Chapter 5 - (Gestation Arc)
You don’t properly appreciate what superhuman strength means until you see someone leap from the sidewalk to the second floor of a building on the far side of the street. He didn’t make it all the way to the roof, but he came to a point maybe three quarters of the way up. I wasn’t sure just how Lung kept from falling, but I could only guess that he just buried his fingertips into the building’s exterior.
I heard scraping and crunching as he ascended, and looked to my only escape route. I didn’t harbor any delusions as far as my ability to get down the fire escape before Lung came over the top of the roof and deduced where I’d run off to. Worse, at that point he could probably just beat me to the street level by jumping off the roof, or even just shoot fire at me through the gaps in the metal while I was halfway down. The irony of the fire escape being anything but didn’t escape me.
I wished I could fly. My school offered the choice between Chemistry, Biology and Physics, with Basic Science for the underachievers. I hadn’t picked Physics, but I was still pretty sure that no matter how many I could gather together, jumping off the roof with a swarm of flying insects gripping me would be just as ineffective as the 9 year old superhero wannabes you heard about in the news, jumping off ledges with umbrellas and bedsheets.
For the time being, I was stuck where I was.
Reaching inside the convex armor that covered my spine, I ran my fingers over the things I had buckled in there. The EpiPens were meant to treat anaphylactic shock from allergic reactions to bee stings and the like, and likely wouldn’t do a thing to Lung, even if I could get close enough and find a point to inject. Worst case scenario, the injections would supercharge his power by prompting a surge of whatever hormones or endorphins fuelled his power. Not useful, dangerous at best. I had a pouch of chalk dust that was meant for climbers and gymnasts; I had seen it in the sports store when I was buying the lenses for my mask. I had gloves and didn’t think I needed the dryness and extra traction, but I had gotten the idea that it could be useful to throw at an invisible enemy, and bought it on a whim. In retrospect, it had been kind of a dumb purchase, since my power let me find foes like that with my bugs. As a tool against Lung… I wasn’t sure if it would explode like regular dust could when exposed to flame, but fire didn’t hurt him anyways. Scratch that option.
I tugged the little canister of pepper spray free from my armor. It was a black tube, three inches long, not much thicker around than a pen, with a trigger and a safety switch. It had been a gift from my dad, after I had started to go on my morning jogs for training. He had warned me to vary my route, and had given me the pepper spray for protection, along with a chain to clip it to my belt loop so it couldn’t be taken and used against me by an attacker. In costume, I had opted not to keep the chain for the sake of moving quietly. Using my thumb, I flicked the safety off and positioned the tube so I was ready to fire. I crouched to make myself a smaller target, and waited for him to show himself.
Lung’s hands, still on fire, were the first things to show up, gripping the edge of the roof hard enough to bend the material that covered the roof’s raised lip. His hands were quickly followed by his head and torso as he hauled himself up. He looked like he was made of overlapping knives or spades, smouldering yellow-orange with the low temperature flame. There was no skin to be seen, and he was easily seven or eight feet tall, judging by the length of his arms and torso. His shoulders alone were three feet across at the very least. Even the one eye that he had open looked metallic, a glowing, almond shaped pool of liquid-hot metal.
I aimed for the open eye, but the spray fired off at a sharp angle, just glancing off his shoulder. Where the spray grazed him, it ignited into a short-lived fireball.
I swore under my breath and fumbled with the device. While he brought his leg over the edge, I adjusted my angle and shot again. This time – with a small tweak of my aim mid-shot – I hit him in the face. The ignited spray rolled off of him, but the contents still did the trick. He screamed, letting go of the roof with one hand, clutching the side of his face where his good eye was.
It had been vain to hope that he would slip and fall. I just counted myself lucky that however metallic his face looked, there were still parts of it vulnerable to the spray.
Lung hauled himself over the edge of the roof. I had him hurting… I just couldn’t do anything about it. My bugs were officially useless, there was nothing left in my utility sheath, and I would hurt myself more than I hurt Lung if I attacked him. Making a mental note to pick myself up a concealable knife or baton if I managed to live through this, I bolted for the fire escape.
“Muh… Motherfucker!” Lung screamed. With my back turned, there was no way to see it, but the roof was briefly illuminated before the wave of flame hit me from behind. Knocked off balance, I skidded on the gravel and hit the raised lip of the roof, just by the fire escape. Frantically, I patted myself down. My costume wasn’t on fire, but my hair – I hurriedly ran my hands over it to make sure it hadn’t been ignited.
Small mercies, I thought, that there was no tar used on the roof. I could just imagine the flames igniting the rooftop, and just how little I’d be able to do if it happened.
Lung stood, slowly, still covering part of his face with his hand. He walked with a slight limp as he approached me. Blindly, he lashed out with a broad wave of flame that rolled over half the roof. I covered my head with my hands and brought my knees to my chest as the hot air and flame rushed over me. My costume seemed to take the brunt of it, but it was still hot enough I had to bite my lip to stop from making a sound.
Lung stopped advancing, slowly turning his head from one side to another.
“Cock. Sucker,” he growled in his heavily accented voice, his cussing interrupted by his panting for breath, “Move. Give me something to aim for.”
I held my breath and stayed as still as possible. What could I do? I still had the pepper spray in my hand, but even if I got him again, I was running the risk that he would lash out and bake me alive before I could move. If I moved first, he would hear me and I would get knocked around by another blast of flame, probably before I could get to my feet.
Lung moved his hand from his face. He blinked a few times, then looked around, and then blinked a few more times. It was a matter of seconds before he could see well enough to make me out from the shadows. Wasn’t pepper spray supposed to put someone down for thirty minutes? How was this monster not an A-Lister?
He suddenly moved, flames wreathing his hands, and I screwed my eyes shut.
When I heard the crackling whoosh of the flame and wasn’t burned alive, I opened my eyes again. Lung was firing streams of flame, aiming for the edge of the roof of the adjacent building, a three-story apartment. I looked to see what he was aiming at, but couldn’t make anything out in the gloom or in the brief second of light Lung’s flames afforded.
With no warning, a massive shape landed atop Lung with an impact I could swear people heard at the other end of the street. The size of a van, the ‘massive object’ was animal rather than vehicle, resembling a cross between a lizard and a tiger, with tangles of muscle and bone where it ought to have skin, scales or fur. Lung was now on his knees, holding one of the beast’s sizable claws away from his face with his own clawed hand.
Lung used his free hand to strike the creature across the snout. Even though he was smaller than the beast, the impact made it rear back. It took a few short steps back in reaction, and then rhino-charged him off the edge of the roof. They hit the street with an audible crash.
I stood, aware I was shaking like a leaf. I was so unsteady on my feet, from the mixed relief and fear, that I almost fell over again as two more impacts shook the roof. Two more creatures, similar to the first in texture, but slightly different in size and shape, had arrived on the rooftop. These two each had a pair of riders. I watched as the people slid off the backs of the animals. There were two girls, a guy, and a fourth I identified as male only because of the height. The tall one approached me, while the others hurried to the edge of the roof to watch Lung and the creature duke it out.
“You really saved us a lot of trouble,” he told me. His voice was deep, masculine, but muffled by the helmet he wore. He was dressed entirely in black; a costume I realized was basically motorcycle leathers and a motorcycle helmet. The only thing that made me think it was a costume was the visor of his helmet. The full-face visor was sculpted to look like a stylized skull, and was as black as the rest of his costume, with only the faint highlights of reflected light on the surface to give a sense of what it was. It was one of those costumes that people put together out of what they can scrounge up, and it wasn’t half bad if you didn’t look too close. He reached out a hand towards me, and I leaned away, wary.
I didn’t know what to say, so I stuck to my policy of not saying anything that could get me into a worse situation.
Withdrawing his hand, the man in black jerked his thumb over one shoulder, “When we got word Lung was aiming to come after us tonight, we were pretty freaked. We were arguing strategy for the better part of the day. We eventually decided, fuck it; we’d meet him halfway. Wing it. Not my usual way of doing things, but yeah.”
Behind him, one of the girls whistled sharply and pointed down at the street. The two monsters the group had been riding on bounded across the roof and leaped down to the street to join the fight.
The guy in black kept talking, “Wouldn’t you know, his flunky Lee is there with a half dozen guys, but Lung and the rest of his gang are nowhere to be found,” he laughed, a surprisingly normal sound for someone wearing a mask with a skull on it.
“Lee’s no slouch in a fight, but there’s a reason he’s not leader of the ABB. He got spooked without his boss there and ran. I guess you’re responsible for that?” Skull-mask waited for a response from me. When I didn’t offer one, he ventured towards the edge of the roof and looked down, then spoke without turning to look at me, “Lung is getting creamed. The fuck you do to him?”
“Pepper spray, wasp and bee stings, fire ants and spider bites,” the second of the girls said, answering the question for me. She was dressed in a skin-tight outfit that combined black with a pale shade of blue or purple – I couldn’t tell in the dark – and her dark blond hair was long and windblown. The girl grinned as she added, “He’s not holding up too well. Gonna feel a helluvalot worse tomorrow.”
The man in black suddenly turned to look at me, “Introductions. That’s Tattletale. I’m Grue. The girl with the dogs-” he pointed to the other girl, the one who had whistled and directed the monsters. She wasn’t in costume unless I counted a plaid skirt, army boots, a torn-up sleeveless T-shirt and a hard plastic, dollar-store Rottweiler mask as a costume. “-We call her Bitch, her preference, but in the interests of being P.G., the good guys and media decided to call her Hellhound instead. Last and certainly least, we have Regent.”
I finally caught up with what he was saying. Those monsters were dogs?
“Fuck you, Grue,” Regent retorted, with a chuckle and a tone of voice that made it clear he wasn’t really that offended. He was wearing a white mask, not quite as decorative or made up as the ones I associated with the carnivals in Venice, but similar. He’d placed a silver coronet around his short black curls, and wore a ruffled white shirt with skin-tight leggings tucked into knee-high boots. The outfit was very renaissance faire. He had a build that made me think more of a dancer than a bodybuilder.
Introductions done, Grue looked at me for several long moments. After a few seconds, he asked me, “Hey, you okay? You hurt?”
“The reason she’s not introducing herself isn’t because she’s hurt,” Tattletale told him, as she continued to lean over the edge of the roof and watch whatever was going on at the street level, “It’s because she’s shy.”
Tattletale turned around and it looked like she was going to say something else, but she stopped, turning her head. The smile she’d been wearing faded, “Heads up. We’ve gotta scram.”
Bitch nodded in response and whistled, one short whistle followed by two long ones. After a brief pause, the building was suddenly rattled by impacts. In just moments, the three creatures of hers leaped from the alleys to either side of the building and onto the roof.
Grue turned towards me. I was still standing on the opposite end of the roof, by the fire escape. “Hey, want a ride?”
I looked at the creatures – dogs? They were bloodied, snarling creatures out of a nightmare. I shook my head. He shrugged.
“Hey,” Tattletale said to me, seating herself just behind Bitch, “What’s your name?”
I stared at her. My voice caught in my throat before I was able to get the words out, “I don’t… I haven’t picked one yet.”
“Well, Bug, a cape is gonna show up in less than a minute. You did us a solid by dealing with Lung, so take my advice. Someone from the Protectorate shows up, finds two bad guys duking it out, they’re not going to let one walk away. You should get out of here,” She said. She flashed me a smile. She had one of those vulpine grins that turned up at the corners. Behind her simple black domino style mask, her eyes were glittering with mischief. If she had red hair, she would have made me think of a fox. She kind of did, anyways.
With that, they leaped over my head, one of the three beasts hitting or stepping on the fire escape on the way down, eliciting a screech of metal on metal.
When I realized what had just happened, I could have cried. It was easy enough to pin down Regent, Tattletale and Bitch as teenagers. It wasn’t much of an intuitive leap to guess that Grue had been one too. The ‘children’ Lung had mentioned, the ones I had gone to so much effort to save tonight, were bad guys. Not only that, but they had mistaken me for one, too.