By Trackula and Co-written by Eduard Kassel
C23 – The Shadow Under Innsmaw: Part 2
The way was surprisingly easy, there were only two forks he passed, and one he could see the other tunnels end. And with the second, there was slime going one way. mostly dried into a crusty shell, but a quick inspection showed it.
He did not recall slime before or above. He assumed it was some will of Leston's to his drones. Or perhaps a side effect of the long term spell keeping the town fog enshrouded and befuddled?
So many questions still even as he headed into the belly of the beast.
There would be a trap. Or a readymade confrontation. Tohru could be sneaky, but he was dancing to Leston's tune for lack of options.
Well as the squid general would learn, he was not a very good dancer.
This was annoying. No infuriating, but without the teen drama. Here she had stowed away to get in on an actual magical adventure, and she ends up caught in a cliché.
Well not the cage made out of ninja squid monsters, that was original if anything was. But really, damsel in distress? If only she had her satchel still...
The old man was muttering something in Chinese as he looked over the monsters making a Salvador Dali twist of a jungle gym around them. Well at least she wasn't alone in this hostage situation.
Luz prodded the 'bars' of her prison, amazed and disgusted in equal measure at the slick oily semi-solid texture of the flesh that made up these shadowy creatures. She almost believed she could push her hand right through one, as though it were gelatin, and yet their forms held firm. It was as though they were one solid muscle of melted black rubber.
Her personal 'cage' seemed to ignore her prodding, its hooded features staring blankly down at her from the makeshift ceiling. She questioned as to whether or not this thing was even watching her or if its mind had simply checked out, no longer anything more than an object until given orders otherwise.
Certainly came off as much more domesticated than that darn Chupacabra she'd lost track of. Dumb thing had probably burned up in the sun within the first few hours.
Perhaps there was some way for a non-general to summon a couple of these nifty things, she couldn't help but ponder. That was worth some investigation, it wasn't as though she had much better to do, and she couldn't exactly chat with the folks in similar cages about her.
Starting with the one on hand, she reached up and carefully withdrew the beast's hood, expecting an attack at any moment from the seemingly inanimate beast. But it didn't react, allowing her to pull the strange stretchy black fabric free to look at the creature's true bestial face.
A half-second later she was pulling the hood back on.
'Oh wow. No. That's more than enough of that. No. Never again.'
The girl suppressed a shudder and looked back out, noticing several squids dragging another prone human body across the gloom and out of sight. It'd been happening one by one like clockwork, a caged human would be released, and then taken away. Always during regular intervals. Basically each half-hour by her rather impressive internal clock.
Any good wizard could tell you that casting a spell was always a millisecond between success and failure. Timing was everything. At least regarded her magic. The eastern stuff from the sumo and the goat seemed really haphazard and slapdash in comparison, as she saw it.
Luz focused on those details rather than drive herself crazy wondering and worrying about the people who continued to vanish that she couldn't help.
She never viewed herself as some sort of hero, or the protagonist of some trashy YA novel. She was a kid from nowhere who luckily found out she had a talent for magic and learned how to make a buck with that. And yet here she was caged inside some sort of devil shadow, watching the downfall of an entire town.
And somehow she felt a little responsible based on nothing more than her inability to act. She envied the old goat across from her fiddling around, looking not the least bit upset or involved despite his own captivity. Perhaps that was experience in action, or maybe simply apathy after years of dealing with similar situations.
Anciano Santillian had been older than the goat and he hadn't been like that at all. And he was probably a better wizard on his worst day than this old timer could dream of being. He had been warm, and patient, and treated her with respect, with autonomy. The first one to ever really do that.
She still missed him.
The thought put a somber veil over her apprehension and she sat down, leaning back against the 'bars' of her cell. She didn't regret leaving her shop to pursue this adventure and some excitement. She regretted the cliché of suddenly needing rescuing. Luz had always figured herself above all that, contemptuous of the fictional damsels in her current position.
The thought made her square her shoulders and stand back up, fists clenched. She wouldn't be saved. Like Hell. She'd get out of this herself on her own terms. Like she'd done everything since taking the reins of her own life. Even if she was rescued, if she'd done nothing but wait in this hole up until then, she'd never forgive herself.
Closing her eyes, Luz quickly made an inventory of what she had on hand. Firstly, it came to nothing, but that proved untrue. She had her clothes, wore several hairclips hidden in her unruly flaming mane, several of which could double as needles in a pinch, and a head full of all sorts of nifty occult knowledge.
Having no ingredients was quite a handicap, but wizards in the past had accomplished more with less, if some of the accounts she'd read about or heard were true. She wouldn't risk trying to enter some trance state to summon up whatever power she could manifest from within. She was terrible at trances in general, had never managed more than a spark of raw magic on her own, and would have left her body vulnerable in enemy territory.
Or at least more vulnerable than being already helpless and caged like a songbird.
Her specialty was enchantment, potions and charms. Creating handy little talismans for various purposes. None of which she had on hand, certainly nothing to enchant, save her clothes. And now wasn't the time to put that magical tattoo idea into practice. Yet.
But the thought of ink was a blessing, as it directed her eyes to the steady trickle of black fluid dripping down the Squidkhan cage's body, endless and oily and brimming with the supernatural. Her eyes narrowed and she reached up, pulling free a hair clip, and using it to help rip the midriff off her skirt. She laid the plane of cotton between her knees and dipped the tip of the pin into the squid ink.
It was never a good idea to leave an Enchantress with something to write on.
Despite his best efforts, the trap was well laid.
With it came the realization of just how the squids had taken over the town with such effortless success. A quick look around had revealed no enemies and yet in that instant he was surrounded. It shouldn't have been possible; he was warded against any shadows being invaded in his immediate vicinity.
Despite all that suddenly and without warning the squids were upon him from all sides, wet slippery flesh wrapping about his limbs and tangling him into helplessness until he was entirely at their mercy. It was so fast, so well-planned, it was practically over as soon as it began.
And suddenly he realized his mistake. All of their mistakes. They had been tackling this issue based entirely on the actions of Paco, a young boy on a supernatural power trip with a chip on his shoulder. He was showy, angry, and completely dismissing any sort of subtlety. It was no wonder he hadn't bothered to tap into the true horror of these creatures.
Leston was some meek little pharmacist though, not a warrior. There was no warrior or wizard pride at work here. And so he took full advantage of this ability quickly and efficiently. And they had fallen right into the trap.
These boneless horrible monsters that dragged him with purpose down winding passages were more like octopuses or cuttlefish than truly squids. And just like those predators their shape, texture, color, all of it was malleable. In moments they could resemble stones, rock walls, foliage, and disappear completely into plain sight.
He saw that now, sides of the cave, innocuous stones, all shifted and slithered as the chi wizard was dragged by, possibly finding the aura of light Chi clinging to him foul. Or simply preparing to spring if she numerous tendrils holding him still somehow failed.
It was all so clear now. From the very beginning they'd been surrounded, had walked wide-eyed out into the middle of ambush after ambush. They'd handed Leston his victory, it was no wonder he was getting bolder. They were the supposed experts and he'd made short work of them because he changed up the rules of engagement.
He could see Leston now, working tirelessly in the distance, grotesque body hunched over his efforts. The pile of bodies scattered before him like litter was macabre, as was their unspeakable state. Apparently Leston was attempting to copy Jade's efforts with her minions, coincidentally if anything. Trying to force the townspeople to become his own squid minions through amateurish surgery. So far this had resulted in awful traumatic failure, but still he worked on unbothered and undeterred by his failures.
Wincing, Tohru looked away as best he could under his heavy restraints, past the sight of his similarly imprisoned friends. Any direction was better than there, he thought before his eyes caught movement in the opposite direction of the Oni. And the color gray.
"Mrs. Leston?" Tohru blinked as the familiar form of the old woman stepped into view. The kindly old matron of the bed and breakfast briefly turned her small gray eyes in his direction and smiled sympathetically.
She was the squid's mother, yes. But even still, to see her unbound and unguarded, moving freely between the fleshly cages of the subterranean, it was so out of place. And such inspired a tension in Tohru he could hardly bear, as though the universe would correct the error of the old woman moving unimpeded among these demons at any moment. Like when lion tamers would bet their heads between the jaws of their cats, even when you knew they were safe, your gut reaction was one of panic.
"Mrs. Leston, please," Tohru hissed out, far louder than he'd have liked but he needed the woman's attention quickly. "You must try and leave here immediately! Please, go get help!"
Mrs. Leston paused and blinked slowly, processing Tohru's request before smiling sadly and shaking her head. "I can't leave here, young man. I have a responsibility to see to my son."
"It's not what you think, he's not who you think he is," Tohru struggled to articulate. How best could he explain to the woman that her son was wholly responsible for this mass kidnapping and death surrounding them, not some victim of magic. But a perpetrator wholly aware of his own actions, whatever justification they might have.
"I couldn't leave, even if I wanted to, Mr. Tohru," the old woman explained clearly, seeming more aware of the situation than he had ever guessed since meeting her. Was her earlier lack of insight and awareness of the situation an act all along, or perhaps she'd simply refused to grasp the weight of the situation before now?
"Just watch, young man," she stated calmly, walking past him. "I need to show my son reason."
"Mrs. Leston, stop!" he whispered at a hiss again, but she was on her way with purpose. Her unsteady gait on the uneven stone floor hardly slowed her down as she approached where her monstrous spawn continued to work, arranging his Khan, and sorting the captives for eventual intended execution or mutation into his ranks.
Leston didn't even look up when she approached from behind, stopping a mere four steps away from his monstrous writhing back. But from the way he stopped motioning, and tensed, the man-turned-horror clearly felt her presence and turned his attention towards her, probably not seeing a point in turning around since his sight was already gone.
"Simon," she began, her voice soft and full of the motherly compassion he recognized immediately from his own beloved mother. "This has gone far enough, and it needs to stop."
"I don't understand what's going on, and I don't care, you're my son and I know I taught you better than this. Better than… whatever it is you're doing. You're a gentle boy, you've never laid a hand on anything in your life…" she entreated, "What is this acting out? What are you trying to do here?"
"I've always worried about how sullen you've become but I don't understand how it's come to… this" she gestured around to the cave, clearly at a loss to articulate the horror that had engulfed her home by her son's will.
She waited for any sort of response, and was rewarded by the sight of her son slowly turning towards her, head hunched low and eye-sockets seeping over his beak. He was bereft of any features Tohru could equivocate to human expression, but the tense wrinkles around his face implied there was something going on there.
Was the old woman perhaps reaching the man? Even after all this?
There was silence, then finally, Leston raised his head and spoke, his voice dribbling and wet, as though slime clogged his throat and bubbled to let words pass. "You've just don't get it, do you."
Then there was a sound, like a bullwhip, a heavy crack piercing the cave and echoing harshly off the walls, silence overwhelming it in moments.
At first, the young wizard was unable to understand it's source, but as if cruelly clarifying the situation, Leston raised a dripping red tentacle to his mouth. Three misshapen tongues, more like internal tentacles of varying sizes, slithered out from between his beak and wrapped around the appendage, licking the red away with efficiency and eagerness.
All the while a diagonal line of red began to inexplicable slide its way down Mrs. Leston's back, from her left shoulder to her right hip. It was along that line that the seam of her being split and finally came apart silently to the floor. The sound of her body hitting the stone floor was soft, like dropping a pile of laundry, wholly inappropriate for summing up the weight of a woman's life.
For an instant Tohru saw his own mother laying bisected before the General, and all thought ground to a halt.
Widow had been in cells before, she was well-acquainted with being locked away in confined uncomfortable spaces at the mercy of some authority. But this was worse on a number of levels than those past experiences. Not only was her bloated freakish form confined to a space barely enough to stretch her shoulders in, but in those past incidents she wasn't surrounded by her would-be executioners all facing her, waiting patiently to the bars of her prison/sanctum to wear thin and vanish. In which case they would pounce as one, and rip her limb from limb, and considering how many she had these days…
'Not only that,' she added silently to the growing list of irritants, 'back then I only had myself to blame for being locked away in a hole. Being here because of Jade somehow makes this even worse. Bonding experience? Christ…'
Lowering her head, she covered her eyes with her forearms and curled tight into herself, imagining a pillbug. Wrong species, but she knew enough about real spiders to know she hardly qualified as a true arachnid, either.
Perhaps she could just cocoon herself in her silk and shutdown, just like how this nightmare really began. Be a fitting end to leave this terrible alien world the same way she entered it. But the symmetry of it was enough for her to dash the idea. Life didn't have patterns like that, not really. If anything she knew better than anyone that the world was random, and completely without rhyme or reason.
Trying to impose some order on it now, in what might have been her last moments, would have made a greater mockery of her end than it already was.
"Oh great, we were doing so well together, but one little snag and I catch you pouting again," came the familiar voice of her mistress and queen hovering above her.
Widow's eyes shut even tighter in frustration, hating that she felt relief, and how quickly it was she settled in for oblivion. Widow from a year ago would have been disgusted with her. Well Widow from NOW was disgusted with her, so they were in agreement.
With a sigh, she looked up and saw Jade clinging to the ceiling. And not just her proxy again like before but Jade herself, flanked on all sides by her numerous and damned ominous silent khan soldiers. Reaching down, the queen placed a plated hand on the surface of the barrier, and just like that, it unraveled entirely, threads of light burning out and away like cigarette ash caught in the wind.
Looking around, Widow saw that her Squid-guards were bound in webs, just as she'd considered doing to herself a moment earlier. But strange streaks of light danced along the webs at random intervals.
"You… didn't kill these ones?"
"Poof, you mean," Jade corrected, reaching down with her right pedipalp and clasped Widow's thick clawed hand, to pull her up beside her to the ceiling. The motion seamless despite Widow's considerable weight, and Jade only using the strength of one limb.
"Killing implies these guys are even vaguely alive. Peat moss has more of a lifeforce than these things," Jade corrected once Widow was safely at her side. "But I didn't poof 'em because that would have alerted the giant slug that I'm here saving your abdomen. I put 'em in a Stasis Weave though, so now they're not reporting squat."
"Go back to the mouth of the tunnel, if you please?" Jade asked, turning her attention forward towards the new General. "I got business up ahead. I'll meet you shortly. I'll even send some of the girls back with you just in case some of those squids are creeping about."
"But… I mean… You insisted I come here and help, and…" Widow began, struggling to articulate the mixed feelings boiling in her abdome- er, her stomach.
"Oh, no, this isn't on you, you were fine," Jade assured, clasping both her hands in Jade's own, and her pedipalps for good measure. "This whole affair just turned out to be a big hot mess, so it's not the time for some family bonding, y'know?"
'FAMILY?' Widow blinked, surprised and more than a little horrified at the implication. In no mood to process THAT, she turned and began to skitter off, several other khan breaking away from the group to flank her as Jade had promised. With their guidance finding the outside would be easy, not to mention a blessing after this claustrophobic deathtrap.
But Widow surprised herself by stopping suddenly and turning back, voicing a thought in the back of her mind, "Shouldn't your real body be elsewhere? I mean… it's dangerous, so…"
Jade blinked, and a wide eager grin formed on her face, making Jessie immediately regret the question. "Aww, are you worried? Don't be, I got this. Wasn't gonna trust saving you to a proxy, and there's business down there I have to attend to in person…"
"Don't you worry, Widow. Only one person is in danger right now and it's certainly not me…" sickle-shaped fangs flashed between her pouted lips as her smile turned cold and she turned away from Widow and back towards what was to be her prey.
Without another word, Widow quickened her pace, eager to be out of earshot before the screams began.
"Why?!" Tohru gasped tearing his eyes from the mudered woman to her son ad killer.
"Why?" Leston repeated, gazing blankly up at where Tohru was suspended, his empty sockets dripping their milky white vitreous humor like a continuous river of tears. "I'm getting so tired with being asked that question. WHY. The word even SOUNDS offensive to the ears."
"Really, that's a microcosm of the answer," he explained, slithering back, tendrils flaring and twisting up and down. "Just hearing your voice, any voice. Any reminder of all the repulsive dreck that covers this world. I put out my eyes just so I wouldn't need to look into your vapid empty faces another second, but perhaps I should have moved onto my hearing, too. Not that I'm sure where my ears currently are."
"I'm gonna kill it all," he stated clearly interrupting himself and ignoring Tohru's surprise and horror. "Everyone. Every man, woman and child on the face of this miserable planet. Poison the sea, burn down the forests, reduce this sphere to a toxic rock black as coal with not a trace of life to be found."
"I'm gonna do it because I want to. Because I hate you, all of you, each and every single stinking, choking, BREATHING thing to be found. That's right, big guy, I don't even know you but I hate you more than I can BEAR to express," he hissed, and twitched, snapping a tentacle that split a boulder of the cave clean down the middle with no apparent effort.
"It's my dream, the lullaby I'd tell myself so I could sleep at night. And I don't need a reason why, not a one. All the songs say to follow your heart, right? Well this heart says Extinction," he chuckled, a gibberous unpleasant sound accompanied by saliva dripping down his tentacles.
"I thought I would die having accomplished nothing of value, raging in silence at you lot. But then God came. He took me in his arms. Not the soft weak phantasm they prattle on about in my mother's church. Real capital 'G' God. Old and terrible and devoid of mercy or empathy like I'd always wished was real, but never dared to dream."
"Now it lives on in me, this Old One," he purred, his fleshy chest thrumming with movement just below the rubbery surface. "Way I see it, that makes ME God. So the first order of business? Complete and utter xenocide. Maybe after that I'll finally feel a modicum of peace."
The air seemed to chill as the sheer breadth of Leston's depraved designs became painfully clear for Tohru as he glared up in silence towards the blind demon before him.
Valmont, Shendu and his twisted siblings, Daolon Wong, Tarakudo, Drago… Jade, they all operated under some warped and perverse sense of ambition and purpose. Destruction and death was just a means to an end, the method of them attaining their goal. Never the end, itself. Cruel, sadistic and heartless as most of them may have been, none of them were motivated by sheer morbid revulsion at creation. None of them but this seemingly mundane boring old pharmacist turned oni.
How could someone so banal hide such a black putrid soul? Someone who hated the sight of the world so much his first act as an Oni was to blind himself? Someone who could strike down his own mother without a moment's hesitation or so much as an ounce of regret? Crawling over her cooling body without another word as though she were wastepaper on a sidewalk.
Tohru's stricken silence seemed to please the eldritch general who smiled as best as his beak allowed. "Oh? No snappy comeback? No condemnation? No declaration of my madness? Don't get me wrong, I like it, but I was starting to think I was going to be subjected to clichés," Leston chuckled wetly.
Tohru glanced back to the corpse of Mrs. Leston, face down limp like a discarded doll. For a painful and altogether too vivid moment, he pictured his own beloved mother in her position, and his heart clenched. Slowly, he turned his eyes up to the sightless weeping orbs.
"You're going to die," were the words Tohru's lips formed, although he himself didn't consciously remember giving them the command. He found himself believing it too, testing his bonds and sorting his options with new calm. What was this feeling? It was familiar, and yet also new. Accompanied by a strange cold clarity.
"Oh, there it is. Well I have heard far cornier," Leston muttered through his dripping beak, tentacles shrugging in frank dismissal. He glanced back at where Luz seemed to be struggling with something inside her own living cage.
"What's say I kill the little Suicide Girl first?" Leston remarked with the same tone as one discussing the morning paper. "You seem just the type to get riled up by violence against women like you were some droll white knight. Or samurai in your case, I suppose. Watch closely, I work better with a rapt audience."
The General slowly began to slither towards the cage at a mock casual pace where Luz was held and the squids disengaged their cage to grab the girl up in their tentacles. She struggled against her bonds, not able to follow the words around her, but clearly understanding the context enough to grasp her immediate danger. Her usual cool, apathetic calm was replaced by a wild-eyed terror as the tentacles wrapping along her limbs tightened taught, leaving her paralyzed and at their master's mercy.
Strangely, Tohru felt no panic at the encroaching danger approaching the young woman, and his anger was calming to a dull roar. There was no red rage like in some past battles and countless fights as an Enforcer. Green pulsed in him, invigorating and calm, the flower stem bending before the typhoon unbroken.
Then Luz slapped the fabric gripped tight in her grasp flat against the Squid restraining her right arm. The fabric crackled, and lit up like flash paper, and the two squids holding her down exploded in twin poofs of purple vapor.
"What?" Leston asked, too confused to even be shocked at the sudden turn. His blind eyes almost seemed indignant as the girl ducked away from where she'd been held and ran like hell. As if waiting for that momentary lapse in concentration from the beginning, Tohru stopped relaxing his muscles, and tore free of the tentacles binding him accompanied by the gross sound of wet elastic snapping. Chanting rapidly under his breath with an eerie calm, he grabbed one of the khan who had been binding him and squeezed its head until the skull-less sack burst like a blister, poofing it in an instant. The next took a simple blow to extinguish it.
Distance seemed to vanish to his focused mind, and then he was upon Leston himself, his chant reaching a crescendo and his right hand bursting into green light as he smashed down on the vile creature. The blow was loud, like an explosion as the beast was sent crashing to the wet cave floor, the impacted area sizzling and inflamed, and an enraged wet hiss issuing from between the crooked beak.
He noted a moving tentacle in his periphery from the creature writing on the stone floor, and with a roar he stamped down on it and was satisfied at the sensation of it giving way like rotten fruit.
Even as two more tentacles grabbed his wrists and forced him back while Leston hissed, he could hear poofing behind and around him.
He was not alone. Luz and his actions had allowed the others their opening to make their own move towards freedom and counterattack.
But they could fight the minions without him, Tohru had his own part to play already before him. Staring down at the beast grappling with him, he understood why this strange sensation was equal parts familiar and alien. The coldness was from his time as nothing more than a murderous thug, distributing his master's retribution without mercy or hesitation. But with it was a new sense of unquestionable clear and pure righteousness, a certainty of cause. This was an Oni, not a man before him. Perhaps it had never been a person truly to start with.
'This is the reason mortals have darkness, there are things that deserve to be destroyed,' he mused with detached understanding lacking heat or malice obscuring the thoughts. He headbutted the monster screaming in his face while it tried to dislocate his limbs, and jerked his right hand free to backhand it with a loud ringing snap.
Green fire ignited in a ring around them, poofing several squids rushing to their General's aid. It was almost too easy, now that the beast was in his grasp. This was a monster who'd been too cowardly to even become a serial killer, despite possessing the clear demented motivation. Yes, his spirit was perfectly and eagerly willing to embrace pure darkness, but there was no talent for it. Once he was truly challenged, all his focus and efforts folded, leaving a pathetic beast with too much power and not nearly enough focus.
Rabid dogs had more dignity, but like them Leston would be put down all the same.
Jade watched Tohru clash with the stupid squid general, unable to contain her wide fang-filled smile. Her glee was twofold; one part was seeing the twisted slimy wannabe finally get the shut-up smacks he so richly deserved in glorious retribution. She had been forced to endure that "darky dark evil evil" spiel while laying her threads about, and frankly, if the girl hadn't reacted when she did, Jade doubted she'd have been able to contain herself for a moment longer.
And secondly, seeing Big T power up like some freaking anime warrior to turn the tide made her claws clench tight with proud shivering excitement. Admittedly she was more of a cartoon fan, but still what red blooded fangirl could resist the classics? That was her Big T growing up into a contender before her eyes at the best and most dramatic possible moment. It took all her self-control not to cheer him on and announce herself to the group as a whole. That would have been regrettable for a variety of reasons, but the chief one being she didn't wish to interrupt the big guy when he was on a roll.
Conveniently it looked like both combatants assumed the other was responsible for the barrier of flame keeping the dance floor reserved for two. Best let them keep up with that assumption.
Well enough. While she had planned to rip off that jerks face and eat it, or eat it and then somehow rip it off, this was so much better. Proving yourself as having the bigger evil pants was nice, but having someone beat your dark jeans with the white cargos of justice was…
'I need to lay off the metaphors,' she decided as her train of thought was well and truly lost.
As she watched, Uncle was free and making like a gunslinger with what seemed to be a hidden second dried lizard. Jackie, for his part, was predictably being awesome.
And... who was the Goth running around braining Squids with a golf club? Whomever she was, she was on the verge of getting overwhelmed by the boneless horde. Jade casually pulled a cord and a trio of boulders that used to be part of the ceiling fell behind the girl, crushing about six Khan. She whipped around in surprise, but had no time to waste wondering why the ceiling behind her had collapsed as the squids were undeterred in their purpose.
Hmm, the jerk was still summoning Khan as he grappled with Tohru. But they were lemminging, which she declared a words as of now, into Jade's flame barrier, and it would hold much longer than their suicidal charge would.
Smugly, Jade settled in and watched T get a grip on the general's head in his massive hands. The boneless black flesh bulged grotesquely between the thick fingers as the pressure increased.
"Motherkiller!" He shouted in the guy's face. Ohh interesting tone, loud but not furious. Judgement? Condemnation? He did the corkscrew neck snap, which while visually impressive didn't have quite the effect on an opponent lacking a skeleton.
The tentacled fiend was clearly not as stunned by the maneuver as Tohru had hoped, and one of his tentacles snapped back like a whiplash, slapping Tohru away hard and breaking their contact. The force of the blow was enough to force Jade to extinguish the flame barrier before the big man fell directly into it.
Her numerous eyes narrowed down at the now-freed Oni, lip twitching in distaste as it straightened back up, seemingly no worse for wear. He was an unworthy member of the invertebrate club after all. So breaking his neck while very cool, was more flash than substance and cost Tohru the assured win. It was unfortunate, and made her want to tug her hairspikes, but such was the reality of real combat, things often didn't go how you'd want.
Thankfully the J Team and the goth girl had basically poofed the bulk majority of his summoned forces, hey even a few civilians were jumping in, helping with thrown rocks and anything else they dared. Ahhhh! Mortals can be so adorable when they're scared but going to do it anyway! It was a shame they were on the other side of the battlefield, but that was a thought for another day.
But the tide had so quickly turned. And it was time to, in the immortal words of Han Solo; 'blow this thing and go home'.
Tohru tore free of the squids that had leapt upon his back just in time to see Leston rising up before him. A foul purple mist was venting from his weeping sockets, the scent acrid and anticeptic like caustic chemicals. Likewise, an aura was enveloping him and the squids pulled back now, forming rank around their leader as he seemed to gather his second wind.
"Tohru!" Uncle called. Tohru did not take his eyes off the evil. He snatched the lizard out of the air without looking, and began to chant. His friends were free and fighting. This would not be the end for them.
"Well, Big Guy, you've gone and done it now. I don't know where in that swollen head you thought it'd be a good idea to piss off a God whose power is rooted in his hatred. But hindsight, and all that. After this, I think I'll wear your skull."
Rearing up he raised his tentacles, sickly purple aura, thick and fibrous like sludge, yet glowing with harsh light began to weave and twist around his spread tendrils.
"I'm done with 'Leston', now. No need for a man's name, now that I've finally put that crone down. Been thinking of a nice new name, one fitting a new God who will stand with the old and leave their planet a smoking ruin," he angled down, the aura building as he looked down at when Tohru and the rest of the J-Team gathered, grimly preparing for whatever he was about to throw at them. "May as well tell someone while there's still anybody alive to hear it."
"From here on, I am-"
Jade fell to the ground between them, and with her descent, all of Leston's tentacles fell flopping to the floor. Severed and writhing the way a lizard's tail does when it detaches.
"Dinner," Jade finished calmly, filling the stunned silence. Igniting her green flames, she jumped onto the column of flesh that was Leton and stabbed into it with all her legs. Leston screamed and Jade head rotated to look at Tohru. Her back legs were binding the general in silk almost automatically as she looked back at her old BFF, bright-eyed and smirking.
"Gimme a second, T," Jade politely excused herself. Grabbing threads that caught the light at her touch with her hands, the two generals where hurled up as if by a bungee cord.
Tohru swallowed down, and could swear he heard them actually thunk into the ceiling, but the darkness above obscured anything going on. Although from the noises, that was a blessing. A wet sucking, slurping, and constricting sound, accompanied by an increasingly quiet wail of agony and fear until slowly all noise fell to silence, every remaining squid 'poofing' in unison. For a moment, stillness reigned, except for a light belch and a polite 'excuse me'.
Following that, a shriveled bundle of thread plopped down onto the stone floor, the impact sounding like some sort of dry kindling bound in twine. But the tight webbing concealing the shapeless mass was a blessing, as none present had any urge to see what was neatly wrapped inside. Or rather what remained.
"AIYAH!" Uncle cried out, somewhat delayed, but finally filling the silence. All stepped hastily back from the macabre leftovers.
Despite all experience they stood transfixed looking up at where the awful remains had fallen from. The shadows above lit with green light and slowly the familiar form of the arachnid queen lowered down on a nearly invisible thread, twirling something lazily around her left pedipalp. As she got closer, the shape became defined and revealed itself to be the now shriveled and raison-like remains of the dead General's head, dangling from Jade's claws by a withered knobby tentacle.
The J-Team and several aware and now freed civilians raised their personal weapons or fists in anticipation. The spider queen completely disregarded this show of force as she descended in silence. Immaculate in the light of her chi fire.
"Jade… thank you," Tohru spoke up first, surprising everyone with what he'd chosen to say. This timely intervention was unexpected, but then except for Nivor, Jade had not gotten along with any general that they had seen. So the gristly execution of Leston was not so out of the blue he supposed. Still, she had made that look easy. Tohru had seen and done terrible things in his time, but he was glad that her finishing off of the Squid General had been done obscured from view all the same.
"No problem," Jade chirped happily and not at all like the evil queen she wore the mantle of. "Creepo needed to be put down. And just so you know, that was only so easy because you wore him down and let me get the sweet sneak attack in. I count this a joint kill, T."
With an underhanded toss, she threw the decapitated remains down so it landed in front of where Tohru stood with a nauseating plop. "You can keep the head. I don't think there's a skull for me to mount in my nest anyway, and I bet that thing would make a WICKED Chi Conduit"
"Um… thanks, but…" Tohru began nervously, wondering if politely refusing a severed human-turned-Oni head would set his old friend off.
Not acknowledging Tohru's reluctance, Jade said turning her upper segment on its pivot to regard the others approaching. Hak Foo glaring with naked hostility. The other Chans with calm but with determined sets to their faces.
And Luz pulled out a camera and quickly snapped two pictures of Jade.
The Queen blinked and swung on her thread, leaping toward them. They withdrew only for Jade to strike a karate style pose with her arms. Luz snapped two more pictures as Jade grinned.
"Now 'that' tourist is made of sterner stuff," she looked around and nodding towards where all the civilians who had been awake moments ago were lying about snoring peacefully. "Made the other civvies all faint with my group knock out spell. I call it Normals Sleepy Time. They'd just complicate our little parlay."
"Luz is not a civilian," Jackie finally spoke up, stepping between the over-eager teen and the queen protectively.
"Well lousy thing to bring a rookie on, Jackie. Bad day," the queen chastised lightly, shaking a sharp claw in her uncle's direction. Tohru felt his jaw drop at her admonishing anyone for bringing a rookie into danger.
"We didn't invite her!" the archeologist protested with clear offense. "She snuck along in the luggage!"
"…What?" Jade blinked, all six eyes flashing open and closed at once. All present suddenly felt a great deal less comfortable with the ceasefire as the easygoing air from the Queen suddenly turned cold and oddly aggressive.
"You REPLACED me with a Mexican Goth?" she asked, tone flat and challenging.
"Wha? I-" Jackie began sputtering helplessly and looking around for someone, anyone else to chime in.
With a haughty huff, Jade than merely turned her nose up and began to ascend up her thread, looking pointedly away from the mortals present. "Well that kills the mood. Oh, and by the by, I will be taking this Essence elsewhere, and you can go a few rounds with the drone army I brought for the squids. Good day!"
The town really was quite beautiful, Tohru thought as he rested on a bench in the little town square. The scene was dominated by a memorial to the war dead. Section 13 vans filled the common area and other such vehicles were providing aid to the town as its people put their lives back together.
This had been a disaster, yet he found a certain deep peace in it all. Like spring he supposed, the rising from being beaten down refusing to let the winter linger.
Still, not everyone who had been taken down had come back up.
He caught a glimpse of Luz carrying a huge orange cat as she stepped out from the back of a van nearby. Smiling cheekily, Agent Jones leaned out after her looking more annoyed than usual.
Section O and a force of agents had been inbound before they reported in. Apparently Azan had actually had some omens, and when they did not answer Black had decided to send in a second wave.
Good to know. The peopele deserved better than just one team however talented or successful to stand for them against the darkness.
"Tohru," Uncle said. The sumo was surprised but too tired to show it.
"Sensei," he greeted. Uncle somehow took a seat on the small space not taken up by Tohru's mass.
"You did very well. Uncle is proud of student. Good chi wizard is like candle that still burns bright even when Dark Forces seem to have stolen sun and stars," the old wizard said. Tohru frowned at the compliment.
"I couldn't save her. She was right in front of me. I knew something was going to go wrong. I failed," Tohru confessed.
"Yes. You did.
"And it will not be the last time. If Good Magic always won, very different world we would live in.
"... But those saved? You did not fail them," Uncle pointed out.
"Jade is the one who stopped him," Tohru reminded the wizard.
"Yes, but that does not make your own efforts less."
More words were spoken and Jackie came by at some point as well. And Viper demanded assurances from him in his turn over the phone. It sounded like this would be the last time she would not be coming on a mission, if her opinion carried any weight.
But it seemed so distant. Even the flight back to San Francisco, his mind kept drifting back to the broken body bleeding out on the floor. The darkness uncaring and unrepentant rearing before him as it ruined that which should be protected.
Tohru groaned, shifting uncomfortably on his mattress, head still pounding from earlier in the evening. He wasn't one for Sake but the occasion practically demanded it. A year ago today, Jade had insisted on them celebrating Tohru's birthday. A date she had apparently wrangled out of his mother during one of her visits.
The memory had previously been joyous, but now it just pulled him down into depression and he didn't want company, preferring to stew in his own bitter feelings. His first real friend was gone, twisted into something horrible and standing against him. No longer was there sweet young Jade around to brighten his day, now she was shadows, and claws and red eyes in the dark.
He hated himself for his feelings, his friends had all lost something dear to them, and it was selfish of him to mourn her, even on the day Jade had declared "his". But he couldn't help it, and instead decided to wallow in self-recrimination in the privacy of his room. Tomorrow he would resume putting on a brave face and trying to match the strength of his comrades. But for tonight, there was only memories of loss weighing down on him like a pall.
"Buck up, Big guy," came a chipper familiar voice at his side. Too familiar, painfully so. He tried to sit up, but his head swam and he felt terribly nauseous. Even still, he opened his eyes against the darkness and saw a ghost sitting against his bed.
'But could there be ghosts of the still living?' he wondered as he took in the tiny form leaning against him. It was Jade, short, spiky-haired, in her orange hoofie and shorts, as if displaced from time. And maybe she was, with how chaotic their lives could be. She looked up at him with those big brown eyes and smiled guilelessly. That wide mischievous smile reserved for whenever she was plotting trouble. But there was something wrong with it, the smile had a slight trace of melancholy, the eyes showed off a maturity that didn't belong. Swallowing down, Tohru cleared his throat and asked, "Am I… is this a dream?"
There was a pause as Jade looked him over, expression unreadable. Moments later she sighed and smiled again, nodding once. "Sure, Tohru. Just a birthday boy's dream. Didn't think I'd miss the occasion, right?"
She sniffed once, frowning and crinkling her nose. "Just blame this visit on the Sake. By the way, for shame."
"Jade," Tohru bit back a sob, emotion flooding in and choking him at the sight of the small girl there once again, even if this was just his mind playing tricks. "I'm… I'm so sorry. Everything, I just… I wish…"
He was babbling, he knew, and cursed bitterly within his own mind at his inability to articulate his feelings. Jade simply shook her head, rubbing her small hand on his, shushing his outburst more like a mother than a young girl.
"You have nothing to apologize for," she stated firmly. "Sometimes… stuff just happens, and all we can do is take it as best we can, right? You're my best friend, I hate seeing you moping in the dark like this."
"But… if you weren't away from the others I couldn't visit you like this, so maybe it's a blessing in disguise? I dunno," she smirked and shrugged. "How do you like it? Took a little while to find the right clothes and get the height down."
She gestured over herself and he blinked uncomprehending. "What?"
"Nothing," she sighed disappointed, but unwilling to elaborate. "But whatever, I'm here now and I got stuff to say."
"Stuff?" he frowned, not sure what he should say, what he wanted to say. As usual, Jade was setting the pace.
"That's right," she nodded, before hopping to her feet and stretching briefly. She then turned her large brown eyes back at him and pointed a finger rather rudely, and with authority. "We gotta get you squared away. I don't like what I've been seeing. Or rather, not seeing, from you."
"You're a fully trained chi wizard and a grown man and you're still just following Uncle and Jackie and everyone else. What do YOU want?" Jade pressed, small hands firmly on her hips as she awaited an answer.
"I… I like being helpful to others," Tohru explained, not for the first time. Jade just tsked and shook her head.
"I know, I know. But is that all you want?" she went on, leaning forwards. "When I was here, I was always trying to support you and get you being the best Tohru you could be. But… I'm not there now and I'm not sure the others are taking up the slack. I don't want them taking you for granted."
"I don't feel… taken for granted," he thought after a moment, "we are all just… busy. My concerns aren't important."
"Jackie and Viper still find time for that adorable little romance they're being sooooo slow about," she disputed. "This doesn't have to define every moment of your life. Just… I don't want to see you end up lonely and bitter like Uncle. As much as I love the crusty jerk. Don't make all 'this' who you are. Get out sometimes, make new friends, find love if you're into that."
"I… I'll try," he admitted, unsure what he could do, what he even 'wanted' to do. But it was worth thinking about. If for no other reason, then this was the old Jade saying so. That was more than enough reason to honor her wishes.
The girl nodded and smiled, glancing briefly at the window, before frowning. "Thought I'd have more time than this. Gotta be on my way then..."
"Where are you going?" he asked, somewhat urgently, sitting up higher. He was just beginning to adjust to her presence, losing her again, even in a dream, would have been more like a nightmare.
"Don't worry, Big Guy," Jade smiled. "Just going where dreams go when you wake up. This Jade, or the other, just think of me and there I'll be."
Jade leaned over and kissed the big man on his forehead, her small thumb rubbing away a forming tear from his eye. "This isn't goodbye; this is just… see you later."
Swallowing down his feelings, Tohru nodded once and stated, his voice catching, "See you later."
"That's what I like to hear," she smiled again, brighter and more genuine. "Take care then, I'll be watching."
And with surprising grace she leapt out the window. Briefly, Tohru thought he saw a large shadow and the sound of multiple legs scratching against the bricks. But he ignored it, slumping back down on his mattress with a heavy sigh. At the very least, he had much to think about, even if this was merely a dream.
Increasing her pace, Hartman quickly scampered past each storefront window she came across, keeping a careful eye out for anyone who might notice the sudden flash of the inhuman reflected across the glass. In her brief experience that was hardly ever a concern, people were self-centered, usually just looking ahead, focused on their phone, or lost in thought. Noticing the world outside was rare and hardly regarded. But even still, she felt it prudent to be ever vigilant, especially since her recent escapades had led a stranger right to her.
Thankfully whenever someone noticed her reflection, they never attributed it to her, there was a momentary confusion followed by higher thought processes shaking the sight off as an illusion, a trick of the light. Flawed common sense was a greater disguise than her dimension-bending glamour form. It still gave her a bit of a rush to consider just how much she had changed on a fundamental level to be living this engaging new life.
Ms. Hartman the frumpy middle-aged teacher was long gone, she'd had a pleasant run, but life was not meant to stagnate as it had for her for so long. Sometimes drastic change was needed, especially if it was for a cause.
Liz kept that thought in mind as she saw the restaurant appear from around the next corner. It was a popular location, boasting authentic Cajun cuisine. Although Hartman wasn't interested in any culinary delights as she approached the venue from along the sidewalk. The motivation for her choice was merely because it was always crowded, public. She may have no longer have been strictly human, but there was safety while hidden in their midst.
As she reached the front door, her steps slowed to a grinding halt and she paused, anxiously looking about, clutching her purse tightly as she stared at the threshold of the building. This was her idea, she had called the number on the card. She had set the date, time and location. And yet, even with all that taken into account, she still hesitated.
This man wanted to help her, he'd claimed. For bizarre and somewhat immature reasons, granted, but as of now she had few options. If last time had been a trap, it was poorly conceived, and after years of teaching she fancied herself able to read people to an above-average degree. Also, in the unlikely event that this WAS some sort of trap or nefarious plot, she was confident that she was capable of holding her own. That didn't even take into account that she possessed an army hidden just behind the veil of darkness eager to fulfill her every desire.
However even with all that in mind, her lifetime of timidity, shyness and second-guessing stayed her from taking those final steps forward. The idea that this MIGHT be a mistake, the possibility alone, it was an old and constant enemy in her life. Although she was steadily moving past it, every now and then it reared its ugly head.
Thankfully, that thought gave her all the motivation she needed to push past it. Old Hartman was a timid little church mouse only able to assert herself in her role as a dedicated educator. New Hartman was a force to be reckoned with, commanding one of the most powerful natural forces known, which she felt even now crackling through her veins.
Also, worst of all, waiting any longer would make her late. Tardiness was unacceptably rude.
Squaring her shoulders, she stepped forward into the building, handbag clutched in her hands and sandals stepping upon the plush carpet. She felt foolishly underdressed for a place like this, it was more posh than she'd expected observing from the outside, but that only further motivated her to move forward.
She could hardly improve her wardrobe until she found herself a source of income, and the most readily apparent one was waiting for her inside, assuming all went according to plan. She told the front server she already had a table waiting for her and stepped out onto the floor, eyes scanning back and forth to scan for some hint of Steel among the many patrons.
Hopefully he was here already, if not she'd look like a fool wandering about blindly. Not only that, but there was no possible way he would recognize her, leaving it up to her to recognize him. She could only hope he was as punctual as she was.
Thankfully, she picked him out quickly from the crowd, his size putting his head well above the rest. But for a moment she'd had trouble recognizing him. Yes his face was unchanged, although he seemed to be wearing a pair of reading glasses, but the way he held himself and looked dressed in that clearly hand-tailored gray suit made him seem like an entirely different person than the thrill seeker in camo leaping roofs on a quest for some fanciful dream.
Hesitantly, she stepped forward, counting her footsteps as she went. He noticed her approach quickly and seemed to frown, either underwhelmed, or just confused by the woman approaching his way. It wasn't until she cleared her throat and sat down across from him did his eyes seem to widen in recognition of just who the other party might be.
Nervously, Hartman reached over and took her napkin, opening it and tucking it over her lap as was her habit. Her lips were clenched shut and her eyes were averted as she went about her task. Eventually, having no more excuses to look away, her sunglass-clad gaze slowly tilted up to Steel's face, hoping she didn't look every bit as nervous as she felt.
The large man was looking her up and down, apparently wrestling with the idea that this plain woman sitting across from him and that frightful bat creature may have been one and the same. It was he who spoke first, making her flinch reflexively at being addressed, making her aware of just how high strung she was.
"Good afternoon, miss. I… don't suppose we've met?" he asked calmly, but the look in his eyes was intense as he stared down at her.
"I seem to recall we'd first met several nights ago. At the Grand," she stated back, hoping she sounded as calm as he, but doubting it. At the name of the building they'd had their meeting on the roof us, Steel seemed to relax and sit back, apparently satisfied.
"Ah, yes, that's right. I hardly recognized out outside your work clothes," he went on, clearly enjoying the vague hint at her true form. "Hair is the same, though. Perhaps it would be to your benefit to style it differently when you're not on the job?"
Blinking, Hartman reached up and felt her unruly mane of blonde locks, realizing that in her stress of this meeting she'd forgotten to tie it up. She was also behind on trying to change its color for anonymity's sake. Perhaps she just liked being blonde for once and was putting off fixing it on purpose, some sort of late teen rebellion?
"You know, it's not the most socially acceptable practice to comment on a woman's hair like that," Ms. Hartman muttered flushing slightly.
"Heh, sorry, didn't mean to offend," Mr. Steel quickly corrected holding up a hand. "Although it wouldn't be the first time I put my foot in my mouth around a woman. Just something to consider, it's the only way I could recognize you from our previous meeting."
"I understand," Hartman muttered, sipping her water. All this cloak-and-dagger stuff was making her feel well out of her depth, but she knew it had its place in this instance.
A waiter approached with a covered platter, which Mr. Steel glanced at with recognition before turning back towards Liz. "I'd already ordered before you'd arrived. I would have ordered something for you as well, but I was unsure of your, well, diet. I mean, you could be a vegan for all I know."
"I-I'm not," Ms. Hartman answered, shaking her head. She knew he was really saying; you're not human so I don't know what bat monsters eat. It was reasonable, but it bothered her a little, if irrationally, that he would even consider she was THAT far removed from who she'd been. It wasn't like she swooped about snatching up rodents from the park.
Well, okay, just once, but she let the poor thing go once she'd realized what she was doing. Since then she'd made damn sure to not patrol on an empty stomach. She'd made many adjustments very recently in her life, but she drew the line at eating like some barn owl.
But just as the waiter removed the lid of the platter, a horrible acidic stench wafted up at her, making her suddenly retch and cover her mouth with her napkin quickly turning her head away. Steel reacted immediately, looking up with concern and leaning forward, asking, "Are you alright? Feeling sick?"
"N-no," Hartman muttered through her napkin, her watering eyes looking down at the jambalaya on his plate, specifically the onions. Somehow they seemed to smell even worse cooked than raw as of late. She felt like a vampire the way she was jumping at alliums as of late. But that didn't change the fact that ever since her transformation she'd found them utterly revolting.
"I just… it seems they went a touch… heavy on the onions, is all," she stated, trying not to sound difficult, as if such an impression could be salvaged at this point.
"You… don't like onions," Steel stated, his tone making it clear that it was a detail he was filing away in whatever mental dossier he was putting together on her. That troubled her somewhat, to have revealed something like that so thoughtlessly, but the fact remained that if that plate of those wretched vegetables wasn't moved soon, she'd need to go outside.
Reaching the same conclusion, Steel covered the dish back up to her relief, and turned to the waiter, politely telling him that he would need to take it back and he would order something else in a few moments. The slightly put off employee still did as told without a word, leaving the two in peace for a moment.
Red-faced with embarrassment, Liz lowered the napkin and placed it back over her legs, idly smoothing it out as she did so to distract herself. Under her breath she apologized, trying not to sound anymore foolish than she likely already looked, "I didn't mean to ruin your lunch like that. I just… it's nothing, I'm just sorry."
Steel pursed his lips, his attention apparently inward as he went over what had just happened, categorizing it in whatever way he seemed to everything. When he spoke though, it wasn't what she'd expected of him. Lost in thought he spoke, "Onions… that sounds familiar. Hmmm… you… you wouldn't happen to be Japanese, would you? I wouldn't think so but-"
"I'm not," she cut in, shaking her head perhaps faster than was warranted. "It's just… complicated. Anyways, you mentioned a job proposal you wished to share with me?"
Her quick change of subjects couldn't have been more transparent, but thankfully Mr. Steel had the courtesy not to point it out. Instead he merely reached into his briefcase and retrieved a thin binder, which he expertly leafed through. It still surprised her how effortlessly he seemed to switch gears from the hero-hunter to this seemingly well-to-do businessman.
Having found the papers he searched for, he reached over and handed them over to Ms. Hartman who nervously took them. Looking them over, they looked bland, simple, little more than the average business paperwork. No mention of superheroes or vigilantism at all across the page.
Perhaps she'd been unfair in her assumptions about Rodney Steel? He was an eccentric, but he at least seemed to understand subtlety.
"That is the initial draft in your role as my new PR consultant."
"PR? Why that? I'm hardly-"
"You're more than qualified," he cut in, giving her a chastising look through his glasses before gesturing back to the paper with a twitch of his eye. "It's all there, listing your previous qualifications."
Catching on, she managed a weak nod, feeling terribly out of her comfort zone. Was what they were doing illegal? Well, yes, probably. But not really for her, like she'd thought more than once, bat monsters weren't protected under the constitution. But perhaps this man was putting himself at risk. Even still she didn't know how to bring it up, and couldn't focus on it now or she risked missing what he was talking about as her thoughts strayed.
"Naturally, as a consultant, you would set your own hours. I don't believe in micromanaging, I've learned from experience enough to know only rookies hold their employees' hands every step of the way," he went on, and she noted he sounded somewhat proud of himself for achieving that bit of simple advice.
"However, the most important thing for a consultant is communication," he went on, his tone making clear he could not stress this issue enough. "I need to be informed of your needs, and it would be best if you could manage regular updates. They can be informal as needed."
"You, you mean updates on what I'm doing when I-"
Again he cut her off, looking around briefly to see if anyone was in earshot, "The updates are so that I can insure the money is well spent, not to mention it's an excellent way to go over ones' performance and look for ways you and I can improve matters."
"R-right," Hartman nodded, eyes glued to the documents in front of her so he couldn't see how uncomfortable she felt discussing all this in such veiled terms.
Steepling his fingers on the tabletop, Mr. Steel continued, his tone possessing that same seriousness that made her so nervous applying for that teaching position all those years ago, "And it should be understood the salary and other benefits are toward the fulfillment of this project and its goals. Namely the greater security of the citizens and private property etc. of the New Orleans area, with possible applications beyond."
"I give to charity," he added, reaching up to reset his glasses further up on his nose. "This is not one. If I feel that the project has deviated from these goals in action, or spirit… then I reserve a right to pull the funding plug."
Looking up, he saw her swallow another sip of water and nod, before adding lightly, "Nothing personal."
Finally he flipped the document over several pages and directed her to another section before adding, "Also, while I acknowledge the realities of often undesirable outcomes… there are certain basic codes of conduct on the job that I expects you to observe. I feels it is all fairly common sense to the business, but both of my careers have taught me the immense value of getting it down in writing."
At that she almost smiled, had she not felt so uncomfortable with all this. He was proposing a legally binding contract for something that wouldn't hold up in the court of law. On paper, he was simply giving an out-of-work teacher a new and surprisingly well-paying job as a PR consultant. But the fact remained that he was actually setting down terms to provide for her as a full-time inhuman vigilante. What in the world had become of her life; that she would attract the focus of such a strange man willing to support her in what had been until now just her doing what she'd felt was right with her numerous new resources?
Once again Liz was reminded of how she'd first met this man, his excitement, eagerness and childish optimism at finding a real living superhero. As well as his crushing and immature disappointment when he realized that things weren't quite as he'd hoped. This strange focused businessman was the same person as that other man? They didn't really fit in her head forming a whole picture.
She realized then that this wasn't any different from before, he was still playing. The role of the calm focused support to the hero, the two-sided conversations, all of this still fit with whatever clichés the man valued. He was enjoying this all the same as he was hunting for Batman or whoever. It sent a chill down her spine how far he was taking this before she remembered that she WAS a super-powered vigilante and she NEEDED support.
Strange comic cliché or not, that was in fact where her real life was now. Perhaps this Mr. Steel was merely ahead of the curb and she needed to hurry up and catch up alongside him if she wanted this new life to last. She needed to stop perceiving things as she had Ms. Hartman the teacher. Back then she'd have just written this man off as someone in dire need of real professional assistance. But now, perhaps she should just close her eyes, lean back and take the plunge accepting that this bizarre reality was HER reality.
For better or for worse, a new life was what she'd wanted and it seemed like the world itself was bending to give her exactly that.
So far her crime-fighting has practically been a hobby driven by a simple drive to improve society even a little, an urge to do good that had supported her as a teacher for decades. But what Steel was offering was a commitment, a contract even. And Hartman had always been the sort who took commitments to heart, believed deeply in keeping her promises and upholding her responsibilities. On some level that was why she'd accepted her change in life and form, a responsibility to Jade, her student. Proving her own beliefs with her own actions.
But this was another big step, one she never anticipated. Here she is signing up to be a super hero.
Her "just a Good Samaritan" excuse only held up when this city was merely a stopping point on her journey to find herself. But this was Liz saying clearly that she was committed to New Orleans and she is staying to protect its people essentially as a super hero; and she is getting paid to do it.
This would be signing away any honest self-evasions. Dropping all her concerns about it being a trap. If she assumed it was all on the level, it would mean she'd gone from drifting in her post teacher life, to having set a new course she would have found too absurd to even be laughable not long ago.
This was not just being Elizabeth Hartman, the former teacher who just happened to be a bat woman with a magical shadow army. Now she would be Elizabeth Hartman, the supernatural protector of a city. The weight of this choice was practically equal to her choosing to keep the Essence, a life altering decision that sneaked up on her just as suddenly as the last.
Her thoughts continued in a rush, dead to the world around her as she stared blankly at the document on the table. Was this really the city for it? There was a lot more of America alone left to see. 'Maybe I should really just lie low to figure out this bat thing? Perhaps find a nice cabin in the woods or...?'
It was that evasive thought that pushed her towards coming to a resolution. The idea that if she ran now, what sort of precedent would that set? Would she just keep moving endlessly, second guessing every possible place she might settle for years to come? Was her new life to be spent running from herself? And what if there are mistakes? Will she live in fear of them or face them? Didn't she want this power in no small part so she wouldn't be so afraid of leaving the box of a life she had made for herself?
"Ms. Hartman?" a voice asked, shaking her from her inner world and into the land of the living. Shocked she suddenly looked up, wide-eyes through her sunglasses at the large man sitting across from her. Had she just been staring off into the void this whole time? How terribly embarrassing to even consider she'd have done that in public!
"I…I mean…" she muttered, trying to arrange her thoughts into some semblance of rationale. "I'm sorry, this is just a lot to take in, more than I expected."
"Well, I can imagine," Mr. Steel said, momentarily letting concern show through his businesslike veneer. "Listen, none of this is set in stone. It'd be normal to take some time to consider this, negotiate the finer points. Etc."
"But… you would sign if you were me," she muttered, running her fingers down the page, feeling the ink of the words as some sort of sensory distraction.
"In a heartbeat," Mr. Steel admitted with a shrug and a laugh. "But I'm not you, and you need to do right by yourself first and foremost. I can't claim to even begin to understand your situation."
"What's right by me…" she repeated, staring down at the line where she would scroll her name at the end of the contract.
What was forcing her to sign now? As he/'d said she could just as easily take it back with her, read it over, pick it apart until she was completely sure the terms were respectable. She was no lawyer but she was confident she could still manage.
But she knew as she thought that that it was just an excuse to delay making a decision. Pushing it back until later wouldn't make her any more confident then as now. Having the freedom of the skies didn't mean she wanted to be free of commitment or responsibility, she wasn't wired to have such a lackadaisical lifestyle. She needed a purpose, a sense that she was doing something good with a measurable impact.
And this man was offering her the opportunity to do just that.
Running from commitment was in itself its own pathetic kind of commitment to running. Was this a trick? Perhaps, but even so no contract would stop her from doing what she felt was right. Woe to Steel if he hoped to force her hand with this paperwork if his offer wasn't genuine. She wasn't that church mouse anymore, she was something at the top of the food chain. Keeping that in mind steeled her nerves, and she squared her shoulders.
'Time to jump down the rabbit hole,' she thought as she scrolled down her name with practiced ease before pushing the document back towards where Steel sat, shocked at her sudden and seemingly impulsive action.
"A-are you sure?" he asked, leaning in to look over the name. "I don't want you to feel pressured into this and as I said we can still negotiate these terms."
Looking up into his eyes, Steel blinked at the look of resolute determination the woman suddenly held, as opposed to her earlier almost shy reluctance. Clearing her throat, she paused and then stated clearly "I am making a decision to trust you, Mr. Steel. From here it is on you to show me if you are worthy of that trust or not."
Taking another sip of her water, she looked back and added, "Also, are YOU ready for a reality far different than likely anything you've dreamed?"
He stared at her, still shocked, for a notable pause as he seemed to internalize her words, Hartman had given him her own terms, and it was on him to accept those.
A moment later his eyes softened and he favored her a look she found solemn but genuine in its determination, followed by his large hand pulling the document close and scrolling his name right beneath her own. "I suppose now the real work begins."
"I look forward to working with you," Ms. Hartman added with a smile, and he looked up to see her holding out her hand to him. He smiled back and reached forward, taking her much smaller hand in his own, noting that her grip felt much firmer and more solid than his own, before they both shook on their new deal.
"Excuse me, sir, ma'am, but are you both ready to order?" the waiter asked from the side, breaking the mood and making them both chuckle at the sudden shift.
It was only then that she realized she had not yet even looked at the menu, and gave an apologetic smile back at the frustrated waiter.
Several tables away, unknown to both individuals, someone sat, innocuous and inconspicuous among the other patrons. However, his attention never once strayed from the couple, and every word of their conversation was clearly recorded from the bug underneath their table.
Jade watched in approval as Widow dismantled and replaced the lowest floor web. The smaller, but as small as she once was, drider was still too utilitarian for Jade's taste in her weaving; but the ease and efficiency. The other two did not compare in the slightest.
Speaking of which, She wondered what exactly Tarantula had been up too? The girl kept grinning lik a niughty schoolgirl hen she thought Jade could not see. She did not seem to fully grasp the extra layer of sneakiness required for such things with a Gumo and all her eyes, compared to a human with its lonely duo.
And Jumper was just chilling.
Yeah, Widow was the tougher nut to crack for spiderness. But Jade had decided that she was still the one worth having. And her problem was too much free time.
The adventure had been a poor choice, not that Jade had any reason to think it would go south as it had! But clearly Widow as a Gumo needed to be pushed to have the motion that would let her thrive. She was not like Jade where left to her own devices she would better herself.
Jade needed to be on her, a bit like Jackie or her own parents. Those ways of managing the youth were not always outdated as much applied to the wrong type.
So she was going to passive-aggressively push this little weaver from her ruts until at last she emerged as all the spider she could be.
"Mind explaining why you still have the essence?" Big Red demanded. Jade sighed shoulders slumping as he spoke through on of her mirror shards.
"Ugh, maybe I am keeping it because I worked my abdomen off to get it? And had to drink and vomit a very bad tasting loser in the bargain?" Jade deadpanned not turning.
"If you keep it bundled up it cannot bond with a new general,"
"Yeah well considering how great their track record on promotions has been," Jade snarked. "I think I will just hold onto this adorable little squid in a bag until I find out how to stuff it down the throat of lady or man of my choosing. Such as someone who is not a maniac, a backstabber, or a would be super hero," Jade explained.
"And how long will it take to prepare such a spell? While an entire army burns a hole in your pocket?" Tarakudo demanded.
"As long as it takes. Now if you will excuse me. I have had a busy time lately and am still quite pregnant," Jade snapped. Without another word she grabbed a strand of silk and ascended feeling those yellow eyes boring into her back.
The paper snake slithered between the barrels, up the ladder and sprang up thinning to cut through the air better. The ladder it landed on buckled a bit under the impact but steadied letting her descend and proceed through a pipe that started straight and went into a corkscrew.
Emerging on the other side the giant paper snake began to fold and turned into a kneeling viper in her blue jumpsuit.
Black gave polite applause along with Jackie and Tohru. Uncle gave a grunting sound that might have been approval. Azan hummed before speaking.
"Well there's competence. But really once you get past the origami gimmick it's really not an applause-worthy performance," Azan declared haughtily. Uncle smacked him over the head.
"Young wizard toooo critical of his superiors! One more thing! Thief training for quest, not stage show!" Uncle yelled.
"Thanks old timer," Viper smiled. Black smiled and stepped up to her.
"Well Viper from where I stand you seem ready to get back in the game. So if there is no commentary against it from our experts here I think the only question is; do you think you are ready?" Black asked.
"Well I don't think I'm close to Origami's mastery. But I was doing pretty well without magic so I think I can handle it. Since I can do this now," she said. She began to fold as she went to all fours.
A paper tiger stood before them rearing up trying to look impressive.
"Really, a paper tiger?" Jacki asked. The head folded back into Vipers on the body.
"Oh come on, it had to be done," she griped.
Author's Note: Hey everyone, Eduard Kassel here. Well this chapter was quite the fighter. What you have here is the third version of the squid arc. The first one was meant to have this Chinese pirate theme we did research on. Based around the actual history of a real life Pirate queen in the region. Angus was going to be our squid general there. That did not quite click so about half way through we ditched that. Version two, we kept the pirate theme, and a bunch if sligthly tweaked scenes, but moved it from China to the Gulf of Mexico. The biggest deal about this part was PAco reentering the story as an angst fueled squid general. Angus stayed on as Paco's sour dragon for that version, and Starscream. That ad some good stuff. particularly Jade's reactions to finding Paco somewhat following in her footsteps. In the end though, as the scenes with Paco made clear; having Paco the one who ripped his own mask off, fall to darkness for such seemingly flimsy reasons did not sit well. So version 2, got the plug pulled as well. And with it we decided Angus the prate ship adorned with moaning skulls and most everything we had developed got tossed into the drink. Splash. So with a few exceptions we started from scratch for Version 3, going in a whole new direction with an OC villain and a Lovecraft theme. So that is one reason this arc took so long compared to the past. Hope it was enjoyable to all of you who have stuck with this strange tale of transformation and change. The next essence will hopefully be far easier to get a grip on.
Hey everyone, Eduard Kassel here. Well this chapter was quite the fighter. What you have here is the third version of the squid arc.
The first one was meant to have this Chinese pirate theme we did research on. Based around the actual history of a real life Pirate queen in the region. Angus was going to be our squid general there.
That did not quite click so about half way through we ditched that.
Version two, we kept the pirate theme, and a bunch if sligthly tweaked scenes, but moved it from China to the Gulf of Mexico. The biggest deal about this part was PAco reentering the story as an angst fueled squid general. Angus stayed on as Paco's sour dragon for that version, and Starscream.
That ad some good stuff. particularly Jade's reactions to finding Paco somewhat following in her footsteps.
In the end though, as the scenes with Paco made clear; having Paco the one who ripped his own mask off, fall to darkness for such seemingly flimsy reasons did not sit well.
So version 2, got the plug pulled as well. And with it we decided Angus the prate ship adorned with moaning skulls and most everything we had developed got tossed into the drink. Splash.
So with a few exceptions we started from scratch for Version 3, going in a whole new direction with an OC villain and a Lovecraft theme.
So that is one reason this arc took so long compared to the past. Hope it was enjoyable to all of you who have stuck with this strange tale of transformation and change. The next essence will hopefully be far easier to get a grip on.