I wasn't entirely sure where we were. Jay and Cyrano had been leading us back towards wherever they'd been based (I hoped), but right now we'd stopped. Cyrano was having a rather pointed conversation with a... I looked away. I didn't really want to identify whatever it was Cyrano was talking with. Jay was perched on a nearby fence, eyes narrowed as she scanned the streets. I span back to Cyrano as I heard her shotgun being primed. Given that last I'd looked the conversation had been at the very least amicable, that had gone downhill rapidly.
Jay sprang from her perch and landed beside Cyrano, drawing herself up to her full height and spinning a dagger she'd produced from nowhere around her fingers. (Alright, so she had to have had it somewhere but still.)
The...thing said something, and I had a horrible feeling that it hadn't been good news.
“Yebat,” Jay hissed as she returned her dagger to the inside of her jacket.
“Hey, we-” Cyrano started, and then stopped, narrowing her eyes at me. “Shit. We do have to worry don't we?”
“Would someone mind cluing in the utterly confused person here?” I asked. “After all, it's only me that seems to be the one who should be worrying?”
“Ballas is...doing something,” Jay said. “His guys are our sweeping the streets and looking for mortals.”
“Ballas?” I questioned – because, well, they seemed to think I should know the name.
“Nikolaj Ballas,” Cyrano said. “He...well, he kinda runs the Mob.”
I stared at her, but neither of them seemed like they were screwing with me. Neither of them were the type to mess around with people about things like this.
I felt the need to sit down. I looked around, and found nothing suitable, and simply sat down on the ground. I hooked my earphones into my ears, pressed play on my MP3 player, closed my eyes and wrapped my arms around me knees. This wasn't happening. There was no way that I was being hunted down by the Mob of all things.
One of my earphones was pulled out. Cyrano was watching from a little way away, completely confused. Jay was knelt next to me, eyes soft (like I'd written when she was dealing with Lainey having a panic attack), one hand rested very lightly on my shoulder.
“You okay?” she asked quietly.
I blinked at her, because this somehow summed up this entire situation. I was sat, on the verge of a panic attack, with an assassin, a fucking stone-cold killer who I'd created, who I knew in many ways better than I knew myself, comforting me.
“Fine,” I managed eventually.
“Uh-huh,” she didn't sound like she believed me.
“Yeah right,” Cyrano mumbled behind her.
“We should move. Safest place for you right now'll be back at our hideout. I'm not going to war with Ballas or his goons today.”
“Or ever if I can help it,” Cyrano added.
Jay pushed herself upright and offered me a hand. It took me a moment before I accepted it – I needed to remind myself that she wasn't about to kill me or something.
Once on my feet, I curled in on myself, hunching down between Cyrano and Jay's taller forms, not that they would make the best shields given comparative widths. They didn't comment on it, instead leading the way through the streets, both scanning our surroundings. (I had to admit, that having these two playing bodyguard was at least somewhat reassuring.)
"How far are we anyway?" I asked quietly after a few minutes of silent walking.
"You haven't been keeping track?" Jay asked absently.
"Unlike some people, I don't have an inbuilt sense of direction, and my phone has no signal."
I waved said device at her. (Which unfortunately lost some of my emotion seeing as I had to find it, dig it out of my pocket, and dig it out.) She looked suitably unimpressed.
"I'm like really not good at keeping track of where I am in relation to things, especially when the place is a fucking maze."
"We're probably about four miles away," Jay supplied eventually.
I nodded. That I could deal with.
Which of course is when things went promptly sideways.
Twitch pirouetted through the door. “Iscariot, my darling!” she called.
Iscariot looked up and tilted his head, somewhat worried.
“Ballas has offered us a bounty!”
“Us?” Iscariot lifted an eyebrow, somewhat disbelieving.
“Well, perhaps 'us' is not quite the correct phrasing... It's more that he has declared a bounty on the heads of all those chainless individuals who just...turned up.”
Iscariot grinned, aware of the sharp edges and wicked tint.
“Well,” he drawled, rising to his feet. “It's been far too long since we hunted. Shall we?”
“Let's,” Twitch's lips curled into a smirk.
I collapsed against a wall, lungs burning. I looked around, hoping against hope that I-
I had been separated from Jay and Cyrano. Great.
So. Here I was, lost in this Nothing, without my guides, and with no clue where anyone I could trust was.
“Fuck,” I mumbled through harsh, uneven gasps. “What the hell do I do now?”
I searched through my bag, checking things. Everything was as it had been, and I was wondering why the hell I'd kept a hold of it in my headlong rush. The pain in my lungs was slowly starting to ease, and I rested my hands on the back of my head, leaning back and breathing, slowly, steadily.
I needed to get the blueprints in my bag back to Gray. I needed to figure out where the hell I was. I needed to figure out where the hell I needed to be.
I slammed my head back into a wall. “Seriously? What the hell?” I screamed up at the sky, for no real reason, apart from the fact that it seemed to be the expected thing to do in circumstances like this. “What have I done to deserve this? Have I really been that bad a person?!”
“Uh...” a voice to one side had me casting a baleful glance in...the wrong direction.
I turned the glance the other way.
Seriously? Was there no-one of reasonable size in this place?
The guy was...large. Looming to the end of the alley I'd run into.
“You alright?” the latest in a long line of giants asked me, in a familiar accent.
I pushed myself more upright, tightening one hand into a fist, just in case. “Oh, just fine,” I said, well aware that my words had a sharp edge to them. “Today has just been a long laundry list of things going from bad to worse. So, what're you? One of Ballas' men? Or just some opportunistic spirit out to earn a fast buck?”
“While I won't deny that a 'fast buck' wouldn't be something I'd object to,” he said slowly. “I can't say that I'm either of the above.”
“Thank goodness for that,” I said. “On the other hand, I normally know better than to talk to strangers.”
Unless there were pubs involved, and phones needing charging, and Pratchett to be discussed.
“Damnit,” I muttered as I took a few steps and found my ankle shooting pains through my entire leg. “So, if you're none of the above, what are you?” And curiosity once again proved to be my main failing.
“Also mortal,” I said. “And apparently being hunted by some Mob boss who had something happen to him because of one of our lot and well... Here I am. Lost. In a city I'm in no way familiar with. Go me.”
My...companion (for lack of a better word) snorted ever so slightly, and then smoothed his face out again.
“Guilty,” I offered, holding out a hand.
There was a pause, before he took my hand.
“And that's Andras,” he pointed.
I followed his finger to where there was another guy slouching against another wall.
“Hi,” I offered, slightly nervously.
I looked around, hoping that perhaps at this point I might have some luck, and that perhaps another one of my characters might...
“What have we here?” a sibilant voice inquired.
“Shit,” I said, staring at the woman who was sauntering along the alleyway.
Her skin was a deep purple and her hair was vibrant green, sparkling gold eyes filled with anticipation – of violence. There was a knife in one hand, trailing with sparks along the wall, blood spattered up her arms and over her clothes. A long scar trailed across her forehead and down her cheek. She might've been pretty if not for that. She was also Twitch.
“Two mortals,” she said. “How lucky are we?”
I looked around hurriedly, because Iscariot would be here somewhere, where one was, the other was never far behind.
“Ballas will pay handsomely for this.”
The knife in her hand stopped trailing along the wall and instead span through her fingers.
“And someone for us to play with as well. How thoughtful. That said... Ballas never said I had to hand you over in one, whole, unharmed, piece.”
She measured the last words carefully, licking her lips as though this was quite the thought.
“And I've never had a chance to vivisect a baseline before. I wonder how you'll differ.”
“Don't we get a say in this?” Andras asked, pushing himself upright.
Twitch tilted her head, pouting thoughtfully. “No, I don't think so.”
“You're outnumbered,” I tried.
“Only by numbers,” Twitch drawled easily. “And not by as many as you'd think. Especially given that you're hardly going to be much of a threat to me.”
Well. She had that right. I mean, if it was just your average person on the street, maybe I'd have stood a chance. But Twitch was a professional torturer. That was...not something I was likely to be able to go up against.
“Look, ma'am,” James said, frostily now, very polite, too polite in my mind view. “You couldn't see your way to just...”
Which is when Twitch lunged forwards, knife lashing out. Which James, didn't so much avoid, as disarm. He lashed out with a sharp kick and hit her arm – whether by design, or sheer chance, I didn't have the first clue. I scrambled out of the way as...
“Now that's no way to treat a lady,” a voice that I could only assume was Iscariot's cut in as another purple-skinned figure materialized, grabbing hold of James and dragging him back.
Only to get thrown sideways by the appearance of another woman in the alleyway, and I was rapidly loosing track of who everyone was, and where everyone was. Which wasn't so great, as that was the moment that Twitch's arm snaked around my neck, dagger pressing into my throat.
“I'd stay quiet and walk,” she instructed softly. “Iscariot will keep those...three, tied up for a little while. We're going to see Ballas now.”
I followed her instructions.
James threw a punch at the guy who was currently attacking them. He seemed to have eschewed the knives that his companion had so favoured as was perfectly happy to go at them with hands and feet and heads and teeth. (The rows of white teeth bared in a vicious grin were just a little too obvious to miss, and a little too hard to discount.)
The purple-skinned man rolled with the punch instead of avoiding it, and came back to his feet, balanced low.
“You should've taken Twitch's offer,” he said. “She would've been nice, she would've used knives.”
He danced out of the way from an attack by Andras' projection, and ducked down to slam his fist into Andras' stomach before pirouetting away.
“I won't be that nice, I'll tear you apart with my bare hands if I have to.”
“Surely that won't be necessary?” James said, darting backwards to avoid a blow – he could feel himself getting winded, this fight was going on for too long.
“Well, of course it's necessary,” the man said, his grin morphing into what would've been a charming smile on any other face, under any other eyes. “However else would I get a look at your insides? However else would I make you scream?”
Then the grin snapped back into place, and the man threw himself forwards, already moving to dodge an attack from Andras.
Straight into the projections fists. The man slammed into a wall, and collapsed a the bottom.
James stared at him, waiting for him to get back up. He didn't seem like the type to be downed by something like that.
“Oh,” a voice behind them said. “Huh. Well that's different. I mean, I know Scim can sometimes turn her skin silver if she's very careful about it, and her hand's kinda silver all the time, well, not silver, steel, but silver-coloured, and Flea's...well, I'm not sure what colour Flea is. People tell me she's purple, but I've always thought she was more of a maroony colour...”
“Gray!” a female voice snapped.
“We're not here to discuss the colour of the attacker's skin.”
“You couldn't, perhaps, have offered a little help?” James suggested as he turned.
“Eh,” the tall woman in combat fatigues shrugged casually. “You looked like you had it in hand.”
“Also, it was somewhat fascinating to watch,” the man – 'Gray'? - said, bouncing, almost, over to Andras. “Who was that woman? How did you do that? Was it some kind of-”
“Gray!” the woman massaged her forehead.
“What? I'm curious!!”
“Please,” the woman said to Andras, her tone almost begging, although her face was set and her eyes didn't waver. “Put me out of my misery and punch him before I have to myself. I don't want to have to explain to Cyrano why I came back without him. She's inexplicably fond of him.”
“Can we help you?” James asked politely.
“Oh, yeah. We're looking for a girl. Red-head, 'bout yea high,” the woman held a hand up about a foot below her head. “Was wearing a hat last I saw, not so sure she's still wearing it now, kinda lost track of her when we were forced to make a run for it.”
“Answered to the name of 'Guilty'?”
“For some utterly obscure reason, yes,” Gray said, brightening visibly. “You've seen her then?”
“Well, yes. She was right over there.”
The woman looked over and then back, and then over again, and blinked once, twice.
“Well she's not there now,” she said.
James took a few minutes to review the situation – because the woman's hand had fallen to a handgun on her hip, and she was watching him closely.
“I have a horrible feeling that she might have been taken by that guy's companion,” he said eventually.
“Well that's not helpful,” Gray said. “Especially if they are professional torturers.”
“It was a guess!” the woman protested. “You didn't have to agree with me you know!”
“It makes logical sense. After all, they did remind me of-”
“I don't want to know! C'mon. We better go find Cyrano and then see if we can track those two down before they get to Ballas. Perhaps I should've just declared war on him. It might have made this a little bit easier.”
I wondered whether Twitch would stop to dissect me...vivisect me before we reached Ballas, or whether she wanted to offer him the chance to watch me get slowly taken to pieces.
It was strange. If you'd told me a day ago that I would've been walking along a street, with a professional torturer behind me with a knife to my throat, the threat of that knife being used in several more unpleasant manners? I'd have freaked out – and probably told you you were utterly insane as well, but mostly freaked out.
As it was, all I felt was curiosity. Curiosity over where she'd start, and whether or not she'd go as far as I knew she had with other sub- victims.
Now was not the time to slip into her head for writing her. She was one of my more bizarre characters, or one of the more bizarre twists, she'd started off fairly normal, if not adverse to torture, although she had revealed fifty thousand words into a story that she hadn't said a word aloud the entire time. Then she'd turned up in something else. Something where she had purple skin and green hair, where she had a chip implanted in her brain so that psychics couldn't pick the thoughts out of her head. Somewhere where there was no need for professional interrogators because the psychics just ripped the answers straight from the victim's head.
“How much further?” I asked, mindful of the blade at my throat.
“Not much,” Twitch said.
“It's just I twisted my ankle running earlier, and well...it's kind of getting swore.”
“Soon it'll be the least of your worries. Soon, Ballas will be doing...whatever it is he wants to you. Maybe he'll let me watch.”
I just knew her eyes would be dancing with glee at that thought.
“Or you could let her go.”
Never had I been more thankful to hear an only half-familiar British accent.
I wasn't sure how precisely James had ended up managing to get ahead of us, but somehow he had. With Andras. And Jay, and Gray. Jay and Gray both had their guns out and pointing at...well, at me. Twitch was doing a very good job of keeping herself shielded behind me. (I had never realized quite how short she was, previously she'd always worn high-heels, but apparently now she preferred more sensible shoes.)
“I'm fairly certain even an assassin wouldn't make this shot,” Twitch said calmly.
Jay didn't respond, eyes narrowing ever so slightly, but otherwise, stock still.
Gray didn't respond either, although I could see his trouser leg moving, ever so slightly.
“Assassin?” James asked, turning to Jay.
Jay just gave a very slight shrug. “Someone's gotta do it.”
Andras was, by now, giving Jay an almost disgusted look. I filed that fact away absently for later perusal. The knife at my throat dug deeper, and I felt liquid drip down my throat.
It was odd, really, how calm I was about this whole thing. How little it was really bothering me. I felt, almost, as if it was happening to someone else.
(And in the back of my mind, that little voice that was always speaking, murmured thoughts to me that I preferred not to give heed to.)
“You are actually outnumbered this time, ma'am,” James pointed out. “And perhaps you haven't noticed, but your friend isn't around to save you.”
I felt Twitch hesitate, felt her freeze.
“What have you done with him?” she demanded.
The one thing you could rely on her to care about – Iscariot.
“Well, he got thrown into a wall, but if he's anything as resilient as he appeared, he's probably going to have shaken that off by now. Or at least got himself sat upright.”
A tremor ran through Twitch, and I wondered what she was thinking.
“He could probably do with a hand right about now, and I think most of us would prefer it if Guilty kept her internal organs internal.”
I certainly would, but I didn't say as much, I felt it would rather undermine the point.
Twitch stayed still for a few moments longer before...
“And the money I'm losing because of this?”
“That's one thing we can't re-” Jay started.
“Actually,” Gray bounced slightly. “I have some suggestions on that, Ms...?”
“I have some suggestions on acquiring funds that you might be interested in, Ms Twitch. Look me up after you've found your friend. Oh, and no vivisecting me. I bite back.”
He smiled pleasantly.
Twitch took another long moment, before slowly releasing me.
“If a single one of you comes for me,” she said as she did so, “I swear, I will end you.”
With that, she disappeared off up the street.
“You alright?” Jay asked, concern, once more, bleeding through, if barely.
“Fine,” I said with a wide smile. “Completely, and utterly...”
There was a moment when I thought I'd be able to finish that sentence.
Then the moment passed and the floor suddenly wanted to be my friend.