29-2

Weird, seeming them from below. “Mm,” she confirmed, passing the now-empty bottle back to its owner. “Thank you.”

“Mm,” they echoed. “Just as long as it doesn’t happen again. It’s not like I have a second bottle.”

Zarah waved them off. “Not again. Just… surprised.”

“…if it makes any difference, it’s not any less disturbing the second time around.”

It took Zarah a second to actually process the words after hearing them, and when she jerked her gaze up in shock, Orae had already started walking back across the room.

“<Fine>,” she muttered under her breath, “<be that way, then>.”

A soft whuff from beside her caught her by surprise, and she flinched away before realising where it had come from; or who, more accurately.

Lucel, Orae’s ghostly hound, had managed to sneak up on her while she was distracted. Sitting like she was, the dog’s face was level with her own, and Lucel whuffed again as she leant in, nostrils flaring as she sniffed.

Zarah leaned away an equivalent amount. “<Whoa, hey. Um,> no? Stop? Back?”

None of the commands were apparently the correct option, as Lucel continued to follow her as she awkwardly scooted away, the dog’s tongue lolling happily from her mouth.

“Orae?!” Zarah called, a little more shrill than she’d intended. “Dog- off!”

Orae glanced up at her, a mean little smirk appearing on their face. “What’s the magic word?”

“Go shit yourself magic word HELP- ghrrk.

The last word there was in fact not in fact a word at all, and was instead the sound of Zarah desperately slamming her mouth shut bare instants before a large canine tongue wiped over it, along with most of her chin.

Zarah made a noise that could have been uncharitably described as a shriek, and toppled backwards onto the ground, furiously wiping at her chin. It was completely dry, ghost dogs not being known for their slobber, but it felt like it should be wet, which was almost worse because there was nothing she could actually do about it.

Her distraction with her own face turned out to be a deadly mistake. Lucel, sensing weakness, pounced on top of Zarah, stubby tail wagging furiously, and managed to get a few more good licks in before Zarah pushed her off to one side.

“Orae!” she yelled furiously, “stop her! Now!”

Next to her, Lucel had dropped the front of her body to the ground, staring up at Zarah while her tail continued to whip around.

“She wants to play,” Orae responded. “She’s not going to hurt you.”

“I don’t want to ‘play’,” Zarah snapped. “I want to sit, quietly.”

“Aww,” Remy cooed, “but she’s so excited! Don’t make her sad, Zarah!”

With suspicious timing, Lucel barked at her.

“Not you too,” Zarah snapped at her. “Go to Remy if he is so excited.”

“Oh yes please.” He dropped into a crouch, making pspspsps noises as he made beckoning gestures towards Lucel.

The dog turned her head towards the new noise, and then as soon as she had ascertained the source, immediately dismissed it and turned back towards Zarah.

29-3

“Noooooooo,” Remy cried, tipping forward onto his knees. “Betrayal…”

Thankfully, the dog didn’t try and tackle her again. She hadn’t given up, though; merely changed tactics. Once, twice, three times she butted her head into Zarah’s leg, then moved over slightly to push at the hand testing on the ground with her snout, looking up at Zarah plaintively with large, red-tinted eyes.

Zarah very pointedly avoided her gaze by looking at the ceiling, which worked for all of three seconds until she felt Lucel’s breath on her face as the dog grew closer. Zarah quickly got a hand between them. “Why now?” she demanded, holding Lucel back with a palm pressed against her forehead. Lucel didn’t seem to mind, actually; she pushed back against Zarah’s hand like she enjoyed it. “She never cares before.”

Orae glanced over at them, an unreadable expression on their face.

“…she was a service dog washout,” they said at last. “Not diligent enough, but still good at reading moods. She saw you were distressed; she’s trying to help.” Even that relatively benign detail sounded like it had been forced out of them through a bed of rusty nails. That was… kind of sweet, Zarah supposed. “Okay,” she said to Lucel, “happy now.” She tried for a big toothy smile.

“Don’t bare your teeth,” Orae immediately said. “For almost every other species except humans, it’s a threat gesture.”

Zarah pressed her lips together. “See?” she said without opening her mouth, the words distorted by the way she was trying to keep the corners of her mouth pulled up.”Leave me alone?”

Lucel barked happily in response.

“…is that yes?”

Two barks this time.

“…is that yes?”

Two barks again, but with a noticeable pause between them, long enough that Zarah didn’t know whether they still counted as two or as two separate ones.

She narrowed her eyes. “…<you’re fucking with me, aren’t you>.”

Lucel at least had the decency to look contrite.

Unlike some people.

“Ugh.” Zarah gently pushed the dog’s head away, and used the wall to push herself onto her feet, the concrete scraping at her back through her clothes. Lucel whined plaintively, but Zarah ignored her as she stretched, then walked over to join the others.

“You’re so cruel,” Remy admonished her.

“Not my fault her master not giving attention,” Zarah replied.

“I give her plenty of attention,” Orae sniped back. “I am busy. Like you should be.”

“You are just standing here,” Zarah pointed out.

“I’m thinking.

“How do you know I wasn’t thinking while sitting? If thinking is busy?”

“…shut up.”

Remy threw his arms around both of their shoulders. Seeing as Orae was a full foot shorter than him and Zarah immediately, violently flinched away, it didn’t work out particularly well for him.

“You guys are the best,” he said from the floor.

Over the past two weeks, the four of them (five if you counted the dog (which Zarah didn’t) and Kihri (which Orae didn’t)) had been steadily working their way through the map they’d found in the subway station, eliminating potential and abandoned bases from consideration. They’d found eight before this one; six busts that must have been shut down and cleaned out after Metzin had made the map, and two that had been abandoned mostly as-is.

29-4

In the first of them, they’d been met with more chimeras like the ones in the subway. These ones, while similar in general appearance and condition, had been more varied in size and shape; Zarah had seen what she assumed to be cats, rats, and even a few birds, although the latter had been incapable of flight due to their mutated state. That site had not proven particularly dangerous, but only reaped a commensurately small benefit – a photo that had fallen behind a filing cabinet and the wall and forgotten. It was tattered and faded, but clearly depicted Metzin and the same woman from the photo on her desk at Aruspex, along with a group of others. They were both younger and fresher-faced than in that photo, though, with Metzin’s usual stony mask actually cracking slightly, the faintest upward tilt at the corner of her mouth as she glanced up at the dark-haired woman next to her.

It was… disconcerting.

The second location had given them a torn half-sheet of incomprehensible numbers and notations, including a section of a photocopy of an x-ray that seemed to show the shape of a head blocked out entirely in pure white. Whether that would be useful was still to be seen, depending on how long it took Kihri to work up the courage to actually read it over.

There had been no chimeras at that site, which would have been pleasant if not for what had been there instead. Strands of… something had criss-crossed the entire room in a thin, uneven web, connected to thicker ‘nodes’ at certain points. That had been unsettling enough on its own, but the part that pushed it over was the way that the entire web had been pulsing. Rhythmic and faint, it had occasionally been accompanied by faint flashes of light that travelled along the strands from one node to the next.

It had been located inside a utility shed on the outskirts of the city, which meant none of them had any compunctions about burning it to the ground as soon as they left and salting the earth afterwards.

(The last part had been insisted upon by Kihri, after an incomprehensible, panicky, ten-minute rant about ‘spores’ and ‘infections’. She’d also wanted them to burn all their clothes, but they had managed to talk her down from that one once she calmed down).

This site, the third of the successful finds now, was in an abandoned, half-finished office tower, close to the top and with the stairs and access ladders strategically destroyed or removed in non-suspicious ways. Without Kihri to guide them, they’d never have found it even if they’d known which building to look in. The exits from the stairwell onto the floor itself and the ones on either side of it had been blocked off, and in the end, they’d had to up to the next available floor before Kihri could lead them to a rough access shaft with a ladder hidden inside a partially-constructed bathroom.

As for what they’d found once they were there, well…

29-5

“Oh, wonderful,” Orae muttered as she approached where the two of them stood, Lucel ambling along behind her. “Now we can get a repeat performance.”

“Shut,” Zarah snapped back. “Not caught off anymore.”

“Plus,” Remy added helpfully, “she’s probably got nothing left to puke, anyway.”

Orae sighed. “…thank you for that, Auclair.”

“You’re welcome!”

Zarah braced herself as she came to a stop next to Orae, and then looked down. It had been a long, long time since she’d been sick at the sight of a corpse; why now, she still wasn’t sure.

-but, she had her suspicions.

Thankfully, this time, there was no surge of nausea – not physically, anyway. It was hard not to feel disgusted, when looking at what they were.

Sometimes, she felt like she was forming a web in her mind, connecting images and eyes together. The red arm of the corpse , the chimeras, the way Paose had seemed to blend together with his shade at the end; they were all part of a bigger picture.

In her little web, the body in front of her seemed to connect to every single other one.

Sat in a trench in the concrete flooring was something that, if you squinted, was almost recognisable as a human corpse. Any attempt to identify features or details about the person it might have been was fruitless – it had no clothes, but no obviously visible… anatomy, either. Average height, maybe. On the heavy side of normal. Everything else, every other possible detail, had been wiped clean by the brutality inflicted upon it.

The thing that disturbed Zarah the most – on an intellectual level at least – was how methodical it was.

That wasn’t a surprise, not with everything else of Metzin they’d seen and learned, but meticulous paperwork was one thing; meticulous butchery another entirely.

Not a mistake she’d make twice. Not after this.

Banded sections ran up each arm of the corpse, variations on a theme. Some were barely perceptible from one another – sections of what appeared to be unaltered skin the most common in some places, smooth and glossy ghostlight-touched in others – while others were so distinct as to look as if they were separate materials entirely. Just above the elbow of the left arm, a band covered in jagged, crystalline growths bordered directly onto one where the flesh seemed to be recessed inwards, dry and dessicated and sallow.

The torso was similarly banded, vertically up from the waist, with thicker bands than the arms leaving room for only five in total. They were more intense than the arms, though, including one just above where the bellybutton would have been, that was mostly empty space with curved… pillars of altered flesh, like it had flowed down from both sides in defiance of gravity to meet in the middle. The rest of the band was empty space, with the exposed interiors covered in smooth red-tinted skin that made Zarah imagine it spreading out slowly like melting wax. It wasn’t just translucent like one of the arm bands, either; with a bit of careful angling, she managed to get her entire hand through to the other side.