Chapter 5: Seven Times Over

I yawned, and coughed a bit. My mouth was dry. I pulled myself out of the bed, and padded into the kitchenette. The full moon hung on the horizon, glowing like a distant eye. I gave it a knowing wink as I poured out a glass of water.

“Why were you fraternizing with my men?”

I didn’t respond, though I was sure my tail had doubled in size, frizzing out in alarm. I turned to face the Sergeant Major, and raised an eyebrow. “Fraternized? Watch your mouth. If I had fraternized with anyone here, everyone would know it.”

“You are, for the time being, the civilian head of this team.” He pronounced the word ‘Civilian’ in a way that was very familiar. I leaned against the counter, my arms crossed, my eyes on him, very hard. “The rules exist for a reason. You are a woman, a god, a civilian, and in a position of power. Every one of these men volunteered for this task knowing it might get them killed. They put their lives on the line. The least you could do is honor that sacrifice by not fraternizing. When you befriend one of them, it instills doubt in the rest, making them wonder whether the suicide mission is chosen impartially, or whether it was because you were friends with the man who survived.”

“Ah, yes.” I leaned back. “You have mistaken me for a general. I may be a goddess of war, but that does not mean that I exist to lead men into battle. Do you know what War is?”

The sergeant major’s face hardened a bit, and his eye twitched. “Better than most men, I suspect.”

“Not a high bar to pass. War is not about winning. It is about survival. The soldier’s job is not to die for his country, or even make the other poor bastard die for his. It is to survive. Sometimes, it is impossible to survive without killing an enemy. On some rare and tragic occasions, a man may decide that his life is worth saving his allies. But the whole reason I exist is so that men don’t have to die in hopeless suicide actions.”

“Compassionate,” he said, frowning. “But you’re just letting someone else make the hard decisions, in that case.”

I thought for a moment of Phoebe. A house lar who’d saved me from Randall. A murderous, psychotic spirit, she’d clung on to life to save Horace, and coincidentally done the same for me. She’d died for me. I didn’t care about supernatural things the way I did about humans, but it still ached. I shook my head. The past was getting to me in this place. All these memories, all these creatures I had known. Horace had once described dreams of waking up in high school, of being back in the time when he’d been awkward, gangly, alone- more alone, anyway- and it had sounded like the same kind of feeling.

The urge to snap at the Master Sergeant was intense. Some harsh comment to put the mortal in his place. Some thoughtless, cutting words. I thought of Horace, and looked at the man. “I know. I do not want to make those hard decisions. I do not want to be responsible for someone’s death. I have been, countless times, and it never made things any better. I will strive to ensure that your men are safe. In turn, I hope that you will ask me for help when you need it.”

The driver was waiting for us at the foot of the steps when we emerged, at dawn. The Vemana gave us a sharp salute. Soon, we were driving down the highway, the distant ringing of church bells filling the air.

The other roads in the city were pristine, well maintained and preserved. Here, it was like war-torn Berlin. Huge gouges had been taken out of the road, the tar ripped up and in some places studded with sharp spikes and caltrops. I frowned out at it. “Odd.”

“Really?” asked the sergeant major, frowning out the window. “Seems sensible enough. They’re expecting trouble, just like everyone else. They’re putting up defenses.”

“Yeah,” I said, frowning out the window at the alleyways as we passed. Trash was piled high, and suspiciously geometrically, creating blockades that would make the extended shanty town a nightmare to travel through. I saw one place where a wall appeared to be held up only by a rickety piece of wood. A single careless movement, or a single deliberate one, and it would collapse half a ton of scrap metal sideways onto anyone in the alley. “That’s what’s odd. They’re putting up defenses. The Aztecs expect someone else to march into them. They’ve hamstrung their own ability to leave and strike others, with all of these traps. Especially considering their modus operandi, doesn’t that seem… strange?”

“Huh.” He shifted his glance to me. “Maybe you were a little rough on yourself saying you weren’t a general-”

The car came to a screeching halt, inches short of a man who had landed on the pavement in front of us. I stepped out of the car, my back straight. And then the stink hit me. It was rotten meat. Rotten human meat.

The skin that hung around him was warped, stretched. It had belonged to a man, once, and it fit poorly, its shape distorted in strange and distracting ways. Empty holes for the eyes drooped shut. Trails of ancient, browned blood ran down from the forehead to the chin. He wore only a pair of sandals and a loincloth, covering the body. Strange bulges were visible beneath the skin as muscles and other body parts moved, making me feel just a little sick. The strangest part, however, were the hands. They hung loose, dangling from the wrists. And the god’s own hands were visible.

They were as though someone had forged a human out of pure gold. Perfectly shaped, no marks visible, no blemish, the nails shaped like a beautician had taken up goldsmithing. And they were slender, delicate. A woman’s hands. I frowned down at them, and then looked up at Xipe Totec. “Are we going to have a problem?”

“I sincerely hope not, Bastet.”

“Whose skin is that?”

“An extremely brave young man who died wearing it, approximately five hundred years ago. It is, I am afraid, the last one I have left. I’d been keeping it in storage, but it would have been a terrible shame to meet you nude. I decided to splurge.” The voice was androgynous, more like the plucking of a harp than a human voice, rich and full of resonant tones. Then Xipe Totec chuckled, and it was like the sound of a choir of angels tuning up for Ode to Joy. “And it is not as if there will be any shortage of sacrifices, soon.”

I tilted my head to the side, and my neck crackled. “Oh, Xipe Totec. And we were doing so well. Is this how it has to end? I rip you limb from limb and go after the rest of your pantheon?”

“Come now, Bastet. We both know you won’t do that. It’s humans business what they do with our encouragement. Besides, we spill blood for the sake of all. Are you any different?”

I slowly, deliberately studied the rotting skin. “I feel comfortable in saying that I am.”

“Bastet.” Xipe Totec’s voice was almost pleading. “We do not want you as an enemy. We respect you. We would love you as an ally, and show understanding to you as a neutral party. Watch.” The god raised a hand slowly into the air. A droplet of blood wound its way down the wrist, across the ghastly, hanging skin of the hand. It slowly beaded, then dropped, splattering against the ground. There was a moment of silence, and then the ground turned dark. A stalk grew rapidly, sprouting out of the ground, ears beading off every few inches. The ears split open, husks of silk visible, and pearly yellow corn grew in moments.

“I prefer Jesus’ trick, but I admit I’m partial to fish.”

“We kill, Bastet. You know this. I know this. I wouldn’t deny it, for it is true. But you know why we kill. Blood is power, one of the richest sources of power available. Every civilization must make war, but we made our war count. Took prisoners, and rather than butchering them savagely on the battlefield, leaving them to be eaten by the crows, we made them our strength. Every heart that was pierced kept the sun burning in the sky. Every skin ripped away kept the vegetation growing. Every drop of blood became power to preserve this world, the Age of the Earthquake Sun.”

I looked slowly up at the sun, letting it hover in the corner of my vision. Then I deliberately looked over my shoulder at the rest of the island, florid greenery festooning it. “I cannot help but notice that despite being starved of sacrifice for nearly half a millenia, the sun continues to shine, and grass continues to grow. Gods have never been as important to the world as they like to think.”

“Hah!” Xipe Totec smiled. “Yes. The sun fights on. But not much longer.” He crossed his arms. “Huitzilopochtli has fought hard for an entire Age. But challengers arise. It is prophesied that a great shaking of the earth will end this age. And when this age ends, the sun shall step down, or be forced down. The ancient protector of the Mexicas people will have to cede his place to a new sun. Perhaps it will be a Golden Sun.” He chuckled. “But more likely? A Black Sun, or a Smoking Sun. Dark omens. Dark gods, who will not be a protector of mankind and the mother earth the way that Huitzilopochtli was. Or who knows? Perhaps a Cat Sun.”

“I doubt it. I’ve never needed someone to die for me to be able to protect the world.”

“Oh, Bastet.” Xipe Totec’s voice was genuinely sad, and despite the gruesome skin mask, I could feel a very tender delicacy in his words as he spoke. “Haven’t you? We are gods, but we are not all-powerful. No god is, despite what the Christians claim. Sooner or later, someone must die for us. We simply wanted it to be our enemies, not our worshipers, who gave us what we needed to protect everyone. Is that so wrong a thing to want? Would you not tear the heart out of your foe to save those you love?”

I took a slow, deep breath. “I didn’t do it to humans. I did it to the gods who lost their way.”

“Yes. Yes, indeed.” Xipe Totec shook his head. “Is that any better? It could have been me and my kin who wound up on your claws. Had we been starved, left to wander and go mad, perhaps you would have killed us, as you killed-”

“Xipe.” I looked to the side, to the Sergeant Major and the driver. “Not the time. Sergeant, you and the driver head back. I think it’d be better if I did this alone.”

The sergeant gave me a very hard look. “I don’t know if that’s a sensible decision, ma’am.”

“Sergeant,” said Xipe Totec soothingly. “I can give you my word, no one in this camp will raise their hands against Bastet tonight without inciting the rage of I, Huitzilopochtli, and Tezcatlipoca. She will be as safe here as she would be anywhere on the island, and with any company.”

“It wasn’t exactly her safety I was worried about,” said the Sergeant Major, but he relented, stepping back towards the car. I walked forward with Xipe Totec, into the Aztec camp, and tried to ignore the smell.

Past the edge of the camp, things were no less hostile. The two of us walked side by side on the broken, torn street, and I noticed half a dozen deadfalls, buried objects, and other signs of sudden, violent death waiting for an unwary intruder. Men and women alike drilled in circles, carrying wooden paddles edged with shards of obsidian glass. Fragile stuff that could, nonetheless, easily rip a man in half. Where steel had to be worked and beaten and heated to incredible temperatures to be useful for much of anything, obsidian was a simple fracture away from becoming a knife or arrowhead that could cut through flesh like warm butter. More individuals sat in the open, grinding rocks across obsidian shards, knapping it, making it useful for a fight.

“I cannot help but notice that everyone in this City is prepared for war.”

“Isn’t that appropriate? After all, it was War who broke the fifth city. it was War that brought all of this upon us.” Xipe Totec’s shoulders slumped. “I am not a god of war. I am a god of renewal, rebirth. The life that can only blossom from death. I am afraid that I am no good with such things. What I can do is to try to persuade others. I have spoken with the Loa, particularly Ogoun. After all, both of our people know the sting of Christianity’s lash.”

I opened my mouth to respond to the god, only to stop, and stare at a painted figure who emerged from one of the shanties.

Huitzilopochtli. War god of the Aztecs, patron deity of Mexica. Proud Huitzilopochtli, who wore the hummingbird helmet and its many green crests. Terrible Huitzilopochtli, who carried Xiuhcoatl in one hand, the flaming serpent’s scales standing out like the obsidian shards of a sword, its mouth opened to hold a spear and propel it farther and faster. Great Huitzilopochtli, who fights his sister and four hundred brothers every night, chasing the moon and stars eternally so they never have time to devour the Earth and all who live upon it. Painted Huitzilopochtli, whose face was black and who wore a stripe across his nose of bright yellow war paint.

Currently Female Huitzilopochtli, who stood with loin cloth and bared breasts, looking completely unconcerned. Still north of six feet tall, muscular and fearsome. Just, quite a lot more breast and hip than I had expected. And I thought I was comfortable with my nudity.

“Huitzilopochtli?” I asked, an eyebrow raised. The goddess turned, and smiled brilliantly. She moved towards me in three great strides, and before I could respond, had grabbed me in a manly embrace. She made a brief but spirited attempt to collapse my rib cage, before setting me down on my feet. “You look- different.”

“Bastet! You look practically the same!” She looked up to my ear. “Fine scars aside, of course. They suit you! So, you’ve come to join the island right on the eve of war? You know just when to join a party!” She winked. “You going to be fighting for or against us? Do say against, I’ve wanted a chance to take you on for centuries!” She slugged me in the shoulder, hard enough to hurt, which meant that the force of the blow nearly knocked me off my feet, and several of the ricketier traps nearby sprung spontaneously from the force of the blow. I gave her a brittle smile, holding my numb shoulder with one hand, and wiggling my fingers till the feeling came back.

“I’m afraid I’m not here to join the fun. I’m trying to work out what’s happened, and avoid total calamity.”

“Mmm, tough luck there; You would’ve had to arrive months ago to have a chance at stopping all this madness.” Huitzilopochtli sighed, and shook her head, frowning. “I’m sorry about this, Betty. But, well, what’s been done, it demands an answer. I could tell you, if you like.”

“No. I’m not taking the answer quite yet. It’d be dangerous, among other things.” I frowned. “But… Well. I’m surprised to see you a woman. You always struck me as quite masculine.”

“Mmmm. Orders from our current liege,” Huitzilopochtli said, a disgusted look on her face. “Titlacauan. We are his slaves, indeed. Well, her slaves, now.” She shook her head slowly. “It has not been a good time. But that’s all going to change, soon. I have long regretted not joining you in your fight against the dark things, Betty. I am sorry, I would have joined you if I thought I could. But I do not have your fortitude. Without the blood of worthy, brave warriors, sacrificed in my name, I do not have your endurance for the world of men.” She sighed. “Perhaps if I did, I would not have to worry about all of this.”

“Huitzilopochtli…” I paused, looking aside at Xipe Totec. He nodded. “I’m hearing that you may no longer be the sun, soon.”

“Ah, yes.” Huitzilopochtli flashed me another wide grin. “Coyolxauhqui loses his patience. Itzpapalotl supports him. They and the Tzitzimitl wish to see me destroyed. Perhaps I will die at their hands. Perhaps, I shall simply be forced to yield. Either way, my days are numbered.” She waved a hand at the warriors. “That is part of this. The Mexicas gods need me strong, right now. I cannot afford to be starved of faith and power. I need the hearts of great, courageous warriors, as I always do.” She looked askance at me. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to part with one of your men’s-”

“No,” I said, cold as ice. Huitzilopochtli nodded understandingly.

“Just thought I’d ask. Well, either way, I will not go down quietly, or alone. I would not dishonor humanity by doing otherwise.”

Huitzilopochtli was hard to figure. It wasn’t as though he- she- was any less bloodthirsty than the rest of the Aztec gods. She was a goddess of war, and she waged an eternal battle against creatures which would eagerly devour the world like locusts. She had been born fully formed from her mother, the earth goddess Coatlicue. From the moment of her birth, she had been engaged in a never-ending battle against her siblings, protecting the world. She needed belief the way that any other god did. I wondered, not for the first time, whether that belief could have been expressed in some way other than blood.

The Aztec gods were a difficult thing for me to think about. Different gods needed different kinds of belief. Not simply as a matter of taste, although that played a part. I was simply better fed, stronger, more capable, with the belief of a handful who were nonetheless special to me. Some gods demanded fear, others respect. Flesh, bones, or blood of animals. The Aztec gods needed blood and flesh and skins and hearts of humans in the way I needed the attention of someone like Horace. To deprive them did not sit entirely well with me.

But I had made my choice between the divine and the mortal long ago, and if I had ever regretted it, I had never regretted it enough to want to stop. “If you ever need help, Huitzilopochtli, in place of sacrifices…”

There was a very cold silence. Huitzilopochtli met my eyes. “I am a proud god, Bastet. I do not take offense this time. But I fight my battles on my own. I am a champion, not a soldier. The battles I fight, no other could survive.” Then she smiled. “But I do not take offense, because I know it is in your nature to care for others.” She pointed down the road. “There. The bitch is waiting for you, to demand fealty of you. Personally speaking, I’d say refuse any offer she makes.” She turned, and walked towards a rack of javelins tipped with wicked obsidian heads.

“Huitzilopochtli. Why did Tezcatlipoca order you to make yourself into a woman?”

“Not just I,” said Huitzilopochtli, lifting one of the javelins, hefting it easily in one strong arm. “Xipe Totec, too. And others. All of the gods of Mexica have been ordered to change.”

I paused, and turned to Xipe Totec. The lumps under the chest… “Why, though?”

“That, Bastet,” said Huitzilopochtli, grinning broadly, “would give it all away. But I am surprised that you, of all goddesses, do not see why.”

And with that, she walked off, while I thought. Xipe Totec nodded her head, and the two of us continued.

As we grew closer to the nine-stepped scrap metal temple, the world shifted around me. I could feel it clearly. It still sent a shiver down my spine.

There are many worlds. Worlds where stillborn oceans lie dreaming of motherhood. Harsh white crystal worlds where the sun never stops shining, because there is nothing to stop it from shining clean through the earth beneath you. Worlds where words are repeated in a hush out of fear for what they might mean. But the most terrible world was the one just a thought away. The realm of gods, of legends, of myths, and monsters, of heavens, and hells. It had been so long since I had been a part of this. The buildings receded, pulling away behind the shadow of jungle, and the distant sound of birds, beasts, and things more difficult to describe.

And above it all stood the temple. The great nine stepped thing appeared to be made out of stone, now, lit brilliantly by countless torches. It towered above the surroundings, so high that it could be seen no matter where you stood. Space seemed to warp strangely around it, making it look curved, as though the summit of the manmade mountain was not where simple geometry would dictate, instead looming over like an angry schoolteacher, or a black-hooded executioner. The closer I got, the deeper the shadows became, until it was as though I stood in a clouded night, no star, sun, or moon visible in the sky. I took a deep breath as I stood at the base of the great stepped pyramid, steeled myself, and leapt.

My feet touched the first ledge, and I used the foothold to throw myself further up. Nine great bounds brought me to the top of the great sacrificial altar-temple. It was a wide plane, with an altar placed in one area. Some thoughtful soul had inscribed a series of pictures onto the altar, showing the proper location to cut out the heart. A great obsidian mirror sat upright before the altar. I turned towards it, and smiled, bowing my head. “Necoc Yaotl. Enemy of both sides.”

Tezcatlipoca emerged from the great black glass mirror. She, too, was now a goddess. Two bands of color ran across her face, one black across her lips, the other yellow and across her eyes. They created a curious and rather unsettling effect, as her pitch black eyes met mine. A jaguar pelt hung over her shoulders, its paws tied together around her throat, baring her chest. A loincloth was tied around her waist, a headdress filled with heron feathers hanging around her eyes. She stood unevenly, her right foot ending in a splintered and jagged bone surrounded by scarred flesh. She did not seem bothered by that, her expression showing no sign of emotion or pain. “Bastet. You who were once called the Devouring Lady. You think you have room to judge by epithets, here?”

“Of course. You are a jaguar, I am a lioness. I think I’m allowed to be catty.” I looked down at the goddess’ maimed leg. She had lost it baiting the first monster, in the process of creating the world. The Smoking Mirror had earned her blood. But she had always disturbed me.

I have been a mother. I have been a creator. When you bear children, when you create something new, there is a connection, a stewardship. The child must show respect, and they must do right by the one who made them. It is the just thing to do for one who brought you life, and who has made sacrifices to protect you.

But if your children called you Titlacauan, you had gone very far wrong.

“Why are you here, Bastet? Do you not have anything better to do? No humans to rut with?” Her voice was low, breathy, with a hint of rasp. I tried, with little success, to avoid using the term ‘smoky’. “Bloody deeds must be done. It is no place for a housecat. You cannot change what is about to happen. No one can.”

“No place for a cripple, either,” I said, my eyes dropping to the leg. Tezcatlipoca’s eyes narrowed, an expression of savage violence visible on her lips for a moment. Her good leg tensed, as though she were ready to leap.

“Allowing yourself to be provoked, Tezcatlipoca?” murmured a new voice.

The great feathered serpent descended slowly, spinning in circles, settling on the altar. Tezcatlipoca gave the white-feathered creature an irritated look. “Bastet. Meet the last remnant of Quetzalcoatl’s interference in my rulership.”

“You know that you wish he were here, to provide the advice you do not have available to you. The perspective you lack,” said the serpent, in a voice that managed to annoy me, grating at my teeth. I fondled the golden ring around my finger, spinning it slowly to keep from doing something unfortunate to a creature which looked like a combination of my instinctive rival, and lunch.

“If he wished to keep things on an even keel, he should certainly not have fled. It is no matter. Bastet, kneel and pay homage to me, or cast yourself among my enemies. I would prefer the former, but the latter has its own kind of appeal. Simplicity, if nothing else. What will it be?”

“Well, gosh, Enemy of Both Sides, I suppose I’ll have to say neither. Perhaps you should leave the sales pitches to the others. Why the gender-bend? Why all… this?”

Tezcatlipoca leaned very heavily on the altar, fingertips tapping the obsidian mirror gently. “The natural order has been upset. This is a consequence of actions taken. As are all things. You know of fate, Bastet. Of prophecy.”

“People claimed that. I personally think it’s bullshit.”

“I see fate. I know all that will happen. I know where we are. Tonight, Bastet, you die, on the knife of assassins. Tomorrow, the king makes his call for peace. Four days hence, Famine arises, a monster that will consume the world.” She sighed, looking wistfully at the quetzal. “Fire shall consume this world, as it did the third world. No matter how many times I try to shift it, the future is written. Others with less knowledge fight against it, and even think that they succeed, not realizing that they are tools of inevitability as well.”

I frowned, and thought of Marinette. “Maybe it won’t turn out like that. I’ve been told that the future isn’t predetermined.”

“God. What a terrifying thought.”

“More terrifying than being murdered violently by someone you’ve never met? More terrifying than the end of the world?”

“You do not know what I’ve seen. If the world ends, I can build it again. In knowing the worst, there is a certain freedom, Bastet. I know exactly how bad things can get, and it is not beyond salvaging. It will be terrible, and there may be dark days ahead. Perhaps they shall be dark because I shall try once more to be the sun.” She looked up, and met my eyes. “But the unknown? There are terrors in that beyond our imagination. There are worse things than the end, Bastet.”

I stared at Tezcatlipoca. “Like your power being taken away?”

The goddess shuddered. “Go,” she said, her voice hoarse, her teeth pressed together so hard they looked like they might break. “Do not stay here any longer, unruly creature. Do not return to me until you can show respect.”

“It is a poor king or queen,” said the feathered serpent, “who ignores advice simply because it is not candied with fawning and praise.” I frowned at it, even as Tezcatlipoca smoldered.

“I’m going to go,” I said, and gave her my best smug shit-eating grin. “But not because you tell me to.” I turned on my heel, and lightly sprang down the side of the pyramid, into the brush around its base. As I walked away from it, the brush faded away slowly. As I made my way down the street, I returned to the world of mortals.

“Bastet.”

The voice was like a marimba, rattling and clicking together. I turned, and saw it in the alleyway. A skeletal figure, white bones glittering, dressed in the manner of a lady of an Aztec court, well-fashioned, rouge adorning bare cheek bones. I sighed, and entered the alleyway with the creature. “Itzpapalotl. The Obsidian Butterfly. The Black Sun. Queen of the Tzitzimitls, though not their general. Am I missing anything?”

“No,” rattled Itzpapalotl. “That was very well done.”

“Wonderful. Can I help you?”

“Yes. I have sold myself to one of the Horsemen.”

My blood froze. I stared. “Why.”

“Because it is what must be done. I came to warn you of my service. I cannot give you more specifics because of the bindings. But I can number your enemies. Four. One you know deep as bone. One you trust to be noble. Myself, of course. And the twins.”

I frowned. “The twins?”

“Death’s children. Her beloved son, her dearest daughter. They arrived here, Bastet. Only a few short minutes ago. They are searching for you.”

I swallowed. “They’re not going to find me. It’s a big city.”

“They always find their prey. You have been marked, and they follow it like a hunter tracking spoor.”

I frowned. “Why are you warning me? What’s the point of a warning? If I’ll die tonight…”

“You are fated to die,” said the goddess, her skeletal arms crossing over her chest. “Perhaps I wish to see you take them with you. Perhaps I wish you to flee this island. Perhaps it is all a lie. But if they get hold of your toy soldiers, Bastet… They will break them, slowly, painfully, and horribly. They want you, badly. You have done one of them wrong.”

“Christ,” I muttered, my eyes narrowed. “Everyone holds a damn grudge. You’d never see me doing that.”

“Of course, Bastet. In order for you to hold grudges, your enemies must survive their encounters with you. You are good at burying the hatchet, particularly in a foe’s skull.” She looked towards the sun. I looked up, and cursed. It hung low on the horizon. Once again, hours had passed without my noticing. I hated this spiritual bullshit. It always seemed to be meant to make my life more difficult. “Good luck.”

I was back at the apartment in under five minutes, panting and sweating from the mad sprint. “Sergeant!” He looked up, surprised. “Call back your men. All of them. Right now. Jack and Jill are on the island, and-”

In the back corner, one of the men watched the close circuit security cameras. Three of them went dark at once, the feed cut off. The elevator showed a pair of individuals, an older Greek man, and a small Asian woman. She pointed up towards the camera, and the man raised a boxy-looking gun. There was a brief muzzle flash, and that feed died too.

I turned towards the door, as the elevator’s panel showed its slow ascent. The soldiers moved like a well-oiled machine. Two took up positions at the machine guns, lifting them into place, pointing their barrels towards the elevator door. Another two tapped their collars, and their outfits faded out, becoming barely visible against the background. The Sergeant Major turned towards me, and frowned. “These two are trouble for gods. Stay back. Run if things look bad. We’ll try to kill them, or at least distract them.” He looked over his shoulder at his men, and then back at me. “These men are prepared to lay down their lives to protect you. Don’t let that sacrifice be in vain.”

The elevator bell rang as the two heavy metal doors began to open.

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