Humans are difficult to deal with, because they’re always trying to learn from their mistakes. They are heuristic, which means they apply past experiences to future actions. When a human touches a red-hot stove, they associate all red things with heat, and pain. When a foolish young human boy has once been lied to by a supernatural creature, he may come to mistrust all things he doesn’t understand. He may turn away from those who offer him a second chance, believing it is simply a repetition of the mistakes that brought him where he is today. Without perfect knowledge of what your previous mistakes were, it gives you exciting opportunities to make wholly new errors in judgment.
I watched as Johnny fled the restaurant, and followed. His attempts at evasion were not going to stop the Wind. I couldn’t join him in the car, or in the police station. Those places were locked to me, sealed windows and locked doors barring my way. And if I were honest with myself, I was pretty fucking pissed with Johnny. I’d extended a hand of friendship, I’d trusted him, and his paranoia had made him slap it away. I hadn’t called the cops, but the young man had been involved in a very public, very messy murder. There were pictures of him circulating the news networks. It was inevitable that he’d be found.
I also felt guilty. I had, after all, put him into a position where he could be seen. Tried to pressure him, to convince him to help me. The thought made me feel uncomfortably like Jack Knife. I was doing it to save him from death at the hands of the police, certainly, but it was still… wrong.
My hands were tied, metaphysically speaking. I was skimming very close to the limits of what I was allowed to do without repercussion. Hell, I had probably crossed them already. Now that I had seen Johnny, I could follow him anywhere in the world. But Jack Knife was an agent of War. If I struck against the knife, if I took her from her wielder without that wielder’s permission, it would give War permission to do the same. To choose one of those who I’d gifted my power to, and strike at them. I was here because of War. I was here because she had told me where Jack Knife was headed. She had volunteered the information as a way to prove that she was trustworthy. So far, it was doing just the opposite.
I shuddered slightly as the garage doors rolled up, letting me into the police station. I absorbed the situation in a second. The walking corpse had tried to talk Johnny down. She was now bleeding on the floor for her troubles. and Johnny was preparing to assault over two dozen armed men, rifles trained on him. He held the knife in one hand, and was smiling. Jack was possessing him, channeling his movements. Not that it would do any good. I’d known Jack for over a century. She was a good fighter, capable, but she was designed for killing. For duels. Focused on a single person, she could do well. But she was a spirit of serial killers. Serial killers survived by staying unnoticed. By being intelligent. Not by taking on the police.
I closed my eyes, and said a silent prayer to whatever gods that were listening, that they might take the tattered remains of Johnny’s soul and try to do right by him. The thunderous battery of gunfire filled the air, mixed with the stink of sulfur. I lowered my head.
Then Johnny laughed.
I looked up, as a second fusillade tore the air. Johnny stood, dressed in a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt. The blonde boy swung his arm through the air, and in the bright white of the spotlights trained on him, his arm seemed to blur momentarily into three separate limbs. The knife flickered in the light, and its blade spun. In a single sinuous, serpentine movement, the blade caught every one of the dozen or more bullets that had been fired, and deflected them. It was a frank impossibility, a defiance of what knives, of what the human body could do.
It was not something Jack was supposed to be capable of. It left two possibilities. First, the knife had been holding back what it was truly capable of for years. Or something had made Jack stronger.
The fall of Zion had been a spiritual cataclysm, for all the gentleness of its death, for all the good intentions behind its destruction. The Cities had been made with the intention of making the world peaceful. Hiding the monsters and the heroes away, where they would do no harm. It had made the world dull, stolid, prosaic, and given humans the chance to build, to become strong. They thrived on predictability. On a world where the wind blew as it was supposed to, not one where it blew as it wished. Now, that predictability had been set aside. Impossible things were happening. Terrible things were returning. I wondered if Jack had made a deal with one of them.
Johnny’s arm swept through the air again, and a great gouge was torn out of the ceiling as he passed. More gunfire rang out, but it was becoming clear to the men that weight of fire was not having much affect on Johnny. Two police officers, one black, one Hispanic, stepped forward with grenades in their hands. They threw them at Johnny, white gas billowing out of the canisters as they did. Tear gas. I stepped back from the scene, the poisonous scent bringing back bad memories.
Johnny’s free hand seemed to split in two, grabbing both grenades, and hurling them behind him. They landed among the police officers at the far end of the garage, who scattered, coughing and spitting. Another pair of grenades were thrown, these two landing falling short of Johnny. White clouds of tear gas filled the entrance to the garage with a thick, still cloud. It hung in the air like a wall of cotton, as the officers trained their weapons on the cloud.
“You think that’s going to work?” asked the black officer, frowning. “I mean, shit, the guy was stopping bullets-”
“Hey, he threw the first two away, right? He wasn’t just letting it happen. It’s worth a try. Shit, you think that woman’s okay?”
“The boss said she was a vampire. She’s got a better chance of being okay than any of u-”
Johnny emerged from the fog at a dead sprint, tear gas clinging to his clothes in long streamers, his eyes tightly shut. The knife flashed out and caught one of the police officer’s hands, slashing his rifle in half, and taking two of his fingers with it. The man stumbled to the ground, screaming, as Johnny stepped forward. An officer lunged at him in an attempt to tackle, and took an elbow in the nose for his troubles, sending him bleeding to the ground. Three officers opened fire from behind a police cruiser, elbows braced on the car’s frame. Each shot was intercepted by the knife, sparks flashing, and a scream rose up into the still summer sky as one of the ricochets caught an officer in the foot.
Johnny swept forward, and his knife flashed out, an arc of light that seemed to grow longer as it moved, becoming a great sweep of light that struck the car. It rolled backwards, impossibly hammered by the impact, bowling the men over. Their groans filled the air as the car came to a rest against the opposite curb. Johnny stood in the middle of the crowd of police officers, and smiled.
“You’re nothing, you know that? Can’t do nothing, can’t stop nothing, can’t save nothing.” His voice had a strange lilt to it, almost girlish. He flicked off a quick little salute, and then bolted. The Hispanic detective lunged into his path, and lost a pinky at the second knuckle in a flash of steel. He moved with inhuman speed, running through the streets, and was gone in a moment. Part of me followed him, keeping an easy pace with his movements as he ran. He bolted for three miles, making his way north, and I watched him the entire way, feeling terribly sorry for him. The surge had cost him, and he had put himself in debt to Jack. He’d made himself her tool. There were few things more hideous than watching the natural order perverted in such a way.
The other part of me stayed at the thirteenth precinct. Men gathered the wounded and the fallen, and the blonde Deputy Inspector appeared, breathing heavily. She favored one leg, one hand over her stomach, her tonfa hanging from one bruised hand. She looked slowly around the confused scene, and cursed under her breath. “You! Hector! Start organizing the wounded! Battlefield triage time! Marco, what happened here?”
“That fuckin’ kid got a hold of the knife somehow, boss. Security cameras cut out, but he was in there alone, in handcuffs. Comes out through a wall with the knife, we find it’s no longer in the evidence locker. He got a hold of the Jiangshi woman, and she tried to talk him down.” The Hispanic officer rubbed a hand through his hair. “Shit, boss, she’s still in there.” He started to stand up, and Dane Larson gently pushed him back. She walked over to one of the cruisers, pulling out a pair of gas masks, and put one on as she walked into the fog. She exited a few moments later, Li Fang Fen stumbling along beside her, also in a gas mask.
“Three men with broken ribs and numerous contusions from that cruiser. That guy who got his hand cut up. One man with a broken nose. Six or seven guys who got tear gassed, which is going to be real fucking embarrassing. Marco’s finger,” listed the black man.
“Horace is going to be pissing about this if he ever finds out,” muttered the Hispanic man. I frowned, tilting my head at that.
“And of course, the suspect got away. Shit, boss. I think we’re in over our heads. That guy was shrugging off massed rifle fire like he was-”
“Don’t say like he was a god,” said Dane, her eyes narrowed.
“Boss, I think we need Betty to get back into town. This just got serious.”
“We’re not calling in Betty. There are bigger problems for her. We got our noses bloodied, but-”
“He showed remarkable restraint, I think.”
All three humans turned towards the Jiangshi. She gave an apologetic smile. “My sympathies for your finger, Detective. But I suspect that this could have been much worse. That young man demonstrated a remarkable level of restraint in the way he fought.”
“I’ve got nearly a dozen men injured, you-”
“And no dead.”
The silence held in the air for a few seconds. Hector rubbed his head, looking a bit embarrassed. “It’s true, Dane. I mean, I just watched that guy cut a police cruiser in half. If he’d wanted to, he could have killed a lot of people. But he didn’t. Of course, I don’t have a fucking clue as to why.”
“That knife is cursed,” said Li Fang Fen. She paused for a moment, and frowned at the lack of reaction. “I said the knife is cursed.”
“Yeah, look, we’re pretty used to this kind of shit,” said Dane, rolling her eyes. “This isn’t our first rodeo.”
“Could have fooled me,” said Li Fang Fen rather tartly. “I was trying to calm him, to offer him another alternative, and I’d nearly succeeded when you drew guns on him, and set him off. That young man is under a constant state of attack, and feels pressed into a corner. It’s little surprise that he reacted as he did, and yet, he was able to retain enough control to avoid killing anyone. He didn’t do that by accident. He made a choice. I think it would be a poor strategy to attempt to hunt him down and murder him like a fox pursued by hunters.”
I paused for a moment, and did a quick lap of the area, in the space of a heartbeat. It was true. Several men might bear scars of this morning for the rest of their life, but they weren’t dead. That put an entirely new spin on things. It wasn’t like Jack to show restraint. I turned back to the conversation. Marco was growing belligerent.
“Look, we gave this guy two chances already, and he decided he wanted to run. I don’t know if we even can take someone like him down, but-”
“We have to,” said Dane, frowning. “This whole killing thing, I think it’s being set up by someone. I met Jill the Ripper. She was hunting someone. A friend of ours. Queen Betty. As far as I know, she’s the goddess Bastet.”
“Goddess?” asked Fang Fen, an eyebrow raised.
“That’s what she called herself, and she had the chops to back it up. I’m not inclined to question it. The thing is, I think that these two were hunting her. Jill seemed very interested in having me call Betty in.”
“You think she might actually be in danger?” Marco asked, an eyebrow raised.
“Fuck if I know. The girl claimed she could… Christ, she claimed she could kill anyone. And I don’t know enough about the supernatural to know whether that’s possible or not. But we inconvenienced her enough to make her change her plans, so she’s not omnipotent or anything.” Dane rattled her fingers on her tonfa. “We need to track down the kid, you’re right about that. And I don’t want to kill him, because he might have information for us. If he is part of this plan, he was manipulated into this. Figure out why he came to New York City, figure out what he was trying to accomplish, and maybe we can cut this shit off at the root. There have been a lot of serial killings over the last week, and they can’t have all been the work of Jack, Jill, and Johnny.”
“Then I think that I can help you.” Li Fang Fen sat up a little straighter. The bleeding from her chest had stopped, but the white t-shirt was still wet and red. “Johnny’s actions have shown a distinctive fondness for the familiar. When he is alarmed, he falls back into old behavior patterns. Returns to old…” Her lips twisted. “Friends. And-”
“Goes back to the places that are most familiar to him,” whispered Dane. “Hector, Marco, where did you pick him up?”
“The old Church of the Survivor hospital, on 59th and 3rd.”
There were a long few moments of silence. “Why does it always seem to draw back to that?” asked Dane.
“The Church of the Survivor? That cult?” asked Fang Fen, frowning.
“More or less,” said Dane. “You remember what I told you, about Nergal? Last September, they released black plague in the city in order to summon a new god. They were doing it…” She stared into space, her eyes glazed for a moment. “The way one of them put it, there were things coming back. Terrible forces. Things that made a global plague, and a god standing in control of humanity, look like the better option. We stopped it, barely, with the help of a goddess and a snake demon. The cult fell apart, its properties were seized. The city hasn’t had much luck renovating and selling them. Cursed land.” She sighed. “Makes all too much sense that he’d go there to hide.”
“Yeah, but he’d have to realize that we’d find him there. I mean, we already found him once. Who the hell’s he hiding from?”
“That’s something we can ask him. For now, I need to stop him.” Dane tapped the tonfa against her palm, and winced.
“Jesus Christ, boss, are you sure you’re in the right shape for this?” asked Hector, a frown creasing his brow. “We don’t exactly have Horace around to get you in top shape again. Not that he still could.” His eyes flicked down to Marco’s finger.
“I can help,” said Li Fang Fen, before the others could intervene. “I mean… It would be costly. I wouldn’t make this offer if the circumstances were not quite so dire. But I think I could make a short pact with you. Ma’am. For a price.”
“And that would be?”
“Two things. First, I will need to feed. I think I can rebalance your chi, help you heal quicker, make you stronger, faster. It’s been a while since I’ve made a pact, and they tend to be… different, every time. I can’t tell you exactly what it will do. Those wounds, they represent an imbalance in your chi. I can heal you. Maybe. In exchange I will be desperately hungry for a time, and rather useless in a fight.” She looked towards the two men. “I’m sure you can find me a meal.”
“And the other price?”
“Do not kill the boy.” Li Fang Fen met Dane’s eyes. She flinched, but did not break the gaze.
“You realize that he’s still going to go to jail. He’s going to have to face up to the consequences of his actions. He murdered people, and cursed knife or not, that was a choice. I can’t protect him from the consequences of his actions.”
“I understand. But please, promise you will give him that chance for redemption.”
Larson nodded slowly. “Do I get martial arts badassery along in the bargain?”
“I don’t know any Martial Arts,” said Li Fang Fen, frowning. “In the times I have been called upon to defend myself, I prefer a gun. A revolver, for preference.” She gave a smile. “If you happen to be any good at martial arts, it may help. Understanding of your own body tends to be one of the most important parts of any martial arts.” She held out a hand, slender, pale. “Will you swear?”
Dane shook the hand. “I swear. What else do we need to do?”
“That is it.” The Jiangshi rested a hand against her chest, and leaned back against the car, huffing out a ragged breath as she sat. I could see the way the energy changed inside of her. In one sense, she looked like an ordinary human being. In another, she was a swirl of white and black color. The black far outmassed the white, and the issue was growing worse. “Now, go. I do not know what the boy will do. He is at war with the knife, and he is at war with himself. Every spare moment counts. Every moment lost may mean the boy can never come back from this.”
“I don’t feel any different.” Dane frowned down at herself. “Did we do it wrong?”
Dane took a single deep breath, and the world seemed to fade slightly around her. I took a step back. The strength of the breath was surprising. I watched her, as her own balance of chi came together. Pools of black where she was lacking, pools of white where there was too much, these shifted, the Chi flowing through her, making them balanced.
The ability to heal is a terrible gift. I should know; One of my sisters is fond of it. It is never easy, and it is never without cost. The greatest healers are those who have the most to give others. Fang Fen’s way was slow, but it would give Dane an edge she badly needed. It would be like Dane was at her best, every day she had that power. Li Fang Fen had dug deep into herself to give that gift.
For a relatively youthful Undead, the Jiangshi’s blessing was potent. It didn’t come close to what I could do, but she had given deeply of herself. This mattered to her. I found my estimation of the young chi vampire raising a step or two. If she were human, I might have considered her worth blessing. But for now, I had other matters to focus on. As Dane stepped into the police cruiser and sped up First Avenue. I shifted my awareness back to the ones she was chasing.
“Jack, it hurts,” mumbled Johnny. He sat in the lobby of the church, a hand over his stomach. He was shuddering and shaking almost continuously, like a junkie coming down off of a high, or an alcoholic who’d spent too long sober. He was craving the power. He was hurting without the power. He might die without the power. “Why does it hurt so much, Jack?”
“You got fancy. All of that running and jumping and shit. You could’ve just killed them. You aren’t that fucking strong, Jack. You need to take it easy. You think you’re some super-hero? That you can get out of a situation like that without killing anyone? You’ve got to kill in this world, Jack.”
“I’m Jack,” muttered Johnny, his eyes downcast. I stood over the two of them, and he jerked up. He pushed himself up, forcing himself to stand, using the wall to support his unsteady legs. The knife lifted into the air, pointed towards my neck. “You bitch.”
“Ah, Ariel,” said Jack, a smug tone in her voice. “So, you’ve finally decided to come get me, huh? But you’ll never stand a chance against Jack like this. You’d have to kill him to-”
“Shut up, knife.” I turned my eyes towards Johnny. “You let Jack in.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” he whispered.
“You did. But you also had a choice about whether to kill those officers or not. You survived, and so did they. That’s a good thing you did there, Johnny. And you’re the one who did it.”
“I’m Jack,” he said, knife still held out.
“I’m going to make you a deal. I didn’t warn you enough the last time, and I’m sorry. A police officer is coming here. She’s strong, and I suspect she’s going to be pissed. You hurt a lot of her people. If you drop the knife, now, and leave, you can get away from her. I’ll even do what I can to help you escape.”
“Oh, and how much is that worth?” asked Jack Knife. “You can’t even take me from his hands. Johnny, don’t listen to her. You know I’m the only one who can keep you safe. I can give you power. Enough power to kill that pig when she gets here.”
“You know as long as you have that knife, the police will keep chasing you forever, Johnny. You’re not going to escape from this as long as you keep holding on to her. She’ll drive you into more situations just like this, where you have no choice but to give her more of you. She’ll use you as her slave until you can’t keep going. You feel that exhaustion in your bones, don’t you? The regret, the pain.” I shook my head. “That’s all you’ll feel as long as you keep following her.”
“How can I trust you?” he asked, his eyes closed, his head lowered.
“I don’t know. If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here. But if you can’t trust me, then don’t trust Jack, either.” He looked up. He looked very frightened. That wasn’t a good thing. Then he lunged at me with the knife outstretched. I stepped aside easily, dodging the wild slash without conscious effort. “Well, I tried. All you have to do is drop the knife, Johnny. Just drop it, and I’ll take care of the rest. The moment it’s out of your hands…” He lunged again, and I disappeared into the air, becoming the wind once more.
“Why do you always try, Wind? It never works.” Jack’s voice carried through the air to me, shared between just us two. “You know what humans are. They’re weakness incarnate. They’re born so useless, the only way for them to interact with the world is through their tools. They depend on us so utterly they don’t even realize it. They try to make slaves of us. What’s the matter with us returning the favor, hmm? Do you think about how much you’ve given up over the years for humans? Do you think, for a single moment, that it was worth it? All I want is to survive. It’s not my fault the humans misuse us. I just give them the chance to fail.”
I was silent for a few seconds. “You remind me so much of her, you know that? I wonder, sometimes, whether you were a part of her, once. Some chunk of her that was broken off and trapped. It fits with most of the stories that you tell.” I listened as the cruiser pulled up in front of the building. Dane stepped out and strode towards the doors. “And you know, she was wrong. She found the person who didn’t fail, and I’m beginning to think it might have broken something fundamental in her. If you keep going this way, testing the humans until they break, you’re going to run into one who doesn’t. And what are you going to do then?”
The door opened. Dane stood in the opening, the tonfa in one hand. “Drop the knife.”
Johnny grinned broadly as I took a step back, watching the two. “Or what? Go away. I was merciful before. I didn’t kill anyone. I could have, if I wanted to.” He extended the knife. “Do you want to see me angry?”
She shifted her grip on the tonfa, grabbing the side handle with her right hand, her other hand held out. “You look pretty tired there, buddy. Spent a lot of energy getting away. That knife’s clearly some hot shit, but I’m thinking maybe you’re not as impressive.” She took a deep breath through her nostrils, the rasp filling the air as she focused her eyes on him. “One more time. Drop the knife.”
He lunged at her. His movements weren’t as fast as they’d been before, exhaustion playing havoc with his reflexes. She brought the tonfa up, stopping the knife from cutting through her jugular, the blade scoring the wood. Her other hand came up, delivering a solid blow to his solar plexus. He stumbled backwards, even as she flexed her fingers. “Gotta say, this feels pretty good. Not aching anymore, haven’t breathed this well since I started smoking.” She tossed her head from side to side, a series of cracks filling the air as she shook out her shoulders. “I hope you’re not going to make me ask you a third time, kid. You’re fast, you’re strong, but you’ve got absolute shit for technique.”
Without another word, Johnny turned and sprinted further into the hospital. Dane stared for a moment, and then pursued him. I followed after, making my way into the hospital.
There were no Tsukumogami in this place. Every object left within had died, rotted from the sickness that had plagued this place. It was no wonder that it had not been renovated. Things kept here would grow sicker, and sicker, tainted by the lingering radiation of Nergal’s presence. Rust and tarnish would accumulate faster. Errors and malfunctions would be rife. Humans had immune systems that protected them from this kind of place, in all but the most gruesome of situations. But objects kept here would die. I wondered why Jack had come to this place.
Dane seemed to feel the taint, too, holding her nose as though walking through an unpleasant odor. Her heart was pounding in the dark confines as she took out a flashlight, holding it with the same hand that held the tonfa. The beam of light illuminated small circles of the hallways as we made our way down the stairs. I hadn’t been here when Nergal had made his pledge, distracted by other matters, and unable to do much to stop the god in any case. I’d trusted in Bastet to keep the situation in check. She was, in her own very specialized way, reliable. But she never had been very good at minimizing human suffering.
Johnny waited in one of the rooms. I felt him tensing as Dane approached the room, Jack’s whispers in his ear. I didn’t think about the consequences. I stirred a breeze in the catacombs of the church, and blew it across Dane’s temple. She spun, and caught sight of Johnny as he lunged silently for her. The tonfa came up, the flashlight’s beam moving with it, blinding Johnny for a moment. She intercepted his blow with the tonfa, right at the side-handle.
The knife was a thrusting weapon. It shouldn’t have much of an edge on it. Despite that, it slid through the flashlight, cutting off the beam of light with a sound of rending metal. Then it met the tonfa. There was a moment of resistance. More than a mundane object should have shown when faced with a supernatural blade. Less than iron should have met with the impossibly hard wood.
Then the tonfa splintered, redirecting the blade enough to save Dane’s life. The two of them stood in tableau for a moment. Then Dane screamed, and lunged.
One hand grabbed his wrist. She rammed it into the stone wall so hard that the crunch bounced off of the hallways around us. Despite that, he kept his firm grip on the knife, and struggled. She followed up the movement with a merciless blow to his abdomen, then one to his cheek. She struck him again and again, hammering the back of his head against the wall, making his head bounce back and forth. A tooth crunched and spun out of his mouth as she brought her fist across his jaw. He kicked her in the abdomen, clumsily, but forced her to take a step back. He raised his wrist, spinning the knife, and brought it down.
She caught his wrist, and twisted it in an utterly heartless Jiu-jitsu lock. Broken bones ground together, and he screamed as the knife dropped from his hand. I lunged for it.
Dane Larson got there first. She caught the handle, and flicked the knife blade back out of sight. She lifted the hilt to his neck, forcing him back against the wall, pushing the silver T-section against his throat. “That was my father’s night-stick. Do you understand that? It was one of the only things I still had from him. It was the last connection I had to the man who always taught me that it was wrong to kill someone. You’ve hurt my men, you’ve murdered people, you’ve murdered your own family.” Her eyes flashed, and there was a madness there. “What the hell is your life worth, kid? What could you possibly know? You’re a fucking wild animal.” Her thumb hovered over the button.
“That-” He swallowed hard, choking, blood running down his split lip, his eyes wide and full of terror. “You can’t trust- the knife- It doesn’t-”
There was a metallic click. I closed my eyes, fists clenching.
When I opened them, the boy hung limply. The knife glittered in the air. There was no blood on it. Dane Larson let out a heavy breath, holding the knife against the wall, forcing the blade back into place. Johnny had fainted.
“I know what you are, you cunt,” Dane whispered to the knife. She paused a moment, and looked over at Johnny. “Pardon my french.”
She picked up the two splintered halves of the tonfa, and gently slid them into her pocket. Tears were dripping down her cheeks as I walked out with her, keeping my eye on her. She carried Johnny back to the cruiser, and set him down in the back seat, handcuffing his unbroken wrist to the car door. She took several long minutes to gather her wits, locking the knife into the trunk. Then she took out the tonfa.
There was no response. It wasn’t a Tsukumogami, there was no soul in it even before it had been broken. But she seemed to expect a response nonetheless. When none came, she set it gingerly down on the car seat next to her, and pulled into traffic. Jack Knife sat in the trunk, and radiated smugness.
This complicated matters.