“Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?” The rest of the Contractors, most of whom could still pass for human, turned to regard the speaker. “Well?” she asked, unfazed.
“You can't tell me this is your first Game,” said a thin man with dull red hair. “I mean, Harbingers never throw newbs in with a crew this experienced. I don't even think They can.”
The young woman glowered. “Harbingers, plural? I’ve only worked with one before this job. Who are you guys? Why am I not with my normal team? What the hell is going on?”
“Uh...” The timid sound was accompanied by a pudgy hand raised childlike into the air. “I'm new here, too.”
A thirty-something woman in a stylish suit rolled her eyes in exasperation. “MacIntyre, you're good with new meat. Sort out the girl and her toady little friend.
“Everybody else, we're on Game. You heard the Silent Man. We need to find that statue. That means we track every bizarre or significant murder committed in this city in the last two months. I'll take standard leads. Prat, you chat up ghosts. Isabelle...” She ground to a halt while regarding the child-sized Victorian doll. “You... do whatever the hell it is you do.”
The doll nodded.
“So, you're new to the group, but not the Games, right?” the red haired man asked the young woman. She shrugged. Undeterred, he made his way over, dragging the other recruit in his wake. “I'm MacIntyre.”
“Keller,” interjected the pudgy man.
MacIntyre raised an amused eyebrow, then turned back to the young woman. She looked at him a moment, then sighed. “Winters. I'm Tanya Winters.”
“See? Didn't hurt at all did it? Alright Winters, Keller, what's your kit?”
“Yes, kit. Your pay. Tricks. Theme. What is it you do that no one else can?”
“I'm a shaker,” Keller blurted, then wilted under MacIntyre and Winters confused stares. “I... I mean I make things shake or vibrate. It's really handy... Promise.” His words trailed off into an embarrassed whisper.
“Photographer,” Winters said, raising a camera as proof. “It's pretty tricked out. I can use the flash to stun people, snap shots that include their auras, that kind of thing. You?”
MacIntyre beamed, and raised his hands, as if holding an invisible basketball. They glowed emerald, then a column of rich green fluid spiraled from each palm, coiling through the air until they met in the middle. The tendrils flowed into a luminous ever-moving knot. “Acid generation and control,” he said proudly.
The glowing liquid unwove and seeped back into his hands. “The, uh, assertive lady in the suit is Jane. She's a detective and her kit reflects it. The Middle Eastern guy talking to the wall is Prat. He does ghost stuff. Skinny guy is Benten. He does potions and is about the best support you can get. Does some minor healing, too.”
Winters whispered each name to herself as MacIntyre pointed them out. “And the big armored guy that looks like he murdered his way out of a video game?”
“Calls himself Death Machine. If you can't figure out what he's good at you might want to consider retirement. He and the creepy little doll are the most experienced Contractors here. They're pretty tight, so try not to piss either of them off. Really, be a team player and everything should turn out well enough.”
MacIntyre paused a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. Hopefully doesn’t mean a big job.”
“Deal with it,” Jane told the cop.
He clenched his jaw, clearly irked. “Fine, but the civies have to sign in and you get the blowback if they fuck up my crime scene.”
“My crime scene, now,” Jane said and slid under the yellow police tape. MacIntyre plucked the clipboard from the officer’s hand, signed it in huge cartoonish letters then chucked it to Winters. She signed quickly and left the clipboard, and the irate officer, with Keller.
“Garrote, right?” MacIntyre asked.
Jane was crouched over the corpse, gloved hands pulling back the ragged neck wound. “Light.” Winters tapped a button on her flash, suddenly and harshly illuminating the alley.
“Jesus,” muttered MacIntyre, blinking rapidly. “Anyway, it's a garrote, right? Like piano wire or something.”
Jane squinted at the exposed vertebrae for a moment more. “Spiral wound,” she said, standing up and removing her disposable gloves. “Whip-sword. We've got ourselves a weapons enthusiast.”
Winters blinked. So did MacIntyre, before punctuating his confusion with, “Are you fucking shitting me?”
“Yes MacIntyre,” Jane replied, voice dry as desert sand, “I come to all of my conclusions based exclusively on whether or not they fit your expectations.”
“No need to get all snotty. I was just surprised a bit. I mean, what kind of lunatic uses a whip-sword? Why can’t these weirdos use guns like normal folk?”
Jane ignored him, focusing on the pavement. Her fingers dipped into a puddle then rubbed the wetness between them.
“Anything?” Winters asked.
She was answered with a snort and a hand wave. Jane made her way farther into the alley, Winters at her heels. MacIntyre drifted in their wake, suspiciously eyeing every brick and discarded bottle for possible ambush.
Jane climbed onto a dumpster and rattled a narrow window. “Our murderer went in here. Can you get it open, Mac?”
“Oh, now I'm 'Mac' am I? You know, if flowers don't catch sun every day, they wilt.”
“Less snark, more window opening, please,” Jane replied testily.
MacIntyre smiled and traded places with her. He ran his hands along the ancient windowsill. Years of rot and layers of paint caked the glass but no dust sat on the sill. Unfortunately, the latch was securely locked.
“Just a moment, lassies,” he said, while digging in his pockets.
“What the hell do you think you're doing?” boomed the voice of the uniformed officer. “Are you seriously breaking into a building?”
Jane's eyes narrowed. “Officer, there’s a clear trail of lamp oil from the body to this dumpster. The window paint has been cut cleanly to allow opening and the hinges have new grease. Do I also need to point out the fresh scratches?”
The cop sneered. “Lady, I don't care what that badge says. That ain't probable cause. That's bullshit.”
“Listen to me, y-”
“Whoa!” MacIntyre's voice interceded. “Ease up there kiddies. No reason to fight is there? Look, the fuckin' window was left open. No PC needed, yeah?”
Jane smiled a small, mean smile. The officer's brow dropped further. Only Winters was at an angle to observe MacIntyre smoothly pocketing the shim he'd used to break the latch.
“I'm not sure I can fit through there,” Keller said to no one in particular.
“This is bad!”
Brick exploded into flying razors. Winters caught the shrapnel on her arm, tearing through flesh and cotton.
“I thought they didn’t use guns!” MacIntyre shouted.
“We’re pinned,” screamed Prat, trying like hell to be heard over the gunfire. “These tunnels are their home turf. We run, we die!”
“We stay, we die,” MacIntyre yelled back. “We need to flank the bloody lunatics!”
A spray of automatic fire shredded the brick above their heads. Sharp flakes and thick dust rained down on the Contractors. “Asall!” called an ecstatic voice. “Blood for Asall! All for Asall!”
The rapid fire started up again, joined by at least three more guns.
“I guess the sermon's over,” MacIntyre shouted.
“I hate cultists!” screamed Prat.
Light blazed in the sewer chamber. Instantly, the gunfire ceased. Winters slid back behind cover, fumbling to change the spent bulb on her camera. “You have five seconds. Shut up and do something!”
MacIntyre grinned ferally. “I'm left. You're right. Go!”
Prat looked to Winters and Keller. “You two fuck-ups keep me safe. I mean it.”
He collapsed, fainting onto Keller's huddled form. A gray-green shimmer remained where he had stood a bare second before. The dull motes snapped into a perfect image of Prat, detailed down to the stitches in his blazer.
Do not screw this up!
The un-noise of Prat's ghostly voice hit Keller and Winters like a wave of sea sickness. Winters had to grit her teeth to shake the feeling. Keller simply vomited.
Prat's spirit streaked away, leaving the pair with his limp body. Keller moaned, “This is very, very bad.”
Green light blossomed in the chamber, screams followed. If anything, the gunfire intensified, grew panicked. Winters risked a peek.
She spotted a clutch of cultists firing submachine-guns with reckless abandon. Bullets skipped off the sewer walls, bouncing and ricocheting at every angle. A greyish figure slammed through one, dropping the madman to the ground. Prat's spectral form paid little heed, simply moved to the next target, immune to their weapons and contemptuous of their cries.
But it was the source of the light that was the real spectacle. A second group of cultists concentrated fire on a massive, gelatinous humanoid. It sloshed toward them with deadly purpose. Bullets hissed as they impacted against it, rippling the surface but not slowing it a second. It backhanded a cultist, erasing the man's chest from existence, then flicked an appendage, launching a blob that evaporated another cultist’s head.
Winters squinted. Deep inside the glowing blob-man was a lightless core; a dark shape floating loosely within the acid golem. “MacIntyre,” she whispered.
“Move!” Hands seized Winters roughly and threw her over the low wall. The force of an explosion hit her like God's own bitchslap. New light blossomed, orange and yellow and seething hot. Liquid fire sloshed everywhere.
“Asall!” screamed a new voice. “Asall!” echoed a dozen more.
“Oh, this is so bad.”
“Drink this,” Benten told her. Winters complied, pulling the flask to her lips. His coat was lined with pocket after pocket, each stuffed with flasks and vials. She tipped it back with her uninjured arm. The liquid was like nothing she'd ever tasted. Something she could only describe as manure sprinkled with fairy dust.
“Drink-drink-drink,” Benten murmured. He massaged her throat gently with the knuckles of two fingers. “Drink-drink-drink. You'll be just fine.”
Winters gagged and swallowed. As soon as it hit her stomach, strength flowed back to her arm. It tingled, then ached. She pulled the blood-soaked sleeve away to see her skin surge together, grappling to form an ugly scar. Little chunks of brick and metal popped out of the puckered skin and clattered on the floor.
“Drink-drink-drink.” Soothing and fatherly, Benten moved down the line of injured Contractors. “Drink-drink-drink.”
“Better?” MacIntyre asked. Winters nodded. They very carefully looked only at each other.
IS SHE BETTER! screamed an un-voice. Her guts twisted at Prat’s wrath. Only Benten's potion kept her from heaving. IS SHE BETTER! THAT BITCH KILLED ME!
Winters turned to the shimmering spirit of the fallen Contractor. “Prat, I'm so sorry. There just wasn't time to move your body.”
Oh, well. I suppose all is forgiven then. After all, all I did was save your miserable lives. I suppose it was too much to expect you to babysit MY FUCKING BODY!
Winters felt her sanity peeling away, like papers in a fire. Memories and habits fragmented and burned, were lost forever.
“Stop.” It was a quiet command, barely more than a whisper. The stagnant air shivered and Prat's shade dissipated into fog, then vanished entirely. Keller smiled. “Vibration. Very helpful.”
“We lose one or two every Game,” said Death Machine, as if discussing the possibility of a rainy morning. “The trick is not to die.”
“Why, thank you for that nugget of wisdom, Captain Murder-Pants,” MacIntyre snapped.
Death Machine nodded his armored head, impervious to sarcasm. “We should get moving.” He reached out for Isabelle. The porcelain doll wrapped its tiny hand around one of his fingers and the couple turned back to the cavernous hole they'd burst through moments before.
“Well, ain't they just a sweet fucking pair,” muttered MacIntyre. Quietly though, Winters noticed. She made her way through the piles of corpses strewn throughout the chamber. Stepping over the butchered remains of two dozen men, she couldn't blame MacIntyre one whit for his whispered rebuke.
“Where the hell is everyone?”
Keller snapped his head up. “What?”
Winters gave him a contemptuous glance. “MacIntyre. He was just here. Where the hell is he?”
Keller looked around startled. “Where? Where is anyone?”
Winters’ glance turned to steady scrutiny. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Keller said, wiping sweat from his brow. “It's the heat. And this damnable maze. How long have we been in this thing?”
“Not sure,” Winters replied. “My phone stopped working a while ago.”
The whispers were rising again. He could feel them, just out of sight moving in the walls. “Phone. Right. So... The others?”
Winters's eyes didn't waver. “Death Machine and Isabelle took Benten down the right entrance. We took the left. Pros and meat, remember?”
Were the voices saying something? They were, weren't they. Keller blinked furiously. “Different paths. Right. Gotcha. Back up to speed.”
“You sure you're-”
Winters spun around, camera raised like a club. Keller just about had a heart attack, but it was only MacIntyre. Still, he did a quick mental check to make sure he hadn't pissed himself.
“Dammit, MacIntyre,” Winters said. “I nearly brained you.”
“Like that'd have any effect on me, you sultry minx,” he said with a wink. “C'mon, I found a way to the center.”
“Finally.” The pair set off at a brisk pace. Keller went to follow, but he could hear them, the whispers. They said his group was going the wrong way. They said they knew the way out, if only he’d listen closer.
Keller pressed against the hot stone wall. The whispers became chuckling, became laughter. Keller tried to jerk away, but the stone had turned soft, stuck to his hands and cheek. It pulled him in.
He whined. Terrified, he summoned his power, hammered at the wall with vibrations, pulled forth enough force to rip through steel beams. The now-soft stone wobbled and liquified. It flowed into his mouth, his ears, his everywhere. It embraced him, filled him, crushed him.
“Keller?” Winters's call was met only by the silence of an empty hallway.
“She was supposed to know the trick.” Death Machine crouched in a fetal position. His huge, metal-encased hands gently caressed the tiny porcelain mask. “It's so simple. It's the only trick. She was supposed to know it.”
“Sweet Jesus,” MacIntyre wheezed, clutching his charred side. “I'm sorry big fella'. I really am, but we need to get the fuck out of the damned maze and drop this statue in the ocean where it belongs.”
He kicked the corpse of the high-priest out of his way and limped down the corridor. Winters frowned. “I thought we were supposed to smash it?”
MacIntyre turned round. “Are you fuckin' daft? The Silent Man told us to drown the gods-damned thing and that's what we're going to do.”
Death Machine raised his head. “He told me to deliver it to a collector.”
“What?” Winters asked. “I heard 'Locate the statue and smash it.' Benten?” The thin man just shrugged.
“Oh,” MacIntyre whispered. “Oh, that bugger-fuck.”
“No.” Death Machine stood, sliding Isabelle's face into a compartment. “No, not this time.”
MacIntyre shook his head. “Yes, this gods-damned time.”
Winters raised her hand like a child in school. “Guys? What are we angry about?”
“Highlander Game,” said Benten.
“Only one winner,” Death Machine chimed in.
“And the rest get bugger-all,” finished MacIntyre. “After everyone we lost, a fucking Highlander Game. Christ. Alright. I suppose the civil thing to do is decide who's turn it is—”
Death Machine exploded. Blood, scrap, oil, and bone showered the other Contractors.
Benten flicked his hand to MacIntyre, viper-quick. MacIntyre hurled jets of acid, dissolving the vial, mid-flight. There was a flash. The emerald liquid turned milky white, crystalizing every inch of him --save skin, clothes, and hair-- leaving a grisly statue.
Benten hurled another vial but Winters was faster, dodging behind a pillar. The explosion meant for her shook the earth instead, shaking fresh dust from the ceiling. She reached her camera around the pillar and fired off the flash without exposing her head.
“Oh, I'm afraid your little tricks won't work on me, girl.” She could hear the smirk in Benten's voice. “Neither will hiding. That healing potion you drank was poisoned. You’re already dead, so why not come out and make this quick?”
“You prick!” Winters screamed. Her camera spat out a photo, white framed and blurry like the old Polaroids. She shook it vigorously, knowing it wouldn't speed development. “You murdering prick! You could have had the win. You didn't have to kill them!”
“Oh, I'm afraid you misunderstand,” Benten said. Was he moving left? Flanking her? Winters eased right, keeping her back pressed to the pillar.
“You see,” he continued, “I wasn't on tonight's Game. I haven't been on any with this crew. Not in an official capacity anyway.”
There was something... Winters flung herself away from the column just as the freezing cold slammed into it. The fall shattered her camera and sent the photo skimming across the floor. Ice bit into her right foot.
She screamed an animal scream. Screamed but didn't slow. She scrambled across the ground with all the speed she could muster, desperately seeking cover.
Glass shattered nearby and a thick gel spattered her legs. Winters strained against it but could make no progress. She was stuck fast.
“See,” continued Benten calmly, “I've been at this awhile. And one of the reasons I've lasted this long is by sniffing out the up-and-comers and thinning the competition before they become a threat. Got me?”
Winters strained, felt her muscles tearing with effort. And she gained an inch. Then, she gained one more.
“Death Machine had his trick, 'Don't die.'” His voice was right behind her. God, he was right behind her. “Mine is almost as simple; ‘Don't let them know how dangerous you really are.’”
Winters clawed at the stone. Her hand stretched as if to escape her arm. “I've got a trick, too,” she whispered.
“Pardon?” Benton asked.
She seized the photo and tore it in half. Benten was torn with it.