“Which one of you dripping rectal cysts is brave enough for this one!?”
The cheer bubbled up from the crowd, until it reached a crescendo that he could hear from his aircraft/podium. The wind ripped around him as he stood at the nose of the aircraft, his cape fluttering. Squealer’s vehicle was like a helicopter made by someone who had never seen a helicopter before, who’d decided to add their own improvements to the design when they were finished – more whirling blades spaced equidistant around the thing. Topping it off, it was roughly three times the typical size.
“Green armband means poison, and this is a poison half of you wastes of air have already tasted! We’re gonna make it as bad as it gets! The worst of bad trips!”
He held a bowl of pills that were dusted with assorted powders and raised it over his head, “One handful, then you take a nap in one of the coffins we have up here. Moment the lid shuts, you’ll find out what’s in store for you. Some have rats, some have spiders, some have nothing at all and some…”
A beam of light speared down from the base of the fat bodied helicopter, sending chunks of earth where it hit ground. The moment it faded, a coffin fell into the hole that had formed, followed by a downpour of gravel.
“Get buried alive!”
The noise of the crowd was more bloodthirsty this time, unmasked and unashamed in their savagery.
“Hope you rancid pukes have friends to dig you up! Put up with that shit while you’re on the trip of your life, and you get yourselves a green fucking armband! For the rest of the night, everything is as free as your mother’s pussy! For as long as you hold on to that baby, anything you buy direct from one of us head honchos is ten percent off! So which-”
He stopped. There was a thump as the microphone hit the surface near Skidmark’s feet and then a violent but all too brief noise as it struck one of the propellers at the side of the aircraft and was promptly annihilated.
Skidmark’s hands went to his stomach, where blood and organs were spilling out. He turned to run, but more slices appeared in his arm, his buttock, his back and the back of his neck. No longer in sight of the majority of the crowd, he continued to try to crawl away, only for his reaching fingers to be separated from his hand, flying away from him in a spray of crimson.
The aircraft lurched and began to turn, but this maneuver ended up spelling out Skidmark’s doom. The surface beneath him was already slick with blood, and with only one hand’s worth of fingers to grip with, he slid. He used his power to change the surface and force himself upward, but it was too little, too late.
He dropped into the blades of the spinning propeller and was puréed in a heartbeat.
Standing on a rooftop across from the aircraft, Jack flicked his wrist and snapped the blade of his straight-razor back into the handle.
Smiling thinly, he looked over his shoulder at his teammates. Bonesaw sat astride Siberian’s shoulders, in the midst of braiding a lock of the feral killer’s hair. Shatterbird and Burnscar stood on opposite sides of the group, the former holding a book in one hand, the latter with images in flame dancing a quarter-inch off her skin, showing people and familiar objects, many of the images replaying the scene of Skidmark’s demise in miniature. Bonesaw’s automatons were spread out over the remainder of the roof, and one of her Frankenstein creations waited patiently at the far end of the roof. Hack Job, she’d called it? It had started to rot alive, and Bonesaw kept it out of the way so as not to offend the sensibilities of her teammates. Cherish stood in Crawler’s shadow, pale, her hands clasped together. Her shoulders were drawn in, as if she was afraid she would be struck any second.
Crawler, the most monstrous member of the group, loomed over the rest. His chest was ten feet deep from front to back, his head the size of a small car. He combined the most effective features of a bear and a panther. Sinuous, flexible, bristling with quiet menace, but also brawny with muscle. He had armor plates covering him, with scales where armor wouldn’t allow him optimum flexibility, and spines and coarse hair where the scales wouldn’t do. Head to toe, he had the coloring of an oil slick, black by default, but scintillating with rainbow hues in just the right light. A hundred black orbs studded the length of his body, set into the plates of armor. Caustic venom virtually poured from a mouth that bristled with mismatched fangs, spattering precipitously close to Cherish and eating at the concrete rooftop. Perhaps most unnerving of all were his six legs, each forking at the knee or elbow joint, with one larger limb ending in scimitar-like claws and a smaller set of limbs for each; tentacles for the rear four legs and a long fingered human’s hands for the forelimbs.
Jack spoke, with no small amount of irony. “Looks like Skidmark’s hosting a party. I think we deserve a night on the town, after waiting as long as we did to reveal ourselves. Be sure to thank our hosts. I’m sure our invitation was lost in the mail.”
Smiles spread across more than one face.
Crawler was the first one off of the roof, throwing himself into the night air to land in the dead center of the crowd. The others followed quickly after, Shatterbird and Burnscar launching themselves to the far corners of the massed crowd, conjuring up storms of glass shards and flame to block their victim’s retreat. Bonesaw’s creations poured over the edges of the rooftop to herd the remainder of the crowd and keep them contained to one area.
It was just four of them left on the rooftop. Siberian, Bonesaw, Jack and Cherish.
Siberian reached out and gripped Cherish by the shirt collar. More graciously, she extended a hand toward Jack. He gripped it tight.
“Thank you,” he said.
Catching a ride with Siberian was something of an art form. Cherish had yet to master it, not even biting her tongue or keeping the short shriek from escaping her lips as Siberian stepped off the edge of the roof. Jack, for his part, allowed himself to go limp the second Siberian pulled at him. The four of them collectively dropped, Bonesaw riding atop Siberian’s shoulders, gripping her hair to maintain her position.
They were spared the messy fate of being pancaked on the pavement by a quirk of Siberian’s nature, transferring to each of them. Jack staggered, more because he’d let his whole body relax so he wouldn’t jar something when Siberian tugged at him, but he let go of his teammate’s hand and straightened. Cherish dropped to her knees.
“Much obliged, Siberian.” Jack said. “Go. Have fun.”
Siberian reached up and set Bonesaw down, and then was gone, one footstep carrying her into the midst of the crowd. She didn’t care if she hit anyone. Anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way was pulverized, their limbs broken, chests shattered and necks snapped by the impact. Even those in the general area were caught by the flying bodies and hurt just as grievously.
Bonesaw laughed, and it was a sound without reservations, not shaped by social constraint or culture or self-censorship. It was the laugh of a child, free and without a care. One of her mechanical spiders leaped onto her back, and wound several of its limbs around her chest. Two limbs extended to connect to her wrists, so the mechanical arms mirrored the dimensions and length of her own. The ends fanned out into an array of scalpels, needles, saws, and other instruments so one tool sat between each of her splayed fingers. The smallest gestures of her hands forced instantaneous rearrangements of the tools, so another was ready for her to grasp and use. Two more spiders lunged forward and pulled one of Siberian’s screaming wounded away from the rest of the crowd, dragging it inch by inch toward the advancing Bonesaw.
The crowd might have turned to fight her, but they lacked the courage. They scattered.
Jack twirled his closed straight-razor around his fingers. “Cherish, stand up. You’re missing the show.”
Obediently, Cherish raised herself up. She lifted her head just in time to see a blur of white and black against the night sky, followed by a large explosion from the side of Squealer’s flying aircraft. It tilted and bounced against the side of a nearby building, scraps of metal shearing off to land in the midst of the crowd. A series of small detonations that ripped forth from the interior of the aircraft cast just enough light for Jack and Cherish to see Siberian striding across the deck, one of the Merchants in her grip. In a heartbeat, she’d torn the woman’s limbs from their sockets and buried her teeth in the woman’s neck.
Bereft of a pilot and working internal mechanisms, the aircraft crashed heavily in the midst of the crowd. The Merchants who had gathered in the street for Skidmark’s festival of poison scattered, abandoning their fallen friends, trying to find an escape route or hiding place. The screams of panic were twice the volume of any cheering they’d done earlier.
Siberian hopped up to the highest point of the wrecked aircraft, the twisted remains of a propeller that should not have borne her weight. Her hair blew in the hot air that rose from the heap of burning metal. She glanced around to see where she might do the most damage, spat out a gobbet of meat and then leaped off to one side, out of sight. The propeller didn’t even move.
“Are you going to partake?” Jack asked Cherish.
“Why are you still talking like I’m a member of this team? I tried to manipulate all of you, and I failed.”
“We’ll deal with your punishment at a later date. Bonesaw is working on something.”
Cherish’s eyes widened. “I knew she was… I read her emotions towards me… I knew she was thinking about something. But hearing you say it out loud. Oh god.”
“Rest assured, Cherie Vasil, you dropped out of reach of God a long, long time ago.” Jack smiled at her.
She turned away, looking over the scene, as if it could distract her from her thoughts and fears.
Crawler threw himself into the point where the crowd was thickest. Bodies flew as he moved on his two rearmost legs and swept the other four claws and two tentacles through the ranks of the Merchants. When everyone within his broad reach was dead or suffocating from the paralytic venom, he turned toward the wrecked aircraft and began advancing with a more measured pace. Each of the hundred eyes along the length of his body blinked to clear away the blood and dust that had spattered him in his all-too-brief spree.
Jack watched as someone drew a gun and pointed it at Crawler, then reconsidered. He turned it toward Bonesaw, and found himself face to face with Hack Job. He was cut down a moment later. Hack Job exploded in a puff of white dust, already having left to dispatch more gunmen that might harm Jack or his maker.
Another figure appeared next to Jack and Cherish. Jack assumed it was Hack Job until he turned his head.
“Oh hoh,” Jack assessed the man. “What happened here?”
Mannequin stood, headless, streaked in paint and dust that marred his white body with dark colors. His right arm ended at the elbow, the remainder missing.
One by one, the other members of the Nine seemed to notice Mannequin’s appearance. Shatterbird stepped back from the ruined husk of a massive suit of steaming armor and started flying their way, accompanied by a cloud of bloody glass shards.
Bonesaw turned away from her patient. She spoke to the man, pushing him away. She might have said something like ‘run’.
The man stumbled five or six steps before his body began to swell. His right arm bloated up to three or four times the usual size, turning crimson, before it exploded violently, sending shards of bone and a spray of blood into the people nearest him. He screamed, only for his cries to grow shorter and more frantic, as the rest of him reached that critical mass. In another ten seconds, the remainder of his body detonated.
Bonesaw was already skipping over to the rest of their group, grinning wide, “Mannequin! Aww! Did the villain break you? Poor baby. Like a little girl with a ken doll.”
A blade sprung from Mannequin’s remaining hand. Bonesaw tittered.
Behind the child tinker, those in the crowd who had been struck by the blood and flying bone of her first victim were starting to scream as their bodies swelled as well.
Jack frowned. “Bonesaw. You know my rule about epidemics. You have to play fair with the rest of the group.”
“No epidemic! I promise!” She said, drawing a little ‘x’ over her heart, “Four or five cycles. No more. Each transition is going to have only about half the catalyst of the last, and eventually they’ll be able to fight it off.”
Shatterbird landed in their midst. Behind her, a swell of orange light from Burnscar’s flames coincided with a peak in the crowd’s screams. Mush’s titanic form of sand and debris had ignited, and he flailed madly. Shatterbird ignored the chaos that her teammate was causing, studied Mannequin and then spoke in a voice that was dripping with judgement, “Mannequin failed.”
“It’s a shame you can’t see the disapproving look on Shatterbird’s face, Alan,” Jack commented, smiling.
Mannequin pointed the blade in his hand at Shatterbird, a threat and a warning. Jack tensed, studying Shatterbird’s expression, waiting to see if this would start something.
“A loss is allowable,” Jack said, when the fight didn’t erupt. “Most of us are more forgiving than Siberian, and allow a failure or two from our candidates during the rounds of testing, no? It’s okay to let them win from time to time. It gives them that spark of hope, so we can snatch it away and leave them all the more devastated.”
He looked at Shatterbird and she inclined her head in a barely perceptible nod.
“Which raises an interesting topic,” Jack said. He spotted Siberian and indicated for her to approach. Two corpses were stacked on her arm like meat on a kebab, and she cast them aside with a motion of her arm before approaching their circle.
Crawler was one of the two group members who had yet to rejoin the group. He was engaged with a young man with a glow that suffused his hair and emanated from his eyes and mouth. White flashes appeared with little accuracy and devastating effect, carving spherical chunks out of the brute. This only encouraged the monster, and Crawler eagerly paced closer, his wounds closing together with a startling rapidity. So few things could hurt Crawler these days that Jack rarely got to see the regeneration in full effect. Crawler’s healing powers appeared to play out in fast-forward when compared to even the regenerators who could heal wounds in seconds. Hundreds of pounds of flesh were replaced in one or two heartbeats.
One eruption of light hit Crawler in the dead center of his chest. It made him pause, no doubt removing one of his hearts and some of his spinal cord. The boy with the glowing hair pushed his power into overdrive, calling forth a series of flashes that exploded in close succession. One caught Crawler in the face, revealing only a cross-section of his head, complete with a bisected brain, a skull six inches thick and the interior of Crawler’s mouth. Crawler collapsed.
Siberian watched as the boy ran, then turned as if she intended to give chase.
“No,” Jack instructed. “Let him go. We need to leave some alive.”
He had other motivations, but he would remain quiet on that particular subject.
Crawler’s brain grew back to its full beach-ball size in one or two seconds, followed closely after by the healing of the skull, the reappearance of his facial muscles, then his skin, hair, spines, scale and armor plating, roughly in that order. He shook his head like a dog with water in its ears and looked around, searching for his quarry.
“After, Crawler!” Jack shouted, “You can fight him another time! Group meeting!”
Crawler hesitated, then loped over to their gathered circle. Burnscar lobbed a fireball high over their heads, and then dropped down from the airborne projectile to land in a crouch.
Somewhere in the background, there were the screams and explosions of the fourth or fifth cycle of Bonesaw’s work. Of the crowd that had been gathered in the street, only stragglers remained.
“I wanted to give you all a chance to cut loose before we got down to business,” Jack said. “It seems a teammate of two of our prospective members wants or wanted to strike a deal. Cherish, do you happen to know if she is still alive?”
“Tattletale lives. She’s very close to the buried girl right now.”
“Oh, you hear that, Crawler? Your candidate and this Tattletale might be friends.”
“No,” Cherish said, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the group, “They barely know each other.”
“Too bad.” Jack shrugged, then he went on, “This Tattletale wants to play a game, leveling the playing field between us and the others. If we cannot reduce our selection to a single candidate, we take the first to volunteer and we leave. Our loss, and a hit to our collective reputation as a penalty.”
“Why? It’s a bad idea,” Cherish said, “She knew you’d want to do this, knew you’d set yourself up with a situation where you could fail. Where we could fail. There’s no reason to do it.”
Jack shook his head. “Oh, but there is. Limitations foster creativity. Tell an artist to paint anything, and he may struggle, but tell him to create something specific, in a set amount of time, for a certain audience, and these constraints might well push him to produce something he might never have come up with on his own. We grow and evolve by testing ourselves. That’s my personal philosophy.”
“That’s not really a test,” Shatterbird spoke, “There hasn’t been a round of testing since I joined the group where we didn’t whittle it down to one candidate.”
“We could forego the final test, pitting them against one another.”
Shatterbird turned to him, “Ah. But, again, the last test where we had to go that far was… mine?”
“True. Would there be any complaints if we added another restriction? Perhaps a time limit? We take turns. Three days each to carry out our tests. A failure, such as the one that Mannequin evidently suffered tonight, and you’re penalized one day. A successful test might add some hours to your deadline, while the removal of one candidate buys you an extra day.”
“That’s not very fair to the first few of us to go,” Bonesaw said. “They’ll have to test more people in less time.”
“They also have an easier time removing candidates from the list. More chances at a longer run. In fact, just to be fair, we may have to adjust the time awarded for a successful test, so there’s less for the first few of us to have a turn. Do you all trust me to decide on something fair?”
There were nods or noises of agreement from Bonesaw, Burnscar, Siberian and Shatterbird.
Mannequin tapped one finger on the blade that still extended from the base of his hand, drawing forth a single ‘clink’.
“That’s five of you in agreement. Crawler?”
The monster stretched, his musculature rippling. When he spoke, his voice was a rumble of broken sounds that only barely resembled words, “No point.”
“Ah, you feel your only road to self-improvement is your power. While I would love to return to this particular debate, I can agree to disagree so you all can get back to your fun. Look at it this way. Our usual method has our quarry running scared. To even get them to fight, you have to corner them, which you are admittedly very good at doing. Like this, however, they have reason to band together, to fend us off, and protect the candidates who decide to eschew our tests and face our reprisals instead. More would fight you, and you’d have a higher chance of finding another individual who could harm you.”
Crawler tilted his head one way, then the other. He rumbled, “Fine.”
“Which only leaves you, Cherish, our errant rookie. You’re dejected because you know Bonesaw has a punishment in the works. But you mustn’t lose heart. You’ll still have a chance to redeem yourself, and maybe even escape reprisal for your juvenile stunt. I think Mannequin should start us off, and he’ll be penalized one day from his time limit for his loss tonight. And you’ll have to deal with the bug girl, to make up for this embarrassment. Make her suffer.”
Mannequin tapped once on the blade.
“Cherish, you’ll go second. Your last chance to impress us.”
Cherish nodded, as mute as her headless teammate.
“Good. Two days, Mannequin, then three for our Cherish. To be fair, we should have a rule that says you cannot take out a candidate until they fail your test. So each prospective member must be informed about the test and what it requires, they must fail, and they must be eliminated or punished, until one remains. For those of you who want to show how superior they are over their teammates…” he cast a sidelong glance at Shatterbird, “There are several paths to success. Remove several candidates, conduct a full round of testing, see that your candidate succeeds above any of the others, or all of the above.”
“I like it,” Bonesaw said, “It sounds fun! But what about Siberian? How is she supposed to tell them the rules?”
“We’ll help her out on that front. Same test as usual, Siberian?”
Siberian nodded. She reached out to Bonesaw’s face and used her thumb to wipe away a spatter of blood before licking the digit clean.
“In any case, we’ve hashed this out enough. I’ll think it over tonight and have something proper to present to you and the capes of this city who will be our… opposition. I can add some rules, to cover loopholes and keep this little event manageable. Panacea, Armsmaster, Bitch, Regent, the buried girl and Hookwolf. Burnscar didn’t nominate one, and I’ve already dispatched mine. That’s six candidates, we need to remove five. And when we’re done and we’ve established our superiority, we can kill this Tattletale, her friends, and everyone else, just to make our point. Good?”
There were signs, nods and murmurs of agreement all around.
“Good. Go. Have fun. Mop up the stragglers. Don’t worry about leaving any alive. They already know we’re here. No more than five minutes before we leave. We can’t have our grand battle with the locals so soon.”
His monsters returned to their carnage. He watched them at their work and their play, noting all of the little things. He knew all too well that Shatterbird pretended civility, but she got as restless as Siberian when things got quiet, and she would look up from whatever book she read every thirty, fifteen or ten seconds, as if waiting for something to happen, craving it. Siberian would begin to look at her group members in a hungry way. She didn’t need to eat, but she enjoyed the experience, wanted it the same way someone else might crave their morning coffee. Stimulation.
Crawler, he knew, wouldn’t show any signs of boredom or restlessness. When he lost patience with things, it was an explosive affair, almost unmanageable.
Keeping this group in line was a matter of balancing carrots against sticks. A constant, delicate process. Every member sought something from the others, however solitary they might strive to appear, carrots that Jack could use to keep them as part of the group and entice them to stay, to cooperate. It was not easy: what served as a stick to one might easily be a carrot to another.
Shatterbird, who had deigned to observe for the moment, hovering over the scene, was an individual who craved validation. She would be insulted to hear it spoken aloud, but she needed to be powerful in the eyes of others, civilian or teammate. She could tolerate much, but an insult or a joke at her expense could push her over the edge. As carrots went, a simple word of praise could satisfy her for a week, and an opportunity to shine could sate her for a month. It was why he allowed her to ‘sing’ each time they arrived somewhere new, even as he found it repetitive and boring, brooking the same scenarios time after time. Her stick was easy enough: the threat of physical harm, or the embarrassment of being made to lose control. Were she to attack a member of the group, Siberian or Crawler would retaliate, and they would hurt or kill her. It would be inevitable, unequivocal. The idea of the shame she’d feel in that ignoble defeat held her back as much as anything.
Siberian watched as Bonesaw began excising and stitching together groups of muscle and collections of organs she and her mechanical spiders were harvesting from the fallen. It was taking on a vaguely human shape.
Siberian was tricky. He doubted anyone else in the group was even aware, but their most feral member harbored a fondness for Bonesaw. Siberian had little imagination, and was perfectly comfortable rehashing the same violent and visceral scenarios time and again, but she nonetheless enjoyed Bonesaw’s work. She saw a kind of beauty in it. Even more than that, he sometimes wondered if Siberian didn’t reciprocate Bonesaw’s desire for family. Bonesaw alternately referred to Siberian as an older sister or the family pet, but Siberian’s fondness for Bonesaw bordered on the maternal, like a mother bear for her cub. Did anyone else in the group note how Siberian seemed to keep Bonesaw’s company, to assume she would accompany the young girl when she went out, and carefully kept Bonesaw in sight at all times?
Siberian’s stick was Bonesaw, the possibility of losing the girl’s company in one way, shape, or form. Threats against the girl would be met with a fury like no other. Boredom, similarly, would see Siberian stalking off on her own to amuse herself, a scenario that grounded the group until Siberian’s return hours or days later. Such usually meant a hasty retreat as the heroes who had realized that they could not defeat Siberian came after the rest of the group.
Bonesaw wanted a family. Her stick was disapproval, a revoking of any ‘love’ from those closest to her. She was far younger, emotionally, than her outward appearance suggested. She had bad dreams at night if she didn’t sleep in the embrace of one of her older teammates, usually Siberian. When she didn’t sleep, or when her mood otherwise soured, she was as intolerable as any of the others, and among the most dangerous.
Crawler wanted to be stronger, and remained with the group because it put him in constant danger. His other motivation was more subtle. He was patiently awaiting the day Siberian might honestly and brutally attempt to take him apart. The only stick Jack could wield was the possibility that the group might dissolve before that happened. On the other side of the coin, the day Crawler decided there was no longer any threat that could evolve him further would be… troubling. It was why Jack had ordered Siberian to let the boy with the glowing hair go. Finding the lad again would give Crawler something to do, and it would give Crawler a taste for what Siberian had to offer.
Burnscar was more sensitive, in many respects. She had to be managed, provoked or set up to use her power so she remained in a more dangerous mindset. Too much one way, and she became depressed and scared, vulnerable. Too much the other way, and she became reckless, potentially attacking him or one of the others and sparking disaster.
Mannequin had his mission. Few things bothered him as much as seeing someone try to help others and succeed where he had catastrophically failed. To keep Mannequin in line, Jack could remind Mannequin of who he had once been. A simple casual utterance of the name ‘Alan’ served as effectively as a slap in the face to someone else. He rarely needed such considerations; Mannequin was predictable, manageable.
And Cherish, who would not survive their stay in Brockton Bay… after a fashion. Hope was her carrot, but she had only sticks waiting for her. He met her eyes and knew she knew what he was thinking. She was all too aware an ugly fate awaited her, but didn’t know what it was. The fear helped curb her. Still, he would have to watch his back.
Carrots and sticks. A game of constant balance. A thousand factors. Even now, he was taking notes on their candidates, deciding what would work and what wouldn’t.
Armsmaster and Regent were abrasive enough that they would likely prick Shatterbird’s pride. Bitch would be a risk at first, but he trusted his ability to manage her and stop any fights from erupting.
Siberian would become jealous of any growing relationship between Panacea and Bonesaw.
The buried girl was only a candidate because Crawler hoped she was strong enough to fight him. Either she would fail to hurt him and he would grow tired of her, or she would succeed and he would have no reason to stay in the group.
That left him two candidates who might work. He doubted either Hookwolf or Bitch had what it took to stay in the group long-term. They would soon be replaced, killed by an enemy or a member of the group, but they would not upset his carefully staged balance while they remained members.
He could manipulate the outcome of this little contest, see that one of the two lasted to the end. It would be hard, requiring the best he could employ in subtlety and head games.
The wind blew flame-heated air at his back, thick with the smell of smoke and the sweet tang of blood.
He smiled. These challenges, after all, served as his own carrot.