Gold lightning danced across the cloud of perfect white that signified the newcomer’s powers. It condensed down, a stark opposite of the fog of frost pouring off of Kitten.
The white cloud melded together, forming intricate armor of white and gold that looked too perfect. Somehow, it ignored all light sources and shadows, as if it wasn’t a part of our world. It kinda reminded me of Roger Rabbit, with cartoon characters running about in an otherwise live action film. It was wrong, so pristine and clear on this battlefield covered in dust, blood and ice.
Kitten recovered before I did, turning to face the newcomer while I struggled to find a way to stand on the slick ice.
“Do you have any idea how rude it is to interrupt someone in the middle of a game?” There was a crackle-pop sound as ice spread itself across Kitten’s body. White and crimson splotched across her like the world’s worst barbershop pole. She brought my sword up and rested it across her shoulder. “Wait, I know you! You’re Anima!”
That’s Anima? I’d never seen her in person, but I was glad to have her here; if anyone could beat Kitten, it was her.
“And you’re Kitten, correct?” There was no hint of femininity in Anima’s voice; her voice was so distorted that she didn’t sound human.
“One and only.” Kitten took a couple quick hops away from me, moving faster than she ever had during our fight. Kitten had armor of her own, now, constructed from ice her power made for her. “They say that we’re the most powerful Imbued on the eastern seaboard. That you might even be the strongest on the whole continent.”
Anima looked over at me. “You have any friends here? Backup?”
I still hadn’t managed to get to my feet, so from my sitting position, I answered. “No.” My voice cracked and the word came out as little more than a squeak. I coughed a couple times, for theatrics rather than an actual need to clear my throat, then spoke deeper than my natural voice.
“I came alone.” I hesitated for a moment, feeling the need to justify myself. “I don’t need any backup.”
“It’s true. He’s been all sorts of fun. I’ve never met anyone that can take a beating like he can.” Kitten was her usual happy self. “You here to settle those ‘versus’ threads all those losers put up about us online?”
And here Kitten is fucking ignoring me again. “Hey, I’m not the one whose blood is all over everything.” Of course, the only reason for that was because my power recovered any lost materials, but Anima didn’t need to know that.
“Hush now, the big girls are talking.” Kitten’s gaze never stopped focusing on Anima. “As I was saying, you don’t display your powers in combat much. I’m willing to bet there’s a reason for that. Some special weakness, perhaps?”
Anima shook her head, just a little. “I’m a pacifist for personal reasons. It has nothing to do with my powers or their weaknesses.”
Kittens smile slipped a little. “Oh, you’re one of those. Funny thing about pacifism, it only works if everyone’s a pacifist. All I heard is that you have zero combat experience, and are afraid to kill. Those are weaknesses, and I am so very good at using wea-”
“Won’t matter.” I could hear the tension in Anima’s voice. “The Wild Hunt.”
More white fog and gold lightning flowed around Anima, taking humanoid shapes. They, like the armor, were cartoons imposed on a world where they didn’t belong. Blades glinted too brightly, the bowstrings were visible even from where I was sitting. They knelt, bowing their heads toward Anima like faithful who just met their god.
“I’ve read your files. I know you’ve got the ability to sense and exploit flaws in an enemy. I know you’ve translated that skill into being a Truthsayer. Whatever weaknesses my power might have, they do not apply here. If I give the command, you will die, and there will be nothing either of us can do to stop it. Now stand down.”
Kitten tilted her head, and chips of ice fell to the ground. “Oh, my, you believe yourself. And my power believes you, too. What did you lose to gain a power like that? Must have been incredible.”
Gold lightning danced along the kneeling cartoon summons, along with the howling of the wind. The chilled air didn’t stir. “More than enough.”
“You are such a hypocrite. You know you can kill me, and you know what I’m going to do because you didn’t.”
Anima tensed up, and the cartoon characters’ heads snapped up. They looked like nothing so much as evil cartoon elves. The red glow from their eyes reflected like flames on their too-white, sharp teeth. One spoke, his voice like crunching leaves. “Give the word, my Princess, and I shall take her head and place it before you in rightful tribute.”
“I think that won’t be necessary. For either of you.” Flux spoke. Holy shit, I forgot he was there again. Does he have some kind of mind powers? “Kitten, I think you’ve had your fun for the evening. Besides, your new friend covered your tithe a dozen times over, and that’s before I lost count. I believe, back in the day, they had a name for that. Sorta like a scapegoat, but not…” he paused for a moment of thought. “Oh, right, now I remember, a whipping boy.”
I didn’t believe for an instant he actually forgot, he was just playing up the drama.
Kitten giggled happily. “Ooh, yeah, I like that!”
“So, Anima, remember to thank Whipping Boy after we’re gone. You don’t have to worry about getting blood on your precious hands tonight.”
“I have your word?”
“Yuppers!” Kitten tilted her head back until it had bent further than a human neck should have been flexible enough to accommodate. I couldn’t help but think of a pez dispense as she looked right at me despite still facing toward Anima. “Besides, Fate has already selected Whipping Boy to kill me. And who are we to fight Destiny?” Kitten then fell backward, rolling back until she was sitting down next to me, just out of arm’s reach.
“Looks like I’ve gotta go now. I’ll think of you often.” Her smile seemed sad and disappointed, then it perked right back up. “When I’m gone, be sure to ask Anima what happens when people get in my way. Plus one per month until you manage to stop me. And remember that, from now on, to make sure there’s an extra special bond between us, I’ll do it using your sword.”
I tried to lunge at her, but she was too fast even without the ice slowing me down. She rolled a couple more times, jumped to her feet, and hopped away without a care in the world. “No need to be so impatient, Whipping Boy! Take your time, get stronger. I promise I’ll wait until you’re ready.”
With that, she was running off. She hopped onto the top of some kind of sports car, climbing in through the sun roof as it sped off. A yellow and orange shimmer emanated from Flux, and he moved faster than my eyes could follow, a streak of orange that quickly passed the vehicle. I failed, and they got away.
“Are you okay?”
I jumped at Anima’s question. I hadn’t even heard her walk up behind me. I hesitated for a moment, a million questions going through my mind. How did you know I was here? Why did you let Kitten get away? How powerful is she? How powerful are you? What was that shit she was spouting about destiny? Those, however, were questions I could ask in a few minutes, I needed something right away that would thank her, without admitting I was in so far over my head that Chinese people were using my feet to prop up an end table.
I turned to face her, having settled on an opening line. “So, when I signed up for this job, I thought I’d be on the other side of daring rescues involving beautiful princesses.” I hoped my smile didn’t look creepy, considering I was still wearing a ski mask.
Her hand extended out to me. “I’ll take that as a yes.” Her voice had changed, losing the booming echo and becoming that of a girl. There was nothing special I could say about her voice, other than how ordinary it sounded.
I reached out for her. “You just rescued me, and now you’re asking for my h-” I froze as I touched her armor. The same senses that let me see Kitten could see into Anima’s armor, and what it found there was impossible. A storm of power concentrated into a shell; there was no inside to the armor, just an outside.
I barely noticed as she helped me to my feet. “Is there something wrong?”
I snapped out of my daze. “No, nothing. It’s just, my power lets me know things about what I’m touching. Your armor is.” I hesitated, not knowing how to describe it.
“Yeah, I know,” she didn’t sound too happy. “I hear stuff like that, sometimes. Don’t bother trying to figure it out, no one else has managed to, in spite of physicists and theologians alike who claim otherwise. And, no, it’s not that special. There’s a bunch of people whose powers are like that, one way or another.”
It was obvious she’d had this conversation before. “Well, I know one thing about it.” She didn’t say a word, and didn’t seem to care about my ideas. The lack of weight, the way it curved in on itself with no beginning and no end, how its consistency changed while staying forever the same. How I couldn’t use my power for more than sensing it. “It’s gorgeous.”
I earned a ‘hmph’. “So, newbie, do you have a name? I doubt it’s Whipping Boy.”
“Haven’t thought of one,” I admitted. “Didn’t seem important to me. I was kinda hoping to make a name for myself first.” After all, why have a name if you didn’t matter enough for people to care?
“And you went after Kitten to make that name?” The incredulity dripped from every word she spoke.
I shrugged and smiled. “Well, you have to admit, if it had worked…” I trailed off, letting her draw her own conclusions. Better to let her believe I was confident in my powers and knew I could take care of myself, instead of stumbling into a fight with someone I’d never even heard of before like a suicidally stupid amateur. No, that is the wrong attitude to have, especially when dealing with someone who might be able to offer help. “But my business with Kitten is personal. She killed…” someone I loved, my neighbor since I was four, my sister’s best friend, the girl I was sort of a stalker for. Someone I fantasized about rescuing since I first figured out… “A friend.”
Anima hesitated for a moment. “I’m sorry. I guess I assumed the worst about you, instead of thinking you had a reason.. It’s just… going after Kitten is insane, and it was easiest to imagine you didn’t know.”
I felt bad, indirectly lying to her, but I’d gotten used to that over the years. “Kitten said something about doing something when people get in her way?” I suspected I knew the answer, but I needed to hear it.
Anima looked away, searching the sky for something that wasn’t there. “Two lives. That’s her rule, every time the police or any would-be heroes manage to stop whatever it is she’s trying to do, she kills two people at random. As powerful as she is, she could kill a lot more than that if she goes down fighting. Her danger sense means a sniper or bomb won’t work. Overwhelming firepower is the only strategy, and there’s only a handful of us who have both the durability and firepower to go up against her. After that, it’s a matter of having the speed to catch her when she runs.”
“That why they sent you, instead of a team?”
“Actually, ‘they’ don’t know this happened yet,” Anima admitted. “If they realized what was going on, they’d probably send someone in. Innocent lives be damned. Guardian would be their first pick. He might be a colossal ass, and wouldn’t be able to beat her, but at the very least he wouldn’t lose. They’d use whatever intel he could gather to come up with a better strategy. So what if it ruins dozens of lives in the process?”
Holy fuck that sounds bitter. “So, umm, no offense, but why you? I mean, I thought you didn’t do the hero thing. Are you as powerful as they say?” Kitten certainly thought so.
“No one is as powerful as they say I am. I’m a pretty hard counter for Kitten, but if Flux had stepped in I’d be dead right now. Mooth promised that wasn’t a risk, and this was the best way to save lives. She’s an Esper. Knows if someone’s going to die within twenty four hours as long as she pictures them in her mind. Also sees the last moment of any Imbued who dies. Or, in your case, a lot of last moments.”
Well, that’s one solved mystery. “Tell her I’ll try to keep the dying to a minimum, but I can’t make any promises.”
“Kitten.” A simple, tired acceptance. “Telling you how bad an idea that is won’t make a difference, will it?”
“Someone has to stop her.” I left the accusation that she could have, and didn’t, unspoken. I tried to feel bad about it, but even Kitten was sure she was going to lose if Anima went all out, and that didn’t happen. “She said something about it being my destiny to kill her. I don’t buy it, but I think I can challenge her without her killing people if I lose. Not that I intend to lose, now that I know what I’m fighting. I can take her.”
Anima looked over, studying me for a minute. “She’s why you have powers, right? You got your powers right after finding out about your friend that Kitten killed?”
Anima’s armor shifted, opening a hole in the side, near her hip. Through the golden glow, I noted she was wearing jeans under her costume. “I shouldn’t be doing this. And if you tell anyone I did, I will swear in a court of law that you’re a liar.” She pulled a rumpled up series of papers out and handed them to me. “That’s what information I have on Kitten, straight out of the police database.”
“Illegal? Very.” Her voice made it clear she was starting to regret her generosity.
“Thank you.” I meant it. I looked at the papers, not trying to read them, simply looking at what I held. Hopefully in here was the information I needed to win our rematch. “Is there anything I can do to, well, if you need help you can ask.”
“I’m okay. Listen, we should get going. Would you like me to give you a ride somewhere?”
A part of me felt insulted that she assumed I didn’t have a car. She was right, but she didn’t know that. “Oh, I see how it is. First you rescue a guy, then you get him to take you back to his place…”
She just stood there stunned, looking for the words.
“Nah, I’m joshin’ ya. I have a ride, I walked the last couple blocks.” All true. “I’m not so rich that I can afford losing a car every time I get into a fight.”
“Got a cell? I can’t talk you into staying out of this, so the least I can do is make sure you stay away from the worst dangers. There’s a lot of things the civilians don’t know about. It’s better than you running around blind and getting into the wrong kind of mess. And I might be able to get more information about Kitten.”
“Sure,” I pulled out my shitty cheap cell. “Something to call the police so they could clean up. You can call me any time after five thirty. My powers include not needing to sleep, so it doesn’t matter how late you call.”
“Don’t spread that detail around too much. Some insensitive people might call you lucky.”
We swapped numbers and I jogged off before calling Laura.