Chapter Three: 11:13 PM

Stars exploded in the back of Kieran’s eyes as she heard the van’s door slam shut and the vehicle peel away. In the dazed fashion of the recently concussed, Kieran’s brain supplied her with a flurry of images that might just have been her life flashing before her eyes. 

A pair of caskets, side by side as they descended into the earth, a tiny hand clenched full of gravedirt. 

An ancient face, carved deep by a life of sorrow and mirth, knocking over an hourglass and smiling. 

Deacon, barely into his teens, surrounded by six tiny targets, staring back into her eyes serenely.  

A man on his knees, face bloody and bruised, as Sascha put the gun in Kieran’s hand and nodded. 

A young woman, tired and scared, putting her faith in Kieran’s capability to help her, and Kieran failing to do so. 

The figure straddling her tilted their head as her fighting slowed. 

“Listen,” they said, “Is not personal. We just need to beat you bad enough that you don’t do anything else stupid tonight, you know?”

“What?” Kieran spluttered in shock.

A few yards away, the figure’s partner had likewise wrestled Deacon to the ground, twisting his arms up behind his back like a pretzel as he kicked his legs without much luck. 

“Kieran!” he shouted. “These guys work for who I think?” 

“What?” Kieran’s assailant twisted their head to look at Deacon. “Do not think. Just bleed.”

“Really seems that way,” slurred Kieran, blinking hard. 

No blacking out. Betsy needed help. 

“Stop talking!” hissed the creature pinning Deacon. They grabbed his shoulder and wrenched, twisting his back and arm something fierce, but bringing their face closer to his. Deacon’s arms were pinned, but his hands were free; he contorted his fingers behind his back and opened his mouth wide, expelling a gout of crimson flame that engulfed the head of his attacker. They shrieked and fell back, hands beating at their head to try to douse the conflagration. 

The commotion was enough to distract Kieran’s attacker, and as she felt their grip slacken on her throat, she struck in turn. Kieran whipped her legs up, clenching the creature’s head between her calves before snapping it back down as fast and as hard as her abdominals would allow. 

These creatures seemed strong, and perhaps it would have been able to reverse the maneuver had it been more present and in the moment, but that brief lapse was all Kieran needed to capitalize on. Her attacker’s head slammed into the ground of the alley and both of them scrambled to their feet, pausing for a beat to eye each other up. 

Kieran looked a mess. She could feel blood dripping down the back of her head, and she was panting hard. Her attacker wore a slick jumpsuit, a pair of running shoes, and the featureless mask. Had they not moments previously been moving she would have sworn they were a statue. 

“You’re just making this worse for yourself,” said the figure. 

“Gods, you’re telling me,” Kieran spat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Deacon sprint out of the alley, and she followed suit. 

Back in the alley, the blazing figure pulled off her mask, revealing a horrifically burned visage. As she threw her hood onto the ground and stomped on it, the woman’s skin quickly healed, scorched flesh knitting together back into a perfectly smooth and bald porcelain-white head with pointed ears, watery red eyes, and a mouth full of needle-like teeth. 

“Vadim did not say they would be this troublesome,” she growled, voice still smoky. 

“Vadim did not say much at all,” replied the other, and moved to pursue. His partner snarled and followed. 

The backstreet the Quicks fled onto was quiet and empty, populated only by street lamps and rubbish cans; however, only Deacon was visible, leaning against a shopfront and wheezing as if to catch his breath. The two assailants exchanged a look and approached cautiously, sweeping their gaze two and fro to puzzle out where Kieran was hiding. 

“Your cousin, she has abandoned you,” hissed the bare-faced creature, words dripping with malice. She stalked towards him and he turned to look at her, giving a winning smile even as he fought not to slide down the smooth glass of the store window. Behind him, the words What a Catch! sang out in joyful bubble letters on the window, and he puffed out a chuckle as he posed beneath it like it referred to him. He turned to the assailants with an air of forced nonchalance. 

“Oh, no no no, she just, ah, forgot something at home!” Deacon puffed and waved an airy hand. “You know, it’s just like her, going out without… holy water?” He looked between the two assailants, trying to read them. The woman chuckled and the masked man made no sound as they continued their approach, splitting up to block his avenues of escape. 

“You talk too much,” said the masked man. His partner snickered.

“Love the sound of your own voice, do you? I’m sure we could make you sing easy enough.” 

“You know, I would love that, honestly.” Deacon grinned. “Don’t get a chance to flex the ol’ pipes when the boss wants the pretty girls to sing, so any chance, I just have to take it. Here’s a classic little ditty…” 

Deacon barked out a lilting phrase and threw up his hands; a bright flash erupted around him and the attackers cried out, cringing away from the light. 

“Now!” he shouted, and Kieran surged out of a nearby rubbish bin behind the leg-breakers, perching atop its rim for a moment before leaping forward to drive the soles of her shoes hard right between each of their shoulder blades. Deacon dropped to the floor and wrapped his hands over his head as Kieran’s momentum drove their attackers straight into the storefront window, shattering it and carrying all three inside. Kieran did her best to break her fall, tumbling to roll through the spray of shattered glass and stumbling back to her feet to scramble deeper into the shop. 

Outside, Deacon straightened back up and threw his fists into the air. 

“Whoo! Good plan!” he whooped. The red-eyed woman staggered to her feet, a long and jagged shard of glass impaled in her gut. She wrapped her fingers around it and yanked, tearing the offending object out of herself. There was no blood, only a spray of dust and strange grey ichor that coated the makeshift blade as she turned slowly to face him. 

“Shit,” said Deacon, and broke out into a sprint once more. The woman turned to look at her companion, who waved a hand dismissively. 

“Get him,” he said. “I’ll take care of this one.” 

Baring the needles of her teeth, she leapt out the window in pursuit. The masked man turned back to enter the store, swinging his head left to right like a bloodhound. 

Kieran crouched as small as she could make herself, pressed flush against an open-top display refrigerator as she listened to her assailant approach. Her eyes flicked over to the cool, textured finish she was pressed against. On it was a plastic sleeve affixed with gum adhesive, holding a printed cardstock that read MUD LEECHES – 20c/lb. A foot or so past that was a similar sign declaring that one could buy a hundred nightcrawlers for a comparatively paltry five coronets. Kieran had found herself in a bait shop. 

Which meant…

Chancing a glance over the fridge, she spotted her goal; near the back, a revolving stand displayed a dozen brightly-painted fishing poles, which themselves could be purchased for a cool hundred-fifty coronets apiece. 

The masked man prowled into the shop, peering beneath shelving units and around corners. He came up to a large stand of windbreakers and began rifling through them in case Kieran was sequestered within, and the momentary noise of nylon rasping against itself was like a starting gun as she sprung into action. 

Quietly sliding open the cold glass door of the live bait fridge, Kieran reached in and grabbed a large handful of worms from the pan of dirt they wriggled in. Turning, she whipped the handful towards the door, and the wriggling creatures scattered across the floor with an audible splat.

The legbreaker turned to look at the sound and Kieran broke out into a run, charging as quickly as she could to the rod stand. Her blood roared in her ears as her adrenaline spiked, and she heard her assailant’s heavy, quick footfalls getting closer as she wrenched one of the poles from the stand and snapped it over her knee. She felt a cold hand on her shoulder and she whirled, driving the sharp end of the broken fishing pole into his chest with all of her strength. 

The masked man stepped back in shock, looking down at the make-shift stake impaling him. Kieran smirked. 

“Got you,” she said. The man tilted his head. Kieran’s smirk faded as he gripped the rod and wrenched it out of his torso, peering at it in the darkness. He chuckled. 

“One hundred percent fiberglass,” he said, tossing it over his shoulders.  

“Oh, piss,” said Kieran. 

The assailant charged forward, grabbing Kieran by the lapels of her vest and snapping his head forward into hers. She felt a crack, and then warmth flooded down her lips as her nose went off like a faucet. 

“I am man of great patience,” said the masked man, wheeling back and clocking Kieran across the jaw. She fell to the ground, struggling to scramble to her feet as he reached down to wrench her back upright by the collar. “Still, you choose to test me. Could have been nice, civil beating, everybody go home happy. Now?” 

He drove his knee into Kieran’s gut, driving all the breath she had from her body. 

“Now I get mean.” 

Kieran tried to quip, but couldn’t quite find the oxygen. Her attacker slammed her against the cashier’s stand, rocking it hard enough that the register dinged and slid open. Kieran let out a hoarse, wheezing chuckle at the sound. The legbreaker snarled. 

“Still you find this funny? You are very stupid girl.” 

Kieran nodded, and even through the thick wool of his mask the assailant’s rage was evident. He grabbed her once more by the lapels and lifted Kieran bodily off the ground, shaking her like a ragdoll. 

“Look! Look what I can do to you! You are pathetic! A pulsing mass of blood and meat who might just fall over and die because you did not eat or drink or breathe!” He spat the words like he was describing abhorrent degeneracy, and Kieran managed to suck down enough air for a single full-throated laugh. 

“Piss off, deadboy,” she croaked. “Kill me or don’t.” 

Her assailant roared, mouth opening wide enough that his teeth began shredding the fabric of his mask, as he stepped forward and hurled Kieran across the store. 

The bait shop had a front door with a beautiful grid of small, diamond-shaped windows, which provided perfect portals through which to peer and wonder at the incredible melange of products within. It also meant that rather than a single contiguous barrier to stop Kieran Quick’s hurtling body, it had a dozen breakage points that allowed her to crash through the wooden lattice and come to a groaning, rolling stop on the cobbled street outside. 

Kieran sprawled out, everything hurting, and stared up at the sky. She hadn’t even made it three hours before this “job” had turned into a complete, unmitigated chaos nightmare. She was aching, at least a couple ribs were broken, not to mention her nose and whatever was going on with her skull right now. She was bleeding from dozens of small cuts from rolling around in glass and being put through a door. Plus, something was sticking out of her side, something long and sharp. She reached down to pull it out and realized something. 

The door to the bait shop hung askew, supported only by a single hinge as it leered to the side like a boxer in the eighth. The masked man slammed his foot through it as he exited the trashed shop, sending it flying in chunks across the sidewalk as he stalked towards his prey. 

Kieran struggled to her feet, stumbling here and there as she waved a fist, futilely attempting to ward him away as her other arm hung limply by her side. The attacker grinned through his tattered mask, though his eyes stayed covered, and he slowed his pace to a deadly creep. 

“Now, perhaps you understand. I was trying to avoid this.” He grabbed a handful of Kieran’s hair and wrenched her eyes to meet his, glowing dimly through the mask. “I do not like to express my anger in this way.” 

“Could’ve fooled me,” rasped Kieran. Her hanging arm whipped up, revealing the object she’d been concealing behind it; a six-inch chunk of shattered wood, soaked with her own blood. With a grunt of exertion she drove the stake into his chest, piercing the place where his heart would be.

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