Like Wax Under Flame


Chapter 1

Achtunng Street was not a haven for rape gangs.

At first glance, such a statement would seem obvious. Rape gangs preferred sectors in the varios with the cleanest air. Achtunng Street was located smack dab in Sector 3-G where the Toymaker’s factories spewed a constant stream of fire and smoke to the point where it resembled a never-ending religious ritual. No one survived in Sector 3-G for more than a couple of months unless they had a state of the art nose filter or a breath mask, and a rape gang boss would ass-fuck himself with a crowbar before blowing hundreds of creds on a single one when victims were plentiful on the other side. An average rape gang boss.

Zar, however, was not an average rape gang boss. Screams and pleas alone weren’t enough to satisfy him. He had a fetish for blood, and damn, there was so much in the human body. The first time he cut his first throat it had just sprayed out like a fucking fountain and didn’t stop. It just went on and on and on…

It wasn’t enough. It was thrill, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted, needed, more than a victim. The light of life needed to burn in the bitch’s (or the bastard’s, but he didn’t usually swing that way) eyes before she died. He wanted to feel that light sear the flesh of his face, of his cock. That would be thrill. The thought itself was so thrill, he blew half the gang’s treasury on nose filters that would enable them all to breathe the toxic fumes of Sector 3-G. Here right in Achtunng Street was where his fantasies would come alive because it was one of the only shortcuts to Ander’s Weapons Factory. Abandoned by the Toymaker for over thirty years, it was a goldmine for black marketers. Anyone who wanted to earn some hard creds just had to disable the alarms for a few minutes, grab something, and pitch it to the Crypters or the Pythons. Such a prospect would tempt Zar or a member of his gang into a break-in, but none of them were well-versed in tech hacking. No matter. When they did break-ins, it was a lot more fun to grab some poor bastard flog and cut them until they gave up the code.

The thought of blood made his own collect into his lower areas and he cursed loudly.

“Maybe we should try Uthon Street,” Furst suggested. He was a scrawny thing with spidery hands and bulging gray eyes. “Heard some Toughsluts like to spin around there.”

“Just a few more minutes,” Zar whispered.

“You smell something good, boss?” Kerr asked, grinning like the sick loon he was. “You do, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do,” Zar said, and he did. In that moment, he did smell something.

As if to mock him, it began to rain hard, destroying the scent. Zar swore again before forcing himself to calm down. It was coming. Just because he couldn’t smell it anymore didn’t mean it wasn’t coming. It was coming right at him, and he would get it.

He grinned a grin that could put Kerr’s to shame when he saw a dark figure making its way down the acid scorched pavement. The figure was of medium build and wore a long, hooded cloak, but Zar could tell from the boot-size that it was a female.

“Signal the others,” he hissed to Furst without taking his eyes off his prey. “Make a circle when I give the code.”

He didn’t hear Furst carry out his order. His prey was continuing to walk down Achtunng as if it were the yellow brick road. Her body was completely wrapped in her cloak, including her arms. That was beyond mudmoor. Anyone who set foot in such varios should have a plasma pistol or two on their hands or belts where anyone could see them. Hiding your weapons meant you were either mudmoor or you wanted to be fucked.

Maybe that’s exactly what she wants, Zar thought with glee. Oh shit, this is gonna be thrill.

Of course, it would be thrill. The reason he was here in the first place was because he had heard rumors from a reliable source that Toughsluts were among those who dared venture into Achtunng Street in the hopes of grabbing something from Ander’s or any of the Toymaker’s abandoned weapons factories.

“I don’t see any weapons,” Furst whispered. “Maybe she’s not a Toughslut.”

“Who gives a shit?” Kerr said with an almost girlish giggle. “We’re gonna—”

“Shut up!” Zar hissed. “I’m giving the code. NOW!”

He jumped from the rail he had been hiding beside and landed on the disposal box a few feet below. He jumped again and landed on the pavement. His knife was already out and pointed at his prey.

“TOUGHSLUT!” he bellowed. “Hey, Toughslut!”

All ten members of his gang had formed a circle around her, jeering and waving their weapons. If Zar wasn’t already hard as a rock, he would have found it suspicious that she was just standing there not moving or speaking, just letting the rain pelt off her form and sudden death mock her from every corner.

Oh, what the fuck. She was a Toughslut, and she was his.

“No one touch her!” he shouted at his gang. He brought his knife up and moved forward.

She still didn’t move or speak. Zar grinned.

“Hey, there,” he whispered. He was so intent, he didn’t even feel the acid raindrops land in his mouth. “Heeyyyyyy, theeerrrrrreeee…”

She remained perfectly still. Zar couldn’t see very well under her hood, but it wasn’t hard to make out the breath mask. He laughed.

“You look like you could use a good nose filter.” He stopped right in front of her. “Take that mudmoor tech off.”

She didn’t move. He inched the knife close to her throat.

“Take it off,” he whispered. “Or I will.”

Don’t take it off, his inside voice begged. Oh, don’t take it off. Let me take it off after you fight, after you bleed…

“All right, then,” he said when he got no response. “Let’s play, Toughslut.”

His hand shot out to grab her by the throat. Then his mind was struck by a shock so great it took him a moment to realize that said hand was now gone, replaced by a cauterized stunt.

An eerie, synthesized voice emitted from the mask.

“Yes. Let’s play.”

The electroknife got him in the stomach before an unseen force knocked him against the disposal box.

What the fuck…?

He landed on his side in a crumpled heap. The Toughslut thrust out her hands and all ten rape gangers were hurled in opposite directions. She grabbed Kerr and yanked him up just in time to block a barrage of plasma fire from the others. When Kerr resembled little more than a charred strip of bacon, she pushed him aside. She was safe however. The gang’s guns yanked themselves out of their owner’s hands. They hung in the air for a moment, emitters aimed straight at their owner’s faces as if they were alive and wanted to savor the looks of stunned horror in front of them.

They all fired at the exact same moment. The gang members collapsed on the ground in perfect synchronization.

The Toughslut glanced around before heading straight for Zar. He got an eyeful of her black boots before she knelt in front of him.

He grinned at her.

“Entities, when did Toughsluts get so fuckin’ hot…?”

She extended her hand and made a fist. The air slowly drained out of Zar’s lungs. The process was long and agonizing, but oh, so, thrill.

*************

Chapter 2

Dane blessed her breath mask. It was bad enough that the sick bastard wouldn’t stop grinning, not even when tiny rivulets of blood started to trickle down his chin. No wonder he had chosen Achtunng Street. Apart from the Babes who ran the area, not many a human being dared to venture here. Only the crazy, the desperate, or the strong would be so bold. This motherfucker had obviously been hoping for the latter. Dane had never encountered a masochistic rape ganger, but she was highly satisfied with the outcome. She clenched her fist, willing the telekinetic hold she had on his throat to increase in power. It was a real shame she couldn’t draw it out longer.

Ah, well.

His neck crayed. Disgusting as his grin had been, he emitted a very gratifying choke before keeling over. Dane glanced around at her handy work, sending out a mental probe to each of the gangers. They were all dead and her instincts told her it was time to go.

The rain began to beat down harder, but Dane still wormed her way to the back entrance of Ander’s. Moving through the airshafts, she would be able to spot fellow scavengers from a safe distance and kill them if she had to. Her telepathic senses were strong, but they weren’t infallible. She hadn’t survived to the ripe old age of nineteen by being careless.

After disabling the alarm and checking the status of her oxygen, she climbed into the shaft. Forty-five minutes and she would be out of fresh oxygen. Thirty-two minutes and the security systems would be activated. No matter. She would be out of here in less than twenty minutes.

At the end of the shaft, she sent out another mental probe. No one was in the basement. Good. That would shave off at least two minutes. Removing the grate, she jumped down below. The fall was over twenty feet, but telekinesis wasn’t restricted to moving just objects. She landed without a sound and wasted no time in exiting the basement, all the while sending out small mental pulses. A single strong probe would have been enough to scan a hundred square feet, but Dane was well aware of the consequences of using too much power too soon. She took the stairs, moving slowly around the corners. Just three more flights and…there.

Dane put her gloved hand on the locked door and closed her eyes. Instead of darkness, the inner workings of the lock’s mechanisms filled her mind with perfect clarity. A psychic was never blind, even in the darkest night. If Dane’s physical eyes ever lost their ability to see, it would make no difference. After several gentle pushes and nudges in all the right places, the door opened. Dane sent out a brief probe before going in.

The room itself was vast and nearly pitch dark, but Dane had been in here enough times so that instinct was the only thing she needed to rely on. Stopping in front of the large, metal locker against the far left wall, she placed her hand on it and repeated the same process as she had before with the locked door. Thankfully, the tech behind the locks in Ander’s wasn’t the new wetware stuff that was becoming very popular very fast. Those were an absolute bitch to cray, even for a psychic. With a click, the locker opened. Dane wasted no time in filling up her bag with BQ-76 power cells. Tiny, but valuable to those who specialized in sonar rifles. The Crypt Keeper would pay top creds for them.

Dane closed her bag before she could give into the temptation to get greedy. Only mudmoor rooks thought they could get away with carrying a heavy load away from an abandoned weapons factory in Babe territory. Dane sometimes heard a few rooks boast about how they were going to pull off the ultimate raid in the hopes of impressing some horny Toughslut. She never bothered to correct them. People that mudmoor deserved whatever they got.

Attaching the bag to her belt, Dane made sure to relock both the locker and the entrance before heading down the stairs. She briefly glanced at the time and saw that she had been here for almost seventeen minutes. It looked like she was going to beat her last time. A small mental probe told her the basement was still deserted. So, not only did she not have to kill fellow scavengers, she was going to beat her time, and get away without a fuss.

Dane stopped in her tracks at the entrance to the basement. She clenched her fists against a tidal wave of rage. She knew what too much good luck meant. It meant that one way or another, everything would go to shit. That was the way her life worked. It was the way the world worked.

Relax, her survival instincts whispered. Just do what you’ve been doing since the day you were born. Eliminate anything that gets in the way. You have the power.

I have the power.

Psychic energy buzzed at her fingertips. In this world, power was all that mattered, and she possessed power beyond the imaginations of humanity. So long as she had power, she would always survive.

When the buzz reached her feet, she began to run. One hundred feet, seventy-five feet, fifty feet—

“Leaving so soon?”

Dane’s hand extended the moment she heard the voice, fully prepared to block any gunfire headed her way. Unfortunately, no gunfire came.

A brilliant beam of white energy connected solidly with Dane’s side, knocking her several feet away. Though it was like being rammed by a tube, the first thing Dane experienced was a terrible numbness that quickly faded into pain. Head spinning, ribs screaming, she tried to get up, but fell back down. Footsteps sounded to her left, growing closer with each passing second.

Be still, her survival instincts told her. Gather your strength, but appear weak.

“That thing on your face. What a hideous contraption. Do you wear it because you wish to look intimidating?”

She hadn’t seen his face yet, but that deep, gravelly voice was as loathsome as any rape ganger. For hurting her, he had already signed his own death warrant, but having that kind of voice meant she would make him suffer if she had the time.

“Not that it matters,” he continued, still coming closer. “You’re young, aren’t you? Young and incompetent.”

Good. He was a talker, a gloater. Meaning that he was mudmoor. Dane closed her eyes, focusing her strength. She made sure her body language radiated helplessness and pain.

“It’s always best to eliminate you abominations when you’re young. The true depth of your filth has yet to come to fruition.”

Though she was playing a role, Dane absorbed every word he was saying. Unfortunately, his words only served to spiral her. ‘you abominations,’ he had said. No one knew of her powers. Anyone who saw them died. She always made certain of that.

Enough, her instincts ordered. You have an enemy that evaded your mental probes. He has power to kill you. You must kill him.

Yes. She must kill him.

Suddenly and seemingly on its own accord, Dane’s body was lifted off the floor until her feet were dangling several inches above it. Through her breath mask, she finally saw her enemy. Not his entire face, which was somewhat disappointing. He was wearing some kind of dark, creepy ninja cloak and a veil to shield the lower half of his face. At least she could see his eyes: cold, greedy, power-hungry. In his extended hand was a thin wand-like tech that was pointed directly at Dane’s heart. Was it some kind of energy weapon?

No time to be baffled. You must kill your enemy. Ask questions once he is dead.

“I’ve heard the legends,” he whispered. “If they hold a grain of truth, you should be able to crush my throat simply by thinking about it.”

Asshole, if you only knew what I could do to your entire body…

“But it seems your abilities have dwindled over the centuries. Not surprising.” He sighed. “It truly is a shame to gain a promotion from delivering the head of something so pitiful.” Dark eyes narrowed. “But abominations are abomin—ACCCKK!”

Whatever was holding Dane in place vanished. Her feet hit the ground and she thrust her hands out, knocking her enemy into the opposite wall. She clenched her fist, willing his neck to cray into a million pieces. five seconds later, it did.

Dane didn’t waste a moment. On pure instinct, she grabbed the wand-like tech and fled before she gave into the temptation to search the corpse for further goods. What she had would keep her going for at least three months once she sold it.

Once well clear of Ander’s, she took the two-hour long tube ride to her home in the Under Rail. Once a hideaway for American soldiers during the occupation of World War III, it was now owned by the Crypters. If you paid them solid creds for rent, they wouldn’t send a horde of Reapers to cray the flesh from your bones. But the fear of Reapers didn’t keep everyone from trying to thieve your slot. If you wanted a home in the Under Rail, you had to be strong and smart enough to keep it. Eight years and seventy-four corpses later, Dane knew she would be able to call the Under Rail home forever. She made her way to the end levels and keyed open the rusty, battered door labeled YF-9942. The first thing she did after locking herself up was to remove her breath mask. The tech was heavy and uncomfortable, but necessary. Without it, one trip to Sector 3-G would guarantee the growth of tumors in her lungs in as little as a month.

Next she assessed her injuries. Bruised ribs, aching sides. Nothing a little muscle rejuvenator wouldn’t fix. She swallowed some and then started sorting through the power cells on her bunk. As she did, her mind strayed to her latest assailant along with the weapon she had stolen from his corpse. Taking it from her belt, she examined it with delicate fingers. It was thin, long, black, and felt like it was made from wood. Who knew how it worked. One wrong move and she could be blown to the varios of Harlow.

After not spotting a switch, a compartment, or even a vocal grate, she ran a jigger over it for ten minutes. Nothing. A weapon like this was worth a fortune, but she couldn’t sell it until she knew how it worked. Maybe some gullible, mudmoor rook could be suckered for a few creds, but Dane never settled for less than she deserved for her hard work. And the owner of this particular tech had nearly taken her life.

The owner. He had known what she was. And he seemed to believe that there were more of her.

Dane grimaced. Three years ago, she had tested herself for mutagens, thinking they were the cause of her powers. But the tests had been negative. There wasn’t a trace of mutagens or radiation in her bloodstream. She was just a plain old freak. A powerful freak, but a freak all the same. And after the tests, she refused to believe that there could be more of her. She was alone.

Her assailant was dead so obviously he couldn’t tell her where he got such mudmoor ideas. But he also mentioned that said mudmoor ideas weren’t his alone. His mindless babble about legends and centuries and getting promotions were irrelevant. He may be dead, but if others knew about her, that could mean real trouble. Going back to Ander’s to search the corpse for leads was out of the question. Any pals of his could be waiting for her right now. And conducting a personal search could alert them. It was always best to let her enemy come to her, so watching her back all the more thoroughly was the only option. Well, that and killing anyone who got too close to it.

She placed the wrapped up tech aside and began sifting through the power cells. Twenty were thrill, ten were mudmoor. Dane cursed herself for not giving into a sliver of greed. The sale of twenty would keep her going for only two months. Psychic powers or not, it was dangerous to hit one of the Toymaker’s abandoned weapons factories more than once every four months. Well, she could ask the Crypt Keeper if the wand-like tech was worth something. Someone like him would know, and he knew better than to try to cheat one of his best providers. Gathering up the power cells and the wrapped up wand tech, she began to suit up in her Toughslut outfit, which consisted of tight leather pants, a bright pink bra, and a short leather jacket. For aftereffects, Dane added some pale pink lipstick and some gold eyeliner that brought out the green flecks in her hazel eyes. Skin cream wasn’t necessary. Acne problems had yet to come, and even if they did, medicine like that was more than affordable in the black market. Toughsluts were proud of their flawless skin as much as they were of their scars.

Toughsluts.

It was a term coined hundreds of years ago when the rape gangs began to haunt a nation ravaged by war, directly in response to a prostitution boom. Countless desperate men and women put on whatever frilly clothes they could scavenge and dove into a business that got them a few creds and even fewer good scraps. Until they had a fatal encounter with a rape gang. The vast death toll encouraged the majority to find other ways to survive. But the minority had a different idea: they fought back.

Legend had it that a group of war veterans who had turned to prostitution developed a unique fighting style and used it to defend themselves against the rape gangs. They stuck together, their greatest weapons were their own bodies (an irony not lost on anyone), and God help any rape gang who encountered them. Their burnt, crayed open bodies could be found scattered all over the sectors. Their heads on the other hand received a more special treatment; stuck on spikes in the most brutal of varios with the veteran’s signature words burned into their foreheads: I WAS FUCKED BY A TOUGHSLUT.

The fighting style never died so it was safe to assume the veterans passed it down to their line, who passed it down to their line and so on. Whores forever roamed the streets, but it was the Toughsluts who were the lifeblood of the prostitution rig. They cleansed the sectors of rape gangs and pulled the business strings like a mafia don living in the shadows. Maybe they did have a real leader. No one knew, and if they did, the Toughsluts would ensure it stayed that way.

Dane herself wasn’t a Toughslut due to her own choice. Four years ago, she had been approached for training after a Toughslut spotted her slashing the throat of a rape ganger who tried to fuck her on a public street. The Toughslut had promised that she wouldn’t have to whore herself out. There were plenty of other positions available. A part of Dane had been tempted. Only a rook would say no to learning new survival skills in this ravaged, shitty world, even one who possessed psychic powers. But in the end, she declined knowing that she would have to obey some form of authority. And Dane followed no word but her own. She never would be a Toughslut, but it was useful to dress like one. People were more likely to leave you alone if you had the outfit and the attitude of a Toughslut. Dane had both.

Once physical preparations were complete, she glanced over herself in the mirror. Light brown skin and cheekbones accented, check. Lips full but uninviting, check. Eyebrows brushed to add a sharpness to her scowl, check. Hair all gathered in the back…blank box.

Dane reached behind her head and pulled out the butterfly comb that held her hair in place, but she didn’t start grooming herself with it. Instead, she examined the teeth. While far from filthy, more than half of them were flecked with small amounts of skin flakes and a few smudges of oil. That wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all. She went to the bathroom and turned on the faucet. Water took care of the skin flakes almost immediately, but the oil was a different story. She glanced around the bathroom and soon found that all the soap she had left consisted of three tiny crayed pieces melting on the damp shower holder.

It would be at least a week before she could get another bar of soap. The amount she had right now would last three showers at most, and Dane showered every day. She detested dirtiness to the point where going without a bath that involved both soap and water for even one day put her in murder mode.

Her hand immediately snatched up the biggest piece, which was half the size of a cred coin. In her haste, she almost knocked the other two pieces off the shelf down to where the drain dwelled, open, dark, and ready swallow anything it was fed. Without so much as a backward glance, she made the comb rise in the air. Opening her hand, the soap floated out of her palm and toward the comb at a slow, gentle pace as if the comb were a skittish lamb. It touched the tooth on the far right end first, moved up and down, up and down, slowly, carefully. The process was repeated with the other teeth. Up and down, slowly, carefully; a lover desiring to bring their partner to climax through prolonged, tender buildup. Once the teeth were slick with imminent cleanliness, the soap slid up to the large butterfly ornament at the top of the teeth. It roamed over each piece of blue-jade stained glass that decorated the ornament individually, refusing to leave until the one before it was slick and shiny. Once finished, the soap, barely half its previous size, glided over the butterfly’s center; a polished round ruby. The gem was as real as could be. If Dane sold it, she could probably pay rent for a year.

The soap’s pace over the ruby made its previous one look like a mutt horse race in comparison. Even after it shone in the light, the soap continued to move. And as the ruby shined brighter, the soap grew smaller. Dane didn’t care. She knew she wouldn’t be able to stop until the soap was reduced to nothing but the thin white smear it was currently trailing. It would be worth it. Just to see that beautiful fiery red glow ever brighter, brighter, brighter—

Click.

The ruby popped off the butterfly.

PING.

It bounced in the basin.

WOOSH!

It fell down the drain.

Dane didn’t hear the roar of animal rage and anguish the tore itself from her throat with such force that it could have rendered her temporarily mute had it been even a decibel louder. She grabbed either side of the basin with her hands and thrust her head down with the manner of a madwoman who believed she could fit it through the tiny hole and grab her lost possession with naught but the teeth in her mouth.

Fortunately, she had something far, far better.

Locking her gaze on the fading red glow, her mind reached out and grabbed.

The hold was tight, and she immediately loosened it once she was certain it was in her grasp, lest she break the gem. It shot up from the drain, twinkling. Dane snatched it with her physical hand and held it close to her heart, breathing deeply. Once reasonably calm, she retrieved a small vial of plasglue from the counter and applied it to the small depression in the middle of the butterfly. The ruby then nestled itself inside, safe and secure. Plasglue was all but indestructible. This would never happen again. Dane wouldn’t let it.

She cupped the reconstructed comb in her hands, always unaware of the way her features softened whenever she examined it. Staring at the stained glass butterfly, especially its glorious red center, was the only thing in the world that made her experience a personal comfort that bordered on happiness. She couldn’t explain why, but she felt a genuine connection to it. A connection that wasn’t a weakness because the comb wasn’t a person. It couldn’t hold her, kiss her, or converse with her; but more importantly, it couldn’t hurt her, betray her, or kill her. It was her safe friend. Her only friend. The only time she took it off was when she slept. If anyone tried to take it from her, she would telekinetically cray every bone in their body (save from the neck up) and throw them into the Under Rail’s furnaces.

How she ended up with it would always remain a mystery. She had been on her own for as long as she could remember, and even those memories were incredibly blurry. And despite everything she had been through, everything she had done to survive, the comb had never fallen out. It had never abandoned her. But someone had to have given it to her. Someone had to have cared enough to bestow such a gift…

The sudden tightness in her throat made her grip it in self-recrimination. This was weakness. Weakness was something to be ignored, and if you couldn’t ignore it, you loathed it enough so it burned itself from your mind until there was nothing left but the will and the drive to survive. After ensuring the comb’s safety, Dane dug her fingers deeper into her own flesh, but that only caused her eyes to water.

Tears. Weakness.

She released herself and telekinetically hurled several items across the room, screams tearing themselves from her raw throat.

No one but myself. I need no one but myself.

She channeled her power, gathering it at her fingertips and let it flow through her. When the weakness was purged she was left with a migraine, but it was worth it. And she sure as hell deserved it. Weakness was more than unforgivable, it was the only sin in existence.

Dane calmly washed her face before reapplying fresh make-up. She picked up the comb and slowly ran the teeth through her shoulder-length hair dyed a bright, medium gold. The comb’s caress soothed her battered mind and she closed her eyes, embracing the sensations. Tangles gone, she gathered her hair behind her head and slid the comb in it. Taking a deep breath, she gave her appearance a quick once-over and deemed it satisfactory.

It was past midnight, meaning the Crypt Keeper was wide awake and ready to do business. Slinging the sack of power cells over her shoulder, Dane headed out the door.

It was easy to ignore the leers of would-be patrons that followed her as she walked down the street. So long as they kept their hands to themselves, their neck bones could remain in one piece. Fifteen minutes later, she arrived at The Kitchen without running into trouble. Her survival instincts gave her holy hell for it, but she was somewhat disappointed that no one had tried anything. Nothing purged weakness better than a good kill. Maybe she would take a leaf from the books of several Toughsluts and go searching for a rape gang later, but business came first. The flashes and sounds coming from The Kitchen indicated that the Crypters were already busy dealing and haggling.

Being the smart, sensible guy that he was, the stocky doorkeeper only leered at her once before letting her in. Dane sent out a small mental probe to judge the amount of violence inside before stepping through the doorway. Decades ago, The Kitchen had been one of many shelters that surfaced during the war. Of course, it hadn’t really been a shelter. You went in and if your clothes were dirt-encrusted enough, you got a piece of stale bread, a plastic bowl of stone cold soup, and then you were thrown out on your ass. As the war dragged on, what was left of the government distanced itself further from the cities and towns turned gang varios before dissolving completely. Now the only law of survival was to get on good terms with or join whatever gang you could. No one lasted long in these times without being a part of something.

Except me, thought Dane.

The building was pitch black save for the occasional flash of multicolored lights. If you wanted to do real business with the Crypters, you brought your own light or hoped to the Entities that you could make your way without bumping into anyone. It was the Crypters’ way of weeding out the rooks. They never had anything good to sell and their blood smelled like shit. Dane continued to softly probe while she picked her way through. For the second time, she cursed her weakness from before. Defeating that ninja-whatever bastard at Ander’s had drained her enough already. Couple that with purging weakness and she could easily die if trouble found her again.

No matter. She would survive. She always survived. All she had to do was sell the power cells, ask about the wand tech, and get out.

She sent out another probe and ignored the pain splitting her head. The Crypt Keeper was just a few feet away, and he was busy. With a Python. After sending out one last probe, she smiled.

There’s my trouble.

Dane eased the knife inside her coat out of its sheath and timed her footsteps to the loud noises that constantly erupted around her. Three…two….one…zero.

“Ahhh! Motherfuck ittttt–!”

“It’s my turn now,” Dane hissed in a low gravelly voice. Her arm tightened around the creature’s neck and she pressed the blade deeper into his scaly flesh. “Then again, I’ve only branded ten tonight. Want to be number eleven? I’m not really fussy about who I brand.”

“You Toughslut bitccchhhhsssssssss!” The last syllable was drawn out in an inhuman hiss. “I’ll skin you aliveeeeeee-hsssssssssss.”

Dane wasn’t surprised. Pythons always gave the most mudmoor, unoriginal threats. Their only redeeming quality was that they always carried them out. When they were able to.

She inched her lips closer to a shrunken, flattened ear.

“So you do want to be number eleven. Thrill.”

She pressed the knife deeper, drawing blood. The Python lost it.

“Lord Keeeeepppperrr! Sssssstop thissss crazzzy biiiitcchhhhssss! We have a deaaallllllll!”

While still clutching the knife, Dane extended her index finger and drew it horizontally downward in front of the Python’s face.

“You’re absolutely right.” A low, deep voice came from the darkness across the table. “We do have a deal. Are you interested in a new one?” Without waiting for a reply, he continued. “Tell me where your phonobug is and my Reapers won’t cut it out of you. No? Don’t want to tell me? As you wish.”

Five Crypters relieved Dane of her burden. The Python was dragged away, his threats and cries of terror drowning in the distance.

“And don’t call me Lord Keeper. It sounds so…Old World.” A dark chuckle.

Without being asked, Dane took the now empty seat and dumped her bag onto the table.

“Twenty power cells.”

No reply.

“Did you hear me?”

“Forgive me, yes,” the Crypt Keeper replied. His polite tone was a stark contrast from the hisses of disapproval surrounding him. Both he and Dane ignored them. “But there is something very wrong with this picture. What is that, Dane?”

Dane didn’t need her powers to tell her there were at least ten guards right next to the Crypt Keeper. If she wasn’t so weak, she could have crayed all of their necks in less than three seconds. Then again, such a strong telekinetic push would leave her reeling for at least ten seconds. More than enough time for the other guards to take her out. But what caused her to abandon her murderous wish was a probe of the Crypt Keeper himself. He too had an implant. A bomb. Directly in the bone of his sternum. Like all the other gang leaders she encountered.

Calming herself by going through every foul word she knew, she answered coldly, “I never sit down. I just dump whatever tech I have in your lap, you pay me, and then I go away.”

“Quite so.” The Crypt Keeper chuckled knowingly as if he were well aware of Dane’s fantasies.

“For someone who hates Old World talk, you sure like to slurge in it.” Dane smiled. “Guilty pleasure?”

“One of many.” He slowly rose to his feet. “Follow me, Dane. The noise here is getting a bit…troublesome.” He chuckled again.

She could have just grabbed the bag and ran, but the only other gang who would pay top creds for the power cells were the Pythons, whom she loathed almost as much as the rape gangers. And, her survival instincts ever so helpfully inputted, she needed to know what that wand tech thing was along with the identity of that mysterious assassin.

The darkness hid her winces as she used her powers to follow the Crypt Keeper without bumping into anyone. One touch and the touchee would tear her throat out. That is, he would try. But Dane was keen on saving the scrap of stamina she had left.

At the end of a long hallway, the Crypt Keeper opened a door and stepped aside.

“After you.”

She really, really could snap his neck now. No one toyed with her and lived.

Survival. Survival.

Dane stepped inside. Barely two seconds later, the door slammed shut and a plasma gun cocked behind her.

“I hope you’re aware that you owe that Python your life,” he whispered. “And that I have a reputation for paying my debts. I don’t like being patronized in front of my men.”

Dane slowly turned around. It was slightly more lit here, so she didn’t have to rely on her psychic senses to see the Crypt Keeper’s robed form. The plasma gun in his outstretched hand was pointed right at her forehead.

“And I really, really don’t like threats,” Dane whispered back.

The gun didn’t waver. “You could kill me. Stranger things have happened. But are you willing to bet your life that you can escape? I know how much you value it.”

“You,” Dane’s voice dropped to a hiss, “don’t know shit about me. So fire that gun or give me the creds for the cells. You’ve got five seconds, Keeper. One…”

He lowered the gun.

“Huh.” Dane smiled slightly. “Knew I was going to skip right to five, did you?”

“The screams of your body language are going to render me deaf soon enough.” He chuckled softly before turning on the lights. Dane blinked rapidly.

“Forgive me. I should have warned you.”

She blinked again, but this time it was out of shock that the Crypt Keeper’s hood was lowered. She had seen the faces of Crypters before: so thin and skull-like they would give the Phantom of the Opera a run for his creds. Papery skin stretched so tightly over the cheekbones, it looked as if it could split simply by smiling. Dark eyes sunken into black pits of sockets. A hollowed nose. Slicked back black hair. The Crypt Keeper possessed all of these physical qualities, though they were far more extreme than those of his underlings.

What a miracle of genetic manipulation, Dane thought.

“You look like you want to say something.” The Crypt Keeper smiled revealed blood-red gums and yellow, pointed teeth.

“I wouldn’t take off that hood in front of a Python,” Dane said. “They consider themselves the kings of genetics. Wars have been started for less.”

“That they have,” The Crypt Keeper said before sitting at his desk. Apart from two chairs, it was the only furnishing in the entire room. “You want something more than payment, Dane. I’m very curious as to what it is. Please take a seat.”

“Why bring me here?” Dane demanded.

“To save your ungrateful life,” The Keeper grated out. “At the rate your mouth was running, it was threatening to tear itself from your face. And as I said before, I don’t like being patronized in front of my men. Now sit down and tell me what you want or get out.”

She did sit down, and told herself it was because she could sense that he wasn’t interested in her pride. Fine. She would ask him and then she would leave. Reaching into her jacket, she withdrew the wand tech, unwrapped it, and placed it on the desk.

“Know what this is? If you don’t, then jig it.”

The Keeper carefully picked it up and examined it. Dane remained silent. Patience was one of her virtues when it really mattered.

“Where did you get it?” the Keeper asked after several minutes.

“I found it,” Dane said.

“And what does it do?”

“Can you tell me what it is or not?”

“So far it appears to be nothing more than a wooden stick. But obviously it isn’t or you wouldn’t be questioning me right now.” Something sly and knowing gleamed in the black depths of the Crypt Keeper’s eyes. “You saw it do something extraordinary, didn’t you?”

“It did do something pretty thrill,” Dane said.

“And what ‘thrill’ something did it do exactly?”

“It created some kind of status field. Strong enough to hold someone in place.”

“And who was its former owner?”

“I found it.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence, Dane. If you don’t know how it works, then you must have seen it perform this extraordinary status field.”

“I don’t know who its former owner was,” Dane snapped. “He’s dead. That’s all.”

“I see.” The Keeper reached under his desk to retrieve a jigger. He ran it over the wand tech for several minutes before placing it back in its wrapping. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. It appears to be nothing more than an ordinary piece of wood.”

Dane stared at him. She couldn’t tell him what that assassin had said. It may lead to answers, but she would have to kill him afterward. But she could at least give a physical description.

“The previous owner was dressed like a ninja and wore a veil over his face. Sound familiar?”

The Keeper frowned. “That doesn’t sound like the uniform of a gang I am familiar with. Perhaps he is simply a rogue assassin. They aren’t uncommon, after all.”

So, should would have to solve this mystery on her own.

Fine by me.

She tossed the sack of cells onto the desk.

“Twenty cells. Three hundred creds.”

The Keeper took the sack and tossed a dirty envelope on the table. Dane counted the money. Three-hundred fifty creds. She tossed the extra chips back onto the table before pocketing the envelope and getting up.

“I didn’t miscount, Dane.”

She glared at him. “You can count, but you can’t see. I’m dressed as a Toughslut. Not a charity whore.”

He held the chips out to her. “Not charity. Compensation for not being able to assist you. Also thanks to you, the Pythons remain ignorant of the secrets of my Reapers, remember?”

“But you saved my life, remember?” she sneered.

The Crypt Keeper’s bony jaw clenched.

“Dane, take the money. You’re many things, but you’re not a fool.”

You know you need it, hung in the air between them. It was true, especially because of those ten mudmoor cells. If she took it, she would be able to cut her losses.

“You owe me nothing,” the Keeper continued, a hint of exasperation in his voice. “All I want is to pay my debt.”

She probed him, felt his emotions.

Her hand reached out as if to take the creds. When she saw the triumph in the Keeper’s eyes, she brutally slapped them out of his hand and marched out of the office. A rare, true smile touched her lips in response to the splutters and curses of indignation behind her.

*************

Chapter 3

Deep sleep had always been the best method of recovery after using too much psychic power. With her head feeling as though it would literally split in half at any moment, Dane knew she would have to deep sleep for at least twenty full hours before she could even think of bending a spoon again. She inwardly raged at the thought of being helpless and immobile for that long, but then reminded herself that she deserved it for her weakness.

Going into her bathroom, she retrieved a bottle from the cupboard that was no bigger than her thumbnail. Deep sleep. One of the most thrill forms of white drip zest to ever grace the planet. If she drained the entire bottle, it would knock her out for almost two weeks. Her body would pneumo, but her mind would be filled with bliss within bliss within bliss.

Or so she heard. Heavy users of deep sleep were also highly short-term users. Being the antithesis of a mudmoor, death freak, Dane stuck the tip of a needle into the vial and then re-dunked it into a cup of water. While no one had ever tried to cray open her door when she was under deep sleep, she always made sure to rig it with four beetles. Beetles were nifty little techs that could emit a strong electrical field when activated. Even if some mudmoor rook managed to cray the door down, he would fry on over a hundred thousand volts. She kicked off her boots and secured her comb. Only after she was sitting on her cot did she drain the cup.

She was out within seconds.

Under pain of death, she would never admit what an Entities gift the stuff was. It was deep sleep to some, but to Dane, it was plain old sleep. In exchange for their tenth birthdays, street brats like her needed to learn how to condition their bodies to need as little sleep as possible. Only after growing strong enough to defend their own keep, or endurant enough to survive a gang initiation could they afford to indulge in such a luxury. Dane was a special case, however. After setting up shop in the Under Rail, she discovered she was incapable of falling asleep. It had pleased her at first. Her psychic powers would keep her going. Humans needed sleep, not her. But as the weeks dragged on, she could no longer deny she was as human as anyone.

Pity.

After her first experience with sleep, Dane discovered that it was the most treacherous of all weaknesses. Not because it was a necessity, but because of the curse it brought forth: dreams. And now in the throes of sleep, the curse was once again extracting its vengeance.

She’s in a brilliantly lit room. The lights are blinding, but she can’t turn them off, not by herself. Her body is so small, so fragile. She can only flail her limbs helplessly and cry. She cries louder when the brightness increases. It pierces right through her lids to stab her sensitive eyes without mercy. Her cries increase. She wants the lights to turn off…wants them to turn off…NOW!

They do. All at once. But the crashing sound that follows makes her cry all over again.

A pair of warm hands picks her up. She’s still disoriented from exposure to the blinding lights so it’s impossible to make out the face. All she can really see is a brilliant red blur. But she knows the face is kind, proud, and loving. The hands bring her close to a body and embrace her.

“Well done,” a voice whispers. “Very, very well done.”

She’s still in pain, but that doesn’t matter. So long as those arms keep holding her. So long as they’ll never let her go…

Several dreams always follow, and they’re all the same in the basic sense. She’s small and helpless, the environment is uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s too cold or too hot. Sometimes she’s surrounded by large objects that scare her. But she can make it all better. All she has to do is want it enough. That’s what the voices tell her. They’re distorted, and she can’t understand exactly what they’re saying. The meaning’s clear, though. If she wants something to move, the power of her will can make it so. She always does make it so, and the arms always hold her afterward. The faces always smile. Different faces, different arms. They always hold her and they always smile at her. Only that brilliant red blur remains constant, but that doesn’t matter. She’s surrounded by pride, by love. This is where she belongs.

Dane didn’t jolt or gasp upon her return to consciousness. She merely stared calmly at the ceiling, while she broiled on the inside. Not with sadness, but with anger. No matter how minimal the dosage of deep sleep she took, she could never escape the hallucinations. And it wasn’t the hallucinations per se, it was how fucking real they felt, as if they were actual memories. She hated herself for not being able to dismiss such a ludicrous notion. Her early years after she tumbled out of the womb of the nameless whore who had borne her were incredibly blurry. She probably would never know where she came from or when she first discovered her powers. Not that it mattered. The fact that she had survived was all that did. For thinking even for a moment that those hallucinations could be memories, that there were once people in her life who loved her, she would deserve every ounce of abuse her survival instincts bestowed on her.

And therein lay the problem. They never did abuse her. Not for that. And that was why she would never be able to stop wondering. That was the curse of sleep: it always reminded her of the chink in the armor of her otherwise indestructible, infallible survival instincts.

But it wasn’t a fatal chink, she managed to convince herself. She was already helpless when she experienced that particular weakness, the only thing that made it forgivable. Unlike yesterday. The trick was not to dwell on it. Dreams could be easily forgotten, no matter if they remained the same every single night.

A red glow shone out of the corner of her eye. Dane picked up the comb and stared at the center jewel without blinking for several minutes. It was a ritual she made sure to always follow after waking up. The red blur was the reason she could never make out the faces, and she knew beyond any doubt that said red blur was the comb’s ruby. Even in her dreams, it protected her from weakness, from the temptation to believe in someone other than herself.

She ran a tender finger down the butterfly.

Thank you, my safe friend.

She put it down, sat up, and rubbed her temples. Her head did feel considerably better. To be on the safe side, she reached out and mentally tested the weight of several objects in her room before lifting them all at once. After ten minutes of making them perform an array of complicated acrobatics simultaneously, she deemed herself ready to go out again. And just in time, too. She was starving. Just as she began to gather up her weapons, a knock sounded at her door.

That was a new experience. No one had ever knocked on her door. They only tried to cray it down. Was it a charity whore or was it an enemy who was trying to catch her off guard by knocking? Either way, they would get something for their courtesy. Dane could spare a steel baton to the jaw at the very minimum. She deactivated the beetles and opened the door, raising her plasma gun at the same time she did the latter.

“Hello, Dane. Pardon the intrusion. I have an important message to deliver from the boss.”

It was a Crypter. And judging by the half-smile, half-grimace he wore on his weathered gray face, he was channeling his boss’s oldy politeness under pain of heavy punishment. Dane felt somewhat sorry for him. She loathed phoniness, but he was like her: another human being (for the most part) just doing what it took to survive. So she decided to go easy on him. Without lowering her gun, she held out her hand to take the message. He handed it over in the form of a datapad.

“Read it now, please. The Keeper wants your answer when I get back.”

Dane glared suspiciously at the Crypter, but closed her door relatively softly to indicate that she would open it once she had read the message.

 

Greetings Dane,

 

I wish to make amends for our last meeting. I should know better than to insult you.

Dane nearly crushed the datapad then and there, but something told her to keep reading.

 

You were correct about the Python. He did have a rather sophisticated phonobug inside his person. It was also quite a chore for my Reapers to find. They had to pick through his large and small intestines before they discovered its location.

Dane smiled against her will.

 

As you know, I cannot let this pass. There is after all a Pact of Trust among the gangs that all must adhere to (I am, of course, excluding those despicable animals who call themselves rape gangers). Since the Pythons have broken that trust in the form of spying, a Crater Event is called for. And I am officially inviting you as the guest of honor. I hope your response is yes since all of my underlings are greatly anticipating your presence.

 

Yours,

 

The Crypt Keeper

 

P.S.

 

You really should introduce me to the jigger you possess after you get it repaired. Then again, perhaps you would be wasting my time in doing so if it would work so well on a bugged Python but not the tech you questioned me about.

The Keeper would be pleased. That last part had the exact unnerving effect on Dane he had undoubtedly been hoping for. Exposing that Python had been child’s play. She could sense any tech no matter how small or however deeply buried, but the only lie that could keep her secret safe was that she had used a jigger, hence the gesture she made to the Keeper before. The Crypters already had highly sophisticated jiggers, and now the Keeper had very good reason to believe that Dane either possessed one more thrill than anything the Crypters had, or was hiding something very powerful. To make matters even worse, she had asked the Crypt Keeper himself to use his jigger on the wand tech. A jigger she logically should have no use for.

Dane gritted her teeth so hard it hurt. Mudmoor. Mudmoor, mudmoor, MUDMOOR!

The fact that there was no way in hell that the Keeper would ever suspect she had psychic powers did nothing to calm her. In asking him to jig the wand tech, she had all but yelled in his face that she possessed something of great value. Something that could increase his power if he got it.

Was that why he was inviting her to the Crater Event? Was it a trap?

She bit her lip hard. No, the Keeper wouldn’t invite her to a Crater Event and then tell her he was on to her. That was far too clumsy. There were few things she respected him for, and his intelligence was one of them. There were only two other possibilities; he wanted to gloat, and or he was trying to pay his way into one of her holes again. Each one made her want to cray his neck with equal viciousness, but then she reread the last line.

I hope your response is yes since all of my underlings are greatly anticipating your presence.

It was a threat, pure and simple. Even before he had said so outright, Dane had been well aware of how much he hated being publicly patronized. In informing his flogs that she would be coming, he had created a no-win situation. In shunning him, she would keep her pride, but she would also make an enemy of him forever. He would no longer buy her merchandise from which she received two thirds of her total income. He may even send a battalion of Reapers to chase her out of the Under Rail or kill her.

The objects surrounding her began to quake in response to her rage. She took several slow, deep breaths before typing a very curt response onto the datapad and handing it to the Crypter outside. She sat on her moldy sofa and seethed for several minutes before heading out. Thanks to that miserable, lecherous bastard, she had lost her appetite but her food supply was dangerously low. Something her survival instincts would punish her severely for if she didn’t rectify it soon enough.

*************

Chapter 4

Buying food wasn’t much of a problem. All you needed was creds or something to trade. Getting food devoid of mutagens…that tended to be a problem. Around the end of World War III, some country or nationality decided to crank up the game by resorting to biological warfare. None of them claimed responsibility for it, which was understandable since it backfired something royal when the mutagens started spreading to every corner of the Earth. They got into the food, the water, the people, and each person seemed to react differently to it. Some remained unaffected, some died, some got a little disfigured, others got horribly disfigured. Because there was no cure, illegal genetic experiments became almost as popular as prostitution. Those who couldn’t get their old faces back decided having a new face on their own terms was better. And then the gangs discovered they could physically resemble what they named themselves after.

But Dane wasn’t at all interested in looking like the love child of a serpent and a human. Being a plain, untainted homo sapient suited her just fine. To make sure she stayed that way, she always made sure to buy her food in Toughslut territory. But for such a rare treasure, the Toughsluts wanted more than just creds.

She took a tube owned by the Babes to Sector A-7. When she got off, she sent out a mental probe and was immediately glad that it had been a small one. The excitement levels tonight were higher than a deep sleep addict, and it didn’t take long for her to figure out why. She hadn’t taken ten steps before a brilliant holographic banner flashed above her head;

CRATER EVENT— 23 HOURS—31 MINUTES—27 SECONDS. THE CRYPT KEEPER AND THE OPHIDIAN.

Dane quickened her pace. Her survival instincts would never allow her rage to interfere with a mission of any kind, but she wanted to get this over with now. So long as no one provoked her, everything would be fine—

“Dane, oh Dane, my icy little dame, why didn’t you tell me about the passion you share with the Crypt Keeper?”

She whirled around. Grinning like a stoned joker was an incredibly thin man with cropped white blonde hair and incredibly plain blue eyes. He wore not a stitch of clothing, but couldn’t be called naked thanks to the array of multi-colored sequins adorning his body. He was entertaining a small crowd by shifting his impossibly flexible feet into an array of exotic dance moves all the while drinking Burn Throat straight from the bottle whenever a credit was tossed at him.

“I thought you frigid as a metal pole in a vat of nitro,” he continued. His free hand expertly caught two more credit chips while his feet moved in perfect synchronization. “What ice pick did he use to thaw you out?” His grin widened. “What ice pick indeed?”

The crowd spinning around him laughed and jeered at her. Dane visualized blood frothing from all of their mouths to keep calm.

“I’ll tell, Glitz,” she whispered. “On one condition.”

Glitz moonwalked up to her and held out a shimmering hand. “Name it.”

She raised two credit chips. “You’re going to drink that Burn Throat. And while you’re drinking, I’m going to throw these two creds at you. Catch them while you’re drinking without spilling a drop or choking, and my secrets are all yours.”

The sounds of eagerness from the crowd were rivaled only by the sadistic anticipation brimming in Glitz’s eyes.

“Does this mean you are going to the Crater Event as the Crypt Keeper’s guest of honor?”

“The only way to find out,” Dane said, “is to win.”

“You know the price for lying to a Toughslut,” Glitz whispered. “Even your mummy fuck buddy wouldn’t be able to save your ass.”

“I don’t cray my word,” Dane said coldly. “Now are you thrill or pneumo?”

“Oh, I’m thrill, baby.” His white teeth threatened to blind her as he moonwalked backward. “I’m always thrill. On three…two…one…”

He raised his face to the sky and began to drink. Dane threw the creds behind his back. He whirled around and caught one—then two. The crowd had just begun to hoot when Glitz’s eyes bulged. He wrenched the bottle away from his lips just as a series of hacking coughs erupted from his mouth.

In her mind’s eye, Dane saw the liquid churning inside his esophagus. She gave it a gentle push so that a good portion of it was forced into his lungs. Glitz fell to his knees, coughing desperately. After almost half a minute, the Burn Throat came back up along with whatever he had eaten during the past three hours.

Dane smiled sweetly.

“Guess you’ll just have to wonder then, won’t you, Glit-Fag?”

She walked away before anyone in the crowd decided to try anything. It was only thrill to use her powers for vengeance in a public area when something else could be easily blamed. She had been wanting to do something like that for months now. Every time she came to this part of Toughslut territory, that shimmering little faggot seemed to be everywhere she turned. Ludicrous, of course. He always stayed in the same area. But the way those unnaturally plain eyes followed her…they never seemed to leave no matter how far away she moved. Ironically, that’s all it had been. Looks. This marked the first time he had actually spoken to her. But one time was too many times. And he had marked himself the moment he looked at her.

You’d better pray to the Entities I don’t see you outside home sweet home, glitter fag. There are seven bones in the human neck. I can make that seven-hundred in a manner of seconds…

She continued down the sector, ignoring catcalls, offers, leers, and other entertainments. While Toughsluts chose to remain human on the inside, they more than compensated for it in their entertainments and public displays. If you wanted to hear, see, or experience something so fucking thrill Caligula himself wouldn’t have the nuts for it, you went to Toughslut territory. Passing by a man whose mouth and anus were simultaneously occupied by two clients, she knocked on an undecorated door.

“It’s Dane,” she called sharply. “I want food. Open up.”

The door opened. Had anybody been right beside her, they would have laughed. She knew the shock on her face was nothing short of comical. But it also gave her survival instincts a good kick up the ass. There was no way in fucking hell that door should have opened without confirmation. It was a trap. Neptune wasn’t inside. Whoever was wanted her dead. She waited for her survival instincts to tell her to get out of there as fast as she could.

They got their kick up the ass. Now they were silent.

Dane ground her teeth. Food was the only reason she came her. Well, the Burn Throat was pretty thrill, but the Babes’ were slightly better. And it was a lot more tolerable going to their territory. But if she didn’t get food now, she would have to come back no later than tomorrow.

During the Crater Event.

The pebbles by her feet began to shake. Dane beat her emotions down and forced herself to go inside. Maybe her survival instincts were currently fucked, but her reason wasn’t. If someone inside wanted her dead, why should she believe they wouldn’t be here tomorrow or twenty years from now? Better that she at least see their face, get a feel for their mental patterns.

She stepped inside. Before both of her feet touched the hard floor, she sent out the strongest probe she could muster without giving herself a headache. It told her that only one person was here, but his or her brain waves were quite dull. A rook maybe, but Dane would take no chances. She continued forward, ignoring the piles of trinkets around her. Countless people would give their right arms for a chance to sift through them all. Others would be mudmoor enough to think they could get away with taking something without the heat sensors from the lasers up above catching them. Like the Crypters, Toughsluts hated conducting business with rooks, especially when it concerned a treasure like mutagen-free food.

She stopped in front of a counter. No one was behind it. Dane sent out another probe and it came back with the exact same readings. Whoever was here was in the back. She rang the bell on the counter and waited.

Less than a minute later, a dark-skinned man emerged from one of the hidden hallways. His appearance took her slightly aback. Most male Toughsluts choose outfits that they felt brought out their feminine side. Glitz was a perfect example. This guy on the other hand wore an armor-like costume. While it only covered his pelvis, and parts of his arms and legs, it sure as shit didn’t make him look like a fag. The armor itself was the color of dirty blood and severely worn on the edges. It had seen its fair share of battles, a fact that was made all the more obvious by the imperfectly healed scars across the wearer’s heavily muscled torso and limbs. His eyes were the most vivid scarlet Dane had ever seen in her life.

“What you do want?”

For a man of his height and power, Dane thought his voice would be deeper but the utter lack of emotion in it gave her the impression that he would snap her neck without batting an eye if she bored him. Well, he could try.

“Food,” she replied flatly.

“You want food, you pay the price. Creds aren’t good enough here.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I killed an entire rape gang two days ago. Ten members total.”

“Where are the heads?”

“Left ‘em to pneumo on Achtunng Street.”

Now his eyes narrowed. The glaring red irises seemed to burn at her. “You expect me to take your word for it?”

No, I expect you to drag your tight-ass all the way to Achtunng Street, find them and stuff them under your dick-piece.

“Where’s Neptune?” Dane asked as calmly as she could.

“She’s not in today.”

“When’s she gonna be in?”

“Don’t know.”

Stay calm, stay calm, her survival instincts piped up. You can come back after the Crater Event. You’ll just have to ration everything out tonight. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it for however many times you have to.

Dane turned around and began to walk away.

“Does Neptune trust you?”

She stopped and spared a backward glance.

“Neptune wouldn’t trust her own piss if it told her she would live to be two-hundred.”

The red-eyed man tilted his head to the right. “You’ve never brought back heads before. And you havebeen here before, I can tell. What do you use for proof?”

Dane smiled. “Neptune may not trust her piss, but she trusts her nose.” She held up the sleeve of her jacket. “A blood splatter or a scrape of shit. It doesn’t matter. A rape ganger’s smell is distinct.”

He scrutinized her for a moment before holding out a large hand. “Give me your jacket.”

She didn’t want to, even if it meant that she wouldn’t have to ration her food. There was something very spiral about this guy. Neptune was one of the most untrusting and ruthless Toughsluts around, yet this guy seemed completely unaware of that. Also, Dane couldn’t recall seeing him around ever. And now here he was where Neptune should be, yet unaware of the most infamous part of Neptune’s disposition.

Dane turned around again.

“Wait. Dane, wait.”

Instead of freezing, she spun around and drew her gun.

“Who are you?” she hissed.

The Toughslut hadn’t moved a muscle, but there was now a crack in the eerie, emotionless mask he had been wearing before.

“Dane…”

The crack was now in his voice, too, and from it seeped a faint wisp of two emotions: pain and longing.

Dane gritted her teeth. That did it. He had set her on edge since the beginning and that alone was fatal for him. Now he had to die. She would deal with whatever retribution the Toughsluts would demand later. Now all she wanted was to hear this bastard choke on his own heart. Keeping her gaze locked with his, she visualized the organ in her mind, and reached out. But before she could squeeze, an unseen force knocked her off her feet and hard on her back. She tried to get up, but something was pinning her down. Something she couldn’t see.

Heavy footsteps approached her helpless form. Dane snarled and telekinetically reached for the Toughslut’s throat, but something seemed to seize her mind before she could touch it. If she could put it in words, it was like a hand grabbing her fist just as she was about to land a blow. A hand as strong as a mountain compared to her.

The Toughslut looked over her. The cracks were now gone.

Hissing pants seeping through her bared teeth, Dane stopped struggling so she could show him that she wasn’t afraid, that she wasn’t a coward. And that she definitely wasn’t shocked to her soul.

He reached down. Dane was powerless to stop him as he removed her jacket. He lifted it to his face and closed his eyes, reopening them a mere moment later. He then put his hand into the jacket’s front pocket and withdrew the wand tech. The mask didn’t crack, but something about the way he was holding it…Dane strongly suspected it was taking all his will power not to crush it in his fist. Burning with curiosity along with anger, she reached out to probe his mind only to have her own grabbed by that monstrous power again.

Those cold, empty scarlet eyes met hers. Dane began to suspect that maybe she imagined his previous display of emotion. She stared right back, determined to at least win this battle of wills. The Toughslut stared at her for over a minute before disappearing in the hallway beside the front counter. Dane tried to move, but the telekinetic hold on her hadn’t weakened at all. Who the fuck was this guy? He was…

He’s like me.

The denial that followed the thought was swift and immediate. He wasn’t like her. There was no one like her. He was a friend of that ninja bastard who had tried to kill her. He knew about the wand tech and was obviously using one hidden in his armor to do this to her. He was her enemy. She had to kill him or die trying.

When he returned, he was carrying a bulging sack in place of her jacket. He set it on the floor right beside her.

Dane looked up at him. His face was as cold as ever, but those blood red were now alive and burning. He knelt beside her, carefully placed the wand tech in her hand, and closed her fingers around it.

Then he walked away.

Only when he disappeared in the hallway again did the barrier lift, but Dane didn’t immediately jump to her feet and flee. She slowly got to her knees and looked inside the sack. There was enough food inside to keep her going for a week. Heart pounding, ambivalence tearing through her along with thousands of terrifying questions, she gripped the material of the sack in the hand that wasn’t gripping the wand tech.

He’s like me.

When she realized that she was not only staring at the counter but also hoping he would reappear behind it, she ground her teeth in self-disgust and slung the sack over her shoulder. When she got home, she would channel so much power her nose would bleed. Her brain would bleed, too. Hopefully, it would bleed so much she would forget…

He’s like me.

Maybe it was the aura surrounding her, but no one tried anything on the way home. Lucky for them. When the door shut behind her, she threw the sack away from her as if it were filled with poisonous snakes instead of food. Breathing hard, she stared at it. Why had she brought it with her? She hadn’t jigged it. There could be a bomb in there, anything could be in there. It could be poisoned, fake, unreal, nothing. Why had she carried it all the way to her home after throwing perfectly good creds right in the face of the Crypt Keeper himself?

He’s like me.

“NO!” Dane screamed. She telekinetically hurled the sack across the room. It slammed against the wall before spilling its contents on the floor.

She destroyed it. Every last bit of it. When she woke up, her head was on fire, and her walls were smeared with a variety of sticky fluids and crumbs. She pushed herself into a sitting position and with a trembling hand, pulled the comb from her hair. The butterfly’s brilliant colors burned her sensitive eyes, but she didn’t care.

Forgive me, she thought. You’ve protected me for so long, and this is how I repay you.

She clutched the butterfly against her breast, and buried her face on her knees. For a while, she was glad for the pain in her head. It made weeping impossible.

The room pitched around her when she was finally able to get up and make her way to the bathroom. As she washed her face, her eye caught the bottle of deep sleep on the counter. Deep sleep. The only time she allowed weakness and only because it already left her weak. Because whatever she saw in there wasn’t real. This was real. That man who was like her was real and the desire to go back to him, to ask him questions, that was real also.

Roiling in self-loathing only made her headache worse so she pushed it away. She glanced at the clock and cursed several times. The Crater Event was in a mere four hours. Not nearly long enough for her to recover from a headache of this proportion. She would only be able to deep sleep for two and a half hours tops or risk losing her biggest source of income and possibly her home. With shaking fingers, she stuck the needle inside the bottle, and then wiped it off with a rag. There was still plenty on there for at least an hour. Dane swirled the needle in a cup of water and drained it after collapsing on the cot.

*************

Chapter 5

Her dreams were different this time. They were filled with every element imaginable. Fire, ice, water, wind, electricity. She hated them all and did her best to make them go away. But they never stopped coming. Over and over again. Fire, ice, water, electricity. They surrounded her, choked her, made her cry. When they disappeared, there were no arms to hold her up, no gentle words to make her feel safe. There was only insurmountable disappointment and grief. She was crying and the voices around her cried with her. Together, they wept bitter, helpless tears.

Dane opened her eyes. A gasp escaped her mouth as the full extent of the emotional overload quickly robbed her of any relief the scant amount of deep sleep had given her. Touching her cheeks, she discovered that they were damp.

Too drained to even think of punishing herself further, she pushed herself up. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the wand tech on her bed stand. That Toughslut had curled her fingers around it as though it were a priceless treasure.

That Toughslut.

That psychic.

Dane reached for the wand tech. She had to find him again. He knew who that ninja-bastard was. Maybe he knew how the wand tech worked. She needed to find him again. Her survival depended on it. Knowing that soothed her battered mind more than deep sleep ever could. It would give her the strength to withstand being the Crypt Keeper’s guest of honor at the Crater Event tonight. As she heaved herself off the bed, she discovered that she hadn’t secured the comb as she always did before deep sleeping. It had been clutched in her right hand the entire time. Opening her fingers, she stared at the crimson center.

I’m going to find him, she thought. For my survival as well as my weakness. I know I don’t deserve it, but I beg of you: protect me. Save me if you can.

She made her way to the tube. There, hordes of people were being kept in line by high-ranking Crypters and Pythons. Everyone always got hot around the crotch during Crater Events and it was the unofficial responsibility of the participating gangs to keep everyone from killing each other during the journey there. Otherwise, who would be their audience?

Crater Events were a tradition only about twenty years younger than the gangs themselves. After the government dissolved, a countless number of private wars added several scars to the already battered land and people. The leaders must have eventually realized that if they didn’t reach some form of compromise not even the lowest of vagrants would bother to shit on their graves. So varios were divided up, and the Pact of Trust was formed. War could be declared only in cases of theft, murder, or spying. Because of the inevitable losses of war, the former two were still continuously performed but within reason. Gangs leaders usually preferred to cut their losses in those cases or seek personal revenge. Spying on the other hand was a special case. The victim of such a crime had the right to either declare war or call a Crater Event to task.

Dane stopped behind the quietest group of people she could find. It would probably be an hour before she could get on the next ride. She rubbed her temples in a vain effort to soothe her pounding headache.

“Dane?”

She looked to the right. A hooded female Crypter was standing beside her. The badge above her left breast that consisted of two silver fangs forming an X signified her high rank.

“Yeah,” Dane said dully.

The woman grabbed her arm without another word and attempted to drag her away. Dane quickly wrenched herself free.

“The fuck—?!”

In a flash, a strong, gloved hand was gripping the side of her throat. A small but lethal dagger pressed against her cheek.

“The boss wants you delivered in one piece,” the Crypter hissed. “But he didn’t say I couldn’t give you a slit he can actually stick his fingers in. So…what’s it gonna be?”

The crazed grin on her face told Dane she was all but praying to the Entities for a fight. Dane smiled.

“How about a deal? You don’t give me a new slit, but I give you a new hole. Fair?”

Without waiting for a reply, Dane ripped her pistol from its holster and shot the Crypter in the chest. She flew back several feet and fell into a lifeless heap on the ground. Several people who had been watching whooped and booed. Two new Crypters broke away and rushed for Dane, guns drawn.

“Don’t even think about it,” one of the men hissed as she raised her weapon at him.

“Boss wants her alive,” another said. “We need to get her on the tube.”

The first one, a tall man with a huge scar running vertically from his forehead through what used to be his right eye bared his yellow teeth at her.

“Lower it,” he ordered.

“You first,” Dane said. She was weak, but she wasn’t backing down, and she made sure he saw that.

Apparently, the Crypt Keeper really wanted her there. Both of them lowered their weapons after several tense moments. Dane followed suit.

“Now be a good little cunt and come with us,” Scarface whispered.

Dane quietly went with them. They lead her to a compartment on one of the tubes that certainly looked as if it was reserved for honored guests. There was an actual bed in the corner, but what caught her eye was the table in the middle. Or rather, the feast that was on it.

“Eat up,” Scarface hissed. He and the other Crypter shut the door behind her.

And none too soon. The room swirled around her just as their footsteps died away. Dane staggered over to the bed and barely made it before her legs collapsed beneath her. She buried her face in her hands and groaned as new pain sliced through her mind.

Breathe, she told herself. Just breathe.

“Why do you do it to yourself?

Her head snapped up. Standing in the corner, his blood red eyes piercing through the shadows, was the armored Toughslut she had encountered mere hours ago.

Toughslut.

Psychic.

He stepped out of the darkness. “I want an answer. Why do you do it to yourself?”

He wanted answers, too? Well, he sure as shit wasn’t getting any. Weakness or not, Dane didn’t give until she got.

She stood up slowly, determined not to reveal her physical limitations.

“Who the fuck are you? How do you know my name?”

His brow rose at her. “You overloaded yourself again. I know it wasn’t fighting an enemy. Why would you deliberately hurt yourself like that?”

Her hand itched to point her gun at him. But he was like her. No, he was much stronger than her. She would only make herself look weaker by raising a weapon to him that wasn’t her mind.

“What I do,” she said in a low hiss. “Is none of your goddamn business. You’re mudmoor if you think I’ll—Ahhhh!”

Another slice of pain. This time worse than before. Dane sank back on the bed, clutching her head. It pounded. It burned. She was going to black out again.

Warm fingers on her temples. She tried to fight, but could only twitch her hands feebly. That touch. It was familiar. Even her battered mind could sense that.

The haze cleared. Most of the pain faded into nothingness. Dane blinked rapidly. Blood red eyes were inches from her own. The icy sheen in them had not one but several cracks this time; Pain. Longing.

Tenderness.

“Get off me,” she rasped.

He obliged, moving away in a single, fluid motion. Dane was comforted by his icy mask. Once again, she could pretend that she had imagined those cracks. It had been the pain feeding off her weakness. It wasn’t real. It was an illusion. She pulled the wand tech out of her jacket and held it up.

“What the fuck is this?” she demanded. “Who was the bastard that attacked me? Answer me!”

His gaze flickered to the wand tech, then back to her face.

“His kind is the reason the world is like this today.”

“You think I give a shit about the world?” she hissed. She shook the wand tech at him. “How can I make this work?”

To her amazement, he actually smiled. The expression overflowed with irony, which caused amazement to quickly become rage.

“Who,” she whispered, “is he? What is he?”

The smile faded. The mask rose in full force.

“Your memory, at least, will not die,” he said. “I will ensure that.”

Before Dane could start shouting, a powerful wave of dizziness overcame her. She managed to stay on her feet but by the time her mind cleared, the Toughslut was gone.

The headache was gone, too. Her strength was back. She could have easily taken her rage out on the buffet table in front of her. But, no. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Him or the Crypt Keeper.

She walked over to the table and looked at the food. Bread, cheese, meat, fruit. All fresh and straight from Toughslut territory. Her stomach chose right then to remind her that she had barely eaten all day. Her mind also reminded her what she had done to a storage of perfectly good food mere hours ago. Dane could count the number of times she experienced guilt in her lifetime on one hand with fingers to spare, but it was always genuine. Weakness or not, she knew there had been nothing wrong with that food and now it was rotting on her walls in ruined splatters. A part of her wanted to leave this food untouched as compensation, but hunger eventually won out. She picked up a roll and ate half of it in one bite. She hated the Crypt Keeper, but he was right about one thing: she was no fool. Still, she would only eat enough to quell the pangs of hunger.

Your memory, at least, will not die. I will ensure that.

She paused as she bit into a strawberry. Irritatingly vague as he had been, she was certain her interpretations of his words were correct; more of those ninja, wand tech wielding bastards were out there, they wanted her dead, and he believed they would succeed. But he also wanted to keep her memory alive. Why was he so obsessed with her? Because they were alike? And who would he keep her memory alive for? Himself?

For his fellow psychics.

Dane severed half the strawberry with her teeth, injuring her index finger in the process. The other half of the strawberry fell to the floor, staining the carpet with its red juices. Dane leaned against the table, digging her fingers into the wood.

He’s like me.

Other psychics.

That want nothing to do with me.

The pain of the revelation was immediate and cutting, but it died as quickly as it came. Dane’s fingers loosened their hold on the table.

Fellow psychics who want nothing to do with me.

The thought didn’t bring pain this time, but a breath of relief; so cold and so reassuring, like the blood red gaze of that Toughslut. There may be others like her apart from him, but they obviously didn’t give a shit about her. If he knew she existed, then they knew and her existence was nothing to them. And if he thought she was going to die, they all thought she was going to die. They wanted her to die, including him. She was alone.

Her hand clutched the back of her head where the comb lay nestled in her hair.

Alone…but in the best way possible.

I can’t bear to face you now, but it’s gone. The weakness is gone. I’ve paid for it, and now it’s over. Forgive me when you can.

Sending out a probe, she discovered that the Keeper and his minions weren’t mudmoor enough to spy on her. Thrill for them. She sat on the bed and practiced moving objects around at a leisurely pace.

Hours later, Scarface and three other Crypters came for her.

“Get your ass up.”

Dane obeyed and followed them out. None of the Crypters spoke as they exited the tube. In fact, was it her imagination, or were they keeping somewhat of a distance from her? Not that it mattered.

When they got off the tube, Dane found it somewhat difficult to distinguish the roar of the crowd up ahead from the roar of the acid rain. But at least the visibility was reasonable. She slid the hood of her cloak over her head just as she passed a group of naked Pythons having a violent foursome on the ground. Pythons did love the rain and their scales protected them from burns. Even a lot of the ones who were attending to other interests had shrugged off their robes while keeping their weapons. In doing so they did Dane more of a favor than themselves. What the Toughsluts said was true to an extent. Scaly dick and clit was tasty but only after frying on a plasma bolt or two. Whenever a forked tongue flicked out at her, a simple nudge on the wrist and index finger was all it took to serve the main course. And fuck was it delicious.

The Crypters led her to one of the many elevators sticking out of the barren ground like mutagen tumors. Dane had never taken one before. They were reserved only for Crater Event participants.

The ride didn’t take more than twenty seconds. After disembarking, Dane noted her surroundings: a decent sized corridor padded with metal bricks to prevent cave-ins. The roar of the crowd was also not audible down here. Curious. It should have been. Then she realized that the official event had yet to start. The Crypter Keeper’s area was undoubtedly protected by a mute shield. A minute later, she was proven right. Scarface entered a code into a security pad at the end of the corridor. A sheet of metal slid up to reveal a dimly lit but spacious opening that overlooked the White Head arena. Dane saw the backs of two comfortable chairs near the opening, flanked by ten guards.

“She’s here, boss,” Scarface announced.

A gray, bony hand extended from the chair on the right.

“Dane. I’m so glad you could come. Please. Sit beside me.”

Dane did so without letting any anger or resentment show. She kept her eyes on the arena of White Head, located on the rocky bottom of White Head Crater. White Head Crater was a beast of a thing. Named after the magnificent structure that once housed the President of the United States, it was birthed by an underground nuclear explosion during World War III. The house, once so white, so plump, so oozing in its supercilious authority was now nothing more than one of the many pitted gray acne scars on the Earth’s chin. But at least it wasn’t there just to look ugly. The gangs made certain of that when they decided it would be the perfect place for others to witness their private little wars. The barracks carved into the crater’s slopes were, like the Earth itself, divided according to gang territory. The Babes and the Toughsluts were nearly neck and neck at the top. The Pythons were directly across the Crypters. Dane could make out the Ophidian himself seated on a throne in his area of the catacombs. He had four times the amount of guards that the Keeper did, which showed he at least had common sense: three quarters of them wouldn’t be alive in a few hours.

“Look at him,” the Keeper mused. “There he sits, back ramrod straight, his left hand resting on the armrest, his right holding a glass of egg nectar, that split tongue of his flicking out to taste it every other minute.” His voice darkened. “He doesn’t at all regret what he has done.”

She was spiraled at his genuinely angry tone, but only spared him a glance. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the grace to ignore it.

“Oh, forgive me, where are my manners?” The Keeper turned to her. “Did you enjoy the compartment I prepared for you?”

She spared him another glance. His hood was up, but his dark eyes were glittering with interest.

“No.”

“Now, now.” He waved a hand at his guards who had shifted. “Honesty is something I greatly value. That’s all you were being, right, Dane?”

He was smiling pleasantly, but underneath was a deadly menace. Patronize me in front of them, and I’ll cut you to ribbons myself, it said.

“The food was nice,” she said.

His smiled widened, apparently amused at her cold tone. “I thought you would like it. My Reapers had to wipe out two rape gangs for that entire table alone.”

She frowned.

“You’re not gonna waste the rest, are you?”

He peered at her. “You really don’t know me that well, do you?” He smiled again. “That’s something I’ll have to fix. But for the time being…” He stood and slowly walked up to the transparent field that protected him. “…the Ophidian must answer for his crimes.”

He withdrew a small laser from his robes and flicked it on twice. Dane saw the crowd grow wilder. A few seconds later, two white flashes shone from the Ophidian’s side. The crowd went berserk.

“Lower the mute shield to seventy-five percent,” the Keeper ordered. “Dane. Stand beside me.”

She did so just as the roar of a blood hungry crowd erupted all around them. Had the mute shield been lowered altogether, she wouldn’t have been able to hear herself talk. On the other side, the Ophidian’s tongue flicked out and rattled. Half of his guard vanished into the shadows behind him. Two minutes later, they emerged from beneath the arena through circular trap doors and immediately grouped together. They wore armor, but their only weapons were their teeth and claws. Thirty of the Ophidian’s best men, and all of them would die thanks to the greed of their leader.

The Keeper didn’t summon his Reapers right away. No doubt he wanted to draw it out as long as he dared. Dane kept her eyes on the Pythons below. Still as statues, cold as ice, acid rain pelted off their armor as they waited for their upcoming execution. None of them would make it out alive, but they could at least take a few Reapers with them.

“What do you believe they are thinking?” the Keeper asked.

Dane probed them. Genetically enhanced like the Reapers, their mental patterns were different from a normal human’s. There was far more aggression and a thirst for blood. But unlike the Reapers, their emotions retained far more humanity.

“The Ophidian may not regret what he’s done, but they most certainly do,” she said.

“Mmm.” The Keeper rubbed his chin. “If you’re right, I just may forgive the Ophidian for their sake…someday.” Sunken black eyes narrowed at the far away form of his adversary. “Unleash my Reapers.”

At the Keeper’s command, several trap doors opened all around the arena. From them emerged sixty black clad forms armed with sickles, knives, and spiked chains in their spidery white hands. They loped toward their prey with single-minded intent.

Reapers. The embodiment of wetware tech.

Officially, the Crypters were black marketers. They never dabbled in their own form of technology like the Babes, or food like the Toughsluts. They traded and did business like the Pythons. But the rivalry between the Pythons and the Crypters went far deeper than petty business squabbles. Each gang was determined to push the bounds of genetic manipulation and so far, the Crypters were winning that war thanks to the Reapers. Outwardly, they looked like Crypters with dead white skin that clung to their meatless skeletons. Inwardly, they were driven by one thing and one thing only: a hunger for human (or near human) flesh and blood. Not particularly impressive at first glance. Insatiable cannibalism wasn’t uncommon in several non-Reaper residents of the world. What made them so dangerous was their blind obedience to the Crypt Keeper, and the fact that their hunger did not erase their augmented intelligence. No one had ever accomplished such a feat in genetics until the Reapers. It was easy to twist someone into a savage brute with the strength of ten men. Twisting someone into a savage brute with the strengthand intelligence of ten men that would walk on a landmine at the word of its master was something only the Crypters had accomplished so far. Something the Ophidian would give up all of his varios in exchange for the secret, which would be a fair deal solely on his part: with such an army under his command, it would only be a few years before he could take it back.

Dane didn’t know how long the Reapers had been around. All she knew was that it was way before she had been born. But no past Crypt Keeper had ever made a bid for domination with them. Maybe they were kept in check by the Babes or the Toughsluts. She didn’t know or care. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t spare a good deal of scorn for the mudmoor strategy the Python warriors down below were using. Grouped together like mutt horses in a slaughter pen…this Crater Event was certain to be remembered as just another bloodbath, though judging from the howls of the audience, Dane doubted anyone would complain.

The Reapers formed a circle around the Pythons. Then they leaped. But the red explosion that followed was not one of blood.

*************

Chapter 6

Reaper and Python alike were engulfed in a hungry maw of fire and debris that erupted right beneath their feet, right beneath the White Head arena. The objective of imminent death was instantly accomplished, and devoid of a victory on either side.

“What in the name of—!?”

Even with the mute shield fully operational, the Crypt Keeper’s bellow was drowned out as the crowd’s screams of delight became screams of terror. But even their screams were overpowered by the roar of yet another explosion, this time in the barracks.

“BOSS!” One Crypter made his voice heard. “WE’VE GOTTA RUN!”

The Crypt Keeper stared at the evolving destruction in front of them, then at Dane. And something in those pitted eyes clicked together.

“Come on,” he whispered and grabbed her arm.

The loathing she felt at the Keeper’s touch melted her shock. Before he could start dragging her, the emitter of her plasma gun was pressed against his sternum.

“Let me go, or—”

He cut her off by seizing her other arm in a vice-like grip.

“Do it, then,” he hissed. “My heart is hardly the only thing under there. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

“BOSS!”

His grip tightened on her. “What will it be, Dane?”

The morbid curiosity twisting his corpse-like face was like a shot of adrenaline into the reckless impulse pumping through her. Entities, she wanted to kill him. Blowing a hole through his heart, telekinetically craying his neck, ripping his throat out with her bare hands, it didn’t matter. She just wanted him dead.

Survival. Survival.

Survival.

She pulled the gun away, and was unsuccessful in disguising the way her hand shook. The Keeper noticed. She expected him to smirk, but he surprised her by looking grimmer than ever.

“Let’s go.”

“I’m gonna eat that scaly motherfucker’s tongue,” Scarface snarled as they ran through the catacombs.

“Perhaps I should have made you a Reaper then,” the Keeper said dryly.

Scarface’s comeback was cut off thanks to another explosion that vibrated all the way through to the metal reinforcements.

“But you’re gonna send some over to him, aren’t you?” another Crypter piped up. “You can’t let him get away with—”

This particular Crypter was cut off as well, but due to a plasma bolt through the forehead instead of an explosion.

“If anyone else believes the Ophidian possesses the intelligence or resources to do this, please say so now so I can cleanse our ranks of mudmoor rooks.”

No one said another word, but Dane silently agreed. The Ophidian wasn’t behind this. Maybe it was the Babes testing a new weapon. But she had seen and sensed the Toymaker in her section of the barracks. Moreover, this type of weapon testing wasn’t the Toymaker’s style. Fellow gang members were her best customers. It would be bad for business to blow them to smithereens. Dane sent out a probe directly above her and the backlash of terror and death almost sent her reeling. No. The Toymaker wasn’t behind this. Who would…?

When they got to the elevator, the Crypt Keeper shoved his way to the front and began punching in a code.

“If anyone tries to signal up above, I will not only consider that individual a rook but a traitor,” he informed them calmly. “We will go down below and wait the danger out. That is my will. Shar.”

“Boss.” Scarface, Shar, stood at attention.

“Keep close to Dane. Protect her as if she were me.”

Both Dane and Shar’s jaw dropped at the same time.

“And both of you kindly keep your incredulous splutters to yourselves,” the Keeper added before anyone could make another sound. “My tolerance for bickering is considerably higher when I am not in mortal danger.”

“I don’t need your protection, you son of a cunt—”

Shar slammed her against the wall and pressed a dagger against her stomach.

“I specialize in debowling,” he hissed. “And for giving every debowlee their last supper. Care to guess what it is? I’ll give you a clue: the phrase ‘it tastes like shit’ isn’t just an expression here.”

She would have crayed his neck then and there, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Keeper point his gun at Shar’s head.

“Do you have a problem with hearing, Shar?”

Dane could literally smell the killing intent radiating from him, but he pulled the dagger away from her stomach.

“No, boss,” he bit out through clenched teeth.

“Then you’re a traitor.”

A plasma bolt ripped through Shar’s head. His corpse slumped against Dane. She shoved it away.

“If the rest of you posses not only passable hearing but also an ounce of loyalty,” the Keeper mounted the elevator before turning around to face his remaining eight Crypters, “you will carry out the order I made the grave mistake in trusting Shar with just now. Is that understood?”

Despite the rage and confusion that tainted her focus, the probe Dane sent out told her that he was serious. Murderously serious. And though they weren’t psychics, that fact couldn’t be more apparent to the remaining Crypters. They all stood at attention and nodded.

“Good. Now get on.”

Dane kept quiet as they travelled downward. She didn’t know what kind of mudmoor, fucked up game the Keeper was playing, and a substantial part of her was hoping he wouldn’t tell her once she confronted him. Ripping information from another person’s mind was a skill she had been intending to master and the Keeper would make the ideal mutt horse. Closing her eyes, she probed as far as her mind could take it. They were going way down and as far as she could tell, they were the only ones present. No one was following them. No one was there but them. They would get away clean.

Dane clenched her jaw. She should have known.

“They’re down there.”

The Keeper looked at her sharply. “What did you say?”

“Whoever’s raining the apocalypse up there is also down here,” Dane said. “Down to where we’re going.”

“And how the hell do you know that?” one Crypter guard demanded.

The Keeper was staring at her intently. “Ready your weapons,” he said quietly. “The moment that door opens, start shooting.”

Dane along with all nine Crypters cocked their plasma guns and pointed them at the elevator door. Her gaze flickered to the Keeper’s who met it for a moment before locking his own back on the door.

The ninja bastard’s friends were down there and ten plasma guns weren’t going to stop them, skill be damned. If she wanted to survive this, she would need her powers, and to ensure she would be the only one to walk out of this alive. Not a problem. She would fight with the Crypters and cray the throats of the last ones standing. Simple. Easy. Her hand brushed the comb behind her head before the elevator came to a halt.

The Crypt Keeper swept his gaze over his guards before opening the door. Plasma fire erupted from ten emitters. Through it, Dane barely got a glimpse of three cloaked figures around thirty to forty feet away with wand techs extended out. The air seemed to shimmer in front of them.

No. Not shimmer. Explode.

Her other hand thrust out to block it, a gesture of pure survival reflex. That energy was far too powerful to block. It was going to vaporize her and all nine Crypters. She felt the superheated air softly kiss her cheek along with a crushing pain on her right arm before she was yanked through an opening in the wall.

“JUMP!”

Her feet touched the ground. Power surged through her legs. It propelled her through the air while her ears rang with the deafening roar behind her. When she hit the ground, she felt something eerily resembling euphoria.

Power is all that matters.

Once the shock and the dust cleared, she pushed herself to her knees and looked ahead. An empty corridor. Salvation was beyond there somewhere. She just had to find it.

“Dane!”

She turned around. The area behind her was blocked with the crayed remains of the one she had just been in, sprinkled with the still smoldering ashes of eight Crypters. The ninth, however, was still among the living, albeit injured and half-buried. That certainly would not do.

Dane reached out a hand and pinched her fingers together.

“No!” The Keeper tried to shout, but it came out a cough. “Know—what they are—”

Her fingers came apart ever so slightly.

“What did you say?”

“I know…” He groaned, eyes blazing with pain, but pulled himself together. “…I know what they are…I can tell you…”

Fortunately for the Crypt Keeper, Dane had substantial practice in ignoring her first instincts when it came to him as they always involved a fatality on his behalf. Instead of craying his neck, she quickly probed his emotions.

He wasn’t lying.

She scrambled over to him and began to shove away at the rubble with her hands along with her mind. It went quicker that way and disguised her powers. She was certain he had to die, but not how long it would take her to extract every last bit of useful information. And Entities forbid they got separated and he escaped…she really didn’t want to think about that right now. Unfortunately, she quickly encountered an obvious problem. The Keeper’s right leg was trapped beneath a huge slab that could not be moved by physical strength alone, not even the strength of two. This she could not disguise.

And the ninja bastards were still out there.

The Keeper gave the slab one last push before turning desperately to Dane. His face was drenched in sweat and it was clear he was fighting unconsciousness.

“Use…your mind…”

Dane felt herself go pale.

“What…?”

“Explanations…later…” he hissed. Muffled sounds came from behind the enormous pile of debris. They were not friendly. “Use…your mind…Goddess of Kinesis…”

Obviously, the pain was making him delirious, but the word kinesis registered just fine with her. Along with the fact that she needed him alive for now. Pressing her hands against the slab, she closed her eyes and shoved. Within five seconds, the Keeper’s leg was free.

Not wasting a moment, Dane stood up, dragging him up along with her. She ignored his groans of agony, dragged his arm over her shoulder and, none too gently, began to half carry him down the corridor. The muffled sounds behind the debris in back of them were quickly becoming not so muffled.

“There,” the Keeper croaked. He was pointing to an area on the wall. Another secret corridor? She didn’t ask. She just got them over there.

The Keeper braced himself against the cold metal. His fingers groped the wall, apparently trying to find a panel. Before Dane could snarl at him to hurry up, she heard a rumbling noise to the left of her. Several pieces of debris had sprung to life and were now hurling their way toward them. Dane held up her arms. She blocked two, five, ten. Just as she was about to leave the Keeper and run to save herself, a sharp piece lodged itself directly in her knee. She dropped like a stone and screamed.

The debris kept coming. Fucking cowards. They knew what she had done to their friend. They hoped to kill her without having to actually face her. Fucking cowards…

…who would win.

A slab slammed into her legs and now she was pinned. It kept coming like a vengeful storm. Piling on, craying, smashing. It knocked her on her other side and now she was facing the Crypt Keeper. He was barely visible beneath the rubble. For a moment, she thought he was dead. But then those sunken eyes blinked once. They had no visible expression as they stared at her. Empty, void, meaningless.

I’m going to die.

The thought didn’t scare her. It angered her. That she should die like this, crayed and feeble, unable to even hear the laughter of her enemies. Entities, she was angry. And she wanted to live. Live to rip the laughter of her enemies from their very throats and strangle them with it. But even if she survived this storm, they would come, they would see her face, and they would finish her off. She needed more than telekinesis or endurance to survive. She needed…she needed…

Her mind suddenly went as blank as the eyes in front of her. Black and pitted, directly in the middle of a gray, fleshless face, mutated by unspeakable experimentations.

Did it feel like wax under flame?

She couldn’t blame thinking such a meaningless question on the pain, the paralysis, or the roar of the storm. She couldn’t even care that it was meaningless. Her mind had become a void, and that question was the only thing in it. But her mind couldn’t stay so empty without killing her. It took the words, the images, the ideas, the concepts of that question, and melted them all like wax under flame. They writhed and twisted and separated into something grotesque and unnatural like the Keeper’s face. And what a strange feeling it brought to her body as well. It felt like it was melting along with her mind. Melting. Like wax under flame. Melting, melting, melting…

Her eyes never left the Keeper’s face. Looking at it made the melting feeling all the more prominent, but she couldn’t tear them away. Couldn’t see or hear the destruction around her anymore. All she could see was the Crypt Keeper’s face, which was no longer blank but filled with horror and—reverence.

*************

Chapter 7

She awoke to pain, but that was to be expected. Waking in a soft bed—that was an entirely different matter. She tried to sit up, but a pair of powerful, gentle hands pushed her back down.

“Be still.”

Like hell. Her mind surged, but a mountain closed around it before she could push. A familiar mountain. The grip on her upper arms tightened and she found herself staring into a pair of blood red eyes.

“I said be still.”

Toughslut.

Psychic.

“Where’s the Crypt Keeper?”

He blinked, obviously not expecting that question.

“He is alive, though it will take him longer to recover than you.”

“I don’t care if he’s gasping for his last breath.” Dane pushed the Toughslut’s hands off her. “He owes me answers. Where is—?”

Her voice locked in her throat when she saw her own hands. No longer brown and corded, but gray, withered, and scabbed. On pure reflex, they flew to her face. Dry skin, cheekbones sharp as blades, a curved depression where a nose should have been.

“Stay calm,” the Toughslut said sharply. His eyes were no longer shielded by a cold mask. They were filled with relief and a reverence that wasn’t as great as the Crypt Keeper’s had been, but just as disturbing. “Look.”

He held up a small mirror, but the face Dane saw was not her own. It wasn’t the Crypt Keeper’s either. It was a hideous combination of both. The Toughslut looked as if he was bracing himself for a panic attack, but Dane was silent. Her hands roamed over the grotesque monstrosity that was her face with a mixture of terror and morbid fascination.

“How…how…” she tried to say, but her voice had abandoned her.

The Toughslut put a hand on her shoulder. “Picture your true face in your mind. Feel your skin, your hair, your muscles, your bones. Feel them—and mold them.”

Mold them. Like wax under flame.

“Like wax under flame,” she whispered. “Wax under flame, wax under flame, wax under flame…”

The more she repeated it, the more the feeling spread throughout her body. She watched in the mirror as her skin grew browner, her nose more prominent, her hair lighter. After what seemed like hours, all traces of the Crypt Keeper had vanished from her face. It was her own again.

No. Not quite. Her irises were not the same. In fact, they could not have been more different. No longer hazel, they now consisted of a sea of blended color. A beautiful rainbow.

“Well done. Very, very well done.”

It was that proud tone more than the actual words themselves that caused Dane to freeze, along with that touch. She knew that tone and that touch. Both had haunted her dreams for as long as she could remember. She turned her head with agonizing slowness, half-expecting to see an amorphous scarlet blur that she could delude herself into believing was the comb’s ruby protecting her from weakness. But fate had never been merciful. She would not wake up this time, nor could she hide behind delusion.

“Dane, listen to me,” he said with a definite urgency. “I know you have a lot of questions, and I promise that you will get answers, but—”

“Where’s the Crypt Keeper?”

He blinked, obviously taken aback by the question and her vicious snarl. “Dane—”

“Tell me where he is!”

Much as she wanted to forget that she ever met him, she was pleased to see he was getting angry and frustrated.

“Tell me where he is or you’ll have to kill me in order to keep me here,” she said very quietly.

He stared at her with a hard expression, but gave a curt nod.

“Very well.”

She followed him out of the room, keeping her gaze firmly in front of her, and favoring her left leg. They took a lift down and passed through a living area of some sort that was occupied by several people. People who appeared normal in every sense, save for their eyes. But Dane now knew such colors were not a product of cosmetics or genetic experiments. They followed her, and determined as she was to ignore their astonished whispers, one word was repeated so often, she would need to be deaf in order to dismiss it.

Biokinesis.

She was led to a door guarded by a tan-skinned woman with deep purple eyes shot with silver needles. They widened at the sight of Dane, or more specifically, her eyes.

“Oh, my fathers,” she whispered in reverence, holding a hand to her mouth. She looked at the red-eyed Toughslut. “Prometheus…”

“Stand aside, Selene,” the Toughslut…Prometheus said. “She wishes to see the Crypt Keeper.”

Selene nodded. Her wide eyes never left Dane as she opened the door.

“There are no listening devices inside,” Prometheus said, making no move to follow her in. “Hear his words. But you will hear mine afterward.”

The door closed. Dane heard a raspy chuckle.

“I’ve never pitied him before, or any of them for that matter. But anyone who expects you to obey their orders deserves naught but pity, god or man.”

The Crypt Keeper was lying on a bed, hooked up to a variety of stabilizers. Though still in obvious pain, he was smiling. The expression was one of great satisfaction, and, to Dane’s immense disgust, reverence. Jaw set, she marched right up to him.

“I want answers, Keeper.”

“Of course you do,” he said quietly. “But why ask me first and not Prometheus?”

“He wants me dead,” she hissed. “They all do. I trust you as far as I can hurl you, but so far you haven’t given any indication that you want me dead.”

“If that’s your way of saying thank you for saving your skin, then you are most graciously welcome.”

Dane brought her fist down on his injured leg. He screamed.

“Actually, doing this instead of craying every last bone in your body is my way of saying thank you.” She brought her fist down again. “Wow. Keep screaming like that and I just may consider forgiving you for blackmailing me and telling everyone I was your whore.”

The Keeper’s breaths were coming out in heavy gasps. It took Dane a moment to realize that, despite the pain, he was laughing.

“I do…possess an unhealthy fixation…on the psychotic…” he rasped. A rather demented smile twisted his features further. “Never denied it. But that does not mean…I’m not aware…that the psychotic…cannot see outside their own world…Dane…” Her name came out a croaking chuckle. “You think…I would want you…if I could actually have you?”

“You want psychotic and safe, then go fuck one of your Reapers!”

His smile widened. “But I’ve found…normal humans…taste far better…in comparison.”

Having had enough, Dane raised her fist over his leg.

“Talk, Keeper.”

Most of the humor vanished from his eyes, but it was not replaced by fear. “That’s not the way I play, Dane. You can make me scream, but you can’t make me talk—not without something in return.”

Her knuckles cracked. “You wanna know how I play?” she whispered.

“I know how you play,” he said. “All too well. But that’s a risk I am willing to take.”

He stared at her levelly as the wheels turned in her head. Finally, she lowered her fist to her side.

“What do you want?”

A long, gray finger pointed at her hair.

“I want that comb you always wear.”

Dane felt the blood drain from her face before an anger so fierce it threatened to tear itself from her soul rose up. She took a step back and raised her hand, pinching her fingers together.

“Settle down.” The Keeper sounded bored, like a weary father indulging a child’s tantrum instead of a man about to be telekinetically strangled. “What are you getting all worked up for, anyway? It’s a mere trinket. With your skills, you could snatch another right under the Ophidian’s nose—acckk!”

“Shut up,” she hissed. “You so much as mention it again, and I’ll turn your mind into pus!”

Lucky for him, he didn’t try to speak again. It allowed a trickle of reason to enter her rage and eventually release him. After going through a series of coughs and gasps, he rubbed his throat and smiled at her.

“It’s a very long story,” he said, voice raspy. “The beginning is where I should start.”

Dane blinked. “What?”

“You’re going to get your answers now.”

She blinked again. “But—?”

“—what about my price? Why, you’ve already paid it, Dane.” His smile turned sly and cruel. “You have just confirmed something I’ve merely suspected for as long as I’ve known you.”

Dane’s mind went blank with shock. But when the rage came, she directed it where it rightfully belonged.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself.” The Keeper’s voice was soft and serious, but she could hear the laughter underneath it. “In a world like this, it’s so very rare to value anything other than personal survival. Makes it all the more hard to hide.”

He continued to stare at her, face calm, though he was undoubtedly aware that she was contemplating his death. He may not fear it, but she noted that he valued his life enough so that he wouldn’t deliberately push her over the edge while she was teetering so badly.

It only took her a minute to decide she wasn’t going to kill him. Loathing aside, she would have better luck getting the truth out of him than psychics who more than dwarfed her power. Her fingers twitched, but she didn’t touch the comb in her hair.

I’m sorry. I have to do this. But he will pay very dearly for the knowledge he has just gained. I swear it.

She narrowed her eyes. “Talk.”

A considering look passed his features. “Perhaps the beginning isn’t the best way to start. You already know what you are, and by now you’re very much aware that you are far from the only one of your kind.”

“How many?” she demanded.

“I wouldn’t know. I’m not privy to that bit of information. What I do know is that there would be a lot more today if not for the wizards.”

“Wizards…” she whispered. She yanked the wand tech out of her jacket and held it out. “They’re the ones trying to kill me? The ones who can make techs like this work?”

“Only a wizard can make that particular device work,” the Keeper said. He eyed the tech with both disdain and amusement. “But I wouldn’t be disappointed at all. It’s what makes them so inferior to your kind. Your power comes directly from your mind. You can channel it at will. But it takes great discipline and training for a wizard to channel even a fraction of his power on his own. It’s far easier and more efficient to do so through wands. The jiggers picked up nothing because there’s nothing technical about it. It’s just an enchanted piece of wood. But to a wizard…their wand is their life.”

Dane stared at the tech, the wand, before rounding on the Keeper again.

“Prometheus said that it’s because of the wizards that the world is like this today.”

“Few statements hold more accuracy than that one,” the Keeper said grimly. “Everyone knows World War III took place over three-hundred years ago. What precious few do know is that the wizards were behind it. Years before, they sowed the seeds of discontent, paranoia, and mistrust among the world’s nations, nurturing them until they sprouted conflicts of untold violence and chaos.” He paused, then said, “Perhaps I should give a bit of background information on the wizards before I go any further. You will understand everything better that way.”

Dane nodded. The Keeper continued.

“Wizarding society has existed since the dawn of history. Check a wizard’s DNA, and the readings will come up fully human, but they are gifted with extraordinary magical power. Fearing prejudice and persecution, they took great pains to hide their true culture and society from the eyes of normal humans. They had no desire to battle humanity for domination. All they wanted was to live in peace and isolation. And they did so for thousands of years.” The Keeper’s eyes narrowed. “But their true nature was laid bare when the psychics evolved.”

Dane blanched. “Evolved. Are you telling me I’m a wizard?!”

“No,” the Keeper rasped, and judging by the fury in his eyes, she knew he would have shouted if not for his injuries. “You may be descended from a wizard bloodline, but you are more than a wizard could ever hope to be. You don’t need a wand to channel the full extent of your power. All you need is your mind.” He exhaled deeply and his voice softened. “Your ancestors were thought to be handicapped, unable to use wands. But then they discovered if they wanted a spoon to bend, all they had to do was will it to do so. Telekinesis was the first psionic power discovered by your ancestors.” He shifted again. “At first, the wizards were curious and disdainful. Your ancestors were still considered to be handicapped. But curiosity and disdain quickly grew to fear as your ancestors developed their telekinetic powers. The wizards realized how easily a psychic could deprive them of their wands with telekinesis, even kill them if they desired. And it was not long afterward that the psychics discovered telekinesis was not the only psionic power in existence. Many of them possessed a unique elemental gift. Producing and controlling fire, a power christened pyrokinesis. Producing and controlling electricity, a power christened electrokinesis. And that is just to name two. The wizards were terrified. Who were these creatures who could perform extraordinary magic using only their minds? A subspecies, perhaps? I don’t doubt that several recognized them for what they truly were: a higher form of evolution. A new breed of beings that could one day usurp the wizards if their powers continued to develop. Your ancestors were merely hated and shunned at first, and then they became hunted. They ran, they hid, but the wizards were determined to exterminate them by any means necessary. Of course, non-wizards were bound to take notice of such a hunt and in the process discover the existence of their magical counterparts. Exposure was as unacceptable to the wizards as the existence of the psychics. If they desired such a vast extermination, they would need a smokescreen just as vast.

“The non-magical nations waged war, and each believed they were the just ones, the innocent ones, the victims. It never occurred to them that their fellow nations, while far from innocent, were as much a victim of lies and manipulations as they were. They fought a brutal fight, and never noticed a deeper genocide occurring right under their noses. Anyone who did notice was killed, and each death was written off as yet another tragic casualty of World War III.

“The war left the Earth a devastated shell of its former self. The wizards even had to destroy their own society in order to purge their ranks of the ‘abominations.’ But instead of choosing to rebuild, they fled into space, which is an irony of fantastic proportions. Wizards loathe technology almost as much as they do psychics. But in the end, technology was their only salvation. They took over every human space colony, and spared only the scientists and technicians so they could be used as slave labor. Entities forbid the wizards ever study and understand technology themselves.”

He paused, waiting either for a comment or for his words to sink in. Perhaps both. When Dane could finally speak, her dry throat rendered her voice unrecognizable.

“How successful was the hunt?”

The Keeper smiled. “When I said that the wizards were determined to exterminate your kind no matter the cost, I meant that without the slightest hyperbole. Your ancestors were hunted to the point of extinction and left with a home that was nothing more than a hazardous wasteland. But of course, that wasn’t enough for the wizards. Nearing the end of the war, they decided the most efficient way to ease their paranoia was to brew up a magical agent and unleash it upon the world. I don’t know if it was intended to mutate and or destroy the body or the mind, but it did both. And once again, the blame game was played by the nations. Each accused the other of using biological warfare.” He smiled again and shook his head. “I pity them for one thing only and that’s their ignorance.” The smile fell when he continued. “The wizards watched as their magical agent did its work. Countless humans were twisted into monsters, and countless more were killed. And no psychic ever appeared again. The wizards believed the hunt had come to a close. But, oh, how wrong they were. The tiny number of psychics who survived made a vow to rebuild, to make this world their own, and eventually avenge what was stolen from them. Naturally, they couldn’t do so on their own without alerting the wizards, so they recruited several humans based on their intelligence, ruthlessness, and a desperation borne of  being horribly mutated by the magic plague. The psychics promised them a life of power and purpose if they would be their eyes, ears, and voice in the new world. The offer was gladly accepted. I am certain you can guess who these unfortunate mutants were?”

Dane nodded. “The first gang leaders.”

“Yes.”

“So, it’s the psychics who really rule the world. You and the Ophidian and the Toymaker and the others…you’re all just puppet kings.”

The Keeper pursed his thin lips. “We are servants to the Gods of Kinesis.”

Dane gaped. Then when she saw he was serious, she threw her head back and laughed. “Gods. Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I assure you, I am not. The psychics delivered on every promise they made. They empowered us, they supervised and aided our genetic experiments. Believe me, Dane, the new world is a paradise compared to what it would have been if not for the psychics.”

“But if they own the world, if they are gods,” she sneered the last word, “why not make a real paradise? I thought gods were supposed to create law and order.”

“Two words, Dane: the wizards. They used war as a smokescreen to hide their genocide of the psychics, and now the psychics use anarchy as a smokescreen to hide their existence from the wizards.”

Dane stared at him. “Well, then that smokescreen is pretty fucking defective if the wizards found me.” Her eyes narrowed. “Or is there something you’re not telling me?”

“The wizards hunted the psychics to near extinction three hundred years ago,” the Keeper said evenly, “but remember that psychics are a more highly evolved form of wizards, meaning they still come from a wizard bloodline. The wizards flourished in their space colonies, but after they discovered that they were still giving birth to psychics, their paranoia awakened again. They came down to Earth and kept it under heavy watch. The Gods of Kinesis thought that if they found nothing they would leave soon enough, but they were wrong. Only when they found and killed two more psychics did they begin to withdraw. The Gods of Kinesis had long sworn an oath to protect one another at any cost, but it became apparent that death was the only cure to the wizards’ paranoia. So, they made a most difficult decision: every twenty years, a psychic child would be sacrificed to the wizards. During the first few years of the child’s life, he or she would be trained to use their telekinetic powers, though any memories of said training would be repressed into the subconscious. The child would then be left to fend for his or herself in the world, completely ignorant of their heritage or the threat that has plagued their ancestors since their genesis. And when the wizards came calling…well, I’m certain you can fill in the blanks.”

The Keeper looked as if he were bracing himself for an explosion, but he got the exact opposite. He had just confirmed what Dane already knew.

“Why am I alive then?” she whispered.

The Keeper stared at her. “Do you know who Prometheus really is?”

“My sperm-donor. So what?”

“Well, he’s not nearly as callous about blood ties as you are. The reason you were chosen to be sacrificed is because you never showed signs of having an elemental psionic ability during your training. Prometheus, however, cared nothing for that, which is certainly saying something since he is one of the most accomplished pyrokinetics alive. As a young woman, you are meticulous enough to hide your powers when necessary and exterminate any witnesses. But you were not so meticulous as a child. You left many witnesses, Dane. The wizards would have had your head on a platter before your tenth birthday if not for Prometheus. He protected you. We protected you, as in, he and I.” The Keeper smiled again, obviously enjoying the baffled look on her face. “Do you think your people would have let such defiance go unpunished? They prevented him from protecting you, so he enlisted my aide. I’ve been watching you for over ten years, Dane, and every pair of eyes I closed gained you yet another day of life. But it was inevitable you would die. Witnesses may have prevented rumor spreading, but the wizards would have eventually noticed your displays themselves. The fact that they sent only one to kill you during your little adventure to Ander’s speaks volumes of their arrogance, but their paranoia remains the same. Prometheus and I knew they would send a small army next time. I was to take you to the Crater Event so you could have one last day of life. We thought they wouldn’t dare attack so public a place. Every sacrificial child before you met their end while they were both exposed and alone.” He grimaced. “We should have known how wrong we were. You, an untrained psychic, killed a fully trained wizard assassin after all.”

“That doesn’t explain why I’m still alive,” Dane said harshly. “Or why you tried to save me. If the plan was botched, why not leave me to die?”

“Prometheus may be only one individual, but he is still a God of Kinesis,” the Keeper said. “And he ordered me to ensure you had one last day of life. I have never disobeyed him before, nor do I wish to experience the consequences of doing so.” His stare grew intense. “But you are correct. Both of us should be dead right now. Those wizards intended to kill you without actually having to face you.”

“Fucking cowards,” Dane spat, even as she privately noted that the Keeper feared something only a psychic could do to him.

“I think you should be flattered, Dane,” the Keeper said with a smirk. “The arrogance of the wizards knows no bounds. If they would seize such an opportunity without blinking, then they truly do fear you. But that is beside the point. I fell unconscious eventually and when I awoke, they were gone. I was barely alive, but I managed to send out a signal before falling unconscious again.”

“I thought anyone who sent out a signal was a traitor,” Dane said, dry as dust. “And you’ve made your feelings toward traitors very clear.”

“Quite so,” the Keeper said without even blinking. “But I had to take the chance. I would be more of a traitor than my unfortunate guards ever were if I didn’t. I saw what you did, Dane.” His voice grew hushed. “I saw what you became. It’s the reason the wizards didn’t finish you off.”

Dan finally broke the Keeper’s gaze to look at her hands. She remembered that feeling so vividly, like wax under flame. By her own will, she had tried to become the Crypt Keeper and had damn near succeeded.

“Perhaps I should stop,” the Keeper said. “Prometheus has more of a right to answer your remaining questions than I ever will.”

“I don’t give a fuck about Prometheus,” she said very quietly, “or the rest of this mudmoor cult. All I want is answers. After I hear them, I’m gone.”

“Very well. You do have a psionic ability, one that is a combination of several elements. Not just a single one.”

“Biokinesis,” she said. When his brow rose in surprise, she added, “That’s all they were hissing about when I walked by them.”

“Your people are far more powerful today than they were three-hundred years ago, Dane,” the Keeper said. “The outcome of the hunt would have been far different if they had the strength and the abilities they do now. And those who aren’t born with elemental psionic gifts are gifted in other ways. Some are mind readers, others are seers who communicate with the future. I don’t know how long ago it was made and I am ignorant of the exact wording, but one seer foretold a prophecy of a psychic destined to master not only the mind, but also the body. A psychic whose eyes would be a rainbow of infinity.” Dark eyes bore into hers. “A psychic who could walk among the wizards undetected.”

Dane didn’t even blink. “Anything else?”

The Keeper smiled knowingly. “As I said, I pity the poor soul who expects you to follow their orders, god or man. But brace yourself, Dane. If you walk away, you’re in for a long battle, and I don’t mean an external one.”

“You look pleased.” Dane commented.

“I am,” he said quietly. “It’s mudmoor and pointless of me to do so, but I will continue to hope that you never join them. They would teach you to reign in that deadly impulse of yours, to believe in something other than your iron will to survive. Had they completed your training, you never would have made that deadly error with that bugged Python, nor with your beloved trinket. That is what I love about you, Dane. You’re proof that even gods can bleed.”

*************

Chapter 8

Her right hand curled, but she didn’t bring her fist down on his leg. Instead, she stalked out of the room. Prometheus hadn’t moved from his spot. Neither had Selene.

“Get out of my way,” she snapped.

“What did he tell you?” Selene asked.

“Way, way more than enough,” Dane said harshly. “I’m not joining your mudmoor little cult, and you can shove that prophecy bullshit right up your asses where it belongs. Now, get out of my way.”

Selene looked appalled. Prometheus’s face was as hard as stone. Blood red eyes narrowed and the world went dark.

She awoke on a comfortable sofa in a room that was right out of a fairy tale. Draperies, marble floors, sculpture—and all clean. Astonishing. She doubted even the gang leaders enjoyed such luxury. Then again, she now knew what the gang leaders truly were: puppet kings ensnared in some mudmoor cult. Dane sat up, but further movement was halted by a cold voice.

“I told you that you would hear what I had to say. And you will.”

Prometheus sat in a chair opposite to her. His curled hands rested on his knees and his back was arched. Dane recognized the stance. Predatory. Uncompromising. Her own hackles rose in response.

“You’re not keeping me here,” she said. “I may not be able to kill you…yet. But I can make your life a living hell.”

He smiled. There was not a trace of humanity in it.

“It already is, thanks to the wizards. I nearly lost you because of them.”

Dane smiled too. “Care to take a guess where that bullshit belongs?”

His eyes burned at her. “Why are you acting this way? The Crypt Keeper must have told you—”

“—how I was supposed to be your sacrificial mutt horse, but now you’ve changed your minds because of some mudmoor prophecy.”

“We had no choice, Dane. Until we can convince the wizards that our people are extinct, they will always hunt us. It was the only way to keep our people safe. This may be hard for you to understand, but there are things more important than your life.”

Dane stared. Then she laughed.

“I’m outta here.” She got up from the sofa, still giggling.

Prometheus blocked her way. “If you leave, you’ll die.”

“Get out of my way.” She wasn’t laughing anymore.

“We don’t know yet if the wizards believe you were killed. If they think you’re still alive, they will tear the world apart looking for you.”

“Thrill. I’ll actually be able to stand the sight of it. Get out of my way.”

“You’re not leaving,” Prometheus said, deadly calm.

“Then I’ll do worse than make your life a living hell,” she whispered. “I’ll tell the wizards they missed a few mutt horses during the hunt.”

Prometheus paled. “Dane…”

“It’s the only way to keep me safe. This may be hard for you to understand, but there are things more important than your lives.” Her voice instantly changed from a mocking, high-pitched whine to a frosty dagger. “And if you get any funny ideas about locking me up, think about your precious prophecy. I’ll let this thrill new power of mine pneumo along with my body, and you’ll be left to rule over this diseased rectum of a world while the wizards laugh it up in space paradise.”

Prometheus’s eyes grew blanker with every word she spoke. When he replied, she could barely recognize his voice.

“The Crypt Keeper and I have watched you more closely than you can imagine. Now every psychic in the world will be watching you. We will know if you decide to betray us before even you do.”

Dane bared her teeth. “Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. That’s the deal.”

“No deals, Dane. You will return to us. I have no doubt of that.”

“Keep on spewing out that bullshit. Never fails to make me laugh.”

Prometheus ignored her. “Outside this room, there is a lift on your right. Take it to the tenth floor. When you are asked for the code, say ‘kinesis is the future.’ You will find yourself in the Crypt Keeper’s office.” Before Dane could move, he added, “I couldn’t say this on the tube, so I will say it now: goodbye.”

She moved around him without a word. But his voice stopped her again.

“I know it’s our fault—my fault that you’re this way. But I never thought you would refuse the mantel of godhood, even if you have no desire to be with your own. I’d like to know why before you leave.”

She turned around to face him. When she saw she had his undivided attention, she reached into her jacket and pulled out a knife. Ignoring his wary expression, she dragged the blade across the palm of her free hand. She then curled her fingers into a fist and gently squeezed.

A single crimson drop later, she was gone.

 

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