Growing up under my parents’ roof was never easy. My parents alternated languages when speaking with me in my early years, my father rotating between German, French and Italian, and my mother between Japanese and English, in the hopes that they would stick. After all, we learn languages easiest as babies and toddlers. I was sent to private school, where my parents monitored my progress and ensured I never fell behind. They forced me to take Latin and Ancient Greek for reasons unknown to me; by this point, I had long since accepted that my teenage independence was long gone. My father taught me how to use firearms and wield a silver tongue whilst my mother taught me hand to hand and other forms of melee combat.
I wanted to learn the violin. I wanted to take drama and become an actress.
They told me that the world wasn’t fair, that it would eat me up, chew me and spit me out if I was not ready. They told me that my reflexes had to be sharp and my mind sharper and the violin would not help me later in life, that a career in acting was simply not on the cards for me. They taught me that I needed every advantage that I could get. I made friends at school, but I had no time for socialising; my free time was spent honing me into what I am today. My friends blamed my mother’s work ethic, making racist remarks how the Japanese blood meant that I had to work every hour of every day. They were wrong, of course, my father equally as dedicated to my improvement as my mother. The only respite I had was when both my parents were away with work and I was left in the care of family friends. They would monitor me and make sure that I trained and studied, but were less hard line when it came to going out with friends.
The main reason I listened was due to my own discoveries. A Halloween party with my friends revealed certain truths to me when I was a mere child, still in primary school. We were eight years old, silly little girls at a sleepover who thought a ouija board would be spooky. The other girls didn’t believe me when I said that I wasn’t the one to spell out the word “darkness” but they thought I was just saying that to scare them. I was not, some ethereal force guided my hand to the letters. I spent what little time outside of my normal studies and other training investigating the occult and discovered its existence. I learned of creatures that made my skin crawl, the knowledge plaguing my sleep with terrible nightmares. I came to accept that my parents were right; I needed to be the best to truly survive in this world.
I got into the California Institute of Technology to study computer science and it was there that I was discovered by a local coven of witches. One of the university cleaners, a member of the coven, found the residual traces of magic in my accommodation and traced it to my room. However, they were not the only group to find me. I came back to my room one day to find a note had been slid under my door. It was cryptic, but I deciphered its meaning and followed the trail, leading me to more clues and more questions. Looking back on it, I know that it was an initiation test. A means of assessing my worthiness to survive in the real world, rather than being shielded from it. I tracked the clues to a filthy, decrepit warehouse in the bad part of town. Upon entering, I remember my phone vibrating in my pocket; a text message with the words: “You passed. Congratulations. The Eye is watching you.”
I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but it started to fall into place. I continued my training at university, adding meet ups with the coven to my already busy schedule. I became more sociable in my time at university, with no parents to force me into anything, though I still maintained a strict training regimen. Whilst the sorority was getting drunk, I was weaving spells, free-running through Pasadena or squeezing off shots down range.
I joined the Orochi Corporation on a graduate scheme, much to the disdain of my parents. They said they were disappointed at my high paid job with outstanding career prospects with the largest conglomerate in the world. Again, I did not understand at the time, but I came to understand as time went on. I was transferred within a few years, as they realised my talents were wasted as a code-monkey. I became an IT consultant, but my real job was in Orochi security. It was here that The Eye made itself known to me again. I was “invited” to speak with a member of this organisation that had scouted me back in university, or rather he was waiting for me when I returned from work one day. They had a proposition that I couldn’t really refuse; the terms were good and it was clear that they were my best chance of survival in this world, showing me Orochi’s track record and my estimated chances of survival as things were at that moment in time. I was finally introduced fully to the reality of the world we live in. I became part of a detail to protect one of Orochi’s research facilities, but my real job was to funnel information back to The Eye. I discovered that my parents were both part of a rival organisation known as the Dragon, or rather my father used to be before he accepted a more cushy position with the Council of Venice. I learned that Orochi was not held in the highest regard by these organisations due to their tendencies to dig too deep. My entire life started to make sense in that one moment when I joined The Eye.
Now here I stand, an experimental Orochi prototype strapped to my arm. I managed to decipher the science jargon enough to know that it is some sort of protection device. However, I do not take chances, creating my own magical protections that I learned from the coven in California to pair up with whatever the hell this device actually does. The facility has gone dark, comms are down and the exits have sealed, magic locks in place to make sure nothing gets in or out. It is fortunate that they do not know about my magical talents. Quarantine has been enforced while HQ sends a heavy response team to deal with the situation and standard procedure means that I won’t stand a chance if I am still inside when that team shows up; I have time, but not much of it. There are certain things that need to be done before I leave if my alibi is to hold and I am to avoid immediate execution upon my return. My pistol rests against my hip and I hold an assault rifle that I pulled from a dead guard in my hands. My Orochi uniform, usually pristine, is torn and stained with blood. I have lost track which is mine and which is not.
A single message comes through to the phone I use to contact The Eye with my reports, breaking through whatever communications jamming is being done on this facility.
“The Eye sees you in the darkness. Extraction waits at the southern gate.”
In this moment, I look back upon my life and I smile briefly, knowing that my difficult childhood was a result of my parents knowing the truth of the world and caring for my safety as their daughter. I smile knowing that they prepared me to face this type of situation.
I start making my way towards the security office.
I crash through the door to the security office, almost tumbling to my feet before I brace myself against the far wall. I turn, breathing heavily, and raise my assault rifle. The zombie rounds the corner after me and meets a burst of rifle bullets, slumping to the ground at my feet. I step over it, darting for the door and slamming it shut. I pull a nearby desk and tip it over against the door. It should hold anything that I missed on my way here. The corpse twitches on the floor, so I place two more bullets into the back of its skull and it goes limp once more.
I sling my rifle and make my way to the terminal, pushing aside the corpse of Jared, one of the other members of the security detail here. He never liked me and now he’s dead.
“Asshole,” I mutter as his body slumps to the floor with a dull thud. I generally don’t wish death on any of my coworkers, but Jealous Jared was an exception. I stand over the computers and instantly get to work; despite being covered in dirt and gore, I really do not want to sit on the bloody chair that rests next to the terminal. My log in credentials still work and I get into the system with no issues. It is no trouble to doctor the security footage, but I spend a good hour ensuring that the edits are crisp. After all, if Orochi find out that the footage is doctored, my alibi loses a lot of weight as probably the only survivor. I hear the occasional pounding on the door, but it eventually subsides. The wound on my neck is still tender where I was bitten. The device on my wrist immediately dug into my arm as soon as I was bitten and extracted something. It tells me that I am currently at 1.2% contamination, still digging into my arm rather painfully, which I can live with for the time being. I will turn the device into The Eye for further analysis and get a proper medical once I get out of here.
Security camera footage had been doctored, the cameras themselves were disabled and finally the schedule was edited to show me as off-site during this whole catastrophe. It seemed to be a simple situation; specimens escaped, damaged the systems which led to a catastrophic security breach, allowing the scientists’ test subjects out to roam the halls. After that it was standard procedure, we were locked in whilst these monsters hunted us. The Eye was right and I’m glad that I made the right career choice, although perhaps being a double agent within this company is not the most optimal outcome, but at least when it comes down to it I am on the correct team. Can’t imagine my parents would approve of my actual career choices either, but The Eye is probably a better result than Orochi from their point of view.
It’s a shame they can’t know, Christmas is always so awkward.
Speaking of which, I still need to do some of my Christmas shopping. With the way this is going and the probable mandatory medical check up that will follow, I may not make it home for Christmas this year. I may not be on the best terms with my family, but I really hope I don’t have to miss Christmas.
I unblock the door to make my exit and I am immediately jumped by another of these things. It grabs at my arm, rotting fingers clenched with a vice grip. Adrenaline has worn off since I spent an hour ensuring my escape would go unnoticed by the clean up crew and the smell is overpowering. It’s too close for my assault rifle to be of any use as it moves in to bite me, so I drawn my pistol, using my other arm to keep the zombie at bay, putting the barrel in its mouth and pulling the trigger, sending an explosion of organic matter spattering across the wall of the hallway. The body goes limp, but the hold remains on my arm and I have to peel the the fingers away from my arm. I look at the device on my wrist. 2.2% contamination. So it’s going up ever so slightly. Wonderful. I consider making a pass by the medical and the science wing, but quickly dismiss the idea as the medical wing will contain Orochi supplies, which one can never trust too much, and the science wing is the centre of this entire mess. I would rather keep breathing.
I push through towards the southern exit. Fortunately, the combination of these creatures not being the most observant and myself being covered in gore, potentially throwing off their sense of smell, I am able to get to the exit with very few problems. The occasional former-employee-turned-monster notices me, but they are pretty easy to predict and I have no issues. As I reach the door, I check the device again. 2.9% contamination. I have no idea what is “good” and what is “bad”, but I am pretty sure that getting out of here as soon as possible is in my best interests. I bypass the electronic lock on the door and examine the area, looking for the magical locks that keep it so secure. The small rune was well-hidden, on the underside of the door handle. I do not want to put myself into a vulnerable position, but I’m going to need to in order to deal with this lock. After all, if I cannot bypass the magical lock then surviving is a moot point. I won’t last long in here; it just becomes a question of what will kill me first, the released test subjects or the clean up crew.
The magic is surprisingly simple in its design, a simple enchantment to stop the door from opening. It appears as any door would were it locked by conventional means, but I know that I have disabled the electronic lock that held the door closed. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, getting a feel for the magic that makes the lock. I find it and grab hold, undoing the magic piece by piece, much as one might untie a particularly difficult knot. Worry claws at my mind as I hear noises around me, these hallways are far from a safe place to carefully undo an enchantment in a way where it can be remade. After all, I need to leave it as I found it. The clean up crew will definitely be checking the locks to see if anyone has escaped. If there are any loose ends that they need to tie up.
I open my eyes as I undo the spell, checking my surroundings immediately. I see one of the zombies shuffle around a corner. As soon as it sees me, it starts charging. No time to make sure the door is unlocked, I push down the handle and pull.
The door swings open. I sigh a breath of relief and dart through the door, pulling it shut after me. A second after I close the door I start to hear the pounding against the metal as the zombie is cut off from its next meal. I immediately secure the electronic lock, a precaution to make sure the zombie doesn’t break through, and start working on the magical enchantment. I remember the way it was made, working the magic back into its original place. Mortal spellcasters can only develop so far in their lifetime so, as a mortal spellcaster myself, I can tell that the lock was made by another mortal. I wonder if the Orochi Group has any bees in their ranks. That’s a terrifying thought…
My phone buzzes. A message in German.
“Didn’t think you were going to make it out. Avoid the main gates, they are still manned and find the silver Audi.”
I make my way to the chain-link fence, keeping out of sight from the main gates. Of course, the gate personnel are still alive, though they would have orders from Orochi to keep everything in as well as out in this situation. I can see why the Eye chose the southern exit, as the door itself is an emergency exit out of sight from the gates. I get to the rear of the compound, still out of line of sight. I’m going to need to climb the fence, over the razor wire. This is going to hurt a lot.
I check the device. 3.3% contamination. It’s rising slowly, but surely. My limbs tremble as I climb the fence though I am unsure whether it’s down to the cold or fatigue. I make it to the top. This is the only way to do this. I launch myself over the top, my subtly armoured uniform taking the brunt of the damage, but I feel as the razor wire digs into my skin, slicing into my arms and legs. I let out a subdued cry in pain as I hit the ground on the other side with a dull thud. I want to just lie down here in the street and go to sleep, unsure how much more I can endure. I push myself to start getting to my feet.
A pair of hands grab me and hoist me to my feet, bringing my own arm around someone’s shoulders and supporting my weight.
“You look like shit,” the man says as he starts to walk away from the fence with me.
“You the pickup?” I ask cautiously as we arrive at a car. A silver Audi.
“Yeah. We can talk during the drive,” he replies as he bundles me into the back seat. A stoic looking man watches from the passenger seat as the door is closed and the driver gets back in.
“Cameras offline?” the stoic looking man asks, his German accented. It’s a southern German accent, whereas the driver sounds Swiss like me.
“No, they’re still active, but there’s looping footage for another…” I check my watch. “Two hours.”
The stoic man turns to face forwards again as the engine starts.
“There’s a change of clothes and some medical supplies in the duffel bag, but I assume you need a full medical?” the driver asks as we pull into the street.
I slip out of consciousness, finally allowing my body to succumb to the combination of injury and fatigue.
I slowly open my eyes, shielding them from the light as I look straight into the eyes of the stoic man who was in the front seat; he seems to be sitting next to me. I feel his hand against my skin and a tug in the other direction as I groggily come to consciousness.
“I never consented to this,” I mutter as I feel another tug, sending a sharp pain along my arm.
“I can always stop binding your wounds if you would rather bleed out on the back seat,” he replies, pressing something against my abdomen. It’s a familiar sting. Disinfectant.
“Well, you should know I’m a gentle flower,” I murmur, still out of it. He pulls me up into a seated position, the movements uncomfortable and sudden, eliciting a quiet, pained exhale from me. “You did that on purpose.”
“You could’ve done this yourself, but you decided to take a nap,” he answers, tying what I can now make out as a bandage around my middle and pulling it tight. It feels like getting fitted for a tight corset.
“You’re going to kill me before these wounds at this rate.”
“Sorry princess. Would you like your tea now?” he says with an irritated tone, getting to work on another wound, this time on my shoulder. He looks to the driver, “are we almost there?”
“Ten minutes,” the driver responds, though he stays focused on the road ahead. The driver is blonde, with blue eyes and a fairly handsome face. Both he and the stoic one are wearing smart casual attire, shirts with blazers and slacks; no ties.
I feel another tight pull as he fastens this next bandage. The stoic man is fairly attractive too, were it not for his eternally sour expression.
“Thanks? Where are we headed?” I ask, turning to look at the two of them. The stoic looking man throws a duffel bag into my lap and I shoot him a curious look.
“Get changed. We’re heading into Zürich city centre to give your alibi substance. You can’t walk around in a wrecked Orochi uniform covered in blood.”
“You’ve got about six hours before you get a call from Orochi by my estimates. You need a full medical too, so we’re taking you to one of our warehouses. We’ve got an expert on the way for the medical,” the driver adds.
“And then I’m back in Orochi, just like that?” I ask, honestly not too keen on the idea since their facility just tried to kill me, or rather the contents of it.
“It’s what you do,” the stoic looking man snaps, “we all have our jobs, and yours is to stay and gather intel. You’re too fragile for front-line assignments.”
There’s a brief silence in the car. I turn to face the stoic looking man, my expression shifting to one of anger.
“Listen, precious, you couldn’t do the work I do if your arrogant, buzzing, immortal ass depended on it. You’d be discovered and turned into a glorified lab rat before you could get a single report off. How many have I filed? Three or four years worth? I’ve lost count. I don’t have the luxury of superhuman abilities to use as a crutch for incompetence as you d-…”
He punches me. Hard. I can feel he was holding back, partially because I am still breathing, but he clocks me across the jaw, sending my senses reeling. I feel the metallic taste of blood in my mouth and reach up, feeling blood seeping from my split lip. Another silence falls over the car as the driver looks into the back, shock plastered across his face.
“I-… I’m sorry,” the stoic man says, his tone shifting immediately to one of regret, “I shouldn’t hav-…”
“Shut. The fuck. Up.” I send him a venomous glance before turning to face the front. The car has come to a halt by now and the driver looks between the two of us.
“I’m sorry. Are you okay, Miss Schmidt?” the driver asks, his voice full of concern and frustration, “I can pull over and sort that lip out if you want.”
“Just drive,” I answer dryly, taking the clothing from the duffel bag. Typical corporate attire, but impressively in my exact size. I guess the Illuminati, knowing as much as they do, would know my measurements. Especially as one of their agents.
The driver shoots a frustrated look to the stoic looking man, mouthing “what the fuck are you thinking?” before he gets back to driving.
The rest of the journey is spent in silence. I get changed in the back of the car as we drive, slipping out of the Orochi uniform and into the business clothing. There’s even some concealer in the bag, so I touch up on my makeup, trying to hide the signs of the small war that I felt like I fought in that facility. As the car comes to a halt, I look at myself in the mirror. Presentable? It depends on one’s definition of the word, but at least I won’t immediately attract attention.
We enter the warehouse in silence, the driver offering to carry the duffel bag, which now contains my Orochi uniform and weapons, though I warn him away with an icy glare. The warehouse seems to be a normal storage warehouse, shipping containers neatly lined up along side each other in a grid formation. I see out of the corner of my eye a figure watching from the warehouse office area which, surely enough, we make our way towards. He smiles at me as we approach.
“Miss Schmidt? I am Doctor Müller and I have been told that you need a full medical?” he asks, shaking my hand with a smile. I manage a smile back and nod. He’s a short man, though still taller than me, with brown hair and striking brown eyes. He looks perhaps in his mid forties.
“Yes, Doctor. I fear that my blood has been contaminated with… an unpleasant foreign body.”
He closes his eyes for a moment, an intense calm concentration to him as we stand there in silence. “Yes, I can see it. Thankfully, it is not filth based. I did not want to have to euthanise such a useful asset.”
I breathe a heavy sigh of relief. The Filth, from what I have gathered, is a death sentence to mortals most of the time.
“You are right to be relieved at that discovery,” he says, as if reading my mind. Or he was reading my tells, it’s not hard to see that I relaxed a lot more when he said that it was not Filth based. “Come into the office. We can begin immediately,” he says with a slight eagerness to his voice, turning on his heel and making his way through the doors.
“We’ll get your equipment sorted in the meantime. We’ll find you when we’re done,” the driver says, a concerned tone still plaguing his voice as the two make their way in the other direction. I only catch the start of the telling off he starts giving the stoic man.
I follow the doctor into the office to find what looks like a reclining surgical table, just with some extra pieces. My heart almost jumps out of my chest as I start identifying what some of the implements could be used for, and the doctor seems to sense my trepidation yet again. He takes a seat next to the surgical table. “Don’t worry,” he says, turning to face me, “I won’t be using any of these on you. This will be a simple blood magic ritual to cleanse your blood of infection.”
“Blood magic?” I ask, very familiar with the concept.
“Yes. In theory, you could learn to perform this yourself, it just might require a substantial cost to do so. I understand you’re a practitioner,” he comments, visually manipulating his anima. I always hated it when Bees talked about blood magic. They get a sort of free pass due to the near-immortality thing, whilst us mortal practitioners have to be very careful how much we use to avoid draining ourselves, or our donors, of too much. I take off my jacket and lie down on the surgical table.
“Let’s just get it done. We’re on the clock, Doctor.”
The doctor claps his hands together. “Excellent. Now, please try to relax. This might hurt. A lot,” he says as he fastens me to the table. I feel like panicking again as I am fastened down. “To keep you from thrashing too much. The ritual may be compromised if you were to start moving too much, which would be the body’s natural reaction.”
He presents a small wooden splint. “So you don’t bite your own tongue off?” he asks, opening his mouth and gesturing.
“Sure, Doctor. Put your wood in my mouth,” I reply, smirking and opening my mouth. With a chuckle, he places the splint in and I bite down hard on it. I know that this kind of ritual can feel as if your blood starts setting nerve endings on fire. I know that this is going to hurt like hell.
And I’d rather not add biting off my own tongue to the list of excruciating experiences I am about to endure.
I also make a mental note to not make so many dirty comments whilst I’m technically still at work. I’m a professional, after all.
“You were off site, is that correct?” the Orochi official asks me. Debriefings are more about protocol than anything else and my interviewer knows it.
“I was. I was on lunch so I headed into the city to grab something quickly. I was alerted that the facility went into quarantine on my way back, so I maintained a safe distance as per our quarantine guidelines,” I reply, my expression totally neutral. It’s a lie, but it’s a lie with supporting evidence.
The official looks through some files in front of him. He’s probably in his mid thirties, dark hair and dark brown eyes. I sit patiently, all of my injuries had been fully healed and any potential scarring had been fixed. My uniform was in pristine condition once again and I had touched up my appearance to look immaculate, but left a feeling of daily wear to my appearance. After all, by now it was the evening and I have been at work all day.
“So you had no exposure as to why the facility went into quarantine?” he asks, putting the files down softly.
“No. I was alerted to it, but there were no details,” I explain, though I shift my expression to a frown, “which, honestly, I find rather irritating. As a member of security I should be aware of any potential security risks, but my reports were green across the board.”
I rather enjoy shifting power dynamics in interview situations. I know that this man’s job is to expose some way to have me executed. Better safe than sorry, and what’s the life of one more member of security? I have to prove that I was not there. I have to make sure there is a zero percent security risk. I need to sell my story. I should be irate at this as part of the security team. It’s part of my job to ensure this doesn’t happen.
“Your concerns are noted, Miss Schmidt. Now, if you will excuse me,” he says calmly, gesturing at the door. I smile and get to my feet.
“Thank you,” I reply quietly, making my way out of the office. I head back towards the security desk to retrieve my pistol, smiling at the officer as I approach.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asks, a rehearsed smile on his face. To me, it’s obvious that he hates his job. However, if I was stuck on desk duty I think I would hate my job too. I hand him my ID.
“I am here to retrieve my equipment,” I answer with a more genuine smile than his. I take joy in the surprise as he looks at my ID and scans it.
“Very well, ma’am. Wait here please.”
“Why the surprise, officer?” I ask with feigned interest. I know why, but I want to hear it from his mouth. I know my record has certain levels of clearance, which to most means nothing, but it garnered a reaction from him.
“Honestly ma’am, we didn’t think we’d be seeing you again. You know how it is,” he answers quietly, his smile turning into a more knowing, real one as we exchange a look. Many of us can see the patterns, many of us know that we’re expendable; those of us in the know share an unspoken bond. In this world, facing the horrors that plague it, you need to be able to trust the person at your back. I imagine he us one of those in the know. Maybe it’s the reason he accepts this position, manning a secure desk in a secure office. After a brief moment, he turns to the lockers and retrieves my pistol, sliding it through the gap in the cage along with my ID card. “Stay alive out there.”
I nod, my smile widening.
“I’m a survivor.”