A Darker Path
Part Fifty-Seven: Pride Goeth Before …
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
12:15 PM Sunday Afternoon, February 27
"Doesn't look like much." Hunched down in his seat, Eligos looked out the window as the van entered Brockton Bay. "Me an' Vale could probably take this place over between us."
"Hush, boy." Christine's voice wasn't sharp, but he still flinched. "This Atropos may be an Unbeliever, but she possesses significant power. Nobody could have done what she has without it. We will tread carefully until she is within our sight, and then we will strike."
"Are we killing her or taking her, Mama?" Valefor's tone was appropriately respectful.
"For the moment, taking." Between her beautiful boy and herself, they had never met anyone they could not own within seconds of meeting them. However, she still had to be realistic. "If she has defences against that, we will destroy her utterly, then turn her followers against each other and raze this city to the ground as a warning to every other Unbeliever out there."
The four armed members of the Mathers clan in the back of the van did not offer their opinions. Nor had she expected or intended them to. Their lot was to do what they were told, or die trying.
After a few more minutes of driving, during which time they passed by a large mural that Christine looked thoughtfully at, they arrived at a motel. The members of the Fallen climbed out of the van and stretched their legs, looking around. They'd all dressed in 'normal folk' clothing rather than anything showing them up to be Fallen, which she knew made them a little uncomfortable, but they needed to see Atropos before she saw them.
"I'll get us rooms, Mama," offered Valefor, starting toward the front office.
"Pay for them, boy," she ordered. "Not the other way." Don't use your powers, she meant.
"What?" He was startled enough to question her orders. "But …" Realising what he'd just done, he flinched. "I mean you no disrespect, Mama, but why not?"
She triggered a flare of pain in his left ear, as though she was digging her nails into it. "Because Atropos owns this city. I'd wager her power is like mine. Everyone around her who fears or respects her is hers. She likely knows who they are, what they can do, and where they are. If we take one of her people away from her, she will know that we are in her town."
"How can we be sure she doesn't already know we're here, then?" asked Eligos.
Christine smiled serenely. "Because I would know if she is watching us, and I would be looking out through her eyes."
I said no
Go fuck yourself
Mama Mathers' interest in me had only been moderately academic until I turned the Bin Chicken of Doom into a lawn ornament, but then it had erupted into a white-hot fury. Once she decided to come after me, she'd been lighting up my threatscape, edging ever closer by the day. All the while, her power had been trying to gain access to my threat-sense, but my power was doing the same as it had done with Jack Slash and Hatchet Face, and knocking back every attempt. I didn't even need to consciously make it happen; this was the default for Ending.
It was possibly a point of interest that while Jack Slash and Hatchet Face's powers had tried to coax and wheedle and even threaten (hah!) Ending into cooperating, Mathers' power just said the same thing over and over, robotically. However, unless this indicated a way of dealing with her that was quicker and more effective than what I already had planned, I didn't really give a shit.
I'd stopped Butcher and the Teeth (and the various attempts at infiltrating drugs) at the city limits, but this wasn't a hard and fast rule for me. Dramatic, sure, but it was just a way to show off. And there were many other ways to do exactly the same thing.
I wanted the Fallen to come into the city, to think they were secure in their plans, and to let their guard down. Then (and only then) would they learn the hard way what I had planned for them. Besides, it had been a while since I'd given anyone a properly ironic death.
If I did this right, the Fallen would be the last hostile villains to invade Brockton Bay. Damsel of Distress would end up in my sphere of influence again at some point—the improvements would push that far out eventually—but I had my plans for when we got back to her. Until then, I intended to ensure that nothing interrupted Accord and Dad as they rebuilt the place, better than ever.
"So, how's it going?" I asked Dad, leaning across the table and stealing one of Cherie's calamari rings. She let out a squeak of mock outrage and grabbed a couple of my curly fries in revenge. That was fine; I preferred the calamari rings, and she preferred the fries. We both knew this. It was more fun to pretend to steal each other's food.
"Good, actually." He sounded calm and relaxed. "The Travellers accepted the deal. Once they realised I was serious, they fell all over themselves to sign. Everything else is working well."
"Excellent. I thought they would." I took a bite out of the calamari ring. Cherie waved at the phone as she stuffed both fries in her mouth at once. "Cherie says hi, by the way."
"Tell her hi from me. What else do you have on for today?"
"Just a meeting in a few minutes." I could see the car carrying Accord's Ambassadors rolling slowly along Lord Street, clearly seeking a parking spot. "Then we might go catch a movie. Or spend the afternoon feeding seagulls and browsing the Market. We hadn't decided yet."
"Well, enjoy yourselves. I have to go and pretend to be busy now, so have a good afternoon. I'll see you tonight."
"See you then." I ended the call and put the phone away. "Dad says hi back. You'll be okay while I go do my thing?"
"Yup." She stretched expansively. "I intend to sit here and happily stuff my face with food that really isn't good for me, and just enjoy my life. I might even have another shake."
I smirked as I got up from the table. "Ooh, living dangerously. Back in a little bit."
Strolling through into the restrooms with my backpack, I locked myself into a stall and took off my outer clothing to reveal the majority of my Atropos costume beneath. The rest of it came out of the backpack and I settled it into place. While I hadn't brought the shotgun or the axe along, the pistol (carefully cleaned since Nilbog) and the bodice shears (likewise) rode in their respective places.
Pulling back my sleeve, I flipped up the panel on the teleporter and tapped in the destination. Citrine and Othello, their costumes drawing odd looks but no more than that, were walking slowly along the Boardwalk, evidently looking around for me. As the clock ticked up to 12:30, they passed the hundred-yard mark. I hit the go button and flipped the panel down.
I appeared on the Boardwalk, two paces behind them, just in time to hear Citrine to ask worriedly, "Where is she?"
"Right here," I said. Pretending not to see their startled reactions, I stepped forward as they both spun around to look at me. "I said I'd find you."
"Atropos." Othello seemed to recover more quickly from the surprise. "Good afternoon. I'm Othello, and this is Citrine."
He wore a similar outfit to mine, though a tux with a bowtie instead of a vest with a long tie. His mask was full-face, half-white and half-black. Citrine, on the other hand, wore a yellow-tinted evening gown with a half-face mask embedded with the precious stones that she took her name from. Were they to show up at an official function without their masks, they would fit right in, which I suspected was Accord's intention all along.
"It's good to meet you. Thank you for being prompt." We shook hands, then I indicated a nearby picnic table. "Shall we sit?"
"If you wish." Othello gave the impression he was under strict orders to not provoke me in any way. Taking out an immaculate handkerchief, he dusted the seat down before stepping back to allow Citrine to sit. I took my seat on the other side, and waited for them to get settled.
"Alright then." I touched my fingertips together and looked at them both. "Accord wants to move into Brockton Bay. That's what we're here to discuss, correct?"
Citrine nodded. "That's correct, yes. Do you have any pressing objections to this?"
"Objections, no. Stipulations, yes." I glanced between them. "Are you recording this meeting?"
"We weren't, but we can," Othello replied. "Do you give permission?"
"I do, on the condition that no copies go any further than Accord himself." I tilted my head slightly. "It's in everyone's best interests to ensure that zero misunderstandings come out of this meeting, yes?"
"I agree, one hundred percent." From her tiny handbag, Citrine took her phone and laid it on the table between us. She called up a recording app and pressed the start icon. "Recording taken of a meeting between Citrine, Othello and Atropos, for Accord's ears only."
"You spoke of stipulations," Othello recapped for the recording. "What might they be?"
"No bringing crime or addiction into my town." My tone was flat. "I'm making Brockton Bay into a safe, prosperous city. The hard drug trade is dead. I'm not going to let anyone revive it, or anything like it, just for a little extra profit."
"How about victimless crimes?" asked Citrine. "Things that have been made illegal but don't hurt anyone?"
I tilted my head. "There are more victims from so-called 'victimless' crimes than you'd think. Suppose you give me examples."
"Well, for instance, prostitution," Othello suggested.
"We already have it, but it's not as widespread as it once was." I ticked off points on my fingers. "The ABB was running girls, some of whom had been forced into the life. When the pimps lost the protection of Lung and Oni Lee, it got a little messy. I had to kill a few men who were intent on silencing the witnesses. Most of the girls have cut themselves free and are living better lives. Some have chosen to keep doing it, but I've made sure that their managers only take a minor cut of the profits, and that they have a far better healthcare scheme. If Accord brings more into town, they're going to be working under the same rules. No exceptions."
"I see," Citrine said, in a tone of voice that meant well, shit. "What about gambling?"
"So long as it's fair and not a con job." I spread my hands. "The ABB had a casino as well. It stumbled on for a while longer after the gangs collapsed, but since the BBPD stopped taking bribes to look the other way, it's closed its doors."
"Cage fighting?" Othello didn't let any of the frustration I was pretty sure he was feeling show on the surface. "With willing participants, of course."
"Which is just gambling with a few extra steps. If you can absolutely guarantee that nobody will be pressured to throw a crucial bout and that all the betting will be fair and above board—and that the participants will have access to the required medical care—sure. Go right ahead. Just remember that thing about cops and bribes."
They sat silent for a moment. I noted that neither one protested that cage fighters would not be pressured to throw bouts. This was good, because laughing in their faces might have caused offense.
"What do you have against gambling?" asked Citrine; there was honest curiosity in her voice.
"Apart from it being a particularly insidious form of addiction?" I shrugged. "Nothing. It's not the gambling I'm opposed to, exactly. The problem is what happens when desperate people lose everything on a 'sure thing' and owe even more. Honest gambling can ruin someone's life if there's nobody there to help them kick it. Rigged gambling, especially with leg-breakers involved, is ten times as bad. Crime will go up, and I will take notice."
"But surely you understand that responsible adults can gamble—" she began.
"You have met people, right?" I interrupted. "It's also understood that responsible adults should know how to drive safely, and avoid hard drugs. And yet we have a need for speed limits and guardrails on bridges for the first, and drug rehab centres for the second."
"Very well," Othello conceded. "Nothing that involves addiction, rigged gambling or predatory business practices, or requires bribing the police. Were there any other stipulations?"
"Yes. Accord has a tendency to react homicidally to problems such as impoliteness or a lack of perfect order. The only person who's allowed to murder anyone in this town is me. If he has a problem with someone or something, he can bring it to me and I will deal with it. Again, no exceptions."
"Police," Citrine warned, without raising her voice.
I turned my head to look at the cop car cruising down Lord Street in our direction. Raising my hand, I gave them a cheerful wave. The one riding shotgun hesitantly waved back, while his partner kept both hands on the wheel and stared straight ahead in a blatantly obvious 'I-see-nothing' pose. We watched as the car just kept on rolling down the road.
"Hmm," mused Othello. "It appears to me that we could circumvent the whole problem with police bribery—"
"No." My tone was definite. "I'll let you operate in my town under my rules, but you don't get to use my name for your purposes."
Citrine pursed her lips. "Well, you're not leaving us much to go on with. This has been less of a negotiation and more a series of roadblocks."
"There's entertainment," I suggested. "Or even Palanquin, the nightclub that Faultline's Crew used to run before they left town. I understand that was moderately profitable. Also, supplying alcohol in general: there's a lot of thirsty roadworkers in town right now." I leaned forward slightly. "Just remember, your boss came to me on this one. The takeaway from all this is that we're implementing his plan here in Brockton Bay, and it's working. The main reason he's moving here is to fine-tune it. Everything else? That's extra. So don't get greedy."
Othello nodded slowly. "I hear what you're saying, and I understand. We'll take this recording back to Accord, and see what happens from there." He picked up Citrine's phone and pressed the STOP icon.
"That's fine with me." I stood up from the table. "Pleasure doing business."
I shook hands with both of them, and they headed back toward their car. Once they were in it and on the move, I triggered the teleport that dropped me back into the same cubicle as I'd come from. Changing back only took a few moments, and I went back out into the dining area to find Cherie right where I'd left her.
"I got more calamari for you," she said with a grin. "And a shake."
"You're amazing." I sat down opposite her and grabbed a couple of calamari rings, then washed them down with some of the shake.
"So, how'd it go?" Her eyes were bright with interest.
I sighed. "It went. I'm pretty sure they mistook 'willing to shoot people in the face' for 'willing to do anything for profit'."
"To be honest, that's an understandable mistake." She raised her eyebrows questioningly.
"I suppose. But they're going back to Accord with a lot less than they wanted. He might get grumpy." I grinned. "Which is not my problem. So, what did you want to do next? Movies or Market?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I already looked at the movie listings. Nothing there really appealed to me, so Market?"
"Market," I agreed. Tomorrow I would face the Fallen, but this afternoon belonged to Cherie and me.
Monday Morning, February 28, 2011
Winslow High School
They were so close he could taste it.
Mama had gone through all the information she could about Atropos, and in the PHO thread she'd found a reference to the murder of a teenage girl with the initials 'SH' or 'SS'. Scouring the local news sites, she'd finally found mention of the death of a Sophia Hess … who had been a student at Winslow High. Which meant Atropos went to Winslow.
With makeup obscuring his facial tattoos, and jeans and a blouse to disguise himself as a girl, he didn't have to worry about anyone looking at him twice. It wasn't as though he had any curves to attract attention, and he was careful not to make eye contact with anyone.
Mama and Eligos, both in civilian clothes, had entered the school at the same time as he had. The students barely even looked at them once, probably assuming they were there to see the school administration. It helped that Mama looked older than she really was, though he'd never say that to her face.
They'd discussed the next move at length. It was highly unlikely that Atropos would be walking the halls of Winslow in full costume, which meant they'd have to find her some other way. The two options they had were to either locate someone who knew who she was under the mask (teenagers being unable to keep a secret at the best of times) or to draw her out by Mastering enough students that she came looking for him.
With this in mind, he approached the nearest student who wasn't talking to someone else. "Hi," he said, drawing the guy's attention. Eye contact was achieved, and the boy's will was his. "Do you know who Atropos is?"
To Elijah's astonishment, the boy stuttered and stumbled and nearly managed to break eye contact. "Don't wanna say," he managed. "She'll kill me."
Grabbing the boy's shoulders, Elijah stared into his eyes. "Tell me who Atropos is."
Faced with a direct order instead of a question that could be evaded (though even that left him shocked and surprised) the boy blurted out a name. "Taylor Hebert. That's who Emma says it is."
Now we're getting somewhere. "Emma, huh? Tell me about Emma."
Over the next thirty seconds, Elijah learned more about Emma Barnes than he really wanted to know. That she was a well-endowed redhead was good information (though the boy put it somewhat more crudely than that), as was which home room she attended, but the fact that she'd gone from being queen bee of her year to a Goth wannabe was less useful. When his font of information started veering into explicit night-time fantasies about Emma, Elijah cut him off.
"Okay, that's enough. You're going to forget you ever saw me or told me anything about anyone."
Turning, he walked away from the boy. He knew that Mama would've been listening through his ears, so she would know everything he did. While the boy might not have known what this 'Taylor Hebert' looked like, Emma Barnes certainly would, and she might even be able to point him at Atropos' current whereabouts.
It took several wrong turns before he gave up and asked a passing student which way Mr Gladly's World Affairs classroom was. One concise description later, he was on the right track. He headed onward, knowing Mama was close behind.
They were pretending to be normal for the time being, but the instant they located Atropos, the façade would be dropped. All that mattered was getting their hands on her. Mama had said so, and so it was true.
It would've been a lot harder to bring in the extra muscle, so they were posted in the van outside. If there was any real trouble with Atropos, Mama could summon them with voices in their heads; it was something they were used to. But Elijah didn't think they'd need it. Away from her guns and knives, Atropos was just a teenage girl, after all.
He saw the door to the correct classroom and standing outside, a pretty redhead, well-developed for her age, wearing Goth makeup and dark clothing. That had to be her. There couldn't be two girls of the same description in the same classroom, if for no other reason than that none of the boys would get any work done.
Marching right up to her, he tapped her on the shoulder. "Excuse me, are you Emma Barnes?"
It never failed. She turned, looked in his eyes, and her willpower just melted away. "Yes," she said tonelessly.
"Do you know who Atropos is?"
Again, the struggle. "I … I don't want to …"
God dammit. What's she done to these people? This is usually a lot easier. "Is Atropos Taylor Hebert?"
A hesitation, then her will crumbled again. "Yes. Taylor Hebert is Our Lady in Darkness."
Finally. "Do you know where she is?"
"She said she'd be on the roof." And it was as easy as that.
"She told you she'd be on the roof? When was that?"
"Five minutes ago."
Which meant she'd still be there. He asked one last question, because he could actually learn from his mistakes. "How do I get to the roof?"
I waited alongside the roof door, the shears in my hand and my phone recording from on top of the doorframe. On my threatscape, three dots approached closer and closer, flaring bright with malice. Knowing they'd question Emma, I'd passed by her and told her that I'd be on the roof. She hadn't known why I was telling her, but she'd nodded anyway, anxious to please.
At least she wasn't cringing away from me, these days. Being the high priestess (or whatever) of a cult about me had given her some of her self-confidence back, but I suspected she needed the services of a good therapist. I wondered what her parents would think if they knew the reason behind her sudden fashion shift.
"… me go first, just in case." That was Eligos, right on cue. An aerokinetic, he was probably expecting me to be posing dramatically on the edge of the roof, or something.
The door opened, and he stepped out. I lunged from his blind spot, the shears slicing through his jugular and carotids in one swift move, not unlike the one I'd used to kill Coil once upon a time. Gore splattered across the rooftop as he stumbled, clutching his throat and gurgling whatever indecipherable last words he might have.
They were probably along the lines of, "What the fuck was that?" but it didn't matter. He'd be dead in less than a minute.
And then Valefor stepped out, locked eyes with me, and shouted, "Stop!"
He took two shaking steps toward Eligos, but no doubt saw from the rapidly spreading pool of crimson that his teammate was beyond help. Mama Mathers was staring at me, her eyes blazing with fury. Like I cared.
Valefor turned back to me. "Drop all your weapons. Your guns and your knives! Drop them now!"
Of course, I obeyed. I dropped the bodice shears, then pulled out my pistol and dropped that. I had a knife in a sheath and my good friend Mr Pump Action Shotgun; they completed the pile.
He approached me, then said, "Walk to the edge of the roof."
As I complied, his mother asked him, "What are you doing?"
His tone was sulky. "I should make her jump off, for what she's done."
"Don't you dare, boy." She did something with her power, and he hissed with pain but didn't otherwise react. "She's ours now. You hold her reins."
He sighed as he came up to me. "Yes, but … he was my brother."
I whirled on my heel. "Welp, sucks to be you."
As I said it, while he was still reacting to me moving and speaking without being ordered to, I brought the goblin claw from Ellisburg out of my pocket and slashed him across the eyes with it. He screamed, hitting a higher-pitched note than I would've expected from him. Vitreous humour, stained with blood, trickled down his cheeks.
As I lunged for Mama Mathers, my world went white and my ears boomed with unearthly noise, but it didn't matter in the slightest; my power guided my every move. Pinning her arms to her sides, I went to work with the claw. She screamed louder than Valefor had, though by the time I'd finished, all she could articulate was a gurgling wail.
Valefor staggered past, his hands reaching out in front of him. I swept his legs from under him, dropping him hard on his back, then dragged his mother over next to him. "Release us," I ordered, feeling my power echo my words on a level that didn't require ears to hear. This was because she didn't have working ears anymore, thanks to the claw tip. "Release us all. Now."
In some ways, this was easier than it had been with Heartbreaker, because my power had had to coerce his power into adjusting the way it worked on the fly. Here and now, Valefor and Mama Mathers were perfectly capable of doing what I told them; they just had to be convinced to do it. When they hesitated, I poked the goblin claw into Valefor's throat, and squeezed his mother's slender neck with my fingers. Blood was welling around the point of the claw, and she was choking and scrabbling at my wrist, before they gave in.
My vision and hearing went back to normal, but I wasn't finished. Standing, I yanked Mama Mathers to her feet. As blind as her son, she stumbled as I spun her around and shoved her backward. Five feet back was the roof edge; she tried to scream, and failed, as she hit it with her legs and went over.
By that time, I had Valefor on his feet, holding him by the scruff of his neck and the back of his waistband. "Mama!" he cried out.
"Go meet her," I said, and took one long stride before spearing him forward. He went over headfirst.
The two impacts hit the ground barely a second apart, and both threat lights flickered out. I went back to my pile of weapons, picked up the shotgun, and racked the action just as the first of the Fallen backup rushed out through the open roof door. He saw the shotgun and tried to skid to a halt. The one behind him cannoned into him, and they both tripped over Eligos' body and went down in a cursing heap.
"Hi," I said to the last two. "You're going to need to drop all your weapons and kick them over my way, then wait for the cops."
Dazed, they did as they were told, then looked around. Eligos' corpse was in plain view, but the rooftop was otherwise empty.
"Wh—where are Valefor and Mama Mathers?" asked one.
I grinned tightly under my mask.
End of Part Fifty-Seven