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Cipher

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Loba was starting to get bored. She had been sitting in this goddamn forsaken bar for the whole of thirty minutes and if there’s one thing she truly despised, it was waiting. And the awful smell of cheap whiskey and stale beer that had been permeating from the floors and walls were not doing any good to her mood.

 

What a dump, Loba thought. There was a jukebox right at the corner looking like it’s in the last stages of its life. Most of its lights were either broken or missing, and the sound coming out from it was as muddled as it looked. The chair she was sitting on, as all the others scattered across the floor, were old and rickety, and she didn’t want to know when the table she had her elbow on was last wiped down. She hurriedly lifted her arm in disgust.

 

Across the bar was a smattering of drunk patrons mostly minding their business, but the woman who had been bartending had been giving her looks ever since she walked in. Maybe if she wasn’t so preoccupied, she would have given her the time of day.

 

Sighing, she tapped her fingernail on the small card stock in front of her, dragging it towards her with furrowed brows. The written message was clear; she was at the correct place and she had arrived at that right time, yet it seemed like the person who sent it was a no-show. Although the fact that this message was slid under the door of her apartment—one of her multiples—and had known where she was staying exactly was enough to send her to this blind meeting. It was dangerous, she knew, but more importantly, she was intrigued. The weight of a small pistol strapped to her body at least made her feel safe.

 

She was about to stand and leave when Loba’s body suddenly went taut. She felt someone come up behind her, somehow managing to sneak past her watching.

 

“Leaving so soon?” She heard a man say. Something about his voice made her body shiver. She reached for her gun discreetly.

 

“Aw, no need for that tonight. No one’s gonna hurt you here.”

 

Loba kept track of the sound of his footsteps, eyes to the side, waiting. She let herself breathe when he continued to walk to the spot in front of her. The first thing she noticed was that he was tall, a foot more than her, maybe more. He had this certain hardness to his eyes, like it had already seen too much. His hair was a dirty blonde, cropped short at the top and shaved at the sides. He was wearing a fitted black suit without the coat, and his vest was a blood red hue.

 

Everything about him was disconcerting.

 

“The famous Lone Wolf ,” he said finally, gesturing to her as he took the seat in front of her. “I’m—“

 

“Late,” Loba said, almost instinctive. She crossed her arms as she leaned back on the chair.

 

The man only laughed in reply. 

 

“My apologies. I understand that you should never make a lady wait. Especially one such as yourself.”

 

Loba waited but the man didn’t offer any reasons for his tardiness. He just kept on smiling at her like he knew something she didn’t. Loba hated it.

 

“Would you like something to drink? We have a fine assortment of spirits, reserved only for the special ones, of course.” He winked, moving to gesture for the bartender. Only then did Loba realize that they were alone, save for the other woman. Loba cut him off before he can call her.

 

“I’ll pass,” she said, growing increasingly annoyed at the display. “What I’d like to know is why I’m wasting my time here.”

 

The man smirked. “Very well. The name’s Kaleb Cross.” He extended his hand for a shake.

 

For a second, Loba wondered if it was a good idea to accept it.

 

She still did in the end. She did have manners.

 

“Loba Andrade. But I’m sure you already know that.”

 

“Why of course! Your reputation precedes you, Miss Andrade. But I didn’t call you here to talk about your infamy. I’m here to discuss a proposition.”

 

For the first time that night, Loba laughed, and a real one at that.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cross,” she said as she stood, finally having enough. “I‘m sure you’re a fine man, but I never do business with a Revenant .” She smirked as she tapped at the spot near her right wrist before pointing towards Kaleb’s own. There was a small imprint of a skull on his. Barely visible, but not invisible to Loba’s trained eyes. She was glad that she shook the man’s hand. "Have a good night."

 

She turned to leave but Kaleb apparently wasn’t done.

 

“This is where you’re wrong, girlie . I’m not a Revenant, I am the Revenant.”

 

The arrogance made Loba scoff. “I don’t see where it makes a difference, Mr. Cross. I don’t care if you're the head guy, I don’t work with the likes of you.”

 

She eyed him from head to toe and scowled, turning to head for the exit when she heard the distinct sound of a briefcase being unlocked.

 

“Maybe this can change your mind.”

 

Loba half expected to face the muzzle of a gun once she turns back.

 

Frankly, she would have preferred that rather than the trap that she willingly submitted herself into.



---------



Fuck.

 

Loba sighed as tapped her fingernails against the kitchen counter, phone pressed to her ear. In front of her sat a wooden cube in a padded case, deep ridges and lines covering all of its faces. It was stained with age—a couple hundred years according to the Revenant scum—but also perfectly preserved. She was skeptical at first, but the moment she held it in her hand, she knew it was real.

 

Pick up. Pick up. Pick up.

 

“Hello—”

 

“Jaime, I need your help.”

 

There was a clattering sound on the other line followed by a series of curses.

 

“Fucking hell—Loba?! You’ve been silent for days! I thought you were dead!”

 

I might as well be , she thought to herself.

 

“I’m fine,” she waved off, trying to sound nonchalant. “But probably not for long if you don’t help me.”

 

Jaime went quiet.

 

“You’re scaring me,” he said after a beat. “What happened in that meeting?”

 

Her eyes immediately went to the wooden cube in front of her.

 

“I may or may not have accepted a job—”

 

“That doesn’t sound so bad—”

 

“From the Revenant himself.”

 

The line suddenly went dead. Loba furrowed her eyebrows as she checked her phone, dialing again when she saw that it was fine.

 

“Hello—”

 

“Jaime, did you hang up on me?”

 

“What—No! I, uh, I dropped my phone,” he said, apologetic. “But Loba! Kaleb Cross?! I thought you hated the Revenants?”

 

“Don’t be dramatic, Jaime. Of course I hate them. I just,” Loba paused, closing her eyes tightly as she rubbed her forehead. She’d been dealing with a pounding headache ever since she’s taken the job. 

 

“You just can’t resist, can you?”

 

Her resulting groan made Jaime chuckle.

 

“Can I ask how much they’re paying you?”

 

Loba’s headache intensified. “Fifty million,” she whispered, almost painfully.

 

Jamie went silent again. She heard a series of taps and a bunch of typing on the other end.

 

“I don’t like this, Loba,” he said as the typing sounds continued. “That’s a lot of money. Whatever it is that they want you to do, I’m sure they’re gonna kill you first before they’ll ever need to pay you.”

 

“Do you think I don’t know that?” Loba hissed. “This is why I need your help, Jaime. I need to make sure that I won’t be murdered prematurely.”

 

She heard Jaime sigh.

 

“Alright. Tell me what you need.”



---------



The sun was already in its highest by the time Loba had arrived at the secluded cabin. She could see her friend already waiting by the porch, leaning on the doorway with their arms crossed. Despite the dark, circular glasses covering most of their face, Loba could see their small smile from her car’s windshield. She took the small box tied with twine sitting beside her on the front seat, and patted for the briefcase she hid under it before exiting the car.

 

“It is nice to see you again, Loba Andrade.” They greeted as soon as she was in earshot, voice a little rough from unuse. Every pause was prompted by the need to take a breath.

 

She met Blódhundr a few years ago; the search of an artifact leading her to their small cabin in the woods. Their knowledge of everything old had proven to be an invaluable asset.

 

Blód, as Loba had taken to calling them, was an old soul. Often it came out with their distinct way of speaking. Their face had been disfigured, small scars littering the edges of their jaw and forehead, concentrated towards the left side of their face. Their left eye was white, left blind by the damage. An accident when I was young , Blód had told Loba once, shared with a sad smile through labored breaths. Their weakened lungs were another casualty, Loba deduced. She never asked about them again.

 

“Hello, Blód,” she called back, presenting the small box in her hand with a flourish. “As promised from before, I come bearing gifts.”

 

Loba let them take the box before accepting their greeting, right hands clasping each other’s forearms in a firm shake.

 

“Ah, you never forget.” They gave her forearm another squeeze before gesturing towards the door.  “Come, let us share the midday meal.”

 

What an unlikely friend , Loba thought to herself, smiling as she followed them inside the cabin.



---------



The meal was a quiet affair. Blód had made good use of the spices that Loba brought them, immediately adding some of them to their cooking. When they finished, Loba had insisted to help clean up but Blód was having none of it.

 

You are my guest, please let me be hospitable, they had said, teasing.

 

Nothing much has changed in Blód’s home. It was predominantly decorated by animal bones and fur–hung on the walls, draped on chairs and covering the floor boards. A mix of old and new trinkets lined the shelves, some hung from the corners of the room in strings. Loba eyed a familiar wooden carving of a wolf on a far wall, a gift she had once given them before from a trip abroad.

 

Large opened windows served as the main source of light during the day, while a number of candle and gas lamps were scattered around the room for use at night. Blód did have a peculiar relationship with technology, selective as it was, because they still enjoy some of it especially in the kitchen. There had been a palpable weariness around some of them, as Loba had observed for the past few years of their friendship, perhaps the product of their disfigurement.

 

“I believe there is a more important reason for your visit,” Blód finally said when they finished washing up, leaning back on the sink to face her. They took a shallow breath before continuing. “Jaime’s message was… cryptic.”

 

Loba grimaced. Her eyes flickered towards the briefcase she left on the table before facing them. “Yes, but I’m afraid we need to talk about this in private .”

 

Even with the dark, circular glasses covering their eyes, Loba knew they had understood.

 

“Very well. Please retrieve your belongings and follow me.”

 

With the briefcase in hand, Loba followed Blód further into their cabin. It wasn’t big but the hanging furs concealed a lot of doorways, making it difficult to navigate. Finally reaching the backside, she watched Blód kneel on the floor before rolling up the fur carpet to reveal a metal door hatch and a security panel filled with symbols instead of numbers.

 

She turned around to give them a little privacy, turning back when she heard the metal hatch open with a hiss.



---------



The stark contrast between Blód’s living quarters and the secured monstrosity they hid beneath it was astounding. It wasn’t Loba’s first time in the basement but it never failed to leave her in awe. The sight of it always left her inner thief silently weeping at the wasted opportunity of breaking in. She once asked Blód in letting her try. She was only met by an uncharacteristic, wheezing laugh.

 

The iron wrought spiral staircase creaked as they descended. She took careful steps, making sure that her heels were planted fully on each step before taking another one. She followed Blód down until they reached the bottom, waited until they opened all the lights to reveal the whole room.

 

One would never think that anything like this would be hiding underneath a simple log cabin, but Blódhundr was a keeper of history. Their basement stretched far exceeding the walls of the upper house, encased in a combination of metal, brick and wood. The walls were equipped with floor to ceiling shelves, sectioned off in temperature controlled cubicles to preserve their contents. Blódhundr had amassed an impressive collection of old books, even older writings on non-paper materials, maps of the old world and new, and a good assortment of artifact and relics that were acquired both through legal and questionable means. Loba did contribute to some of them at some point.

 

Not everyone knew about Blódhundr and their knowledge, but they were highly respected by the few who did. Some have tried to rob them; they’ve all died even before they reached the cabin doors.

 

Loba continued towards the middle of the room, resting the briefcase on the well lit table. Blód had gestured for her to wait as they disappeared behind a series of shelves. When they returned, they were wearing a portable respirator mask.

 

“Please,” they gestured for Loba to sit on the stool, voice now muffled but their breathing much better. “Now we may discuss freely.”

 

Loba nodded as she took the briefcase towards her, unclasping it open before turning it towards her friend. “I’d like for you to tell me what you think of this.”

 

Blód kept quiet, only the sound of their breathing audible. Now that their mouth was covered by their breathing mask, Loba could no longer gauge what little of their expression she could see. They stood there for a while, unmoving, before gesturing for the wooden cube.

 

“May I?” They asked, ever polite.

 

“Please. Go ahead.”

 

Loba watched them hold the cube carefully, almost reverent. They turned the artifact in their hands, inspecting each face with a calculated move. Their fingers followed the deep grooves and indentations from end to end, turning the cube to follow the continuation across every corner. They felt for the raised bumps and symbols, studying each one closely.

 

“This is old,” she heard Blód say through their mask. “Older than the others you have brought me. Older than some of my collections. One of the forgotten ones.” Slowly, they returned the cube on the foam slot in the case. “Where did you find it?”

 

“A vile man gave it to me,” Loba answered with a grin.

 

“And what does this vile man want in exchange?”

 

“They told me it was a map.They want me to find what it’s hiding. For a fee, of course.”

 

Blód only hummed in reply. They kept staring at the cube for few more beats before looking at her. “They couldn’t find it themselves?”

 

The innocence behind the question made Loba laugh. “I believe they don’t have the brain capacity to search out for clues and hidden messages.”

 

Blód nodded in understanding. “You are probably right,” they said, still sounding a bit distracted. They had their attention focused solely on the cube, and Loba was starting to get excited on what’s to come next.

 

Suddenly they stood, telling her to stay where she was before disappearing amongst the shelves.

 

When they reappear, they were carrying a leather binder in their arm, and a small liquid container wrapped in a rag. “They were not completely wrong about the map,” they said, placing the objects on the table in front of Loba.

 

Carefully, they took their glasses off, folding the arms before placing them at the corner of the table. They then reached for the cube, turning it in their hands close to their face as if looking for something–as if seeing something Loba couldn’t. She kept herself quiet, not wanting to disturb the genius at work.

 

“The people who crafted this cube, worshipped nature,” they began speaking, as if in a trance, eyes still tracing invisible patterns across the wooden cube they were holding. “They knew their lands, studied them by heart. They cared for the forests, the rivers, and all living things. They were a small populace, and nothing much have been known about them, not even their name, and only a few things have been recorded when the remains of their people and culture have been unearthed.”

 

Blód reached for the binder blindly, pulling out an old cloth parchment from it. They let their eyes linger on the cube for a few more seconds before returning the artifact in the case. They pinned Loba with what looked to be an amused gaze. “But what the general people know is not the same as what I know,” they said, almost arrogant.

 

“My past studies about them have taught me some things–that they were fond of mysteries and its machinations. They were also hoarders. Since they were a small group, they tended to keep and hide most of their treasures behind riddles, away from invaders and foreigners that know nothing about them. But when they failed to expand, their secrets perished with them.”

 

Loba watched them spread out the sizeable cloth parchment on the table, smoothing them out with a careful hand. They pulled a translucent sheet next, placing it on top of the first one that Loba could now see as an old, fading map of a vaguely familiar land. Blód reached for something under the table and light suddenly flickered open from underneath. The drawn details of the map now looked a lot clearer against the backlight.

 

“What kind of treasures?” Loba asked as she watched them trace the outline of the old map on the translucent sheet with a thin lead.

 

“All kinds–grains and seeds for planting, pottery, clothing. Art? Precious stones, perhaps? Gold? We may never be sure, as none of their caches have been found, only ideas and vague mentions on unearthed literature. But we know now for sure that they exist. Thanks to this cube.”

 

“Interesting.”

 

“Indeed.”

 

“Now, this map was copied from one of the drawings found inside a jar at the site of their civilization. I believe this was what the terrain had looked back then, back when most of the nature was undisturbed.”

 

Blód had urged Loba to stand closer to them, showing all the quick details that they have managed to etch in aside from the general outline. Loba could see the symbols for what seemed to be for mountain ranges, lakes and long rivers. There was a specific one that looked oddly familiar–a symbol of a single tree, noticeably bigger than the others.

 

She watched as they opened the small liquid container next, tipping it over the rag slightly until a dark colored liquid made a small spread on the cloth. They took the cube next and showed Loba a specific face that they had been looking at previously. There at one of the corners, was the same symbol on the old map, a single big tree.

 

“Do not worry, this ink will not damage the wood,” Blód said as they lightly placed the cube face down on the rag, coating the raised ridges with an even amount. They then brought the cube towards the newly traced map, with Blód carefully lining up the identical the symbols on the cube and the sheet. Loba finally understood what was happening when they pressed the inked cube on the translucent surface.

 

It wasn’t perfect, but the stamp had revealed a series of converging lines, a starting point and a pathway.

 

“The cube is not the map,” Blódhundr finally said, quite proudly. “It is the cipher.”



---------



Loba let her friend lead her outside, stopping at the porch for a proper goodbye. She had with her the briefcase and the rolled up tracing paper with the completed stamped cipher.

 

“I am confident that Jaime will be able to translate this to the current topography. The technology he is using is fearsome for me, but it is quite astounding,” Blód said slowly, now without their breathing mask. They clasped her forearm with a small smile on their scarred lips.

 

“I can’t thank you enough for this, Blód.”

 

“You can thank me by being careful, Loba Andrade. I look forward to sharing another meal with you when you are done with your mission. Perhaps you could bring me interesting things when you get back?”

 

Loba nodded as she stepped off the porch, giving them another wave when she reached her car. She pulled out her phone as soon as she sat on the driver’s seat.

 

“Jaime? I need you to hire me some muscle.”



=========

Chapter Text

Loba had been studying the new map for days, making sure that she’d memorized every inch of the paper. Just as Blód had said, Jaime had easily translated the old map’s topography to the world’s current one, with ninety-nine percent accuracy.

 

She tried playing around with the cube as well, made her own stamps using different face combinations to see if it will reveal something else–something that Blód had missed. It was highly unlikely, but she liked the process of it. It kept her mind away from certain worries.

 

But now that her main problem about the map had been solved, she could finally focus on the next one. Time was ticking and she wanted to be halfway across the continent by the time Kaleb Cross came back knocking to check.

 

Her phone rang and she smiled when she saw Jaime’s name flashing on the screen.

 

“What’s taking so long, Jaime?” Loba said in lieu of a greeting. She kept her eyes on the map, deciding over the best drop off point.

 

“I’m sorry Loba, but your posting fee was too low. None of the usual ones are taking the bait.”

 

Loba groaned, suddenly aware of her dwindling funds. “I don’t need a veteran,” she said, frustrated. “I just need someone strong enough to carry stuff. Bonus if they can shoot a gun.”

 

The last bit made Jaime snort. “Even that’s pretty steep with the amount you’re offering.”

 

“Just tell them that fifty grand will be paid in cash as soon as they accept, and the remaining hundred will be paid after the assignment’s done.” If we survive, Loba thought to add but didn’t.

 

“These people are mercenaries, Loba. They would want to be paid up front, and in full. They’re going to look at that hundred grand second payment as a scam. Didn’t the Revenants give you an advance?”

 

Loba rolled her eyes. “They didn’t, those cheapskates. They offered to lend me one of their own as muscle, but I’d rather stab myself in the eyes before letting that happen. But they let me have the cube as insurance.” She let out a sigh, feeling more and more irritated. “Just please make it happen, Jaime. I’m getting desperate. I’m sure there’s someone out there as desperate as I am.”



---------



It took longer than Loba had liked, but someone was indeed as desperate as she was. Jaime had sent the details for the initial meet-up earlier in the day, and it brought Loba outside of an old, well-lit, biker bar. Sheila’s Joint, read the bright sign at the top.

 

“You need to be careful, Loba. This one’s an unknown.” Jaime said over the phone, a slew of typing sounds coming from his side. “I couldn’t find any prior contracts with their name. And you know I can find anything I want.”

 

“It’s fine, Jaime,” she waved off, patting down the concealed holster strapped to her side to check her gun. “I already signed up my life when I took the Revenant job anyway, what’s a little more danger.” She joked. Kinda.

 

Jaime stopped typing. “You better not die in this mission, you owe me a million,” he said with an annoyed sigh.

 

“I’ll give you two if I survive.”

 

“Deal. Good luck!”

 

Loba shook her head as she hung up, looking at the details for the last time to check if she was indeed at the right spot. She eyed the exterior from the safety of her car, noting the line of rowdy bikers parked out front, having a good time roughhousing. Music poured out of the doors whenever they opened, and by the looks of it, there seemed to be a lot of people inside. The location did seem legitimate enough, unlike the seedy hellhole Kaleb Cross brought her to.

 

Let’s get this over with , she told herself as she got off her car and crossed the street.

 

Strutting, Loba winked at the biker dudes as she walked by, giving some of them a little flirty smile when they whistled at her. This she knew how to deal with, harmless people who only wanted to stare at her ass. She’d done her make up immaculately that night; she was prepared for a little attention. If she was lucky enough, she could probably charm the poor man for a lower contract fee.

 

The inside of the bar was something she expected. Well-lit, well stocked, and appropriately crowded for a weekend. The jukebox at the corner looked old but well maintained, and the whole room didn’t smell like cheap alcohol.

 

“Hey, mate! You here for a drink or you only here to snoop?”

 

Loba turned towards the woman behind the bar–pierced nose, slit eyebrows and a smirk that spelled trouble. She was wearing orange overalls with the top half open and hanging down her waist, oil stained cropped tank top and an attitude that Loba was starting to like. She headed on over to the bar to meet her.

 

“You Sheila, beautiful?”

 

The bartender lady suddenly guffawed, making Loba’s brow raise. She slapped the bartop as she held her stomach. “Oh no no no, mate,” she said between her laughs. She pointed towards the corner with her thumb. “Sheila’s the jukebox. But I am indeed, beautiful .”

 

Loba couldn’t help but chuckle as well. “Fair.”

 

“Now, what can I get ya?”

 

“Whiskey, please. Your finest.”

 

The woman winked at her with a gotcha , heading over to the other side where another big guy was tending. She fetched a bottle from under the bar before returning to her. Loba took the moment to ask what she was there for.

 

“By the way, I’m supposed to meet someone here, maybe you can point them out to me?”

 

“Oh? Who’s the lucky bloke?”

 

“Bangalore.”

 

The sudden mood change almost gave Loba a whiplash. She watched the woman’s jovial face twitch to something unreadable for a second before returning to a more subdued grin. Her eyes flickered quickly to both sides as if watching for something, before returning the bottle back under the bar. When she stood, she had two unopened beer bottles in her hand.

 

“Take these, go all the way through the back. Turn left when you hit the wall.”

 

Loba could only look back in confusion.

 

“Go on now, shoo! Your date’s at the back.”

 

She didn’t know what compelled her to follow but she did anyway, holding the two bottles in one hand as she walked towards the side door the bartender pointed to. The big guy with a man bun who was working the other end of the bar nodded to her with a pleasant smile when she passed through.

 

That was odd, she thought as she walked slowly in the dimly lit corridor. As instructed, she turned left when she reached the back wall. She then found herself inside a garage, standing behind a very built woman quietly tinkering with a motorcycle engine hanging from a chain on the ceiling.

 

“Are you Bangalore?” Loba asked, feeling a bit lost.

 

The woman paused, head turning a bit to the side, as if trying to listen closely. “Depends who’s asking,” she said after a while before returning to her tinkering.

 

Confusion turned into intrigue.

 

Loba walked towards the other woman, clicking her heels even louder against the floor. She stopped when she reached her side, offering one of the bottles she was carrying.

 

“Your new employer,” Loba said, smirking when Bangalore scanned her from head to toe.



---------



Loba couldn’t take her eyes off her.

 

Jaime’s worries and initial skepticism had affected her expectations so much that she didn’t even consider thinking the opposite. She was almost sure that Bangalore was a fake looking for an easy scam, or at the very least a very incapable man that would get himself killed as soon as they dropped on location.

 

But Bangalore wasn’t a man. She was a woman—a very attractive one at that. She had a body that could probably break Jaime in half, an intelligent, cunning look to her eyes, and a very mysterious air about her that has Loba turning over her head.

 

Ex-military? Highly likely. Those dog tags hanging from her neck look like they’ve seen better days, Loba thought. She’s working on an engine. A mechanics specialist? At least she would know her way around engines if needed. Her build looks strong and sturdy enough for physical challenges. 

 

The only problem she had with all of this was that Bangalore seemed too good to be true, and that's what's scaring her the most. Loba couldn't afford to take chances, not when the stakes are too high. It made her feel a little out of sorts, not being able to read people at first glance.

 

Nonetheless, she kept her worries to herself as she let her initial observation circulate in her mind. At the same time, she could see that Bangalore was making an observation of her own.

 

The other woman now stood, leaning against the wall across from her, leaving a decent space between them. Her eyes never left hers, sizing her up, trying to figure her out after she voiced out the particulars of the job. The beers Loba brought were long gone but the conversation had only started to pick up.

 

“So what you're telling me," Bangalore recounted, an incredulous look on her face, "is that you're deliberately walking into a trap, and you want me to come with you?"

 

“Well, when you say it like that… I guess, yes."

 

"And it doesn't sound crazy to you?"

 

Loba could only shrug. It was crazy, she knew, but she also had a plan–or will have a plan. It was probably her unsure face that made Bangalore laugh, but the sound made her smile nonetheless.

 

The heavy tension that erupted when they first met was starting to dissipate.

 

"Frankly, I just need you to come with me to make sure that I don't die in the trap."

 

"Oh I won't let you die, girl. You still need to pay me my hundred grand."

 

It was Loba's turn to laugh. She approached the woman with confident steps, stopping just short of their shoes touching. Even with her heels, Bangalore still had a few inches over her, and she liked how she had to look up to meet her eyes.

 

"If you do manage to get me out of there," Loba said, voice deliberately low, "intact and not a drop of my blood outside my body, I will triple your hundred grand, and," she raised her hand and let her fingertips lightly trace Bangalore's jaw before standing on her toes to whisper directly in the woman's ear, "I will give you something much more worthwhile than money. That is a promise ."

 

She felt Bangalore move her head towards her, their noses almost touching.

 

"When do we leave?" She asked with a smirk.



---------



Fifty grand lighter but Loba couldn’t care less.

 

She felt good about hiring Bangalore–and not just because she was a tiny bit attracted to her and the way she looked in a tank top and cargo pants–but because she had shown that she was capable. She could be capable. Only time could prove it, but Loba was a gambling woman after all. Besides, she would probably be dead in twenty-four hours anyway, might as well enjoy what little time she had left in her life. Her only hope was that there was actually something valuable in that cache, and not just jars of grain and seeds as Blód had mentioned possible. She would have hated getting all prepped up just for ancient food.

 

After making sure that she had everything she needed–a copy of the map, the cube, her guns and equipment, her compact mirror because she still needed to look good while traversing the forest–she sent Jaime a message to confirm their departure. She had informed Bangalore as well, sending her the time and location for their final briefing.

 

Hopefully, their little pilot’s up and ready to go.



---------



If there was any more doubt about Bangalore, all of it disappeared when she saw her already waiting for her by the hangar parking lot. The woman was dressed to kill–Loba, specifically–because of how hot she looked in her mercenary clothes. Tight black shirt that showed off her sculpted arms, a tactical vest that covered her torso, and black military pants complete with thigh holsters. Her combat boots looked well worn, and have probably seen more war than a person should in their lifetime. She had the sides of her head newly shaved, and a red bandana held the top of her curls neatly. Beside her on the ground was a backpack, a duffle bag, and a thick weapon case.

 

Bangalore gave her a small salute when she walked towards her. Loba gestured towards her head.

 

“Love the bandana.” 

 

“Thanks. Keeps the hair out of my face.”

 

“Practical, yet stylish. I like it.”

 

Bangalore only replied with a wink. Loba then saw her eyeing her duffle bag and briefcase in her hands.

 

“Need any help with that?”

 

“No thanks, beautiful. I can handle it.”

 

“Alright then. After you.”

 

She watched the other woman heft her own bags over her shoulder before carrying the weapon case with ease. They walked the short distance towards the hangar gate then knocked.

 

“Just a sec!”

 

The heavy metal gate slid open and Loba prepared her most charming smile.

 

“Heyyy–What the fuck are you doing here?!”

 

Loba’s smile instantly turned into a grimace. “I guess Jaime didn’t tell you…”

 

The gate was hurled opened and even with the initial hostility, the woman with cropped platinum white hair wearing a pilot’s jumpsuit let them pass through before slamming it shut.

 

“Jaime didn’t even tell me he was Jaime!” The woman screamed, throwing her hands in the air. “Fuck, I should have expected that,” she then said, more to herself, slapping her hand on her forehead as she walked off towards the small, twin engine plane.

 

Loba waved off Bangalore’s questioning gaze, gesturing for her to ignore the other occupant in the hangar and to start preparing her equipment. All the while, they could hear the other woman mutter continuously beside the fueling station.

 

Loba cooed at her. “Aw, are you still mad at me?”

 

“You almost got me killed, Loba. Of course I’m still mad at you!”

 

“Did you die, though?”

 

“Oh fuck you very much.”

 

Loba heard a faint snort and a cough coming from where Bangalore was fiddling with her equipment. She tutted at her before walking towards the fuming woman coiling a fuel hose.

 

“Come on Kairi, you got paid in the end!”

 

“Yes I did, but that was before my chopper got blown up with me in it!”

 

Loba sighed. She hated how often this happened. The screaming matches, the occasional physical fights–some of the many reasons why they didn’t work out. They just clash too much. But Kairi Imahara was the best damn pilot around, and even with the cursing and the explosive arguments, she wouldn’t let anyone fly her to anywhere, especially on a mission as big as this.

 

She gave up her bravado with a sigh, and held the pilot’s arm.

 

“I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t know they were gonna come after you.”

 

Loba kept her eyes at Kairi while the woman furiously coiled the hose, seeing the fight slowly leave Kairi’s eyes. The pilot hung the fuel hose on a nearby hook and sighed. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m just really frustrated. And I really did almost die back there.”

 

She pulled Kairi into a hug. “I’m really sorry, Angel.”

 

She felt Kairi nod, arms snaking around her waist to return the hug. “You owe me a helicopter,” the pilot then said, voice muffled against her shoulder.

 

“I’ll buy you a shiny new one if we survive.”

 

“You better. Or I will push you off the plane without a ‘chute.”

 

Loba chuckled as she patted the back of the woman’s head gently before releasing her, walking off to let the pilot finish her preparations for their flight. Bangalore was quietly watching them from her perch.

 

“An ex of yours?”

 

Loba grimaced. “Something like that. It’s complicated.”

 

Bangalore raised her hands in defense. “Hey, I’m not judging.”

 

Rolling her eyes, Loba decided to change focus. She gestured towards Bangalore’s weapon case instead. “We’re fine. Now, why don’t you show me what you brought?”

 

“With pleasure.”



---------



The heat was stifling.

 

Before they even got off the plane, Loba was already worried about the humidity messing up her hair. Trivial things, but important nonetheless. Meanwhile, Bangalore looked like she belonged in an army calendar, looking fresh as if they hadn’t been sitting in a small plane for a good four hours.

 

The strip they’ve landed on was remote; Loba was surprised that Kairi even knew of a place to land on that was near their mark. Their phones weren’t even getting signals. Looking at it, it was just a cleared off portion of the forest, just big enough to handle a small double engine plane such as theirs. There was only one guy manning the radio tower, in what appears to be a poorly made up shack of old wooden planks and rusted corrugated roof.

 

“Alright, my guy said no one has landed here recently, so you two will probably be free to explore. Still though, be careful.”

 

And careful, they would be. Loba had been trying to push a creeping worry at the back of her head ever since they left, but she liked to think that she was as prepared as she could be. Whatever happens, happens.

 

Kairi gave them a thumbs up as she checked her controls and gauges, preparing her leave. She was only contracted to fly them in, but Loba knew she was the kind of person that would keep a lookout in case things go sideways. Questionable compatibility aside, it’s one of the things she liked about her, aside from her smooth tongue and charming grin.

 

She walked over to the cockpit to give the pilot a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, Angel.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Remember, you owe me a chopper.”

 

Loba laughed, ruffling Kairi’s hair before moving back to get her equipment. Bangalore followed suit but was stopped before she got off.

 

“Hey, soldier lady! No kisses for me?”

 

Bangalore looked at Loba first, confused, before looking back at Kairi who was grinning. Loba watched as she stretched her arm towards the pilot, a little unsure, hand closed in a fist.

 

Kairi’s grin grew bigger. “Alright, I’ll take it.” She said happily, bumping their fists together.

 

Loba shook her head as she continued to gather her equipment, only to pause again when Kairi held on to Bangalore’s hand before the other woman could pull away. “Hey,” she heard Kairi say, voice a bit low but still audible, playful. “Be careful with that one, okay?”

 

The comment made her roll her eyes. “Enough of that, Kairi. Go home.”

 

She almost lost her footing when Bangalore whispered back, voice equally amused.

 

“I can handle her,” she heard her say.

 

Loba scoffed at the two women before exiting the plane.



---------



The two watched as Kairi finally flew off, shouldering their packs the moment her plane was out of sight. Beside her, Bangalore kept on fiddling with one of her vest pockets, adjusting the straps of her assault rifle and the backpack perched on her back.

 

Loba carefully unfolded the map in her hands, gesturing for her companion to follow her as they started their trek.



=========

Chapter Text

The first hour proved to be challenging, with the heat of the sun bearing down on both of them and the humidity choking the air. By her estimation, Loba believed that they were about four hours away from their destination, give or take. That is, if Jaime’s translated map was correct.

 

Nearing the half way mark, she decided to stop for a short rest to replenish liquids. The trees had offered a good amount of shade where they were. Loba brought out the map from her pocket, sitting on a dried stump with a loud moan. At the corner of her eye, she saw Bangalore choke on her water that ended up into a coughing fit.

 

“You okay over there?” She asked, smirking. The poor woman gave her an OK sign as she continued to clear her throat.

 

A couple more wheezing and Bangalore was as good as new.

 

"You're a very dangerous woman," she said jokingly when she finally joined her, sitting on an adjacent rock. She took off her backpack and the assault rifle strapped to her back so she could lean on a tree bark properly, digging for an extra water canteen from her pack before offering it to her.

 

Loba glanced at her from the side, surprised. She accepted the canteen with thanks .

 

"I thought you said you could handle me?" She teased as she uncapped the bottle. She watched as Bangalore continued to dig inside her pack before pulling out a couple of protein bars.

 

"I can. But only if you want to be handled ," she shot back, handing her two packets with a wink.

 

"Now eat up. I'm going to check the perimeter."

 

When Bangalore got back and asked about her flushed face, Loba blamed the heat and waved her off.



---------



They were close, and Loba could feel it. The crippling feeling was back tenfold as well.

 

They had seen the same mountain ranges from the map towards the west, and they had already passed the long river at the east. The terrain was slightly different, but not ultimately unrecognizable. And if every marker was still placed where they should be, then they'll be coming up over the foot of a hill in under an hour where the entrance to the cache would be. She had no idea what it would look like, but she'll deal with that when they get there.

 

Behind her was Bangalore, following quietly as she observed the trees. Loba guessed she was feeling something off as well with the way she kept on looking behind their backs with a measured gaze. Yet she didn’t voice her concerns; the only sound coming from her were the smoke and frag grenades attached to her vest, bumping each other as she walked.

 

Loba took out the map again, failing to notice a protruding root on her path. It caught her foot and she tripped, falling forward if not for Bangalore's quick reflexes and the strong arms wrapping around her waist.

 

"Careful." She heard her whisper near her ear.

 

Loba breathed slowly as she righted herself, calming her heart from the near fall. She turned in Bangalore's arms, their closeness reminding her of the first night they met. "Thank you."

 

“No problem. I don’t even know how you can walk through the forest in those.”

 

They both looked down towards her high heeled, knee-high boots.

 

“It’s my superpower."

 

The other woman stared at her flatly, as if saying girl you just tripped .

 

"Every superpower has a weakness," Loba deadpanned, crossing her arms petulantly.

 

Bangalore only shook her head in reply.

 

"Alright, let's go superhero. We only have a few more hours of sun left.”



---------



The closer they got to their mark, the sparser the trees had become. Soon enough they found themselves in an open clearing, with the foot of the hill Loba had expected to see standing just a few meters to their right.

 

"I think we're here."

 

She saw Bangalore fiddling with something in one of her vest pockets before facing her. "Okay, so what are we looking for?"

 

"I'm not entirely sure. Something unnatural. Something man-made."

 

"Roger that. I'll search over there."

 

Loba took a deep breath, scanning the nearby surroundings. Frankly, she didn't know where to start. She lifted her sunglasses and rested them at the top of her head, squinting her eyes to look for unnatural formations on the ground. She could see Bangalore crouching over some fallen tree barks not far away.

 

Where are you , Loba thought to herself. She went to the nearest tree shade to pull the cube case from her pack, hoping that the cube could give her some clues. Just when she was about to pull the cipher out, she heard Bangalore call out to her from the other side of the hill.

 

"Got my foot stuck in there. Does this look unnatural enough for you?" The woman asked as soon as she was near, grinning as she pointed at a perfectly carved out square slot on a flat rock, hidden in between some fallen logs.

 

And that was enough for Loba to drop on her knees, scrambling to pull out the cube from its case. Hurriedly she asked Bangalore to clean and check the square slot for indentations while she rotated the cube to find the big tree symbol.

 

Together they fit the cube in the slot, the symbol lined up with the indentation Bangalore found at the bottom, then pushed.

 

Something clicked underneath them, and then the ground fell.



---------



Loba let out a groan, checking herself for injuries as she patted her head, her limbs and the area around her back where she landed. Beside her she saw Bangalore laying on her side, one hand rubbing the back of her head and the other checking the pins of her grenades.

 

"You okay?" Loba asked as she tried to sit up, squinting at the hole above them where they fell in. It seemed like a good five meters from where they landed, probably even more.

 

"Yeah, I think so. You?"

 

"I can feel a bruise forming on my ass, but I'm mostly fine."

 

"Don't worry, I'll kiss it better later."

 

Loba's sudden laugh came out like a groan. "Oh fuck, don't make me laugh," she said as she held her side gently.

 

Bangalore chuckled with her, sounding a little in pain as well.

 

They laid there for a bit, catching their breaths. Bangalore was the first to stand, albeit a little sluggish, walking to her side with a slight limp that she shook off before helping her up. The woman helped brush off the dirt from Loba's jacket and pants, gently checking her for serious injuries as well. Fortunately, there were none.

 

When all their equipment were accounted for, including the wooden cube that Bangalore found half-buried amongst the rubble, they looked up at the hole together in awe.

 

"You know, I always wondered how ancient people made locking mechanisms like that," Bangalore said as she blindly searched her pack for some flashlights, eyes still examining the boundaries of the hole.

 

Beside her, Loba was squinting up at the splintered wood planks that framed it, imagining how it held the shallow dirt and the stone lock above.

 

"I have a friend who knows about these things.They’re the ones who discovered the map," she said absentmindedly, clueless at the way Bangalore had suddenly looked at her with an annoyed expression.

 

“And they didn’t tell you that this could happen?”

 

“Not really, no.”

 

She heard Bangalore mutter a deadpanned great before feeling the other woman clipping a flashlight on the front of her jacket.

 

“You’re all set,” the woman said as she tapped her on the shoulder.

 

“Thanks.”

 

Loba let Bangalore finish setting up her own lights, preoccupying herself with the interior of the room they fell into. It wasn’t big, just a square room around three meters across. With the help of the light, she could now clearly see the intricate design of the stone walls–each tile a near perfect square, joined together with slats of wood embedded in the middle, acting like interconnected locks to keep the tiles tightly together. Looking closer, Loba could see small engravings of what looked like animals and flowers on the surprisingly well preserved wood. It was the same material as her cube.

 

Right there on the ground was a line of jars and pottery, some broken with pieces falling off, while some only had cracks. She crouched near one, lifted the lid and found it filled with dirt. The other one beside it was empty.

 

At first glance, it didn’t seem like this cache held something important.

 

And that thought filled Loba with dread.

 

Her only hope lied on the single doorway at the back of the room.

 

“Alright,” she heard Bangalore say as the other woman tightened her pack against her body, fixing the strap of her rifle across her vest. She pointed towards the lone doorway with a careful gaze. “Before we go in there, I need to know if we should expect more traps.”

 

Loba tried to remember everything that Blódhundr had said about the people who built the cache. They said that they were a small group, and that they were hoarders. That they liked riddles and puzzles. Nothing was mentioned about their possible propensity for traps, but no one could really know that as well, not even Blód.

 

Ultimately, there was no sure way to know, so she only answered her companion with an unhelpful shrug, to which Bangalore could only sigh.

 

“Okay, let’s just expect for traps anyway.”

 

The woman adjusted the light she attached on her assault rifle, pulling out the magazine to double check her bullets before pushing it back in. She let that hang on her back as she patted the holster strapped to her right thigh, checking the pistol she had there as well. She checked the knives she had hidden in the pockets of her vest, and an even a smaller handgun she stashed on a concealed holster behind her back. The more weapons she revealed, the more amused Loba became.

 

“I don’t know what you’re expecting to see in there, but I don’t think you need that much firepower.”

 

“Better safe than sorry,” Bangalore said as she retrieved the assault rifle from her back, holding it firmly against her shoulder, finger on the trigger as she pushed towards the doorway. “Stay behind me,” she warned.

 

Bangalore took careful steps, eyes darting around looking for anything out of the ordinary. Behind her, Loba took the flashlight from her jacket to point out towards the corridor and into the next room.

 

There was nothing—no trip wires, no floor pressure plates, no holes in the walls that could launch poison darts. The corridor was just a corridor, an L-shaped hallway that connected the first and back room. The second one was lot bigger in terms of space, and a lot higher in terms of height. She let Bangalore set up a perimeter first, waiting for her signal before she went in.

 

The first thing Loba noticed aside from the hundreds of unopened jars and pots scattered all around the room, was the big rectangular stone slab in the middle, sitting on top of a two-step platform. The sides were decorated the same way as the walls, with interlocking wood slats embedded in the rock.

 

The altar, as Loba had started to call it in her head, was framed by four floor to ceiling pillars, each one standing a few feet away from the corner edges of the two-step platform. The walls were decorated with the intricate weaving of stone and wood as the other room, but right there at the farthest wall was a carving of the big tree symbol on a full wood surface, the same symbol that was both on Loba’s cube and map. She decided to leave that one for later, opting to go closer to the biggest installation in the room.

 

When she rounded the altar, she saw that the top middle part was dented like a deep bowl, holding around five mud colored rocks the size of her fist. Along the sides of the middle dent were several smaller bowl-like indentations but they were empty, save for a few small engravings that no longer looked clear. The whole stone slab stood up to her waist, was at least two meters long, and around a meter thick. 

 

Satisfied with the outer features, the Loba returned her focus on the middle bowl, throwing a glance at Bangalore in warning before taking one of the rocks in her hand.

 

They waited for a beat but nothing happened; they both breathed out a sigh of relief.

 

After making sure that they were indeed safe, Bangalore stood behind her to take a peek at the stone in her hand. “What is it?”

 

“I’m not sure.”

 

The stone had a hefty weight to it, but it also felt crumbly in her hand. It left a mud colored stain on her palm when she tried to squeeze on it.

 

Loba passed it to Bangalore when she was done.

 

“It’s heavy,” the other woman noted, testing the weight in her hand. Loba let her play around with it while she took a look at the jars on the floor.

 

Just like the other ones outside, these ones were also filled with dirt. While some of them were also empty, a good number of them contained what looked like old, dried black walnuts. Loba took the knife she had hidden in her boot to open one, frowning at the old shriveled up something inside.

 

She went around and inspected some more, and finally found the old, stale grains in the outermost pots.

 

Loba let out a pained chuckle when she stood.

 

Aside from the historical and archeological significance, there was nothing of value there.

 

She was ready to call it quits when Bangalore made a noise like she was choking on air. When she turned towards her, she saw her holding the stone in one hand, and a hunting knife in the other, eyes wide with awe.

 

Right there, with half of its thick, hardened, muddy surface broken off, was a small human skull sculpted in gold. 



---------



“This… This is incredible.”

 

Loba stood beside Bangalore, the gold human skull sitting in the palm of her hand. It wasn’t entirely accurate, but it was shaped enough to be distinguishable–two adjacent holes for the eyes, a triangular dent below them in the middle for the nose, and a row of square, uneven gold nuggets to resemble the teeth. She turned the skull in her hand and let her fingers follow the imperfections of the cast, feeling small dents and uneven metal flow towards the back of the head. And right there at the spot where the skull was supposed to connect to the spine, was a small shallow engraving of the big tree symbol.

 

This was it. This was what the cipher was hiding. Protecting. 

 

Loba couldn’t control the smile on her face. She erupted in a delighted laugh, turning towards Bangalore to hug her. Her companion returned the embrace with equal intensity.

 

“We did it! We–”

 

A clap echoed through the connecting corridor, breaking their celebration. Suddenly filled with dread, Loba slowly turned towards the doorway, just in time to see Kaleb Cross enter, wearing a smirk that made her skin crawl. The fact that she didn’t hear him, or anyone, enter the cache, terrified her.

 

“Care to include me in your celebra–”

 

Loba got her pistol drawn even before Kaleb finished his sentence, muzzle aimed at his head.

 

“Sorry, you’re not invited,” she spat, clutching the gold skull tighter in her hand. Beside her, Bangalore had her rifle aimed at the man as well.

 

For a moment, Kaleb looked furious, jaw hard and eyes murderous. Until he threw his head back and let out a maniacal laugh.

 

“Oh, Loba, Loba, Loba,” he said, voice dripping toxic, “someone needs to remind you why you’re here in the first place.”

 

He directed his gaze towards Bangalore and Loba felt her stomach drop when she saw the woman beside her aim the rifle at her instead.

 

“Sorry Loba, but business is business,” Bangalore said, lips pulled into a smirk.



=========

Chapter Text

Loba could feel the sting of betrayal starting to fill her eyes.

 

But she wasn't going to cry. As much as she wanted to lash out, she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing her tears. Even when Bangalore took her gun, she willed herself to be strong.

 

“Don’t touch me,” she hissed when Bangalore patted around her boot, taking her concealed knife before keeping it in one of her vest pockets. She took a step back and held out her hands in defense. “She’s clean,” she called out.

 

“Thank you, Sergeant Williams . Now,” Kaleb turned to her, “I think you have something of mine.”

 

“I fulfilled the contract. Give me my money first,” Loba said between gritted teeth. Kaleb shook his head in amusement.

 

“Actually, your money is going to her,” he said, pointing towards the other woman in the room.

 

Bangalore gave her a salute from where she was standing, lips still pulled in an arrogant smirk. She already had the other stones collected in a small leather sack. The sight made Loba curse.

 

“So you just used me.”

 

“Of course, I did. That stupid hermit by the woods will never give us the time of day. You were the next best thing. Good thing I can always bank on your curiosity.”

 

Loba growled at how naive she had been. The problem was, she knew there would be a trap. She kept on telling Jaime that there would be one at some point—even told Bangalore about her concerns. The Revenants weren’t known for their honesty, but still she pushed through. She thought she was prepared, and it sucked knowing that she was wrong.

 

She was seething, but she had no one to blame but herself. It made her sick to her stomach thinking that her safety net was actually the trap .

 

“How did you even find us?”

 

“Oh girlie, you need to stop underestimating the hired muscle.”

 

Loba frowned, turning back towards Bangalore who pulled something out from one of her vest pockets. It was a GPS tracker.

 

She remembered seeing her fiddling with that same pocket from before, when they arrived at the strip, and then again when they were looking for the entrance to the cache. Her eyes went wide. “You fucking traitor—“

 

“Hey, this isn’t personal,” Bangalore spat, looking a little offended. “I’m just here for the money. Just like you.”

 

Kaleb let out another laugh, looking completely amused by the situation.

 

Loba threw him a dirty look. “What if there was nothing? What if we didn’t find anything?”

 

“Then good ol’ Sergeant Williams here just needs to put a bullet in your pretty little head then be on her merry way home.”

 

The look she pin Bangalore with was murderous. Loba didn’t think it was possible to feel such disdain towards someone she just met, even more than Mister Revenant himself.

 

Bangalore didn’t meet her eyes this time.

 

“Alright, I’ve wasted enough time here,” Kaleb suddenly said. “The skull, please?” The man gestured for the artifact in Loba’s hand. She held it behind her back; she didn’t want to let it go.

 

Kaleb turned to Bangalore, looking a little impatient. “Sergeant.”

 

The soldier gave him a nod before approaching Loba with her rifle raised and aimed at her.

 

“Don’t make this harder for yourself, Loba. Give me the skull.”

 

Loba didn’t budge. She thought of bashing the solid gold ball on Bangalore’s head but Kaleb wouldn’t let her get one step in before he killed her himself. And if she did manage to get a gun and kill Kaleb, she was sure that the corridor behind him was filled with Revenant scum. So she continued to glare daggers at the other woman instead.

 

“I trusted you,” she hissed, pained.

 

“I don’t want to shoot you. Give. Me. The. Skull.”

 

Without any other options left, Loba finally sighed in defeat. She pushed the skull on Bangalore’s chest angrily before taking a step back, folding her arms around herself.

 

“Good girl.”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

The exchange made Kaleb laugh. “Feisty.”

 

“Go to hell, demonio .”

 

The man only cooed in reply. He then turned towards Bangalore and gestured for the sack.

 

“Ah, ah. Not without my money,” she said, holding the sack away playfully.

 

For a moment, Kaleb looked in thought, as if weighing his options. His eyes were glued on the sack and Loba saw his fingers twitch. She knew he had a weapon somewhere, but Bangalore already had her rifle poised. It would be an easy shot if he tried something.

 

A chuckle then came out of Kaleb’s mouth. It sounded amused but his face looked otherwise. He called out towards the corridor and crossed his arms as he leaned against the wall.

 

Loba watched with bated breath as Bangalore tightened her grip on the rifle with one hand, resting the handguard on her forearm that was holding the sack. She had her trigger finger ready when the footsteps grew louder, letting her aim follow the man who came in, eyes flickering quickly to the duffle bags he was carrying.

 

Kaleb nodded to his lackey, letting the man unzip the two bags to show the bundles of paper bills to the soldier.

 

“Thirty million, as agreed upon.” Kaleb said, sounding more and more impatient.

 

Loba suddenly laughed in disbelief. “That’s twenty million less!” She yelled at Bangalore.

 

The soldier scoffed. “So? That’s still a lot more money than what you offered me,” she said, attention returning to the bills. She eyed the bundles for a beat before calling out to the lackey. “Hey! Flip it for me, will you?”

 

The man looked towards his boss first, waiting for the go ahead.

 

“Do it.”

 

The man took a bundle each from both bags and flipped the bills, showing Bangalore that they were all real. She nodded and gestured her head towards the side. “Zip the bags and put them on the altar.”

 

He placed the bags on the stone, just in front of Loba, then left the room.

 

“Now that you got yours, how about giving me what’s mine.”

 

Bangalore looked at Kaleb through the sights of her rifle one last time before dropping the gun, letting it hang on her side as she approached. She passed him the sack with a wink, walking over towards the altar as she took the rifle back in her hands. She gave him a quick nod and held the gun tightly against her shoulder. “Pleasure doing business with you,” she said, turning back towards Loba with her rifle aimed at her chest.

 

Kaleb’s laugh was loud and obnoxious. “What a fine little soldier. Come see me when you get back, I could use a right hand man.”

 

He let out another chuckle as he exited the room, whistling. He was about to turn the corner when Bangalore called out.

 

“Oh by the way, you might want to count the skulls.”

 

Kaleb suddenly paused, confused. “What?” He muttered as he opened the sack, and Loba saw the exact moment that he realized that he was fucked.

 

Before she knew it, Bangalore was already leaping over the altar with the duffle bags, pulling her down with her as the woman covered her with her own body as an explosion rocked the walls and the ceiling of the cache.



---------



The first thing that Loba heard when the ringing in her ears had stopped was a loud groan and some coughing. Dust flew everywhere and she couldn’t see anything much, but she could feel a heavy weight pressing her down on the floor, covering her head and her torso. There was a hand holding the back of her head and neck, and amidst the smell of stale air and residual gunpowder, she could detect a faint scent of cologne.

 

For a moment, she thought she was dead, but then she remembered seeing the look on Kaleb Cross’ face when the sack he was holding exploded in his face. At the same time, she finally realized who was holding her down.

 

“Get the fuck off me!” Loba yelled as she scrambled to push Bangalore off, elbowing the woman towards the side until she was free. She sat up quickly and dove at the woman, slapping and punching her on the face.

 

“You fucking asshole!”

 

“Ow—Loba, stop! I’m on your side—Loba! Come on—Ow, your nails—Stop!”

 

She kept on slapping and punching until she was too tired to move, until Bangalore had caught her flailing hands and pulled her down for a tight hug.

 

Loba finally let herself cry on Bangalore’s chest.

 

“You’re an asshole,” she whispered, angry tears seeping in Bangalore’s vest. She pounded her fist on the woman’s chest one more time before clinging on.

 

“I know, I’m sorry.”

 

Loba let herself be held as she cried her frustrations out, hating the feeling of being thrown in for a loop. She almost couldn’t believe what happened in the span of a few minutes, but here she was, cradled in the arms of the person who, moments ago, had an assault rifle aimed at her head.

 

She let out one shuddering breath before finally letting go and sitting up. She wiped her eyes angrily with her hands before leaning her back on the altar, a little surprised that it didn’t crumble in the explosion. Bangalore stayed on the floor, groaning every now and then whenever she moved. Loba didn’t need to see her face to know how banged up it was.

 

They stayed quiet for a while, with only Bangalore’s occasional groans filling the air. Eventually, she managed to sit up and drag herself to lean on the altar right beside her.

 

“You okay?” Bangalore finally asked.

 

“I’m furious and I want to kill you,” Loba said, eyes closed and still trying to calm down. She let out another breath before asking back, her voice almost a whisper. “You?”

 

“My face and body hurt but I’ll be fine.”

 

Loba looked at her briefly before leaning her head back on the stone. “Good, cause you have a lot of explaining to do,” she said pointedly.

 

Bangalore let out another groan as she adjusted herself, reaching for the rifle on the floor to check the light. When it turned on, she placed the gun beside her, letting it lean against the altar so the light was pointed upwards, offering some illumination around them. She then rested her back on the stone with a tired sigh.

 

“That slimy piece of shit came to me after you left that first night. Apparently he’s been tracking all your moves,” she started, hand patting at her chin and cheeks with a grimace. “He offered me a part of the money he was supposed to pay you. I guess he didn't really want to pay you in full. All I had to do was to follow whatever you say, send GPS coordinates at every stop, then send the final signal when we found the cache.”

 

She felt Bangalore look at her, but she couldn’t seem to do the same. Not yet. She heard her let out a tired sigh before continuing.

 

“I knew you didn’t have a plan, Loba. But when I accepted your contract, I promised that I would get you out of here alive, so I made my own. Good thing that motherfucker’s head was too high up his own ass he couldn’t tell he was already being played.”

 

It made sense, but Loba still couldn’t help but feel a little weary. The pain she felt when she realized that she was being betrayed was immense, and she just couldn’t shake that off easily.

 

“How can I be sure that you’re telling the truth?”

 

“You can’t. But I'm not that kind of person. I know it’s hard right now, but I am going to ask you to trust me anyway.”

 

Bangalore looked her straight in the eyes, and it was the same look that she gave her the first night they met, when they talked over beers and laughed over insane missions. It was the look that made her hire her, the look that said I can keep you safe .

 

For a while, Loba didn't say anything. She kept her head down and her legs folded close to her chest to make herself small. Too many things kept on running in her mind and it's starting to give her a headache.

 

She took a brief glance at the woman beside her when she heard some shuffling.

 

"Here, you should take these back." It was her knife and her handgun. "Maybe it would make you feel a little safer knowing you have them."

 

Loba took the knife first, stashing it back inside her boot. The gun was returned to her holster next. But Bangalore didn't stop pulling out weapons from her person.

 

"You should probably have these, too," she said as she pulled the pistol from her thigh holster, the small gun she kept hidden on her back under her vest, a bunch of throwing knives and a frag grenade.

 

Loba couldn't stop herself from letting out a small laugh at how ridiculous it all looked in Bangalore's hands. "Stop it," she said as she pushed the woman's hands away lightly.

 

Shaking her head, she let her body fall to the side so she could lean her head on Bangalore's shoulder. She felt the woman finally let out a huge sigh of relief.

 

They let the quietness of the room calm them down for a bit.

 

"I hope you know how hard it was to aim that gun at you," Bangalore eventually said, voice small.

 

Loba hummed, starting to feel really tired. “You really had me going back there,” she said as she poked the woman on the thigh.

 

Bangalore chuckled. “Yeah well, that's my superpower.”

 

Loba scoffed and elbowed her on the side, hard.

 

"Ow, I was just kidding. Damn."

 

“Well, stop. You’re still on thin ice, Sergeant Williams .”

 

“Heh–Ow.”

 

Loba dug her elbow back in the woman’s side, feeling a bit lighter.



---------



The damage to their room wasn’t as extensive as Loba thought. A lot of the jars and pottery now lay broken from the blast. The four pillars framing the altar still stood, albeit missing a few small chunks. The front of the altar that was facing the doorway also had a few cracks and missing pieces, especially the corner and edges. Although the explosion did manage to collapse the corridor and seal the only way in and out of the chamber, the integrity of the structure was still impressive given its age.

 

Bangalore stayed seated at the foot of the altar, now holding a canteen while munching on an energy bar. Loba had just finished hers and was now inspecting the surrounding walls to check if there were any concealed doorways, tutting when she couldn’t find any. She had high hopes for the wooden wall with the big tree symbol at the far side but it turned out to be only decorative.

 

Dropping back at the foot of the altar, Loba snatched the canteen from Bangalore’s hand with a huff. For now they were safe, but also, they were stuck.

 

She turned towards the other woman and found her looking at her with a grin.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing, you’re just cute, huffing and–”

 

“I don’t care if you’re hurt, I will punch you again in the face, Bang–”

 

“Anita.”

 

Loba raised her eyebrows.

 

“Call me Anita," the woman said, smiling. "Sergeant First Class Anita Williams, at your service ma’am.”

 

"Well Anita, I will punch you in the face if you don’t stop teasing me.”

 

Anita held her hand up and shoved the remaining protein bar in her mouth, still smiling while she chewed. Loba pushed her face away with a dusty hand but she couldn’t hold in her smile as well.

 

“Ridiculous.”



---------



It’s been three hours since they found themselves trapped, and according to Loba’s watch, it was already night time outside.

 

They still had water and a few rations left, and though the room was dusty, they were thankful that they could breathe just fine. Anita had broken and scattered some glow sticks a while ago so they didn’t have to sit in the dark.

 

Loba now had her head resting on Anita’s thigh, eyes lazily tracing the stone tiles on the ceiling. The fatigue was starting to catch up to her and she was starting to feel lethargic. She blinked the sleep away when she felt Anita adjusting her leg.

 

"I'm sorry the skulls got blown up, by the way,” the woman suddenly said, as if only remembering what happened.

 

The irony wasn't lost on Loba. "I'm not," she said, thinking about all the Revenant skulls that got blown up as well.

 

She felt her digging something from her other pant pocket.

 

"I managed to save you one, though."

 

The sight of the gold skull made Loba sit up. "What–How?" She asked, looking at the skull in her hands in amazement.

 

"Switched one for a special frag. The timer's a lot longer." Anita patted the grenades on her vest and one was notably missing from their slot.

 

"Was that why you were stalling?"

 

The woman chuckled, looking proud and amused at what she did. "Yeah, that was really fun."

 

“You think we can use one of those to blow us an exit?”

 

Anita looked up around them, as if gauging the pillars and the walls. “I don’t want to risk it. We’re lucky enough that this room didn’t crumble on our heads. Let's rest for now. We’ll find another way later.”

 

“You’re probably right.”

 

“Usually am.”

 

The answer made Loba’s eyes roll. She turned towards the blocked exit before laying back down.

 

"Do you think he's still…?"

 

Anita let out a snort. "If he can live without a head, then probably, yeah."

 

Loba grimaced at the morbid image before shaking the thought away.

 

She turned her attention towards the skull in her hand, wondering if Blód would like it as a gift. There was no reason for Loba to keep it, and she didn't want the thing in any of her apartments as well. It being a skull was bothering her more than it should. It didn't when they first discovered it, but after everything that's happened… She didn't want anything to do with it anymore. Loba stuck the skull in her pack, leaving the decision of what she would do with it later. Instead, she turned on her side and focused on the wooden slats on the altar.

 

She let her fingers trace the grain of the wood, smiling at the small engraving of leaves, flowers and what looked to be depictions of animals. They were placed in equal space intervals, and as Loba had noticed, in repeating patterns. That piqued her attention.

 

Sitting up, she reached for the nearest glow stick and checked the other layers for their pattern. The top one had a different set of icons, this time it was the sun, the moon, a four pointed diamond-shape that's probably a star, and a cloud with slanted lines at the bottom. The one below that had animals–a bird, a four legged creature, a fish, and another one that looked like a person. The third one had a group of symbols for different bodies of water. The fourth had the mountains and hills, and the last at the stack had the leaves and flowers.

 

"Anita, look at this."

 

There was shuffling and some groans beside her until she found Anita's face close to hers.

 

"What is it?"

 

"See these symbols?"

 

Anita hummed, reaching for one of her vest pockets to pull out a thin penlight. Loba looked a bit incredulous.

 

"You really did bring everything, huh? Are you sure you don't have an exit plan in one of those pockets?"

 

Anita shushed her, and Loba scoffed. She rolled her eyes and watched as the other woman traced the symbols on the top wood layer with a finger, starting from the outer corner edge until she reached the end of the wood and where the stone slab started. They both gasped when Anita touched the last sun icon and the wood moved.

 

"You saw that, right?" The woman asked.

 

Loba only nodded, hands already on the other slats, pushing on icons randomly. None of them budged. When she tried to push on the same spot Anita had, the wood moved again, albeit slightly.

 

"The only thing moving is the top one." Loba said, sounding a little lost. She crawled towards to the other side of the altar where some of the wooden slats had extended.

 

"Maybe the explosion just made it loose?"

 

"Maybe," Loba's voice trailed off, "but it feels like something else."

 

She had her finger on the edge of the second to the last layer, the one with the mountains, sticking her fingertip right between the wood and the stone. Nothing happened when she pushed, but when she tried to pull on it with her fingernail, it moved the tiniest bit. She tried to do the same thing to the others, but the second, third, and last layer didn't show any type of movement, not even for a bit.

 

I don't understand, she thought to herself.

 

"Loba? You okay over there?"

 

She saw Anita's head peeking from the other side. Suddenly, she had an idea.

 

"Anita, can you pull on the top wood like this?" She showed the woman what she did with her fingernail.

 

The woman nodded as she crawled to the back.

 

"Alright, I'm pulling. It's moving–Oh."

 

"What happened?"

 

"It's stuck again."

 

Loba looked at the extension of the top wood on her side and saw that it indeed moved towards the inner stone. She pulled on the fourth layer and it moved a lot more than her first try.

 

"Anita, can you let go of the wood again?"

 

She heard a soft okay from the other side and the top wood on her side was back in its original position. She braced her finger on the fourth layer again and asked Anita to pull on hers, but this time slower.

 

When the top layer started to slide in, Loba pulled on hers, eyes wide when it started to move a lot more. She heard a slight exclamation on Anita's side as well, and discovered that the top wood had moved more than they could previously. A scratching sound had started to become audible at the middle part of the slats as well.

 

When Loba started to feel some resistance, she yelled at the other woman.

 

"Anita, pull on the second layer!"

 

There was a rough sounding click and Loba cursed out loud when everything stopped moving. They pushed everything back to their original positions, but Loba now had a good idea of what the whole thing was.

 

She grinned at Anita when the woman gave her a questioning gaze.

 

"It's a combination lock," Loba said, and she was sure of it.



---------



The two sat huddled by the slats, bickering over the symbols. At one point, Loba had to punch Anita on the arm because the other woman just wanted to shoot at the wood and be done with it.

 

"Okay, look," she pointed at the top layer. "This is the first one because it has the sun and all other elements in the sky–all the things above. Second in the combination is the fourth one, because mountains." She then pointed at the fourth layer. "If we look at the other ones, it shows the other icons in the hierarchy. So sun, mountains–"

 

"Rivers… So water next?" Anita offered.

 

"Yes, I believe so."

 

"How about the plants and animals?"

 

Loba paused, lips pursed. She looked at Anita with furrowed brows. "Animals last?"

 

Anita nodded in agreement. They looked at each other for a beat before going back to their separate posts.

 

"On three?" Anita called out.

 

Loba inhaled deeply before letting out a huge breath.

 

"On three," she agreed.

 

Anita started the count then pulled.



---------



Loba blinked as all the wooden slats fell to the floor. Their combination had worked. She heard Anita let out a loud yeah over at her side.

 

With all the fallen wood pieces kept to the side, the two finally took a peek in between the spaces and were surprised to see that the stone altar had a hollow center. Anita pointed her penlight inside and made a funny sound.

 

"What?" Loba asked.

 

The woman passed her the light and gestured towards the space, face in disbelief.

 

Loba pointed the light inside and the first thing she saw was some type of wooden contraption placed at the corner. It had five interlocking hooks and a thick, vertical cylinder in the middle that had slanted indentations like a screw. She glanced at the wooden slats behind her and saw that their middle parts all had some kind of protrusion that could attach to the hooks and screw. She let out an impressed sigh, humbled by ancient ingenuity.

 

The next thing she saw made the hairs on her arms stand up.

 

"Oh my god…"

 

Right there in the middle sitting in a line, all placed securely in their own separate stone cradles, were three, perfectly preserved wooden cubes.



---------



Loba and Anita found themselves in their previous position, with the soldier leaning against the now opened stone altar, and Loba laying her head on Anita's thigh. The three wooden cubes were now safely kept in an extra sack, shoved inside one of the money duffle bags.

 

The thought of three new caches waiting to be discovered was giving Loba a headache.

 

"I would like to come with you," Anita suddenly said. Loba looked up at her with a questioning gaze. "If you're planning to look for the other caches, I would like to come with you again. Free of charge of course. If you let me."

 

"Are you planning to betray me again?"

 

Anita groaned. "One time…"

 

"If you think I'll let you get a second time, then you're mistaken." Loba said as she pinched the woman on the thigh.

 

Anita squeaked in pain before snatching her hand. Loba tried to pull it back but Anita wouldn't let her. The woman interlaced their fingers together before leaning her head back on the stone and closing her eyes.

 

Loba rolled her eyes, feeling a little twinge of affection, before closing hers for a nap.



---------



They woke up to a series of beeping sounds.

 

Loba wasn’t sure when she had fallen asleep, but her watch now said that it was already seven in the morning outside. The glowsticks have long lost their light, but Anita’s heavy duty flashlight still had a little power in it, albeit dimming pretty fast.

 

She groaned as she sat up, head ringing as the beeping never stopped. She heard Anita groan awake beside her, patting around her vest to find where the offending sound was coming from.

 

“Dumbasses surely took their time,” she heard Anita mutter as the woman wiped the sleep from her eyes. She took out the GPS tracker from her vest pocket and pressed a button, changing the constant beeping to a more manageable interval. Still, the small green light on the tracker kept on blinking.

 

“What the hell is that?”

 

Anita stretched her neck and made her back pop before turning to her with a teasing smirk. Loba wasn’t sure if she wanted to smack her face or kiss her. Either way, she watched as the soldier stood with a groan, stretching her limbs before bouncing on her heels and shaking her hands and legs like she was going for a run.

 

“Anita? What’s happening?

 

“Kaleb wasn’t the only one who was receiving my GPS signals.”

 

“What?”

 

“Girl, you really need to stop underestimating the hired muscle,” she said with a lopsided grin.

 

Loba watched as Anita gathered all their packs and the bags of money, throwing them on the far corner of the room. She went back to the altar and shooed her towards their stuff.

 

Anita climbed on the altar with her rifle, poking at the ceiling until a handful of soil and dust fell through the stone tiles. She poked and poked until some of the tiles moved, but ultimately stayed intact. She eyed the stone pillars next and poked on the ceiling tiles surrounding their post. Not one tile budged.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Getting us out of here,” she said as she hopped off the stone. Reaching inside her vest, she pulled the tracker and pressed another button, making the green light turn into red, and the beeping to a constant tick. She left the device on the center of the altar and walked towards her urgently.

 

“Alright, get down and put your back against the corner,” Anita said, pointing to the spot behind her. Loba had no idea what was happening but she followed anyway, crouching on the floor and making herself small.

 

Anita then got their packs and laid them around her, covering her bent legs. She placed the bags of money on top of the packs next, effectively covering her body up to her shoulders. Satisfied, the woman then crouched in front of her as if sealing the makeshift cover she made with her body, pressing closer until Loba’s nose was touching Anita’s neck. Her arms were spread out and planted firmly on the wall behind her head.

 

Loba looked up at her, confused and somehow turned on at the proximity of their faces. “What are you doing?” she asked, almost whispering, suddenly feeling a little hot.

 

“Making sure that not a drop of your blood makes it out of your body.” Anita joked, looking down at her with a teasing grin. “Now, try to cover your ears.”

 

Before Loba could react, the beeping suddenly stopped and another explosion erupted, this time coming from the ceiling of the cache.



---------



Surviving two explosions in the span of a few hours was too much.

 

Even with her ears covered, Loba still felt the residual ringing in her head, coughing out a lot more dust from her mouth and nose. In front of her, Anita was coughing out as well, a good sign that she was still alive. She nodded when the soldier asked if she was okay.

 

All of a sudden, their dark chamber was now bathed in light. The ceiling above the altar now had a huge gaping hole, but the four pillars managed to keep its surrounding ceiling intact. It made their little corner safe from crumbling down.

 

Squinting her eyes, Loba could make out two figures standing at the top of the hole.

 

“Goooood morning, mates! What a bloody fine day for an explosion, eh?” She heard one say, voice sounding extremely familiar.

 

“Hope we’re not too late, brothas!” Another one said, one she didn’t recognize.

 

Anita coughed some more before turning her head, yelling at the two newcomers. “You assholes took too long!”

 

“It’s G’s fault! This fool took too many rest stops along the way!”

 

The two started bickering and the woman who had just saved her life just sighed.

 

"Clowns," she heard Anita mutter before getting up and pulling her with her.

 

"Come on, let's go home."



=========

Chapter Text

Loba hummed with the music as they cruised along the highway, watching the line of trees that accompanied their travel. Her hand was buried in the curls of Anita's hair, scratching lightly at her scalp as the woman drove.

 

Sometimes she still couldn’t believe what happened a few days ago.

 

The day they got back from their mission, they had to close Sheila’s Joint for a debrief. Loba officially met Makoa Gibraltar and Ramya Parekh then–the bar’s resident bartenders, and Anita’s so-called extraction team.

 

According to them, when they had arrived at Anita’s last location check-in, they saw the hole entrance completely closed up and caved in. They had to track Anita’s device to the exact point to know where she was under the ground. Loba learned there that Ramya was an explosives specialist, causing the blast that made the hole on their ceiling, while Makoa was in charge of containing the blast radius so they wouldn’t cause a whole collapse. Anita tried, but she wasn’t able to stop her from giving the three of them one of the duffle bags filled with money. Loba insisted, fought tooth and nail. She was having none of their humble bullshit. They deserved half of the money and that was that.

 

They parted ways then, with Loba leaving Anita a very heavy and heated gaze.

 

It took the other woman two days to finally find out where she was staying (with Jaime’s help) so she could barge in and claim her other prize. Loba could still feel the delicious ache in her body that was caused by their twenty-four hour romp.

 

And now that everyone else was paid–Jaime with his two million, and Kairi with her new helicopter ordered–Loba decided she wanted to take Anita on a short trip to meet a friend.

 

“Hey, you okay?”

 

Loba blinked when she felt a light squeeze on her thigh.

 

She turned to look at Anita from the top of her aviator sunglasses and winked, bringing herself closer to press a soft kiss on her jaw, right at the spot where a small scratch was still healing. She heard Anita’s soft hum before the other woman turned her head to catch her lips in a kiss.

 

“Eyes on the road, Sergeant.” Loba whispered against her lips, giving Anita another peck before turning her head playfully towards the front.

 

“Tease.”

 

“You like it.”

 

Anita scoffed, making Loba laugh. She kept her hand on the back of the woman’s head and continued to play with her hair.

 

Right there sitting on the backseat was the gold skull resting safely inside a padded briefcase, right beside the wooden cube cipher that surprisingly came out unharmed after the whole ordeal. On a separate case beside it laid the three new wooden cubes, waiting to be deciphered.

 

Loba smiled. Blódhundr would be pleased.



The End.