“Call off your dogs!” Brian shouted.
The largest of the dogs, an ugly Rottweiler or a mutt with strong Rottweiler blood, seized my wrist in its jaws. My knees almost buckled in response to the pain, which only worsened when it abruptly snapped its head to one side and wrenched my arm. I fell, and in a heartbeat, the other two dogs – a German Shepherd and a hairless terrier with a missing ear and eye – were on me.
The German Shepherd set to barking and snapping at my face, occasionally catching the hair that hung in front of my face to pull at it. The other started raking at me with its claws and nipping with its teeth, trying to find somewhere on my legs, body or backside that it could set its teeth into.
While those two were at it, the Rottweiler still had my wrist in its teeth, and it began pulling, as though it wanted to drag me somewhere. I grit my teeth at the pain and tried to think something I could do that would amount to more than curling up into a fetal position to protect my arms, legs and face.
“Call off the fucking dogs!” I heard Brian bellow, again.
A tooth or claw scratched my ear. I think that’s what spooked me, because my composure broke and I cried out.
Just a second or two later, a much longer span of time than it sounds like when a pack of dogs is tearing at you, there was a whistle. Hearing the noise, the dogs abruptly backed off. The one eyed terrier offered one hostile bark followed by a long growl even as it walked away, as if it still had enough mean left in it that it had to let it out somehow.
Lisa and Alec helped me to my feet. I was shaking like a leaf. One of my hands gripped the forearm of my other arm, as much to stop the worst of the trembling as to cradle the injury. I had tears in the corners of my eyes and I was clenching my teeth so hard my jaw ached.
On the opposite side of the room, Brian was rubbing the back of one of his hands. The three dogs were sitting in a neat line ten feet away from a girl who was lying on the ground. The girl had blood running from both of her nostrils. I recognized her from the picture I had seen on her wiki page. Rachel Lindt. Hellhound. Bitch.
“I fucking hate it,” Brian growled at the girl, putting emphasis on the swear, “When you make me do that.”
Bitch propped herself up a bit, half against the wall opposite me, so she had a better view of the room. A better view of me. Seeing her in person just confirmed my impressions of her from her picture online. She wasn’t attractive. An unkind person might call her butch, and I wasn’t feeling particularly kindly towards her. Most of her features looked like they would have been better fit on a guy rather than a girl. She had a square face, thick eyebrows, and a nose that had been broken more than once – maybe broken again just a moment ago, given the blood trickling from her nostrils. Even as far as her physical build went, she was solidly built without being fat. The trunk of her body alone was bigger around than mine was with my arms down at my sides, just by virtue of having a thicker, broader torso and having more meat on her bones. She was wearing boots, black jeans with tears all over them, and a green army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. Her auburn hair was cut shortish.
I took a deep breath. Then, speaking slowly so I wouldn’t stumble over my words or let a tremor into my voice, I asked “Why the fuck did you do that?”
She didn’t reply. Instead, she licked her upper lip clean of blood and smiled. It was a mean, smug sneer of a smile. Even though she was the one lying on the ground with a bloody nose, she somehow had it in her head that she’d beat me. Or something.
“God fucking dammit!” Brian was shouting. He went on to say something else, but I didn’t really hear it over the buzzing of my power in my ears. I realized I was clenching my fist, and habitually forced myself to relax it.
Then, like I had done so many times over the past few days and weeks, I searched for a reason to justify why I was backing down. It was almost reflexive. When the bullies got on my case, I always had to take a moment to collect myself and tell myself why I couldn’t or shouldn’t retaliate.
For a few moments, I felt adrift. Around the same time that I realized I couldn’t find a reason to back off, I realized I had already wrenched free of Lisa and Alec’s support and crossed half of the room at a run. I reached for my bugs and realized I’d been using my power without thinking about it. They were already gathering at the stairs and by the windows. All it took was a thought, and they started flowing into the room in greater numbers. Cockroaches, earwigs, spiders and flies. Not as many as I might have liked, I hadn’t been using my power for long enough to gather those from further around the neighborhood, but it was enough to count.
Bitch saw me approaching and raised her fingers to her mouth, but I didn’t give her a chance to signal her animals. I kicked for her face like I might kick a soccer ball, and she aborted the whistle to cover her head with her arms. My foot bounced off of one of her arms and her entire body recoiled as she flinched.
Because I hadn’t slowed down before reaching her, I had to use my hands to stop myself from running into the wall. A line of red hot pain ran down my arm at the impact, starting at the point where the Rottweiler had bitten my wrist. Reminded of the dogs, I glanced to my right, and saw the largest of them standing, ready to come to his master’s aid. I brought a large share of my bugs in between myself and the beasts. The last I saw of them before the swarm blocked most of my view, the dogs were rapidly backing away from the swarm, startled.
Finding myself standing over Bitch, braced against the wall, I pressed the attack. Her arms were covering her face and chest, but I saw her exposed ear as a target and brought my foot down on it. Her head bounced against the floor, and blood bloomed from the top of her ear. The sight of the blood almost stopped me, but I knew that backing down now would give her a chance to set them on me again with a whistle. My toe found her exposed stomach, and as she drew her knees upward to protect her belly, I aimed a sharp kick between her legs. I managed to get kicks to connect firmly with ribs three times before she brought an elbow down to protect it.
I didn’t get a chance to do any more damage, because the dogs had gotten over their fear of the bugs and were closing in, circling around me and Bitch as the swarm extended. I abandoned my assault on Bitch to step away and face them. I knew I could set my bugs on them, but something told me the dogs weren’t about to yelp and run away while their master was being hurt. I might have the swarm attack them, but if the pain of the bites and stings didn’t stop them, they’d attack me and I’d be in the same situation I’d been in a minute ago. I doubted Bitch would call them off a second time.
A shadow fell over my vision, like a jet black curtain sweeping in front of me, blocking my view of half the room and the dogs. It dissolved into wisps of black smoke a second later, and I was startled to see Brian right in front of me, between me and the dogs.
“Enough,” he intoned. The little one-eared cyclops of a terrier snarled at him in response.
There was a sound I didn’t recognize. It was only when Bitch tried again, more successfully, that I realized the first sound had been a weak attempt at a whistle. The dogs looked to their master and then retreated, still edging away from the swarm. I backed away a little as well, being careful to keep Brian between myself and the mongrels.
Bitch coughed, then raised her head to look me in the eye. She rubbed her ear with one hand, and her palm was red with blood as she pulled it away. As the German Shepherd approached her, she rested the same hand on its head. The other two dogs moved closer to her, as if they could protect her, but their attention was fixed entirely on me and Brian.
When a good few seconds had passed and Bitch had made no further overtures of aggression towards me, I sent an instruction to the swarm to make their exit. I could see Brian visibly relax as they faded into the cracks.
“No more fighting,” he said, his voice calmer, “I’m directing that at you, Rachel. You deserved whatever Taylor gave you.”
She glared at him, coughed once, and then glanced at the other two before turning her angry gaze to the floor.
“Taylor, come sit down. I promise we’ll-”
“No,” I interrupted him, “Fuck this. Fuck you guys.”
“You said she wasn’t cool with me joining. You never said she was pissed off enough to try and kill me.”
Bitch and Brian started speaking at the same time, but Brian stopped when she started coughing. As her coughing fit subsided, Bitch looked up at me and snarled, “If I ordered them to kill you, Brutus would have torn out your throat before you could scream. I gave them the hurt command.”
I laughed a little, just a little more high pitched than I would’ve liked, “That’s great. She has her dogs trained to hurt people. Seriously? Fuck you guys. Count this as another failed recruitment.”
I headed for the stairs, but I didn’t get two steps before that curtain of black appeared again, blocking my way. Brian’s powers in the wiki had been listed as darkness generation. I knew where the stairs and the railing for the stairs was, so I put my hand in front of me to make sure I wasn’t walking into an opaque forcefield, and on finding it to be more like smoke, I kept moving. As I entered it, the blackness slithered over my skin, oily with a weird consistency to it. Combined with an absolute lack of light that left me unable to tell whether my eyes were open or shut, it was ominous.
As my hands made contact with the railing, a pair of hands settled on my shoulders. I wheeled around and knocked them away, my voice raised as I half-shouted, “Back off!”
Except the words barely reached me. The sound echoed as if from a distant place, and had a hollowness to it that made me think of someone shouting from the bottom of a deep well. The darkness didn’t just block off the light. It swallowed up noises as well. I’d let go of the railing when I turned to face the other person in the darkness, and I had a moment’s panic when I realized I couldn’t tell where the stairs were anymore. The texture of the darkness was inconsistent, making it hard to identify the full scope of my movements. I was reminded of those times I had been underwater and lost track of which direction the surface was. I could tell which way was up, sure, but that was about it.
Sensory deprivation. When those two words came to my mind, I felt myself relax some. Brian’s power mucked with your senses… Sight, hearing, touch. I wasn’t limited to those three. Reached out with my power, I identified where all of the bugs in the loft and the factory below were. Using them to ground myself like a sailor might use the constellations, I figured out where the stairs should be and found the railing. The hands hadn’t grabbed for me again, so I hurried down, down the stairs and out of the oppressive darkness.
I was only a few paces from the door when Brian called for me, “Taylor!”
When I turned to face him, I saw he was alone.
“You’re going to use your power on me again?” I asked, wary, angry.
“No. Not in the open, not uncostumed, and not on you. It was stupid of me to do it in the first place. I wasn’t thinking, I just wanted to stop you from bolting. I can barely tell it’s there, so I forget how it can affect other people.”
I started to turn away, ready to walk, but Brian took a quick step in my direction, and I stopped.
Brian tried again, “Look, I’m sorry. About using my power on you, about Bitch.”
I cut him off before he could get any further, “You don’t have to worry. I won’t tell anyone what you guys showed me tonight, I won’t be attacking you guys if I run into you in costume. I’m pissed, but I’m not that pissed.” I wasn’t sure how much of that was a lie, but it seemed like the thing to say.
When he didn’t say anything in response, I added, “You guys offered me a choice. I could take the money and go, or I could join. Let me change my mind. After what your teammate just did, you owe me that much.”
“If it were up to me, I’d kick Bitch out and keep you,” Brian spoke.
His words were like a bucket of water in my face, waking me up. I’d been pissed, furious, and why? Because I’d felt betrayed and disappointed. The irony of that, given my whole reason for being there in the first place, didn’t escape me. I wouldn’t have been as disappointed and betrayed as I was if I didn’t enjoy their companionship on some level. Here Brian was, expressing similar sentiments from the other side of things.
I let out a long sigh. I guessed, “But you won’t?”
“It’s complicated. As much as I want you on the team, we count on the boss for our allowances, information, equipment and for fencing anything we steal. We count on her to deploy our heavy hitters. We’d lose all that if we kicked her out.”
“I became a-” I almost said superhero, “cape to get away from that shit, from assholes like Bitch.” There was also the fact that Tattletale spooked me, but I couldn’t say that out loud.
“Come back inside, Taylor. Please. I personally guarantee I won’t let her pull another stunt like that or I’ll quit the team. You’re hurt, you’re bleeding, your clothes are ripped, and you left your bag with the money upstairs. I’m trained in first aid. At least let us patch you up, get you in some new clothes.”
I glanced down at my arm. I had my right hand clasped around my other wrist, and there was blood on the sleeve of my sweatshirt. And my costume was still upstairs? Fuck.
“Fine,” I sighed, “But just so you know, I’m only coming back because she doesn’t want me to. I quit, she wins, and I’m not fucking having that.”
Brian smiled and opened the door for me, “I’ll take what I can get.”