THE ASH PRINCESS

By The Vainglory
(Theresa is pretty sure that it's January... maybe)


I feel... the warm air on my face
and the sunlight on my eyelids.
I feel my hands bush against the waist high grass.
I open my eyes and I see the rolling green hills extend far off into the horizon.
The sky is cloudless and the sky is blue.
Blue. Deep blue. The bluest I've ever seen.
The air is clean and clear. I breathe in until my lungs can hold no more.
It smells of earth and grass and wildflowers and summer.
The breeze on my face is the breath of God.
I can feel it all.
I feel.
Therefore I am.

In one of the upper rooms of a burned out building in the Neo York Zero Zone, Theresa dreamed. She was lying stretched out in the middle of the filthy floor, wearing her immaculate clothes, her breath misting a little in the cold. Her eyes were open, the pupils so dilated that her irises were nearly invisible. At her side lay an old-style hypodermic syringe and an elastic strap. Outside there was the sound of gunfire, shouting and the odd muffled explosion. Inside, there was only the sound of slow, regular breathing.

An hour passed.

The stillness of the room was finally broken abruptly as the prone woman gave a long, drawn-out scream. Still mostly unconscious, Theresa's body contorted violently. Her fingernails dug into the floor as her back arched so that her weight rested on her shoulders and heels. Just as suddenly, the seizure abated and she settled back onto the floor. Her eyelids fluttered a bit as she tried to find her way back into deeper sleep.

Theresa was dimly aware of the sound of a door being kicked open. Listen. Below her. Listen. Footsteps. Heavy boots. Listen. One... two... three of them. Another door being kicked in. Listen. Sweep and clear. They're coming up the stairs now. They probably heard me. Listen... Shit!

Now, Theresa's clouded brain was desperately trying to find its way back to consciousness. At the same time, her hands were fumbling as they tried to find her gun.

"Now where did I put it?" Shoulder holster? Nope. Hip holster? Nope. Three feet to the left? Her hand closed on a familiar shape. "Oh, there it is." The sound of another door registered in the background. "They're in the next room over now. What was I looking for again?"

"Your gun! And it's in your hand! Pay attention!"

Still lying prone and with her eyes half open, Theresa swung her arm over and pointed a pistol at the door. Her arms felt... to long, she reflected. A second later, the door crashed in and Theresa's eyes closed.

One... two... three... Three gunshots rang out from Theresa's apartment. There was only one shout. Then there was the sound of bodies falling. And then, there was only the sound of slow, regular breathing.

"Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited..."


Theresa's phone rang, plaintively, for a forth time while she groped for it. Theresa did not take kindly to being disturbed, especially for the second time in one night. She valued her sleep, after all. She'd slept through many lessons, business meetings, appointments with VIP's, and, according to her older brother, her own baptism. He had also pointedly mentioned their father's funeral, but that time hadn't really been her fault; she'd been hung over. Getting drunk, she explained, was her way of coping with the pain. Actually, Theresa had gotten drunk the night before because she enjoyed getting drunk. But what she really enjoyed, was sleep.

With great effort, she managed to get it unhooked from her belt and hold it up to her face in what she was reasonably sure was the right side up. Yawning hugely, she flipped it open, "This had better be good."

"My apologies, Ms. Morraine. I have need of your services. Are you available at this time?"

Theresa visibly relaxed again and she smiled languidly, "Hoshi-san. I've always got time for you.

"You are familiar with the location of The Pit?"

"Mmm-hmmm."

"Please meet me there in exactly two hours. Outside the building, please."

"S'no problem. Noooooooo problem at all."

"Excellent." The phone died with a click.

Theresa still had not moved from her place on the floor or opened her eyes. With smooth, long-practiced motions, she slid a cigarette out of her front pocket, lit it and puffed contentedly.

This was a good thing, she decided. Ever since the Jinsei invasion began, she'd been cut off from her most lucrative customers. Admittedly, a large portion of her clientele still lived within the Zone itself, but they seemed to be preoccupied with other things and her services simply weren't much in demand lately.

Theresa took a deep drag and licked her lips. She liked doing business with the Yaks. Their jobs tended to be simple and straightforward, without the excess baggage she'd come to expect from corp hits. She liked Hoshi-san in particular, as he, unlike most of his contemporaries, understood the value of getting straight to the point.

Still... corp hits paid better. And she was a girl with expensive tastes. Theresa took another long drag and gave serious thought to going back to sleep.

A cherry red bit of hot ash fell off the end of her cigarette and onto the tip of her nose. Theresa hissed and sat bolt upright with surprising speed, rubbing furiously at her face. A few minutes later, she had gathered the things she thought she might need, slid into a fresh jacket and lit a fresh cigarette. She stepped nonchalantly over one of the bodies, scooping up a rife and slinging it over her shoulder. With her foot she nudged an outstretched hand out of the doorway so she could close the door. "They'll keep for a little while in the cold, but sooner or later I'll have to get around to dumping these somewhere. Idiots."


Hoshi-san looked exactly the same as he always did. Very Japanese. Fortyish, but with greying hair, medium height, well dressed and absolutely impassive.

Theresa stepped out of the shadows and gave him a friendly wave. "Yo."

If he was startled by her quiet arrival, he didn't show it as he turned to face her. "Ms. Morraine. It was good of you to come on short notice."

"It's quite alright. I seem to have a lot of time on my hands these days." Theresa looked over at the foreboding silhouette of The Pit. She could hear strains of something that could charitably be called music coming through the walls. It figured, she thought; even an all out war couldn't shut this place up.

"What's up? We're pretty far out of your normal stomping grounds. No tea. None of the usual sweet talk. You haven't even told me how pretty I am yet."

Hiroshi made a show of sighing. "It is unavoidable. Recent events have made our normal venues... hectic."

"Perfectly understandable. What's the hit?"

With little preamble, he produced a photograph. "This is Neal Kruesler. He's the commander of one of the combat divisions in the Entertainment District. He is quite capable and has made surprising headway so far. It would be convenient if he found himself dead. Your usual fee, of course."

"Done and done."

As she reached to take the picture, he continued, "I have also been authorized to offer you a bounty on any Jinsei soldier currently within the Zone at this time. The pay per man is considerably less than for your specific tasks, but you have quite a few more targets to pick from."

Theresa's usual grin turned feral. "No worries, old chap. Jinsei has earned my most severe displeasure."

The Yakuza handed her a business card. "When the job is completed, I can be located at this address. Go there to collect your fee."

Theresa slid the card into her jacket without looking at it. "Anything else?"

"It would be appreciated if you would begin immediately."

"Say no more," she turned to leave, "Neal what's-his-face won't see another sunset if I have anything to say about it." She faded away like a Cheshire Cat, leaving only the dull red glow of her cigarette. And then the shadows swallowed her up.


"Fuck." Another block, another building. Probably infested with Zone inhabitants ready to viciously defend their personal piece of this burned out dump to the death. Jayle sighed and tried to adjust his body armor to a more comfortable position. Even with it on, he felt considerably less invincible than when he first came here. He stole a look at the boss. The man looked as calm as if he was standing in his own backyard. The sight made him grin and he stopped fidgeting. They were still here and still making headway. Other divisions may have been bogged down by Zone defenders, taken heavy losses and had to fall back, but not them. Not the legendary Mibu Wolves. Thanks to the boss, they were being held up as the shining example for the other units. Just last night, the boss himself had told them all they could probably expect a handy little bonus above the usual danger pay. More importantly, he'd told them all how proud he was that they were, in his own words, "Not such completely, bloody fuck-ups," as the rest of the troops around here. He puffed up his chest a bit, then snorted and looked around to see if anyone had noticed.

Neal Kruesler looked at the crumbling building in front of him. Then he looked grimly at the row of similar buildings down the street. They had a lot to do today. No good to hurry though. House-by-house, room-by-room; slow and steady, like a steamroller. "Alright men, you know the drill: Standard sweep. Keep a look out for squatters, holdouts and positions for snipers. Shoot all synthetics on sight and don't get separated from each other. Maintain radio contact." He waved toward the door. "Get to it."

Five of them broke off from main group and marched inside. Jayle took point.


The door broke open and the squad swept into the room, covering the corners and looking for any sign of life. Empty. "Clear," Jayle spoke into his microphone. It was at that particular moment that Theresa chose to swing down from the ceiling, upside-down, her ankle braced against a crossbeam. She slammed her long, thin dagger into the place between his neck and the collar of his armor. With an unpleasant gurgling noise, he stumbled back, pulling the trigger of his autorifle. Theresa turned her foot and let go of her perch. With her hand on Jayle's neck, she swung down to the floor, using his body as a fulcrum. Her shoes hit the floor with a soft thump. With her other hand, she almost gently pushed on the side of the discharging weapon and swept the firing arc through three more of the soldiers. Theresa turned slightly, adjusted her center of gravity and braced her feet. And with a grunt and heft that brought her to her toes, she bodily heaved the still twisting body at the last still very surprised Jinsei trooper. Producing a pistol from nowhere, she bounded after him.

Lying pinned under the dead weight of the squad leader, his eyes widened as Theresa pressed the end of her gun against his visor. She flashed him her absolutely brightest smile. "Namu," she said cheerfully and pulled the trigger several more times than was really necessary.

"Rough day, huh boys? Well, that's life, I suppose..." Theresa tugged her dagger free from Jayle's neck and was about to wipe it clean on his shirt when she stopped. Slowly and deliberately, she raised it to her face and ran her tongue down the side of the blade. It was warm and coppery and utterly relaxing. Theresa absently looked around her as she turned the knife over to lick the other side. Good blood was hard to find in the Zone; you just never knew where it had been. She made a contented sounding noise. Fighting the nearly suicidal urge to sit down and shoot up on the spot, she brushed some imaginary dust off her pant leg and headed for the window.


Neal Kruesler heard the sounds of gunfire and screaming. "Damn, damn, damn!" The building was infested with defenders. He grabbed for the radio, "Squad leader, report!" There was no answer. "Report!" Swearing, he motioned rapidly at several more of his men, "Get 'em out of there!" Knowing their commander well enough by now, they charged into the building in textbook fashion.

A full minute later, the radio crackled to life with the sound of low, female laughter.

"Yoooo-hooooo... Anybody out there? Helloooooooo?" There was a pause. "Hello? Is this thing even on? Where's the switch?"

Snarling, Neal grabbed the radio again, "Who the hell is this?"

"Oh. Good. Ahem. Commander Kruesler?"

"Yeah? I asked who the hell I'm talking to."

More laughter. "So stud, anyone ever tell you you've got sort of a sexy voice? What are wearing right now?"

"What!?"

"Oh... wait... never mind... I can see you from here." The radio cut out again.

Neal looked at his second in command dumbly and then at the radio again. "What on earth is goŚ," anything else he might have had to say was abruptly cut off as his head jerked back in a spray of blood. Two more of his remaining men fell in similar fashion, while the rest had the presence of mind to dive for cover.

Theresa hummed a bit and sniped for a few more minutes before they drew a bead on her position. Hastily abandoning the radio and the rifle, she made her way from rooftop to rooftop in search of less prepared targets.


Another time. Another shell of a building. Another too small room. Another group of Jinsei soldiers realized far too late they had a tiger in their midst. She'd played the game for several hours now, ambushing small squads separated from the main host. Usually in tight quarters, where her superior speed and maneuverability gave her the advantage.

It looked like word of the boogeyman was spreading, though. This latest bunch had been the most cautious by far.

With her arm wrapped firmly around the neck of a panicked, struggling man, she backed up, firing with her off hand as she went. The last two men were still pretty green; they hesitated and died in short order. Theresa noticed that her hostage was still squirming and kicking at her. She shot him in the temple and splattered her face with blood.

Theresa ejected the spent clip from her pistol and surveyed her handiwork as she fished for another one. All the usual places were coming up empty. Maybe it was time to call it a day.

Instead of a clip she pulled out Hiroshi's business card and glanced at it. "A Family Hotel? What on Earth would he be doing there?" That was a distinctly Mafia enterprise. Not that she had anything in particular against Cosa Nostra; she frequently worked for them, too. Still, it was an even more unusual place to meet up with her Yakuza contact than The Pit. She puzzled on this for a bit. Theresa flipped the card over. There was a room number written on it and a brief note: Let yourself in, you'll be expected. Curiouser and curiouser.

Theresa was brought back to the present by the sound of a positively ominous click. She turned and saw in the doorway, one more Jinsei foot soldier with a shotgun leveled directly at her.

Without consciously activating them or even thinking about it, Theresa's wired reflexes kicked back on and time slowed down. In slow motion, she sprang, her hand outstretched. As the triumphant soldier's finger began to squeeze the trigger, Theresa had already closed the distance between them. Grabbing the barrel of the gun with her left hand, she pushed the shot wide as he fired. The deep, primal reptile brain that was governing her actions felt the wave of heat and pressure at her side from the blast. She didn't hear the sound of it and the world was still moving what seemed like way... to... slow. She snapped a blindingly fast toe kick into the base of the shotgun, near the handle, causing the weapon to flip over in a neat little arc. Even as he registered that it was no longer in his hands, Theresa pulled the trigger of the now upside-down gun and sent the trooper's insides flying out his back.

For several long moments, Theresa breathed. Her eyes cleared as she came back to herself. She looked down and saw that the left side of her coat was completely ruined and small red dots of her blood were scattered all over that side of her shirt. The faint sting of the tiny wounds finally reached her brain.

"Ow." Now it was definitely time to call it a day. Staring intently at the wall, Theresa absently rubbed a hand across her chest. Instantly, every single nerve touched by the cloth screamed. Theresa's face immediately flushed and it felt like her nipples were going to poke their way out of her shirt. Naturally, she did it again, eliciting a sharp gasp.

"Oh God," she half whispered, "I do believe I'm going toŚ" Every single muscle in Theresa's body clenched at once. She doubled over, wrapped her arms around her stomach and clutched at her sides. She bit her bottom lip hard enough to draw blood as a violent orgasm wracked through her.

Theresa's knees immediately buckled and she fell to the floor, where she spasmed uncontrollably for half a minute. After the shaking stopped, she stayed down there for several more.

"Holy shit!" The comment to nobody was breathless and euphoric, "That's a new one." Theresa gently rocked herself to her feet. She was in no great hurry to get up, but if there was anyone else around, there was, quite simply, no fucking way she was going to be able to repeat that performance. Her legs still felt slightly rubbery underneath her, but she was fairly confident she could walk without falling over. Wobbling slightly, she hurried to collect her trophies and get the hell out of Dodge.


Once she was more or less safely outside and a few blocks away, Theresa ducked into an alley and pulled out her silver pillbox. She opened it with a soft click and surveyed the contents. Upper left hand corner: Methamphetamine, what she'd fully intended to take about twenty minutes ago. Lower left hand corner: Methylenedioxy-methamphetamine. Which led to the rather disturbing conclusion...

"Oh dear," she said quietly, "I took ecstacy instead of speed... And me without my binkie."

Theresa's threadbare but very, very soft blanket was back at her other apartment in Neo York proper. She rubbed the palm of her hand back and forth against the brick wall she was leaning on for a few minutes, enjoyed the texture. Then she entertained a brief mental picture of herself carrying her beloved blanket, emblazoned with pink bunny rabbits, around with her as she went about her usual business of murder-for-hire.

Theresa giggled madly in the dark.


With her newly acquired shotgun resting on her shoulder and a sack full of guns in tow, Theresa strode into the lobby of the family hotel; she found it far more occupied than she was used to. Men were standing around looking tense and talking in hushed tones. A lot of them. She saw quite a few faces that she recognized and even more that she didn't. Some of them certainly recognized her and she got the odd nod as she walked to the front desk. Theresa caught a quick glance of Ritz in the corner and he gave her his usual greasy smile. It seemed a bit more forced than usual, though.

The clerk took one look at her, nodded and said nothing as she gestured toward the right hall. Nobody had commented on the veritable arsenal she was carrying with her, which really wasn't wise, she thought. Part-time employee or not, she was still a hired killer.

None of the doors in the Family Hotel were ever locked. Theresa opened the door of Room 118 without knocking and found herself looking at Hoshi-san's back. He was sitting at a desk apparently absorbed in the papers in front of him. Also on the desk was a sword.

Theresa's older brother had been something of a weapons enthusiast and she knew the real McCoy when she saw it. That was a family heirloom katana. She idly wondered if it originally belonged to Hiroshi's family or if the Yakuza had stolen it. Theresa cleared her throat quietly.

Hoshi-san turned in his chair and regarded her with his usual lack of emotion, "Back so soon?" Wordlessly, she tossed a small sack into his lap. This time, his face registered slight distaste as he examined her offering; the bag was full of human ears. "The normal photographic proof would have been sufficient, you know."

Theresa grinned, "Nothing says 'classic' family values like Mongol traditions. Just wanted to give them something to think about while they're crashing around like they own the place."

Hiroshi looked inside the bag again, apparently not quite sure if he wanted to start counting them on the spot.

"Twenty-six," Theresa offered cheerfully, "and your guy Captain Krunch is deader than disco."

"Excellent work," Hoshi reached into the top desk drawer and retrieved a stack of bills, "however..."

Theresa raised an eyebrow. It was not like him to ever hesitate for anything.

"Given the circumstances at the moment, I do not have the liquid assets with me to compensate you properly at this time."

Theresa's ever-present grin instantly vanished and for the space of several heartbeats, Hiroshi Hoshi actually feared for his life. In the awkward silence that followed, he spoke up again, "You were more successful than I was expecting."

A moment later the tension was gone like it had never been and the cheerful killer's smile shone on like a light bulb. "Feh, it's okay," Theresa waved a dismissive hand, "Your credit's always good with me."

She took the proffered money and slid it into another jacket pocket. "So what's with the sword? And all the guys out front? You guys aren't going to go all forty-seven ronin and charge into glorious death on me, are you?"

Hoshi-san actually gave something like a smile. He's certainly running the emotional gamut tonight, Theresa noted. "In our own way, we are still an honorable people. We will follow the code of bushido and defend what is rightfully ours. As for the men in the lobby, do you know the origin of La Cosa Nostra?"

Theresa shook her head and tried to look politely interested.

"Long ago in Europe they were given stewardship of the land by the local lord. Some of them still take that responsibility very seriously indeed," Hiroshi folded his hands in his lap, momentarily forgetting about Theresa's bag of proof.

Theresa shook her head again, "I don't get it. And I don't think I ever will. And I don't think I really want to." She walked back to the door and tossed a wave over her shoulder, "Be seein' you. Do me a favor and don't get yourself killed. And call me again whenever you want someone to stop breathing."


Theresa smoked and hummed a bit from an old, old song from an old, old CD that she had personally stolen from Kenneth's meticulously organized and meticulously dusted collection. Theresa chuckled; he'd looked for it for weeks, simply unable to believe that he'd left something out of place. Her own taste in music tended toward neo-rave, so he'd never even bothered to ask her if she'd seen it. Which was good, because he always seemed to know when she was lying to him. Which was often.

"I see a red door and I want it painted black. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hummummm. Hummm. Hmm. Hmm. Hm. Hmmmmmmummmm..."

For the first time in a while, Theresa allowed herself to feel a little gloomy. She'd had a good thing going in Neo York and now it looked like it was ruined. Two jobs so far had had to be turned down because of the invasion. Maybe it was time to call an end to her little adventure and go home. Or at least time to go looking for greener pastures. But then she'd have to build up her reputation all over again. And where would she go? Mega Tokyo maybe? Australia? Hong Kong would probably still get her killed, 'ware or no. Nobody in Mexico could afford her. Europe?

Oddly, Theresa found herself thinking about her laundry. It was damned hard to find a good dry cleaning place. She had just gotten comfortable with her latest one. It was a run down looking little place, owned by an elderly Vietnamese couple whose command of English was less than perfect. But they were polite and attentive, starched her shirts just the way she liked them, dutifully tried to remove the bloodstains from her jackets and never, ever, asked questions about how they got there. Earlier that week, she'd gone to find the place abandoned, the cash register smashed and everything of value stolen. At the thought of it, anger flared in her brain. She dropped her cigarette and ground it to pulp with her shoe.

At that moment, Theresa Morraine found a new sense of purpose. She would exact dear revenge on Jinsei for taking away her favorite dry cleaning place. Theresa swore several long and pretentious oaths about it. Then she turned sharply on her heel and began the walk back to the Family Hotel.

In the Zone, people fought and people died. And Theresa seethed with rage.


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