No Strings Attached

Chimes.

Bells in a clock-tower echoed out into the sleeping city, its storied buildings and streets bathed in the half-light of the moon. It was midnight. Autumn winds howled, dusty leaves blowing across cracked sidewalks and muddy gutters. Even the traffic in the distant freeway at the other end of town seemed to have slowed to a near sluggish pace, the rushing of cars obscured by the cricket-noise of the suburbs.

A black military truck drove noiselessly through the ghostly streets, the only thing designating its ownership being the faded letters on the back: S-W. They were barely visible, half chipped away from years of loyal service. Clouds drifted over the moon as it ascended, up and up and up the winding road into the richer district of the city. As it passed, the street lights dimmed, one by one, until the entire street was clothed in darkness.

Soon it had reached its destination, pulling up into a shadowed part of the road beneath the drooping boughs of an ancient tree. Black silhouettes slid out of the truck just as noiseless as if had driven, phantasmal. A looming iron-toothed wall, half strangled with barbed wire, juts out of the ground to the right side of the street before them. Beyond it, lay the object of their prize: the old manor of billionaire and philanthropist Alexander Raith, a wiry man who’d inherited most of his capital from old oil in the west, a monopoly which his family had held with grubby hands for many generations. He was a beacon of light, a symbol of the gilded wealth of the city, a seemingly permanent fixture in the circles of the elite for nearly forty odd years.

A light, that is, that would soon be snuffed.


“Stay on your guard. Basket-Head said he’s a tricky one.”

Miss Mellow’s harsh yet silent whisper cut through the heavy silence of the night air as they crept across the courtyard-garden, old fountains running white. The faint glow of cybernetics and the rustling of strapped knives was all Aggie could use to place the head of the group as she and the rest followed the experienced merc across the paved paths up the hill. A signal was given, and a smaller shape split off, briefcase in hand.

The sniper had his own vantage point to get to.

Aggie breathed softly. There was a job to be done.

A crunch of leaves. The entire group bolted silently to the nearest wall, listening close. Radio noises, boots, flashlight; it could only mean one thing.

Guards. Shit.

A moment passed. Mellow made a faint motion with two fingers. One by one the others filtered out, but as Aggie tried to pass she felt Mellow’s hand rest upon her shoulder. Turning, she saw the older merc’s eyes gleam inhuman yellow in the darkness. A faint whisper in her ear, in the same Londoner accent she knew so well.

“Remember your place, darling. Stay close to me.” Miss Mellow’s lips pursed. “You and I both know I don’t want to use it on you, but Basket-head isn’t nearly so kind.”

The damn taser. One of these days-

No. She couldn’t think such thoughts, such ill, against the people who had raised her.

She nodded, following Miss Mellow close behind as they made their way across the sullen court. The head of the group - the real head, was quite merciless when he wished to be. Faceless, cold, his voice was less human and more like dry grass in the wind, a faint whispering wheeze garbled by a modifier.

Stories had been traded among the others in the Sons of Wine, stories of how he lost his face and voice. A mission with some others from the Establishment, one merc had said. Others said he’d served in some war, his legs and face blown clean off, mind filled with vengeance ever since. Some whispers even spoke of darker things, that he did it himself as penance, some old rule in another merc company against transgressions demanding recompense.

Miss Mellow had shrugged when Aggie’d asked her, when they'd been visiting her mother, all those years ago. Said it was trivial.

The Weaver, the Wicker-Man, the Lord of Wine- that was all that remained now. That was all that mattered.

“J?” Mellow whispered out. A man clothed all in black but for the red tattoos that crossed his face nodded with a knowing smirk, already aware what Mellow wished. He raised his hands to the wall and installed what was necessary - a system of wires and tubes, buttons and gears framed in a rectangle with a faded NuCorp logo. Smashing it inward, it expanded across its intended surface at its master's command.

It was something J had found on a recent job. Aggie hadn’t seen it in action yet, but he’d promised it would be good. The proud man never made promises he didn't keep. Everyone in the company knew that.

Stolen tech - the name of the game for the Sons of Wine - always worked, and if it didn't it was fixed regardless. It had be to after all, if they were to stay ahead of the other mercs from the Establishment.

She scanned over the terraced garden as he worked, the faint lights of the city glimmering below them. No guards, but in this line of work one could never be too careful. She looked to her right to find Mellow staring, nodding in approval.

It was faintly comforting, though emotion had long since been vestigial in Aggie’s life, something the Weaver had long since tried to drive out of her. She didn’t have the luxury of the other mercenaries. The Sons of Wine did not want a fourteen year old girl, after all.

They wanted a weapon.

“Almost,” J whispered. “Done!”

Red light flashed as anomalous acid melted into the surface behind it, black tendrils creeping into the faded brownstone walls. Mellow did one last scan. They would have to move quickly, should the guards return and find them.

“In,” she said at last.

Even as they entered the smoking hole, it sealed behind them.

The first blow had been struck. There was no way but forward, now.


EARLIER


The door of her quarters creaked open, slamming into the dusty wall with a loud smack.
Jolting out of her cot, she saw through the dim light J’s face, smirking.

“He wants you, twat,” he said, voice loud and ambivalent as always. “Meeting in ten minutes.”

He'd been drinking with the younger mercs again in the nightclubs downtown. She smelled brandy on his breath.

The older mercenary disappeared down the hall behind, caring little for the girl's glare at his back. Crawling out of the cot slowly, Aggie ambled over to the black-painted closet as quick as she could manage. Her things needed to be gathered; the Weaver did not like waiting.

She sighed, her thoughts turning back to J. The new technician had initially been a one-time exchange of services with another merc group where he'd freelanced, a mission in Belarus. No one was surprised when he transferred the next month, his signature smirk soon becoming a fixture among the Sons of Wine ever since, someone who even Miss Mellow couldn’t always cow.

He was too good at his job, too skillful with his hands. He was, for all intents and purposes, an anomaly in and of himself. An unknown factor.

Aggie knew his eyes were set on power, she'd seen how he schemed. He coveted an in with the Wicker-Man, a niche currently filled by Miss Mellow and herself. She’d known enough assassins who’d climbed the old rungs of power in the Sons of Wine to see when that kind of strange determination consumed a person. The faux triumvirate, merit-based company was built for inner competition after all, a healthy struggle for power in the face of the wider organisation. He'd already caught the Weaver's attention for that very reason.

In that way, Aggie was similar to him - the head of the Sons both wanted them for some kind of purpose, be it J for his skills at salvaging and developing old tech, or her for her… abilities.

That was about where their commonalities ended, however. He despised her most. Where Master and Mellow both seemed ambivalent at best, he seemed to harbour some kind of strange hatred for her, one that hadn’t abated even a year after his arrival.

Such an umbrage couldn’t be taken out physically, of course: her place with the Wicker-Man made her untouchable. It didn't stop snide remarks behind petty corners, dark eyes at the back of her head in crowded rooms. She hated it.

Pack situated, she strode out the open door down the dank familiar passage outside, one of the many that crossed inner Neverland, the central base of the Sons of Wine. Frozen statues lined the ribbed corridor, old mercenaries of past expeditions whose faces stood immortalised in steel forever, unblemished and unafraid.

It was a timeless place, steeped in sadness. Be it her own or others, she couldn’t know.

She'd been so focused on her inner thoughts that she hadn't noticed her feet had hit a wall. Looking up, she saw the great doors of the meeting-hall loom before her, faded scenes of ivory and ebony immemorial laced across them, depicting the violence of the founding of the Sons of Wine before her; the likeness of a great man, basket-faced and cloaked stood supreme above it all.

Three knocks, and the doors opened with a loud screech, darkened smoke filling the hall beyond.

She stepped in.


PRESENT


The spear slammed into the man before him, acid eating at the guard’s flesh like water through paper. The computers in the back-wall whirred.

Stupid, stupid man.

They were only thirty minutes in, and it'd already gone so wrong. How?

“Where’s Raith.”

The man was still choking, voice strangled by the pressure of J’s foot on the guard’s lungs.

He choked out something unintelligible. Time to bluff.

“I’m not going to repeat myself.“

The man’s eyes widened as the spear rose again.

“B-bedroom. West… wing. Sh… “

"The code. Now."

He needed it to get to the cam-footage.

"5…5…6…"

The string of numbers continued. When the man finished, J extended a hand to pull him up, when suddenly-

Bang.

A bullet out of nowhere. J scowled behind him. Idiots.

It was one of the newer mercs. J supposed he couldn't fault them, everyone had their learning experiences, but they'd cost him a vital bargaining chip.

Shit. J cleared his throat. No way to go unnoticed now.

Normally, he'd have reserved more tact for this, dealt stealthily and hit and ran from afar, hiding behind a corner and waiting, but he didn't care about pleasantries any longer. It wasn't his style to work at night, or even do hits at homes like this - in fact it was nigh-suicide. But the Weaver had insisted; the key, his boss, the one whose position held so much power, and further more- the object of J's obsessions as of late. The Weaver'd wanted them to hit it in this time, in this place, for reasons he'd kept disclosed from everyone but a few.

The stupid guard had come out of nowhere.

It had been a gut reaction to take the man, hopefully bluff him into giving information; J had never been one to let his initial surprise colour his actions thereafter - it was important to keep your cool in a job like this, use what you had, taken advantage. After working in the business from group to group for so long, he'd grown used to thinking on the fly. Besides - information was like liquid gold in a job as shittily organised as this.

But now the man was dead.

He'd suspected their initial tip-off had been wrong. Now he knew that was the case. Eyes scanning the room, he carefully capped the spear's point, folding it down and sliding it into its perch on his back. Most mercs would use other things - guns, knives, but not him. He liked to get more… personal.

His brow furrowed as he paced, thinking. Perhaps this was his time - to act, to finally get rid of the obstacles in his path to power - the brat and her handler. The Sons of Wine were known for their resources, resources most mercenaries of his type could only dream to afford. When he'd first found about an opportunity to work with the group, he'd jumped at the offer, one sweeter than the reddest of wines in Italy.

He'd never expected things to move this slowly, though. In the other groups he'd been a part of, the whole process of his acceptance had gone much faster; the younger members of the Sons were easy to win loyalty from, but the older ones… J was getting impatient. And now -

It was so typical that their scout beforehand had been wrong - and so typical, too, that he’d been shelved once again, forced to work lackey for yet another group.

Whatever. He spat to the side of the room. At least the tech I brought worked.

At times he missed the wider connections of his previous company, but sacrifices had to be made to advance. The Sons of Wine presented a unique opportunity, one he’d have been a fool to pass up. There were only two problems to take care of, now.

Pulling up the floor-plan on his phone, J stood up, looking at the two other mercs behind him. They were standing stock-silent, the one on the right still shaking in fear at the potential complications he caused.

J wouldn't press on it. The job was shite anyway. He sifted through the computers to his right, installing the program he needed. Four minutes.

Finally, the cam-routes popped onto the screen.

"See this, boys?"

The others came over.

"Memorise it."

Flipping through the channels further, he found it: the bedroom, Raith's body rising softly under glinting blankets. Idiot didn't even get an alert, huh. Two fingers to the comms.

"Mav?"

Static, then a click.

"Position established."

"He's on the bedroom, West side."

"Roger".

With hope, the sniper would take care of the job at hand, J cleaning up the damage. He nodded to the mercs behind him.

“Time to go.”

They left as silently as they had come in, blood pooling on the marble floors like a keg of wine unfettered.

The computers didn't stop whirring.


Miss Mellow and Aggie made their way down the garishly painted and gilded passages, ostentatious walls lined with paintings so indicative of an owner obsessed with the past. Raith, it seemed, was very content with his wealth. It wasn’t long before they found themselves in a windowed passage on the eastern wing of the mansion, curtains blowing by old French doors.

The fixation with the past was similar to Neverland, in a way. Aggie didn’t dwell on it.

The other mercs were being led by J. Mellow had opted to split the group back in the carrier-truck; J (much to Aggie’s relief) would solve the issue of security, and immobilise Raith. Mellow would take Aggie and get to the real prize. There would be no margin for error any longer; they were already ten minutes behind schedule due to prior interruptions, and the Weaver-

He was very particular about things.

Muttered voices, tired steps. Aggie was quickly pulled into a small alcove by the older woman, and they held their breath as guards ran past.

“…Breach, there’s a brea… “

Voices faded away, lights shifting through the curtains outside. A helicopter.

Her eyes briefly met Mellow’s, who were narrowed, scanning the corridor from side to side. They went out again, walking for a little more before they took a left turn into a small parlour.

When the door was shut, Miss Mellow turned to Aggie, half-cybernetic visage eyeing the girl watchfully.

I can never get used to that face of hers, Aggie thought.

“Alright, darling. Let’s give you the enhancements you need.”

A syringe was taken out of the case, the syringe. Aggie hated it, but she knew it was necessary, if not integral to activate the part of her so necessary for such missions.

Mellow reached over, swabbing Aggie’s arm and preparing to inject.

“Wait-”

Mellow quickly cut her off.

Shhht.

“I can do it,” Aggie spoke softer now. Miss Mellow raised her brow.

“I can.”

Aggie took the syringe from her handler, the needle sliding into where she knew her veins lay. The familiar liquid, sickly purple, filtered in like fire. She almost screamed, but Mellow was faster.

Vision darkening and brightening, the world fell away.

Miss Mellow’s face, human eye wet and robotic eye glowing, was the last thing she saw as she slipped into the dark, bracing her body for five minutes of excruciating pain.

She screamed.


EARLIER


“His name -khck- Alexander Raith. An old associate. A man -ksch- great principles. Symbol of old wealth. Friend. Enemy.”

The Wicker-Man sat atop his rusting chair of metal in the centre of the hall, trademark hoplite guards with ghostly spears made of lasered light lined about him as if a grove of birches about a boulder. The familiar blackened wicker-basket that covered all of his features gleamed darkly in the dim light that seeped in from the grates at the top of the old domed room.

Half built into the sewers of the city above, half thrust into some fold of reality deeper, Neverland was a mysterious place even for those that lived there. It had been settled for nearly three decades by the group, and even then only half-explored, its true tunnels and spidery workings beneath filled with things even the hardiest of mercs would not dare face. Aggie had heard whispers, vague stories of the horrors that the others had faced in first entry to make something in the space - the three founders were renowned for their feats for the company's tenuous base, though now only one remained. Relations with the other hubs, like the Establishment, were perpetually changing, shifting, but in Neverland one thing always remained constant.

The chair, and the man who sat in it.

His ruined robotic voice, obscured by a modulator, broke the silence again.

“Money-kscchhhhhhh- Establishment sent out reward. Billions offered, Kabushiki Kawaii want- his death. Lots of tech in store. Hoarder. Offering much for Sons of Wine. You,” he pointed at J, who was off in the shadows to the right. “You go -ksch- Mellow. Tell about… finds at NuCorp.”

J and Miss Mellow left the room, Slowly the other mercs filtered out, until it was just her, the Man in Wicker, and his guard.

“Little poppet, such fragile bird,” the voice seemed almost wistful, bouncing off high walls. “Let me tell- You have to do.”

She'd always been some poppet to him, some marionette made to dance by strings not her own, strings that had only grown tighter as she'd grown older.

She never knew why.

He motioned to the guards, and soon they too left the room. They were alone. For a moment, she was reminded of the very first time they’d met, when Miss Mellow had saved her from the orphanage all those years ago.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire, or so the saying went. Aggie curled in under his roving gaze.

He lifted his hands to the wicker basket, pulling it off his head slow but with a strange tenderness. Ruined flesh greeted the limelight, eyes sunk in milky white, burned skin so pale he almost seemed born from Hell itself.

His mouth was hidden by a transparent respirator, the real reason his voice was modulated, wires and tubes lacing down below his cloak. It was only thing keeping him alive. Beneath old plastic and metal, Aggie could see he was smiling, rotten teeth scraping against paper-thin lips.

He leaned forward.

“Begin?”

She nodded.

"Yes, Papa."


PRESENT


She awoke gasping for air, bile dribbling from her lips as it flew across the room onto a red carpet so expensive the threads were probably stitched with gold.

Air, air, she needed air-

The blood-haze slowly cleared up, and her bleary eyes looked up to Miss Mellow standing over her. A flicker of something unreadable - concern? - passed over the older woman’s face. Never one for feelings, Mellow slammed a fist into Aggie’s back, vomit pouring from the girl’s lips.

“S-sorry.”

Miss Mellow didn’t answer, only hitting her back once more until all of it was out.

“Is it settled?”

Aggie felt the liquid coursing beneath her skin, racing through her veins. She nodded, eyes still slightly dizzy.

“Y-yes. It is.”

Mellow’s eyes flickered over the girl, before pulling out a communicator.

“J?”

Muffled voices on the other line.

“Shit. Have you… “

The merc’s hands clenched.

“Deal with them as best you can. Then look for him. He can’t have gone far.”

Communicator snapped shut, Miss Mellow stood for a minute staring at the far wall, calming herself. Aggie broke the silence.

“What happened?”

“The guards were in the west-wing. They’d almost reached Raith’s bedchambers when the firefight broke out. He knew we were coming.”

A part of Aggie wondered if the Wicker-Man had told them.

“Does that mean…”

“No.” Mellow cut the girl off. “We follow our part of the plan. With hope, all guards are at the other end.”

Aggie nodded, eyes to the ground. Her arms couldn’t stop shaking. Mellow opened the door, looking right and left before motioning for the girl to follow.

“The Lord of Wine cannot lose.”

Even as the girl went after her superior, she couldn’t shake the feeling they were missing pieces. That the Wicker-Man hadn’t told them everything, that-

“Darling?”

“Coming!”

Such thoughts had no place here; they could be stuffed and shelved for after, just like every other job or mission before.

She ran.


EARLIER


“I am dying, poppet.”

“W-what?”

The statement was sudden, so unbelievable, even to her. The Wicker-Man had sat on his throne of bone since forever, an unstoppable, immovable object in the dark halls of Neverland, a mountain with roots stronger than steel.

Yet here he was, admitting his own mortality to a girl whose life he had shaped for almost a decade.

His right hand, frail and missing fingers, pressed the button of the modulator on his torn neck.

“I told you. I -kscchhh- am, dying.”

She suddenly felt very small.

“This will be- last mission, for you. Sons of Wine -kscchhh- go to, Mellow. You.” Shit. “My little poppet.” He traced his fingers marred with old calluses over Aggie’s jaw, colourless eyes roving about her.

“Not J?” Aggie could scarce believe her ears. The Weaver had loved the opportunity J had brought to their company.

“No. Not important. You —kscch- use gift. Find cure. He has made… something. Weapon owned by Raith- my, old friend. Has secrets. Youth, power, creation. Blood made flesh. You and them will, get it.”

“I-” I hate you, I want you dead, I cannot stand the sight of you. So many words, so many thoughts raced in her heart, but the eventual forbidden loyalty won out. “I will.”

His lips were paper-thin, colourless as they stretched back folds of sunken skin over his ancient face.

“I knew-ksch- you were- best choice. My Poppet. My dream-daughter. My -kscchhh- Arsenal…” He took a leathery breath. “The truck will be - soon. You will go with them.”

“Yes, Papa.”

He set the mask of ebony wicker upon his head, light catching on curling thorns twisting around countless punctured holes across its surface. Soft wheezing in the dark.

“Do not fail me.”

Lies, lies, lies.

She hated lying.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

I wish I could.


PRESENT


Three guards down. Six to go.

It had started so normal. Mav had said he'd shot up the room, but then…

Then the comms cut off. Then a different voice was speaking. Then-

J had opened the door, the two other merc's flanking him. Raith was on a screen, a wretched smile fixed on his face. Outside, Mav's body was strapped with ribs splayed out like an angle on a tree, a blackened shape in the moonlight. The element of surprise had been blown.

It was a pre-recorded message.

I’d never have expected ol’ Whickey’s boys here, he’d said. No matter. That just makes it all that much easier. Then Raith disappeared, gloating about how he'd never be found. Then, came the boy.

Then, it all went to shit.

Gunfire shot through the glass like water. The boy had advanced, men turned to monsters, bursting from the inside. The halls were paved with blood, living dolls writhing around them. J had never seen anything like it.

Even now, J realised the bigger picture. He saw the brands on the boy’s wrists. He saw the KK models in the man’s bedroom. KK calling a hit on Raith was too… simple. Too clean. He knew the company usually had their own way of dealing with problems, one that didn’t generally align with hiring anomalous mercenaries to do their dirty work.

So why did they put out this hit publicly?

Just as the gunfire stopped for the guards chasing to reload their ammo, he took a turn to escape the carnage, the screams behind him. Soon, they passed, J exhaling in relief. A twisted smile crossed the merc's face.

In all his hubris, Raith had made one error. He'd underestimated how well J prepared for a shit job like this.

He recognised the curtains in the television screen. Raith hadn't been far away, only three corridors back. If the billionaire was smart, he'd head for one of the bolted rooms at the end of that hall. A stupid move, but not an unknown one, especially for someone desperate and far, far away from his bunker at the other end of the building.

Raith, for whatever reason, had wanted to be close. He wanted to hear the screams. J had known men like this, people who disregarded safety for the sake of pride, obsession.

He was the same, after all.

Lo and behold, his suspicions were confirmed when light under down the hall ahead, a glimmer of white as the weasley man ran away through the moonlit halls, disappearing behind a heavy column into a door, low and narrow and painted to look like the wall around him.

The merc had studied the floor-plan. He knew there was no way out from those rooms.

Stupid man.

J smiled once more, tossing aside his already smashed communicator from the fight to the side.

Maybe God does exist, after all.

He flexed his fingers, raising them to the painted door.

The stolen machine's beautiful, beautiful interface spread out across it. One push. Acid spread through the wall, a spiderweb of blackness eating at its edges.

Two could play at this game.

A flash, then-

Gunfire.


Bang-bang-bang-

The guards had found them.

They’d been walking for a while, trying to find Raith’s secret stash. According to intel, his relations with other groups or organisations were tenuous - he’d bought several of their… products, but the money tunnel died as soon as it had begun, connections going nowhere. Normally, such an offer would go unnoticed by the Wicker-Man, but something seemed to catch his eye here, something special.

Alexander Raith.

Somehow, he was connected to the Wicker-Man’s past. Somehow, he’d managed to mean something of such a degree to the dying mercenary to deserve the attention of the Sons of Wine. Whatever this was, what he owned, it would fix all ailments. A secret weapon, one that could revolutionise their efficiency, their prowess as a group.

Not only that, but according to his records, he’d been making illicit deals for anomalous tech for years. A kill like this would increase their prestige manifold.

It was a gold mine, all things considered.

Mellow let out a string of bullets from the guns riveted to her wrists. Even as bullets dropped to the floor, guns smoking, the guards still came.

How many did this man have?

“Darling! Out of ammo. Do it, now!

Aggie spun to the side just as bullets whizzed toward her. Throwing out her hands, she felt the ground beneath her, its vibrations, its currents, until finally she found what she sought: power cables, a source for her to mold.

Electric light shot out like a fractaled web, frying four of the guards before them.

Dead. They were dead.

Silence. Mellow stood up, blowing smoke off of one of the guns still hot from use.

“You were good," her eye surveyed the scene. "Better than me, anyway."

The praise wasn’t much, but Aggie’d take whatever she got. The older merc strode, picking up one of the walkie-talkies on the guards. Static.

Opening the channel on her own communicator, she found it silent, too. J wasn’t responding. They were alone.

Aggie looked to their right. Opened paneled doors revealed a wide passage of a different style now stretching before them, old amphorae on marble plinths lining the sides. At the end stood a statue of Nike, wings and scales a brilliant, glowing white in the moonlight.

The goddess of Victory; that's what J had said in the briefing. The entire symbol of Raith’s supremacy in the damn city. It was also where the damn passage-

“Look.”

Mellow turned to where Aggie was pointing, eyes widening. There was a small hatch in the pedestal, indistinguishable from the rest of the statue but visible to the trained eye regardless.

Aggie could bet her life that whatever the Wicker-Man, whatever Papa wanted, was down there.

“The entrance. You’re doing very good, tonight.”

The girl didn’t bother replying to her master.

Distant footfalls echoed behind them, and they quickly sprung into action, shutting and barricading the doors to the passage with a candelabra to the side. They couldn’t afford any chances of being obstructed further.

Miss Mellow examined the base, peering down at the locked hatch carefully. Her fingers ran along the notched edges, trying to find seems or breaks to exploit. Knocking thrice, she got up.

“It’s not going to-”

The older merc’s iron boot smashed through the opening, revealing a laddered shaft going deep, deep into the dark, far below the foundation of the manor.

“Never question your elders, Darling.” Mellow’s gaze was cold. They would be talking of this later. Such outbursts were not to be permitted, and Aggie could not forget the snake’s bite that mercs like Mellow held in the event of her failing to heed the Weaver’s demands.

You might just pay for it.

Tasers, tasers in the dark.

“Come.”

And down they went.


Mellow flipped the switch. LED lights flickered for a minute, then fully enveloped the room. Squinting, Aggie took in the sight before them.

They were on a raised platform, a massive storage space stretching out before them almost as big as a department store in and of itself. Grimy walls framed an immaculate white tiled floor, and racks upon racks of… clothes, lined far into the distance.

“Whatever it is this man has, it’s down here,” Mellow said, stern. “Come, down the stairs.”

Iron steps clanked as they descended. As she drew closer, she saw what she had assumed as clothes were not clothes at all, but rather… bodies. Synthetic naked bodies, woman and man, dolls lined with hooks to old racks. A faded brand was on each one’s right bicep, a cat-girl’s face smiling brightly in black ink.

It was horrible.

Mellow covered the girl’s eyes.

“I won’t let you see that.”

The girl held tightly onto the older merc’s hand as they traveled down the isle, eyes trained to the tiled floor. White as it was, yellow grime, piss-coloured, still filled the cracks. After a while of walking, Mellow stopped. Aggie felt a brush of fingers against her shoulder, and she looked up.

Cabinets upon cabinets of files lined the walls, but that wasn’t what was important. Mellow was pointing to a row of glass cases before them, jars of varying sizes within. Something small and bloody was inside each one.

Fetuses. Curled, white, shriveled, fetuses.

What?

Before each one, papers with varying titles and notes were taped. ‘Subject A’, ‘Variant C’, it went on and on, each crossed out with red strike-marks. All except for the last…

Shipment ready for transfer. Testing required.

A seal, the same logo found on all of the racks behind them, bled red into the white paper. There was a dossier next to it, with various names and places thereon. It was nothing Aggie recognised.

The item the Wicker-man had told her about wasn’t there, either.

“This is it?” she asked. Miss Mellow’s face was grim.

“Keep looking. There has to be something more.”

Shadows stained the piss-yellow walls. They set to work.


Nothing.

They’d found quite a bit, of course - old documents, records, designs for further synthetic bodies, but nothing beyond that. Any tests that had been performed, documents readied, products made - they were gone. Used.

Mellow and Aggie had been halfway up the ladder when the older woman’s communicator buzzed. She turned it to the right channel. Aggie was close enough to hear J’s voice at the other end.

“It was a setup. I’m in the room you were in. There’s nothing down where you are.”

He’d kicked down their barricade.

“We know. We’re halfway up.”

“Meet me in the junction outside.” His voice had that same, snide tone to it he always used. Aggie could almost imagine the smirk writ on his face just from hearing it.

Something else was there behind his voice, something the girl hadn’t ever felt from the man.

Fear.

Miss Mellow’s eyes darkened, and the channel shut.

They climbed on.


When they arrived, they found J re-barricading the doors, a man tied up on the ground before them, his pale face gagged with a dirty cloth. The merc was working hurriedly at his task.

Miss Mellow looked down at the man on the floor, then back at J as he finished his task. She was the first to speak, her tone deathly cold.

“He’s supposed to be dead.”

“He’s got information.”

“That doesn’t change anything, J. Where are the others?”

J frowned for the first time.

“We had… complications.”

He walked over to the tied man, pulling off the gag. The man coughed out, laughing.

“Tell them what you told me.”

The man - now clear in the light to Aggie that it was Alexander Raith himself - only continued to laugh. Finally, his laughter slowed just enough for the bound man to cough out a response.

“You-” his laughing hadn't quite stopped yet. “You really think it matters?”

“I will cut your throat.”

He quickly shut up after that, eyes wild all the same.

“You will all die.”

Mellow strode forward, cold hands clenching down on Raith’s jaw.

“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you, and take the prize.”

Raith only laughed more, refusing to speak. Finally, J spoke for him.

“I caught ‘im unawares. He spilled a bit to me on the way 'ere. Turns out he’s the only one who can control the… thing he’s unleashed.”

This was new.

“Thing? What thing?”

Screams echoed at the other side of the door. Raith’s pleading eyes lit up.

“It’s here…”

J continued.

“Some kid, but it’s… like something else. A demon in human skin. The other mercs around me… it moved something in their skin, burst them, broke and twisted them to its will. Blood was… ”

A cold chill shivered down Aggie’s spine.

Blood made flesh, the Wicker-Man had said.

Raith was singing now.

“I’m a fisher of men, fisher of men, fisher… ”

Screaming, banging on the door. It was growing louder, more frantic.

Mellow tapped Aggie’s shoulder. “Use your gift, darling.”

Light buzzed at Aggie’s finger tips, her hands held out threateningly towards Raith. She hated doing this, but it was her only choice.

Tasers

“Don’t kill him,” J warned.

Mellow smiled, questioning the man.

“Tell us what you mean. Or she’ll kill you.”

His eyes goggled like a fish, but he was no less mocking.

“I see Whickey’s up to his old tricks again, again, again-" choked laughter, broken words. "I learned from him. I made it better! Victory!"

"What?"

"You are bait. You are-”

A loud bang on the other side of the door. He was laughing.

“Even if you kill me, you won’t get any money. I put out the hit. I-”

Mellow squeezed Aggie’s arm, sharp nails urging the girl to unleash her power.

I’m sorry.

The electricity burst into the man’s body, searing his skin and bone and muscle until it was little but a fused, crispy mush on the cold, white floor. J’s eyes were furious.

Blood made flesh. Blood made flesh. Blood-

“You stupid girl, did you not understand-”

It was then that the door smashed open.

All three turned.

A small, humanoid shape stood silhouetted against blue window-panes in the frame of the door. Something was dripping from its hands.

A buzzing sound. Then, an inhuman scream.

Miss Mellow’s voice was but a whisper.

Run.”


The three of them bolted down the corridor, past the statue of Nike and down the ladder. Screams, running noises from behind. They had to move quickly.

J was furious.

He’d had plans. The man, Alexander Raith, presented a bargaining chip. Boss’s fixation was clear as day to anyone with a brain. Even if they didn’t find the tech the head wanted, they could have still made it out, still used the man as leverage.

He could have used Raith to gain power in the Sons. He’d have been comfortable with that; he was the only competent one, after all. The only one who deserved leadership.

But then Mellow had to use her trained rat to take out the man, before anything else could be done.

This is who the Mask wants to lead the Sons?

He’d be damned if he let that happen. His eyes flicked to the one ace in his sleeve he had left.

Showtime.


The racked room stretched out before them once more. Aggie now knew its true purpose; it had been a training ground, a breeding area, for whatever the boy was behind them.

It was a setup. The words kept ringing through her head.

Blood made flesh.

They tore off through the aisles of synthetic dolls, silent watchers of the scene before them. The boy was screaming. Suddenly, she saw them shake and shiver around her, eyes turning.

The boy was moving their flesh. Shapes moved under their skin. One by one, they slipped off the racks, skinless puppets shuffling slowly as their eyes turned to the newcomer.

The boy was molding them.

This was why the Weaver wanted him. This was why-

It was then the lights shut off. It was then that they ran.

“J!” Mellow called out. He nodded, throwing something behind them.

“10 seconds,” he yelled. “Hide!”

Aggie jumped out of the way just in time as an explosion tore through the shaking racks of flesh. There was a putrid scream. Smoke went up, obscuring view of the room.

Light. She needed light. Readying herself, she drew from the well she knew that resided in her, sending out an arc of electricity into the smoking blackness. It hit something, but nothing she could tangibly feel. Fires were burning now in the back of the room.

"Darling!"

“Mellow?” Aggie had lost the others. No answer.

"You killed my papa."

A voice was behind her. She turned around, fully faced with the boy, back lit by the light of fire burning in the smoky space. He was clothed in nothing but a loincloth, white skin stained with blood. His cheekbones made mountains in his skin.

He was only a few years younger than her.

"I didn't-" She didn't mean to. She didn't want to.

His eyes were unforgiving.

"You killed my papa."

She felt his hands reach out to her skin, something moving beneath it beyond her control. The shrieks of the skin-puppets and moving dolls echoed in the room behind.

Where was Mellow? Where was J?

"Mellow, she, she made me…"

His head turned, like a cat observing a mouse. Tears leaked from his eyes, a solemn sadness emanating around him. Fire was in her skin; whatever he was trying to do, it was reacting badly with her gift. Her gut tugged, and electricity smashed out like water from a dam.

Their powers met in a crashing wave, hers a wall of light and his one of living flesh, blinding and merciless.

She pushed in, light arcing and searching for the source of the invader. He pushed back. It was a standstill. She could hear the boy was softly crying as the flesh wall before them dissipated and reformed at a rapid pace.

"I didn't mean to!" She yelled, voice hoarse from the smoke.

"… Father-!"

Screams echoed around them. There was a gunshot. Suddenly, everything stopped, and he collapsed. He was all-out sobbing now in a rim of splattered flesh. Eyes fixed on the ground. Silence. Faintly in the distance, she heard someone groaning.

The boy continued to cry.

"I-I'm a monster."

Something in her, something almost primal, made her come closer to the boy, his boney fingers shaking. No one deserved to be this alone. No one deserved to think that.

No one except me.

"He's… dead. He's dead."

She clasped his hands gently, a silent understanding passing between them. His voice again, broken and ruined.

"He made me do- so many things…"

Blood made flesh.

"Come now. Just- come." It wasn't much, but it was all she knew to say. Aggie drew him into a hug, fingers tight across his bony body. A sickening feeling rose in her as she realised this was who Papa wanted. This was the prize Raith hid. A part of her didn't want him to share her fate.

Suddenly, some dull projectile sailed past, smashing into the boy's head. Even as the boy's form collapsed, she saw J's towering shape rise against red smoke.

"Bingo!"

Shit, shit, shit-

She frantically checked the boy. He was out cold, but… still breathing. Fire burned in J's eyes as she scrambled.

“Running, are we?”

She struggled against his grubby hands, his acid-tipped spear so close to her face her eyes stung.

"Where… Mellow…"

"That bitch? I left her in the body pile," he cackled. "She can lead the dead if she wants."

Aggie didn't know how to feel about that. His fingers clenched tighter.

“You were always on her leash, weren’t you? Always relying on others to lead you around like the little rat you are.”

“I’m-” she struggled for air, clawing at her throat. “The boy-”

Moving footsteps. His grip tightened around her throat. Aggie’s vision blurred. What… ?

“I’m going to run this show soon, rule this fucking shithole. I have plans, OK? No more of this ‘little poppet’ shit,” he wheezed, voice hoarse from the acrid air. She tried to squirm out of his grip, but it was too strong. She was choking. “No chances before now. But - I'm resourceful. I use my cards when they're presented to me, you know?"

His voice wavered a little.

"I'm smart," he muttered, more to himself than anyone else. he leaned in close. "Little Arsenal. Little 'poppet'. Guess that didn't mean much in the end, did it?”

His breath was hot upon her cheek. She felt power building up in her gut as his leering maw drew closer, eyes like black coals peering hard into her soul.

“This thing you have with the other two. It doesn’t work. Basket head's a ticking clock, anyway."

Not with the boy.

Just a little longer…

"I found something. When I got Raith, the stupid bag of fat he was. Did you know this, thing," he kicked at the boy's body. "It can be controlled."

She saw a remote cross her vision.

What…?

"It was easy, in the end. Stealing his little remote. Giving you lot a shitton of trouble. It didn't work, but, it gave me an… idea."

A remote. He'd stolen the remote to control the boy. He'd set-up the set-up.

All to get to her.

Pressure.

“A good idea. Because I'm smart, y'know? An arsenal, a poppet like you, always needs… strings, right? If it’s going to work. You’re not working. Maybe… " He waved the remote conspiratorially. "Maybe this can be made to work on you, like the boy, and then - I'll fix you, like the kid, I'll-”

He pressed in. Black dots swam across her vision. His lips pursed.

"Time to say good-bye."

"N-" she choked out. "No."

Her gift burst from her body, blazing like a thousand tongues of white-tipped flame into the man choking her. She watched as his skull caved in, as the electricity ate at his flesh like a hungry beast at noon. It was strangely… beautiful, lit by the red light of the fires behind.

She felt the hands slip from her throat. At last, it was over. She breathed raggedly, leaning back against the bloody ground.

Thank God.

He was dead. He was gone. Aggie looked over his ruined face. Even in death, the shriveled lips were curled into some snide smirk, smiling just as he lived.

It didn’t seem like he was going to run the show, after all.

“D-Darling?”

Mellow’s voice, shaky and tired, came from behind her. Slowly, she turned. The other woman's face was half clawed open, but she was alive. That unreadable emotion was plastered across it again. Mellow pulled up Aggie from her spot on the ground. The smoke cleared, a blasted landscape of bodies and burning flesh strewn about the floor revealed in its wake.

"I… he… "

She didn't know what to say. Her eyes slipped again to the boy's frail body, chest shivering and shaking in the dark. Mellow saw him.

"The boy. This was what he wanted."

"I know."

She did?

Blood made flesh.

They stood for a while longer, Mellow picking up the remote from J's burned corpse, Aggie holding onto the boy, who was surprisingly light. He looked so peaceful, asleep. Her eyes lingered at the jars lined along the wall.

"Aggie?"

"Y-yeah?"

"Time to go."

For some reason, those words held more weight than they had at the start of all this.

And so, go they did, taking a passage whose door had blown off in the right, a route that seemed to lead off to the side of the hill-slope into… light. The Wicker-Man was calling, but that could wait. When they finally came to the world above, the sun had just broke the horizon, its red eye gleaming over the smog-choked city below.

Distant bells chimed in the blustery wind: the clocktower. She'd forgotten about that. The boy wheezed softly in her arms, a protective feeling rising in her chest.

A new day dawned.


tagnone

7

7

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License