I wondered how much fog Ashgabat saw normally. It didn’t seem likely that a city in a desert would have much fog. We were practically announcing, “Hey everybody, there’s something strange in your neighborhood.”
On the other hand, we’d chosen the team based on strength, not stealth. Izzy, Rod, Jaclyn, Amy, Cassie and I were taking on the The Thing That Eats directly. Daniel, Vaughn, Camille, and Haley would be outside, discouraging interference.
“One more thing,” Amy said, standing up and walking toward the hatch. “We know he’s tough. That’s why you’re here, but that’s not all. Somehow he knows what to say to manipulate people. There’s not enough time to use it in combat, but just to be safe, don’t listen to him.
“And remember what we practiced.”
She took a breath, “Let’s go.” Then she opened the hatch. “Troll?” Rod stood next to her as himself, not as a troll, wearing a mask and a black trenchcoat, his blond beard blowing a little in the breeze.
Then she grabbed him, and they stepped out of the hatch, floating down to the roof. Izzy and Jaclyn went next, both in black and red costumes. That left Cassie and I. I looked over at Haley, and we both said, “Good luck.” Then in a move that felt strangely like dancing, Cassie stepped on one of the Rocket suit’s boots, and put her arm around my shoulder. I put my arm around her waist, and we stepped out of the jet.
I turned on the rocket pack and felt our descent slow. In my mind, Daniel thought, Stay safe.
I thought back, I’ll try. Notice anything?
I sense a great danger below you. His amusement carried over our connection.
Yeah. Thanks a lot. Me too.
Seconds later, we landed on the roof. Cassie let go and I fired off a series of spybots that spread out and peered into windows. The bots sprayed the inside of the building with sound, infrared, and other methods of seeing in the dark.
The bots mapped the outside rooms in less than a minute. Then a killbot cut a hole through the wall and all the bots followed it in, mapping as they went. Once inside they spread out again, adding one room after another in seconds.
Despite being halfway across the world, it didn’t feel like it. It felt like the house of an old, but important man that could have been located anywhere. At the same time, as the rooms flashed into view inside my helmet, I couldn’t help but feel that something was a little off.
The house held more than twenty bedrooms, and only one of them showed any signs that a person lived there. That one only stood out because it was bigger than any of the others, and not because it held any sense of the owner’s personality. It did have a painting of a battle where a line of Roman legionnaires fought cavalry, but aside from that, it could have been a hotel room.
No guards sat in the guard room. No servants slept in the servants’ quarters.
The first signs of habitation appeared in the basement. One large room, it contained everything that couldn’t be shown in public—any public.
A line of four cells ran down one wall. Metal bars ran from ceiling to floor, and metal chains hung from the wall. Thin mattresses sat in the corner of each cell.
I didn’t know if they were visible to the naked eye, but dark spots stained the concrete floor in the computer generated composite of the cells.
I didn’t have time to be repulsed by the thought of what must have been done there. Even as I’d begun to think about why The Thing might need cells, I’d noticed another section of wall. It held pictures of people without any particular pattern—old, young, male and female, ugly and attractive.
The newer pictures all appeared to be from Turkmenistan.
As I absorbed that, Izzy said, “I found him.” From the intensity in her voice, I guessed that she’d noticed the cells too, and maybe more.
I’d found him too. Next to the section of wall with the pictures of his victims stood several bookshelves, a desk, and oddly, a couple statues that might have been lifted from a Greek temple somewhere.
A man sat at the desk, his skin faded and covered with liver spots. He wore a suit, but the jacket hung on the chair behind him, and the shirt was unbuttoned to show the white t-shirt underneath.
I didn’t know what the books were about, but from the big circle on the floor I guessed sorcery. The eagle ring on the man’s hand brought up other memories.
The eagle looked like the eagle that Roman legions had used, but that the Cabal had kept alive, meaning that the wreck of a man we saw might well once have been a Cabal soldier.
That was unnerving. The worst of them had been both nearly invulnerable, and practically immortal. If he was one of them, not even natural immortality could prevent The Thing That Eats from absorbing someone’s body into its own shape.
It was disgusting.
“What have you got, Rocket? Confirmation?” Amy and the others watched me, waiting for my answer.
“That and more,” I said. “What happens when The Thing absorbs someone with powers?”