What the hell is this?

Hi! I’m Khaelyn, a main tank for the US13 guild <Antisocial Club>. We’re a bunch of pretty lighthearted people who like to joke about butts a lot (as long as it doesn’t interfere with our progression, naturally). When we first started progressing through Hellfire Citadel, we kinda sorta almost immediately fell in love with the last trash mob before the Zakuun fight, Vazeel’fazag. Firstly, his name is amazing and resulted innuendoes flying every which direction and secondly, he superman flies around the room and it is amazing.

Anyway! In the last guild I was in, which was a guild I co-ran with a group of friends, I used to write silly little blurbs for all of our first heroic kills (then-heroic, now-mythic), likening the fights to being deployed on a battlefield. It was pretty fun and I had a good time writing them.

When we all fell in love with Vazeel’fazag and showed no sign of falling out of love with him, I decided that I was going to write a short story about him as an old school noir detective (because why not) and promised that I would include every one of the raiders on our roster in the story. When I originally started, I was only intending to write a short, max-20 page story. One thing you learn quickly is that when you need to come up with roles for 25+ unique and individual characters in a short story, you quickly surpass that 20 page limit.

As such, my quick little multi-week project turned into a multi-month project as I only worked on the story in my free-free time (whereas much of my free time was filled with progression and what little social life I have). Things got really complicated stretching it out over such a long period of time as I had to keep readjusting the story for new raid members and members who left our team during the writing process. At any rate! This is probably as finished of a project that I’m going to get out of this story. I really did try to keep it as short and sweet as I could, lest I end up writing a novel instead by accident!

I had a lot of fun writing this silly little story and I hope you have at least a little fun reading it. 🙂

 


 

It had been four years since a smoking barrel greeted Vazeel’fazag first thing in the morning. He wasn’t no dandy, no yellow bellied coward – he had seen things that would tear most men apart. There’s just something about reliving a moment like that first thing in the morning from your work desk-turned-bed after a long night of connecting point A to point Z that leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.

“You ruined me, Fazag,” the aggravated man spat through clenched teeth, a disheveled brown suit hanging from his defeated frame. Vazeel slowly leaned back in his chair, smoothly throwing his heels up on his desk and pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket.

“I’m waiting for your point, Danoman.” Vazeel puffed his cigarette calmly, his eyes two stones set in a grim, cold stare.

“I lost my job. My wife left me, took the kids, the house, the goddamn mutt. All I’ve got’s that damn car. You did this, Fazag.”

Vazeel’s gaze stayed steady, constant, calculating. Danoman was his latest bust, hung out to dry by his secretary, partly for embezzlement, mostly for not leaving his wife for her. It would have been an easy case even for a rook. But Vazeel is far from new to the detective life.

“Say something, you bastard!” Danoman uneasily shifted his weight from side to side, sweat dripping down his forehead, eyes blinking in anger. Vazeel broke his stone mask, smirking. “Don’t just sit there and smile, you’re gonna die!” Danoman flared.

A small click from the office door caught Danoman’s attention. A slender figure stood poised in the doorway, a long double barreled shotgun sitting in level, elegant hands below a smiling face framed in flowing blonde tresses. A perfectly painted nail poised on the trigger burned crimson against the dark metal.

“I believe you’ve met my secretary, Issyria,” Vazeel motioned toward the door.

“Just put the gun down and nobody has to be filled with shrapnel, buster,” Issyria said from the doorway.

“You’re in over your head, toots, just back away and I’ll leave you be,” Danoman pleaded. Issyria’s mouth twitched into a smile, a habit she picked up from her boss during times of stress and particular danger. Vazeel rose from his desk, grabbing his fedora from the hat rack in the corner and securing it firmly on his head. Danoman could see nothing under the rim of that familiar hat but for the stoic smirk still sitting comfortably on his face.

“I’ll let you take it from here, Issy,” Vazeel said, stepping around a dumbstruck Danoman toward the door.

“You got it, boss,” Issyria smiled, stepping aside to let Vazeel through.

He made it only a handful of steps down the hallway before he heard the loud crack of Issyria’s shotgun, followed by a shot from Danoman’s pistol. His step didn’t falter for a second. He hired his secretary for a reason and knew that everything was as it should be.

 

***

 

It was dark for morning. Threatening clouds loomed over the city. The streets were calm with everyone staying inside to avoid the impending rain. Vazeel preferred the city this way. It was easier for him to cut through the bullshit, to see things for what they were without the masses blinding him with their mundane routines.

He noticed a missed call on his phone from Captain Xinc over at the 20th precinct. Vazeel didn’t bother calling back. There was only ever one reason for Xinc to contact him. He slid his phone back into his pocket and shrugged his shoulders against the brisk air. He wasn’t eager to jump into another case.

Xinc better have a good reason for calling me in on this one. Vazeel lost himself in his thoughts as he walked to the precinct, recounting the past cases for which Captain Xinc had called him. None of them were particularly interesting or challenging. Just one crooked person good at doing crooked things but not good at not getting caught. A small yawn tugged at the corners of Vazeel’s mouth. His lips hardened into a thin line and his face became stone as he fought off the unwelcome yawn.

“Better be worth it, Xinc,” Vazeel mumbled under his breath to no one.

 

***

 

The 20th precinct was a living, breathing miasma of chaos and panic. Vazeel could barely see the Captain’s office door through the bodies busily shuffling back and forth. Seems like this trip might be worth something after all.

“Now what is he doing here?” a familiar voice jeered, just barely breaking through the precinct’s din. An older man took a few challenging steps toward Vazeel, eyes locked and wary. A walking relic, he carried himself well for his age. “We don’t need help from the likes of stray rabble like you, Fazag,” the man said.

“Obviously you do or your captain wouldn’t have called me over to help a pile of ol’ creaky bones like you get the job done,” Vazeel retorted. The faintest smirk danced on his lips if you looked closely.

“Sergeant Grim! Stand down and get back to work. I don’t have time for your crap today!” the captain called from inside his office. Grim’s eyes narrowed as he took one more step toward Vazeel and placed a finger firmly against his chest.

“You’re no good for this city, Fazag. One of these days, you’re gonna slip up. An’ I’m gonna be the one that punishes you for it. An’ ain’t nobody gonna be around to tell me how to do that,” Grim said quietly through clenched teeth. Vazeel couldn’t hold back his smirk any longer as he dipped his head lower and pushed against Grim’s hand.

“Get in here, Fazag!” Captain Xinc growled from his office. The captain looked as grumpy as ever, though his hair and mustache looked just a few shades greyer than they had the last time Vazeel had seen him. No matter how much he aged, though, he couldn’t seem to shake the dark strips of brown hair on his sideburns complimenting his dark, horn-rimmed glasses and stark white mustache. Vazeel strolled casually to the captain’s office, evading the swath of people rushing to and fro. He took note of two unexpected bodies present in the captain’s office. Both men were standing with an air of apprehension permeating the air.

“Inspector Fazag, it’s a pleasure,” the closest man said, reaching a large hand out toward Vazeel in greeting. Vazeel’s face was set in stone and if the men weren’t paying enough attention, they’d have missed the very slight nod he gave them in greeting. The man with the outstretched hand retracted it slowly and awkwardly, leaning back against the window to the rest of the precinct.

“Fazag, this is Sergeant Tinder Hoof and Captain Myth Rose from the 32nd precinct. We’re gonna help them with their case to take out a man, or men, referred to as ‘The Occupant.’ We don’t know if it’s just one guy or a legion of schmos. It’s like a walkin’, breathin’ enigma,” Captain Xinc ruffled his moustache and scratched his head.

“And you still need me,” Vazeel stated, rather than asked. This Occupant man or collective must have given the badge quite a scare if they were combining precincts and still asking him for help.

“This organization has been swallowing local businesses whole. Owners and employees vanish without a trace, their families disappear the second they express interest in the situation. They’ve expanded over three districts so far and nothing seems to be stopping them. They’re taking over the city,” Myth recounted. Vazeel could see the whole situation made him nervous.

“We’ve bin try’n to set up an undercover operation. We think we’re close, but the Occupant is spreadin’ faster than we’re able to keep up with information. We need more eyes ‘n ears. Good eyes ‘n ears,” the large and imposing Sergeant Tinder added.

“So what you’re saying is you need me to talk to The Haunted,” Vazeel replied.

“You’re the only one he talks to, Fazag. I don’t know what you did to get on his good side, but you’re the only one who can tap that source of information,” Xinc pleaded. Vazeel stayed quiet for a few more moments, silently weighing his options. The other three men in the room shifted their weight uneasily as the silence thickened.

“I’ll do it,” Vazeel cut through the silence. Ripples of relief washed over the room. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and placed it against his lips as he turned to leave, pausing in the doorway before exiting. “One condition. I do this my way.”

Xinc ruffled his moustache. “Fine. But you take two of my rooks with you tomorrow to see The Haunted. They don’t know much about his place yet and who better to show ‘em?”

Vazeel grunted in begrudged agreement before leaving the precinct. He had arrangements that needed to be made before he could see his old friend.

 

***

 

It’d been a while since he’d had to visit this place. The giant neon sign buzzed with its old familiar pride regardless of the time of day. The usual cardboard silhouette of a particularly buxom dame motioning toward the door graced the sidewalk, a small sign hanging from her neck stating, “Pleasureful Path Rose tonight, only at Mylie’s.” Vazeel walked past the sign without a second thought. He knew ‘Pleasureful Path Rose’ would be there before he ever set out. He was there every night.

Burlesque houses were always the best places to get information and no burlesque was so wealthy in information as Mylie’s. One of the few respectable establishments left in a degrading city, Madame Mylie kept a tight ship. No man or woman worked for the Madame unless they personally proved themselves to her. She respected the privacy of her clients, turning none away be they adultering husbands or crooked politicians, as long as no trouble was caused for her, her girls, her boys, and her business. Such an open relationship with the city’s denizens meant that lips were happy and free and loose. Loose lips were Vazeel’s favorite.

The detective shouldered his way past the crimson silk-draped doorway of the foyer to the front desk. A small blonde specimen stood behind the desk facing the wall as she chattered excitedly on the phone. With one hand on the phone receiver, she absently twirled at her curled hair, sticking a hip out enticingly so that the crinoline under her short maid outfit poofed her skirt out seductively. A small, white little bunny tail at the base of her spine wiggled as she tapped her foot. Vazeel stood silently, waiting. He pulled a cigarette from his coat and lit it, taking one slow drag.

The girl’s body went slightly rigid as she quickly concluded her call, firmly placing the receiver on the phone’s base.

“Hey there, mister, we don’t allow no smokin’ here at My–” she stopped short as she turned around, realizing who stood before her. “Vazzy!” the girl said childishly, her innocent demeanor returning.

“Hi, Opadina,” Vazeel said coolly. Opadina’s face lit up as she abysmally failed at hiding her crush for the stubbornly cold detective.

“I told you, silly, just call me Dina! We’re better friends than that!” she giggled, mostly to herself.

“I need to see the Madame, Opadina,” Vazeel said, ignoring Dina’s plea for familiarity. She frowned playfully, hurt that he wouldn’t warm up to her, but happy that he hadn’t once told her off for it.

“Of course you do, silly! Why else would you be here? Certainly not to see me perform in an hour, I’m sure,” Dina trailed off, a glimmer of hope clinging to her sentence. “You sit tight, hon, and I’ll be right back!” Opadina turned around quickly on one heel and sped through the next silk-curtained doorway, her small white bunny tail swaying with every step.

Vazeel leaned against the wall, finishing his cigarette before extinguishing it in the ashtray that shouldn’t have been present in a smoke-free facility. He had a lot of questions for Mylie. How had the recent business closures affected her burlesque house? New employees? New customers? Most importantly, her district was expected to be the next one cleaned out. Did she see what was happening around her? Vazeel had known Mylie for many years. He knew she wasn’t blind to the goings on around her, especially considering her awkward and seemingly strained marriage to Xinc, a highly respected police captain. It was an odd relationship that he tried to avoid comprehending.

Surely she knew what was happening in this city.

Opadina buzzed through the same curtain through which she left, a pleased grin permanently glued to her face. “The Madame will see you now, Vazzy. You know the way!” Dina said before bowing forward, making sure her ample assets were aimed perfectly in Vazeel’s direction. She outstretched her left arm toward the doorway, inviting Vazeel inside the burlesque house, among other places. Vazeel steadily strode past Opadina, tipping his hat toward her as he passed. The sound of giggling followed him all the way down the hall toward the Madame’s room. He pushed the door open gently and closed it behind him.

“Well there’s a face I haven’t seen in a coon’s age,” a smooth voice cooed from a satin-encased chair. Another woman leaned against the wall off to the side, a slight, concealing smile creasing her lips and two burning blue eyes hiding beneath dark bangs as they studied the detective. Vazeel approached the throne and leaned down, taking Mylie’s outstretched hand and kissing it lightly. A confident and grateful smile graced Mylie’s flawless face. Her regal fashion reflected on her establishment like a mirror. “Good to know some men still have their manners around here,” she waved, dismissing an invisible fly from the air around her. Her other hand sat lightly upon her cherished, cream colored cat, his fur still shaved in the unique pattern that Mylie so adored. The other woman strolled casually to stand next to Vazeel, one hand sitting lightly on her hip as her smile widened.

“Princess Misume, elegant as ever,” Vazeel nodded slowly at Mylie’s daughter.

“So, to what do I owe the honor of this visit today, love?” Mylie began, knowing this was a visit for business as it so often always was.

“The Occupant. You heard of it?” Vazeel began.

“I’ve heard a word, here and there. No one knows if it’s a he or a they, though I’ve got my suspicions it’s just one man. I know he’s after land, but for what, I couldn’t say. I know he’s got his eyes on my neck o’ the woods next and I know that I made myself perfectly clear to his lackeys that I ain’t going anywhere.”

“He’s approached you about your place?” Vazeel’s curiosity was piqued. None of the other business owners had any warning, they simply vanished and their assets were seized.

“Two girls came here and tried to get jobs,” Misume recounted, “I knew something was off about them right from the get-go so I declined ‘em. After that, they said we had two weeks to clear out and that we should send all our employees their way. Not sure what their game is. Sounds like an awful lot of illegal leg work just to start up a new successful burlesque house,” Misume explained, stroking Mango the cat slowly as he purred in Mylie’s lap. “That was a week ago.”

“Names?” Vazeel’s questions were short, but to the point.

“Cattwen and Glynevere. Two pale little things, short, dark hair, probably sisters. And before you ask, yes, some of my girls overheard their proposal and yes, they seem to have considered it. Calli and Celeste. Two of the triplets. Haven’t been back to work since that day,” Mylie said.

“And I’m guessing you don’t have a way to contact them,” Vazeel stated rather than asked. He could read Mylie’s responses like a book by now and picked up on all her little inferences.

“‘Fraid not, dear. Their brother is still here, as I’m sure you know. You could always ask him. I’m sure he knows how to get a hold of them,” Mylie purred in response.

“Looks like I haven’t got a choice.”

Mylie grinned. She rose quickly from her chair and glided across the room as if she was floating. Despite being retired from the show life, the Madame still had it.

“He’s on stage right now, but you can talk to him after the show,” Mylie grinned. She gave him the slightest curtsy, a symbol of her mutual respect for the detective and silent permission to leave her presence. Vazeel nodded a small bow at her before moving to exit the room. Misume glided in front of Vazeel with a grace rivalling her mother’s and planted her lips on Vazeel’s cheek in farewell.

“Come back soon, we miss you around here,” Misume winked slowly. Vazeel’s face remained unmoving as he began walking again. Misume smirked.

He made his way to the main performance hall. It was crowded and boisterous, a cozy and arousing setting of luxurious couches, relaxing chaises, and copious amounts of alcohol consumption. Loose lips.

A sultry and sumptuous man fluidly moved his body on stage to the seductive beat of the music, his gyrating hips never missing a hard hitting beat and his torso echoing gently in response. He glistened in the stage lights and threw enticing looks at the crowd, catching Vazeel’s gaze and grinning playfully. Vazeel’s gaze stayed steady and stony as he waited for the performer to stop teasing his crowd.

The music slowly died down as Path Rose concluded his dance to uproarious applause and a slew of cat calls. Vazeel finished his glass of whiskey as Path came out from behind the stage and walked over. An oversized, leopard print robe hung loosely from his shoulders, a plunging neckline down to his stomach teasing the patrons as he walked past them.

“Well, well, well! If it isn’t my favorite detective. And you even came for my show…” Path trailed off as he ran a finger down the collar of Vazeel’s trench coat. Path bit his lip slightly.

“Calli and Celeste. I need them,” Vazeel said curtly. A shock of hurt cut through Path’s face.

“I always thought it’d be Dina who beat me to you, not my sisters!” Path said dejectedly. He pulled his robe tighter across his chest, suddenly feeling less seductive.

Vazeel’s face remained emotionless, a slight sign of irritation in his eyes which could be seen, was he not wearing his fedora. “You know I’m here on business, Path. If you value your life, or your sisters’, you’ll tell them to meet me tomorrow at The Legion,” Vazeel said darkly, his sense of urgency masked by his serious demeanor.

Path’s robe slipped in his surprise as he grasped tightly to Vazeel’s arm. “My life? My sisters’ lives? We’re in danger? Oh, hon, why didn’t you say so sooner. I feel so vulnerable hearing about this now,” Path playfully tugged at his robe, pretending to struggle with closing it. “I’ll tell them to meet you. Been real nervous about them ever since they left Mylie’s. It ain’t right. Just like… it ain’t right when you’re not here…” Path blushed and batted his eyes slightly, tracing a small pattern on Vazeel’s sleeve.

Vazeel turned suddenly and headed toward the exit. “Take care of yourself, Path. The city’s dangerous these days.” Path swooned slightly and grabbed the back of the nearest chair to stabilize himself.

Dina swung out from a dark corner and jumped lightly to Vazeel’s side, encasing his left arm in a small hug. She made sure she was pressing his arm against all the right places. “Come back soon, Vazzy! Maybe next time for pleasure instead of business?” Dina said hopefully.

“See you next time, Dina,” Vazeel said quietly. Dina’s face lit up and her eyes glossed over in disbelief and absolute bliss. Her grip around his arm loosened and she stood in a stupefied dream.

“He called me… Dina…” she quietly whispered to herself as he walked out the front door.

 

***

 

It was dark by the time Vazeel made it back to his office. Issyria had already gone home after cleaning up the morning’s events. The office was dark, illuminated by nothing but the light from the street seeping in through the windows. Despite the dark, Vazeel could see a slender dark figure leaning against his desk, waiting for him.

“You’ve been busy,” a smooth voice remarked. Vazeel reeled slightly at the familiar sound. It was the only voice that had ever meant something to him.

The tall woman walked out from the shadows. Deep violet hair hung loosely around a soft face that haunted his dreams. A gentle scent of light lavender wafted toward Vazeel, filling his nose with its calming scent and his head with happy memories. His face softened as he let down his steely defenses.

“Pantene,” he said quietly. He took a step forward, bringing him square with her, his chest inches away from hers.

“Heard you’re working the Occupant case. Thought we could share some information,” Pantene looked up into Vazeel’s eyes, a smirk playing out on her perfect lips.

“Xinc called you in on this, too?” he said, unsurprised. His hand inadvertently found itself creeping up Pantene’s arm to rest on her shoulder.

“Really sounds like they need all the help they can get this time,” Pantene said quietly. She took a deep breath and a small step back, clearing her head. His arm fell slowly from her shoulder as she stepped back. “This is why we had to stop, y’know. Keeping us out of our work is… difficult.”

Vazeel cleared his throat and walked past Pantene to the other side of his desk. He took up residence in his chair and turned the desk lamp on, illuminating a second chair for Pantene on the other side. She took a seat and folded her hands on her lap.

“What do you know?” he asked, trying to keep his mind on the case.

“Same as you, mostly… And a bit more. It’s one man at the top. He’s in charge of a collective, but it’s his plan they’re carrying out. He’s got a group helping him clear out everyone in his way. Some guy named Zerik’shekor and a pair of girls.”

“Cattwen and Glynevere. They gave Mylie’s a warning. Something no one else got. They want her girls.”

“Interesting. Do any of them know that?”

“Two. I’m meeting with them tomorrow. How did you find out about this Zerik?”

Pantene shuffled uncomfortably in her seat. Vazeel noticed before she could stop herself. “You’re getting too close,” he stated. Pantene’s right eyebrow raised into a perfect, inquisitive arc. Vazeel tried not to notice.

“No closer than I need to be,” she waved off his concern like an annoying child. Vazeel leaned forward onto his desk.

“You can’t get too close to this one, Shamp,” he said, accidentally letting his old pet name for her slip out, “dozens have already disappeared. Most of them without bodies. You need to be careful on this one.”

Pantene stood abruptly, turning her back to him and taking a step away. Her dark curls tumbled below her own fedora and shone in the dim lamplight. “I can’t do my job if you’re constantly worrying about my safety, Vaz,” she said, a slight shake in her voice. Vazeel sat quietly, respecting her space. “They took Avon, Vaz. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive or a prisoner. But he worked in the first district that went down and no one’s heard from him since,” she said, her back to Vazeel and her shoulders wound tightly. Vazeel stood swiftly from his chair and moved to stand behind Pantene in one smooth motion.

“Putting yourself in danger won’t help him, Shamp,” he said quietly, not caring about the familiarity in his tone anymore. He placed his hands firmly on her shoulders and turned her around. She took a step back in weak protest only to have her back meet the wall. Vazeel took a step forward in kind, resting his hands on the wall behind her, trapping her there.

“You don’t have to worry your pretty head about me, Mr. Fazag,” she breathed, “I can take care of-” Vazeel’s lips cut her off as they collided roughly with hers.

“I don’t know why I ever try to change your mind,” Vazeel growled against her mouth as he took half a step forward and pinned her to the wall with his body. Pantene’s hands trembled their way up Vazeel’s chest and rested behind his head.

“Old habits die hard,” she said, pulling his head down to hers with desperation. Their fedoras fell unceremoniously to the floor as Vazeel lifted her off the ground and she wrapped her legs around him. He wrapped his arms firmly around her back and hoisted her away from the wall, wandering aimlessly around the room, bumping into the desk and finally settling against the window, propping Pantene on the sill. Vazeel pressed his left hand against the window next to Pantene’s head while the other hand roamed across her body. She breathed heavily against him and tilted her head back.

His mouth froze on her neck as something caught his eye through the window. He quickly wrapped his arms around Pantene and pulled her from the window sill, falling to the floor and covering her with his body as the sound of glass shattering cut through the dark room. Shards of glass rained down on them as the room filled with a gently creeping, white smoke. The door to the office crashed open.

Vazeel rolled off of Pantene and pushed her under his desk. She took a handkerchief from her pocket and held it to her mouth, locking eyes with Vazeel and nodding. Her free hand pulled a pistol from her pocket.

Vazeel stood, his own pistol ready in his hand. He couldn’t see anything through the smoke and fought the urge to cough or blink. His green eyes burned in the darkness, lending an eerie glow to the gaseous substance filling the room. He took short, steady breaths, focusing all of his attention on his ability to still be able to hear unimpeded.

A click to his left had him reeling around, pointing his pistol at nothing. He felt something hard press against his upper back and another click, this one much clearer.

“You been asking all the wrong questions, man. You shoulda just left things alone,” a voice said from behind. Vazeel’s eyes had started watering beyond proper vision at this point and he stifled a cough.

A shadow slid across the floor by Vazeel’s feet and a gunshot rang through the room. The pressure on his back disappeared as a scream sounded behind him.

“AIIEE YOU BITCH!” the man yelled. Vazeel heard a muffled thud and a yelp that belonged to Pantene, followed by coughing. Vazeel turned around as quickly as he could and swung his fist out at where he thought it might collide with a face. He wasn’t disappointed as he felt something crack under his knuckles and heard another scream.

“Haywire, you are undoubtedly the most hopeless man I have ever had in my employ,” a second voice said, muffled as if behind a mask.

“Boss! Cold! They shot me in the leg and broke my nose!” Haywire whined.

“And who’s fault is that? You had the element of surprise and the advantage. It’s not my fault you chose to wear that idiotic bandana instead of a real gas mask,” the one called Cold retorted.

Vazeel had fallen to one knee, fighting to keep his eyes open. He reached a searching hand out for an already unconscious Pantene on the floor. He grabbed on to the edge of her coat as he sank lower to the ground and the world steadily darkened. He could only faintly hear the men speaking before he fell unconscious.

“Jack, help Haywire’s incompetent and injured self secure those two. We have words to exchange with them later,” Cold said to a third, unseen man. The last thing Vazeel could feel was Pantene’s coat being pulled from his hand.

 

***

 

Faint clanging a thousand miles away echoed in Vazeel’s head. His body was heavy. Why was he so heavy? Muffled voices chanted curses in his ears and hyenas cackled in his skull. He squeezed his dry eyes together tightly.

“Boss, he’s awake,” an unfamiliar voice said. At least he thought it was unfamiliar. Everything sounded so far away.

“Good, he can feel me break his nose right back and watch me shoot that little c–“

Haywire. Language. We’re civilized adults. There is no need for name calling,” Cold said sternly. Vazeel glanced around the room quickly, his eyes barely more than green, glowing fissures in the dark. They were in some sort of repurposed warehouse. It was old and dilapidated, but filled with tables strewn with papers and maps.

Calm, measured footsteps walked around Vazeel, who realized now that he was tied to a chair. He felt the frame of another chair behind him against his tethered hands and the familiar silk of Pantene’s blouse. The footsteps stopped behind him.

“Forgiveness, m’lady,” Cold directed at Pantene, tipping his bowler cap toward her as a gentleman would. “Haywire’s more… colorful upbringing has left him wanting in terms of manners,” Cold explained.

“Charming,” Pantene said smoothly.

“Bitch, I will knock you out again if you don’t learn your place!” Haywire spat awkwardly, his broken nose slowing his speech slightly.

“Dude, relax,” the unfamiliar voice said again.

“Thank you, Jack!” Cold clasped his hands together, pleased with his more respectful and gentlemanly underling.

“So, what are the terms?” Vazeel said hoarsely, surprising their captors by speaking.

“Smart man, and straight to the point, as well!” A pleased Cold walked around the chairs again to stand before Vazeel. “Unfortunately, Mr. Fazag, this isn’t quite one of those arrangements. You see, we were going to leave you be as long as you stayed out of the Sir’s affairs. We were even going to let the little miss here keep sticking her pretty little nose where she probably shouldn’t. But things didn’t quite turn out that way,” Cold explained.

“You knew I was investigating you. And you, I’m sure, knew about my history with Vazeel and his history with the law. But you thought it was safe to let me dig anyway?” Pantene questioned.

“Yeah we know your history. Got a window seat for it an’ everything!” Haywire jeered, remembering how he had found the two before their encounter.

“…Go on…” Cold’s eyebrow raised, intrigued.

“Boss, he’s steering you off topic again,” Jack chided Cold.

“Ah… Yes. You’re right, Jack, thank you,” Cold turned back to the two prisoners, “I am a hopeless romantic, you see, so I am easily… distracted by love,” he explained. He smiled politely as he clasped each of his hands around something small. “Now then! Since you broke the aforementioned silent agreement to which you were not at all privy, I have been given permission… well, orders, really… to deal with you in a slow and painful manner,” Cold’s knuckles turned white as he grasped tightly to the small metal objects in his hands. His next movements were like lightning.

Vazeel’s square jaw met Cold’s reinforced fist in crushing defiance. Cold jumped back a step, shaking the aftershock out of his hand.

“I haven’t felt a face like that in years! How exciting!” Cold brought his hands together in delight before striking out again. His knuckles cut deep to the bone on contact. A small spatter of blood stained Vazeel’s chin and speckled the floor.

“My turn! I gotta be the one to break his nose, Boss, c’mon,” Haywire limped over to Vazeel, rolling up his sleeve. He stood before him, puffing his chest out and clenching his hand repeatedly into a fist. He planted his feet firmly and wound his arm back, gathering as much momentum as he could before letting his fist fly forward.

A quiet snap could be heard at the moment of impact, followed by a gasp. Haywire doubled over, grasping his now broken hand with his intact one.

“You broke my hand!” he yowled. Jack gently snorted to himself and Pantene let out a small giggle. “You don’t get to laugh, bitch!” Haywire spat, limping around the chairs and backhanding Pantene in his frustration. Vazeel’s teeth clenched and his arms strained against the chains that held him to the chair. Cold noticed the straining detective and hopped over to him. He unleashed a flurry of blows on the captive as Pantene shuffled uncomfortably in her seat, also straining at her chains in futility. The assault continued for what felt like hours, though Vazeel had no way to tell.

Cold stepped away to a nearby desk, taking a swig from an open bottle of water. Vazeel spit a mixture of blood and saliva on the floor, gritting his teeth in pain. Pantene’s fingers had wrapped themselves tightly around his fists. Haywire watched on in blind, envious anger as he nursed his leg, nose, and freshly broken hand. His good leg bounced restlessly, his gun in constant danger of falling off his lap. Cold walked back to his prisoners, hands in his pockets.

“Well I’ve certainly had an exquisite time,” he exclaimed, “but I’m afraid we have much to do and little time in which to do it, so I must end this fun little activity.”

“Can I shoot her now, Boss?” Haywire asked excitedly, eyes lighting up like a pleased child.

“Yes, yes, I suppose you may get your revenge or what-have-you,” Cold said, finally giving in to Haywire’s request. Haywire sprang up quickly on his good leg, limping quickly over to Pantene with a murderous grin.

“You shot the wrong guy, lady,” he said, raising his gun and aiming at her chest.

Pantene met his eyes with a steely gaze.

Vazeel tensed every muscle in his body.

Cold stood quietly, absently cleaning the face of his pocket watch.

“Heads down!” Vazeel heard Jack call from behind Cold. He tucked his chin to his chest and squeezed Pantene’s hand, silently urging her to do the same. A loud bang sounded off and a brilliant flash of light filled the warehouse, even through closed eyes. Vazeel felt hands clamoring at the chains that bound him and felt a click, followed by the slackening of his bonds. He stood up quickly, bracing himself with the back of his chair as he realized how damaged he actually was.

Pantene leapt from her chair and threw an arm out to Vazeel for support.

Cold and Haywire reeled, rubbing their eyes and yelling for Jack to stop what he was doing.

“Here!” they heard Jack’s voice call out. Vazeel and Pantene shuffled toward his voice, she supporting his weight as they ran. They came to a bay door that opened into the back of a van.

“Get in!” Jack yelled hurriedly from the driver’s seat. The two detectives tumbled into the van, closing the doors behind them. Jack’s foot slammed the gas pedal and they sped away from the warehouse.

Vazeel reclined against the side of the van as they bumped through neglected streets. He could see where they were through the back window – the first district that fell to The Occupant. The roads were barren, all doors were closed and there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Pantene gave his arm an involuntary squeeze as they passed the shop that her brother, Avon, had owned. Vazeel shifted himself to the front of the van and climbed into the passenger seat. Jack knew the conversation that Vazeel was expecting and wasn’t going to make him wait.

“Jack Bower. Undercover for Xinc. Been working the case ever since it came up on our radar. The captain had an idea that it would blow up into something big, so he had me go under cover right away. They’re pretty suspicious though, so those two were the best I could do,” Jack explained dejectedly.

“You broke your cover for us,” Vazeel stated, rather than asked.

“I know how much good you two have done. I don’t think the Cap would have let it slide if I let you bite the bullet when I could stop it.”

“So, what do you know?” Pantene inquired.

“We’re heading back to the precinct. I’ll fill everyone in there,” Jack replied, ending the conversation.

Vazeel reached into his pockets for a cigarette and pulled out a crushed package. Defeated, he leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes.

 

***

 

The precinct didn’t seem to track time like everyone else in the city as it bustled with bodies as it always had. Vazeel sat in one corner of the room with a nervous first aid attendant hovering over him. His square jaw was set as he sat motionless, neither complying with the attendant’s requests nor fighting against them. Pantene sat next to him holding an ice pack to her slightly swollen cheek.

Sergeant Tinder and Captain Myth stood on either side of Captain Xinc, who all stood across from Jack.

“Like I said to the other two… They’re very guarded. But I’ll tell you what I know,” Jack began, recounting his undercover experience.

“There’s one guy at the top. His name is Shao’ghun. He and his wife, Bryanda, are calling all the shots. At least, that’s what it looks like,” Jack paused, preparing to present his theory, “but I don’t think he’s the one behind everything. He might be calling the shots here, but I think he answers to someone.”

“Do you have any proof?” Xinc asked, hopeful.

“I don’t. It’s just a hunch based on an observation. But Bryanda has Shao’ghun way too tightly by the balls for him to be in charge of something so organized. It’d be chaos if she didn’t have to worry about answering to someone, ’cause I guarantee you Shao’ghun isn’t the one calling the shots on a large scale,” he took a seat in a nearby empty chair.

“So our bottlenecks are this Zerik fella, Shao’ghun, and our maybe-mystery man at the top. The actual Occupant,” Xinc quickly recapped.

“I’ve got enough physical evidence to get Zerik for sure. Shao’ghun, nothing. By the book, I don’t know how to take this thing down. They have legal documentation for all the seized property. I can only get Zerik on assault charges for sure as it is,” Jack scratched the back of his head in frustration.

Vazeel stood up from his chair and walked over to the desk where Jack’s scattered paperwork sat. He quickly glanced at the legal documents and took a special interest in a common signature. He recognized the name “Xeryas” and knew what his next steps needed to be. He turned around and walked toward the office door.

“Where do you think you’re going, Fazag?” Xinc’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“I’ve got some leads to follow up on in the morning. I was thinking of maybe getting some sleep,” Vazeel said without turning around, a hand haphazardly thrown up in farewell.

“N-Now wait just a minute, you’re in no condition to do anything, you need to get to a hospital!” the nervous first aid attendant yelped  as she jumped in front of him, blocking his path.

“I’ll pass,” Vazeel said with authority.

“You can’t go home, Fazag, they know you’re involved. What are you going to do?” Myth asked.

“I can take care of myself. You should worry more about yourself,” Vazeel suggested before lowering his voice slightly, “and your family.”

“An’ wot abou’ yer plans? What leads are ye followin’ up on tomorrow?” Sergeant Tinder asked, hoping for any sliver of information he could use.

“You let me worry about that.” Vazeel walked out of the office, pain coursing through his body with every step but not showing a single sign of it.

As he walked down the front steps onto the sidewalk, Myth jogged up behind him.

“So… you spoke with my girls? And my boy? How are they? Are they safe?” Myth asked, nervously scratching his arm.

“Your son is fine. I’ll see your girls tomorrow…” Vazeel paused, “I suggest you put your differences aside and talk to them. They’re in a dangerous situation at the moment.”

“Y-Yeah. It’s not so easy, being a captain when your kids are…” Myth cleared his throat and straightened, “thank you. I hope you find something we can use tomorrow.”

 

***

 

Vazeel knocked steadily on the door in front of him. He could hear shuffling on the other side getting louder and a muffled “hold on please!”

The door opened quickly at first, stopping halfway for a moment and continuing to open slowly after that.

“You know, I’m not always going to be here to stitch you up when you need it, right? You’re going to have to go to an actual hospital some day. And maybe make your own safe house while you’re at it ‘cause this is getting hard to explain to the girlfriend,” the man on the other side of the door whined.

“Good to see you too, Noodle,” Vazeel said, letting his stoicness slide a little as he leaned on the door frame.

“And then that. There’s that too. The whole ‘Noodle’ thing. I have a perfectly good name that I’ve been using for a very long time and any time I even come close to telling you, you hit me. Why do I even help you anymore?” Noodle rambled on, seemingly not interested or concerned as to why the indestructible Vazeel appeared slightly destroyed.

“Just shut up and let me in, Noodle. I’ve had a rough night,” the detective retorted, pushing past Noodle and collapsing onto his couch.

“Now, normally I would associate your rough night with the disaster that seems to have taken place on your face and, judging by your body language, the rest of your body. But I smell lavender. And lavender always only means one thing,” Noodle crossed his arms, standing across from Vazeel. “I thought you two were done?”

“We are done. We’re just working the same case,” Vazeel began before the look on Noodle’s face stopped him.

“Yeah, right, ‘working the same case.’ Does that include you two rubbing your bodies together until you smell like a meadow, or did she just accidentally miss herself when she re-perfumed and it all hit you instead?” Noodle’s taunting was relentless, but it was one of the few things in the world that made Vazeel laugh.

Vazeel’s hard mouth twitched into a smile as a quiet, throaty laugh escaped his lips, followed by a small spat of uncontrollable coughing. Noodle smiled, gave Vazeel a firm pat on the shoulder and left the room. He returned shortly with two glasses and a bottle and placed them on the coffee table.

“Alright, alright, I’ll stop busting your balls about Pantene. But seriously though you two need to either just get over it, settle down, and make giant, badass babies, or move to opposite ends of the Earth so at least you can blame geography for your unhappiness,” Noodle said before tipping his now filled glass toward Vazeel in camaraderie and taking a sip. “So! What can I attempt to fix in your train wreck of a body on this fine Thursday night?” he said with arms wide open, as if to suggest that all Vazeel needed was a really big hug.

Vazeel sat forward on the edge of the couch and removed his coat. He lifted his shirt off slowly, pausing frequently from the pain. Noodle winced slightly as he saw why Vazeel had come to him. He stared long and hard in contemplation before choosing his words carefully.

“Okay. So. You are quite literally covered in dozens of lacerations that seem to have been recently reopened due to blunt force trauma. I could maybe see how this could be a cause for concern for a doctor at a hospital. But, you know, personally, I think this is less concerning than that time you showed up at my door with a pole sticking out of your chest while holding a battle axe, so I think I’m gonna call this one a win for both of us,” Noodle said, completely unconcerned about what he was seeing. “I know you won’t answer my questions if you don’t want to, but can I ask why you have this many semi-fresh stab wounds in your torso?” Noodle leaned forward like a child waiting for the climax of a bedtime story.

“They’re from a case a couple days ago. Don’t worry about it,” Vazeel said coolly.

A couple days? This is over a week of healing. They can’t be that fresh,” Noodle said insistently.

“I’m a quick healer.”

“Seriously. I mean, I’m just confused. ‘Cause most people are bedridden after this many serious injuries in quick succession, but considering you’re a perfectly normal human being, I’m at a bit of a loss on this one,” Noodle reasoned with the hulking six-foot-nine horned behemoth sitting on his living room couch. Vazeel’s eyes glowed in the dimly lit room.

“I don’t need you to understand. I just need you to fix what you can and let me sleep on your couch for the night.”

“I have a spare bed, you know. You don’t always have to sleep on my couch.”

“I like your couch.”

“I like my couch too. I was thinking of falling asleep on it tonight while watching infomercials but it would appear that a giant who went through a classic Indiana Jones spike pit has decided to sleep on it instead.”

“Noodle.”

“Vazeel.”

The detective smirked, laying back against the couch and closing his eyes. The faint smell of lavender wafted past his nose as Noodle picked up his dirty shirt and coat and went to his laundry room. He drifted off into sleep, even while Noodle fussily stitched him back together.

 

A beam of sun shone on the detective’s face. He hadn’t moved since he’d fallen asleep on Noodle’s couch. He looked down at his torso and pulled off the bandages with which Noodle had covered his wounds. The cuts had sealed together overnight with the help of Noodle’s stitches. He quickly set to work on removing the stitches before getting up to retrieve his clothing from the dryer. He was sore, but he could live with sore. He put his clean shirt back on and grabbed his coat and hat before turning around to leave the laundry room. Noodle leaned casually in the doorway holding a cup of coffee and yawning.

“So? You gonna see her again today?” Noodle said, stifling back a yawn.

“Does it matter?”

“Hey, just wondering when I get to be a Godfather to some kickass detective babies is all.”

“Do you really want to be known as Uncle Noodle?”

“No, I want to be known as Uncle–” the world turned temporarily black as a massive fist flew toward Noodle’s face. The impact was surprisingly gentle, but it served its purpose in stopping Noodle from telling Vazeel his name.

“C’mon man it’s like eight in the morning!” Noodle patted his nose, making sure everything was intact.

“No names. Names are what get people in trouble.”

“I’m an adult, y’know.”

Vazeel gave Noodle the smallest of smiles before walking toward his front door.

“A lot of dead people are adults. I’d prefer if you weren’t one of them.”

“Vazeel’fazag, are you acknowledging our friendship?” Noodle feigned a swoon and began fanning himself. Vazeel gave one final, low chuckle to himself as he pushed Noodle’s front door open.

 

***

 

The best part about The Legion was its utter disregard for the time of day. Vazeel could always count on the dark, cold atmosphere and the same patrons day in and day out. He walked through the doors followed by detectives Finbez and Vetin – the rooks Xinc wanted him to take.

“People seriously come here to drink? I’m depressed and I haven’t even stepped inside yet,” Finbez said to Vetin.

“Try not to talk too much. Haunted isn’t too keen on rooks,” Vazeel warned as they crossed through the building toward the bar. A large man stood behind the counter, a towel slung over his shoulder and a clean pitcher in his hand. He efficiently used the bottom half of the dangling towel to dry the large pitcher. He turned around as Vazeel and the rooks got closer and placed the pitcher in its proper place.

“What took you so long, Vazeel?” The Haunted asked without turning around.

“I’ve been… preoccupied,” Vazeel answered.

“So she is involved,” Haunted confirmed more with himself than Vazeel.

“She has nothing to do with it,” Vazeel argued, getting frustrated with everyone’s involvement in his personal life.

“Tell that to the guy who used you as a punching bag last night,” Haunted said flatly.

Finbez and Vetin looked at each other, puzzled.

Haunted let out a low, growling chuckle to himself. “Your rooks are wondering how I know about that, most likely,” he said, still facing the back wall.

“No one knows about that outside of the precinct… so how do you?” Finbez questioned cautiously. Haunted stopped what he was doing and slowly turned around, eyes narrowed on Finbez.

“You cops aren’t very good at keeping your secrets,” Haunted smirked.

“A snitch?” Vetin proposed to Finbez, “no way.”

Haunted grunted in amusement, his long beard changing shape as a grin fell on his face.

“I need to find the Helper,” Vazeel said, reining the conversation back to why he was there, “he’s got some… information I need.”

“I haven’t seen that kid in months,” Haunted frowned slightly. He prided himself in knowing everything there was to know about the city and its denizens and that someone like the Helper should slip past his gaze was simply unacceptable.

“You guys are talkin’ about that weasel we kept nailing on minor charges? Stupid stuff like petty theft?” Vetin interrupted. Haunted shot an annoyed glance in Vetin’s direction.

“The information he has is more damaging than any crime you arrested him for, Vetin,” Vazeel clarified. He and the Helper had had their fair share of encounters, but Vazeel never bothered him with the law. He was a valuable fountain of seedy knowledge and Vazeel knew that that was more important than any of the petty crimes for which he could actually be arrested.

“I need you to find him for me,” Vazeel directed at Haunted. Haunted’s jaw was frozen, much like Vazeel’s, as the two giants stared at each other. Vetin and Finbez shifted nervously as the two men seemed to silently communicate with each other.

“You’ll hear from me,” Haunted said simply. Vazeel nodded and took a step back from the bar. “By the way… those girls you came here to meet – they walked in a couple minutes ago,” Haunted said, nodding toward a table with two, small girls sitting together. The girls watched the men at the bar with interest as they shared a foam carton of pasta. Vazeel gave Haunted a final nod in farewell and turned to walk toward the table. Finbez and Vetin shuffled after him, confused at the encounter they had just witnessed.

“Vazzy! It’s been so long, we don’t get to see much of you anymore,” Celeste giggled, bouncing in the booth she shared with her sister, Calli. The other girl quietly lit up as well as Vazeel took his seat across from them. Finbez and Vetin chose to pull up chairs from neighboring tables to sit at the end of the table, rather than in the booth next to Vazeel. They both carried notepads loosely in their hands, pens at the ready.

“You left Mylie’s,” Vazeel said, recounting his meeting with the Madame the day before, “what did they offer you and who offered it?”

Celeste pouted and crossed her arms, disappointed that he had jumped into business straight away as usual. Meanwhile, Calli had snaked a foot to the side of the table and started sliding her toes up Vetin’s right leg, resting them on his knee. He jumped slightly in his seat, throwing a surprised look at the two girls. Calli winked at him and left her foot on his knee. Vetin swallowed uncomfortably and pretended to be invested in his notepad.

“It was a handsome man who offered us the job. Real put together type, nice suit, fancy tie, perfect hair, y’know, the tall, dark and handsome type,” Celeste seemed lost in her thoughts as she described the man who offered her and Calli their new work.

“Name?” Vazeel cared less about how handsome he was and more about what information he could glean from a quick… meeting.

Celeste furrowed her brow trying to remember the name of the man who recruited them away from Mylie, struggling.

“Dez,” Calli said quietly, smiling. Vetin had begun to sweat.

“Right! But when he gave us his card, it said ‘Abi Dez’ which I thought was a little strange,” Celeste piped in.

“He told us to call him Dez,” Calli reaffirmed, “maybe he doesn’t like his first name because it sounds like a girl’s?” Calli giggled.

“Either way wouldn’t have mattered to us, we love everyone equally,” Celeste derailed the conversation further, winking at Finbez as she caught his eye.

“So a man named Dez comes and tells you to stop working for Mylie. To what end?” Vazeel steered everyone back on course, except for maybe his increasingly distracted rooks.

“He offered double. And our own headline routine! Imagine us, the girls headlining without Path’s shadow! We’re more than just triplets, y’know. We’re artists,” Calli said more to herself than anyone else.

“W-Why didn’t anyone else take the offer if it’s as good as you say?” Vetin stammered, trying to ignore the worming foot between his legs and stay focused.

“Well he didn’t offer such a sweet deal to everyone, dummy! Then he’d have dozens of girls who think they’re headlining when only we are!” Calli said happily, nuzzling her foot between Vetin’s thighs in her excitement. Vetin jumped, eyes widening at the sudden development beneath the table.

“If you wanna find Dez, Vazzy, he still goes to Mylie’s. He usually stopped by around nine or ten to see the headline of the night and spend some time with the girls,” Celeste picked up the conversation in Calli’s stead.

“That’s all I need, then,” Vazeel stated, getting ready to leave. He stopped himself for a moment before getting up from the booth and turned back to the girls. “You’re really going to leave Mylie’s?” he asked, warily.

“Actually… We’re still thinking about what we’re gonna do. Daddy called us last night and said that he was really afraid for us and not to take the job. He sounded pretty scary about it, so it’s got us thinking. We might go back to Mylie’s… even if we can’t have our dream there,” Celeste said. Calli nodded a sad nod in agreement, which seemed to somehow cause Vetin some relief.

“Good,” Vazeel said in finality.

A loud slam sounded out from the bar, followed by the sound of broken glass tinkling to the floor.

“YOU KIDS LEAVE THAT JUKEBOX ALONE,” Haunted boomed across the bar at a group of young people fiddling with an old jukebox.

“This piece of crap doesn’t even work, old man. We just wanna liven the place up a bit!” a young man yelled back.

“Liven up? You want to change my bar to suit your liking? I am not obligated to provide fun for you. I provide liquor and a space to swig it. You want fun, you go somewhere else,” Haunted said threateningly.

Vazeel quietly chuckled to himself as he stood up. Finbez and Vetin stood quickly after him, Vetin sighing in relief to be away from Calli’s methodically exploratory foot.  The three men exited the dark establishment into the now mid-afternoon light. Vazeel turned sharply to the left and continued walking, halting only when Finbez called out to him.

“Hey, uh, sir, the car is this way…” Finbez called out nervously. Vazeel kept walking.

“I’m not going back to the precinct. I did my part and showed you The Legion, now I work alone,” Vazeel called out. The two rooks stood dumbfounded and defeated for a few moments before slowly shuffling to their car.

 

***

 

Vazeel hadn’t traveled these particular dusty alleys in months. He hadn’t needed to. His cases rarely required the particular set of skills that the Helper brought to the table.

He wandered slowly through meandering streets, glancing down every alley he came across, looking for a sign. Though the day’s light was failing and he was fully dedicated to searching all night, Vazeel didn’t have to look overly hard to find that for which he was searching.

A tall young man stood facing the wall of an alley across the street, a large can of spray paint in his hand tracing clumsy lines along the brick, spelling out “The Holiest Helper” in fuzzy black handwriting. Every few sprays he took a step back to admire his work before continuing with details that no one but he could see. Vazeel casually crossed the street and walked up behind him. He stood and waited, watching.

The Helper added the last few finishing touches to his tag, adding nothing of significance to the average onlooker but seeming to strike a chord of completion within the Helper. He placed the can of spray paint on the ground and dug his hands deep into his pockets before turning around. Though surprised, he managed to maintain his typical deadpan poker face as Vazeel’s green eyes burned into his.

“Detective! Long time no see!” the Helper greeted Vazeel warmly, knowing he wouldn’t actually cause him any trouble.

“The Occupant. I need to know how to contact your ‘Mr. Xerox or whatever’ connection, as you call him,” Vazeel cut straight to the point, knowing how sidetracked the Helper could get. The Helper’s eyes widened slightly, his face otherwise maintaining its blank yet lighthearted look.

“Okay, Vazeel, look… it’s not Mr. Xerox, okay?” the Helper began, his hands up in front of him as some sort of defense against an invisible force. “It’s like… Xery… or… Xero…cks… Xeryas? I think it’s Mr. Xeryas.”

“Where can I find him?” Vazeel ignored the Helper’s struggle.

“Vazeel. Please. So much business all so sudden!” the Helper joked, mostly with himself. Vazeel took a step forward and the Helper took a step back, his heel knocking over his abandoned paint can. “Look, I don’t know, okay? I’ve never spoken to the guy. He sends me instructions through Mr. Dez and that’s that.”

“Abi Dez?”

“He’ll get mad if you call him that.”

“It’s his name.”

“Yeah but I don’t think he likes it.”

“Xeryas. What’s his angle?” Vazeel steered the conversation back on course.

“He’s some big time lawyer or something. Or he seems like it, anyway, he’s pretty untouchable. He’s the guy who makes all these property takeovers look legitimate and one hundred percent legal. Never met the guy, obviously.”

“What does he ever need of you?” Vazeel asked, skeptical.

“Hey. Hey. They don’t call me The Holy Helper for nothing, okay?”

“No one calls you that.”

“They will.”

“What do you do for him?” Vazeel’s voice held an edge of impatience.

“Look. Vazeel,” the Helper paused, “okay,” he finished, for no reason. “Information. I give him information about everything. The streets, the businesses, the cops. I tell him how things are and he decides the expansion of his empire or whatever from there.”

“His empire?”

“Well. I mean. His boss’ empire. But I’m pretty sure he’s the big honcho’s right hand man, so yeah. His empire.”

Vazeel spun on his heel and walked toward the exit of the alley. The Helper knew better than to ask him if that was all he needed. Vazeel never stayed for more information than what he needed.

“Hey. Vazeel,” he called out after the detective. Vazeel stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder slightly.

“Bye.”

Vazeel vanished from the alley.

 

***

 

The sun was waning as Vazeel walked back down the hall to his office. Issyria sat at her desk, brightening up as Vazeel came through the door.

“Boss! Where’ve you been? I leave the office ‘n come back the next morning only to find the place a mess!” Issyria complained, only partially upset. She was glad to see that he was more or less unharmed. Vazeel looked at her apologetically. He liked Issyria. She was a good worker, she helped when she didn’t need to, and she never seriously questioned anything he did.

“Alright, alright, I can’t stay upset if you’re gonna give me that face,” Issyria waved off his apology. “I tidied up your office a bit. Found some things I didn’t recognize lying around,” she paused briefly, “and some things I did.” Issyria winked at Vazeel as he walked through his door to his office.

Issyria had done a perfect job. Everything looked as it should except for a small array of items lined up on his desk. Most of the items were insignificant – a matchbook, a pen, a small pocket knife. His hand paused as it brushed against a blue silk scarf at the end of the line of items. His hand lingered on the soft fabric.

“I don’t know why you don’t just be with her, y’know,” Issyria said from the doorway, arms crossed and leaning against the door frame.

“Too dangerous. You know that,” Vazeel regurgitated the same stale response.

“Well, I’m no expert, but I’m just sayin’… bein’ apart hasn’t seemed to keep either of you any safer than when you’re together,” Issyria smirked before turning around and going back to her desk. Vazeel’s hand had unconsciously balled into a fist. He dragged the scarf from the table and slid it into his coat pocket. His free hand absently picked up the matchbook. A small orange cat silhouette was printed on deep crimson with a small white ‘M’ in the corner. He threw the matchbook back on the desk and left his office.

“Following another lead?” Issyria said routinely as he walked past her desk to the exit. Vazeel stopped short of the door.

“Take a week off, Issy. You deserve it,” he said to her quietly.

“Is this your way of saying ‘go home, Issy, I accidentally made work too dangerous for a while’?” she quipped back at him. Vazeel let out a single chuckle before continuing to walk to the door.

“You’re a good kid, Issy. I’ll see you next week.”

“Yeah, yeah, be careful, Boss.”

 

***

 

The city was slowly coming to life as the sun fell lower into the sky. Though he knew it would be closed, he needed to stop by 4K before pursuing any more leads. He’d lost his gun and things seemed to be landing on the dangerous side.

He walked up to the familiar shop, taking note of the giant metal “4K” sign bolted at an angle above the door with a smaller sign bolted below specifying the name: Khaelyn and Ketsuki’s Kombat Kompendium. The door was locked, though he could hear loud activity inside. He knocked firmly on the door. He could hear clicking and the sliding of locks on the other side of the door before it swung open halfway. A small robot stood on the other side of the door. Three wheels swiveled it into a better position in front of the door and two thin, tubular arms rested on what one could only guess were its hips.

“I am very sorry, sir, but we are closed for the day,” the robot said to Vazeel. The whirring of drills in the background stopped as a voice called out.

“BOT. Your job is to make sure the door stays closed and locked, not to unlock it and start talkin’ to people!” a woman called out from inside the shop, “you’re a LOCK BOT!”

“Yes, ma’am, I just thought I should inform this gentleman that we are closed for the evening so that perhaps he does not think we are ignoring him,” Bot replied.

“I think we might need to reprogram him, Khae, he’s acting more like a Butler Bot than a Lock Bot,” a second voice called out.

“No, please Miss Ketsuki, I do not want that,” Bot’s little arms flailed about in earnest at this most unsettling development.

“BOT! The door’s still open! You gonna lock up or what?” Khaelyn called out again, glancing up in annoyance after a moment. She stopped working immediately when she saw who stood on the other side of the door. “On second thought, Bot, nevermind! Let ‘im in!”

“Yes, Miss Khaelyn,” Bot obliged.

Vazeel stepped inside the greasy shop. The walls were lined with firearms behind giant cage walls all the way to the back of the main showroom. The back expanded into a larger, open workspace riddled with pieces of machinery and robotics. Two women sat in the large workspace, one buried amongst hundreds of chainmaille links and a slew of tools, the other hanging upside down from the arm of a mech-like contraption, her legs wrapped around what Vazeel could only imagine was its neck.

The hanging mechanic curled back up and wiggled onto the shoulders of her creation, leaning casually on its head while her long dark hair fought against the hair tie keeping it in its messy pony tail. Her coveralls were only on up to her waist before giving way to a dirtied halter top – a limp, teddy bear-shaped top half of her coveralls was tied off at her hips and hung behind her. A small fish bowl sat the feet of her current project with a single tuna fish swimming gleefully around his little castle.

The other woman sat on the floor with legs sprawled out, a long snow leopard tail protruding from her feline coveralls. It, too, sat tied off around her waist, the hide of the beast bundled up on the floor around her, her own dark blond mess of a pony tail home to tiny little pieces of stray metal. Chainmaille links were scattered around her to the point of absurdity. Vazeel honestly didn’t know how either woman functioned successfully in such a chaotic workplace.

“Been a while, Vaz!” Khaelyn called out from atop her perch. She had started to vainly wipe away the grease on her arms with a rag.

“We missed you around here,” Ketsuki added, smiling like a child surrounded by her toys.

“Hello, ladies,” Vazeel greeted warmly. They were weird, but they were the best arms dealers and armorers in town. Khaelyn began climbing down from the shoulders of her metallic monster, stashing her oversized wrench in the makeshift waistband of her coveralls.

“Well! What can we do for you today? Guns? Body armor? Robot assistants? You can have Bot. He’s supposed to keep on top of locks and security, but obviously he’s not the greatest at it. You can have him as a butler bot if you’d like, he can keep Issy company,” Khaelyn smiled widely as she tried to pawn Bot off on Vazeel.

“Ma’am, please, I am right here. I will attempt to fulfill my purpose more to your liking,” Bot interjected, trying to save himself.

“Relax, Bot, we’re not getting rid of you, Khae’s just being a bully. She’d never give up one of her babies just because of a few quirks,” Ketsuki comforted Bot.

“Can I interest anyone in a beverage? Perhaps some tea or coffee?” Bot asked, more cheery than before.

“Tea!” Ketsuki answered. After a few moments, Bot wheeled away to the kitchen.

“I’m telling you, Ketsu. Butler Bot. I’m gonna need to start from square one if we want an actual Lock Robbit,” Khaelyn’s shoulders sank dejectedly as she began thinking of designing a new robot. No one thought twice about the way she said “robot” anymore.

“Well, Vaz? What can we do for you?” Ketsuki pointed her attention at Vazeel again.

“Lost my gun. Need a replacement,” he answered quickly and to the point. Khaelyn had already wandered off toward the wall of firearms and sat with her arms crossed, one hand holding her chin in thought.

“What kind of firepower are you looking for?” she pondered out loud.

“Nothing fancy. Just a standard sidearm. You know I can’t go too crazy,” he answered, also looking at the wall.

“Alright, well I’ve got the same model you had last time so give me a sec to grab it,” Khaelyn said as she turned to walk farther into the back. She stopped abruptly for a moment and turned slightly, “oh! Ketsu, why don’t you show Vaz that new body armor you made? I know he’s stubborn but I think even he might come around this time,” Khaelyn winked at Vaz before skipping off to the back again.

“Right!” Ketsu jogged behind the cage on the body armor wall and shuffled through items behind the counter. She pulled out a black shirt-like top before coming out from behind the cage and returning to Vazeel. “It’s a polyester-based body armor. It’s thin, like an undershirt, you don’t even notice you’re wearing it! It’ll deflect most blades unless they come full force straight at you, but even then it’ll slow them down and they’ll do less damage. It’s not bulletproof, of course, but a skimmed bullet will be no problem for it!” Ketsu explained excitedly. Vazeel appreciated her enthusiasm.

Khaelyn returned with a box in hand and held it out for Vazeel to take.

“Should feel just the same as your old one! I even made the custom tinkers you asked for last time so it should shoot just the same,” she said. Vazeel took the box appreciatively, opening it up to look at the gun inside. It was indeed exactly like his old one. Khaelyn’s craftsmanship was top notch as always.

“I’ve got one more thing!” Khaelyn said, eyes lighting up with a small fire of excitement as she said it. “Follow me!” she turned around quickly and walked into the back. Vazeel followed, with Ketsuki following steadily behind as she cared gently for the hot cup of tea that had made its way into her hands.

A large object covered by a giant grey sheet sat at the back of the building. Khaelyn smirked mischievously and grabbed the sheet, giving it a firm pull until it slid off of the machine. A giant war tank waited under the sheet, freshly polished and completely finished. A giant cannon sat on top of a fabricated bull’s face, metallic horns protruding from each side as they tapered off into smaller cannons. Spikes adorned its sides and a giant shield-shaped plough formed the front below the bull’s face. Khaelyn and Ketsuki looked to Vazeel for his reaction.

“His name is War B.E.A.N.,” Khaelyn said, proudly.

“War Bovine Equipped to Annihilate and Neutralize!” Ketsuki added, equally as proudly.

“It’s… beautiful,” Vazeel said softly. He was impressed with the display of machinery before him.

“We made it for you!” Ketsuki said, giggling excitedly.

“How would you expect me to be able to use this? I’m just a detective,” Vazeel said, bewildered.

“Hey, we’re not blind to what’s going on, y’know. We’re in one of those so-called danger districts that’s slotted to be consumed by this guy eating up the city. As soon as we saw what was happening, we started building War B.E.A.N.!” Khaelyn explained.

“You might not need it right now, but you might later, so just don’t forget that he’s here, okay?” Ketsuki said. A small sound like a printer could be heard from within War B.E.A.N. as a thin little line of paper came out of its left side. Khaelyn grabbed the line of paper.

“We uh, haven’t had time to program the voice for this big guy yet, so unfortunately his only form of communication is ticker tape at the moment,” she laughed awkwardly.

 

GREETINGS. I AM PLEASED TO MEET YOU, MR. FAZAG. I FORESEE A FORTUITOUS FUTURE WITH YOU.

 

“Well look at that, he’s excited!” Khaelyn said happily.

“I don’t think I can use him right now, Khae,” Vazeel said carefully.

“Hey, that’s okay! Just remember that he’s here when you need him. I’m thinking things are gonna get a bit rough for us here, so any bit of firepower helps,” Khaelyn reassured.

 

I OBJECT TO BEING LEFT BEHIND, BUT I UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION. I WILL WAIT PATIENTLY UNTIL I MAY BE OF ASSISTANCE, MR. FAZAG.

 

“Polite little guy, isn’t he?” Ketsuki said as she lovingly patted War B.E.A.N.’s… shoulder.

“Thanks for the gun, girls. And Ketsuki, I think I’ll take your body armor as well,” Vazeel turned to Ketsuki as she happily handed him the shirt. “You know which account to charge, as usual.”

“Thanks, Vaz!” Ketsuki smiled, happy that Vazeel finally took some of her armor.

“You get him, Vaz, y’hear? We’ve lost of a lot of good neighbors that we’ve known for years to this guy, whoever he is. And I promise that when it comes right down to it, if he tries to get rid of us, we’re going to leave him with nothing but a desolate hole in the ground,” Khaelyn said, a cold seriousness in her eyes that Vazeel had never seen before. Ketsuki’s smile had also vanished and her face had become unreadable stone. Both women stood completely still, unmoving, draped in sharp shadows from the overhead lights and surrounded by their arsenal. It sent a small chill down Vazeel’s spine.

“I will,” he assured them, “they’ve done more than enough already.” Bright smiles returned to the girls’ faces as if they weren’t capable of a serious moment in their lives.

 

***

 

The night had settled in on the city and Mylie’s fluorescent lights illuminated the sidewalk. Vazeel waited in the bustling lobby. They were busy tonight. It looked like Calli and Celeste were able to get their jobs back and were putting on a triple feature with their brother. People seemed to like the idea of scantily clad triplets.

Opadina fluttered about like a hummingbird, making sure the guests waiting in the lobby were comfortable as she double checked appointments and shows. It took her several minutes to notice Vazeel waiting patiently, leaning against the wall, absentmindedly rolling the scarf in his pocket around his fingers.

“Vazzy!” she said excitedly, squeezing past the horde of other patrons and jumping into his unexpecting arms, which he held out awkwardly to make sure she didn’t fall. She wore a cat ensemble today, tiny little ears anchored in her hair and a little stuffed tail wiggling at the base of her spine. She took a step back and clasped her hands behind her back, grinning.

“Any way I could get in soon, Dina?” Vazeel said, consciously calling her Dina. She, of course, giggled uncontrollably.

“Of course, silly! Go right on in, you know lines don’t apply to you here,” she winked as she said the second half quietly. Vazeel nodded in appreciation and walked through the curtains to the main stage.

It was crowded tonight. Vazeel would have had a hard time finding this Dez man if he didn’t also bring Zerik, Cattwen, and Glynevere, who stuck out like sore thumbs in the crowd. They stood off to the side, near one of the more private booths against the wall.

Zerik was a giant of a man. He stood with arms crossed and a frown set upon his face with Cattwen and Glynevere standing on either side, faces set in a similar way. The women stood in tight, professional, yet revealing, suits, arms crossed and serious eyes watching Vazeel as he walked in. The detective walked determinedly toward the semi-private table. He could see what he assumed was Dez reclined against lavish cushions, speaking with, or consuming the face of, a flirtatious yet reserved Misume.

Cattwen and Glynevere took a step closer to Zerik as Vazeel approached, closing any gaps there may have been for him to get through.

“‘Fraid you can’t go any farther, friend,” Zerik said harshly, beefy arms crossed across a broad chest.

“I have business with Dez,” Vazeel said simply. He noticed a slight twitch in the facial expressions of the two women accompanying Zerik as his familiarity with their boss’ name surprised them.

“Well he don’t wanna see anyone but the Princess tonight, so that’s too bad for you, buddy,” Zerik spat louder than he intended. Misume’s head turned toward the commotion.

“Vazeel! What a pleasant surprise,” she said as she stood from her seat smoothly, a sultry red dress hugging her curves before giving way to one slender leg through a slit in the skirt from her hip to the floor. Zerik, Cattwen, and Glynevere looked between Misume and the still silent Dez, unsure of what to do. Dez lazily waved a hand, signalling for them to get out of the way. Vazeel stepped into the partially secluded booth. Misume took her seat next to Dez, his arm resting lazily behind her head and around her shoulders.

“I’m impressed,” Dez began, “you got to this point in two days.”

“Dez here just stopped by for a spat of business talk,” Misume explained, “I guess our first answer wasn’t final enough for him,” she winked.

“When given the option to do work and hang around beautiful women, I will always oblige,” Dez said, tracing his fingers along Misume’s shoulder.

“Xeryas. Where is he?” Vazeel said, to the point, as always. Despite her laissez-faire attitude, he knew the princess wanted to be out of this situation as soon as she could be.

“Heading straight to the top, aren’t you?” Dez smiled, unphased by Vazeel’s knowledge.

“You’re just a shark. The teeth behind the threats,” Vazeel said, eyes narrowing slightly. “You come in and do the leg work, but Xeryas is the one that really makes it happen. Where is he?” he asked again. Dez chuckled, more to himself than anything.

“And what would finding him accomplish? Proof of illegal documentation? Who’s orchestrating all of this? To what end does this help you? You can’t stop it. No one can. No matter what you and those annoying captains learn of what’s going on this city, it won’t help,” Dez smirked to himself before taking a sip of his scotch.

“Then you won’t mind telling me where to find him,” Vazeel pressed calmly. Misume had ever so slightly distanced herself from Dez as he spoke, her displeasure leaking into her facial expressions.

“Old theater in the Burnes district. I’m sure you know where,” Dez offered, “you know, for such a smart guy, you sure are dumb for pursuing this. I’m telling you, it’s pointless.”

Vazeel stood up before Dez had even finished speaking. Misume stood shortly after, following Vazeel past the three still-confused guards.

“What’s this?” Dez asked, adding an edge of feigned hurt to his voice, “you’re leaving already, Princess?” Misume stopped abruptly and twisted her body to look behind her.

“Sorry, hon. I ain’t in the mood for asshole tonight,” she winked over her shoulder before following Vazeel again. Dez smirked, reclining further back into the cushions and tapping a finger on his glass of scotch.

“You know what to do, Zerik,” he said to the hulk of a man in front of him. Zerik grunted in response.

 

“So that’s it?” Misume called after Vazeel as he approached the exit of the lounge. “He gives you a place and you just go?”

“This won’t end until we get to the top.”

“It might end on your way to the top at this rate.”

“You? Worried?” Vazeel raised an eyebrow slightly.

“For this place? Never. For you? Always,” she hummed, slinking up against him before pulling herself up to his face and planting her lips on his. “You do right by me, Vaz, you always have. You know I’m always here when you decide you’re done playing cat and mouse with Pantene,” she whispered into his ear before lowering herself back down and taking a step back. She turned without waiting for his response and walked casually away to make her rounds in the lounge, her hips swaying pleasantly with every slow step.

 

***

 

The Burnes district was the second to go. The wind howled gently in the empty streets, fighting against the echo of Vazeel’s footsteps. The Queens Theater, a titan of a building, stood in the center of the district. Traditionally a poignant cultural center for the district, it sat hauntingly quiet, the main sign still displaying the name of the last show it had planned before the district was cleaned out.

Vazeel stood at the entrance for a moment, appreciating the architecture in front of him before pushing the heavy doors open. The interior was softly lit and faint music filled the main hall, growing steadily louder as he made his way to the stage room. The antiquated decor was untouched and exactly as it sat before the district was vacated, Vazeel noticed. His brow furrowed in puzzlement. They’ve owned this district for weeks but they haven’t touched it. Why? His thoughts spun around in his head as he walked to the stage room’s ornate double doors.

A figure sat in a solitary chair on the stage, one leg crossed over the other and long fingers tented in his lap. His black, flawlessly pressed pinstripe suit creased perfectly as he sat, his starkly contrasting crimson tie tucked neatly into his jacket. His black hair was perfectly slicked back. The man stared at Vazeel, unblinking, the faintest grin on his face.

“Welcome,” the man said, cutting through the thick silence of the cavernous room. The acoustics carried his voice to Vazeel with minimal effort. The detective walked steadily toward the stage, hands in his pockets and head low. He knew that this was likely a trap and kept his body alert, waiting for the inevitable ambush. Xeryas’ smirk grew ever so slightly wider as he chuckled to himself.

“Waiting for my hidden henchmen to attack, I see,” Xeryas said, sliding his fingers from their tented position and crossing his hands together instead, “so sorry to disappoint, but you won’t find anything like that here.” Vazeel stopped once he reached the front of the stage, eyes locked on Xeryas’.

“I don’t care who you are. I care who you work for,” Vazeel said curtly. Xeryas continued on as if Vazeel hadn’t said anything.

“For whom I work is irrelevant because you will never meet him. Unfortunately, I’m the highest rung on the ladder that you’ll ever meet, but be satisfied in that you’re the only one who will make it this far,” Xeryas closed his eyes in satisfaction with what he had just said, his faint smile never leaving his face.

“You’re confident,” Vazeel retorted.

“I have reason to be,” Xeryas shot back.

“Who is he?” Vazeel tried again.

“You’re asking the wrong questions,” Xeryas stood slowly from his chair, placing his hands in the pockets of his suit pants.

“For someone who seems to have no fear, you like to dodge them,” Vazeel said, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. Xeryas chuckled.

“I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today if I didn’t choose my battles wisely.”

“And why did you choose this one?”

“Because I know how it ends.”

Vazeel’s eyes narrowed, his hand unconsciously clenching around the blue scarf in his pocket. Xeryas clapped his hands together in delight.

“Well then, anything beyond this point is useless discourse, I’d say!” he said, pleased. Vazeel hid his confusion behind his stare. Xeryas continued.

“Money and legality is my world, Mr. Fazag. But I wouldn’t be so good at it if I wasn’t also good at using my time. You and I have that in common. You are where you are today because you know how best to use your time. Unfortunately, you’ve misplaced your judgment this time and for that, I am genuinely sorry for you. You have more to lose than you think and it’s a shame to see the fall of such a great man. You should have joined us instead of continuing on with this foolishness. Zakuun would have liked that,” Xeryas said, a big grin planted on his face as he ended his speech.

Vazeel’s thoughts spiralled in his head. Zakuun? Why is he telling me now? Why is that name so familiar? After all this time, why is he telling me– Vazeel turned abruptly and broke out into a full run toward the exit. Xeryas laughed audibly behind him.

Vazeel cursed loudly to himself for his foolishness as he ran full speed out of the theater toward the 20th precinct, the name ‘Zakuun’ smashing against the walls of his skull as he battered it with endless questions.

 

***

 

A fresh, dark cloud of smoke billowed from what remained of the precinct as flames lapped at everything within reach. Gunshots rang out, sharp blades of sound cutting through the low growl of the inferno. Vazeel dove into the remains of the precinct, ignoring the fire and gunshots around him. There were more survivors than he expected at first glance and he quickly began removing them from the building, silently cursing that he hadn’t found her.

A bullet ricocheted off his arm as he lifted a large rock off of an officer’s leg. Ketsu’s armor worked. Heh. Vazeel looked up to see a man limping toward him, gun poised in one hand. He recognized the limp immediately and tightened his grip on the rock still in his hands.

“YOU!” Haywire said maliciously, his gun hand shaking slightly. His voice still held a nasal edge from his broken nose. He limped closer to Vazeel, pointing the gun at his head. “First I’m gonna kill you, then I’m gonna kill that bi–” the giant rock in Vazeel’s hands slammed into the side of Haywire’s head, knocking him unconscious.

“Fazag,” the injured officer Vazeel was freeing said hoarsely.

“Sorry, should I leave you here to rot?” Vazeel asked, annoyed. Grim grunted.

“Th-thanks,” Grim stammered, having great difficulty forming the words. Vazeel hoisted the old man up and out of the burning building before dashing back inside.

He found Xinc, Myth, and Tinder holed up behind a large wooden desk, guns out and waiting. Vazeel dove from rubble pile to rubble pile until he met with the men behind the desk. They appeared more or less safe, save for some bumps and scrapes.

“‘Bout time, Fazag,” Xinc grumbled, appreciation leaking into his voice despite his best efforts.

“Came out ‘o nowhere,” Tinder said, his Scottish accent thickening in his concentration, “no warnin’ jus’ an’ explosion.” He quickly ducked out from the side of the table and let a few shots ring across the precinct.

“Pantene?” Vazeel couldn’t wait any longer.

“We got separated after the explosion,” Myth said, apologetically, “she seemed okay, but she took cover at the opposite end of the room and I haven’t seen her since.” Vazeel nodded and sprang out from behind the table.

“Fazag! What are you doing?!” Xinc called out.

“Let him go, you know he’ll do what he wants,” Myth reasoned. Xinc grunted and peeked around the table, offering what cover he could for the detective.

Vazeel stalked behind every pile of rubble he could find, avoiding discovery by Zakuun’s lackeys. A brown coat caught his eye and he slid toward it. A faint waft of lavender met his nose through the smoke. He grabbed the empty coat from the ground and recognized it as Pantene’s immediately. His thoughts wandered slightly before coming back to reality as he heard a click behind his head.

“So sorry it has to end this way, Mr. Fazag. I really did like you,” Cold’s familiar voice said behind him. Vazeel’s mind raced for an exit to his current situation. Thinking was impossible when all he could think about was her.

A single shot rang out, followed by a body falling heavily to the ground. Vazeel turned his head slightly. Jack lowered his gun and crawled to Vazeel’s side, stepping over Cold’s dead body.

“Someone took her a few minutes ago. I don’t know where. Go,” Jack said, short and to the point. Vazeel was grateful. He put a thankful hand on Jack’s shoulder before dashing to the nearest hallway. Finbez and Vetin held the hall that Vazeel had dashed into.

“Sir!” Vetin called to Vazeel.

“Is this area secure?” the detective asked.

“Yes, sir, nothing down here but our own,” Finbez answered, firing off a few choice shots. Vazeel scoffed to himself before jumping through a hole in the wall that led outside. A small, musical voice teased his ears as he left the loud din of the precinct. Smoke stung his eyes as he looked around frantically, locking on to Pantene’s voice.

“Vaz, don’t!” he turned sharply to see two shadows in the firelit smoke. A small figure stood next to a towering one, a gun glinting in the fire’s light.

“Shoulda stayed out of it, Fazag,” Zerik sneered, holding Pantene with an iron grip by the arm. Pantene’s long violet curls bounced as she struggled against him.Vazeel took a menacing step forward.

Two whips flew toward him from both sides, each one grabbing hold of each of his arms. Cattwen and Glynevere held each end tightly. They were strong, despite their appearance. Vazeel let out a low growl.

“Boss was right, you care too much,” Zerik said, tightening his finger on the trigger. Vazeel’s eyes glowed a bright, menacing green before he grabbed both whips around his arms and pulled them toward him. The force was too strong and too unexpected and the two women came flying toward him. Before they could react, his massive fists collided with their stomachs and they collapsed. Vazeel’s feet had sprung into action before their bodies had hit the ground.

He had closed half of the gap between him and Pantene before the sound of a gun pierced his ears and he came to an abrupt halt. He watched her small frame fall limply to the ground. Vazeel’s world was suddenly silent. Every gunshot faded away into the distance and the roar of the fire was little more than the quiet churning of a distant ocean.

Zerik’s ugly smile widened in satisfaction. Vazeel’s eyes burned green against the orange fire surrounding him.

Zerik blinked and Vazeel was gone. Before he could begin to feel panic, something impossibly hard collided with his side. He felt several ribs snap on impact before a second fist crashed under his jaw. The bones in his face shattered and his eyes bulged in pain. Vazeel wasted no time, bringing his elbow down on Zerik’s shoulder. He felt Zerik’s arm pop out from its socket as his elbow collided with it. The broken man fell to the ground next to Pantene, writhing in pain. Vazeel kicked him in the torso, away from her. Zerik struggled to raise his head, meeting the cold gaze of Vazeel’s pistol. A single bullet flew from the barrel and found rest in Zerik’s skull.

The gun slipped from Vazeel’s hands, landing with a soft clamor at his feet as he sank slowly to his knees. Lavender embraced him and pulled his head down as he scooped Pantene into his arms. Her face was serene and quiet, her violet hair as deep and entrancing as ever. He pulled her gently to his chest and held her head against his shoulder, resting his cheek against the side of her head.

The gunfire had died down and the flames had withered to smouldering embers. Xinc, Tinder, and Myth stood solemnly, watching the hardest and most indomitable detective they’d ever known fall to pieces in front of them. Xinc’s hand absently rolled a wedding band that he kept in his pocket as he watched.

After several long minutes, Vazeel gently laid Pantene on the ground before standing. He buried his hands in the deep pockets of his coat and walked away slowly.

“Fazag…” Xinc called out, cautiously. Vazeel stopped, turning his head slightly. A narrow green eye glowing under the shadow of his hat was all the three policemen could see.

“You do what needs to be done,” Myth finished for Xinc. Vazeel nodded so slightly that anyone else may have missed it entirely. He turned his head back and continued walking.

 

***

Vazeel pushed through the heavy doors of The Legion and took steady, determined steps toward the bar. Haunted looked up from the drink he was pouring. As soon as he saw Vazeel’s eyes, he turned away from the patron he was serving and slid the drink across the bar toward the detective instead. Vazeel caught it in his hand and held it there, his eyes never leaving Haunted’s.

“It won’t bring her back,” Haunted said. That he knew what had happened was hardly a surprise. Vazeel remained silent, his jaw eternally clenched. Haunted sighed, knowing he wouldn’t sway his old friend.

“The Aitch district. That old corporate building in the center. He’s there,” Haunted added. Vazeel nodded and downed the glass of whiskey he’d been served. The glass shattered as he slammed his hand down on the table.

“One more thing… you probably don’t need this right now, but you need to go to 4K if you weren’t already planning on it. The girls need you,” Haunted finished, a sense of urgency lacing his voice. Vazeel left immediately.

 

The girls weren’t lying when they said they’d leave nothing but a hole in the ground. 4K had been almost completely levelled. Vazeel pushed through the rubble that was the front of the shop. The rest of the walls remarkably retained their integrity, but he could tell that several explosions had gone off.

Most of the weaponry had been taken, he could tell. The showroom was mostly desolate, save for the weapons the girls had exhausted during their fight. Vazeel’s pace quickened as he jogged to the warehouse. Robotics and shrapnel were scattered everywhere as his eyes searched frantically.

“Vaz.”

His head snapped in the direction of the voice. Ketsuki sat with her back against the wall while Khaelyn lay on the ground, her head resting in Ketsuki’s lap. Khaelyn held a small fish closely against her chest. They were alive and that was the best outcome for which Vazeel could have hoped, though his relief turned to concern as he got closer to the girls.

Mixtures of grease, dirt, and blood covered their skin. He couldn’t tell how much of it was theirs and how much belonged to whoever had attacked, but he could tell they were exhausted and needed help. He knelt down to better assess the situation. Khaelyn’s fierce eyes locked on to his, unphased by how much they burned.

“I told you we wouldn’t let them have it,” she said. Her thumb absently stroked her tuna fish. “They killed Twona,” she added, a childish devastation in her voice.

“We saved him for you, Vaz,” Ketsuki interjected. Vazeel furrowed his brow questioningly.

“War B.E.A.N. He’s safe. He’s with Bot,” Khaelyn finished.

“Bot will help you operate him since you don’t have time to learn,” Ketsuki added. She pulled a remote from her pocket and held it in front of Vazeel. He took it, noticing only one button on it.

“It’s not the button,” Khaelyn explained, “there’s a panel on the back. Push on it and slide down. That’s the actual key.” Vazeel stood, flipping the remote over in his hands and following Khaelyn’s instructions. The back panel slid off to reveal a smaller, black button. He walked to the back of the warehouse and pushed the button.

A large metal floor panel shook as it sank down, creating a ramp to a hidden compartment. An engine roared to life in the dark hole as the sound of metal grinding on metal got closer.

War B.E.A.N. roared up the ramp and out of the hole, stopping short inches from Vazeel. The hatch opened slowly and a small robotic arm appeared, searching for a handhold to pull himself up. A few seconds of struggling and Bot was free and able to see what had become of the only home he had ever known.

“Sir, very good to see you again,” he said cordially to Vazeel.

“Bot. You’re gonna go with Vaz now. You help him operate the tank okay? And you do everything just like how he wants to, okay?” Ketsuki lectured Bot.

“Yes, ma’am, if that is your wish. May I ask if you and Miss Khaelyn are well?” Despite being programmed, Bot had an uncanny knack for acting very human.

“We’re fine. You just make sure you bring War B.E.A.N. back in one piece,” Ketsuki ordered. She was only half serious, but Bot was too obedient to notice.

War B.E.A.N. chirped to life as a line of tape printed out from his side.

 

I AM GLAD YOU HAVE RETURNED, MR. FAZAG. I MAY NOW FULFILL MY PURPOSE UNDER YOUR EMPLOY.

 

Vazeel nodded at War B.E.A.N., unsure if he had the technology to see it.

“Wh-what… is that?” a startled voice called out from the entrance to the warehouse. All eyes turned to see Jack, bewildered and wide-eyed.

“He’s what’s gonna get Vaz where he needs to be so he can kill every last bastard there,” Ketsuki smiled slightly, her pride building up again.

“If you’re going, I want to come with you… I lost a lot of good men today. I can’t let that go,” Jack pleaded with Vazeel. The detective paused in thought briefly before nodding his agreement and hoisting himself up to the top of the tank. Bot crawled back inside to make room for the other two men. Jack followed Vazeel up the side of the tank and into the hatch, marvelling at all the control panels.

“Well, sirs, I suppose I can show you the basics!” Bot clapped his tiny metallic hands together in preparation for his first lesson.

 

***

 

War B.E.A.N. roared through the wall of the warehouse and onto the empty street.

“Y-yes, sir, you seem to have gotten the hang of it! But perhaps we should slow down?” Bot pleaded with Vazeel as he drove the tank to his destination.

“No time, little dude,” Jack responded to Bot. He had become fond of the little guy in a very short amount of time. The tank jerked sharply as Vazeel turned a corner. Jack cleared his throat awkwardly.

“I’m sorry,” he began, “about what happened.” Vazeel stared straight ahead as he continued to drive.

“I lost my wife in the first takeover. She ran a bakery in the Aitch district. I never thought I’d recover after losing Irial. They tried to take me off the case but that was even worse. I begged them to let me keep working undercover. I thought that maybe she wasn’t gone, maybe they just took her somewhere. I know that isn’t the case, but deep down, I always hope…” Jack trailed off, realizing he wasn’t helping. Vazeel looked back at him over his shoulder and gave him a small nod. He understood what Jack was trying to do and he appreciated the sentiment.

The empty streets left them plenty of room to maneuver the not-so-maneuverable tank. The Aitch was the oldest part of the city. The buildings were short but sprawling, old but sturdy, and separated by convoluted streets that webbed their way around the district. The center of the web housed the old stone corporate office. Normally Vazeel would never even dream of storming such a solid structure, even with a massive war tank, but he had confidence in the girls’ destructive prowess and in their creations. He knew that the large double doors would crumble under such a piece of machinery.

War B.E.A.N. Rumbled under their feet as they sat poised outside the building. His engines roared to life and steam seeped from the nose of his mighty bull’s face as pressure was released.

“Dear me, I think War B.E.A.N. might be telling us that he needs some servicing before we commit to this probably-mindless slaughter!” Bot said, wringing his little metal hands together as he fretted. The sound of printing could be heard inside the tank followed by a string of paper pouring out from the console.

 

YOU ARE INCORRECT, LITTLE ROBOT. I AM EXCITED TO DESTROY THINGS.

 

Bot dropped his arms in defeat, as he had no shoulders to slump. “I just don’t understand why you humans can’t talk it out like civilized men,” Bot tried one last time. Jack put an awkward, supportive hand on Bot’s head.

“You’ll understand once Khaelyn and Ketsuki let you access the Internet, kid,” Jack said. The air was filled with the sound of printing once again.

 

LET US PROCEED, HUMANS.

 

Vazeel threw his foot on the gas immediately. War B.E.A.N. lurched forward at full power, his treads tearing into the neglected pavement. The sound of the tank building speed and approaching the building was deafening. The surrounding buildings shuttered in the stead of an absent awestruck populace.

A loud crash echoed across the district as War B.E.A.N.’s front plow splintered the large wooden double doors of the building. Vazeel gave the tank as much power as he could. The treads skipped across the stone steps, unable to gain consistent traction as the front of the tank pushed farther through the door. A few moments passed before the tank sprang through the wreckage that was the door and roared into the echoing main hall of the building. Time slowed to a stop as a wave of bullets pelted the outside of the tank. War B.E.A.N.’s printer sounded off again.

 

HA, HA, HA. TINY HUMANS AND THEIR TINY GUNS. SIT BACK, MR. FAZAG. I SHALL DISPATCH THESE PUNY WHELPS.

 

Vazeel lifted his hands off the controls slightly as he heard metal shifting against metal all around him. The control panels along the walls came alive as War B.E.A.N. activated dozens of small caliber cannons along his exterior. The sleek exterior of the tank was suddenly a jagged mountain range of guns and cannons spinning up and preparing to fire.

The simultaneous combustion of every one of War B.E.A.N.’s weapons deafened everyone who wasn’t instantly obliterated by his sheer firepower. There was chaos and confusion among the men still alive in the room as they scrambled for cover. A thin line of paper fell on Vazeel’s lap.

 

CURSES. I UTTERED A COOL ONE LINER BEFORE OPENING FIRE, BUT NONE OF THE HUMANS APPROACHED ME TO READ IT.

 

Jack and Bot peeked out of the viewing slat on the side of the tank and saw a small piece of paper hanging down, the words “HASTA LA VISTA, PUNY HUMANS” printed neatly on it. Jack fought back a laugh.

A loud grinding sound drew their attention to the cavernous hall open before them. A large, black silhouette could be seen lumbering slowly toward them. The men left alive outside cheered and flocked toward it, making sure to stay under cover in case War B.E.A.N. decided to go on another destructive rampage. The large object inched into visibility.

A streaked, unfinished bull’s head peeked into the light. Its features were ragged and awkward, the front cannon exposed instead of enclosed and the hull looking sturdy yet thin. War B.E.A.N.’s printer sounded off.

 

MY PREDECESSOR. MY FATHER. MY ENEMY.

 

Vazeel, Jack, and Bot looked at each other. A small ting sounded off the front of War B.E.A.N. Bot peeked outside and saw a small tube with a thin piece of paper in it. Bot projected his arm out of the tank, bending at impossible angles to pick it up and bring it inside. Jack eagerly took the tube and opened it, unrolling the message within.

 

INFERIOR COPY. I WILL ANNIHILATE YOU. YOU WILL NEVER MATCH MY MIGHT.

YOU MAY NOW FEEL BAD BEFORE I DESTROY YOU.

 

Steam flew out from War B.E.A.N. as Jack read the message aloud. His printer printed furiously.

 

I WILL DECIMATE HIM. HE IS INFERIOR. A PROTOTYPE. HE MOCKS ME WITH HIS PROJECTILE MESSAGING SYSTEM.

 

THIS SLIGHT WILL NOT GO UNPUNISHED.

 

“They must have stolen the prototype for this model from 4K,” Jack reasoned.

“Correct, that is the prototype design for the War B.E.A.N. It was missing after the attack. I do not believe Miss Khaelyn or Miss Ketsuki noticed in all the commotion,” Bot clarified.

Vazeel stayed silent throughout the entire ordeal. A few moments passed before he stood up and began to exit the tank.

“W-what are you doing?” Jack stammered, “it’s suicide out there.” War B.E.A.N. printed furiously.

 

  1. FAZAG IS CORRECT. YOU MUST GO, HUMANS. I WILL DESTROY THIS IMPOSTER MYSELF. TAKE THE TALKATIVE ROBOT WITH YOU AS WELL. HIS VOICE DISPLEASES ME.

 

“You can… operate yourself?” Jack said in disbelief.

“Of course he can. It’s part of his design,” Bot said matter of factly, actively trying to use fewer words. Jack gave Bot one last unsure look before climbing out of the tank and staying close to its side. War B.E.A.N.’s main cannon began to spin up.

Vazeel dashed out from safety, diving toward the nearest pile of rubble for cover. Jack followed closely behind in the same fashion. Bot puttered at a moderate pace a short while after the other two, seemingly oblivious to the danger he could have faced. The trio followed the edge of the room as the two behemoths opened fire on each other, effectively distracting every obstacle they could have faced. They turned off into the nearest hallway.

“This should curve around to the main office,” Jack said, not completely sure of himself. The hall was long and lined with ornate wooden trim, dating the building to a time long past. The end of the hall turned sharply and suddenly in the dark, opening into a large foyer that would eventually give way to their destination.

Two figures stood poised in the foyer, blocking a set of large double doors.

A slender woman in a grey ensemble stood still as marble. Her dark hair was pulled tight into a strict bun and dark horn-rimmed glasses rested low against her nose. Her white blouse was pressed and tucked into her tight pencil skirt, which gave way to long legs capped in pristine black pumps. Her face was severe and her hand sat lightly upon the handle of a riding crop, the end of which rested against her shoulder.

A large man stood to her left, a bright red shirt tucked into grey slacks and deep red suspenders holding the ensemble together. His shirt sleeves were rolled up his massive forearms to his elbows and a deep red tie descending from his collar tucked itself away halfway down his chest into his shirt. One arm was bent, his fingers casually holding a grey suit jacket over his shoulder. He smoked a cigar casually, the wisps of smoke floating around the flat cap on his head.

“Shao’ghun and Bryanda,” Jack said with certainty, his fists clenching unconsciously at his sides. Vazeel stood still between Jack and Bot, hands buried in his trenchcoat. The fingers of his right hand wrapped themselves absently around the silk scarf in his pocket.

“You go ahead,” Jack murmured quietly to Vazeel. “Bot and I will handle this.” If Bot was capable of brow-raising surprise, he’d have surely raised his brow at that very moment.

“Sirs, pardon me, but I am but a simple lock bot, I’m not sure of how I can be assistance in this very moment,” Bot pleaded, wringing his tiny metallic hands together in what could be construed as worry.

“You’ll be fine, Bot. I’ll take the big guy, you can handle her,” Jack tilted his head in Bryanda’s direction. Her eyes narrowed at his movement. Bot eyed the riding crop in her hands nervously. Before he could formulate an appropriate response, Jack leapt from his side toward Shao’ghun, tackling him at full tilt. The giant of a man stumbled back, dropping his jacket and gripping at Jack’s arms.

Bryanda walked casually toward Vazeel, riding crop poised and a strict yet sultry sway to her hips as she approached. Vazeel stood as still as the floor beneath his feet, unblinking. Bot wringed his hands together one last time before skirting across the floor to stand between Bryanda and Vazeel.

“Halt, ma’am. I am sorry, but I cannot let you proceed along the route you have chosen,” Bot said, hiding his apprehension behind formality and procedure. Bryanda came to a stop and arched an eyebrow inquisitively as she looked at Bot. The robot ran protocol after protocol in his head as he tried to figure out the best course of action to take based on what little he knew about his opponent. A few seconds passed before he steeled himself for what was to come.

“Your business model is subpar at best and I predict that the hostile takeover of your competition will end in deficits by the end of the fourth quarter!” Bot spat at Bryanda. Her raised eyebrow twitched and a small fire lit up in her eyes.

“Y-You… What do you know of my brilliant business model? You’re just a robot!” Bryanda hissed back at the robot, her tongue snaking behind her teeth in disgust.

“You cannot support the demand that you are creating by destroying the pre-existing supply! Your plan is flawed and juvenile at best!” Bot nodded more to himself than anyone else. Bryanda’s knuckles were white around her riding crop as she swung it down from her shoulder and it crashed against the floor with a loud crack. Her chest heaved in rage and her eyes darted as she carefully formulated a rebuttal.

Had Bot possessed facial features, he’d have smiled to himself at his success. He knew that business, more than anything else, was Bryanda’s passion and that she would not stand to have her business model insulted. Now this is a fight I can handle myself! Bot thought to himself.

Vazeel realized what was happening between the frightening woman and the tiny robot and used her blind rage to step away into the shadows of the room. Jack and Shao’ghun exchanged blows as they made their way to the hallway from which the trio had just come. Vazeel watched as the smaller Jack used his superior agility and size to dodge Shao’ghun’s massive fists, allowing him to steer the fight as he wished. Their eyes met for a brief moment before a massive fist came between them. Jack danced away from it with ease and slipped out of the foyer, followed closely by the lumbering Shao’ghun.

Vazeel walked slowly up to the double doors and pushed slowly.

The room in front of him was dimly lit. The faint sound of angry debate faded more and more with every inch the door behind him closed until it was nothing but a quiet ambient noise from a distant world. A figure stood in front of him with his hands buried in a trenchcoat, not unlike Vazeel himself.

“So you’ve made it this far,” the figure said, not surprised. He took a step forward and the shadows fell away from his face. A man, about Vazeel’s height and stature, stood before him. A brown trenchcoat encompassed his body and a cigarette hung loosely from his lips as he threw a half smile in the detective’s direction. Vazeel’s eyes widened slightly in surprised recognition.

“Those are the eyes I’ve been waiting to see! All these years! And they’re exactly the way I imagined they’d be,” Zakuun smiled a toothy grin at Vazeel.

Vazeel reeled as he drank in the image of the man before him. “I remember you,” he said curtly.

“So my name wasn’t enough, eh? It took my face as well? I’m disappointed, I was hoping Xeryas’ tip off would have helped fuel this rage you’ve found yourself in, but I see your precious Pantene was enough for that,” Zakuun said carefully, poison dripping from every syllable of Pantene’s name. Vazeel’s eyes narrowed into daggers against the dark, his hands balling up into fists in his pocket as they shook with rage.

“Why?” Vazeel said quietly, anger shaping the simple word. Zakuun didn’t need more than that.

“Because you ruined me, Fazag. We were both young back then. You fresh into the detective scene, me fresh into the crime life. I remember how everyone cheered when you took me down. Your first real bust as a detective… and it ruined my life,” Zakuun reminisced, lost in a past that haunted him. “I lost everything. And you gained everything. You took everything away from me. So I decided I’d take everything away from you. Your colleagues, your contacts, your pretty little playthi–” his sentence was cut short as Vazeel appeared in front of him like lightning, a large fist flying toward his face. Zakuun narrowly dodged and danced back, putting a few extra feet between himself and the detective.

“All of this. It was all a front. Just to get to me,” Vazeel pieced the story together.

“Very good, detective, still sharp as ever, I see! I’ll never get everything back. I know that. So the next best thing was to take everything I could from you. I don’t care about all the businesses I absorbed. All the districts. All the people. That stupid whorehouse. All I wanted was to lure you out. To cleave your soul in twain,” Zakuun closed his eyes and revelled in his achievements.

“The people at the precinct. In those districts. Jack’s wife. Avon,” Vazeel’s eyes narrowed again, “Pantene.” Zakuun’s grin widened with every name and ended in a cackle at the mention of Pantene. He threw his arms out in bewildered celebration.

“Perfect! Everything was perfect! Everyone believed I had such a convoluted plan but I didn’t. Everything was Bryanda and Shao’ghun. As long as I got the results I wanted, I didn’t give two shits about what was happening to my newly acquired pieces of city,” Zakuun laughed triumphantly. “I even sent you a message before I pulled you in. That silly businessman. Danoman I think his name was. Sad sod of a man, but he served his purpose.”

I lost my job. My wife left me, took the kids, the house, the goddamn mutt. All I’ve got’s that damn car. You did this, Fazag. The words rang in Vazeel’s head like a fire alarm.

“And your assistant killed him! Just like I killed the part of me that was still like that man. And now all you have left is me, the man who killed everything you love,” Zakuun paused as he pulled a small paper out from his pocket. “Well… almost everything. I haven’t quite seen to your precious ‘Noodle’ yet, but don’t worry. I’ll have his location figured out soon enough.” Zakuun’s smile reached its pinnacle as he could see the rage building on Vazeel’s face.

“Don’t worry, Fazag. It’ll be quick, just like Pantene. I’ll do you that one courtesy,” Zakuun taunted Vazeel, preparing for the worst.

But Zakuun didn’t know of what Vazeel was capable.

No one knew.

Green flashed across the room at mach speeds as Vazeel dove for Zakuun, fists in front of him as he slammed both into Zakuun’s chest. The air left Zakuun’s lungs as his eyes widened in surprise. Vazeel didn’t give him time to recover as he swung a fist at the other man’s face, crushing his cheekbone beneath his knuckles. Not stopping for a second, Vazeel swung his other arm around and brought an elbow down squarely on Zakuun’s shoulder, forcing him to the ground in a surprised heap. Zakuun gasped, unable to comprehend what exactly was happening.

“N-No… you’re supposed… to feel… helpless,” Zakuun gasped as he tried to regain his breath. Vazeel scowled and kicked Zakuun square in the chest, tossing him through the air across the room until he crumpled against the wall. The paper with “Noodle” written on it floated to the ground. Vazeel stepped on it as he walked slowly toward Zakuun.

“WHY ARE YOU STILL FIGHTING, YOU HAVE NOTHING!” Zakuun screamed at Vazeel. The detective pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Zakuun’s head. “Do it. It won’t bring her back. In the end you’ll still be nothing and I’ll be dead. My problems will end. But yours will go on for a lifetime,” the bleeding man said before spitting on the ground at Vazeel’s feet. Vazeel’s hand held the pistol steadily at Zakuun’s head, nary a shake or twitch to be seen.

In one swift motion, Vazeel spun the pistol in his hand and slammed the butt of it against Zakuun’s temple. The battered man fell over and hit the ground with a thud. He placed the pistol back in its holster inside of his coat before sliding his hands back into his pockets. He wrapped the silk scarf around his aching knuckles and let the cool feel of the fabric soothe them. Jack burst through the door a few moments later, looking tattered and bloodied, but overall safe. Vazeel turned toward him and began walking.

“Arrest him,” were the only words he said to Jack as he passed by him through the doorway, barely bothering to take note of the heated yet civil argument still happening in the previous room between Bot and Bryanda.

 

***

Men and women from all the surrounding precincts in the city stood at attention as shots were fired into the air to honor the fallen. A large, ornate stone stood at the center of the gathering – a headstone for the missing innocents of the conquered districts. Despite their best efforts, officials were unable to find any bodies of those missing from the hostile takeovers.

Xinc and Myth stood closest to the center, hands in an eternal salute to the fallen. Mylie stood proudly next to her husband, hands snaked around Xinc’s other arm and a solemn look painted on her flawless face.

Myth was surrounded by his three children, elegantly dressed. Calli held her father’s free hand in support, Celeste and Path standing nearby. Though solemn, Myth couldn’t hide the relief on his face at being reunited with his children.

Sergeant Tinder donned his full traditional uniform alongside his wife. His heavy kilt swayed in the light breeze as his big arms squeezed on a set of ornate bagpipes. The only sound in the cemetery was the lilting music of a bittersweet traditional Scottish ballad.

A small ways away, Khaelyn kneeled down near a pond at one end of the cemetery. She stared at a single smooth stone engraved with the visage of a graceful tuna fish placed in the center of the pond. Ketsuki rested a supportive hand on Khaelyn’s shoulder as she mourned her loss. Bot stood a small distance back from the two, watching.

Vazeel stood silently at the edge of the cemetery, watching. Smoke floated casually from the end of his cigarette as he stayed out of sight underneath an ancient oak. The sun had begun to set by the time the assemblage had started to disperse, heading to a wake where they were going to discuss the future of the derelict districts.  Vazeel walked slowly to the other side of the oak where a modest headstone sat behind a fresh mound of dirt. He rolled a soft silk scarf between his fingers.

“I never got to meet her,” a voice said behind Vazeel. The detective didn’t flinch a muscle. Noodle took a few steps forward to stand at Vazeel’s side. He had a bundle of lilies in one hand.

“You remembered.” Vazeel was quieter than usual, but his voice still held the softness he reserved for Noodle.

“Of course! What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t?” Noodle’s wide grin was infectious. “Besides, even if I got the type of flower wrong, I know you’re a big sucker for pretty flowers anyway.” Noodle nudged Vazeel’s arm with his elbow. After a few moments of chuckling at his own joke, Noodle leaned down and placed the flowers at Pantene’s grave.

“You were right,” Vazeel conceded. “We should have just been together. I think, in the end, she may have been safer.” His eyes sunk slightly as he spoke.

“You both did what you thought was best. You can’t fault yourself for that.” Noodle clapped a hand on Vazeel’s shoulder. It felt like he had slapped steel. “So? What’s next? Quittin’ the life? Time for retirement?”

Vazeel looked at Noodle in vague disbelief. He hadn’t even considered retirement.

“Doubtful.”

“‘Doubtful.’ Such a negative Nancy.”

“I’d be bored if I retired.”

“Right. And who would spend the night on my couch then?”

“You saying you want me to come over more often?”

“No way. You freak my girlfriend out.”

“She could learn to love me.”

“Vazeel, are you mackin’ on my woman?”

“I’d never.”

“Well why not? She’s a pretty girl.”

“Not my type.”

“You don’t even know her.”

“Trust me.”

“Such a negative Nancy!”

“Stop calling me that.”

“I will when you stop calling me Noodle and start calling me–“
A massive fist flew towards Noodle’s face.