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Meat and Metal (In-Progress)

YBA Sep 3rd, 2014 (edited) 5,604 Never
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  1. ‘Not a stellar start to your first job Tensor.’  You tell yourself as you check the address one last time. GPS completely failed you in the gutters and back alleys of oldtown.  It took chatting up the ancient wrinkled lamia manning the rundown corner store to point you in the right direction. Now you think you’ve finally found it.
  2.  
  3. Between the back of a pawn shop and a closed tailor shop, a tarnished steel sign hangs off the alley wall. The moldy bricks are covered with the better part of a century worth of ivy and crawl with cockroaches almost big enough to be devilbugs. This is by far the worst part of Monstergirl City you’ve ever seen. The glimmering glass highrises and whitewashed suburbs of your home seem like only memories hemmed in by this decay.  A single orange eye stares down over a hammer and anvil. There’s no door, only a stretch of wrought iron grates on the alley floor the size of a large truck.
  4.  
  5. Flipping open the rusty side panel, you have to reach into the shadows all the way down to your elbow to mash down the surprisingly well-used call button. The huge roach that scurries up your hand only serves to complete the Temple of Doom experience. Slapping it off your arm, you manage to just cringe like a little girl instead of scream like one. But then you better get used to the filth and scum. You’re sure you’ll be spending a lot more time in it from now on.
  6.  
  7. The freight elevator pops open the grates and pushes up a polished steel floor on titanic hydraulic rams. Stepping onto the converted scow lift, you look for a button to press. You needn’t have bothered. At some unseen signal, the platform begins to lower you down below street level. The grates close over you, and you can’t help but feel like a rat trapped in a cage.
  8.  
  9. The lift doesn’t have to go far before heavy gray steel rolldoors appear at your feet. Twenty feet later and they finally finish unveiling themselves as the elevator slows to a stop. An oversized open and close button housed in a worn hazard yellow inset, beckons you at head level. You breathe out slowly and firmly press it. The hefty doors trundle upward on greased tracks revealing your final destination.
  10.  
  11. A wave of heat and the sound of industrial fans smashes into you  The basement shop reeks of old oil and dirty grease overlaid with the sharp fresh smell of hot steel and ozone. The whole place looks like some chopshop crossed with an armory. Gleaming swords and spears and warhammers of every shape and size lay haphazardly strewn over old engine blocks and propped next to differentials and axles. A spotless polished motorcycle, twice the size of any you’ve ever seen, boasts a full Vette V8 and leans on a kickstand as thick as your arm.
  12.  
  13. It doesn’t take long to spot its owner, a living blue mountain of muscle wearing a welding apron moves among the piles of iron and steel, come to see who invades its domain.
  14.  
  15. “If you got business, close the door and leave your order on the counter.” A rich contralto calls out to you. “If you wandered in here, get out before I squash you like a...” Flipping up her faceguard, the great horned beast rubs its single eye with the back of her glove, bulging bicep entwined with the dark designs of pleasure runes. “What brings a man in my shop? Somebody playing a trick or is it my birthday and nobody told me?”
  16.  
  17. You swallow hard to find your voice as nine feet of busty brawny mountain cyclops ducks under a hanging light to get a good look at you with her cannonball-sized electric orange eye. “I’m looking for Helen Forge. I’m here to pick up the special order.”
  18.  
  19. The colossus leans heavily on the counter that only comes up to her thick thighs, exposing soft sweaty boulders hiding in the dirty T-shirt under her apron. “Just had to burst my bubble. Only the Duke would send a man all the way down here. I’m Helen.”  She offers two gloved fingers to shake the way a normal person would with a whole hand. “Nice suit, duckling. Come with me to the back.”
  20.  
  21. Before you can move a muscle, the cyclops picks you up like a child and hauls you over the chipped formica. She gives you half a second to brush off the metal dust and wrinkles and collect some scattered dignity before leading you through a giant-sized door. The dimly lit racks and racks of storage space and spare parts seem to extend far beyond the footprint of the building above into darkness. In a dusty corner, behind a fireproof tarp, is a small arc welder with a tank of ‘Ar’, a worn out toolbox and, leaning back in a steel cradle, what you were sent for.
  22.  
  23. At first glance it seems benign, six feet of patchwork polished nickel and brass with a molded facelike mask of a young girl. But underneath the plates and welds lie runes of power and the heart of a killing machine from another world.
  24.  
  25. Helen bends over to pick up her welding mask from the floor in an unguarded motion that pulls up her shirt and shows off one hell of a backend in tight grimy jeans. It doesn’t seem to be intentional; her attitude remains all business when she straightens up and presents the merchandise with a rough wave. “This is it. Just as advertised, an old Darkwater Rebellion design: rugged, reliable, not very smart. MVII in her series. I call her Emvii.”
  26.  
  27. That niggles a remembered instruction in the back of your mind. “This was supposed to be a Gate War model. That’s what the Duke is paying for.” You try to say it with some authority. You are speaking for your new boss after all, notoriously an unforgiving person. Definitely one who doesn’t like surprises.
  28.  
  29. “You see this big half-inch thick sheet of two-twenty stainless?” The cyclops raps a knuckle where, anatomically, the war golem’s breasts would have been with a clang. “That’s covering all the repairs from an anti-tank round to the chest. Blew her core clean out her back. She saw action in Big Gate alright.” The amazonian welder kisses the tip of a leather-clad finger and touches it to tip of the polished black horn sticking out of her sea-green hair as if that should mean something to you.
  30.  
  31. The big blue girl twirls the valve on her tank and adjusts the regulator on the welder itself. A nod of her head drops down the faceshield as she reaches for her torch and rods.  “Just need to finish a final couple of passes on the cover plate. Shield your eyes and look away. Welder’s flash is a sandy cunt. Believe me, I know.”
  32.  
  33. You stand with your back to the monster, staring at the various doodads on the shelves above curtain-level to kill time. It’s a hell of a strange assortment of brick-a-brack: auto parts and electronics and weapons and armor. An old server case holds the heads of battle axes. Rusty bracers lay stacked every which way. All of it’s thrown into sharp relief, bright lights and shadows, by the brilliant crackle of the arc behind you.
  34.  
  35. The flickering light and rising heat eventually stops for good, and you feel the still air move as the colossus rises behind you. Flipping up her mask and locking it on her horn, Helen gestures you closer. The tig welds are beautiful, perfect layered crescent ripples with a hint of blue and yellow iridescence. It’s hard to believe that something with such big hands is so adept at such delicate work.
  36.  
  37. The cyclops finishes putting her tools away while you look over the golem. “That ought ta do it. Let’s fire her up, make sure none of the heat messed with her internals.” Unwrapping a long thin piece of oil cloth, she pulls out a footlong L-crank patterned in runes of preservation.
  38.  
  39.  “Seriously? A windup key?” You scoff. This is what the Duke is paying all this money for?
  40.  
  41. “It’s for the regulatory system. Lets the power out of her runes at a steady rate. Otherwise she’d overload and burn out.” The tall monoeye grunts with effort as she picks up the metal monstrosity from its cradle and stands the golem on its feet.
  42.  
  43. The back has a plate on it even bigger than the front, and right at the place where a human’s shoulder blades would have met, is a stainless steel gascap cover. Helen flips it up and mates the key to the crank. Delicately, she winds the coilspring counterclockwise with a single finger. “Besides, if one of these went rogue, would you really want it running around for fifty years before it dropped dead? Eight day spring is plenty good enough. Wind it once a week and there’s never any worries.”
  44.  
  45. “Good point.” You concede grudgingly while you tap your foot impatiently. You’re already running late from getting lost. Hopefully your tardiness will go unnoticed a little while longer, and your boss doesn’t get paranoid.
  46.  
  47.  “Here’s the operator manual. I made a few notes of my own in the margins.” The one-eyed giant stuffs a sheaf of crumbling papers into your hand.
  48.  
  49. You stare at the smeared mishmash of symbols and alien words. “I can’t read this.”
  50.  
  51. “It’s Devorach, the old Five Eagles bastard language. Halfass Latin will be close enough to get across basic commands. It’s the same root at some point.” Helen hands you the windup key.
  52.  
  53. This is not what you were led to expect at all. You dig in your heels. “This is unacceptable! I need to be able to give clear precise instructions.”
  54.  
  55. “Then get to learning. Your boss wants old war surplus. It’s not going to speak English. I can repair and scribe runes, but I don’t know how to code them.” The titanic woman looms over you, and you’re suddenly aware again of how she could crush you like a bug. “Do you have any idea how hard any of this stuff is to get ahold of in the first place? I need more than my fingers and toes to count the laws I’m breaking here. If this didn’t come as a special request from the Duke, I wouldn’t have any part of it.”
  56.  
  57. The cobalt monster gives a hard slap to the back of the machine to start the balance wheel. In the stillness you begin to hear the click-click-click of the interrupter, timing the movement of the other gears, metering the power into the golem’s body. You can almost feel the old magic hum in the metal shell. Then, all at once, it seems to come alive.
  58.  
  59. The solid metal face twists like human flesh. “Dominus.” The mouth forms the words completely in a droll monotone.  It stares at the cyclops with glass-covered mechanical eyes that whir into focus.  “Domini dictum?”
  60.  
  61.  “Emvee est tui.” Helen points at you. “What’s your name duckling?”
  62.  
  63. It takes a moment to find your voice in awe. “People call me Tensor.”
  64.  
  65.  “Tensor. Tensor est Domini.” Helen shoves the golem forward and the machine takes a couple unsteady clanking steps toward you.
  66.  
  67. “Dominus.” It says again and reaches out to touch you. Nickel fingers brush your hand, and a shock of power crackles between you in a flash of green light.
  68.  
  69. “Alright. That’s that.” The cyclops stretches and pops her shoulders, scraping her hand on the high ceiling. “So where’s the clothes for her? You hiding them under that fancy sportcoat?”
  70.  
  71. That finally pulls your attention away from the living machine standing in your personal space. “I wasn’t told I’d need to do anything but pay.”
  72.  
  73. “Well yeah, but a war golem on the streets is like open-carrying an RPG. She needs threads to blend in. You really didn’t bring anything?” She wipes the sweat off her brow with the back of her glove. “I didn’t sign up for amateur hour. Wait here. I think I got some of my ex-boyfriend’s stuff laying around that might work.” The titan leaves you alone with your new partner while she tromps back out the door and out of sight.
  74.  
  75. The golem stares at you quietly, impassively. Still, you get the feeling it’s not just waiting. It’s watching you, studying you. You take a step back and it takes a step forward to maintain the distance. Creepy. You try to drag up some kind of command to do something about it. What’s the Latin word for stop? Arrest, desist, detiene, cease, secease, something like that? You’ve never had a class, what do you know?
  76.  
  77. “Domini dictum?” It repeats again with incredible urgency for an automaton. The flat voice almost sounds like it’s bordering on frustration.
  78.  
  79. Helen finally returns to save you from the machine with a trashbag full of clothes.
  80.  
  81.  “Look. I’m going to need some kind of basic commands before I can leave. That way I can be sure it works as promised.” You tell her as she drops the bag at your feet.
  82.  
  83. “I suppose you’re right. I was a little defensive before. Just a little stressed and nobody gives a damn about our old culture anymore, even monstergirls.” She pulls a pen the size of a candlestick out of a pocket and a piece of paper.  “Veni huc, if you need her to follow. Siste, to stop. Hic siste, to get her to stay. Good enough?”
  84.  
  85. You repeat the phrases and test them out on the war machine, who seems satisfied to finally be told to do something. Her movements come with more direction and purpose the longer she’s awake.
  86.  
  87. Reaching for the bag, you go about the business of finding this thing a disguise. You’ll need to acquire a wig and sunglasses for Emvii later, but a hoodie will probably work for now. And you find a pair of pants that fits well everywhere but her hips. You’re out of luck for shoes. “This is pretty…feminine.” You pull what is clearly a nylon stocking out of the pile of more mundane clothes.
  88.  
  89. “Big girl wants to be treated like a princess. The little man also wanted to be treated like a princess.” The amazonian cyclops frowns at the memory. “You can see how it didn’t work out.”
  90.  
  91. With Emvii dressed, you’re confident that you should be in the clear as long as nobody looks too close and the golem doesn’t clank too much. You turn to the matter of finalizing the deal so you can complete this whole transaction and be on your way. You’ve burned way too much time already.
  92.  
  93. “How will you take payment? I have cash or I heard some shops prefer something a little more white and sticky.” You say the last part as you were instructed to, but you’re not sure you’d survive it with all your bones intact. That’s not saying you wouldn’t enjoy it. Only, you’re running late and this first job needs to go smoothly. You’re anxious to be gone.
  94.  
  95. The huge mountain cyclops indignantly puts her hands on the large pelvis-crushing curves of her hips. “You new in town? Money pays my bills. Money makes the whole city go round. Besides, a savvy lady wants to know the source of that sort of thing, intimately.” The gargantuan monstergirl takes off her welding mask and throws her rich seafoam braid over her shoulder. Her almost fluorescent orange eye scans your body, head to toes. You’re not sure whether to call it an appraisal or a leer. “But if you have your heart set on me bright eyes, we might be able to work out a slight discount. Say the price of a cup of coffee?”
  96.  
  97. “Maybe next time.” You hand her a manila envelope of unmarked bills for the agreed upon amount. You’re tangled in enough problems because of your brother. You don’t need any other complications.
  98.  
  99. Helen shrugs it off as she flips through the money quickly. “Your loss. Not like I mind getting plastered alone on Friday night.” She stuffs the envelope in her wide back pocket. “I have to get back to work. Can you find your way out on your own?”
  100.  
  101. “Yeah.” You nod, then stop as you stare at the animated clockwork weapon following you like a lost puppy. “By the way, I’m amazed anyone could have scrounged this up so quickly. Thank you.”
  102.  
  103. “If the Duke wants to thank me, then not being pressured into shady deals anymore would be great. I’m trying to run a semi-respectable business here. I don’t need the stress of high profile smuggling and her little ducklings visiting my shop.” Her angellic contralto voice drops an octave and several decibels as she turns away and trudges back to the shop floor. “Bad enough this is best privacy I can get, with all the ill-tuned noise and the people tromping around up above. I’d kill for a nice quiet cave like grandma’s.”
  104.  
  105. You leave the cyclops to her muttered bellyaching and lead Emvii by the hand back to the elevator. The Duke will be eager to evaluate this latest acquisition.
  106.  
  107. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself after closing the door behind you, good enough to strike a heroic pose as you rise out of the ground on the lift. Emvii copies you without a word. The two of you make quite a ridiculous pair appearing slowly at street level. But hey, scratch one off the bucket list.
  108.  
  109. Ordering her to follow, you quickly make your way back out the main streets. She’s surprisingly light on her metal feet, much more coordinated than she first appeared. Still, the clunk and reverberating ring of metal sounds loudly through the largely abandoned part of oldtown. Luckily, you’ve only passed one person in the last block, a scrawny manticore with a torn wing watching you hungrily from a bus stop bench.
  110.  
  111. You make a mental note to find your new friend some shoes A-double-S-AP.
  112.  
  113. Finally making it over to First Street, you’re able to flag down a ride. The smiling kikimora cabbie is more than happy to take you to Harrington Plaza, but you hear those pearly whites grind when Emvii takes a seat. The whole checkered yellow car lists as the old suspension groans, straining to compensate. Your driver doesn’t try to make any small talk during the ride, only flinching when her muffler kisses the pavement with a grinding screech after a pothole. There are lots of potholes in the old streets of downtown.
  114.  
  115. The moldy brick façade of the oldest hotel in the city rolls by the passenger window as you arrive at your destination. Two wiry young men lounge on the granite steps in front of the big oak and brass doors, dressed far too nicely for loitering. The monstergirls passing by ignore them, and the humans give them a wide berth. It’s brazen display of the Duke’s men, but here and there along the street, there’s much less conspicuous members keeping an eye out.
  116.  
  117. You give the cab driver her fare and a big tip you can’t really afford before you make your way through the heavy hardwood double doors into the lobby, requisitioning a pair of sneakers from a guy standing around flying the right colors. It’s amazing what someone will do when you suggest they tell the boss that it’s their fault the new addition destroyed a path through the checkerboard marble tiles of her home. A big ogre with two broken horns capped in silver lets you and Emvii into the express to the penthouse. The Duke may use mostly men, but the kingpin doesn’t let their wives go to waste either. Some say the boss uses men like a tanuki uses money, carefully hoarded and miserly spent for maximum return.
  118.  
  119. Your mouth is pure dry cotton when the bell for the top floor rings, the elevator shudders to a stop and you wait the long second for the doors open. It’s your first time meeting the Duke in person, and as with all legends, you’re never really sure what to expect.
  120.  
  121. Now that you think about it, you’ve felt like a fish out of water since you first dipped your toes in this whole risky business. That’s the price to pay for your older brother. One life for another. He wanted out, and nobody leaves the Duke’s employ without trading blood for blood. He always sent money home, took care of your whole family after your father passed away. Twelve years your senior, you didn’t know him that long before dad died and he left. He was absent but a good brother, and the few times you ever saw him, you could see he loved the family deeply. Now, it’s time for him to have his own family and it’s your turn to step up. The elevator doors slide sideways, and that’s exactly what you do.
  122.  
  123. A brightly lit foyer opens up before you with a handful of waiting chairs and a posh bar at the back with a door leading further into the suite. Narrow, to bottleneck anything coming out of the elevator. You’d bet the bar has more than kegs hiding underneath as well; however, it’s not worth more than the initial thought. You’ve got too much Scarface and James Bond on the brain and don’t know more than videogame tactics.
  124.  
  125. Sitting daintily in a gilded Victorian clawfooted chair is your boss, the third most powerful crimelord in the city. Ivory white skin and long flowing snow white hair contrast sharply with a three piece fitted pinstriped suit. The thumb claws of jet black batwings hook together to form a natural leather mantle over her shoulders. She clinks the ice in her tumbler of scotch and sizes you up with piercing blue eyes ringed in black, her spade tail draped carelessly across her lap as a makeshift coaster.
  126.  
  127. “So this is our new associate.” The Duke speaks to the other occupant of the room, a rough young buck of a man leaning on the bar field-stripping an old MAC-10. The demon turns her gorgeous face and her attention completely to you. “Come closer, Meat.”
  128.  
  129. “It’s an honor to meet you, Duke. I’m Tensor.” Projecting your voice clearly, you take a couple measured steps forward. This is just like any other job interview, you tell yourself, minus the initiation.
  130.  
  131. “Dominus Tensor.” The war golem echoes behind you.
  132.  
  133. “That’s not the name written on your soul.” The demon takes a sip of the liquor and you know immediately you should have kept your mouth shut.  “Remind me, Junior. Why did we take Meat in again? He doesn’t seem the usual offal. Just look at how straightlaced he is. He’s no punk or himfettale.”
  134.  
  135. “Because his brother recommended him.” The man grunts as he knocks a pin gently out of the lower assembly.
  136.  
  137. The Duke raises an eyebrow lazily. “His brother?”
  138.  
  139. Junior holds the removed barrel up to the light and grabs his solvent and a bristle brush. “Max.”
  140.  
  141. “Max is related to this piece of fresh meat?” The black-ringed eyes flicker with renewed interest. “Well, I guess that means we need to take good care of him. At least now we know he can play errand boy. The clothes and shoes are a nice touch. That shows potential.” Another sip of scotch from the sweating crystal. “I think you’re just what we need for a certain special job, Meat.”
  142.  
  143. “That’s what my partner here is for?” You thumb back at the golem that takes it as a signal to genuflect in some arcane custom of deference.
  144.  
  145. The Duke smiles, “Inspired, right?”
  146.  
  147. “Divinely, Duke.” Junior answers for you.
  148.  
  149. “Take him down to the safehouse on thirtieth to stay. You know, the one with the kid.” She makes a slow languid motion with her hand and Junior whispers into the starched collar of his shirt. “Have a few days to get to know your partner and the city. You’ll need to be a solid team to get what I need done.”
  150.  
  151. “I’ll tell you what I tell every man when they come into my employ. I wasn’t always like this. Never trust someone that says they can give you the power of a demon.” She swallows the rest of scotch in a throaty gulp.
  152.  
  153. “But I know one day I’ll be able to shave the stubble from my chin again. That thought has kept me together. I’ve had epiphanies on the nature of monsters from it too. You’ve never seen a more trusting race, like children. Sure there are exceptions, but on the whole they don’t know how to evaluate a man. All you have to do is smile, pretend to be a nice guy, and they’ll give you the clothes off their backs. That’s why men can run this town if we play our cards right. We’re the fairer sex in their eyes, and it’s time we took advantage of it. Remember that, and you’ll get out of a fair few scrapes in the city.” With that the voluptuous alp gets up from her chair and goes to sit at the bar while Junior pours her another drink. Now that you look at their faces next to each other, it’s impossible to deny the family resemblance and the shared blue eyes.
  154.  
  155. The elevator dings behind you and a square-jawed goon waits to take you your new home. There’s no clearer message to leave. The old cables groan under all the weight of two grown men and a machine that weighs as much as several more, but you make it down to the garage level and are hussled into an old black sedan. The silent Duke’s man beside you is your driver, and he’s all business. Max said that they’re really companionable once you prove yourself. But until then, you’re just another initiate.
  156.  
  157. The ride is fairly short to the rundown neighborhood where you’ll be staying. What looks like an old military barracks from the founding of the city sits in a wide yard full of overgrown trees and grass. The man pulls out a suitcase from the trunk and hands it to you, all that you brought with you to this new life. Emvii puts fresh cracks in the already ruined sidewalk as you all walk up to the door.
  158.  
  159. “Now don’t startle her. She’s just a little twelve year old.” For the first time the big lackey opens his mouth. “It’s good someone is around to watch her now. She gets lonely.” He pulls out a dog whistle and blows two short sharp blasts.  
  160.  
  161. “I’M COMING!” A decidedly not-little-girl voice thunders as the sound of big feet pound toward the door. The whole frame rattles as the door yanks open with enough force to warp the steel hinges. An explosion of white fur tackles the man beside you and begins to lick his face, tail wagging madly. “Stanley’s back!”
  162.  
  163. “Vivi, I’m glad to see you to.” The big guy sputters under big slurpy dog kisses from eight feet of bushy-tailed rougarou. “Stop it now. I brought your new roommate.”
  164.  
  165. Your golem edges in front of you, unsure what to make of this creature when bright pink eyes latch onto you and pointy wolf ears perk straight up. The rare white werewolf wears a sundress two sizes too small, pastel skirt torn to hell to fit around her furry thighs.
  166.  
  167. “He looks scary Mister Stanley, like that guy from the Matrix. Why don’t you stay with me instead?” Vivi pleads with a puppy whine.
  168.  
  169. “It’ll be fine child. He’s more scared of you than you are of him. Now let me up. My wife is going chew to my head off when she smells you all over me.” Vivi’s yard-long tail drops as she gets her big feet under her, loping digitigrades paws that give her legs a backwards-looking canter below the knee. Wiry muscles bunch under snow white fur that looks to cover every exposed limb: shoulders, thighs, even strands sticking out of tears in the sides and back of her dress. Whatever she is exactly, is far more beastly than wolfgirls you’ve seen out on the street.
  170.  
  171. Rising up to her full height, she has to stoop over to look you in the face like a normal person would to someone sitting down. G-cups packed like sardines in the top of her dress hang in front of you, looking like they’ll burst their way to freedom at any moment. She takes a long sniff and the start of a growl rumbles in her throat.
  172.  
  173. You can’t hold back your incredulity any longer. “Are you kidding me? There is no way this girl is twelve. Look at her. She’s more of a goon than you are!”
  174.  
  175. “Monstergirl hormones. That dress fit her just a week ago.” The faceless lackey shrugs. “Don’t do anything that would make ol’ Max ashamed of you now boyo. We’ll be in touch.” He turns his heel to you and waves a downright patronizing goodbye when he reaches the sedan. A canine whimper sounds beside you as the big V8 rolls out of the driveway and onto the street.
  176.  
  177. Emvii has silently taken a place between you and the werewolf when you weren’t looking. She shows good instincts. If this is a dumb golem, you’d hate to see what smart ones the modern military has up their sleeves.
  178.  
  179. “Well, I guess we’ll be rooming together for awhile. Folks call me Tensor. And you’re Vivi?” You try to break the ice with huge white wolf. Now that you look at her a little closer, you see the colorful and gaudy dyed highlights in her snowy hair, the tiny beads holding together a side braid, the plastic heart-shaped snap-on earrings haphazardly attached to her ears. She’s a little girl alright.
  180.  
  181. “You’re not Mister Tensor.” Blocked from direct access to you by Emvii, she sniffs at your suitcase. “But you do kinda smell like him.”
  182.  
  183. “You’re thinking of my brother Max. I’m Jim. Why don’t we go inside? I haven’t had a bed to rest in since I got in town and I’m beat.” You try to keep all upbeat and smiles. You want to crash and then hit the books on whatever you can find out about your golem’s model and her command language. You’ll tether your phone to your laptop for some internet and that will be that. “If you liked my brother, I’m sure we’ll get along. So whaddaya say, want to be friends?”
  184.  
  185. “There’s only my bed. You take the couch.” Vivi flicks her tail and leads you over the threshold.
  186.  
  187. The outside of the house was extremely deceiving, the inside is all nice polished hardwood floors and fancy carpets and area rugs. Antique wooden furniture and classic paintings and sculptures decorate the interior. Barring a heavy coating of dust and rougarou hair, it’s a real nice little oldstyle home. Reminds you of your grandparents.
  188.  
  189. You settle into the overstuffed couch in front of the old oak console tv and close your eyes. The peace doesn’t last long as almost immediately you hear the metronome tick tock of the war machine’s interrupter standing beside you. When you think that you’ve finally gotten used to that, heavy canine panting joins it. You open your eyes and stare at the giant girl sitting on all fours in front of you.
  190.  
  191. “I’m hungry.” The werewolf states like it’s your problem.
  192.  
  193. “There’s some jerky in my bag, you’re welcome to it.” You roll into the back of the couch and try to drown out the noise and the light. Damn you’re tired.
  194.  
  195. Albino pink eyes scan you intently. “You’re a man right? So you can cook. My daddy was the best cook. And Mister Stanley brought lots of food yesterday.”
  196.  
  197. “I wouldn’t even know what someone like you eats.” You yawn and rub your eyes.
  198.  
  199. “Mister Tensor made chocolate chip pancakes for me when he visited.” She thumps her big tail against the floor expectantly.
  200.  
  201. Years of early morning conditioning from your little sister asking the same thing kicks you into gear almost automatically. “Alright, alright. I’ll see what I can whip up.” You swing your legs over and hop to your feet.
  202.  
  203. All three of you cram into the tiny kitchen, dishes stacked in the sink that need washing, trash that hasn’t been taken out in a week. You set to work, this is the kind of thing you’re used to, and you hate to admit it gives you some peace from all the craziness you’ve gone through so far. You look back at the rougarou, tongue lolling out of her mouth, stomach growling but waiting patiently. “Growing up so fast must take a lot of getting used to. I remember being a teen with feet and hands too big. Sprouting up whole feet, I couldn’t even imagine.”
  204.  
  205. “The extra height hasn’t been that awkward.” Vivi says after you’ve seen her stub her toe on three pieces of furniture and wang her head on a hanging lamp.
  206.  
  207. The golem watches with that same keen intensity that she watches everything, like the whole world hinges on the specks of Thai takeout glued to a plate.
  208.  
  209. Once your work area is spic and span, you make your batter from the fully stocked kitchen. It’s amazingly well-organized with loads of neatly arranged spices and a drawer of handwritten recipes for comfort food. This was someone’s kindly grandparents place for sure.
  210.  
  211. Emvii begins to chafe against all the action she has no part in, getting twitchy for lack of a better word. Her whole metal frame vibrates with tension. You try to remember a basic command to try out. What’s the word for cook? You take the skillet and the batter and put them in her hands. “Igne.” You’re pretty sure that’s right.
  212.  
  213. A flurry of whirrs and clicks sound deep in the automaton’s chest. Her whole right hand flips back and a nozzle pushes forward from her wrist. A small flame lights at the tip and you realize exactly what she thinks you asked for. Before you can shout to stop, she grabs her flipped back thumb as a bracing handle and aims at the stove. A gob of fuel about the size of a gumball coughs weakly from the tip and burns brightly on the paint. She smacks her forearm with her free hand and tries again. This time she gets nothing. You can almost see the disappointment on the placid metal face.
  214.  
  215. “Lanciafiamme vis vacuos.” Emvii states as she retracts everything back into place. She starts to leave, to find some other way to fulfil her task, when you tell her to just stop and stay. The werewolf giggles, completely oblivious of what almost happened.
  216.  
  217. It’s going to be a long couple of days.
  218.  
  219. After breakfast/dinner, where Vivian ate your share and unashamedly asked for more of the famous Tensor pancakes, you finally get a chance to hang up your good clothes and crash out on the couch. Emvii on standby, suitcase locked against the curious kid, you’re set for shuteye. A low rumble begs your attention just as you’re drifting off. A sleepy thought about rumbling wolf stomachs and red riding hood crawls weakly across your foggy brain before you hear the soothing pitter patter of rain against the barred windows. The gentle rhythm quickly plays you off to sleep.
  220.  
  221. A crack of thunder, close enough to rattle the glass panes, jars you awake in the dark followed by a crash and a frightened yelp from the bedroom. You’re on your feet in half a second, little sister-honed reflexes moving you before you know what’s going on. The heavy tread of the bipedal weapon tails you to the bedchamber and you throw open the door, hand on the Ogre-grade taser your brother handed down when he passed the torch.
  222.  
  223. A broken lamp on the floor and Vivi cowering under the covers of a bed too short for her is the only emergency. “Hey, you okay? Storm scare you?” You automatically ask in your best big brother voice.
  224.  
  225. “I-I’m not esscared of thunder. It’s this creepy old house.” She stutters and yips as another flash in the clouds brings more tremors through the home.
  226.  
  227. Every wolfgirl you knew out in the burbs was self-assured and confident, maybe a little playful, but nothing like this. Vivi is some kind of anomaly, more like a mouse than a wolf, especially for someone her size. But you know that look, having seen it many times when your littlest sibling got her own room after Max moved out and Mom was working nights. You sit down on the edge of the bed, don’t say a word and pat the big werewolf on the head, combing her stark white hair and scratching gently behind her ears. She doesn’t say anything in return. She doesn’t have to when her fearful shaking quiets down and she snuggles her head in your lap. Eventually her tired pink eyes close peacefully and you’re left with a sleeping monstergirl in a position that won’t let you up. The golem just stands in the dark doorway with the scrutinizing stare she always has. The faintest green light shines from the runes etched into the clockwork mechanisms of her eyes, those eyes that never fail to meet yours.
  228.  
  229. The storm rages all night. You’re not sure when you passed out to the tranquilizing drumming of raindrops pelting the earth, but when you open your eyes, all you know is you feel comfy and warm. Rousing yourself, you realize you’re being cuddled like a teddy bear against the overgrown naked canine. Struggling to unclamp her massive paws and release you from the little spoon position, she just groans half-awake, “No Daddy, I don’t wanna go to school today” and hugs you tighter into her bountiful chest. You reach around to her hairy shoulder and give it a shake with some effort, concentrating on ignoring the twin watermelons jammed against your back.
  230.  
  231. Coming around, Vivi gives you a bone-creaking squeeze. “Hmmmm, you’re a nice guy Tensor.” She sniffs your hair lazily. “I’m gonna lick your face.”
  232.  
  233. “I don’t need wolf kisses this early in the morning.” You joke and try to get up, only to be held prisoner by softy furry bonds.
  234.  
  235. “Don’t make it weird. I’m not ahsposed to kiss you. Mister Stanley said so.” She yawns and drags her big slimy tongue from the base of your neck up over the stubble on your cheeks. A playful lick across the back of your ear and another fang-filled yawn finishes her little display of affection.
  236.  
  237. Emvii sits in the exact same spot in the doorway she was last night, watching, waiting anxiously for her next instruction. The werewolf finally lets you go when you mention breakfast.
  238.  
  239. A few minutes later and you’re fighting to setup the internet right on your laptop at the kitchen table as the werewolf hunches over her cold breakfast in a t-shirt stretched too tight, counting out loud.  “One two three four…eleven twelve.” It’s the third time she’s done that in the last minute, using the handle of her spoon to point at her bowl of Chocolate Skell-O-X’s and milk. And just like every time before, when she should get to thirteen, frustration contorts her face and she shakes until she starts again. This time she just throws down the spoon in defeat. “I hate cereal. I HATE IT!”
  240.  
  241. “Then give it here, and grab some fruit.” You grumble as your phone strains to get a single bar of decent signal. Must be the thick old walls. The building whistle of the kettle at least promises caffeine soon while you struggle to decipher the cyclopean’s chickenscratch notes in the brittle yellowed pages of the golem’s manual.
  242.  
  243. You get up to make some cheap instant coffee and Emvii shuffles forward, expecting something to do. You point her at Vivi to get her to leave you alone for two seconds. The lupine girl stares at her bowl almost as intensely as the golem watching her. “I used to be able to count good. I was good at games too.” Her sullen gaze turns to her hands. “I hate these clumsy paws and this stupid tail that gets in the way of all my clothes that don’t even fit.”
  244.  
  245. Then it clicks, and you nearly spill boiling water all over yourself.  You understand why the Duke has this kid here and a cold chill creeps up your spine. Vivi’s a true rougarou, changed by a white sinner into another of her kind. She’s Turned. Pity and revulsion war for dominance at the thought. She’s a monster that spreads by the corruption of human women…but it’s not like she asked to be.
  246.  
  247. Now it makes sense why she was so happy that someone was friendly. You try to stuff the thought into a pocket of your mind as none of your business as you get down to what is your business, learning the in’s and out’s of your metallic partner.
  248.  
  249. Flipping all the way to the field repair diagrams in the back, you try to get a sense of what other surprises she has under her sleeve. There’s the flamethrower in her right arm you saw yesterday, Helen has a makeshift recipe for the fuel scrawled in the corner. Looks like gasoline and styrofoam with a “C. VII compression enchantment”. There’s a couple extra scratches about fuel pressure but you don’t understand any of it. You’ve just got to count that some unleaded and packing foam on its own will do the trick.
  250.  
  251. There’s what looks like a built-in sword and shield built from a rearrangement of the bulky panels on the golem’s forearms, as well as pieces of her that can be launched as arrow-like projectiles. You use your almost dialup-slow internet to work on the translation for the command you want to try. After quadruple-checking it in a crap English to Latin program, none of the more esoteric monstergirl languages are digitized, you’re ready to try it out.
  252.  
  253. Making sure Vivi is well out the way and chewing halfheartedly on a piece of toast, you snap your fingers to attract the golem’s attention. You needn’t have bothered, she’s almost always looking at you. “Demonstrare bellum modum.”
  254.  
  255. Emvii thrums and clicks eagerly as her internals kick into high gear, feeding extra power to the transformation. Her left arm unfolds like an umbrella into a parma shield, metal melting together with whatever the crazy magic is that lets her living metal face move. The exposed rune-marked skeleton behind it glows with the magic that’s animating what’s little more than a weaponized doll. Snapping open from her forearm like a switchblade, her rune-inscribed shortsword extends from the top of her wrist and over her hand. The heat coming off of her is incredible as the golem’s feminine features morph into a helmet, visor protecting the fragile ground glass lenses of her eyes and facemask guarding the delicate machinery of her mouth and voicebox.
  256.  
  257. The automaton stands there with such purpose, you finally have no doubt that this thing was really designed to fight monstergirls in pitched combat and win.
  258.  
  259. “Lego demonstratione target.” Emvii demands in her loud clear monotone. The words come faster than normal as she rocks up on the balls of her feet. You’ve never been more positive that a machine can get excited as you are right now. She repeats the question and swings her sword dangerously in an arc, runic fire cutting the back of one of the kitchen chairs in half like butter and passing within a foot of you. The faint smell of scorched oak stains the air. Vivi stands watching with her mouth open.
  260.  
  261. “STOP!” An instinctual shout. The proper words don’t come to you in your kneejerk reaction as you stumble back a step and the tin can strides forward to keep the distance.
  262.  
  263. To your complete surprise she does with a low utter of “Juxta verbum tuum, Domine.” The blade and shield retract back into their normal positions. Only the fast tick-tick-tick of her interrupter and her helmet tell you she’s still ready to leap into action.
  264.  
  265. “You understood me.” You whisper breathlessly. The automaton betrays nothing as she waits silently for your next command. And that gives you an idea. Maybe you’ve been going about this the wrong way. It all depends on how well she remembers.  You give her the proper commands to stop and stay and get to work phrasing what you want to say.
  266.  
  267. “Audite verba mea. Et postea dicam in lingua mea.” You tell her, tying to enunciate each word as clearly as possible and wipe all trace of your MGC accent from the statement. “Meministine intelligi potest, si omnes facere? Etiam an non?”
  268.  
  269. The golem stays silent for several long moments. God help you if you broke her. “Etiam. At intellegere possum, sic non loqui.” She finally answers.
  270.  
  271. YES! She said yes! You’re not sure what the end was, something about speaking but who the hell cares? She said YES! You take her warm hand and lead her around the table to watch over your shoulder when you sit behind the laptop. Pulling up a basic dictionary you start going through the most common words: everything from nouns and adjectives, verbs and their conjugations. It won’t be perfect, but she should get the gist of everything you say. “Etiam, Ita.” You point to her and one side of the screen. “Yes.” You point at yourself and the other side of the screen. Then you repeat it, going through each set, pointing left for a word she should recognize, and right for the translation. There’s plenty of instances where she doesn’t recognize either but you’re quickly building a vocabulary you can work with.
  272.  
  273. She still can’t speak a word of English, but by lunchtime, you’re able to communicate most basic movement instructions. She can’t read at all, so each word set has to be done verbally, but then why would the designers think she’d need to? She was built to work in tandem with large formations of other troops, fight and be issued military orders, not operate independently and alone. If she was, you have a nagging suspicion the Duke wouldn’t have set things up this way anyway. You’re the field officer of an army of one.
  274.  
  275. The dictionary plan is going so smoothly that you’re able to swap off with Vivi while you prepare lunch for the two of you and get a break from hours and hours of continuous monotonous talking. The young werewolf is thrilled to act as a teacher to the weird metal lady and takes great pride in going through words at a breakneck pace. The soft click of massive nails henpecking keys is constant from chopping onions until kicking back and watching the two of them together while you set the table. About the time you’re ready to take the chicken out of the oven, you notice the type of words have changed, and Vivi is going on about feelings like kindness and aesthetics like beauty. Well what does it hurt you figure? You’ll get a couple more thousand words in by the end of the day, and you’ll be able to start going over the names of strategies and tactics and military and fighting terms she needs a baseline to understand tomorrow. If you keep it up, even after this first job together, she should be practically fluent in no time.
  276.  
  277. The canine wolfs down her food happily but you can tell she senses the change in the way you see her now that you know what she is. You have a hard time meeting those pretty pink eyes. She’s not mad about it, doesn’t even look particularly hurt, only sadly disappointed. Poor girl must be used to those kinds of looks by now. It tugs at your heart. All the old Community Paladin PSA’s about the menace of the intolerable three, the Turned, the true Undead, and the Parasites, never portrayed them this way. It’s impossible to not berate yourself for feeling that ingrained freezing dread when you think of her as one of them.
  278.  
  279. You were right before. That sort of thing is not for you to worry about. Like you said to yourself, it’s not your business. What is your business is taking care of her as long as you’re here. You give her an extra thigh off your plate when she starts to crush up and eat the bones of the rest of the chicken and pat her on the head. The albino werewolf smiles brightly with teeth full of cartilage and marrow as her bushy tail thumps happily between the two oak supports of the back of her chair.
  280.  
  281. The golem’s education continues through the afternoon and all the way to a big steak dinner. She retains everything. It’s absolutely incredible. But, you remind yourself, Emvii is a machine. It makes sense that she can store loads of information. That’s not all though, her appetite for it is voracious. As she begins to understand the conversations between you and the werewolf, you can feel her frustration draining. She’s not in the dark anymore, guessing at tones and looking for the littlest cues to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
  282.  
  283. The rougarou suggests a movie after dinner to test if Emvii can follow and understand a whole story with lots of different people talking. You think it’s more an excuse to have some fun. What started out as new and exciting work has dragged on all day like what it is, a job. She’s starved for some more human interaction. Well, why not. She even had the taste to pick out a classic that came out when you were a kid, Chastened II:White Wing.
  284.  
  285. The ancient 24-inch cathode tube console TV crackles with static when you flip it on, the much newer HTC attached to it loading up its whole library of media. The illegal wolf doesn’t seem to have a lot of other entertainment so she knows it backwards and forwards. Holding the remote in the pads of one paw and punching the buttons expertly with a free claw in the other, she brings up the tale of an angel out of time and the paladin who would be forced to reconsider everything he ever believed in.
  286.  
  287. The golem stands fixated on the flick behind the couch. You aren’t risking her crushing where you sleep. You lounge on one side, kicked back and letting your eyes rest. Vivi takes up the rest of the couch on her own. Before you can really fall asleep at the end of Act I, the couch creaks and a suffocating weight settles in your lap then leans back into your chest. Thick lush white hair tickles your neck with a felt softness. The canine lays down over the whole couch, head resting on the arm next to you and long digitigrade feet and tail draped off the other end. Her back crushes you down into the cushions at an angle, one furry shoulder up by your neck and one pressed firmly into your thigh. It takes a supreme effort to ignore the firm breast covering the whole rest of your thigh in front of her shoulder; been what feels like forever since you had the time or inclination to take care of those kind of needs, at least since Max left his message that he was quitting.
  288.  
  289. You focus on watching the show and petting the big wolf’s head, a skull larger than even the direwolf assassin currently fighting Paladin Peraul onscreen. It works for awhile, until she pretends to yawn and stretch, pulling your free arm with her paw over her shoulder and snuggling deeper into your chest. Vivi works the pads of her paw open, forcing your fingers between them into the silky undercoat, interlacing your hand with her own.
  290.  
  291. Her face is so red that she looks likes steam is going to leak from her ears, and her whole body trembles with that first taste of intimacy nervousness. Even with her starting it, it makes you feel a like a creep. No matter what her body may look like, she's really just a kid inside. You pull on your arm to free yourself and she clutches it tighter to her chest, burying it deep in the thin cloth-covered valley of her bosom, nipples as big around as quarters begging to be tweaked by lustful dexterous male hands.
  292.  
  293. You open your mouth but she’s the one that speaks first. “I’m hideous, aren’t I?”
  294.  
  295. “No, you’re very pretty.” You try to sooth the sensitive giant. “Any man would tell you so. You just need to get out and meet a few more people. Don’t get hung up on me. No need to rush just because I’m probably the only single guy you’ve seen in quite awhile.”
  296.  
  297. “It’s not like that!" The wolf exclaims as she holds your hand so tight, it starts to fall asleep. "You’re nice and you cook good and you know what I am but you’re still kind to me. And I-I like talking to you. I think it’s true love at first sight!”
  298.  
  299. You wish badly to remind her that her first impression of you was Agent Smith but think better of it. “Let’s table this for now. If I fail at my job, then I’ll never get to see you again. Worry about all that stuff later, when I succeed. Can you do that for me? I promise I’ll bring you a present when I get back.”
  300.  
  301. She twists her head and tall furry ears back to look at you with both rosy eyes. “You have to take me clothes shopping when you get back. I want shirts and skirts and a really pretty dress.”
  302.  
  303. “Deal” You agree and ruffle her hair, then give her a light peck on the forehead. “That doesn’t count, because you didn’t kiss me.”
  304.  
  305. Placated and beet red, Vivi turns back to the movie drawing near the climactic final battle between Gabriela and Peraul, holy messenger vs. holy warrior, both lost from their path, desperately trying to reclaim it before it’s too late.
  306.  
  307. As the credits roll and you send Vivi off to bed, you ask your weapon of war if she followed it for the most part. The patchwork golem nods solemnly. When you ask if she learned anything, she clanks forward and grabs your hand in her hard nickel and chrome fingers, spreads them out slowly and intertwines them with yours. She studies you with that same hard glare that always feels like you’re under a microscope, and you can hear the click and whir of her eyes focusing up and down your body. Then as suddenly as she grabbed you, she lets you go, and goes to standby at the foot of your one man sleeping couch.
  308.  
  309. The longer you’re around her, the more she begs the question, how alive is it/she?
  310.  
  311. Your second day starts much the same as the first. Only this time you’re woken up by the wet licks of a hungry wolf on your face. Long puppy kisses pull at the two-day stubble on your chin accompanied by a needy canine whine. “Alright Buster, I’ll walk you in a minute.” You roll over and mumble, ingrained memories of your buddy at home fogging the here and now.
  312.  
  313. When you really wake up, it’s not a big dumb golden retriever slobbering all over your face. Bright rose-colored eyes stare at you expectantly. “Pancakes.” They say.
  314.  
  315. Comfortable with already demanding things of her new roommate you see. But housework and cooking gives you a feeling of normalcy, one you desperately feel the need to cling to, to steady you in your new line of work. Giving the werewolf a pat and promises of pancakes, you meander off to the bathroom to shower and shave. Still in the process of waking up, you never notice Emvii follow you until you look into the mirror and see her standing sentinel in the doorway, watching you take your shirt off.
  316.  
  317. You rub the bridge of your nose exasperatedly.“Stop staring at me like that. Turn around.” The golem spins completely around …then goes back to what you strongly suspect is ogling you undressing.
  318.  
  319. “You know what I meant. Turn away.” This time she obeys the command right. Smartass hunk of junk.
  320.  
  321. You retrieve a plain shirt and a pair of jeans from your small suitcase after you clean up, wash the day-old sweat off and prepare yourself for another long day of instructing. Some gangster you are, more like a teacher in one room schoolhouse, or some homeschool househusband.
  322.  
  323. It doesn’t take long to mix up a big batch of batter after that, to sate the wolf’s boundless appetite, and you get to frying over the stove.
  324.  
  325. A small white braid woven with vibrant highlighted locks falls over your shoulder alongside loose strands of shining pearly hair. The canine’s nose draws in a deep loud breath.  “Smells good.”
  326.  
  327. “Well you liked them well enough yesterday.” You smile and flip the first of the flapjacks over in the pan.
  328.  
  329. That’s when you feel Vivi’s absolutely monstrous breasts squash down on your shoulders. The hairs on the back of your neck stand as the electrifying sensation ripples down and buzzes your whole body. All you would have to do is lean back, and you’d nestle between two pillows even bigger than your head.  
  330.  
  331. “I don’t mean breakfast.” Her soft throaty voice whispers with only two adolescent cracks.
  332.  
  333. You have to swallow hard to find your tongue, and you can feel your face burning. Focus on the job at hand Tensor. Your mom and little sister are counting on you to keep a roof over their heads. There’ll be plenty of time for these kinds of distractions later.
  334.  
  335. “Smooth. Hope you didn’t spend all night thinking up that one.” You try to play it off as a joke.
  336.  
  337. “Well...I mean…not all night…“ The colossal rougarou whispers shyly, and you feel the heavy heavenly softness lift free.
  338.  
  339. Steel bands wrap around your heart as you hear the hurt in her voice, like if you chastised your sister when she did nothing wrong. It’s difficult, to say the least, coming to terms with someone who exudes almost the same aura but has the body of a canine amazon sex goddess. In the end, stacking another pancake on the plate, you settle on meeting halfway. “I know you’re lonesome.” Turning around, you have to crane your neck up to glance over her generous bosom and look her in the face. She still seems small somehow. “Just, just take it slow. I’m not the only guy in the world.” You can’t reach up high enough to scratch her ears, but a gentle caress of her cheek gets much the same point across.
  340.  
  341. Vivi nuzzles unconsciously into your hand then catches herself with a start. You’ve heard about this sort of thing with the Turned, and seen her do it more than once. The Turned never grew up with a monster’s instincts, so they have an even harder time controlling them. Here she is, the white rougarou of fairytales, come to turn wayward sinners into more of her kind. You should be afraid, but she’s just a lonely little girl.
  342.  
  343. She bends over to your level, ears straight up, and you swear she’s going to wrap her big furry paws around your head and lock her lips on yours right there. Instead, her wide pink tongue slurps the side of your face, followed by a nervous maidenly peck on the cheek. It’s warm and sweet and makes you disconcertingly happy. You’re not sure how much these feelings are born of pity or lust or the start of something more. Time. You just need more time. You’re lonely too, far from the familiar comforts of your home, but you can’t let that encourage bad decisions.
  344.  
  345. After breakfast, you get back to work with Emvii, stepping up from basic words to concepts and sayings. The werewolf hangs over the back of the pair of you even as the hours pass.
  346.  
  347. “Sabotage…taj, taj. That sounds French. Is that French? I thought we were teaching her English?” Vivi leans over your shoulder, resting her weight against the kitchen chair back with an audible creak.
  348.  
  349. You straighten up and crack your stiff back with a series of satisfying pops. “Don’t be cute.”  
  350.  
  351. “You think I’m cute?” Her big bushy tail wags happily, and you have to really try to keep from leering at the full pale moonlike cheeks and thick furry muscular thighs her torn skirt reveals from the movement.
  352.  
  353. Keeping from drooling like a mongoloid, you’re able to answer. “You know you are. Would you take over for a bit? I’m going to stretch my legs. Then I’ll get started on lunch.”
  354.  
  355. Vivi agrees readily, but her unconscious lonely whine follows you out of the kitchen.
  356.  
  357. Staring out the screen of the backdoor, taking a long drink of coffee mixed with a little something stronger you found hidden in the cupboard, your phone vibrates with a message from an unknown number. ‘2nite@8’ is all it reads. Time’s running short. The Duke must be in a hurry.
  358.  
  359. You redouble your efforts with Emvii’s education through the afternoon, and order out for dinner with your meager and quickly dwindling reserves. By the time, you’re clearing away dishes, the golem has a vocabulary of several thousand words and hundreds of phrases. It’s a damn sight better than a measly couple of days ago. Not only is she learning your words, but her intense study of your every move has allowed her to glean much of your body language. This really just might pay off.
  360.  
  361. The hardest part is listening to the soft almost inaudible begging noises of your roommate as you dress in your good suit and pack your things.
  362.  
  363. “You really are coming back, right?” Vivi asks as she gives you a few of her old clothes to dress up your partner: Sunglasses to hide the crude camera eyes, and a hat and scarf to hide the sculpted metal hair in that short cut that’s as much a part of her battle helmet as something out of a Zip cheongasm fetish flick.
  364.  
  365. Large knuckles rap for attention on the front door. “I promise.” You swear without a thought as you direct Emvii to carry your things.
  366.  
  367. “Y-you better then.” Paws the size of dinner plates grab your shoulders and spin you around. You don’t even have time to breathe as lips, soft as rose petals, kiss you awkwardly and hard, sheer enthusiasm overwhelming you. Your elven babysitter, when you were little, kissed you once when you told her you were a big kid and didn’t need looking after. She was almost twice your size, and it felt a lot like this.
  368.  
  369. Only this time instead of a ravenhaired knife-ear asking if you want to try other big boy stuff, a tarrasque-sized werewolf gives you a smothering snowy fur hug. Another solid knock on the door jars you back to the present.
  370.  
  371. Untangling yourself from the reluctant monstergirl, you tell the golem to answer the door, and slide in step behind her.
  372.  
  373. The easily forgettable face of ‘Mister Stanley’ peers at you from the night outside on the covered porch. “Ready?”
  374.  
  375. You follow him out to the drive and Emvii doubletimes it behind you, heavy tread muffled by her commandeered tennis shoes.
  376.  
  377. “Come back soon Tensor! I’ll miss you and your cooking every day until you come home!” Vivi ducks through the door frame and waves before glancing around the street furtively and popping back inside.
  378.  
  379. Stanley’s stone cold killer visage breaks into an honest grin in the sputtering light of the streetlamp. “I hope my daughters turn out so nice. She’s such a sweet girl.” The goon says almost fatherly.
  380.  
  381. “Yeah.” You agree wholeheartedly, and your chest tightens a little at the thought of her in the middle of all this, how hard her life is going to be. She’s forced off the grid, no school, no papers. What other choice is there though? Turned are ‘Quarantined’ by the military: Imprisoned at best, Lab rats for the G-men at worst.
  382.  
  383. “Wanna marry her?” The senior mook smiles and raises an eyebrow at a stray white hair on your collar.
  384.  
  385. “That’s not funny.” You head toward the sedan, eating up as much sidewalk as you can with each stride.
  386.  
  387. “It’s not a joke.” He presses in full deadpan, enjoying you writhe. “Sure the age difference seems big now, but in ten years, it won’t matter hardly at all.”  
  388.  
  389. “Drop it.” You say simply…and Emvii drops your suitcase onto the sidewalk.
  390.  
  391. The beefy brick straightens his tie while you bend over to retrieve your belongings. “The Duke cares about family. If you want to protect her, that’s the best way to go about it. Worked for me an’ my wife Ipsis anyhow, though kinda the opposite. I’m still like a little boy compared to my honey mummy.” He wipes a false tear, claps your shoulder and rumbles heartfelt belly laugh. “Alright, enough hazin’. You got business with the Duke. Neither of us want to keep ‘er waiting.”
  392.  
  393. The ride traces your path back to the hotel, but every road looks different at night, and the underbelly of old downtown crawls with far more life than in the daytime. It’s all the worst sort of stories you hear about the city come to life. You see a succubus riding a guy raw on the catwalk of a billboard four stories up. He might be willing; he might not.  A pile of shadows pulses and squirms in an alley, a clear male voice crying for help while the car waits for a rusty stoplight to turn. You roll up the backseat window, counting the minutes until you reach the island of calm, though honestly probably a far more dangerous place, all things considered.
  394.  
  395. “You’re really married to a mummy?” You try to take your mind off the now, and your driver did seem to open up a little, after he saw how much the wolfgirl liked you.
  396.  
  397. “She’s my morning and evening star.” Your fellow lackey sighs with fondness as fresh as a schoolboy crush. He gives you a sideways glance from the driver’s seat, seems to come to a decision and continues. “Let me tell you a little secret. You ever wonder why you see ‘Pharaohs’ all the time but no mummies? They’re all mummies with the giftwrap removed, not that you’d guess, being all warm and alive. The Gypt royals rarely visit. Believe you me, you can spot the real deal a mile away. And it’s not the snake that does it.” He flashes you a smile with his eyes from the rearview mirror. “Don’t tell my wife I said that. I’ve grown attached to our fat old Mr. Hiss after all these years.”
  398.  
  399. The heavy black sedan, which the elder minion explains is an old armored model, finally rolls up to the curb. Stanley passes it off to a nondescript man lounging by the valet and your bag to a bellhop to be brought behind the counter. Then he takes you personally to the express, and the ogre steps aside.
  400.  
  401. You feel natural trepidation as the pulleys work the wires to haul the elevator speedily to the top floor, no longer because of the unknown but the rightful fear of a man walking into a lion’s den. This time when the doors open, there’s more than just the Duke and Junior. A young man, very few years younger than yourself, sits bound on his knees on the floor weeping quietly. The Duke reclines in her favorite waiting room chair. Another guest, a pale woman in a fine gown and expensive jewelry with chill milky blue eyes, sits beside her.
  402.  
  403. The young man looks to you new arrivals. Wild desperate eyes lock onto your surprised expression. Stanley’s already drawn his own goon face into a mask, as unreadable as the golem beside you.
  404.  
  405. “Help me, please.” The captive begs.
  406.  
  407. The powerful alp sets her glass down on the small table beside her without a sound. “What’s he going to do for you? This is our problem, yours and mine.” The Duke turns her attention to her late guests and waves deprecatingly at the bound boy. “This one, I knew him since he was knee high, always helped his family.” She makes a motion for Junior to pour her a drink. You see the other woman’s flute of champagne remains untouched. Then your boss rolls those deadly blue on black eyes back to the kid kneeling on the fine Gyptian carpet in front of her. “But all it took was a dirty little Zip snatch to get him to spy on me for that whore Chang. Stupid boy, but your Duke does not so easily let go of what is his.”
  408.  
  409. She must mean Jiao Chang, defacto face of the Zip quarter. But when you try and square the vivacious ryu of fast food ads with what the Duke seems to be implying, you’re sure you’re missing something.
  410.  
  411. The haggard young man hangs his head. “Just do what you’re going to do. Kill me and get it over with.”
  412.  
  413. The look the Duke gives him then chills you like ice, even ten paces away. “Now Georgie, I don’t judge people for being weak. I help them. And I’m going to help you take that weight off your soul, make you whole again.”
  414.  
  415. Her guest, the ostentatiously-dressed silent woman rises to her feet with stiff grace, like her creaky joints need more oil than the golem. She moves with the weight of years, though her body appears the very ripest apex of maturity. Another monster that makes your skin crawl. What happened to all the catgirls and elves and harpies of your childhood? Instead it’s a lions and tigers and demons in oldtown. Her very eyes seem dead but burn with a cruel mockery of life like the machine, only wiser, more cunning.
  416.  
  417. She stands over the trembling man, elegant gray-white fingers encrusted with enough jewels and rings to keep your family in money until your little sister is out of college. Extending her hands above him, wisps of something, like smoke with substance, wreathe and twine around from wrists to fingertips and beyond, gradually taking form. It takes only moments for the vague shapes to resolve. Massive sets of claws, bigger even than the werewolf’s, translucent and real, cover her hands in a gray ethereal haze. She flexes them once, and you hear the ancient knuckles crack.
  418.  
  419. Emvii starts half a step and settles down with a slight motion of your hand. The Duke sees, says nothing.
  420.  
  421. What you can only assume is a wight raises her ghostly hands: a creature spoken of in terrified whispered rumors, one of only two types of true dead smart enough to sneak into the cities, rich enough to bribe who they need to and canny enough to rarely get caught. The boy quakes in his boots as she looms over him, takes a knee, revealing perfectly unblemished marble-smooth ash-colored thighs. Cold azure lips whisper something calming in his ear in an old airy monster language. The meaning is totally lost on you but not the purpose. Never let the lamb see the knife.
  422.  
  423. Almost faster than you can blink, she sinks those claws inside him. There’s no blood, no torn clothes, no sign she’s really touching him at all. But she rakes them up his side, and he shrieks like a stuck pig.
  424.  
  425. And blue fire, you swear to god, BLUE FIRE pours forth from his screaming mouth. Flames lick out his eyes and his ears, every orifice above the neck a candle to the burning geyser shooting from between his jaws. It goes on and on for what feels like hours, but you don’t dare cover your ears or avert your eyes, not with the Duke watching. The fire doesn’t singe or consume. It’s something else, something bonded to his essence, and the undead is reaching inside and tearing it free.
  426.  
  427. The screaming stops as the inferno eventually splutters and dies, tears replacing the blaze. The ghostly claws disappear and the wight rises with quiet dignity to her feet, a smile in her milky eyes and on her freezing lips.
  428.  
  429. The duke stands up from her chair and rolls over what’s left of the sobbing mess with the tip of her boot. “Get up. You’re a man aren’t you? GET UP!”
  430.  
  431. He manages to roll onto his hands and knees, tries to say something and pukes all over the fine rug, a little splattering on the Duke’s pants. She ignores it and hooks her spade tail under his collar, pulling him upright, making him work for it.
  432.  
  433. “Now isn’t that better? The burning, the yearning, gone.” She coos. “You do like the lamia girls don’t you? Well that’s just fine. There’s a sweet little garter snake just down the way who could use a friend right around your age, Mrs. Deets granddaughter. You ARE going to introduce yourself to her, and you ARE going to be VERY friendly. Do you understand me? If I hear that you‘ve even been near Little Zipangu again, I’ll have some leather gloves made from your hide to go with my new white snake boots.” She guides him to a chair where he shakes like a frightened rabbit while Junior speaks into the little wire in his collar.
  434.  
  435. The undead returns to her seat as you all wait in stunned silence, daintily taking a sip of her wine. No-one dares speak until the elevator opens.
  436.  
  437. Two men exit, roll up the ruined carpet and guide the half-limp boy to the way back down. The well-dressed wight waits for them to go then rings the elevator for herself. She says something to the Duke, kisses her on both cheeks goodbye and caresses her face lovingly. An old confidant maybe? There’s sadness and bitter resignation in those milky blue eyes. She slinks off smoothly and slowly with measured tread when the elevator reappears.
  438.  
  439. The duke invites you to sit with a wave when the others have gone. “Do you know why I showed you that? No lessons or any of that malarkey. He was one of a very few in on this job. Chang knows what we’re up to, and she may try to pull something. I need to impress upon you-” She passes her gaze around the room. "-all of you, to be extra careful out there.”
  440.  
  441. “Down to business then.” She looks to the man so obviously her relation: son, little brother? “Junior, be a peach and retrieve the item for me.”
  442.  
  443. The square-jawed man holsters the sidearm he was idly inspecting into its place under his arm and retreats to the back of the room, slipping through the door by cracking it only enough for you to see a glimpse of massive bay windows and the lights of the old city around the hotel.
  444.  
  445. You try not to shift too uncomfortably under the Duke’s gaze as Emvii hovers near your shoulder.
  446.  
  447. Junior returns with a beaten old tin goblet held in a soft cloth with more care than you’ve seen him hold his weapon. The Duke eyes it with a mixture of extreme possession and hate. You wonder for a moment if you aren’t being yanked around at your own expense or if you’ve just been dropped into a scene lifted from The Last Crusade.
  448.  
  449. He presents it to her solemnly as the alp pulls fine white silk gloves from her pocket. The Duke pulls them down to her wrists securely before she removes the cup with delicate hands, turning it and letting the corroded piece of metal catch the light.
  450.  
  451. “The item you’re looking for-” She licks her lips. “-is one like this. It may be a cup, it may be something else. But it will be old, and it will share one other property.” She stands and lightly places the goblet in Emvii’s metal clutches, using the palm of the golem’s hand as a pedestal to hold it in front of her stainless steel chest.
  452.  
  453. Those white silk-covered fingers pull you to the side as she draws a large bore derringer from her jacket, more a sawed-off cannon than a lady’s pistol.
  454.  
  455. You have to signal the golem to hold still as the Duke draws a bead on the cup she’s holding. Without any pageantry, she fires with a crack and the bang echoes loudly through the small room, ringing your ears. The cup blows off the war machine’s palm, jumps in the air and clatters softly to the carpet below.
  456.  
  457. No bullet ricochet. No nothing else. The Duke picks up the relic and presents it to you, the large softnose bullet mushroomed against the side of the thin tin. A hard knock with the butt of her gun and she jars the warm bullet free. Only a blue-gray streak of lead remains on the cup’s surface to show any hint of what happened.
  458.  
  459. The demon twirls the thing in front of you, appraising it with a familiar eye. “You can’t clean it. You can’t polish it. Neither can you break it down or destroy it. An unholy magical object on this side of the gate, it shouldn’t be possible if you remember your history.” You don’t really, not how it pertains to this, but you don’t dare interrupt. “This old cup is a blessing and a curse. It infects a man with something, something at eats away at his insides and pours devilry in the gaps until he’s all demon.” The alp points at herself with her spadetail. “You can see the result.”
  460.  
  461. She passes the item back to Junior who wraps it up gingerly. The Duke turns those blue eyes back on you, like deep water ready to swallow you whole. “My appetites have become craven, all of them. I’m never satisfied. I want to eat. I want to drink. I want to kill and worse things. But I’m not a monster. I’m still a man.”
  462.  
  463. “Right, with big manly tits.” The stoic young gentleman at her side mutters sarcastically as he folds the silken cloth around the worn out container and places it back behind the bar.
  464.  
  465. “One more comment like that Junior, and you’re going to regret it.” The blackness around the perimeter of Duke’s sclera edges through the white in toward the center of her azure eyes. You can feel the power swelling and radiating from her, like static crossed with the heat of fire. She takes a long calming breath and the darkness retreats, though not quite as far as where it started. You can almost see it, creeping along a fraction of a millimeter at a time. No wonder she’s so desperate for whatever you’re after, she’s running out of time. There’s very little human left.
  466.  
  467. “Lenny will take you to Paltown and fill you in on anything else you need on the way.” The demon settles back in her favorite chair and pours herself a drink. “Good luck. And no matter what, don’t let anyone know about the item after you have it in hand. Chang’s pets won’t know what it is exactly since we don’t. That’s the best defense you’ll have other than your guardian angel.”
  468.  
  469. You’re still trying to process everything, and there’s one big thing that comes to mind. “That’s it? That’s all you’re giving me to go on? Could be a cup or a fork or a plate or toothpick or god knows what?”
  470.  
  471. Junior puts a skull-crushingly big hand on your shoulder and you know you just stuck your foot in your mouth and halfway down your throat. Shit, you need to put a filter on that thing.
  472.  
  473. The demon simply grips the armrest of her chair with a free hand. “It’s a great deal more than you came to me with. The rest will be a test of your resourcefulness. All of my men will tell you, I employ them in jobs to which they are suited. Show me you’re meant for something better than warming a monster’s bed.”
  474.  
  475. “One last thing.” You have to check yourself to keep from sighing with relief when those gloved claws release their hold on the carved gilded mahogany. She turns to her relation. “Junior, get Meat a little something from the armory, something with a bit more punch than that bug zapper. I have a feeling he’ll need it.”
  476.  
  477. Junior nods and steers you to the elevator by your shoulder, the golem in lockstep behind you.
  478.  
  479. You meet Mr. Stanley at the bottom and Junior departs to somewhere with instructions to meet him in the garage shortly. You follow the forgettable minion through the lobby, too absorbed in your thoughts to pay much attention to what’s going on around you as you thread through all the people milling about the low key gala on the first floor that’s sprung up since you went upstairs.
  480.  
  481. “Where do you think you’re going?” An angry female voice shouts over the din of hundreds of patrons enjoying one of the finest safest bars in town, smack in the middle of the hotel atrium. That grabs your attention. Someone is seriously pissed off. Sounds like a fight is going to break out. Well that’s security’s problem. You’re on a mission. You barrel headlong into the goon in front of you as he slams on the brakes, the color draining from that face that blends so well into a crowd.
  482.  
  483. A short buxom brown girl with a bobcut, dressed to nine hundred and covered in gold forces her way through the crowd, clanking almost as much as the golem behind you. “Don’t you think you can duck your way past me Lenard Stanley! You said you’d pick me up at six. It’s almost NINE! We were supposed to have dinner with mummy.”
  484.  
  485. You’re really not quite sure if she said mummy or mommy.
  486.  
  487. The minion shoves you to the side and bravely faces the Gypt hurricane head on. “Light of my life, star of my soul, might I say you’re looking ravishing and ravishable this evening.”
  488.  
  489. “Don’t think you can sweet talk your way out of this after keeping me waiting here for THREE hours.” Heavy bangles jangle indignantly on her wrists. “All the girls at the hotel bar are laughing at us, a married girl, stood up by our own husband. No call, no message, nothing!”
  490.  
  491. The busty mummy sighs as she pets the fat old ball python wrapped around her arm. “Do you have any idea how worried we’ve been? Even if it’s something bad, you always let us know.”
  492.  
  493. “It can’t be helped, Duke’s business. I would have told you if I could.” He kisses her on the cheek and you can actually hear the jealous growls and hisses of the single spectators. “I promise I’ll make it up to you, honey mummy. Just a little bit longer. I’ll pick you up as soon as I’m done. I love you.” You swear you hear teeth grinding in the audience now.
  494.  
  495. She seems to come to her senses as her eyes take you in and the circle of space formed around your group. If Emvii wasn’t covered up right now, you would be so screwed. Mrs. Stanley’s blush rises from her neck right to the tips of her ears. “It’s not fair when you use the L-word.” She straightens his jacket and tie, then combs back his hair. “Our big strong career man. Fine. Go on then, but you will be making it up to your Pharaoh. All. Night. Long.”
  496.  
  497. You take Emvii’s hand and edge your way into the crowd as the peanut gallery starts to disperse and the couple kisses goodbye. “Rub it in some more why don't-cha.” A Jinko roars from the bar while she slams down a doubleshot of vodka.
  498.  
  499. With Mr. Stanley back in the lead, you soon leave the bright lights and tense atmosphere behind for the cool concrete shadows of the garage where Junior is waiting, as cool and collected as his surroundings. He taps his earpiece once when you get close and gives the goon a grin. “You are so whipped Lenny. What are you scared of? She hasn’t been bigger than you for twenty years.”
  500.  
  501. “I don’t think anyone ever told her that.” Stanley cracks and leaves the rest of you to go bring around the car.
  502.  
  503. Junior gestures to a handful of cases hidden in the inky pool of darkness behind a concrete pillar, stacked up to his waist. He hands the smallest to you, wrapped in oilcloth. You unwrap the long greasy package, revealing the handle and scabbard beneath.
  504.  
  505. “Not even a gun?” You ask without thinking as you compare the little dirk to your taser that could knock down an Oni. How is this more firepower?
  506.  
  507. “Leave the guns to them that know how to use ‘um.” He pats his own hidden holster under his jacket. “You haven’t been with a monster yet and you haven’t used a real gun. So this will still work. It’s a little something rare, used to be given to unclaimed boys when they came of age.”
  508.  
  509. “So you’re giving me a letter opener?” You press.
  510.  
  511. “A very old knife, with Order verses on it.” Junior grunts and starts dragging another case out of the shadows. “Don’t underestimate it, I fought off a lamia who tried to kidnap me with one of those when I was ten.”
  512.  
  513. You tuck it into your pocket inside your jacket. “Must be some brutal stuff.”
  514.  
  515. “Basically says ‘I choose whom I love.’ Direct and to the point.” The broad-shouldered hitman laughs at his own joke and dusts off the orange case labeled ‘Code Tango’. He opens the catches on it with a handful of clicks and removes the top, revealing several tanks and what looks like a gun attached to a hose. “We’ll use this to refill the hot tank on your partner.”
  516.  
  517. Emvii looks to you for the okay then takes off her hoodie and opens the refill port on her shoulder. Junior grunts when he gets a good look at the patchwork repairs all over her torso. The more you see of these people, how serious and well-armed they are, the more you’re sure they’re only using you because you are the only option they have. What you can’t figure out is why. You suppose it doesn’t matter. Do this and your spot is secured. Then the real mystery hits you.
  518.  
  519. “How did you know?” You ask as the pressurized flamethrower fuel pumps into the golem’s cavities.
  520.  
  521. Junior doesn’t answer immediately as something crackles in his earpiece. “You don’t think observation wasn’t a part of the selection process with something this important do you, Meat? Besides, someone has to keep an eye on the Rougarou anyway. The havoc she could wreak on human parts of the city is incalculable.”
  522.  
  523. You understand why they’re keeping her then too. Weapons, cards held back, distractions, everything the Duke spends her time and money on is safeguarding a future investment. You can only swallow at how much has been dumped into you even on your brother’s good word. You are so far in over your head.
  524.  
  525. Stanley pulls your transport around and pops the spacious trunk. Doubly aware of needing to make the correct impression, you take the initiative and have Emvii put the other crates and cases into the trunk. Other than the obvious rifle case, the two boxy ones rattle like they’re full of silverware.
  526.  
  527. You hop in the back with the war machine and Junior finds his way up front. You try not to sweat as the four of you roll quietly out into the night to a part of the city you’ve barely even heard of, the part where the humans from lands of monstergirls have settled in this world, Paltown.
  528.  
  529. You leave the window rolled up tight as the armored car cruises by more of the nightly horrors of the city. This time they’re interspersed with a few more heartwarming ones, like an Oni stumbling home arm-in-arm with her date, singing Old Maui together at the top of their lungs and laughing at the end of each refrain. A dark elf presses herself against her toy on a street corner, his lead wrapped tight in her hand.
  530.  
  531. The closer you get to where you’re going, the more you notice the party atmosphere. You wrack your mind for the reason, the celebration at the hotel sticks out in your mind as well. Farther to the outskirts of oldtown, you hear the faint bang and crackle of fireworks. There’s something going on, some kind of festival from beyond the portal. You know a few of the classic ones from your old home in the burbs but nothing lines up for this time of year.
  532.  
  533. The golem reads your face creased in thought. “Daemonis tributa.” She offers in that cool monotone, her clicking ratcheting eyes scanning every twitch you make with the rest of her wrapped up tight under the cloth. ‘Demon’ something.
  534.  
  535. Both the men up front get quiet when they hear the machine speak. Well, it’s not like golems are commonplace, even retired models rarely return from the other side at the end of their service life. Mr. Stanley picks up the slack, “Gotta love old orthodox Tribute Day, perfect for slipping into Paltown without causing a scene. They’re really the only ones who still make it a big event. Just an excuse to dress up and party for most folks nowadays.” You’re a little surprised to not hear any of his usual jovial warmth. His eyes are hard and cold. This is a man on the job, and you can begin to believe that’s he’s done necessarily cruel things as much as the right hand of the Duke.
  536.  
  537. Junior scans the road in front of him-you notice the streetlights have given way to gas lamps-and flips his headlights off. The flames illuminate two huge pillars, the foundations of an arch on either side. The road passes right through, but you can’t help but see it as the gate to a fortress. It asserts its presense in a way you’ve never felt from any building. A six foot wall of stone flows from either side, surely decorational. You can see the festive lights of the old style buildings in the back and hear the faint murmur of music as the black sedan stops short of the entrance and makes a wide turn into a small side street. The big V8 idles at the curb while he throws on the parking brake to kill the red glow of the taillights.
  538.  
  539. Your grim lanternjawed driver looks over his shoulder and fixes you with his cool blue-eyed gaze. “Lenny and I will be your backup. We can’t enter Paltown, too many sins racked up over the ages to pass the seals on the gates. But if things go south and you can reach the wall, I’ll make sure we all get home.” He tosses you a small prepaid dumb phone with one number on speed dial. “Let us know the situation when it’s time.”
  540.  
  541. Mr. Stanley reaches into his jacket and hands you a slip of paper. The wrinkled scrap unfolds into a little hand-drawn map of the walled-off neighborhood, lesser known entrances and exits marked and an X on some street right off the biggest thoroughfare. On the back is a name, the place where you’re supposed to go-a tavern you’d guess-called the Drunken Sow.
  542.  
  543. You flash the map to Emvii and tell her to memorize it, explaining the cardinal directions related to where you are. You’ll look much less suspicious if the pair of you can look like you know where you’re going. Polished lenses soak it all in, even in the shadow of night.
  544.  
  545. Then you swing open the heavy armored door, exiting into the cooling night air as the sounds of celebration pour over you. There’s a hell of a party going down.
  546.  
  547. Emvii manages to get out on her own without ripping the handle from the door. She’s becoming more and more dexterous the longer she’s active. Her clanking and stiffness even seem softer and smoother, like use is breaking her back in. Not bad for a century-plus old piece of surplus. You start the short walk together to a smaller entrance for an alley down the street.
  548.  
  549. The runes painstakingly carved into blocks of marble set along the wall glow a faint blue as you pass them by. The weak light feels cold, like it’s sucking the heat out of you. Nerves, you tell yourself and button your sport coat all the way. The golem keeps up gamely, her disguise enhanced by the darkness. Only the green light of the clockwork in her eyes and her heavy tread gives her away.
  550.  
  551. You eventually come to a break in the wall as an alley opens to your right. It’s framed by another set of pillars, smaller and with no lamps, the warding runes still larger and more forbidding than on the wall itself. Staring past the miniature gate, the sound of crowds gaily singing and cheery strange music drifting from the other end of the dark gauntlet of buildings is the only thing that belies the ominous feeling that you aren’t welcome here.
  552.  
  553. Taking a deep breath, you step over the threshold into Paltown. Waves of heat pass over you, like cleansing fire, and suddenly you’re walking down a brick alley that seems like any other brick alley in old town, minus the revelry pulling at you like a magnet. The sounds, the smells, the cracks and bangs and shouts and cheers lure you inevitably forward.
  554.  
  555. Emvii walks at your side, half a step ahead, ready for action, knowing unerringly the location of your destination. You have to grab her iron-hard hand under her gloves to slow her as you both stumble into the full pageantry of Tribute Day.
  556.  
  557. The colors assault your eyes, adding to the cacophony overwhelming all your senses as a seemingly endless crowd parades its way down the boulevard.
  558.  
  559. Men ride horses in tinfoil armor and wizard robes made from bedsheets and curtains: paper mache hats tied to their steeds in the shape of women in caricatures of centaurs, or crowns and hats like deacons and kings. Women follow behind in glittering costumes, skin smeared in blueface and redface, with headband horns and paper wings, hooting and shrieking while harrying the riders with pelt whips. Some pull men from the crowd to steal a dance; some grab small unsuspecting children and terrify them to tears. Each time they reach their hand toward their intended victim, empty palm up, and point into it.
  560.  
  561. You’ve never seen so many pure humans in one place in the city, even in the burbs. And masks, everywhere, everyone wearing faces from garish to ghoulish, even in the crowd. There are even cartoonish effigies of the mayor, the president, even the demon lord herself carried on palanquins by nearly naked men with a carry pole in one hand and a flagon of beer in the other. One seven foot tall woman-if she isn’t a Gottwaffe giant you’ll eat your hat-got especially creative. She’s tied a whole bear skin rug to herself, loping along hunched over and growling until she pops up to her full height to snatch a boy in a hug.
  562.  
  563. Music booms from a brightly lit raised platform that lords over the whole parade route. The lively local band has an assortment of strange instruments played in a way you’ve never heard before. There’s a boy strumming a lute, a horned harpy playing a sitar with her feet, some kind of drum made from armor pieces, a guy on an old handmade ocarina, and a crusty old man playing a goddamn saw. You’re not even sure how that last one is possible even as its amplified musical warble blasts from the stage’s massive monitors.
  564.  
  565. As you look closer, you see monsters, very few of them, interspersed with the crowd. Members of the MGCPD stand at street corners or astride horses for crowd control.
  566.  
  567. An elf sells sweets from a stand with her husband and little girls, all costumed as various other monsters. The man scratches at a collar that looks like it was temporarily appropriated from the family dog, ‘Fido’ clearly stamped on the bone-shaped tag.
  568.  
  569. An ogre, heavily powdered in whiteface with a huge curly wig to cover her horns, pretends to cower in fear of the false demons behind her date, wringing her hands nervously.
  570.  
  571. It takes the humanoid machine at your side to yank your arm and bring your eyes away from the sheer strangeness in front of you. You nearly miss the man that stumbles into your alley and proceeds to be sick next to a dumpster. You can tell from the smell alone that the guy started the night early and hadn’t paced himself drinking. Now he’s paying the price and trying not to splatter his shoes. His mask sits pushed up high on his head to get it out of the way, sculpted in the shape of a grinning fool. It’s too perfect an opportunity to miss. While waves of dry convulsions follow the lingering trails of spittle from his mouth, you creep close. A light touch, a little tug, and the mask is free and in your hands. He rubs his hand through his hair, and looks to the ground obviously thinking it fell off. Another wave of nausea wracks him and the only place he’s staring is between his knees. By the time it passes, you and the golem are long gone.
  572.  
  573. You grasp Emvii’s hand and let her lead you through the crowd. The way is tight but the metal monstrosity just bulldozes a path, leaving you to apologize in her wake. But the people seem to take it all in stride. There’re even nods of approval for a woman dragging a man off. As you get into the rhythm of walking, you find yourself looking at the parade even when your mind should be on the mission. The crowds, the chaos, you can see why it’s a good time to get away with anything. But how the hell are you supposed to find someone in all of this?
  574.  
  575. Hopefully your contact will know.
  576.  
  577. Soon enough, Emvii turns down a side street away from the main crowds and you see the sign you’ve been searching for. A brightly painted carved piece of wood hangs in front of a small three story building, a bronze historic marker planted in the front. The thick oak depicts a busty pink bar wench drinking deeply from a mug. This is it, the drunken sow.
  578.  
  579. Light spills from the tavern windows, the few people there watching the parade through the windows on the second floor in the warmth of the indoors with a beer or something stronger. An A-frame chalkboard of specials stands out front.
  580.  
  581. The heavy oak door opens easily at the golem’s touch as the pair of you slip inside and the heat of the establishment washes over you both. At the limit of her orders, you have to guide Emvii to the leather seat of a booth and put her on lookout. The smell of smoke permeates every bit of the tavern, soaked into the cloth and wood over decades. It’s overlaid by the delicious smell of sizzling meat as a whole hog roasts above coals on a spit in the massive main fireplace.
  582.  
  583. In a rare show of self-direction, the golem wipes the fog forming on her ground glass eyes with her scarf.
  584.  
  585. You scan the place from behind your mask, looking for anyone alone and waiting. No luck, just a couple barflies chatting together down here and a chain blocking the stairs. Looks like the people upstairs are a party or some locals getting special treatment. Other than an old man tending the bar, you only see one waitress, a dark-skinned P’Orc with sequins glittering in the skirt of her dirndl and bright blue ribbons tied in her hair.
  586.  
  587. After a moment, the barmaid who looks more like a wild boar than some soft pig, walks up on her cloven hooves and favors you with a well-practiced smile accompanied by a short one page menu. “What can I get you, sugar? The roast boar is for the party after the midnight Gypas bonding but we have some great chicken gumbo ready to go. Van Harne ale pitchers are four bucks, and fire fruit daiquiris are a buck.”
  588.  
  589. The busty sow looks to the golem, ears perking up as she hears the muffled ticking barely audible under mechanical girl’s clothes. A P’Orc without folded ears…nothing says a wild monster-a bugaboo-more than that, other than the tusks curling up from her lower lip maybe.
  590.  
  591. “Veterans like yourself are always welcome Ma’am, but I’m afraid we don’t have much to offer you but the atmosphere.” The waitress grins sheepishly at the living machine, unsure of whether to hand her a menu out of politeness or not.
  592.  
  593. Emvii just stares, assessing the threat level of the creature in front of her and nothing more, sub lenses whirring and focusing, rimmed in jade runes.
  594.  
  595. The poor piggirl gets unnerved enough by the silent treatment that she turns to leave without taking your order. A little brown corkscrew pokes out a hole in the back of her garish skirt, tiny black tuft of hair at the very end.
  596.  
  597.  It triggers something a thousand high school trips with friends to suburban chain restaurants has ingrained in your soul, and before you know it your fingers are wrapped around that little bit of hair. Your thinking brain shuts down as you pull back and give it a good popping sproink. The tight springy way it rebounds, you immediately know it doesn’t happen to her often AND that you just made a big mistake.
  598.  
  599. The young sue swells up indignantly, but to her credit faces you with little worse than a strained smile. “Just who do you think you are?” She oinks and grabs your stolen mask by the nose, flipping it up over your face so she can look you in the eye. “Does this look like a Porkers to you?”
  600.  
  601. The automaton follows her standing orders and holds back. Emvii’s a killer, but she’s not stupid-a true learning machine-and a few days have really let her find her groove.
  602.  
  603. Still, you don’t want to test her limits, and that comely P’Orc scolding you makes you feel like your brother used to if you picked on your little sister. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” You hold up open hands in apology. “Just a habit, I swear!”
  604.  
  605. “Oh, you’re gonna show me how sorry you are.” She promises and leans over you, so close you can count the threads on the tassles in her wavy jet black hair. She points her upturned palm toward you in the same way the costumed women outside did to the men and begins to raise her other hand.
  606.  
  607. “That’s enough Charlotte.” The bartender calls from his chosen realm as he shuffles toward the lot of you. “Be a dear and watch the bar for me for a minute. I need a break.”
  608.  
  609. The thick swine girl’s expression morphs to that of someone who just had their fun ruined more than any thwarted grudge. “Sure thing, Daddy.” She sighs and struts back to serving nobody in particular, absently cleaning shot glasses and tumblers and preparing for the rush coming after the parade. You catch her stealing glances at your gathering and out the windows, wishing she was part of the celebration, instead of serving it.
  610.  
  611. The wizened man’s bones creak as he pulls a stray seat up to your booth, fishing a corncob pipe and a small paper envelope from his vest. “My little girl wants to get to know you better, thinks that ‘modern costume’ is clever.” He taps out a measure of tobacco from the folded bit of paper into his pipe, letting you read a clear ‘You’re Late’ under the flap. Thank god, the rotund geezer is your contact.
  612.  
  613. “But I know a real Duke’s man when I see one, or a duckling in your case. I don’t want her involved with that in the slightest. Blood in. Blood out.” He strikes a long blue-headed match on the table and sucks on the pipestem to light the bowl. A quick snap of his wrist snuffs out the open flame. “You know what I mean, don’t you boy? Maybe not, if you strolled right into ol’ Paltown unscathed. Didn’t even singe your eyebrows.”
  614.  
  615. The bartender stares hard at Emvii and puffs thoughtfully. “But that’s the most impressive thing. Just look at ‘er, a genuine ticker, one of the old dead eagle golems. My grandfather used to tell stories about them, that his grandfather told him…long before our war. What do you use it for?”
  616.  
  617. “What do you think?” You whisper. Talking so boldly like this in the open, even in this half-deserted bar, gives you jitters. You know looking sneaky is worse, but it’s impossible to put on a calm face. You do the next best thing and lower your mask.
  618.  
  619. The bald old man frowns and takes a long drag. “Slaying monsters. It’s very good for that...I don’t want any of that here. So let me tell you what you came for, and you can be on your way.” He leans on the walnut table with both elbows and lowers his voice. “I don’t know what’s true, just what I’ve heard. There’s a bum down on Eidell Road by the river who has something special. He passes it over dirty water and makes it clean. He touches it to sick human children, just human, and cures them in a flash. You know what happens to enchanted items when you try to bring them through the gate, not living things like golems or magic burners like wards. Poof! And it’s a lump of garbage. So this sounds crazy, but you wouldn’t be here, not with that-” He points at Emvii with his pipe stem. “-if the Duke didn’t think there was something to it. Look for a man called Toth, you already know where.”
  620.  
  621. Upending his hollowed corn cob and tapping the glowing ashes out in a tray, he stands up to the popping sound of worn joints. “Go quickly, while everyone is watching the tribute run. The rest of town will be empty.” Then he turns to check on the massive hog roasting for the feast, and you know your cue to leave.
  622.  
  623. The spunky barmaid’s piggy eyes curiously follow you and the magical android out the door and into the street as you exit the tavern into the loud and rowdy outside. You remember dreaming of excitement and adventure like that. Right now, you’d trade it for just about anything else.
  624.  
  625. The further you slink away from the main streets in Paltown, the darker and more deserted the place becomes. There’re not even signs on the roofs for flight lanes anymore. Now that’s boonies. Truth be told, the less people there are, the better for you and the walking arsenal by your side. You head down brick roads over the janky stairstepped terraces, one half a hill at a time toward the river.
  626.  
  627. The houses become smaller and farther apart the closer you get to the floodplain, until it’s nothing but trees and walking paths. The street turns to gravel, then narrows to a trail barely wide enough for one-way motor traffic. Eventually, with the berm of the massive earthen levy in sight, you come to the entrance of a park. An old stone bridge carries the twin arcs of streetlights over the water on the far side, part of another larger road continuing to the wealthy high rises of new downtown. Another exit, another gate.
  628.  
  629. Still you’d hoped to run into somebody by now. By the river could mean a lot of things, but every city boy knows that big parks and under bridges is as good a place to find who you’re looking for or someone that knows them. Well, that and trolls. That is if they’re not out panhandling the crowds at the celebration.
  630.  
  631. Walking into a park with trees rustling and groaning like it’s Sleepy Hollow, late at night in the dark with most of the town abandoned in celebration, not smart Tensor. Something goes wrong, no help, and nobody would find your body until morning…if that soon.
  632.  
  633. The gravel crunches under the golem’s stride and you turn your attention to her. You’re still thinking like a kid from the burbs. Whatever goes down, nobody will find out. That goes both ways. That’s how the Duke and her men probably knew it would be. And the implication makes a chill run down your spine. Please please, don’t let anyone get hurt. Your face tightens with stress and you can feel the chords of tendons sticking out of your neck. But what’s the likelihood of that? Who would give up the kind of magic this man has? You were given no money for compensation. You were given a weapon, a powerful, highly-illegal weapon who enjoys killing. You weren’t sent here to play nice.
  634.  
  635. And he’s not even doing anything but helping people with whatever the enchanted thing is.
  636.  
  637. No two ways about it. You’re a thug. You’re the bad guy. And that means the brother you idolize was too. That hurts most of all. You knew, deep down that any group like this requires that at some point when things get ugly. It just never hit home. He was always kind. He always looked out for the family, just like you have to now. What can you do when mom and Eila are counting on you? Is that what Max thought? ‘What can I do?’ Did he think the same thing as he did whatever that terrifying blue-eyed spadetail asked of him?
  638.  
  639. And what has she asked of you exactly? Isn’t it less than the Mange or any other infamous street gang in the bad parts of the city, where some young manticore might get tasked to bring back the ears of a human girl for her initiation? Isn’t she the lesser evil? Why even bother thinking about it now? Haven’t you already committed and made your choice?
  640.  
  641. The rationalizations spin wildly as your tension ramps up.
  642.  
  643. You come back to your senses at a sound from the underbrush up by the bridge. Not the rustle of a squirrel or the whoosh and squeak of a bat passing overhead, something bigger, much bigger. Then you catch a snatch of arguing voices.
  644.  
  645. Commanding Emvii to stay, you sneak closer to the commotion. The golem has many good features, but stealth is far from one of them. Not that you’re the best equipped, forcing your way through briar in loafers and a monkey suit.
  646.  
  647. The orange light of a small campfire throws a warm glow on the bones of the underside of the old bridge. The crackling flames boil a small kettle and reveal a hunched creature-ancient as the viaduct above-in a red shawl, waving her gnarled claws at a bearded bundle of rags. The hag gestures accusingly at the graybeard in his threadbare MGCU hoodie. You miss the words, but the frustrated tone carries clear.
  648.  
  649. “As I say every time, I’m sorry.” The homeless man grumbles as you creep close enough to hear. “You’re too old. Live with what grace you are still blessed with.” He takes the kettle from its perch and pours some tea into a tin cup that he hands the crone.
  650.  
  651. She takes the offered drink with shaky Parkinson’s hands, propping her creaky bones against the bole of a tree. “What you carry belongs to my people. You know that. You cannot deny a propriet this blessing!” She scratches and wheezes, but there is still power in her voice.
  652.  
  653. “It’s a curse. But even curses can help a few, just not us.” He coughs into his sleeve and tosses another handful of twigs into the small fire. “You have been very kind to me since I came here miss, and I am grateful for all the food, and the warm clothes. I do not deny you because I choose to.”
  654.  
  655. The hag’s rotted yellow teeth spread in a grin. “Poor boy. You really do think you’re THE An’ Shull Toth.” Her stooped frame heaves as she cackles. “You should have stayed in your grave at Bended Knee, paladin.”
  656.  
  657. That name. Lucky, really lucky for you.
  658.  
  659. “I’m sure the dead sleep better.” He laughs himself, the rumbling sound coming deep from his sweater hood. The hobo pulls a canteen from a trashbag at his side, rinses the bottom cup it with a little water and pours himself some of the seeping tea. A wordless toast and the pair lapse into companionable silence, staring at the light-polluted muddy sky, surely waiting for the rest of the fireworks at the conclusion of the parade.
  660.  
  661. Could the homeless man really be a paladin, one of the MGC Twelve? Here? Undercover? No. She made him sound like a warrior. That kind of paladin hasn’t existed in a long time, a very long time. You remember that at least from school. The last paladin of Light and the last angel was seen some time around when Columbus first sailed toward the West Indies on this side.
  662.  
  663. Well, somebody’s grandma and a hobo with a rare name, the right name. This should be easy enough. Maybe it really doesn’t have to get ugly. You carefully backtrack your way to the waiting golem, praying you don’t hear the crack of a dry twig under your foot. Damn, you are such an amateur.
  664.  
  665. You command Emvii to take it easy. Seeing that serious metal face while she almost bounces up and down in anticipation; it forces you to reaffirm the limits to her behavior. You take extra care to tell the golem not to do anything rash and especially anything lethal. A really good scare might be all you need for this shakedown. A guy can dream.
  666.  
  667. Following Emvii as she bulldozes a path of destruction through the undergrowth, you storm into the camp. The knashing sound of broken brambles and splintering limbs announces your arrival like war drums. The woman starts and drops her cup, but the man simply looks up at you with a dark beetling gaze. “I told you Miss Sharn. I augured someone would come for me tonight.”
  668.  
  669. Goosebumps prickle your flesh, and suddenly worries of traps and hails of bullets flood your mind.
  670.  
  671. The crone scoffs and measures you with milky half-blind eyes. “Nonsense. They’re just a couple looking for somewhere private. Sorry kids, no party here. You should head back up by the…”
  672.  
  673. “We’re here for the enchanted item.” You interrupt. You’re surprised by the hardness in your own voice as it crawls through your mask, the shakes and cracks crystallized into a solid monotone that sounds more like the machine beside you than your own. “We’re reasonable people. If you’ll just hand it over without a fuss, we’ll be on our way, and never disturb you again.”
  674.  
  675. “Reasonable?” The hobo steeples his gnarled dirty hands. “Listen to what I have to say first, and I’ll give it to you. Isn’t that reasonable?” The bum pulls down his hood, revealing a shocking face, almost as young as yours. Only his hair is white and gray with age, his beard wild, and those glittering dark eyes wizened with many years. It doesn’t feel right to look at him, like staring at a bright light. His voice rumbles through the rat’s nest of hair around his mouth. “You grew up here in the city? Yes I can see it. You remember the PSA’s played to every schoolchild? ‘Suffer not the Undead, the Turned, the Parasite. Be vigilant, for the peace and safety of all.’ ”
  676.  
  677. He breathes deeply when nobody interrupts him. “You need to understand that, to understand the importance of what you ask for. There’s all sorts of monsters out there. You can’t even imagine. The ones allowed in the cohab cities are just a fraction of what’s beyond the Gate. And it’s not all peace out there. Sure we’re on good terms with the three big kahunas near the original portal and the fractured states of the old Zip and Gypt empires. But at the same time there’s the other three quarters of their world. The true dead of Mon Grave have been warring with us practically since the Gate War. Why do you think you’ve never seen a zombie or a skeleton in the city? Vampires? The ones you’ve seen aren’t really dead. They can have children and unlike our legends they can’t make more of each other through bites. Or those oral fixation dark elves people call ghouls? You don’t want to see real ghouls.”
  678.  
  679. His deceptively youthful visage wheezes and hacks a gumball-sized chunk of flem into the little fire. “There’s whole swaths of no-man’s land. The scalies won’t even set foot on the island continent in the tropics, hard bred superstition about the childless curse and the mass graves of a dead civilization called the Dragoon. That’s not to say home sweet home isn’t dangerous. Succubi are here because the blues are the royalty who control the gatelands. Manticores are allowed because they are the traditional shock troops and honor guards of the Demona Rex. Con Carroll monsters wouldn’t be here at all if Jabberwocks weren’t needed to work the subgates. I hope you don’t believe the Cheshires just leaked through. I used to think the tales of the kittens taken as price of passage by the Coalition for experiments were crazy too, until one day I saw something tear the head off a dracolich that looked like a damn nine-foot-tall naked ethereal tiger. I’ll never forget that bloody smile when it disappeared into thin air.” His black eyes shine like polished jewels as his gaze pierces deep into your soul. “You meddle with this. You meddle with the old world, the old monsters, the old gods, Princeps Dei.”
  680.  
  681. His eyes hold you like a trance, burning into you. You’re afraid to look away, afraid to continue to stare.
  682.  
  683. “Vestra vos in desertum locum, non exaudit.” Astoundingly, it’s the golem that breaks his grip on you.
  684.  
  685. “Look to this world’s religions if you doubt the power of the dead to influence the living.” The old man shudders with mirthless laughter in his patched sweatshirt and points a crooked finger at you. “All roads lead to a reckoning, however long they may be.”
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