MERcURY OUT CoLD
I didn’t want our quartet barging into whatever Ramos thought he’d discovered. A big group of not-Polish dudes would go a long way toward being conspicuous.
Teget and I went first.
We paused outside the alcove door. Teget stood at attention, just like the presumed goons who’d been watching the big doors earlier. Did a pretty good thug impression, especially since he donned his wool trenchcoat. Must be steaming. Of course, if he’d brought the ax—one of two partner weapons to the pulsar stave—he’d have made an even better guard.
I eased up to the door. The cold metal of the pulsar stave prodded my side. Hang on. If I’d been smart enough to bring along my weapon… “Teget. Are you, uh, carrying?”
Teget lifted open his jacket. Yep, there it was, a triple-bladed ax stuffed under his armpit. It had a short handle, made of a gleaming brass metal imprinted with swirling lines. Each thick, curved blade was set equidistant around the handle, aimed down toward his leg. Don’t know where he’d gotten the reverse holster for it, but my money was Garvey in Procyon’s armory hooked him up.
“Awesome. Let’s peek.” I opened the door.
We slipped through onto another dark balcony, this one ringing a warehouse that hadn’t seen the benefit of Rozsada’s renovations. Dingy floors, rusty posts, crumbling concrete. Made me wistful for the simpler days of last year when all I had to worry about was waiting around for an astral fiend to pop out of a rip through space-time in one of San Camillo’s many abandoned buildings.
The ground floor, though, was full of people.
They must have gone down the steps leading from the far end of the catwalks to the bottom level. Two goons blocked the big doors through which the crowd had entered, maybe fifty feet to our left. Teget crouched beside me, eyes watchful, face wary. He pointed to our right.
Ramos hunkered by a metal strut, half-hidden in shadow from our perspective, but with floodlamps blazing at the crowd below, he’d be invisible from their view.
This was a different crowd from Rozsada’s dance floor. Everybody looked like they had money, from the guys in shiny suits and even shinier shoes, sporting gold chains like they were entering a Mr. T fashion show, to the women in gorgeous gowns who were wearing millions of dollars’ worth of gems. Everyone had champagne, too, served by a couple pairs of the scrawnier goons. By scrawnier, I mean they were shorter than six feet six.
“What manner of gathering is this?” Teget whispered.
“Beats me. Party behind the party?” Though it wasn’t nearly as invigorating as the boisterous music we’d left behind. These folks murmured in tight knots, two or three couples apiece. More guys in suits brought out black and silver boxes to a raised platform at the opposite end of the warehouse. A podium flanked the platform.
Something rustled behind us, the sound as soft as a piece of paper. Teget swung the ax up under Dominic’s chin.
I had the pulsar stave deployed, too, but resisted the urge to fire it up since I didn’t want to advertise our location. “Geez, guys, a little warning. That’s twice now one of us has almost sliced up Dominic in the same day.”
Brandon brushed aside the stave and joined me at the railing. “So, who are these people?”
“Don’t know. But they’re unpacking … stuff. Can’t tell from here.” I squinted. “Check out those tattoos on the arms of the ones doing the moving.”
Brandon frowned, and then let out a long breath. “Great. Polish mafia.”
I snickered. “Wow. That’s awesome. What, do they shoot themselves whenever they come after their enemies?”
“I’m serious, Mercury. These are the nastier cousins of the same kind of men who caused havoc in Drake City over the summer. You saw that on the news, right?”
“Sort of. The villain you took out had his own henchmen …” My eyes widened. “Them?”
“Perfect. Wonderful. What a great place for a party.” I glared at Dominic. “You want to make yourself useful and get a hold of Ramos before he does something stupid? As in, stupider than the five of us creeping in here?”
Dominic scowled but did as ordered, skulking along the wall to Ramos’ position. My favorite SCPD saw him coming and motioned for us all to, uh, get lost.
I shook my head and crooked my finger like I was grandma and little Ramos had gotten caught chasing bunnies with the lawnmower.
Ramos followed Dominic back. “You should have stayed put.”
“You should have listened when I said don’t play cop!”
“Not playing, Mercury. Investigating.”
“Yeah? What’s next? We all enroll in Interpol?”
“I have contacts with them in Belgium and the Czech Republic.”
I rolled my eyes. “Of course you do.”
“Hey.” Dominic waved his hands between us. “Time out. Look down there.”
A stocky man in a silver suit jacket worn over black shirt and pants took to the podium. His hair was spiked so blond he could have taken grooming tips from Billy Idol. When he spoke, I thought I was listening to the extras cast in The Hunt for Red October. “Good evening, all. Welcome back for the second half of our auction. This next lot is ancient Macedonian, recently … liberated from a private collection the Aegean. Bidding will start at eight thousand euros.”
And right off the bat, hands shot up. Each one held a tiny white sign with black numbers.
The auctioneer’s voice accelerated, devolving into—of all things—a Texas drawl.
“That’s weird,” Brandon murmured.
“He must have gone to auctioneering college in the western United States,” Dominic said.
The three of us who’d grown up in this dimension stared at him.
“What? There are such places.” Dominic shifted his crouch. “I looked at it once, before I settled on architecture.”
“Black market art,” Ramos said. “This could be quite the score for Interpol.”
“Yeah, but it isn’t anything we signed up for.” I nudged him. “How’s about we get back to our party and then tip off your Czech cops.”
“I will never forgive myself, but I agree with Mercury,” Dominic said. “Our mission profile is to counter extradimensional threats, not interdict antiques theft.”
“Mission profile?” Brandon shook his head. “Listen to you guys. What good are powers if we’re not going to use the blessing we’ve been given for good no matter where we are? No matter what we face?”
Teget cleared his throat, softly, because, you know, we were still hiding. “I must side with the knight of the skies. Brandon is an honorable man, Mercury, and we would do best to heed his warning.”
All I wanted to “heed” was another cup of coffee, preferably one heavy with sugar—and maybe a splash of brandy.
“You’re outvoted,” Ramos murmured.
“Democracy sucks.” I rocked back on my heels, like a surly, well-dressed gargoyle. “Fine. Investigate or whatever. But I’m not sticking around for these guys to notice us.”
The gavel struck below. A silver-haired woman of Asian descent claimed her box full of old pottery. She made the credit card transaction in full view of the crowd and claimed a couple of the tattooed mafia as escorts.
“Next lot is, of course, why we are all here,” Spikes said. “The item’s value is incalculable. The relics we have seen tonight—jewelry, paintings, sculptures—these are all of great historic sentiment. But this is the progenitor of legends. It is more than wealth. It is power.”
I had a five-second fantasy in which these rich criminals wheeled out the Ark of the Covenant and were promptly cremated, Nazi style. No such luck. Spiky prompted the crowd into applause as a young, beautiful blonde walked up to the stage from the midst of the crowd.
A woman whose walk I instantly recognized and whose face, when revealed, punched me in the gut.
“Ay de mí,” Ramos whispered.
Serena Cyr winked at the crowd assembled before her. Her hair was cut short, sleek, not the athletic ponytail I’d seen a few months ago, and her black dress was far more elegant—and form-fitting—than the business casual of a Department of Homeland Security agent. I guess when you go on the run after betraying all of mankind to the insane plans of a tech mogul who’s been spliced with the demonic presence calling the shots in the Interstice you’re allowed a wardrobe change.
Brandon leaned forward. “Isn’t she—?”
“One of the bad guys who was at the fall of Procyon,” I said. “The one who partnered with Alexander Arkwright and was responsible for stealing a chunk of Procyon’s secrets from the Historic Vaults. What I don’t get is what she’s doing in Poland at an antiques auction?”
“Maybe she’s stealing and selling to finance her life on the run,” Ramos said. “She must have connections both sides through her Homeland work.”
“Perhaps she merely has an object of great value with which she wishes to part.” Teget’s hand shook.
Serena removed a black sword from the next box.
You heard me. The black sword. The same one forged in Meda, used by my cousin Crux in his fight against us—until Arkwright betrayed and murdered him right in front of me, using Teget’s ax. The black blade’s edges glittered in the harsh fluorescent lamps, but the flat sides themselves absorbed all light. Last time I’d seen it, the sword had grown and spawned a counterpart. For the moment, it looked like a fancier, thicker version of a katana.
“I do not understand,” Teget whispered. “The blade of Crux harnessed the powers of the Interstice. It cannot be wielded in battle by the likes of these Earth lords.”
“Something tells me these ‘lords’ don’t care. Either that, or they’ve got a plan in mind.” I glanced at Dominic. “We’ve got to get that back.”
“And whatever else might be here, stolen from Procyon.”
I shook my head. “One fight at a time. Teget and I will take the guards by the upper door. Then you can zip-zap down there and yeet the sword out of—”
“Did you just use yeet in a sentence?” Brandon groaned. “You sound like my teenage son.”
“No interruptions, Gen X.”
“He’s not wrong,” Ramos said.
I pantomimed zipping my lips shut. “So, Dominic, portal down there and toss the sword. Brandon? Make sure anybody down there with guns doesn’t have a target. You know. Shields.”
“I can disable weapons much more subtly.” Dominic rolled up his cuffs. The Echo Watches sparkled. “It’s a simple matter of making them too hot to handle.”
“No, I need you to portal.”
“What do you expect me to do?” Ramos drew his gun. “Let me lay down covering fire.”
“No! No way. None of us are shooting anyone.”
“Unless you blast them with the pulsar stave,” Dominic pointed out.
“I forgot he could do that,” Brandon said thoughtfully.
“Guys!” I hissed. “Talk about herding cats. The plan is the plan! Ramos, you get outside and call for Interpol or whatever passes for the feds in Eastern Europe.”
Teget tugged on my sleeve.
“What do you want?”
But it was Serena who spoke up. “The item I’ve brought you isn’t listed on the encrypted emails you received—well, not directly. It’s a sword of unparalleled power. Certainly you’ve at least heard passing rumor of the cataclysmic events surrounding San Camillo, California over the past half year. Let me assure you—they’re all true. The worse it sounds, the closer to reality.”
Her pause sparked a flurry of murmurs, interspersed with chuckles that sounded, let’s say, mildly derisive. More accurate? Some guys down there thought she was nuts.
“Wild tales? They are. But what will convince you more of this is a demonstration—a demonstration of the sword’s powers which, when triggered by the right person, can be unleashed.” Serena gestured stage right. “Let’s bring out our accessories.”
A meaty slap cracked across the muted conversations. A girl’s voice, followed by whimpering. Four of the guards led out a ragged line of young women, ranging in age from eighteen to 30, by my guess. They were of varying heights and ethnicities, but the ones who weren’t Asian had a few subtle features that their distant bloodline might hail from that part of the world.
“You’ve all done your best to narrow down the right genetic combination. The rest depends on who fits the bill—who is chosen to wield the sword. If it’s your offering to the auction, then I’ll be glad to pay handsomely for her.” Serena turned to the first girl, a brunette with eyes rimmed with runny mascara. She handed the sword hilt-first. “Take it.”
The brunette gaped, her eyes wide with fear. My teeth ground as she raised her hands, because her wrists had been rubbed raw by zip ties or rope.
“Guess we can add human trafficking to her list of sins,” Ramos murmured.
“She is testing them.” Teget’s voice shook. “Testing to see who has the bloodlines of Meda that will allow her to use the sword, to capture its powers.”
“And whoever the lucky winner is gets sold by one of those mafia guys.” I dug an earbud from my pocket and planted it home. Dialed up the playlist on my phone. No way was I gonna take on this fight without tunes. “It’s party time.”
“Hang on.” Brandon pulled a black ski mask over his face and undid his tie.
Ramos and I shared a puzzled look. “Do you seriously travel with one all the time?” I asked.
“Let’s just say the last fancy night out on the town I spent ended with an explosion.”
Dominic cleared his throat. He handed out ski masks to everyone, though these were dark gray.
Teget and Ramos donned theirs without comment, but I held mine, irritated thoughts rubbing together. No way that was a happy coincidence.
“Yell at me later,” Dominic said through his mask. “But let’s stop the sword from leaving here.”
Another slap. Judging by the blood flowing from between the brunette’s fingers as she clutched her nose, she’d failed the test. One of the guards shoved her into the crowd. Serena sighed. “We’ll start bidding on her in a minute. Still ought to bring a high price for whatever use you have in mind. On to our next contestant.”
Next contestant? Tall, definite Asiatic features, with brown hair streaked pink and blue in its bottom fringes.
I willed the pulsar stave to life. “Teget? Now.”
We hurtled along the catwalk. Light streaked with us. Those guards saw us, sure, but when they turned, guns in hand, it was in slow motion to us. Easy to bat the guns aside—or in my case, melt the firearm as I bashed one guard in the chin. Teget put the ax across the shoulder of the other guard, driving him a foot off the ground and rebounding off the wall.
Subtle? Nope. But that was the plan. Everyone shouted at once. A dozen or more men pulled guns. And every fancy-dressed criminal below had their eyes on us.
There was a flare of light behind us. Dominic appeared, masked, among the imprisoned young women. He reached for the sword.
But the guard nearest him grabbed his shoulder and hurled him ten feet across the stage.
The guard, with Polish mafia tattoos, who had black eyes ringed with glowing purple.
“Oh, great,” I muttered. “Syndax.”
Then the next young woman in line, one tall and athletic under rumpled T-shirt and jeans, touched the sword. She shuddered, and her expression went from abject terror to soft, sultry joy.
The sword hummed, because she willed it to life.
And gunfire exploded all around us.