's also Sandy, Neele, and Eva's room. It's more convenient if I just say 'my'."

Judas squinted. "What about 'our'?"

"That would've implied you're part of it."

"Yeah, but… I'm gay?"

Lindholm rolled her eyes. "Pretty sure everyone here but Tamiko's gay."

The grudge ghost looked up at the mention of what was probably her name.

Judas cleared his throat, and tried to ignore the sharp taste of iron in his phlegm. "I bet she has an interesting story. Did you put out the Alert, yet?"

"No."

What the fuck.

"What the fuck?"

Lindholm shrugged once more. "It was that, or getting everything together so I could save your leg. Fats says he likes your legs, so your legs it was."

Judas's face was the only part of him that didn't ache like an old horse, so the facepalm was tolerable. "I… I can't even be mad at you, except somehow I still am! Why the hell haven't you sounded the Alert?! I nearly lost my legs over the damn thing!"

"And you didn't. Good for me." Lindholm sighed, walking to the other side of the room before jumping onto a vine. "Look, my phone died and I wanted to be positive." The ease with which Lindholm climbed explained the muscles. "OL barely tolerates the Alert as is. We get, at most, a few minutes out of it before she has enough and bricks the system. That's one of the big reasons we restrict it to the central planners.

"So think of it like this." The vine in question lead to a semi-obscured alcove, which Lindholm crawled into. "You have a whole system of 'Postmaster'ing because you want don't want to create any more hierarchy than OL can tolerate. I have this whole system of Alerting because OL needs to know when she's been invaded, and getting her to agree to installation is a hassle."

Judas moved to stand up, and regretted it. "How's the system working out for everyone else?"

"Let's ask the Alert."

click

Judas shot up too fast, straining his back and falling to his side on the… oh, he was on a cot. "Fuck! That was supposed to click, right?"

"You'll be hearing a lot of those. Want me to warn you for the weirder sounds?"

"It's fine, it's fine! I just… today's been a really bad day."

"Fair. Sirens won't be on for a few minutes. After that… try not to go near my plants, alright?" Lindholm peaked over the alcove. "Stagehand says we haven't run a real alert since the Berlin Wall, but my plants respond very negatively to test sirens."

At the sound of something like a dial-tone, Lindholm leapt from the alcove onto another vine, scurrying up into another alcove. Shortly thereafter, a series of clicks, hisses, and groans filled the air, a sequence continuing far longer than Lindholm's time in the first alcove. Judas grit his teeth and endured. Soon, it'd all be worth it.

"How many nazis did you get?"

Judas turned to face Sandy, presently sitting next to him. So little worry on her face; it was easy to forget that today's events hadn't yet touched all of OL. "… get?"

"Yeah. I assume that's why you bolted for the sand, right?" Sandy scratched at her cheek. "Certainly didn't come here for Sandy. So how many did you get?"

A man lying in a puddle of sandy blood, limbs twisted into bloodied branches and skull shattered against the pavement.

"… I don't know, Sandy."

She didn't say anything in response.

Judas turned onto his back, facing the greenery-caked ceiling. When did the cot get so comfortable? "… so, you're dating Lindholm. Hell of a step up from me." A pause. "… I'm proud of you."

"Thanks? Aren't you dating Fats?"

Judas's eyes closed on their own. "… nah. We're just-" With a yawn, darkness began to overtake him once more. "… just friends. Good… good friends. Saving each other. Doing… doing what a good friend does. Think I…"

The symphony of clicks, hisses, and groans bled into the black fog, a symphonic lullaby. Pain faded into a dull, uniform haze. Everything fell into place, and Judas drifted towards sleep.



















clink

Something pulled Judas out of the darkness.

Judas was presently laying in… a greenhouse? At the very least… right, he'd been dragged to Lindholm's room earlier, and he fell asleep. Lindholm was presently finagling with her Alert, leaving unseen machinations to hiss and groan. But it'd been that way when he fell asleep, hadn't it? Why the sudden wake-up call?

Judas looked to Sandy, currently fiddling with her phone. "Hey, could…" but no, that couldn't have been what woke him up. The phone must have been on silent, or at least silent enough to have been drowned by the workings of the Alert.

Sandy eyed Judas with concern. "Go back to sleep, Judy. You really need it."

"Sure, yeah. It's just, well." Judas yawned. "… something feel off to you?"

Sandy quirked an eyebrow. "Aside from the nazis?"

"I mean…" Stretching his neck, Judas sat back up. "I don't know. Just before I woke up, I got this, I don't know, really weird feeling that-"

clinkclinkclink

Judas froze.

clinkclinkclinkclink clink, clink clank, skrrrrrrr

rrrrrrp clinkclankclink skrrrp, clink clinkclink, clank skrrp clink, clinkclinkclinkclink

clink

The sound now came from the window. Against all sense, Judas turned to look.

Even obscured by the angle of the sun, it was clear that a massive and gnarled insectile abomination clung to Lindholm's window. Its surface suggested a machine, sporting a dull luster on what looked to be a chassis of poorly-worked sheet metal and rebar; even so, its surface seemed to pulse, shifting about and shuddering like pitch in a leaky mold. The horror clung to the window with six wirey legs, and Judas couldn't immediately tell whether its head was supposed to be the swaying, club-like appendage that whipped about lazily, or the hooked needle attached to a tank of some cloudy substance.

The horror pulled back one of its legs, and punched at the window.

OL had, thankfully, made this particular window stronger than the ground floor windows. That didn't stop the horror from leaving a wicked spiderweb of cracks across the surface.

Sandy screamed, and so did Judas. Lindholm hadn't, though the subsequent lessening of the clacking and hissing might have been worse. "What the hell is happening down there?"

There were a million half-remembered words for it, all of which choked at Judas's throat as the horror once more pulled back a leg to drive into the window. How much did a name matter to something Judas best knew by a clink?

Sandy jumped to her feet, somewhere between muttering and chanting a chorus of "oh no"s and "Christ"s. Judas didn't have much time to look at what she did next; his attention was drawn once more to the window as the horror's leg expanded the spiderweb, a reaction fast enough to pull a nerve. "It's some, it's some weird spider demon thing and it's on the window and oh Christ, oh Christ, fuck!"

Lindholm groaned in frustration. "Sandy, get out of there," and she was already out of the room before Lindholm had gotten to "And take Judas with you! Tamiko, [Lindholm shouted something in English.]! One minute, please!"

Whatever she'd said, 'Tamiko' nodded, taking up a position in front of the spider web crack. She looked so confident, heels dug into the carpeting, that Judas almost slight tremble in her form at every punch to the window, every methodical dig into the center of an expanding web of fractured glass.

And then the horror stopped, letting go of the glass entirely, as a sharp buzzing filled the air it somehow remained in. Slowly, it drew its clubbed appendage back, and…

(Judas looked away.)

a sharp crack filled the air, sending Tamiko and a rain of glass shards flying outwards.

Shards of glass peppered Judas's skin, driving him up in a fit of horrifying pain, all-consuming yet not nearly enough to distract him from the looming monstrosity of the horror crawling into the building. The beast drew itself to standing, giving a shrill screech of triumph, before charging towards Tamiko.

Tamiko barely dodged in time, rolling under the horror's lunge before hopping back onto her feet. Not that she had much time to attack it before its club-tail(?) lazily swiped behind the beast and nearly clocked Tamiko in the head. The next swipe of the horror's claw also came too quickly for a reaction, forcing her, once more, to dodge backwards.

Whatever Tamiko's plan, it probably wasn't working: this horror was aggressively fast, with no intention of playing defense. Slowly, surely, Tamiko was backed into a corner. The horror drew back its tail, and-

One of the plants, a massive, vined monstrosity from which a single massive flower sprouted, wrapped itself around the tail and tugged, knocking the horror off-balance.

"Thirty seconds!" Judas looked up just in time to see Lindholm retreating back into her alcove.

The horror cracked its tail as soon as it regained its footing, knocking the plant loose from its pot and showering the room with dirt. Tamiko took the opportunity to swipe at it, digging her talons into its torso.

The horror, in turn, punched her in the gut.

Tamiko screamed, trying and failing to pull away, fingers still stuck to its torso. So the horror punched her

again

and again

and again

and again, and only then was Tamiko thrown away from the horror.

Now, the horror turned to face Judas. Was its approach slow, or was Judas's brain racing too quickly? It mattered not: Judas lacked the strength to escape for a third time.

The horror now stood just before him. In that brief eternity, Judas witnessed it procure something from its hand.

A hair.

Short.

Black.

The clouds within its tank dispersed, to reveal a honeycomb of distressingly human eyes. All of them locked onto Judas, and the horror hissed a nonsense intimately familiar with an ancient vestige of Judas's mind.

Judas was not deserving of death at the hands of the Mosquito.

The horror's eyes furrowed without brow.

Judas had yet to taste of BLACK FLY.

Hooked claws dug into Judas's sides as the horror picked him up and carried him to the broken window. He cried out, tears welling in his eyes, but if the horror knew of his pain, it made no attempt to soothe or revel in it.

The horror jumped, and the world was awash in the sharp and noisy vibrations of the horror's torso.

Panic gave way to a terrifying lucidity: Judas was at least three storeys off the ground and rising. Beneath him and falling behind, a squadron of nazis worked to break into the Lindholm building. Down the road, certain others were marked with spray-painted red "x"s just outside their doors. In the distance, lines of smoke radiated from the Old Town, buildings growing sharp and still among the typical haze of OL.

With nowhere else to go, Judas clung to the horror, fingers resting in the hole where Tamiko had torn at its torso plating.

… and Judas laughed, just in time for the Alert sirens.

The horror screamed in apparent agony, loosening its grip as Judas stuck his hand into its scalding insides, and Judas laughed. It fumbled through the air, desperate to shake Judas off as its insides were filled with 20 kilograms of coarse sand, and Judas laughed. The horror screeched and screeched and screeched as it quickly lost altitude, and Judas laughed.

As the horror hit the ground, screeching in agony and melting into a gnarled slag, Judas was still laughing, and he wasn't sure if it was out of joy, mirth, or despair.


Acolyte Dunst was called back to the Outer Lichtenberg HQ at 5:42 PM. She arrived at 5:47 PM to find a fresh cartridge of her favorite brand of e-liquid on her desk, courtesy of an incredibly nervous Archivist Fleischer.

The Zone of Control had expanded to encompass the entirety of Architectural Cluster B, as well as scattered pockets in D, A, and B. E was a work in progress. With such an acquisition came a surprising number of captives, more than could be stored at once. Dunst told Fleischer that she had no intention of keeping all of them, at least not alive.

Dunst eyed Fleischer, and didn't take a drag of her electronic cigarette.

The operation, while technically successful, did not return as excellent a result as Acolyte Dunst might have hoped. Shortly before capture of "The Botanist", an alarm system triggered across the city, activating a number of clandestine defense systems and emboldening the vegetation. As a result, of the three surviving figureheads of SWJC Lichtenberg, only "The Botanist" had been captured.

Dunst asked whether "The Botanist" was a young woman named "Fats Burg", and learned that he was not.

She took a drag of her electronic cigarette.

Nine losses total. Eight initiates, and Specialist von Krantz. They'd only recovered the bodies of Glaus, Leitner, and von Krantz; somewhere outside the established Zone of Control, Denzinger's body had been strung upside-down and desecrated.

She took a drag of her electronic cigarette.

Acolyte Zink's Witness had been killed. Thrown in front of a moving jeep by a cowardly degenerate. Upon being questioned, Fleischer confirmed that Dunst's own Witness was perfectly fine.

She did not take a drag of her electronic cigarette.

Archivist Fleischer attempted to dismiss the meeting then and there; Acolyte Dunst asked him why he forgot to mention the destruction of UBERDAEMON-▲A1878.

Fleischer paused.

Dunst asked him if they'd even recovered its body.

Fleischer shook.

She took a long, long drag of her electronic cigarette.


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