Author Topic: Something Wicked This Way Comes ...  (Read 717 times)

Offline Terrorfexx

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Something Wicked This Way Comes ...
« on: November 11, 2021, 04:49:40 PM »
It was difficult to imagine that this place had once been anything but a shitty dive bar.

Years before, although Amber had long since lost count of them, it had been a fine little Italian eatery. Outside then, the paint had been as fresh and vibrant as the delicacies on offer and the wine as delightfully crisp as the salty night air that used to drift through open windows.

She'd been here once when it was still that place, with an old-- well, in truth neither of them at that time probably knew what they were.

Only, maybe, that both of them were chasing intercepting shadows and had gotten caught in each other’s crossfire. Professionals in the most unprofessional sense. As close to lovers as one might become never having shared a moment or a kiss. The last night they'd been here, they left a bottle of wine unopened on the table, and even now she wondered what could have happened if anything at all about that time had been different.

Now though, the place has fallen into disrepair. Murky saltwater had eaten at the metal while creeping rust at the water's edge spread upwards as though grasping to escape the murky depths. Paint had been heavily chipped and faded, leaving what remained to be tagged with intentions of recognition and recompense alike.

No longer did the crisp night air rise up to meet her, instead the thick fumes of diesel mixed with something briny and slick. Around the place the signs clearly said 'no smoking' however now they'd resorted to just leaving ashtrays on the tables so people would stop stubbing them out on the bar.

As alone as she might manage at a table of her own, Amber stared down the newest in a long line of drinks that she'd hoped would make her feel better - or at the very least, feel less.

See, getting drunk was easy cause it required nothing more than acceptance. There was no responsibility. No expectations: she could sit here and pretend like she was no-one, had nothing and could simply allow herself to succumb to blissful numbness.

It wasn't her first choice by any means, but she'd ended up running out of places after being somewhat relentlessly pursued by a certain Talent Relations representative who had too many good intentions and not enough sense to simply let misery and recent heartaches take their course.

No, Amber had lost Cassiopeia Mares somewhere in the last couple blocks before the docks.

Perhaps that was a small benefit to having stayed in Atlantic City for longer than necessary, the ability to disappear on a whim… Ah fuck.

“I sometimes think you don’t respect me,” Cassie began as she settled into the chair opposite, jerking up to smooth the fabric of her crisp, white dress. The warped wood underneath groaned. “Maybe because I don’t hurt people for a living, you think I don’t have any kind of edge, subtlety? Empty in the brainbox department? Not sure, but either way, it wasn’t hard to work out where you might be going based on what I know about you and this particularly unpleasant part of the city …”

She looked around, nostrils flaring in distaste. “This place used to be a fancy-dan. Porcelain plates and bowties and fifty dollars for five dollars’ worth of shrimp …”

“That’s why it failed, I think,” Cassie nodded to herself. “Just another pretender in a city full of them.”

“This?” She gestured with painted fingernails, “This is authentic. Real. The people here aren’t trying to craft an image or be something they’re not. All true to their roots …”

Cassie fixed Amber dead in the eyes. “ … Doing what they always do, every single time.”

Amber, whether to her credit or not, leaned back into her chair with hands clasping at the nape of her neck while allowing the knowing-albeit-distant smile to cross her otherwise impassive features. It wasn’t as though the redhead wasn’t prepared to give credit where credit was due for tenaciousness and ability to put two and two together while not making 22, however she just wasn’t exactly in the proper headspace to be stuck in the continuous debate loop of corporate ethics and practicality of heels in a dive bar.

“Believe me, Ms Mares…” Amber lolled gently, rolling her tongue against her cheek thoughtfully. “If I were going to consider you any of those things, I’d have just said it rather than lead you on a wild goose chase. There aren’t enough hours in a day to waste playing pointless games and pretending to like things that I don’t. What I would like to know, though …”

Amber leaned forward, bringing her hands down to the table before steepling her fingers, closing the distance to an almost uncomfortable distance with only a worn, cigarette-stoned tabletop to keep them apart.

“Is what you think you want from me… If you’re so sure of what you know, why do you keep coming looking for answers to questions that haven’t been asked? I’m about as open a book as you’ll find in this fucking industry - yet you prefer riddles and double speak to simply asking a question, then wonder about a potential a lack of ‘professionalism’…”

Amber stared through Cassie in the same way she might through any other opponent squaring up. Not as a tactic to intimidate, but to watch for a flicker of dishonesty or anything that might confirm the nagging suspicions she couldn’t quite pinpoint. Not that her smile ever changed, almost lazy at the edges as her lip twitched revealing a glint of teeth. Quietly savage by instinct.

“Just ‘cause the words in the job title, it doesn't make me a good person.”

Cassie looked up at the tube lights hanging overhead, wrapped in sickly yellow light and caked in grease. She watched them swing gently in the recirculated air of the bar for a few seconds. The cracks arcing out from the bolts holding them in place at either end flexed and twisted.

“You’re a bit strange, Miss Ryan,” She said finally. “You’re defined by your job - or maybe your job is defined by you but fundamentally, both of them are the same thing. One made the other, it doesn’t matter so much in what order. Same qualities, same strengths, same weaknesses. It’s all interlinked together. You fight - you’re a fighter - and you get paid to fight. Pretty simple.”

As she brought an arm up from her lap to rest on the table, a sharp split in the wood grabbed the edge of the bright white material tight, pulling the whole sleeve up to the crook of her elbow. For just a second, before Cassie could pull it back down, tendrils of twisted and hardened scar tissue glinted in the gloom, shiny and faded-red. Bunching and twisting the smooth, pale skin into ugly swirls and streaks.

Cassie smoothed the material back into place but didn’t break her train of thought. “I guess that’s made you apply the same logic to other people, and I understand that. It makes sense. Do what you’re good at; like you. The key difference here is that I’m not defined by my job.”

“I like to think I’m an excellent talent relations manager,” She nodded. “Maybe one of the best, if my performance reviews are anything to go by, but that’s it. That’s where the comparison ends. I’m paid to get the best out of our people; whether that means helping them personally or professionally. I keep schedules, make little problems go away and mitigate bigger ones but I’m not some Machiavellian schemer or puppet-master. I don’t sit at home in my trendy one-bedroom apartment on the west city-side trying to work out how to make Amber Ryan do my bidding.”

“All of this,” She gestures, circling a finger around her painted face, “Is to get you to photoshoots on-time and stop you appearing in small claims court. That’s it. All of this …”

Her finger widens its circle to encompass the bar and then ends its gyration pointing directly at Amber. “ … Is because despite your very best, most strenuous efforts, you can’t stop people from helping other people for no reason other than they’re moved in their heart to do so. Good Samaritan, maybe. It’s what decent people should do.”

Straightening up and perhaps compelled by the outpouring of goodness, Amber unlaces her fingers and takes up her glass - examining the water marks and faint streaks around the edge, while trying to ignore the residue of a lipstick stain she was sure wasn’t hers. Maybe it was the booze or maybe the flutter of butterflies still writhing as they die in the pit of her stomach from the very familiar glimpse of mottled skin, but Amber remained silent for what felt like the longest while before downing the contents in one foul swoop.

“As delightful as you made all that sound, at the end of the day you’re paid to coerce and control… Not to care. Yet here you are, a couch and a notepad short of being an underpaid therapist to the sociopaths and sycophants.”

“I won’t pretend like there aren’t good people who do their good deeds for the warm and fuzzies they get from it - however you also managed to dance around my question. It's still not a reason outside of basic monetary, outside a need to keep face in an industry that depends on smiling just the right way to sell a few extra t-shirts.”

It was Amber’s turn to gesture, except hers was a little more wayward and expressive than she had intended.

“I have given you no reason to keep following, no reason to believe in anything more than what you are paid to; Good Samaritans have their limits, and still you insist on getting under my skin. By all means go digging around in my psyche - I’ll be glad to open that door, but I promise that there's a lot less in there than you think… Maybe I’m strange, but I’m surely not nearly as complex as you make me out to be.”

Relaxing back into her seat, a fresh waft of dirty salt-stained air mingled with the stale air conditioning that pumped through the place. She knew that those upright and coherent were starting to stare, while their companions, unable to see straight, just swayed with the gentle rocking of the boat as metal creaked around them. A woman in a place like this was a rare enough sight, although many remotely sober found reason to avoid any such lady that would step through the door unaccompanied. After all, whatever baggage brought them here wasn’t theirs to take home with them…

Two though, two changed the narrative. Two insinuated a different ending to the night’s events.

“Let me tell you a story…” Amber started, watching those with enough sense turn away leaving the remainder with bravery boosted by liquor to narrow their gazes under that heady, yellow glow. “It's not the kind that has a beginning, middle and end ‘cause that would imply that there's a shred of linear sense to it…”

Swallowing hard, the flood of alcohol in her veins left her light-headed in the moment but she simply played it off as a pause for effect.

“I knew a girl once, in a flower dress. She didn’t like me and frankly I didn’t blame her… I didn’t like me then either so how could I expect any different. I remember her though, barefoot in a garden, in the middle of a concrete jungle that she didn’t belong in.”
 
“It didn’t stop me wanting to do something, save her maybe… The more she fought to put down roots in an iron foundation, the harder I tried to pull before she became just another weed in the sidewalk. I wasn’t alone though - there was another who fought harder than I did, who seemed to understand the consequence with more weight.”

Cryptic. The words slurred as the recollection grew fuzzy, frames out of order making less sense as the story went on. Amber could feel the lump in her throat hardening, like the air she breathed was turning to dirt on her lips. Even the salt started to taste more musty and green, heady yet sterile.

“A girl in a flower dress named after the stars. I don’t think I need to tell you why that matters…” Amber paused thoughtfully. “She wasn’t the first, as I've come to understand most recently, that I was late for… She’s the one I should have learned from though. First one, Cassidy, I was young and stupid. I could have done more but I was so caught up in my own shit, trying desperately to just be everything for everyone... However, the girl in the flower dress, I had every opportunity to do better..”

Remorse flickers in her smile as Amber tries to chuckle off the resentment piling on her shoulders, too many people had fallen beyond her grasp…. And now another was offering their hand. She didn’t have to be sober to understand how history had a nasty habit of repeating in such cases.

“... And I didn’t. Now, here we are… Another girl named after the stars - except this one wants to try and redeem me it seems.”

Cassie opened her mouth to talk but said nothing for moments that became minutes, lower lip twitching as various words momentarily lived and died. Her eyes narrowed slightly, the smooth skin of her temples creasing but she didn’t look away from Amber. Someone else named after the stars? She didn’t believe in coincidences …

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” She managed finally, seemingly satisfied with that summation of the impossible, the unlikely and the random. She reached over and picked up the smeared glass, bringing it up to her face to sniff at carefully - as though the firewater coating the bottom might jump out and bite her.

She tipped it back and drained the glass without so much as a grimace. “That sounds like quite a story …” She said, “Maybe more like a tragedy. You mentioned you had the chance to save her, but there’s a difference between opportunity and duty; being able to and having to.”

“Could you really have stopped it all?” Cassie asked. “Would you have made the difference, or are you just chewing over something you were never going to be able to change?” 

Pensively, Amber fidgeted with her glass for far too long, as though it might just magically refill if she moved it the right way in the light.

“If I ever find out, I’ll let you know. How about in the meantime though, you tell me a story... maybe about those scars on your arm.”

Raising an eyebrow, Amber studied the younger woman for a moment in hopes of masking her own silent agitation with thinly veiled curiosity, and overt drunken lack of tact.
Of course, the redhead wasn’t about to tell Cassie how those scars brought her story bubbling to the surface to begin with, that someone she knew sharing such a specific skin mosaic had been the reason she’d failed the girl in the flower dress to begin with… How she’d be willing to perhaps maim on sight for everything they’d taken from her.


Cassie wrapped a hand around the forearm in question, flexing her fingers. She looked down at the spotless material hiding the scars, but her hand moved upwards, passing over her bicep. With an expression that might have been pain she hooked a forefinger under the line of her collar, pulling the fabric away from her neck and exposing that same mass of scar tissue twisting the skin of her collarbone and shoulder.

“It’s my salvation,” She said and as she talked, contraction of the muscles in her jaw and neck made the ribbons of angry, red skin dance where they were revealed. “Through suffering, I was made new.”

No stranger to scarification, Amber herself was riddled thanks to a career’s worth of reckless deathmatch prowess and generally terrible life choices, however she couldn’t put from her mind how she’d seen such angry curls and vines stretching across skin on another before. They weren’t the same though, that was the important difference, even in an intoxicated state she knew they were different… So why did the coincidences still chill her so thoroughly to the bone?

“All this God-speak and such is gonna make me ill. Between that and your distinct determination to give me answers that contain absolutely nothing… I wanna applaud you as much as I’d love to throttle you, Ms Mares.”
 
“Salvation is subjective, just as suffering pertains to the wearer - there are those who consider paper cuts on the same level as the electric chair after all, then there are those who’d just as easily break someone's kneecaps as they would kiss them on the forehead. Black and white; it's all the same when you’re blind.”

More light-headedness, although this time Amber managed to brace with the hopes that her easy, intoxicated smile might continue to mask her unsteady state and slurred undertone.

“God is many things to many people,” Cassie said as she let the material around her neck go, smoothing it back into place. Her left eye fluttered for a second as the fabric of her dress caught on the scar tissue underneath, but it passed after a moment. “Maybe he’s nothing to you, Miss Ryan, and that’s okay.”

She reached down and brought her handbag up to rest on the sticky table. “Faith is a private matter; something between you and the Lord. You talk, he judges.”

“Perhaps though, we’ve done enough talking … And drinking … ” She motioned over her shoulder with a jerk of her chin. “Shall we call it a night?”

Amusedly, despite a brief unwillingness to stop simply for the sake of stopping, the sideways opportune glances that Cassie’s sudden movement had brought upon them quickly changed Amber’s perspective. They’d drawn attention now.

Finding her feet and playing off a slight wobble with the movement of the boat, Amber sidled up beside Cassie just long enough for the harsh whisper to seep from between her lop-sided smile.

“Faith is bullshit … Even God can no longer judge me.”


* * *


The cityscape across the river faded in and out of focus, blurred into a jumble of blinking lights and reflective glass by rain sweeping through. Skyscrapers faded from view behind the stormfront, reduced to silhouettes picked out by the bleeding pulse of anti-collision lights on high-rises. Bustling dive bars and establishments of similar disrepute gave way to dockyards and shipping containers; their only common denominator being hard times.

Towering loading cranes dangled heavy, oxidised chains into the night and they jinked and clattered in the wind, adding a bassy rumble to the rattle of rainwater on cheap tin roofs. KEEP OUT signs made almost completely illegible by time and graffiti flanked broken chain-linked gates crumpled inwards. Cassie hesitated at the threshold.

“Miss Ryan?” She called out, gingerly stepping over a coil of rusted blades set into the spalled concrete and designed to shred the tyres of the unwelcome trying to get in. Somewhere up ahead, a voice called back incoherent and distorted against the shipping containers piled ten high on each side.

She clutched her handbag tight against her chest, shrinking further down inside the perimeter of the umbrella in her free hand as she moved forwards. “Miss Ryan - I don’t think … This doesn’t feel like a short cut …”

Something loud and dissonant crashed behind her, and Cassie wheeled around in time to threaten a skulking cat with the point of her umbrella. The animal pawed at the broken sling it had sent tumbling from the top of a nearby container, hissed in her general direction and then darted off into shadows cast by rusting steel.

Cassie had no sooner relaxed, letting her impromptu weapon drop towards the wet concrete than flinched again, as a voice boomed down from above.

“Hey!” Amber roared from the top of a container forty feet above the ground, cupping her hands unnecessarily around her mouth. “Did you see that cat?”

Grimacing as the rain found its way through her hair to pool around her ears, Cassie sighed. “Miss Ryan; if your shortcut means I need to parkour around this entire dockyard, I’ll make my own way home--No!”

She jabbed the point of the umbrella back up towards the sky. “Do not jump down from there!”

Amber grinned, pushed her bottom lip out and spent a long moment balanced on the edge of the container above. Eventually, she shrugged, held her hands up, mumbled something incoherent and shuffled back and out of view.

Cassie sighed again and turned towards the gates: enough was enough. She got no further than a step or two back the way she’d come when the painful glare of headlights swept across her whole vision, swallowing up the whole dockyard in brilliant white. The rumble of an engine nearby beat out the storm and blinking away the stars dancing across her eyes, she squinted at a pickup truck idling between the broken gates.

Blocking the gates.

She stepped backwards, struggling to pick out any detail in the glare. Cassie heard the unmistakable thump of doors closing and boots on concrete. Something heavy clattered against metal.

Silhouettes cut into the headlights’ beam, resolving into detail as they got closer. Half a dozen shapes at least - some carrying bats, others sporting lengths of chain tight between heavy fists. All of them had obvious ill intent; none of them looked lost. Tugging on the shaft of her umbrella, Cassie pulled the vanes in and presented the metal tip with as much menace as she could muster.

“Nice night to make a smart decision,” The closest one said in a thick accent at home with the shipping containers and cranes. “Where’s your friend?”

Cassie made a show of looking around herself. “My friend?”

Slapping the head of the bat held in his free palm, he sighed. “Ain’t my preferred way to spend my time, roughing up sweethearts. Think it’s important you know I don’t enjoy it.”

That made her frown. “So why do it then?”

“Consequences,” He said simply. “You’re cute, so I’m gonna’ give you one last chance. Where’s your friend? She got a reckoning coming her way for what she did.”

Taking a moment to close her eyes, tip her head back to feel the rain and suck in a full chest of air, Cassie steeled herself. “She’ll be long gone by the time you’re through with me.”

The apparent leader of this band of thugs almost looked contrite; a strange mix of resignation washing over his stubbled, weathered features. “Okay, guess you have that right to choose the manner of how this goes down. Let’s get to making you regret that choice.”

He never got the chance, courtesy of the sling sent crashing to the ground earlier by a mischievous cat and subsequently launched into the side of his head courtesy of a Painted Hurricane. Steel broke bone with a crisp crack, sending him down to the concrete hard. The others scattered momentarily, shouting at each other and the wider dockyard and in the chaos, Amber helped herself to one nearly-new bat. Only one previous careless owner, currently bleeding from the brain in the rain.

She felt sluggish, she felt wasted, but adrenaline soon burnt up the mental fogginess and made everything deliciously vivid. Extending the tip of her new bat out towards the remaining group, Amber smirked. “I got your consequences right here. Come and reap them.” 

The first to take her up on the challenge gave his jaw to the cause, spinning away spraying blood, spit and broken teeth. He mewled on the ground, murmuring and pawing against rain-slicked concrete as the second thug was caught square in the throat and dropped to his knees, gasping and retching for air.

The third had some time to plan a strategy more coherent, and he stalked Amber at the limit of her bat’s reach. The fourth thug made for Cassie, who swung her umbrella haphazardly and just effectively enough to keep him at bay for a while. This made for a useful distraction and when Amber glanced away towards the other woman, the circling thug made his move and crashed his forearm into her temple. She staggered, trying to create space but he was obviously a better fighter than a leader - so much for the latter anyway -  because he was on her in a second; repeated fists to her face.

Amber absorbed the hits, pain mixing with the adrenaline and booze-fuelled buzz. One caught her on the side of the mouth and she tasted iron. Ignoring her baser instincts, she allowed her body to go limp for just a few seconds, slumping under the raining blows. He took the bait and paused his assault to bask in satisfaction over her limp form, only to end up on the business end of a bat forced into the sternum. Staggering backwards, Amber was on her feet before he could even so much as look up. The second swing put him on his back, flailing, and the third stopped him moving again.

Stepping over the wheezing body, Amber was just too far away to do anything but watch Cassie take a hard fist to the temple, collapsing like a puppet with its strings cut. Everything - the rain, the blood in her mouth, the pain in her skull - dissipated in a surging white-out of boiling, radiant fury. She just walked through his punches; good, strong hits that should have given her something to think about but went totally, utterly, completely disregarded.

Amber didn’t stop pushing down on the bat across his throat with all her might, even with the stomach-curdling creak of crushed cartilage. First he punched her, then he scratched at her as rational thought broke down. The thug ripped and teared at her jacket, drawing parallel, weeping lines down her cheeks where his fingernails desperately clawed.

She just leaned into the contorting, jerking spasm and pressed harder. Just a short distance away Cassie lolled on her back, glassy eyes finding Amber’s. Lips twitching something unintelligible.

He might have been dead, but Amber kept up the pressure until his collarbone broke. She thought she heard his chest rattle in some incredible determination to stay alive.

A savage boot to the back of her head crushed Amber’s skull against her victim’s with a sickening thud, and her fury evaporated in a single all-consuming moment of agony. She rolled onto her back, bat forgotten, and lifted her spinning head only for a rain-soaked, worn-out tread to descend from the stars and force it back down hard against the concrete.

She coughed reflexively, blood spilling over her teeth as another thug joined in with savage kicks to her gut and back. Amber pressed her cheek into the cool rainwater and saw Cassie trying to pull herself across the short distance between them, that same vacant expression making it obvious nobody was home behind those bright blue eyes.

“Should have brought more guys,” One of the thugs managed between wheezing snatches of air. “Whole lot of effort just to teach this bitch a few lessons.”

“Morley never was a good planner,” One of the others replied in-between kicks to Amber’s spine, glancing over to look at the trembling body lying next to the bloodied sling and the first to eat concrete. “Probably why he’s dead. Looks it anyway.”

Dead? Surely not. It hadn't really occurred to her prior to this moment that she might have even hit that hard. That red-fuelled rage left her as a backseat driver while her body chose violence on auto-pilot.

Self-defence. Reasonable action. Maybe if she'd had a moment to breathe, more than a second to keep her face off the slickened concrete - then perhaps things might have registered beyond the debilitating dizziness and radiating pain from what felt like everywhere.

Cassie.

Not this time.

Failure was a powerful motivator as she desperately engaged whatever strength she had left to twist beyond the impact of another heavy boot, intended to leave her teeth embedded in the ground. It wasn't much, but it was unexpected and those precious seconds were running out fast…

Rolling onto her knees, Amber crawled half the distance towards where Cassie found herself; a little between standing tall on her feet and down in some squatting, heavy tilt. Scrambling beyond the wild swing of something hard and aimed for her head, Amber dropped, scraping a hole through the fabric and into the front of her knee in front of Cassie. One hand clasped tightly onto the younger girl's shoulder, feigning reassurance as more blood trickled over her lips. The other scrambled in her pocket trying to keep a grip with cold, bloody and rain-slicked fingers.

Desperate and raspy, Amber barely recognized the gutteral noise escaping with the first good breath she'd been able to draw in what felt like hours. “Cassie. You need to run, take my phone and go. Head to my apartment, call Mac and tell him to meet you there ... “

With vacant eyes, Cassie stared beyond Amber. Through her maybe, bright blue as clear as the rain splashing off their skin. Amber wasn't even sure she comprehended as she forced her phone into Cassie’s limp hand. It was a gamble, no doubt.

Would have been damn easy to run and just leave her behind as well, another statistic in a newspaper page being turned in favour of the misogynistic and outdated cartoon repeats.

Too easy.


Amber hated easy. There was never anything to be gained from it except a further burrowing hollowness she couldn’t fulfil. Even now, the bloodied redhead wasn’t sure if Cassie could even hear her over the pouring rain - if she could just...

A hard blow broke her train of thought.

Time had run out again as Amber struggled to get her hands out to brace her fall, the sudden surge of new pain almost immediately eclipsed by the relentless agony that radiated from her cheekbone as it slammed into the unyielding floor.  A heavy boot tread left a brand new groove at the base of her skull.

Lights flickered at the edge of her perspective, flashes of brilliance that weren’t really there punctuated by numbing strikes that jarred and drove the breath from her lungs. More metal on her tongue, although she wasn’t sure where it was coming from this time. Besides ... Blood and rain looked all the same in the dark.

Coughing and spluttering for a half-decent breath seemed arbitrary by now, as the edges of her vision blurred and clouded in dark.


“Forget her,” One of the thugs called out as Cassie scrambled away, delivering another stiff kick to the woman lying down at his feet, “She’s plenty roughed up already. Besides …”

He sank down, squatting next to Amber and waved a hand across her bloodied face. She struck out at thin air and he grinned with blood-stained teeth. “About time we put this bitch out of her misery.”

Amber tried to blink away the storm and the stars shooting across her vision, but all she could see were smudges of light and twisted shapes fighting for the last, narrowing tunnel of remaining consciousness. Something grey against the nighttime sky hovered overhead and she narrowed her eyes, turning her head just enough to paint the concrete red with a hacking splutter. Rainwater pooled around the edge of the leather and a worn tread resolved into view. A boot.

“Fuck …” She breathed, every syllable drawn out in barely enough oxygen to function and too much pain to think. “Fuck … You …”

“Nah,” The thug replied with a shake of his head. “No last words. Don’t want to hear them. What about you guys? You want to hear them?”

Her ears rang with the jeers of the rest of the men still standing, augmented by at least three powerful concussions working concurrently.

The boot filled what was left of her entire world, rose up and came down to end everything.

Amber heard it before she felt it - eyes squeezed shut in reflex - but it didn’t feel right. Disconnected; echoing. She was still somehow thinking about never having another thought again. That wasn’t right.

Then she heard another thud. Softer. Not rubber-against-concrete, but flesh and breaking bone followed by a cry cut short at the crescendo of agony. With a supreme effort, she forced her eyes open and let her head drop to the side nearest the violence.

Cassie drove the point of her elbow into the soft cartilage of a thug’s throat, folding it in on itself. As he staggered back, eyes widened in choking, gasping surprise, she collapsed backwards in perfect partnership with gravity and down to the concrete. Swinging a long leg in an irresistible arc, she took him off his feet even as he clutched and massaged and tried to compress a shattered voicebox back together with nothing more than his own hands.

No. Not Cassie. Amber tried to lift her head to get a better angle as she followed the fight, but her addled brain sat stewing in its own confusion against the back of her skull and everything threatened to spin into unconsciousness. She couldn’t even pick out a face; it just resolved into a formless, blank canvas. Like a mask painted in some poor facsimile of features. 

They surrounded her now, all three still left moving under their own power now the rest were out dreaming with the sun. The first swung hard without the necessary grace and she sidestepped, extending an arm around the back of his head as momentum carried him through and past. She clamped hard against his neck and threw her body in the opposite direction - generating a savage counter-torque which promptly broke blood vessels and fractured vertebrae. She landed inclined on the ground with her free arm bent at the elbow, he landed on his back with glassy eyes staring up at the storm.

The remaining pair faltered, exchanged a glance and nodded before moving in together. Unfortunately for the closest thug, his partner took a half-step less just as they closed the distance - deliberately, cowardly - and reduced their numerical advantage to nothing. He threw another hard punch straight-on but she was already inside his guard, batting the blow away with a forearm; levering it across his bicep and trapping the arm snug against her armpit.

He panicked, half-trapped, and desperately lashed out with his remaining fist until he was completely, absolutely trapped and held pinned in place. Without hesitation she drove her forehead in and down, exploding his nose. Again.

Again.

He went limp in her vice-grip. She drove her forehead down a fourth time and when she pulled free, intimate ropes of red linked them together. She let him collapse to the concrete and stepped over his ragdolled body. 

Amber watched this new stranger turn to face the last thug left standing. Gritting her teeth with effort, spilling more blood between them to drip in tracks down her chin, she thought she could finally see something resembling a face. A wide smile. Too wide. Stretched out and curved at the corners and filled with angled, sharp incisors that had no depth. As if they were somehow two-dimensional. Painted. The eyes were impossibly inset; buried deep and looking out …

But they were bright, and blue. And alive with the thrill.

Driven by adrenaline, he finally came at her fast - too fast. In his heart-pounding haste, he lost his footing on the rain-slicked concrete as he came in swinging and slipped. It took him a full second to readjust and turn and half that time again to react to the flat of her foot as it crashed against his jaw. Instinctively he doubled over to cradle his mouth and the stranger followed up with the meat of her thigh applied hard to the chest. Snaking her arms around to meet between his shoulder blades she abruptly dropped, crashing him sternum-first against an outstretched knee.

He wheezed, flailed and she held him tight and held him down. Shoulders trembling with effort, elbows bowing up and out, she forced his ribcage against her knee until it broke and pushed harder until it shattered. Offset at an angle, the thug’s head jerked up to lock eyes with Amber, teeth tumbling from a slack mouth on bloody curtains.

She held him tight and held him down until he stopped moving, and then for a little while longer. Tussling his rain and sweat-slicked hair with her fingers, she sent him spinning away to land on the concrete, broken face-down. Eventually, she stood and for another while tipped her face up towards the storm. Then, she turned and without a shred of urgency befitting the three bodies strewn around in the rain, made her way over to Amber and down to her knees.

A mask of bone-white looked down, bright blue eyes framed by smears and streaks of red.

“My beautiful Hurricane …” She said, and the words were thick. Accented. “Painted into tough times …”

She leaned down, pressing cold ceramic against Amber’s forehead in some parody of a kiss. “I’ve come to save you from yourself. Are you ready?”

Pulling away as violently as she might manage without throwing herself into the ground, Amber jerked back, spitting noisily into the night.

"Between you and me…" Amber's words came out strained and tinny, harshly metallic and stained in something darker than the blood she tried poorly to keep behind her lips. "Think I'd rather die."

Forcing herself further away from the proposed 'savior' in revulsion that bubbled up from the tattered remains of a soul, Amber managed slowly, agonisingly slowly, to get to her knees. Rain washed over her hunched frame in a torrent of swirling red that pooled around her.

"Suppose that's all you ever really wanted. Right?!"

She couldn't contain the laughter, even as it jarred every bone not already displaced. Haunting and empty from a smile painted as heavy as a hurricane in its last throes, head lolling as though hanging by an unseen thread between them. Maybe she should have suspected better, maybe she wished she hadn't. All that seemed to exist was broken laughter and clouded eyes.

"My throat. Your hands. Simple really..."

Stop caring so much. Laugh more.

Foolproof.

"My sweet Amber …"

Amber lifted her heavy, spinning head, allowing the wash of water to briefly soothe the pains shooting through her skull as it ran down the back of her neck. Everything seemed a little fuzzy on the edges, yet somehow the familiar stranger seemed far more defined. If only out of spite.

"I'm sorry this lesson must be so painful ... But you're a difficult pupil …"

A smaller chuckle this time as Amber forced herself up to a single, trembling knee.

"Or maybe - you probably haven't thought about this - you're just a shitty teacher."

The fist came in like a freight train, rocking her sideways as the swirling lights returned like she'd somehow stumbled out into the middle of a busy highway. Still, somehow, Amber forced herself back up, concussion amplifying every sensation and yet dulling anything important.

"When will you accept my intentions ..."

Another punch. This one the redhead never saw coming, even though they were barely feet apart. Creeping darkness seemed to crawl across her vision as the rain faded into the background, she couldn't even feel it on her skin  now … A cold comfort in the face of impending nothingness, lost.

" ... Come from a place of love?"

Love. Was that what she called it all those years ago? Same place and different time. Amber wasn't the most familiar with what love was supposed to be, but she knew it wasn't this … Violence calling itself salvation and love letters written in blood left to flood the gutters with whatever meaning they had left.

Strangers didn't offer love, in the same way lovers didn't offer salvation.

Amber knew the person in front of her could offer neither, but the rest of her defiance was steadily dripping onto the concrete. If this was supposed to be the end of anything then let it be known that it wasn't without absolute and total defiance.

"You must have me mistaken for another flower girl."

Springing forth with everything she had left to give, Amber wasn't sure what she was hoping to achieve, maybe to catch the malicious saviour unawares or off-balance. That somehow, she'd be found with blood under her fingernails and the mask that had tormented her years ago torn away in her hands. That’d be some way to go down.

Legs unsteady, Amber knew before she ever hit her mark that she wouldn't have nearly enough behind her to do more than simply cause a stumble. An inconvenience, like an errant splash of water over freshly-polished shoes.

It was something. It was better than simply accepting.

Being compliant.

After everything...

No. Fuck that.

Scrambling, Amber tried to grasp for anything that might keep her semi-upright. The slope of a shoulder. The curve of a waist. The edge of a masque.

Everything happened in slow motion to the eye, but quicker than the brain could process. An elbow caught her square in the temple like a bloody neon bullseye had been painted right across it.

Spinning off like she'd been blasted by a shotgun at point blank, the darkness finally claimed the redhead long before she ever found the concrete again. If it wasn't so inevitable, it would have been incredibly sad in spite of the laughter’s echo that seemed to fade into the storm.

Masque stooped down into the runoff, reaching out to run gloved fingers against the side of Amber’s face. She softly traced the path of swollen welts and weeping cuts, dancing between each wound, before gently cupping a cheek in her hand. 

Her hand continued down, skirting Amber’s tender jaw until it settled around her throat. She squeezed.

“Now …” Masque said, tightening her grip incrementally, “I think you’re ready to learn.”

Without warning, she brutally forced Amber’s head upwards off the concrete and brought the other woman’s grimacing face level with hers. The Redhead wheezed, struggling to stay semi-conscious in the choking grasp.

“If you listen; if you study hard in my lessons and apply what I teach you … I’ll tell you where he is.”

Something primordial, bestial, ignited in Amber and she strained upwards, bloodied teeth bared. With a tensed arm Masque held her at bay, straining, snarling, and squeezed tight. Her rage, powered by the same fuel as the body it inhabited and with both now starved of air, snuffed out. Amber’s eyes rolled back and finally, mercifully, the darkness took her again and this time, kept her.

Cradling the back of the unconscious woman’s head protectively as she lowered it back down, Masque took a second to wipe a streak of blood from Amber’s lips, before sweeping her up in her arms.

“Welcome to Wonderland,” She said to the storm and the Painted Hurricane. 


D̶o n̶ot b̶e fri̶ght̴e̵n̵ed. M̷i̵n̵e i̵s t̴he̵ la̴st vo̷i̵c̶e yo̴u w̶ill eve̴r h̸ear.