Monday, June 1, 2020

Project Stellar: The Enchanter by Roman Prokofiev

Project Stellar
by Roman Prokofiev
Book 2: The Enchanter

Release - July 8, 2020

Activation No ---
“WELL, HI THERE... Angel.”
The bloody haze before my eyes gradually began to clear, allowing me to make out two human figures standing in front of me.
One was a man; the other a woman wrapped in a tattered dark-blue cape, her hand resting on the neck of an enormous cyberwarg.
“I can see that you can hear me,” the man said smugly.
I struggled to move my lips. A blob of bloody saliva had formed in my mouth. My whole body hurt like hell; my heartbeat reverberated in my temples. The earlier drop from the sky had cost me dearly. I seemed to be in a bad way - but how bad exactly, remained to be seen.
Miko was silent which didn’t bode well, either. My interface was gone. Without it, the world around me felt unusually empty and bland.
The man watched me intently, his whole body concealed by the folds of his long dark-blue headdress. His gaze, steady and sinister, sent frozen shivers down my spine.

Now I remembered where I’d seen him before. He’d been in that group of people in the vox footage which showed the Rogues’ negotiations with Rat King. Which meant that this was—
“I don’t think this is Angel,” the woman said. Her voice was husky and low with disturbing undertones reminiscent of growling. “He doesn’t look like him, Ice. It’s either someone else, or the animafication process has only just started. Having said that...”
“That was a joke,” the man said sharply. His icy fingers dug into my chin, turning my head this way and that. “He simply can’t be, can he? I know it for a fact. What’s with the brain scan, Evilynn?”
“My interferometer shows no trace of symbiotic activity. His reactions are within the norm, and so is his magnetic aura. His brain hasn’t been tampered with. No presence of new organs or Azuric mutations detected in his body.”
“That’s funny,” murmured the man whose name was apparently Ice. “So it’s either he’s disabled both his cogitor and his interface - which would have been sheer suicide - or... or he’s not an Inca? What do you think?”
“I can’t see any traces of genetic modifications,” the woman repeated in her low and slightly annoyed voice. “This is just an ordinary human. That’s all he is. Either that, or this is a brand new body. You know very well that any genetic modifications made before a subject’s first Evolution don’t really manifest themselves. You would need a full DNA test in order to detect them.”
“Maybe. One thing’s for sure: this particular human isn’t as ordinary as we think, babe.”
The blade of Fang glinted before my face. Completely unperturbed, the stranger held the clan’s heirloom dagger with his bare hands, studying the engraving on the blue steel. He then laid the dagger back onto a table nearby, next to my cryptor, ID card and my other possessions.
“Blue steel marked with the sign of Fenrir,” he said pensively. “Here, of all places. I wonder why?”
“Ice, he’s got the Wolves’ tattoo, their dagger and their cryptor,” the woman said.
“You think I’m blind? I was right, wasn’t I? He’s not Angel; he’s not from the fort at all. A Fenrir cub! He’s got their genotype written all over him. Can you feel the sheer power of his Source? I’m surprised humans can still have them.”
“Ice, look! He’s got the City’s mark on his face, too! One of those seven-city toadies, whatcha call them...”
The man nodded. “Tributes. Blank bodies the Legion uses to build fake Incarnators. Now I know how he managed to reactivate the wingsuit. That’s part of their training, controlling bionic exosuits. But how did he end up here? I’m sure it must be one hell of a story. Hey, you! Mind telling us?”
One glance at the man sent my alarm bells clanging. His eyes... they weren’t human, even though they did appear perfectly normal. I’d seen this kind of look before: the alien Darkness lurking deep within human eye pupils, the very substance which had chased after me in the A-zone, having snatched the bodies of the two dead Legionnaires.
“Who are... you?” I struggled out a hoarse barely audible whisper.
“Who, me?” his voice betrayed a smirk. “I have lots of names, boy. But you can call me Iceberg.”
Iceberg? I remembered the old tales Tara had told me. The radio frequency tags on the implants she’d looted off the dead Rogues were marked with Iceberg’s symbol. What was it the old Enchanter had said the guy’s name was now? “It’s Gnarl. Iceberg is dead.”
So it looked like I was facing one of the Possessed - the very one who was behind the Rogues’ attack on Fort Angelo. He was our mysterious enemy. The enemy who had Tara Jessica Lee’s blood on his hands. She’d  died because of him, as had lots and lots of other good honest people.
A hot surge of anger rose from deep within me, effacing all other feelings.
I spat the blood blob in his face. Straining every sinew, I attempted to break free from my bonds. Pointless. All I’d achieved was another bout of sharp teeth-grinding pain.
Gnarl dodged the spittle, his movement so lightning-fast it appeared blurred. Immediately he punched me hard, burying his fist in my guts. I thought he must have eviscerated me alive. I heard the nauseating sound of snapping bones; my body convulsed in a paroxysm of unbearable pain. I arched in my bonds, shuddering, my spasming chest failing to retrieve the wind he’d knocked out of me.
“Hey hey hey! Easy! You’re gonna kill him!” the woman hissed behind his back.
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” the Technomancer said, squinting at me. “He’s as good as dead, anyway. After everything this snotnose has done...”
I suddenly sensed the fury he emitted. It felt cold as ice but it didn’t make it any less frightening. And still, I felt no fear - if anything, I had the satisfaction of knowing that my enemy was on the wrong track. So they’d failed to recognize the Incarnator within me? They thought I was just a Legion tribute with a naturally strong Source? Very well.
“You’re good at fighting helpless prisoners,” I spat out blood and lifted my head, locking my stare with his. “Untie my hands... then we can talk.”
“Man to man? This might be quite funny, actually,” he muttered pensively. His face - the face of the first Incarnator I’d ever met - lit up with a predatory grin. “Very well. That’ll give us a chance to check my theory. Set him free!”
More people came. They twisted my arms behind my back and dragged me outside, taking me somewhere else. The crimson rays of the setting sun assaulted my eyes. We were right in the midst of the Rogues’ camp, surrounded by all sorts of vehicles, tents and canopies stretched from one truck to the next. The bearded tawny-skinned techno nomads sat by the fires, looking grim. Some were wounded, their tattooed bodies covered in bloodied bandages. Many of the heavy vehicles were still smoking, sporting gaping holes in their bodywork.
Had I done all this? Well, in that case, Angel’s last flight must have really put a lid on their ambitious plans. They must have failed to take the fort. Because if they had, they wouldn’t be questioning me here. They’d have taken me to the fort, probably to Angel’s statue in the main square.
Lots of curious onlookers trailed after us until finally I was forced to a halt next to a large armored vehicle - one of the Rogues’ own concoctions with looked like a cross between a tortoise and a walking tank.
On top of it, I saw several criss-crossed planks fastened over the rusty armor plates. People hung from them, crucified. They’d been flayed, looking like crimson chunks of raw meat. And the most horrible thing was, they seemed to be still alive.
Hard fingers turned my head.
“See this?” Gnarl whispered. “This is how these people kill their enemies. First they pump them with snuff until they zone out, then they flay them and nail them to this cross. After a few hours, the drug starts to wear off... Release him!”
Once freed, I scrambled back to my feet and looked around me at the crowd forming around us. I was limping; any sharp movement echoed in my spine and my gut. Still, my arms and legs seemed to obey me. With every passing second, I seemed to regain control over my body. Which meant I probably had no fatal injuries, most likely thanks to my initial bone tissue reinforcement.
I kneaded my numb wrists, watching the other Incarnator from under my frowned eyebrows. He stepped back. My blue knife dropped at my feet.
“Okay, Fenrir cub, pick up your Fang,” Gnarl said, spreading his arms wide. “I have no weapons on me. Show me what they teach you in the Legion these days. If you manage to defeat me, you’ll live. If you lose, you’ll end up up there,” he nodded at the victims pinned to the crosses like some bleeding blossoms.
A duel? He wanted to turn this into a gladiatorial fight for the crowd’s entertainment? Refusing it would be pointless; I really should try and kill him.
The knife’s rough hilt in my hand suddenly gave me some strength, filling me with energy. I had Blue Steel on my side, capable of killing even a creature of Azure. My chances were quite reasonable; he had no idea of what I was capable of. I should really play this card. Also, I had my Fiend - just in case.
The fight’s outcome became pretty clear after the first twenty seconds. I’d been badly wrong. My chances were zero. I had no hope in hell. It was like pitting a newborn puppy against a seasoned fighting dog. And it wasn’t even because of my inadequate physical state. No idea how many upgrades and Evolutions this Technomancer had had, but he was infinitely more superior to me than I was superior to a regular human being. His movements were impossible to trace. Even though I could move and hit really fast, that meant nothing to him.
My next swing with the knife met thin air. Gnarl grabbed my wrist and twisted it until the bones snapped. An agonizing pain shot up my arm. Trying to free myself from his grip, I hit him twice, first with my fist, then with my elbow. Both blows connected, each of them strong enough to kill a regular human, but this time it felt like I was fighting a stone monster. He showed no reaction whatsoever. My smashed knuckles exploded in pain.
Gnarl nonchalantly flung me aside. My nose plowed through the gray dust which stank of blood.
I just didn’t have enough body reserves. In order to tackle an opponent like this, you had to have at least one Evolution under your belt, allowing you to go beyond the boundaries of a regular human body. Alternatively, one could use one’s Azuric abilities - but my damned interface was down!
It had to be the Fiend. I had to release the Azuric creature trapped within my knife. I had no other option. At the moment, Gnarl was just playing with me like a well-fed cat with a baby mouse, but still his every blow could become my last.
I drew the knife across my palm, leaving a trail of blood on the blade. Old Rico the Enchanter had been right in assessing its properties.
Fenrir’s seal erupted in a flurry of blue sparks. A red-hot dot dropped off the knife’s blade, immediately turning into a fiery wolf.
The phantom froze between me and Gnarl, looking slowly around.  The rogues shrank back, apparently scared by this arrival of a creature of Azure.
Gnarl hadn’t budged though. On the contrary, he stepped forward. His skinny outline blurred, enveloped in a pale purple glow. The already-familiar energy lasso grew out of his right hand, swirling.
“Bad try,” my enemy’s voice rang with contempt. “He recognizes me.”
My wolf shrank, raising his hackles and visibly growing smaller. I’d never seen anything like it! The Fiend seemed to be afraid of a motionless stranger who fixed him with his stare. Growling and dripping sparks, he suddenly dashed back toward the knife, turning into a fiery spark which disappeared within the blue blade.
He got scared. He’d scarpered back to safety.
I looked around me desperately, trying to come up with something that could help me but finding nothing. By now, my right hand didn’t obey me. Mustering every ounce of willpower to block out the paralyzing pain, I switched the Fang to my left hand.
Faking desperation, I lunged at Gnarl head on. He met me with an almighty whack on the head, sending iridescent circles swarming before my eyes. I must have passed out for a second. When I’d come round, I was lying on my back.
“Not bad for a mock Incarnator,” a jeering voice said above me. “You gonna get up or what?”
I staggered back to my feet. My head was swimming. My knife, where was it? Everything blurred before my eyes.
“Right, time to wrap up this show,” Gnarl said wearily.
His voice seemed to reach me from deep underwater. I realized I was staggering. The world was spinning fast around me, the immobile Gnarl and the distorted faces of hollering Rogues swirling in a crazy whirligig.
Gnarl walked over to me. His next blow was so sharp I went literally blind with the racking pain that exploded in my leg. I dropped down and screamed, reeling, unable to suppress the cries of pain. Now I was unable to get back to my feet.
“It hurts, I know,” Gnarl said. “I broke your knee. You disappointed me. With a Source that powerful, you could have thought of something better than brandishing your knife, of all things. Never mind. Goodbye, you ridiculous excuse for an Enchanter. Tell Fenrir Iceberg says hello!”
A purple glow formed around his raised fist, making it clear he was about to deal the final blow.

Chapter 1

The woman in the blue cape fearlessly stepped between us. She grabbed Gnarl’s wrist, stopping the blow. Giant dark shadows of cyberwargs flanked her petite frame.
“You keep out of this, Evilynn!” Gnarl hissed, shaking his hand free of her grip. “And take your mutts away!”
“But we haven’t even questioned him properly yet! If you kill him now, we’ll never know the City’s part in all this! Also, this body... don’t you think we can use it?”
She uttered the last words under her breath, standing very close to Gnarl. That was something not meant for prying ears.
For a while, Gnarl remained silent as if overtaken by doubt. Then the purple glow around his fist expired. He lowered his hand.
“You have a point. Emotions got the better of me,” he said quietly. “I got wound up and very nearly granted this snotnose an easy death. Take him if you wish. See if you can squeeze him dry.”
He turned back to me. His next blow felt like he’d struck my head off my shoulders, sending it bouncing over the ground. As I slipped into oblivion, I heard his cold non-committal voice,
“Once you’re finished with him, we’ll make him into a ‘red flower’ and nail him right in front of the fort’s gates. Let them see their Angel.”

* * *

I resurfaced after a while. No idea how much time I’d spent slipping in and out of consciousness, my slumber punctuated with flashes of bloody crimson.
I felt awful. My swollen tongue could barely move in my mouth, feeling for the remaining stumps of teeth. I was queasy, my head was splitting, my knee throbbing with excruciating pain. The moment I tried to breathe, my ribs felt pierced by red-hot needles. It must have taken me several minutes to finally come round, struggling to float out of the haze between swoon and awareness.
The first thing I saw when I could finally focus was a ribbed ceiling and the blinding white lamps trained on me. The place was quiet; the only thing I could hear was the soft rumbling of an engine somewhere below.
I lay sprawled, clipped to what resembled an operating table. A robotic arm overhung me, fitted with a clutch of medical tools whose purpose was a mystery to me: probably an auto surgeon or some such.
My  very first attempt to move turned into agony as pain shot through my body, blinding me like a flash of light, echoing in my leg, my spine, my head.
I let out a muffled groan, unable to suppress it. Things started to come back, floating out of the haze: my flight, my drop, my fight with Gnarl... and this unexpected delay of my death sentence.
I struggled to cast a look around. I was in a large square room with steel walls. It bounced occasionally as if moving along a bad road. It looked like I was inside one of the trailers I’d glimpsed when I’d banked the last turn over the Rogues’ camp: enormous monstrosities, long and painted silvery white, that had been lined up in their second line of defense, looking dramatically different from their usual jumble of jury-rigged vehicles. What a shame I hadn’t smashed them to smithereens while I still could...
This particular trailer must have been turned into some semblance of a high tech lab. It was lined with control consoles and virtual screens, and set up with tables and shelves holding all kinds of mysterious equipment. Everything was in pristine order, the shiny surgical tools arranged methodically on the shelves. One wall was lined with the white sarcophagi of medipods; another one with tall glass pillars which looked like giant translucent test tubes filled with thick yellowish green smoke which swirled, hinting at movement inside.
Angel’s wingsuit caught my eye. It lay in a heap in the corner, its wings seemingly broken, its silvery armor plates charred and deformed. On a shelf next to it I saw my stuff in a transparent container: my Fox suit ripped to bits, my dagger and my cryptor.
Several cages lined the far wall: some of them empty, others had garms sleeping inside. My Binocular Vision helpfully added more detail: almost all of the monstrous feral dogs wore bandages in the exact places where the steel of their newly grafted cyber reinforcements fused with flesh.
The biggest cage stood on a small pedestal slightly aside from the rest and was covered with thick tent fabric. Bundles of cables snaked along the floor, disappearing under it.
Wait a sec. My Binocular Vision seemed to work, which meant that the abilities I’d received from Ptar’s Genome were perfectly active. What was wrong with my interface, then?
The moment I thought about it, the familiar little augmented-reality icons reappeared in my mental view. Active again, finally...
The Transformation tab was blinking with numerous red dots, pinpointing my many injuries. Fractured kneecap; moderately severe concussion; fractured wrist; numerous facial bone fractures; cracked third rib; not to mention all the numerous bruises, grazes and damage to soft tissues. Not the best diagnostic in my short life. Doubtful I could even get to my feet without help.
The pain kept abating only to come back with a vengeance, unwilling to release my broken body.
Status... Transformation... Abilities... Miko, where was she now?
I opened her tab and saw the gray outline of a generic headshot crossed out in intense red.

Your cogitor has been force-disabled

Wake up, Miko, I mouthed the password with unyielding lips as I typed it into the activation box. Come on now, what’s wrong with you...
After a brief lag, my neural network appeared, holding one hand to her throat and coughing like a trooper. Her cute virtual face was screwed into the expression of dramatic suffering.


“A- a- ahem! Hi there, Incarnator...”

“Where the hell have you disappeared to?”

“Gray, we were attacked by the Lash of Void! A Gold-class Azuric ability! A blow like that can easily kill even an Incarnator. Your wingsuit saved your life, absorbing most of the damage. But we still got our fair share. Your Source went into a temporary shutdown. You blanked out. The enemies were getting close. Thanks to the data I’d downloaded from Stellar’s Archives, I was able to ID them as Possessed. A quick extrapolation suggested that if they recognized an Incarnator in you, we’d be toast. So I made a decision to temporarily disable the interface and go into sleep mode. That was the only slim chance of survival we had. As far as I can see, my prognosis proved correct.”

“But... how come they didn’t see it?”

“Didn’t see what? That you’re an Incarnator? Well, the Possessed Ones are denied access to Stellar, aren’t they? Their interfaces are disabled. Your body is now virtually indistinguishable from that of a regular human. They could only identify you through indirect evidence such as your ability to reincarnate, your genomods, your superpowers. A brain scan could have betrayed an active cogitor’s presence. It’s either that, or a full DNA test including a complete DNA breakdown.”

“But I managed to activate Angel’s suit, didn’t I? I thought that only Incarnators...”

“Not necessarily. In theory, any A-man with a fully formed Source can control bionic appliances. The degree of synchronization would be a different story, of course. But that’s not what we should be talking about now! We don’t have the time! Where are we? Try to remember as much as you can. I need information in order to assess our situation.”

Of course. She didn’t know anything about whatever had happened after she’d deactivated herself.
I focused, trying to remember everything I could about everything that had happened after that. Gnarl... our duel... the crucified people... the last words of that woman in blue...

“That’s enough, Incarnator. We were lucky. The probability of our survival was vanishingly small. Still, we didn’t have any other options. This was the only route we could take. The only reason they didn’t kill you outright was because they believed you to be a City tribute.”

That’s right. That’s exactly why I was still alive. Plus the information they hoped to glean from me, of course. The Possessed would have loved to know how the heir of Fenrir had ended up in Fort Angelo and whether it might have something to do with the City scheming against them. They wanted to know how I’d managed to activate Angel’s ancient wingsuit, as well as lots of other things. And once they’d “squeezed me dry”, as Gnarl had put it, I was facing a long excruciating death.

A weak source of Azure radiation detected.
Current absorption rate: 1 Azure per minute
Total Azure count: 7840/14300

“Danger! Watch out, Incarnator! I’ll-“

Her icon promptly closed and disappeared as she disabled herself and escaped back to sleep mode, leaving me on my own.
With a soft creaking sound, the door opened, letting in the woman in the blue hooded cape. What was her name now? - that’s right, Evilynn. She’d managed to talk Gnarl into keeping me alive for the time being.
An enormous cyberwarg trotted in her wake, a seasoned beast with a long mane of matted hair. Like a loyal bodyguard, he followed in her footsteps, his trustful stare never leaving his mistress. Obeying her sign, he slumped on the floor by the entrance, lazily baring his teeth at his caged brethren who began to whine at the sight of him. His fangs were as long as my finger, the smallest of his teeth the size of a grown man’s phalanx.
The woman removed her cape and hung it by the door, staying in a hugging protection suit. As she began to readjust it, she half-turned to me.
The sight made me shudder.
She wasn’t human anymore.
Her long triangular face gave her a likeness to a she-wolf. The yellow eyes of a wild beast. The tough matted strands of black hair and the pointy tips of her ears peeking from it, studded with ring-shaped gold piercings.
Her skin was dark gray veined with the familiar pale-blue web of Azuric patterns. Identical to what I’d seen on the fragment of the Black Moon. Identical to those that had covered Flector’s shell.
Her jumpsuit had slits made on its shoulders, elbows and knees, with some weird black growths showing beneath. Not growths, no. If my eyes didn’t deceive me, she’d actually had herself implanted with several fragments of the Black Moon, grafting them to her own flesh. It was they that emitted the glowing pattern on her skin. She was a walking Azure generator, a mini A-zone. How much A-energy must she have consumed? How many Evolutions had she undergone? What kinds of abilities had she acquired?
At the same time, I had to admit that she moved with effortless grace. Despite all the horrid modifications, her body still preserved its feminine shape, attracting my stare.
Unexpectedly for me, my interface outlined the woman in red and offered a desctiption:

Evilynn “Evil” Mail.
Provenance of the data: Stellar’s Archives, 91.7% match.
Evidence of infection detected. Progress: unknown.
Evidence of unidentified genetic, myoelectric and Azuric modifications detected.
Source type: unknown
Warning level: Red (lethal)

It suddenly dawned on me that the only reason my interface had managed to identify the enemy was thanks to the available Stellar’s archives that the curious Miko had so conveniently downloaded back at the Monolith.
The caged garms climbed to their feet, whining miserably and poking their bandaged heads between the bars. Evil crouched next to the cages, speaking to them in a soft, gentle voice. I couldn’t believe my eyes seeing the influence the Possessed woman had on those vicious mutated beasts: they yelped happily, clinging to their beloved mistress.
Having fed them, Evil walked over to the large cage that stood apart from the rest and cautiously lifted the corner of the fabric.
A girl hunkered inside. She was completely naked, her long blonde hair her only protection. She was hugging her knees with her strong bronze arms. Her large, glowing green eyes were the biggest thing I’d ever seen on a human face.
The girl curled her upper lip like a wild beast and growled softly, baring two rows of perfect white teeth.
Evil brought her face close to the bars, gave the girl a long look and emitted a low throaty laugh.
“So, sweetheart?” she asked, producing a thin steel rod. “Won’t you share your treasure with us?”
The telescopic rod extended, releasing a sharp probe which resembled a thick needle with a slanted tip. Evil carefully slid it between bars.
“Quiet, baby, be quiet,” Evil cooed as she brought the probe’s sharp tip closer to the girl. “Hush, hush! Be good, sweetheart... I’m a little kitty, and you’re a little vixen...”
The girl’s soft growl rose to a warning hiss, then exploded in the fierce howl of a wounded beast. The rod flew aside, knocked out of Evil’s hands. There was no girl in the cage anymore - instead, a wild animal raged inside. It resembled a giant cat - a lynx maybe, but it could indeed have been a fox.
But that’s where the semblance ended. These kinds of feline foxes simply didn’t exist - not with these markings and definitely not with these kinds of fangs and claws. This was a Bina-class morph, a Terran animal which had been altered by Azure. My interface ID’d it as an “Allys, a quasi-feline A-morph. Warning level: Yellow”.
Oh yes, now I recognized the cat girl. This was the werebeast that the Rattuses had sold to the Rogues. Did that mean that the Possessed wanted her for their experiments? What exactly did they want to do with her? What exactly did Evil hope to get from her?
Having turned into a cat, the girl had become so huge she didn’t fit in the cage anymore. And the bars must have been live because every time she brushed against them, they erupted in cascades of blue sparks. The werebeast howled and contorted inside, trying to evade them, but to no avail: some part of her body always ended up touching the bars.
Evil snorted. She stepped away from the monster and stood next to the cage, arms akimbo. The two seemed to have a fleeting resemblance in their beastlike yet feminine grace.
“You shouldn’t have done it, sweetheart,” Evil said in a pedantic tone. “What are you trying to achieve? Why are you so stubborn? Think for yourself, little vixen: another couple of transformations, and what will you become next? You don’t even know. You have very little time left. I only want to help. I could help you - and you could help us too.”
Vicious hissing was her answer. The girl had already regained her human shape; she huddled up at the center of the cage without a sound, writhing with pain. Her tawny body was welted and covered in nasty crimson spots as if she’d just been flogged.
Evil picked up the probe. Shaking a disapproving head, she tried to repeat what she’d started. I had no idea what she was up to - but the werebeast’s fragility turned out to be a ruse.
Her movements were so swift they didn’t register. The creature somehow managed to grab the end of Evil’s rod. After a brief struggle, the probe fell apart, leaving a few sharp fragments in the werebeast’s hands. She made full use of them; all I could make of her blurred movements was that she must have flung them at the woman.
The sheer power and speed of the creature’s attack were terrifying. I realized it when one of the fragments hit the trailer’s wall just above me, leaving an impressive dent in the ribbed metal. They failed to harm Evil though, ricocheting from the hemispherical power shield which snapped open around her, saving her from the sudden attack. I used to have something like that in Angel’s wingsuit.
She was a Technomancer, wasn’t she? Apparently, her ability to control technical appliances far exceeded that of regular humans. You just couldn’t catch her unawares or kill her with such primitive means.
Still, Evil was furious.
“Bad little vixen! Bad fox!” she growled in a low voice, flipping a switch on a device attached to the cage.
More blue sparks flew from the bars, turning into little forking bolts of lightning which started hitting the Allys creature. She howled and wailed with pain, once again transforming into the enormous shapeshifting beast, rapidly changing guises. After a short while, she was shrieking rather than wailing, squirming in agony. The stench of burnt flesh spread over the lab.
The punishment lasted several minutes. Only when the girl had stopped moving, her body black and crimson with the burns, did Evil seem pleased with the result.
The creature couldn’t scream anymore: she wheezed and croaked, gasping for air. At first I thought that she hadn’t survived the torture but her body kept shivering. The life potential in this beast was truly incredible: a regular human would have been dead a long time ago.
With an annoyed shudder of shoulders, Evil stopped the execution. She reached for a new probe and inserted it into the huddled creature’s body, meeting no resistance this time. The werefox jerked in pain as Evil performed strange manipulations.
Finally, a little green light started flashing at the probe’s other end.
“That’s it, sweetheart,” Evil said with a happy squint. “Wasn’t so bad, was it? You think I enjoy hurting you? I don’t. You need to behave, baby, and everything will be just fine...” she turned round and walked over to me with a graceful hip-swaying swagger.
Her unkind stare and shark-like grin sent shivers down my spine.
“Our hero is awake, I can see,” she sniffed. “So, honey? Let’s get started, shall we?”

Chapter 2

I didn't reply. I just concentrated on studying her.

A-woman. Class: Possessed. Glyph: Incarnator.

As a recruit, I didn't have access to all the other tabs containing her detailed stats and bio. There was one thing that stung me unpleasantly though: the very fact that “Incarnator” was just a glyph, meaning that Stellar didn’t view us as human beings. In its classification, we were grouped with A-morphs and Azuric entities from over the Edge.
This realization triggered a chain of very unpleasant speculations... but this wasn’t the right moment to start pondering over them.
Evidence of infection detected. What exactly did that mean? That black substance I’d seen - Darkness, wasn’t it? According to Miko, it was some sort of xeno virus which had come from the Black Moon. Could the Possessed have contracted it up there? Having said that, both Gnarl and Evil looked perfectly human, nothing like those two poor bastards whom Darkness had risen from the dead after it had poured out of the Black Sarcophagus.
Evil stepped close. Her cold disinterested stare made me uncomfortable. This is how you look at a lab rat you’re about to vivisect. Considering she hadn’t hesitated to do all these things to her own body, what kind of things could she inflict on somebody else’s? In any scenario, I was facing an excruciating interrogation session and the consequent study of my genetic material, followed by a slow and horrid death. Dying at Gnarl’s hands would probably have been a better option than being sent to Evilynn Mail’s lab.
“Good boy, so nice and quiet,” Evil purred in a low voice which sent shivers down my spine. “You don’t seem to be afraid, do you? That’s good. Let’s have a little talk, shall we? What’s your name?”
I kept silent while rummaging desperately for available options. They thought I was a clan tribute, a regular human with a powerful Source - which was the exact reason I was still alive. The moment they realized I was an Incarnator, the situation would change because they’d start to employ the means capable of defeating one. And that would be the end. An open confrontation with the Possessed left me zero chances. Which meant I had to suffer in silence, playing along with their theory while biding for time looking for an opportunity to escape. So I had to do my best to convince Evil I was just an ordinary tribute.
Talking to her made sense in only one case: if I wanted to play for time and pull the wool over her eyes. But she didn’t look stupid; doubtful I’d be able to pull her leg for very long. What would a regular tribute do in my case, a proud heir of Fenrir clan? Most likely, he’d preserve a dignified silence. Very well. Let’s start by playing the unbending hero. That should look believable enough.
Evil breathed a languid sigh. “You don’t want to talk. It’s so boring. I’ve seen it so many times before. Look, I’ll tell you now what’s gonna happen next. You think you have a will of steel and the balls to match. Well, you don’t. Breaking a man is the easiest thing in the world. Do you know how much time it’ll take you to start singing? A couple of minutes, if that. Then you’ll be begging me to stop.”
I had no doubt she was telling the truth. She must have had lots of experience. What other options did I have, then? The most obvious was attacking her with a Flash while I still had enough Azure. Even if the energy of Ra didn’t kill her outright, it would definitely deal her some heavy injuries and stun her to boot. That would give me some grace time - hopefully enough to break free from my bonds and finish her off.
  Which was exactly where the problem was. My duel with Gnarl had rendered me more or less disabled - doubtful I’d even be able to get back to my feet without help. My sprawled arms and legs were secured with steel clasps which made an integral part of the operating table. I had no doubt that Evil had had enough practice dealing with patients who’d needed to be securely immobilized.
Besides... the Flash could also hurt the werefox trapped in the cage. Not that I was so concerned about her - but at the moment, I viewed the creature as a potential ally. Both of us were prisoners of one and the same enemy. Also, her phenomenal agility and reactions had left a lasting impression on me. If I managed to get her out of the cage, she could create a lot of problems for the Possessed.
“Pretty boy... handsome body. Would be a shame to damage it, wouldn’t it?” Evil ran a thoughtful hand down my torso. Her touch would have been almost gentle had it not been for the five bleeding lines left by her sharp dark-blue nails.
“I don’t enjoy hurting people,” she continued, then giggled and added with a crooked grin, “Well, maybe just a little bit.”
Her fanged grin and the weird glint in her eyes were a clear indication of her hovering on the edge of insanity. You can’t preserve the clarity of mind when trapped in an inhuman body constantly altering with the effects of A-energy. It did leave its stamp on you. Miko had been right warning me against the consequences of implanting myself with incompatible genomes.
She pressed something, causing the table to slowly rise to the vertical position. Once it reached the seventy-degree angle or so, it stopped, leaving me lying on a slanted surface.
The change had caused an excruciating pain in my broken wrist and kneecap. I let out a loud groan, unable to suppress it.
“Here we are singing already,” Evil commented. “So what’s your name now?”
I didn’t reply. She pensively rummaged through a small steel toolbox filled with all kinds of surgical tools. Scalpels of every possible shape and size; bone files; needles, scissors and tongs...
“The areas that guarantee the best results are eyeballs, dental pulp, fingers, eyelids and the crotch area,” she said confidentially. “The latter is especially popular with the Rogues. Those guys have some imagination! What would you prefer, sweetheart?”
She finally made her choice. Smiling, she showed me a pair of curved nippers. Their serrated edges glistened ominously.
“If you don’t have any personal preferences, I think we’ll start with your fingers.”
I closed my eyes and tried to relax and distance myself from what was about to happen. This was only my body. This was only pain - a body’s reaction to physical damage. I wasn’t Sven Greyholm. I was Grey, an Incarnator, an incorporeal entity which could change its hosts at its first whim.
Still, my sangfroid didn’t help me much. As soon as Evil began her manipulations, an all-consuming pain shot through my body, snatching me out of my stupor and reminding me that these were my fingers, my hand, forcing me to scream and groan as I  convulsed in my bonds trying to escape the agony.
“Shame about your hand, don’t you think? I know it’s only the left one...”
She’d been right. I’d only lasted a few minutes. I could think of myself as an unbending hero all I wanted but the reality was, an unbearable pain quickly reduces you to a shrieking cornered animal which would do anything at all just to stop the torture.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” my executioner drawled. “Come again? What did you say?”
That bitch! Now I really hated her with pure unadulterated hatred. I hated all of them - the Possessed, the Rogues, everyone! If only I could, I would have killed them in a dozen various ways.
Still, she was stronger. All I could do was whine in pain, spitting blood. “Sven... Sven... Greyholm!”
She bared her teeth in a grin. “Good. Very good, Sven. Good boy! The first words are the most important. Are you from the City? How did you end up in Fort Angelo?”
“Legion’s... raid... I was... the only... survivor...”
“How interesting,” she drawled. “Mind telling me more about it? Your destination? The name of your leader? Which cohort were you? How many Warriors and Enchanters did you have?”
“I... I can’t... remember...”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to, sweetheart. You’ll absolutely have to,” she almost sang, once again raising her instrument of torture.
It suddenly occurred to me that this might have been the exact reason why the old “me” had wiped his own memory clean. He must have expected something like this to happen. You can’t be tortured into revealing something you don’t know. He was trying to protect some vital information, the key to which was hidden in that Tower of Void back in the city, inside the mirror which was behind the heron...
I had to keep his secret, whatever the cost. “I really... can’t remember!”
“You still have four more fingers, sweetheart. Please try to make an effort.”
Pain comes in plenty of shades. It can be slow and nagging; it can pierce you like a sharp needle or sever you like a serrated blade. That day, I learned all about its many varieties. I couldn’t think straight. A panic seized me. I just couldn’t see a way out of this.
While she was trying to extract information from me, I feverishly opened the Status tab and skimmed through the list of my abilities.

STATUS: Incarnator
Project Stellar
Name: Grey
Rank: Recruit (commendations: 2)
Total Azure count: 7850/14300
Source: Energy Type Ra
Special Abilities : Speck of Light (1), Reinforcements with Light (1), Flash of Light (3)
Physical modifications: Source Upgrade (5); Bone Structure Upgrade (1), Muscle Tissue Upgrade (1), Metabolic Upgrade (2), Nervous System Upgrade (2)
Genetic Modifications: Binocular Vision (Ptar Genome)
Available Neurospheres : 1
Available Genomes : Hydra Genome, Bottom Crab Genome, Rattus Genome

What of this could save my bacon? Hydra Genome wasn’t available yet. Ditto for Crab: all I could implant straight away was Impermeability to Radiation which was pretty irrelevant at the moment. The Rattus Genome I’d received while fighting rats in Fort Angelo’s underground tunnels didn’t offer anything of particular value, either.

Warning! The integrity of your host’s body has been compromised! Current integrity: 98.2%
The drop in Integrity below 30% will render your host’s body unfit for any further incarnations.

Evil seemed to be finally getting fatigued. She turned to the garms in their cages and hurled them the bloodied scraps which had only recently been my fingers. Whining, the monsters greedily attacked the treats.
Evil watched them with a smile. “These babies are constantly hungry,” she explained. “It breaks my heart to look into their begging eyes...”
I’ll kill her. Hatred throbbed in my skull. Viscous blood dripped to the floor from my mangled hand. The giant cyberwarg - her bodyguard - walked over to us and licked the floor greedily. I could hear his bloodthirsty grunting below, right next to my feet.
Bastards. Scumbags. Fucking Shivas.
What else could I use? The Reinforcements with Light were still too weak. Should I invest my only neurosphere into a muscle tissue upgrade and try to force my way free?
And then what? She was still stronger than I was.
That left Flash of Light.
“I don’t like the fluctuations in your background Azure levels,” Evil suddenly said. “What do they teach you at Timus these days? Do they help you develop your clans’ techniques? Summon fire and wind? Stop your own heartbeat? You need to know that these tricks aren’t worth jack against an authentic Incarnator. Never mind. Let’s see what you’ve got in there.”
She laid the bloodied nippers aside and produced the same fat rod of silvery steel which she’d used to torture the shapeshifter girl with.
“Keep still,” she warned me. “Otherwise it will hurt.”
The sharp probe with a slanted tip snapped out, sinking into my neck. I hissed with a new bout of pain.

Azure extraction process initiated
Azure lost: 380...
Azure lost: 450...
Azure lost...

The pale blue A-energy bar in my interface began to shrink in leaps and bounds.
That witch was somehow syphoning my Azure! That’s what that thing was for!
Seething with fury, I jerked my head, trying to pull the needle out, but Evil’s dark blue nails dug into my face with inhuman force, immobilizing me.
“Keep still, I said!” she hissed.
After about half a minute, she pulled the needle out herself. I watched her snort in surprise, staring at a steady blue light which had replaced the blinking green one at the rod’s other end.

You’ve lost 3456 Azure
Total Azure count: 4394/14300

“That’s some healthy Azure content you’ve got, honey,” her voice rang with surprise. “The battery’s fully charged! You must have a very powerful Source.”
Finally, my interface highlighted the rod in her hands, supplying information:

Universal telescopic Azure extractor
An Azure Artifact

The extractor’s back end opened up. Evil reached inside, producing the already-familiar Azure capacitor made of beryllium bronze and altered glass. According to my interface, it contained 5000 Azure. It was identical to the ones I’d received from Stellar for completing my missions. My heirloom cryptor had a whole slotful of them albeit empty ones.
So that’s how you charged them, restocking the supply of the Incarnators’ universal currency?
“How very interesting,” Evil muttered as she walked off and nonchalantly set the glowing battery on one of the shelves. “What a powerful Source. An incredible amount of Azure for a regular human. I bet you have more where this came from. Fancy sharing it with me?”
That’s when I realized I couldn’t wait any longer. Another extraction would bring my Azure stocks down to zero, rendering me unable to reincarnate or activate an ability. Which would be the end of me.
You could see Evil was a professional. She would indeed squeeze me dry and unravel my story thread by torturous thread. Very soon she’d know everything about my memory loss, my true nature and the secret stash somewhere in the City. I shouldn’t be too optimistic: Incarnators weren’t immortal, after all, and I was pretty sure that the Possessed had the means of capturing and eliminating even the likes of myself.
A new empty battery clicked into the extractor’s handle. A flashing red light came on.
“Keep still, sweetheart,” Evil cajoled me while bringing the sharp needle to my neck.
I drew a deep breath, relaxing every muscle. Once she got really close, I went for it.

Chapter 3

Speck of Light!

THE LITTLE TONGUE of flame flickered on, swirling in the air just next to my mangled hand.
Evil startled. Too late: the little spark had already slid into the little space between us - then unfurled in an all-consuming explosion of Flash of Light.
A wave of scalding heat surged over me, blinding my eyes behind my tightly squeezed eyelids with its raging white flame. Luckily, the solar flare of Ra couldn’t hurt its own creator; all I could feel was a powerful gust of hot wind.
The fire hissed and roared; I heard some high-pitched sounds followed by popping and cracking. Evil must have been instantly swept aside, away from me.
In an instant between two heartbeats, not waiting for my eyesight to restore, I summoned my cogitor:

Wake up, Miko!

Almost simultaneously, I activated my only neurosphere, selecting Muscle Tissue Upgrade (2). According to its description, it improved both my muscles’ strength and conditioning. I just hoped it was enough to help me break free from my fetters. A shitty plan, I know, but it was the only one I had!
I had to give Miko justice: she jumped straight in. Now that I’d betrayed my true nature by openly confronting my torturess, we couldn’t stop halfway: we had to employ all of our reserves.
As if reading my thoughts, Miko instantly took stock of the situation and did a quick calculation.

“Grey, the muscle upgrade isn’t enough! You need to release one hand, at least! Do it! Just rip it!”

She instantly conjured up a quick 3D picture, showing me what I had to do. By mauling my hand, Evil had in fact helped me: with enough effort, I could squeeze the long-suffering stump of my hand through the steel bracelet. That’s what desperate animals do when they’re caught in a steel trap: they chew their trapped limb off.
I was an Incarnator. My body was only a tool. My spirit was stronger than my body’s animal instincts.

“Grey, NOW!”

Mustering up all of my willpower, I yanked my hand as hard as I could, ripping skin to the bone. A mind-boggling pain pierced my body but I had no choice. It was do or die.
I screamed my head off. The pain blinded me for several seconds. Then I felt unexpectedly light when my bloodied stump had finally broken free.

“You did it! Well done! Prepare to reincarnate! I’m stopping your heart!”

Repairing the damage to your host’s internal systems...

Success! Incarnation complete!
Current Azure count: 2794/14300

I opened my new eyes.
Evil’s lab was consumed by fire. The lighting had gone off; all I could see was clouds of smoke wafting in semi-darkness. Sparks flew from machines and severed cables; the electromagnetic impulse had disabled all the electronic equipment. Everything within several paces was scorched; the flames licked greedily everything that could burn. The garms thrashed about in their cages, ablaze.
I discovered Evil within a few feet from me. Her charred mummy lay on the floor unmoving. Her split blackened skin smoldered; her hi tech suit surged with blue sparks of electric charges.

“Grey, she’s not dead! You need to finish her off, quick, while she’s still in shock!”

My left hand was free. I wriggled my perfectly good fingers. The rest of the damage to my body was gone too. I had a brand new body which didn’t hurt one bit! Now I had to somehow free myself. I still had three steel bracelets to tackle.
Using my free hand, I tried to bend or break the one on my right hand but the metal was too strong.

“Use a lever!”

I arched my body, trying to reach for Evil’s toolbox, and managed to grab something that looked like a long steel chisel. I slid it into the bracelet’s eyeloop and invested all my strength into prizing it free from the table. Screeching and caving in, the bracelet finally jumped free from its base.

“Now leg it!!! Quick! She can come round any moment!”

I arched my back like a professional gymnast and forced my legs free from their bonds with the help of my makeshift lever. Free at last! I slid out of my fetters, grabbed the Azure battery which Evil had so imprudently left within reach, and dashed toward the shelves with my stuff. Regular weapons couldn’t kill a Possessed one... but my Blue Steel could give me some advantage.

“Grey, to your left!!!”

The smoke parted, releasing the silent figure of the giant cyberwarg - Evil’s bodyguard. Leaving a comet-like smoky trail in his wake, he went for me. I was saved by the fact that he was blinded and probably also stunned. The electromagnetic impulse must have damaged his implants and cyber reinforcements; he limped, shook all over and his reactions were slow.
I dodged his attack and lunged on top of him before he could get his act together. Grabbing the chisel with both hands, I buried it deep into the back of his head. His thick skull crunched with the impact. The chisel became well and truly lodged in the bone. There was no way I could pull it out.
But even after that, the cyberwarg kept snapping his teeth trying to get to me, dropping froth everywhere. Come on, you bastard, die now!

You’ve received 730 Azure
Total Azure count: 3524/14300

Miko kept urging me to hurry. Her voice rang with anxiety. Seconds elapsed; Evil could come round any moment.
I dashed toward the shelves with my stuff. It hadn’t been clever of you guys, leaving a prisoner’s possessions in the same room, had it?
The Fox suit’s zipper zinged shut; the heirloom cryptor ring slipped onto my finger; the Fang slid out of its sheath - I needed to finish Evil off pronto!

“Grey, aim it here! This is the only place where you can hit an Incarnator’s ethereal body!”

She placed a bright red marker right at the center of Evil’s chest, exactly where the Source was supposed to be: the receptacle of the ethereal matter which animaturges call “anima” and ordinary people know as “soul”.
So that’s how you could kill an Incarnator for good, then? By hitting him or her right in the Source while the Incarnator’s bodyless spirit was inside their host’s body?

“Yes, yes, but you need to do it with an Azuric weapon! Stab her, QUICK!”

I lunged at Evil, raising my dagger.
A powerful blow met me, almost knocking me out, as Evil jumped to her feet and gave me an almighty whack with her clawed hand, sending me flying across the room. My back hit the opposite wall, very nearly knocking the dagger from my hand again.
I hadn’t made it. She must have come round a split second before my attack. A pale-blue glow enveloped her body as she activated Reincarnation, just like I’d just done. Once again she was in mint condition, not a burned wound in sight. Her high tech suit kept sparking though from my EMP attack.
She hadn’t said a word. The bluish-black plates of a new protection suit closed over her body like fish scales, as if growing from her skin, creating an impenetrable armor veined with the familiar pale-blue pattern of Azure.

“This is Azure-resistant armor, Incarnator! It’s one of her Azuric modifications! Now you can’t hurt her with a Flash!”

Evil growled: a perfectly natural beastly growl. A helmet very similar to an Anubis mask closed over her face. Its eye slits lit up crimson. Her suit’s left forearm released the triple blades of curved steel claws; the round barrel of a pulse gun clicked out of her right one. She seemed to have transformed to her combat form - a creature in scaly armor which bore only a fleeting resemblance to a human being.
The red dot of her target finder focused on me. The black muzzle of her gun glowed with the pale-blue light of an upcoming energy pulse. Angel’s wingsuit used to have it too, albeit a bigger caliber.

“Grey, follow my instructions!”

Evil began to fire.
Now I could appreciate the true purpose of these cogitor things. Had it not been for Miko, I’d have been dead within the first ten seconds. But my sweet neural network had already mapped out the entire room, overlaying it with augmented-reality diagrams and highlighting potential projectile paths, working out optimal escape routes and cover positions. All I had to do was follow her guidance and repeat every movement of my 3D copy as it threaded its way amid the red lines of new assaults. It was a game against time, a mad dance which demanded all the resources of my modified body.
Luckily, a pulse gun - even a weak one like hers - couldn’t fire non-stop. The brief two to three-second pauses was all I needed to change my position and escape the fire arc. Still, even though her first projectiles had missed the mark, I knew my luck couldn’t last forever: she must have already called in reinforcements. I needed to do something to disrupt her plans, but how could I do that?

“According to my estimate, we have zero chances in open combat, Incarnator. She’s several times stronger than we are now. I’m now assessing all probabilities...”

I leapt behind the cage with the werefox, using it as cover. The blue pulses hit its bars, melting and mangling the metal. The girl was still alive albeit in a bad way. Covered in terrifying blue and red burn marks, she thrashed about the cage, expertly dodging the energy pulses.

“I suggest we use the surprise effect and leg it, Incarnator. Here’s the scheme of the trailer. Here’s the vehicle’s cab. We could set up an accident! Can you see that air duct over there?”

I realized what she was driving at. The air duct’s path was highlighted red on the truck’s virtual profile. Easy. If only I could get a moment’s breather! I kept leaping, rolling, somersaulting and squirming like a professional tightrope artist, trying to evade death.
“Ice was right, we should have killed you there and then!” Evil growled. “You think you know what pain is? Oh no! I’ll make sure you die slowly... like a slaughtered pig...”
She laughed triumphantly, seeing me release a new Speck of Light. She must have thought I was trying to attack her again.
Not really. Obeying my mental control, the little flickering flame slid past her and headed for the air duct grill, right into the duct’s round pipe, reemerging from its other end into the vehicle’s cab.
I had no idea who was driving it. It was irrelevant, anyway: a new Flash was going to kill everyone inside the cab and disable all the complex electronic equipment. The truck might go out of control, hopefully changing the situation in my favor.
A surge of blinding light escaped the air duct like the beam of a searchlight. The truck’s cab must have turned into a ball of white fire.
My ears were assaulted by the deafening screech of the brakes. The trailer turned its direction and speed, listing to one side as if skidding round a bend.
After a few seconds, the truck was shuddered by a terrible blow which threw both Evil and myself to the floor. The truck had rammed into something, bowled over, then skidded for another fifty yards or so, apparently pulled by the momentum of its long trailer.
The lab’s entire contents showered upon us in a deadly downpour of shattered debris; its walls, the floor and the ceiling changed places several times as the trailer kept tumbling over.
Finally, it ground to a halt after bumping into something one last time so badly that the impact crumbled the ribbed metal of the walls, folding them on themselves.
I struggled back to my feet, brushing my suit off from all the broken bits. I was alive and not even wounded, if you didn’t count a few bruises.
Where was Evil?
I scanned the trailer but couldn’t detect her. But the big cage had wrought itself off its pedestal, hit the opposite wall and tumbled over before coming to a halt just next to me. All the high tech equipment that had been attached to it had been ripped off its mountings; the fat bundles of cables were severed, the cage’s double bars deformed by the pulse gun’s charges.
All of a sudden, the werefox girl was very close to me. Despite all the wounds she’d received, she was still breathing, reaching out to me through the bars which weren’t live anymore.
Her pleading gaze was on me. No, not on me - on the fully charged Azure battery that I was still clutching. The creature’s enormous eyes, green as forest leaves, were focused on its pale-blue glow. My interface still refused to ID her.

An unidentified A-creature
Type: ???
Warning level: ???

She pleaded for this Azure... and I knew I had very little left myself but...
But I went with my gut feeling. A hunch, if you wish. The expression in the weregirl’s eyes betrayed intelligence, and I was desperate for some allies. If she managed to get out of her deformed cage...
Ignoring Miko’s indignant protest, I lobbed the battery into the cage.
The girl caught it in mid-air. For a brief while, she seemed to stare at it in disbelief. Then the battery lost its blue glow as the girl must have absorbed its contents. Five thousand Azure for a creature who’d just been bled dry by Evil’s extractor - to the girl, it must have been like a drink of water to someone dying of thirst in a desert.
Slowly she rose to her full height, her head almost touching the cage’s ceiling. She seemed to be perfectly comfortable with her own nudity. The empty A-battery dropped to her feet. Her eyes were firmly fixed on me - but I couldn’t for the life of me work out the meaning of her slightly deranged gaze.
Then she spat on her hand and ran it over her body. Her gesture left clean skin in its wake as all the burns and terrible wounds disappeared as if erased. She had one hell of a regeneration!
After a few brief seconds, she stepped toward the bars and grabbed them with both hands.

“Grey, this creature... this is some genetic modification. She’s capable of using Azure artifacts! She is sentient. I’m running a quick identity assessment... Here’re the top results: she’s most likely to be an A-human belonging to the following glyphs: Shiva, Lilith or Incarnator.”

Mangled out of shape by the pulse gun impacts, the cage bars groaned their protest in her hands. She was incredibly powerful, whoever she was! Transfixed, I awoke to Miko’s desperate scream,

“Above you!”

Like a giant spider, Evil was clinging to the ceiling - or rather, to what used to be the lab’s floor. She was trying to sneak up on me to get a clean blow.
Her lithe black figure dropped down. Her sharpened curved claws glistened in the dark. Had it not been for Miko’s warning, she would have indeed ripped me open like a slaughtered pig. As it was, I managed to parry her attack - only to be thrown back like the first time, very nearly dropping the knife.
She pointed her pulse gun at me and shot me point blank. There was no way I could dodge it this time. The direct hit singed me; I saw Evil protract her predatory claws as she dashed toward me.
She didn't make it. The furious weregirl stepped in her way, transforming into a giant lithe beast. She’d managed to escape from her cage!
The girl lunged at Evil. The two rolled on the floor, entangled in an angry growling ball which swept everything out of its path.
Miko didn't let me see the end of their combat, mercifully shutting down my mind to blank out my death throes.

Activation No 14
Repairing the damage to your host’s internal systems...
Success! Incarnation complete!
Current Azure count: 1194/14300

By now, I was completely disoriented by all the screaming, roaring, hissing, the glinting of steel and the crunching of smashed equipment. Evil’s pulse gun flashed blue; the shapeshifter’s claws struck sparks from her enemy’s armor as the girl - who’d once again transformed into a giant Allys - was busy ripping Evil apart, making sure to repay her blow for a blow. The two moved so fast that I could only glimpse fragments of their movements.
I jumped at my chance. Leaping to my feet, I activated my cryptor. Its contents were all present and correct: apparently, the two Technomancers had failed to hack it open.
The Smasher felt comfortably heavy in my hand. With a soothing click, a new clip slotted in.
Azure-modified armor, you say? Let’s see how it likes a large caliber!
“Hold her! Keep her still!” I shouted to the weregirl who’d already pinned Evil to the floor and was apparently trying to bite her head off. With all the chaos around us, I was afraid of hitting my new ally.

“Keep out of the line of fire, Incarnator, will you?”

Finally Evil seemed to have got her act together. Her scaly armor was covered in deep whitish scratch marks. The weregirl was stronger and faster - but she only had her own body reserves to rely on. But Evil still had a few high tech surprises up her sleeve. Although my EMI attack must have disabled most of them, the few that were still left were plenty.
The eyeslits of her elongated visor lit up with a bright red glow, releasing thin threads of laser beams which hit the shapeshifter’s gnarling muzzle. The claws on Evil’s right forearm retracted, transforming imperceptibly into another tool: a buzzing circular saw which immediately sank into the weregirl’s flank. Howling and growling, the Allys leapt aside, abandoning her nearly defeated prey.
Now I had a clean shot. Miko calmly pointed a red marker at Evil’s helmet, then corrected my aim with the help of an augmented-reality profile.
Nine rounds boomed as one, throwing Evil several paces back. She dropped to the floor, rolled over, tried to get up, then collapsed back down. Finally, she scrambled to all fours and shook a disoriented, confused head.
I kept firing non-stop until I emptied the clip, hoping that the Crasher just might smash her head to bits. But all I’d achieved was several well-grouped whitish dents on her helmet and a light stun.
Without pausing, I conjured up another Speck of Light and sent it down my dagger’s blade which immediately began to glow. Investing all my strength into the blow, I hit the damaged part of Evil’s helmet as hard as I could.
I knew straight away that I wasn’t strong enough. It was like trying to stab a slab of rock. Evil must have upgraded her skeleton so many times that her bones had become harder than granite.
I groaned with the effort, desperate as I realized my inadequacy against her. Even when stunned, finishing her off wasn’t an easy task!
A heavy weight pressed me down. The wounded Allys had already transformed back into the girl who was bleeding profusely - and still she’d hurried to my aid. Her small hand pressed hard against the dagger’s pommel. Immediately her hand began to smolder - the Fang did burn strangers, didn't it? Still, she kept on pressing. I could see that she had much more strength in that body than I could possibly muster.
Fang’s blade kept sinking in reluctantly as if it were hardwood. Evil began thrashing in our grip, apparently coming round, then emitted a blood-curdling high-pitched shriek.
Bang! Struggling, she hit me hard with her helmeted forehead, her Anubis mask smashing my face. I saw stars. Evil’s next blow sent the weregirl flying.
She rose to her feet. Just like that, with Fang still sticking out of her helmet, one third of its blade buried in her skull. She had no intention of dying whatsoever.
Her pulse gun pointed at me again. A blue flash glinted down its barrel.
Too late. I focused, sending the Speck of Light toward the tip of the dagger. That was the whole idea: I wanted to pierce her damage-deflecting armor and explode the Flash inside her.
Evil jerked like a puppet pulled by all of its strings. Her shot missed me entirely. She dropped to the floor, flailing her arms and legs, as an unbearable white light poured out of her eye sockets, her mouth and the breach in her helmet. The Flash was scorching Evil from the inside.
It didn't last long. The scaly shell of her body armor dissolved, melting. In only a few seconds, everything that was left of her was the charred carcass of an unidentifiable creature burned to the bone, which had very little in common with a human being.
This was a biotechnological nightmare of synthetic muscles, cyber parts and artificial organs grafted to her natural ones. Now I could see why she’d been so reluctant to die: Evilynn Mail was at least 50% cyborg.

“We have little time! Collect her Azure!”

I gingerly pulled Fang out of her skull. Immediately my interface exploded with an avalanche of messages.

You’ve eliminated a dangerous criminal!
Judge: mission updated (1/10)
You’ve received 43200 Azure!
Neurosphere complete!
Neurosphere complete!
Total Azure count: 13594/16500
You’ve received a Genome of Ice Anubis!
You’ve received the phenotype of Evilynn Mail!
You’ve received ???

“Excellent, Incarnator! Can’t get much better! Now go and retrieve the fragments of the Black Moon... oh no!! Back off! Go back! GO BACK!!!”

Miko’s voice rose to a desperate high-pitched command which meant the highest degree of danger. Instinctively I backed off.
Only now did I notice a small puddle of black liquid forming under the body, viscous and unable to reflect light.
I’d seen it before, escaping that black sarcophagus.
Release - July 8, 2020

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