“How is your therapy working?” Muwth’s voice was distorted from whatever security she used to hide her calls as well as the echo that was part and parcel of speaker phones. “Do you feel better?”
What a loaded question. I ran a comb through my hair to force the water out rather than any hope of turning my mop into anything attractive. Not like I show my face in public often. I live my life as Anima, not Beth.
“I feel a little better, I guess, but that’s just the elan talking.” I hesitated for a moment, wondering if Muwth even knew what the word meant. “Nobody gets results in three days unless they’re Infiltrators.”
In the privacy of my own mind I could admit the idea of having my problems solved with the easy button was tempting, but not tempting enough to put my mind at risk of being enslaved to the kind of asshole whose inner nature would strip others of their free will.
“Tell me, are you still certain about revealing White Lady as Anima? There hasn’t been any more attacks, and today might be your last chance to back out.”
My last chance? “You picked up something big, didn’t you?” I knew it was a stupid question, so I didn’t wait for an answer. “How many people die if I don’t get involved?”
“It’s impossible to say,” Muwth answered. “Anywhere between two and twenty, maybe. The numbers are confusing enough that I suspect there are at least two other Espers involved, to say nothing of changes that come from interfering by talking to you. Precog’s never been an exact science, but to quote Erasmus: in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
Through the filters, I imagined the weight of the world on her little-girl-shoulders. I knew she was old, perhaps approaching centenarian status, and those years could not have been kind to her. They counted me in the top hundred most powerful Imbued on the continent, but Muwth was perhaps the single most powerful precog on the planet. I must take care to remember I’m not the only one who’s suffered for her abilities.
“If I back out now, I betray everything I ever claimed to value.” I’d disappoint my friends, perhaps put some of them at risk, and people would die because I did nothing.
“Ah, the melodrama of youth,” Muwth said. “If you’re not ready, we can call in another anonymous report. Whatever these ongoing threats happen to be, an increased police presence has always been enough to drive them off before.”
She’s right, I’m acting stupid. “But then they’ll go somewhere else and try again and again until it works, like I know they’ve been doing. I’ve been keeping up on the news, and while everyone’s terrified to say it out loud, we’re in the middle of a gang war that could cost hundreds of lives before it’s over. I’ve been telling myself the guerrilla tactics we’re using is enough. But it’s not, is it? Nobody’s powerful enough to stop it, except Anima.”
“I doubt you are powerful enough to enact martial law on a city this size, even with my help.” There was a brief pause in on the line, while I went about getting ready and Muwth gathered her thoughts. “You were content to stay in the shadows before. Why do you feel like it’s a betrayal if you do nothing now?”
Is she asking me my motivation, or is she asking if I’m going to drag her out with me? We are dependent upon her continued support to prevent crimes.
“It’s not as big a leap as it looks at first; we’re fooling nobody who has official connections in the first place.” I hoped that would mollify her. “But I’m responsible for this war. A war my friends have devoted everything they have to fighting, Kitten’s legacy to the city. I could have stopped it before it began. She’d be dead and none of this would be happening. All the death and suffering” what she did to Zach and Cassie “I have to answer for what I failed to do.”
“Redemption, then,” Muwth said. “If you could go back, knowing what you now know. Would you kill Kitten? Could you?”
“She believed I had the power.” As odd as it felt to trust the psychopath’s word, I had no other measure to go by. The second half of the question was impossible to know. “I think following through is a matter of picking the proper summon.”
Even to Muwth, I couldn’t admit that some of the monsters in the deepest pits of my soul would not obey my commands. The Wild Hunt being worst of them; they might count as an ‘ironic’ death for Kitten, given her crimes. Then there was Ymir, Phoenix and Ichneumon, all of whom would inflict their own special brands of sadism without any bidding on my part.
“I doubt it would have saved many lives, either way,” Muwth said. “Breaking the effective monopoly held by Los Fieles may even save innocent lives in the long run.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that I could have made a difference, and I chose to do nothing.” I went about finishing getting dressed in the following silence. Muwth’s soft warnings were more appreciated than she knew, but I would not allow myself to deviate from the course; backing down now meant throwing away the progress I was working toward. “Are you going to stop me? We all know you can; your role is more important than mine.”
We landed on the roof of an apartment complex two blocks from the target. “Wyvern, you are dismissed.”
The creature vanished, which released Zach’s head from its mouth. He fell on his behind, followed by copying to his feet. I suppressed a giggle at his expense. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it doesn’t like me.”
“It doesn’t like anyone except me.” It’s a monster, like all my summons. “You sure you don’t want to ride with the Valkyrie?”
He looked over at me, smiling as he pulled his face mask back down. “Rule three of being a badass: if you get a chance to ride a real dragon, you ride the dragon. Same rule for nuclear bombs and polar bears. Goes triple if you get a chance to be photographed. Right, G-L?”
“You have some strange pet names for your boyfriends.” Glen’s monotone, omnipresent rumble coupled with the wyvern scene earlier made the joke funnier than it should have been; I began laughing.
Zach bowed his head while turning to face away from us. “Goodbye, moment of self esteem, I hardly knew ye.” He hopped over the safety barricade on the roof.
My heart jumped into my throat, until my conscious brain reminded my reflexes of Zach’s functional immortality. Around the same moment, a momentary burst of pain reminded me that he was still carrying an imp, which he landed on. “Son of a!” I brought the hand which was reaching out toward Zach up to my forehead. Yet another thing I hate about my power. “I wish he’d stop killing himself for comedy.”
“He doesn’t do it as much as you’d think he does,” Glen said. “Most of the time, his power’s about to go off whether he wants it to or not. But I’m sure if you told him how much it bothers you, he’d quit. Or at least give you a warning ahead of time.”
That’s right, Laura told me they spent a lot of time in hospitals because of him. “No, let him have his fun.”
“I should go scouting as well.” The subtle ‘friction’ of Genius Loci’s power on mine faded, leaving me alone with my thoughts and the senses of my imp.
“Familiar, be my eyes.” I bolstered the imp’s senses, taking it from somewhat inferior to human senses that rivaled all but a few creatures in the animal kingdom. Zach’s breathing and heartbeat overwhelmed my senses, along with sharp scents that included Zach, but were more the environment around him. The boosted sense of smell did not include understanding of what it was telling me; an oversight of my power gave me an array of scents that no human nose could detect, but didn’t tell me what they meant.
I could feel the low wheezing of Zach struggling to breathe while he ran through the side streets in the general vicinity of our target. It was perhaps impossible to understand why the Muwth-Respawn interaction was so accurate and inaccurate all at once, and I wasn’t about to delve into the headache that was time travel physics. Instead, I kept my attention on Zach as his breathing caught, which tripped off his power.
My imp flitted back into position on the back of his costume, now listening to a calm heartbeat and stronger, but still unhealthy, breathing. Glen hears this all the time, doesn’t he? More, since his hearing must be superior to my imp, or indeed any of my summons.
My imp felt something on its hypersensitive skin a heartbeat before Zach screamed out in surprise and stumbled into a wall. “Whad’ya know, sis, your power does work on him.”
The voice was ambiguous, but my imp got a look at him. His costume was generic, like a burglar in a ski mask and black jumpsuit than a professional costume. His ‘sis’ stood next to him, in a similar black outfit. The only difference between the two, aside figures, was that his costume had deep crimson gloves, boots, and goggles while hers were yellow.
Zach slammed his head off the brick wall, prompting a duplication. “Okay, not gonna lie, that was a cheap shot.” While he ran his mouth, I had the imp fly up and latch on to a wall. “So, you guys with the violent racist gang, or the violent racist gang with slightly darker skin?”
Zach crumpled to the ground in a shower of yellow sparkles. “Not how it works, pretty boy,” the girl said. “The winner talks shit. The loser eats it.”
“Honestly, sis, keep this up and people are gonna get the idea that we’re antisocial.”
Through the imp, I listened to Zach’s breathing get worse by the second under the strange electricity that was the girl’s power. He’s trying to make himself hyperventilate. It was a clever trick, but I made it easier. The imp, invisible to all eyes but my own, jumped on Zach’s shoulder with its claws extended.
Zach pulled his knife, gripping it by the blade. “Aight, that’s a cute trick, but now I know how to beat it.” Another burst of electrical sparks followed by a new copy proved he was right. “Your boyfriend as useless as you?
The man took a step forward. “You’re… goading us, aren’t you? You want me to use my power on you, so you can figure out how it works. Damn, dude, that’s kinda metal. But easy to beat, I ain’t gonna do shit to you. Sis, keep lightin’ him up. He’ll run out of juice faster than you will.”
“When this mission’s over, I’m kicking your ass for acting like you’re in charge.” Another burst of lightning saw Zach copy again, and again, and again until the street was bright as daylight from the particles released by his power.
I should do something. I know I promised to wait, but he’s being overwhelmed. “Valkyrie, go forth and retrieve the fallen warrior.” The pegasus and rider took flight moving faster than any natural horse could.
The light show ended with a hideous Imbued landing on the girl. It froze, paralyzed in the same lightning storm which had paralyzed Zach. Arana? Oh Christ, that’s one of the nasty ones. In his own way, he was as bad, perhaps worse, than Kitten, a true monster who delighted in his horrifying appearance.
The man reached out, grabbed Arana by two of his fanglike tusks and with a twist, brought him off the girl and down on his back. “Get your hands off her, freak!” He slammed Arana’s head into the asphalt while he couldn’t resist. “Die!” Another yank and slam resulted in a sickening crunch of the monster’s skull.
Zach slammed into the man’s side, taking him off Arana and brought both of them to the ground. Zach recovered on his feet and turned to kick the guy, only to get himself caught by the girl’s electricity again.
The guy scrambled to his feet, then turned to face Zach. “Okay, what the fuck were you saying about cheap shots?” He slugged Zach as hard as he could, which generated a new copy while the old sailed almost half a block through the air before it finished breaking down into particles. “Shit!”
A spear of light came from nowhere, piercing the man’s leg. He fell into a tangle with the still stunned Zach, while the girl scrambled for cover. “Puto!”
Lanza’s here, too? The hell did we stumble across?
Valkyrie chose now to land in front of Zach. Following orders, she jumped to the ground while the armored pegasus took position to guard Zach, and by happenstance the wounded supervillain.
For the first time, Lanza tested his power against mine, and mine was found lacking. The pegasus was pierced through the side without much resistance, while I bit down to keep from screaming; if someone heard me, I didn’t know if I could protect myself and provide backup for Zach.
The horse broke down into white mist, but it did block Lanza’s attack long enough for Zach to get his bearings. He rushed straight for Lanza.
“Valkyrie, know my will. Apprehend the woman in black and yellow.” It obeyed my command, running after the girl. A few electrical attacks were sent its way, but my summons didn’t have a nervous system to be attacked.
Meanwhile, Zach got to range of Lanza, who took a defensive stance with his weapon at the ready. “You think you can survive my spear?”
“So I gotta ask: how tiny is your dick?” Zach did try to evade Lanza’s sweeping attack, though he never stood much chance. He replicated while Lanza took a step back, safely away from Zach’s range. “No, seriously, your power screams overcompensation.”
“Meaningless words.” Lanza took another step away from Zach, still keeping his spear in guard position.
“One of those ‘real men talk with their fists’ things, huh?” Zach rushed forward, but this time when Lanza went to swing his spear, it vanished from his fingertips. I think Zach tried to use his power to teleport the weapon, but it never reappeared. Caught off guard, Lanza couldn’t get his hands up to block in time to stop Zach from punching him square in the jaw, nor the follow up jab with his other hand.
After taking a third punch, the spear reappeared in Lanza’s hand. He tried to attack with it, but Zach blocked with his fingertips, and the spear vanished the moment contact was made. Lanza was left off-balance, which gave Zach a perfect angle to punch at a downward angle, slamming Lanza face first into the road.
Zach took a step forward so that he was above the beaten and, if my imp’s senses were anything to go by, unconscious supervillain. “Let me translate that from fist to English: you suck. It’s like you got powers and thought that was enough, that you didn’t need to bother learning how to fight.”
A green mist rose from the road around their feet. Zach took a step back, but the effect wasn’t centered on him. When it faded away moments later, Lanza had vanished. Whether rescued by friends or captured by the enemy, we had no way of knowing.