Adetokunbo, better known as Addy in the interest of avoiding creative mispronunciations, lowered herself down the rope with the grace of a professional acrobat.
An acrobat dressed in a skin-tight, face-concealing outfit of midnight blue, with an audience of priceless artefacts rather than people, and an atmosphere of dead silence, but an acrobat nonetheless. Beneath the scarf that concealed her features, Addy smiled; she would have to mention the comparison to Jaci and Maiara when this was over. If Addy timed it right, she might even win a burst of Jaci’s all-too-rare unbridled laughter.
The smile dropped. Blast, whoever designed this place knew what they were doing; the artifact she sought was inches too low for her rope to reach. Just enough to deter most thieves, without being noticed by anyone casing the museum.
But Addy was not most thieves, and the acrobat comparison had not been inaccurate. Wrapping one leg securely around the rope, and extending the other for balance, Addy lowered herself until she hung upside down. The position meant that she would need to work faster, if she wanted to get back out before the blood-rush made her pass out, but she could do it.
Jaci had already turned off the laser grid, and fixed the security camera on a loop. Addy ran a diamond-edged cutter along the seam, sliding the top of the case off just enough to reach inside and pull out the amulet. She replaced it again, and twisted herself back upright, closing her eyes against a brief spate of dizziness, and quickly climbing back up. A quick text to Jaci, and Addy was climbing down roofs and leaping through the trees that lined the walkway to the museum.
Even among security guards, people rarely looked up, but Addy didn’t care. It made her job that much easier. The reverse side of the scarf that concealed Addy’s face was a brightly-coloured shawl, and she made sure to switch between the two functions before passing any security cameras. She waited very obviously outside the museum before Jaci picked her up in a nondescript Uber car, a pattern they had established over a few weeks.
Driving at exactly the speed limit, like any other car that wanted to get home after a long shift, the two women exchanged conspiratorial grins.
Home, and a celebratory dinner of pizza before they booked flights and planned their convoluted trip to a random temple, awaited them.
Getting the artefact back to the temple without being pulled over my customs (rare, thanks to existing while black), and correspondence with the traditional owners about what kind of traps they would have to avoid in the temple itself, was going to be even harder then the heist itself.
Inspired by this post that a friend linked me to.
Chapter 2: Chapter One
Smuggling a sacred relic back to it’s rightful home was surprisingly easy, if you didn’t count the inevitable racial profiling.
The relic wanted to go home, and had enough residual magic to convince the people doing the scanning and ‘random’ inspections that there was nothing out of the ordinary. If the item in question was wrapped in a towel and stuffed in the corner of a carry-on, anyone who asked rarely even needed convincing that it was a tourist knock-off. After all, who would try to smuggle a priceless artefact worth millions on the black market in a towel in a carry-on, without so much as protective bubble-wrap?
Breakage was a concern, but most relics needed to be deliberately broken by mortal hands, or had enough latent power to keep themselves intact, no matter what. In-air turbulence was like a butterfly trying to knock down a mountain by flapping it’s wings.
Once the plane landed, it was a night in the cheapest hotel they could find, usually the airport motel, and continue on to meet up with the traditional owners the next day.
Rolling out of bed, Addy stretched, relaxing as something in her back went pop. Jaci cringed reflexively, making Addy smirk. “I swear, these beds get less comfortable with each trip.”
Addy couldn’t disagree. “Well, airport hotels are usually for those who can’t get anywhere else, or people who have an early flight. Maybe they’re designed to make it impossible to go back to sleep after your alarm goes off.”
Jaci grumbled unhappily, barely awake and in no mood to be placated, and staggered toward the bathroom. Addy started to dress, mentally going over their next move. The traditional owners who had requested her services were also partially in charge of the temple site, and had organised for it to be closed for the day, claiming a holy day and much-needed structural repairs.
That this ironically happened to be the same day that a foreign leader’s family was supposed to be in the area, and had made noises about ‘honouring the natives’ with their presence by forcing them to close off their main source of income as a security measure.
Addy could practically hear the tantrums when the family showed up and were denied entry because the traditional owners felt that their own religious requirements were a bigger priority than the convenience of some foreigner, no matter how powerful. Besides, if said foreigners couldn’t be bothered to stop insulting other countries long enough to check a calander, that was hardly the traditional owners’ fault..
Besides, given some of the things that particular first family had said about the country as a whole and the native population in particular, spread over the world via social media, Addy thought that they shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, the tribe probably would have claimed a religious holy day even if they hadn’t needed secrecy and a lack of cameras for Addy to come and return the artefact.
Jaci emerged from the bathroom, dressed for hiking and slightly more alert. “I looked up the time-tables. We can catch a bus most of the way, and hike the rest.”
Addy smiled fondly, neglecting to point out that Jaci’s hair was doing an excellent impersonation of a rat’s nest. “Good to be going home, after all this time?”
The community in question wasn’t Jaci’s home - the village her family had lived in for generations had been destroyed shortly after Jaci was born and had been located several hundred miles to the west - but they were trying to get there without anyone connecting them to the theft. Addy didn’t know if the security forces here were as hyper-vigilant in regards to people of colour as the ones back home, but there was no need to do anything that would raise suspicion in the first place.
Addy and Jaci gritted their teeth through a bus-ride filled with people running on the combined high of spring break, enough wealth to travel internationally, and the sense of entitlement that came with it. After the third time shooting down a frat boy who thought that Addy’s dark skin made her a local, and therefore the stereotypical Carnivale girl up for a tumble, and the seventh time someone similar to the frat boy assumed that she and Jaci being in a relationship meant that they would welcome a complete stranger as a third participant, both women were on edge and feeling more than ready to stab the next person who bothered them. Another youth, barely a year or two into collage, leaned over his seat toward them. “So, you babes into the Carnivale spirit? I got all the party you need.”
Jaci scoffed and ignored him. Addy fixed her most terrifying glare on the boy, who flinched back and instantly tried to pretend that he hadn’t. “Go away, boy.”
His face twisted in anger, and Addy quickly took stock of her surroundings. Most of the passengers nearby were just as fed up, but unwilling to draw attention. A group of women across the way shot her reassuring looks. They would step in, if it came to a struggle.
The youth regained his bravado. “There’s no need to be such a bitch; just call it cultural differences, if you’re too frigid to be up for some fun.”
Fortunately for his wellbeing, and for Addy’s swiftly-eroding restraint, the bus reached their stop, and Addy could work out her anger on the hike.
And if swinging her backpack over her shoulder managed to hit certain parties upside the head, that was hardly her fault.
The village was small and simplistic, the buildings showing signs of being hastily built in the wake of a disaster, repaired over and over as needed, but without the money or materials to ever rebuild properly. They drew little notice, walking up the the (comparatively) largest building, where they were met by a small group of adults. Addy recognised one as the community’s leader, having talked to him over Skype when he commissioned her for this particular job. They had not exchanged names - it was safer that way, in case of discovery - and Addy knew him only as ‘the Elder’. He was reserved, but pleased to see them. “Welcome, and thank you for the assistance you have already rendered.”
Jaci replied for both of them. “It is our very great pleasure to be here. I hope that closing off the area for the day hasn’t caused any undue problems?”
The Elder’s teeth flashed white against his darker skin, bared in a wicked grin. “Not for us. Such a disappointment for certain parties, to have put up with our ‘third-world shithole’ of a nation, only to miss out on the one reason they were willing to visit in the first place.”
Addy smirked back. “Perhaps their time would have been better spent assisting our cousins who were recently afflicted by natural disasters. You may recieve some backlash.”
He shrugged. “As we will tell any who ask, better caution than for a foreign leader to be injured on our soil. Believe me, even before the temple fell to ruin, the Ancient One would not have considered him worthy to enter.”
It was never wise to draw the attention of Gods or Spirits by naming them directly, but Addy had very little trouble believing that whatever inhabited the temple would approve of ‘The Most High Tangerine’, as some of his non-supporters called him. There was something that concerned her, however. “I know that different peoples have different standards of what it means to be worthy. I know that there are dangers, but will the temple permit me to enter?”
The Elder nodded, “You are returning one of our most sacred and valuable treasures. Even if you were entering for selfish reasons, I believe that the Ancient One would be inclined to overlook any minor moral flaws.”
That was a relief. Desecrated holy places were dangerous enough, without courting extra trouble. “Thank you. Can you tell me anything about what I will face?”
He shrugged again. “The standard traps; spikes and darts triggered by movement, disappearing floor… those wretched movies did get some things right. We will teach you what to look for, and how to pass them safely. Your true challenge will be the corrupted ones.”
Jaci raised an eyebrow. “Who are - or rather, who were - they?”
The Elder’s face darkened with inter-generational anger. “The priests who were bribed and allowed the raiders into the temple, knowing what they had planned, and the ones who abandoned their duty and surrendered before them.”
Addy had come across similar instances before. Sacred oaths were not something to be lightly broken. “I will keep my eyes open. Let’s get started.”
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
Addy had studied the list of hazards until she could recite them in her sleep. According to Jaci, she had done just that last night. Addy wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her.
Triple-checking her equipment, Addy made sure that the relic was safe in it’s protective pouch, and started up the steps to the temple entrance.
Tourists could go up the steps onto the balcony surrounding the entrance, but could not go inside. Officially, this restriction was due to the temple lacking structural integrity. Unofficially, it was because the inner temple had become extremely hostile to pretty much everyone since the theft of it’s sacred treasures, and none of the locals wanted to add a supernatural body count to their list of problems.
Addy would be the first person to set foot in the temple in a very, very long time.
Knowing the dangers in advance, Addy avoided the first three traps with relative ease and the help of finely-honed reflexes. Her body would protest that extremely flexible move she had used to avoid the last trap later, but for the moment, Addy was still alive, and that was the important bit.
Her first real challange came in the form of a shadowy figure, materialising out of a wall, but appearing solid. Addy had no intention of getting close enough to find out.
The being, whose gender was impossible to make out, spoke in a harsh, gutteral voice. “Why have you come, outsider”
‘Why have you come, outsider?’ Addy translated the Spanish in her head, surprised and then promptly annoyed with herself. The relic had been stolen several decades after the arrival of Cortez and the Conquistadors, long enough for Spanish to be introduced as a language, and probably used as the default when conversing with foreigners.
It was a good thing that Addy was poly-lingual. “I come to return what was stolen.”
It was a risk, revealing her purpose, but still better than getting into a fight this early on. From what the Elder had said, the corrupted ones fell into two catagories: those who surrendered and were cursed to eternal unrest (potential allies if their punishment was broken by the relic’s return) and those who willingly assisted the raiders and were cursed for betraying their oaths (probably hostile, since breaking the curse would send them straight to their religion’s version of Hell).
This corrupted one was probably the former, since they immediately dropped their threatening posture. “Then pass, but be warned that others of my kind will not welcome you.”
That confirmed Addy’s suspicions, and she nodded. “My thanks, and may I soon bring you rest.”
The corrupted one stepped aside and waved her on.
Addy slowed her pace as she continued on, the traps becoming more and more difficult. A rumbling sound, easily recognisable from countless movies, came from behind her, and she indulged in a groan as several more dark figures, likely the less friendly corrupted ones, appeared in front of her. “Oh, come on!”
Running forward wasn’t going to help, but Addy couldn’t stay put, either. The walls of the passage were smooth, but the ceiling was not, elaborate carvings protruding downward. The passage was narrow enough for no more than three people to walk, which meant close enough for Addy to parkour up and brace herself across the ceiling.
As she suspected, the boulder was just small enough that it didn’t damage the carvings, so while she got a torn shirt and a few scrapes over her stomach, she avoided becoming a human-shaped smear on the floor. Several of the corrupted ones had not been so fortunate, and a few more were cautiously poking their heads out of the walls. Dropping back to the floor, Addy pulled a short cudgel from her belt and dashed past them.
The floor had not yet closed after the boulder, an ingenious mechanism that seemed to rely on an underground passage and force of motion to return the boulder to it’s starting point. Addy cleared the trap-door at a bound as it dropped again, sensing the movement of an intruder, and skidded to a halt just in time to avoid a spray of poison darts exploding from a wall.
Breathing a sigh of relief at the close call, she instinctively lashed out with her cudgel, sending a corrupted one who had managed to follow her flying backward. It vanished down the trap-door, and Addy hoped that it didn’t mess up the mechanism. Such fine engineering deserved better than to be spoiled by a random spirit.
There was a reason that Addy used a cudgel rather than something more lethal. First, there was no assurance that what worked to damage one type of guardian would also work on others. Second, an already-hostile temple with a vague form of sentinence tended to sit up and take notice when it’s protectors were hurt in a fight, and treat the attacker as a serious threat to be annihilated. Returning the relic was already tricky enough, and Addy saw no need to go courting trouble.
Besides, she could see the podium ahead, the place where the statue was stolen still miraculously clean and spared the decaying nature of the rest of the temple.
Reflexes saved Addy’s life as a tear - there was really no other word for it - opened in the air above the alter, and something far more monstrous than the corrupted ones clawed it’s way out, lunging for Addy’s throat. A swing of the cudgel pulverised the creature’s head, and Addy threw herself forward, dodging a second - demon was accurate enough - and pulling the relic out of her backpack. A well-aimed kick deterred the third demon long enough to place the relic on the alter.
Light, searing and cleansing and almost blinding, exploded from the relic as soon as it’s base touched the alter. The demons screamed as they were scorched out of existence, and the tear disappeared as though it had never been. Addy blinked the spots out of her eyes and pulled out a notebook, quickly sketching the demons she had seen. Jaci had done extensive research on South American mythology, and if she couldn’t identify something, her grandmother probably could.
Tucking the notebook back into her pouch, Addy turned to leave as the light changed from searing to a soft glow, almost with a feel of… approval? Benediction?
The poison darts stopped in mid-air and retreated back into the walls as she passed. The floor barely trembled beneath Addy’s feet before it steadied again, and the corrupted ones were nowhere to be seen. At the entrance, a ghost or spirit, dressed in what Addy vaguely recognised as the clothing of a high priest, waited. “Well done, go with the High One’s blessing.”
Addy only nodded, too drained from the adreniline rush to think of much more than how long it would be before she could collapse into her own bed. Or any bed that she could lay claim to for a couple of hours, at least.
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
A completed mission only brings more questions, and the answers may not be ones that they wish to hear
Addy slept deeply after her adventure, deeply enough that only the sun in her eyes the next morning managed to wake her.
Staggering to her feet and dressing, Addy quickly threw everything back into her pack, along with a bundle of cash that had appeared on top of her back, with a thank-you note attached. The people of the village were grateful, but leaving the money while she slept neatly side-stepped any awkward conversations about how much was appropriate/acceptable and concerns about affordability.
Stepping outside, Addy spotted Jaci talking with the Elder. “Good morning. Thank you for letting me sleep, I hope I didn’t inconvenience anyone.”
The Elder already looked healthier than he had before the relic was restored, something not uncommon when a violated temple drew desperately from whatever was nearby in order to maintain it’s power. “Not at all. Circumstances aside, I hope you enjoyed your visit here.”
Addy smiled, “We did, thank you. I do have a question, however. While in the temple, I came across several beings who were not Corrupted Ones. Can you tell me anything about them?”
Addy held out the sketch she had made, and the Elder examined it closely, his aged face wrinkling further in concern. “The relic you returned has a legend attached. The shorter version of that legend is that the temple was built on the site of a great battle between the forces of one un-named, who wanted to plunge the world into Chaos and Darkness, and those who opposed his plans. Those who became the temple’s first priests created the relic to bind and hold back the powers that the un-named one summoned, and built the temple around it as protection. It stood for long enough that the barrier the relic maintained did not fade immediately when it was stolen.”
Addy held up a hand, looking at her partner in concern. “Jaci, are you all right?”
Jaci took a deep breath, their face pale and brow furrowed. “It… sounds familiar, but I don’t remember how, exactly. Addy, can we take a detour to visit my Izaryz? I have some questions, but it’s not something I want to talk about over Skype.”
Addy nodded, still eyeing Jaci in concern. “We shelled out for flexi-tickets, so it should be doable.”
The Elder cleared his throat, drawing their attention back to him. “I wish you luck in your endeavours, and may whatever blessings we can grant go with you.”
Addy’s partner might lean more toward gender-fluid than strictly female, but the way Jaci squealed and ran into her grandmother’s arms was very reminiscent of Addy’s six-year-old niece.
The old woman’s hair was more grey, though leaning more toward salt than pepper, her fading eyesight concealing a mind that was as sharp as ever. Addy offered a respectful nod over Jaci’s head, “How are you, Marina?”
Marina’s stern visage gentled into a smile. “Well enough, for my age. Now, is it business or pleasure that brings you here? It’s been almost a year since I’ve set up mercenaries and tomb raiders for an unpleasant surprise.”
Addy and Jaci both sniggered, Jaci still ensconced in the older woman’s embrace. “How long since you made one of them scream.”
Marina smirked in reply. “From the outraged email I received this morning, I believe yesterday.”
Addy couldn’t help a shark-like grin. Marina had trained in law, specifically, border and travel-related laws. Her role in their little operation was to keep an eye on mercenary and archeology teams with the help of Jaci’s mother, an expert hacker. If any of said teams ‘just happened’ to return home with items that rightfully belonged to someone else, Marina got them barred from re-entering the country via international restraining orders, and Jaci’s mother pointed Addy and her daughter in the right direction to retrieve and return them.
The screams of dismay and fury when the teams tried to return to look for more artefacts when the original loot disappeared, only to discover that they couldn’t leave the airport (or in some cases, even land their plane) were music to Marina’s ears.
They retreated to the lounge, and Addy pulled out her sketch. “Unfortunately, we do have a bit of business that we need to deal with first.”
Marina went very still when she saw the creature, crudely-drawn as it was. “Where did you see this?”
Addy and Jaci exchanged concerned looks; that Marina had gone from cheerful to serious in less than a heartbeat did not bode well. Addy replied for both of them, “In a temple we returned a relic to just a few days back. Just in time, apparently, since those came out of a rift just as I returned the relic to the alter. Why? Have you seen them before?”
Marina nodded, an old pain on her wrinkled face. “Only once, but I will never forget it.”
Addy immediately made herself comfortable on the small couch, Jaci leaning into her. This didn’t sound like a story they wanted to be standing for. Marina smiled faintly at them, but there was no joy in the expression. “It happened when you were being born, my darling. We had to take your mother to the nearest maternity ward, the next city over rather, than rely on the midwife. While we were away, there was a raid on our local temple.”
Both younger women winced; that was always bad news. Marina nodded. “The relic had already been stolen three generations before I was born, and when they discovered that they were too late, they smashed a large portion of the inner chamber… including many of the remaining protective sigils. Our people fought to stop them, but they had brought merceneries, and whoever survived the soldiers fell beside them against the demons.”
Jaci swallowed hard, her eyes gleaming with tears for the father and siblings and extended family she had never been given the chance to know. “That was the ‘natural disaster’ that destroyed our home?”
Marina scoffed, “Nothing ‘natural’ about it, unless you count the inevitability of human greed. My son managed to kill one of the demons; your mother and I found the corpse next to his body. It’s an exact likeness of your sketch.
Addy shivered even as she frowned, something not quite adding up. “Did the demons escape?”
Marina shrugged helplessly. “That is the odd thing. There were no other reports of carnage or natural disasters. Perhaps they were buried under the rubble when the merceneries blew up part of the remainder of the temple.”
It wasn’t impossible, but given the strength of the demons Addy had faced, she thought it unlikely. Still, she forced a smile, changing the subject. “Did you get the injunction against that hot-shot archeology professor? Which University was it… Connecticut or Chicago?”
Marina’s answering smirk was not quite genuine, but none of them commented on it as the old woman leaned forward to pour drinks. “He taught in both areas, and the tantrum was a thing of beauty to behold. I suppose there are some benefits to that current administration of yours; other countries are far more willing to grant me a hearing when I file to restrict travel for certain individuals.”
Jaci finally laughed, reaching out to clink her glass against her grandmother’s, and they put aside the greater mystery for another day.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
By the time they returned from the airport, Addy and Jaci wanted nothing more than to fall into bed and sleep.
That plan was abruptly derailed when they opened the door and stopped dead at the sight of a tall, blond man in his mid-twenties, sitting on their couch and waiting for them. He was probably considered extremely handsome, to anyone who cared about masculine good looks, which luckily excluded both of the people who were actually supposed to be in the apartment. Addy reached for the cudgel in the umbrella stand, making sure her body hid the movement. “Who the blazing hells are you?”
He held up his hands in a peaceful gesture, though the smirk on his face was less placating. “I come in peace, I promise. I know what you’ve been up to, and -“
The rest of his speech was cut off as Addy hurled the cudgel through the air in a single smooth motion, with just enough force to knock him out without permanent damage. The man folded like a house of cards, out cold. Jaci rolled her eyes and walked over to take his pulse. “He should be fine. What do we do now? Run?”
Addy shook her head. “He found us here, I don’t want to take the chance that he’d find us elsewhere. We also don’t know if he told anyone where he was going. I vote tie him up and find out what he knows, then decide what to do from there.”
The man was heavier than expected, and woke up just as Addy got tired of standing in an forbidding pose and started to make hot chocolate. “Ow. That didn’t go like I planned.”
Jaci was still holding a pose, pinning him with her most disapproving stare. “Why are you here?”
He tried to hold up his hands, realised he was tied to a sturdy chair, and spent a few minutes staring at his bound limbs in bafflement before shrugging. “I want to help you.”
Jaci rolled their eyes. “I thought we got rid of those door-to-door Church missionaries. Our souls are just fine, and even if they needed saving, I wouldn’t trust the job to you lot.”
Addy stifled a snicker as she walked over, passing Jaci a mug of chocolate and re-hefting the cudgel in the newly-freed hand. “Let’s start with telling us your name, how you found us and what you had planned. If you co-operate, there’s a hot chocolate in it for you, too.”
He stared blankly. “This is so much weirder than any interrogation scenario I thought of.”
Addy lifted the cudgel from where it rested on her shoulder, and the man suddenly became very talkative. “My name is John, I’m a hacker, mostly, probably the best in the world. I figured out what you’ve been doing and I want to help!”
Jaci sighed expressively. “How about you leave and we’ll pretend we never saw you?”
He rolled his eye. “With the local PD’s reputation and track record, you two wouldn’t call the cops if there was any other alternative. Look, just hear me out, and if you aren’t convinced, I’ll leave and destroy all the hints that I used to find you.”
Addy sat down, pointedly resting the cudgel across her knees. “Start talking.”
John eyed her warily. “My dad was an artifact hunter -“
Jaci cut him off with a scowl. “You mean a grave robber and temple thief.”
Their unexpected visitor winced. “Or those, but they sound a lot worse. Anyway, he died in an expedition when I was a kid, and I recently started tracking his travels, and the items he helped bring in for Museums and Private Collections. They have things in common: they were retrieved from temples, the teams who brought them in are legally banned from re-entering those countries, and about half of them have gone missing in the past several years.”
Jaci eyed him skeptically. “There is something you’re not saying. Out with it.”
John winced again. “We’re not a well-off family, ok? I took one job, saw things I never thought were possible outside of Hollywood or my worst nightmares, and I want to make amends.”
Addy’s mind flashed back to his last statement, and she pulled out her sketch. “When you said ‘they’ have gone missing, did you mean the people or the artefacts? Did the impossible things you saw look like this?”
John physically recoiled as much as he could while still tied to a chair, and nearly fell over backwards. “Both, and yeah, that’s the one. They tore most of my team apart, and would have finished us off if one of the ones they killed hadn’t accidentally dropped the artefact back onto the alter.”
That fit with what had happened with Addy at the temple. “And just what do you need us for?”
John tried to shrug, with limited success. “You’ve been doing an impressive job, but I’m not the only one starting to put the pieces together, and museums are starting to upgrade their security to top-notch state-of-the-art. Especially the ones who acquired their collections less-than-legally.”
Jaci raised an eyebrow, still not convinced. “That’s inconvenient, but not insurmountable. You still haven’t explained why we need you.”
John groaned, clearly not having expected to have to actually convince them to include him. “Look, I’m one of, if not the, best there is in hacking. What you’re doing is too important to jeopardise on a ‘probably’.”
Addy and Jaci exchanged looks. Addy stood up, “We need to discuss this. Wait here.”
John rolled his eyes. “Do I look like I’m going anywhere?”
The two original members of the Museum Raiding team retreated to their room, at the other end of the apartment and the only room other than the bathroom that had a closing door. Addy raised an eyebrow at her partner, “What do you think? He raises some good points, but his showing up here is just a bit too convenient.”
Jaci laid a gentle hand on her arm. “That’s because you are justifiably paranoid, my darling.” She paused, the next words practically dragged out of her. “He’s right, though. We’re reaching the limit of my hacking skills. I need to learn more, and we don’t have the money to pay for a legitimate cryptology course. If we take him on, we can get him to teach me as part of the deal.”
Addy frowned, but conceded the point. “What if he’s a plant? If, as he claims, the museums are picking out patterns, this would be the perfect way to get inside intelligence.”
There was no counter for that. “I suppose it’s a risk we’ll have to take. He already found us once, there’s no guarantee he couldn’t do so again. If he’d be implicated as well, it lowers the chance of a double-cross.”
Addy wasn’t quite so sure, but the benefits of having him on their side just barely outweighed the drawbacks. “I’ll untie him, you find the take-out menus. We deserve a treat, after all of this.”
Jaci kissed her on the cheek. “It will be all right, my love. We’ve come too far to fail now, and we’ve already proven that we can take him down in a fight.”
Addy sniggered, then drew herself up into an intimidating pose to go free their new partner.
Chapter 6: Chapter Five
If John had sought them out a little too sure of his welcome, he had also come prepared to convince them that he was worth keeping.
Addy was reluctantly impressed as she looked through the sheer volume of floor plans, security procedures and rotations, potential tour schedules, and so on. “Well, I’ll admit this; you’re probably the best hacker I’ve come across so far.”
John tried and failed to look modest. “Thanks. For whatever it’s worth, you’re probably the best artefact heist team I’ve come across. Especially given your lack of resources.”
Jaci beamed, flattered by the compliment, but tried to brazen it out. “What, only rich white people get to do this kind of thing?”
John smirked back, acknowledging the dig. “Well, only rich white people get to do it without the law cracking down on them.”
Jaci raised a hand to him, the other hand already typing away, starting to cross reference the new information with their existing knowledge of ruined temples and potential demon hotspots. “Preaching to the choir, here. Really, though, that’s mostly because the movie stereotypes are people who can go on research trips as part of their work, or aren’t answerable to a nine-to-five job and need to apply for leave.”
John high-fived her. “Less of those nine-to-five jobs now, but shift work still means dealing with shitty bosses who listen to your request and then do the exact opposite.”
They could all agree on that. Jaci was an Uber driver and occasionally contracted through an temp Agency as security when they needed information on the layout of a Museum. Informing Uber that she was going to be unavailable for a few days still resulted in getting chewed out by her boss for no discernible reason. The temp agency Addy worked for was just as bad, even though they had seemingly no problem letting her go weeks without work the rest of the time.
She offered John a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “Other than the grave-robbing job gone wrong, what do you do?”
John pulled a face. “IT support. Half ‘have you tried turning it off and on again’, half ‘how did you even do that to your device in the first place’. For such a tech-savvy generation, some people are disturbingly ignorant.”
Jaci giggled, giving the little bounce in her seat that suggested her search algorithm had found another target.
For all that Addy had never intended to bring another person into their group, John was fitting in surprisingly well.
Well-earned chips on the shoulder and resentment toward the system did that to people.
Part of Addy’s post-mission ritual was visiting her family.
The visits were rare and brief, mostly thanks to conflicting schedules, but also because Addy may have been slightly paranoid about them getting caught up if her reverse-tomb-raiding ever came to light.
Besides, two of her three siblings had spawned, and Addy was quite aware of exactly how much small children absorbed and repeated, unaware of whether or not that something was supposed to be private. Heck, with ten years between herself and her older sister, Addy had been the toddler-shaped parrot who accidentally spilled the beans on her siblings’ antics. She couldn’t talk to her family about her real job, no matter how much they would probably support it.
Even generations later, the scars of diaspora, of lost heritage, ran deep.
It was almost isolating, having to keep secrets, with so much that Addy couldn’t say to anyone outside of Jaci and Maiara. The risk was just too great.
Still, as long as she managed to avoid talking about work, which her family took as frustration that she was still only a casual worker through an agency, time spent with her family was fun. Especially as far as the niblings were concerned. At the moment, they were chasing - or attempting to chase - Addy through a playground obstacle course, with limited success.
Addy was grinning almost as broadly as her nieces and nephews, not the least at the cries of mock-dismay when she vaulted over a rail and caught herself on a net-like structure. Quickly making her way to the top, Addy waited for the children to catch up, since their parents were signelling that it was almost time to go home.
A few of the her niblings had given up, and were watching from the ground. Her sister’s middle child, on the other hand, was still determinedly making her way up, exhaustion clear on the small face. Finally, they reached out and tapped Addy’s dangling foot. “Got you, Aunt Addy!”
Addy smiled and started to climb down. “You did indeed. Well done.”
Dark eyes set in a small and adorable face gazed up at her. “Carry me down?”
Addy laughed and slung the child over one shoulder, climbing down one-handed, the other hand steadying her nibling., who squealed in delight the entire time. It was far from the most difficult climb she had ever made - actually, it didn’t even make the top thousand - but the youngest members of her family were clearly impressed.
Her oldest nephew was practically bouncing in place. “You should go on that Ninja show, Aunt Addy. You’d show them!”
As a damper to his enthusiasm, Addy had no idea what he was talking about. A confused look at her brother convinced him to take pity on her. “Blatant Cultural Stereotype Appropriation. It runs once a year, so it doesn’t have the ongoing fame of other shows. Contestants go through an obstacle course for a monetary prize. There’s some kind of qualification entry, but the kid has a point; you’d be good at it.”
If it only ran once a year, there was little chance that Addy would become well-known enough to be easily recognisable by random passers-by or airport security officers, if she even won. Potential Sponsorships and the ability to test herself in something that wasn’t life-or-death, on the other hand… it was tempting.
She smiled at her nephew. “I’ll certainly think about it.”
Colloqually referring the the weekly movie discount sessions as ‘Tight-ass Tuesday’ didn’t actually stop anyone from taking advantage of said discount. As such, the local movie theatres found their half-price sessions crammed full of students, seniors, and anyone else in the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.
Addy and Jaci indulged whenever they were between missions and could afford it. This time, John found himself being dragged along, because friendship and teamwork meant extending invitations to do things outside of professional interactions. According to Jaci, anyway, and John didn’t exactly disagree.
He’d been looking for an excuse to watch that particular movie, anyway, and ‘outvoted by new co-workers’ was a good excuse if he had to talk his way out of getting beaten up for seeing a movie marketed for girls. His new friends might have long experience with ignoring toxic expectations, but John didn’t.
Halfway through the movie, John frowned at the row in front of them, where a collage-aged young woman had her phone out and pointed at the screen, recording. “Isn’t it illegal to film inside a theatre? Especially once the film has actually started?”
Addy hated the shiver of dread that shot down her spine. “Yes, but it you have to do something, report it directly to the theatre. Calling her out will only cause trouble.”
John’s brow furrowed in confusion, but he did as she said. At least they were near the isle, so he didn’t cause much of a fuss. Jaci hunched down in their seat, gripping Addy’s hand tightly and trying to appear less noticeable.
The lady in the next row lowered her phone, then turned and glared at them. Addy fixed her eyes firmly on the screen, praying to whatever powers might owe her a favour that she wouldn’t end up a statistic on the evening news. It would be in that higher power’s best interest; Addy couldn’t keep restoring relics if she was legally murdered by an overly zealous cop.
No such luck.
Addy felt, as much as saw, Jaci cringe, and barely held back her own instinctive flinch, as the woman unleashed her vitrol on them. “You have no grounds to complain about me, bitch!”
Her voice was significantly louder than was appropriate for the inside of a theatre, but Addy forced herself not to respond. Fear made her stiffen in her chair as the woman continued to rant, her friend already dialling on her own phone. “I’ll get the cops on you for assault, and the bitch with you can go back over the border where she came from!”
Addy had faced countless threats, many of them supernatural, and had made her way through countless temples that posed a far greater threat to her life than one entitled white brat who looked like she could barely lift a suitcase. Yet, it was the spoiled mortal that rendered her speechless and immobile with terror and the possibility of her own death. That, more than anything else, infuriated her.
Beside them, another white woman shifted, leaning forward to block the filmer’s view of Addy. “The only one causing problems here is you, lady. Back off and shut up.”
Luckily for all concerned, John and a few members of theatre security chose that moment to appear, restraining the filmer before she could lunge at the woman who had been kind enough to intervene. John pointedly positioned himself between Addy and the now-enraged patron, and for a few shining moments it seemed like everything would be fine.
Then the actual police showed up, along with the theatre Manager and Mall Security. They zeroed in on the commotion, and Addy felt her heart stop in her chest. The police wouldn’t dare open fire inside a crowded theatre, but once the movie let out…
Her terrified train of thought was derailed when the woman who had spoken up on their behalf earlier leaned forward, pasting a customer service smile on her face. “Thank you for responding. These two,” (she gestured to Phone Girl and her friend) “tried to attack me, and have been disturbing the entire film after one of the other patrons mentioned getting security because they were pirating.”
Phone Girl all but screamed in outrage, which didn’t really help her case. “I was just sending it to a friend! You’re discriminating against me!”
With an actual confession, the Police assisted the ushers in removing Phone Girl, and the entire theatre relaxed, just in time for the end credits to start tolling.
Following the flow of people toward the exit, Addy smirked at Jaci as John wriggled through the crowd to catch up with the woman who had diverted the cops. “Hey, thanks for sticking up for my friends.”
She smiled briefly, tucking a flyaway lock of brown hair behind her ear. “No problem. What good is the sword of Privilage if it can’t be used to smite the ones who abuse it and defend those who are persecuted?”
Her companion, walking on the woman’s other side, rolled their eyes. “She’s an opinion writer; she can’t help sounding like a greeting card. ‘Ri, this is why I hate taking you anywhere.”
‘Ri’s smile dropped. “You hate taking me anywhere because your basic decency becomes obvious in its absence as soon as there’s anyone to compare you against.”
She stalked off, and John watched her go, a hint of admiration in his eyes. Jaci nudged him. “You can run after her and ask for her phone number, you know.”
John shook his head. “Nah, I don’t have the time to devote to a relationship that she would deserve. If she’s an opinion writer, there’ll be a piece about this in a few days, and I can trawl through the webs to find her public contact and send a less-personal message. Chasing her down is creepy.”
Addy wasn’t entirely sure that tracking the lady down through her work was less creepy, but the intention was sweet. Jaci’s raised eyebrow spoke volumes about their opinion of John’s chances, but it wasn’t as abysmal as it could be.
Addy shook herself out of that line of thought, and changed the subject. “How is that security program of yours going?”
John perked up a little. “Nearly finished. I’ll have all the bugs out by the time we have customers.”
The code was simplistic, but it was a relief that they didn’t need to remind him to be discreet in public. “Well, we rarely last more than a few weeks between commissions, so don’t get too comfortable.”
Now that Addy considered it, the time between missions had been getting shorter and shorter, coinciding with reports of temples that suddenly started deteriorating more rapidly. That bore further consideration, and possibly another talk with Maiara. There was one obvious conclusion for the increase, but Addy really, really hoped that she was wrong about it.
The events in this chapter are something that happened to me recently, except I was actually escorted out of the theatre on potential charges of assault after tapping a woman on the shoulder and telling her that snapchatting videos of the film was piracy, not to mention extremely rude and disruptive for the other patrons.
It left me quite shaken, not the least because I am autistic, another minority frequently at risk from American Police, and because I work as a carer for vulnerable people, and a charge of assault could easily see me fired and blacklisted.
Chapter 8: Chapter Seven
Another museum raid
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Addy lurked in a tree within jumping distance (for her, at least) of a low rooftop.
She and John had wished Jaci luck a few hours earlier, before Jaci left for a casual waitress shift at the cafe of the museum they would be targeting. (There hadn’t been any openings for a temp guard, this time.) By now, John should be settled in at the nearby 24/7 Internet Cafe, and Jaci would be closing up the cafe and handing the keys over to the guards in the Control room for safekeeping until the morning manager could collect them the next day.
The head of the guard had demanded coffee for the entire night staff, paid for by Jaci, as recompense for the favour… which made Addy feel so much better about the concentrated dose of hashish mixed in with the coffee grinds.
Jaci had sent a text that she was in the clear, and a smiling selfie of her about to start another waitress shift three suburbs away, an hour ago. Addy was pondering whether to give the pot another few minutes to kick in, just in case, when she felt a faint vibration in her pocket. It was a low-tech pager, picked up in a junk shop, and unlikely to set off any signals the way a mobile phone would, and Jaci was the only one who had the number to set it off. A barely-audible crackle in her ear let her know that John was ready, too. “Hey, Addy, that feed Jaci set up is comedy gold.”
Addy rolled her eyes, carefully climbing up to a suitable gap in the branches. “Tell me about it later. How is the security system?”
She leapt to a low rooftop, just below the one that accessed the skylight Addy needed to break into the exhibit. An externally-mounted drainpipe offered all the handholds Addy could need to shimmy up to the desired roof. Another faint crackle preceded John’s reply. “Alarms disabled, and you have ten minutes until the next guard sweep. Presuming, of course, that they are in any condition to do so. Control room guards are out for the count - like, seriously out of it - and the cameras are on loop.”
Addy was impressed, but had one minor concern. “Aren’t you in a public area right now?”
She could practically hear the satisfied smirk he must be wearing. “I’ve got a first-person game demo run up on a split screen, and I’ve already apologised to everyone around me for a tendency to mutter to myself.”
That was actually quite clever, and Addy made a note to tell him so once everything was over. She tested the skylight, which needed only minor encouragement from her lock-picks and some WD40 to to open without so much as a squeak. Checking the knots on the rope harness she had tied around herself, Addy lowered herself down into the exhibit.
Fortunately, the artefact that Addy had come to retrieve was not in the main exhibit, meaning that it wasn’t patrolled as frequently and had significantly less security measures around it. Who cared about some weird-looking trinket from one of those border-hopper countries, anyway, right? According to Jaci, that was a direct quote from one of the night guards.
Addy would have been highly indignant, if it hadn’t made her job that much easier.
A test of the latches that held the exhibit case closed proved that John had disabled that, too. Securing the carved tablet inside an A4 5-subject notebook with the pages hollowed out and glued together and the cover magnetically closed, Addy slipped it inside an outside pocket of her jacket, climbing back up the rope as she heard the sound of distant, distinctly erratic, footsteps.
Closing the skylight behind her, Addy knelt in a shadow. “How is my exit route? I’m on my way out?”
The voice in her ear murmured back, “Restoring interior circuits, outside cameras will revert in ten minutes. See you soon.”
Addy coiled the rope, dropping it throw the narrow air vent of a maintainence shed. Being one of the smaller museums, there was no high, electrical fence to worry about. Slipping off the reversible jacket and turning it to the olive-green side, the artefact now safely hidden on the inside, Addy pinned a name-badge to her shirt and let her hair down and folded the scarf into a bandana.
Now merely another young woman heading to or from a night shift, Addy retrieved her handbag from the tree and walked the five minutes to the cafe. Ordering a non-complicated coffee and a muffin, she slipped on a pair of headphones and sat a few seats away from John, pulling a book of practice exams out of her handbag and settling in.
Nothing distinguished her from any of the other late-night patrons, and enough of them were also students cramming for a test that no-one bothered trying to make small-talk. They stayed that way for another hour or so, until John’s phone buzzed with a text from Jaci, letting them know that she was finishing up her shift.
John switched off his game and accessed a blocked porn site, deliberately setting off an alert that would get him kicked out of the Internet Cafe. Sure enough, a member of staff hurried over, frowning. The patrons who would remember John as a polite young man playing a game had moved on by now, so it was time to leave a different impression. He scoweled at the young woman unfortunate enough to be saddled with eviction duty when she tapped him on the shoulder, removing his headphones like it was the world’s greatest imposition. “What do you want?”
Addy felt sorry for the staff member, who was already bracing herself for an official customer complaint and a demand to speak to the manager. “Sir, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to ask you to leave. We have a policy against accessing restricted sites on our network.”
John sneered at her, every inch the entitled youth that made foreign tourists roll their eyes at the United States as a whole. “Typical snowflake. All for free speech until it comes to something you don’t approve of!”
Addy wasn’t the only one sending sympathetic glances at the cafe staff. “Sir, the terms and conditions of the cafe say that you can’t access a restricted site. You’re going to have to leave.”
John had either had a lot of practice at being an arrogant white frat boy, or a lot of experience dealing with them. Either way, the resulting tantrum drew more than enough attention that no-one noticed Addy slipping out… along with about a half-dozen other young women. No-one would find anything suspicious in their not wanting to be around an aggressive young man that the police probably wouldn’t even bother to issue with a warning before letting him go.
Organising flights to return the artefact home could wait until morning.
I feel kind of obligated to mention that drugs are bad, there is NO 'safe' or 'non-addictive' amount of recreational drugs, and that this fic should not be taken as a guide for breaking into secure places.
I may put a scene of all the 'comedy gold' John mentioned into the final draft before I publish. We'll see.
Chapter 9: Chapter Eight
The airport was as busy as it ever was, but they still managed to get through faster than Jaci and Addy ever had on their own. Reclaiming her backpack, Addy nudged her partner. “You know, I think that this might be the first time we’ve gone through security without being pulled over for a random check.”
John grimaced, overhearing Addy’s remark as he stepped out of the scanner. “I’d say random good luck, but it’s probably me.”
Jaci shrugged, pulling on her jacket and tucking the passport and ticket back into a pocket. “Well, I’m not complaining about not being felt up under the guise of a pat-down.”
The TSA guards were starting to pay a bit too much attention to their conversation, never a good thing, so Addy led the way out of security and toward the gates. “We still have an hour or so to get something to eat before our flight. Aeroplane food makes me nauseous.”
John nodded, looking embarrassed as his stomach grumbled. “I remember there being a bar with very affordable food here. It’s a bit out of the way, but we won’t have people trying to hound us out of our seats every five minutes like we would in the food court.”
That would be a rare change from the usual travel groups trying to muscle their way into an already-occupied table. Exchanging glances with Jaci, Addy decided to keep testing their luck, and shrugged. She had a new book to start reading, and at least in a less-crowded setting, it was less likely that someone would try to snatch it away in a bid to get her attention. “After you, then. Some peace and quiet before the flight would be wonderful.”
A light meal for under $15 was very affordable, by airport standards, and there was even a few free tables. More than a few, actually, since the only other person in there was a lady sitting at the bar with a tablet, probably prepping for whatever business meeting she was flying to. Finding an out-of-way vantage point with a good view of the exit, Addy and Jaci promptly claimed a four-person table, leaving the lady to concentrate, and took turns minding the bags and ordering. John went to order something alcoholic from the bar, claiming issues with air travel if he didn’t have something to dull the edge.
The other two exchanged concerned looks behind his back, but he hadn’t touched a drop in the rest of the time that they had known him, so it probably really was an occasional thing. There was no shame in indulging, just so long as it didn’t get out of control.
Addy had just collected their meals and returned to the table when raised voices caught their attention. The lady at the bar had been joined by a man, whose body language all but screamed ‘over-inflated ego’ and ‘unable to take a polite hint’. The lady was becoming visibly irritated and uncomfortable, and the man was steadily ignoring her increasingly un-subtle hints to leave her alone.
Addy desperately wanted to intervene, but she couldn’t risk drawing the notice that a complaint to security by an angry man would bring. Jaci looked equally uncomfortable about the need for inaction. John, who had just re-joined them, had no such restrictions.
He sauntered up to the bar, looking far more flirtatious than either of his companions had ever seen him, and smoothly inserted himself between the two strangers facing the man. “Hello, gorgeous.”
The man spluttered, and Addy barely managed to stifle an incredulous giggle. The lady relaxed, keeping one eye on the unfolding scene, while she pretended to focus on her tablet, a faint smile playing over her lips. The jerk’s voice went up several octaves. “What did you call me?”
John graced him with a lazy smile, and if Addy had been even slightly attracted to men, she would have felt severely tempted. “Would you prefer a different adjective? Darling or Beautiful, perhaps? Coincidentally, I love your suit, but I still think that it would look much better on a hotel room floor. I’m sure the lady won’t mind if I steal you away from her company.”
Jaci made a squeaking noice that Addy recognised as being seconds away from howling with laughter. The lady in question didn’t even look up. “Oh, feel free. I think that you’ll be disappointed, though.”
The jerk turned a truly lovely shade of purple and stormed away, and the lady looked amused. John shrugged, “So, if you want to dodge more like him, we have a spare seat at our table.”
The lady spotted Addy and Jaci, who had given up on trying not to look amused. Weighing up her odds in the face of other women being present, she picked up her tablet and carry-on, following John over and taking a seat across from him. “So, out of curiosity, are you really gay? Because if that was just an act, I can see myself getting to know you better.”
John flashed the lady a grin. “Flattered, but I don’t think that I’m anything, really. I’m actually not into anyone; male, female or otherwise.”
She nodded, taking the news better than most did. “Aro/Ace, or just never met the right one?”
John shrugged. “Sex is ok, if you have a partner who knows what they’re doing, but I’ve never understood what all the fuss is about. I’ll look at someone and think that they’re pretty, but never feel an urge to ask them out or take them home.”
The lady opened her mouth to reply, but paused when an announcement rang out over the PA system. “Damn, that’s my flight.” She scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to John. “My genuine phone number. Toss it or keep me in mind next time you want a buddy for pizza and a marathon, your choice.”
She picked up her carry on and hurried away, leaving the three of them to stare after her.
John shrugged and pocketed the phone number, then cut his ridiculously-large burger into slightly more manageable pieces. “Well, we only have an hour before our flight gets called. Dig in.”
Addy rolled her eyes, cutting into her Parmigiana rather than replying. It really was quite good.
She chose to take that as a sign of good things to come.
Chapter 10: Chapter Nine
The arrival in Brazil went equally smoothly, and they even enjoyed the rare experience of not having anyone hit on them on public transport. Addy and Jaci did grumble quietly about jerks who had more respect for another man’s ‘property’ than they did for a woman’s bodily autonomy, but the ride passed quietly. The biggest hurdle was the discreetly-hostile looks aimed at John, who was experiencing a lot more of what it was like to be a minority since he joined up with them.
Finally, the Elder stepped in, sending his people back to their previous activities with a scowl and a pointed look. “I hope you understand our reaction and do not hold it against us.”
Addy understood. She wished that she didn’t, but long experience was hard to discount in the face of a single decent person. “We understand, just as I hope you understand that John has been of great assistance to us. Our time here will be brief, so I only ask that you not turn him away entirely.”
It took longer than Addy would have preferred for the Elder to nod agreement, but he finally did. She relaxed a little. “What can you tell me about what I will face in the temple?”
The guardian appeared almost as soon as Addy stepped past the door. “Por que você está aqui?”
Really, Addy was starting to wonder if the guardians had a way of communicating with each other, or if this was just a formulaic greeting and response carried over from when the temples still stood proud and functional. The guardian of the last temple had used the same phrase. At least this one hadn’t added the disdainful ‘outsider’.
Still, there was no trouble going through with the niceties, so she inclined her head in respect. “Para desvolver…” no, that was ‘deplete’, rather than ‘return’, and very much the wrong word to use with a spirit who had been cursed thanks to strangers depleting their sacred treasures. “…disculpas, para devolver o que foi roubado.”
The spirit accepted both the apology and the correction, to Addy’s intense relief. The guardian stepped aside. “Então prossiga, mas esteja ciente de que existem aqueles que tentarão pará-lo.”
Addy inclined her head again, her suspicion deepening. The last guardian had said the exact same thing.
This temple was in slightly better conditions than the last one, thought that wasn’t saying all too much.
Her torch was un-necessary, as the ceiling was covered with something that glowed in the dark. Whether they were stones, bioluminescent moss, glow worms or something else entirely was unclear. It was useful, but became distinctly creepy after a while.
Addy’s attitude might have been effected by slamming her toe onto a crack that hadn’t been there three seconds before, costing her several seconds to get the pain under control so hat she could walk without limping. Keeping her swearing strictly mental, she continued on, paying even closer attention to the floor.
The slightest noise could give away a trap about to spring, and a soft popping sound gave Addy just enough warning to leap away from jets of flame that spurted out of the walls. Even several feet away, the heat was nearly unbearable, and Addy had to blink several times to re-moisturise her eyes. Damn, this temple meant business.
Addy hoped that it was her imagination, but the temple also seemed to have an idea of why she was there, and whatever malicious force powered the defences, it didn’t want her there.
It was fortunate that Addy had been suspicious of how long it was taking for something to attack her. This temple had been one where all of the temple guards and priests had fought to the death against the invaders, so there were no corrupted ones to worry about. The biggest problem so far was the collapsing floors, which finally resulted in Addy rigging a rope harness and climbing along the ceiling, which had a handy number of decorative carvings, and only a few suddenly appearing poisonous spikes to worry about.
As it was, she nearly arrived at the main chamber too late. The portal was open, and demons were already starting to emerge. Addy pulled out a machete, mentally thanking the local LARP and re-enactment groups that she practiced with, since they didn’t charge an arm and a leg for lessons. The first of the demons went down to a swing that left it missing a head, and a quick reverse strike impaled a second. The second was used as something of a club on the third, until the blade disentangled from whatever it had become stuck on in the demon’s body.
The fourth got far too close for comfort, a swipe of it’s clawl leaving a long cut down the side of Addy’s face. Addy retaliated by cutting off the arm, and then the head, changing her grip to swing the machete like a cricket bat, hitting a fifth demon that was clawing it’s way out of the portal. It shreiked in outrage, a sound that made Addy want to cower in a ball and never move again, but she forced through, advancing to the podium.
Switching her machete to her other hand. Addy dug through her pack for the tablet, taking advantage of the fact that the demons seemed only able to come through one at a time. The effective bottleneck allowed her to hold them at bay as she pulled out the tablet.
Immediately, the portal widened, spilling out nearly a dozen demons at once. Ignoring her machete - she couldn’t fight that many at once - Addy dove for the alter, shoving the tablet back into it’s rightful place. She screamed as a demon’s claws raked over her back, adding to the day’s collection of injuries that would scar.
Again, light swept through the room, brutal in it’s clensing fire, a Judgement that nothing evil could hope to withstand. The demons were torn apart into nothingness, Addy’s wounds healed to faint scars, and the portal closed.
Bowing to the alter, Addy started the long trek back out to see how the village fared.
Addy returned to find Jaci hovering over John, a worried frown creasing their face. John lay prone on the ground, skin pale under his tan, and looked genuinely frightened. Addy knelt down beside him, “What happened to you?”
John grimaced, and it took him several tries before he managed to speak inteligably. “A wave of light came out of the temple. Jaci and the locals seemed to draw strength from it, but I felt like I was in the grips of a fever, weak as a newborn kitten. Almost enought to make me go religious.”
Jaci frowned. “Don’t do that. You’ve got more than enough working against you already. No need to spark Christian Missionary triggers on top of everything else.”
Addy matched her partner’s frown. She had taken it as a given that the temples had some limited sentinence, but this went beyond that. Addy would never say it out loud, but she felt more fear when the temples purified themselves than she did when facing the traps. Traps were impersonal, a defence. The light of semi-divine judgement was something different, purging anything that didn’t meet the temple’s standards. Standards that would obliterate demons were nice, but there was always the uncertainty of how a flawed human would hold up to the same.
Addy often wondered if her life was only spared because she was the one to return the artefacts, and made a point of never asking for more than having their expenses paid in exchange. John had assisted raiders, though his intentions had been impersonal and non-malicious. He regretted it, and was trying to make amends.
That was probably the only thing that had spared his life.
Addy said non of that, patting her newer friend on the shoulder. “Rest, we’ll leave as soon as you’re strong enough.”
Jaci sent her a look, hearing the many things that she wasn’t saying. John grimaced again. “I don’t think that the temple likes me very much. Give me ten minutes to get back on my feet; we can rest on the hike back if I need to.”
That reinforced Addy’s suspicions, and she nodded. “Good idea. Give us a yell when you’re ready; Jaci and I will go finish up with the Elder."