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Vagabonds Ch 3

Aug 25th, 2015
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  1. Hidden far away from the prying eyes of a chance passerby, those of the encampment had grown accustomed to the secrecy afforded to them by the sandy ravine. Some milled about near the fires, rubbing their palms together and huddling to ward off the chill of the night air. Others patrolled the outskirts of the camp, walking a meandering patrol and stopping to have a smoke or chat with another guard every so often.
  2.  
  3. One guard paused from her conversation to scan the crest of a ridge, letting her gaze linger for the length of a breath before she shook her head and carried on.
  4.  
  5. With a gasp Sophia let out the breath that caught in her throat once she was certain that no alarms had been raised. She could’ve sworn the woman’s eyes had locked onto hers.
  6.  
  7. Set rolled her eyes. “You’re fine,” she said as she finished off one last sweep of the camp looking through the scope of her rifle. “No one’s gonna be able to see us from the camp – especially with all those fires.”
  8.  
  9. True, Sophia had learned that huddling around a fire made it damn near impossible to see much in the dark, but still – peaceful as the camp may seem, they were the kinds of people that wouldn’t hesitate to shoot first and ask questions later. If ever. Set’s calm confidence did little to ease her unease, considering Set probably had little to fear from gunfire. Once she felt enough time had passed, Sophia crept up to the ridge and glanced over, sighing in relief when the guard had moved on and all remained quiet.
  10.  
  11. Able to relax, as much as she was able to, she let her vision wander from tent to tent, scouring for some familiar detail. No matter how hard she looked, there was nothing to the camp that stood out to her, nothing definitive to link to her memories. Maybe it was the dark, but everything just sort of blended together in the same even coat of olive drab and the same two or three kinds of tents. “You’re sure they’re the same group?”
  12.  
  13. A deep, excessive sigh blew out of Set’s nose. “How many times are you going to ask me that?”
  14.  
  15. “I know,” Sophia said, making the complicated expression of someone who had far too many thoughts all being thought about all at once. “I just want to be sure, that’s all.”
  16.  
  17. Set placed her rifle down in a very methodical way, the sort of way that served to underline her words. “Yes, I’m sure.”
  18.  
  19. Sophia pressed her lips into a thin line and glanced back across the tent sea and those who navigated its depths. None of them particularly looked like the murdering, thieving, terrorist sort. Most of them weren’t even carrying weapons.
  20.  
  21. “Everyone looks the same from afar, you know,” Set said.
  22.  
  23. Sophia furrowed her brow – it seemed like an obvious thing to say, but considering who said it, it was anything but. “What do you mean?”
  24.  
  25. A faint smile appeared on the jackal’s face, the one she always wore when she got to teach Sophia something new and exciting. In other ways, the kind that sent a chill down Sophia’s spine. “From here, they’re just people,” Set said, handing Sophia a spotter’s telescope. “To see the truth, you need to look a little more closely. Start over there. What do you see?”
  26.  
  27. “Uh, some tents?” Sophia said after peering through the scope towards where Set had indicated.
  28.  
  29. “Look closer,” Set said with calm, calculated patience. “What’s different?”
  30.  
  31. It took a worrying amount of will to fight down the urge to simply blurt out ‘northing,’ but Sophia made herself observe that particular corner of the camp. Several long minutes passed with nothing of note and Sophia began to wonder if this was some kind of game. But, just as she was about to give up and accuse Set of tricking her, something clicked in her mind. “Oh – There are a lot more patrols, but other than the guards no one is hanging around.”
  32.  
  33. “Good,” Set said, pleased with her pupil’s answer – even if it took several times longer than it should have, there was yet hope for the Sphinx. “Now then, why do you think that is?”
  34.  
  35. “They don’t want people going near there?”
  36.  
  37. “Because…?”
  38.  
  39. Frowning, Sophia surveyed the area again, hoping for something bright and obvious. Instead, it was just the same old scene; nothing seemed to hint at why that particular nook was more heavily guarded or less traversed by those she’d come to view as the commoners of the camp. With nothing else to go on, she had to settle for a somewhat-educated guess. “It’s where they store their guns?”
  40.  
  41. “Close,” Set said, then nudged the scope to point Sophia in the right direction. “But the armory is there. Keeping their weapons in the center of the camp makes it easier for everyone to arm themselves in case of an alarm. For example, if a Sphinx were to make a surprise attack in the middle of the night…”
  42.  
  43. Sophia’s ears laid flat. If set was trying to convince her to get over her cold feet and mount an attack, she was doing a piss-poor job of it. “So, what’s over there in the corner, then?”
  44.  
  45. As much as Set enjoyed toying with her, daybreak wasn’t too far off. While she could protect herself easily enough, Sophia’d need the cover of darkness to keep her safe. “Prisoners, most likely—Oh, what do we have here? Take a look.”
  46.  
  47. Sophia clenched her jaw and fell into silence as she watched through her scope. A lone woman, a violet-scaled lamia wearing clothing that set herself above the others, had approached one of the guards. A short conversation ensued, and then she was let through into one of the tents. In the back of Sophia’s memory, something tickled – There was an air of familiarity about that woman.
  48.  
  49. “Why would they keep prisoners?” Sophia asked once the flap to the tent had fallen.
  50.  
  51. That spine-chilling grin crept across Set’s face again. “There’s only two reasons a group like this would keep prisoners. One, to be used as hostages, and two… Well, just imagine it.” If not for the bunching of the muscles around her jaw, it might’ve appeared that Sophia had not heard a word. Set put her rifle down and rolled onto her side, focusing her gaze upon the tensed Sphinx. “Well, you don’t need to imagine it, do you? Oh, those poor souls…”
  52.  
  53. Sophia’s breath quickened. She couldn’t be sure, yet it was undeniable that woman was the same one. The one she’d failed to kill; a walking testament to her weakness, and now here she was, blessed with the opportunity to fix her past mistake. A macabre smile crept across her face without her knowing – but it was fleeting, vanishing as her thoughts turned a corner.
  54.  
  55. “But, what about everyone else?” Sophia asked, teetering on the edge of excitement and worry.
  56.  
  57. Set couldn’t help but let out a sharp bark of a laugh and flashed Sophia an incredulous grin. “What about them? Do you believe them to be ignorant of what’s going on? That they’re innocent?”
  58.  
  59. “But, they didn’t…” Sophia trailed off, looking down into the sand and dirt around her paws. Dim images played through her mind like a slideshow, of dozens of faces that acknowledged her, yet none of them ever extended a hand. When she met Set’s gaze, something flashed through Sophia’s eyes – a fire sparked by indignation.
  60.  
  61. “Do you understand now?” Set said, gesturing towards the entirety of the camp with a paw, “All of them are there by choice, bound together by an ideal. Some might not have pulled the trigger, but they’re bloody all the same. Why, that woman who waltzed in; do you think the guard is unware of what she’s doing?”
  62.  
  63. The fur along Sophia’s spine stood on end as the memories replayed over and over, growing more detailed and graphic with every recollection. All the torture and horror wrought upon her built until it felt like she could feel the warmth of her own blood on her skin. “How could they?” She said, at first quiet – and then almost in a scream, “How could they just sit back and let it happen?!”
  64.  
  65. Set leaned in close, wearing a very peculiar, dry smile. “Because they hate you.”
  66.  
  67. “Why? What did I, we, what did we ever do?”
  68.  
  69. “You simply existed. A thing to be used.” Set said in a coarse whisper, her eyes thin slits and her tongue hanging out. She then rolled her head to a side and pointed to the camp with her eyes. “They’re right there. The very same people. Who knows how many families they’ve killed, or worse?”
  70.  
  71. Quick, short breaths filled the Sphinx and her eyes were filled with a wild, primal desire. So focused on her thoughts, she didn’t even notice Set scoot close until she whispered in her ear. “You have the power now, the power to put things right. You just need to use it.”
  72.  
  73. Her parents would be alive if not for them. She wouldn’t have been raped if not for them. If not for them, she wouldn’t have been homeless. Wouldn’t have suffered and agonized and starved!
  74.  
  75. A piercing, cackling laugh filled the air as Set rolled to her feet and stood over Sophia. Two points of light appeared, as if a pair of stars had fallen out of the sky. They strummed and pulsed as they spun round the Sphinx before great gouts of fire erupted, lashing and dancing about untamed and unhindered until an unseen hand molded and guided their shape and brought it to heel.
  76.  
  77. Two burning jackals, each thrice the size of Sophia and more brilliant than the stars, flanked her as guardians. Tendrils of flame licked from their smoldering ruby eyes, watching their master as they awaited her command.
  78.  
  79. “Excellent!” Said said, excited by the intensity of the raw emotion that filled the elementals. “Go now, Sophia! Incinerate them in the fires of vengeance!”
  80.  
  81. Power, untold power, surged through Sophia’s veins and lit the ends of her nerves alight. Tonight was the night, two long years had she waited and plotted and schemed, and now she would exact her vengeance a hundred times over!
  82.  
  83. “Oh, and do take care to not let yourself get carried away, or you’ll find the aftermath to be… unpleasant.”
  84.  
  85. As she stood atop the ridge and watched her hounds charge the camp, Sophia thought she heard Set say something. The battle below had been met, and that particular thought fell to the wayside as Sophia charged into the fray.
  86.  
  87. Through the camp an alarm went up, men and women arming themselves and taking positions in response to the sudden appearance of the two massive, fiery… things. Not but seconds after their appearance atop the nearby ridge did they rush down with demonic speed.
  88.  
  89. “The fuck is that? Did the military find us?”
  90.  
  91. “What kinda weapon is that? Are they… running?”
  92.  
  93. The closest soldier gripped her rifle so tight her knuckles turned white. They looked like wolves, if wolves were made from fire and stood ten feet tall. Without meaning to, the woman’s finger glanced the trigger and a single round exploded from her weapon. The bullet punched through the flame, emerging through the other side as a glowing pellet and burrowed into a sandy dune.
  94.  
  95. If the wolf of flame had felt anything, it gave no indication.
  96.  
  97. The errant shot was the impetus for the troop to open fire even though their commander screamed to stop. Round after round found its mark, but the wolves continued to charge in long, loping strides, unhindered by the bothersome slugs of lead.
  98.  
  99. So close they could see molten tongues lolling out of their gaping maws, they reloaded and unleashed another rain of gunfire to no avail. The beasts were so close the soldiers could feel the heat washing off their bodies on their face, and then before they could reload again, the hounds were upon them.
  100.  
  101. Soundless save for the crackling of flame and the dull roar of superheated air, the first fire golem snapped its jaws around a man petrified with fear. The flames crashed together like two waves and swirled, consuming the man’s scream in hellfire.
  102.  
  103. The beast moved on, not bothering to open its jaws. What remained of the man passed through the fire and slumped to the sands, an unrecognizable, sizzling lump of charred matter.
  104.  
  105. No one said a word, and as if time had frozen, the world held still as if holding its breath.
  106.  
  107. “Fall back!”
  108.  
  109. The bellowed order shattered the illusion and spurred soldiers to their feet and the disorganized mob fled away from the demons as fast as they could manage. The second demon leapt through the air and sailed so gracefully to appear as if it was flying, and landed with silent steps in front of a trio of retreating troops. In one swipe of its massive paw all three were felled, left with gaping, smoking rents carved in their bodies. They thrashed about on the ground, clutching and grasping at parts of their body that had ceased to exist are more than ash before life left their remains.
  110.  
  111. The fire demons flared and grew larger, pausing to let out thunderous, demonic howls that tore at the edge of sanity.
  112.  
  113. “Monsters! They’re fucking monsters!”
  114.  
  115. “Retreat!”
  116.  
  117. Never before had she felt so alive! Life itself was in her palm, hers to do with as she pleased. The rush of life as it was consumed by flame invigorated her, charged her, as if she was the one who slew them. When the beast swiped with its claws and extinguished three lives, Sophia felt as if it was her hand that took them.
  118.  
  119. Sophia padded around the first corpse and stared at it, transfixed. The power! It was so easy! She threw her head back and laughed a high-pitched cackle, reveling in the heat of her body and on her skin. Yes, she’d kill them all to the last! Leave none standing!
  120.  
  121. Her gaze settled upon one retreating platoon and a fire jackal leapt upon them, its body billowing out to engulf the lot at once. She whirled and when her eyes landed upon a tent, it burned to the ground along with those still inside. Killing, burning with a look, the destruction washed out from her like an unstoppable wave.
  122.  
  123. Around and in her the inferno raged, tinging her vision in shades of blood and scarlet. The searing heat that lapped at her flesh and choked her lungs was nothing compared to her rage, her power! Screams from bloody and burnt throats mingled with the howl of her hounds and the roar of the conflagration, coming together in a brilliant melody of carnage.
  124.  
  125. “You! Who are you?!”
  126.  
  127. “Huh?” Tilting her head, Sophia found a hulking specimen of a woman had come from behind and had the gall to point a gun at her. She laughed; how small she was! In the past, those muscles and thick green armor plates and claws would’ve frightened her, cowed her into submission, but that was then! The muscle-bound woman was nothing compared to her power! But, there was just one small problem – there was a gun pointed at her, after all. Sophia frowned like someone who’d gone to the store and left their wallet in the car. Ah, she should’ve kept one of the hounds near.
  128.  
  129. The woman’s chest exploded outward in a rain of gore and the crate behind her erupted in a shower of splinters. With no spine or ribs – or anything, really – to support her, the woman’s shoulders and head sank into her torso before her whole body, or what was left of it, slumped to the ground. Sophia giggled; that stupid look was etched onto the woman’s features in a rather funny looking deathmask.
  130.  
  131. There was a bit of blood on Sophia’s cheek, but she paid it little mind. Instead she waved towards the ridge in thanks.
  132.  
  133. Without word or signal, one of the fiery hounds joined Sophia’s side while the other rampaged, scattering men and women and igniting rows of tents at a time. The guardian beast smoldered and circled about its master, close enough to singe the fringes of her clothing and a few errant strands of fur and hair.
  134.  
  135. From the side a gathering of people-things tried to stop her, pointing those guns of theirs at her. Sophia was glad she’d kept the hound near her; it made short work of those silly things that tried to stop her. All it took was a simply flick of her gaze and they started yelling and shouting before they fell still upon the ground.
  136.  
  137. Another block of tents erupted into flame, going up like kindling. Fiery balls streaked from the roaring flames, only to collapse in a fit of screams before falling silent. The world burned all around her, nothing was left unkissed by her will and desire.
  138.  
  139. “How does it feel?!” Sophia bellowed in a cackling laugh, spinning round as she walked, appearing as if she was waltzing between walls of fire. “You thought you could escape justice?! You thought no one would make you pay for your crimes?!” She didn’t care no one responded, or rather, she delighted in the screams that filled the air – they were all the response she needed or wanted.
  140.  
  141. But, there was a dissonance in the melody. Someone was shouting. Sophia followed the disturbance to its source: A violet-hued lamia wearing clothing that set herself apart from the others. The gaudy insignia and medals that adorned her glinted in the light of the fire.
  142.  
  143. “Evacuate to the east! Carry those who cannot walk! Don’t use water to put out the flames; use sand instead!”
  144.  
  145. A few soldiers surrounding the lamia noticed the Sphinx’ approach and moved to take a defensive position, but before the woman could notice the hounds pounced. The guards screeched and shrieked as their flesh was cooked and roasted and they boiled alive within their skin. The woman whirled, coming face to face with Sophia.
  146.  
  147. She had a terrible, evil look in her eyes – a very familiar look.
  148.  
  149. “Who are…” The lamia growled, taking a moment to notice the elementals apart from the background that wreathed the Sphinx in a halo of brimstone. “You. I remember you.”
  150.  
  151. Sophia sneered and laughed like a cruel mistress. “I’m glad you remember me! Because I sure as fuck haven’t forgotten you!”
  152.  
  153. The lamia’s eyes shifted from the Sphinx to the hounds and back again. “How did you get this power?”
  154.  
  155. “Really?” Sophia said, placing a hand to her chest in mock surprise. “You don’t see me for two years and that’s all you can ask?”
  156.  
  157. The woman, the snake, wasn’t trembling in fear. Even when the hounds flared and howled, that cunt, her torturer, didn’t budge.
  158.  
  159. “What would you have me do, beg for forgiveness?” The Captain said, stealing a glance behind her at what remained of her fleeing troops. “You and I both know that’s not going to do a damn thing.”
  160.  
  161. The audacity! She was supposed to be repentant, she was supposed to be afraid, to beg and plead and cry and scream! A hound lashed out and struck at one of the lamia’s arms, searing flesh and exposing blackened bone. There it was! That delightful scream!
  162.  
  163. “Yes, beg! Beg you cunt!” Sophia clenched her jaw with such force her teeth threatened to crack. “Kneel! Crawl on the ground as a snake should!”
  164.  
  165. Hellfire bit deep into Lamia’s snake-half, just below where her hips would be if she had legs, and dropped her face-first onto the sands. Words, cries, and noises no one whole could dare to make bubbled in the lamia’s throat as she writhed about in the sands, her wild eyes staring at her ruined arm and where her lower body should’ve been.
  166.  
  167. “Tell me you’re sorry! Say you’re sorry and beg!” Sophia screeched, her tiny body heaving and quaking.
  168.  
  169. When the woman failed to respond, when all she did was croak and twist about, Sophia marched up to her and delivered a swift kick to her face and pulled her head up by her hair. One of the elementals pressed a paw to the Captain’s lower half and let it sink down as slow as it could manage. Her expression twisted further still; smooth, violet scales charred black and popped and cracked, fat bubbled and hissed; organs boiled and ruptured in gouts of bloody steam before they were completely immolated.
  170.  
  171. And yet, the woman wouldn’t apologize. Outraged, Sophia slapped her over and over while screaming, “Say it! Fucking say it! Say you’re sorry! Apologize! Beg for forgiveness for murdering my parents! For raping me!”
  172.  
  173. A scythe of claw and fire arced down and took care of the woman’s other arm, but she still wouldn’t say anything. Why? Why why why?! Even when flame pierced her stomach and began churning in slow, lazy circles, she wouldn’t apologize. Sophia howled indignant rage, and beat her with all the savage fury she could muster. But the woman simply went stiff, then limp as the light faded from her eyes and smoke wafted from her mouth and nose. Letting go of her hair, Sophia took a step back from the lump of flesh that hit the ground like a sack of meat.
  174.  
  175. The woman at her feet was nothing more than a smoking husk. The one who’d held them hostage and killed and raped. Her parents had been avenged, and she’d exacted her price – and then some - for the humiliation she’d endured. She dreamt of this day for over two, long, brutal years.
  176.  
  177. Yet, staring with crazed, shaking eyes and a heart that was on the brink of failure from beating so hard and fast, something was wrong.
  178.  
  179. Where was the satisfaction, the joy in seeing the woman reduced to nothingness? Seeing everything she had built razed to the ground? There should be triumph and pleasure and everything else good to feel! But there was nothing. Nothing save for a heavy, black void.
  180.  
  181. More. She just needed more – yes, that was it! Trodding over the corpse, the thing it used to be already fading from memory, Sophia sought to complete her duty. There were still so many left alive – the solution was just to kill them, to burn them from memory itself.
  182.  
  183. A wave of her arm there, a glance there, was all it took. In front, behind, everywhere she looked – Sophia found herself adrift a sea conjured from the depths of hell itself. And she smiled. Still, there was something missing.
  184.  
  185. The hounds paced like caged beasts, searching to further sate their hunger. This wasn’t enough, she still hadn’t had her fill, so that meant there was more to be done! Why, no doubt that some of the people who had been there those two years ago were in nearby towns and cities. She’d just need to flush them out!
  186.  
  187. At the height of her frenzy and bloodlust, a single bolt shattered the madness. A cry pierced through the cacophony and Sophia’s consciousness. Naught but a whisper at first, it still carried an unmistakable gravity that shook her to the core. The words, though so overwhelmed by the roar of fire, were unmistakable.
  188.  
  189. “Mommy! Daddy! Wake up! I, I’m scared!”
  190.  
  191. Her boiling blood flash froze into slush. No, no no no. It can’t be, there shouldn’t be, it can’t…!
  192.  
  193. Sophia rushed towards the source, her singed ears straining and swiveling to pick up the tiny sound amidst the rumble. Her hounds circled about her, confused as to her intent, and steadily grew smaller the longer she searched. Her mind refused to accept it, it simply couldn’t be – this was a camp of murderers, of the kind of people who deserved their fate! Her mind had to accept it when she found the source of the cry.
  194.  
  195. A distance away, a young boy shook the bodies of what, at one time, had been his parents. “Mommy! Daddy!”
  196.  
  197. Their faces were twisted and disfigured by terror and agony alone, forever locked in place in death. The smoking, burbling remains left little doubt as to how they met their end. Sophia’s hands reached up to her face to cover her mouth and her eyes, but she couldn’t look away.
  198.  
  199. Why was a boy here, there? The red that’d washed through her vision wavered, as if it now came from without rather than within. Even as the fire nipped and lick at the boy’s skin and ears and tail, he did not move as he shook his parents in the hope they would wake and carry him to safety.
  200.  
  201. The hounds shrank to the size of the Sphinx and their radiance dulled to a wispy tallow that threatened to go out in a stiff wind. A cascade of thoughts poured forth as she shook in the scene of ruin. She hadn’t done this – someone else must.
  202.  
  203. Nothing was left standing. The prisoner tent. Where had that been? No matter how much she looked around, she couldn’t find it. And what of the people who’d been held inside? Her eyes caught on a row of bars. Her vision pulled back and she saw the bars for the cage, and the lumped of ruined, blackened flesh that had once been a person inside.
  204.  
  205. What had she done?
  206.  
  207. Whining one last whimper, the fire elementals that had seethed and rampaged vanished like a tiny flame in a breeze.
  208.  
  209. At the sound, the boy turned. Their eyes met, freezing Sophia like a statue. He was young, maybe a year or two her junior, and his parents had died before his eyes, likely screaming in pain as they tried to shield him from the hungry flames.
  210.  
  211. As dearly as he wished to cling to his parents, the sight of someone alive in the hellscape was enough to tear him away. He ran as hard as he could, paws kicking up sand, right into Sophia and wrapped his arms around her waist and cried and wailed.
  212.  
  213. “Save them! Help save my mommy and daddy!”
  214.  
  215. Sophia’s lip quivered and her arms wrapped around him as if he was a fleeting, ephemeral thing. Despite the conflagration around them, Sophia could feel the warmth of his skin on hers. She had nothing to offer him. “I, I can’t…”
  216.  
  217. Then she heard the other screams, the ones she’d been so blissfully unaware of. Not all the bodies were corpses; throngs of the damned begged for an angel of mercy.
  218.  
  219. A shot echoed through the air, and one voice went quiet.
  220.  
  221. Another gunshot, another soul given respite.
  222.  
  223. The boy flinched with every shot, but wouldn’t tear away from Sophia, wouldn’t stop pleading with her to save his parents rather than himself. When the valley fell quiet, save for the crackling of the dancing flames, Sophia dared to lift her tear-soaked eyes and look around – just in time to see Set step through a curtain of fire, holstering her sidearm.
  224.  
  225. Set’s gaze lingered on the pair for a long second. “Didn’t expect to find you standing around here, least of all with someone else.”
  226.  
  227. “W-what were you doing?” Sophia asked, despite knowing the answer.
  228.  
  229. “Granting peace to a few of the unfortunate ones,” Set said, crossing her arms. Reds and oranges and shadows danced across her features, and then she added, “Though there’s still one left.”
  230.  
  231. Sophia clung to the sobbing boy, who had yet to even realize Set’s existence, hugging him more tightly in the face of Set’s threat. “You can’t,” she said, biting back a wave of sorrow. “You can’t…”
  232.  
  233. At this, Set simply raised an eyebrow. “I can’t what?”
  234.  
  235. “No more death,” Sophia said in a hushed gasp, her body and mind on the verge of collapse.
  236.  
  237. Set let out an amused snort. “Had your fill? Well I can’t blame you,” she said, gesturing wide, “This is quite the piece of work. I’m impressed, really.”
  238.  
  239. The empty stare of her red-ringed eyes was the only thing Sophia could muster in reponse. There was, however, quite the racket coming from the boy still nestled in her arms. Left as he was, there was no doubt he could cry for hours; not that Set could blame him. But hours weren’t something she had. Crouching down next to the pair, Set spoke in a voice that commanded attention yet was soft as a breeze. “What’s your name? Yes, you, the one clinging to the Sphinx.”
  240.  
  241. The youth trembled and sniffed, and while he might have wished to ignore the world, something about being called out directly by such a warm voice got his attention. He glanced at Set from the corner of his eye, appraising her as his body wracked from the sobs. “Chigaru,” the boy said after a short while, stuttering out each syllable.
  242.  
  243. An easy smile came to Set’s face and her eyes twinkled. “Chigaru, huh? That’s a clever name – a cat named ‘hound.’”
  244.  
  245. His cat-like ears wiggled and he stared at Set full-on. When she reached out to him, her paw just barely touching his cheek to wipe away a stream of tears, he forgot about the Sphinx in an instant. Sophia tried to keep him close, not wanting him to fall to her, but there was no strength left in her arms. The tighter she tried to hold on, the more he slipped from her grasp.
  246.  
  247. Chigaru flew into Set’s arms, relishing her warmth and scent and how she held him just like his mother used to. Not only her arms, but Set curled her forked, bushy tail around him while he sobbed into her breast.
  248.  
  249. Sophia could hardly believe her eyes. The Set she knew, the demon of fire and violence, was speaking softly to the boy, whispering delicate words of comfort and calm. Something about the scene in front of her, despite what she knew as the real Set, still managed to trigger deep pangs of jealousy and envy.
  250.  
  251. “They’re dead!” Chigaru cried into Set’s chest after having clung to her for who knew how long. “I want my daddy back! My mommy back!”
  252.  
  253. Even more weight piled onto Sophia’s heart and the last of her strength faded. In a daze, as if reality and nightmare overlapped and she couldn’t tell which was which, she collapsed to the sands. Every time he cried out for his parents it was like a stake was driven through her chest and she clutched at herself.
  254.  
  255. Until the fires of her massacre were little more than glowing embers and coals, Chigaru cried, Sophia remained listless and slumped, and Set held the boy and took all his pain.
  256.  
  257. “What did we do?” The boy finally asked.
  258.  
  259. Set sighed when she pulled the youth away from her chest to get a look into his eyes. “Hard to say,” she said while stroking his ear between two of her big, soft pawpads. “Things sometime… happen. Do you remember how long ago your family joined this camp?”
  260.  
  261. Though he still cried, his tears had long since run dry. “I dunno, a year ago, I think? We, we were kicked out of our home, and these were the only people who would take us in.”
  262.  
  263. Sophia, who had been swaying like a blade of grass in the wind, went rigid.
  264.  
  265. “That was very kind of them,” Set said, smiling with her words. “Did they treat you well?”
  266.  
  267. “Most of them were okay,” Chigaru said, fidgeting with his paws. “Except for that purple snake lady, but we stayed away from her.”
  268.  
  269. “Oh, that’s good. Say, I know this may be hard, but can you think of any reason why someone might want to hurt the people that were here?” Set asked.
  270.  
  271. The boy had a complicated expression, in the way that someone does when conflicted about telling the unsavory truth of someone they admired. “…They said sometimes they had to do things that weren’t nice, and I heard them talking about stealing a few times... But they weren’t bad people! They weren’t!”
  272.  
  273. “It’s okay,” Set said, resting her paws on the boy’s shoulder. “I believe you. I know sometimes good people have to do bad things.”
  274.  
  275. Sophia hugged herself in an attempt to ward off the encroaching cold. None of this was supposed to be like this, people like them weren’t supposed to die - how could she have gotten so carried away? It was those damn fire golems, they made her like that! She may have wanted revenge, but not – not whatever she did. Her eyes came up, only to discover Set had been waiting for her. The look on her face was passive, but Sophia knew. She knew Set had to have known this is how things would end, she have to have! So many had died, in such awful, ghastly ways… And then for her to play at some game with this child?
  276.  
  277. “What if I told you who did this to your parents? What would you do to them?” Set’s eyes never left Sophia’s.
  278.  
  279. “No!” Sophia croaked, finally understanding what Set was getting plotting, but it was useless, it was too late.
  280.  
  281. “I’d kill them!” Chigaru’s small body shook with a familiar anger.
  282.  
  283. “You’d kill them? That’s a strong reaction,” Set said, resting a paw on the boy’s head. She wore a look of reluctance and pity, as if she disagreed with Chigaru’s answer. “Are you sure you want to kill them?”
  284.  
  285. “They’re bad people and deserve to die!” he said, his tone dripping with venom.
  286.  
  287. “Well, what if I told you that Sphinx was the one who burned this camp to the ground and killed your parents and everyone here?” The pity had gone from Set’s voice, in its place something neutral yet somehow sinister.
  288.  
  289. “W-what?” The boy spun and gaped at Sophia, who had recoiled in fear and avoided his gaze. “But, but she’s…”
  290.  
  291. “If you don’t believe me, ask her yourself.”
  292.  
  293. Chigaru took a step towards the Sphinx and she took one step back. “I-is it true? Did you kill them?”
  294.  
  295. The Sphinx shook her head and pulled back, struggling to resist covering her ears and scream that it was a lie. But the guilt weighed too heavily and ate at her; how long could she live with it gnawing away? Forcing herself to look him in the eye she bit her lip and nodded. “…Forgive me,” she whispered.
  296.  
  297. “Why?!”
  298.  
  299. The question struck Sophia like a club, staggering her back.
  300.  
  301. “Why did you kill them?!” He demanded, his small body flooded with the rage of grief.
  302.  
  303. “Th-The snake woman,” Sophia whispered, failing to marshal her words together. She plead to Chigaru with her eyes, but it was for naught. The anger contained in his – she had no excuse. She herself had possessed that same look only hours ago.
  304.  
  305. His breaths came so fast and violent he was on the verge of hyperventilating. It looked as if he’d try to maul Sophia to death until a metallic glint at the foot of a corpse in the dying light caught his attention. He dashed forward and lunged for the rifle, which was almost half his size.
  306.  
  307. So, this was how her life was going to end. Time slowed to a crawl as Chigaru struggled to get a handle on the weapon. It was what she deserved; there was no way her parents would be proud of what she’d done. But, she couldn’t help but wonder about the boy and his revenge. What would happen to him after she was gone?
  308.  
  309. Something pressed into her hand brought her thoughts back to reality. She blinked and looked at the object and then at Set. The sidearm that Set had used to dispense mercy was now in her grip. No words were spoken, just a strange emotion contained within Set’s narrowed eyes.
  310.  
  311. Sophia’s focus shifted back to Chigaru had just about gotten the barrel in the general direction it needed to be. At this distance, it’d be difficult to miss, and even if he did, there were sure to be plenty of rounds in the magazine. The gun in her palm would be awkward to use, given its intended user, but, it’d be difficult to miss…
  312.  
  313. How could she kill that innocent boy? But if she didn’t, he’d kill her and lose that innocence. He’d be an orphan on the streets, unless Set and Sekhmet took him in as they did with her. Would they? She expected Set to be goading her on, to kill Chigaru, but she remained silent. Would Chigaru discover Set had given Sophia her power? Would it matter?
  314.  
  315. What was she to do?
  316.  
  317. The tip of the rifle’s barrel came into line. The end of the pistol swung up.
  318.  
  319. ---
  320.  
  321. Sekhmet dug through and poked around the cluster of blackened steel framework and half-burned furniture. According to Set this area of smoking wreckage should have been the Captain’s quarters.
  322.  
  323. She rifled through a few drawers and shelves, finding nothing but a handful of worthless trinkets. Clapping her paws together to rid them of the ash and dust, she plopped down on the edge of a mostly intact desk and mulled over the options.
  324.  
  325. It was possible the treasurer, if such a thing existed in a group like this, might have the information. Or an archivist or something. If she was especially unlucky, it might even be in a safe deposit box at a bank somewhere or hidden in any one of the countless caves and crevices.
  326.  
  327. She let out a deep, rumbling sigh. Set’s plan called for a little fire, sure, but this? The entire camp had been decimated, and now here she was, picking through the skeletal remains like some kind of scavenger. An assistant for this sort of work would be nice; shame that option wasn’t available now.
  328.  
  329. Letting her eyes wander, she lingered on a converted APC that appeared to have been part of the structure burned down her. Something turned from a troop carrier into a mobile command tent of sorts by its now-deceased owner, no doubt. While no longer serving its original purpose, it was still a nice secure, armored place. Tail flicking, Sekhmet thought it worthwhile thing to inspect.
  330.  
  331. Though an initial overview didn’t provide much, Sekhmet began rapping on the floor in the back of the vehicle. After a few dozen dull thumps, one finally yielded a different note.
  332.  
  333. “Oh, what do we have here?”
  334.  
  335. Feeling around, one of her claws snagged on an edge. A bit more effort and prying later, and the cover of the false bottom popped free and relinquished its secret.
  336.  
  337. Snatching the large, metallic briefcase from within, she popped open the latches. Inside she discovered a laptop, some bits of gold that most likely had been purloined from a tomb, and a variety of papers.
  338.  
  339. Shuffling through the documents, a broad smile crossed her lips and her tail poof practically vibrated. To make things even better, the login and password for the laptop were written on a sticky note attached to the inside of the briefcase.
  340.  
  341. While typing with her claws was an exercise in patience, Sekhmet was willing to be as patient as needed. Even if it meant having to type nearly every word. Sometimes more than once.
  342.  
  343. Her patience was well rewarded. Skimming through folders and files, she found her prize.
  344.  
  345. “Leave it to ex-military,” she hummed to herself.
  346.  
  347. In wonderful, exacting detail, were the locations of various digs they’d found along a list of what was contained within each. One particular mark in the vast expense of desert to the east had the basic comment “Obelisks adorned with de-faced Eyes of Ra. Suspected temple deep in the sands.”
  348.  
  349. Snapping the laptop shut and grinning, Sekhmet gathered up the briefcase, her mission complete. As she departed she stepped over a lone bullet casing, noticing neither it nor the young body nearby – the only one to not have perished in the inferno.
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