“Do you think she’s okay?” I whispered softly, glancing back up the stairs. My arms still ached from the bullets. Small marks showed where they had penetrated my shoulders, elbows, and wrists, gumming up my joints and leaving me helpless while I watched the fight. My gun hung from one hand, my purse lost somewhere in the chaos and melee up above.
“Frankly, if she’s not, there’s nothing we can do about it,” murmured Dane, as the two of us walked down the stairs into the bowels of the building.
I had once seen the Lady of Binghamton casually take a blast to the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun without harm. I’d seen her strangle a vampire’s head off. She was one of the most personally powerful Undead I had ever met, as a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old Wight. She would not have been able to take a blow from the rifle that had gouged Dane’s shoulder, and she most certainly would not have been able to stand up to the sheer level of violence that I had seen up there delivered by Ariel. “She was so strong.”
“She’s fighting two supernatural killers and the embodiment of Death,” muttered Dane, her right eye socket empty. A bit of dried blood had dripped down across her cheek, but the bleeding had stopped almost immediately. Having an eye pulled out like that wasn’t fatal, but the lids were drooping in a way that made my own eyes twinge a little bit. “I think we should be prepared for the possibility that she’s not going to be okay.”
“I wish we could help her,” I murmured.
“Yeah, we tried that. We’re not even close to her level.”
The goddess, I could understand. That fit into my world. The older something was, the more powerful it became. It wasn’t just the simple process of gaining experience and surviving what would kill a lesser individual, though that played a part of it. It might have been the way they kept feeding on whatever made them strong, gathering it in greater and greater amounts. Maybe the world was just something special back then. And yet…
That didn’t explain Jack and Jill. They were not dark beings from the dawn of time, but what they were capable of was terrifying. It didn’t explain Dane herself. I looked askance at her. Two arms. Just like normal. I tried to convince myself that I hadn’t seen her striking at Jill with six arms, and didn’t have a great deal of success. I shook my head as we kept moving down the stairs. “The climb back up is going to ruin my knees, I can just tell.”
“Are you okay?” Dane asked, giving me a sympathetic look.
“I mean, my arms…”
“I mean because of Tod.”
I concentrated on my feet and making sure they landed on the steps for a little while. “I don’t know,” I said, very softly. “I’m used to being the one with a deep dark secret that I must cautiously reveal to the one I’m close to. It’s not nearly as much fun from this side.”
“Think he’ll call after this?”
“I can’t say I want him to. In retrospect, no wonder I was so comfortable around Tod. Death has a way of comforting my kind.” I smiled a bit as the two of us reached the bottom of the stairwell. “I suppose that as far as heartbreaking stories of lost love go, it’s going to be hard to beat this one at the bar.”
“I’m sorry,” murmured Jack Knife. “I didn’t recognize her like that. I didn’t know they could do that.”
“Yeah,” Dane murmured. “Kind of makes you get paranoid, doesn’t it? Anyone you know could be a monster.” She looked across at me with one eye, grinning. “Fang Fen, you’d tell me if you were a monster, right?”
“Oh, of course.” I smiled innocently. “And you’d let me know if you were a lunatic berserker, right?”
“Of course.” Dane smiled, and then winced.
“How’s the, uh…”
“It’s missing,” she said, rather pointedly. “And it hurts like a bastard, which is hugely unfair.”
“I’m sorry,” murmured Tonfa.
“Not your fault. I was the one who got cocky and let go of the goddamned nightstick. I really should have-” She stopped mid-sentence, and the two of us walked in silence for a while.
“You really should’ve what?” asked Jack Knife.
“Nevermind,” said Dane and I at the same time. We arrived at the bottom of the stairwell, and I sighed with relief, bending and stretching, my Yang-deprived body aching a bit.
“Were you going to say you should’ve seen it coming?”
“Shhhh,” whispered Dane, standing by the door. She took a couple of deep breaths, squared her shoulders, and then slammed through the door, throwing it open.
A fat man sat on a chair, his eyes wide. The only light in the room shined down on him. He struggled a little bit as he saw the two of us, his eyes fixing on the gun in my hands. “Alright. Hands up.” I drew the gun, and pointed it at his head.
“Oh, Jackal can’t. He’s all tied up at the moment.” My eyes flicked to the side. Standing by one of the water filtration systems was a tall, slender man, with a vile grin on his face, and grim vial in his hand. “So, you’re finally here. How did you track me down? I had planned this exquisitely.”
“I suspect,” I said, thinking of Tod, “that we have all been playing to the tune of someone else’s fiddle. Why are you doing this?”
“Why?” He snorted, and twirled the knife. “Because it was an interesting idea. Nobody has ever done something like it before. Isn’t that enough?”
“That’s a goddamn awful motivation,” I said.
“Really? Well-” He began to tip the vial.
Dane’s nightstick twirled through the air, and smacked him in the nose. He tumbled backwards, landing heavily on the floor. Dane was on him in a second, hauling him around by the jacket, forcing him onto his stomach on the floor. “Huh,” I said, head tilted. “I really expected that to be more difficult.”
“People don’t get into poisoning because of an overwhelming confidence in their ability to best someone in physical combat,” said Dane, pressing the nightstick against the back of his neck. “They get into it because they’re too chicken-shit to do something by hand. Ain’t that right, buddy?” She turned her head towards Jackal. “Did he pour any of that stuff into the water? Do we need to close down the water pipelines?”
“N-No.” He swallowed hard, his eye going to my gun again. “He wanted you to see it, he was… He didn’t think it would be worth doing if no one was aware he was doing it.” Tears began to roll down his fat cheeks. “Please, I didn’t want to work with him, but he told me he’d kill me if I didn’t, I couldn’t- I- I-”
“Shit,” I muttered. “How did you get this power, Jackal?”
“It just happened,” he said, very softly. “A few weeks ago. I ran into Joshua- Jackfruit. He told me- He told me it was my fault, that I was the one responsible for this. That I was to blame for all of it. He told me I was making people into monsters, and if I didn’t do it the way he told me, he’d kill me. I… I’m…” He looked down at his feet. “How many people died because of me?”
“We don’t know yet,” said Dane. She stared at him. “So you don’t know how to turn this off. How you can stop turning people into monsters.”
“It’s… It happens when I’m frightened. When someone jostles me, or touches me, in a moment of weakness. I’m agoraphobic.” The tears began to stream down his cheeks. “I’ve seen Old Yeller. I know how this ends.”
“Fuck that,” Dane growled. “Nobody’s dying today.” She gestured towards me. “You’re not human. Chances are good you’ll be fine doing it. Cut off the ropes. We’re going to get him out of there.”
“And then what?” I asked, my head tilted.
“Ariel said there was someone who could take those powers away. Who could make him normal again. In the meantime, whatever, a nice cabin up in upstate New York with an internet connection and regular grocery deliveries. I can’t see a good reason why that wouldn’t work.” She gave Jackal a grin. “And hey, maybe if we can figure out who Ariel was talking about, we can get those powers gone for good. Making heroes kind of sucks if they’re assholes.” She looked down at Joshua, and sighed, shaking her head. “I’ve got to say, this is really a bit of a disappointment. After that big flashy fight with Jack and Jill, I was expecting something a little bit more dramatic.”
“Well, don’t fucking jinx it,” I said, gently untying Jackal’s arms. I slid his arm around my shoulder, helping to hold him up. “Are you feeling alright, sir?”
“This is all my fault,” he murmured. “All those people, because of me-”
“I don’t think you’re in much of a position for blame. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens to all of us.” I smiled. “Now, let’s get the hell out of this place.”
“What the fuck did you do to your arm?” muttered Dane as she studied Joshua. “Looks like you’ve been using a cheese-grater on yourself or something.” Tonfa appeared, taking shape, and hefting Joshua up over one shoulder with deceptive ease. “You going to be alright carrying him?” asked Dane.
“Yeah, Dane. Notoriously hard to poison dead things.” He smiled, and his eyes flicked to her eye. “I’m-”
“If you say you’re sorry, I’m going to kick your ass. You kept her from jamming that pen into my brain, you did fine.” She slapped his shoulder. “Come on. We’ve got a lot of stairs to climb.”
When we arrived back at the first floor, there was no sign left of the Ariel, Jack, Jill, or Death. I frowned. There was no blood, either. No sign of anything, save the gaping hole that used to be a ceiling. I clucked my tongue softly, my knees making unpleasant clicking noises with each step I took. Jackal was not a font of Yang chi. The poor man was wounded, spiritually, physically, emotionally. He did not deserve any of this. “This is… somewhat ominous.”
A wind slowly ran across the lake, rustling the leaves in all of the trees. I could not tell whether it was Ariel telling us that everything was okay, or a simple difference in atmospheric pressures creating a flow of gas. For the first time in my very long life, the idea that it might be the latter was discomforting.
“We can still breathe,” said Dane. “I guess we can’t know. Ariel?”
There was nothing but silence again. I shivered softly. “I suppose I am not going to be regaining my honor.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.”
She stepped out from the shadows, smiling as she approached us. Tall. Imperious. Pale. Perfect. Scarred. The sun, lit by the moon. She lifted her eyes towards the moon, and frowned. “I would not normally come out before my estranged brother, but I suppose that it is a time to let go of old grudges. Nothing like a death in the family to make one rethink their priorities.” She settled her eyes on me, and I felt the burn of shame and fear in the pit of my stomach. “You have seen me humbled. That is a terrible curse, you know, to see one’s gods humiliated.”
“You’re not my god,” I said, my eyes narrowing. My fingers were tight around the gun, though I knew it would be as useless as the last time.
She waved a hand. “Oh, I know you do not believe in me, hopping corpse. It is alright. I believe in you. When I set you on this task, I was promised that you were relentless, clever, driven. That you could ferret out the hidden things and deliver me the revenge I sought so desperately. They were half-right. You have failed in the task I gave you, but in doing so…” She smiled at Jackal. “You have managed to find something so much more magnificent. Who would have thought that there could exist such a thing? A man who can make heroes.” She clucked her tongue. “What a fantastic skill.”
“it’s not exactly consequences free,” I said, stepping in front of Jackal, driven by some protective instinct as the tension built in my chest.
“Oh, yes, I know. Driven to kill, unable to stand their fellow man.” Amaterasu sighed. “I always hated the idea of the cities. I was persuaded that it was right, that it was the proper way to react to the problem of humans. That they needed to be kept at arms length.” She ran her fingers across her cheek, her eyes raging. “In the good old days, a hero was a man who slew those who offended him. There is no room in war for those who cannot take a life. And there is a war coming. You’ve felt it, haven’t you, corpse?” She chuckled slowly, lifting a hand towards the night sky. A cloud passed in front of the moon, and the night fell over us. “There is something coming out of the darkness.”
A shiver ran down my spines at the words. The wind rustled again. “So why do you want Jackal?”
“Because there need to be warriors for a war. I need an army. Warriors in countless numbers. Warriors with the force of heroism behind them. That man is dragons teeth. Sow him, and an army springs up.”
“If I remember correctly,” I said, “The warriors that rose wound up fighting one another, and the army slew itself nearly to a man.”
“Oh, yes. Casualties would be great. Heroes are such competitive creatures. But…” She smiled. “The ones who remain would be the strongest. Imagine what I could accomplish with that.”
“Why the hell do you even want an army?”
“Because the walls are going to crumble. Mankind’s delicate safety blanket is being torn apart. Zion has fallen, and Paradise teeters. Avalon is bracing itself for war, and Shangri-la’s peace is dying. Humanity longs for its apocalypse, to go to war with its gods. I have felt their tender caress once before.” She drew her fingers across her cheek, and hissed. “Mankind has grown proud, and they believe themselves better than their makers. They have forgotten what they owe to their gods. You are making the same mistake.”
She took a step towards us. I looked towards Jackal. He gave me an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to cause any more trouble. Maybe… it’d be better if I just went with her, to save you two any more-”
It was Dane who’d spoken. She had her arms crossed, one eye missing, her expression fierce. Tonfa was in one hand, Jack Knife in the other. Amaterasu chuckled. “No? You intend to stop me? You couldn’t even stop another human-”
“Jackal is a citizen of New York City. He pays his taxes. Don’t you?” Jackal nodded, bemused. “He has committed no crimes recognized by my country, or yours. You aren’t getting your hands on him.”
“Laws?” Amaterasu laughed. “I am the law. I am honor. My word is righteous. My word is what matters! Do you think you could stand a chance against me-”
“I don’t know how Jill beat me,” Dane admitted. “That’s going to burn at me for a very long time, I have no doubt. But you are not my law. You are a spoiled brat who has gone her entire life with too few people willing to tell you no. You’re threatening my friends. And I have just lost an eye, and someone I care about deeply may be dead. You have chosen the wrong time to push me.”
“Hmm. You know, most gods, when they lose an eye, give up the left-hand eye. They cut the sinister from their life, and replace it with knowledge. It seems that you have cut what is right from your mind, and replaced it with delusion.” Amaterasu took another step forward. “Ariel does not appear to be here. She is either busy, indisposed, or dead. And I am glad for that fact. Now give me-”
Dane pressed the button. The knife swung out. Further. And further. The tip of a gleaming blade rested against Amaterasu’s throat, delicately kissing her skin, a single drop of very red blood dripping down along the curve of her perfect neck. The curved blade extended from the silver-and-black handle, much too long to have been contained in that simple edifice. Amaterasu’s eyes widened, as the curved blade pressed against her. Dane took a sharp breath, and kept her arm steady as a rock. “Step back.”
Amaterasu took a step back, her eyes narrowed. “That blade… Where did you find it?”
“I’d love to know the answer to that, too,” said Dane, still holding the knife out, the tonfa reversed to hold the length of wood against her arm, bracing it. “You’re afraid of it, aren’t you? That’s interesting. I would think a god has very little to fear.” She stepped aside, in front of Jackal. “I’m going to make you a deal, Amaterasu.”
“A deal-” the sun goddess began, her eyes widening in rage. “Do you know who I am?!”
“Yeah. I know exactly who you are. I know exactly what you are. Here’s the deal I have for you. You’re going to leave this city. You’re never going to menace Jackal, or Li Fang Fen, or me, or anyone I love ever again. You’re going to restore Li Fang Fen’s honor. And if you do not, I will kill you without a moment’s remorse.” She kept the blade extended, the tip pointed at Amaterasu’s throat. “What will it be?”
“Do you know how many like you I have killed? How many arrogant humans, heroes, champions, usurpers, demigods? They are beyond number.” The wind rustled through the trees around us.
“There’s a quote, you know,” I said, unable to contain the slight vindictive smile that spread over my lips. “Even after killing ninety nine tigers, the Maharaja should beware of the hundredth.”
Amaterasu’s fist clenched. Then she sighed, closing her eyes for a moment, and shaking her head. “I will not restore the hopping corpse’s honor. I will not guarantee their safety. I will leave. But I will return. And when I do, I am going to make you suffer for your insolence.”
“Promises, promises,” said Dane. “Get the fuck out of my city.” And then the goddess was gone. “Pardon my french.”
“That may not have been the best way to deal with the situation,” I said, resting a hand on Jackal’s, still keeping the man’s arm over my shoulder.
“Probably not, no. It was the right one, though. I’m sick and goddamn tired of powerful people thinking they can break the law.”
“Mmm.” I nodded. “So, you’re still wanted for the murder of David Crenshaw. Think you’re going to get around that?”
“Christ,” Dane muttered. “Yeah. I guess we need to take care of that. Come on. Let’s call 911 and get Joshua here into custody.” She looked around, and cursed. “Fuck. No sign of Black. That’s going to be fun to deal with.” She took out her phone, and dialed into it. “Hello. Yes, this is Dane Larson. Yes, I’m going to surrender myself, and I’ve got the architect behind the Madison Square Garden poisoning in custody.” She was quiet for a second. “Yes, alive. Stop being a bastard and get some squad cars here. Yeah. Yes. Uh huh.” She snapped the phone shut, and sighed. Then she frowned down at Jack Knife. “Since when could you become a sword?”
The blade collapsed in on itself, snapping back into the handle. The knife hopped out of Dane’s hand, and was a human halfway to the ground, landing unsteadily on her feet. Jack Knife rubbed her face, frowning. “Huh?”
“You just turned into a sword. I think Amaterasu knew you. How is that possible?”
“I turned into a sword?”
“Ugh.” Dane sighed, and took a seat. “Forget it. This is all going to be a big enough mess without getting into mysterious transformations. Probably going to go to prison for a while, and that’s the best case scenario. Whole city knows I murdered an unarmed prisoner. Even if they knew the whole truth, I’d probably deserve it. I can’t believe I let him get to me like that. Can’t believe I was so stupid.”
“He was a master manipulator, Dane. He wanted to push your buttons, to break you. He would have, if you hadn’t surprised him. You did what you had to do.” I knew the words wouldn’t comfort her, but… “I can stay for a bit longer. Argue for you. Speak on your behalf. Vouch that you had to do what you did-” I frowned. “Did you see that?”
“What?” She lifted her head, looking up.
“Thought I saw a silver flash. Something south of here.” I frowned, shaking my head. “But I want to stay, I want to help-”
“No.” Dane rested a hand on Jack Knife’s shoulder, and pushed the girl towards me, and gave Jackal a nod. “Take them. Help Jack Knife figure out what’s going on with her past. Please? I owe her that much, at least. She’s not a bad person. She deserves a chance at redemption. And Jackal…” She smiled. “Well, if there’s anywhere someone like him can be safe and around people, it’s probably going to be around the undead, right? If he can’t affect you, he’ll be able to relax there, no more worries about whatever caused his powers.” She sighed. “Sure as fuck would like to understand more of what that was all about, but I’m getting used to disappointment. Tonfa? You should-”
“Like hell,” he said, his eyes hard. “I’m never leaving your side.”
She smiled. “They’re probably not going to let me keep you in jail.”
“I can wait. No matter how long it takes, Dane. It’s not like I want anyone else.”
There was a screech of tires outside. Dane sighed, stood, and rested her hands on the back of her head as half a dozen police officers rushed into the room.
Marco and Hector were at the front. They hit Dane like a train, grabbing her in both arms. I winced, until I realized they weren’t handcuffing her. They were hugging her and slapping her shoulders, laughing and whooping. “Boss! I fucking called it!” said Marco, grinning. “We get a phone call about the roof getting blown off a government building, I fuckin’ knew it was you! We fucking tore up the east side highway getting up here!” He laughed, and hugged her around the shoulders. “You did a fucking amazing job, boss! Saved the whole city! We found a shitload of prisoners in the cells, all groaning about getting their ass kicked by some spitfire blonde, and I knew it had to be you! How the fuck did you manage that?”
Dane gave a weak smile. “Just a little help from my friends.” She sighed. “It’s good to see you two. But I guess we should get the cuffs on.”
“Ah, right, boss.” Hector reached into his jacket, and fastened Joshua’s hands behind his back. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law-”
“I meant me,” said Dane, her eyes lowered.
Marco frowned. “Why the hell would we be locking you up, Dane?”
“I- You know why.” Her voice dropped. “I killed a man.”
“Someone here, boss?” Marco frowned. “I mean, if anywhere’s self defense-”
“No! I-” Dane’s face grew very still, and she swallowed. “I… It’s been a long day. It’s been way too long a day. I think…” She swallowed. “I think I need some time to sleep.”
The police cruiser was comfortable. The two of us rode in the back seat, Jack Knife sitting across my lap in knife form, Tonfa in his human form, gently holding Dane. “They didn’t know what she was talking about,” said Tonfa. “Somehow, they forgot she killed Jackass.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty goddamn ominous.”
“Hell with it,” Tonfa said. “I’m calling it good karma, and everything else can go fuck itself. Pardon my french.”
I smiled softly, and rested my fingers on the knife. “I don’t know what you are, little knife. But I suspect we can find out, with research, and study, and hard work.”
“Sounds like more trouble than it’s worth,” murmured Jack Knife.
“Yes, generally. Thankfully, I have a friend who enjoys doing such tedious work.” I closed my eyes, and sighed. “Still no honor, still no righteousness in my soul. That’s a bit of a pain in the ass. I would’ve liked to be able to return home with something. Beyond an affectionate serial killer knife, and a pleasant source of murderous heroes.”
“Well, someone’s greedy. You were able to help save New York City. That ought to be enough for anyone,” said Jack Knife.
“I couldn’t have gotten the guy, too? I mean, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for.” I smiled. “I’ve been away from Binghamton for months, now. I barely spoke to anyone when I left. I can’t believe I’ll get to see them all again. Atina, the Lady Ann, Edwin… I can hardly imagine how things will have changed with all the chaos that sprung up out there.” I rubbed my fingers across my face, wiping away the beginnings of tears there. “I still worry about what happened to Ariel.”
“She’s tough,” said Tonfa. “She can take care of herself. She wouldn’t die there, I’m sure of that.”
“I hope you’re right.” I sighed softly.
The rest of the trip back into the city was calm. I walked to the bus station with Jack Knife in my purse, right next to my gun, Jackal staying close to my side, seeming comforted by the presence of someone who he could be close to. It was a long, quiet walk through the dark streets, but I was not afraid. I didn’t have anything to be afraid of here, now. The plague was done, people were safe. Countless mysteries still left hanging open like ragged wounds. I was still an oathbreaker, my word worth less than dirt. The Night Court would not trust me, and I would have a long and difficult road to travel in making my word worth anything again. I had a strange knife with a mysterious past, and no idea what was in my future. I’d seen the wide, dark world, and all the sharks in it. Now I was going back to my little pond.
It was Saturday. I got on the bus with Jackal not long after midnight, sitting near the front, and crossed my hands, one over the other. I watched the green foliage crawl by under the pale light of the full moon. It all seemed so fragile, now. I understood a great deal more about the world, and it had brought me little comfort. It just brought up more questions, and more uncertainty, and drove in ultimately how useless I was. Jackal sat in the window seat, staring out at the moon.
The bus arrived in Binghamton at 4 AM, just as the moon was beginning to set behind the mountains. I stepped out, and the first thing that I noticed was just how much cooler it was here. The air had a nip in it, and the humidity was far lower. I shivered a little, but it felt nice, soothing the ache in my heart. The second thing I noticed was the sound of shoes slapping the ground.
Two strong arms went around my midsection. I found myself lifted into the air, and spun, before being set down on my feet, head twirling. “Fang Fen!”
I peered up at my friendly assailant. Even in the dark, I recognized them instantly. “Atina? How in the hell did you know I was coming back to town?”
The big, dark-haired lawyer grinned down at me, the silver streaks in her hair twinkling in the moonlight, dressed in one of those terrible button-down shirts mixed with a pair of running shorts. I wasn’t sure whether the lack of fashion sense made me want to laugh or cry. “The Half-Faced Man called me. He told me that you were finally coming back into town around 4 AM. I called everyone! Polly, Alfred, the members of the Night Court. Lady Ann Willing herself said she was going to come by. Jenny’s been going crazy getting together decorations. We’ve all been worried as hell about you!” She grabbed me again, giving me the kind of hug that could snap ribs. Then she set me down, and turned towards Jackal. “So, is this your new flame? I mean, I won’t judge…”
“No, no.” said Jackal, and he coughed with embarrassment. “I’m sorry if I seem standoffish, but-”
“It is a very long, very elaborate story. He needs help.” I reached into my purse, and drew out Jack Knife. She took on her human shape, and frowned up at Atina. “This one, too. More than most.”
“Well, you always know how to keep me busy, don’t you?” Atina grinned. “Fine, fine. Work tomorrow. Tonight, let’s party. We’ve got food. I hired a stripper for you. I figured you must be hungry after that long trip, eh?” She nudged me in the shoulder, and grinned. Abruptly, my eyes filled with tears, and began to trickle down my cheeks, as I grinned so hard my cheeks ached. “Come on, stop crying, Fang Fen. You’re going to make this weird.” She grabbed me by the arm, and tugged me towards the parking lot, where a Honda sat, driven by a wizard. Alfred flashed me a pearly smile as I took a seat in the back along with the two refugees I’d brought with me from the city.
I was home.