Colton was down. Hands quivered in place, I could feel her hand whirring about nervously to try and block as many avenues of attack as possible. Gunze slid into a more comfortable position, something he could move out of if the time was right.
“So glad you could join us,” The man said, stepping out of cover. His armor was marked with red.
A commander. We’d managed to find the leadership for the mission, right here, right now. If we could take him out… they’d probably be forced to stop the mission and retreat to deal with new orders.
At least, that was what I was hoping.
Hope was all I had.
The barrels of the assault rifles bloomed heavily with silencers. So that god could not hear the crimes they were planning to commit.
“I assume you’re the rescue team?” The man asked, calmly.
“A bit rude to not give your name.”
“Ah,” The man said, clicking his heels together. “You might be right. I’m Commander Patrickson. And I’ll be the one killing you today.”
Hands swallowed. I could barely watch her twitch. Colton remained in a lump at my feet. My eyes jerked down to look at the back of his neck.
“My apologies for having that done. My men, as you can imagine, were less than pleased with that chit of a boy started taking them down while they were searching. I’ll argue it’s a good trade off for killing the lot of you like the pigs you are though, yes?”
I swallowed. “Yes… I believe so.”
Osteor twitched and I tried to keep her in my peripheral vision. What was she doing?
The sink stopped running and the last vial dripped clean water into the stack.
“I’m glad you finally finished, Rebecca,” Patrickson said, turning to look at her.
Don’t call me a smart cape. I hardly qualify for both of those.
But I’d had the entire history of the Shell alliance drilled into my hand by my father, over and over again. And if there was one thing that had stuck there…
It was the element of surprise.
My fingers twitched, and I tugged, and air rushed out of Patrickson’s lungs. He gasped.
There was just a hint of surprise, and Hands took the opportunity to grab the nearest rifle and toss it on the ground. Her other hands jerked and pointed the guns away from her. Up in the midst of the soldiers, they couldn’t fire
Colton groaned at the sudden noise and I desperately hoped he didn’t have a concussion, if only because I desperately needed him up and on his feet.
Then I tugged at another man’s lungs, and he gasped for air, the breeze whistling out of his mask.
But the rebreathers they had one, the stopped any serious distractions. Stopped me from doing anything more than starting the surprise.
“You idiot,” Gunze hissed, his arms spread wide. “You’re going to get yourself killed!”
“We’re dead if we don’t get out of here!” I hissed back.
The rifles that weren’t busy dealing with the surprisingly hard to suppress Hands pointed at me. I could practically see the gleaming brass slugs loaded up.
Fingers slid on triggers.
Gunze was abruptly in front of me. His eyes greeted mine, and he raised an eyebrow as if to say, see what you made me do?
Then the bullets hit him and his skin rippled.
Automatic fire sank into his back, over and over again, but he remained standing. For a brief moment, I pondered the absurdity of the situation where I could not smell his blood, and then his outline collapsed into a series of silk threads, his skin unravelling around the bullets. Stuck deep in the cloth, they clicked to the ground, unable to perforate the mass of tightly woven silks that Gunze had become.
“Now!” I hissed, and dove to the ground while Gunze was still eating bullets. There were hideous muffled shrieks as the silk lashed towards them, moving through the air like snakes and like missiles. Sinking into armor. Muffled noises, and then soldiers fell before the silk.
Hands followed my lead and dove into the mass of soldiers, her hand jerking rifles this way and that, and when the next volley of fire came it was not the two of us that felt the bullets, but the soldiers in the circle around us, armor piercing rounds whistling through clean armor.
Rebecca started in the corner and stared at the gun levelled at her by Patrickson. Then her skin bulged and off yellow bone sprouted from her skin, converting every inch of her into an armored mass of spikes and terror.
“Well then,” Patrickson said coldly, holding up a hand. “I was going to be nice. It’s a shame you’ve made me do this.”
The cloth of his glove came off and suddenly my attention was less on the half dozen guns still pointed at us and on the commander instead. A gust of wind diverted my momentum all at once, sending me abruptly back towards the commander.
Nothing about his body language pretended to be surprised, even as the Bone Witch whirred towards him, blood dripping from torn skin, muscles bared and throbbing.
But that didn’t stop me from rushing him, gusts of air under each step. Desperate to eek out some small form of success. Some small amount of additional speed. Something that would keep me going. Something that would keep me there.
I was less than a yard away from him with the Commander’s glove snapped shut, and I stumbled. It was less graceful than a lunge, but I collided solidly with his center of mass.
It felt like ramming a brick wall for all the good I did. I stumbled, half delirious, a chunk of my tongue missing from between my teeth, and dazed, fell to the ground.
Which left me staring at what was left of my last ditch effort, my final assault. Commander Patrickson held his hand up in the air, and I could not even touch the wind that I had laughed at for so long. Could not feel the air shifting about the room.
I’d been entirely divorced from my powers.
The Bone witch had reverted back into the slip of a woman she had been to start with, clothes torn, flustered, her eyes wide with terror,
“You see,” Patrickson said, snapping his hand back down on the ground, his boot settling into the small of my back. “We’ve come up with a solution for problematic people like yourselves.”
I felt the hard heel of his shoe grind against my bones and I growled under my breath.
“Quiet. You sound like a mutt. Unbecoming. Stand, and be a mortal like the rest of us, not a gutless beast.” His other hand slipped down and hovered in front of my face.
My eyes crossed and I stared at it, dread quietly filling my gut. Lay on the ground where the beating would be diminished… or face the firing squad head on?
I took the hand. He was strong, strong enough to haul me up despite my body armor, and he slapped me on the back.
“Now, we meet each other like men instead of beasts,” Patrickson said, shooting a grin at his men.
“Sir? Should we shoot them?” came a muffled voice.
Patrickson’s head snapped to glare at him, though his face was entirely covered in the black red outline. “Of course not. When a wild dog snaps at you when you approach it with the knife, do we say the dog is evil? No, soldier. All animals will attempt to defend themselves when cornered, and the ones before you are no different.”
My heart thumped in my chest, and I chanced a look around me. Gunze looked almost sickly with pain, clutching his reformulated fingers closely, rubbing feeling back into them. Had all of the nerves reformed?
Hands was reduced to just being a teenaged girl, and the fear on her face made me realized she’d just gotten used to the idea she was bulletproof, and didn’t like the slow sway of the rifles pointed at her. Didn’t like the smell of blood joining the harsh formaldehyde floating in the air.
“Well?” Patrickson barked. “Do you feel justified in killing my men?”
I flinched, and his hand shot out and grabbed my chin. “Look at me.”
I stared at his helmet and swallowed. “You attacked first.”
“You attacked first, SIR.” Patrickson said. “I have you powerless before me. Show respect that we have not taken your miserable life.”
I tensed up and waited for the moment to pass. Then, as nobody moved, and the guns never lowered, I realized he was serious.
“You attacked first, Sir.”
“See men?” Patrickson turned and started to pace, his boot settled across Colton’s black hair, spiralling out from his downed form. “Even our enemy has notions of fairness. Even these unruly creatures can be taught fear, know how to bed for their lives. Make concessions.”
“Now,” He said, whirring back to look at me. “Dog, tell me what you think about what happened in Mexico. Where were your morals then? Where were your pathetic concessions.”
“What happened in Mexico violated the Accords,” Gunze said, softly. “Our hands were tied.”
Patrickson’s hand shot out and slapped Gunze. Blood trickled from his lips where one of the old man’s tooth had dug into his own flesh.
“Your hands were tied?!” Patrickson’s voice went shrill. “AND WERE YOUR HANDS TIED WHEN FAFNIR BROKE INTO THE CAPITAL? When you invaded Central America, hunting after your damn pet, and our governments kowtowed and THANKED YOU?!”
“Gale’s not part of this,” Gunze said, flatly. “There’s only two people here who were even serving at the time.”
Patrickson’s hand lashed out and tugged a chart off of the wall. “And now I am supposed to believe you don’t hold the child accountable for the sins of the parents, when you deny the lower countries aid? On account of your precious Association’s dedication to fighting crime, not corruption? When you stand on your moral high ground and pretend that everything is fine, and send in your death squads to enforce your doctrine every time a government starts to wise up?” the paper grumbled in his gauntleted fist.
But we were surrounded, utterly powerless. We’d be dead if we tried another move. But I didn’t slump to the ground. Would face my death head on.
“But you,” Patrickson looked me in the face again, and I thought I saw his eyes behind his visor. “You’re an interesting one. Barely powered at all, and yet you leapt to defend this place. Why is that?”
A variety of reasons danced to the tip of my tongue, but I knew the wrong answer would seal our fates in that basement, dying the death of animals, put down for their own good.
“To save the city. We thought we could find someone here to save the city.”
Patrickson laughed and walked between the rows of his own men. “I like it. Not even trying to save the association, are you? You’re just trying to get resources from it’s bones. Tell me… Gale, was it?”
“Yes sir.” the words tasted like ash. Tasted like they were already dead on my tongue. My heart throbbed and the tip of nose had started to bleed somewhere in all of this mess.
“Will you fight me here? Or die like a dog?”
“What?” Gunze said, snapping his head up.
“I said…” Patrickson’s armor gleamed as he stepped forward. “Get on your feet Gale. Fight me like a hero would. You don’t need powers for your precious ideals. ”
“Sir?” A soldier asked. “Is this necessary?”
“We’re here to destroy the association. Not the people who follow. Let me see if they’re worth living at all. See if their city has a damn chance when the sharks come circling. See if they deserve to live until Fafnir rears its head.” Patrickson laughed and his armor hissed as it came undone. Piece by piece, he stepped out of it. Rough edged beard. Wild blue eyes. A scar nicking the corner of his cheek. As each piece came off, it slowly came to my attention exactly what he was asking.
Then the last piece came off, and I calmed myself as best I could and stared at him.
“Mortal on Mortal. Do you want to save your lives or not?”
“Yes sir,” I said, looking him over. He was strong. Fit. Peak of his existence. I was a D rank hero who hadn’t been in serious shape since the academy. Had been a failure, even there.
“Here’s the deal. For each scratch you lay on me…” Patrickson’s tongue rolled in his mouth. “I’ll let one more of you go. Don’t get knocked down too easily, or you’ll all die. I want to see your association’s fabled moral fortitude in action.” Patrickson gestured at his men and they formed a slow circle around the two of us. The gauntlet sat on the table far away. Still suppressing everyone. How did it work without Faraday’s power?
Could I smell fear in the air?
Colton twitched on the ground, and I looked down at him. Show your spine. Show your worth.
Fine. I’d fight for it.
“On your mark…” Gunze said, slowly, watching me with his face bloodied.
“Get set…” Patrickson said, his face smug, sure. His muscles taught underneath of his green uniform shirt.
“Go,” I whispered.
Patrickson moved faster than I’d ever seen a normal move. Faster than I’d seen some heroes move. It was all I could do to raise my arms up in time to deflect some of it, and then his other hand, bare of the gauntlet, dug into my cheek.
I reeled backwards and slid across the floor.
“One for me, Gale,” Patrickson said, laughing. “Get up.”
Call it stupidity, but I did as he said, rubbing my fingers into the touch of my cheek, feeling where he’d hit the bone.
“On your mark…” he said again.
I spit up blood from where my teeth had cut into my jaw. “Go.”
I was prepared this time, and I dove to the side as his fist flew in, (he had a ring on it, silver, jeweled. What sort of creature would marry Patrickson?) and felt the air whistle by. Not under my control, but I knew how it worked. Knew how it felt.
I whirled around, but without my power to keep me stable, I moved to far, and my blow whistled just behind his back.
“Too slow. Fight like a mortal, Gale. You’ll sure as hell die like one.” the commander shouted.
Then he slammed his fist into my gut.
It felt like a freight train had hit me. Like I’d been batted to the side by Negalli before, but without the wind to soften the blow… with Patrickson putting every bit of his effort into knocking me around, it hurt like nothing else.
I vomited up nothing but bile and it burned, making my teeth ache and my head reel.
I fell to the ground and sucked in greedy gulps of air and Patrickson stood over top of me.
“Well. No blows at all?” He held out his hand and one of his soldiers tossed him a pistol. He checked it over and pointed it down at me.
“I said fight, you idiot. Not show me how useless you are.”
It burned inside of me, staring down the barrel of that cold steel pointed at my head, how much I hated him. Hated the entire situation. How much my body ached, and how little I could do.
It burned so much that my heart, raw and passionate, had been completely replaced with a burning coal. It choked me up, came out of my nose and eyes and ears and mouth, burning up that I was going to die here. That my death would doom everyone.
Hands let out a muffled sob from the side, and Patrickson’s eyes flicked away to look at her.
“Gale. Stop me from killing her,” Patrickson ordered, flicking the gun towards her.
I pounced. I hadn’t caught my breath, and I was beneath him, my chest heaving. But I took the chance and rolled up, fingers grasping.
My fingers caught against the edge of the pistol and it jerked to the side as he pulled the trigger. The round went wild and crashed through a microscope, sending a puff of obliterated lenses into the air.
Then I was upon him, surging to my feet, desperate to press the advantage.
The gun slipped from Patrickson’s hands in the same breath his boot slammed into my collar. He ground it into the ground so tightly it felt like broken glass and send numb sand down my arm, and then he ceased, turned away from me and kicked the gun away from the both of us.
“Round 2 then, since you seem to have caught on that this is the real deal.”
He waited patiently for me to get back to my feet, muscles aching, chest shaking, and I glared at him, a drop of sweat dripping into my eye despite the harsh cold of the lab.
I reached up to wipe it away and found it was blood instead.
“The score is still 0, hero,” Patrickson laughed. “Is this the best you can muster? Fight for your life.”
I made the first move this time and lunged for him, whipping my arms back to lay into him.
He took a step to the side almost lazily, and slammed the palm of his hand directly into my nose.
He was somehow even faster on the defence.
The ground and I made another reunion and then the pain caught up to me. Like a sweet elixir it rushed into the part of my brain obsessed with life and cajoled it with sweet ideas of giving up. Hot gore coated the back of my throat as everything dripped down my nasal cavities, like hot wax, like being drowned.
“Get up,” Patrickson demanded.
“Leave Gale alone,” Hands said quietly.
I gurgled from the ground. Was this how it would end? On the ground, drowning in my own drool.
The Commander’s hands seized my shoulder like an iron vice and dragged me back up to my feet. His face looked into mine.
“No. Kid’s not giving up yet, are you?” he asked, giving me a curious grin. Like a cat with a particularly large mouse, trapped in a corner.
I breathed in through my mouth and felt the cold air hiss past my teeth and scold my lungs.
Then I spit blood onto the floor and it rolled down my chin, messy and bloodied. Then slowly, my legs slid back into place.
“One more go, huh?” Patrickson said. “I’ll keep at this all day. You’re fighting for your life. I’m fighting for my pleasure. See how far your moral fortitude goes, kid.”
Watch his balance. Watch his posture. I snorted, and blood fell from my face. It was ruined, but I wasn’t dead yet. Could still live through this. Could still keep standing up.
They were all depending on me. I couldn’t give up.
But… it wasn’t working. I needed an edge. I needed something…
My eyes slid down to my bloodied hands.
I had an awful, stupid idea. I’d have one chance at it.
But awful stupid ideas were my bread and butter.
“Go,” I intoned, through my broken nose and bruised body, and waited for him to come to me.
“Again with this?” Patrickson said, and then he moved. Athletic. Military training. Peak fitness. He’d have almost been a perfect model for a hero if he wasn’t obsessed with kicking my teeth in for existing.
I dove to the side, my finger tips trailing through the puddle of blood and gore on the floor where I’d fallen over and over again, and then I threw the hot mess of congealing blood and vomit into his block.
There was a moment of distaste in his eyes, and then he blocked his face.
But I was still moving, despite the burn in my arms, and finally, finally, my fist drove into his chest.
It was less of a hit and more of a love tap, he was built like a truck. But it was a hit.
“ONE!” I shouted, and moved for another one.
His blocked came up and intercepted my swing, but the other hand came down on his ribs.
“Two,” He grunted, opening his eyes and grinning down at me.
One last blow, but…
I nailed him across the cheek and my nail drew a line of blood from his face.
I was out of position. My stance was wide, unbalanced.
His knee came forward and sunk itself into my stomach, smashing against my ribs. Sent me sliding across the room, into a desk. Head collided hard with the bottom of it. Teeth chomped into my tongue.
I saw stars. Saw what lie beyond, that peculiar darkness rimming my eyes. Tasted blood. Tasted myself. Failure, perhaps.
“Good,” Patrickson said. “Three hits is more than most people get on me. I underestimated you, kid.”
I didn’t have a damn sword this time. But the gun he’d knocked away earlier?
It was under the same desk as I’d hit.
Blindly, I groped into the darkness. Patrickson covered the distance between us in slow practiced steps.
He didn’t even look like he’d felt anything I’d done to him.
My questing fingers came across the gun buried in the darkness and it spun. I threw my shoulder into it and grasped it, and drew it forth…
And his boot came out and kicked it out of my hand before stepping hard on my shoulder.
“Three hits is more than I thought you’d get,” He smiled slyly. “So I’ll take a better deal from you.”
“A b-better… deal…” I muttered, trying to focus.
“A better deal,” Patrickson slowly nodded. “See, as much fun as it is beating the shit out of you, we actually came here for two reasons.”
He gestured at his men. “We came here to destroy this base and leave the south without an association base. I think we’ve done that. Most everyone important that was here is dead in the ground. Everyone else is somewhere else.”
“And the… other…?” I asked. My hand was probably broken. How far was it broken? Could I still mark him, one more time. Save one more life. There were five of us, and yet…
“To find out what happened to Negalli. It was easy, once we took control over most of this building. Send out an SOS signal. The most powerful hero in the area will come running.”
I went quiet and stared at him through the blood dripping off of my temple. From the failure written across my forehead in bludgeons and bruises.
“And what’ll you do if he’s dead?”
Patrickson snorted. “Obviously he’s dead. If he wasn’t, he’d be here right now, and he’d’ve killed all of you without my grandstanding. Bastard didn’t have a moral bone in his body. To him, destroying the association was for the sole purpose of destroying it. Didn’t believe in checks and balances. Betrayed moral boundaries. Didn’t think of anything but himself. But my bosses… they don’t want that sort of power that could take him out interfering.”
I stared at him for a long moment.
“Two marks gets you a deal. I’ll only kill one of you… but the person who dies is going to be the one who killed Negalli.”
I laughed, though it came out as more of a gurgle.
“That’s your deal?” I asked, trying to claw my way to my feet.
“So, Gale,” he said, flatly, looking down at me. “You can do the math right? Point at which of your companions killed him. Tell me which one did it, and the rest go free.”
Blood bubbled from my mouth as I struggled to breath through the blood flowing down the back of my throat. Hot red bubbles.
“You’re looking at the killer.” I said, flatly.
He held out a hand. “Give me a Com.”
His soldier tossed him Osteor’s com, and he unlocked it and flipped through it. “Let’s see here. It’s rather gutsy, lying to me like that.”
I breathed shallowly, like a broke egg leaking across the floor. It would be better this way. Better if he found my entry and realized…
Then I realized that Osteor’s com was new. Was still being jammed. Couldn’t update with the signal mine was sending out.
What little hope I had ended as Patrickson raised an eyebrow and found my file.
“Gale. Native of Florida. D class hero. Power; manipulation of small gusts of wind. Promotion chances are negligible. Physical status: D. Emotional status: C. IQ: 142. Passed on the merit of knowledge and strategy.”
“A useless genius.” Patrickson grinned.
“You know what they say about geniuses?” he nudged me with the toe of his shoes.
“What?” I croaked.
“They’re great until they meet someone smarter than they are. You can’t lie to me.”
I couldn’t look at the others. Couldn’t bear to look at them, knowing I’d come here useless, and had been useless all along. Couldn’t bear the shame.
“Now, I can’t possibly see how someone like you could’ve done it… and if you’re not going to tell me… I guess I can get away with just shooting you.”
I spat weakly at him, but it didn’t leave me skin and dribbled down my neck.
“Pistol,” Patrickson held out his hand flatly.
One of his soldiers obediently unclipped it and handed it over until it was pointing at my face again. I stared down the barrel and decided that this time, I wouldn’t close my eyes.
Wouldn’t give death the satisfaction of taking me unaware. His finger slipped onto the trigger.
“It was me.”
My head tilted to the side, shadow rimming my gaze, and settled on Gunze’s face. The old man stood up raising his hands in the air.
“Ah…” Patrickson said, turning to face him. “Was that so hard?”
My heart stopped in my chest and I gagged for air. Gunze’s eyes looked at mine. “Looks like you’ll have to go on without me, kid,” he said. Not unkindly. Not anymore.
“On your fucking knees, wretch, Gunze. A rank. Part of the kill squad sent after Fafnir in Mexico. Murderer. Scum bag. Can manipulate threads, and transform into silk. Decimated of armor.” Patrickson barked. “Useless without his power, like the lot of you. Gale excluded.”
Gunze fell to his knees, hands in the air.
“Last words?” The commander barked.
“Tell Manny that we never stopped loving him. And that when he gets what he deserves… there’ll be a place right beside me for him in hell,” Gunze barked.
Patrickson levelled the gun at him, but I couldn’t move. So thoroughly had I been stomped into the ground. So thoroughly was I broken.
The steel of the gun twinkled in the lights overhead, like a final gathering of Valkyries seeking to lead warriors to an eternal place.
The gun went off.
Gunze slumped to the ground.