Content Warning: Violence
School on Wednesday is painfully and endlessly dull. I’m incredibly relieved when it’s over and about half an hour after school ends, I change out of my uniform, throw my cloak and mask into a backpack, and walk to the bus stop just outside campus. The bus ride takes about half an hour, and I’m constantly scanning the bus. I’m meeting Kitsune downtown and, as far as I know, she’s a student at the Archduke’s Boarding School too. Could anyone I’m sharing this bus with be a vigilante anarchist with mind control powers?
I look around the bus again, the only thing I actually know about Kitsune is that she’s a teenager and she’s of Japanese heritage. There are a couple of Asian girls on the bus, my classmates. None of them have white hair or a Cheshire grin, but I doubt identifying Kitsune would be that easy. None of them have obviously large backpacks either, so I sigh and look back to the road. Twenty-six minutes later, on the dot, I’m at my stop, the buses in Oru are always on time, we don’t have traffic or accidents. The Archduke mandated that all vehicles be self-driving and run on a fairly strict schedule. Nobody else got off at the stop with me, but that was intentional. I can’t afford to have my identity revealed, so I got off about two stops ahead of where I’m actually going. I can just change here and walk.
I walk about a block before ducking into an alley, checking around constantly to make sure I’m not being watched and that nobody followed me. I quickly pull my cloak and mask out of the backpack, throwing my jacket into it and leaving it tucked away behind some old boxes. The mask feels uncomfortably tight on my face, pressing up against my glasses. I couldn’t take them off, because, while having a conversation and walking a few blocks without my glasses is entirely possible, trying to read street signs from a distance isn’t.
I climb the fire escape up to the rooftop of the far building of the alleyway, ducking down to avoid being seen. I glance down every few blocks and try to make out the names of the streets through my painted lenses. Eventually, I see the street I’m looking for, it’s in one of the poorer districts of Oru, an anarchist district that basically treats Kitsune like a spirit. I knew if I were going to meet her, it would have to be on her terms. I climb down to street level and look at signs of shops until I finally see the place, Baldur’s, and the cloaked and masked figure outside it.
She’s dressed in a black cloak, slightly darker than mine, and is wearing a bright white mask with a fox face on it. Beneath that, she wears some kind of black long-sleeved shirt, white gloves, loose black jeans, and black combat boots. She’s slightly taller than me, her transcendence apparently makes her shorter, but more agile. She tilts her head curiously upon seeing me looking at her, before giving me a brief nod.
“Kitsune?” I ask.
“In the, extremely mundane, flesh,” she says, her voice comes out through a filter, sounding electronic and impossible to identify. That’s smart, I wish I’d thought to do that before now.
I open the old wooden door to this nondescript building and am fairly surprised to see an old-school bar. Multiple people are inside, none of them making efforts to hide their faces, I doubt any of them are spirit-touched, but they’re Kitsune’s people, so I know we’re mostly safe. As soon as we walk in every set of eyes in the room locks on me. Kitsune raises a hand and nods, and the people seem to go back to their conversations. I’m not sure if Kitsune meant to send the message that this was her turf, but either way, message received.
Kitsune leads me to a small leather booth around the back of the bar, it’s about as private as two people can be in a bar I suppose. She kicks her feet up casually and looks me up and down.
“So, what can I do for you Red?” she asks, I roll my eyes at the nickname.
“I need your help,” I answer.
“Yeah, you mentioned. What with?”
“I found this guy, he used to work for Heatstroke. He quit, and he’s trying to hide, but… I found him.”
“If you already found him, what do you want from me?”
“I want you to interrogate him.”
“What information do you need from him?”
“Anything I can get on Heatstroke. Every little bit helps.”
“So, you just want me to come with you to find this guy, get what he knows, and then leave? No fighting?”
“Yes! Can you help?”
“Thank you so mu-”
“But, I won’t.”
“Look, I’m not your teammate. I don’t care about this suicidal revenge mission that y’all keep trying to do. Yeah, Heatstroke is a dick and should die. He’ll get his eventually, but I have more important things to do. We’re not teammates, we’re not partners, and I’m not wasting my time and power to help you get yourself killed by your dad.”
I feel the anger boil up in my chest as I grip the corner of the table hard, glaring at Kitsune and take three deep breaths, closing my eyes for just a second.
“Kitsune, please. I’m asking for a favor.”
“We’re friends, right? You said we were last night.”
“Friends is more evocative and carried more weight with that guy. Acquaintances or allies would be a more realistic word. I’m fond of you, I even like you, but I don’t keep friends. It’s generally bad business in this line of work.”
“Well, next time you ask me for a favo-”
“I won’t. I take care of my business myself. When I see a mutually beneficial job, I expect you and your team to help.”
I let out a deep breath, gripping the table even tighter, I can’t fucking believe her. She’s been working with us for almost two years, and she still won’t help me with one simple thing? Fuck this girl! I stand up and grab Kistune by the cloak.
“Let’s get this straight, you may have creepy mind control powers, but you don’t have any secrets on me. Let’s see how long you can keep up your misfire bullshit when I center an inferno on-”
I stop, I can feel every eye in the building bearing down on me. I glance behind me and see that every person in this bar is brandishing some sort of weapon. I could take them, even the ones with guns would have trouble hurting a spirit-touched. But it would tire me out, it would use my power up, and it would give her time to get information on me.
Kitsune has barely moved since I grabbed her, she’s eerily calm. She knows exactly the position that I just put myself in, and she didn’t even have to move a muscle. She’s won. The fight never even got to start properly, and she won in a landslide. I drop her, and she effortlessly slides back to her position in the booth. She raises a hand, and her people stand down.
“Some ally you are, you can’t even help me with a small favor.” I mutter as I walk to the exit, trying desperately to control my anger until I leave this place. As soon as I get within one step of the door, I hear Kitsune call out.
“I just did.”
Within a few moments, I’m out the door and transcended. I fly high above the cloudline of Oru, I don’t want to deal with any enforcers or paladins today. Flying was something that was extremely hard to get the hang of at first, but now it’s basically second nature. Not every spirit-touched can fly, but almost all of us have some form of mobility power. Kitsune has zip line shooters, Chimera can’t technically fly, but she lifts herself with her telekinesis.
I arrive at the house I’m looking for within a matter of moments. I start to enter The Cinder State mid-flight and fly right through the roof of the old two-story house in a suburb of Oru. I scan the house, and it doesn’t take me long to find the man, he’s in his kitchen, making some sort of sandwich. I drop out of The Cinder State, and strike him in the chin with a high kick, knocking him to the ground hard. I put my foot on his throat and create a small blade of flame in my hand.
“That looks good, sure you don’t want that toasted?” I say, moving the blade closer to his throat.
“What the fuck!? What do you want?” The man says, desperately scrambling to get out of my reach.
“Just want to ask some questions. If you cooperate, we won’t have any problems. Got it?”
“Questions about what?”
“Your former employer.”
“Go ahead. I want him dead as much as you do.”
Okay. Good, this should be easy.
“I doubt that. Where is he working from?” I ask.
“Don’t know. He moves around every couple months, it’s been almost a year since I left. He should still be in Oru, when I left we were working out of a warehouse by the docks, past the old fish market and the enforcer precinct.”
“How many soldiers on site at one time?”
“At night and in the morning, maybe like twenty-five, if Heatstroke’s in, probably about fifty. They may have grown since I left, I really don’t know.”
“When is he in?”
“About ten in the morning, usually.”
“What was your job? What is he planning?”
“I don’t know. My job was simple, guard an entrance or patrol the perimeter, don’t let anyone in. Unload crates and barrels if someone tells me to. It’s basic grunt work, I never even talked to Heatstroke, and I have no idea what he’s planning.”
“Crates and barrels of what?”
“I don’t know! I didn’t ask!”
Great, useless, he’s nearly useless. I’m no better off than when I started.
“Give me more names then. Someone who would know!”
I make the fire in my hair and eyes grow and seem to burn hotter as I lean closer to the man, expelling hot steam and embers from my fists.
“You better have an extremely fucking good reason why not.”
“Anyone above me, anyone with more clearance has to have a chip implanted. It prevents them from talking about their business with people they shouldn’t. I don’t know how it works, I just know that it works and everyone above me had one.”
“Alright, so he has tons of soldiers and watches things extremely tightly. We aren’t sneaking up on him. What’s his escape plan? What does he do if a spirit-touched comes after him?”
“He… He doesn’t plan to escape. Nobody’s dumb enough to challenge him on his own turf if a spirit-touched came, we were told to try to pen them into a room with him so he can finish the job. Trying to attack him in his base is a suicide mission.”
“Yeah. People keep telling me that.”
“I swear, that’s all I know.”
“Is that it? Think really hard. If I find out that you hid anything from me, I’m coming back.”
“I…” The man goes silent for a second as he thinks. My ears seem to twitch, almost like I can hear something out of place, odd, something that shouldn’t be there. Suddenly I feel something strike me from behind, right in the base of my neck. It pierces right through my armor, and I feel something break the skin beneath. I don’t have time to investigate it. I immediately stumble back and grab my head. I feel bile trying to force its way up, I feel pain rush through every nerve and tendon in my body.
“What the fuck?” the man says, looking past me and towards his back door. The man starts to try to stand, but he doesn’t get the chance. A bullet impacts his skull, and he falls to the ground, dead.
I feel like my brain is being torn apart and unraveled. It feels like some part of me, some integral part of my soul, is being ripped from me. My heart starts to flutter a bit, I feel a bizarre feeling, a mix of panic and eerie calmness wash over me. I can finally think and breath again, I feel empty and different, but I’m not in pain.
I look towards the door and see a figure, dressed in black armor and a heavy leather duster. Their hands are covered by leather gloves, while their feet are covered by heavy-duty black boots. Their helmet is slightly domed, with red lenses covering the eyes and a small apparatus of some kind over the mouth. They’re holding a large rifle in both hands, a small pistol is visibly holstered on their right hip.
I try to focus my rage, to channel it into fire. I feel no heat in my fists, I don’t even feel any anger to call on, just fear and anxiety. I look down at my hands and see no fire, only my ungloved pale skin. I’m back in my cloak, mask and street clothes. I try to transcend again and feel nothing inside of me, no anger, no fire, nothing. I can’t even feel the pull of The Cinder on me. My soul, for the first time in my life, has no pull or connection with a spirit. For the first time in my life, I don’t see everything through a lens of anger.
“What the… what the fuck?” I mutter out.
The only response I get is a gunshot that I duck out of the way of. I quickly crawl on my hands and knees, stopping by an old kitchen table. I reach for my neck and pull out a small, white, dart. I fiddle with it in my hands and drop it. It’s almost impossible to see in this mask, and I can feel my glasses being pushed into my face. I need to get out of here as soon as I can.
I pick up one of the dining room chairs and throw it at the gunman. They knock it down easily, but I quickly follow up by coming from under the table and striking the figure in the mask. I recoil and feel a hot rush of pain run down my arm as my hand strikes hard metal. I feel the figure grab me, trying to pull me too close to move. This person is stronger than me, I’m not used to anyone, much less a mundane, overpowering me like this.
The figure strikes me in the head with one of their guns, it hits against one of the straps of my mask, which takes some of the hit for me, but it still hurts badly. I struggle to get free, I’m trained in Běishàolín and have been training since I was young, but I’m not used to using it with my mundane body, or without access to my powers. My father did always warn me I wouldn’t always be able to rely on my powers, I guess he was right about one them.
They have me grabbed tightly around the midsection, I try desperately to reach an arm under their arm. I manage to get my arm around as they bring their gun down on my head again. I use as much of my strength and momentum as I can to drive their helmet down as I drop my knee and it impacts. I flip them over my knee, and they land hard against the wood floor of the kitchen. I keep my hold on their left arm and bend it as far as I can. My knee is throbbing with pain from the impact with the metal of their mask, and I can feel them starting to break free from my grip. I feel my head throb and ache, my hood has fallen down, and I pat my hair, relieved to not feel any blood.
I can’t lock in a solid grip, so I wrench their arm and break the hold. I sprint through the back door and onto the main street of the neighborhood, the sun has nearly set, and a light fog is rolling through the street. I don’t want to run, it’s not something I’m used to doing. I feel out of my element, almost counter to who I should be, but I don’t think I can fight this person, and I don’t have the rage or adrenaline in me to try right now. I consider the risk as I run, but I need to see if I’m going to get out of this alive. I undo the straps of my mask and am immediately relieved by the clarity once I’m not seeing it through paint stained lenses.
I take a few random turns to try and throw off my pursuer, before finally crouching down behind a large row of bushes. I take a few seconds to catch my breath and compose myself. I need to think, I need a plan. I know that attacking him isn’t going to work, I need to escape, but, can I really just hope that this hiding spot works?
Think Rachel, think. What would Dragon do? Dragon… after how I left things yesterday, I didn’t want to tell her what I was doing, but I need her help. I feel around in my back pocket and am relieved that I left my burner phone in it. I quickly pull open the phone and open the group chat.
Me: SOS, Under attack, can’t transcend. I’m behind bushes near 7249 W Sycamore road. One assailant, armed.
I turn the volume on my phone off as I tuck it into my pocket, the next few minutes are excruciating, just laying in the bushes, hoping that one of my friends reaches me before my attacker does. I try to get my breath under control, I still don’t feel any anger. It’s almost like my connection with The Cinder has been completely severed.
A few minutes into hiding, I see the beam of a flashlight hit the street corner. I watch and desperately try to keep my breath steady as the figure rounds the corner, their gun raised. I try to stay as still as possible and take very shallow breaths, just hoping the fog and bushes obscure me. It doesn’t matter, they fire a bullet from their rifle at me, and it grazes the left side of my neck, a few inches from killing me.
I fall down from a mix of shock and pain. I quickly put my mask back on as I struggle to get away. The figure catches up to me in a matter of seconds and tries to shove me back down, I keep my balance and throw my elbow towards their gun as they try to take aim at me. The gun fires and I feel a searing pain rock through my arm as I feel blood trickle down. They shot me just above the elbow.
I use my right arm to grab the pistol from their holster, aiming for their mask as I pull the trigger. I drop the gun as I see a small, white, dart penetrates the forehead of their mask. Its needle cutting through the metal like paper. I exhale in relief as I watch the figure. A faint sound, almost like a laugh, comes from the filter on their mask. It did nothing. Fuck, no. I turn to try and run as they grab me by my cloak and throw me down. My head impacts the concrete hard. My vision starts to go fuzzy as I hear a ringing in my ears. I don’t know if it’s from the blood loss or the impact, but the fight from me is gone. I can’t run, I can’t hope to win. I’m so stupid. I let a stupid, petty fight and some awkward feelings put me in a situation where I didn’t have back up, and now I’m going to pay for it. I don’t know if I’m going to die or spend the rest of my life in The Wall. I don’t know which fate I’d rather have.
The figure leans down, reaching for my mask and gripping the corner of it. They give it a tug and see that it stays, much to their annoyance. They shrug slightly and raise their rifle, readying to shoot me again. I blink and try my best to prepare for what’s about to happen.
The figure is blown back off me with some force, their rifle drops harmlessly at my side. I watch their body as it impacts a small chain link fence outside a house. The figure starts to stand, trying to fight back, but the fence begins to glow a bright blue as the metal begins to warp. First, it locks around the wrists of the figure, locking their hands in place, then the fence starts to wrap around their ankles, then their midsection, and finally, their neck.
I let out a few staggered breaths as I watch Chimera descend from the sky, landing gracefully amid the fog. She stands over me, looking down at me. Her eyes are drooping slightly, and her breathing seems almost frantic, she puts her hand on my neck and feels for a pulse. Her hand comes back slightly bloody, but she seems to calm a little. She turns to the figure trapped in the temporary fence restrain she made and says something, but I can’t make it out as darkness starts to overtake my vision and everything stops.