I never wanted this. I walked out, looking over the silent crowd as I approached my throne. Los Fieles, my Faithful, were anything but. My guards stood beside my throne as if to protect me, but they plotted my downfall in secret.
On the left, Cura. The most trustworthy, she was the least dangerous; a healer, not a killer. The danger was that she could extend her gifts to the wrong lieutenant, and through them become my greatest threat. I didn’t know if my power could overcome her healing. She didn’t know if her healing could overcome my power, either, and I intended to keep it that way.
On the right, Lanza, whose weapon could cut through anything. He, especially, yearned for my downfall. It had been four years since I defeated him and took his gang, and still he yearned for my death. I had thought that making him the greatest of my lieutenants would be enough, and where that failed I offered him a similar position in my bed. Even when inside me, he desired my death more.
In front of me, my four remaining commanders. Araña I could trust, a despicably simple creature who cared only about his food, and I fed him well. Sueña less so, but she was smart and patient, she’d remain loyal, then whore herself to my usurper. Parásito was loyal only to fear. To the best of my knowledge, he could not truly be killed, and still he feared death. Last, Loba, a fat bitch of an enforcer. Too stupid to take my throne, not smart enough to know it.
Behind them, my other Imbued servants and future betrayers. Further back, the normal human leaders that were allowed to attend. They were never contenders for the throne, but being here kept them loyal.
And one conspicuous absence. I didn’t speak until I sat upon my throne of mahogany and leather. “It seems Mariposa won’t be making it.” I made it a question and a disapproval, let them wonder how I’d deal with it.
I turned my head toward Sueña. My mask was a veil, so no one could see the expressions on my face. I had to exaggerate my head motions to let them know where my gaze fell, or at least where I wanted them to think it fell.
“My Lady,” Sueña said after a moment. “I am already seeking her out. My assassins will have her head before the ides.”
Some days, I wanted to fry Sueña nervous system until she spoke like a normal person. “No,” I commanded while observing her body with my power. “Simply find her, I’ll want to punish her actions myself.”
Sueña’s heartbeat spiked with fear. “As you desire, My Lady.” She was lying, and now she knew I knew she was lying. There was never a chance she could catch Mariposa. Perhaps she planned to kill some other woman who looked like her to hide the failure.
“Now I must ask the question, did anyone here know she planned to defect?” I turned my head slowly, looking at all in my court. There were oaths from many, swearing they didn’t know, and my power believed them. Their fear and distress were real, but a different flavor than that of a liar. “And does anyone else plan to be the next to flee your duties?”
The second question saw spikes of terror, and I knew I’d be down to half my people by the end of the week.
I grit my teeth, and the part of me that was a little girl raised to believe people were inherently good cried at what was about to occur. I crushed that part of me mercilessly. This den of scum didn’t deserve my pity. They ruined my life and forced me to become this. They would inflict far worse on each other if I wasn’t here to maintain order. What I did wasn’t cruelty, it was justice.
I gestured to Loba. She was the most disposable of those who planned to run.
To her credit, she didn’t even try to beg, she just ran. Her superhuman speed and reflexes almost gave her a chance, but my power never missed before and it wasn’t going to miss now. I reached out, touching instead of seeing, gripping her nervous system with my mind. She fell to her knees screaming in agony.
Behind me Lanza shifted, and I brushed him with just enough power to remind him I could target both of them at once. I couldn’t do it with power enough to kill, but he didn’t know that.
The scene in the middle of my court continued, as Loba ran out of air to scream with. I wouldn’t allow her to draw another. I held her until her muscles had spent their strength and she dropped to the floor, paralyzed and dying. I watched her heart with the same clinical focus my parents used as successful doctors, and stopped moments before it gave out. Her breathing was too shallow to detect, but with her regeneration she’d recover in a couple days.
I didn’t buy the ‘Mark of Cain’ superstition, but it didn’t hurt to be careful. Besides, I fully expected my eventual killer would be a betrayer from within, not a conqueror. “Araña, the body is yours to dispose of.”
He was scuttling to the body before I even finished the command. “With pleasure, My Lady.”
I struggled to keep from showing signs of weakness as Araña spit on Loba and his mucous went to work, converting her body into something with roughly the same consistency as jello. As Araña slurped the gel that was once Loba, I tried not to ask myself who she was under the costume. What day job she might have had, or if maybe I just took someone’s mother away from them.
I watched until he was finished. This was a mercy, allowing her to be blissfully unconscious while Araña fed. Others had less control, some of the normals had to look away and a few even got sick, but none ran for fear of being next. As sated as he could be, Araña returned to his position.
“Now, is anyone else considering something so stupid as to run from me?” The spikes of dread rippled across the crowd like a wildfire, and I knew for a time they were more afraid of me than my enemies. “We have lost three of our best these last two weeks, and many others. We are under attack, and we must stand strong together, or we die alone.”
No one dared argue, some perhaps even agreed with me. “Parásito, you’re in charge of our funds, I want to know why we’re losing money.”
His, if such a thing applied to the creature, body shook with terror. “My Lady, we have lost so many. The police are somehow finding our people on the streets before they can make any profit.”
I frowned, I thought we’d found a way around that problem. “My Lady,” Sueña spoke. “If I may, our agents have divined the police have an Oracle aiding them.”
“I know that, Sueña, what’s your point?” I resisted the urge to punish her for trying to make me look stupid.
She waited a moment, showing suitable fear, but she knew she was too valuable for me to harm. “We cannot beat that power directly, but with a suitable plan we might create a diversion. There is a local reverend that would be… amenable… to leading a protest against the city. It won’t be without cost, but less than that of inaction.”
Turning it into a scandal? Actually a very good plan. Sueña will serve as an example of reward for good work. “Very well, take what you need. Contact the black and Asian gangs as well, it will look better if their people get involved. And take a little extra off the top for yourself.”
“You are too kind, my Lady,” Sueña bowed her head.
One problem of many down. “In the interim, we need to find new sources of income.” I looked out at the crowd. Most of them stole at least a little bit from the money they made, a simple matter of how the business worked. That needed to change right now. “I want all of you out there working just a little harder. Our empire can not be allowed to fall.”
“If we were to… recruit… additional girls, that could-” he stopped speaking because I’d stopped allowing him to speak. Holding his lungs under my power, he asphyxiated in silence. Thirty seconds later, I released him and he gasped for air. It disgusted me that he was right, but I still couldn’t bring myself to do that. It was the one line I’d yet to cross.
“Such a change in policy would be too obvious.” It was the best excuse I could come up with. “If Lightbringer senses even the smallest weakness, they will come at us like jackals after a wounded lion. We must not let them know as we prepare for the war to come.”
“My partner will be thrilled to hear it,” a distorted male voice speaking in English echoed through the hall. I looked up to spot the intruder, standing near the door. A black and yellow costume, with the fairly generic circuitry pattern that so many Gadgeteers loved. He stopped walking only a few feet out of my power’s range, setting down a small metal box. It couldn’t have been an accident. “She asked me to deliver a message.”
I can’t look weak in front of my people. “Cute. So, do your job so I can decide whether to shoot you.”
“She says ‘join or die’.”
I was familiar with the words, I’d used them to recruit most of the people in this very room. “Well, at least now I know to shoot you.”
“I don’t think you can, but if you did you’d be doing me a favor,” the Gadgeteer replied. My sensory powers told me that he believed what he was saying.
“Aww, you know just how to make a girl feel special,” a high pitched female voice joined in. Moments later, a redhead who couldn’t have been older than fifteen walked in wearing nothing but a tank top, cutoff jeans and bright pink boots. Hardly what one expects of a supervillain, let alone in one of the coldest Novembers in memory. “So anyway, I’m Kitten, I’m the partner that Flux was so kind to introduce.”
I was glad for the full mask, it hid my surprise. Up until she said ‘Kitten’, it hadn’t registered that she was speaking Spanish. She wasn’t just some white girl who took a few classes, she was as skilled as a native speaker.
“Thanks for making it easy to find and kill you, then.” What kind of idiot sends a messenger less than a minute before showing up herself?
“If you did, then you’d be missing out on allies for your fight against Lightbringer,” the Gadgeteer named Flux said. “Not that you actually can, but I’ve always been a fan of speculative fiction.”
I started drawing on my power. It wouldn’t take much to jump forward and catch them both. Even if it did reveal my range limit, that wouldn’t be nearly the disaster of letting this pair talk down to me in front of my own people.
“One free shot,” Kitten offered, walking forward as she spoke. “Hit me with everything y-.”
I didn’t question or hesitate, seizing her nervous system the moment she got in range. She didn’t get to scream, I didn’t waste effort making her fall to her knees gracefully, she collapsed in a heap. Ice crystals started spreading out along the ground around her. Clearly she was some sort of cryokinetic, not that it did her much good. A spark of emotion came from Flux, not of fear but… something I couldn’t recognize.
The girl’s arm moved, and the other. I couldn’t understand what was happening. She was taking control of her body away from me. Not through anything so exotic as some form of adaptation or power control, that would make sense. She was somehow forcing her body to ignore its own nervous system. She pulled herself to her feet, muscles only moving when she consciously controlled them.
Her arm lashed out, and two blades slammed on either side of my head. I heard wood crack from the force of the impact and in my terror I lost control of both my power and my bladder. I could feel the cold radiating off the knives, any act of moving my head would involve touching them with my face. It was far too precise to be an accident.
“That was your free shot.” Kitten, now in full control of her body stretched. “Would you like to try when I fight back?”
I did not, but did it even matter? Now that my subordinates knew I could be beaten, they would become bolder in their ambitions. Death by her hands right now might be a mercy, like the one I granted Lupa. It might even be justice in its own right. “And what was it you wanted me to join?”
The girl held her hands behind her back and pouted in a way that might have been adorable if she hadn’t just made me piss myself with fear. “Oh, I just want to get in on this war you’ve got brewing with Lightbringer, that’s all. It’s been a while since I’ve gone on a Nazi-killing spree. It’ll be glorious, a war on the streets between two armies to prove once and for all who the real master race is!”
“That’s all?” Okay, I can work with this. All I need to do is get her to walk into the right trap, and the skinheads can kill her for me. Any she brings down with her can only work to my advantage.
“My Lady,” Cura spoke. “We can’t afford a frontal assault. Especially with Dawn Star backing…”
A metallic clang interrupted Cura. The Gadgeteer had kicked his metal box, which sprang open. A human head rolled out, covered in the torn, bloodied, and partially frozen mask of Dawn Star.