Chapter Nine

The next day, Viv woke to doubt.

It wasn’t really soul-crushing, or some sort of existential dread.  It was just a tingling worry, lodged somewhere in her lumbar vertebrae – was this really the best path?  Looking into this – wouldn’t Andy be in more danger?  She’d only stood on the periphery of this whatever-this-was and she’d already been badly hurt, both mentally and physically –

And that was her cowardice speaking.  She’d been healed, too.  And – and that danger was there already.  The best way to remove it would be to work out what was going on.

That didn’t really make her feel any better.

Paul turned out to be in the kitchen, frying something that smelled of burnt bread and fermented trash.  He yawned a greeting.

‘Gross.’  She slumped against the bench.  Fuck, why was she so tired?  She’d gone to bed early last night.  Relatively speaking.  ‘That was about your breakfast, by the by.  Not the yawn.  I’m not that much of an asshole.’

‘…because criticising my breakfast isn’t an asshole move?’

‘You’re the one who appears to be – actually, what the fuck is that?  I can’t even tell.’

‘It’s a pizza omelette.  He thinks he’s a genius for having come up with it.’  Andy sounded entirely too peppy as she bounced – fucking bounced – into the kitchen.  Wearing something that actually looked relatively casual, or probably would without the frock coat.

‘Fucking hell, sis.’  Paul turned away from his – pizza omelette, apparently.  ‘Did you sleep at all?  Or have something akin to a normal sleep – thing?’

‘Eh, a bit.  I’m probably going to collapse in a few hours, so – be prepared for that.  Thanks for the odd hours, halperidol.  Yes, Viv, I’m still taking it.  It’s addictive, and going cold turkey on it probably wouldn’t be good.  And – you know.  Just in case I am actually just a little bit crazy.’  She smiled, and Viv had to look away.  ‘Prepare for the worst, right?’

Talk about something else, talk about something else – ‘Can we step back to “pizza omelette”?  What on this garbage dump of a planet made you think that was a good idea?’  She could see the crumbled chunks of crust in the sea of yellow egg now that she knew to look.  Ugh.

‘It’s surprisingly good.’

‘Only when you’re seriously drunk.  Paul, why the pineapple chunks?  Just – why?’

‘It adds a touch of pizzazz.’

‘If that’s what pizzazz’s touch is like – oh.  That was a pun, wasn’t it?’  Viv groaned.  ‘Really?’

‘Not – intentionally?’

‘Ignoring the dweeb…Andy, how did your, um, your mission we left you with?  How did it go?’

‘The weaponry?  That what you mean?’  Her grin was wide.  ‘Come with me.’

—===—

‘What the fuck Andy.’

‘I had ideas.  Lots of ideas.  So…I acted on them.’

Scattered around the room were – weapons.  Sort of.  Kitchen knives.  Hammers.  Sports equipment.  In one corner Viv could see a bread knife taped to a metal pole nestling next to the hilt of a broken epee, an unhilted bokken from Andy’s brief unsuccessful venture into kendo, and –

‘Is that Paul’s old cricket bat?’

‘Yup.’

‘How did you stick nails through it?’

‘Patience.  Patience, and duct tape.’

‘Most of this – won’t work.  Not against the murderer.  I mean – the way he fought, and he has an actual sword, and –’

‘Easy.  Yeah, that’s probably true.  But, if we have enough gear, and enough of it’s effective, maybe we can slow him down long enough for you to – I don’t know, unlock your hidden soul power and kamehameha him into oblivion.  And we’ve got ranged weaponry too, something he hasn’t shown he’s got yet.  Unless you count siccing dinosaurs on you a ranged weapon.’

‘Is that a supersoaker?’

‘Filled with a heady mix of shitty “musk” deoderant, cheap vodka and petrol.  Got some cans with bits of string in with more of the same as little homebrewed grenades.  Didn’t have enough time to rig up a railgun from junk in the garage but should we get the time…’

‘And to think I got better grades than you.’  Viv was – flabbergasted wasn’t a big enough word.  It looked like some – some zombie survival nut’s paranoid wet dream.  So redneck she expected to turn around and find Andy in a wide brimmed hat chewing tobacco.  ‘Why –?’

‘I thought about attacking the school a few times.  Nothing ever – very serious.  But I did think through my available toolset quite…yeah, I thought about it.’

‘Oh.’

Viv wasn’t surprised any more by how much it hurt to think of Andy in that sort of deep metaphysical pain.  The guilt, for having left her in that situation.

‘Come on, stop moping.  I’m alright now.  Check out the sorta-armour.  All my garb from my leather days – man, I can’t wait to see Paul try and put on that corset – some other shit with metal plating sewn or taped to it…’

‘We’re going to get arrested if we go out with all of this.’

‘We’ll say we’re – LARPers, or something.  I don’t know.’

‘LARPers and cosplayers normally let the police know what they’re doing before they go out there so they don’t get arrested.  And they aren’t normally using rusty wood-chopping hatchets.  I’m fairly sure we can’t do that.’

‘Then we travel fairly light, keep the weapons in a big sports bag, and when things get all amber and dinosaur-filled we stop and pull them out.  It’ll be fine.’  Andy frowned.  ‘Are you alright?  Are you sure you’re ok with this?  Because – I do want to know what happened to you, but I’d totally understand if you didn’t –’

‘No, I’m good.’  Viv did her best to smile convincingly.  ‘I just –’

‘I know.  It’s not very good.  And it’s all – trash, for the most part.  The only thing we can really rely on is you.’

‘Um, Andy –’

‘Your super strength, your – healing thing, I guess, if you figure it out.  And whatever you did to me yesterday after school.’

‘Where I saw you see me die.’

‘Yeah, but the thing is remembering that always used to hurt and now it doesn’t.  I don’t think your healing’s just physical, I think it helps people like – I don’t know, come to terms with shit a bit.  And springing that on someone in the middle of a fight –’

‘Would be all penitence stare.  But Andy – I did that by accident.  By touching you and – I don’t know.’  I’d wanted you to stay, just for an instant, to explain.  ‘But one thing makes my powers a little more reliable.  Seems to make them trigger right away.’

‘Viv, no.’

‘Andy, if – if we need a last resort.  Let me grab the opponent, shank me, and I’ll – therapy them to death. Ok?  Just as a last resort.  I’ll be fine because death apparently thinks I smell bad or something.  Alright?’  Viv rubbed at her lips, looked away from her.  ‘We should probably get going if we’re going to go back to Glass’ bookstore.  And have breakfast.’

Andy sat still for a long instant, then sighed and pulled her hair back, bending over another pile of junk.  ‘Eh, the reason Paul has all that leftover pizza for his omelette is that I ordered like, six of the things last night.  I’m not very hungry, to be honest.  But go ahead.  And, uh, Viv?’

‘Mm?’  She turned from the doorway.

‘I know this is tough for you.  And – hopefully you’ll be able to get back to not giving a shit soon.  We’ll sort it all out, yeah?  Find out what’s happening.  And then things can be – normal, I guess.  If that’s what you want.’

She did her best not to cringe at how much Andy was so clearly restraining herself from jumping all over the mystery.  Or at how much she – didn’t want to, even with how necessary it was.  ‘Sure.  Uh, give me thirty for breakfast, then we’ll head out.  Ok?’

‘Ok.’

—===—

It wasn’t as cold as yesterday – technically not, at least, though the wind make Viv feel that way.  She’d tied her hair back in a sensible ponytail and her ears were screaming at for that decision; though given the tangle her hair would have gotten into without some management – no, this probably was for the best.  Her bag of weaponry – hatchet, knives, “grenades” bounced against her side.

Andy beside her.  Still stumbling from not quite being used to walking with both legs working.  Bag slung over her shoulder.  How she wasn’t at least sweating from carrying so much and from the layers of clothing Viv couldn’t know.  Paul puffing along behind.  Trying not to seem like a third wheel or a tagalong.

Not that many people out and about.  A few brave souls, braced against the wind, hands clutching shopping bags.  They almost blended in – but every clank and crash and clatter of her bag made Viv afraid of discovery.  How the everloving fuck would she explain the arsenal she was carrying?

No matter.  Down the streets, towards the shop.  Just the three of them, today – Cannelis was busy, or so his text had said.  They’d be going in without him.

When they reached the door, Viv simply pushed it open and stepped inside.  She should have checked for customers, for people, but the ball of nervousness in her gut wouldn’t be eased by that.  Best to get it over with.  There was Glass behind the desk, just like yesterday, except she looked up and smiled and stood up to greet her –

‘Wait, you brought other people with you?  Are you insane?’

– and instantly launched into ticking her off.  Fantabulous.

‘Easy.’  Andy lowered her bag carefully with a noticeable clatter.  Viv did her best not to wince.  ‘We’re friends.  Of Viv, not you, because we’ve never met you.  I’m Andy.  And given that whatever’s after her almost killed me yesterday…’

‘This was the…shooting?’

‘No.  Uh, after I left the shop, after you said you’d try and help, something happened.  Um…’

Glass was silent as she explained.  When Viv had finished she removed her thin framed spectacles and cleaned them on her cardigan.

‘That’s – ’

‘Looney, right?  But I figured, dinosaurs have to be kind of a specialty.  I mean, if there were dinosaurs running all over the magical world then probably we’d know about it.’  Andy had folded her arms and leant against one of the bookcases about halfway through the story.

Glass drummed her fingers on her arm.  ‘There isn’t a magical world – not like that, anyway.  But yes, I don’t think I’ve heard of it before.  And I’m not sure what you described – with the pigeons – I’m not sure that’d be anything like whatever necromancy brought you back from the dead.  It sounds more like something with temporal magic.’  Her fingers were still twiddling against her arm.

‘Chronomancy?’  Paul rubbed the back of his head.  He’d ended up half crouched, sorting out the weaponry just in case anything happened.

‘That’s – I suppose that would do as a term.’

‘So he’s actually – what, summoning dinosaurs to fight me?’  Something about that sounded wrong.

‘Maybe.  I don’t know.  If it is a temporal effect, or anything he does is, he should use an – obvious gesture to seal it, something geometrical and easily repeatable.  Likely circular.  Like – waving, or shaking the head.  Something physical to tie into the metaphysical.’

‘Good to know.’  Andy, always focused.  ‘Did you find anything out about whatever brought Viv back?  Why the murderer’s after her?’

‘Um, I think my initial hypothesis was correct.  About the killings powering him up –’

‘But you just said whatever magic he was doing doesn’t seem to match that.  And – it doesn’t explain the super strength, or anything else.’  Paul settled his bag onto his shoulders.  ‘There’s something you’re not saying.’

‘Paul!’  Glass was their only source of information and Paul was just insulting her – no.  Deep breaths, Viv.

Glass hunched.  Sighed.  Her hands were shaking.  ‘No he’s – he’s not wrong.  I don’t know enough to help you and I – I do wish I could.  I found someone who can though.’

Footsteps.  Soft, from the entrance.  She hadn’t even heard the door open.

Viv turned.

The blue woman.  She – was standing there.  Same impassive expression.  Same sleeveless combat vest, black jeans, boots.  She was shorter than Viv.  That – she hadn’t noticed that last time, in the confusion.  No cat, though.  The tattoos seemed – starker, under the fluorescence of the lights.

‘Holy shit.’  Paul had pulled out the cricket bat.  ‘Holy shit.’

Andy drew the stump of her epee.

‘No!  I – she represents a group, an organisation, that can help your friend.  Vivien.  More than I can, at least.  I just don’t know enough to help, but they’ve seen so much, and –’

The blue woman stepped forward and in the same fluid moment she drew a pistol, heavy and black, sighted along it for a fraction of an instant, and fired.

If the silenced shots from the day before had been loud, this was a wall of pure unmitigated noise, a rolling thunder, blow after blow into her eardrums – smack smack smack smack.  But half a second before that sound there was – something, inside.  An impulse.  Hand here, think this.  And another following on, and another.

Viv acted, and after seven shots in half a second, seven urges to move her hand, and seven flashes of light, she held seven lumps of warm metal crumpled in her hand.  She – she knew, somehow, where they’d been aimed.  Two in the forehead, one through the bridge of the nose, then recognising the blocking and adjusting aim to drop down into the triangle of the collarbone for two shots then back up to the throat to sever the artery.

The air was heavy and ringing.  The woman blinked, stepped forward again, magazine sliding from the gun.

All hell broke loose.

Andy stabbed at her, but the woman slipped aside, one leg sliding out to slow Paul’s assault as the clip slammed into place, and Viv scrambled, she had to get out of the line of fire –

– pain tracing over her ear, thick wetness and a sting on the side of her neck.  The woman had to stop to block Paul’s strike with one forearm.  The wood of the bat shattered against flesh, and the gun was coming back down, barrel sighting in –

Move hand here.

Another flash.  She felt it, this time.  The twitch of her hand as it unleashed – something, a wave of force or energy or will that accompanied it, stopping the bullet dead in the air before it could even touch her.

‘Stop!’  Glass, high and shrieking.  ‘What are you doing?’

The woman stepped back for an instant to allow a dual stab from Andy to hit air, trying to level the gun again – Viv needed to get behind the bookcases, maybe they’d – maybe they’d provide some cover, some anything.

‘Please!’  Glass, again.  Just about audible over the ringing.  ‘I didn’t want this!  Stop!’

The paper and wood around Viv exploded, and only another urge stopped a shot from severing her spine.  She dove back out into the open, clawing at the carpet for a moment before she could pull herself upright.

‘Lee Vhan.’  Glass said it in a rush.  ‘Leevhan, of the blood of Linariel, Azrael of the Creator, born of the cold race.  War princess, death bringer, flesh eater, invader.  I name you, I bind you as a prisoner of the Spiral.  I – I’m sorry.’

Something flashed into being around the blue woman’s throat – a word, a chain, tightening against her flesh.

She didn’t even slow down, bending at the waist, eyes still fixed on Viv, to slam one foot into Glass’ stomach, leaving her stumbling and falling back, coughing, gasping for air.

The – the sort-of grenades.  They had to do something.

Paul tried to step forward, the shovel swinging round, but she stepped back.  Two deafening cracks and it splintered, split, and she slipped forward and Paul screamed, there was blood on him as he fell away, his shoulder, it was – it was –

Another roar, another sudden urge and another bullet tinkled to the floor beneath her outstretched hand.  She couldn’t hear – the shots still rang in her ears – she needed to get away

Andy fired the crossbow.  The uneven arrow tumbled past the woman and another shot left the toy in splintered wood, filling her hands.  Viv fumbled with her lighter, with the bomb, lit the fuse, threw, stepped back, needed to run.

The woman grabbed it out of the air, stuck the fuse in her mouth, spat the bomb away, damp and useless.  That gun barked again and this time Viv felt the impact against her palm, not enough force.  Digging the bullet out, had to fight, had to fight

The world slammed into treacle thick brilliance.  She could see the red imprints on the woman’s neck, the subtle change of colour of her face as her breath ran out.  Andy, face grim as she pulled out her shattered epee.

She – she needed to draw the hatchet, half turn, step in, swipe.  It seemed natural.  She did it almost without thinking, moving closer to the woman, one leg sliding out to block a step back, then in again, turning strike with the haft, hand flashing out to catch another bullet.

The woman bobbed, ducked the first strike, dodged the bite her mind pushed her to gnash at its face, flesh like brick barely noticing the followup strike as cold metal touched Viv’s forehead for an instant.  Andy, sunk a knife into the woman’s shoulder and she barely seemed to care.  Only the point had gone in despite the force of the blow.

Another suddenly clarity.  She reared her head back and round, aiming to jar the shoulder in question with a vicious headbutt, and was met with an exhalation from the woman and another panicked moment where the gun fired and her hand snapped into its path.

The sudden realisation came over Viv that she was screaming, a full throated cry full of spittle and raw throat that didn’t seem to end.  She needed to provoke an attack she could parry – but the woman still only fired those fucking guns, slamming magazines in with her off hand as she ducked and dived.  Ignoring Andy as she hammered the knife deeper, slicing at her back.  Finally, a sluggish drop of near-purple blood.  Her face was contorted now, lips open, trying to suck in air, but she still moved with deadly surety.

Another reload.  She almost fumbled the magazine this time.  Her fingers were shaking, now.  Blood oozed from the deep impression in her throat.

Viv swung the hatchet again, and this time she pushed with it, feeling the blade whistle round lightning fast and hack a divot out of the woman’s arm as she failed to move aside fast enough.  Andy was struggling with the flamethrower in the corner, Paul bleeding against her leg.  The scream was somehow still going, still ripping from Viv’s throat into the silence of her deafness.  Her spittle was flecked with blood as the blue woman ducked under it, steadying her wrist as the gun came up once again.

Another shot, another urge –

Her arm shouldn’t be like that.  Her hand shouldn’t be a ripped web of flesh and bone, strips falling away in shrapnel and concussive force.  It wasn’t – it wouldn’t obey her – she couldn’t understand –

Movement was slow, far too slow.  All that speed and fury of an instant ago had drained away, and the thing stepped in, left arm coming round and behind Viv, locking her in place in some parody of an embrace against the barrel, leaving her staring into that gasping, determined, inhuman face as –

The main thought Viv had was that it should hurt more than it did.  It hurt, certainly, but the pain felt disconnected.  Like someone else’s intestines were being shredded, like the blood she felt pooling in her lungs wasn’t her own – and then her spine shattered with the third shot and she felt that – an all consuming eternal white blank gone why why why why –

Impact against her back, or what she could feel of it.  She – what was she thinking?  Light.  She couldn’t feel her legs.  Probably because they lay on the ground in front of her.  She couldn’t – breathe.  Something in her throat.

A blue thing above her.  Red behind it.  Red holding something.

An instant of blessed clarity.

That was the plan, then.

Moving her arm was the hardest thing she’d done.  It just didn’t listen, the muscles lying there quiescent – just a few millimetres, come on, she had to just touch one piece of exposed skin –

And then there was fire.  It parted around the blue, fell in burning drops and liquid flame onto her skin and jacket and face and hair.  Her flesh was shrivelling from her face, so hot and sticking and that gave her body the manic despairing strength to grab onto the woman’s ankle and hold, triggering her whatever it was hard enough around that titanium limb that her bone pulped and fused but it was nothing, she couldn’t think, had to hold it, had to hold it

Red, over her.  ‘Hold on, Viv.’  A knife blade, like a mirror over her, coming down.

Her eyeball burst, and there was darkness, and there was light.

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