There were twelve of them. Two six person teams. Each of them a fully-trained Heretic, of the Crossroads variety. The youngest of their number had graduated from that school thirty years earlier, the eldest, a hundred and fifty years earlier. Between them, they possessed over eight hundred years worth of experience in hunting and killing the creatures they called Strangers.
And they were using that experience to terrify children. Which likely seemed fair to them, since they had already used it to kill those children’s parents or caretakers only minutes earlier.
The place was an apartment building in Brooklyn. It was a haven for Alters of many kinds. Not as large or well-known as Wonderland or certain others, but respectable enough. Before the last few minutes of horror, it had held about thirty families. Some were as small as a single adult with no one else to care for, while others were as large as both parents (or three parents in the case of one tri-gendered species) with entire litters of children. They were a small, yet devoted community. They never bothered others, kept to their own group, educated their young amongst themselves, and generally avoided much contact with the outside world. It was the safest way.
Or it had been, before one of their number had been spotted picking up groceries by a Heretic. The Heretic had avoided direct confrontation, following his quarry until he found the apartments and realized how many other Alters were living there. After he had reported back, this combined, two team taskforce had been assigned to ensure none of the ‘infestation’ escaped.
It was amazing, how easy it became to kill people when you thought of them in terms of pests.
They had moved quickly and efficiently. Some of the Alters had managed to put up a pretty decent fight. The apartment building itself was heavily damaged. But in the end, with the doors barred by a couple of the Heretics, and other methods of transportation out of the apartment building blocked due to a combination of powers and magic, it was a foregone conclusion. The Alters were wiped out. All, that was, except for the children. Forty-one of them, from a variety of parents. All had been ushered into the building’s basement where their classes were usually held when the fighting began. They huddled in the corner, listening with growing terror to what was occurring directly above their heads. The screams of their parents, the helplessness they felt as their loved ones, their families, were cut down by those who saw them as monsters, was impossible for some of them to even comprehend. Their lives were destroyed in those moments.
And those same lives would be erased soon, if the Heretics had anything to say about it. Because seeing entire species as evil, soulless abominations didn’t allow one to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants, or between children and adults. Seeing another living being as inherently evil from birth didn’t allow for the concept of negotiation or mercy. Generations worth of military leaders had attempted the same sort of disconnect between the people of their own nation and those of others, and that was simply among other humans.
As the door into the basement was blasted open, three of the Heretics, half of one team, descended quickly. They soon found themselves facing the collection of Alter youth, senses clearly alerting them to the true nature of even the most human-looking among them.
“You were right,” a Heretic announced as he drew his weapon, a spear with fire dancing around it. “It’s a nest. Another year or two and they would’ve spread out into the neighborhood.”
It was as far as he got before the eldest of the Alter children, a boy who looked to be about the equivalent of a human fourteen-year-old with dark red skin and scales, charged the Heretics with a scream of mixed rage, terror, and grief. He snatched up one of the nearby metal chairs, flinging it at the Heretic’s head in a desperate bid to at least gain their attention, their notice before they dispassionately snuffed out the life of him and his friends. .
The chair halted in mid-air, before melting into a pool of liquid metal that split apart into four separate floating bubbles which flew straight to each of the boy’s four limbs. The liquid metal bubbles formed themselves into shackles that wrapped around his wrists and ankles, yanking him to the floor where he fell. His bellow of rage and grief morphed to a cry of pain as he landed hard on his back, held there by the metal shackles that somehow fused solid with the cement floor at a casual gesture from the man he had been recklessly charging toward.
The remaining children tried to scatter or run to the aid of the first, but at a gesture from one man, all were caught by an inescapable, directed force of gravity that yanked them inexorably to the ground. They struggled futilely against the pull, unable to break free of the directed gravity.
“Deal with the rest,” the man with the spear ordered his two companions while flipping his weapon around. The fire built up around it before he drove the spear down at the boy’s throat.
An inch from its target, the spear halted in mid-air. Twin wispy tendrils of black smoke had snaked in to wrap around the shaft, holding still against the Heretic’s considerable strength.
“One of the brood!” the Heretic blurted, jerking at his staff with enough force to tear a car door free. It was a futile effort, as the tendrils easily held it still. “We’ve got an umbrakinetic.” Which was odd, considering none of the Strangers they’d observed should have had any such power.
The other two Heretics picked up the pace, striding toward the children with their own weapons drawn. Before they had even crossed half the distance, however, the first man’s spear was torn out of his grasp by the wispy-looking tendrils. The weapon was flung across the room, passing the two rushing Heretics before a hand reached up to catch it by the shaft, easily snatching the spear out of midair. The hand, and the person it was attached to, stood between the Heretics and their prey, in a spot where they were all quite certain no one had stood an instant earlier.
Her form was shrouded, both in the dark hooded cloak that she wore as well as shadows themselves that seemed to instinctively draw closer to the figure. Twin glowing azure eyes remained her only visible distinctive feature as her black-gloved hand held the stolen spear.
The three men froze briefly, staring at the figure who failed to set off the sense that would tell them she was one of the vile Strangers. And yet, neither did she seem to be one of them.
“Your… intrusion is unnecessary, Gardener,” the man whose spear had been taken from him snapped after giving a quick check to ensure that the Stranger at his feet was still held. “We’re handling this infestation. Unless you want to cause an incident between our people, I suggest–”
“You are a fool.” The voice came sharply from the figure as she turned her head to him, shadows continuing to play over the front of her hooded face to hide it. “And I am no Heretic, Garden or otherwise. In all of my very long life, I have not suffered as many traumatic concussions as it would take to leave my mind damaged enough to believe the nonsense you cling to. The nonsense you use in order to hide from the truth, that you are the true monsters.”
Even as she finished speaking, the woman’s hood seemed to fall back of its own volition, the shadows removing themselves to reveal a face that was far paler than should have been natural, almost bone-white. Her hair as blue as her eyes, fell free and loose once out of the confines of the hood. A sense of power, almost like the gathering energy of an impending lightning strike, swirled around the strange woman as her gaze remained locked on the trio of Heretics.
One of the men, his rifle raised and pointing, gave a confused, uncertain, “Stranger?”
The man whose spear she held shook his head. “Impossible. Nothing non-human could hold a Heretic weapon for that long. The pain would leave them broken and screaming on the floor. She’s one of the Natural Heretics. Maybe one of Prosser’s brood.” To the figure, he snapped, “We aren’t here to play games with your kind. You don’t want to be part of our society, fine. Leave. Let us finish cleaning this place out before they find a way to escape.”
The pale, blue-haired woman straightened a little, her chin slowly rising. “Perhaps I have not made myself clear.” She brought the spear around to grasp with both hands while raising her foot. “The only chance you have of harming these children–” Her foot pressed against the spear for a moment before the weapon literally snapped in half and the pieces were tossed aside. “–is if any happen to be allergic to your blood or the dust of your bones as it fills this room.”
The Heretics’ surprise that the intruder would dare to interrupt and speak to them that way had found its match in their shock at her ability to simply snap one of their weapons as if it was nothing more than a particularly thick stick. For a moment, they simply stood there, as though frozen. Then the three moved, their actions coordinated and honed through decades of practice. Communicating with one another through their shared telepathic link, the three abandoned their attack on the helpless children to focus entirely on the intruder who had interrupted them while also alerting the other nine Heretics that they had arrived at the building with, those still spread throughout. Within seconds, all twelve were aware of the blue-haired woman’s presence.
Good. She wanted them to know. She wanted all of them to be aware of her. For once, it would be their turn to be afraid, to feel the terror of being hunted down and systematically eliminated.
She owed these children that much, for failing to arrive in time to spare their parents the fate that these Heretics had visited upon them. She owed them the certainty that the people who had murdered their families would never harm anyone else. Justice, she owed them justice.
The Heretic with the rifle took a shot at her. His weapon was essentially a fully-automatic machine gun with next-to-no kickback. There were two triggers for the weapon. One fired a single tracer with each shot. The tracer was a small, disc-like object about the size of a pinhead that automatically attached itself to whatever it struck. The tracers served two purposes. First, they sent a detailed scan of any target, biological or otherwise, that they were near back to the gun itself. A readout on the gun would provide a list of everything the scan determined.
The tracers’ other use had to do with the second trigger. When that trigger was pulled, the gun would begin to spray approximately eight hundred bullets per minute, with the Heretic love of magically putting large spaces into small objects allowing the gun to carry enough ammunition to fire for a full ten minutes straight without the need to restock or reload. And those bullets would follow the easiest unobstructed path toward the tracer itself, no matter what kind of cover the person it was attached to tried to hide themselves behind. They would simply go around anything in their way, to the best of their ability, bending around corners, dropping to avoid shields, and so on. It was all-but impossible to hide from the bullets once they had a lock on a tracer that had attached itself to you.
The intruder, however, had no desire to hide. As the tracer shot its way to her, she allowed it to strike home without moving a muscle. However, the instant that the regular bullets began to tear their way out of the gun’s barrel at the staggering rate of around thirteen per second, a simple thought instantly transported the tracer from herself to the pocket of the second Heretic. The man had already drawn his mace and was readying himself to back up his partner after the initial volley. He never saw the shots coming. And as good as the rifle-toting Heretic’s reflexes were, he still held the trigger down for a solid three seconds before realizing something was wrong. Three seconds of thirteen bullets meant that his partner was struck by nearly forty bullets almost directly in the back, when he’d had no idea there was even a threat there.
Tough as the man was, and he had been a Heretic for long enough to be very tough indeed, he couldn’t simply ignore something like that. The bullets punched through his back and out his front, leaving gaping holes in his dark suit while blood and more leaked through. His expression of shocked pain as he collapsed to the floor brought a slight smirk to the pale woman’s face.
The man with the rifle was screaming at the sight. He vanished from where he had been, appearing in a kneeling position at his partner’s side while hurriedly working to stabilize him.
Meanwhile, the one whose spear she had taken threw himself fully into the offensive. Snatching a knife from his belt, he came at her with the blinding speed of a vampire. In the span of less than a second, he had crossed the room and performed six separate slashes with his blade.
Each and every one missed, whiffing through air while she barely seemed to move. Through little to no exertion on her part, the woman avoided each strike simply by twitching the appropriate part of herself the precise millimeters required to avoid being cut. No more, no less.
He threw more of himself into the attack, producing a second blade before going at her in a violent, half-crazed flurry of slashes and jabs that passed too quickly for the human eye to follow. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen separate attacks. And each was avoided with as little effort as possible. She turned and twisted, anticipating not just the next attack, but the next five, positioning herself perfectly with each motion. The man was bellowing and lashing out wildly. The woman… barely seemed to be paying attention.
Eventually, the Heretic conjured a forcefield around her, instantly filling it with a miniature tornado with winds of nearly three hundred miles per hour. The intention was to literally paste the walls of the forcefield with her blood as she was violently blown around within it, rebounding off the walls several times per second from winds powerful enough to pick up a car and hurl it.
She simply teleported outside of the forcefield, appearing directly behind the man. Extending both hands, she summoned the pieces of his broken spear to her before taking a knee in order to drive the broken ends of each spear piece behind herself and through the back of both of the man’s knees.
Releasing the spear pieces as the man screamed and collapsed, she rose in time to see the man with the rifle coming at her. He had turned his entire body into a substance that was harder than steel. Between that, his strength, and the fact that he was moving at near mach speed, the punch that he was bringing to bear as his arm came swinging around was powerful enough to blow through the side of an armored warship as if it was made of particularly thin paper.
His armored fist came to an abrupt halt roughly a foot from the woman’s face. Two of her fingers, index and middle, were pressed against his hand. She had caught his most powerful blow on two fingers. And now she stood there, smiling faintly at his disbelieving stare for a half-second before releasing the kinetic charge she had just absorbed into a blast that sent him flying end over end backwards to slam into the far wall like an insect smacking off the windshield of a car.
By that point, the man whose spear had been broken in half and driven through his knees had yanked the pieces out and was back on his feet. His healing was good enough to bring him up and around, arm morphing into fire that would have been hot enough to melt steel as he drove it at the woman’s back.
A thought allowed her to switch places with the man whose body had been torn apart by bullets. Between his own healing and the help from his companion, he would have survived. Would have. Except that as the woman switched places with him, the fire-engulfed fist of his other companion punched straight through his back and out the front. The empowered, supernaturally heated flames had turned most of the man’s body to ash by the time the first Heretic realized what he had done, a scream of horror passing his lips even as his aura flared up to announce the other man’s death.
She used the rush of unwanted pleasure that the man felt then as his body absorbed the powers from his companion in order to rise to her feet once more from the position she had ended in when she had switched places with the other Heretic. A flick of her hand summoned the two bloody halves of the man’s broken spear before a thought separated them further into a dozen smaller pieces that hovered there in the air between them for a second before the woman simply turned away from him. A dispassionate wave of her hand as she began to walk away sent the shards flying that way. Even as he came out of the pleasure brought on by the death of his friend, the man was pierced up and down his body by a dozen small shards of his own spear. Each only penetrated less than an inch into his body, nothing he couldn’t survive.
And then each of the empowered shards exploded, the collective energy blowing the man apart into chunks that painted the walls with his blood and the dust of his bones. Just as she had promised before the fight (such as it was) began.
Ignoring the rush of being filled with the man’s power and memories, as the golden glow of her own aura rose up, she focused on the surviving Heretic of the trio, the one with the gun who had been hurled back against the far wall. He had just managed to drag himself back to his feet. “H-how, how?” he demanded, his face a mixture of pain and confusion. “Gun… gun won’t… won’t shoot at another Heretic even with tracer. Safeguards.”
Lifting her chin, the pale woman smiled faintly. “Oh, the safeguards that prevent your rifle from shooting at one of your companions, no matter where the tracer ends up? I disabled them before you even saw me. A simple spell… there.” She nodded toward the butt of the rifle.
Despite himself, he looked. Right there, at the very back end of the gun, a small rune had been drawn. Somehow, the woman had walked right up to him and put the spell on his rifle that had allowed her to disable the safety measures that should have protected his companion.
Wait, that wasn’t the only spell that had been drawn on the butt of the–
“Jiwe,” the woman announced flatly, speaking the word that would empower the second spell she had drawn on the rifle. There was a brief flash of light, and when it faded, the man holding the weapon had been turned to stone. His petrified form stood there, encased in rock.
By that time, the remaining Heretics, all of whom had been cut out of their companions’ mental link since the moment the now-dead men had graciously informed them of her presence, had arrived. They came from the stairs, turned to smoke and poured down through the vents, or simply teleported into the room. Before long, all nine stood in a loose circle around the woman, the expressions on their faces showing the horror they felt at what they saw.
“Beast!” one of the men bellowed, ripping his sword free of its place. “You’ll pay with yo–”
The woman was standing on the opposite side of the man from where she had been. The man’s own sword was in her hand, dripping blood. The same blood leaked from the man’s neck for a second before his head slid away and dropped to the floor, the rest of his body shortly following.
As her golden aura rose up briefly, there was a collective shout from the rest of the gathered force, all eight of them. One blurted, “Heretic!”
“Oh,” she replied in a low, dangerous voice. “I am as far from a Heretic as you are from humanity. I am Bastet. Come. Show me your vengeance and I will show you mine. We will compare their worth and see who is found wanting.”
Each of the remaining Heretics glanced to one another, readied their weapons and their power… and came at her.
The point had been made, and even together, the Heretics were no threat to her. And yet, Bastet allowed them to last almost twice as long as the three who had come before them. Allowed it so that the children they had so terrorized would at least see the deaths of their families murderers. She let it be dragged out longer than it had to be solely to provide those children with some measure of satisfaction.
But in the end, the outcome was inevitable. Each of the Heretics lay dead on the floor, or broken into too many pieces to rightfully be called a corpse. They were gone, all of them.
Finished, Bastet gave a simple flick of her hand, removing two protective forcefields she had placed over both the larger group of children and the boy who had been separated from the others at the start. Forcefields that had kept them from being harmed in the midst of that battle.
The tears of both gratitude and fear, the pleas for the status of their parents and families, and more had already begun. They were a cacophony that she could do almost nothing for. Nothing that she hadn’t already done. Comforting, encouraging, grieving, the half-Reaper known as Bastet could provide none of it.
But she did know where they could get it. Her hand rose, tossing a small red stone toward the nearest, oldest boy. “Gather the rest around, everyone touching. Hold the rock and say Ile. You’ll be taken somewhere safe. Somewhere away from here. There will be other Heretics coming. Leave.”
With that warning, the woman transported herself away. She didn’t go far, only to the roof of the apartment building. Beside her, the stone statue of the gun-toting Heretic had been brought along. And with a touch, Bastet returned him to normal.
He fell to his knees, collapsing with a cry of both terror and pain. Slowly, he breathed, lifting his head. “Not… not…”
“Dead?” she finished for him. “No. You’re no use to me dead.”
With that, she gestured, and the man was thrown onto his back. A thought made him sink almost fully into the roof as though it was made of water before only his head remained loose.
Before he could recover, she reached down, scrawling a rune on the man’s forehead with a red felt pen. The symbol seemed to catch fire an instant later before burning itself into his skin as the man gave a scream of agony.
For twenty-four hours, he would be incapable of using any of his powers. Her magic had sealed them away from him. It meant that he would remain trapped where she put him long enough for his rescuers to arrive. Long enough for her point to be made.
Her eyes seemed to burn blue fire into the imprisoned man’s own gaze, his body trapped by the bricks of the roof. He was as bereft of thought as he was of words, staring wide-eyed that way.
She left him there without another word, left him to tell the story to the other Heretics when they came to find him. A single living witness, to tell the story, to inform the others that they were not the only hunters out there.
One survivor, to ensure that they knew that this had been done by a single woman. And that she was out there, watching them.
When she returned to the basement, the children were gone. They had used the transportation stone, fleeing to the safety she had promised them.
And yet, the basement wasn’t empty. A single, gray-green figure crouched there, examining some of the blood. Upon Bastet’s arrival, the Fomorian rose to his full height. “Were you… in time?”
“In time to save the children, Grandfather,” Bastet replied. “The rest…” She turned away, gaze dropping. “I felt them die. I can still taste it. But I got here too late.”
Together, the two shared a moment of silence for the dead. Then he stepped closer, his hand finding her shoulder. “You sent the children to him?”
She gave a slight nod. “They’ll be safer there than anywhere else. He’ll know how to care for them, and how to… teach them to cope with their loss. He’s better with… that.”
Grandfather began to respond, before abruptly bending to snatch up a rat that had come from the wall to investigate the scent of death. Holding the squeaking, squirming thing in one hand, the Fomorian examined it with delight. “Ooooh, hello, young man. I believe I knew your ancestor. Does your family hail from Italy, by chance?”
Turning slightly, he smiled absently at his companion. “Dear girl, have I ever told you why the animals of this planet so closely resemble living beings of other worlds? Why the Satyrs resemble goats, why the Rakshasa appear to be anthropomorphic cats, or why the delightful Jekern look quite similar to warthogs?”
“Only seventeen thousand times, Grandfather,” Bastet informed him dryly. But he was already launching into the lecture. A lecture she could recite along with him.
“My people were working on cloning beings of every world. Enormous tanks full of the DNA of every known creature. All the better to study them. Their DNA was broken, of course. They didn’t want to create real, sapient clones. They wanted test subjects, target practice.”
“And when you stole the first humans,” Bastet continued for him, “You took the test-DNA vats as well.”
His head was bobbing quickly, eagerly. “Couldn’t let my humans be lonely. Brought the test vats and fixed them myself, spread them over the world here and there. Let a few out at a time. Let them wander while finishing work on humans. Allowed them to mingle with the creatures that lived here already. Intermarried. Spread the genetics. Now indistinguishable from what was here before and what wasn’t.”
That was why so many Alter species resembled animals that were found on Earth, because the Earth animals themselves were descended from test-tube creatures that had originally been intended to look like those Alters. And the reason that humans gained no benefit from the mixing of their own blood and that of ordinary animals was that aforementioned ‘broken’ DNA. The test-creatures were never meant to be actual clones of the Alters they resembled. They were artificial, and so the human power to latch itself onto the DNA of other species would never manifest.
“Come, come,” Grandfather instructed while striding toward the stairs while tucking the rat into one of his pockets. “We’ll get ice cream and I’ll tell you the truth of where what the humans call were-creatures come from.”
“Oh, goodie,” Bastet muttered, trailing after him. “You’ve only told me that one nine thousand times.”
Of course, the elderly Fomorian wasn’t listening, and had already begun to excitedly repeat the story. And with barely a sigh as she settled her mind in to hear it all once more, Bastet followed. There were, after all, worse ways to spend her time.
And he had promised ice cream.