For the Good of All
Karim was many things. Cop. Operator. Protector. Elect. In his short life he had seen so much, done too much. He had saved many people, yes, but he’d also killed more men and monsters than he’d dared to count. He’d upheld the law, but he’d also gutted a government. Of all the things he’d done, there was one thing he wasn’t.
Staring out the windshield, dark thoughts bubbled through his head. How the hell had his life gotten to this point? What the hell was he even doing here? Why the hell was he even doing this?
When the STS shut down, it felt like a part of him had died. He’d spent his life working up the ladder, taking on the monsters that threatened Babylon. It was who he was, and Galen’s support made him a better warrior, a better protector. Having reached the top of the tactical food chain, any lesser assignment felt like a demotion, an insult, a hollowing out of who he was.
For the first three months, he wandered the length and breadth of the country, telling himself that he was still underground and on the run. Maybe the truth was, if he’d found a job in another PD, he’d have to start again from the bottom, and he couldn’t stand it.
Karim Mustafa, the man who’d run with Team Black Watch, who had stared down the New Gods and rooted out corruption in the highest levels of government, who had been chosen by Galen himself. After a life like that, how could he go back to writing parking tickets? How could anyone?
Still, reality kicked in. His savings were running low. And by choosing Galen, he had cut himself off from his clan, from the people who still believed in the absent Allah. Finally he’d swallowed his pride and applied for jobs. Was it too little? Too late?
He didn’t know. Only that his choices, one after another, had brought him to this point.
He’d thought Galen was finished with him. For those six months on the road, not once had Galen called out to him. To be fair, neither had he. Not once had he touched his powers or acted in his name. Some nights he’d even allowed himself to believe that he’d retired from being an Elect.
But there was no such thing as retirement. Not for those chosen by the gods.
And the hell of it was, this felt right.
Using the power again. Crushing those who oppressed the innocent. Gearing up and getting ready to take on bigger beasts. It felt right. It felt true. It felt like… a calling.
This isn’t murder. This is war.
Some Elect had difficulty telling the difference between their thoughts and those of their gods. Karim never had that problem. He recognized Galen’s voice anywhere.
And Galen was right.
The New Gods were at war. War with Babylon, war with each other, war with humanity. No matter what the Babylon Accords said, they could not, must not, be treated like criminals. The STS treated them exactly as they were, archdemons whose very existence threatened all of mankind. For that reason, the New Gods and their allies had to destroy them.
The Pantheon was composed entirely of jealous, wrathful and paranoid gods. A toxic combination. They could not, would not, leave Galen in peace. They might have been less aggressive than the Street Wolves, for now, but they were far more dangerous. They would see the attempted arson, and the ambush, as a golden opportunity to manipulate people and events their way.
They had to be dealt with now, before it was too late.
And if that meant walking up to a Pantheon official and blowing him away, well, that was what had to be done, for the good of all.
Thus, here he was now, observing a curry shop.
Kumar Curry & Naan was a low-key restaurant gaining prominence in foodie circles. Critics raved about the freshness of its ingredients, the crispiness of its breads, the incredible balance of flavors in its dishes. It attracted a dense crowd of customers from morning to midnight.
Which made it a great place to wash money and discuss business.
The business permit named Raja Kumar as the sole proprietor. BPD knew he was a member of the Pantheon, he who worshiped the King of Wisdom. PSB pegged him a Vaishya, one who supported the Pantheon through business and commerce.
The restaurant was a cash-heavy business. Easy for dirty money to go in and clean money to come out. There were also plenty of instruments available on site for the disposal of inconvenient corpses. His PSB dossier was filled with rumor and innuendo. There was no hard evidence for murder, only testimonials from lower-ranking Pantheon soldiers. But the financial forensics wizards had, with their arcane sorcery, had tracked multiple streams of dirty money to the restaurant, while the Supernatural Crimes Division had drawn solid links between Kumar and known Pantheon hitters.
The only reason Kumar was still around was because the PSB had bigger fish to fry. For now.
The human authorities didn’t want to lay a finger on Kumar. But Karim and Kayla weren’t cops any more. They were outlaws. And they had to operate like outlaws.
Karim had taken a long drive through Babylon after leaving the temple and enjoyed dinner at a noodle stand in the middle of a plaza, in front of the public eye. Then he drove to a bar and hung around, where all and sundry could see him, until Kayla had gunned down the Street Wolves.
He’d waited for precisely eighteen minutes—a round figure would attract suspicion—and drove off again. He’d parked his car in a multi-story parking garage near a park, then headed to the top floor and climbed into a gravcar. That vehicle was rented in Kayla’s name, the license plates plastered over with stickers.
Street cameras all over Babylon read license plates for many reasons. Red light enforcement. Tracking stolen vehicles. Finding wanted suspects. If a vehicle were in a criminal database somewhere in the country, the cameras would flag it automatically. But if a license plate did not exist in any database, the cameras didn’t care. They weren’t programmed to.
He landed the vehicle five blocks away and drove the rest of the distance. No traffic cameras flagged him, no cop cars noticed him. So here he was now, slumped over in his seat, watching and waiting.
The clock struck midnight. The lights promptly dimmed. Every other shop along the block closed a long time ago. Kumar’s Curry was finally following in their footsteps. Customers streamed out the doors. Karim raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes, studying them all.
No Kumar. But that was all right.
Cars and bikes pulled out from the parking lot. Soon, there were only a handful left. An hour later, the night shift workers were finally done with their chores. They filed out the restaurant, dispersing to every direction. Some trudged to the parking lot, others called cabs. The lights on the second floor, however, remained on. Karim studied the staff one by one, checking that Kumar wasn’t among them, and waited.
Finally, there was just one car left. A silver gravcar, classier than the staff’s, classier than the patrons, a car fit for a chosen of the Pantheon.
A car parked under a streetlight with a mounted camera.
Another hour passed. At last, the lights went out, plunging the building into darkness. Karim stirred, bringing his binoculars up once more.
A figure exited the door.
“Lycan, Deadeye. I have eyes on three subjects. No ID on any of them. Designate the taller female as Alice, the smaller female as Betty, the male as Charlie.”
Kayla was set up in a rented van down the street, rear doors facing the parking lot, ready to deploy her railgun in moments.
In their planning phase, they had anticipated multiple subjects. It made things more difficult, but not impossible. They just had to work with it.
“Me neither,” Karim replied. “Let them walk out into the light.”
But they kept the shadows. In the sodium orange glow, he made out the silhouettes of two women, their arms wrapped around a shorter and fatter man. No faces, no distinguishing marks, nothing but body lines and hair length.
But they approached the silver car.
Karim tracked them, his binocs set to 8X, balancing resolution with field of view. He wished for night vision, thermal vision, a drone, something that could get him positive ID in the dark.
But he was an Elect, and he had options.
I need Aethersight, he thought.
And so you shall have it.
Warmth flood his eyes. A veil lifted from his face. And now he saw the energies of the world, flowing and twisting, gathering and dispersing.
Through the lenses, he saw burnished gold and deep purple energies radiating from the group.
From all three figures.
“Deadeye, Lycan. The subjects are Pantheon.”
“Copy. Is Charlie the target?”
“Not sure yet. Moving in.”
He folded set the binocs down and stepped out the car. He pulled his coat over himself, hiding the shorty shotgun slung around his neck. With the stock collapsed and folded, loaded with a five-shot magazine, the Revolution was no bigger than a machine pistol. He could walk the streets like this and nobody could tell if he were packing. The trigger guard was swung down, the better to accommodate a transformed finger, ready for immediate deployment.
He approached the parking lot at a brisk pace. Not so fast that he would attract their attention, not so slow he could lose them. He placed his gaze at a spot above and far behind them, tracking them in his peripheral vision to avoid triggering the sense of being watched. He kept to the shadows, walking around splashes of streetlights, sliding past when he couldn’t.
There was no cover. No concealment. No way to avoid being watched. But that was the point. To carry this out, he had to be seen.
Five meters from the car, they spotted him. They picked up the pace, hustling for the car. Karim accelerated too.
“Making approach,” Karim whispered.
“Roger. Sights are hot.”
“Who are you?” a woman yelled. “What do you want?”
“Raja Kumar? Is that you?” Karim asked.
The male ignored him. He held out a small device. The car’s lights flashed. The locks released.
“Give the word and I’ll take out the engine.”
“Raja Kumar! Vaishya of the Pantheon! I am calling you out!” Karim boomed.
The group halted by the car. And turned to Karim.
“Who wants to know?” the man asked.
“Are you Raja Kumar?”
The trio’s energies shifted. Purple overpowered the gold, forming a solid wall.
“You’ve got balls, calling me out. Who are you? Who do you belong to?”
“Are you Raja Kumar?!”
The man stepped up. In the light he saw moles, hazel eyes, thinning hair, dark skin. Positive ID.
“We are the Street Wolves! Your men killed some of mine at the Temple of Galen! Blood demands blood!” Karim yelled.
The women stepped up, flanking him.
“Bullshit! We didn’t sanction a hit!” Kumar replied. “We don’t—”
“BLOOD AND DEATH!”
Eldritch energy surged through Karim. He welcomed it, embraced it, letting it change him. Clothes transmuted to fur and flesh. Muscles bulged, bones hardened, nails sharpened. His nose grew keener and sharper, picking up the scents of spices and salt, sweat and sex. The gun, once a welcome weight in his hands, was now a toy, a paperweight, barely registering in his senses. His eyes became Galen’s, and now, through the lenses of his eyeshields, he saw the truth of what these people were.
Soldiers of the Pantheon.
They didn’t freeze. They didn’t panic. They didn’t run. They did nothing a civilian would do—and everything a Godtouched Elect would.
The women stepped forward, drawing upon their gods, morphing to assume their divine form. Tight dresses and gaudy jewels melted into fur and fangs. Their knees bowed forward, growing an extra joint. Their arms lengthened, reaching down to their knees. Hands and shoes became clawed paws. Their faces elongated, their hair retreated, revealing triangular ears and feline muzzles. Sharp teeth burst from predatory jaws. Red eyes burned in the dark.
The werepantheresses screamed.
“Green light,” Karim whispered. “Alice.”
The railgun roared.
It was a sound unlike anything he’d heard before. It was like the peal of thunder, bottled up and dialed down, diffused and muffled, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Fractions of a moment after that terrific crash came a crack, sharper and higher-pitched, the wake of a sonic boom assaulting the left side of his face, so fast he almost didn’t notice it.
Then came a loud wet smack.
A tiny pinprick blossomed between the taller werepantheress’ eyes.
The back of her head detonated outwards in a halo of gore, showering Kumar.
Karim didn’t stop to watch. He swung up the shotgun in both hands, extending it out as far as the sling would take it, and fired.
A cloud of sixteen .30-inch pellets tore into Betty. At this range they barely had time to separate. The column of shot carved a tunnel of destruction through her chest, her heart, her spine. The shock of the blast held her upright for a moment, before she fell on her knees as though begging for forgiveness
Karim didn’t know if it were enough to stop an Elect of the Pantheon. He didn’t care. He fired again, this time obliterating her head. He turned to Alice, noted that she was lying in a lake of dark blood, and continued turning, moving on to Kumar.
Who was inside his car, starting the engine.
“Kill the car!” Karim ordered.
He pivoted in place and fired. At the last moment, Kumar ducked. The buckshot disintegrated the windshield, sending a shower of slivers into the car. Karim shuffled to his left, moving through a circle, approaching the cab, and fired again. The buckshot passed through the window, ripping up the driver’s seat, kicking up a storm of foam.
The railgun cracked.
Sparks jumped from the front of the gravcar. Metal shrieked and shattered. A cloud of steam burst forth, flinging the hood open. Kumar screamed.
Karim worked the trigger again and again, blasting up the vehicle. The car door crumpled under the blizzard of metal. Kumar shut up.
He wasn’t dead yet. Karim could smell the iron-rich scent of blood, taste the fear and anger and desperation, hear shallow huffing and puffing. He raced up to the car, clicked on the weapon light, saw—
The passenger door opened. Quick as a snake, Kumar scrambled out.
“Target is outside the vehicle!” Kayla warned.
His clothes vanished. His body ballooned. He grew, and grew, and grew, his arms and torso and neck and head growing to gargantuan proportions. His hands balled up into colossal fists. Rough, thick, hairless hide armored his flesh. Ivory tusks sprouted from his mouth. His nose stretched and strengthened, becoming a powerful trunk. Red eyes burned in rage.
Karim sidestepped, bringing the shotgun up and—
And Kumar flipped the car over.
The vehicle spun round and round, as if it were a toy tossed by a giant in a tantrum. Karim ducked, bending over. The car whooshed over him, inches away from clipping his skull. Kumar spread out his arms, threw back his head, and trumpeted a challenge.
Karim shot him in the face.
Kumar remained standing.
“Son of a bitch!”
Kumar had eaten the buckshot blast point-blank, to no effect. Karim mashed the trigger—
Kumar howled in rage. In the circle of white light, Karim saw red rivulets running down his face, from what was left of his eye sockets. Backing up, Karim ejected the magazine, reached for his coat—
Karim backpedaled. Kumar swiftly pivoted, homing in on him. He wasn’t using his eyes, Karim realized. He was seeking him out by hearing, by smell, by everything but sight. Even as he framed that thought, Kumar threw a loping overhand hook.
Karim swiveled, slipping the blow. Air whooshed past. Karim turned and—
And the other fist shot in like a cannon. Karim spun again, deflecting it with his forearms, the shock of the blow rattling through his bones.
Kumar lashed out and grabbed Karim’s shoulder.
Instinctively Karim pulled back. But the elephant man was strong, strong beyond belief. His grip crushed Karim’s bones and pulled him into a headbutt.
Karim lowered his head at the last moment. Crown smashed against crown. The blow left him dazed, reeling, seeing stars explode over his sight. Kumar grabbed his other shoulder and pulled him in again. Karim’s head collided with the curve of Kumar’s tusk.
The elephant man wriggled back and forth, trying to gore Karim. Karim struggled, trying to break free. But Kumar was strong, incomprehensibly strong, stronger than any Elect he had wrestled with. Kumar’s hands gripped the back of Karim’s neck in vice-like clinch. Karim released his shotgun, freeing his hands—
And Kumar shot his knee up into Karim’s face.
Karim blasted out his forearms, catching him in the thigh. As the leg fell, Karim sank into the blow, following the energy. Suddenly the grip on the back of Karim’s neck softened, loosened, broke.
Karim slipped away and out of his grip. Rose back up, now on Kumar’s outside, fangs and claws ready for the kill. He opened his jaws and—
“Lycan! Get clear of Kumar!”
—And jumped away.
Kumar trumpeted again.
The railgun fired.
The flechette struck Kumar just above his blown right eyeball, drilled into and through supernaturally dense bone and wreaked havoc inside his cranial cavity. The scent of iron and fresh soap assaulted Karim’s nose. Incredibly, the flechette didn’t exit, but Kumar collapsed into a twitching heap.
The elephant man was an Elect. And Karim was playing the part of a wolf. Karim reloaded the Revolution, this time with a ten-shot slug magazine. He placed the red dot on Kumar’s head, on a blasted eye socket, and fired.
And kept firing, until at last the magazine was empty and Kumar went completely still.
It was over. Karim had crossed the line. Cop to operator, operator to rogue, rogue to civilian, civilian to…
Warrior? Vigilante? Assassin?
You have destroyed an enemy who posed a threat to me and all mankind. What does it matter what method you used? The law did not act against him, so you had to.
Karim nodded. And sighed.
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