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.