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Máire sent up a cloud of ash as she hit the ground on the other side of the portal, her arm flipping her back into the air and landing her on her feet. She only had time to cast a quick glance at her surroundings before a new cacophony of alarms ripped her attention back toward Shieldtown, a glimmering blue dome on the horizon. Five miles out? No, closer to seven. Far enough that she wouldn’t be getting back quickly on foot.

Máire’s eyes dropped to the portal, now barely the size of a baseball. She thrust her hand back into the blackness, her arm severing below the elbow as it closed. She had done what she could, now. If Máire had misjudged and SIlver Fang hadn’t come through here, she would at least have a way of getting back on track.

She turned back toward the wastes, the near-imperceptible reticles of her eyes turning back and forth as they scanned the area for the ever-dwindling energy signature of the Ripper she was hunting. Silver Fang was meant to be one of the Templar’s finest; doubtless if Máire had picked up the trail with a starting lag, Fang was already on the cusp of running them down.

Her HUD tagged something. Not a Ripper. It looked like a woman, not far from where Máire had come through the portal, marching through the dust. A sword lanced through the air, and Máire was pulled after it.

Máire’s hand flopped into the damp floor of the sewer like an undesired sea bass, tips of her fingers dangling over the water flow. It sat still for a moment, silver dust drifting silently off the stump where it had been severed by the portal. Then the dust froze in mid air, hanging in the shards of light poking through the open manhole cover, before reversing direction and rejoining the amputated limb.

The hand bulged and shifted, silver sand flowing over itself as it reformatted and rebuilt itself into a new form resembling a lizard, its head replaced by a stumpy, featureless tendril that raised itself up to the air as though trying to catch a scent. The metallic “reptile” then twisted itself around, reorienting its direction, before skittering up the wall of the sewer and back through the manhole, vanishing onto the streets above with astonishing velocity for what should have by rights been a dead hand rotting with the sewage.
”Attention Residents. Thunderdome procedures have been engaged. All non-combatants are advised to seek shelter immediately. Any sign of suspicious activity, Gangers, or unknown powers are to be reported to the nearest authorities available. This is not a drill.”

Máire’s stag nickered as the alert blasted over their heads, halting and kicking at the road with one splayed hoof. Máire’s eyes went skyward, taking in the vast neon dome spreading overhead, sealing off the rest of the undercity.

Sealing them in.

It was all very familiar to her. There were similar protocols plateside, of course, but more than anything it reminded her…

She shook her head, pulling the hood a bit lower. Some kind of threat had breached Shieldtown’s walls, then? Her eyes flashed toward Zolya at the woman’s comment, her lips tightening into a thin line. No, if something was happening, of course Fang wouldn’t keep still. She would be chasing down whatever had provoked that alert, no doubt. No, the quickest way to catch the runaway hero was for Máire to find the woman’s quarry first.

Máire hopped up from her mount, feet finding purchase on the stag’s back. ”Signal if you find her,” she stated, glancing Zolya’s way one last time before leaping high into the air. A flash of metal shot through the sky, and Máire went sailing after it, past the rooftops lining Shieldtown’s main thoroughfare.
Shieldtown was no less busy than it had been the night before. The bustle of industry filled the dusty air of the Undercity settlement, if a bit more orderly than the chaos following the previous day’s monster hunt. The crowd flowed around them like river water as Scibble-Ma’am - Zolya, she had introduced herself - led their entourage through the streets, her mint-light wolves flanking them like a barrier. Máire raised an eyebrow at the apparent disinterest the locals took in the sight; but then given their apparent source of protein, such sights must seem rather ordinary. Máire seemed to draw more attention than the wolves did, and she pulled her hood a bit lower despite herself.

Máire turned her attention upward, toward the buildings surrounding the paths Zolya took them along. Many of them were familiar from her… tour with the boy Doll. The order was different, though; they seemed far less cramped and repetitive than they had the first time, with far fewer twisting alleyways and dead ends.

Does this friend of yours live far from the wall?” she asked, looking toward her most recent guide. The woman seemed so comfortable on her mount that the light bounce of her hair with every step the animal took struck Máire as almost playful.
”The stag is fine,” Máire answered, crossing her arms. She had never ridden a horse before, but if the beast was one of this woman’s constructs, she doubted she needed to know how. She could have traveled under her own power, but if Scribble-Ma’am was watching Silver Fang it would save herself a lot of trouble to keep near her if the skittish Texan decided to run off again.
Máire remained still and silent for a long moment, eyes fixed on the woman of the wood. Invisible processes behind her eyes tracking the movement of every wolf and bird "Scribble-Ma'am" kept with her, watching for any sign of reinforcements or attempted deception. Repeated attempts were made to tag everything in Máire's field of vision. Hundreds of tries per cycle and hundreds of cycles over a few hundredths of a nanosecond, only for each tag to vanish nearly the same moment it was applied. Only the tags on Rat and "Scribble-Ma'am" seemed to persist, for whatever reason. Máire narrowed her eyes slightly at the headache she could feel coming on.

She sighed, and the swords vanished, the cloud of silver dust left in their wake visible only by the faint glimmer of light reflecting off its incalculable specks as they drifted back home, disappearing on contact with Máire's skin. "Fine then," Máire relented. "Perhaps she'll stay still this time. I'm getting tired of running blindly."
Máire’s blades shot around at the sound of the woman’s voice, forming a razor barricade at her approach. Máire turned her head to appraise the woman, nearly invisible reticles around her pupils turning back and forth silently. ”What a serendipitous reunion this is,” she greeted dryly.

”Scribble-Ma’am!” Rat shrieked in neurotic half-delight. ”Rat isn’t enemy! Rat doesn’t trespass! Rat brings Knife-Lady to find Templar-Friend!”

Máire’s eyes flickered over to the rodential messenger at the sound of his rhetorical jabbering. ”She knows,” she stated quietly, waving the nervous furball down.

Rat’s head jerked back and forth between Máire and “Scribble-Ma’am”. ”Knows?” he asked, mind chugging to process what Scribble-Ma’am had already said upon her arrival. He blinked twice, standing in silence for a second or two. Then-

”Oh! Knows! Yes yes! Rat is friend to Stoneworks!” Rat cheered, skittering under Máire’s swords and around Scribble-Ma’am’s hips. Máire’s hand twitched to reach out and stop him, but ultimately let him go. Best to let him be. It did look a bit like he was using her to separate himself from Máire, though… but that was his prerogative.

Máire sighed through her nose. The swords acting as a wall between her and Scribble-Ma’am didn't waver. Máire stared the woman down through the fence of blood-iron, perfectly still.

”I just came from Shieldtown,” She stated with careful enunciation. ”How long ago did Fang leave?”
A gust of wind tugged at Máire’s hood as the Stoneworks came into view, a mature Nordic manor drowned in green. Rat scampered past her at the sight, his movement tousling her cloak the other way.

“Look-see Knife-Lady! Stoneworks, Stoneworks, arrived at last! Rat has guided safely, he said he would! Shortcut worked Knife-Lady, shortcut worked!” He jabbered erratically as he scurried to the safety of the cairn-stones, looping back to run circles around Máire once then twice as she followed after him.

”Of course, of course,” she acquiesced with a sigh. Máire refrained from commenting on the Ripper nest Rat’s “shortcut” had led them through, stretching what should’ve been a 2 hour trip well into the mid-morning.

Rat skittered up to the edge of the cairn stones, snout sniffing in the air for a moment as he adjusted the strap holding the sword to his back. His eyes darted to and fro, searching the air above the manor for something. Máire came to stand next to him, following his irregular gaze skyward. Birds? She heard fluttering wingbeats and raucous cries, but saw nothing.

Rat flinched suddenly, letting out a yelp and stumbling backward. ”No! Wrong, wrong, wrong!” he spluttered, waving his arms plaintively at something around him. ”Rat is not enemy-foe-adversary! Rat is friend to Erlings! Rat has prowess with the blade! Rat delivers for Fred!” He shrieked again, diving down to cover his head. Máire could swear she felt something go whipping past her.

A sling of blades whipped through the air, forming a curtain around her or Rat. Máire had no idea what was going on, but it was clear Rat was under attack. The man was nervous, but he hadn’t given her cause to expect an episode like this. He peeked one eye open, and then bulged at the sight of Máire’s swords, scrambling to pull free the one strapped to his back. ”R-Rat has prowess-”

”No,” Máire commanded, cutting him off. A longsword had manifested itself in her hand. ”Stay inside the perimeter. I can’t see what’s attacking you, so you need to be my eyes.”

Rat blustered as he tried to formulate a response, neck on a swivel as he looked from Máire to the sky and back. Máire felt a rush of wind cutting dangerously close to her face, the sensation of talons and feathers brushing the end of her nose. ”Rat!”

”L-Left! Left” he shrieked, pointing through Máire’s barricade. There was no hesitation. Her arm guided her blade in a ballet-clean arc from ground to sky, feeling it pass through something that wasn’t quite physical but was unmistakably there.

And in an instant the scene around them changed. A flock of galaxy-painted ravens swarmed the air around them like enraged hornets, dive-bombing the pair and filling the sky with shrill, vicious insults.




”No! No! No!”Rat protested frantically. ”Rat works under duress! Templar comes seeking friend, Rat doesn’t call anyone here! Rat delivers for Fred!”

”Enough,” Máire ordered, raising her free hand lightly to silence her guide. The swords around him doubled themselves, angling themselves upward at the mobbing birds. One drew too close, and she cut it in half with a flick of her wrist. ”They aren’t interested in listening.”
Máire's eyes went from the beanie, to the droopy eyes, to the hoodie, before flickering briefly over the college burnout's shoulder to another life sign her HUD was tagging further in the house. Was this Lazy-Cap's... roommate? Sugar baby?

Wait, no. "Lazy-Cap". This man in front of her was wearing a beanie and looked unemployed. Rat's mind seemed to be too literal for the appellation to be some clever figuratism for anyone more respectably presented.

God damn it.

"...Lazy-Cap, I assume," Máire greeted coolly, crossing her arms and shooting a look back at Rat. "I've been reliably- somewhat reliably informed you're the one to speak with about finding people." Her eyes went over his shoulder again. "May I come in, or does your girl need more time to get dressed?"
At Rat's outburst Máire reached one hand behind her as she entered, rapping her knuckles lightly against the back of the door. "Pardon the intrusion," she called without any sense of remorse in her voice.

There was an open space inside, likely to accommodate some sort of vehicle or workshop, and a flight of stairs in front of them leading up to a separate door that probably led to the house proper. The space was cluttered with all manner of tools and bullshit, warmly lit by lanterns hanging overhead next to chimes that sang softly with the draft of the open door. Máire glanced over the floor plan only once before ascending the staircase up to the front door proper.

She reached for the handle, but after a beat her hand shifted to knock against the wooden frame instead. Máire glanced back down the stairs to where Rat had his head poking through the door. She didn't see the child; had he wandered off, then? No matter. Máire turned back toward the door and knocked again, more firmly this time.

"............Lazy-Cap," she called through, after a moment's hesitation of realizing she didn't know his name. "I was told you're the one to speak to about finding someone."
Máire stepped to the side as the woman moved to leave, cutting off her path. Something was... odd about her. Familiar, though Máire couldn't quite place it. She leaned forward, her face coming close enough that their noses nearly touched, so close that the woman could see the ever so slight, ever so subtle back and forth rotation of reticles in Máire's pale yellow eyes.

This woman, her hair, her eyes, that color...

Máire held her position for a long moment, their breaths intermingling in the small space between them, Máire's cold, the other's hot. Máire knew this woman, had seen her somewhere, somewhere important, but she couldn't quite pin down the memory. And even if she could- no, it was ridiculous. Máire didn't know anyone in the Undercity, and the woman she had come to find wouldn't be dressed so casually. And given the effort it had taken just to reach this point, she certainly wouldn't reveal herself just like that.

"Apologies," Máire said quietly, stepping away. "I mistook you for someone else." She slipped past the stranger, disappearing through the door.
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