Jaz clenched Bracken’s arm. “If this doesn’t work, if they get into my office, kill them,” she said out the side of her mouth.
“With what?” Bracken asked, keeping his voice low and his head close to hers.
“I don’t care. Turn your arm into a knife.”
He grimaced. “I’m not gonna stick my arm through some guy’s body. Yuck.”
She tightened her grip. “If they get in there and take my stuff, I’ll never forgive you.”
They followed Sean and the henchmen across the basement toward the junk pile, like two gazelles following a pride of lions to the community watering hole.
“Do you really have Vorple armor down here?” Bracken asked in a near whisper.
“No,” whispered Jaz, then after a moment added, “Probably not.”
“People leave junk here and I throw it in the pile. I don’t keep an inventory. But if someone left something as valuable as Vorple armor I’d—”
“Sell it?” Bracken prompted.
“No, stupid. I’d wear it on tiger day.”
“I bet Blaise would pay a lot for it.”
“If I had it I’d keep it,” Jaz told him.
“But you can’t d—” The word ‘die’ stuck in Bracken’s throat like piece of stale scone. He looked ahead and caught Sean’s backward glance: the man could hear them.
Sean stopped at the base of the junk pile and eyed Bracken and Jaz through the pack of suits between them. Bracken coughed softly and tried to look vague. Jaz folded her arms, radiating irritation.
“It’s in here, somewhere,” Sean said, rummaging under said tarp. “Here!” He produced a thick yellow vest with rows of buckles across the front. “The rest of it is here too. Pants, helmet…”
All four of the henchmen stepped forward and peered at the jacket. Then four pairs of dark, mean eyes squinted at Sean.
“That’s not Vorpol armor,” Mustachio growled.
“It’s not?” Sean turned it and inspected the swinging buckles on the front.
“Vorpol armor—” the henchmen all lifted their guns to waist level “—is green.”
“Ah. My mistake.” Sean tossed the vest aside and stepped back, raising his hands. “Looks like things are about to get hairy.”
All four men pivoted toward Jaz, Moustachio in the lead. “I knew you’d try to pull something.”
Jaz pulled Bracken behind her.
Sean ahemed and raised his voice. “I said things are getting HAIRY!”
A crowd of bright, popping flashes erupted between two shelves on their right. A blast of good-time funk, produced by J.P.’s hi-fi, resonated through the room.
Bracken hit the floor, pushed down by Jaz. The men turned toward the lights and opened fire. The shooting lasted about five seconds, then stopped abruptly as Mose and Margo descended from overhead, each holding a corner of the tarp like a floppy parachute. They came down over the men’s heads, landing heavily. They knelt on the edges of the tarp as the men struggled, their heads misshapen lumps bobbing beneath the tarp. Sean whipped out a black ropelike object and whacked at the lumps through the tarp. J.P. emerged from the shadows between some shelves and waded in with his own black rope, thwacking and smacking.
The lumps dodged and bellowed at first, then clumped together. Four lumps became two. Then the two pushed together and became one very large lump. It rose higher, then a fist punched straight up, tearing through the tarp.
“Fates,” Jaz groaned. “He’s a polymorph!”
Fatson rose, huge and hulking, hands grasping the edges of the tear and ripping the tarp nearly in half. He caught Mose, then Margo as the midgets attempted a flank attack and flung them in opposite directions. Mose disappeared between two shelves, tumbling into shadow. Margo flipped over in the air and landed on Jaz, just as Jaz found her feet.
The music stopped abruptly, the sound of Jaz’s head smacking concrete like a final cymbal crash.
Bracken scrambled toward her, but was knocked away by Fatson’s foot as the now-giant man advanced toward Jaz. Margo rushed at him, diving for his legs to trip him up. He wrapped one massive hand around her neck and pulled her off, holding her up like a kitten.
J.P. rushed in just in time to catch Margo as Fatson tossed her aside a second time. They fell against a shelf, knocking off bottles of syrup which crashed and splashed around them.
Fatson leaned down and grabbed Jaz by her hair. “I knew you’d try something. You always do something tricky to delay moving out. But not this time. I told you, this time you’re leaving. Dead or alive.”
Jaz clutched at his fingers, shrieking as he lifted her up. Her feet swung and kicked several inches above the floor. Sean rushed up with a long pipe, which he threw at Fatson’s head as he brought the black cube up in his other hand. The pipe glanced off Fatson’s forehead. Fatson flinched. His skin rippled slightly, as if made of thick rubber. Still holding Jaz aloft, he side-punched Sean, who flew back and skidded across the floor, then lay still. The minion maker fell from his limp fingers and was crushed under Fatson’s foot as the man walked forward, holding Jaz.
He clamped thick fingers around Jaz’s neck and squeezed, letting go of Jaz’s hair to punch at Bracken, who had launched up at him from the other side. Bracken bent snakelike around the thick forearm, up to Fatson’s shoulder. Fatson shook his arm. Bracken latched on, growing needle-like spikes out of himself to dig in. He wasn’t very good at this level of shapechanging, and Fatson’s skin was impenetrable, but Bracken didn’t know what else to do. Jaz was kicking her feet and twitching in Fatson’s grip, her face a deep purple.
“I’m done playing games, coffee girl,” Fatson rumbled, pulling her contorted face close to his. “You’re finished.”
A shadow stirred at the far end of the room, near the stairs. It caught Bracken’s eye over Fatson’s shoulder as he bit down on the man’s deltoid as hard as he could. At first Bracken thought it was Janus, finally stepping in to help, but the shadow formed into two wings stretching toward them, sliding along the edges of the shelves. A massive raven’s head appeared between them. The silver curve of a scythe-like beak gleamed beneath the head, easily half the height of the room. This wasn’t Janus. This was—
“Hel!” Fatson took a step back.
“Tuoni…” Bracken breathed. He looked just like Bracken had imagined he would, except…
A man emerged from within the shadow, walking silently beneath the massive beak. The edges of his long coat flared as he walked: now thick fabric, now the rough edges of flight feathers. His shoes were black, his pants deep maroon, his shirt white. His face was pale and narrow, coldly composed.
“What brings you here, reaper? Are you here for her soul?” Fatson shook Jaz; she gurgled faintly.
The man continued toward them. The shadow extended over and past him, pushing ahead eagerly. The scythe-shaped beak opened, separating into two curved blades. Bracken unwound himself from Fatson’s arm and shrank away from the shadow, from the desire to feed radiating from the blades.
Fatson felt it too. “Here , take her! She’s almost dead already.” He threw Jaz toward the shadow.
The man flashed forward and caught her. Jaz slumped against him, heaving for air like a swimmer breaking out of deep water. The man held her in one arm, tipping his face down to look at her. “Are you alright?”
Jaz could only cough violently.
The man’s eyes snapped up, locking with Fatson’s. A red gleam shone in them, sparks ignited in darkness. “How dare you touch what is mine.”
“I—I’m sorry! I didn’t know you had—”
“I alone have claim to her soul. As I have to all.” The man’s voice was heavy, resonant, like a resined bow drawn across a base string.
Fatson backed away, holding his hands before him, staring at the points of the blades hovering above his head. He didn’t seem to notice the man within the shadow. “Please, go ahead and take her. I don’t mean to get in the way of your claim—”
The man’s resonant voice sharpened in disgust. “I don’t require your permission to take what is rightfully mine. Nor do I need it to claim you.”
Fatson’s back hit the wall behind him. Everyone else in the room who was still conscious shrank away as the man-and-shadow advanced, closing in on Fatson, who ducked his head, muttering about Hel’s scythes and hooded eyes. It sounded almost like a prayer. Bracken crouched on the floor, but he couldn’t stop watching the man. Jaz remained leaning against him, clinging to his coat, held upright by his arm around her shoulders. His pale hand supported her head, fingers tunneled in her blue hair.
Fatson turned and pounded both fists against the wall. The bricks cracked, mortar crumbling, rolling down the wall.
“Unfortunately,” said the man, still advancing, “it is not your time yet. But I know where to put you, until then.”
Fatson screamed—a gross, gutteral noise—clawing at the wall. The beak snapped down at him—shhick. Fatson’s scream cut short as he and the bird-shadow disappeared. Only the man remained, staring hungrily at the place where Fatson had been. Then he looked down at Jaz, who was looking up at him. The hunger intensified as he studied her face.
They stood that way for a long moment. No one else in the room dared to move.
Finally the man said, “Really, Jaz. Twice in one week? It’s a bit much.”
“It wasn’t planned,” Jaz said hoarsely.
“He’s just worried you’ll start trying to get thrown into limbo, like you did that one time,” said a female voice near the stairs. “Your un-deaths don’t go unnoticed, you realize.”
Bracken rose to his knees and peered toward the stairs. A pretty young female was sitting on the bottom step, one knee casually crossed over the other. She seemed to be a Morpha: she was texturizing a skirt and blouse, and the stripes on her legs which resembled stockings were clearly her own skin. Yet Bracken knew, somehow, she wasn’t one of his species.
“I’m not doing that. I promised…wouldn’t…” Jaz said, still breathless.
“I’m just saying,” replied the girl. “This place might suck but it’s better than floating in limbo for eternity.”
“Just, try to be more careful,” the man cut in with a sigh. “There’s a world war on Vitrol-5 I’m supposed to be handling at the moment.”
“And don’t allow these people cause any more trouble.”
Jaz shook her head.
“I can make things quite terrible for them.” The man hadn’t acknowledged anyone else in the room, but this was clearly a warning.
“They’re not causing trouble,” Jaz said quickly. “Fatson was the only one causing trouble. We didn’t know he was a polymorph. Anyway, he’s gone now.”
“If you’re sure…” He looked slightly disappointed.
“Let’s go, Athamas. That war won’t clean up after itself.” The girl stood and stretched, showing off a perfect figure.
Bracken tried not to stare.
“Yes, yes…” Athamas released Jaz, who stood wavering somewhat on unsteady feet. He looked normal now without the looming shadow, but the weight of it was still present.
Jaz looked up at him, unconsciously touching her swollen throat. “Come back when you’re finished. There’s cobbler…”
“I will.” Athamas nodded to her and walked back the way he had come. His companion joined him as he reached her, and and they went out, passing through the wall.
Jaz watched him go, then turned quickly, searching the room until she saw Sean, still lying on the floor. A look of near panic flashed across her face as she hurried over and knelt beside him. Her hands pressed to his neck, searching for a pulse. “Don’t be dead…please don’t be…”
Sean stirred, raising his head. “Not…not dead. You?”
Jaz sighed in relief, slumping to sit beside him. “Still alive.”
Sean rolled onto his back, grimacing as he touched a swelling bruise above his ear. “Though I might wish for it come morning…”
“Don’t say that.” She looked down at him.
He looked up at her, his grin crooked and painful.
Bracken slid down against a shelf to sit, rubbing his own bruises and staring at Jaz. She was giving Sean a look that, while it wasn’t exactly same one she had given Athamas just now, it was definitely in the same category.
For several minutes, no one spoke or moved. Then Sean stood slowly, brushing himself off. “If I’d known you were this resilient, I wouldn’t have been so worried for you.” He forced a laugh.
Bracken looked from them to the place in the wall where Athamas had exited, feeling that now might be the time to start worrying.