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-1 (Blood & Steel)
Tuesday, March 2, 2017
Under the fronds of his office trees, Voland heaved a dry, throaty cough into his prodigious knuckles. Selene politely held her wine while waiting for him to finish, and Netzach less politely downed his glass in a single gulp while scooting his chair away. Bored with the proceedings, Senthose watched a hermit crab scuttle furiously from him across the nearby table.
When it reached the edge, he held his hand out and twitched a finger, sending the creature soaring back toward him. It spun wildly, snapping its claws, until Senthose curled his thumb, slowly forcing the creature to curl all its limbs inward and bob helplessly in the air.
Voland cleared his throat and took a sip of wine, Selene following suit, and Senthose just behind her with the drink he held in his left hand.
"New business first," Voland growled, demanding everyone's attention.
"This month's shipment of cactus juice arrived without issue," Netzach started with a wave of his hand, "Since Gevuwhatever's been so quiet since last month. Dealing should get back to normal soon."
"The forgers skipped town," Selene added, setting down her drink. "Matsu was getting too close to them. Fortunately, the other families are planning to send a replacement from out of town."
Senthose twirled the crab in a figure 8 as he reflected on a waifish, wide-eyed man with his hands and feet frozen to a chair. The memory whimpered through a cloth gag, then let out a muffled scream as a truncheon met his kneecap with a loud crack. "Old man Rorrin gave back the money without much fuss, so I let him off with a warning. Losing 6 fingers to frost bite will make it hard to do it again. He's a nice guy, once you get to know him."
"If that's all," Voland responded gruffly, "Let's address the camelephant in the room: How do we flush out this Gevurah slime?"
"I've been thinkin' 'bout that," Netzach began, setting down his empty glass.
"That's frightening," Selene snarked, crossing her arms.
Netzach ignored her. "If he's not worried 'bout us or the boars, he's prob'ly turned his attention to the other Agni Kais. So, all we gotta do is find out where he's gonna strike, then we can pick off the survivors." Turning to Selene with a sly grin, he added, "How's that for subtlety?"
"A boorish plan," she scoffed, turning away, "I could have come up with it in my sleep."
"But you didn't," he pointed out with a toothy grin, prompting her to scowl.
"Stop bickering!" Voland commanded sharply. "It's unseemly. Please continue, Netzach: How do you propose we find his next target?"
"Anything near an entrance to the underground is suspect," he answered, opening his drawer and withdrawing a piece of parchment, which he unfolded before him to reveal a city map marked with various symbols. He gestured over a series of flame symbols at the northeast end of the city. "All we gotta do is see where those line up with known Agni Kai dens."
"But how will we scope out the area?" Senthose asked. "That's deep in enemy territory."
"That's easy," Voland answered with a slight cackle, "We just make like a boar...and fly. Organize the search parties immediately, and be sure they stay away from any airships!"
"We'll fill you in on the way," Selene assured as she stood, noting Senthose's confused squint.
"Ugh, I'm so boooored!" Netzach whined, tossing his head back as he walked across the roof. "Three nights of doin' this, when is somethin' gonna happen?!"
"Well, what did you expect?" Senthose shot back from his side. "Even if he's willing to attack during the full moon, there still has to be an Agni Kai meeting. And that's assuming your theory is correct to begin with."
Netzach rolled his head forward and squinted at him. "Hey, you callin' me dumb?"
"I would never."
Nearby, a pair of brunette women in navy overcoats adjusted the rigging on a deep blue war balloon with a Water Tribe insignia on the side.
Netzach pointed at the ponytailed worker and winked. "Had a great time last weekend, lookin' forward to doin' it again, uh, Suu?"
"That was my sister, you jerk, and her name is Saa!"
"Sooo...that's a no, then?"
"Aren't you late for relieving Ms. Selene of watch duty?" the woman with the tight bun asked as her friend fumed.
Senthose rolled his eyes and pulled his superior into the blimp, which was soon released to skim the underside of the clouds, giving them a panoramic view of the sea of lights below.
"Hey, pass me your waterskin," Netzach, slouching on the basket floor, said after a while, "I don't wanna drink outta mine, it keeps growin' algae in there."
"You'll want mine even less," Senthose answered, scanning the sky as they floated over the river, "I spiked it with a little something from the shipment." Noting Netzach's raised eyebrow, he added, "I paid for it, of course."
"You shouldn't use that stuff on the job," Netzach chided.
"It's not for me."
By this point, a series of blue stars twinkled across the sky. When they faded, the far-off silhouettes of other balloons could just barely be seen if someone was looking for them. The fleet hovered over a grid of unassuming warehouses wedged between a southern landfill and a northern drop to the river, with a small parking lot separating them from a concrete-coated embankment sporting train tracks to the west. Ignorant of the eagle hawks above, gray and red figures poured through the narrow alleys and into a particular warehouse at the northwest.
"Looks like there really is an Agni Kai meeting tonight," Senthose informed his companion.
Netzach stood, and moments after the shapes stopped arriving, a blue star flashed thrice over the tracks. The Monsoon produced a retractable telescope from his breast pocket, peering through it before passing it to Senthose.
"Looks like the guy," he suggested as the younger gangster focused on a spot of the retaining wall in front of the parking lot.
Framed in the circular view hole, a new crowd of figures emerged from a crumbling archway leading into the city's shadowy underbelly. A group of fatigue-clad workers darted around the building, most rigging crates and wires at various points, others using their firebending to weld shut the entrances. All the while, a tall and broadly built man stood back to supervise, concealed in a jet-black overcoat.
"So he came himself," Senthose concurred, holding his hand near the lens. "I bet I could take him out from up here."
Droplets condensed near his outstretched palm, crystallizing into an ice spike, but a white-gloved hand came into view and crushed it. The warrior's gaze shot to his superior, now looking down on him with disinterest as he told his charge to stick to the plan.
"...If you say so," Senthose said measuredly, returning to glaring at Gevurah.
The hiss of the gas feeding the war balloon became increasingly audible in the ensuing silence. When it reached a fever pitch, the stillness of the night was abruptly broken by the flashbang of the munitions going off all at once, and the structure sagged as it was consumed by the inferno. The firebenders surrounding the warehouse added their own streams to the blaze, while Gevurah himself threw a fireball overhead, which exploded and rained a hail of smaller bursts over the doomed building. Cheering was just barely audible over the dull roar of the flames.
"Now!" Netzach commanded as the firebenders turned back to the tunnel. Setting aside the telescope, Senthose pulled a cord hanging overhead and wrapped it around a hook so their signal bulb remained solidly lit. With the other aircraft following suit, he and Netzach gyrated their hands in concert, the murky wisps swirling together overhead.
All around them, the maelstrom continued to whirl, increasingly darkening the stars until, with a rumbling flash, it began to rain. While not enough to choke out the blaze, it was enough for the various Monsoons to gather a vast firmament before their outthrust hands, which became a torrent of ice missiles falling upon the retreating faction of Agni Kais.
The carmine-clad crooks twisted as some of their members fell, and after a moment of confusion, began jabbing fireballs into the sky. Those that weren't drowned out by the rain soared wildly off their marks, until Gevurah raised a hand to the burning warehouse and clenched his fist.
The larger blaze spiraled and burst, shooting blindingly radiant spears through the sky in all directions. The duo heard the rip of their balloon and leaped just before it disappeared in a searing ochre eruption, the smoking remnants trailing behind them.
As other meteorites fell around them, they reached up and pulled down, dropping as much moisture as they could onto the ground below in a single torrent. Once a sizeable puddle had been created, Netzach lightly squeezed his fist to create a cushion of snow and lashed out with his other hand, latching onto the nearest building with a whip from his water skin.
Senthose followed his lead, their whips snapping, but not before shaving enough speed to survive the crash landing with just a small explosion of flurries. As the pair heaved their aching bodies to their feet, they found themselves already surrounded by a firewhirl, which was closing in faster than they could hope to regather their resources.
Fortunately, a second later an almost refreshingly frigid wave crashed over them, a solidly-built woman with a whitish wolftail rushing to their side.
"Are you alright, Sirs?!" she asked while Senthose scooped what he hoped was the puddle his water whip created back into its home as fast as possible.
"Hck—yeah!" Netzach choked, pointing. "Don't let them get away!"
Senthose glanced up to see shots of water and fire soaring back and forth as the 2 factions of gangsters dueled. But with every volley, the Agni Kais retreated several more feet. The woman raised her hands, daggers of ice surrounding her, and with a series of punches and kicks, shot them at the enemy, only for Gevurah to glance over his shoulder and melt them with a wave of his hand.
"We'll never make it in time to seal off the entrance!" Senthose shouted.
But help came from an unexpected source as a series of fireballs soared from the warehouse, smashing the tunnel entrance it just before Gevurah could step across the threshold. He turned to glower in the direction of the loyalist Agni Kais, a group of which were retreating from a melted hole in the wall under cover of flame shields. A much smaller group than had gone inside.
"No!" Gevurah roared, an aura of frenzied flames whipping around him with his building rage, "This time—you—will—burn!" He thrust his hands out, Monsoons and his followers alike diving aside as he released a vast wave of flame at the foes etched in his bloodline. They tried to defend by merging their flames into a single bulbous defense in front of them, but after a few seconds of wobbling struggle, the barrier burst and they were thrown helter-skelter.
This was enough time for Senthose and Netzach to run to the insurrectionist's side. Senthose swept his left hand over the ground, the water leaping up as a blade, slicing a foot through solid stone once Gevurah ducked. His other hand reared up, jabbing at the firebender with a blade of ice, only for him to smack it aside, toppling Netzach with a quick blast in the process. With a burst of fire from Gevurah's ankle, his foot accelerated before crashing into Senthose's ribs, and the warrior gave a strangled cry as he was thrown away. Netzach rolled to his feet and the mob boss turned on him, forcing him to dance as his salvo of palm blasts kept exploding where the Monsoon was a split second ago.
Ignoring the woman rushing to his side, Senthose reached out from his crumpled position, and Gevurah seized momentarily. The young bloodbender smirked, before Gevurah grit his teeth, muscles bulging under his coat. He kicked a wave of fire with a sudden jerk, forcing the would-be assassin to break stance by rolling away, and his companion to raise a surge of water to sweep the blast aside.
Netzach glanced about to see he had been maneuvered into a quickly closing ring of Gevurah's followers. He twirled, rising into the sky on a waterspout, bobbing about overhead to avoid their blasts and retaliating with liquid lashes.
"An amateur bloodbending grip won't hold me, child!" Gevurah crowed as he stomped forward, his overcoat coming undone to reveal a tattered, blood red duster flapping underneath. "And I'll make sure you don't get another try!"
"Wait!" Senthose shouted in interruption as the woman reached for her water skin and Gevurah raised a flaming fist. "Don't you—hear that?" he gasped, clutching his ribs with a grimace. "The boars—will be here—very soon!"
Noting the fleeing loyalist faction, the mob boss listened intently to the rush of propellers in the distance. He shot a jet of flame in front of the duo, the wet asphalt glowing before exploding into a fine mist that blocked their view. Following with a cartwheel kick, he propelled another flare into Netzach's water spout, sending him flying in a random direction.
"The boars are coming!" the Agni Kai called, "Retreat!"
So they ran into the nearest alley, disappearing from view, but before Gevurah could make his way to safety, he jerked to a sudden stop. Craning his neck, which made unnatural wet popping sounds as he did, he saw a grinning Netzach rising defiantly from a soggy war ballon skeleton, white suit stained from wet ashes. His arms were raised as if grasping invisible puppet strings, and he cooed, "I'm not an amateur. So break that."
"If you try to hold me—until the boars arrive—you'll be caught too!" Gevurah forced through clenched teeth. f "Don't need to," Netzach pointed out, "Just need to hold you long enough for my friend to—"
Senthose loomed up on Gevurah's side, popping open his water skin and moving his hand in an arc as if drawing a sword. The fluid gushed forth, moving in a crescent over Gevurah's throat before splashing back in the container.
"Do that," Netzach finished.
"If I wasn't wounded—I wouldn't have—missed," Senthose assured, still holding his side.
"Boy, don't be stupid," Gevurah gargled as half of his beard fell away, a thin red line forming at his throat. "You got me."
"I meant to cut off your head," Senthose retorted, meeting Gevurah's spiteful glare with his own, "That little scratch counts as a miss."
"It'll have to do!" Netzach called. "If we stay here any longer, we're goin' down for sure!"
So, with a last heave, he pushed Gevurah to the ground and ran away. The woman started toward Senthose, but he waved her off.
"Go, Xunaa! I'll be fine, save yourself! And don't follow Netzach, we don't want to be in a group if we're found!"
She hesitantly nodded and ran off in the opposite direction. Seeing Gevurah struggling to pull himself to his feet, Senthose swiped his hand to throw him into the wall once more. "So much for no second chances," he crowed at Gevurah's pained glare before running after his superior, reaching under his suit with a frosted hand to reduce his swelling. The last thing he noticed was the warehouse skeleton giving way, spilling cinders over its neighbors.
Locating Netzach was no easy feat, as after a few dozen feet of hastily trying to cover his muddy tracks by waterbending them away, he evidently came to his senses and skated over the film of water as Senthose had been making it a point to do.
However, this did nothing to disguise the chunks of ashes that fell from his suit. Senthose made sure to sweep them into the sewers with his bending, and the trail eventually led him to an inconspicuous warehouse deep within the grid. He opened the garage-style door with his foot, noting the steady drip-drop of the icy pick inside the lock, and darted under before it clanged shut again. Removing his glowing gemstone, he carefully set off.
"Thought I hid pretty well," Netzach said from his position of leaning against the wall, "So how'd ya find me?"
"You were leaving chunks of ash everywhere," Senthose answered, walking up. "But I washed them away, they won't be a problem."
"Figures. Dang it. Look at this," he said, showing Senthose a scorched hole in his suit and a blistering burn on his side. "Looks like some o' those ash makers got me good after all. You wouldn't happen to know how to heal, wouldja?"
"You don't?" Senthose asked.
He smirked. "Hate to admit it, Kid, but I never really had the education for it. Like Selene said, I was a nobody 'til Boss V took me in."
"You mean into the Red Monsoons?"
Netzach shook his head solemnly. "You're lookin' at Netzach Voland."
"Is this another joke of yours? Why haven't I heard of this until now?"
"Do I look like I'm laughin'? Look, we were never that close. Plus I'd sorta drag down Boss V's reputation if everyone knew."
"Yet you don't sound very resentful."
"Why should I be?"
"You do all this work, the family doesn't really acknowledge you...and I got the impression you hated Selene."
"It's complicated," Netzach answered.
"But you're completely loyal to the family, regardless of the complications?"
"It doesn't matter anymore. What a shame." He popped open his water skin and sliced at Netzach's neck with another draw slash. Caught off-guard, his former superior barely had time to stumble to the floor. He raised his hands, only for Senthose to adjust the angle of his arm swipe and slice him across the shoulders with the liquid slash. The droplets still clinging to the wound flash froze, and broke apart when Senthose formed a fist, ugly black frostbite barely visible in the pale green gloom.
"Guess I don't have to ask what you're tryin' to pull!" Netzach growled under an agonized grimace, sweeping the younger waterbender's legs. He redoubled his bloodbending grip, his attacker seizing and falling face flat. Netzach slowly staggered to his feet, swaying more than was strictly necessary.
"What—what's happenin' to me?" he asked all 3 Senthoses as they laughed at him, snakes pouring from their mouths. He looked down to see his hands melt away into snowflakes, which the serpents greedily gobbled up.
"I'd love to know what you're seeing," Senthose said with a rising lunge, plunging the ice-tipped truncheon into Netzach's wound. He howled as the frozen blade bit into him and the blood frosted over, staggering back to hurl a shot from his waterskin that splashed harmlessly against the wall.
"Whatever it is," Senthose continued, "It's the reason why I spiked my water supply." Droplets condensed on his outstretched fingertip and shot out like an arrow, slicing into Netzach's cheek. The wound once again flash froze and caused blisters to swell over his skin.
Netzach held his mangled face with his off-hand, charging Senthose with a wild haymaker. The younger bloodbender ducked, kneeing his attacker's stomach wound to topple him. "Reactions slowed, senses impaired, and I can only imagine the effects of combining hallucinogens with the stresses of mortal combat," he mused over his fallen foe. "I hope the ingenuity isn't lost on you."
Netzach breathed deep, only for Senthose to hold his hand out and compress his throat with an invisible force. "No. None of that. Shame on you. Now, if you'd let me finish speaking, obviously our comrades will find your corpse eventually, but ironically, hot and cold burns both look quite similar. I don't know if an experienced Healer could tell the difference, but Voland should be none the wiser. As a bonus, the tissue damage will obscure the other wounds." With his free hand, he beckoned to the puddles created by their fight, guiding them forward.
With saucer eyes, Netzach gurgled as ice slowly crept up his body. He tried to sit, but Senthose forced him down again. "Your clothes would be a problem, but luckily the real firebenders took care of that for me. As far as anyone knows, the last people to see you alive would be the Agni Kais that burned you to death. But I want you to know, Netzach, that there's no joy in this for me."
Netzach gurgled again, eyes rolling back into his head.
"Well," Senthose said with a shrug, "Okay, maybe a little bit of joy. But I really did think it could be you and I against the Volands. I thought we were on the same page: Sick of spineless, self-righteous morons who just want to take advantage of our abilities, but save all the glory for themselves."
At this point, Senthose released his bloodbending grip, leaving Netzach gasping for air, eyelids and consciousness both fluttering.
"Whoops. Don't want your corpse to have ligatures," he explained, shaking his head slightly. "That'd be a dead giveaway. I think we're done here anyway. You get the point: 'There's gonna be some changes 'round here,' as you'd put it, but you're no longer part of them."
With that, he drew a chunk of ice off his victim and snapped it into a water whip, which compressed to a razor's width as it approached Netzach's head.
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