It was late night in St. Petersburg and I had borrowed the legs of a former ballerina. My pants billowed a bit around their ghostly silhouettes but the woman ahead neither saw nor heard. I wondered distantly how the original owner’s legs had died. They were so graceful, so quiet. What a tragedy it must have been. That was something that had distracted me ever since I got this power, standing under a hail of roses and silver on New Years Eve. I could summon any phantom limb on earth to do my bidding. They all came from somewhere.
This was no time for distraction. The woman up ahead wore a long trenchcoat draped by her wiry black mane. Intel hadn’t disclosed her legal name but her working alias was Provoloka. She was a mid-tier super-criminal, loaning her services out to VICEFRONT’s latest target abroad. Some human traffickers decided to fly a little close to the sun and start kidnapping people with Other-natural infections. Now they’d slipped up. Provoloka was tough but she was a newbie. A newbie who didn’t watch her back.
Aa car backed up behind me as we rounded a corner and Provoloka looked backwards in my direction. I manifested a third leg Northeast of her and gave a trashcan three sharp kicks. A family of cats yowled. She jumped, hastened her pace, and in a matter of minutes we were at her building.
The scene was dingy. Mutant dogs howled from behind a razor-wire fence at the black brick building’s rear. She disappeared past them and they followed briefly, mouths bubbling with some kind of purple gunk. There was the creak of a wooden door followed by a sharp snap. The dogs yowled and retreated to their original spot.
I assessed the situation. As it was, I could subdue the dogs safely from my position but not without hurting them. Critters like this really needed specialized care and attention, someone to help manage what looked like a nasty Other-natural infection of the face. Fat chance of them getting that, but I wasn’t going to throw a couple of concussions on top of it. Looking both ways before approaching, I snuck up to the door and manifested a hand on the other side, letting myself in.
The building reeked of drugs, dogs and unkempt humanity. Lights were off throughout. Looking towards the kitchen, I rummaged through the meat drawer of the fridge. Ground… something. It would do. At the top of the stairs I spied a bathroom. With a dozen or so phantom hands I nabbed every bottle in the medicine cabinet, discarding each of them until I found a bottle of sleeping pills. Jackpot.
The dogs eyed each other restlessly, the purple gunk on their chops dribbling into the flowers and making them wilt. I rolled the sleeping pills into two wads of ground meat, making sure to include enough to knock them out without making them too sick. Phantom hands carried the drugged meatballs out the front door and into the backyard where two hungry dogs jumped to attention.
Gobble, gobble. It took a few minutes but the dogs began to drowse, their fractured eyes sealed over in a puffy grey film. I radioed a cautionary signal to my support team as the dogs drifted to sleep: entering danger, extract if no signal in 15 minutes. The agent on the other end of the line sent the return signal and I crept into the back yard.
There was a cellar door, black and wooden. It creaked sharply when I opened it but the mutant dogs slept steadily, breath heavy with drugs and flesh.
At the bottom of the stairs was a cavernous basement, thick with mildew and furnished with concrete. Some kid was shivering in the corner, bony frame wound tight with a long black wire. Their eyes were huge.
Something slashed my mid-section. The old woman with the long black hair pounced on my chest, prehensile black wires snapping from her hair and fingertips.
<<Stupid cow!>> she snarled in a voice like chewing glass. My side throbbed. The protective sigils tattooed on my skin kept it from being a mortal wound but something was probably bruised. Hopefully nothing I needed in the next few minutes. She wound a single black wire into a screw-shape and slowly brought it towards my eye, cackling.
Take a deep breath. Timing is everything. The wire was millimeters from my eye. I sucker-punched it out of the way, prepared to strike again before she could react.
About one percent of the planet lives with limb-loss nowadays, the total number up several million since feuding super-beings became a part of daily life. As it happens, a surprising chunk of that comes from absolute badasses, the kinds of folks who actually put their limbs on the line. Firefighters, daredevils, icefighters, etc. So when it came time to put Provoloka down for real, I had little trouble. I summoned eight of the beefiest arms in my library, their donors a mix of athletes, models and bona fide warriors. Invisible fists wrapped around her wrists, her ankles, her hair.
She stopped cackling. That demon screech in her voice withered away and all that was left was the thin whine of an old woman. <<W-wait, no->> she was confused. I pulled, just a little. She screamed. <<Fat whore>> she screamed. I pulled again.
<<You’re not in the position you wish you were, Provoloka.>> She lashed at me then, black wire tentacles snapping the air as they unspooled. Predictable, but still more forceful than I’d expected. While my phantom limbs were able to wrangle the wire back, they were caught in a wrestling match.
I swung my feet onto the floor and approached her. Her breathing was harsh and her face red with strain. It was taking all she had just to hold my powers back. I steadied myself on prosthetic legs, slightly out of balance with my powers tied up, and prepared to head-butt her. One quick smack to get it over with.
<<I’m sorry,>> she wheezed, and with a shudder her wire tentacles went limp. My phantom limbs were briefly thrown into disarray, dragging her by the wire as they adjusted. She let out a small cry as her body banged against the floor.<<I’ll tell you everything I know. I’ll…>> she looked down at her hands, withered but wound tight with black wire.<<I’ll let you take one of my arms, for your… collection.> She shuddered. <<Let me live.>>
<<If you really want to live, hold that arm straight out and make no false moves.>> She winced and did as commanded. Relief colored her face as the needle of the tranq slid in. I hit the signal for the cleanup crew with one hand while four more hands made sure she was cuffed and bagged. It wouldn’t stop her if she woke up and decided to lash out, but it’d help to slow her down.
The kid was still shivering in the corner. No obvious signs of infection but most of us were invisible, unlike Provoloka and her dogs. The cleanup crew would have to handle the kid’s bindings. Instead, I just whispered, “Shhhh, we’ll have you out of here soon,” first in English, then Russian.
It’d be no good to let the cleanup crew see me. The fewer folks who were able to ID me the better off I was. Instead, I left one hand on Provoloka’s shoulder while I went to the building across the street, tracking her for movement that way until the cleanup crew finished making their way in.
Sure I wasn’t followed, I made my way to the safehouse in Pushkin. Crystal veins of medusaflesh ran through several of the buildings on my route, occasionally branching into whole rooms and structures. Big cities always suffered more super damage than anywhere else.
As I passed through the neighborhoods of St. Petersburg I could see the last several years charted in different colors of medusaflesh, different super-crises corresponding to successive generations of the medusawyrms. In my last assignment I’d known a man who worked in reconstruction. His company had a small clutch of medusawyrms to help speed up their work, strange mineral resins brewing in their guts, but it was never enough. He once complained, “the kids are breaking the toys faster than I can put them back in the box.” That was back in Edinburgh. Of course, the situation there was nothing compared to the situation back home.
The safehouse was an unassuming little place with a blood-stained cauldron in the kitchen. I grabbed a bag of dried moths and a rat from the hutch on my way in while two of my other hands grabbed the athame and Yaritza Magnan’s homunculus from the next room. Homunculi were the most secure form of communication these days, if you knew an alchemist with the chops. “Shhhhhh,” I whispered as the rat panicked at hands it could neither see nor smell. Yaritza’s homunculus sat cross-legged in the cauldron. I slashed the rat’s throat, sprinkling the moth bodies over its surface.
Blood simmered at the bottom of the cauldron as I cranked the heat on the burner. I poured a drink while it bubbled, blood vapor washing over the homunculus. It whistled. It didn’t have to do that, but Assistant Director Magnan had a strange sense of humor.
“Agent Litework,” she called. Her body was back in America but through our homunculi we could have a regular chat. I’m not sure if it was due to the construction of the cauldron or the homunculus, but despite her size her reverberating voice sounded like the regular thing. “Impeccable timing. You’ve seen the news?”
“I am the news. Provoloka is down as of one hour ago, and willing to talk so long as I don’t tear her limb from limb. And she even said I could have one of those. We can have the whole ring taken down by year’s close.”
“That’s great news Litework, but someone else is going to have to seal the deal. You’re needed stateside.”
“I’m sorry, I think something’s wrong with this homunculus. I’m going to have to smash it.”
“Don’t get cute. You’re dangerously out of the loop.”
“Local library’s quarantined after their PC got haunted again. Some local kid uploaded an Other-natural virus onto it and the damn machine grew legs. Dog legs. Hasn’t been caught since.”
“Look- if you really haven’t heard anything, then I need to run a test. What do you know about P!ss Frog?”
“The Frog Who 💛s Piss? He’s that creepy little toad-goblin that always appears at riots and stuff. Makes people’s bladders explode.”
Yaritza’s homunculus nodded slowly. “So… would you say he’s a ‘troubled bad boy’ or ‘the frog-prince of the st8boi vanguard?”
“I don’t know. Am I having a stroke?”
“No, but apparently everyone else is. At the end of April there was a Decoherence Strategy attack in Topeka. HOMEFRONT quarantined the city… And P!ss Frog saved the day. Every news article talks like he’s been a member of HOMEFRONT for years. There’s no mention of terrorist activity, white supremacist ties, any of it. In fact, they think he’s sexy as hell.”
It was time for a cigarette. And a massage. And maybe a bazooka. I set three of my arms to the first and second as I slumped onto a stool. “So there’s some kind of media cover up pushing for people to love P!ss Frog?”
“It’s deeper than that. Sophie… I was taken in by it until Crowe was able to disenchant me. This is rewriting folks’ actual memories.”
“Why wouldn’t my memories be rewritten? Is it because I’m too far away?”
“Maybe… But you’re not the only one. Another member of HOMEFRONT, Red Snow, he apparently tried to take the Frog down during the Topeka attack. Sounds like he didn’t understand why everyone was treating him differently. And Crowe said his memories have been in tact from the start.”
“There it is again. Crowe. Tell me you don’t mean Malcolm Crowe.”
“There’s a lot going on in VICEFRONT right now, Sophie.”
“But Malcolm Crowe? He’s a jerk. Hell, he’s a literal devil.” Malcolm Crowe, aka Blood Crow, aka Malphas, had to be one of the most wicked men on the planet. He’d invented the Twin Saints cigarette, designed to let smokers off-load their cancer and emphysema to his employees. He’d streamlined the process of demon summoning, helping countless people make terrible decisions faster than ever. All of that would be trivia, if he hadn’t also taken= my sister’s soul.
“The Malphas entity hasn’t appeared on earth in years, Litework. And there are bigger fish to fry. We can tell you more once you’re back in America.”
“So that’s it? I abandon taking down human traffickers on some vague promise it’ll be worth it?”
“No. You’ll surrender your assignment to a qualified replacement, because you have been ordered to do so by your commanding superior. Is that much clear?”
Dammit. Yaritza was friendly but she didn’t back down. “It’s clear, Flutterby. “
“Report to the Twin Saints headquarters in Cincinnati at 4 pm America time tomorrow,” she said. I turned the heat down beneath the cauldron. She sank back into a cross legged position as the pool of blood began to cool. “And remember Litework: unless you hear otherwise from me personally? Everyone you talk to is suspect.”
Read Next: (2.0) Roshan
Want to skip to the next part of Agent Litework’s story? Read this next: (2.3) Agent Litework