The door flew open under my heel. I followed my foot in, entering the room at a dead sprint. Three men stood inside, gathered around a desk, looking down at a magazine. Two stood, one sat. As one, they turned towards me. I was prepared for shouts, for them to raise the alarm. Instead, they began to move, approaching me in an unhurried way. The one on the left looked like a dockworker, and he grabbed a pipe from one of the walls, yanking hard, ripping it out of its bearings. The one on the right was in a button-down shirt, drawing a slender .22 caliber pistol from his belt. The one standing up was a young man, barely out of his teens, a scraggly mustache on his face, lifting his hands into an amateurish boxing position.
I hit Jack Knife’s release, the blade flicking out, and leapt. The man with the gun was priority number one. I had to disable him as quickly as possible. The barrel lifted to draw a bead on me, and Jack Knife slid down through the gun’s barrel, slashing the gun cleanly in half. The man dropped it, cursing.
‘Dane! On your left!’ yelled Tonfa, voice ringing strangely in my head. I leaned backwards, passing beneath the swung pipe. It cracked the former gunman in the jaw, sending him down to the ground. I straightened and lunged with Tonfa outstretched.
The information washed through my head in an instant, but it was all perfectly clear. The man’s heart was not steady. He was a bit older, he wasn’t eating well, and he’d been in a constant state of fight or flight for the last few days. Too much pain or shock or bleeding could trigger a heart attack. His ribs on his right side were fragile due to a lack of calcium in his diet. A hard blow there would perforate his lungs. Two ways I might accidentally kill this man. And his right knee was prone to going out of alignment, the joint fluctuating in its socket, making him unable to stand or walk on his own when it was knocked out.
I drew the knife to one side, missing him narrowly, and bringing my shoulder up against his side. He raised the pipe, and my ankle hooked behind his knee, twisting it sideways. I gently reversed my blow, pulling the knife back, my elbow shoving more than striking him in the back. It sent him tilting over, landing on his stomach with a heavy gasp. He tried to stand, and let out a scream, grabbing at his knee, biting his lip as the joint failed under the pressure. It was all as smooth and easy, as if I’d practiced the movements a thousand times. I smiled, and turned towards the young man. “You know, this doesn’t have to go down this way. You’re a victim in all of this. All you have to do is lie down.”
He lunged at me, swinging his fists. He was young and inexperienced, but he had a good forty pounds on me, and his reach was longer. Each of those blows moved fast enough to break my jaw, and I weaved back and forth, watching for an opening. He tried to lunge forward and grab me. The blur of information filled my head again. I chose the method most likely to disable him without actually disabling him, and brought my knee up between his legs, just hard enough to really hurt.
A frown spread across his face, and then his arms slackened as he dropped to the ground, groaning, clutching his wounded pride. “Don’t worry, kid. You’ll be fine in a few minutes.” I turned towards the doorway. Ariel and Li Fang Fen stood on either side of the doorway. Li Fang Fen’s gun was drawn, and her mouth was open. “What, too much?” I asked, smiling. “We need some way of putting these guys into custody. I don’t know if we can trust them to stay stuck where they are, but Ariel…”
“I can move them to your precinct, to the holding cells there and in other parts of the city. They can’t put up much of a fight like this.” She smiled a bit. “You know, when I said my hands were finally untied, I hadn’t expected to be used as a cheap transport service.” She bent down, touching each of the men in turn. Wind swirled around them in a brief dust devil, and then they were gone. She stood up, frowning. “The rest are coming.” I tilted my head. The sound of footsteps on metal filled the air.
“Well, by all means, let’s not give them the chance to get their feet beneath them.” I turned. Opposite the entrance to the facility was a long hallway, fluorescent lights humming, old linoleum tile on the floor. It was narrow. A killing field. If someone ran down that hall, into the face of men armed with guns, they would be dead. Normally.
I looked down at Jack. “Are you ready for this?”
“Yeah,” she whispered. “We’re not going to kill anyone?”
I paused for a moment, considering the people we were facing. Not just the innocents who had been twisted. The serial killers. The ones who had taken power from the Horsemen. The harm they’d done. The violence. The cruelty they’d shown. I smiled. “Nope. We’re going to make sure that they live to regret their mistakes.”
I sprinted down the hallway. Halfway through,, two men stepped around the corner, leveling rifles at me. AR-15s by the looks of them. I had no idea where they’d gotten them, but they began to spray fire down the corridor in my direction.
Jack leapt and danced in my hand, catching each bullet as it flew past, and diverting it down, into the ground. My arm ached under the force of it, but I banished the thought from my head and kept running. Both men’s guns clicked dry as I reached the end of the hallway. One man, with a congenital thinness in his skull that would’ve made it easy to cause brain damage, received a merciless blow to his hand with Tonfa, shattering his knuckles, forcing him to drop the gun. I twirled the nightstick in one hand, and brought it across the other man’s jaw, sending him to the floor. Then I looked up.
Approximately two dozen people filled the room, half on scaffolding and catwalks above the ground, the other half milling on the ground. Every one of them had turned towards me. I turned my head to the side. Another man, white-haired and obviously elderly, held an old double-barreled shotgun leveled at my head. Jack Knife leapt through the air, even as the weapon fired, a cloud of lead peppering me.
I waited for the pain to hit. The shock, the bleeding, the ruin. I couldn’t feel anything, which made me feel even worse. The amount of damage a shotgun could do to a body at close range was gruesome. It was funny, really, that I wasn’t feeling anything at all. That made sense. It would’ve destroyed my skull to take a shotgun blast to the face. Maybe I was dead.
‘Dane, you’re fine! Move!’
My eyes flickered down. The tonfa was slightly dented, its paint scraped in a few places, but it was already filling in. It hadn’t deflected the blow directly, but it had taken the damage that should’ve been inflicted on me. I sprang back into motion, and caught the old man with an almost gentle blow with the back of my elbow, catching him and lowering him to the ground gently. Then, as men raised their guns and began to fire, I darted forward forward out of their field of fire. “You can do that?” I asked, even as my elbow cracked a man’s nose, a butcher’s knife falling from his hands.
‘I promised I’d protect you, right? That’s the whole reason I’m here. Just let me deal with the rough stuff, I can take it.’ He chuckled. ‘This is seeming less like a suicide mission all the time.’
I grinned, and swept forward, sinking my knee into the chest of a man who’d had a too-full meal earlier that day, and whose stomach was vulnerable to splitting if I struck his abdomen. Jack flashed in my left hand, catching bullets when they came too close. I was still gearing up, my body warming up to the task ahead, but the fire from above was growing more intense by the second. I was aware of Li Fang Fen as she stepped into the room, taking advantage of my entrance. She raised that gun, and it barked five times in short succession, guns flying out of the hands of the men up on the scaffolding.
If any one of my officers had ever tried trick-shots while engaged in a life-or-death struggle, I probably would have fired their asses on the spot. On the other hand, none of my officers were hundred-year-old supernatural beings with an obsession with westerns. I noticed Li Fang Fen slump against the wall after the shot, her chest rising and falling, looking a bit pale. The distraction almost cost me my life.
The shot was loud. Catastrophically loud. All gunshots were loud, but this one went past sound into pain. I suspected that the only thing keeping my hearing intact at the moment was whatever supernatural ability that Tonfa was bestowing on me. This one hurt even despite that. A line of fire trailed across my shoulder, and Tonfa screamed as I threw myself behind a desk, kicking it over to provide cover. Blood was running down my arm.
‘.50 caliber rifle,’ said Tonfa, groaning. I could see a thin gouge along one side of the side-guard. ‘Looks like I’m not THAT bulletproof, boss.’
The gun fired again, and a hole the size of my fist appeared in the desk, and in the floor. A rather handy indicator of where the assailant was standing. I took a deep breath, and pushed through the pain. “Jack, do you think you could stop something like that?”
“It’d snap your wrist, Dane-”
“Awesome.” I grinned, and stood up. The third report filled the air even as I moved, and Jack sprung in my hand. It was like trying to swat aside a bowling ball moving at terminal velocity, but I was not left bleeding out on the floor, so it must have worked. My left arm fell to my side, tingling and limp, even as I threw myself up into the air. A jump that I’d never have managed unaided left me on the scaffolding, as the man desperately tried to adjust his aim, the long dark rifle swinging towards me. I sprinted forward, each step jarring my dislocated shoulder. He adjusted the scope, trying to lead me as I came up on the corner of the catwalk.
I sprang up, one foot landing on the railing separating us, and threw myself through the air.
I gritted my teeth at the flow of information. Nothing for it. I brought Jack down, my shoulder joint screaming in pain as it threatened to dislocate fully, and jammed the knife into the receiver, turning the complex and valuable piece of military hardware into a mass of aesthetically pleasing metal. I landed, breathing hard, and narrowed my eyes at him. “You even think about fighting, and you’re dead.” I turned my head, and ducked under a swing from one of the men that Fang Fen had disarmed, cracking him across the shin with Tonfa, sending him cursing to the ground. “Fang Fen, you okay?”
“Yeah,” she groaned from the doorway. “Sorry. Didn’t see the guy with the rifle. Shit. Are you okay?”
I carefully took hold of the railing, wrapping my fingers around the railing as tightly as I could. It was a bad idea to relocate one’s own arm in this manner, as it could increase the amount of damage done, and was unwise in anything but the greatest emergencies. But fuck it. I set my feet on the railing below, and pushed myself up. There was a terrible sounding pop, a brief burst of pain, and then it became almost manageable again. I let out a sigh, my head spinning slightly, as I drew Jack Knife. “Good job, you two.” I hopped down to the floor, and Tonfa grunted.
‘Dane, I know you’re enjoying being tough, but that isn’t exactly comfortable.’ He chuckled, though there was a little line of strain in his voice. I nodded, and looked down at Jack Knife.
“How you doing?”
“Li’l sore,” she murmured. “But we’re only a quarter of the way through this, Dane.”
“Yeah,” I admitted, nodding my head. “And we haven’t even hit the big fish yet. But we can do this. Just have a little trust in me, Jack.” I shook my head, and scanned the room. “Which way from here, Ariel? And do you know if any more of them have guns?”
She pointed towards a stairwell, and I approached it. “No more guns, but- Dane!”
The door slammed open, and a flood of men began pouring through. Clutching knives, clubs, improvised weapons, or holding nothing more than a grudge against the world, they poured over me, grabbing at my clothes. It was like an amorphous tide of humanity more than individual fighters, all of them grabbing and tearing. I felt hands wrapping around my hair, my wrists, my ankles, yanking me down, piling me down under the sheer weight of humanity, more of them approaching at every second. Fists slammed into my face and stomach, doing more damage to the people striking my supernaturally hardened skin than to me. But there were a lot of them.
“Get the club!” yelled one of them. Fingers began to wrap around my arm, my wrist, my fingers, Tonfa himself, nails digging into my tendons. The sheer weight of force was becoming intense, overwhelming, hot breath everywhere, screaming faces blotting out the light as the people kept piling on. It was too much, too intense, too loud, screams in my ears battering at me.
‘Dane! I can’t protect you if you aren’t holding me! Hold on!’ Tonfa yelled. One of the men holding him let out a grunt and fell back, blood streaming from their nostrils but two more took his place, pinning the Tsukumogami in place.
“Dane!” screamed Jack. “I can’t- I can’t, there are too many-”
“There’s not a clear shot!” yelled Li.
I could feel the wind begin to stir, Ariel readying herself to act.
I was surrounded. Buried. Helpless.
I bared my teeth. I was never helpless.
I forced myself to my feet with a flexing of my shoulders, and the sheer irresistible pressure of the movement sent people flying through the air, landing hard on one another. Each thrown body finding a soft place to land, not a life taken despite the violence and chaos of the movement, the rushing sound of a roaring river filling my ears as I stood up. A circle opened around me, the killers suddenly no longer bolstered by force of numbers. No longer certain that they could take me.
Fighting is a terrible thing. So often, it is uncertainty itself. It becomes worse when you are trying to avoid killing. When you have to measure blows, knowing that too much could kill someone, and that too little could get you killed instead. It is terror and uncertainty and loss.
Fighting is a glorious thing. It is the body’s natural response to violence, to terror. Every day of our lives we spend hemmed in at all sides by things that we cannot understand, that we cannot fight. Debt, criminals, oppression, the world pressing in against us. To reach out and strike the things which harry us is what we’re designed to do. A joyous carnage.
I smiled, and pressed one finger against the dull side of Jack’s blade, snapping her back into place, using the knife’s handle as a brace for my knuckles. Then I lunged forward, fists blurring. The scream of Jack’s bloodlust, tempered by the babble of water. I could hurt them, I could disable them, without killing them, without crippling them. Fists sank into stomachs, swept across chins, broke shins and femurs and arms. Not a drop of blood was spilled, save for the occasional broken nose or split lip. I raged through the crowd like the world’s most nonlethal tiger, bringing them to their knees.
‘Dane! They’re surrendering. It’s okay. You can calm down.’
I stared. A man dangled by his collar from my right hand, his arms up, his eyes terrified. People were strewn across the ground. The half dozen or so still standing had dropped their weapons and were dropping to their knees in surrender. I took a breath, and dropped the man, my grin a mile wide and terribly savage. “Anyone else?”
“Only the supernatural ones. They’re at the bottom of the stairs. I can feel them.” Ariel frowned. “Do not take them lightly. Jack and Jill, together, are among the most dangerous humans in the world. They’ve killed gods.” She waved her hands, and the people disappeared in a dust devil. “I- wait.” She turned towards the hallway, and frowned.
Officer Blanski stepped around the corner, and stared at me, at Li Fang Fen, and at Ariel. “Tod!” Fang Fen frowned at him. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I-” he stared at me. “Inspector, are you okay?”
I looked down at myself. My right shoulder was cut, a nasty gouge visible, weeping blood. The other arm was bruised, a little purple around the shoulder. My clothing was torn, my hair in disarray. “Yeah, I think so. Tod, stay back. This-”
The lights went out. When they flickered back on, there were three more people in the open room. Jack and Jill, the Rippers stood nonchalantly shoulder by shoulder. Jill’s blue eyes twinkled merrily as she studied me. Jack Black stood with a knife against Tod’s throat, holding him tight. “You know, you keep tempting fate like this, you’re going to lose eventually,” said Jill, smiling.
“Alright, cop,” growled Black. “Drop the-”
He crumpled, blood staining my knuckles, gushing out of his nose, and dangled from his knife-hand, held between my fingers against Tonfa. I frowned at Tod. “This is why you shouldn’t be getting involved in these things.” I let Jack Black drop, and turned towards the other two. “So. What are you getting out of this? Your motivation’s still to kill my friend?”
“Friend?” asked Jack the Ripper, his eyepatch dark as the night. “She’s a goddess. They can never be your friends. These things, they aren’t human. They will never care for you. At best, they can view you as a useful tool.”
“No reason I can see that tools can’t also be friends. My Knife’s got my back, my Tonfa’s keeping an eye out for me.” I tightened my grip. “You still see the path to kill me? You still see the place to shoot me?”
Jill frowned, a little flicker of uncertainty running across her eyes. “Jack-”
Jack the Ripper held up his hand, smiling, though I fancied there was a bit of tension to it. “You know we’re good at this. I’ll make you a deal. A bet. Your friends stay out of it. I stay out of it. If you surrender, you give us the information we’re looking for. If Jill surrenders, we’ll put ourselves into your custody. Turn us over to Amaterasu, execute us, whatever fate you decide is fitting.”
I closed my eyes, and thought of that sensation, when I had been pinned, when the entire world had closed in to a point. The terror, the anger, the babble of the brook. I breathed out, and raised my hands into a fighting stance, feeling the strange sensation of peace.
“Dane-” began Ariel, her eyes widening.
I lunged forward. My arms blurred as I struck out, swinging blow after blow. I brought the tonfa down in a tremendous overhead strike, even as the knife flickered through the air, blade flashing out. I gave it my all, striking with all the strength I had. Strength that had been enough to take on a room full of angry heroes.
Jill moved like an eel, slipping and sliding around every blow, not one of them managing to land on her, a smile on her lips, laughter in her blue eyes. “Did you think that it was going to be that easy?”
I tapped more, drawing forth more of the energy, more of the power that was surging inside of me. My arms burned, and then spread, the afterimages faster than the eye could follow. Four arms flashing out, Jack Knife describing arcs of reflected light that slashed inches from Jill’s skin, Tonfa falling in blows that made the ground shake with each swing. None of them were hitting her. I brought both hands down on her with an overhead blow, my knee sweeping in from the side. She dropped down, falling back in a roll, easily avoiding every strike.
It wasn’t that she was superhumanly fast, or strong. She moved like a normal human would. She just began doing it before I did. My skull began to pulse.
‘Dane! Keep cool-‘
I let out a scream of rage, burning inside. This was the last fight. This was the last person I needed to stop. If I could bring her down, this would be all over but the shouting. My arms blurred again, six arms striking and flashing through the air, cutting at her. And she smiled, continuing to dance between my blows while inches away from me. Her blue eyes twinkled. “They say that in the Hindu mythology, arms are a symbol of power. The more arms a being has, the more powerful it is. I guess it was a lie, wasn’t it?”
I swung Tonfa with all my might. She didn’t dodge this time. She caught my wrist, and twisted it. The cut in my shoulder burned, and my fingers, forced by the sheer weight of pressure and shocked by the sudden pain, loosened. The tonfa dropped out of my fingers as she twisted me around, forcing me to bend backwards, my head thrown back, my eyes facing up towards the ceiling. Her free hand appeared overhead, a pen in her fingers.
I dropped Jack Knife, reaching for Tonfa blindly.
The pen came down, and the right half of my world went black as pain filled me. My fingers tightened around the hilt of the nightstick, and the pen stopped halfway. I dropped to the ground. Not all of me followed.
I was plunged into a very personal agony. The knife lay on the floor, a few inches away from my hand. I tried to reach it, but every muscle in my body was exhausted. There was a babbling in my ears, and shame in the pit of my stomach. The world seemed narrower now as I stared up at the lights, and Jill stood over me, smiling. She held the pen in one hand, my eye dangling from the tip of it. “You are not a tiger, Dane Larson. You are a frog, who sits at the bottom of a well, and believes that the world is only as big as the top. You haven’t seen how big it really is.”
“Hah hah,” I said, my voice weak and thready, grinning up at her. “Joke’s on you. We don’t know where the fuck Betty is.”
She simply smiled. “You don’t.” She looked up. “Ariel does. And she’ll tell us. If she wants you to survive, at any rate. Perhaps she’s come around on that?”
I could see, from the corner of my eye, Li Fang Fen drawing and aiming her gun with inhuman speed. It wasn’t fast enough. The TEC-9 coughed, and the big revolver dropped from her fingers, blood welling up around her shoulders, her elbows, her wrists, as both arms dropped limply to her sides. Jill lifted her heel, and placed it on my throat, pressure slowly increasing. I began to choke, swallowing hard, trying to keep strong, as she kicked Tonfa out of my hands, the pressure growing unbearable.
I didn’t see Ariel move, actually. One second, she was standing some distance away. The next, Jill was wheeling back, choking and gagging, clutching her throat, Ariel’s arm extended in mid-air where its edge had slammed into Jill’s windpipe. “Tod? Help these two.” The young man ran up, gently grabbing my ankles, and tugging me up to the wall. I snatched Jack Knife and Tonfa as I was pulled, forcing myself up to a sitting position, feeling the burn of shame fill me. The sense of helplessness. I’d ridden so high, but I was still nothing special.
“Don’t let her get to you, Dane,” said Ariel, her eyes drifting from one to the other. “You’ve had that power for an hour. You’ll grow into it.”
“You can’t-” began Fang Fen, then winced, her arms shaking slightly. A bullet dropped out of her left wrist.
“We heard a prophecy. Or maybe it was bullshit. It was coming from an ass, after all. If I kill the two of you, the world ends.” Ariel slowly cracked her knuckles. Jack the Ripper chuckled, his eyes flashing.
“You make it sound so very easy.”
“Oh, it is. It’s the easiest thing in the world for me to kill humans. You’re such fragile things, even with fate on your side.”
Ariel disappeared again. In a moment, Jill was in the air, dangling from one of Ariel’s slender hands, legs kicking as she clawed at Ariel’s face without apparent effect. Ariel’s fingers tightened around the killer’s throat, and her face began to shade towards white, then red, then blue. The TEC-9 barked, and Ariel vanished, leaving Jill to fall to the ground, gasping, catching herself in a three point landing. Angry white marks were visible on her throat where Ariel’s fingers had tightened.
“We’ve killed gods,” growled the eyepatched man.
“You’ve ambushed gods. Hunted them. Surprised them. I’ve shattered pantheons.” Ariel cracked her knuckles, pops filling the air. “I’m not going to kill you, because I don’t want to give you the satisfaction. But you’ll be surprised what you can survive.” The Sister of Air smiled. “You know, I was afraid of you two. Heard all about you, thought I might freeze up when it really mattered. I thought that where it counted, I was just a coward. I was frightened.” She laughed. “But if this is the best that you can do, maybe I was underestimating myself all along.”
Jill gagged a bit, and I realized she was trying to speak. She slapped the side of her throat sharply, and coughed, the larynx shoved back into place. “We have been following a plan this whole time. Everything that happened, was in accord with our desires.” She grinned. “Our path is still leading us towards victory.”
“Yeah?” asked Ariel, her voice soft, and deadly. “I have news for you. If you keep going down this path…” She shrugged. “Well. It goes without saying. Let’s get down to it, shall we?”