The Sixth

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THEN

— - —

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Arians stood in the doorway, slowly pulling on a cigarette. Aaron was sitting at a table a few feet away, flipping through a report they had received the day before. Outside the window of their makeshift command center in Guadalajara a parade danced through the street, slowly working its way towards the center of town. The window was left open for the faint breeze, but it hadn’t helped.

Arians took another drag, letting the smoke fall out of his nostrils as he exhaled. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “I don’t know what you were expecting. Didn’t this confirm everything else we’ve heard so far?”

Aaron shook his head. “Yes, yes, it did, but I don’t understand it. They mobilized an army to La Paz - how is that possible?” He flipped the report over, looking for loose pages. “What we did in San Marco should have ruined them, Vince. Who was left afterwards?”

“Plenty of people were left - what do you mean?”

Aaron threw him a look. “I mean, who was left in command positions? Who knew how to- did any of them even know how to get into Site-01?” He tossed the report onto the couch behind him. “We didn’t leave the door unlocked, did we? Who was left?”

Arians shrugged. “Adam Bright, maybe. Last we heard he was operating out of that site in Michigan, but it could’ve been him. He wouldn’t know how to get into the secure site, though.” He paused, considering. “Skitter Marshall? Where was his team assigned?”

Aaron rubbed his eyes. “No, no, it wasn’t Marshall. He defected too - just not with us.”

They sat in silence for a moment longer, only the sound of the parade moving into the distance breaking the quiet between them. Then, without warning, the door to the room opened. Arians was at it in an instant, gun drawn. Aaron didn’t move, but stared unbelievingly at the figure inside the doorframe.

“Sophia?” he asked incredulously.

Sophia Light stepped through the door, slowly pulling a hood down off her face. Her hair was shorter than when they had last seen each other, but her eyes were the same unmistakeable green. Aaron felt something catch in his chest - something he hadn’t felt in years. Longing.

“No,” Arians growled, “a Foundation spy.”

Sophia rolled her eyes. “Put the gun down, you idiot. I’m not here to kill you.” She rolled up the sleeves of her gloves, revealing holes in both of her wrists that had long since scarred over, but not closed. She had no hidden weapons. “There, satisfied?”

“What are you doing here?” Aaron asked.

She pulled the coat off and set it on the single bed in the room. “You sent a message to Edward Bishop,” she said, looking at Aaron. “O5-13. All the same melodramatic prose as ever, I knew it was you. He added it to the file we have in place for the-” she paused, “the Children. See, Edward still believes the lie we’ve been telling everyone.”

“And what’s what?” Arians asked.

“That he, or any of us, are still in control.” She sat down across from them and lit a cigarette of her own. Aaron could feel his heart crashing against his chest. “Your Defection really did a number on us, boys. Scattered, leaderless, all of our best and brightest killed or gone into hiding. We threw together a hodgepodge of doctors and called them “Overseers”, but none of them are actually running the show.” She paused. “Not even me.”

Aaron frowned. “Then who is?”

“We don’t know,” she continued. “For years, the Overseers have been running the individual sites by themselves, but orders keep coming down from Site-01. Somebody is in there. For a long time we thought it was you,” she looked at Aaron, and her gaze softened slightly, “but after a while we realized it had to be something else entirely.”

She leaned back and closed her eyes. “I know you went back. I was following you. You saw exactly what I saw when I went back - a man-shaped absence where Frederick-” hearing her say his name made Aaron wince “-used to be. Smoke on a wall, and nothing else.” She took another draw on the cigarette. “So if you’re not in there, and he’s not in there, then who is calling the shots?”

Arians finally lowered his gun. “Why are you here?”

She glared at him. “Because the other day we found something that shouldn’t have been possible. Site-19, the facility we built when we scrapped the plans for the Alaska site, there was a door there we hadn’t seen before. There was a whole new wing behind it, something that couldn’t have been built without us knowing.” She swallowed hard. “In that wing is a room with a statue in it. We didn’t put it there. We have no records of it being put there. We checked the file, and it just says that it was “moved there”. There wasn’t a file before. The date on that file changes every year - and that statue is one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen.”

She stood up. “I’m here because something is happening at Site-01 that is changing the Foundation. New facilities are being built every day, more and more doctors and researchers are being recruited that we know nothing about. You saw what happened in La Paz?” They both nodded. “Those orders didn’t come from any of the Overseers. They came from Site-01. Somebody in there is making calls and the Foundation is following orders.”

She paused. “I don’t agree with what you did, and I think the Foundation has more to offer than you give it credit for, but what’s happening here needs to be stopped. We need to know what’s going on in there, before it’s too late.”

“Then why not just go?” Arians grunted at her.

She looked at him for a second, and then away to the ground. “I don’t want to go alone.”

Aaron and Arians exchanged glances. “If we find something in there,” Aaron said, slowly, “we’re going to kill it. You understand? The Foundation can’t be allowed to continue like this. Sophia - the damage it’s doing is- is more than we can keep up with. We’ve been looking at the numbers again, the ones we uh-” he laughed nervously, “-the ones we borrowed from Dr. Bright, and his figures match our own. The Foundation is destabilizing our reality, Sophia. Williams was right about the threads, but they’re being damaged. We have to do something to stop this.” He met her gaze as she looked back up at him. “I know we’re scientists, but this… this is a box we never should have opened.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped and sighed. She nodded. “Fine. Get me in there and you can do whatever you feel like you need to do.”

Arians nodded. "I'll go radio headquarters. We'll need some kind of distraction to keep them off our backs while we take Site-01."

He put out his cigarette on the wall and left the room, closing the door behind him. Sophia watched him leave, and once he was gone turned her eyes back to her hands. Aaron didn't move.

"I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again," he said softly.

She smiled an uncertain half-smile, her eyes betraying her. "Well, yes. I wasn't sure either." She looked up at him, and Aaron could see that great sadness behind the facade of content. "It's difficult, you know. I lost everything that night: my friends, my mentor, my life's work. And you." She bit her lip until it was white. "I didn't know where to go. You left me and I was alone to pick up the pieces of what we had, and-"

Her voice trembled. "I don't want to know why you killed Frederick. I don't care. Maybe you knew something you didn't tell anyone but I don't know why you didn't tell me."

Aaron's face went pale. "I did want to tell you. I was preparing for- for what we were planning, and I told Vince to let everyone know." He leaned forward. "He didn't tell you?"

She grimaced. "No. He didn't. But neither did you. You had every opportunity to reach out to me, you knew all the channels, but you did nothing. It's been thirty years, Aaron. Thirty years and I hear nothing, not even word that you're still alive." A tear formed at the corner of her eye, and with the back of a glove she wiped it away. "When I saw you and Vince in San Marco, I thought I was seeing a ghost."

"I'm sorry," Aaron said softly. "I thought you had rejected the offer, that-"

"I would have rejected the offer," she said, her voice congealing into something venomous. "I dedicated my life to the Foundation and that project and you were all too willing to throw it away. Everything we'd worked for. All of our efforts."

Aaron slumped back in his seat. "Williams was-"

"I know what he was," she spat, "but he could have been dealt with. When you killed him and broke off to go gallivanting around the country shooting up convoys and stealing from warehouses, you threatened all of the work we had done. Do you remember why we did it? Do you even care? Our world is sick, and if we can't find the source of it then we're going to keep seeing-"

"The world was sick because of Williams," Aaron said pointedly, "he was the source, he was-"

"But here we are, thirty years removed from Frederick Williams' life, and you know what's happening out there?" She paused to light another cigarette. "More unexplained events every day. More artifacts and monsters we pull out of the ground, every day. Why, if the Administrator was the source of the anomalies, are we still seeing anomalies, Aaron?"

Aaron didn't answer. She sighed and sat back further on the bed, pulling her legs up to her chest. "I might have believed you back then," she said quietly. "I might have listened, but I have seen nothing in the last few decades that would lead me to believe that one man was the advent of every paranormal event in that time. There's something deeper out there, and it's not going to be stopped by killing a man. It's going to be stopped by research and investigation, and the only group with the resources to make that happen right now is the Foundation."

Aaron didn't respond. He sat, eyes downcast, as Sophia finished her cigarette.

"I'm not going to stop you from doing whatever you think you need to do," she said, her voice empty. "But before you do anything, you need to think about what it is you actually want."

She looked back towards the door. "And if it's what he wants, too."


NOW

— - —

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They drove overnight, Olivia and Calvin taking turns at the wheel while Adam slept in the back seat. They didn’t say a word until they reached their destination - a small inn in a tiny town on the edge of the jungle, a few miles from the main road. They pulled off and parked at a petrol station and Calvin went inside the inn to meet their contact. It was morning, the sun had not quite risen, and they were exhausted.

The agent they had met in the burning city had given them not just a map, but a key and a notecard with a room number on it. Calvin entered and climbed the stairs to the second level and found the door that matched the card. Quietly, as to not disturb anyone else who might be listening for him, he unlocked the door and crept inside.

A thin stream of light from a streetlamp outside had eased its way between the thin blinds on the window, but otherwise the room was dark. Calvin closed the door behind him and took a few tentative steps into the room. He paused mid-step when he heard the distinctive click of a readied firearm.

“Does the Black Moon howl?” the voice behind the gun said.

“It is the only thing that howls,” Calvin replied.

A small desk light clicked on next to a cot against the wall. Sitting in the chair was Kowalski, gun in hand, a thin bead of sweat having very recently eagerly formed on his forehead. He sighed when he realized it was Calvin.

“Thank God,” he said, wiping his brow. “I don’t know if I could shoot someone if I had to. Targets, sure, but a person?” He grimaced. “It’s good to see you, Calvin.”

Calvin did a double take. “Kowalski? What are you of all people doing here right now? Was there nobody else you could send?”

The portly man frowned. “You know, I was an agent once too. It may have been a few years but I could still probably get the job done.” He pulled at his shirt slightly and uncomfortably, aware that they both knew that was a lie. “But no, I’m here because there’s something you need to know. Our sources have indicated that American troops are landing on a beach near where you just came from. Ostensibly they’re here to quell the rebellion, but the numbers don’t seem to match their intentions.”

Something clicked in Calvin’s brain. “The jets. We saw bombers last night.”

Kowalski nodded. “They were coming from the Gerald R. Ford, who is anchored a mile off-shore. Something else you should know,” he continued, “is that there’s another ship in that group that doesn’t match any other US Navy ship on record. It’s flying an American flag but our sources believe it might be a Foundation destroyer - maybe the Scranton or the Wormwood. Either way, that probably means only one thing.”

Calvin nodded. “The Sixth Overseer.”

Kowalski nodded as well. “They’re going to try and smoke you out, Calvin. We can get you out of here if you want to get out, but…” he grimaced again.

Calvin knew why. The American was maybe the most well-known of the Overseers but arguably the hardest to get near. His involvement within the US military had no doubt led to its explosion in size and technological achievement over time, and in return the military acted like a steel curtain around him. Away from the United States he was at least vulnerable, even if he had brought an army with him. It was their only opportunity.

“What you’ve done so far has been nothing short of incredible, Calvin,” Kowalski said, leaning back in his chair. “I never would have though- we never would have thought anyone would get this close, but this one is different. There’s nothing clever you can do here. This is a hammer, and you are the nail.”

Calvin frowned. “Appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“I’m serious,” Kowalski said, and suddenly Calvin noticed something different about him - some quality that hadn’t been there before. Something stern and authoritative. “You’ve done amazing work but you need to keep doing amazing work. We might get a shot at this one later, after you’ve finished the others. Maybe that will help. But right now, you’re three people in a jeep in southeast Asia, and you have an American military division a few hours away.” He sighed. “You’re no good to us dead.”

Calvin hesitated for a moment, considering what Kowalski had just said. Before he could make up his mind, the other man continued.

“There’s one more thing, Calvin. We have agents who have evidence of a secure container being moved out of Site-19 and onto that ship. Whatever is in there, they’re no doubt planning on weaponizing it.”

“If you were me, what would you do?” Calvin said.

Kowalski laughed. “Fortunately for both of us, I’m not you, because I wouldn’t be here right now.” He paused. “Here’s the way I see it. You’ve got no chance in a head-to-head anything. You’re outnumbered 3000-to-1, and that’s generous. Honestly, I don’t know if you’ve got a chance being sneaky, either. This army has spent the last four decades rooting people out of holes in the Middle East, there’s not a chance you wouldn’t be found.”

He paused again. “You know, I met O5-6 once, back before I joined Delta, at a government function. I don’t know if he knew who I was, but if he did he didn’t act it. I don’t know if there’s a more arrogant and braggadocious person in the entire world. The way he talks, he was the man who singlehandedly built the most powerful military in the entire world.” He laughed. “Maybe he did, I don’t know. I don’t think you win here by being smart, Calvin. I think you win by forcing him to do something stupid.”

Calvin nodded. “Maybe. Either way, I don’t see a way we can leave. We’re not going to get the shot again, and everything we do after this becomes that much harder if we don’t eliminate him.”

Kowalski stood up. “I agree. I don’t envy the position you’re in, but I don’t know of anyone more qualified than you to be in it.”

The two of them walked for the door, with Calvin opening it slowly. After catching a look from Kowalski, he shrugged sheepishly. “Don’t want to wake anyone up.”

Kowalksi laughed. “Oh, no, you won’t. This whole town is empty. They caught wind of what was coming and abandoned their homes last night.”

As they stepped outside the inn, the sun was just beginning to come up over the top of the trees, and a thin fog hung in the air. Adam was awake, sitting in the back seat of the jeep and running his hand over the metal canister that the Spear was in. When Olivia came around the car and saw them, she did an abrupt double take.

“Delta?” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Delivering bad news, I’m afraid.” Kowalski looked back at Calvin, his eyes morose. “Do be careful, Calvin. You’re so close now.”

Without another word, Kowalski turned and began walking down the dirt road. He continued on until he was out of sight. Olivia turned to Calvin. “What did he mean?”

Calvin grimaced. “The Sixth Overseer is sometimes called The American. He’s an old Union general, one of those ghosts from long ago that just refuses to die. He’s also really easy to find - he’s got an office in the Pentagon.”

“So what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is that he’s nearby, not far from here.”

Olivia shrugged. “That doesn’t sound bad. We don’t have far to go.”

Calvin gestured with uncertainty. “Not quite. Kowalski says he brought an American army with him. They landed on the beach back in the city and chances are they’re moving inland looking for us.”

Adam was listening now. “How many is in an army?”

Calvin considered. “About ten-thousand men in a division. They’ll have naval and air support, too. The jets we saw last night were probably US planes.” He crouched down, looking at a rock next to his shoe. “I’m all ears if either of you have any ideas.”

“What did the Delta say?” Adam asked.

Calvin snorted. “That he’s an asshole. Shocking, I know, for a guy who doesn’t go anywhere without an invading force behind him.” He sighed. “Either way, we need to put some room between us and them. The way I see it, if we can head further north we might find a spot we can post up on for the night and see what they do next.”

They agreed, and together the three of them loaded into the jeep and followed the winding dirt road towards the hills in the north. For a while they could still see smoke rising in the far distance over the trees, but as clouds gathered above them and the rains began to fall the world behind them faded into the same shade of mottled grey. The road quickly morphed from something traversable to a muddy, impossible bog. They drove for hours, stopping only once to refuel from a nearly empty tank at an abandoned roadside shop. Day turned to night, and eventually the road turned into a gravel path leading up into the mountains.

They reached a short outcropping from which they could see for several miles over the trees, and backed the jeep into a small grove of trees. Sufficiently satisfied that it was not visible from the road below, they retreated below a rocky overhang to stay out of the rain. Calvin posted up for first watch, and the three of them traded shifts throughout the night.

— - —

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Dawn broke on Olivia’s watch and the three of them collectively broke their meager camp. The rain had subsided but only just, and the skies were still cloudy and grey. While Calvin finished packing, Adam stood on the edge of the cliff, quietly fuming at the sky.

“Something up there piss you off?” Olivia asked, passing by him with a rolled bedding pad under her arm.

Adam shook his head. “I hate cloudy weather. This is bullshit.” He stared at the clouds a little longer, and then slunk off to his computer in the back of the jeep. Olivia shot Calvin a look, and Calvin rolled his eyes.

In the distance they heard a crack, and then another. There began a rumbling somewhere in the jungle, and from their perch they could see trees collapsing and the smoke of engines as something began to push through the trees. Calvin swore, and then looked into the sky. Dipping just beneath the clouds was a flying thing, white and metallic, that disappeared back into the overcast as quickly as it had appeared. A drone.

“Alright, well, time to go,” he said, leaping into the jeep. “Looks like the party found us.”

They came skipping down off the outcropping and back onto the soaked and sloppy road towards the north. As they pulled away, a hulking metal shape came through the trees a half mile away and leveled a long cannon at them. Calvin jerked the wheel right and into the brush as a shell burned past, throwing up mud and debris as it exploded in the road. Calvin righted the wheel and caught another path towards the west, and they continued on.

Over the sound of the jungle and their own engine, the noise of the war machine behind them grew louder and louder. Overhead they could hear helicopters and jets, and in the near distance the sound of more tanks and heavy equipment leveling the forest as they pursued the group. Eventually the trees thinned out and their jeep broke into open grassland.

“Fuck me,” Calvin said, craning his neck to watch the skies behind them, “we’re exposed.”

The sound of blades came fast and loud, and six helicopters were suddenly on them. Calvin pushed the jeep around another hill and into a dusty narrow valley. One of the helicopters came into view above them, and began to fire. Calvin hugged the jeep up against a rocky wall, and Olivia came up from the back seat with a scoped rifle. She braced it against the metal frame of the vehicle and put her eye into the sight.

“Cut it,” she shouted at Calvin, who laid on the brake until they came to a complete stop. The helicopter turned to come around at them again, but broke hard to the left as Olivia swiftly lobotomized the pilot with a bullet. Adam stared at her, perplexed.

“Aren’t you an artist?” he asked.

Olivia shrugged and reloaded. “I was. I’ve been doing this longer.”

Calvin crept towards the edge of the valley and cut through a small passage between two steep cliffs. Another helicopter came into sight as they crested one of them, and Olivia took a shot. The bullet missed the pilot but hit a rotor, causing the craft to sink violently and out of sight. Calvin made another turn, and then one more over a ridge, and then they were out from under the mountain. In front of them was a road winding up into the craggy land past the fields. It pushed through the grassland and then, not far from where they were now, straight into the badlands. Calvin took his foot off the accelerator and they coasted to a stop.

“Ah, shit,” Olivia swore.

Sitting between them and the badlands were military vehicles, hundreds of them, each trained on their jeep sitting on the hill. Above them helicopters circled, and Calvin could make out the shapes of drones just above the cloud layer. Somewhere in the mass of tanks and assault vehicles a horn blared, and the door of a personnel carrier slid open. A man climbed out and closed the door behind him.

He was tall, with broad shoulders and a hearty beard and mustache beneath a wide brimmed hat. He was wearing a brown jacket over a red shirt with jeans, and on his feet were tall, glossy, oiled boots. He stepped forward from the line of guns and waved at them, motioning them to drive down the hill.

“Is that him?” Adam asked, his eyes poking out from behind the back seat.

Calvin nodded. “Sure looks like it.”

Olivia peered down at the man. “What’s our play here?”

Calvin drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “We could try and ram him. If we got to him before he climbed back inside that vehicle that might do it. But I don’t think we’d even make it that far.” His eyes scanned the long line of metal pointed at them. “We could bolt back the way we came, but I don’t know if we’d make it far.”

“Not a lot of great choices there, boss,” Olivia said, smirking.

Adam leaned around the seat. “I think if they were going to kill us, they could’ve just as easily done it already,” he said. “Maybe we just drive down there and improvise?”

Calvin turned back to face him. For a moment his steely glare threatened to put a hole in Adam’s forehead, but then he laughed.

“Staring down the face of certain death, and your idea is to wing it.” He shook his head. “Incredible. I love it. Best option we’ve had so far.”

He pulled the wheel around and brought the jeep down from the hill and rested it a few yards from the man in the cowboy hat. They parked, and then Calvin climbed out. Before he turned away, he leaned back to the other two.

“If things get hairy,” he said, “one of you jump in here and gun it. I’m not saying you’ll make it, but you never know.”

With that, he turned back towards the man in the cowboy hat and stopped just short of the front of the jeep.

“Morning,” Calvin said.

“Mornin’,” the man said, smiling. “You must be Calvin, the fella that everyone is talking so much about.”

Calvin shrugged. “Might be. Who’s asking?”

The man laughed. “You’re a little smartass, aren’t you? I like it. The name’s King, Rufus King. You no doubt know about my exploits as a member of some secret underground associations, but let me assure you my loyalties to country come first. So believe me when I say that, whether or not the boss-man would like to hear it, I’m coming you today as an American citizen, not some man in black or anything.”

Calvin raised an eyebrow. “Admittedly, not what I was expecting.”

The American shrugged. “Look son, a man’s got to look out for his interests - and there is nothing I am more interested in than the ongoing safety and security of the United States of America, full stop. I got into this game because I wanted to be able to better anticipate the threats posed by the strange and unusual, and by God I’ve seen my fair share. During that time I’ve been able to oversee projects that have strengthened the security of our great nation, by way of new technology or other such advantages that the paranatural offer us.”

He reached into his chest pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, slid one from inside, and caught it in his teeth. He lit it with a flick from a lighter, and took a long draw on it.

“Yes,” he said, “we have benefited immensely from our pact of cooperation with the Foundation. Hell, I wouldn’t even be standing here today if it weren’t for those benefits. We’ve got a good thing going here, and I was hoping to keep that good thing going for a good long while.”

His expression darkened. “But then you had to come along and snatch away our ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card when you pushed poor old Felix down that shaft. Now, I’m not dying of old age or disease anytime soon - the Foundation took care of that a long time ago. But now I’m susceptible to all manner of harms and, by extension, so is the United States. That, I’m afraid, just won’t do.”

He pointed back towards the jeep. “However, you’ve got something back there that I think we can reach some sort of agreement on. I’m no monster, Calvin - just an old fashioned South Carolina boy in good standing with some powerful people. I don’t need to see any bloodshed for no reason, so I’ll give you an offer. Might just be the best offer you’re gonna get.”

Calvin squinted at him. “I’m listening.”

The American smiled again. “How about I let you and your two compadres back there scamper back off into the woods, and in exchange you hand over that spear you’ve got your hands on.”

“The spear?” Calvin did a double take. “Why do you want the spear?”

The American flicked the end of his cigarette, sending ashes scattering across the ground. “It’s a funny thing, that spear. I can’t imagine how you would’ve got your hands on it, because we had it locked up tighter than a witch’s cunt. You probably don’t even know what it is, do you?”

“I know what it’s called,” Calvin said.

“Sure thing, but you don’t know what it is.” The American laughed. “When we found that thing, it was locked in the dusty grasp of some ancient king. Definitely cursed, though; the lives we spent just trying to pry it out of that bastard’s grip - well, I’ll spare you the details. Just believe me when I say it took some doing. That spear there is the spear they used to pierce the side of Jesus Christ himself, the only one in the world that could’ve done it. How it ended up in that Roman’s hands I’ll never know, but it did the trick then and, apparently, it can do the trick now, too.”

“See,” he continued, “that spear is old, Calvin. It’s got a sort of magic about it that you just don’t see anymore. The things it’s capable of doing surpass any army or bomb I could come up with. You think if Jehovah or Cthulhu or the flying spaghetti monster descend from the heavens and decide to fuck up the United States, that we have any kind of weapon that can deter their advances.” He shook his head. “No, we do not. But that spear could. That spear can kill gods, Calvin. I don’t know if there’s a more deadly stick in the entire world, maybe the whole got-dang universe, and it’s sitting in the back seat of your car right now.”

He held his arms open. “So there’s the deal. Give me the spear, I make America safe again, and you get to go about your merry business with your lives - killing Overseers, overthrowing governments, whatever you want.”

Calvin considered this. “You understand that you’re part of this too, right? It’s not coincidence that you’re next.”

The American cackled. “Am I? I always forget which number I am, just that I’m somewhere in the middle of the voting call.” He took another drag on the cigarette. “I wondered as much when we found Green’s crusty corpse back in that town. Between you and me, Calvin, I didn’t care much for her either. A little too much power gone to the ole noggin, if you know what I mean. I’m sure plenty of us seem crazy, but that old bird was a whole different brand.”

He pulled his pants up slightly by his belt. “That said, I certainly will not stop you if you want to try to kill me, but that will be after we’ve concluded negotiations here and you have handed over the spear.”

Calvin shook his head. “I can’t do that.”

The American smiled again, but this time there was something sinister about it. The sincerity in his expression had run dry.

“Yeah, I was worried you’d say that,” he said, adjusting his belt. “You know, I could kill you right here, right now, with no effort at all. Could’ve done so last night when you three were hunched in a cave in the middle of the woods. It would’ve been easy, Calvin, and really, this decision should’ve been easy too. But you’ve made it difficult for us, and now we have a decision to make.”

He sighed. “I don’t know what you think you’re trying to accomplish, and frankly I don’t give two fucks about the ideological war you think you’re fighting. All that matters to me is getting that spear, and as easy as it would be to just take it, that wouldn’t be very sporting. Besides,” he cracked his knuckles, “it’s been a little while and I’ve got some muscle to flex.”

He pointed into the sky behind Calvin, who turned around to see a Chinook helicopter descending through the clouds with a massive steel crate strapped to its underside. “In that box,” The American said, “is something nasty. So nasty, in fact, that we’ve been trying to kill it for years, but just haven’t had any luck.” He tapped a finger against his head. “What I think I’m going to do is this: I’m going to let you go. I’m going to let you climb back in that jeep, give you a little water, and let you drive off into the hills. Then, after a few hours, I’m going to point that box in your direction and open it. If what’s in the box doesn’t get you first, then I’ll have the boys here roll over whatever’s left and scoop up the spear on the way back. We’ll call it a training exercise.”

He flicked the cigarette butt over towards Calvin. “That’s what we’ll do. I like that. Seems more fair.”

Calvin glared at him. “What if I pull a gun on you, right now, and kill you here?”

The American laughed. “I asked myself the same thing. See, the difference between if you try to kill me and if I try to kill you is that I’m definitely killing you. You pull a gun on me here and the 7th Infantry turns you and your friends into dust. Or, alternatively, you march out there into the rocks and dirt and die out there, only a little later. Either way, your little journey is drawing to a close. All that’s left to decide now is how you want it to end.”

Calvin stood there for a moment longer, and then turned back to the jeep. He climbed in the driver’s seat and fired up the engine, and slowly they began driving towards the line of tanks and guns. As they did, the vehicles all pulled out of the way revealing the road into the badlands, and allowed them to pass by.

As they pulled alongside The American, the man put a hand on Calvin’s door. He leaned in and smiled at Olivia and Adam, and tossed a half-full canteen into the back seat.

“Ya’ll have a safe trip, now.” He slapped the door. “We’ll be seeing each other again here real soon.”

Calvin put his foot into the gas, and the jeep sped off down the long road into the hills.

— - —

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Once the long line of The American’s division had disappeared into the distance, the three of them began to breathe easier. Calvin wiped his brow with the back of his hand.

“Smooth move, kid,” he said to Adam. “Improvising was a good choice.”

Adam, though, was not happy. “Yeah, I guess.” He paused. “Why didn’t you just give him the spear, Cal?”

Calvin looked back at him through the rearview. “It’s important that we hold onto it. Giving it up isn’t an option.”

Adam’s brow furrowed, but his next question didn’t come out of his mouth, but from Olivia’s. “Where did you find it?” she asked.

Calvin was quiet for a moment. “When I was younger my mother and I escaped from my father - he was a drinker and like to hit us when he wasn’t drinking. When we got out we went to the countryside where my aunt lived. We used to take walks through the fields and the woods, just her and I, and those were some of the happiest times in my entire life.”

“Then one day,” he continued, “we were walking by a lake and she said she recognized somebody out in it. When I turned to look I saw bodies, maybe hundreds of them, and she walked towards the lake and then into it and disappeared. I went in after her and I could hear the bodies talking to me, and I saw my mother and she just smiled at me and sank into the waters and I never saw her again. I fought through those corpses for hours and nobody would believe me when I told them she’d been taken into the lake.”

He sighed. “I went back there, recently. I hadn’t been back since my aunt shipped me off to boarding school, but I went back. The bodies are gone, and the paths to get there are overgrown, but the lake is still there. While I was there - getting my bearings, I guess - I was approached by someone. I don’t-” he hesitated, “I could barely remember what they looked like even immediately after they left. I don’t know how to describe them, other than they sounded… tired? Empty? Like the voice of a person superimposed over a ghost.”

“What did they want?” Adam asked.

“They told me two things. They told me my name, and they told me that I was an agent of the Insurgency. I assumed they were Foundation or GOC or something so I shot at them.” He laughed. “Seems stupid now, but I had no idea who they were - still don’t, and they came up all spooky-like and, well. Either way, the bullets passed straight through them, like they weren’t even there. They told me to relax, and that they weren’t there to harm me, but that they had something they needed to give me.”

“I followed them through the woods until we reached a spot below a cliff. There were these brambles in between us and the cliff face, but as we walked through them they just sort of melted away. Once they were gone I saw it - a metal door in the rock, with the Foundation arrows on it. This person, whoever it was, opened the door and led me inside. There were some old filing cabinets full of papers and a ton of dust; I bet nobody had been in there in decades. This person points towards a door on the far end of this little narrow room and tells me that there’s a tool past that door I can use to destroy the Foundation. They told me that, if I chose to go in there and take it, I’d have to make a horrible choice - and that if I could do that, I could have it.”

Olivia frowned. “What was the choice?”

Calvin took a deep breath. “When I walked through the door, I was suddenly out by the lake, only I was just a kid again and I was walking with my mother. She- I don’t think it was a dream. I reached out and grabbed her hand and it was real. Then-” he paused, “-then we passed by the lake again, and I saw her walking down towards the water, and there were so many bodies. I started running after her, and it was different this time, because I knew what she was doing before she did it, and I was just an arms length away. I could have grabbed her, or tackled her, and kept her from going in. When I was younger I had just frozen up until it was too late, but this time I could do something. I could save her.”

He tapped his finger against the steering wheel. “But as I came up behind her something stopped me. When I looked back towards the treeline, I saw this person who had led me to the door, standing there on the edge of the forest. They- they were just standing there, and I realized then, I think, that they had always been standing there. They were watching me and in their hands they had this metal cylinder.” He nodded towards Adam, who turned the cylinder over in his hands. “All of a sudden I knew that if I didn’t go to them now, I’d never get the chance again.”

He swallowed hard. “So I turned back and went to the person in the trees and took the canister from them. When I turned back towards the lake, she was already gone.” He wiped at something in his eye with the palm of his hand. “When I came to, I was standing by the lake again as an adult, but I had the canister. I had always had the canister, ever since that day when I was a kid at the lake.”

They all sat in silence for several long seconds, before Calvin continued. “This person, whoever they were, they came up beside me at the lake and told me my name and that I was an agent of the Insurgency. They asked if I remembered them and I told them I did. They handed me something else - the two vials of water. When I asked who they were they didn’t tell me, but something about the way they looked at me was just… perpetually sad. I took the vials, and then they told me they were sorry. I blinked, and they were gone.”

“Christ,” Adam said, sinking back in his seat. “I’m sorry. I just thought it was a really good spear.”

Calvin snorted. “It is a really good spear. You saw what it did to those guys on the stairs back in the city.” He shook his head. “No wonder Uncle Sam back there wants to get his hands on it.” He rubbed his chin. "Once I realized what it was capable of, I gave it to the Library for safekeeping. Best place to put something you never want to be found again."

Olivia was thinking. “Hang on,” she said, “if this person gave you the spear when you were a kid, and the vials more recently, then where did you get the journal?”

“Oh, no, I wasn’t kidding when I said that I stole it,” Calvin said, matter-of-factly. “I got a hint from one of our friendlier Coalition contacts that Skitter Marshall had taken to keeping it on his person while he was trying to decipher it. I also knew he was going to be in Berlin two days before the Von Marr Gala last spring, so I happened to find myself on the sidewalk as he was getting out of his car and just jacked him.”

“Jacked him?” Olivia exclaimed. “You mean, like, you punched him? Jesus, Cal, isn’t Skitter Marshall like, 90 years old?”

“Oh yeah, absolutely flattened the lad,” Calvin said, grinning. “Don’t feel too bad, though. I think he’s probably had a few pulls off the Fountain of Youth at some point in his past too, so he’s still in pretty good shape. Once he was down I snatched it from his coat pocket.”

“Didn’t he have bodyguards or something?” Olivia asked.

“Whoa, hold up,” Adam said, his eyes growing wide. “Is that what you were having me doing?”

Calvin burst out laughing. “Oh yeah, it was perfect. I had Adam fuck with their GPS - they were a street over and had no idea what was going on. The only person Marshall had nearby was his driver, and I punched that guy too.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “You had me break into Google Maps so you could punch an old man?”

“Absolutely,” Calvin said, nodding furiously. “Just clocked him, too.”

— - —

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A few hours later the clouds overhead cleared. Adam leaned out to look at the sky and smiled.

“Finally,” he said with relief. “Clear skies.”

Calvin looked back at him. “Enjoying the weather?”

Adam was quickly pulling his laptop out and slapping an antennae on the side of the jeep. “I had an idea earlier, but wanted to check something out first.” He stared at the screen as information danced across it, and his face lit up. “Hey, Delta said that The American is a cocky son-of-a-bitch, didn’t he?”

Calvin squinted at him. “Language, young man. But yeah, that’s definitely the point he was getting across, I think. Why?”

Adam’s hands danced across the keyboard. “Do you think he’d violate Chinese sovereignty?”

It was Calvin’s turn to look surprised. “He might. What do you have in mind?”

“Right right right, and you said that Delta said our best bet was to try and get him to do something stupid, right?”

Calvin rolled his eyes. “Get to the point.”

“Ok,” Adam said, nodding slowly. “Ok, ok. Yes. Ok. So, I also have a tragic story from my youth that is about to become useful.”

Calvin and Olivia snorted in unison. “Go for it,” Calvin said. “Lead the way.”

“We’re actually really close to the town I grew up in,” Adam said. “My parents immigrated down here when I was a baby, and we ended up in one of these little mountain villages.”

“Why do we need to go there?” Olivia asked.

“Just trust me,” Adam said. “I’m not saying it’s a perfect plan, but if you think The American is cocky and stupid enough to try and march his army up a mountain, it’s a plan.”

He pointed Calvin in the direction of a road leading east. The sun was getting low in the sky behind them, and before too long the sound of distant helicopter rotors cut across the mountains. Shortly afterward, the sound of treads and diesel accompanied it, and then something else. It was a low, moaning sound, something like an animal in pain. These sounds continued to pursue them, but didn’t arrive before they had pulled off the road and into a small, quiet, seemingly abandoned village. Calvin parked and the three of them climbed out of the jeep, walking carefully towards the center of town.

“Privet?” Adam called out. “Hello? Is anyone here?”

The first glint of the setting sun of a helicopter blade poked around the mountain, and they ducked into a house. It was empty.

Olivia looked around the room as Calvin posted up at the window. “What happened here? Everything is still in place - it looks like whoever lived here before didn’t take any of their stuff when they left.”

Adam grimaced slightly. “We didn’t.”

Suddenly they heard a loud clattering from across the small town square. Something moved past the window, causing Calvin and Olivia to both draw weapons. Adam held a hand up.

“You two are going to need to chill,” he said, “at least for a minute. Don’t shoot anything yet.”

They snuck out the back of the house and followed the ridge behind the houses to the far end of the road, just across from where they had heard the sound. They sprinted across the street to the house. The thin front door was standing open. Adam leaned inside and pulled a flashlight out from his bag. He pointed it inside and turned it on.

A figure was standing in the far corner of the room - a shorter, round man wearing a thick, dirty shawl and no other clothes. His skin was pale and, in some places, unusually red. He was swaying slowly, and Calvin noticed something strange about the way his body was shaped but couldn’t place it.

Adam took a step inside, holding a hand out in front of him. “Father Bramimond?” he asked in Russian. “Is that you?”

The man turned slightly and looked at Adam. The right side of his face bulged significantly, as if something was pushing up against the skin from beneath. When he saw Adam, the man smiled.

“Ah, little bird,” the man responded. His speech was thick and each word was accompanied by a spray of spittle. “Welcome home.”

Adam looked the man up and down. From their position outside Calvin and Olivia could see Adam’s face, and there was a sort of resigned sadness to it. He managed a weak smile.

“Father,” Adam said, “where is everyone? Have they all left?”

The man tottered slightly towards Adam. “No, no little bird. They are here. They are all around us. The sickness came for them, just as it came for me.” He ran a thick hand across his bulging, exposed belly. “It will come for us all, in time. My ascension has nearly arrived.”

From outside the house they heard the same animalistic roar as earlier, an eerie sound that stood their hair on end. Adam turned away from the sound back to the old man, who was now dragging a meaty leg across the floor towards him. He said something in Russian to Bramimond, who uttered a slurred response. Adam turned back to the others.

“Something you both need to know,” he said, pulling his gun from its holster. “When I was younger, people here started getting sick. Nobody could explain it and no cure seemed to help. As they got sicker, they would… change.”

“Like that guy back there?” Calvin said.

Adam cringed. “Father Bramimond was one of the last holdouts. People who got sick were sent into the mountains around here so they wouldn’t inflict anyone else, but others always got sick anyway. The Foundation showed up eventually and put those of us who were left to work cleaning out the mountains, but…” he trailed off, his eyes growing wide. Calvin and Olivia turned to look behind them.

Coming up the path to the mountain was a line of tanks, slowly crawling across the rock and gravel. Men in personnel carriers and on foot followed behind, a long, winding column that stretched as far down as they could see, and at the head of the line was The American standing up in his humvee, smiling and holding out a long, black whip. He brought it up over his head and with a deafening crack, pulled it down across the body of the creature in front of him.

It was massive, vaguely reptilian, with too many eyes and mottled green skin. It had long, thick strands of oily hair that dragged across the ground with every plodding step. Its mouth was long like a crocodile but its teeth looked like those of a snake. Every time The American brought the whip down across the creature’s back, it moaned in a horrid, foul agony. As they drew near to the town, the Overseer pulled a megaphone out from inside his vehicle and clicked it on.

“You’re a tricky sumbitch, Calvin!” he shouted, his amplified voice echoing off the mountains surrounding them. “I thought you’d be smart and stick to the road where you could just keep going till you ran out of gas, but here you are trapped in the mountains. Nowhere to go now, boy.”

He cracked the whip again and the monster howled. “This here is my problem, folks. I can’t seem to do anything with this big guy. Now, I’m not saying you can, but the way I see it I’m walking into this little gathering with two problems and leaving with one. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what that’s gonna be.”

He hopped down from the humvee and slapped the creature on the side, causing it to growl menacingly. He gestured towards the group with the whip, and said something to the beast. Then, with an almost obscene viciousness, he brought the whip down on the creature several times in quick succession. It howled in rage and charged across the small dirt road towards where Adam, Calvin, and Olivia stood. They turned to run, but something waddling out into the street caught their eye and made them hesitate.

Father Bramimond was standing between the charging reptilian monstrosity and them, unmoving. The creature continued to charge but then hesitated and came to a stop just before reaching the old man. It leaned down to look at him, its eyes tightening. From deep within its gut they heard words - a voice, deep and gnarled like the roots of an old tree. Not truly of this world but unfortunately placed within it.

“What… what is this?” The creature took another step forward. “This… filth.”

Father Bramimond stumbled slightly, then gathered himself up. From where they were standing they could see something moving, just under his skin. It had begun to seep in some places and blood was now flowing out of his ears. He extended his arms wide and smiled.

“I have ascended,” he said, his voice sloppy with orgasmic stupor.

“Hey!” The American shouted from his humvee. “What in the fuck is the goddamn hold up, you dirty ass-”

Before he could finish his sentence, Father Bramimond’s skin split from the top of his head down to his groin. His eyes bulged and burst. His smiling face pulled apart and fell off to each side, and his torso expanded rapidly. The reptilian creature recoiled, its eyes wide with confusion. The thing that had been Father Bramimond collapsed to the ground and writhed there, like an insect breaking free from its cocoon. After a moment it stopped moving, and the town was silent.

Then came another sound, more horrible even than the moans of the reptilian creature. It came from the pile of flesh and meat on the ground, and then echoed off into the mountains. It was half a dying animal, half a regurgitated human cry of terror. The sound that come out of the pile was suddenly joined by many other similar sounds coming from the rocks and high places around them.

The pile of meat began to writhe again, and up from it came an abomination. It was slick with blood and fluid, all pink and red and yellow. Its face, if it could be called that, was long and bore no notable features. It had many appendages, and more that came unfolded from its back and hung akimbo by its sides. Father Bramimond’s loose skin lay discarded on the ground, but his hateful flesh screamed its birthing cry.

The ground beneath them began to shake. There was the distinct sound of cracking rock as a nearby cliff face appeared to buckle, then collapse. The tumbling stone kicked up a cloud of dust, but when the dust settled there was nothing behind it but blackness. Out of that blackness came more cries, and then more from above. Another skin-creature appeared on a ledge nearby, then another. Then hundreds. Then thousands, each of them screaming and writhing and dancing a hellish dance in the light of the setting sun.

Then came the sound of a gunshot, and one of the flesh creatures stumbled and fell down the mountainside. The entire assembly stopped and watched as it crashed against the stone and came to a rest between two small shacks set against the cliff. It lay there unmoving, before writhing again and standing back up. It howled a ghastly howl, and then began to approach the soldiers, more quickly than seemingly possible. More gunshots, and then the howls reached a fever pitch and the mass of flesh and gore crashed down the mountainside towards the 7th Infantry.

At the head of the line was the lizard, who now turned back with malice in its eyes at the writhing form of what had been Father Bramimond. It struck out with its long teeth, but the creature moved too quickly and slid around the lizard. Its long, meaty appendaged stuck to the side of the massive reptile, who roared and clawed at its back as the flesh beast began to envelop it. The ground beneath them shook again, and suddenly the ground was falling away. Below the cracks they could see hair, and flesh, and eyes, all staring skyward and full of blood and hate. Thick tendrils of flesh rose up from the ground as the acrid smell of gunpowder and smoke filled the air, all while more and more of the skinwalkers flew down the mountainside and out of the caves.

Calvin had grabbed Adam and Olivia, and the three of them were now sprinting towards another humvee, left abandoned by its previous occupants who were now being pulled into the earth screaming by a mass of hands and teeth. As the got near, one of the flesh things came running at them. Calvin threw a heavy kick at the creature, but his foot stuck in the putrid mass of flesh and began to sink into the thing’s skin. On its face, something like a sucker opened up and began to descend towards Calvin before being removed from the rest of its body in a hail of bullets from Olivia’s rifle. Her and Adam grabbed Calvin by the arms and pulled him up into the humvee.

Behind them the soldiers were in full retreat. The mountains had broken open and now massive, horrible flesh nightmares were crawling out towards the column of infantry, crushing vehicles and man alike. A helicopter overhead was destroyed when a truck had been launched into the sky, and it came crashing to the earth, setting the path down the mountain ablaze. The skin creatures blistered and bubbled and screamed at the flames, but it did not stop the flood of them coming from out of the ground.

Calvin threw the humvee into motion and they swiftly avoided a flaming personnel carrier that crashed into a nearby building. They drove past a church and then another row of houses, and came out on the other side of the main square. In the distance they could see the fires and the flesh and the panicked soldiers packed together in a horrible crush of man and meat. Near them, however, in the middle of the town square, was another scene entirely.

The flesh beast that had once been Father Bramimond had grown dramatically in size, and was now grappling with the lizard as the two tore at each other. Standing on the lizard’s back, one hand wrapped around a thick chain connected to a spike driven into the lizard’s spine and another wrapped around the black whip was The American. His hat had been knocked off and his shirt was ripped and soaked with blood, but the ferocity in his eyes was like that of a hound, wracked with bloodlust and fury. He cracked the whip against the reptile’s back, spurring it onward while he cackled like a madman.

“Get fucked, you ugly-ass meat goblin!” he shouted, yanking the chain left and right. He pulled the whip back behind his head and lashed it forward towards the flesh creature that had been Father Bramimond, which recoiled from the strike. The reptile sunk its teeth into the creature’s fleshy exterior as they all howled and screamed. Below the reptile, smaller flesh horrors were beginning to assemble like a sea of gore, swaying rhythmically in a hypnotic frenzy.

As the lizard brought the meat beast to the ground, they could see The American again, standing on the lizard’s back and staring at them. His eyes were red with lust and hate.

“You!” he roared, pointing the whip at the group. “You little whores don’t get to go anywhere until I’m done fuck-”

He was interrupted as Olivia shouldered her rifle and took a shot at him. The Overseer brought his whip up furiously and caught the bullet in midair, shattering it with a resounding pop. She fired again and he caught it again. She fired a third time out of rhythm, and the tip of the whip missed the bullet. The American stumbled and caught himself on the chain, his whip-hand held up to his chest. When it pulled it away, it was covered in blood.

The American looked back up at them. His face was covered in shock and disbelief, and he dropped the whip and started to idly rub the spot on his heart where blood was now cascading from. Calvin thought he could see the Overseer start to say something, but before any words left his lips he let go of the chain and toppled off the reptile’s back, into the throng of howling meat creatures. They descended on him like ghouls, ripping and tearing pieces of his body away and incorporating them into their own. Then the mass descended upon the reptile, who finally succumbed to the weight of the massive flesh creature and all of the many thousands of small creatures and was pulled, piece by piece, into the earth.

They sat on the ridge overlooking the small village until the last scrap of meat had been pulled from the lizard’s bones and the tide of flesh began to recede again into the mountains. Once the last of the meat monsters had disappeared, the reptile’s skeleton collapsed into dust, out of which crawled the tiniest of lizards. It emerged from the pile, shook itself off, shot a dirty look at Olivia, Calvin and Adam, and scurried off into the hills.

“Hell of a shot,” Adam said, breaking the silence.

“Yeah,” Calvin said, to nobody in particular. He was still staring at the spot where The American’s body had fallen. All that remained was a red smear and a crushed leather cowboy hat.

“Adam,” Olivia said hesitantly, “were those things…?”

“They were,” he said. “Friends, family. People I knew. Once everyone started getting sick, there wasn’t much stopping it. It’s not a disease, not really. The air would get hazy sometimes, like it was full of pollen. Spores, maybe. You’d breathe them and then start getting sick and then you’d go into the hills. My sisters went that way, and my dad. Eventually the Foundation showed up, stuck us in orange jumpsuits and put flamethrowers in our hands, and sent us out to burn back the infestation.”

He sighed. “Our lives were hard enough. When we left Russia we were being pursued and anyone we didn’t know could’ve been some hidden assassin. Finding this place and somewhere to hide was a godsend, and then this happened.” He paused. “I think, for me, if someone tells me that there’s a way to stop this sort of thing from happening, well… yeah. I think I’d be down for that.”

Calvin nodded. “It’s what Anthony would’ve wanted.”

They agreed. Calvin turned the wheel on the humvee, and together the three of them crawled into the mountains and away from the ruination of the 7th Infantry.

— - —

As they came around the corner of a narrow road through the mountains, they could see a city in the valley below them. Running through that city was a road, one they knew would take them further into China and towards civilization. Calvin was scanning the road, carefully watching even the slightest shadow out of place in the starlit night. Olivia was cleaning her rifle with the end of a thin paintbrush. Adam was looking out the window pensively.

“So that’s seven down, right?” the young man said. “The dead guy in the tower, the math guy, the multiple personality person who kidnapped Liv, that crazy snake woman, the one who killed herself, the other one who killed himself, sort of, then Green and Mr. USA back there.” He counted on his fingers. “Hang on, that’s eight.”

Calvin snorted. “Aren’t you supposed to be the math one?”

Adam glared at him. “Reliving traumatic moments from my youth have thrown me off my game today. Anyway,” he continued, “so who does that bring up next?”

“They call him ‘Blackbird’,” Olivia responded, not taking her eyes off her work. “He’s a strange one - the journal doesn’t say anything about where to find him, just that ‘he has a way of just showing up’. I don’t know what that means.”

Suddenly Calvin stomped on the brake, sending Olivia and Adam into the dashboard and onto the floor, respectively. They scrambled up, each pulling a weapon as Calvin did the same and stepped out of the truck.

Standing in the road in front of them was a small, strange looking man. His eyes were slightly too big for his head and he had a hooked nose with neatly parted hair. He was wearing a three-piece suit with a bow-tie. In his jacket pocket was a silver pocket square with a black crown embroidered onto it.

As Calvin cautiously stepped towards him, the man smiled warmly and extended his arms.

“Good evening!” he said. “I hear you are going to soon be looking for me, yes?”




- BACK -


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