It only took five minutes for signs of an evacuation to show up on Gary’s monitor. The camera, or whatever Gary had rigged up outside the Water Tower Place, was several stories up and aimed down at the entrance to a Macy’s department store. The small trickle of incoming and outgoing shoppers changed to a flood, and security guards appeared outside other entrances to stop anybody else from entering.

The exodus of shoppers was steady, but controlled. Nobody ran, nobody was panicking, and there were no sirens or anything else to indicate an emergency. Anya still held her breath, expecting some sign of an attack within the mall at any moment. Soon somebody would come running out covered in blood, or there would be an explosion, or gunfire, or an inhuman roar…but none came.

After fifteen minutes, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people had exited the mall and made their way to parking areas or other shops across the street. A few still lingered near the entrances, but the security guards kept them back. After another few minutes, the trickle of exiting shoppers stopped and the guards locked the doors.

“Looks like we’re all clear to move in,” Gary said as he studied the monitor.

“I’ve got an invisible alien car I can grab if you guys need a lift over there. Figured we’d go in through the roof?” Anya said.

“I can get there fine on my own. It’s only a few blocks,” Samaira said.

“And I’m more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. I’ll be staying here and sending my boys in,” Gary said and hooked a thumb at the bed of his truck and the many strange robotic constructs within.

“I guess it doesn’t make sense for me to go all the way back to my car. SWAT could move in at any time now,” Anya said. She could fly, though she hadn’t tried it out yet, and she could jump easily enough. “I’m ready when you are then.”

“Good, let’s head up and out,” Samaira said and nodded up at the roof of the parking garage.

“Good luck ladies. Be safe. If you’re in trouble, don’t hesitate to let the bots take a hit for you. I can build more later.”

“Thanks Gary. See you soon,” Samaira said and patted the old man on the arm. He smiled at her, then gave Anya a quick handshake and pressed something into her palm. It looked like the kind of headphone that went inside your ear, no bigger than the end of her finger. There was some copper wiring wrapped around the base of it, and some curious metallic extensions along the outside. Anya looked at it then up at Gary.

“Communication device. Samaira has one already, figured you could use one too. It’s two-way, so I’ll be able to talk and listen to you if anything changes. I’m just gonna do a quick check on everything here and then my boys will be right behind you. Go on now,” Gary said and started to rummage around in the back of his truck.

Anya thanked Gary, then followed Samaira and Chandrali into the elevator. The roof of the parking garage was vacant of any cars or people, and was even windier than the street below had been.

“That’s the Water Tower Place,” Samaira said and pointed at the square white building a few blocks up the street. “You sure you can get there without your inviso-car?”

“Yeah, no problem,” Anya said as she plugged the comm device into her ear. She only had a fly skill of 3, but it was enough to understand the very basics. There had been many different skills for flying, like winged flight, magnetic flight, anti-grav flight, and more. Anya had picked the personal energy field variety because it seemed the most natural, and it paired with her Flame Dominion and Sun’s Heart. She could convert a minor amount of her heat energy into a type of “flight” energy and use it to push herself around.

That was what Felix and the menu had told her, anyway.

She closed her eyes and willed some of her energy down, out the soles of her feet. She did a kind of stumbling hop and almost pitched forward onto her face. She overcompensated, redirected the energy out of her hands, and flung herself backwards onto her ass. She let out a surprised yelp and then noticed Samaira staring at her with one eyebrow raised.

“What are you doing?” she asked. Anya felt herself blush. To Samaira, it must have looked like she jumped forward and then threw herself onto the ground.

“I got a flight skill earlier but not to a very high level. Figure I’d give it a test drive and use it to get over there,” Anya pointed at the Water Tower. “But it’s fine. I’m good.”

“Uh-huh. I hope your other skills are at a decent level?”

“Yeah they’re good,” Anya grumbled. “Highest is 25.”

Samaira nodded. “Not bad. You fight at a distance or up close?”

“I can do either. Up close works best I guess. Melee range.”

“Perfect. I’m at range, and Gary is support. I’ll meet you on the roof of the mall,” Samaira said. She snapped her fingers and changed before Anya’s eyes.

Samaira’s plain coat, blouse, and dress were transformed into a flowing pleated skirt of oceanic blue with high, elegant boots to match. Her top changed to a sleeveless white tunic fringed with shimmering blue and gold ribbons, and long white gloves that went up past her elbows appeared on her arms. A shoulder cape of translucent dark blue material fluttered behind her, pinned into place by a gleaming sapphire, and a pale gold tiara with a matching gemstone encircled her forehead. Her hair changed too, from deep black to an ethereal blue the color of midnight, and it sparkled as though it held the stars themselves. Her glasses vanished, and fully exposed eyes that glowed with inner light.

Beautiful, Anya thought before her attention was drawn away to the cat.

Chandrali changed as well, within the same few seconds as Samaira had. One moment she was a typical white house cat, and the next she was a saber-toothed tiger the size of a draft horse. Her coat glistened with the prismatic sheen of fresh crystalline snow, and her massive fangs were so white they almost glowed.

“Holy fuck,” Anya said and took a step back. Samaira mounted the enormous cat with ease and grace, almost floating as she did.

“Don’t dawdle,” she said, and then patted Chandrali on the side of her thick neck. The cat/tiger launched itself into the air in a flurry of white, and flew over the streets below. Anya watched, stunned, as she sprinted through the air. Her paws brought up pale blue flashes of light every time she sprang forward, running across thin air. Samaira landed on the distant roof mere seconds later, and Anya saw her turn and put her hands on her hips as if impatient.

Anya grumbled. So her flight skill was still a little untested. Fine. She had other skills.

Anya leaped toward a dull concrete highrise and sailed with ease over the street. Her feet hit the side of the building and she launched herself at a diagonal across the street to another building, and then again. It was child’s play with her strength and the parkour skill, and she ricocheted herself across the buildings towards the Water Tower Place. When she was one more jump away, she launched herself high up into the air and opened her watch.

She landed on the roof, feet away from Samaira and Chandrali, while clad in her armor and clutching her glaive. She added a little flash of fire, harmless but theatric, just for fun when she hit the roof with a weighty thud.

Samaira raised both her eyebrows this time, her mouth open a little. Anya smirked behind her faceplate. Chandrali yawned.

“Well, glad to see you can get around, at least,” Samaira said as she turned toward the rooftop access door. Anya peeked over the edge of the roof to see that they hadn’t been noticed. The people below seemed more concerned with traffic and other things happening at street level than anything above them. A few people in the windows of nearby high-rises had taken notice of their dramatic entrance, however, and Anya saw several of them with their phones out.

Just yesterday this might have sent her into a panic, but it was clear that hiding any of this anymore was a waste of energy. She waved at the cameras, then approached the door and just ripped it off its hinges.

“I can just unlock things, you know,” Samaira said.

“Okay, next one’s yours,” Anya said.

She glanced up as she heard a sound like a tiny helicopter, and saw a robot made out of ceiling fan, pipes, and engine parts descending. It carried a number of other smaller robots in a series of claws, and there was another copter bot behind it carrying more. The two flying robots dropped their cargo on the roof, and the smaller robots sprang to life.

They all looked rather crude, but solid. They had heavy metal plating and had the basic structure of medium-sized dogs but with only three legs. Boxy heads swiveled around, each equipped with a light, a small camera, and other gizmos Anya didn’t recognize. Some of the robots had what Anya first thought were laser pointers welded to their heads and flanks, but then she sensed the tremendous heat coming off of them and realized they had to be on par with Carl’s plasma pistol. Others had metal pipes or tubes on their backs and sides, or machetes and blades folded back behind their legs.

“Let my boys take the lead,” Gary said in her ear, his voice calm and clear. “They’ll find it no problem.”

“Has it moved at all?” Samaira asked. The squad of crude robots filed into the stairwell behind the door and hurried down into the mall, clanking as they went. Samaira followed them, and Chandrali shrunk to her cat-size in order to get in behind her. Anya brought up the rear with a final wave to the people still snapping pictures from across the street. They’d have a hard time getting a decent picture anyway, as night had fully descended on Chicago now and the roof was void of any real light.

“Not an inch,” Gary said.

“Weird,” Samaira said. “We’ve had our menu signals on all day. Mine’s on right now, but it still isn’t reacting.”

“Felix, can you ping it?” Anya asked.

“Sure thing!” the AI replied. “It’s one floor down, and it isn’t moving at all. Real strong signal too! I know exactly where it is.”

“At least that’s some good news,” Anya said. “Gary, my AI says it’s one floor down. That’d be the eighth, I think.”

They reached the end of the maintenance stairwell and an open doorway. The robots had already unlocked it and entered a concrete employee’s only hallway that led out into the mall’s main atrium. Their clanking, metallic feet echoed on the hard floor ahead. It was the only sound in the mall. The robots pushed open the inner door and descended the escalator one level.

“Still nothing,” Samaira said. “We’ll wait here until the robots confirm where it is.”

“You said it was a blue mailbox?” Anya asked and Samaira nodded.

“Should be easy enough to spot in-doors,” Gary said. Chandrali returned to her massive tiger form as they waited at the top of the escalator. The robots entered a Macy’s, and went out of sight.

“Closing in on it now,” Gary said over the comm. There was a minute of silence, save for the distant clicking and tapping of the robots below.

“Gary?” Samaira asked.

“It’s not here,” Gary replied.

“What do you mean?” Samaira asked and pulled her menu up. It was the same cerulean blue as her dot had been on Anya’s map. Anya kept her eyes and ears open while Samaira studied her map.

“I can see the dot on my map. Is it on another floor?” Samaira asked.

“No, my AI says the same things Anya’s did. It’s there, or the signal is, but no blue mail boxes. House stuff like sofas and washing machines and tables and the like. No big blue mailboxes though,” Gary said.

“Can they fake their signal?” Anya asked Felix.

“I don’t think so,” Felix said. “But they could. I don’t have a clue what their full abilities might be.”

“Wait,” Gary said. “I think I might——shit!”

There was a crash of metal from below, and then some kind of throbbing pulse sound. The comm in Anya’s ear squealed and she cursed as she reached under her helmet to remove it. There was more metal clattering to the floor below them, the lights in the mall all went out, and then all was still.

“Fuck!” Anya said. She summoned a baseball-sized orb of fire in the air above her head to act as a lamp. Samaira’s hair actually shimmered and cast a pale clear light around them as well. Anya stared at the earpiece in her hand and frowned. Samaira had taken hers out too and tentatively put it next to her ear after a moment.

“Gary? Gary!” Samaira said. “The line’s dead.”

“Felix?” Anya asked.

“Yes?” the AI replied.

“Just making sure you’re still here. All the power went out. Everything electrical, maybe?” Anya guessed.

“The menu’s are neither,” Felix said. “But yeah, looks like an EMP or something.”

“All of Gary’s robots run on batteries. If the power’s out, they probably are too. And it sounded like one of them got smashed good,” Samaira said.

“Felix, ping the alien,” Anya snapped.

“Uh, good news bad news,” Felix said. “Its signal is still in the building, but it’s no longer clear.”

Anya glanced at Samaira’s map and saw that the single red dot had changed to a much wider opaque reddish circle.
“Shit,” Anya growled, then jumped when red emergency lights flicked on throughout the mall. They cast a bloody pall over the cavernous space, but Anya was grateful for the light and she extinguished her flame.

“Keep pinging it then, try to narrow down its location. It already knows we’re here,” Anya said and turned to Samaira.
“You gonna be okay?”

“I’m fine,” Samaira said and snapped her fingers again. A white bow that was taller than she was appeared in her hand. It curved back in elegant lines that ended in angelic wing-like flourishes. A strand of glowing blue light connected the two ends of the bow like a string, and there was another of those gleaming, flawless blue sapphires in the center of the weapon. Despite the appearance of the bow, Anya did not see any arrows appear on Samaira anywhere.

“I’ll go first, you and kitty watch my back,” Anya said. Chandrali flicked her tail and flattened her ears against her broad skull.

“Got it,” Samaira nodded. Anya took a breath and walked down the motionless escalator toward the dark Macy’s. The sounds of one of the robots being attacked had been from there, and so had the red dot.

If the alien was there, and it had the same signal as the escaped mailbox last night, it meant that the aliens could change. And EMP powers hadn’t been among the things Gary and Samaira had mentioned about the previous night’s battle.

It fought Gary and Samaira, and Gary probably used robots last night too, Anya thought. And today, it used an EMP to shut down all electronics. It effectively took down Gary’s usefulness in one attack.

Anya grit her teeth. If that was true, it meant the aliens were clever indeed. They weren’t just single-minded attack drones, but thinking, calculating creatures that could adapt if given time.

“Felix, the second you get a lock on the alien, you let me know,” Anya muttered.

“Will do,” Felix whispered. “Good luck!”

One of Gary’s robots lay intact, but motionless at the entrance to the Macy’s. Anya passed it with a glance, and then saw two more of the robots to her left. She ignited several tiny fireballs in the air and sent them out slowly in front of her. They cast further illumination on the empty store and the wreck of one robot.

Something powerful had smashed it to bits. It had to have been fast too, and very strong judging by how far the pieces of the robot were scattered. Some of the metal plating had even been embedded into the far wall.

Anya gulped.

“Spread out a little,” she said. They were too close together. One attack could take all of them out. Samaira didn’t respond verbally, but went to the right while Chandrali veered left and Anya continued up the middle.

The store wasn’t ideal for a fight, but it wasn’t bad. She had sight-lines all the way to the back of the store, and there were multiple pillars to use as cover, and several exits.

That all meant the alien could get away or dodge their attacks too, of course. Assuming they could find it.

The puppet had looked like a normal puppet, save for its eyes. The statue Gary had described looked normal except for the jiggling. Whatever the alien had disguised itself as, Anya hoped it had a tell, like in poker. Something that would give it away.

She passed a series of lamps and dining tables, and approached a row of refrigerators and other large home appliances. She stopped when her foot tapped something on the ground and she glanced down.

It was more plating from Gary’s robot, surrounded by several other gizmos and pieces of shattered equipment. Pieces of the robot had been everywhere, but there were quite a lot here, and most of them appeared to radiate away. There was a crack in the polished tiled floor as well, more of a small impact crater, and Anya’s hair stood on end.

She looked up at a tall refrigerator with side-by-side double-doors, and a water and ice dispenser set within the freezer. It was made of brushed steel, and looked just like any of the other fridges on display.

Except that it had veins.

Vascular pathways crawled along the sides of the fridge beneath its metal plating.

“Sa——” Anya started to call out as she leaped away from the fridge. It was fast, and one of its doors swung outward so quickly that it was nothing but a blur in the reddish light. The door slammed into her, and even beneath her armor, even with her kinetic absorption skill, Anya’s bones creaked. She flew back several yards and landed on her feet with a grunt. If that had hit her last night, she had no doubt that it would have shattered every bone in her body, if not crushed her outright.

“Anya!” Samaira said and saw the fridge turn on one corner of its base with a kind of surreal grace. The other woman gripped the string of light on her bow between her fingers, and a lance of blue energy appeared within the bow. Samaira loosed the beam of energy and it shrieked across the floor of the store and detonated against the side of the fridge in an explosion that sent the other appliances and furniture nearby flying away or shattered them outright.

There was a scuff mark and a dent on the side of the fridge, and apparently its burnished steel was not merely for show. The veins beneath the metal exterior crawled up to the dent and pushed it back out with an audible popping noise.

Chandrali followed right behind the arrow and threw her substantial weight at the fridge. She raked diamond claws across the metallic skin and sent sparks flying up, but the fridge remained unmarked. It tilted to one side, pirouetted on one of its corners, and flung the huge cat off with a flick of one of its doors. Chandrali flew across the store and hit a concrete pillar with an audible crack. The cat was on her feet in seconds, but she looked woozy, and blood leaked from her mouth.

“Chandrali!” Samaira shouted and fired an arrow at the cat. Anya had a moment of confusion as she wondered why Samaira would shoot her own cat, but then saw the arrow didn’t pierce the animal. It burst on impact in a cloud of tiny lights, and all of them were absorbed into theanimal’s skin. The blood vanished, and Chandrali shook herself, good as new.

“That’s handy,” Anya said. She called on the deep well of fiery energy within her Sun’s Heart, focused it into a tight point of light in her hand, and blasted the fridge with a searing laser that instantly heated the the metal to a glowing shade of scarlet.

It squealed and spun away behind a pillar and Anya laughed.

“Little bastard can’t take the heat!” she cried. It had planned for Gary’s robots with that EMP. It had prepared for Samaira’s arrows and Chandrali’s claws. It had not planned on Anya, and fire. She could have just heated the thing up, but decided this was a perfect opportunity to test one of her toys.

Anya darted around the pillar so she had a clear view of the fridge, then pulled the pin on one of her Hellfire Jelly grenades and lobbed it. The silver cannister bonked against the fridge harmlessly, then burst with a wet popping noise and sprayed the fridge and the ground around it in orange goop. There was a deafening hiss as the jelly ignited upon contact with the air and Anya felt as much as saw the flare of heat. The fridge’s steel armor glowed red around the areas where the jelly hit, and Anya saw panic in its rapid spinning and rocking as it tried to shake the jelly off.

The fridge turned to one side and opened one of its doors. Anya had a glimpse of a writhing fleshy mass of tentacles, and then one of them lashed up and at the the ceiling.

It struck one of the many overhead sprinklers in the store, and water flooded out. There was more hissing and the fridge vanished behind a cloud of steam as it touched the volatile Hellfire Jelly. Anya lost track of the fridge within the steam as the jelly cooled rapidly and then lost the last of its heat.

“Dammit!” Anya said and backed away, out of the spray of water and well away from the obscuring cloud of steam. It was just a mass of warmth to her heat sense, impossible to see or feel through.

Samaira launched a volley of energy arrows into the steam cloud. Explosions boomed and the fridge was knocked out of the cloud and onto its side, but it used its powerful doors to flip itself up again. It flicked its doors open when Samaira shot at it again, and actually deflected the arrows of light away from it and back towards Samaira. Her gossamer shoulder cape snapped to life and swirled around her and blocked her own attacks as though it had a mind of its own. Chandrali stayed between Samaira and the fridge,, refusing to leave her defensive position.

“Fucker,” Anya snarled at the fridge as it lashed more of its tentacles out and broke more sprinklers. The store was soaked now, water pouring down from the ceiling in a deluge. Anya could still summon fire, but it would be harder now and do less damage. She could lure the fridge out into the open area of the mall, but assuming it followed, it could just hit more sprinklers out there. She considered luring it outside, but instantly thought of all the innocent people out there and rejected the idea.

She thought of its raw, fleshy inside, and gripped her glaive. If she couldn’t melt the armor, and Samaira couldn’t shoot through it, she’d just pry its doors open and give Samaira her shot.

Anya charged at the fridge, glaive at the ready, and grinned when it swung a tentacle at her. She swung her glaive up in a neat arc and sliced through the tentacle in a single stroke. She was pleased to hear the alien appliance squeal with pain, and even more pleased to see that it did not regenerate.

Then something slammed into her chest like a cannonball and she was brought up short. If she had been a normal human, it would’ve killed her outright, blasted right through her ribcage and out the back. As it was, it only caused her steps to falter.

It was something roughly the size and shape of an avocado. And it fell inert to the ground after hitting Anya, a crack on its side. She ducked to one side as another flew past her, and then another. The things were shooting out of the ice dispenser, one after another: three, four, five, six. Anya dodged them, smacked them aside, or just tanked the hits. They didn’t feel great but her armor and her kinetic absorption dealt with them no problem.

“You okay?” Samaira shouted at Anya as she too dodged one of the avocado things. Chandrali dodged an eighth, and slapped a ninth out of the air with her diamond claws.

“Fine! Gonna try something!” Anya said and rushed at the fridge while it continued to shoot the avocado things at Samaira. She didn’t know if the alien spoke or understood English, but she didn’t want to take the chance that it could and tell Samaira her plan outright. She suspected the other woman was smart enough though, and she’d take an opening if Anya gave her one.

Anya hopped up onto a fallen dishwashing machine, flipped over a tentacle attack, and landed on top of the fridge. It bucked like a bull and tried to throw her off, but Anya clung tight. She gripped her glaive near the base of the blade and wedged it between one of the doors. All she had to do was grip the haft and use it as a fulcrum, force the door open, and Samaira would have her shot.

The two women locked eyes, Samaira nodded, and then Anya felt something poke her in the calf.

She only had time to register that it was sharp, and then pain jolted through her body and blue light sparked around her. Her body convulsed and her jaw was forced shut as agony sent all of her muscles spasming and she was finally thrown off the fridge.

For a moment she thought the blue light had been Samaira, that the woman had shot her with one of her blue arrows. The fridge turned to face Samaira, and a black electric cord rose like a snake behind it. Where there should have been copper prongs connected to the plug, there were some kind of bony spines that crackled with electricity.
Anya’s regeneration was already taking care of the pain and the shock and she got to her feet. She took a step forward and stepped on something that crunched.

She spared a quick glance down and saw the remains of those avocado-shaped projectiles the fridge had shot. It had broken open, and was hollow inside. Anya squinted at the shattered projectile, then her eyes went wide.
They weren’t just projectiles.

They were eggs, and they had hatched.

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