“He seems really confident.” Chloe’s voice wasn’t much over a whisper. “What if they try to arrest him? Shouldn’t the police be doing something with a bunch of known villains standing in front of them?”
She has a point. “Maybe they don’t think they can take them with the people they have? Biohazard alone is a nightmare.” I stepped a bit closer to her, and put my hand around her arm. she brought her hand up to hold mine. In part it was to offer support, in part to piss her father off, and in part because Wiki hitting on me was a little bit disconcerting, but mostly it was to piss off her father.
Wiki glanced at our hands, but only seemed to smile wider. “That’s how these Moots work.” Wiki’s voice dropped into a conspiratorial whisper. “We’re here under laws older than even the idea of countries. If they break the peace, it starts a war.”
I glanced around at the gathered people, then berated myself for being a moron. Wiki was clearly less than sane, and probably had his facts mixed up with some weird fanfiction or something.
Chloe’s hand squeezed mine hard enough that I felt it through the metal. “Makes sense.” What. “The police just lost Starfall, and if they think Heritage can help them find the killer, that will be their highest priority. Everything else can wait.” Her tone was as sharp as anything I could make by the time she finished.
I wished I could pull her aside and talk about this, but that wasn’t an option. “Not the first time the police have let one fish go to catch another, and it doesn’t get much bigger than cop killers.” An explanation that made far more sense than ancient mysticism, in my mind. “But I think they’re getting started.”
By this point, the three police heroes had approached Heritage. “What is this about, Quash? I thought this sort of thing stopped happening in the eighties.”
Quash held out his arms. “That’s ’cause they haven’t been necessary, officer. We policed our own, an’ you policed tha rest. Last night, that happy balance collapsed.”
Now was my turn to squeeze Chloe’s hand. How dare that son of a bitch act like he’s on the side of law and order? I bit my tongue, choosing to watch rather than get involved. I’d rathr learn than join the spectacle.
“Can the act, Quash.” I was coming to like Relativistic. Part of me wondered if he was part of Starfall’s conspiracy, but it seemed he and Quash had some bad blood between them. Either that, or they were amazing actors. “Do you or do you not have information on Starfall’s murder?”
“I dare say I know nothing you don’t. After all, you have the eye-witness account.” He extended his hand toward Eldritch. “You saw the girls that killed her, did you not?” Eldritch lost her human-like shape for a moment. I think we all took it as confirmation. “What ah bring to you, officer, is knowledge of the killers.”
“We’re supposed to take your word?” It seemed obvious at this point that Relativistic was baiting for information. “I would like to know what you want for this information, what you hope to gain.” I could imagine a lot of people wanted that answer; chances were only Chloe, Quash and I knew the truth. The only question was how he’d spin it without connecting himself to Starfall.
“Why, I do believe you have me wrong, sir. I’m here as a good samaritan.”
“Do I need to remind you we brought a lie detector with us?”
“Very well.” Quash turned his head toward Whistleblower. “Those psychopaths are roamin’ the streets an’ killin’ my people. People that ah consider friends an’ family. They made it personal, and what I have to gain is justice.”
Relativistic turned to look at Whistleblower, who nodded his confirmation. It galled me to admit, but Quash was smart. He told them everything they thought they needed to know, but managed to avoid saying who he wanted justice for.
“Besides, you boys got a pair a serial killers on your hands, an’ they’re escalatin’. Ah’m sure you know what that means.”
I squeezed Chloe’s hand. They left that out of the newspaper. Superhuman serial killers were rarer than the media would have us believe, but there was at least one or two a year. If that’s what we faced, and they were strong enough to bring down Starfall, Wiki might have the right idea about leaving the city.
Relativistic glanced back at Whistleblower, who gave a quicker nod this time. Quash took the chance to continue speaking. “They’ve been runnin’ wild fer ’bout two years now, startin’ in Florida an’ movin’ their way up. Ineluctable can tell ya all about it.”
The woman stepped forward. “They began in southern Florida, near lake Istokpoga.” Her voice was clear, crisp and lacked any notable dialect. There wasn’t so much as a hesitation on ‘Istokpoga’. It was like listening to a television reporter. “Up until recently, they’ve been opportunistic killers. Their pattern is to intervene and rescue the target from a mugging or other attack, while killing the attackers. They lure the victim or victims somewhere safe, often the victim’s home, where they sexually assault, torture, and eventually murder them.”
“Oh god!” Chloe’s exclamation was joined by murmurs from many others in the crowd. I offered what support I could in squeezing her hand. Finding out her mother had been murdered was one thing, but now to learn she may have been raped as well was beyond what I could imagine.
“I believe their first victim was their father.” In addition to the Hollywood-perfect diction, Ineluctable proved an expert at pausing for dramatic effect. I began to wonder if Endless Storm hired drama coaches for their people. She’d waited for the crowd’s reaction to die down, then added another whammy. “He was the former supervillain known as Slayer, and they have copies of his power.”
Even I knew who Slayer was. The man was a psycho active in the late seventies to early nineties, until he vanished without a trace. He wasn’t one of the top powerhouses, but he made a name for himself by going around and killing anyone with the word ‘slayer’ in their names. Including some eighties band that he killed on stage in the middle of a concert.
“You can confirm this?” Relativistic got another nod from his Truthsayer. “All I have is proof you believe it.”
“We have an Esper who can identify the closest, most famous relative of a target.” That is a bizarrely specific power. “Unless there is another set of twin Imbued, one of whom’s a shapeshifter, with the exact same MO, who have Slayer as their father? Then we are certain.”
“They are guilty,” a raspy voice spoke from the crowd. We all turned to look. The man was tall and gaunt, or at least appeared to be under the black robes. It took a moment to realize they were meant to be a judge’s robe. I wasn’t entirely sure the hideous skull-like mask was a mask, and white mist dripped from the eye sockets and other orifices.
“You called them in?!” Relativistic apparently recognized him, and was none too pleased.
I leaned over to whisper to Wiki. “Who’s that?”
“That’s Judge, he has some kind of Esper power for sensing sin. Real nasty, says he can see every sick act everyone he looks at has ever done.” And here I thought Wiki’s power was disturbing.
“I promise I had nothin’ to do with it, sir. But ah ain’t turnin’ down the help.”
Next to Judge, a redhead with a figure that would have made Bea jealous spoke up. “Turns out, your dead cop had a bit of a revenge fund. Almost a quarter mil, if she dies of unnatural causes and we bust the culprits. We plan to collect. You’re not planning to get in our way, right?”
Somehow, she managed to make everything sound sultry and flirtatious. It didn’t help that her clothes were so revealing that she should have been arrested for indecency.
“That’s Jury. She likes being mysterious. Woo.” Wiki waved his hands when he said the word. “Spec is she’s an Illusionist.” Explains why people only noticed her after they started talking. “I bet she’s really a dude.”
Wiki had a point, maybe not about being a guy, but she could be anything under an illusion.
“By collect you mean kill.” I was starting to have trouble with paying attention to the conversation and Wiki giving the exposition in the background. I think it was Relativistic who said it.
“Hey, if they’d stop resisting arrest, we’d stop killing them.” Jury smiled like she was talking about swatting mosquitoes, not hunting down other people. “But if that happened, you’d catch them and they’d never rack up bounty for us.”
Meanwhile, Wiki was still talking. “Last but not least, Executioner.” I took that to be the absurdly big man wearing a black hood and torn leggings that looked like they might be real leather hide. The axe he carried looked like it weighed least thirty pounds. “He’s stronger than he looks.” He looked like Schwarzenegger crossed with a mountain gorilla and fed nothing but steroids for ten years. “And he teleports.”
“They’re going to kill them?” Chloe sounded more confused than anything. “But isn’t that going to trip the Retributive Imbuement?”
“Not everyone accepts the anecdotal data of power transference as indicative of a causal relationship. Many Imbued hunters make a career of seeking out and killing those Imbued too powerful and dangerous to be captured or contained. The Illuminati-” Wiki smacked himself in the head hard enough that I worried he might have hurt himself. “The government frowns upon the practice, but it remains legal because of the Illuminati.”
I should take a few extra grains of salt with anything Wiki tells me. I turned my attention back to the ongoing drama up front. Quash was busy spewing his fake-accent bullshit again.
“I believe that’s the general idea. Now, ah’m partial to killin’ the psychos, but if you take ’em alive, more power to ya.” He looked around the crowd. “I want them off mah streets, at any cost.” His streets? What an arrogant twat. “My boys will keep our activities to a minimum until they’re dealt with, an’ I expect you to honor that cease far, is that clear?”
“That is absurd and you know it.” At least Relativistic called his bullshit so I didn’t have to. “The police will do their jobs as they’ve always done.” There’s fodder for an entire comedy routine in there. “If we are dealing with a pair of serial killers, then rest assured we’ll dedicate every resource to the task of bringing them to justice.”
“Good, now the rest of y’all.” His gaze, or I assume as much, did settle on me now for the first time. “This is an issue that concerns us all. If any of you have information, or can help, I would appreciate it. Even if it’s only to report anything suspicious to the police. Ah’ll have my men report everything as well, and offer that information freely to any who ask. I won’t even ask for my share of the bounty.”
Relativistic looked ready to object, but Jury spoke over him. “Well, that’s quite generous of you. Don’t mind if we accept.”
“If’n anyone else wants to step up an’ hunt these animals down, please step forward.” I almost said something out at that point. I didn’t like Quash’s tone, knowing full well he and his men called me an animal solely for my skin color. The problem was, Chloe had already started walking forward.
“Count me in.” God damn it, Chloe! In retrospect, I was an idiot for not seeing it coming.
I looked over at Wiki and Jaz. “Uh, sorry, you just wait here, okay?” I rushed after Chloe, who was just shy of marching forward.
“I can’t stand back and do nothing, I want in. Put me down as a flying brick package, front liner.”
“Absolutely, miss.” Quash sounded even more insufferably pleased with himself. He held out a card to her. “Call this number, it will give further instructions on the targets’ powers and how to coordinate with the others. A couple other Imbued approached, as well as Judge, Jury and Executioner. Up close, the three looked even more impressive in their respective ways than they had from a distance.
Jury reached out and snagged one of the cards. In the process giving everyone an even better look at her cleavage. If she was an illusionist, she was a damn good one, because other than the inhuman perfection there was no hint those were anything other than real. “Glad to see everyone’s feeling so cooperative around here. This southern hospitality is a wonderful thing.”
I couldn’t help myself, I had to say something. “So, do you often take help from supervillains? Shouldn’t you be, I dunno, trying to arrest him?”
Jury smiled up at me, her look almost predatory. “Oh, honey, if we arrested every criminal we met, we’d scare off all our informants. But let me know about any outstanding bounties, and maybe we’ll come collect later.”
“He is drenched in his sins, unrepentant.” Up close, Judge’s raspy voice felt like nails on the chalkboard of my soul. “One day, his sins shall catch up to him.”
“There you have it!” Jury tucked the card between her breasts. “Maybe we’ll be back this way later for on a job.” She offered a winning smile at Quash. “No offense, sugar, rest assured we’ll do our part now.”
“Don’t worry, my dear, it’s just business. An’ I like to think of myself as a businessman.” Despite the mask, I could imagine Quash glaring at me. I pictured his face as some horrible redneck caricature that was no doubt wrong. “But whilst we’re on the subject, you gonna be able to do your part in this, boy?”
Beside me, I heard Chloe gasp. I imagine she looked at me, but I didn’t check. Somehow, the remark didn’t upset me that much. Perhaps it was just the sheer absurdity of someone in the twenty first century using ‘boy’ as a slur. I almost wanted to chalk it up as him playing protective parent.
Still, if he thought I was going to roll over and take it, he had another thing coming. I stood just a little taller. “Better than you can, I’m certain.”
I took a step forward. “While we’re here, there’s something I’ve always wondered about people like you. Something I never could find an explanation for. It’s not the ignorance, or the racism, or the hypocrisy, or the violence.”
In the corner of my eye, I saw Relativistic take a step back. Even Quash’s own people moved away from him. The other heroes or bounty hunters were quick to follow suit. Every part of me with any sense knew I should back down, but I couldn’t. “What I don’t get is why you keep minorities down, knowing full well that it guarantees more of us get powers than you. Seems to me like you’re spitting into the wind.”
“Just goes to show how little you understand, boy.” I had to give him one thing, he managed to keep his voice level and condescending rather than hateful or enraged. If our positions were reversed, with my wife recently murdered and my daughter holding hands with enemy, I wouldn’t have been so calm. “It’s not about you. It’s about protecting our hard work for our children, rather than let you thieves take it.”
On the other hand he’s a racist sack of shit, so fuck him and his credit. “Huh.” I took a breath, adjusting my metal to amplify my voice as much as possible. I wanted everyone to hear this. “You know, a different man might go on a tirade about slavery, and how everything you have was built on the backs of my ancestors, but I’m not that man.”
Another breath, echoing through my armor. My ribs were better, but nowhere near finished healing, so I needed to be careful with my breath. “My grandfather would have a heartfelt spontaneous speech about equality and justice. It wouldn’t matter to you, but everyone else would be filled with righteous unity. But I’m not that man, either, though God knows he’s heard prayers enough that I was.” I stopped to breath; I’d pushed just a little too hard.
“You don’t sound like much of a man at all, boy.” If I wasn’t sure Quash had a voice amplifier in his costume before, I was now. When he spoke, it carried every bit as far as my own, all without him needing to put any stress on his voice. Lucky bastard.
I took one more step forward, and shifted away the parts of my armor that augmented my voice. “I’m the man who’s taking care of your daughter because she’d rather sleep in my garage than your mansion.” I wanted everyone to hear, I wanted it bad, but if I had then Chloe, myself and Quash would all have public identities by tomorrow’s papers. I could not afford to do that. “Don’t worry, she doesn’t stay in my garage. She stays in my bedroom.”
I felt Quash’s response, we all did. Now I was glad I removed the amplification, it kept the entire gathering from hearing my scream of pain. Not far behind me, I could hear the crackle of Chloe’s power.
In addition to weak gravity fields at a distance, Quash could multiply local gravity around him by roughly five times Earth normal. He was also immune to his own power, which gave him one hell of an advantage in a fight. Right now, he was only roughly doubling gravity in the area, which meant he was holding back a lot.
He’s afraid to hurt Chloe. It galled me that she was a living shield. And maybe he doesn’t think he needs full power; I am wearing a lot of metal right now. Metal which, thanks to whatever logic governed my powers, was still weightless to me. I shifted it, propping me up so I could keep standing, even as I sank into the soil under the slowly multiplying weight.
Chloe shot forward, obscuring Quash from my vision. “Stop it!” I think Quash said something, but over the crackle of Chloe’s forcefields, the only things I could hear were here and my own heavy breathing. “Or I’ll make it stop.”
By now, Quash had to be using full power. Chloe could withstand it, and even fly in it, so he had no reason to hold back. Until she runs out of power and drops. I didn’t know if she’d attack her father to protect me or not, but either outcome was bad for us. I restored the voice amplification. “Daybreak. Back off. I got this.”
I hoped the pauses, taken so I could breathe, would be dark and intimidating rather than my body’s desperate fight against forces astronauts trained months to withstand. Chloe turned to look at me, and for a second I thought she might argue, but she backed off.
I was already at work, drawing on what metal I could afford, forming a pole that extended and kept extending. Four seconds was all it took for the pole to thin itself and extend almost fifteen feet, resting well above Quash’s head. It was impossible for iron that thin to hold up under its own weight, but if my power was willing to go with it, then so was I. “Damocles. You familiar?” Please be intimidating instead of stupid.
“You do it, an’ mah organization comes down on you an’ everyone you love.” The gravity kicked up just a little bit more. Either he was still holding back, or his power responded to emotion like Chloe’s.
“Then. They die.” I meant it to sound like I was talking about his people, but I didn’t have the breath to elaborate. If he thought I didn’t care about my family, then maybe that was safest for them. The blade was already trembling, and only getting worse with time. The metal itself was weightless to me, but my own body wasn’t. In a matter of seconds I’d be forced to choose between letting Quash win the standoff, and bisecting him. I wasn’t sure which I’d pick.
“Stand down!” I couldn’t spare the strength to look at the yelling voice. “If the kid doesn’t drop you, I will!”
The gravity field faded. Somehow it hurt more returning to normal gravity than it had under the full effect. My heart slammed in my chest, and my ribs proclaimed every beat in white hot agony. I was just starting to heal and now I’m going to be bruised all over just from where I was pushing against the metal.
“Suit yurself, officer.” Quash looked off to my side, based on angle I was guessing Relativistic, but I was in no condition to look. “We’re here to offer information, not fight. I believe that’s been done.”
I took the reprieve to catch my breath and get the shaking under control. I just faced down one of the most notorious villains in the city, the personal bogeyman of everyone with a permanent tan. I started folding back my blade; my power responded despite my body being a wreck.
Quash turned his head back to me. “We’re done here. Do keep in mind that next time we meet, it will end quite differently.”
I took enough breath to force one last quip. “Agreed.”
Chloe rushed over to me, and Quash watched just a second longer than I think he wanted. If nothing else, I won that much of the battle. “Are you okay?”
“Peachy.” Oh, right, the sound amplification. I shifted that away, and started work on the harness. “Fly us out?” I paused a second. “Please?” No reason I can’t look cool and be polite, right?
She looked like she wanted to say something, but didn’t. “Sure, whenever you’re ready.” She glanced back at Quash, her father. One could have an argument over whether Quash or I won that encounter, but no matter how you looked at it Chloe lost.
I looked over at Relativistic. “Thanks for. The assist.”
“I didn’t do it for you.” The old man didn’t bother hiding his anger. “Next time you try and start a war on neutral ground, I let them kill you.”
Not quite the reaction I was hoping for. “Understood.” I took a breath. “Time for us to go.”
“Okay.” I watched the shadows cast by Chloe’s power. She tugged me off the ground, and chunks of dirt and sod fell from my feet. Locked in my armor as I was, I spared a glance at Wiki and Jaz. I know I promised we’d go back to them, but under the circumstances it was better to distance us as much as possible. Judging by how Jaz refused to so much as look in our direction, it was evident she agreed.
She was a good girl who was just protecting her brother. I, on the other hand, just put my entire family in horrible danger for stupid pride.