Chapter 8:

A Bump in the Night

Code: Zero Defect

"And that's another successful operation added to the records," Ex said. "Nice job, Strider."

"Thanks," I said.

I knelt down to meet the three kids standing in front of me. 'Successful operation,' my ass.

Half an hour earlier, Ex directed me to a small sector where a report of human trafficking was being conducted. When everything in the undercity looks suspicious, one can only assume why it took so long just to track down the assailant in question.

Ex wasn't being all that helpful either. She had access to the surveillance system of the entire undercity, but she kept saying that it was my job to figure it out. Just another couple of seconds and these kids would've been lost for good.

With a reassuring smile on my face, I told the kids, "There's no need to cry anymore. You're going to be safe now."

"T-thank you, mister," one of them sniffled.

As much as I hate the coatsmen, they aren't my only enemies. Down here, it's survival of the fittest. Everyone can be as normal as they come. At the same time, they are capable of the most disgusting acts.

"I take it that you're Strider?" a voice asked from behind me.

I quickly turned around and lifted my dagger. It's... a hooded man. He's not holding any weapons, but he's definitely armed.

"Who are you?" I asked cautiously.

"I was sent by Ex to extract those children," he said sternly.

"Ex, can you confirm?"

"Yup!" she shouted into my ear. "That's one of my couriers. You can rest assured that he'll get those kids back to their parents."

Odd. I always assumed that Ex had more people working under her, but I never expected to meet one of them. If she says I can trust him, then I guess I have no choice.

"Kids," I called out. "This man will take you home. You'll be safe with him. Okay?"

Reluctant as they were, they agreed. And so, the man and the kids disappeared into the darkness of the streets. That's that, I suppose.

"You did well, Strider," Ex said. "A-minus for taking so long, though."

"That's your fault," I grumbled. "Had I been any second later, those kids would've been out of reach."

"Don't worry about that. I had a failsafe planned just in case you weren't cut for the task. I just needed to see whether or not you truly have the capabilities to stand with us."

There she goes with that. Who is this 'us' she keeps referring to? I've been hearing it pop up in our conversations every now and then, but I never knew what it meant. Every time I asked her for the meaning, she brushed it to the side. I gave up after a while.

"And? Your conclusion?" I asked.

"You've still got a long way to go," she giggled.

"... Is that so...?"

"Don't be so disheartened, Strider. You're steadily leaving your mark. Have you checked your bounty recently?"

I pinched my chin as I remembered that one wanted poster. "Two million. I saw. By the way, why has my bounty been increasing so much lately? Are you artificially jacking it, Ex?"

"Hey, I'm good, but not that good," she protested. "Though, I gotta say, ever since you started working for me, your bounty has increased by a lot! Hahaha! I lied. Maybe I am that good."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. I'm heading back now."

"Alrighty. See ya."

I began walking through the series of alleys. As much as I enjoy leisure walks in the streets of the undercity, it gets too loud at times. My ears are already at their limit. Those kidnappers from before wouldn't stop screaming insults at me.

In any case, the fact that my bounty is rising so fast is troublesome. If the High Order sees me as a big enough threat, they may dispatch the Queen's Guard.

Of course, it'll be a while before it comes to that, but the probability still stands. If that time comes... I'll eventually have to face my father.

I stopped at the sight of a familiar setting. This place... It's that warehouse. Ex had me go on an assignment here.

What was it again...? Oh, the woman that was taken by the coatsmen.

Seems like all the bodies have been cleaned up. But... Something is off.

This parking lot was empty save for a couple of cargo containers and large wooden crates. There was only one hovercar, and that was the one used by the coatsmen to transport the woman here. So why is it that there are so many of them sitting around?

Lights off, and no running engines. None of them are parked within the painted lines. Instead, they're scattered sporadically with the hoods facing towards the enclosed warehouse, meaning the coatsmen arrived here frantically... as if to respond to a situation.

However, that begs two significant questions. Where are all the coatsmen, and what happened here for them to send this many?

I cautiously crept through the lot, peeking through the window of every hovercar I passed. Not a single person. There doesn't appear to be any signs of a struggle either.

After looking around to no avail, I stopped in front of the massive warehouse garage. If all the hovercars are facing this very spot, then... perhaps the answers to my questions lie within.

I stepped over to what seemed like a control panel box. Sticking out was a lever with two bulbs right next to it. One was off, and the other was glowing a static red.

I rested my hand on the lever and prepared myself for what I was about to see. For some reason... this situation is scaring me.

With a deep breath, I pulled the lever up. The red bulb switched off while the other one sprung aglow in a flash of green. A heavy creak resonated in the vicinity, and the whirring rattles of an engine came to life. Slowly, the garage doors began to lift.

My eyes shot wide open at the sight I saw. Blood—massive puddles of it expanding outwards from the mutilated bodies of countless coatsmen.

I stepped up to one and rolled his body over.

"Holy shit..." I whispered under my breath.

Whoever this guy was, he's almost unrecognizable now. Deep cuts covered his entire body. Not just him. Every single body had the same wounds all over. It wasn't a gun that caused this. It was something sharp... like a blade.

Suddenly, a faint metallic sound rang in my ears. I jerked my head to the left, narrowly missing whatever it was that came at me.

I fixed my eyes on a silver string. Upon that string were disconnected fractions of a sword. The edges themselves glowed a faint purple light. Weaponized plasma? Had it touched me at all, there's a good chance I wouldn't be conscious right now.

The tip must've pierced through the wall behind me, as an explosion followed by the crumbling of rocks was all that could be heard.

"Who's there?" I called out as confidently as I could.

The string flung away as quickly as it appeared, contracting itself until it completely disappeared into the darkness. A series of metallic clangs echoed in rapid succession.

Just then, I saw it. What seemed to be a plasma sword appeared in the moonlight, and the arm that lowered it became visible as well. It was the body of a woman sitting atop the largest pile of lifeless bodies.

The light that shone through the garage door could only allow me to see up to her neck, but no more than that. She donned an oversized jacket over a top that exposed much of her skin. Long locks of magenta fell from both sides of her head.

Finally, she tilted her head just enough for me to see the vicious smile on her face. The overwhelming fear that suddenly washed over me was suffocating.

It was as if... I had come face to face with death itself.

"I'm surprised you dodged that," she laughed wickedly. "And here I was thinking I had some time to relax. Oh, well. Maybe this will be much, much more enjoyable."