“I trust you understand that was your fault.”

The call had gone out midday, broadcast directly from the Alpine Guard radio desk.

Anyone who helps the invaders will pay with their lives, the lives of their family. Himalaya will hear the screams of traitors for the rest of human time. Informers and patriots will be rewarded for loyalty.

The message was from Sergei, but Renoir Karzai detected shades of Lucretia in those words. The last line was a direct echo of the kind of language Fás Ard had used. It was strange knowing that she was directing his propaganda efforts, taking over what would have been Vikram’s primary role in the Guard’s apparatus. 

Karzai had spies positioned around all of the barracks, located specifically in the local watering holes. The Okhrannik Sergeya had the good sense not to gossip beyond their remit, but that wasn’t true of the Lammergeier regulars. Many of them rarely interacted directly with their leader, or they might be more cautious with their words. Fortunately for Karzai, he now had evidence of a planned rendition that would occur soon, though he was not able to discover the exact time or location. All anyone really knew was that the entire army, in every quarter of the city, was on standby. 

Such a calculated action had never taken place in earnest in the Cradle. The residents were used to random acts of violence, extortion, and general thuggery designed at keeping the populace compliant with the Guard’s interests. Even the attack on the Penitents was a separate category, a matter of political vengeance, and credited mostly to Vikram. Hideous, but understandable. They could rationalize it. 

“What are you up, my dear,” Karzai murmured to himself as he scoped out the central barracks building from a comfortable high altitude perch in one of the better constructed box towers. This one featured a small bar hidden away in the penthouse, rising into the air at just under a hundred feet. It commanded a view of the barracks roof and corner towers, and for that reason it was not an especially safe place from which to observe, but it looked on the barracks in which his son was still captive. He couldn’t help but feel drawn to it. 

If his indications were correct, Karzai could expect a large offensive. It might be the best chance he had to strike at Sergei directly without exposing his son to repercussions. He might slay the monster and his hand would be concealed behind the chaos. Or if he wasn’t able to kill him outright, a crippling injury would still not be attributed to him.

Nasser was his best fighter, one he’d inherited after Nasser’s elder brother Karim had met his end at Sergei’s hands. Karim wasn’t smart enough to save himself, but Nasser was clever, taciturn and sharp eyed. He’d taken his brother’s death hard, and had offered his services to Karzai the next day.

Nasser was a pretty youth to look at, but he was keenly intelligent, and had the air of business as he went to Karzai’s table and laid down a hand sketched map. He beckoned wordlessly to the bartender for a glass, a little winded from his climb up the stairs. 

“Here,” he said, once he’d sucked back half a glass of wine. Karzai looked at his finger, which had landed on the Choke, so called because of the way the habitable land narrowed between the strand and the extreme slope of the mountains.

“It makes sense,” Karzai observed, looking more closely at the map. “Cut land movement from north and south in half, and operate the pieces more manageably from the barracks.” 

“It’s too smart for Sergei,” Nas said with a sneer. “Does this mean Vikram is against us now?”

“I don’t think Vikram is with him,” Karzai affirmed, rolling up the map. “No one’s seen him, and my sources inside the Guard report nothing. Don’t take it for granted that Sergei is unintelligent. He’s lazy, but not stupid.” 

Nasser leaned in, dark eyes glittering. “How do we proceed? Tell me what to do and I’ll do it, Renoir.” 

“Placement is everything,” Karzai told him, beckoning him to the north facing window. “It’s a mix of box and slum over there. Plenty of places to hide, but you’ll need visibility.” 

“I’m going to use my hands,” Nas said, holding them out, balling them into fists. “I want to be sure.” 

“Don’t be an idiot. You know how to fire a gun.”

“So does he. If I miss and he spots me, I won’t get a second chance.”

Karzai put a hand on his shoulder. “Just don’t get caught. You know the cost.”

He left the young man to brood over his map, and headed down the narrow stairs. The cargo boxes had surprisingly good structural integrity, especially after Radhesh had provided his engineering expertise. In this case, the central staircase had been constructed through the expedient of prefabricated stairs, cut from the ceiling of each level, on alternate sides of each box. Then a crane had stacked them, building levels around them so that every “floor” could be accessed via the central stairs, various entries and windows cut or welded at need.

There was a time when Karzai and the others believed that an urban future might be possible, that courtyard farming and recycled materials would help them create sheltered, comfortable living spaces. Vikram had actively promoted the idea, and had been prepared to share Kori resources in order to realize it. But as with anything, corruption, scarcity and violence had provided too tempting an opportunity for exploitation, and as soon as one leader started down that path, everyone else was obliged to follow.

Of course, they’d all forgotten who’d given up first, and soon enough they had Sergei and the Lammergeiers to blame for everything. He’d been a convenient buffer in so many ways, but as Karzai descended to the street, looked around at the ghosts of his people shuffling towards their own oblivion, he knew it was time to end it. 

The call came just as the darkness settled over the colony. Karzai was in one of his centrally located safe-houses, preparing a cup of tea when the electric light, which had long ago been made universally available by the Kori family, suddenly sizzled out. He glanced out the window, and confirmed that the entire local grid that covered the Choke had been shut off. 

Abandoning his tea, he put on a dark hat and jacket, then made the trek on foot into the enfolding darkness. At first, there was a strange silence that seemed to gather at the edges of the slum community. He was too far to hear, but he imagined the fearful murmurings, the saddest and weakest of the Cradle’s citizens staggering to get their bearings as they left their dwellings.

Headlights flared into life from all directions. Engines roared as a row of black Pinzgauer ATVs charged into the settlement, their reinforced grills crushing the flimsy little homes, their huge heavy duty tires rolling over them. Screams of pain and fear rose from those dwellings that had not yet been evacuated. 

Soldiers poured out of each Pinz, more black-fatigued Lammergeiers than Karzai had ever seen in one place. Automatic gunfire ripped through the air, bright orange tracer rounds streaking through the darkness, finding human targets and felling them into silent heaps. The smell of gasoline filled his nose, and he shielded his eyes as, seemingly all at once, the crushed slums became an inferno. 

Shutting out the heat and the screams, he moved to the other side of the road, close enough to get a read on what was happening, but far enough that he might go overlooked. He didn’t much care if they came for him. He had a Mac 10 slung over his back and a pistol in his belt, and he was stil adept with them. 

He made his way north up the shoulder, his view of the chaos enhanced as fire bloomed in the centre of the slum pile. He searched the assembly for his quarry, and found him in no time. Silver blonde hair turned amber from the reflected light, Sergei was perfectly visible. Even from here, Karzai could see him, his shaytan eyes absorbing the fire, a pistol in each hand, now raised to the people struggling to escape the soldiers and the blaze. 

There was something unusually judicious about his choice of victim, Karzai thought, trying to figure out the reasoning, trying to see past the three feet of fire issuing from each muzzle as Sergei jerked the trigger, his marksmanship serving him well as he shot three people dead in a row. The boom of .50 calibre fire echoed up the steep mountain face, rising above the Kalashnikovs. 

None of his victims posed any kind of threat to him as far as Karzai could see, but as the other soldiers herded the terrorized people out into the open, he began to understand the pattern. They’d separated the children—poor underfed things, some of them already on death’s door— from their equally destitute parents. The purpose of the operation was now clear. They were halving the families, killing individual members and leaving others alive. 

The survivors were ordered on to their fronts, fingers laced behind their heads as the whole slum burned, the smell of melting plastic and charred wood stinging Karzai’s eyes.

Hear me now,” Sergei’s voice rose, snarling and ragged at the edges as he stalked the row of adult captives. “Stand with me against these invaders and you will earn my affection and forgiveness. Stand against me and you’ve seen what will happen.”

He made a round-up gesture, and members of his Okhrana stepped forward to take the children, selecting them seemingly at random, evoking screams and cries from their remaining parents as Karzai watched, pierced by their suffering.

Do it now, Nasser. 

He was there, among the captive adults, rising now as others rose, their instinct as parents driving them to intervene as their children were seized, even at peril to themselves. Only Nasser moved the other way, his hand going to the sheath at his back, and the knife was in his hand. He was only two steps from Sergei’s turned back, and as the monster surveyed his work, he presented his unarmoured flank. 

It was a perfect target for the knife. Nasser was too good to miss. Karzai’s heart hammered, rose in his throat, his eyes watching for the spray of blood.

The bullet caught Nasser in the thigh, blowing his knee apart in a spray of blood, flesh and bone. Sergei whipped around, his eyes wide as they went to the young man. Nasser still held the knife, reached, tried, but it was impossible. 

Lucretia, dressed in dark fatigues, the woad-blue triskellion of the Morrígan on her cheek, stepped out of the darkness. She applied the pistol to Nasser’s temple and jerked the trigger, causing a great foaming gush of blood and brain tissue to issue from his head. His whole body bucked, then collapsed across the ground.

Karzai felt his old heart sink, the pain twisting in him as he watched her step over Nasser’s body, allowing Sergei to embrace her. Nausea rose up inside of him as the monster brushed his friend’s blood from her cheek, and she kissed him with such passion it almost belied conviction. He had to believe it was an act, that she had just saved Sergei’s life because she had a further purpose for him. The alternative was too excrutiating to imagine. 

They preened each other with the intimacy of mated birds, breaking apart after a long farewell kiss. As the abandoned survivors began to search for the wounded and the fallen, she left the illuminated devestation for the shadow, but Sergei lingered by the Pinzgauer’s canvas, his eyes following her even after she had ceased to be visible. 

Karzai returned to his perch, too cowardly to go retrieve his friend’s body, too useless to protect anyone. When he switched on the lamp and saw Lucretia leaning back in his chair, her combat fatigues spattered with Nasser’s blood, her eyes full of contempt, he found he was too heartsick to be surprised. 

“I trust you understand that was your fault,” she said with a sneer, the small blue triskellion mark on her cheek still visible, though it was fading. It was a UV activated tattoo, a mark given to all of the Fás Ard members so they could not leave their membership. She’d told him that after the first time they’d gone bed together, then made it appear for him.

“I understand nothing,” he snapped, finding his rage. “Certainly not your motivations, my dear.”

She narrowed her eyes at him as she rose from the chair. “I warned you. If you ever want to see Reza again, you will keep out of my operation.”

Karzai bristled. “Are you threatening my son?”

“Don’t be a fool.” She sighed in exasperation. “What do you think happens to him if Sergei connects me with your interference?”

“Edward will rescue you,” Karzai muttered. “He’d run through all nine hells for you.”

“Whatever’s left of me. Who knows what condition I’ll be in. I’m only human, I can’t stand up to torture.” Her smile was fatalistic. “I’d tell Sergei everything.”

“Allah preserve you.” He closed his eyes against the horror of the thing. “Of course I don’t want this for you.”

She put her hand on his shoulder. “Let me run this my way. You don’t have to like my methods.”

He frowned at her. “Tell me your end game.”

“A dead tyrant.”

“Then why string it along?” 

“Tactical reasons.”

“Nonsense,” he growled. “What possible tactical reason—“

“Enough,” she said, then put a hand on his chest, and kissed him gently. “Renoir, you must trust me.”

Karzai carefully pushed her back, then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth to rid himself of the taste of her. He’d always accepted that he was not her only lover, but the idea of sharing her with Sergei filled him with disgust. 

She looked at him cooly, and he imagined she was mentally scratching a line through his name. Scratching him off her list of people she trusted, or perhaps, needed. He’d knew she’d been trained in seduction tactics, knew she took pride and pleasure in her work. He’d never judged her before, but now he couldn’t shake it. 

He searched her face for a sign of the loneliess he knew lived in her. Shame rose in him. She was doing a job, just as any agent of his would in the same situation. Only she had just killed his agent, and her hurt feelings were a complete fabrication. It was impossible to deny it. Whatever they’d had, if it had been anything at all, was broken now. She had bigger and better game. 

“I don’t trust you, Lucretia,” he said quietly. “But I won’t interfere again, for your sake. And for Reza’s.”

“I’ll see him freed when I can,” she promised. “But the situation is delicate. You have to let me work.”

He wanted to tell her not to enjoy it so much, but he couldn’t form the words. Still he followed her to the door, and watched as she walked away, that soldier’s swagger in her gait, his friend’s blood and brains still stinking on her, Karzai wondered if she had always been as she was now, and the fact had completely escaped him. 

He knew she was a killer, but he’d been distracted by her pretty dresses, her chic makeup and her unrepentant flirtatiousness. She reminded him of the women of his life before. He’d indulged in her, had loved her in his way, and now a sense of heartbreak filled him. He thought he’d forgotten how that felt, but here it was, a twisted knot in his chest, and for a woman who was impossibly unattainable in so many ways. 

She frightened him. She’d killed Nasser like she was slaughtering some beast for the table, no remorse and little interest. That was how Arnaud had died, too — as a sacrifice for her cover. Maybe she had always been a sadistic nihilist and he’d just never realized. And yet, he knew her. She could and did love, and of course she needed to make Sergei believe in her. 

He turned for home, wondering if Edward Blythe knew what he was doing, and resolved to drop him a line as soon as possible. Lucretia would be angry if she found out, but she could hardly accuse him of interfering in an operation by discussing it with one of its architects. 

And if Edward wasn’t aware, then it was even more vital for Karzai to warn him that his beloved protege had already strayed too far into the land of the demons, and it was time to go get her back.