“This is Spooky Skeleton. I have eyes on the fence perimeter,” said one of the Master Academy capes. I couldn’t fault them for having some fun with the callsigns.
Another, who sadly lacked a good enough laugh, joined in, “This is Cryptkeeper. The graveyard’s silent as- nevermind, didn’t think that one through. The graveyard’s quiet.”
“Think quicker than that, or tomorrow they’ll find you a grave man,” I said. “This is the Sausage Party-”
“Right, we’re sitting around wagon our wieners, and we’d gladly meat some birds, but the birds aren’t the word. Nowhere in sight. The skies are clear, Roger.”
“Roger. I didn’t expect we’d get this kind of clearance. What’s our vector in?” someone else took up the joke. Good to know they’re not all hopeless fuddy-duddies whose first action before putting on fresh panties isn’t twisting them in a big knot. Bit tip on that, other dudes who may be reading this: while a thong feels nice in your crack, they force you to play your cards real close to the chest. Your two pair will feel like a full house because of all the pressure on them. You wouldn’t expect it, but panties free you up to play the pocket rockets, maybe even poker. Just a little piece of advice to keep you from getting laughed at for Texas hold’em in public.
Maybe someday soon, I’ll do nothing but explain a plan using nothing but references to War and Peace so absolutely nobody will get what I’m saying. Actually, I’ll just wholesale steal that bit about tying a policeman to a bear and dropping them both in a river. I need more animals aside from penguins in on my capers.
“Quiet down. I have grim grinning ghosts on the prowl,” said Venus.
“Whose call sign is that?” I asked.
“Not a call sign. There are ghosts on the grounds, just as rumored.”
I turned to the rest of Meat Squad, who were all gathered with me. “Anyone remember anything actually useful against ghosts? I seem to remember something about a chicken. I’ll kill a chicken if it’ll help. I’ll do all kinds of things to a chicken. You don’t want to know. No, seriously, you don’t want to know, not if you ever want to eat one again. Two words: white gravy.”
Camera Guy kept on recording me, something which he’d taken to doing more and more after Psychsaur told him not to. I still hadn’t caught his name. Quincy was another one there. Excitable, skinny, and had a thing for glass. Not exactly controlling it and not exactly making it. More like he had to have enough of the raw materials around to form it into a useful shape. He mentioned around the strix bonfire that this might be his last and only hurrah before being turned into a super-optometrist.
He held up a bucket of sand stolen from the local elementary school playground. “I got nothing.”
I wobbled my head. “Eeeh… yes and no. If we had internet access, you might find something. Camera obscura techniques and stuff about trapping malevolent beings, maybe. That could have been that horror youtube series I watched, though. Still, I wouldn’t completely discount the idea that glass could be handy in this situation. It just requires knowledge to go with it. A little knowledge can go a long way and make seemingly-boring abilities incredibly useful.”
“Is that how supervillains act?” asked Chloe, the pig-tailed girl. She didn’t just look at me; she eyed me.
I shrugged. “Not that I am one, of course, but the good ones do. It’s easy to catch people nowadays. Cameras everywhere, cellphones with GPS, satellites, DNA tests, gunpowder residue, fingerprinting. It’s the law-abiding world against the criminals. Stupidity tends to get weeded out unless couple with lots of power or money, like a presidential election, in fact.”
The last member of our group, Leah, was practicing her camouflage techniques. She would settle into new positions, sitting or standing, then try to use her color-changing powers to blend in. Like a cuttlefish. It’s good to see that she did not forget our dear friends, the cuttlefish. Flippin’ glorious little sausages. “Like me,” she contributed, doing a very good impression of a tree. “I can change colors. It was my old mentor who made me really think about what that can be used for. Made me practice that, and learn to fight on my own.”
Chloe looked at her, then over at me. “Was that you?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m Puss in Boots. Her mentor was Psycho Gecko. Totally different person. Try to keep up. Geez. What kind of a person thinks a cat is a lizard?
“Gecko trained me some. He even taught me the most valuable tool of all: Google,” Leah’s barky exterior turned into the Google homepage. “He’s right, it’s a seriously underused tool.”
Quincy at her and nodded. “I bet there’s a lot of made-up stuff out there, but it can’t hurt to try some of it.”
“Smart,” I said. “Lots of junk hides useful information, and evaluating a source is an important skill as well. But the right specialists can be a big help. Microscopes, magnifying glasses… when we get back, I bet we can figure out how to make a lens that sticks on your glasses and can reflect the light in a way to burn stuff you look at. Some Greek guy supposedly built a big reflector like that to light enemy ships on fire. Same principle, better techniques, material, and a few thousand years more knowledge. We’ll give you one evil eye.”
“A good eye, you mean, Puss,” said Leah, trying and failing to perfectly maintain her disguise as she moved, no matter how much she slowed down.
“Contact!” someone shouted over the radio. “For the love of God, get me Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson!”
“Ramis is dead, you fool!” I called back.
“Dig his ass up!” the person shouted back, which drew a chuckle from me. I turned to the others. “The bad news is they told us not to get in on the action. The good news is I don’t care.”
Camera guy looked up, “They said someone had to stay with you at all times to keep you out of trouble.”
I cocked my head to the side, “And they picked y’all? Oh well, looks like you get an excuse to come with me. Let’s go bust some ghosts.”
We made our way through the woods to the western edge of Angerhorn Manor’s grounds, entrance to which involved me climbing up a tree to jump an overgrown hedge wall. In deference to that fact that I was working with the good guys, I landed in a three-point stance. It’s really hard on the knees and totally impractical.
Chloe blasted a hole in the hedges and led the others through.
“Where’s that music coming from?” asked Camera Guy.
I stood up and brushed my hand off. “Thunder Busters. A mash-up of Thunder Struck by AC/DC and the Ghostbusters song. I’m playing it.”
“How are you doing that, Puss in Boots?” asked Chloe.
I did the jazz hands. “Magic. No time for questions, let’s go.”
We ran for the main building, which appeared to have a side door in our direction. Unfortunately, most of the grounds on this side appeared to be a graveyard. A hand and forearm of bone thrust itself up out of the grave in front of us and tripped Chloe. She screemed, as did the young folks. I yanked the thing off, separating it from the rest of its arm. It balled up its hand to punch me ineffectually, but I just laughed as I looked at it. Even as more skeletons popped out of the dry earth surrounding us, I just had to grin.
“This is a problem,” Leah said. “How do you sneak past something without eyes?”
“Don’t worry about sneaking.” I held up the bone forearm. The rest of the skeleton arose right next to me, causing the rest of the group to back up a couple steps in an increasingly-small safe space. I smacked the skull of the skeleton with its own arm. “This person is demised. It’s not pining for the fjords, it’s passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its make. This is a late person. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It was pushing up the daisies. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-person!” I grabbed the skull and yanked that off at the neck with a snap, then kicked it between the legs hard enough to crack its pelvis. It collapsed. I wound up and threw the skull, knocking another skeleton’s head off as well.
With that adequately demonstrated I tore through them. I yanked the legs off one, kicked its head into a second, then burst the ribcage of another with the legs. I just cut loose and it felt great. It was when I looked up and found myself alone I realized the others had left me behind and run into the large Gothic manor house, with its big pointies and and windows you’d expect to see a dead person at.
As I followed them in, I found out that was the case. Drifting shades passed through the hall way, most paying me no mind. Chloe just blasted everything out of her way and rushed past, with the others following after.
The wing intersected with a great hall type of place, with a huge staircase leading to a second-story landing where a person in a cloak and a large strix held the high ground against the heroes. The person who built this was just asking for it to be haunted. They even had the American equivalent of suits of armor standing in this hall. Dusty glass cases held mannequins dressed in uniforms distinct to certain wars of the country’s past, weapons propped beside them. They had one with an M16 from Vietnam, another with a M-1 helmet and World War II khaki tropical uniform, a third with a helmet that could double as a bowl on an olive drab uniform, and the last a khaki uniform with blue pockets. So something after the Civil War, I’m guessing. Too bad I couldn’t use any bayonets they might have had in those cases.
We barely got there when the cloaked person held out a glove-clad hand holding a book. A grey book, but rather plain, immediately identified on my HUD as a magical anomaly. He started to open the pages toward the heroes.
“I think I love you!” I shouted. “So what am I so afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of.” I stopped there, not knowing the rest of the song. “Do not look at it if you are capable of reading!”
The Book, as I recall, was written in some ancient and unknown language, the reading of which could recall the monsters trapped within. I had to assume that a guy in a haunted mansion wearing a black cloak wouldn’t hold that out toward people unless he somehow made it more user-friendly.
Of course, the most I could do was give the warning, especially since they knew who I was. If I told them to look at the book, they might think I was trying to use reverse psychology. It helped that I was waving around a moving leg bone and blasting out an entirely different song from my body.
But, as someone once said, if you put a large switch in a cave and painted a sign that said, “End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH,’ the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry. One of the reasons I occasionally do what people ask me to do is so they don’t begin to assume I’ll take that kind of action every time. Someone took it now, and I didn’t get a good look at them. So hopefully just a red shirt. But a woman’s voice cried out, and not the strix above.
All of a sudden, something shot up into the air. A head floated. Like, the skin, veins, muscles, and bones were left behind, but it had a few organs attached. The throat still went down, it just left the lungs behind and brought the stomach and intestines with it. The intestines bunched up unusually, too, but this is in a situation with owl vampires and a flying head, so try to contain the sudden skepticism. I’d read about this thing, except only in the loose sense that I knew of their supposed existence. Scratch that, just existence. I just didn’t expect anyone could confuse that type of vampiric monster with the classical ones most people are used to.
Someone else cried out as the intestines hit them. Babies. You can’t make an omellet without touching a few intestines, as the saying goes. Or maybe that’s just me. But between me, my warning, and the newest competitor on Nickelodeon’s Guts competition show, people didn’t feel much like reading. I grabbed a nearby decrepit end table and tossed it up at book. The man pulled his hand back so that it missed the book and the termite-ridden wood fall apart as easily as if the spider webs were the only thing keeping it together. I think he shot me a look, but that’s when I noticed him standing there alone and a black-limbed woman landed on me.
She opened her mouth so far, I got a little bit of a boner. But just a little, because she had large yellowed fangs. She said something in a language I my translation program couldn’t figure out, nor did I care much when she decided to take a bite out of crime, starting with my neck.
“Ow, there are other places you can bite, you know!” I shouted as she dug in and suckled, which was not nearly as sensuous as the movies and books made it out to be. I tried to push her face away. She grabbed my hand and bit down on the underside of my wrist. “You know, that doesn’t help much after all!”
I clamped down on my neck with my hand, to keep my neck from bleeding out before the evil supernatural creature could drain it.
I glimpsed minotaur halfway up the stairs hurling candle sticks at the intestine vampire. The heroes had spread out. There was no cloaked person in sight.
“There!” pointed Camera Guy, looking up from the lense of his camera. “Distortion!”
The cloaked person reappeared in the midst of the glass cases. They broke apart and out stepped shadowy figures wearing the uniforms and now armed with those weapons, but I shivered and lost sight of it. The strix took a break to breathe, then flew back underneath the stairs like a doll being yanked. I think I heard gunshots over everything.
Psychsaur stepped toward me, staying low. “Still alive?”
“You’re not rid of me yet. Help me up.” I reached my hand up and she actually took it. I swear I felt her in my head more than ever, rifling around. “Yo, Solar Flare! I need a light.”
The super turned from lighting up the Vietnam soldier like a flamethrower. I held up my bitten wrist. He glimpsed back to make sure the shadow soldier was down, then jogged over. “This is gonna hurt,” he said.
“I’ll take pain over death,” I responded. He nodded and held his hands out.
So commenced a round of censored swearing so bad, you’d think I was on TV. And not the good kind of TV, with the tits and softcore porn, but it’s ok because it’s all based off a book written by a guy who looks like he’d write books about tits and porn. The bad kind, where somebody took a movie that’s 50% dirty and decided to show it on a channel that censors stuff because they’re a frelling moron. “Son of a Biz Markie snow globe, bend me over and shove a goat up my arch you hump-dumping, cow clucking father trucker! Suck an egg through a hose and shove it up your taco!”
Psychsaur almost said something, but she had to duck under the approach of the remaining strix, body glistened with sweat and murderous desire. That’s right, killing intent leaks right out the pores now. It’s kind of like wet human smell in that way. Some say it smells like Axe for Men.
My mind flashed back to that memory of how it was the wicked ones that came back as those things. But are they immortal, I wondered? If they were immortal, that’d be a pretty good deal. If anyone would come back as one, it’d be me.
As we ducked, a particular scream caught my ear. Leah had blended in against a wall, but now she had the stony arms of the cloaked person around her while everyone else fought soldiers and a couple of other remaining strixes.
A booming voice called out, “Anyone move and I-”
He shut up when my bootheels caught him in where I’d guessed his eyes were in a front dropkick that happened to land on either side of Leah’s head. I kicked off him as soon as I hit and flipped backwards. I landed on my knees, which wasn’t so bad in comparison to the heat of the sun applied to my wrist and neck.
Leah whirled and elbowed the figure that grabbed her in the throat area, then threw an open palm strike at its nose, the colors of the air and her hand shifting and making it hard to follow. Stone or not, it did enough to get her loose. A little bird told me something was flying to get her for that, or at least a shriek from a large female bird thing. Almost in sync, Leah dropped to one knee to punch the cloak person in the stones while I jumped up and threw my hand up, cuntpunching the sucky bitch who bit me earlier.
I dug my hand in and held on, then punched at her ass with the other hand. After a couple of hits, I straightened out my hand like a chop and thrust it right up there. I gave myself a high five, but you’ll forgive me if it wasn’t exactly skin to skin. Claws dug into my skin now, slicing into my scalp. She dragged me into the air above quite a shocked crowd who had manhandled the dark-cloaked figure onto the ground and were sitting on him.
I pulled my hand out of her bajingo and reached out to the people down there. “Improv comedy time. Somebody give me a noun, preferably in this room and small enough to throw to me!”
Somebody tossed the bowl-like World War I hat at me. Must be some Jay Garrick fans in the hizzy. I took a moment to switch hands and noticed the strix heading for a skylight that looked like it’d be painful to crash through. I shined that hat up real nice, turned it sideways, and the bowl went straight up her can the hard way. With a pained hoot, she shot up at the ceiling before we got to the skylight, knocked her head on it, and began plummeting.
I let go and tried to maneuver her under me, but her wings kept her from falling quite as fast as me somehow. “A little-” I started to say, but it wasn’t that far of a fall.
Large arms caught me. Looking up, I saw the guy I’d landed on was horny. Because he was Minotaur. “I won’t tell anyone you caught me if you won’t,” I said.
He snorted and dropped me on the hard wood floor.
I coughed a bit and decided to stay down. “I don’t suppose I could get something for my head. And blood. And neck. And wrist. A wet nap would also be appreciated. I can’t tell which of my hands went into a blood-diet digestive track and which shook her monthly visitor’s hand.”
“Hush,” Venus said, stepping past me. “It’s time to find out who’s the man under the hood. Spinetingler wouldn’t have gone down so easily.”
I laid my head back down on the floor. “Then why the fuck did you only attack like this?”
She ignored me and yanked back the hood. Shadows clung unnaturally to the person’s face until Solar Flare knelt and lit him up. It couldn’t have been pleasant being that close to the heat.
“Old Man Johnson!” I announced.
“That’s not my name, you furry dipshit,” the grumpy old man said. “Of all the no-account peckerwoods getting on my case, why did you bunch of baby asswipes follow me?”
“What were you doing on behalf of Spinetingler,” asked Venus, kneeling by him.
He glared at her, sunlight making its way in at the precise angle needed to glint off his bald head. “Not one jack squat, that’s what. I met the man, sure. Wanted to see if he’d keep my wife alive, which that pussy,” he nodded toward me, “just violated in every hole she’s good with. He showed me the book and gave me a gift. I just wanted a place to take care of her, but you had to interfere. I didn’t want to do what I did to this town, but you got too close. I just needed to stop all of you and get away to some peace and quiet where no one could hurt me and my Beth. I almost got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids,” he nodded toward Leah, Quincy, Chloe, and Camera Guy, “and their stupid cat, too.”
Psychsaur walked over to me while they talked and put her hand on my forehead. I felt her crawling around in my brain, redoing mental blocks I’d pushed past when Leah was threatened, and likely knowing full well what it took to push me past them.
The old man’s eyes locked on the downed strix female I’d had my way with as another of the capes stepped over and checked her neck and nose. The guy looked over to Venus. “She’s dead.”
As if that would have meant anything except for the fact that Old Man Johnson had a name to give that one. Speaking of which, the old bastage cried like a baby on hearing that.
“I’m sorry,” Venus said. The old man lunged upward, throwing off the person sitting on his back. The hood slid back over his face and the cloak flattened against the ground as if it had no body, just a shadow-covered head. The head descended and the wraith-like figure disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“Why do I get the feeling someone’s going to later use the term ‘rue the day’ in regards to this incident?” I asked.
“Here’s how we got to this point,” the story started.
The heroes had arrived in town with every intention of passing through the outskirts, except the outskirts weren’t mapped on any of their GPS devices. That tidbit got a snort of what I assumed to be derision from locals over the fact that many of those roads were small country roads, some of which were still dirt. The type of road where, even if the GPS did send you down it, you would still likely get lost. I’ve been down a few of those myself, and the Master Academics didn’t trust their own senses. They had no locals, with most of the full-fledged heroes having come from the West Coast.
They arrived in the day, so they figured they’d just head through town and hope nobody spied on them. That plan stopped suddenly when someone rushed out onto the street suddenly. The driver got out to investigate, leaving behind her quad-barrel laser shotgun in her haste and worry. She rushed out to find a red-winged young girl, apparently a superhuman. As she checked the girl’s vitals,the girl said something. The driver bent her ear closer to hear what it was. The girl’s mouth opened wide and she sunk her fangs…
It was at that point in the telling when a nearby group of eavesdropping children said, “Oh no!”
Venus glanced over at them. “We don’t need to go more into that.”
I turned to look at the kids. “And then the hero went to live on a farm upstate, where she can run and play with lots of other heroes all day long.”
“What an ass,” someone else said, obviously still mistaking me for someone who owned a donkey.
“You think that’s bad, you should see the hole,” I said. Yeah, that’ll get ’em. That burn’s so bad, they’ll have to give up freebasing now.
That was the first ambush, which drew more and more of the locals and the strixes into the fighting as things went on. Some locals tried to flee. Others were killed on the spot. However, the vampires usually tried to incapacitate civilians and heroes, then carry them off, presumably back to Angerhorn Manor. A few of the heroes pulled their punches early on, before they knew what they were facing, and that didn’t do them any favors.
With communications still down, Master Academy had to regroup, try and protect everyone, and see what they could do to get a message out. Venus and another super had snuck out so he could make a run with a cell phone to call Mendor for more help. Maybe gather some old Shieldwall buddies, or some of the newly paroled former villains.
“It was the protecting everyone part where you screwed up. That and stopping after hitting someone. Honestly, what good comes from stopping at that point?” No one around seemed to share the sentiment. “Oh, like any of you would really want to stop and let yourself get arrested after a hit and run, right? Same way you walk right up to a cop and report every other time you break the law?”
Venus pushed her visor up to give me a look, so I added, in my corny do-gooder voice, “Let that be a lesson to all you children about following the law. Either it’s all important, and should all be respected, or you might as well drive around running people over and getting run over in turn.” I gave Venus a thumbs-up and winked at her. She facepalmed.
“I have a plan for the short term, and you gave me even better ideas,” Venus said.
Minotaur spoke up, “Who had the idea?”
“You did,” Venus said. “Wouldn’t want to deny credit when lives are at stake!”
“Hopefully a lot more at stake now, though these appear to be the type subject to,” I looked around at our audience before continuing, “getting sent to a farm upstate if hurt enough in the really important areas.”
“I have a very important job for your squad,” Venus said, looking over me as well as the nearby teens who’d accompanied me. It’s not running away if I have a chaperone or three. Leah even sat right next to me. “You are going to be the meat squad.”
“Sounds right up my alley,” I said.
“You don’t even know what meat squad does,” she said.
“If it’s called meat squad, it doesn’t matter what it does. I’m going to be great at it,” I responded.
And that’s how I got tasked with going around, gathering up more pork, and tossing it around town for any hungry strixes to eat while combat groups prepared and restocked in relative safety. We would also focus strix attention on the town itself while others took a shortcut through the woods to Angerhorn. It gave me time to wander, at least, though the voluntary nature of the assignment for any assistants meant Leah was my only company. At least that meant no one would mind if I deviated just slightly from the plan and went around to check on phone lines and towers.
“What are you looking for?” asked Leah. With a wave of her hand, she graffitied a wall next to us with “Psycho Gecko Was Here”.
“Something that might indicate we’re not dealing with Spinetingler’s ability to disable communications, which is a standard horror thing. Are you sure you guys tracked him here?”
She reached into the cart, grabbed a ham hock, and tossed it at the base of a wall upon which sat a pair of strixes that had been eyeing us. One of them dropped down. The other kept looking back and forth between us and the meat.
“He was a guy in a dark cloak who ran around turning people into monsters. We never got a good look at his face, but I hear he does that. You think it could be someone else?”
I scanned the wires. Nothing looked out of place and wrecked, especially nothing that’d suddenly mess with the whole town without being so obviously wrong that someone got out to fix it. Someone tried anyway. I found the bodies of a couple of wire guys hanging out the cab of their truck, torn apart from a hole where the head used to be. Leah found her lunch. I held her hair while she puked. “There there. That orange juice seems like a bad idea now, doesn’t it? You should try milk on a hot day with lots of physical activity. Could be a good surprise backup weapon if you have good timing.”
When she stopped her temporary bout of teenage anorexia, we stopped by an abandoned gas station to grab some water. The power was still on, but no one was home. She grabbed some water, I robbed the register, and then I slapped down a dollar for drink. “I owe you two quid!” I called back over the empty counter.
Leah looked at me a moment. “That’s a long way to go for a Shaun of the Dead joke.”
I pointed at her tight hero-grade top. “You’ve got orange on you.”
She couldn’t help but look for just a second, then stuck her tongue out at me.
I decided to pick up the conversation again. “Now that you’ve stopped purging, let’s binge on some knowledge. I have a suspicion that I got into my head, and maybe I’m wrong. I know, I know. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. You don’t have to say anything; you’re right, you don’t need to be bored with my talking about all the times I’ve been wrong. Or any of the times. Let’s just preserve the mystique.”
“Stay on target, gold leader! Lock s-foils into attack position,” responded Leah.
“Right. Wouldn’t want someone to come up my behind because I’m distracted. I just know of an object that possesses powers that could, in theory, have produced these same effects so far that I know about. I really just meant to find it all as an excuse to come with you, but it is sufficiently similar to be useful knowledge. So, this person making monsters, have you seen if they had a book around when they did stuff?” I looked at a downed electrical pole and had myself a little idea.
“Maybe one time, but that place was some private bookstore. You know, occult items. I don’t know for sure. Why are you grinning? Got a fun idea?” Leah stepped around in front of me. “Go on, spill.”
“Dear sweet little Leah, I think it’s time we had a barbecue for our fine, feathered friends, eh?”
Leah had to run it by Venus as her idea, both because she actually has some loyalty to them, and because I couldn’t figure out a way to pull it off myself. Consciously thinking of how to do so would defeat it, after all.
Didn’t stop me from helping to mix up a helpful cocktail while Leah, Venus, and the senior heroes talked it over. Pigtailed girl, the same one I’d accidentally gotten punched, stopped by, curious. “What’s all that for?”
“Oh, just cooking up some homemade napalm,” I answered, casually getting back to my mixing.
She squinted. “I don’t think you can really use orange juice for that. I heard a movie said you could do it with gas and orange juice, but that was so no one would get hurt.”
“Gasoline and orange juice?,” I turned to look at her and rolled my eyes. “Ridiculous. It’d never work. Now hand me those Lucky Charms over there. The hearts, stars, and mushrooms, clovers, and blue moons give it some good zing, but the real power comes from the pots of gold and rainbows, and especially the red balloons.”
Now, that’s not all the ingredients, but it occurred to me that Optimal Outer Control could get in trouble posting Psycho Gecko’s Lucky Napalm Recipe.
Instead, take a stick of butter, a cup and a half of heavy whipping cream, eight ounces of solid Parmesan cheese, and a pound of fettucini noodles. Forget that powdery Kraft stuff. Stick the butter and cream in a pot to melt and get all mixed together while you shred the cheese to make about two cups, if you don’t count the hard, tasteless rind it gets on the edge. Also, put on some water and get it boiling for those noodles, which you can then toss in to cook. You also might consider throwing in a little garlic salt or garlic powder with the noodle water for flavor, but that’s up to you. Once your butter and cream mixes together, toss the cheese in and mix it in real well so it gets all nice and melty, adding salt and pepper to taste. Once the cheese is more of a liquid and the noodles are done and strained, toss them both int he same pot, and enjoy.
Simple, safe, and the only harm that can come to you is an explosion of deliciousness. And, due to simplicity, it has room for all sorts of modifications.
“Dinner and dynamite’s done!” I called out, having cooked both the explosives and a huge batch of fetuccini alfredo at the same time.
We saved the meat for a nice big mile in the middle of town. Meat squad, all of us, had to unload all of it we could find from any of the remaining stores. Red-winged strixes blotted out the sun overhead as we did. I had to pull pigtails out of the way to avoid getting landed on by one of them. I’m hoping that was my own reaction.
Once we got this huge pile of dozes of strixes, Minotaur and a cape wearing safety goggles and a uniform with sun symbols on the chest, back, and shoulders pulled up in a firetruck. They had a couple of local firefighters with them, too.
Minotaur held the hose while the firefighters turned on the pressure so the new payload of their truck could get nice and ready. With a blast, pinkish-orangish liquid sprayed over the strix. But not for very much longer. Solar Flare stepped up toward the end of the hose and held his hands out. What looked like hot plasma arced out from his palms and intersected the spray, lighting it on fire. The fire truck now took its name literally as it ignited the bird-like vampires.
There was cheering at first, which died down as people saw what they’d actually planned and done. The things looked humanoid. For all I know, they were just as sentient as anyone else, but with a few murderous compulsions. I can relate the most to them. But I’m also, well, me. And the sound of nothing but crackling fire was broken by Venus asking, “Really?” as they caught me roasting a marshmallow on a stick.
“You think any of them was our people?” asked someone randomly to someone else. I don’t know, I just overheard it.
“Nah,” I shook my head as I stood up and brought out the graham crackers and peanut butter cups or my smore. “Pretty sure these are the ones that don’t turn people into them. I think they’re the types, like strigoi, where the only way a human can become one is if they were a really nasty, evil person in life. So they are punished, somehow, with being a bloodthirsty, flesh-hungry creature of the night. Anyone else want a smore? Or just a marshmallow?” So pretty much the only one around here likely to be made into one of those things is me. I held out out the bag and my stick in one hand while I enjoyed my smore, smiling. And trying to ignore Psychsaur’s probing presence in my head.
I grinned and thought to myself, focusing on a different British politician as I worked on getting her out of my head. For some reason, that made it funnier as I muttered, “Boris Johnson molesting a pig. Boris Johnson molesting a pig.”
Imagine, if you will, Dartmoor. Rural, woody New England. A little mountainous. It appeared to be an older town in my opinion, since it had kind of a town area you could walk in. Older spots are like that, designed to accommodate people who walked or maybe had horses, because people had to get places and didn’t know cars would happen. In areas where urbanity sprung up more after the advent of cars, everything’s more spread out, and doesn’t work as well for walkers.
An old-fashioned New England church, wood and stone, stood as the last holdout in the gloom of late afternoon. The sun hadn’t yet set, instead casting long shadows and coloring the scene orange as a winged, thirsty blood drinkers circled the church like vultures. With wings like birds a color red that almost blended into the sky, they looked for an opening, a weakpoint. Every once in awhile, groups of one or two would dive down and be repulsed with a burst of bullets, light, flame, electricity, frosty whorls in the air, or even a cry of “Open bar, suckers!” and a thrown Molotov cocktail.
A group of three ran for the church; a figure in pink and gold power armor carried a smaller form and pulled a slightly bigger one after. The shapes dived between them and the church.
Into this scene, we insert a car. A fifteen year-old mauve coupe with a blue passenger door came flying over a steep hill at the end of a cross street and skidded to a frantic stop in front of a crowd of winged, pale men and women standing in the street. The car’s speakers pumped loud music into the street. The singer announced, “I will give you my all, pretty baby. I come whenever you call for me, lady, yeah!” as I got out, wearing shades over my eyes, my hair back in as close to three braids with bells on the end as I could get them after all the surgery. I wore a black leather jacket and pants, with biker boots and a white tank top rounding out the ensemble.
I faced a mass of a dozen red-winged humanoids in tunics like this was the trippiest Legend of Zelda since that Ben guy drowned. Their arms and legs were black, like rot or frostbite.
“We are here, LaFayette!” I yelled, before reaching back into the car. I pulled out a pie I immediately tossed into the face of the nearest vamp where it did no actual harm. Kept her from seeing, and even made one of his fellows laugh at her, but no real physical violence. Just like there wasn’t anything so harmful in me pulling out a can of aerosol whipped cream in one hand and shotgun that fired a stream of harmless green smoke. To them specifically, I put on an exaggerated Austrian accent, “I have enough of cream for everyone to have a taste. I’m not just blowing smoke.”
While most of them were distracted by the ridiculous notion of enemy reinforcements arriving to spray cream all over them, some prepared to fight. Except, with all their attention on me, they neglected their flanks. Venus pushed through, knocking out one of them unfortunate enough to be in the way to get those kids to safety. She might have managed it without my help, but this time I was on the right side of that little equation about how many it would take to beat me.
Yes, even though I had a small horde all looking at me and my delicious neck, I was on the right side of theat. Because I saw the others flooding out of the church off to one side. As they attacked the gathered and feather-winged vampires, another group emerged from the opposite street that I came from in a hotwired pickup truck, making use of their own ranged abilities. The second group had the teens I rode with, who I convinced to pull off this ploy by implying I am Psycho Gecko. It didn’t help that one guy kept on pestering me about it, while the driver, a pigtailed girl, just seemed mad at me. Probably because I inadvertently got her punched by a minotaur.
With myself supposedly being the threatening supervillain himself, the eager, young, nubile, presumably-flexible trainee teenagers were more than happy to follow my plan. It’d be a unique opportunity to them, as Quincy said. Or a way to avoid being hurt further, as Chloe said. Leah didn’t confirm or deny anything, and this one other guy packed in with us went from setting up his camera, testing it, and then getting lots of footage of the trip with all the focus of a college student on illicit Ritalin.
The youngsters weren’t as effective, though. They didn’t have the aim or coordination, nor were they quite so lethal. Yeah, the Master Academy supers from the church were taking every opportunity to take out heads, bodies, hearts, anything potentially lethal to the undead that they could find. They were not playing around. It was so nice to see.
Except I had my own problems, like the whipped cream and smoke gun running out, and the angry, humiliated vamp covered with part of a pie determined to get back at me for a little humilitation. She flew at me, wings stretching behind her and flapping in a way that shouldn’t facilitate flight. I tossed the can and gun aside and reached to my belt. I drew my weapon of second choice… a large peacock feather. Listen, the kind of stores I frequent in my own time is my own business. Let’s just say some of them have loads of cream, pies, and giant feathers, and leave it at that.
Grinning, my body pumping with yummy adrenaline, I jumped back on the top of the car to avoid the charge of the vampire. Sadly, she did not hit it. She stopped and raked a claw right where my balls initially landed but, oh so luckily, were no longer at. I scooted them and my legs to the side, then under me. While the vamp tried to get her hand out of the car’s metal top, I brought the feather around and used it on her vulnerable neck, the very last place any vampire expects to be attacked.
Except I wasn’t attacking. I was tickling. I saw her fangs surprisingly clearly as she shook her head and lunged at me. Maybe it’s because she got up in my face with them. Indeed, I’d hardly managed to slide back at all before the beast’s preternatural speed allowed her to catch me and begin throttling me. Just a little throttling. She didn’t make me hit 100 MPH, but she certainly aimed to break the speed limit, and possibly my neck. She proceeded to wrench my neck to the side, pressing my head against one shoulder and fully exposing the side of my neck.
Armed as I was with merely a non-French tickler, I had to resort to a less overwhelming way of trying to delight a woman out of her mind. I felt her strength falter from laughter. I also got a bit of spittle flying on me. When I jerked my head up to not have my neck exposed like a nudist running a marathon, I even headbutted her. She returned the favor. Well, no need to bite me on the neck anymore when she could just hold a glass under my nose.
I stuck the feather into her mouth and grabbed her head to keep her from sinking her teeth into me. A gentle kick helped me gain some distance, though I felt absolutely pathetic in the process of pushing myself off her, especially when I slid off the other side of the car and landed hard on the street. I used the time to fumble through my pocket for some backup. I found a flask of orange juice and some mouth spray. Gotta keep that orange juice ready. You know never know when you’ll need a screwdriver, after all. Too bad I didn’t seem to have any vodka with me.
With a shriek, a certain admirer of mine pounced from above. I couldn’t help but notice her eyes. Yellow, with an incredibly small pupil. And she seriously needed to clip those toenails, because her hands weren’t the only claws around. She got a mouthful of extra strength minty mouth spray. I tried to imagine eating something gross while she hacked and coughed. Like seafood. Some wriggling mass of slimy, stinky, spiny something sliding down my throat. Like Frenching an ugly anglerfish, as opposed to the sexy ones that swim around, teasing you with their lights. As a result of this imagination, I spewed orange juice up into the open mouth of my aggressor. It wouldn’t have been pleasant even without the minty spray.
I laughed at her for a second, heedless of the pain caused by the acidic citrus vomit upon myself. She upchucked, or in this case downchucked, blood all over me. Tasted completely gross. Just all kinds of vomit coating me, including some of my own. I almost reciprocated, which would have just gotten us stuck into a loop until one of us got an empty stomach. Then she jerked on top of me in a way that usually involves more fun and different bodily functions. The sharpened piece of wood shoved through her chest with a chunk of heart on the end also didn’t match up with most times a lady’s been on top of me.
But then, who brings a lady to their bed when they can have a freak instead?
All posturing aside, a furry hand grabbed the pointy end of the stake and lifted my opponent off me. Minotaur held her up in the air where the stake tore her a little, then smashed her head against the ground. He tossed her aside and gave a snort. Didn’t even look at me or help me up.
I had to help my own darn self up. In the process, I did find my mini-bottle full of vodka to down. Good timing.
“Is Gecko still alive?” someone asked. I had to clear a bit of dripping puke blood out of my face to see that it was Venus, standing with half a vampire in each hand.
I waved to her. “Yep. Just doing my best impression of a used tampon over here.” I walked to her, only to catch a hard left that sent me to the ground, followed by a kick to my tailbone.
“You stupid, irresponsible, egotistical piece of… you brought my students. Kids! This is no place for kids!” I got the sense she didn’t agree with my actions. Call it intuition. And pain nerves. My glasses, having made a valiant effort so far, decided to opt out of the fight and dropped off my face. For the best, really. I don’t wear my sunglasses at night, so I can, so I can keep track of the visions in my eyes. And I doubt Venus cared about switching a blade on me, shades on or no.
“We’re ok!” someone shouted.
Venus answered them with, “That doesn’t matter!”
I crawled forward to get some momentum before rising to my feet. “Make that a used tampon from a woman whose husband punches her in the ovaries. Is there running water still, or am I going to have to overcome the smell with copious amounts of liquor?”
A kneeling, balding man with a paunch and a ponytail said, “You might try Monroe’s over on Elm. There’s still some of it there. It’s not all good for lighting on fire. We still have water, though.”
Leah came running up toward me as if to check em over, but was stopped short by Venus and others of the more senior heroes who proceeded to check over the newcomers for injuries.
“You need to go as soon as it’s daylight,” said the minotaur to one of them. “Oh, I remember you.”
Psychsaur’s the one who finally gave me a checkout as I stood there, looking over the dead vampires in the setting sun. No, they didn’t turn to ash or anything like that. That helped, as it allowed me to examine them while Psychsaur probed my brain.
“You are that desperate. Oh my God,” she said.
“I take it things didn’t go as planned. Y’all arrived with pretty overwhelming force, but they got the better of you. I bet that wasn’t all of them, either. Pale, still. Probably due to the whole need for blood thing. Wings with feathers. I wonder if they transform into a type of bird, like strigoi and wolves. I think I remember some type doing that. Wings though. That’s kinda like the… let me think. Striges. Strix. Strixes? And the lilu, too. Have you noticed if they eat babies?” I reached down and into the body of the one Venus tore in half. I pulled out a heart. It didn’t beat in my hands still or anything like that.
“No, we didn’t see that. By the time we got here, most were dead. At least they don’t turn everyone bitten into more of them,” she said in my mind.
I shook the heart, then poked at it. “Still living enough in the sense that brain destruction or widespread bodily injury does the job. Taking out the heart probably helps, but the stake is unnecessary. I hope you have the ones I brought still. Even if you don’t get them in the first hit, it oughta mess them up.”
I looked up and thought back to why I referred to high stakes.
She blinked. “One of the vans blew up and stuck several of them nonlethally. We thought they weren’t attacking because they were weakened by it. You coated them with drugs? Where did you find that much?”
“Lots of students have stashes. Had stashes. For crimefighters, y’all are awfully bad at finding hidden drugs. LSD, ecstacy, mushrooms. I didn’t bother with the pot. Maybe if I need smokebombs another time.”
“I hate to be the one to save your life, but come on, get inside with the rest,” Psychsaur told me. I looked up and noticed the sun was going down and the flapping of wings began to distantly fill the air. “You’re right, we weren’t ready to kill things that look human.”
“If only you had someone here to do the killing for you,” I winked at her as I dropped the heart and followed her into the church. I stopped as a handy bit of trivia came up. “Hey, where’s the nearest grocery store?”
She pointed down the road to a small one. “You won’t have time. We need to get in stay on guard. Don’t expect to sleep a lot.”
I took off jogging toward the store. “I think we’ll sleep just fine.”
The only risk came in not making it to the meet section in time. But I did, and rounded up as much pork as possible. Pork chops, both center-cut boneless and bone-in, along with the super-cheap pork loin and Boston butt. I’ve always wondered if whoever named the Boston butt just had a negative view of Bostonion derrieres by comparing it to a hunk of pig meat.
There was one strix who landed right in front of the store as I exited. I threw five pounds of pork right into his open mouth without breaking stride with my shopping cart. I ran for the church then, building up sped and riding on the back. If a bloodsucker got in my way, he got porked. Seriously porked. And it worked. My porking them saved the day.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” asked one of the guards at the door, over-under shotgun in hand.
I rolled along, sausage links swinging from my hand. I swung them at one of the yellow-eyes who tried to accost me, right in her mouth. Some people just kiss people out of nowhere. Amateurs, I tell you! I can roll-by and stick my wiener in their mouths. A completely non-violent assault on their orifices, accompanied by the battlecry: “Pork you, mother trucker!”
I dropped plenty more in front of the church door before rolling right in on into the church. “Celebration! Cheese for everyone!” I announced.
“No, why are they just eating that stuff?” asked the guard, keeping it trained on them.
I stepped off and turned the cart to the side, noticing how absolutely packed that building was. It stank of human. Ew. I just remembered I’m human now. That stink is part of me. I have human smell. Even worse, when I get caught in the rain, I’ll have wet human smell. Ugh.
Psychsaur rushed to the door to look. Other capes joined her, but didn’t have her abilities to probe the minds of the vampires. “They’re obsessed with it,” she said.
“Quirk of the strix, which is what this appeared to be. Ancient Roman type of vampire, somewhat related to owls in the same way other types are to wolves, bats, or even rats. Can be warded off with pork and, supposedly, certain types of beans. Here, someone dump this on one, see if it works.” I tossed minotaur a can of pork and beans, one of the cheap ones. Maybe a bad example, depending on if they’re too cheap to include actual pork and/or bean, but I wanted to save the good ones for myself.
“Do you think that’ll stop them?” asked Venus, coming over to check the cart.
I shrugged. “We’ll find out, but I bet they’ll get stuffed.” I blew her a kiss. “Just think, all the ways you tried to neuter me, and here I am saving your… patooties. Frelling censorship block.” I walked toward some of the townies and took a bow, then pointed back to the cart. “If anyone needs dinner and can start a fire, I did the shopping.”
Venus pulled me aside, toward the restrooms near the front. “You aren’t supposed to be here, or even alive as far as anyone knows.”
“Y’all are terrible at secrets, by the way,” I said.
She ignored that and told me, “You need a codename.”
I looked down at myself, then took off the leather jacket and held it over my shoulder. I brushed off my cat ear headband and gave my bell a tinkle. From over in the other room, I heard Psychsaur yell, “Oh heck naw!”
“Oh Home-For-Infinite-Losers yes,” I said, looking into where Venus’s eyes would be under her visor. “You can call me Puss In Boots.” I pulled up my pantleg to show off the biker boots.
She snorted and held a hand up to her mouth to stifle laughter. She failed. Really, it’s like she barely tried to stop herself. After a minute, she fought back the laughter and regained her composure. “Alright, Puss. Since you’re here, you can help a little. But you and the others are the non-combat squad. You don’t fight again, you hear?”
“My ears certainly send signals to my brain about vibrations they pick up moving through air molecules, yes,” I said. Nothing said I couldn’t lie or obfuscate.
“He’s not planning on listening!” Psychsaur called from outside.
Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day! Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day!
“Argh! Ew! No, no, no!” Psychsaur said from the other room, hopefully backing up off my case.
Venus looked back to the door, then to me. “Listen and listen good. I know Spinetingler fought you and you want revenge, but as far as I’m concerned, none of this is your business. You are a prisoner and a patient. You’ve been let out this far over good behavior. Do. Not. Push. It.”
I held my hands up defensively. “Listen, Venus, I want to help. It’ll be fun for me. Plus, I think there’s more to this situation that y’all don’t know. Couldn’t know, because you don’t have some of my insight, both as a villain and as me specifically. And there is another reason. Judging from the costumes I saw outside, you’re missing some people, right?”
Venus nodded. “Some of us hesitated at a bad time and they have the surveillance squad captured, we think. We haven’t been able to get close enough to Angerhorn Manor to find anyone.”
“Good. Well, not good, but I mean to say I have something I can do here. I can repay a little bit of that debt I unfortunately owe Master Academy. Or is it fortunately owe? I guess it depends. I mean, if I we count the whole fight, getting wounded, and so on, it was unfortunate I needed to be repaired. But if we count from the point when I was wounded, it’s fortunate. And that’s just from my perspective, and current and past perspectives…” I stepped past Venus, heading for the door. I opened it to find Psychsaur there, eyeing me through her mask.
“He’s telling the truth,” she told Venus over my shoulder. “He’s just embarrassed and trying to distract people from that.”
I pointed a finger in her face. “You know what makes a really distraction? Those things.” I shifted the finger over toward the front of the church. She looked and peered for a second. Not finding anything, she turned back to find me gone.
I was walking into the church, announcing to one and all, arms out wide. “And if you should like to know the name of your savior this evening, who almost died out there, by the way, then count yourselves lucky to be saved by the one, the only, Puss in Boots!”
“Where’s your donkey?” asked a little boy.
Minotaur walked up behind me and clapped me on the shoulder. “He doesn’t need one. He’s already a jackass.” He walked past with a metal trash can full of wood in one hand.
I pointed after him as he went. “Don’t listen to a thing he says. I swear, nothing but a load of bull.”
Believe it or not, Master Academy didn’t go off half-cocked. They went off fully-cocked, loading up a pair of vans. Disappointed me they didn’t have a jet hidden away somewhere, but that’s probably a good thing given the inevitable future conflicts I’ll get into with them. Besides, they made it pretty clear in all the talking back and forth that the place was only about four hours away.
This time, they took a lot more people, including Venus, Psychsaur, and the minotaur guy. They left Leah behind, though. Mainly, they sent along older, more experienced folks. I tried to climb into one already-crowded van with a bunch of them. Looked nice, though I knew it’d be tricky finding a comfy seat with all the stakes strapped to me in lieu of armor.
“Hi there, how ya doin’, make way,” I said, climbing in the door.
One of the ones in a custom costume nodded toward me. “Who are you supposed to be?”
I looked down at my costume, which literally was just the clothes they got me, wood stakes tied onto my chest, upper arms, thighs, and waist, then reached up and scratched my cat ears as if they were real. “Should be obvious, really. Pussy cat covered with pointy things… you can call me Vagina Dentata.”
The men in the van all cringed and brought their knees together while I fought an instinctive urge to do the same.
I went to go in further, but then I got pulled out and floated to the ground.
“Nope!” said someone behind me. I could guess who, but I turned around anyway to confirm that ol’ Boobzilla had spotted me. “You’re still not going.”
“But come ooooon! At the very least, I’d make a good decoy. Draw fire from the people who can fight, even if you don’t let me fight.”
She shook her head. “We don’t operate like that.”
Venus set down a bundle of stakes and walked over. “Thanks, we could use these.” She started to strip me of my own wooden weapons. Which is a lot less painful than it would have been if I sported a boner.
“You need me out there. Who else is going to miraculously save the day and defeat the forces of darkness when y’all fail?”
“Don’t you mean ‘if’ we fail?” called someone from back in the van.
I turned and yelled back, “I know what I said!” Then, back to Venus, “I can draw heat from the rest of y’all. I have a very puncheable face, an abrasive personality, and a funny name. With those qualifications, it’s either fight, or become a politician.”
Venus’s eyebrow rose. “Compared to some I’ve heard about lately, you wouldn’t be any less moral. It’s good that you’re enthusiastic about helping us, but this is a time when we don’t need help.”
“Maybe I do! I gotta kill something, or at least be involved in its killing. Do you know what I did earlier?” I talked right over her starting to shake her head. “I stalked a roach. I followed it through a couple of rooms, then into a wall. By the way, y’all have some secret passages built into the place. Anyway, I followed that roach back to a huge nest of roaches in the walls and… couldn’t even kill them. It literally made me angry with rage! If there’s anything I hate, it’s redundancy, you know. That’s why I like to remove a lung from people.”
“You’d make a good exterminator,” Venus responded.
“Leave off the ex, and just watch me go after Sarah Connor. Though I do hear you’ve got a vampire infestation on your hands somewhere…”
She shook her head. “No. We’ve got you where we want you right now. It’s too dangerous for everyone to have you on this, so you stay here.”
“Fine, accursed heroes, but you don’t know how high the stakes are… I’ll show you. I’ll show everyone!” I raised my fist to the sky and let out an evil laugh.
“That’s nice,” said Venus, patting me between the cat ears. Suddenly, I decided I didn’t actually owe her my life anymore, whenever I manage to get free of this place.
Trying to stow away didn’t work either. I just rolled off. Not much of a metaphor there. I tried to hide on top of a van and rolled off when I got to the gate. Even going after them on foot didn’t work. I just couldn’t. It may have counted as escaping… which I kinda sorta maybe thought it was an escape, but it also could have been something else they put in my head. In the end, it left me looking longingly as other people went off to have a dandy Halloween time while I sat around getting babysat. And not even the fun kind of babysitting, where a killer calls from inside the house.
But there were other things I could do that didn’t count as escaping. Like leaving and calling up an individual who would greatly prefer if I was dead. That’s not really a good way to describe someone these days, though. I mean I pretended to be some anonymous magical book dealer who heard Ethan Basford, of the famed Basford family, was still around.
Ethan and I became acquainted when I did some work for him and his twin brother in California. They’re part of a family tasked to bring about the apocalypse in order to gain tremendous magical power and live as rulers in that post-apocalyptic world. Thing is, since everyone in the family’s got that deal going on, they’re all trying to both end the world as we know it and end each other as they all know each other so they don’t have to share. I wound up offing Ethan’s twin brother.
It was bittersweet for Ethan, as he paid me back with a very small amount of magical truth potion that, predictably, worked against me. I held it against him, which is why he agreed to bring some magical reinforcements to Empyreal City during the whole alien fiasco. Vampires, actually. He had some magic box full of the things, and he used to like to hang out with them in Los Angeles. I was a bit surprised he decided to stay in Empyreal City, but at least the number I had for him was still good, as was the alias.
I found him sitting in a cafe, sipping some sort of pumpkin spice espresso. I expected him to have to fight down a spit take when he saw me, but apparently I’m still fairly unrecognizable. As if a little lipstick and makeup around the eyes mattered. And having more hair in a certain do, come to think of it. The explosion, and then subsequent surgery, took a little off the top. “Are you Mr. Alias?” asked the smiling, genteel older balding man with a strong, pointed nose. He stood and shook my hand, then gestured to a seat at his table.
“You could say Mr. Alias was something of an alias for me,” I said, settling into the chair. “And I’m not here about books, especially not some magical book that traps and releases monsters. Sorry, it was all a lie.”
Ethan’s smile faded. “Then what are you wasting my time for, you punk?”
I smiled.”A certain mutual friend of ours, someone who doesn’t like telling the truth and had to do so because of you, informed me as a matter of payment that you could answer some questions about vampires for me.”
Ethan stood up. “I don’t like where this is going and I don’t have to stay for it. Good day!”
I grabbed him by the arm. “I need to know why a bunch of them would take up with Spinetingler.”
He scoffed. “They wouldn’t. I know them better than just about any other human, and they hate that guy. All creatures of the night do.”
“Please, sit, tell me why. It could mean life and death for people I know. No need to rush off and not finish that pumpkin thing just yet, right?”
He looked at me, and I swear he drew a symbol on his coffee cup. “If you really got my number from who you said you did, you know there’s a superhuman underbelly to the world. It’s like this banana stand my family used to own. No matter how down on our luck we got, there was always money in the banana stand… because we hid several hundred thousand dollars in secret compartments inside it.You have your layer of the world, we have ours, and sometimes the two meet, but usually the supernatural and the superhuman like to stay separate.”
“Aww, the vamps don’t want to be famous supers? They’d really fit in as intimidating nighttime prowlers.”
Basford shook his head and reached into his coat. He pulled out a flask and began unscrewing the top. “Mages and monsters were ostracized for much of history. Mankind, jealous and afraid of mystical power, shunned or even executed people like me. The myths are full of superpowered heroes slaying monsters. Superheroes and villains want to be noticed, but we just want to be left alone.” He popped open the lid of his coffee to dump something alcoholic in, secured the flask, and had himself a nice sip before going on. “Spinetingler is the antithesis of the supernatural world. He can’t make true vampires, either, so the only ones he would have with him are very young and very stupid. And it would get out if too many were unaccounted for.”
“Huh… interesting. I’ve got reports of people tracking him that say he does have them.” I leaned back to ponder on this. “Is there any other way he’d have some flying humanoids with fangs and claws with him?”
Basford spread his hands. “How should I know? You’re the one who knows everything. I tell you what, if you really had that book you mentioned over the phone, that might do it.”
“Oh really?” I cocked my head to the side. “The unassuming book said to have trapped ancient monsters? You know, that does sound about right.”
“Don’t joke around with anybody else about that. That book is serious business.” He pointed at me to emphasize the last two words.
I raised an eyebrow. “Let’s just say, purely hypothetically, if that book had been seen in this city previously, before the past year or so’s widespread destruction, would it likely have any older vampires in it?”
Another sip of his adulterated espresso, or at least adult coffee, and Ethan graced me with an answer. “Lots of monsters have claws and fangs and can fly in history. Vampires come in a wide variety of forms, too. There are ancient vampire legends, but too many different types. Every culture has vampiric monsters in their history. Call my if you uncover any lil-la-ke, or lilu. The females are infertile. They eat babies, though.”
I lightly slapped the tabletop. “Sound like my kind of women. Listen, thanks. Sorry for getting you riled up for nothing, but I really need to go. Gotta make sure that book wasn’t uncovered, so I guess we’ll consider that my good deed of the day for you and yours. You just stay here and have fun exorcising your coffee of spirits, eh?” I shot him finger guns. He shot me one back while taking another sip. Good guy. Maybe I’ll consider our little issue square now, with the truth serum, even if he doesn’t know it.
He could be wrong, or lying, of course, but he had a good point. I’ve pointed it out before that supers are generally flamboyant. Whether we’re causing crime or stopping it, flying around with bright colors in the day or glaring down from a rooftop at night to intimidate people, we like being noticed. Spinetingler and his creations tend to follow that line a lot more. They want victims, so they want to draw them in, whereas Basford gave me the sense vampires just want to get by while unliving their unlives in a bit more privacy than all that. You know, like living off in the middle of the Romanian mountains and trying to kill any tourists dumb enough to hike the Romanian mountains.
Another good point came when I visited the old Double Cross Headquarters building, under which I had built a bunker. Below that, I’d buried that book that trapped monsters. It didn’t look particularly threatening, with a gray cover and leather cords binding it. Easier to hide than more exotic materials, like human leather or tendons. Even easier to hide if you stick it beneath a bunker under a skyscraper.
Except the building was gone. The bunker, too. Just a crater. I stood there, examining it, figuring up the distances by eyesight. I’d have gone down there to check, but didn’t see much point in scrabbling and slipping down broken concrete, rebar, lead, and drywall to try and fail to lift a section of floor that probably weighs more than your momma. Plus, my ride home had arrived in the form of a hovering power armor of the thick, rectangular variety. Very 1980s. I held my arms up to him. “Take me, you magnificent metal man!”
“Uh, I’m… I’m just here to bring you back to the house. Mr. Mender wants me to tell you to stop running off,” came a voice over speakers.
As soon as he set me down at the campus, I headed on up to see Mender. “They’re doomed! Doomed I say! The end is nigh!”
“The town is retaken,” he said. “Your enthusiasm is appreciated, but I will not need you for Spinetingler after all.”
I rolled my eyes. “You will. Those vamps are likely not the standard European type we’re used to. This isn’t Dracula versus Superman, with Frankenstein in Drac’s corner. There’s going to be freaky vamps. Detached upper bodies, or vampire bat skulls with intestine around them. Maybe floaters with backward feet, who knows? And on top of that, Spinetingler’s got very special book with him, a magical tome that can do some nasty stuff to people.”
I know, I know. I didn’t have proof of any of that. Didn’t need it, either. All I needed was a trip to have some horror fun. It’s a thriller! Thriller night. And I’m gonna punch a being with forty eyes right in the nuts, if there are any forty-eyed bloodsuckers with male genitalia.
“Nice try,” is all Mender said to me, before rolling out to attend his other duties.
So I had nothing to do but sit around researching old myths and occasionally trying to escape, which usually amounted to me running and stopping suddenly before going back to my preparations. Holy water, garlic, a flamethrower, and I found a workable sword in one of the weapon training areas off to the side of their gym. It slowed down work on my newest armor iteration, though I didn’t entirely mind that as I had almost nothing to work with to make the armor at this time.
Leah stopped by to see me in my isolated corner of the library, surrounded by my mess. She smiled, her hair forming a rainbow with red at the base. “Hey there.”
I winked at her. “Howdy, young’un. I’ve been expecting to see you around this place. And to have to explain the story so far to you.”
“I picked up on some of it.” She nodded. “You still found a way to leave.”
I shrugged. “Temporarily. Only to a short distance. I don’t consider a trip to go fight the vampires quite the same, I think because I might not come back. I’m a bit handicapable at the moment.”
“I might know a group of troublemakers who want to go watch what’s going on and jump in if needed. Maybe we can stick you in the trunk,” she said. She snickered.
I sat up. “That’s… actually, yeah, that should work. I mean, because then, I’d have to stay with y’all. No escaping… yes, my devious Leah is truly growing into a thinking villain…”
“I’m thinking of staying a hero,” she said.
“A delusional villain, but one readying to take down the heroes from the inside…”
“They’re my friends, Gecko.”
I grabbed the sword I’d found, a thin longsword. I didn’t put a lot of weight on it, but I did cut into the carpet helping myself up. “And boyfriends. Still with Derrick?”
She scrunched up her face in puzzlement and crossed her arms, as well as one foot in front of the other. “Have you been digging up gossip about me? I’m not with him anymore. He got weird. Or I guess he was weird the whole time, like he, like, didn’t seem to realize we were as close as we were. Then he got dismissed. Mr. Mender didn’t trust the nanites, so he gave everyone an ultimatum if they had used any or if someone they knew used any. I didn’t want to get purged either. I trusted you not to hurt me.”
I swung the sword forward, just missing her chin. “Right you were! But enough about love lives for now. After all, the car ride’s a few hours. Assemble the Gecko Cats!”
“Gecko cats?” she asked.
I swung the blade round a few more times, then pointed it straight into the air as I yelled, “Gecko! Gecko! Gecko! Gecko Cats, hooooooooooooo!”
The librarian’s “Shh!” cut me off before I could play “Thunderstruck” as a theme song.
Yes, like it or not, I have allied myself with Master Academy due to pragmatism and the sight of my impaled chest. Not that everyone’s heard. Most of them don’t even know who I am, after all.
I half expected more people to recognize me, but it makes some sense. I mostly ever appeared in public wearing my armor. When I didn’t, I tended to change my physical appearance all the time. Even my bra size a time or two. Even when I adopted the face I currently wear, I used makeup. Subtract the makeup, some hair, and a little meat on my bones, then add in a bit of head trauma for an equation that justifies when people appear to be 80085.
That’s a good thing at the moment. There’s nothing but scab between the outside world and my chest cavity in spots, and I’ve been left physically diminished in my recovery. Plus, that little calculation I like to rely on clearly shows me at a disadvantage. The one that goes, “I don’t know how many of them it was gonna take to whoop my rear (cursed cuss censorship!) but I knew how many they were gonna use.” In this case, about seven billion people. Adjusted for inflation, I might give Hitler a run for his money as the World’s Most Hated Person, all without deliberately targeting a single Jew. Ironically, that probably means the Nazis over at Stormfront think I was secretly a Jew.
I miss the internet. Nothing reinforces the reasonableness of exterminating humanity quite like the internet.
I missed having armor, too, so I’m doing something about it while learning something interesting about my thought processes. Yep, just another man to learn new things about himself in the big city. Because that’s where I went. Set foot off campus and took a bus into the city proper. The people at the bus stop didn’t even blink when someone wanted to get on with a bell and cat ears on his head, but it is right by Master Academy. I wasn’t sure if the rules they imposed on me would let me, but it turned out my suspicion that it was worth a try turned out to be true.
I walked right off Master Academy’s campus, though not through trickery or bribery or resistance to mental compulsion. I was able to leave because I had been compelled not to escape. I wasn’t escaping. I was heading out to buy a few things, then coming back. I’ve also been known to borrow something important, like a diamond or the bullets out of a sleeping target’s gun, but I don’t always give those back. People don’t always like when I give things like that back, more because of little factors like how hard I give them back, and where.
When the bus dropped me off in an area I knew, I set off. Utilizing my completely non-violent ability to rob people blind, and at least one blind person, I soon amassed enough money to afford a shopping spree at a hardware store and electronics store. Finding a junkyard was harder, and I had enough trouble remembering where I was going. I’m used to GPS.
If I needed any help getting back to Master Academy with my purchases, you wouldn’t know it. I walked along, thinking of the best place to acquire armor plating, when Master Academy heroes descended upon me like a Biblical plague of Egypt. The lesser known Fourth-And-A-Half Plague, the plague of cameltoes. The Bible missed that part because of all the tunics and loincloths they wore back then instead. I’d where a loincloth too, if it wasn’t so impractical.
I get in too many fights for that. At least if I were completely nude, the sight of my towering manhood could dissuade any limp-wristed attempts to punch me in the crotch. Cover it with a loincloth, and people are less fussy about it. The things you learn in Bangkok, eh? There’s a reason Murray Head’s song brings back memories of swordfighting with a secret order of nationalists who hate foreigners and paying foreign hitmen. They called themselves the Kokblockers.
Since I’m horrible at foreshadowing, they didn’t have anything to do with my trip. Instead, some guy stepped out of an alley and tried to stick a knife against my throat. I blocked it with a bag and stared him down, the two of us eyeing each other. Him, some random mugger; me, a mass murdering serial killer super villain hiding in plain sight with some mind wammy on me stopping me from hurting people. Clearly, there was only one course left to me.
“Gimme your money!” the guy said, edging around.
I dropped my bags and tore at my shirt, screaming while revealing my nasty-looking chest. Then I reached down and yanked my pants open, letting my Lynyrd Skynyrd enjoy the brisk Fall air, free as a bird now. I pushed them down and kicked them off, then waved them around over my head by the leg, yelling all the while. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaabugoffaaaaaaaahhhhh!”
“Pluck this,” he said, and turned to run back down the alley.
I stopped to take a breath, shoved my pants into a bag next to some of my purchases, and gathered them up to go. I didn’t go far.
Quicker than you can say “Watch out, that Thai hooker’s actually a woman!” I found myself surrounded by Master Academy capes. They were more than happy to escort me back, though they kept distracting me from my work afterword by bringing in Psychsaur and some other telepaths to examine me. I tried to ignore them rooting around my brain, but it wasn’t easy. I mean, at least I’m used to hearing other voices in my head from time to time. The little room we were all in was crowded, and not the best spot to build stuff, but I had bought tools of my own and could work off the floor if need be.
“It must be the computer somehow,” one of them said.
Another suggested, “Maybe it wore off. Sometimes compulsions can do that.”
A third voice spoke, “Has he been under any unusual stress?”
“Don’t talk about wearing off, and it wouldn’t have been that. The computer shouldn’t mess with anything. And finally, don’t you know who that is? Stress, really?” Psychsaur fielded all the questions in one burst.
I just stripped a little wiring that I’d worked into a glove. “Hey!” I said in my mind. “Y’all are the psychics, shouldn’t you have it figured out by now?”
“Stop talking about us in there,” said one of them. “We don’t speak that language.”
“That explains a few things,” I said. “But I figured y’all would have Occam’s Razored your way to a solution by now.” I brought up the list in my HUD, in English, and concentrated on it.
1. Cause no physical violence
2. Make no attempt to escape or convince others to help me escape
3. No bleeping cussing
4. Do not use poison, allergies, or medication in an attempt to cause physical harm.
5. Never oppose an OCP officer
“Who’s the OCP officer?” someone asked. “Is someone on duty?”
I pointed in the direction of that voice, behind my back. “Your lack of appreciation for the finer arts disgusts me. That is one of the classics of cyborg cinema. How dare you denigrate my people, you fleshist.”
“It’s a pop culture thing,” said a guy with three eyes.
I pointed at him next, “Right you are, Tien. You’ve won a Zeni, as soon as I find a way to counterfeit them. But what I meant before is that I didn’t violate the rule about attempting to escape because I wasn’t attempting to escape. Turns out, there really is a difference between, say, stealing and borrowing.”
“There’s a loophole?” asked Psychsaur. “I guess your intentions matter.”
I started running wires up a sleeve. “You know, your completely separate observation matches up perfectly with my ideas about morality through some odd coincidence. Good response time, too. Was getting chilly out there.”
Triclops said, “No one wants you loose. We’re taking a lot of risks as-is. Mender and Venus must have been crazy to think we could keep you a secret to the rest of the school.”
That reminded me. “By the way, there was a student here who I think is on hero duty sometimes. I haven’t seen her around, but I know she was here at one point. She’s an old friend. In a good way, not in that way that made y’all look at each other.” Keep in mind, I didn’t look up when I said this, so they were shocked I noticed. They’d have been shocked I knew they were shocked, too. “I’ve been chalking it up to timing, but with almost everybody dropping in on me today, I have to wonder where my old trainee Leah has gotten to.”
“That’s not for us to say,” said the person staying behind me. “Stop doing whatever you’re doing. That’s a weapon.”
“A weapon? No, no… it’s just a glove designed to channel energy to the fists to be discharged in a physical blow. There are a ton of civilian uses for it, like smashing watermelons and breaking cinderblocks. Besides, I can’t use it as a weapon. And I might be inclined to check for more loopholes if nobody wants to tell me what happened to her. She looks like this.” I remembered back to Leah as I last saw her without her mask. A misfit teen, or at least a runaway who feared for her life after a hero wound up killing a villain in a fight. She accidentally used her powers in a crime and fled, not being sure about the reasonableness of the people on the lawful good side of the D&D table.
“I told you, we can’t say,” said the one behind me. In retaliation, I remembered that Shia Lebouf meme where the actor stands around shouting stuff like “Do it!” and “Just do it!” in between yelling at people to follow their dreams. My brief stint as Emperor of the World gave me some insight into that; the CIA was testing an experimental mind control device on him that had to be primed with a chemical in LSD. The mindchanger didn’t work, but the added chemical led to a lingering high.
The door to our little room opened and Mender rolled in. “Well?” he asked.
Psychsaur looked at him for a moment. Mender then rolled around to observe what I was making. “This is a form of your armor.”
“Yepperoony. Figured it’ll come in handy if the safety gloves are ever taken off me. Kinda wishing that was the case since they’re all being evasive.” I nodded to Psychsaur and Triclops, then back in the general direction of the other voice.
Mender said, “That is not your concern. You should get better.”
I tossed the glove carelessly behind me, where I heard it slap someone. “Didn’t know you were there,” I said in way of explanation, then addressed Mender. “If you want me to give a dam about you and your school, it’d be a good idea to start by telling me what’s up with the only friendly person around here. Did you do something to her because of me? Did someone else? I think I’d have seen her around by now unless you sent her to the West Coast, in which case you’d have just told me she’s over there. I will ride your ass on this if you don’t. Level with me here.”
If he was put off by my mention of a method for blocking water and a domesticated animal, he didn’t show it. He couldn’t show much with his face. “We are handling the situation.”
I’ll take “Phrases that never end well for $800, Alex!”
“Unless the situation is a kitten, I don’t know that that’s true.”
Pyschsaur grabbed her ear, and I wondered if she had a normal earlobe. She turned to Mender and whispered something in his ear.
“Aha!” I pointed at him. Then, whoever in the room was a telepath lifted me up and I found myself floating upside down, probably giving some of them a view of my barely-clothed rectum to varying degrees of their enjoyability. I crossed my arms over my chest as I floated around like that, slowly rotating. “You know I’m right. Something went wrong, and I bet the person I was conveniently talking about is now in trouble. Am I right? The Law of Narrative Causality is a fickle mistress.”
“Yes it is,” Mender said, “But not for the reason you think.”
The door burst open and a spandexed-up Master Academy hero started to run in, but stopped abruptly. I couldn’t quite placer until she spoke. “Uh, hello,” she said and began to circle around.
“Speak of the devil!” I said. I tried to keep her in sight as I spoke. “Or should I say the girl who once had me as a devil on her shoulder. Hey there, Leah.”
“Oh my god, Gecko?! Is that Gecko?”
I felt her hug onto me from behind, putting her face somewhere near my other pair of cheeks. All at once, everyone started coughing. Mender’s computer-generated voice even said, “Ahem. Ahem. Ahem. Cough cough.”
“Leah, I’m a little detained at the moment. Think you can get all your friends a lozenge? Also, stay away from my chest. It’s a little tender.”
“I thought you were dead!” She let go and I floated where I could see her again, smiling.
I couldn’t help but smile back. “As always, rumors of my death precede me to the grave. Apparently, Mender decided I was worth salvaging instead of letting me die. But I don’t think you came here for me. By the pricking of my thumbs, bad news this way comes.”
Her elation faded and she turned to Mender. “We have a problem.”
“There is its,” I said.
“That’s it, you shut up now,” said Psychsaur. She backed it up, too. Couldn’t say a thing after that, just keep rotating around in the air.
“Sir, we ran into problems. We were watching him like you said, and followed him to Vermont, to a town called Dartmoor. He holed up in Angerhorn Manor. It’s got a repuation for being haunted.”
“I received the updates. Please, what went wrong?” Mender asked.
Leah stopped and took a deep breath. “The observation team sent me out for groceries near dusk. By the time I got back, the hotel was overrun. They looked like vampires; pale with fangs and claws. They flew and had super strength. I watched for awhile and saw them carry the others off, then got back as soon as possible.”
“Why didn’t you call?” asked Triclops.
I raised a hand and waved it around.
“I left my phone in the room but it wouldn’t matter because the phones weren’t working anywhere I checked. It’s like the entire town was cut off,” she answered.
I pointed finger guns at her. She got it in one. Classic horror trope, phones not working, both because the vast majority of horror stories have taken place in pre-cell phone times, and because the ability to call for help with them renders it necessary for modern horror stories to find a way to screw up the phones.
“We will get them back. Thank you for letting us know. Go, write it up for everyone, then get some rest,” Mender said. Leah nodded and turned to wave at me before rushing out of the room. Mender looked to Psychsaur, “Let him down, and let him talk if he wants.”
Surprisingly, they didn’t just dump me on the ground. Probably because Psychsaur remembered that time she caught me and my chest popped open. I bet I’d smell good to vampires. And as I drifted gently to the floor, I finally got to say, “I’ll do it!”
“Do what?” asked Triclops.
“I’ll help! Spinetingler and vampires in rural New England, with a small town and a manor? Sounds like fun!”
Psychsaur had something to say about that. “This isn’t about your fun. These are our friends’ lives.”
I grabbed the glove I’d been working on. “Right, and I just so happen to owe people some lives here.”
“No way. You just want to kill and escape,” she argued.
Mender hadn’t spoken yet up to this point, so I ignored her and looked to him instead. “Come on, drop the idealism stuff. THIS is what you kept me around for.”
Mender just said, “Yes, it is, but you are not getting out yet. We have the resources to help ourselves. You have a glove and a hole in your chest. You stay here.”
With that, Mender and his retinue left me alone to work, though I did eventually find a decent spot in the library to keep at it while looking up that Dartmoor place.
Oh, I am going, no doubt about that. This has been too much of a disappointing October, and I deserve vampires! And a manor!
I don’t care what those heroes say, I’m going to save their lives whether they like it or not.
Wow, put that under “list of phrases I didn’t expect to say.”