Damage Control Chapter 3: Hel

USEF Report Dagon, section C (Culture), Paragraph 5-11, Rank HEL-6

Almost all of the ‘threat’ posed by the Atlanteans is, fundamentally, cultural. It is also largely unintentional. While the Atlantean capacity to develop gods is formidable compared to individual humans, their population is .001% that of humanity, and their rate of population increase is hovering at just shy of 0%. They cannot meaningfully invade us, and they sacrificed the element of surprise that could- conceivably- have let them conquer us. They are not a threat directly, and any genocidal actions on our part would not change that- The damage the Atlanteans can do has already been done.

Obviously, the reverse is not true. The Atlanteans are a very small, discreet, and largely insular minority. These have historically been poorly treated in America, and literally every other nation. While legislation has been passed to recognize them as a protected minority, the current administration has shown a certain disregard. The survival of the Atlantean culture is threatened in a number of ways, not least the possibility of a repeat of the Neanderthal extinction.

There is substantial evidence that humans and Neanderthals crossbred. This no doubt contributed to the gradual extinction of the Neanderthal. The possibility that someday the only sign remaining of the Atlanteans will be a certain cast of the eyes, a certain hair color, or a few dozen introns on the end of a DNA strand, is disconcertingly likely.

Back to the issue of culture. Atlantean culture is broadly monarchic. Because of its small population and strained resources, collectivism has been endemic. These traits are likely to fade, but because of the long lifespans and conservative attitudes of older Atlanteans, this fading is likely to take place over decades, or even centuries. Many younger Atlanteans have begun to emigrate, many of them to other countries. This is a pain in the ass for security purposes, as almost all Atlanteans have access to information that is destabilizing, but the most we can hope to do is mitigate cultural harm by encouraging their integration.

Large Atlantean populations- a thousand or more- have settled in the mouth of the Amazon River, the Thames, on the eastern shores of Puerto Rico, on the coast of New Orleans, and off the shore of Kyushu. Smaller populations- a hundred or more- have taken up shelter off Australia by Rottnest Island, the Vietnam coast near Hai Phong, in the Mozambique Channel by Madagascar, south of the Canary Islands, the Strait of Gibraltar, Copenhagen’s bays, in the Baltic Sea, the Caspian Sea, and a sizable population in Lake Erie, right by Buffalo.

The largest political push that the Atlanteans have been showing is for renewable energy sources and less water pollution. The Atlantean Queen, Ku-kaili-moku-polemo, has made a dramatic push for intervention in the Pacific Trash Gyre. There have notably been no Atlantean populations settled in India or China, possibly a commentary on the state of their ecological systems and water pollution; Unfortunately, this has also been a cause for increased tensions between the two nascent superpowers and the USA.

More domestically, Atlanteans have managed to tap into the ‘Crystal Spires and Togas’ new age movement. While not fitting the classical Greek image of Atlanteans, their spirituality has attracted adherents to a number of small schools of meditation. While these might be uncharitably referred to as cults, the Atlantean attitude towards divinity and free will has largely kept them on the ‘church’ side of the divide. While the media has questioned the wisdom of Atlantean teachings being spread in the wake of the near-catastrophe last September, the EFUS attitude has been that creating a home-grown population of human divingeneers is worth the relatively small risk; We can’t get this genie back in the bottle, but we can ask it for a few wishes.

Chief Researcher Cherry H. Verne

The helicopter was a misery. Loud, suspended above the ground, uncomfortably exposed. The jet, on the other hand, was a wonder. It moved through the air with only the most modest occasional turbulence, high above the clouds. I stared out of one of the windows, my breath caught in my throat as I watched the clouds drift far below, like sand dunes deep beneath the sea.

Even the fastest currents of Atlantis had been limited compared to this speed. Atlantis had been small, and centralized. The humans lived across the vast and desiccated skin of their world, and sometimes they had to get from place to place quickly. Without the advantages of being able to leap between worlds with the intercedence of their gods, they came to novel solutions. It was not as convenient, but it wound up pushing them to greater heights. We travelled at speeds where the air itself became a kind of fluid, thick and turbulent, full of currents and doldrums. It was glorious.

“Fucking son of a bitch,” growled Miller. “The news got out. The Exquisition and the Peers are sending a delegation to join us. Using the goddamn Concorde. They’ll be there before we will.” His eyes flickered over to Smith, narrowing.

“I know you like to think of us as having our lips fastened thoroughly to the royal teat, you metallic fuck, but I loathe those imperialist assholes. Not least because we both know they will demand the death of the Archmage. I didn’t leak word, and nobody I told would. On the other hand…” Her eyes drifted over to Pagan. The Major sat on the far side of the aisle in the small craft, silently listening to the conversation.

“The official policy of the Mexican Government is that any supernatural being found to be contravening the law in aid of organized crime, or taking the life of a human, is to be executed.”

The unspoken subtext in that statement was clear to everyone. The Mexican authorities would not want anyone to find out about any deals they cut. They would have good reason to keep the mission a secret. So, had someone betrayed one another? Or was the presence of an Archmage just that difficult to hide? How on earth had everything devolved so quickly?

Miller groaned. “It gets worse. Chatter suggests that the Tongxinheli and the Indian Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation have learned about this, too. They’re likely to get involved.”

“And they are hardly known for throwing away a useful resource,” said Smith, teeth gritted. “Fucking arrogant pricks. What are they thinking?”

“That the United States is unlikely to go to war over a man who, according to official statements, doesn’t actually exist. They’ll be out of their environment, though. They won’t have access to heavy equipment- I don’t care how secret the supernatural is, East Asian ordinance going off on U.S. soil is going to go over like a lead balloon. Their supernatural advantage will be…” He chewed the words for a moment, frowning. “Harder to judge. Both are capable of substantial, if inconsistent, supernatural power multipliers.”

“I am sorry,” I said, finally pressured by sheer curiosity. “But- these groups-”

“The Tonxinheli is a grab bag of mainland hick priests, Hong Kong triads, Tibetan monks working under duress, and Mongolian shamans, all being pressured- financially, diplomatically, or personally- by the Chinese government. The Ministry…” His face darkened.

“They feed people to monsters,” said Smith. “Usually poor, or undesirable.”

“No actual evidence of that,” grumbled Miller, but not very loudly. “They’ve got some nasty alliances in the supernatural world. Blood’s a lot closer to the skin, down there. Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Exquisition is British. They mostly deal with faeries, because the fuckers are thick as flies over there, but we usually have close relations with them. The Peers started as an old knightly order descending from Charlemagne, and rose to prominence after World War 2 turned the Franco-German border into the largest source of Undead ever. There are rumors of a ‘Bloody War’ that they were involved in before that, but mostly, they’re a bunch of overly religious technology-obsessed freaks.”

“You are playing an incredibly brave card there, metal-boy,” said Smith, an eyebrow raised.

“I did this to myself because I was suffering from severe PTSD, quadrapalegia, and had been manipulated by a psychotic monster. They did it because they thought pacts were unholy.” He looked out the window, his brow wrinkled. “This is bad. This is fucked up on a scale that defies simple Murphy’s Law. Everything’s coming together too quickly.” He shook his head. “Hope we’re not putting our foot in another hornet’s nest.”

I tried to think of something comforting to say, some way to encourage my superior officer. None were obvious to me. I settled for patting his shoulder companionably. “What is our plan, Sergeant?”

“Twofold. We need to strike fast and hard when we get in, which means dividing.” He gritted his teeth. “I hate to do this to you, not least because I want you close by where you can watch for ambushes, but I need you to check out the hotel. See what you can find out there. Any chance you can track down what supernaturals were in there?”

“I can promise nothing, but if anyone can…”

“Good.” Miller nodded to the two foreign officials and the four men who had stayed silent in the back of the plane, dressed in heavy black fatigues, masks covering their faces, heavy weapons sleeved over their shoulders.  The men were anonymous, but I could read them beneath those masks. Pulses of belief both strong and weak- One nostalgia, one fear, one anger, one loathing like I’d never seen, one joy and innocence, one ambivalent melancholy. I could see such things in the unguarded, and often, those who wore masks left their souls very bare indeed.

“What will you be doing, Sergeant, if I may ask?”

“The mission profile says that our man was bilking a local casino, the Treasure Chest, using… Well, they weren’t entirely clear, but he’d won enough money to be odd. There’s a possibility he may be going for one last big score there. Major Pagan, Jissika Smith, and I will be keeping an eye there. Privates, you’ll be keeping an eye on the local traffic and making sure he doesn’t rabbit without us knowing about it. If we don’t find him in the next few hours, it’s going to be damned near impossible to figure out where he goes. And if he goes to ground…”

He didn’t have to finish the statement. This was a man who could afford to spend decades in hiding.

The plane landed in New Orleans, where we were studiously ignored by the locals. On the streets, I drew more than a few surprised glances as I walked, and even the occasional venomous look. There were a handful of Atlanteans in the city, but I did not keep my eye out for them. I slipped through the crowd without notice or care, making my way towards the hotel where the scene had been found.

The police had not yet been notified. The scene of the crime was untouched. As I entered, I was struck by several things. The lack of blood, for one thing. The fact that, aside from the now-clearly-severed arm, there was no sign of the men supposedly murdered in this room. The lingering aroma of divinity. And finally, a slender, hard-knuckled fist.

I awoke, in a large metallic room. A slender young man who nonetheless had wrinkles around the corners of his eyes from too much smiling was studying me. “Are you alright?” he asked, softly, in heavily accented English. “Sorry about the blow. Are you well?”

Had I been a person entirely unlike myself, I might have responded violently. Sent current surging through the metal walls, fried every other person within, fought and struggled. Instead, I nodded. “You didn’t strike anything particularly vital. Blow to the head, but I do not feel murky, or concussed.” I studied him for a moment. He was slender, not very old, and his head was shaved bare. His warm brown eyes twinkled, and he wore a loose saffron robe. He had hit me at least as hard as Miller could, and he blazed with oddly tinted belief. Practically a furnace.

The others… Three of them were humans. One of them was tall, broad-shouldered, a pair of black sunglasses over his eyes, dressed in a white business suit. A gun sat in a holster under one armpit, and a leather bag under the other. The second was dressed like a tourist, a colorful T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. He sat with the same ramrod stiffness I had seen in Pagan. The third had his hair up in a bright white turban, wrapped elegantly, with an impressive mane of black hair surrounding his face on all sides. I knew something of the significance of the garment to certain religions, but I did not recognize this specific variant off hand. This man was- I studied my memories- Latino, or Indian, judging by his features. The others were East Asian, I thought. Chinese, I decided, from the context of who was expected to get involved.

The last person in the truck was not human in the least. Nearly seven feet tall, skin black not like a human’s but like a burn victim’s. Wiry but with muscles like coconuts stuffed into a stocking, her proportions were almost comical, massive tusks forcing her mouth open, growing in place of her canines. A long, red tongue hung out of her mouth, dripping reddish saliva onto the floor almost constantly.

“<Inform her,>” said the man in the tourist’s clothing, “<that we do not intend to harm her yet.>” He was speaking Mandarin Chinese. I had taken the time to learn Mandarin. The tonal nature of the language was unusual, but I had mastered it quickly.

“You are safe,” said the young man who had hit me.

“What are you?” I asked, frowning as I studied him. That belief- Was it belief? Or divinity? He did not feel like a god, but he was not entirely human, either. I had read files about the human phenomenon of ‘Heroes’- those who were, in a sense, gods made out of still-living humans. Was this what they looked like?

“A humble monk,” he said, bowing his head once.

“<Tell her that she is to be recruited,>” said the man who I now strongly suspected was the leader of this small group.

“Does he speak English?” I asked, feigning lack of knowledge. Their assumptions were a useful tool.

“He understands it,” said the monk, giving me a warm smile. “I am more proficient, so he asks me to translate his words, so they are not misinterpreted. We are aware that the Atlanteans have made many agreements with the Americans. You more than many. We wish to offer you an alternative.”

“<Tell her that she has a choice.>”

“You have a choice in the matter, of course. We do not intend to abduct you. But if you should wish to explore your options, to experience what another government may be willing to offer, you can.”

He was elaborate. Eloquent. Trying to confuse his compatriots, whose English was not as good. I wondered about the wisdom of sending only one man who understood English so well.

“Monk,” said the man in the white business suit and the sunglasses, and his English sounded like he’d spent his entire life in the south, “don’t go scarin’ the lady by acting all vague and odd.” He stepped forward, and settled down on his heels, coming level with me, eye to eye. “The monk’s in this job because the government leans on his people, because that’s the only way he’ll work. The Political Officer there is here to make sure that he doesn’t go AWOL. But I’m here because the PRC pays damn well. What you’re looking for, what you want, they can provide. You just have to be willing to work together with them.”

“<Can I eat them?>” asked the black-skinned creature, in some ancient and esoteric dialect of Hindi.

“<Not yet,>” murmured the man in the turban, in the same near-forgotten language. “<Garrote when the time is right.>”

Alright, perhaps I cheat a bit in learning languages. Being able to read the soul of a man makes understanding them much easier when they speak. It was not the kind of talent I would ever broadcast. People were far more honest if they believed you could not understand them. I would hate to take that comfort from them.

“What do you want from me?” I asked, allowing a tiny hint of the trepidation and fear I felt ease into my words.

“<Tell her a soothing lie,>” said the man in charge. “<Something that will ease her conscience.>”

“Nothing serious. We were alerted by contacts in the US government of a…” The man with the sunglasses paused, and frowned at the monk.

“Bodhisattva?” asked the monk, amusement flickering in his eyes.

“Of a very potent being,” said the man in the sunglasses, forehead wrinkled in an obvious glare at the monk. “Since your people ain’t been interested in joining the PRC, they’ve been… understandably tense. We find out about something that could give the Americans a greater advantage. Understandably, we want to avoid that.” He smiled. “And if we can persuade you to give us a greater advantage, as well…”

“I… I’m not sure. If I were to betray them- There could be repercussions. Strikes against my people.”

“<That would be good,>” said the man in charge. “<Force the creatures into our grasp.>”

“We just need a distraction. A chance to help this guy- Victim of at least a couple of genocides- escape from the governments that perpetuated those genocides.” The man in the glasses smiled. “You know about the Westerners’ history. We never did anything like that.”

I did not correct him. “How will I contact you?”

“Don’t worry about that. We will know.” The man in sunglasses winked as he patted me companionably on the shoulder. “Magic.”

I did not detect magic. I did detect the faint spark of electricity in the tiny thing he’d planted on my shoulder. It had sunk into the slick material of the raincoat.

“<Planted the listening device properly?>” asked the political officer. The man in sunglasses smiled.

“Consider it. Whatever you’re looking for, we can certainly offer it.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, letting the nervousness flow through my words. Disguising the planning, the certainty, that hid beneath.

I would not switch sides. There were a thousand reasons, but they all condensed down to one. The game of sides was just that: A game. It was a distraction, and in the face of annihilation, a lethal one. These humans were positioning themselves to have the strongest position on the chessboard after it had been set on fire. The most logical solution to this was to destroy them, utterly, giving them no choice but to throw their efforts behind the EFUS. It was my side- By chance, but that was reason enough.

As they stopped the truck- We had apparently been in the back of an 18-wheeler- and allowed me to return to the city, I strategized internally. If I simply alerted Miller or destroyed the scrying device, it would scare them off. Let the prey know that they had been scented. But if they committed themselves to the conflict, they would be forced to see it through. I studied the bug, and my brows knit. It was delicate, finer than an eyelash. That such a small, inconsequential thing could be used to track me, to transmit sound, was… impressive. Also annoying. I would have to avoid discharge. There was no question that something so delicate would be destroyed by the shocks I could produce.

The phone in my pocket rang. I took it out, fumbling with the interface. The phone was a phenomenal device, though a strange one. An invisible network of oracles, allowing people across the world to speak, find information, plan things. I had seen the way humans cared for theirs, placed so much belief and thought into them. The only thing that kept them from awakening was that they were fragile, and not built to last.

That was a terrible crime, to me and my people. To make a tool that was disposable. To create a tool that was never meant to be more. You built to last, because that was how you made a tool truly great, growing more potent with the years. This… I tried to think of the words to describe it. Child soldiers. Cancer-ridden fetuses. A thousand dark images.

Then I hit the ‘answer’ button, because it had been ringing for nearly half a minute while I stared blankly. “Yes?”

“Yeagerta! It’s nearly sunset, I’ve called you three times, what’s the news?”

I shook my head. Strategy. “I was-” I let the silence hang for just a moment, as though I was planning to tell Miller. Showing the foreign agents what they expected, a self-interested person who thought themselves loyal, who had to talk themselves into betrayal. “Distraction. It took longer than I thought to sniff out the crime scene. I’m on my way now, and I’ve got bad news.”

“Shit. How bad?”

“Your men might not be dead. They might just be hostages.”

“Aaaaah, double-shit! We tracked him down to the Treasure Chest Casino, but… Well, things are a little bit fraught here. Get here as quick as you can, I could use a voice of reason, or alternatively, another pair of fists.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

I made my way to the address, up the stairs into a cheap motel, and into a doorway. I knocked twice, and the door opened. Major Pagan had a large machete in one hand, standing halfway out of her chair. She settled as she recognized me, and the ivory-handled machete disappeared like smoke in the wind. Jissika Smith had been holding a slender bone needle, carved in scrimshaw. The other three members of the room were somewhat less calm. The man and the woman in elegant evening dress were in a pact, I could tell- And the woman was visibly not human, her skin the color of silver, tall, thin, elfin, almost as tall as me. She stood with her long, delicate hands folded in front of her, the man with a drink in hand, the scent of sharp alcohol filling the air.

The last… Well, I couldn’t guess at their gender… was actually quite like Miller. The lines of electricity were not as all-encompassing as in him, but still encompassed the limbs, and significant portions of the torso. They sat at the corner, a weapon still drawn. I didn’t recognize it, precisely, but it hummed softly, and clearly had a right side and a wrong side. The wrong side was aimed at me.

“Fuck’s sake, Anseis, you crazy bitch, she’s more human than you or I am.”

The weapon was slowly raised towards the ceiling. The woman, superficially, did not look particularly odd. She was delicately built, slender, with skin as pale as milk, and rich golden hair, blue eyes piercing and cold. She was androgynous to the point that Miller’s description of her was the only reason I could settle on ‘female’, and the long leather jacket she wore seemed wholly inappropriate for the hot, muggy environs. “You were studying the crime scene. Any sign of their assailants?”

“Four demons. The archmage himself was not there. All of the demons left substantial traces of power. I’d say centuries old, at least, maybe more. I don’t know what they were exactly, but…”

“Four?” said the British man, an eyebrow raised. “You could distinguish them? Hell’s bells, the man has four pacts?”

“I suspect so,” said Miller. “The mechanics aren’t well-known, but being able to make and raise your own supernatural flying monkeys is probably going to make it simpler. So, one big, fat target, and at least four unknown bogies.” He looked up. “I bet you’ve got a solution in place already.”

“The Heinlein is within firing distance, isn’t it?” said Anseis. “An obvious solution suggests itself. Archmage or not…”

“I’ll accept any solutions that don’t involve firing a weapon of mass destruction at a riverboat full of American citizens,” said Miller.

“I’d suggest coming up behind him and slitting his throat,” said the British man, a slender stiletto appearing in his hand as quickly as Pagan’s machete had disappeared from hers. “But if he were that easy to take down, I suspect someone already would have.”

“Three teams,” said Miller. “One team evacuates the ship. That’s Jissika, Punk Barnes, and Lady Featherbottom. One team confronts him- That’s you and me, Anseis, we’ve got the best chance at surprising him or being able to take whatever he’s got waiting for him. If there are any civilians hurt as collateral damage, I’m ripping you limb from limb. Then the last team- Major, and Yeagerta- You commandeer the ship. Once it’s empty, you take control, move us away from the docks and out into open water.”

“He may be able to escape the ship regardless,” said Anseis, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Yes. But he’ll also be where a round from the Heinlein won’t kill anyone I care about.”

This brought a smile to Anseis’ lips, though not to her eyes.

It was interesting, the way time skipped. It could move at a snail’s pace as adrenaline and fear and violence made the brain rush, made it record every moment in brutal slow motion in the vain hope that it could make the right decisions. It could speed by like a shark through a current when nothing was happening and too much awareness would drive you mad with boredom. I observed the way the time passed, fast as lightning, until the moment when Pagan pushed open the door.

“Department of Homeland Security,” I said, holding up a forgery so good that the government didn’t realize it was a forgery. “We’ve got reports of a lone wolf terrorist on the ship. You need to evacuate immediately while we get the situation under control.”

The men in the boat’s wheelhouse didn’t argue. They looked happy enough for the unexpected vacation, if slightly worried about their prospects for employment tomorrow. Pagan checked the ship’s controls, while I watched the screens. The British man and his fairy lady, along with Jissika, guiding the last of the passengers off of the ship. Unmooring it. The people on the ship were slowly streaming off, Miller and Anseis pushing through them, watching the crowd.

“So,” said Pagan, conversationally. “You joined the EFUS. Why?”

“Chance,” I said, checking for any sign of our target.

“That doesn’t seem like a very good reason,” said Pagan, an eyebrow lifted.

“It’s why every patriot does what they do.”

“Really?” She smiled. “But you were not an American. You had a choice. You came into this world, and you chose them.”

“Geographical convenience. And… I suppose… a lingering debt.” I smiled half-heartedly. “It was an American who saved our queen, and another American who offered us shelter. I am confident that any country would have done the same.”

“Optimist,” she said, and there was a wry smile on her face. I realized I was seeing her amused.

And there, in the main casino floor, in front of an unfamiliar but colorful table, a very short Native American man stood with a grin, one leg crossed in front of the other, leaning back against the table, cornered by Anseis and Sergeant Miller. He was dressed in an extremely fine black suit.

I flicked a switch, and sound came through from a black grill beneath the screen. The man- I had to assume the Archmage- was speaking. “-already in place, ready to carry out simultaneous strikes throughout Washington D.C. You’re already too late to stop me. I might remember it under torture, if you want to try.”

“My heart weeps,” said Aneis. “I invite you to tell us, or I will shoot you-”

It was amazing how quickly things went wrong. The entire ship lurched, throwing the three agents on the ship’s edge onto the dock, tearing it free of its burdens. On screen, Aneis let out a single sharp scream of rage as something huge and sharp-toothed latched onto her leg, and then she was gone, water gushing up through the jagged hole in the floor. Miller was wrestling with a small, slender girl, built like a waif, who was also apparently overpowering him in a bear-hug, while a big man with bizarrely long and well-groomed facial hair, sticking out like whiskers, lunged at him from the side. The Archmage laughed, and was gone like a shot, running for the deck.

“Things are going downhill,” I said. “I’m going to go stop him from getting away.”

“Hey, if you run off with him and the US starts fielding a bunch of Archmages, I’m going to gut you,” Pagan said, her voice calm and matter-of-fact even as I set out onto the deck.

The short man was glaring down at the water, his arms crossed. “You are under arrest,” I said.

“I don’t think I am,” he responded, and I blinked.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Would you rather be dead? Several of us want you dead.” I studied him quietly. Were those listening to me already moving in? Had they taken the bait yet? If I could capture him…

“You know, what I don’t get is, you Atlanteans were being wiped out by humans. That’s why you left, right? Ever since you came back, I’ve been turning it over and over in my head. Why would you come back? Why would you side with the people who genocided you before?”

I blinked. “Because times change.”

“Really?” He grunted. “Give me another ten thousand years to think about it, maybe I’d be ready to make peace too. But I’m not quite there yet.” He judged the water again.

“I really am much faster than you in the water,” I said. “Even if your abomination tries to stop me, I am definitely going to kill it, and catch you.”

“My! You’re very certain about that.” He looked over his shoulder at me, and grinned. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time.”

“So have I. Why?”

“Why what? There are a lot of answers.”

“Why did you leave the spider there? She didn’t have orders, or training. She was just an abandoned thing.”

“She was a tool,” said the man, still distracted. “A thing to be used, and disposed of. That’s what they all are.”

“Demons?”

“People.” He looked up, and his grin was wide and a little bit frightening. “Oh, those two bought the ‘I’m fighting for my poor benighted people’ thing, but fuck my people. Fuck them all. They thought that they knew what I was. Words like Yeahnáglóshii, Skinwalker… They thought they knew what I was. They thought it was simple. That I was neglecting my duty, that I was a monster, a freak, because I didn’t believe that a simple accident of birth meant that the tribe was owed my power.” He looked up at me, his head tilted. “God, all of this is going right over your head, isn’t it? You’re like me. A freak of nature. And because you’re guilty about it, you’ll spend your life trying to make up for the gift you were given.”

“It is funny,” I said, though it was about as far from funny as it could be. “I never even considered that. I was always grateful that I could do something, anything, to help the people I loved. And while I hate demons, I could never imagine treating a tool so carelessly.” I tilted my head. “Why do you do all of this?”

He grinned. “Why not?”

It was about the least heartening answer I could have gotten. “Are there really demons set to terrorize Washington?”

“Yeah. They’re called Senators. I was just fucking with those two, seeing how they’d react under stress. It’s always interesting, isn’t it? Being above them all. Watching them play their games, and knowing that you’re playing a far more interesting game.”

“Get down on the ground.”

“You know, I’d fight you, but-” He winced. “Looks like three of the four demons I spent centuries cultivating, strengthening, have just died. That’s a blow.” He shrugged. “I can always make more, though.” He turned towards me, grinning. “I can still take you on with just one.”

“I’d like to see that.”

He straightened his shoulders, and grinned cheerfully, lifting one arm theatrically, his sleeve slipping down to the shoulder, exposing the bronzed, wrinkled skin. “Nothing up my sleeve, and presto change-o!”

He blurred. I was already in motion as he jumped into the air, and I felt him slip through my fingers. Conservation of mass and energy did extremely strange things as he rocketed up nearly twenty feet in the shape of a small, very fluffy white bunny. A massive owl swept down out of the darkness, its divine energy muted so that I hadn’t noticed it above me, and then was gone again, winging towards the swamps along the river with the archmage. I brushed my arms as I stood up, annoyed that I hadn’t caught him, but watching. The ship was already shifting to follow him at a fast clip, and there was only so long a bird like that could fly.

Sergeant Miller stepped onto the ship’s deck, looking well-worn. He was missing an arm, and I stared for a moment. “Sergeant, are you okay?”

“Fine, fine,” he said, absently, glaring around the deck. “Tell me he didn’t get away while I was putting down that fucking goonch.”

“What? Oh, no. We are in pursuit.” I looked forward, narrowing my eyes. “Swamp village. Old, looks abandoned. We’re maybe five or six miles away from it, going at ten knots.”

“Yeah?” said the sergeant, and he frowned. “Oddly detailed.”

“Just keeping my eye out, Miller,” I said, and hoped he understood what I was saying.

“Couldn’t taze him?”

“Not at the moment, Miller.”

“Huh.” He nodded, his eyes on me for a very long moment.

I hated the games.

USEF Report Pallas, Appendix B (Known Accomplices), Paragraphs 69-76 Rank HEL-8

Not all of Athena’s contacts and accomplices are as celebrated as the Cat of Paris. She is, after all, the Patron of Heroes, and this sometimes involves choosing people who no one would ever take for exceptional.

Atina LeRoux is on the lowest end of these. Middle-class family, relatively unremarkable childhood marked only by a brief hours-long visit to a mental institution after she told a classmate she wanted to kill herself in high school, and three years of homeschooling from the age of eleven to fourteen that apparently permanently warped her social development. She took the LSATs twice, scored surprisingly well the second time, went to a mediocre law school, barely avoided failing out, passed the Bar, and then drifted.

Her life up to this point has been marked by a distinct lack of focus or achievement. She’s never done anything worth noting in the mundane sphere. She worked part-time legal work, keeping her head above water in New York City, until she moved upstate and tried starting her own practice, apparently resigned to the fact that she would spend the rest of her life in the same state of mediocrity.

When the Jiang-shi known as Li Fang Fen (See USEF Report Hsien-Ko H1 and remind me to smack whatever moron convinced me that was an appropriate code-name) walked into her office seeking defense on a murder charge, it should have been a short path to an early grave or making a pact. Humans who discover the supernatural inevitably drift towards one of these two.

Atina’s only apparent talent is for paranoia. She has, in fact, managed to survive at least a handful of assassination attempts from supernatural creatures she has pissed off royally. Mostly by becoming a hermit. 90% of her socialization is with supernatural creatures at this point, with her only known pure-human contacts being her family, and some fry cook she’s in an apparently unpredictable relationship with.

This is all in keeping with Pallas Athena’s strategies. In chess terms, Atina is a pawn. She’s capable of very little, but is also generally below notice. The chances that she will figure prominently into one of Athena’s schemes is extremely low, but the whole thing about pawns is that they take you by surprise, at an angle.

Her resources are largely a surprising number of favors and control she’s acquired in Binghamton, but she’s still yet to put it to any particular use. As in the rest of her life, Atina LeRoux seems largely at loose ends. Aside from her connections with Jack Knife (See USEF Report Ripper FJ-5) and the Camazotz Jenny Nishi (See USEF Report Sparkly Vampires FJ-4), she has no notable power.

One lingering concern remains: The Fishbelly incident. We still don’t know what exactly happened in there, and no one in Binghamton is talking about it. The working theory is that Athena intervened directly, as she’s occasionally wont to do. This in spite of the complete lack of any evidence of her presence. The mummy we interrogated after the fact claimed it was the work of a dragon, apparently traumatized by the encounter and prone to confabulation. We’ve combed the city from top to bottom, and there’s no sign of anything that could be called a dragon. Every supernatural creature we interrogate about dragons gives the same answer: They’re extinct. I’m inclined to chalk it up to trauma.

For now, I’d suggest stepping down surveillance to an occasional check-in. Given her position, means, and inclinations, Atina Leroux is a minor player.

Chief Researcher Cherry H. Verne

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