I moved back and looked up at Zach. Without the platforms I put into my summoned armor, he had half a foot of height on me. “Hey, what’s a good emotional breakdown or two between friends, right?” I made an idiot of myself in pretty much the same way. Mostly, I was just glad he stopped avoiding me. “Don’t worry, I promise I won’t tell Glen or Laura.”
His smile was forced. “Thanks. My rep’s taken enough hits today.” He hesitated for a second, just long enough for me to realize what was about to happen, and then his lips met mine. I froze, I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
“Unhand her, you cad!” Oh, no. Zach’s head snapped back, and moments later a wicked curved blade was stuck through his chest. It narrowly missed me, but that meant nothing. My summons couldn’t hurt me even if I wanted them to. No! No no no!!!
An eyeblink later, there were two Zachs in front of me. One was breaking down into a shimmer of rainbow light. The other turned and punched my summoned assassin in the face, then body slammed into it, taking them both to the ground. Pain shot through my head. He copied on his feet, kicked the assassin in the head, and then dropped knees first onto it. I almost collapsed.
“Zach!” I gasped, as I tried desperately to unsummon it. Zach hesitated, looking back at me. With a chance to concentrate, I cut my tie to the summon and it broke down into shimmering white light.
He waited there on the floor, lookin up at me. “I… it attacked me and… I didn’t think, I just…”
I swallowed, getting my own emotions under control. Downstairs, I had half my dwarves set down their boxes and unsummoned them as well. It would take some time before I had strength to maintain more.
“Sorry, I reacted without thinking, too. My power…” I trailed off, there was so much I didn’t want to think about when it came to my powers. I was a danger to everyone around me, just like…
“I would have killed him,” Zach interrupted my thoughts. “I mean, if it was real instead of a summon.” His eyes widened. “Oh god. I killed her. She was alive, and I knew her and yeah she was weird but she seemed nice and now she’s dead and I…” He started crying there on the floor, just looking up at me. He wasn’t wrong, that barrage would have been deadly to any normal person. Sapphire would have called it ‘ruthlessly efficient’.
I stepped closer and knelt down. This is so messed up. “It’s going to be okay. You had a traumatic experience, and now you need time to adjust. It’s natural, there’s nothing wrong with you.” I recited the words from memory.
“A-aren’t you supposed to hate me now?” Why would he think that? “You’re a pacifist. I’m a murderer.”
Oh, right, that. I felt a twinge of guilt; it was true. When I first heard why he was in the hospital, I was angry at him. For killing that girl, for even carrying a weapon like that in the first place.
When Laura found out, she threatened to slap that thought out of my head. “I heard what happened. You saved that man’s life, and probably your own. I might have done the same, in your position. I can’t judge you for it.”
“It… it was supposed to be Kitten,” he whispered.
Everything came back to her, in the end. The catalyst that gave Zach powers, had the police circling the metaphorical wagons, and was in the middle of starting a gang war. A part of myself, a part I despised, whispered that I could have stopped her months ago, before everything began. I had no way to know how much pain I could have saved Zach and numerous others.
“I don’t know if I can do it anymore. I just… if it feels like this every time, I just don’t know.”
“Don’t worry about that right now. I’m sure we can work out some kind of plan.” Even as I said it, I made myself believe it. “You don’t have to do this alone, you don’t have to be the one that stops her.”
He looked surprised. “You think so?”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of Imbued in this city, and more than a few owe Muwth a favor. I don’t think Kitten has a power that can help her escape Glen once he finds her, and she can’t truly fight either of us. If we can’t take her alive, then Sapphire or Guardian can kill her.” I didn’t even try to hide the disgust in my voice. “They love public executions.”
Zach actually smiled. “Know what? You’re right.” He started laughing. “I don’t care who stops her or how, all that matters is she’s stopped.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. He was finally starting to realize how destructive this path was. Kitten needed to be stopped, anyone could see that, but I didn’t want to lose anyone else to this lifestyle.
“Hey, umm,” he started to blush. “I’m sorry about earlier. I never should have kissed you like that.”
“It’s no big deal,” I lied. I didn’t want him to know that was the closest I’d ever been to kissing a boy. It wasn’t bad, now that I could look back on it. Zach was fairly good looking, it just couldn’t work out. “You weren’t thinking straight. Sorry I impaled you.”
He shrugged and gave that lopsided grin of his. “Impaled, slapped in the face, it’s all the same thing. I deserved it. So, if I promise never to do that again, does that make us cool?”
My smile was genuine this time. “Over and forgotten.” I wouldn’t be forgetting; I could still taste his lips. “I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m dodging you or anything, but maybe we should call the team together. Muwth and Glen should be informed of recent developments.” And later I would have to talk to Laura. I wasn’t sure if I’d mention the kiss or not, but when he went off on that summon… I knew what PTSD looked like.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea.” I could tell he wanted to say more, but he didn’t. I stayed in the room, in part because I didn’t want him thinking I was talking behind his back, in part because I didn’t want to leave him alone.
My first call was to Glen. “This is The Forge, how may I help you?” A girl’s voice that I didn’t recognize. Mike went through employees like most people went through socks.
“I’m actually calling for Glen, is he in?”
“Yes, please ho-” there was an indistinct rumbling in the phone. “Uh, umm, he’s here, he says he wants to know what’s up.”
“We’re having a strategy meeting.” I knew Glen could hear me just fine through the phone, but I wasn’t going to just talk like the girl wasn’t there. “Respawn’s already here. He can meet us near The Playhouse, I can give directions.”
Another rumble. “He says he knows where it is, and should be there in about ten minutes.”
“Have a pleasant day, ma’am.”
I closed the phone and looked back over to Zach. I could tell things were going to be awkward between us, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I wasn’t used to people being attracted to me.
As Anima, it happened all the damn time. Somehow people kept getting this idea that I was some prize to be won; I brushed them off on reflex these days.
There were exactly two people who ever showed any interest in Beth, including Zach. I almost wished I could kiss him back, but that would be wrong on so many levels. He wasn’t really interested in me anyway, it was just the emotions of the situation.
Instead of talking about any of that, I went over to my CD player and started up one of the disks I knew Glen liked. Even playing softly, he could probably hear it from two blocks away.
“That’s one of Laura’s favorites,” Zach broke our silence.
“We swapped a few discs,” I said. “You’d be amazed at how little there is to do when sitting around in a hospital. Oh, and your sister cheats at Yatzee.”
“You think that’s bad? I’m pretty sure there’s a court order forbidding her from getting within thirty feet of a Monopoly board. And if there isn’t, there should be.”
I started to relax. Maybe it wouldn’t be as awkward as I expected. One of those things I loved about Zach and Laura; they didn’t let anything keep them down. No matter the troubles in their lives, they kept their wits and rolled with the punches. Even when they screwed up, they kept pushing forward. How I wished I had that sort of strength.
If he was willing to make the effort to treat everything as normal, then so could I. “We’ll have to come up with a game that it’s impossible to cheat at to get back at her.” I started dialing my phone to get ahold of Muwth.
“Tried it, doesn’t work,” he said. “Neither does finding a game where everyone’s supposed to cheat whenever possible; she wins those by being better at it.”
The phone rang for a while before finally being picked up. “Good day,” Muwth’s voice was altered, but there was so much static on the line that I don’t think it made a difference. “I hope you’ve resolved things with Respawn?”
How did she? Oh, right, she watched him die because of how her power works. “Yeah, everything’s golden right now. We got to talking about a few things,” I glanced over at Zach. “It’s time to start calling in favors.”
There was a delay, but I wasn’t sure if it was Muwth thinking things over or part of the security features she used. For all I knew there was a machine in Arizona whose only function was to answer one phone, pick up another phone, dial Muwth’s real number, and then hold the two phones up to each other so the conversation could be more secure.
“You are aware of what that means, correct?”
Zach stood there silently while I steeled myself. Someone needs to stop this cycle. “Sounds good to me, but you’re the master planner. Just let us know our parts, and we’ll do it.” Zach nodded at me.
“I’ll need to start making calls,” Muwth answered. “Oh, and let Respawn know I’ve taken a couple liberties after seeing his issues at school. You’ll both find a spam mail entitled ‘future markets’ with files attached. You’ll need both files.”
Paranoia, much? “I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. Thanks.”
“I’ll have Genius Loci deliver further updates. Goodbye.”
I snapped the phone closed and looked at Zach. “So, we have a secret message in our emails.”
“Is it going to self destruct in fifteen seconds?”
Muwth might actually be that kind of crazy. “I’m not sure.” I went immediately for my computer and got into my email. I wasn’t an expert on computers, so I had no idea what kind of file it was. “She said the other half is in your email.”
I stood up and stepped back so Zach could have the chair. He got his half of the file, and they started running right away. Pretty soon, we had a bunch pictures. “She really is a loon, isn’t she?”
“Who’s a loon?” Glen’s rumble echoed in the room and made me jump.
“Our friendly neighborhood psychic,” Zach answered. Then he whistled. “Okay, maybe she should be paranoid. This is, like, everything the cops know about Ferne’s murder spree. She could not have gotten this legally.”
I leaned over his shoulder, looking at the papers. Dates and times of found bodies. The earliest were almost three years ago and labeled ‘unknown vampire, case 7’ and others were labeled ‘case 8’. I wasn’t sure which disturbed me more, that she got away with this for so long, or the implication of at least six more unknown vampires out there. Based on the info, almost half the victims had rap sheets involving sexual assault, violent crimes, or heavy drugs. A lot of those were found dead on the street, while the non-criminal half were single and killed in their homes. That explained why they were mistaken as separate cases for so long.
“The numbers spike at the beginning of school,” Zach said. “Only lasts a couple months, then there’s one or two at random, until the next school year.”
“Too small a sample package,” Glen rumbled. “What are we talking in terms of numbers?”
“One per weekend, it looks like, plus a couple more at random in the week.” He tensed up and his fists clenched. “Oh, shit. There were two the same weekend I…”
He sat there rigid. I put my hand on his shoulder, trying to encourage him. I couldn’t guess what he was going through.
“Ferne had a power to give powers,” he said. Oh, shit, she was a Guru as well? “Well, not real powers, just making them smarter or stronger. Two people were killed the same weekend I tried to get an upgrade from her. I… my power canceled it out, and she said she couldn’t spare the energy to try again. I think she has to kill someone every time she wants to give someone an upgrade.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said. After everything else, he didn’t need to blame himself for what Ferne did.
“No, I know that. But now I know who started those fucking rumors.”