Thursday, December 31, 2015

Pandora's Playground 3

The trap sprung right outside the tunnel, yards before the first split. Someone dove into view from the right; Deathgrind swerved, but felt like the right side of his stolen truck had hit a ramp. He was spinning, rolling and hurtling forward. The truck was sliding on its roof before the gunshots rang out, two high caliber pistols and one small. Ramming into the Jersey barrier pinned the driver side door closed while a beast of a man tore the passenger door clean from its hinge. Deathgrind was facing the tunnel he had come from and the other three people who had jumped him, reloading.

None of it mattered. They had already failed.

Deathgrind had managed to brace himself against the worst of the wreck. Most of the bullets connected, but none had made it through his armor. The man-beast surged in through the missing door, not expecting Deathgrind to be conscious, let alone coherent enough to retaliate. Deathgrind delivered what was an uppercut for him, driving face into ground, then followed with several strikes to the base of the neck. Unbuckling, he fell to the ceiling and started to crawl out over the limp body.

Despite the spiderweb windshield, the remaining assailants knew something was wrong. As they opened fire again, Deathgrind shoved the body between him and his enemies. A single bullet made its way around the meat shield to ricochet off armor. When the action stopped for another reload, Deathgrind pounced out of the truck, picking up the door as he rolled to his feet and crouched beneath it. A third hail of bullets came, each having trouble making it through the door to their target.

Rather than slowly advance, when the next reload pause happened, Deathgrind opted for blitzkrieg. He stepped forward, spun, and hurled his door for center mass of one of the high caliber shooters. Wordless rage bellowed over speakers as he bounded forward.

A fourth reload never happened. The door took the rightmost shooter just below the rib cage and carried her into the stone wall at her back. The door snapped upward after impact, slamming her head into the wall a second time. Panic might have overcome the second high caliber shooter if he had the time. Instead, a wrecking ball with legs crushed him into the wall beside his partner. Before pressure lessened, a strong grip took him by the knees and whipped his head around toward the third attacker. His scream ended with a meaty thwack when his face smashed against something invisible and unyielding.

"Flint wasn't worth this!" the third shooter cried, abandoning his weapon. The coward fell to the ground, raising his hands, palms outward. Gauntlets rained down on him again and again, each stopped short about six inches away from the man. More words came out as he looked away, incoherent pleading, but they were answered by growls and a relentless assault. Sweat poured down his reddened face until the barrier failed and one punch came through to his chest. He gasped for breath only to find his throat clamped shut. The next strike was the last.

It was a long moment before Deathgrind moved again. Several deep breaths helped to flush out the excess adrenaline. He released his grip and stood up, stretching his arms and rolling his neck. One of the corpses was familiar from this morning, though he was out of uniform. Slow learner. Rummaging through their belongings, credentials identified all of them as off duty Brutes for Hire. Two sets of keys were found, neither of them belonging to company cars. Pressing the lock button for one of them made a nearby white, windowless van chirp. That would do.

By design, the drive ended about an hour after sundown. The route was anything but direct, intended to expose any tails. Another ten minutes through woods brought Deathgrind to the remains of an overgrown golf course, hard to recognize for the years of neglect. Giant stone houses peppered the landscape, windows shattered, doors unhinged and valuables long since plundered. Light emanated from a few of the mansions, no doubt squatters happy to find a roof over running water and maybe power. The former inhabitants of these homes could afford to escape after the walls went up.

Careful to avoid patches of light, Deathgrind made his way to the center of the course. There stood a crumbling symbol of extravagance, the course clubhouse. The westward facing wall was all but missing, much like the glass of what was the solarium. Despite the damage, what remained was still gorgeous stonework. Stalking around to the east wall, he threw open the slanted steel doors leading down into a cellar.

The basement was devoid of light; Deathgrind navigated smoothly, stepping around architecture he was familiar with. Along the way, he slipped his gauntlets off, letting them crash to the floor. The helmet came off next, landing on a wooden table with a deep thunk. Latches clicked open all over his armor, at least a dozen on his torso and twice that many on his trousers. Metal clattered on stone tiles as he pulled sections off, more or less at random. Neoprene creaked as it rubbed against itself for the next few steps until a zipper released. A valve squeaked and water rushed down. Minutes later, silence returned, save for the ripple of cloth as Deathgrind dried himself.

Deathgrind found it much harder to navigate to where he knew there was a couch. Mental walls against fatigue and pain were finally breaking down. Stumbling against the heavy table knocked his helmet to the ground. He groaned and gripped tight across his forehead for a moment, then soldiered forward. Only a few steps more, then he could lay comfortably and sleep it off. As soon as his hand felt the couch, he fell face first into cushion and out of consciousness.

Hours passed without the slightest disturbance. Light crept in through tiny glass block windows as a small girl slunk in through the open door. Bulky dark clothes obscured her figure, but the hood was back, exposing ratty, dirty blonde hair down past her shoulders. Her skin was smooth, although an unhealthy shade of pale. The bones in her face were exaggerated, and she might have been a picture of beauty were she better fed. She slipped a duffel bag off of her shoulder, gentle as she set it on the floor without a sound, then turned her attention to the man in the room.

Deathgrind lay motionless on the couch with the towel around his waist. Save a few temporary details, he looked perfect. He had the full, curly blonde hair, fair complexion and chisel jaw of the archetypal Prince Charming. His muscles could have passed for steel cable under a layer of flawless skin. Like any airbrushed magazine cover, there was not a hair, mole, or scar to be seen. That beautiful landscape was pockmarked by dozens of ugly, swollen purple blotches, some where skin had broken, bled and now scabbed over. Completing the image was a puddle of drool, soaked into the pillow supporting his head.

While looking over those wounds, the girl shivered and folded her arms. She climbed onto the couch, straddling the beaten supermodel as she began to work her fingers into the muscles of his back. As she massaged, the flesh around her touch knit itself together and the bruises faded away. Moving further down his back, she closed her hazel eyes; beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. Deathgrind stirred, moaning approval and stretching his neck. When he pulled his arms in to sit up, the girl hopped back to her feet.

"Ohhhh, I needed that. Thank you, Marie." Deathgrind's voice was rich and smooth without his equipment.

"Another business dispute?" Marie deepened her voice to mimic his, then frowned as she sat back down on his left side to work the bruises on his chest and arms.

"No. This one was personal." Deathgrind let his head drop back as she massaged for a minute. When she finished with his upper body, he stood up and made for the shower room. Over his shoulder, he reassured, "Don't worry. There's no one left to be upset about it now."

"There never is when it's personal..." she mumbled, watching his saunter. Squinting after him, she took a deep breath, held it, and clenched her right fist. A cough tried to escape, but she choked it back until he was out of view. Falling to her knees, she gripped her chest and failed to contain a brief coughing fit.

"I thought you were getting over that cold." The concern in his eyes warred with the accusation in his tone as he came back wearing snug black pants. He reached down for a lump of black cloth on the ground but stopped short, sucking in air as he snapped back up. "Mmm, must have cracked a rib. That'll have to heal on its own."

"Maybe it won't. I... I..." she stuttered, "I mended someone yesterday from across the street. No one saw me. He was getting mugged, but then... It's not important. I did your legs while you walked away. I've felt like I could for a while. I just never tried until-"

"Marie," his stern tone cut her rambling short, "you can mend without touch?"

She replied with a single silent nod.

"You tried before and couldn't, correct?"

Another quick nod.

"I've never heard of a mutant who jumped classes. This is very..." Deathgrind paused, his thoughts hung up on a recent conversation. He finished the sentence with borrowed phrasing, "different."

"Who cares? The point is, I've been getting stronger. I think I can heal that rib." She stood up and closed distance, resting one hand on his shoulder as she locked eyes with him. Her other hand moved to caress his abdomen, barely breathing the words, "Just let me try..."

"No," he objected as he seized her wrists and pushed her a step away from himself, "You've also been getting sicker. It's no coincidence. There's something wrong with you and you need to stop mending me."

Marie gasped like his words had punched her in the gut. "What about the arrangement? You provide and I mend. That's how this works, strictly business," the last two words deepened again, half to mimic and the rest to mask her emotion.

"I'll always need a mender. It's in my best interest to see you mended now."

"You can't mend an illness," she huffed and blinked a tear out of her eye.

"Then I'll get you a doctor." Deathgrind folded his arms, "The best doctors."

Marie stuttered, coughed, then blurted, "Kaison? How?"

"I spoke with him yesterday," pride glowed through his smile as she stared at him agape. "Yes, I met Dechs Kaison in person; now he and I have an arrangement. I'll be getting paid handsomely to do some research for him. I think I can get him interested to take on your case, too."

Marie had no words. Fully dressed, Deathgrind sat down and donned his armor, starting with his boots. He asked, "You have enough food for a few days?"

She nodded slowly.

"Good." Latches closed around his chest and he reached for his gauntlets. "I'm going to be away a couple of days. Get to the safe houses and grab anything you don't want to leave behind."

She swallowed, then breathed, "We're moving?"

"Yes. It'll be much safer for you in Manhattan, but I need to get us a place to stay first. I have a lead on one. A friend of mine won't be needing his anymore." As Deathgrind slid his helmet on, his smooth voice disappeared behind that of the cold voice changer. Not a shred of emotion survived when he stated, "His name was Flint."

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