If only you could see me now, Amber.
Narse sucked in a choked breath, the fumes in the air hot on her face. The industrial sector of Grimal City lurked between two black canyon walls. Stained from years of soot, the tight valley hid the factory towers from Grimal proper on the plateau. Steam and smoke drifted in the air below the clifftops, glowing ugly yellow from the scattered sea of vapor lamps. Everything was metal and sharp and angry. Machinery growled, pistons chugged, and not a single person lurked in the half light.
Narse pressed forward across a narrow grated walkway, suspended between two manufacturing blocs. The handles on either side were rusted over. The air quivered all around her with the energy of Vitality.
Off the walkway and onto a rooftop, Narse stopped to scan the currentfolds around her. With enough Vitality to see the nuanced layers, she peered into the first fold. There were agents of the Dicon Syndicate here—each with enough Vitality to prowl through at least two layers of currentfolds.
Narse crouched low, pressing her vision to get a better look. Colors and light switched to their opposites, and a bright gray world appeared on the other side. There were complete echoes of the industrial sector in here, though less pronounced. The Dicon goons on patrol were as vibrant as the real world.
She counted ten of them. Only three were from the Dicon, wearing the traditional garb—dark trench coats, small hats, smart-shades over their eyes. The other seven were a mish-mash of other organizations and gangs. Narse suspected there was probably four or five groups total meeting here tonight. Each with their personal security on watch. All ten of them held a small fortune in Vitality...
Narse licked her lips. With these ten alone she could harvest enough Vitality for her purposes. But these goons were watching out for men and women with far greater prizes.
Saying a quick prayer to She-of-Divinekind, Narse pushed her way into the first fold. Then into the second fold. The echoes of the real world washed away to almost nothing; little more than defined lines and surfaces. It was enough for her to walk on; though the extra focus took a hit against her personal supply of Vitality. Narse would be quick.
The goons looked like white-washed copies of their true selves patrolling the first fold. Narse was in deep enough that they would only catch her scent briefly. The first one stopped dead in his tracks as she approached. By the time he realized he was in danger, Narse had already plunged her knife, siphoning off his Vitality—green, glossy orbs clinging to his spiritkind. Normally invisible to the natural eye, Narse had paid terrible prices to attune her sight. The Vitality recognized her strength, abandoned the hired gun, and left him dead on a rooftop. The world would not miss him.
Narse prowled the rooftops, coming up behind the other nine and draining them of their Vitality. One nearly caught onto her and forced her to make fancy work with the knife. The bladed weapon didn't actually penetrate flesh this deep in the currentfolds, but it hurt him enough to finish drawing out his Vitality.
The surge of power from the last man made Narse gasp. She collapsed to her knees, her eyes smarting. The hazy space of second fold gave way to third, fourth, and fifth folds. Narse had to latch onto the ground around her not to get lost in it. She had enough Vitality to see through it all, right to the heart of her destinystrand. It called to her—a golden thread so brilliant she had to resist with every last ounce not to take it.
Narse pushed herself back to the real world. Gasping for breath, she stood, afterimages of the destinystrand burned into her retina. Even here she could feel its presence. She had never held so much Vitality in any given moment. Not even during her first experiments with Amber…
She shook her head. Her task was only partway complete. Narse pressed forward, finding an access ladder down into one of the assembly warehouses. She didn't have to hunt for her targets; their Vitality shined brilliant neon green to her attuned eyes.
There were only four of them: one from each crime syndicate. They sat at a card table in a manufacturing room, now abandoned and cleared out of machinery. Three sat at the table, far too relaxed to be amongst enemies. The fourth leaned against a wall, toying with his knife. None the least bit aware their guards were all dead. But then each alone held only marginally more Vitality than their hired help. It was all a fortune—more Vitality than Narse suspected even the Governor possessed.
She slipped into the first fold and sauntered into the room. This close to the real world, she could hear their conversation through the currentfolds. It helped that the Vitality enhanced her natural senses so perfectly. The roar of machinery in the next rooms over was nearly deafening. She ignored it.
The Dicon rep banged the table. "Someone intercepted my cabal in the Lakewood District. Do you know what kind of fortune we're talking about!"
A woman in a tiny black dress with a cigarette huffed. "Same one of you who killed my friend with at least half the Vitality in this room alone."
"I never touched your girl—!"
"Not saying it was you…or any of you. But someone is hitting our stores. Marking our people."
A second gal spoke up. "A newcomer? Someone cornering the market in this region?"
Narse walked slowly around the periphery of the group. She could see it all—so much Vitality. Her breath caught; imagining the things she could do with that power. The reality of what she had to do with it. But this next part was so delicate. So critical lest any one of them escape her grasp. There were nuances in the folds she had to account for; exits she had to seal off so they couldn't escape.
The cigarette lady shook her head, grinning. "No, someone else. Something else. You've run the numbers, haven't you? You've seen how much Vitality's gone missing this month alone."
The fourth and final man straightened his fedora. A white abomination that didn't suit his style. "It's pocket change. Whoever hired a crew to execute these hits is taking unsustainable losses. They can't keep this up for long without a revolt from their paid guns."
"And what if it was just one?" said cigarette woman. "What if one single person collected all that Vitality for themselves?"
The other gal swore. The Dicon goon said, "That's impossible. No one's ever come close to holding that much Vitality. Even if I killed all of you here…"
"But someone has. Someone has finally crossed a threshold we've never dreamed possible. Someone who did it all without our organizations, talent, or pay. Someone with a very dangerous amount of power. And someone…" She froze, her cigarette dropping from her mouth.
No. Narse watched the emerald threads leap from the woman's head. She was trying to summon her guards. She was realizing the danger.
Cigarette woman reached for a pistol. "And that someone is here."
Damn, this was going to be messy. Narse went for the woman first—she was the only one prepared for the immediate threat. She got off three shots by the time Narse plunged the blade, draining her Vitality. The effect briefly brought her out of the currentfolds where she took all three bullets. She gritted her teeth at the pain, which washed away as the Vitality mended the damage and shifted her back to the first fold.
The other three jumped back from the table. The other gal stared at the dead woman at her feet, while the two men tried calling their guards. Narse made a quick dive around the first one in the fedora and drained his Vitality without much effort. Her body was on fire, hands shaking as the energy coursed through her veins. Narse wanted to throw up. She wanted to grasp the destinystrand.
She went for the second gal.
The woman brought up a Vitality-infused sword, slicing clean through Narse's left breast as she came around. Half an hour ago that would have killed her. Now it only was a brief annoyance. She stepped back, pulling the sword from the woman's grasp. The blade turned ashen, disintegrating under the assault of such enormous Vitality. With it she sucked every last bit of it from the gal. Three down, one to go.
The Dicon guy had shifted as far as the second fold. He ran, running into knotted foldspace already closed up. Narse remained in the first fold, chasing after him. This deep in he could pass through most walls. Narse simply knocked them down. She heard loud groans and whines as machinery overheated or tore itself apart in the barrage. Bolts and parts exploded outward in the destruction. Some of it sliced through Narse. She hardly noticed it now.
He entered a metal forge room. The heat was too much and he immediately dropped down out of the currentfolds back to the real world. The room was a dead end, too. The only way out was back past Narse. She dropped out of the currentfolds, too, stopping several paces back. Just outside of her reach to drain his Vitality.
He shifted on his feet, eyes wide as they darted between her and the rows of forges. Red liquid metal splashed and bubbled furiously out of the open tops. There were gaps between each forge, but he would have to take the burns and waste nearly all of his Vitality to heal. A fortunate lost, but his life spared.
Narse saw a brilliant green glow across the floor. She almost hadn't noticed it from the intensity of the metal forges. When she looked down at herself, she realized the glow was coming off her.
"What are you!" he shouted.
Narse raised her knife. "I am the kind of girl you people butcher without blinking."
She took a step closer and he backed closer to the forges. He winced, throwing up one hand to shield his face from the heat. In another time or place, Narse would have enjoyed this encounter—let him hurt as much as they made Amber hurt. But right now it was trivial. She was on the cusp of something far greater; something more important than his suffering.
"It was the Syndicate that killed my friend," she said absently. "So if it helps, you can consider this vengeance. If that helps you at all."
His mouth curled down, his eyes starting to tear up. Narse had never seen this kind of fear before—not from the likes of these people. Men and women she felt no remorse for butchering the way they butchered in turn. The price for Vitality was steep—steeper than Narse could ever have expected. Killing to get this far…it did something to her. Maybe it was the Vitality itself and the price paid to attain it. Maybe that's where men like this Dicon guy came from.
"You're Divinekind," he gasped, sobbing now. "Oh God! You're She-of-Divinekind! Reckoner of souls!"
Narse hesitated, suddenly feeling shameful. That was blasphemous; it was pure mockery of the sacred. Narse would never compare herself to Her.
The hesitation nearly cost her. She saw his desperation; saw him move to leap into the forges. Something had snapped and he feared her more than anything else.
She leapt forward with enhanced reflexes, her blade catching him on the cusp. By the time she tasted his Vitality, his body toppled lifelessly into the forges. The liquid metal went to work on the rest of him.
Narse exhaled, dropping back into the deepest of currentfolds. The forges, heat, and industrial sector all fell away. In their place, a glorious golden light expanded to feel her vision.
The destinystrand called her far, far from her world.