Securing a property against physical assault was one thing. Securing it without being detected was something else. But creating the illusion of weakness, while still offering an invisible yet irresistible defense, now that was a mission worthy of the STS.
Karim was willing to stand watch outside the temple forever, but it would merely prolong the stalemate. It signaled that Galen had forces capable of defending his holdings, but not so powerful that they could threaten the Street Wolves, never mind the Pantheon. It would keep the wolves at bay, but only until they committed enough resources to overwhelm Karim and the temple.
The STS did not do defense. Defense was simply what you did before going on the offense, or when there were no clear threats on the horizon. Yuri had drilled that into them. If a Dark Power were allowed to marshal its strength, no defense built by human hands alone could stop him.
And if you want to start a war with a Dark Power, make it look like it was its idea.
In the daylight hours, Karim stood watch. He paced the grounds of the temple, Revolution shotgun under his coat. He installed cameras on the front and rear doors. He welcomed visitors to the temple and sneered at the Street Wolves when they came.
The Wolves walked past at regular intervals, hurling insults at him, but always scurried off when they saw the gun. The Pantheon were content with keeping watch, switching out surveillance vehicles every day. They were so focused on Karim, they didn’t notice Kayla skulking in the shadows.
In the late afternoon, Kayla emerged from her motel room, her weapons stowed in a large duffel bag, dressed in the dull dark overalls of a blue collar worker. She could be a mechanic, plumber, technician, someone who needed to carry heavy tools around all day. She didn’t tell the world what she was, allowing people around her to draw their own conclusions.
After a suitably winding route through Babylon, she approached the street opposite the Temple from the east, keeping the buildings between her and the Pantheon surveillance team. Karim, with eyes borrowed from Galen, had confirmed that the only surveillance presence was physical. No watcher spirits lurking in the Aether, no long-range technical surveillance devices, no civilians paying too much attention to the building. She conducted her own security sweep, checking that there were no other players in the vicinity, and moved out.
There were plenty of places in the area to set up a security position, if this were a high-profile asset protection operation. If she were still in the STS, she’d have backup, she could occupy any site and any room she wished without fear of legal repercussions, she could set the scene exactly the way she wanted to. But an operator dealt with the world as it was, not with ifs.
Her first choice would be a room overlooking the street. Mixed-use apartments lined the road across the temple. Many rooms offered clean line of sight, wide field of view, concealment from observers. But they were all occupied. Without a badge, there was no way she was going to set up. Even if she had one, the apartments were in Pantheon turf. If a sniper showed up, the New Gods would know.
Her second choice was the street. Lie up in a vehicle, keep eyes on the street, gun close at hand for immediate action. But the Pantheon had that covered. If she had to respond to a threat, she would give them an eyeful. Worse, it would undermine the narrative they had to sell.
That left her with only one choice: the roof.
The street-facing side of the apartments were for businesses and balconies. Residents accessed the buildings through a narrow back alley. In between rows of doors and dumpsters, fire escapes climbed up the sides of the apartments.
Cameras watched the residential entrances, but none watched the fire escapes. The fire escapes used sliding ladders, presently retracted, to prevent ground floor access. It would deter most people. Not the STS.
Her bag shouldered like a backpack, Kayla assessed her options. She thought about climbing up on the dumpster, then jumping up on the fire escape. But, no, that was for video games. The dumpster was ancient, paint peeling off to reveal rusted metal, the cover replaced with thin lightweight plastic. She doubted it would take her weight.
At the bottom of the fire escape, just out of the camera’s sight, she slipped on a pair of cotton gloves, then tiptoed and stretched.
Her fingers found only empty air.
The fire escape leered down at her, two arm’s lengths away.
She could simply jump up, grab the ledge, pull herself up. But the duffel bag weighed her down, and if she missed, she’d stumble in front of a camera. No sense taking unnecessary risks. Instead, she unzipped her bag and produced a folding grappling hook.
The STS didn’t use hooks, not like this. They had grapnel launchers, folding ladders, dropships if they needed vertical access. Muscle-powered grappling hooks weren’t part of the standard inventory. Operators who wanted to use hooks had to source them on their own.
Which was why the government hadn’t confiscated hers after the STS shut down. It wasn’t, after all, official government property.
She unfolded the prongs, locked them in place, tested each blade. She unraveled the bundle of rope tied to the eye bolt, letting it fall over the lid. Hook in hand, she coiled herself up. Aimed.
The hook said through the air, higher and higher, scraped against the brick, fell.
And snagged the guardrail.
She yanked, testing the anchor. The rail was deceptively thin, but it held fast. Thick coats of paint protected the metal from the elements. The hook was locked solidly in place. It was good to go.
She took a deep breath and hauled herself up.
Dangling in mid-air, she allowed the rope to fall to the outside of her right foot. She snagged the rope with her left foot, then pinched it against the side of her right foot, wrapping the rope under the arch of her right foot and over the top of her left.
She pulled herself up. Re-established her grip with her feet. Straightened. Pulled. Repeated.
She swung back and forth, oscillating like a pendulum. She slowed down, keeping herself from falling into the ambit of the camera. She pulled up, and up, and up, keeping her direction vertical as much as she—
A loud squeak cut through her thoughts.
She pulled up.
And the anchor shifted.
She scrambled. More squeaking. More shifts. The guardrail bowed outwards under her weight. Technique and stealth went out the window. Now was just speed and strength and nothing else.
Metal groaned. creaked. Screeched. One more pull and she gripped the ledge of the fire escape. It held, thank God. She pulled herself up and through the gap—
The bag. It was too huge, too bulky. It caught on the guardrail.
She wriggled. Twisted. Squirmed. Strength bled from her hands and arms. Pain shot through muscles and nerves. And still she couldn’t fit.
She grabbed the rope again and pulled herself up.
The guardrail bent.
She snatched at a straight section of rail. Hoisted herself up on the fire escape.
And the rail held. Finally.
She vaulted over the rail, careful to avoid the compromised section. Then she retrieved the hook and the rope.
That was close. Too close. As she worked, she saw that the bolts holding the rail to the rail had loosened, either from her weight or the weather or both. If she had stayed on for much longer, the whole structure could have collapsed. She wasn’t climbing down this way.
She held on to the hook and rope in one hand. With the other, she climbed the stairs, heading up to the third floor. She moved slowly, letting her rubber-soled boots absorbed the sound of the—
A one-sided conversation floated from below. She reached the landing. Pressed herself against the wall. Waited.
“I’m saying, we gotta buy now. The market is so bearish it’s crazy. It’s bleeding red everywhere. Opportunities like this are once in a year, hell, once in a decade.”
Below her feet, a young man yapped into his smartglasses, oblivious to her presence. He strolled down the alley, talking about technical analyses and stocks and market trends, looking everywhere but up.
He fished out his keys, let himself into the apartment, and shut it behind him.
She breathed out.
And climbed up.
The fire escape reached up to the sixth floor. No roof access. But she was ready for that. She lobbed the hook over the parapet and pulled. The hook caught the edge of the low brick wall and held fast. Within moments, she climbed up and over, landing on the roof.
She was all alone here. The odor of ancient bird droppings greeted her. Air conditioners and giant fans whirred loudly. She retrieved the hook and rope, stowing them in her bag, and inspected the roof access door.
Locked, but it was a simple cylinder lock. She retrieved a heavy-duty door stop from her bag and wedged it tightly in place. Then she fitted a noisemaker to the knob. If anybody tried to enter, she’d know.
Keeping low, she crawled to the edge of the roof and peeked out, careful not to expose herself. From here, she had a clear view of the street and the temple. And Karim.
He stood by the entrance, a guardian werewolf, practically immovable. If he were aware she had arrived, he didn’t show it.
She set her bag down, bundled up the rope, and rested the hook next to the bag. She extracted a gray groundsheet from the bag and spread it across the floor, then lay atop it. She removed a gray tactical mesh and pulled it over herself and her bag. It wasn’t perfect camouflage, but it would break up the lines of her body. There were a few buildings taller than this one nearby, and if people looked out at her, they’d see only a bundle of cloth. Not a person. Or, even better, they might not even notice at all.
Under the netting, she unzipped the main compartment of her bag and removed the railgun. She pushed the deployment button on the vertical grip. The grip split in half, a sturdy leg shot out of either end, and just like that she had a bipod. She rested the weapon next to her, adjusted the legs until they were just the right height, then dug out the ammunition.
Three magazines, two tumblers, one penetrator. She locked a tumbler mag into the railgun and carefully chambered a round. She set the other two in front of her, within easy reach. Then she removed the fuel cartridge and slotted it into place.
The gun was live.
She pressed herself to the hard brick and tapped the power button of her eyeshields. These were scaled up smartglasses, the lenses rated for ballistic protection, its integrated earpieces capable of defending against loud noises.
The eyeshields booted up. Icons floated in augmented reality before her. She brought her fingers before her lenses. The camera captured the movement, drawing circles over them. She tapped the home screen icon, then the secure message app. Working on a virtual keyboard, she composed a new message.
Karim’s response was instant.
Now came the easy part: waiting.
There was nothing to it. Just lie in place and allow time to flow past as it inevitably did. The sun tracked downwards across the sky, painting red and orange hues across an infinite blue. The hum of gravity mirrors grew thicker and louder, further and softer, as rush hour approached. Kayla lay where she was and went completely still.
Minutes passed. Hours passed. Light faded. When dusk fell, Karim messaged her.
She tapped out a one-word response.
She worked the icons again, streaming the camera feed to her lenses. With so many aerial vehicles and windows nearby, she didn’t want to poke her head up if she could help it.
The feed was grainy and blurry. But it had colors, depth perception, and most importantly, motion detection and night vision mode.
More time passed. The last of the light fled the world, leaving it swathed in shadows and darkness. Distant alarms wailed in the night. People retreated into the safety of their homes. Cars emptied from the street.
The Pantheon surveillance team remained.
She watched and waited.
People shuffled down the sidewalk. Dog walkers, joggers, couples, families. The motion detector alerted on them all, vibrating her eyeshields. In night vision, in stark black and white, she couldn’t make out many details, but she could see enough to read hands and body language.
Her greatest enemy was boredom, and from boredom came fatigue. When a person or a car passed, she played a mental game, logging everything she could see, constructing a narrative from them. That woman was too exhausted to pay careful attention to her children, that man was too engrossed in his phone to notice his date, that car was too beat-up and rundown for this neighborhood. More than just keeping herself awake, it helped her identify people and vehicles that didn’t belong.
At a quarter to nine, a single male strode down the street. He swaggered with confidence and purpose, his vibe hot and fiery. He buried his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, glancing furtively at windows at doors. At the Temple. At cars. At the Temple. At streets. At the Temple once again.
Kayla’s heart continued thumping in a slow rhythm. Her breath remained deep and regular. But electricity trickled down her spine. Was this a scout?
She studied him. His height, hairstyle, the lupine set of his jaw, the way he comported himself.
The subject walked right up to the Temple gates. He peered at the windows, the door, the roof. He fiddled with the gate—locked of course—and looked around for witnesses. He spotted the camera, froze, and looked down.
And scurried away.
When the street was empty again, Kayla typed out a contact report on her message app and sent it on. A minute later, Karim replied.
Keep an eye out. Could be nothing, but just in case, I’m in State Yellow.
High alert. One step down from unleashing a firestorm—and only because there were no identified hostiles around him.
Kayla settled down, watched, and waited.
At half past nine, two cars drove up and parked right in front of the Temple. Five men, all of them in leather jackets, stepped out.
Including the man she spotted.
She snapped a photo of the scene and whispered a voice message.
“Contact. Possible assault imminent. Standing to.”
Two men stood guard, watching the sides of the road. The other three hauled out black gym bags and placed them on the trunks. Bags like hers.
Easy shot, no more than thirty-five meters at most. Practically point blank. She reached for the railgun, bringing it to…
There were five threats. The railgun needed five seconds to recharge between shots. She’d timed it at Lamb’s basement range when she tested and zeroed the weapon. She might take one, maybe two, then the others would flee. Or return fire. And if they were Street Wolves, if they transformed and rushed her, the railgun wouldn’t recharge fast enough.
She reached into the bag, bringing out her other gun.
Her Revolution shotgun.
Thirty-five meters. A long shot, even with slugs and an eighteen-inch barrel. She’d patterned the shotgun at twenty meters. That meant she had to hold the weapon high. Aim for the throat, strike center of mass.
She only had six shots. Five in the mag, one in the chamber. But she’d secured a second magazine to the first with a magazine clamp. It would be enough. She had to make it so.
The reflex sight burned red in the darkness. She dialed down the power, just bright enough to see without washing out the sight picture. She cleared out the camera feed, braced her weapon on the parapet, and looked down.
In the streetlights, she saw three men gathered at the trunk of the lead vehicle, two more on lookout. The men dug out large jars from the bags, placing them side by side. She couldn’t tell what they were, but there were at least a half-dozen of them.
The group grabbed a jar each in one hand. One of them sparked a lighter and held it to the jar.
A flame ignited.
He touched the lighter to a second jar. Another flame. Then a third.
The red dot jumped to the left man’s head. Her thumb clicked off the safety. Her subconscious brain worked the solution, calculating angles and pivots and follow-up. Her finger touched the trigger.
The shotgun boomed. The muzzle flash tore the night. She heard and saw none of it. Her eyeshields darkened the lenses and muted the earbuds, saving her sight and hearing. The Molotov cocktail fell from a limp hand.
She turned to the next threat. The brass catcher was a big, awkward pouch strapped over the ejection port, slowing her down a little, but not by much. He was frozen, gaping at his buddy, looking for the threat. She fired, felt the weapon punch into her shoulder, saw a blazing Molotov drop, moved on.
The third man screamed, running for cover. She led him by a touch, trusting in her subconscious to run the math, and fired.
And he fell.
She moved on to the next threat. The closer of the two lookouts. He was hiding under a streetlight, digging under his jacket, going for a gun. She took an extra moment to aim, to place the red dot on his forehead, fired.
She’d missed. Slightly. The heavy one-ounce slug blasted into the streetlamp, throwing out a shower of sparks, shorting out the light, and ricocheted into the man’s face. In the sudden darkness she saw—thought she saw—someone drop.
A man screamed in agony. Another moan. A third cursed. And fired.
Bullets whacked into the brick. She retreated from the edge, squirming to her right. Hot rounds whooshed past her ear. She popped up again and scanned.
Muzzle flash by a hood.
She fired an instant later. A man screamed.
She scanned again. The third man she’d shot dragged himself awkwardly across the asphalt, his arm limp and floppy, escaping the treacherous firelight. She settled the dot carefully over his head and fired.
And he went still.
She fell back from the edge and ejected the now-empty magazine. Rammed in the fresh one, worked the bolt, rolled to the left, poked her head up.
The Molotov men were down and out. The guy by the streetlight was done. The last one, the other lookout who had—
A wolf howled.
A pistol scorched in the darkness, by the trunk of the lead car. More rounds slapped the parapet, whooshing past her ear, well to her left. She brought the red dot to the muzzle flash and fired. Lowered the shotgun and fired a second slug through the trunk.
And suddenly, silence.
She ripped off the remaining rounds in the magazine, insurance shots to keep the Molotov men down. As she stowed her guns and gear, she composed another voice message.
“Engaged five threats. They had Molotovs and handguns. All threats neutralized. Exfiltrating the area.”
As she worked, a cold part of her brain whispered that she had committed murder. Yes, the Street Wolves were armed. Yes, by planning to burn down the temple, with the priest living on the upper floor, they had placed his life at risk. Yes, it was a justified shoot in the eyes of the law.
But she’d set them up.
When Karim had pulled out, he’d created the illusion of vulnerability. He had tempted the Street Wolves to escalate. Without the temple’s protector around, they’d thought they could step up. If they couldn’t find him and exact revenge, they’d burn down what he held dear.
Instead, they’d simply entered the killzone.
The ambush had gone down in front of the Pantheon surveillance team. They’d stayed put and watched it all unfold without intervening, without running. That took guts. She could give them that. But now the clock was ticking, and she and Karim and seize control of the narrative.
In peacetime it would be murder. But this wasn’t a time of peace any more. The New Gods had declared war on humanity long ago. They’d chosen to pressure Galen, the Street Wolves had chosen to escalate instead of respecting his boundaries, and the Pantheon would not long abide a nonaffiliated god on their doorstep. The Pantheon would escalate too.
This was a time of war.
And this was just pre-emptive defense.
Sirens screamed in the distance. Kayla rolled up the camouflage net and shoved it into the pack. She returned the noisemaker and doorstop to the bag. She swept the area with her gloved hands, checking for any evidence left behind, then stowed the groundsheet. Hook in hand, she hustled to the edge of the roof. She lowered herself down to the landing, then stowed the hook and ran down to the second floor. She lowered the ladder and clambered down.
When her boots hit the street, a familiar van shot past the alley mouth. The Pantheon team was pulling out at last.
She drew a cap from her pocket and pulled it low over her face. Hunched over and strode off into the night. And fired up her glasses.
“Lycan, Deadeye. Initiate Phase Two.”
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