Imogen inspected the blood-dripping, disembodied arm and threw it into a nearby crate.
The alley was illuminated only by the light coming from the rivets and pipes that adorned the many crates. They all contained a different assortment of severed limbs and hovered a few feet off the ground. It was an old alley, with a narrow, cobblestone road and arches supporting the facing houses’ walls. Through the dense haze, some windows from the two story row of houses could be seen lit.
The alley was clear of everything but masked, humanoid creatures and crates lined to be moved. One side of the Alley opened into a bigger, lighted street, while the other end was shrouded by darkness.
One of the creatures was attending to the limbs thrown in by Imogen. It cleaned, lidded the cut point and added them to a second crate with machine precision and tempo. It did so perched on the corner of the crate, its cloak hiding most of the movements related to the limb processing. Its white mask glimmering against the lights from the crate.
“You know Eurielle doesn’t approve of your… interest… In one of these… products – these – zaruses,” Imogen said with a grimace on her face. “I mean, they have been useful. But to admire these things? Whatever invention they have, we would’ve gotten sooner, if we had the same materials”, she finished while inspecting another of the arms. Imogen kept only the toned or younger-looking ones, discarding the older or frail ones.
Eilith did not even bother looking up at her sister, keeping her attention on the finalized limbs, her ornamented cloak hiding her face. “I do not need nor seek her approval. And you would be wise to never mention this to me again.”
Imogen stared at Eilith for a few seconds with a frown, pulling back some loose strands of her reddish hair from her face. “Fine, do whatever you want, as always.”She said as she threw a subpar leg into a crate where all the inferior limbs were amassed. I don’t know why I keep caring about you.” A lazy attempt at sounding indifferent. Imogen moved to the cart with the processed limbs and inspected them after a brief pause. The arms and legs were precision-cut from their original owners. Each one had a graphite coloured lid fit to the cutpoint and were stiffened and laid in order to maximize the usage of space inside the crate.
“This exclusion zone will not last much longer, I can already feel the haze clearing”. Imogen told Eilith, picking up a lidded arm from the crate her sister was looking into and inspecting it..
“And I missed the rain again…” Imogen said, placing the stiff arm back into the crate.
“This batch is ready.” Eurielle said, cutting her complaint short. “Be sure to not lose any this time.”
Imogen rolled her eyes. “I kept them out, didn’t I?” she said, raising her voice, flared by her sister’s comment. “Even if it meant losing a batch. I’m not incompetent.” Imogen paused for a second noticing her rising voice. “Besides, if you hadn’t strayed from protocol due to that zarus, again, no batch would’ve been lost.” She finished, with a lowered tone of voice.
Eilith took a deep breath before answering, still looking down into the crate. “Five years and the longest running exclusion zone lost. Right after you claimed your harlekses had cleared the area.”. The creature nearby stopped the lidding and looked up to the sisters.
“My Harlekses performed perfectly,“ Imogen said and the creature nearby relaxed and returned to its labor. “If only you had been there… Why do you have one of their arms now anyway? Trying to look the part?” Imogen blurted, looking at her sister’s human hand, with a small grin pulling out not unlike a curtain..
Eilith finally looked up to Imogen and anger flashed in her eyes for a second. It was followed by pouncing on Imogen shortly after her remark. She gripped her sister’s face and lifted Imogen from the ground in one swift movement. Her remaining bird-like right hand half-revealed from under her raised cloak. She held her up for a brief moment, looking up at Imogen with scorn. “As I said, you’d be wise to never mention this to me again,” she said as she tilted her head. They both stayed silent for a few seconds, staring at each other. It continued until a gentle smile drew in Eilith’s face as she caressed Imogen’s cheek with one of her long talons.
Imogen grinned through Elith’s hand, staring down at her. Her black sclera only made her sea-green scrutiny more visible in between the talons of her sister. “Fine, I won’t,” she replied after a brief pause. Eilith released Imogen, who fell back to the wet ground with enough finesse to appear as if she had never left it.
“We are done here. This should be the last batch we grab before the enfows arrive.” Eilith said, dismissing the trembling harlek that was by the furthermost crate. The crate lifted from the ground at the harlek’s touch. The light from the crates had an easier time bouncing around the alley’s wet surfaces, as the haze cleared around them the further they walked.
“I still don’t believe bringing their offspring to our land is the best idea,” Imogen protested.
“It’s a risk, but they are tame if raised there. As a species, they grow, live, and die quickly. The way I see it, it’s best we put them to better use than the wasteful, arrogant existence they currently have,” Eilith answered, once again not looking at her sister.
“At least you and Eurielle agree on something.” Imogen replied as she walked further into the exclusion zone.
“I’m staying, likely until the next gate phase, when the enfows return.” Eilith replied as she stopped walking.
Imogen raised an eyebrow without breaking her pace, as she remembered what she had just agreed to. “Do whatever you want. I don’t want to know anything else.” She answered without looking back at her sister, irritation in her voice.
The white light that emanated from the cart’s pipes and rivets shone a distinct glow on the smooth stones and bricks against the night. The arches above dimly lit for a few seconds as each crate passed through. Their footsteps produced no noise, giving way to a silence that amplified the sisters’ heightened breathing. The harlekses were careful not to stray near them at moments like these.
After a pair of blocks further into the alley, Imogen halted. Four harlekses stood in front of her at the ready as she raised her blackened left arm. The now visible moonlight glistening off their smooth, white masks.
Slowing her breath, she turned her head and closed her eyes in an attempt to focus on listening. For a moment, she stood in complete silence. She then signaled to her left with two talons of her raised hand, and without breaking the overpowering silence, two of her harlekses ran to the left.
Imogen resumed her walk towards the crates, her gait almost weightless.
She pointed at Eilith with the same two talons as she walked, and the two remaining harlekses formed up around her. Eilith turned around and disappeared back to the now darkened part of the alley, escorted by the harlekses.
Imogen continued into the opening of the alley. A set of three columns towered among the rows of crates, fitting tight in the middle of the walled cul-de-sac. Two in the front, one further away, forming a triangle from where Imogen stood. They were riveted and metallic in appearance, with lambent light emanating from the beveling in the plates, not unlike the hovering crates.
Imogen moved to the closest column, raising her arm and opening her talons as she got closer to it.
At that signal, the rest of the harlekses aligned in pairs around each crate and waited as Imogen touched the nearest column. After a few seconds, the third column began to distort, akin to a heat radiating from the ground.
She released the column and waited for the distorting, furthermost column to disappear.
Machine gun fire rang in the distance, but the harlekses around the crates remained unfazed as the waves between the columns grew stronger.
She clenched her three right talons into a leathery fist and dropped it to her side, without turning to the harlekses.
Once more, they reacted to her signal as each pair grabbed the crates and disappeared through the distorted perimeter created by the columns. The gunfire in the distance slowed down, but grew closer, now followed by screams.
A tall figure materialized from between the columns and contemplated her surroundings, listening. “This is the second time you are caught.” she asserted at Imogen.
She searched around for a few seconds and asked: “Where’s Eilith?”
“She has made up her mind,” Imogen replied, looking past Eurielle at the waves behind her. Imogen did not acknowledge her slight as she followed her harlekses towards the waves from which she had come.
As the harlekses walked past Eurielle and disappeared into the waves, Eurielle raised her only arm, blocking Imogen’s path.
“What now? We’re real busy trying to salvage this raid.”
“You’re not going back without Eillith.” She said with a deliberate slow pace and low tone.
“Why don’t you bring her yourself? You are already here anyway.” Imogen replied, exasperation building in her voice as she rolled her eyes.
Eurielle didn’t reply, just lowered her arm without looking at her, challenging her to dare step forward.
Imogen considered the challenge, but relented after a few seconds with a subtle nod. She turned around and motioned again for two harlekses to follow her, leaving her eldest sister behind.
She dashed back, raised her hood and smiled as she felt rain on her face. After just two blocks into the alley, she stopped. It was illuminated now not by the lambent light of the crates, but by the directed flashlights to the chests of the dismembered soldiers. They wore a plain green uniform, with scarves tucked inside their combat jackets.
Zarus light infantry again, she thought as she looked for fallen harlekses, finding none. The harlekses behind Imogen punched their chests and made a clicking sound in tandem, an acknowledgement and celebration of the handiwork of their comrades. She smiled at both the performance of the contables and her sister.
Gunfire rang again in the distance, which prompted them to move once more. Her now water-heavy hood weighted up as she ran, no longer protecting her auburn hair. The drizzle turned into full fledged rain in a matter of seconds.
One of the harlekses came to a halt by her side.
With an agile turn that had no loss of momentum, she stopped by its side, near the corpse of a gunned down harlek.
She stopped grinning as her whole body clenched from looking at her fallen minion. Its white mask was broken from the several bullet impacts and whatever face was hidden beneath she could no longer recognize. Her eyes opened and her eyebrows raised for a moment.
The other harlekses made an audible click-click, breaking Imogen’s stupor. It was kneeling beside another corpse. Imogen looked down on the all-black uniformed corpse as the harlek picked up and showed her the now masterless rifle. Different uniforms… masks and… a more complex weapon. She thought, as she ran the talons of her left hand on the weapon without taking it from the harlek. They have finally managed to kill one of us… but why abandon the corpses? It’s not like them.
She removed her left hand from the weapon and signaled for the harleks to take the corpse and gun back to Eurielle. She ran off the other direction accompanied by the remaining harlek, her movements no longer as graceful in her haste.
The street was one block away. The rain muffled every other sound except gunshots. As they closed into the junction, Imogen halted; the harlekses followed suit in perfect synchronization, standing still by her side like two marble statues. She leaned on the wall and peeked, doing her best to filter out the rain.
She saw Eilith by her immediate side of the street, who was hiding close behind a parked car. She was tending to her now limp right arm with all the might her fingers could muster, laying on the ground in a side saddle position. She was bleeding from her right arm and leg. One remaining harlek by her side, squatting like a perched owl.
On the other side of the street, four soldiers, masked and clad in black were waiting for movement aiming down their scopes. The windows overlooking the street were lit; some of them with silhouettes blurred through the rain. Sirens blared further in the distance.
Imogen turned to her harlek, trembling, eyes wide open. Unlike her, it was standing still, motionless and at the ready. Its white, eye-hallowed mask hid any emotions it could have shown.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath holding her left wrist tight. Once the trembling stopped, she peeked again from a lower position and made three audible clicks, to which the harlek near Eilith responded by tilting its head to the side.
Imogen heard the soldiers reacting to the sound, two sets of bootsteps moving in unison towards Eilith. She raised her left arm and with one talon motioned forward.
Her harlek’s mask turned deep black as it pranced from behind the corner to an arch above. From there, the harlek launched three ceramic-like, wide-pointed flechettes at once towards the soldiers, whistling against the rain. The volley shredded the arm, neck and leg of one of them, and the soldier fell to the ground with a shriek of pain. In a swift, almost mechanical movement, the one still aiming down his sights readjusted to the target above and let loose several rounds in reply. He hit the intended target before it could drop down from the arch to find cover, shattering part of it’s mask as it hit the ground.
Imogen’s eyes widened at the lifeless body of the harlek as it fell. She glanced at Eilith and motioned to the remaining harlek. She glanced back at the soldiers.
“Man down!” the soldier yelled as she retreated, carrying back her downed comrade behind the safety of another parked car. The two soldiers behind the car fired as to cover her retreat.
When the barrage paused, Imogen leapt out and ran to Eilith. No gunfire followed her.
Once she was at her sister’s side, she paused for a moment to focus on listening again. The gunfire rang in her ears, rendering her hearing almost useless. She motioned to the harlek and closed her eyes in an attempt to control the latent trembling of her arm once more, an analogue to her attempts to keep level-headed. Eilith watched her in silence without loosening the hold of her bloodied arm; a tear of pain in the corner of her eye.
The harlek peeked from beside the car’s hood, clicking once and handing its remaining flechette to Imogen.
Two of the remaining soldiers came out of their cover, firing in turns as they closed in on the car. With great effort, she paid as much attention as she could to the bootsteps, counting just a pair and trusting the harlek’s judgment.
Imogen signaled again and braced. This time the harlek did not prance out, but rather let out a deafening shriek, dropping to the ground for the effort it took.
The soldiers dazed and fell to their knees for a moment, bringing their hands to their ears. Imogen smiled at the result from which she was inmune and leapt from the front of the car, throwing her flechette to one of the soldiers. She missed the neck but cut through his weapon-raised dominant hand.
As the soldier dropped his weapon in pain, Imogen closed the distance between her and the remaining soldier in an instant. Lifting him from the ground by the face just as her sister had done before to her. She tilted her head to try and see the soldier through the mask he wore. Her trembling talons did not wait any longer and crushed his skull. There was no time for him to yell.
The wounded soldier watched Imogen hold the corpse as it went numb. A scream drawing in his face that never came, unaware that the harlek was closing in on him.
Another soldier fired from behind the other car, wounding the harlek before he could reach its downed target. This brought the wounded soldier back to his senses, who picked up his weapon using his remaining hand and attempted to aim.
He let out a few rounds before giving in to the pain from the recoil, finding a target in Imogen’s right arm.
She did not flinch in her fury, turning to the wounded soldier. Letting go of the corpse, she jumped towards her attacker in a fit of rage. Another volley from behind the car missed Imogen as she moved, the weapon clanking out of bullets. The sound dissipated some of Imogen’s rage, clicking for the wounded harlek to retreat. It obeyed, pulling the corpse of the fallen harlek with it. She then jumped back to Eilith.
She did not say a word as she grabbed and lifted her sister up to her shoulders, running towards the alley.
As she neared the junction, her wounded arm gave in, no longer fueled by adrenaline. She tried to keep up until she was into the alley, falling once behind the corner.
Eilith stood up, wincing in pain, clenching on whatever she could hold on the wall.
“Just go…” Imogen ordered her, clutching her arm. “I’ll be right behind you”. The ringing in her ears gradually receded.
Eilith held onto the free shoulder of the harlek, and limped back through the alley with its support.
Imogen no longer had options. These zaruses were better equipped and more capable than the ones she had encountered before.
She peeked from around the corner once more. The remaining soldier was pulling both her fallen and wounded comrades to cover in haste. As soon as she felt her remaining comrades were safe, she reloaded her weapon an turned to the junction.“I have no idea what the fuck you are, but I’ll kill you for this!” She yelled to Imogen, walking towards the junction, weapon at the ready.
Imogen rested her head against the stone wall. The rain in her face brought a brief respite in the chaos.
“Don’t you want to know more about us?” Imogen yelled without leaving the wall, looking at the arch above. “All about the many ways I will kill and dismember you to give your arms a better use?” She listened for a response.
The footsteps stopped but no reply came. A metallic clink followed after a second.
Imogen remembered that sound and acted on instinct, climbing as fast as she could to the arch.
Then came the metallic clunk from the grenade lobbied into the alley. Imogen reached and pulled herself onto the nearby roof, wincing in pain from the effort of her arm.
The blast roared loud but was gone in an instant. Windows shattered around from the shockwave and dust momentarily replaced the rain that fell on Imogen.
“You were saying?” The reply came, barely registering in Imogen’s now ringing ears.
Imogen stood and ran along the roof back into the alley, attempting to be silent again but allowing enough noise to set up a confusing path to any would be followers. The rain did not help. She dropped down at the next block and ran towards the Cul de Sac.
As she arrived at the illuminated columns, the wounded harlek bowed to Eurielle and entered the waves with the harlek corpse, disappearing.
Eurielle turned to Imogen with a stern face.
“You lost two harlekses already! How?”
She ignored Imogen’s wounds.
Imogen froze, her mouth hanging open for a second as she realized their objective. “They…were trying to capture us”
She winced, her voice wavering by the end.
She blinked several times as the events caught up to her.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Imogen yelled as she pushed her sister with all the remaining strength of her only usable arm through the waves.
“Wher…-” Eurielle retorted as she disappeared into the waves.
Imogen turned back, her sight lost to the distance, listening one last time for her sister.
Touching the column, she walked through the fading waves and the structure collapsed behind her, fading its lights.