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Aberrant: 200X - [Gods of War] A Fugue [FIN]


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Kazuo ‘Kurusu’ Kanai’s phone, May 18th

…nails done, hair done, everything did

Oh, you fancy, huh?

Oh, you fancy, huh?

Oh, you fa--

The ringtone coming from Kazuo’s smartphone died abruptly as he clicked the receive button.

“What’s up, Ash?”, he asked, without even having to check the caller ID.

“Kazuo, how could you?!”, Aušrine all but shouted into the scarred elite’s ear. Kazuo winced and pulled his ear away from the phone for a moment before putting it to his ear again and asking mildly, “How could I what?”

Don’t, Kazuo!”, Aušrine demanded, “Don’t even start with me! You know what! You took the job!” There was a sound on the line that sounded like a cross between a frustrated sigh and a desperate whimper, then Aušrine blurted out, “You bastard!”

Kazuo had already known that Aušrine was upset with him just by the fact that she’d called him up on the phone instead of reaching out to him telepathically (not speaking to him mentally was her version of giving him the silent treatment), but when she actually swore at him Kazuo suddenly realized that this time he’d managed to really, truly piss her off.

Aušrine never swore. She actually – and in complete seriousness without any self-consciousness – made semi-regular use of words like ‘phooey’ when frustrated. Kazuo had, to his very great amusement, discovered about four years ago that if one could get Aušrine good and drunk her seemingly unassailable mask of propriety would finally slip and she would begin to curse in Japanese – and only in Japanese for some reason – giggling after every foul word, like a naughty little girl who was getting away with something outrageous. He still teased her about it from time to time, much to her chagrin.

But at the moment Aušrine wasn’t drunk, and she wasn’t swearing in Japanese, and she was clearly a hell of a lot more than just ‘chagrined’. A little caught off-guard, Kazuo muttered a bit half-heartedly, “I dunno what yer talkin’ about, bijin. What job?”

“Stop lying to me, Kazuo! You know what job I’m talking about! The one for Einherjar! Kazuo, how could you? He’s our friend!”

Kazuo made a face at his phone and, for the first time sounding angry himself, he asked (demanded), “Since when?! We worked, like, one job with th’guy and had a good time drinkin’ with ‘im afterwards. So-fuckin-what, Ash? That makes us friends now?”

There was silence on the line for a moment, then, quietly, Aušrine said, “Kazuo, they’re paying you to kill him…”

“Yeah”, rejoined Kazuo immediately, and with a chuckle, “they’re payin’ me over twenty million dollars ta do it, too.”

“To kill him, Kazuo. They’re paying you to kill Einherjar.” Aušrine no longer sounded upset, so much as just very sad and disappointed now which, for some reason, irritated Kazuo tremendously. “Is that really who you want to be, Kaz?”, she asked, “A paid assassin?”

“Aušrine, what the fuck are you talkin’ about, girl?”, he demanded angrily. “We’re Elites, fer chrissakes! This what we do.” Gesticulating aggressively with his free hand, despite the fact that Aušrine couldn’t see him, Kazuo asked her, “What exactly didja think that BFG I was usin’ in Qatar last December was loaded with, huh? Cuz it wasn’t filled with Christmas cheer, I can tell ya that!”

“This is different, Kazuo”, Aušrine countered, but weakly, confusion and uncertainty creeping into her voice, “you’re not an assassin!”

“No?”, asked Kazuo with a dangerous edge to his voice, “That’s funny. Cuz all this time an ‘assassin’ is pretty much exactly what I thought bein’ a part of Anna’s little stable of ‘Stealth Novas’ made me.”

“What?”, asked Aušrine, the confusion and uncertainty no longer creeping but flooding into her voice.

By 'Anna', Kazuo meant Anna DeVries and by 'Stealth Nova', Kazuo meant that select group of DeVries Elites that were routinely hired out for jobs that no one involved wanted in the public eye. Elites like Aušrine, Pursuer or Einherjar were the 'faces' of DVNTS (or 'ex-face', in Ein's case); DeVries made damned sure that everybody and their mothers knew about every last job these novas performed and that it was DeVries that these novas worked for (well, technically it was DVNTS they worked for, but who kept track anymore?). Elites like Kazuo, by contrast, were rarely mentioned in the press and the majority of their jobs were the corporate equivalent of classified - hell, some of his jobs (the ones performed for actual government bodies) actually were classified.

DVNTS' Stealth Novas were few in number, probably a little more than a dozen in total. Janissaries probably had about the same number of their own such Elites on hand. It was a testament to the sort of work that these Elites performed that Kazuo was probably the closest thing to a nice guy out of the whole lineup. The only other two that Kazuo had met personally was a psychopath who went by the Elite name of 'Ultra-Violence', who had more than earned the name from what Kazuo saw, and the 'Big T' himself, Totentanz. Kleisner, as it happened, was also the only notable exception to the rule that Stealth Novas weren't household names, but he was really more of the exception that proved the rule. People knew the spears, the golden mask and the name 'Totentanz', not Kleisner himself. For enough cash Kleisner was perfectly amenable to the idea of killing people without them, and no one was ever the wiser.

Kazuo grimaced at his phone and growled, “Wuddya mean, ‘what’?” He took a moment to transfer the phone to his other hand and ear and then said, “What exactly did you think they were payin’ me ta do on all those 'hush-hush' gigs, Ash? I mean sure, it ain't always killin' - sometimes it's kidnappin' or sabotage or somethin' - but the jobs that pay th'best usually mean puttin' some asshole in th'ground fer ever an' always, you know?"

Aušrine was clearly not happy at hearing this and all but sputtered into the phone, "Wh-what - what, what are you saying, Kazuo? You can't be serious about this... Are you?"

"What do you think, Ash?"

"Oh my god! How could you- how could- Why didn't you tell me, Kazuo? How could you keep something like this from me?"

"Oh, give me a fuckin' break, Aušrine!", Kazuo shouted into his phone, "I am so sick of your goody-goody bullshit! Like yer really all that sweet'n innocent. I know you better'n that. I didn't say nothin' cuz they paid me not to - it kinda goes with the job description. But don't try an' tell me ya didn't suspect nothin', Ash!"

"But you didn't- Kazuo what about our work? We get plenty of jobs already with our work against the C-Z - you've got no reason to be doing this!"

"Oh, no?", Kazuo demanded angrily. "Aušrine, takin' out those C-Z fucks pays shit! How d'you not know this? No cares if we take out some fuckin' drug dealer. No one cares!" He stopped for a second while he turned his one good eye upwards, staring into the sky - though what Kazuo thought he might see there was anyone's guess. "And no one pays either", he added, "'cept the fuckin' UN, maybe, but they're a buncha cheap assholes. We're fuckin' bounty hunters with nodes, Ash, an' bounty huntin' doesn't pay shit. That's why only stupid fucks with bleach-blonde mullets and us two do it!"

By this point Aušrine was making noises that made it sound like she might be crying, or trying not to. "What are you saying?", she asked, "What we do matters, Kazuo, it's why we left Utopia, don't you remember? This way we can cut through all of that stupid red tape and go after the people that really matter! It's good work, and we're helping to make the world a-"

"Don't", interrupted Kazuo. "Don't even say it. Not even you believe that shit, Ash. We both know we're doing this for one reason only an' that's yer vendetta against the C-Z."

Aušrine protested, "That's not tr-"

"Yes it is", Kazuo said, cuttin her off again, "an' don't try an' say different. I mean, we live in Tokyo but when was the last time we took out one o' Nakamura's boys, huh? Or one o' those Heaven Thunder pussies? It's always the C-Z..."

On the other end of the line Aušrine was silent, in a portentous kind of way, so after a moment Kazuo went on, "An' after alla these years, what's it accomplished, anyway? I'm not even sure the C-Z's even noticed us yet! So yeah, sometimes I take jobs like the one for Einherjar, an' I don't ask questions an' I keep my mouth shut, an' that way we don't go broke, ok? You get it now? I keep our account flush and I keep Anna or Carrington from firing our asses! So you go model another swimsuit for a magazine or somethin' an' I'll get back to you after I've collected that twenty mil for Ein's head, alright?"

"Kazuo?", Aušrine asked, finally breaking her ominous silence.

"Yeah?", asked Kazuo.

"I don't think I want to talk to you anymore. Or ever, actually", and then the line clicked and went dead as she hung up.

"Yeah", growled Kazuo into his phone and to no one in particular, "well fuck you too, busu."

Kazuo pulled the phone away from his ear in frustration and glanced menacingly at it. Apparently he didn't like what he saw, because he suddenly wound up and threw the phone like it was a baseball and the nearby wall that it struck was someone he really didn't care for very much. Kazuo stared with his one good eye at the spot on the wall where some of the shattered pieces of his phone had stuck in the plaster. After a moment he pulled out a Lucky 7, lit it, and then walked away.

He was going to find Einherjar. And kill him.

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The Eastern European Regional Headquarters of DeVries National Tactical Solutions, the Office of Radu Szlaniskovich, May 19th

Aušrine was already in a very bad mood. She’d just finished an unpleasant drive through rough traffic in an unpleasantly ostentatious limousine, driven by an unpleasantly professional driver, who had picked her up at the extremely unpleasant Sheremetyevo Airport (frequently rated in the bottom three of the Worst Airports in the World). Before that she’d spent an eternity in the air, flying from Japan to Moscow, Russia.

Aušrine really hated to fly. In airplanes, that was. She was perfectly happy to fly under her own power, but she couldn’t match the speed of international jetliners, and Kazuo wasn’t an option at the moment, so she’d crammed herself into a flying metal tube for most of the last twenty-four hours and now here she was in Moscow. It was Kazuo’s fault, really, that she hated flying in airplanes. His stupidly-named ‘Supe-su no Tuneru’ spatial warps were much too convenient, and she’d become used to traversing all over the globe as easily as other people stepped from one room to the next.

It was all Kazuo’s fault that she was here, too, in Moscow, at the offices of the Eastern European offices for DVNTS, at the desk of the DeVries Europe East Regional Coordinator, Radu Szlaniskovich. Aušrine did not like Szlaniskovich, and was still a bit peeved that he’d replaced Vitaly Szuhay – the previous Regional Coordinator – whom she had liked and whom she’d had a much better rapport with. Szlaniskovich was… well, he was just shady. She couldn’t look at him without thinking of the sort of men who she usually only saw on the internationally wanted lists. And he was exactly the sort of man who would happily put out a contract on Einherjar – a fellow DVNTS Elite of perfectly good standing who’d made the company millions – without a second thought, and all just because the blond giant had taken a stand for what he believed in. (The fact that Einherjar’s “stand” had also cost the company millions didn’t really enter into Aušrine’s considerations on the matter, to her credit.)

Szlaniskovich was also just the sort of man who would put the idea into Kazuo’s head to go and execute the hit on Einherjar. Aušrine was liking him less and less with each passing moment that she sat in a chair in his office and stared across his desk at his icily cold and arrogant face. Sitting against the outer wall of Szlaniskovich’s office, looking profoundly uncomfortable sitting as she was in an enclosed space with two massively powerful Elites with an obvious bone of contention between them, was a woman who had introduced herself as ‘Nastasia Kharitonova’. She was some kind of middle-management crony of Radu’s who was apparently required to sit in on sudden and unexpected meetings, like the one that Aušrine had forced onto Slaniskovich today.

“So, Miss Vasiliauskiute, how can we help you today?”, he asked her, speaking in Russian. Though both of them spoke multiple languages, it happened that Russian was the only one they shared between them.

So Aušrine responded in Russian with the very simple and direct statement, “I want you to cancel this ridiculous contract on the Elite named Einherjar.”

Radu’s severely handsome features quirked and his eyes twinkled ever so slightly as the Slav ex-Elite fought to cover his evident amusement at the naïve audacity of the stunningly beautiful Belarusian sitting across from him. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible”, was all he said. Miss Kharitonova squirmed silently in her chair off to one side.

Aušrine’s perfect face was tragically marred by the frown she made at this news, but in truth this was the answer she’d expected. Still, it was something that she’d needed to say. For DVNTS to put out a contract on one of their own was wrong, and she just could not stand by silently. The matter of Kazuo, however, was something she fully intended to do something about, whether DeVries, DVNTS, or the Great and Powerful Anna Herself liked it or not.

“Very well”, she said, “but I would still like to know why you would give the contract for Einherjar to Kazuo Kanai.”

“Mm”, Szlaniskovich responded, “I thought you might.” He unfolded his dangerously perfect and perfectly manicured hands and placed them both on his desk, long fingers splayed slightly. “Well, to be truthful, Kanai-san wasn’t our first choice.”

Aušrine arched one heavenly brow at him.

“But it seems we badly underestimated Einherjar, and our first and second choices are now dead.”

Now Aušrine’s heavenly brow drew down and in, along with the her other heavenly brow, as her forehead furrowed and she frowned concernedly at the other nova. “Dead?”, she asked.

“Mm”, the Slav answered noncommittally, “Which prompted a much more careful review of Einherjar’s file, after which we were forced to reassess our requirements for this contract.” Szlaniskovich sighed with an expression of strained patience on his face and elaborated, “Einherjar’s skills as an Elite are… impressive.”

Aušrine wasn’t looking at Radu as he said this and had a distant look in her eyes, but she nodded slowly in a way that let him know that she was listening and that she agreed with his ‘assessment’.

“So we reviewed all suitable Elite candidates for the contract who were currently available”, Szlaniskovich went on, “and Kanai-san’s name turned up at the top of our list. His own capabilities are not as… hmm, shall we say ‘blatant’ as Einherjar’s?”, Szlaniskovich said, with a tight smile, “But they are just as impressive, in their own way. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Aušrine nodded again and raised her eyes to meet Szlaniskovich’s. She most emphatically did agree. In fact, she wasn’t trying to stop Kazuo because she was worried for him. She was worried for Einherjar – though it was worth mentioning that Aušrine was just a bit biased on this subject.

"I need you to cancel this contract with Kazuo", she said, "and find someone else. This is all a mistake."

This time Szlaniskovich, the ex-Elite formerly known as The Impaler, showed no amusement at Aušrine's audacity, his tolerance of it having apparently worn out. "I disagree", he said with a slight frown, "and in any case, it is quite impossible for us to just cancel the contract with Kanai-san at this point in the proceedings. To do so would put us in breach of the terms, so it is quite impossible."

"Then tell me where you've sent him and I'll convince him to cancel", Aušrine countered. "Then it's not your problem."

Szlaniskovich's crony, Miss Nastasia Kharitonova, finally found her voice and protested at this. "You can't just interfere like this", she said, a bit indignantly, "even if you were to somehow manage to persuade Kanai-san to cancel his contract, we could pursue legal recourse against yo-"

Aušrine silenced the poor woman by turning to her and glaring, flaring her nostrils, and saying quietly - even gently, "You will sit there with your mouth shut, Miss Kharitonova, and you will not speak again until after I have left this building. Do you understand?"

"Yes", answered Nastasia in a tiny voice, and nearly lost control of her bladder. Like virtually everyone else, she was already well aware of Aušrine's extreme beauty and sex appeal but, also like virtually everyone else, she had never yet had to experience the sheer intensity of being in Aušrine Vasiliauskiute's physical presence and wasn't prepared for just how awful it was to have a being of such Perfection look on her with such fierce anger and utter disdain.

Turning back to Szlaniskovich, Aušrine again demanded of him, "Tell me where Kazuo Kanai is."

But The Impaler was not so easily intimidated as Ms. Kharitonova and rather than shrinking in fear his jaws clenched once, and then he asked her, "Why would I do that?"

"Because", answered Aušrine, with a set to her jaw and glint in her perfect brown eyes that let him know she was deadly serious, "I am going to find him, whether you help me or not, and I am going to stop him. But if I have to do this without the help of DeVries, then both DeVries and DVNTS can forget about ever doing business with me again. And I do hope you understand the situation between myself and 'Kanai-san' well enough to realize that, if I go, so does he."

Radu Szlaniskovich did not rise to this bait with comments, but he did level his gaze at Aušrine and his jaw took on a set of its own.

"If, on the other hand", Aušrine continued, "you are willing to work with me then there is at least the possibility of us doing business again in the future. Now. Will you tell me where Kazuo Kanai is or not?"

Radu Szlaniskovich pushed away from his desk and leaned far back in his chair, putting one hand to his face and running three fingers over his lips in quiet contemplation while he regarded Aušrine with an expression that was nothing if not dangerous.

Aušrine's threat was a real one. If she left, it was a foregone conclusion that, sooner or later, so would Kanai. And in their case that was closer to a loss of three novas, not two, because Aušrine was something of a rarity in that she did at least as much work for DeVries proper as she did for DVNTS. And, despite Kazuo's recent claim that it was he who was the true bread-winner between the two of them, the truth was that he earned only moderately more in any given year than Aušrine did, and the licensing for the various Aušrine-related merchandise, image-rights and TV spots would likely yield much larger returns for DeVries over the long run than Kazuo's Elite work.

So while the divinely beautiful Elite's threat would not interrupt the flow of DeVries' money at anywhere near the same scale that Einherjar's stunt had threatened to do, it was still enough to give the Regional Coordinator pause.

Finally, still leaning back in his chair and gazing at Aušrine ominously, Szlaniskovich sighed once and then said, "Our most current intel on Einherjar placed the man in Havana, Cuba. We told Kanai-san as much, so I think it's fair to assume that is where he went. Whether or not he is still there, I really can't say. There. You have your information. Now, I think it would be best if we ended this meeting and you were on your way, Miss Vasiliauskiute."

Aušrine almost seemed surprised that he'd given in to her demand so quickly, but after the briefest pause she stood up suddenly and turned to leave, but stopped midway to the door and turned back to Szlaniskovich. "Thank you", she said simply, to which the forbidding Slav nodded once with dignified grace.


"Are you really going to just let her go like that, sir?", Nastasia asked her boss after Aušrine had left.

Radu Szlaniskovich had been gazing at the far wall of his office for the past several seconds with a forbiddingly intense look in his ice blue eyes. Still looking at the wall, he answered Nastasia in a mild voice, saying only, "Yes, I am."

"But sir!", the baseline woman exclaimed, "The repercussions if she actually succeeds in stopping Kurusu-"

"Thank you, Miss Kharitinova, I am well aware of what's at stake. Please calm yourself." Radu Szlaniskovich glanced at the distraught woman, his eyes ever so slightly squinting with annoyance.

He said, "I want you to get me in touch with Mr. Carrington down in Windhoek, Nastasia. And I would also like you to arrange for Mr. Kleisner to be conferenced in on the call as well..."

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El Chapultepec, a jazz club in Havana, Cuba, May 19th

El Chapultepec wasn’t the hottest club in Havana for a few different reasons. For one thing, it was too small for real popularity (exclusivity maybe), and for another the thing, the drinks were cheap and not very strong (except for the Amp Wells, because the management wasn’t dumb enough to try watering down a nova’s drink). In addition, it wasn’t a discotheque. El Chapultepec always had a live band playing, and those bands only played jazz. Finally, there was the small issue of its having the kind of club patrons and atmosphere one usually only found in old Quentin Tarantino movies – that kind being dangerous.


So it was no surprise that El Chapultepec was where Kazuo Kanai had decided to set up camp while he conferred with his contacts in his ongoing efforts to figure just where in all the thousand hells Einherjar had gotten to. Because it wasn’t Havana. Kazuo’d already confirmed that much, at least.


“…don’t really care where he’s not, man.” Kazuo was on the phone with his old pal Kyuudousha who, astute readers may remember, was one kick-ass detective (his nova name even meant detective) and was Kazuo’s go-to guy for all the hard to get intel his job as an Elite so frequently required him to have.

Momentarily distracted as a certain someone came in through El Chapultepec’s side entrance and began wading through the room’s smoky atmosphere like a lioness on the prowl and trailing an entourage as she very clearly made straight for him, Kazuo almost didn’t catch what Kyuudousha was saying. “Hold on”, he interrupted, “where’d you say it was again?”


Kazuo kept one eye (the only one he still had) on the new arrival, but kept his real focus on the conversation. “Uh-huh. And how far out is that? …shit. That’s the middle of fuckin’ nowhere, ain’t it?” There was a pause while Kazuo listened to something Kyuudousha had to say, then, “Yeah, maybe any other time, but Ash an’ I’re on the outs at the moment and – hey, listen man, I gotta go. Yeah, ‘til then."

The scarred Japanese nova turned his phone off and turned his full attention on to the woman who'd been approaching him for the past several seconds and was now standing before his table with a very unfriendly expression on her face and two thuggish-looking-and-probably-nova brutes at her back.

"What the fuck do you want?”, Kazuo asked, in his typically subtle and sophisticated way.

Stephanie Severance, better known in Havana as La Perra del Sangre, responded to Kazuo’s outburst with nothing more than the small, knowing, bitter smile of someone who’d just won an argument with Kazuo over whether or not his shit did, in fact, stink. She even sniffed once, daintily, crinkled her nose in distaste, and then turned to the two no-necks who'd come in with her and gave them a wordless signal.


An alley, outside El Chapultepec

Kazuo's back hit the alley's wall with enough force to break a normal man's spine, but all it did to the Elite was make him grunt softly, followed by a low chuckle. Despite his seeming bravado, Kazuo stumbled a bit as he rebounded off of the wall and immediately bent double, clutching his stomach where La Perra's enforcer had just slugged him.

Supporting himself with a hand on one knee, Kazuo lifted his head and looked at La Perra. "Y'know, I remembered ya like t'play rough, Steph", Kazuo said between coughs with a noticeable edge of sarcasm in his voice, "but I didn't recall it bein' this much fun."

'Steph' just scowled at him and snapped, "This isn't a game, Kanai. I told you the last time you were here: stay out of my city!"

“That was you?”, Kazuo asked with mock-surprise as he straightened himself up and rubbed the small of his back tenderly. He winced as he did this but then grinned wryly at La Perra and commented in an off-hand manner, “Fer some reason, I thought that was someone else…”

The Bloodhound glowered at Kazuo and ground her teeth in silent frustration in the face of his infuriating attitude. The man was always like this and looking at him now, Stephanie was hard-pressed to remember why she’d ever found him to be anything less than intolerable. The fact that she had, at one time, found him to be very tolerable indeed only infuriated her even more.

Once - for about five minutes - La Perra and the nova Elite known as Kurusu had been an 'item'. That hadn't ended well - not that many of Kazuo's romantic trysts ever did - and Havana's Secret Police were still feeling the emotional fallout that resulted from the breakup. The fact that Kazuo had shown up in Havana on jobs a few times since then and had, in general, been a huge pain in everyone's ass didn't really help matters. After the Elite's last round of violence and binge-drinking in some of Havana's rougher sections, La Perra had declared that he was no longer welcome in her city, and there would be trouble if he ever came back. And now, here he was....

She glanced angrily at one of her cronies, whose nova name happened to be (very appropriately, in Kazuo’s opinion) El Puño, ‘The Fist’ – who was obviously waiting for just such a look – and he immediately turned back to Kanai and slugged the Japanese man in the face with jaw-breaking force. Apparently caught entirely off-guard by this, Kazuo’s smile was smashed right off of his face as he once again staggered back and struck the wall behind him, though this time the back of his head was what hit first. Grimacing, Kazuo pushed himself away from the wall again and gingerly rubbed the back of his head. “Ow”, he said.

Still squint-eyed with pain and rubbing the back of his head, Kazuo asked La Perra, “Hey – not that this ain’t fun r’nothin’ – but d’ya mind if we skip alla these pleasantries an’ you tell me what it is you want from me?”

“Simple”, Stephanie replied, “I want you out of my city. I thought I was being very clear on that.”

“Yeah”, Kazuo allowed, “but see… that’s gonna be a problem.” He gave the head of the Secret Police a half-shrug and a look that said ‘What can you do?’ and added, “I got business here”, by way of explanation.

Another pointed look to her two nova associates was all it took and one of them – the one with the somewhat unfortunate nova handle of ‘The Beetle’ – reached out and grabbed hold of Kazuo’s shoulders, forcibly spinning him around to face El Puño and pinning the smaller man’s arms behind his back. Kazuo put up token resistance, but Beetle’s main shtick (as well as the inspiration behind his name) was his incredible durability and strength, and Kazuo’s own strength was apparently no match for that of the big nova. El Puño slugged the scarred Elite in the stomach again and Kazuo doubled over as much as he could, with The Beetle still pinning his arms behind his back, as all the air in his lungs erupted from his throat in a loud wheezing grunt.

Jesus, Steph”, he gasped, in between desperate attempts to refill his lungs, “this is business, alright? I’ll be gone, soon’s my job’s done.”

Kazuo started struggling with Beetle again and, after a moment, the large nova let him go. Glaring over his shoulder hatefully at the indifferent super-powered thug, Kazuo placed an arm protectively over his stomach and wiped at his mouth with his other hand. When he pulled his hand away and saw blood mixed in with the spittle he grimaced and cursed.

Stephanie watched him with a mixture of amusement and indifference and asked him, “What exactly is your business here, Kanai?”

In the process of brushing himself off and, in general, collecting himself, Kazuo glanced in Stephanie’s direction with a put-upon expression and said, “Heard Einherjar was in town an’ I’m lookin’ fer the guy, so here I am.”

La Perra’s eyes widened imperceptibly and she said, “You’re looking for-“, but then she seemed to make a connection and her eyes narrowed. “DeVries gave you the contract on his head, didn’t they?”, she said, in a voice that was more accusation than question.

“What’s it to you?”, Kazuo asked mildly, but with a look in his good eye that was anything but. “You know where he is?”

“No. But what makes you think I’d tell you even if I did?”

Kazuo pursed his lips and made as though he were considering this quandary for a second and then answered, “Cuz then I’d know where he is, an’ the sooner I find th’big, blond Viking the sooner I’m outta yer city?”

La Perra smirked at this and countered with, “Why would that make me want to tell you? Wouldn’t it be easier to just warn Einherjar so that he could leave without you ever knowing?”

“As if he would”, muttered Kazuo under his breath. Kazuo didn’t know Ein very well, be he understood the man well enough, and he knew that running away was pretty much the last thing the guy would ever do. Addressing Stephanie again, he answered her, “Even if ya did that, you’d still need ta get rid o’ me, so why not tell me where he’s gone, right?”

“Maybe I’d rather deal with you myself”, La Perra replied with a smirk, “than inflict your horribleness on anyone else?”

Kazuo laughed humorlessly at the Bloodhound’s joke and said, “C’mon, Steph”, as he took a step towards her. At this, both Beetle and El Puño immediately started to close in on him, but Kazuo managed to stop them with two hands raised palm-up, placatingly. “Jus’ tell me wutcha know, an’ I’ll be outta yer hair”, he offered from behind his still-upraised hands, in what he hoped was a reasonable tone.

“I already told you”, La Perra snapped in annoyance and anger, “I don’t know where Einherjar is! And I still want you out of my city! Now, are you going to make this easy on me, or hard? You decide, Kazuo!”

“You really don’t know where he’s at, do you?”, Kazuo asked her, with an expression on his scarred face that was suddenly very intent, like he was trying to discover something very important in her own features.

“No, Kazuo! I already tol-“

“Well, shit”, exclaimed Kazuo in a voice laden with sudden annoyance, “what a fuckin’ waste o’ time this turned out t’be….” Suddenly the Elite didn’t look quite so put-upon or beat up anymore. Mostly, he just looked extremely irritated.

“What are you-“, but then Stephanie seemed to understand and her mouth opened in surprise even as her eyes narrowed yet again in anger. “You played me!”, she exclaimed. "You wanted me to come find you here on the chance I knew something!"

"You kiddin'?", Kazuo responded with an arched eyebrow. "You know everything that happens in this city. Who else'm I gonna ask?"

La Perra jabbed a finger in Kazuo’s direction and shouted at her two associates, “Get rid of him! Now!”

The Beetle and El Puño were only too happy to oblige and both of them closed in on their target ominously. Kazuo just laughed once with a dangerous smile on his face and took a step away from them, seemingly more focused on their feet than on their much more dangerous fists. This oddity in his behavior made much more sense, however, when El Puño stepped right into the middle of a hole in space that had appeared suddenly right in front of him and dropped instantly through it, disappearing from sight.

The Beetle stopped mid-rush for an instant when this happened with a look of surprise on his face, but then he seemed to shrug that off and lunged at Kazuo anyway, enormous arms seeking to wrap themselves around his much smaller frame like a pair killer pythons.

Instead, Beetle found his arms closing on nothing as, from immediately behind him, he heard the Japanese Elite’s voice saying, “Nice try, big guy”. Beetle whipped around to find Kazuo watching him with an infuriatingly smug and unconcerned grin, with his right hand lifted up next to his scarred face and an index finger pointing straight up into the sky overhead. “But you should really be trying to catch him, not me”, Kazuo added, and lifted his good eye in the direction his index finger was already pointing.

Right about then Beetle became aware of an odd noise and, following Kazuo’s gaze upwards, realized that it was the sound of El Puño shouting at the top of his lungs as he fell from out of the night sky. “Shit”, he exclaimed and immediately started trying to line himself up to catch his partner in (literal) crime. Beetle could’ve survived such a fall without any difficulty at all, but El Puño wasn’t quite so indestructible. It didn’t occur to him that Kazuo ‘Kurusu’ Kanai had probably known that and targeted ‘The Fist’ on purpose.

Kazuo absently rubbed his lip, near the corner of his mouth where the still-falling and still-screaming El Puño had so recently slugged him, and turned to regard the beautiful and severe La Perra del Sangre. She was standing stock still, stiff with frustrated rage at Kazuo, with an expression on her face that could’ve killed him, if she’d erupted with the right powers.

“Wish I could say it was fun”, he said, “but it wasn’t. Catch ya later, Steph. Don’t try an’ send anyone else after me. I’m leavin’ Havana now, anyway.”

And Kazuo Kanai turned and walked out of the alley without ever once looking back.

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Lung King Heen Restaurant, inside the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, May 26th

Two International Finance Center, located on the waterfront of Hong Kong’s Central District, with 88 storeys and standing in at 415 meters, was the second tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong and the fifth highest in the world. To match its total of 88 storeys, 22 of the storeys in the 2IFC had been designed as high-ceilinged ‘trading floors’, allowing it to qualify as being truly auspicious according to the exacting demands of Hong Kong’s Feng Shui culture. This was a slight deception, however, as the 2IFC building left out ‘taboo’ floors like the 14th and 24th floors (the number ‘4’ in Cantonese sounds like the word for ‘death’ and is therefore considered bad luck), meaning it did not technically have 88 storeys and that, in turn, meant that its 22 high-ceilinged storeys were not as numerologically auspicious as its owners were claiming. Whether or not the inauspicious chi that was no doubt slowly saturating the building with each passing day would ever reach catastrophic levels and cause the 2IFC to burst into a thirteen-hundred-foot-tall blaze before sending it careening into the nearby Victoria harbor, thus removing its offensive presence from the sight of the gods, remained to be determined.

Adjacent to the Two International Finance Center – and directly in its path if it ever should burst into flames and collapse – was the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, which stood in at 45 storeys and 206 meters. Within this prestigious hotel were two of the only Michelin 3-star restaurants in Hong Kong, those being Caprice – which offered the finest French cuisine in Hong Kong – and Lung King Heen – which offered traditional Cantonese cuisine of the highest order and quality (the only other 3-star restaurant in the city was Sun Tung Lok, over in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon). For some reason, Hong Kong liked to tuck most of its finest restaurants away inside of various hotels all across the city, as Caprice and Lung King Heen so adequately demonstrated.

It was at Lung King Heen that Aušrine was scheduled to meet with Amanda Wu, and so it was that she stepped off of the Four Season’s elevator at the fourth floor and made her way to the prestigious restaurant’s front entrance. There she was quickly ushered into the restaurant-proper and towards one of the window tables in a secluded corner of the otherwise very open floor plan, where Ms. Wu could be seen already seated. The (in)famous information-broker saw Aušrine as she approached and gracefully stood to greet her.

Amanda Wu, was looking decidedly elegant today, dressed as she was in the always classic ‘Little Black Dress’. This particular iteration of the seminal classic showed off some skin but in a way that wasn’t vulgar and placed most of its emphasis on her oh-so-finely shaped shoulders, back and legs, while leaving her well-formed chest tastefully covered in a way that managed to be sexy at the same time that it was entirely appropriate and professional. Her thick black hair was done up in a tight bun and held in place with two crossed chopsticks, while both her ears and her neck were adorned with pearls. Completing her outfit was a pair of black, open-toed, and strappy stiletto heels.

Aušrine, meanwhile, had shaped her eufiber into a light and flowing strapless dress that hung down to just above her knees for today’s meeting. Seemingly made of the finest silk, the dress was plum-colored in a broad band where it crossed her not-inconsiderable chest in elegant style and taking on a lavender hue below that as it draped her body in loose but suggestive folds. Bursting briefly upwards from the hem of the dress was a floral pattern done in the same shades of plum and lavender used for the rest of the dress, with reddish ochre and blood red accents and a few cream-colored highlights finishing off the design – which was her own and which she was quite proud. A pair of earrings from an up-and-coming South Korean designer brand, made up of gold, silver, and tiny cubes of obsidian, and all put together to resemble delicate twigs and berries, hung from her ears. She wore no other jewelry or accessories, and her hair was left hanging free in a rich cascade of soft curls. On her feet were a pair of very designer-looking pumps (that were nonetheless also shaped from eufiber) with five-inch heels that were evocative of red and white tulips, in both color and design.

One of the really great things about being a nova and a woman was that ultra-high heels were no longer painful – they were just sexy – and it was clear this was something that both Aušrine and Amanda were more than happy to take advantage of.

After the requisite pleasantries, insistencies over who looked more stunning, and all of the other socially expected but personally meaningless politenesses had been exchanged, the two women sat down opposite each other at the small table that had been allotted them in the restaurant’s far corner. It was evening, and the view of the Victoria Harbour, as seen from the windows of the Lung King Heen, was really quite lovely with the myriad skyscrapers of the Central District of Hong Kong (the most vertical city on Earth) lit up like beacons all along the water’s edge. The waitress appeared as soon the two women seemed settled, menus were reviewed, questions were asked and answered, and finally orders were placed.

One of the other really great things about being a nova and a woman, was that it really didn’t matter how much they ate, their nova metabolisms could – and would – take everything they threw at it and more without even the slightest damage to their nearly perfect physiques. So Amanda and Aušrine ordered roughly half of everything on the menu.

About the time the barbecued suckling pig was coming out – before which had been the melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef cubes, the delightfully crispy turnip puffs with lotus root, the complex yet subtle steamed rice rolls with lobster in a black bean sauce, and the astoundingly good Taro dumplings – the conversation finally began to turn towards the real purpose for their meeting.

“So”, Amanda Wu ventured, speaking in her native Cantonese and privately both impressed and pleased that a woman she’d been inclined to think of as ‘just a pretty face’ (ok, more like a ‘perfect face’) was so fluent in a language that even most of the expats who called Hong Kong their home couldn’t speak properly, “I understand that your business partner has accepted a contract on a fellow DVNTS Elite. The one for that good-looking blond fellow who caused such an upset in the Congo, Einherjar is his name, I believe. As I hear it, DeVries has placed quite the sum on his head…”

Aušrine cast her two beautiful eyes downwards at these words and regarded the plate in front of her silently, using the bite of suckling pig she’d just passed between her perfect lips as an excuse not to answer immediately. Though it was obvious that Amanda’s directness had caught Aušrine off-guard and that she really didn’t want to answer the question, the reticence on the supremely beautiful nova’s face in no way made her seem deceitful or untrustworthy, but rather innocent, thoughtful and, above all, reluctant to take the until-then pleasant conversation into such troubling waters – and more for the sake of Amanda’s peace of mind than for her own, at that.

Even the superhumanly savvy and intelligent Amanda Wu failed to perceive the aura of saint-like trustworthiness that surrounded Aušrine like a holy shroud as being in any way suspicious. Unnatural, certainly – perhaps even supernatural, in fact – but any of the notions that lay behind such unpleasant words as ‘suspicion’ or ‘deceitfulness’ seemed wholly out of place around the almost incomprehensibly gorgeous Belarusian nova seated before her. Even so, Amanda hadn’t gotten as far as she had by being a patsy, which meant that the very unassailability of the cherub-like innocence oozing from the nonetheless insanely sexy Aušrine Vasiliauskiute troubled her. It didn’t make her stop trusting the captivatingly alluring Elite, but it did make her suddenly eager to end this conversation so that she could return to the world of intrigue, deceit and back-stabbing that had made her wealthy – a world that she understood and was at home within – and immerse herself as deeply into it as possible.

After a brief moment’s pause, Aušrine nodded silently and returned Amanda’s gaze.

“And that has something to do with why you’ve come to see me”, speculated Amanda, “doesn’t it?”

Again, Aušrine nodded. “I need some information”, she said simply.

“About Einherjar?”

“Well, yes and no”, Aušrine answered, somewhat evasively.

The elegant information broker across from her frowned and said, “You’re not taking part in the hunt for Einherjar as well, are you?”

Aušrine responded by looking equal parts surprised, amused and scandalized, and quickly responded, “What? No! No, of course not! Actually, the one I’m after is my ‘business partner’, as you called him.”

At this, one of Amanda’s perfectly groomed eyebrows arched upwards. Privately she wondered why his own partner didn’t know where Kazuo Kanai was. Amanda smelled saleable information here – or at least some juicy drama – and was intrigued. “And what”, she asked, “makes you think that I would have any idea where Kazuo Kanai is?”

“I don’t”, answered Aušrine with an emphatic certainty that brought back a little of Amanda’s frown (like most information brokers, she didn’t care for it when others knew things without her telling them first – especially when it was something about her). Aušrine continued, “but I do think you know where Einherjar is.”

Now Amanda’s frown was back in full force and, with narrowed eyes, she said, “I thought you just said you weren’t after Einherjar…”

“Oh”, Aušrine said in a ‘put yourself at ease’ tone as she raised one daintily perfect and deceptively delicate hand off of the table’s surface in a placating gesture, “I’m really not, I assure you Amanda.” She gave the Chinese nova a disarmingly beautiful and pure smile to reassure her, before quickly taking on a more serious demeanor and adding soberly, “but Kazuo is after him, and Kazuo is very good at finding people. So it follows that if I know where Einherjar is, then I also know where Kazuo is – or at least where he will be very soon.”

Amanda had watched Aušrine very intently as she’d been speaking and leaned back in her chair as she finished, seeming to consider just who it was exactly she was looking at here. “What is to you”, she probed, “if Kazuo does find Einherjar? Isn’t it just another contract – and a very large one at that, if the rumors are true? Who is Einherjar to you that you’re willing to go to all this trouble just to save him from your own partner?”

Now it was Aušrine’s turn to frown, with what seemed like genuine concern, as she asked, “Amanda, how can you even ask me that? You and I both know Einherjar hasn’t done anything wrong! And even if he had, he hasn’t done anything to deserve being killed for it – and certainly not by a fellow DeVries Elite!”

"So that's it, then?", asked Amanda, "You're only looking out for a fellow Elite, and there's nothing more to it than that?"

Aušrine looked down and to one side in a way that made it clear that there absolutely was more to it than that, but all she said was, "Listen Amanda... they're both good men and I..." Her voice trailed off for a moment and then Aušrine rolled her eyes and sighed heavily with a kind of weary sadness. "I guess I'm just getting tired of watching people hurt each other", she said, completing her thought.

"Sweety", Amanda responded (with only a hint of condescension), "your an Elite. A combat one, at that. This is the world you live in, isn't it? Hell, it's a world you and your fellow Elites helped make. Shouldn't you be used to seeing people hurt each other by now?"

The goddess-like being seated across from her looked wounded and guilty at Amanda's words, but Aušrine held her peace and didn't lash out. Instead she took a moment to swallow a lump in her throat and then said, "You're right, of course. I do bear some responsibility and I have absolutely no right to complain about the contract DeVries has issued against Einherjar, or that Kazuo chose to accept it. But I still want to do something about it, and stopping my best friend and someone I consider to be a good man from killing each other seems like as good a place to start as any, don't you agree?"

Amanda listened to Aušrine and was troubled, but she wasn't sure if it was because of how sincere the intensely beautiful Belarusian sounded as she spoke, or if it was because she suddenly realized just how much she wanted that sincerity to be something truly real and not just mere words. Having a heart was something Amanda Wu simply could not afford in her line of work. Clearly, this strange foreign nova was not a good influence on her, and she would have to do something to bring this conversation to an end sometime soon.

In the meantime, the best she could muster in response to Aušrine's question was the somewhat lame, "Perhaps..."

Aušrine didn't seem to notice any of this however (much to Amanda's relief), and added with some awkwardness and evident uncertainty, "Besides, I don't think I am a combat Elite any longer..."

"What?", asked Amanda, her discomfort at Aušrine's earnestness momentarily taking a back seat in the face of this potentially very useful and exclusive information.

The (apparently ex-) Elite smiled shyly, looking ridiculously charming as she did so, and elaborated, "I'm thinking of quitting. Becoming an Elite - I thought I could do some good - but you were right, I've just been a part of the problem like this and I think it's time I fixed that."

"So that's it?", asked Amanda with evident dubiousness, "You're retiring, just like that? Hanging up the proverbial mantle and calling it quits?"

Aušrine gazed out the floor-to-ceiling window next to them onto Victoria Harbour as it spread out to the horizon and the row upon row of Hong Kong's brightly lit skyscrapers arrayed along the water's edge and smiled in a wistful fashion. She looked back at Amanda with the smile still on her gorgeous face and a sudden light behind her eyes and said, "I think so, yeah."

Now it was Amanda's turn to look out the window, but with a moderately stunned expression on her face rather than a smile. Aušrine Vasiauskiute - who was arguably one of the two or three most famous Elites on the planet - was retiring. This was going to be very big news and-

"Have you told anyone else of your plans to retire yet?", Amanda asked, carefully keeping her voice neutral as she did so.

Aušrine shook her head 'no', looking just a touch mischievous now that her 'big secret' was out in the open. "They barely even qualify as 'plans', truthfully. This is the first time I've even said the words out loud!"

Amanda Wu couldn't quite keep the corner of mouth from lifting in the hint of a smile upon hearing this, but she kept her expression otherwise very calm, collected, and cool as she asked, "Then what are your plans going forward? If you're not going to work as an Elite any longer, I mean." Not that Aušrine was, but it still hadn't even occurred to Amanda that the stunningly beautiful woman seated across from her might be deceiving her, nor was it likely to occur to her anytime soon, either. Aušrine's trustworthiness was indisputable.

Looking disarmingly youthful, vibrant, and innocent while she did it, Aušrine shrugged at Amanda's question and grinned unselfconsciously. "Long term? I've no idea", she answered. Then Aušrine's expression once again took on the earnestly sincere intensity that made Amanda feel like a moth who'd just stumbled across an especially attractive flame, and she said, "But for now I intend to stop my friend from doing something he'll regret for the rest of his life, and maybe save a good man's life while I'm at it!" Her mouthed quirked as she seemed to consider something, and then she added, "Or maybe it'll be Kazuo who needs saving. Either way."

Aušrine's enthusiasm dimmed visibly as a hint of worry crept into her eyes and she went on, "Amanda, you do know where Einherjar is, don't you? I'll be honest with you" (you're too honest already! Amanda couldn't help but think to herself) "I'm running out of good leads in my search for Kazuo, so if you can't help me I'm really not sure what I'll do or where I'll go from here..."

The beatific nova fell silent and looked at Amanda expectantly and perhaps a little beseechingly. Amanda Wu kept her own face carefully neutral and only gazed back at the other woman silently.

Suddenly, Aušrine reached across the table with one of her incredibly delicate and feminine hands - hands strong enough to crack a mountain if the stories were true - and gripped Amanda's hand with a strength and firmness that absolutely felt present and indisputable, but not at all demanding or aggressive or painful as Amanda had thought it would as she suppressed the desire to jerk in surprise as the that hand closed over her own.

"Please, Amanda", exclaimed Aušrine, "if you know anything, tell me! Even if you have a professional arrangement with Einherjar that requires discretion, you must realize I'm only trying to help him!"

The somewhat distraught and disconcertingly honest Elite withdrew her hand from Amanda's and gestured with it for emphasis as she continued. "And of course I'm not asking you to give me anything for free", she allowed, "I understand that you're in the business of information, and I respect that. You can name your price."

Having said so much, Aušrine finally fell well and truly silent as she waited for her host's answer. For her part, Amanda remained silent for a long moment and contemplated all of her options. Finally she turned back to her guest.

"I'm going to help you", she started, and held up a finger as Aušrine began to smile brilliantly at her and then added, "but there will be a price."

Aušrine nodded at her soberly, but was still beaming with unconcealed pleasure at Amanda's willingness to help her.

The information broker smiled inwardly as she considered her next words. She'd been lucky enough to have Aušrine Vasiliauskiute more or less fall into her lap at practically the same instant that the woman became a free agent. The potential for profit here was enormous. Even though it was a slight risk, Amanda had decided to see just how resourceful and charismatic her newest business partner really was, hence her offer of aid to Aušrine.

"In return for my help", Amanda stated, "I'm going to require a favor from you."

"Absolutely", answered Aušrine, without hesitation.

"Here is what's going to happen: Einherjar will have been informed of your coming, and will have a business proposition of his own when you arrive. I would appreciate it very much if you would listen carefully to all he has to say, and seriously consider taking him up on his offer. Of course, I can't force you to accept, but if you're serious about returning the favor of my help, you will."

By this point Aušrine appeared a little uncertain (and very curious), but after only an instant's hesitation she simply nodded once.

Amanda finally allowed herself to smile visibly, and reassuringly, in response to Aušrine's acquiescence. "Then we should finish our meal here", she said, "because we will need to return to my office before we can discuss this any further." Aušrine signaled her emphatic agreement and immediately set about trying to catch the waitress' eye.

Amanda Wu forced herself to remain composed and to finish her meal. She had gambled quite a bit on Einherjar's 'operations' out in the Congo, and it wasn't unfair to say that he was currently the 'king' on her global chessboard. And now, if things with Aušrine played out properly, then she had just found a 'queen' to set beside him. Aside from the somewhat troublesome issue of Kazuo Kanai, Amanda could hardly believe how well things were turning out.

All that remained now was to see if Einherjar would live up to his reputation, both as a veritable God of War, and as a charismatic ruler-to-be.

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