Stopgap 4.5

This chapter will be merged with the previous one once the next update is up.


The first surprise is that they don’t look like her. They don’t all look like her, at least. One of them does, pale and translucent but otherwise… human. Others, though, not so much. One is a vague swirl of colours in the vague shape of a person, shifting and changing in the light. Another is almost like an abstract painting; all her features are somehow visible at the same time, from every angle. Another still is a caricature, all exaggerated, bold lines, and while they’re solid, they don’t quite line up with the surrounding geometry in the right way.

Those are all bizarre, but manageable. Harder to deal with are the others that, she realises after a moment, are actually like her after all. The reason she didn’t recognise that at first is that they still bear the wounds that presumably killed them. But not simple gunshot wounds like her, oh no. A man talks through a mouth that start disintegrating halfway along its length, along with the rest of his face and most of his body. Another woman smokes a spectral cigarette, and the smoke curls out of the holes in her cheeks. And in the back of her head, and through one eye. Her entire body is riddled with holes, like a cartoon character who’s been shot, but the sprays of blood and bone that hang, frozen, just beyond the exit wounds dispel any illusion of farce. One is halfway through the process of being burned alive, skin charred and blackened, eyes leaking down their face.

Not for the first time, Sorayah wishes she still had the ability to vomit.

After a moment, the group notices her. The abstract one, to be precise. “Hey!” they say, in a voice that somehow perfectly matches their appearance. It shifts through multiple pitches and tones and timbres within just that word, as if it’s… she knows there’s a better word, but all she can think of is “crowd-sourced”. “Haven’t seen you around before!”

The rest of the group turn to look at her, and she feels like she’s going to burn away under the gazes. They’re not even hostile, not all of them, it’s just too much, in a way she hasn’t really felt since… recent life changes. She squeezes her eyes closed, and leans over so that her head is inside the cliff. It’s instantly better, the rock cool against her skin despite the fact that she doesn’t have any, the noise muted despite… actually, she isn’t certain if that makes sense or not. Either way, it’s better. “Yes, sorry,” she replies, her voice echoing oddly. “I’m, um… I’m… new? I don’t know what the terminology is.”

“How new?” demands another voice. “How did you find this place?”

“Relax, Holt,” the multi-layered voice replies easily. “No need to be aggressive. I think we can assume they were given directions. That, or they’re looking for a spot to get high.”

“She,” Sorayah clarify, still from inside the wall. “And, the second one. I was given directions, I mean. There was a… skeleton? Ghost? In a suit?”

The group give a collective groan. “Of fucking course it was,” Holt spits.

“O-oh,” Sorayah stammers, caught off-guard. “Are they… not… liked? Or…”

“Nah,” a different voice drawls in a distinct American accent, “Vachon is just, uh.”

“Complicated,” the multi-layered voice finishes. “Not something you need to worry about. You okay there, though?”

“…yeah,” she replies slowly, and is surprised to find that it’s true. “Yeah, I’m alright.” Tentatively, she floats back out of the wall and into view. A few of the group are still looking at her, but most have returned to whatever conversation they were having before.

Unfortunately, Holt isn’t one of them. “Gross,” they say. They turn out to be the abstract one, looking at her with an exaggerated expression of disgust. “Yet another one.”

“Another-” Sorayah starts, but the multi-colour ghost gets their first. They raise their free hand, and slap Holt upside the head.

“Asshole,” they say, but there’s no menace in it. “It’s obviously not deliberate.”

“Er…” Sorayah ask tentatively. “What’s not? Deliberate, I mean.” They tap their chest, then flick the fingers forward at her. She looks down at her chest, but doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “Your cod.”

“…my what?” What do fish have to do with anything?

“Cause of death,” Holt snaps. “C-O-D. God, honestly.”

“Holt,” the American woman says, “shut your g-damn trap, okay?” She hasn’t spoken since Sorayah returned, but now that she does, it’s easy to match up the voice to the woman with holes through her head. “COD’s a shorthand,” she says to Sorayah, “but it kinda sucks. I like mortifacient, personally.”

What Holt was referring to,” the multi-coloured one cuts back in, “was something of a… cultural divide, I suppose?”

“It’s not a f-king cultural divide!” Holt jumps in. “It’s just f-king basic decency, and-”

The American woman punches them in the mouth, and they go staggering backwards.

“Look,” the multi-coloured ghost sighs, “I’m really sorry about him. It’s probably easier if you just head inside, yeah?” They thumb over their shoulder, at a small nook in the rock wall. “I think things will be fairly self-evident from there.”

“…okay, yeah. Thank you.” She begins to float towards where they gestured. “Oh, um. I’m Sorayah, by the way.” She goes to stick her hand out, but then realises and jerks it back.

Somehow, they give the impression of a smile. “Inge. Nice to meet you.”

The American woman looks up from where they’re holding Holt in a headlock. “Rose. Charmed.”

—–

“That’s them over there, actually.” Sorayah pointed over to another corner of the bar, where the two other ghosts were sharing a drink with what looked like a re-animated corpse. Inge noticed her, and gave a small wave. “They’re nice.”

“What are we,” Kath grumbles, “chopped liver?”

—-

“Inside” turns out to be… dark, for one. Sorayah’s eyes take a moment to adjust, and she barely even has a panic attack over the fact that they still need to despite not actually having real, physical pupils. Once they have, they reveal a medium-sized room, with low ceilings and plentiful support beams. Tables are interspersed between the latter, and small booths line the walls. At the back of the room is an unassuming bar, staffed by two people in server’s clothing, and above it hangs a sign that says “Second Constance”.

There’s also a heaviness to the room; she can sense it, somehow. A solidity that feels strangely familiar, almost… homely? Tentatively, she reaches out to touch the nearest support beam, and, sure enough, finds herself resting a hand against smooth, dark wood.

—–

“Just to be clear,” June asked, “it’s this ghost bar, right? Not a different ghost bar.” She paused. “…that is also named First Constant, I guess.”

Sorayah gave a soft laugh. “It’s this one, yeah.”

“Oh good.” She tipped her bottle back and drained the rest of her mostly-full drink in one go. “Cause after Kath’s story,” she continued, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, “I’m on edge for that shit.”

Kath shrugged. “Fair.”

“Also, though, I thought I felt some funny shit on the way in. Do you reckon they’d let me have a look? When I’m less sloshed, I mean.”

“I, ah, I really couldn’t say.”

“Bet they won’t,” June said sourly. “Everybody’s always ‘ooh, our security, our special super-secret formulas. Everybody’s doing the same goddamn thing these days! It’s all fucking Grantchester! You’re not special just because-”

It was Kath’s turn to restrain June as she began to half-rise from her seat, volume increasing steadily. She’d attracted a few looks from the other customers, which she met belligerently.

“I’m just saying,” she grumbled as she sat back down, her righteous fury deflating. “It’d be nice.”

—–

The clientele inside the bar turn out to be just as diverse as the ones outside. More so, in fact; while the outside area seemed to be a mainly spectral group, at least at the moment, inside is another story. There are a few more ghosts, sure, but there’s also… well, everything. Everything Sorayah’s ever heard of, anyway. Vampire (she thinks, but maybe they’re just a goth albino), check. Werewolf, check. Various different types of zooeys, check. A… actually, she has no idea what that is, but it certainly looks interesting.

A few looks start to turn her way, and she realises that she’s been standing awkwardly in the doorway for over a minute now. Hastily, avoiding eye contact, she descends onto the main floor, weaving awkwardly between tables and pillars towards the bar. She’s out of practice at actually interacting with physical objects, though, so she ends up leaving a trail of bumped elbows and annoyed glares in her wake.

“Um,” she says, arriving at the bar. There are two staff working behind it; a female ghost, and what appears to be a living man. “Hello. Hi. Um, how do you order… a… drink?”

“Kind of like that,” the male bartender chuckles, “but with more nouns. What can I get you?”

“Um.” Panic actually helps her for once, forcing the words out before she can second-guess herself. “Shirley Temple?” A moment after the words leave her mouth, of course, she immediately realises that she doesn’t even know if she can drink anything, and how’s she going to pay for it anyway, and-

He grins, and grabs a few bottles and glasses. “Sure thing.”

“Alright,” the other bartender says as he begins to mix and pour, “I’m out. Have fun, Ray.”

“Yeah, you too.”

She floats out from behind the bar, tossing the towel back onto the bench. She stretches, and as she does, her form comes apart, motes of light scattering like dust in the wind. Sorayah gasps in shock, but the dust doesn’t blow away; it slows, then comes to a stop, hanging in the air for a brief moment, before swirling back together into the woman’s body. Only now, instead of being dressed like a bartender, she’s wearing casual clothes and a jacket, with her hair down. And instead of looking normal, the left side of her head is halfway through the process of being blown apart by a bullet, fragments of bone and muscle frozen in the air.

As Sorayah gapes, the woman notices and groans, then waves a hand over the area. It comes apart again, then reforms, this time looking uninjured like before. She rolls her eyes, then notices Sorayah staring.

“Take a photo,” she says dryly, “it’ll last longer.”

Sorayah flushes. “N-no,” she stammers, burning up, “I w-wasn’t- I d-don’t- I’ve just never-”

The other woman relaxes a little. “Oh, sorry, mate. New?”

She glances away. “…really wish it wasn’t that obvious.”

“Trust me,” the bartender replies with a grin, “it really is. Everyone gets it, though. It’s a big adjustment.

“…that’s putting it mildly,” she replies, surprising herself. “H-how did you do that, though?”

“Which part?”

“Um. All of it?”

She laughs. “Damn, you really are- …okay, yeah, I see what you mean. Anyway, it’s pretty simple…”

—–

“So it’s just…” June waved her hands incoherently around her head. “Zippity, zoppity, whatever? As easy as that?”

Sorayah chuckled awkwardly. “It’s, ah, a little bit more complicated than that? Mmm… here.” She squeezed her eyes closed, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, and waved a hand over her head. In fits and starts, the whole area blurred, becoming obscured, before snapping back into clarity. The style hadn’t changed at all, but now the tips of her hair were a deep sea blue.

Kath whooped loudly, applauding, while June raised an eyebrow. “Damn,” she said. “Wish I could do that.” She considered it for a moment. “Probably not worth it, huh?”

“Ah, heh. Yeah.”

Kath paused in the middle of her fist-pumping. “Uh, Ray Romano? You’ve got a bit of a… situation.”

“Hm?” She glanced down, to see the bloodstain spreading across her shirt. “Ah, darn,” she swore, before scrunching her eyes closed again and repeating the process on her chest.

“Sooo,” June said, as the shirt resumed its unbloodied state, “lemme guess. Your, like, ‘default state’ is always gonna be how you looked when you, grkk,” she stuck out her tongue and made a face. “But you can change that through effort, but the actual wound that killed you- sorry, malfactor, is, like, stronger or whatever? So unless you’re specifically concentrating on hiding it, it’s gonna come back first.” She bit her lip, thinking. “…that made sense, right?”

“…actually, yeah. That’s pretty much exactly right, well done.”

June held up a hand, and Kath high-fived it, entirely too hard.

“So,” she asked, as June cradled her hand and tried not to whimper, “how much can you change? Could you change into an animal? How about a chair?” She gasped dramatically. “Could you change into me?”

“Kath,” June said tiredly. “Don’t be such a complete asshole all of the… time…” She trailed off, glancing across the table to where a slightly translucent copy of her was now sitting, imitating her movements and echoing her words.

“…that’s gonna get really annoying,” she said sourly, and the double imitated her perfectly.

Kath laughed so hard that she began to choke.

Continue reading “Stopgap 4.5”

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Stopgap 4

THIS IS THE FIRST HALF OF THE CHAPTER. THE REST WILL GO UP SOON

—–

How Sorayah Changed Her Clothes.

Sorayah Khan has gotten into the habit of wandering at night.

It’s not like she needs to sleep anymore, not really. She… can? Kind of? It doesn’t feel exactly the same as sleeping when she was alive, but then again, nothing else does either, so she isn’t sure if that’s really indicative. Either way, it became fairly obvious quite quickly that it isn’t necessary the same way that it used to be.

Frankly, it’s a little terrifying to her, and she tries to avoid thinking about it. It does mean that she suddenly has a lot of free time on her hands, and not a lot to do with it. She can’t use computers anymore, for example; her hands just pass straight through, and apparently there’s some kind of reaction with the internal systems, because Kath’s laptop started smoking and spitting sparks almost immediately afterwards, and when they’d opened it up, it had looked like a silicon barbecue. Seeing as her job involved working with computers, it had been… frustrating.

Books are also out. She can watch TV but can’t change the channel. She can’t run because she doesn’t have a body, she can’t exercise because she doesn’t have a body, and it’s caused her more than few meltdowns, tucked away inside a wall so that no-one can hear.

Kath and June try to help, of course. Flipping pages or changing channels or acting as her hands. But they’re both busy, busy and distracted, and even if they were willing to pull all-nighters for her she wouldn’t ask them to. They’ve already done enough for her, she figures.

So, she wanders. At first, she would just float up to the top of the building, and watch the lights of the cars go by. Soothing, but not exactly engaging.

Once she finally managed to force herself beyond the confines of the building, things were a little better. The Parklands are only a few minutes’ walk- a few minutes’ float away, and although there’s people sneaking around, dealing drugs and having furtive sex, it’s peaceful. Until she unconsciously tries to run her fingers through the leaves or feel the soil underneath her bare feet, and the illusion of normalcy breaks down.

So she goes further, down the hills and into the city, where people buzz like ants and the lights flicker and spark and it’s too much for her almost always but there’s always a convenient wall to hide inside. She likes watching the people go by, observing their faces, but things tend to go downhill when they notice her. Mostly just glares or fearful increases in speed, but she’s used to those. The frequency and intensity, not so much. She learns pretty quickly to stay close to walls, and out of the flow of foot traffic, but in those busier places the walls and shopfronts are all warded, so she eventually gives up on them entirely; it’s just not worth it.

The Valley is noisier and shadier, but less well-warded. Try as she might, though, the latter isn’t enough to make up for the former, and after her third time being chased off by yelled obscenities and a rain of empty bottles, she’s just about ready to give up, and go back to…

Well.

After waiting behind the trash can for a few minutes more, just to be safe, she tentatively floats up to the edge of the alleyway and pokes her head out, checking if-

“Hey!” an unfamiliar voice snaps at her. She’s so surprised that she actually goes white as a sheet. “Get away from there!” the voice continues irritably. “Honestly. It’s like you don’t know anything.”

She’s shocked enough that she just obeys, darting back and away from the corner. A little too quickly, as it turns out, because she runs straight into something behind her, nearly knocking them both to the ground.

“O-oh gosh, I’m so…” she trails off, the reality of the situation catching up to her.

“Watch your step, asshole,” the other ghost says. They’re taller than Sorayah, but significantly more translucent, and are dressed in a suit and coattails that look a hundred years old.

They’re also a skeleton.

“I’m-” she stammers desperately. “I’m sorry, I’m just-”

The skeleton sighs. “Trust me, I’ve heard it before. Don’t fucking hang around here, kid. You’ll get worse than bottles thrown at you, and I don’t know if you’ve figured it out yet, but you can very much still get hurt.”

“…oh,” she says slowly. She’d been planning to anyway, but somehow hearing it from someone else stings a little more. “…okay, yeah.”

She’s apparently not hard to read, because they sigh again. “You’re really fresh, huh?” they ask.  She frowns, which is answer enough. “Yeah. Listen, there’s a… hm. Okay, I’m busy, and also lazy, so fuck off so I don’t have to deal with you, but also…” They seem reluctant, but continue anyway. “Queen’s Wharf. Look for the sign. And don’t go there on a full moon.”

Before she can even begin to ask for clarification, they float backwards into the wall. The warded wall. “And for god’s sake,” they add as they disappear, “don’t ask about the dog.

—–

Kath slammed her hand on the table. “I’m gonna ask about the dog,” she declared, rising from her seat.

Without looking away, June grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back down into the seat.

—–

It takes Sorayah a few nights to work up the courage to follow the strange directions, but once she does, it turns out to be more difficult than she’d imagined. Queen’s Wharf isn’t really so much an address as an area; it covers a significant chunk of the riverbank in the city centre, and goes from being barely above the water to being perched on top of steep hills and concrete pylons; shifting from colonial architecture to modern steel and glass along the same axis, with plenty of amalgams along the way. Cars rush by on the elevated highway above the river, creating a stream of lights and wind that’s almost hypnotic as it passes by, and bounces off the dark, calm waters of the river below. The streets and paths buzz with people of all kinds, over-dressed for the mild Brisbane spring. It’s not a comfortable environment for her, but having a goal rather than wandering helps somewhat. She spends quite a bit of time just wandering around, going in loops, looking for the “signs” the other ghost had mentioned. There are a lot of physical signs around, but somehow she doesn’t think that they were being quite so literal.

Eventually, though, on her third loop around the area, something catches her eye. At the top of the hill, near the bridge over to Southbank, a railing glints oddly in the light. She almost misses it, except for the fact that it isn’t in the light. The entire area is, not shrouded in shadow exactly, but only illuminated by the ambient lights, and not in the path of the passing headlights. She floats over to investigate, barely noticing as a truck blasts its horn at her and shoots straight through her.

As she gets close, it resolves itself into a small symbol, painted onto the tarnished metal. It looks like a rounded triangle, with curved thorns coming out of the points. Two of the lines are thicker than the other, forming an arrow that points…

Towards a set of stairs.

She starts to get the picture.

The symbols keeps reappearing as she follows them, down the stairs and across a bike path, and then along the street for a little while until she reaches a maintenance ladder, and then down onto the banks of the river.

It’s dark, and strangely quiet; the thick concrete mutes the noises of the cars, and the sloshing of the water is gentle and soothing. Wiry plants grow around and between the thick supporting pillars, dark brown twists with only occasional spots of green. It feels… liminal, she decides; as if she’s in the backend of the real world. Even if the whole affair ends up being fruitless, it will have been worth it to find this spot.

And fruitless it might just be. She can’t find another instance of the symbol, no matter how hard she looks. Was this what the skeleton was talking about? She doesn’t think so, but she’d been wrong before.

Like before, though, something in the distance catches her attention. Not a symbol, but a faint glow, coming from just beyond a slight outcropping in the cliff face. And now that she’s paying attention, she can also hear the faintest sound of voices. Multiple voices.

Multiple voices that turn out, when she rounds the corner, to all belong to other ghosts.

Continue reading “Stopgap 4”

Stopgap 3

How Kath Burned Her Hair Off

This probably isn’t how it happens.

“Well, boys,” Kath Jones drawls, thumbing the brim of a non-existent hat, “looks like we got ourselves a regular Italian standoff.” Her other hand points at the left-ward one of the two men in front of her, index and middle fingers extended, thumb raised, pinky and ring fingers closed against the palm.

The men are pointing very real handguns at her.

They’re both wearing nondescript clothing in dark colours. Both are white, but one has a healthy glow to his skin, while the other is unhealthily pale.

“…do you mean a Mexican standoff?” one of them asks, the pale one. His voice is reedy and thin.

“No, dude,” Kath protested, “Italian standoff! You know, two slash three slash four slash whatever people, and they’ve all got guns or whatever, and they’re pointing them at each other but they can’t fire cause then the others will fire?”

“…yeah,” the other replies, “that’s a Mexican standoff.”

“We-ell,” Kath says, a smug grin creeping across her face, “if it’s not an Italian standoff, then why are they called spaghetti westerns? Checkmate, atheists!”

“…I’m… Catholic?” the pale one says slowly, before his colleague punches him in the arm.

“It’s a fucking internet thing,” he snaps. “Lady, where the fuck did you even come from?”

Kath grins. “Well, when two people love each other very much…” His eyes narrow, but she doesn’t seem to notice. “Okay, that’s not technically true. More like, when two people have an unhealthy mutually codependent semi-abusive relationship very much… but that isn’t as snappy!”

The pale one looks like his brain is about to overheat. “Bu- you- I don’t-”

“Alright,” the tanned one snaps, “I’m fucking done with this crap. Let’s just shoot her and-“

The ‘hammer’ of Kath’s finger-gun snaps downward, and with a pop, a large shower of sparks shoots from the ends of her fingers. The men yell, flinching backwards, and their shots go wide, sparking off of the walls. They recover quickly, but she’s already in between them, whacking the tanned one’s gun aside with a flailing forearm and shoving the other backwards. She’s not quick, exactly, and she’s far from precise, but there’s a frantic, frenetic energy to the way she moves that seems to make up for both. The guns come up again, but she throws herself to the ground, and the two only just realise they’re pointing their weapons at each other in time. Their aborted shots ping off of the ceiling this time, and then the pale one lets out a shocked yelp as Kath rolls across the ground and knocks his legs out from underneath him with her body. He hits the ground nose-first, and there’s a crunch, followed by muffled screaming.

“You fucking-!” the tanned one yells, bringing his gun around to point it at Kath as she rolls up into a crouch, but her hand flicks out, sending a blur of grey shooting through the air. It impacts with the gun as he brings it around, and they both bounce off each other as if made of rubber. The one in his hand impacts him in the face, but there’s no bounce to this impact, just the heavy thunk of metal impacting flesh. His head goes flying backwards, blood spraying into the air, and as he falls Kath spins around towards the other one, a small bottle in her hand.

“What-” the pale man begins to say, but she gets there first.

“Paste-Pot!” she yells, squeezing the bottle and sending a stream of thick white paste at him. He splutters as it lands in his mouth, closing his eyes to protect them, and then Kath bicycles kicks him in the chin and he-

—–

“Bulllll-shit,” June called, pointing her beer bottle at Kath. Her cheeks were slightly rosy, and her voice had acquired the loose quality of the happy drunk. “I’ve seen you try that fucking kick and every single time you end up spraining your groin.”

“Don’t interrupt my fun story with inconvenient truths, Gal Gore!”

—–

-and then Kath manages to flail her foot into his chin and he goes down like a sack of bricks.

She stands over the two limp bodies, panting heavily, and then wipes a bit of spittle from her chin. “Now,” she says in a comically gravelly voice, pulling out a piece of paper out of a pocket, “tell me everything you know about- this!”

“…I can’t see,” the thug moaned, trying to peel his hands away from his face. “…is this Krazy Glue?”

“Answer the question, punk!”

—–

“Anyway,” Kath continued, taking a sip of her beer, “turns out they didn’t know anything about the cat.”

“Because they were standing guard for a major illegal gun deal?” June asked.

“Because they were standing guard for a major illegal gun deal,” she confirmed. “…I think.”

“What do you mean, you think?!”

—–

The man in the dark suit opens the briefcase slowly, and pulls out a dark, chunky machine gun. He gives an appreciative whistle as he turns it over, and raises an eyebrow at the man opposite him. “You weren’t kidding.”

The other man, much more shabbily-dressed, bares a crooked, yellow grin. “Y’doubting me now, heh? I always come through.”

The man in the suit grunts appreciatively, taking hold of the gun’s handle and swinging it up into a ready position. The shabby man’s cohort react with alarm, drawing handguns and knives, which causes the other man’s escort to do the same, until the whole alleyway is filled with the echoes of clicking slides and shifting grips.

The man in the suit chuckles, lowering the gun slightly. “Jumpy, huh?” he asks.

The shabby man smiles, but there’s no humor in it. There is, however, some spinach. “Jest a precaution. You know.”

The man in the suit nods with a smirk, and waves a hand. Slowly, his men lower their weapons, and a moment later, the other group does the same. “The rest?” he asks, as one of his subordinates approaches, a briefcase handcuffed to her wrist.

The shabby man spits to one side, and as if it was a signal, his group parts, to reveal a large crate on a rolling trolley. “As agreed-” he begins to see.

“Kiiii-ttttyyy!” a crooning cry interrupts him.
The entire group spins, weapons snapping upwards again, as Kath bursts out of a doorway further up the alleyway, skidding and bouncing off the opposite wall.

“Have any of you seen a cat?” she demands, seemingly unafraid of the wall of firearms. “About this big, black and white?”

“Miss,” the man in the suit sayscalmly. “You should leave.”

“Might respond to,” she continues unabated, pulling a crumpled sheet of paper from somewhere, “…Concrete?! Who calls their cat concrete?”

In response, a soft mroww echoes out from a dumpster, about halfway between her and the group.

“Kitty!” She sprints forward, causing muffled grunts of alarm from the groups, and drops into a baseball slide, coming to a stop just in front of the dumpster. “Here, kitty kitty kitty,” she croons softly, reaching out one hand towards the cat in question, which shies back with a hiss.

“Who the fuck are you?” one of the men demands.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kath grunts, straining to reach further underneath the dumpster. “Kiiiittttyyyyyyy! Come on, I’m a friend.”

The cat hisses again, more intensely this time, and swipes at her hand, but she pulls it back just in time.

“Well, shoot,” she says. “Any of youse have any fish? Do cats like fish?”

“We have guns,” the shabby man spits.

“Mm,” she hemms, “I don’t think cats like guns, no.” She sighs. “Okay, fine.” She reaches down her shirt and pulls out a can of tuna.

—–

“For snacks,” she added, as if that explained anything.

—–

As the group watches, she fumbles with the pop-lid on the tin for a moment, then slides the newly opened can back underneath the dumpster. “Come on,” she mutters, as Concrete begins to cautiously sniff at it. “Come onnnnnnn…” In a flash, she dives forward, arms reaching out. “Gotcha!” she yells triumphantly. “OW!” she yells immediately afterwards. “You little-!”

There’s a yowl of protest, and the sound of claws scratching against metal, and then she topples backwards, clutching a writhing mass of black-and-white fur in her arms. “Success!” she yells, shooting to her feet and holding Concrete above her.

The moment is marred slightly by the cat’s yowling and scratching, but Kath doesn’t seem particularly concerned.

“If this is some sort of play-” the man in the suit begins to say, but the shabby man cuts him off with a snarl.

“It isn’t.”

“So,” Kath says slowly, “not particularly impressed with my cat rescue, huh?”

The two men look at each, then raise their weapons, and-

—–

“And then?” June demanded, leaning forward in her seat.

“Yeah!” Sorayah seconded. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, and she was holding a half-empty translucent bottle, filled with a glowing liquid. “How did you get out?!”

Kath grinned, steeping her fingers in front of her. “We-ell…”

—–

“Look!” Kath yells, pointing up at one of the rooftops. “Tony Fitzgerald!”

They spin to look. Not for long, barely a moment, but once they realise there’s nothing there and turn back, there’s just a brightly-coloured blur disappearing around the corner, and the echo of yowling.

—–

“So then,” she finished, downing the rest of her beer, “they chased me a bunch, so I tried using the storm drains, and then there was this weird cult thing-

—–

“The old gods will rise once more!” the man in the robe screams, glowing ominously and illuminating the sewer around him. “We welcome them to-”

—–

“-but I managed to shake ‘em, and then I went home!”

“…wait,” Sorayah said slowly, “did you say ‘cult’?”

“Also!” June cut in, “how the fuck did you burn your hair off.”

Kath sucked in a breath. “So.”

—–

Kath sits in an armchair, laptop open on her lap, arms covered in bandaids. In one hand, she pets Concrete as it rests on her lap. In the other, she holds a brulee torch. Open on the computer is an article titled “How To Singe Your Hair At Home”.

—–

Sorayah and June stare at her for a moment. Then, abruptly, June let out a loud, sharp guffaw. “You-” she choked out, doubling over with laughter. “You fucking asshole! You- stupid motherfucker!” Sorayah clutched her stomach, eyes watering as her chest shook with silent laughter.

Kath grinned. “In my defense, it would’ve looked really cool!”

“It definitely,” June wheezed, “definitely wouldn’t.”

Continue reading “Stopgap 3”

Two’s Company 3-XV

By the time they finally came to get me, I’d had to resort to showtunes, which I’m fairly certain is a violation of some right or another.

The same private from before entered the room, unshackling me from the table and undoing the cuffs. For a brief, naive moment, I thought they’d be gone for good, but then she pushed me around roughly, grabbing my arms and re-cuffing them behind me. My shoulder burned with pain, but I bit my lip and tried not to show it, as she led me out of the interrogation room and down the narrow corridor.

“Hey, look-” I began to say as we walked, but a slight jerk of the cuffs cut me off as my shoulder spiked with pain again. “Fuck!” I yelled, twisting around to look at her. “What is your fucking-”

“Shut it,” she snapped. I caught a glimpse of her name badge, though, and for whatever reason, I finally managed to remember where I’d seen her before. The wraith thing, at the skatepark. Jackson, a private. She’d been guarding the perimeter, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t set off this level of animosity then. What had changed.

Whatever it was, I didn’t want to provoke it again, so I stayed quiet for the rest of the walk. We ended up back at the holding cells, which looked pretty much exactly like you expect holding cells to, but unlike before, there was already someone in one of the cells.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” Marcelas said, but the barb had no weight behind it. She sat on a bench, leaning back against the concrete wall, one hand over her eyes. Apparently, they hadn’t found her another pair of sunglasses. Maybe she hadn’t asked them to. “You know I blame you for all this, right?”

“Funny,” I said, as Jackson shoved me into the adjacent cell and slammed the bars behind me, “I was about to say the same thing.” I presented my hands through the slot, and almost grudgingly, she undid the cuffs. “Did you get the Wiseguy experience too?” I asked as I rubbed at the chafing on my wrists.

“Wise Guy? The detective I spoke to was polite; in fact, it’s probably the only positive about this whole experience.”

I sighed, dragging myself over to the bench and flopping down. “Let me guess. His name was-”

—–

“Phillips.”

The detective in question drummed his fingers on his leg as he stood outside my cell. “Hello, June.” He looked like shit, but that was pretty normal, so I didn’t comment on it. “I feel like I should apologise, but that seems unprofessional.”

I’d spent the last hour stewing in my rage, so his straightforward admission took the wind out of my sails a little bit. “…maybe so,” I allowed. “What’s the deal with the new detective? Doesn’t read the monthly bulletins?”

He sighed. “Out-of-towner. Thinks we’re all a bunch of corrupt hicks.”

“To be fair,” I pointed out, “the precedent is there.”

“Trust me,” he said flatly, “we’re all well aware. And I’m not saying that the department is squeaky-clean, but they seem to think we’re all taking fifties for our coke habits.” He flicked his head at someone out of view, and a moment later, an officer appeared with a ring of keys and unlocked the cell door. “Couldn’t make anything stick to you in the end, though, at least not for this, so you’re free to go. Don’t leave town, yadda yadda.”

“Ah, nepotism,” Marcelas drawled as I stood and stretched awkwardly. “Saving the day once more.” I’d honestly thought she was asleep.

“Ms. Marcelas,” Terry began to say, “I promise you-”

“She’s as innocent as me,” I said grudgingly as I exited the cell.

“Is that really an endorsement?” she sniped, but after a moment, Terry gestured for the officer to open her cell as well. She strode out, sniffing disdainfully down at me as she passed. “Don’t think I’m grateful or anything like that,” she said. “You’re still responsible for this whole mess in the first place.”

“You’re welcome,” I called after her as she walked away. She flipped me off over her shoulder, and I couldn’t help but chuckle.

“So.” Terry and I began walking together down the corridor after her. “What happened with Slate?”

“Hasn’t said a word,” he replied, “but we have enough evidence that she’s gonna go away for a long time. Some of those bodies…” he shivered, and I thought about the silver cylinder. Again, I was suddenly aware of it pressed up against my side. Had it been there the whole time?

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “She was fucking terrifying.”

“Yeah,” he admitted, “I’m honestly not sure if prison will be worse for her, or anyone else who ends up in there with her.” We reached another desk, and he gave the officer sitting behind it my details. She disappeared, and reappeared a moment later with a bag full of my personal effects. “Listen, June,” he said. “Wisemann… they don’t have anything yet, but… maybe don’t be surprised if you start getting some unexpected visits or phone calls, yeah?”

I sighed. “Just like old times.”

He gave a grin, but it was forced and humourless. “At least you have experience?”

“Yeah, I’m sure that’ll really make a difference. Say hi to Jack for me, yeah?”

“Will do. I think you’ve got a welcoming committee out there, by the by.”

I gave him a little half-salute, and he returned it. “Once more unto the breach.”

I did in fact have some people waiting for me, once I cleared the back-end of the precinct and emerged next to the front desk. “Hey, guys,” I said tiredly, muffling a yawn. “What are you dowwwwwhat happened to your hair?!”

Kath stood there, beaming, with a completely shaved head and a burn scar on one side. Her duster – which she wore over a pair of booty shirts and a crop top that had a neon-orange skull and crossbones on it – was also singed around the edges, and blackened with ash in spots.

“Burnt off!” she replied happily, pointing to the scar.

“I think she probably guessed that much,” a soft voice added. Sorayah hovered nervously behind her, wearing a pair of faded jeans and a black Punk’s Not Dead shirt with the word “Not” crossed out with red marker.

I looked at her. Then I looked back at Kath, who beamed and gave me a double-thumbs up. Then I looked back at Sorayah again. “How,” I said slowly, “the fuck. Did the two of you manage to do this in one day?”

“We-ell,” Kath replied, “first of all, how dare you malign my ability to get into trouble like this. Second of all, I’m just as shocked as you are! I think it’s pretty darn rude of her to go and do that on the very same day that I was planning to get my hair burned off by a syrup-smuggling ring! Very rude!”

I saw the officer at the desk trying very hard not to stare at us, and failing pretty miserably. “Are you going to elaborate on the syrup-smuggling ring?” I asked.

“Nope!” Her smile cracked slightly after a second, though. “Okay, I made the syrup-smuggling thing up.”

“Yeah, I thought so-“

“They were actually just smuggling firearms, but that’s boring.”

“You fought gunrunners?!” Yeah, the officer at the desk was definitely staring at us now. And reaching for the phone, so I grabbed Kath by the forearm and began leading her towards the exit before we got arrested. Again.

“Not intentionally!” she protested as we cleared the doors. “I was trying to find someone’s lost cat.”

“People really hire PIs to find their pets?” Sorayah asked.

“…you said ‘hire’, not me.”

“So then, did you just see a lost pet poster and decide to investigate it?”

Kath clapped a hand over her heart. “I plead the Fifth.”

“That’s a yes,” I added, as I spotted her ute in the parking lot and began dragging her towards it.

“And,” Sorayah continued as we approached, “the cat was with… gunrunners.”

“It wasn’t with with them, it just also happened to be there. Also, on an unrelated note, be very careful when opening the doors, because-”

A loud mrow came from the slightly-open back window.

“Is that the cat?” I asked her flatly.

Sorayah poked her head through the door. “It’s the cat,” she confirmed, slightly muffled. “Hey, no! Don’t you- no! No! Ow!” She yanked her head back, to reveal two thin lines of red on her cheek. “It scratched me!”

“I rescued a magic cat!” Kath whispered, eyes wide.

“I think that’s just a cat thing in general,” I noted. Sorayah was rubbing at her cheek, looking equal parts hurt and confused. It was surprising enough that I almost didn’t notice that-. “Raya, did you- did you change your hair as well?” It had been tied up in a loose crown on top of her head, except for two thick ringlets that hung down on either side of her face.

She gave a sheepish, apologetic grin. “It’s… kind of a long story? Well, not really long, but kind of intricate, and I kind of need to give background, and-”

“Okay, yeah,” I said, holding up my hands, “I get it, I do. Honestly, same. And…” I looked at Kath questioningly.

“Oh, I think I’ve covered mine!” she said, hopping into the driver’s seat.

“You definitely haven’t,” I replied, climbing up into the passenger side. “Over drinks, then?”

“That doesn’t seem fair to Ray-Ray,” Kath pointed out. The person in question was hovering over the back two seats, back up against the roof while the cat, a black-and-white tabby, tried to scratch her.

“Actually,” she said, dodging a swipe, “I- eep! I might know a place- no! Don’t!

I glanced over at Kath as she pulled out. “We should probably drop that back first, though.”

She winced. “A-bout that…”

“I’m a friend!” Sorayah protested. “Friend! Please- please stop hurting me.”

The cat yowled.
Continue reading “Two’s Company 3-XV”

Two’s Company 3-XIV

Down on the ground!” the officer with the microphone yelled. “Now!”

I sighed, dropping to my knees. It was gonna be one of those arrests, then. “We’re all unarmed!” I called out as I put my hands behind my head. “All of the bodies have been dead a long time, and are possibly tainted with some kind of magical contaminant. The-”

Quiet!” I snapped my mouth shut, and stared down at the ground as the sound of footsteps indicated the officers’ approach. I could see Marcelas out of the corner of my eye, and though I’d been expecting her to be belligerent, but I was surprised to see she had the good sense to follow instructions. Then again, if she’d dealt with American police before, this would be nothing, comparatively.

A pair of boots entered my vision, and I looked up to see a young private with a shaved head standing in front of me, gun pointed towards the ground.She looked vaguely familiar, and I must’ve squinted at her or something as I tried to recall, because her eyes narrowed, and the weapon raised slightly.

“Hands behind your back,” she barked at me, “and stand up slowly.”

I complied, and she circled around me. I didn’t bother trying to follow her as she exited my field of view, and within a second I heard the jangling of cuffs. Now or never.

“The white woman on the ground,” I said rapidly, as I felt the cold metal close around my wrist, “is extremely dangerous, she’s the one responsible for the bodies. She has a light-based forte, and-”

I stumbled forward as something hit me in the small of my back. “Can it,” the officer snapped from behind me. “You’re under arrest.”

I sighed under my breath. Yep, definitely one of those.

—–

I started singing after about an hour.

I don’t generally; singing (or at least, singing well) requires using parts of my range that I’m not fond of, sacrificing carefully cultivated affect for range. But, well. You sit in a room with nothing but a mirror for company, and you’re eventually gonna need to do something or go crazy, and the singing was always my go-to in these situations before. Unfortunately, I’d been a teenager at the time, so…

He said son when, you grow up,” I belted out, jangling my handcuffs to the beat. After leaving the scene in the back of a paddywagon, Marcelas and I had been quickly separated, and I’d found myself in a vaguely familiar interrogation room. Slate hadn’t been with us; presumably, they’d taken her to a hospital. Every time I’d tried to ask a question during the ride, that same private had shouted me down, and I’d eventually stopped bothering. It was annoying, but, hey, could be worse.

Would you be,” I continued, half-yelling now, “the savior of the broken, the beaten and the damned? He said will you, defeat them, the demons, and all the non-believers-”

The door in the side of the room swung open, and I hastily shut my mouth, letting the handcuffs fall back to the table. The person that entered was wearing a snappy black suit, and I immediately pegged them as a detective, although not one I recognised. They looked to be Indigenous Australian, a broad nose and dark red-brown skin, with curly black hair tied back in a tight bun. Their face was drawn and tired, and they carried a thick folder under one arm.

“Traffic jam on the way to the interrogation room?” I joked, but my heart wasn’t in it. Also, my throat was kinda sore. Punk-rock is maybe not the best choice when it comes to preserving your vocal chords.

They didn’t respond, and walked around to stand in front of the other chair. They dropped the manila folder on the table in front of me, and it landed with a hefty thump. Huh, they’ve finally upgraded to manila.

“You’ve got quite the record, Miss Young,” the detective said, draping their suit jacket over the back of their chair. Their voice was rough, gravelly, but without the deep pitch that usually implied. Ex-smoker, maybe?They didn’t sit down, though, instead choosing to stand behind it, leaning forward with their hands on the chair’s back.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I said mildly. “And ‘Ms.’”

“…shouldn’t do what, Ms. Young?” It was barely a question; their face remained placid.

Without lifting my hand from the table, I pointed one finger forward, at the chair and the jacket. “That.” They glanced down, and something imperceptible shifted in their gaze as they noticed the strained creasing where their hands were putting pressure on the fabric. “You’ll ruin what looks to be a quite expensive jacket.”

“Hm.” With what was maybe the barest hint of a smirk, they pulled the chair out and sat down. “You’re a fashion expert, then?”

“Oh, absolutely,” I agreed tiredly, gesturing down at my ruined clothes. “Everyone knows bloodstains and dust are the latest fashion trends.”

That, at least, got a proper smirk out of them. “It’s certainly a look. And,” they picked up the folder and flipped it open, “not entirely uncoordinated with some of your other ones.”

With a slight flick of the wrist, a small, faded photograph slid across the table towards me. I picked it up, and sighed.

“We should really adopt that whole ‘juvenile record being wiped’ thing,” I noted. The photo was almost a decade old, and pictured a sixteen-year-old me barrelling down the camera. My glare was vicious, and I had a split lip and black eye, along with multiple facial piercings and a haircut that I’d done with safety scissors. “I’m guessing you’re new to the city, Detective…?”

“Wisemann,” they answered, and I snorted involuntarily. “Whatever joke you’re thinking of making, Ms. Young, I guarantee you that I’ve heard it before.”

“I can imagine.”

They leafed over a page in the folder. “Aggravated assault… aggravated assault… theft… resisting arrest…” they read out-loud, and I shifted uncomfortably. “Like I said, quite the record.”

“Are we here to talk about my past,” I asked instead of responding, “or because of the literal serial killer I just helped uncover?”

“That you claim to have uncovered. Surely you can see,” they held up the folder slightly, “why some might be hesitant to believe you on that case.”

oh god we’re playing this game,” I muttered under my breath. “Can we just do the bit where I tell you what happened so you can check it against the others’ stories? Or, story, I guess, not really sure Slate’s gonna even bother to try and lie here.”

They stared at me flatly, but pulled a notebook and pen out of their pocket. “Start at the beginning.”

I laid out the entire story as concisely as I could. When I got to us finding the silver cylinder for the first time, though, I suddenly felt it jab into my side. It was still tucked into my pants, and I’d… forgotten about it? Somehow? I managed to continue telling the story without faltering too much, but I left out the part where I’d taken it. I wasn’t sure why, it just didn’t feel right.

Wisemann took sparse notes as I talked, to the point that I wasn’t even entirely sure they were listening. Once I’d finished, though, they clicked their tongue and flipped the pad closed.

“Quite the story,” they said mildly. “I have some questions.”

“Yeah, shoot.”

“Where were you on the night of the 26th of May?”

“I- Wait, what? What does that have to do with…” The date tickled something at the edge of my memory, and a second later, pieces started to click into place. “The Streichman fire?!” I demanded incredulously.

They raised a single eyebrow. “Interesting, that you’d recognise the date off the top of your head. And it wasn’t just a fire; there were dimensional collisions involved.” Their tone made the implication obvious.

“Are you fucking- I am not a suspect here! Or in the freaking Streichman fire that happened like six months ago!” Oh, yeah, start yelling, that’ll convince them to listen to you. “…look,” I said, in a more moderate tone, “can you please just get Detective Phillips? He knows me, he’ll vouch for me. Actually, it’s pretty weird that he’s not involved already. Isn’t homicide his beat?”

“How about the fourth of June?” they asked instead of acknowledging anything I’d said.

I groaned. “Okay, let’s just cut to the chase. Detective,” I said,“you’re trying to do due justice, I get it. But, like-” I bit my lip, considering my analogy. “Have you ever had a non-police job?”

“…I have,” they answered warily.

“Right. So you start working somewhere, and whoever’s in charge tells you all the proper ways that things are supposed to go, and it’s all very neat and orderly and whatever. And then you start working, and you quickly discover that the actual employees do things pretty differently, because the coffee machine doesn’t give you the right temperatures so you need to use a meat thermometer, or the computer system works a lot smoother when you keep two programs running in the background, or whatever.”

“Does this story have a point?”

“The point,” I replied, “is that there’s procedure, and then there’s reality. And, like, most of the time, hopefully, they’re gonna align pretty well. But sometimes they aren’t, and the easiest way to figure that out is to look at the people with experience. I mean, do you know how many investigations I’ve been involved in in the last few months?”

“Four.”

“Thr- Oh, right, yeah, four. And that seems pretty suspicious, doesn’t it? And then you look into it and you see that I have a record, so of course you come in here all hard-case, ready to swoop in and save the day. Except, look at how Detective Phillips handles me. He doesn’t seem to find much interesting about me, huh? Isn’t that weird? It’s almost like this keeps happening, and he actually realised that and acted appropriately and adjusted his behaviour, instead of dragging me into an interrogation room every single time.” I went to rub at my eyes, but hit the end of the chain on the handcuffs and sighed. “Sometimes, yeah, you need a fresh pair of eyes on things to see that they’ve gone wrong, but sometimes you need to trust that the people who have seen the situation already know it better than you do, and this is one of the latter times.”

They stared at me flatly. “Are you done?”

“If you don’t want me to plan out a whole speech in my head,” I countered, “then don’t leave me alone in a room for… an hour and a half?”

“I’ll remember that for next time,” they replied, in a tone of voice that they would do no so much thing.

“Great.” I jangled the chains. “Are we done, then?”

They stood, collecting the folder and their jacket. “…someone will be along,” they said neutrally.

“Okay, okay,” I interjected quickly, “look. Just, talk to Detective Phillips, okay?” I wanted to stand, but the cuffs wouldn’t let me. “He’ll explain everything, and I realise now it sounds like I’m paying him off or something but I promise that’s not it, just please, talk to him.”

They looked back at me as they opened the door. “Someone,” they repeated curtly, “will be in to see you, shortly.” They stepped through and out of sight, and a moment later, the door slammed shut, leaving me alone once more.

“Well,” I said to no-one. “That went about as well as could be expected.”

Continue reading “Two’s Company 3-XIV”

Two’s Company 3-XIII

Nothing happened.

There was a weird texture on the bit of skin that was over the hole, one that felt a bit like sand, but apart from that, I was unharmed. Which, according to the expression on Slate’s face, was not the expected result.

Slowly, I righted the container, feeling the sand-like texture flow off of my skin and back inside the container. “Reliscare,” I said experimentally as I moved my hand away. I recognised the word, or the shape of it, at least: Latin. Which didn’t seem like Slate’s particular ouvre; that array had looked like a neoscript, all hard angles and diacritics, and she hadn’t used vocalisation any other time, either. Besides, Latin was mostly a sign of old white dudes from Europe trying to puff themselves up, and for better or for worse, that wasn’t her. So had she bought it off of someone? Considering her whole thing about self-reliance, I doubted a collaborator.

As I spoke the word, stumbling a little over the pronunciation, I felt the aperture slide closed underneath my hand, and when I pulled it away, the surface looked as though there had never been any opening in the first place.

Slate just stared at me. Her mask had slipped a little, and she looked… baffled. Or maybe befuddled. “Y-you,” she croaked. “T-that…”

I stood up straight, brushing the dirt off my knees with my free hand. “Told you it was important,” I commented over my shoulder to Marcelas, who looked like she hadn’t quite caught up with events yet. “Let me guess,” I asked Slate, “it’s some sort of agent that you were experimenting on the bodies with, and if it had hit the ground, it would’ve killed us all?”

She spat blood to the side, and didn’t answer. “Yeah, I figured.” Lacking a better option, I just tucked it back into my pants like before.

“You find out something’s extraordinarily dangerous and you immediately stick it in your pants,” Marcelas said, trying to be dry but still too off-kilter to pull it off. “Is this a commentary on your love life?”

“The day I care what you think about any part of my life is the day… that… I… don’t care.” Shit.

“Snappy retort, asshole.”

“I would rather die,” Slate croaked from the ground, “than listen to another minute of this.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Marcelas said to her, limping towards her. “That’s extremely still on the table.” I had to admit, the glowing golden eyes really did give her an edge when it came to intimidation. “I have questions.

“…would you believe,” the doctor croaked slowly, “that your question is very much the answer to itself?”

Marcelas frowned. “Wrong answer,” she said, then, with a grunt of effort, kicked Slate in the side.

“What the fuck?!” I yelled, grabbing her arm as Slate cried out in pain. “What is wrong with you?!”

“She was just trying to kill us, Young,” she shot back.

“That doesn’t give you the right to torture her!” I caught movement in the corner of my eye, and turned to see Slate’s hand rising unsteadily, beginning to glow slightly. I stomped on it, not hard, but enough to keep it pinned down. “Stop undermining me by being evil,” I snapped at her.

“Until the police come, Young,” Marcelas said coldly, “she’s willing and able to kill us. Anything we do is justified as self-defense, because it is.

I threw my arms up in there. “Americans. Look, the authorities will probably be here within the next few minutes. I think we can manage to contain her for that long without resorting to bodily harm.” I glanced down at her. “Any more bodily harm.”

Her nostrils flared in annoyance, but then she rolled her eyes with a sigh. “Fine. But.” She stepped forward, leg swinging again. Slate tried to jerk away, but her foot stopped just short of impact. “I still have questions.”

Slate’s voice was shaky, barely audible. “I answered them, you savage.”

“Answer better.”

She gritted her teeth. “I was conducting research. I had questions, like I said; ones that no-one else was asking, or was even thinking to ask.”

“Questions about what?” I asked.

“What do you think? Magic, in its entirety. Why it behaves the way it does, why it follows the rules it does. What happens when it breaks down.”

“Then I guess you really are as stupid as you seem,” Marcelas said with an unpleasant little smirk. “Everyone knows that magic doesn’t follow any rules ‘in its entirety’. You’re like a hobby physicist thinking she’s going to create a Grand Unified Theory in her basement.”

“Yes,” she coughed, “everyone knows. Everyone knows that the sun orbits the earth. Everyone knows that thunder is the gods raging. Everyone knows magic doesn’t follow any rules. Can you see the pattern yet?”

“Actually,” I noted mildly, “there’s some pretty fascinating evidence that there’s some link between theological embodiments in certain societies and weather-” Both of them shot me withering glares, and I shut up. It really was interesting reading, though.

“So again, Grand Unified Theory in your basement.”

“There are already signs, if you know where to look. But everyone has been too cowardly to follow through and actually investigate-”

“-because it requires experimenting on dead people?” I finished.

She gave a weak, scornful laugh. “Ever heard of medical cadavers? No, it requires experimentation at the point of death.”

“So… all of those bodies…”

“Not all of them,” she said dismissively. As if it was ridiculous. “Baselines and parameters needed to be established first, as well as practicing and refining procedures.”

“Oh, of course,” Marcelas said, disgusted. “Completely reasonable.”

“How many?” I asked quietly.

“Does it really matter? I-”

“How. Many.”

She grimaced as I began to press down on her wrist with my foot. “…maybe a dozen,” she relented. “The rest were cadavers or corpses stolen from the mortuary.”

A dark part of my brain noted that she and Kath could trade tips on the latter, but I squashed it down. “So you murdered a dozen people for your experiments?!”

“Do you think I wanted to?!” she demanded. “You seem to be under the impression I was revelling in it. It was an unfortunate necessity.”

“Unfortunate-?! You had them strung up from the ceiling like a fucking slaughterhouse!”

“That was to prevent cross-contamination.”

“Oh, so that makes it all better then?”

“They were dead. It’s not as if they had the ability to care anymore.”

I felt sick to my core. “You… really don’t get it, do you?”

You are the ones that don’t get it. I could have revolutionised our understanding of magic, of human potential, and you’re getting caught up in-” She broke down coughing, flecks of blood splattering on the stone. “Blind, utterly incompetent fools,” she spat out with the blood. “People like you are the reason progress is so hampered.”

“Oh, you’re one of those people, then,” I said, annoyed. “Let me guess, reading The Fountainhead was a formative experience.”

“Ugh,” Marcelas said. “Honestly.”

I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. I actually kinda thought-

Atlas Shrugged is much better,” she continued.

Yeah, there it is.

“Ayn Rand was a simpering, selfish imbecile,” Slate snapped. I think that actually hit a nerve. “I was- am working for the benefit of all of us.”

“Yeah, well, you should probably consider reverting that tense change.” I shook my head, turning away and removing my foot from her wrist. “Cause I doubt you’re gonna be working for anything for a while. Except maybe early parole.”

“Snappy line,” Marcelas snarked. “Fine, so you were a standard Greater Good fuckup, whatever. Why did you involve us?”

“Believe me,” she said distastefully, “I wouldn’t have if I could have avoided it. But I needed an absolutely stable environment; the background radiation was throwing off my results.”

“That explains one,” she countered. “Why both of us? And don’t give any of that competition bullshit from before.”

“…the idea,” she ground out, “was that the two of you would be too busy arguing and clashing with each other to notice anything amiss with the house.”

I studiously avoided looking at Marcelas as I turned back towards her. “That’s a pretty shoddy plan,” I needled, sounding doubtful.

“It would have worked,” she snapped, glaring at me. “It was working, until you literally tripped and fell into the entrance.

…yeah, okay, she’s not wrong. Wasn’t going to say it out loud, obviously, but she really wasn’t. It was basically pure luck – or, unluck, I guess, because I wouldn’t describe any part of this whole experience as good.

Well, almost any.

“I had been observing Young for a while,” she continued, and it was delivered so casually that I felt a shiver run up my spine. “The original plan had been to enlist her for the wards, and dispose of her once that was done. Your arrival, and the animosity between you, provided an opportunity to achieve it without having to draw attention with a disappearance.”

Well, fuck. I’d never admit it to her face, but it seemed like Marcelas had unknowingly saved my ass.

I opened my mouth to follow up on the question, but as I did, something in Slate’s face shifted, her eyes moving over my shoulder, and instead I just sighed. “Just cooperate, yeah?” I said to Marcelas, who glanced back at me, confused.

“What-” she began to ask, as I raised my hands into the air above me, but she was cut off by a voice amplified by a megaphone.

Everyone, freeze! Hands in the air, and turn around slowly!” Despite the contradictory instructions, I did the latter, and found at least a dozen police officers lining the edge of the property, pointing their guns at us.

“Hey,” I said, a lot calmer than I felt. “I know it’s a cliche, but this really isn’t what it looks like.”

Continue reading “Two’s Company 3-XIII”

Two’s Company 3-XII

I really would’ve liked to dig into the whole “glowing eyes” thing a bit more, but apparently Slate wasn’t interested in that. “This is absurd,” she hissed, the venom in her voice the most emotion I’d seen from her the entire time. “You are both completely absurd.” The light dimmed again, and another blinding beam of light seared the air between us. This time, though, I was actually able to see as Marcelas flicked the tray downwards to intercept it; for whatever reason, it had clearly been aimed at me rather than her. The beam reflected off the metal, but she hadn’t managed to get the entirety of it, and a sliver slipped past and scorched the stone barely an inch from my foot. I yelped and scrambled backwards, despite the fact that it was literally the speed of light and I had no chance of actually dodging it. “The ridiculous amount of happenstance that has plagued this entire affair is nonsensical!”

“Are you going to get up, or just keep sitting there like a statue?!” Marcelas snapped at me, not looking back. I started, and hastily scrambled to my feet, careful not to put weight on my injured leg.

“Now,” Slate continued to rant, “all my work is ruined. I’m going to have to relocate, reacquire all the valuable resources I’d used up, and begin again from scratch!” She fired another beam, but this time Marcelas managed to angle it so that it reflected back towards her, nearly taking her head off. “But not,” she hissed, “before I remove you from the equation.

That should not sound as imposing as it does. “Back up,” I muttered to Marcelas, “slowly. I’ll tell you if there’s any hazards.”

She began to do so, and I matched her gait, hiding behind her silhouette. “Do you have any offensive magic?” she asked under her breath.

“Nothing,” I replied at the same volume. “Rock, next step on the left.” She lifted her foot over it. “You?”

“…nothing,” she admitted. The next laser actually forced Slate to duck out the way when she reflected it. “We should be getting closer, not further away.”

“We need to break line of sight,” I countered, “and there’s a wall half a metre behind us.”

“Does that mean you actually have a plan?”

“…define ‘plan’?”

“I should just let her kill you now.”

—–

“A thought occurs to me,” Slate called out. She seemed to have regained some composure in the few minutes since we’d broken away from her, but the venom in her tone hadn’t lessened at all. “The authorities will be arriving soon, and if I am still here, I’ll have to dispose of them too, and their deaths will be your fault.”

I shot a glance at Marcelas, where she stood behind a wall, still holding the tray. She angled it my way slightly, letting me glimpse the quick and dirty ward she’d sketched on the front in chalk. It was using a system I didn’t recognise, but I caught the basic gist; converting heat into light, while amping up the reflective properties of the metal. It was rushed, though, and the leakage had already began to burn into the metal; it wouldn’t stand up to much more.

I took a deep breath, then nodded at her, and she returned it, and then stepped out into view.

“Hey!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. A moment later, a section of drywall in the direction Slate’s voice came from burned away to ash, and she stepped through. An array made of light hung above her right shoulder, a circle of runes and symbols that spun slowly in the air. She spun immediately towards Marcelas, and the array flared, shooting the same beam towards her as she’d made with her hand before.

Marcelas had already begun charging towards her, holding the tray up like a shield. This time, though, the light didn’t disappear after a second; it was a sustained beam, and just as she made it halfway, Marcelas swore and dropped the tray, clutching at her hand. The light disappeared as she did, but the metal of the tray was now glowing a bright cherry red, and a darker pattern in the middle showed where the glyphs she’d etched into it had begun to actually burn through the metal as they overloaded.

The corner of Slate’s mouth twitched upwards, and her hands flicked through a complicated set of forma. Marcelas, distracted and reaction time slowed because of the burn, finally began to move, throwing herself forward and to the right, trying to get behind a large chunk of stone. She wasn’t quick enough, though, and while she was still at least a metre away from cover, Slate finished casting, and a small sphere of white light swirled into existence in front of her. It started about as big as a golf ball, but within a second had tripled in size, until it was bigger than my fist. That bit of extra time allowed Marcelas to scramble behind the stalagmite, but a second later, Slate swept one hand forward, the sphere moving with it, and pointed it at her hiding spot. A bright beam, like a flashlight, shot out of it, barely visible in the sunlight, and where it hit the stone, it became completely translucent, revealing Marcelas on the other side.

I barely managed to stop myself from calling out a warning, as the array at Slate’s shoulder pulsed. Marcelas had been looking over her shoulder, though, and noticed just in time. She jerked out of the way as the array sent a needle-thin beam of light towards her, burning straight through the stone and igniting a stray piece of drywall that happened to be in its path. I pictured that hitting human flesh, and couldn’t stop myself from wincing.

The revealing light followed Marcelas as she moved, ducking and weaving through the rubble. She was quick, I had to admit, almost scarily so, but Slate’s spell completely negated any advantage it might have given her. Wherever it shone, anything inanimate became almost completely translucent, a faded, ghostly outline the only indicator that anything was there at all. Marcelas might as well have been running through an open field, and the next needle of light nearly cut her in half.

I watched with bated breath, every instinct in me screaming to do something. Slate had begun to move, a slow but purposeful stride that seemed more about getting her a better angle on Marcelas than getting close to her, but she hadn’t moved far enough yet, and-

The next needle of light seared through a chunk of drywall and half of a supporting beam, and nailed Marcelas straight through the calf. She let out an anguished scream as she tumbled to the ground, and Slate stopped, letting out a quiet, self-satisfied breath.

Fuck it. Now or never. I began moving, doing my best to keep quiet while still covering ground. The array at her shoulder had dimmed after each beam; concentrating it enough to burn through metal and stone must have taken enough energy that she couldn’t maintain them consistently. It was recovering alarmingly quickly, though; only a second more and it would be ready to fire again.

Just enough time.

The doctor heard me coming at the last second, and began to turn as I emerged from behind a wall. The ghostlight swept over me, the array flared, I saw her mouth began to move, forming words or a spell-

And then I slugged her in the gut with the 2×4 I’d been carrying.

I closed my eyes as it connected, but the shock of the impact still reverberated up the wood and through my arms. I could feel it in my bones, unpleasantly familiar; first, the second of soft resistance, then the crunch of breaking bone. She gasped, breathless and pained-

and I spat, splattering his cheek with saliva as he moaned and whimpered. “Get the fuck out of here,” I said, hefting my bat onto one shoulder, “and tell all your fucking friends that if they step again, I’ll do a lot fucking worse-

-and collapsed to the ground as I reopened my eyes, the array and the ghostlight both flickering and disappearing. She took a shuddering breath, half-curling around her core, and I felt sick to my core. The plank slipped out of my limp grasp and clattered to the ground, and I made no effort to pick it up again.

“Don’t curl up,” I said, hating how cold my voice sounded. “It’ll make it worse.”

The glare she shot me was purely venomous, but she straightened out slightly, and her breaths started to come a little easier.

“Young!” Marcelas cried from where she’d fallen, a little strained. “Are you dead?”

“I got her,” I called back. “She’s down.”

“Good.” There was a heavy grunt of effort, and then she limped out from behind the rubble.

“Shit,” I swore as I saw the hole in her pants. “Should you be walking?”

“I’m fine,” she snapped. “It went right through, cauterised it.”

I certainly wasn’t going to inspect it myself, so I’d have to take her word for it.

“Damn,” she swore, looking down at Slate. “Guess you’re good for at least one thing after all.”

“Don’t,” I said tiredly. “Just… don’t.”

She glanced sideways at me. “What, cause you’re- Jesus!”

“I’m… Jesus?” I asked, confused.

“No, you- your ear!”

I reached up, confused, and found that some of my hair felt almost like straw, and was significantly shorter than it had been. As if my brain had been waiting for me to realise, pain immediately flared in my ear, hot and throbbing.

“Shit,” I said, tentatively poking at it. The lobe and lower part were fine, so where-

My fingers connected with the helix, and I flinched away as the pain spiked. It’d been enough, though, to tell that a decent chunk of it was just… gone.

The memory of the array flaring just before I hit Slate flashed through my mind. She must have just managed to get one off before I hit her, and it’d nearly been fatal, too. Just an inch to the left-

“I’m fine,” I said, ending that line of thought before it got too far. “Hey, at least now I’m symmetrical.”

“What?”

I turned my head, pulling my hair back and exposing the similar wound on my other ear. It was lower, closer to halfway up the ear, and more angular. “Knife,” I said, answering the unasked question.

“When the fuck-” she began to say, but something moved in the corner of my vision, and I spun back to find Slate holding the silver cylinder in one hand. When did she get that back?!

Still pained, but now looking viciously satisfied, she managed to choke out a single word. “Reliscare.” I felt the pulse of magic as she spoke, and felt whatever was inside the cylinder react, as a small hole opened on the top of the cylinder. With a coughing laugh, she tipped the cylinder sideways-

And without even thinking, I dived forward and clapped my hand over the opening.

Continue reading “Two’s Company 3-XII”