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The Brutal Reality
#1
Last night had been different.  Never before had Nox gotten up on stage.  Never before had he danced for others much less provocatively.  But the girls were so great to work with.  Nox hadn't had a chance to catch up with Raffe after the night ended, he was so fucking tired and he had an early morning so Nox had pretty much crashed after.  Thankfully he hadn't put it on multiple times.  They still had some things to work out but all in all it went well and the girls raved about the final cut of music.  Nox was proud of his work.  

Nox woke up sore but nothing a good stretch and workout wouldn't cure.  Sore was a way of life most days.  And being sore from dancing well while new was completely worth it.

The routine of morning was simple and Nox tried to keep the noise down, he was up earlier than usual, and probably much earlier than the late night people were used to.  But Nox didn't sleep much anyway.  He yawned as he sipped at his coffee and pulled Sage's contacts from the storage unit he kept all his hunting things in since leaving Dorian's.  There was no point in trying to haul it around when he moved a lot.  Or at least that had been the plan. 

Nova followed at his heels and yipped at the person passing by the locker to their own.  Nox checked his bag a third time to make sure he had everything he might need.  An ammo sling was slung over his body carrying several vials of ordinary things.  Nox wished he had time to make a batch of napalm but he didn't.  He'd have to fix that later, hunting was going to be a thing again - and he knew with his new job it was going to be.  

There was baby powder, glass shards, metal pellets, pebbles to name a few things that were stationed in each vial.  Each one meant to do damage or disorient a person with diminished use of the power.  When the strength to stand became paramount or to conserve if it was going to be a long fight.  Either way Nox would be prepared.  He strapped a few guns to his belt and put the rest in the bag.  The compact cross bow was folded and stored in the bag too.  Fighting these little creatures, a cross bow wasn't going to come in handy, but against an Oni it was safer to use with the right aim.

Nox was early to their meet up point.  The sun was still asleep as he sat down against the wall of the mouth of the tunnel.  He sipped his coffee and dipped into the power of the gods and pulled a discarded glass bottle to him and started the process of crushing it into a fine powder.  Breathing glass shards wasn't a fun prospect.  And Nox had found another use for it in scattering the laser from a sniper.  it came in handy as long as you didn't breath it in.  It wasn't something you could use around people - that would be dangerous.

Nova sniffed around the tunnel entrance as they waited.  This was the first time that Nova was going hunting with him.  Hopefully the pup listened and didn't get wrapped up in the chaos of it all.
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#2
Lih left his flat, and headed south into the rendezvous point. He moved south, bow ready, to where Nox was waiting by the tunnel. Nox had brought Nova to their hunting party.

He stepped toward Nox. There was something in Lih’s hand. “Donuts, if you want,” he offered. “How’s Ivan?” he asked Nox.

“Hello, you,” he said, kneeling down next to the friendly beast. “All right, Nova?”

He got to his feet and peered into the gathering dark. Damn, it was making his skin crawl. He couldn’t see anything, except… except he felt a sense of unease. Was it just him?

There are some things that won’t fit into nice, ordered boxes. Gut instincts. Feelings. As Dorian had been quick to point out, the Viktor Lih who went to Boda’s came back different. You don’t spend time with monsters and not have it affect you. It changed the way you fight. It changed the way you live and think, the way you trust. All of those changes forced on you by the simple need to survive. It left its mark on Lih.

Just to stay alive, Lih developed a … a hunch. Ah instinct. A little inkling that rang alarm bells well things weren’t right. When things weren’t what they seemed, or certain powers were playing tricks or about to strike. He’d gotten that inkling now; he’d had it since he first set foot in this place. He didn’t think the tunnels was just an old ruin with monsters hiding inside it. Something else was going on. He thought about the missing scientist. Where in the name of the creator did he go?

Nobody knew. Dorian suggested it was high time someone did. He assembled a team because he thought it was a job ideally suited to the domovoi, to Ivan and Nox especially. If they couldn’t track this thing to its source, no one can. Lih wasn’t happy, but Dorian had convinced him—if there was even a shred of truth, this was important.

What did Dorian expect they’ll find? Lairs and dens? Natural hiding places that nobody had yet detected. He hoped they'd all be empty.

But Lih’s inkling told him… something was wrong. He couldn’t explain it. And Nox wasn’t really interested in anything Lih had to say. 

In any case he should check in; the domovoi channel should be within range at the tunnel entrance. He keyed the send button.

“Sir? We’re here. Respond.” Lih delicately adjusted the dials of his microbead, boosting its signal. “Sir? This is Lih. Do you read me?”

Crackle.
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#3
Lying on the 30 degree angled bench, arms out, muscles corded and straining with 110 pounds dumbbells in each hand, sweat trickling down the side of his face, Ivan concentrated. Slowly he lowered them until his upper arm was on the same plane as his torso, arms iron hard as they came to a stop. Then, carefully, methodically, he pushed back up in a sweeping motion, straightening his arms as he pressed up, bringing the weights together, focusing on his upper chest, trying to feel the fibers contract tightly, holding it, feeling them bunch. Lower, hold, raise, focus. Lower, hold, raise, focus. He could lose himself in the work as he visualized every movement, enjoying the burn and the strain, the thundering pounding of his heart, could feel the blood flowing, the hold and burst of inhale and exhale.

Working out was how Ivan cleared his mind. It was probably similar to when people meditated. Even though he wasn't consciously thinking about his problems, somehow the workout would sometimes leave him with answers. And even if not, it gave him something productive he could do. Something he could control.

An hour later, he headed home, showered and then ate- a simple chicken stew mixed with sour cream and rice and a big glass of milk. Post workout nutrition was important, otherwise what he done would be wasted. The body had to repair itself. And he was fucking famished. Despite the morning- Dorian- he felt better. He was in a peaceful place as he rinsed his dishes and put them away. He thought about going to Danya and Zara's but Nox's warnings rang in his ears. If they weren't already on Yun's radar, visiting them without care would do it soon.

Instead, he video called them and they talked, Zara's little face filling the holo-screen, gap toothed smile- she'd just lost her first- making him laugh. She was sitting in Danya's lap, obscuring part of her mother's face, but Ivan could see the twinkle of a smile in her eyes. Danya had been teaching her to read and Ivan listened, heart warm, as she struggled to work her way through "The Little Sea Lion". He and Danya didn't say much, tonight. This was enough. Later, when Zara was asleep he might call her, maybe explain the situation he was in- that they- were in. But something about doing that bothered him. This wasn't a conversation he wanted to have over the phone.

He did call, later, but mostly to talk about Zara. He was sure she knew he was holding something back. But she didn't press him. More and more, he wanted to tell her he loved her. He was being pulled, as sure as gravity pulled the weights that had been in his hands. But saying it- putting it out there- scared him. Part of him knew she had to be feeling this too. There was no way she was saying and doing things the way she did- treated him the way she treated him- without feeling it too. Intellectually, he knew this.

But insecurity was never based in logic. It grew from fear. From uncertainty. He knew she wasn't playing him. But perhaps she didn't know her own heart. And for him to say it- to try to define this thing between them- could pop this bubble that currently surrounded him like a warm blanket in a soft bed in a cold room. He wasn't sure he was ready to find out the reality. Not yet.

"Take care, Danya," he said softly, his voice earnest with unspoken love.

"You too, Ivan." And in her quiet voice he thought he heard the same tenderness.

That night Ivan slept hard, his mind no longer plaguing him with endless churning that had usually required a drink before he could drift off.

The next morning, he was up before dawn. Not his favorite, no sir. He hated getting up before the sun was out. But Nox and Lih would be there and waiting for him. And he had a job to do. Only....which one was it? Yun didn't want the missing scientist found. The text had led to an envelop, single sentence on a piece of paper, her spidery signature sharp and unflinching. And yet they were headed down to fight whatever was down there that threatened the surface. And also to find that scientist.

Ivan's stomach churned as he tried to eat. He knew he would need his strength, but he didn't feel hungry. Removing footage or something from evidence was one thing. Quick and momentary. This was something altogether different. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to keep them from finding this man. Dorian had shot him in the head. But the body was missing and there were no fragments. So if they found it, what was Ivan supposed to do? Burn it up?

The man could channel and was turning into those creatures. Ivan had seen how hard they died. Maybe he was still alive. How was he supposed to do this? Because he knew he would do what he was told to do. At least for now. Until he figured a way out.

Still, it didn't make the queasy feeling go away.

When he parked his car, he sat there for a moment. Finally, "Gotta do what you gotta do, Ivan," and he got out. His side piece was there, of course. He also had a small container of quarter inch diameter iron ball bearings. He'd thought about what Nox had said.

His feet crunched as he walked up to Nox and Lih. Nox had an ammo bag that seemed be filled with stuff, while Lih had a crossbow and some bolts. He breathed and forced a smile. "I guess it's time to party."
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#4
Nox watched as Viktor Lih came up to him with donuts. Of all cliche's he could have brought coffee. Nox set his cup down and watched as Lih talked to Nova. It was odd that the man knew his dog. But then he had been to the mansion before and Nova would have been there. It was slightly off putting but Nox let it slide didn't mention that or the donuts, but he didn't take one. He'd had breakfast enough and coffee was about all he really wanted in his stomach as they went down into the depths of the earth. The smells and the power didn't mix and sometimes it made the stomach sick up. Nox didn't want to taste sweet donuts coming back up. He shuddered at the thought.

Lih went off to try to contact the police on his comms he could hear him trying to get though so Nox spoke loudly. "We don't want back up. Too many guns and we'll all die. So just check in and give us a few hours but don't coming looking for us." Nox knew this was dangerous. He knew the kid had to be scared. Again Nox was reminded that didn't always equate to experience.

Ivan arrived with only a gun. He was either confident in himself or expected Nox to have more. But then both men weren't armeed to the teeth as he'd expected. It was good that he'd brought more than enough.

Nox unpacked his bag. But first things first. "Sage said you went offline a while ago." Nox held up a small oval container with a pair of land warrior lens that Sage had give him. "I can't help you use them, but the controls are linked into my land warriors so I can manipulate the maps and things you see, but how you can do it yourself I don't know. That's something you'd have to take up with Sage's guy cause even Sage won't know."

Nox pulled out his own trusty land warriors, the lens were a little scratched in the front but it didn't get in the way and he was used to them. The second pair - the pair Aria had used were in perfectly good shape. "These were Aria's. They should do you well." Nox put them aside for Ivan.

Nox pulled the collapsed crossbow and stood up hanging it on his left belt loop. The bolts were slung through the ammo pouch like the small vials of stuff was. He pulled out the glass shards and dumped in the handful of glass he'd made earlier. then stuck it in it's little compartment for later use.

He checked his gun and strapped a second beretta to his belt. He pushed a few other guns at Lih and Ivan. "You can never have too much." Nova trotted up to Nox and he ran his fingers through the Husky's thick fur. "you stay with me now." He said as he strapped remander of the weapons to Nova's back on his harness. Today Nova would go leashless but he listened most of the time, hoopefully in the heat of battle things would be alright. This was dangerous, but it was also very necessary. Nova needed experience, no better way than with others to help just in case.

"So this is how it's going to work. I'm going to take point. Ivan you got the rear. The land warriors have a visual and detailed map of where I've been and what I've found. The location where Dorian thinks he left Pavlo's body is marked on the map. It's a bit of a way in. But not too far. He was running from Atharim and was using it as a trap, so that's where we start." Nox started up the land warriors and got their positions. "The land warriors also so our vitals, so pay attention, if one of us goes red we get the fuck out." Nox started in to the tunnels. "And now we move. If we get into a mass of these things. Ivan, you take the far ranges. Lih, it's your job to watch our back and try to catch any that get past Ivan. I'll help you with that but I'll be taking on the ones that come in close. No wild shooting. A bullet to the head is a far better shot than center mass. Roug's hearts are shifted so even though they look human they aren't."

Nox drew upon the source and wove a thick wall of air in front of them. It only needed to be completed in order to stop whatever was in front of them. The land warriors cameras saw nothing, but he wasn't looking through the feeds. He had them off. He couldn't zoom in like Sage could he needed to see in order to weave. And that was why he was here. Nox split his flow and made good old stand by fire and air razor whip and tied it off at his side. He would be ready.

Nox spoke quietly but he rambled on about what they might encounter to break up the silence. Silence was good but at this present moment Nox didn't want there to be silence. A missing body was not a good thing. And Nox wanted to look around to see what they could find. A trail, a patch of darkened rock anything that said this thing was true and dead, but he didn't hold out hope. The cops found nothing and Nox didn't like that one bit.
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#5
Really? Well, damn.

Lih stared at the atharim in amazement. There was no denying it. Nox was serious about this. He watched in bemused wonder as Nox worked.

Due to his proximity to Dorian, Lih had been drafted to assist with searching. He was dutifully and seriously moving from house to house along the search perimeter, knocking on doors and asking the locals if they recognized pictures of Alistair’s face or had seen anything untoward. But that had not been fruitful, so here he was with Nox.

As the search party got ready to switch its focus, Lih caught a moment alone with his check-in, manned by one of the domovoi officers.

“Big boss says no backup,” said Viktor Lih, “don’t come after us even if we don’t come out.”

“Oh, right, yeah. Why?” asked the voice at the receiving end.

Lih recognized it instantly. The sound almost brought a spontaneous tear to his eyes: not a tear of sadness or weakness, but a sudden upwelling of emotion. To be here, so many days later, and to hear his oldest friend coming to his aid, on this very spot…

Lih did not cry. It was a design feature his new lenses did not possess.

He blinked.

Once again Lih could see him, as clear as day:

Costa was smiling his shit-eating smile, his “let’s blow the rest of the day off and go to this little bar I know” smile. His cap was on at its trademark, almost jaunty, entirely nonconformist angle.

Everything was going to be okay.

“Costa,” he breathed. He swallowed. It was very hard to stay professional.

“Viktor, can I come with you? Help you in any way?”

Lih stared at Nox, who was standing nearby. There was a great deal unspoken in the stare. Nox’s instructions were clear. They were already risking the lives of two officers, and that was two too many.

“Thank you, no. I’d like to keep you out of danger.” Lih replied. He turned and walked away briskly to continue his conversation.

“I had a horrible feeling you were going to say that,” said Costa. “Seriously, man, it’s great to get good people on your side. Something’s going on. I think I overheard something about an atharim is leading the way with your operation? Is that right? You think you can handle it?”

“I’m happy to serve. You’ll be informed any developments in due course, should they concern you. What have you figured out?”

“That Dorian has friends in high places, Viktor,” Costa mocked. “And he has friends in very low places too. How’s the atharim, this Nox?”

“Experienced. Eager to hunt. He’s—“

“What?” asked Costa.

“A good man,” Lih whispered to Costa. “He couldn’t risk putting anybody else in danger. This man is as bad as you.”

“It must be contagious,” said Costa. “A lot depends on this, Viktor, and I won’t be there to hold your hand all the way.”

“Really?” he mocked, “I don’t remember you giving birth to me, mother.” He looked down at his gloved hands, and sighed. “And you will cry like a little girl if I die, so I’ll do as Nox says and be coming back from this alive.” He looked at his wallet. It was half-to, almost. ”We have to move, anyway.”

“Right,” Costa nodded, “you’d better get moving then.”

“Don’t come after us.”

“See you later. The light protects.”

“Thanks, Costa. Lih out.”

Lih looked over his shoulder, and spotted Ivan standing with Nox, watching him from a distance. Lih began to walk towards them.

Closing in on them from this angle, he saw a strange expression on Ivan’s face. The smile didn’t make it to his eyes, as if in the extremity of the moment, a civilized veneer had become hard for Ivan to maintain.

But then again, Lih’s new lenses had been showing him an awful lot of noise. Every step he’d dismissed the images as system errors, as glitches, as optical reconciliation, as patterns of his eyes getting used to Aria’s land warriors. They weren’t as intuitive as Sage’s lenses were, and would be hard to control with any finesse on the go.

Nox was finishing repacking his bag. He was ready to go. Lih could see that Nox and Ivan were armed. Their weapons were held low but ready.

“Well, I can tell you,” said Lih, flashing a quick grin at the big officer, “that there won’t be any gatecrashers to the party. Not from our side anyway. Glad you could join us, Ivan. Nox is giving away guns like candy.”

Lih had left his automatic before leaving his flat. He reached down to where his knife was strapped to his thigh under his camo jacket.

He then drew his pistol, and checked the load. Then he holstered it and checked the charge of the small handgun from Nox that he kept in a shoulder rig under his camp jacket as a backup piece. Given the sledgehammer effect of the standard issue officer’s pistol, Lih reasoned that he might soon have need of the handgun’s finesse.

With Nova, Ivan and Lih in tow, Nox walked away in the direction of the tunnel entrance. Crossbow up and aiming, Lih came in over the threshold, hunting for a target.

They were moving, spaced out a distance from each other. He was swept up in it now, the real thing.

Though it was hard to see with the new lenses, Lih was backing up Ivan and Nox with the bow readied at his chest. Twice, he stopped and aimed it at what appeared to be movement behind them.

He raised his weapon again, but avoided loose and haphazard shooting. Besides, he wasn’t going to waste precious bolts on a target he couldn’t see.

Nox was telling him and Ivan both, that rougs look like humans, and the words had made Lih shiver in remembrance.

He flexed his thin shoulders to settle the strap of his heavy crossbow, and imagined pumping its fat bolts into another person. Headshots.

Could the other two see the fear on Lih’s face, he wondered?

Lih felt the air chill.

Putting away the bow, he reached for the reassuring grip of his pistol. It felt comfortable in his hand. He kept close to the group, and picked up his visual checking. He noticed that both Nox and Ivan were scanning the area too. They’d felt something as well, and whatever they were, both of them were fighters first. They had keen skills that could never erode.

Lih kept his hand on his gun as he let the lithe atharim guide his party into the shadows of the underground tunnels.

He sidled close to ‘big brother’ Ivan while Nox was talking to kill the tension.

“Ivan,” he hissed. (Yes, so now he’s Ivan to Lih)

“Uhm. Are you 'channeling' right now?” Lih whispered to Ivan as the atharim banged on. “Is he?”

“Any idea who's Aria?” Lih asked Ivan quietly, “I’m wearing her lenses, apparently.”

Of course, Aria might reference something that Ivan didn’t have any knowledge of. Lih should have asked Nox about Aria, but she might be very specific to his relationship with Dorian, and Lih didn’t want to piss off the atharim or his partner.

After all, Nox and Dorian had known each other for a long time. 

Lih
armed with crossbow, 2 guns, knife, curiosity
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