By the time the meeting broke up, the warp had taken full hold of me. No more red irises for me, no, the new color was the most boring one possible: turd brown. My skin was a light brown, my hair was brown, and my eyes were brown. Hazel, if I felt like embellishing a little. A part of me missed my old looks, but the more pragmatic side liked that I could be here, strolling down the street. I was another face in the crowd, nobody of note. There were no cries of fear or shouts of recognition from the people around, even though I had already passed three billboards with WANTED ads bearing my old yearbook photo.
My weather prediction had come true with an intensity I hadn’t anticipated. The sun was a ball of molten gold hanging in the sky high above, its searing rays mocking the mere notion of shade. The baking heat turned the black asphalt into shimmering black glass, hot enough to burn anyone foolish enough to walk on it barefoot. The city was a gigantic oven, except that the heating element was in the ceiling, rather than the ground.
The Bazaar teemed with life despite the heat. Stall after stall lined the roadside, each one manned by a salesman ready to reel in an unsuspecting victim. Aquila wasn’t a popular tourist destination, but it managed to attract a modest stream of people who were stupid enough to think it would be exciting or poor enough that they couldn’t afford anything better. The Bazaar’s con men profited off both types plus the occasional native who let their guard down.
I had already been offered smartphones (still with the “made in China” sticker), Indian carpets (doubtless made in China too), and headphones. The last had given me pause for a moment, then I had realized that nobody was going to be selling Draxier headphones for ten bucks. Not that I would have bought them anyways -- even real Draxiers were overpriced pieces of junk.
Another merchants caught my eye and gestured to the table in front of him, laden down with sparkling jewelry. I shook my head and moved on, not tempted in the slightest. There was quality to be found here, but it was hidden behind a thousand counterfeit gemstones, each one sparkling brighter than the real one. The saying was that you could buy anything in the Bazaar, but what wasn’t repeated was the simple fact that a prospective customer also had to know where to look. Which, of course, I did.
My destination was a few hundred feet away, and I was hoping it would turn out to sell more than fake jewelry or imitation fabrics. Lori had told me it had a wide variety of “exotic plants” for sale and I was planning on seeing if there was anything useful. The kudzu was a nice basic tool, but I wanted something a little more aggressive. The brambles were a good start, but some prodigies had regeneration or were otherwise durable. I wanted a plant with poisonous thorns, ideally one that wasn’t lethal.
The shop was called the Crown of Thorns, a name which got a chuckle out of me. Somehow, I had expected it to be a dim clandestine place, but the shop’s glass roof let plenty of bright sunlight in. The air was cool, in sharp contrast to the heat outside. Shelves marched across the polished hardwood floor in straight rows, each laden with hundreds of tiny potted plants. Bigger pots, these ones a solid foot or more across, squatted in corners and along the edges of the room.
“Danny Wolfe, at your service,” the cashier said. He walked over, his belly straining against its jailor, a green and blue plaid shirt. “What can I do for you today, ma’am?”
I glanced around, feeling a little overwhelmed. My power helped, of course, but there were hundreds, if not thousands of plants here. Some of them had thorns, some were poisonous, but most of them just strange. Over in the corner was a bulbous red flower, half a foot across. My power said its ridged leaves weren’t hard enough to cut, but that the flower would release a foul odor when touched. Half a dozen little venus flytraps, their jaws bright red and pale green, sat at the stink-plant’s foot. Some of the traps were closed, digesting prey that had been foolish enough to land on the trigger-hairs. A few feet to the left was something that looked like aloe, except that the leaves were wide, flat, and spiraled out from the center. Every color of the rainbow was present, all jammed together in a chaotic riot of unfamiliar flowers, shrubs, and bushes.
“I’m looking for a plant.” I winced as the words left my lips. “I mean, something poisonous.”
Danny raised his eyebrows. “Poisonous? Trying to kill someone, slip something into their tea?”
Just a joke. Right? “Actually, I was hoping for something with thorns.”
“Ah,” he said. A gleam came into his eyes as he continued. “Stinging plants are a specialty of mine. There’s plenty of poisonous plants and lots of thorny plants, but so few that combine the two traits. I’m guessing you want something to plant outside your house, a little surprise for anyone who tries to rob you?”
I nodded, recognizing that look in his eyes. It was the same one my old history teacher had when he started lecturing about his favorite topic. At this point, I could probably tell him who I was and he wouldn’t care, as long as I listened to him talk.
“Yeah, that’s what I had in mind. Like nettle, but stronger.”
“Stronger than nettle, hm? Well, there’s two species that come to mind. First is a little Mexican beauty, Cnidoscolus angustidens, nicknamed ‘mala mujer’. Walking after stepping on a leaf is said to be like ‘treading on nuclear glass daggers’. Any burglar who touches it will have second thoughts about stealing your TV, that’s for sure.
“Then there’s Dendrocnide moroides, an Australian bush that’s more commonly known as gympie. The pain sticks around for a few weeks to a few months. A soldier who stumbled into a patch shot himself, and one scientist who studied the thing said it was like being burned by acid. It’s infamous for being the most painful stinging plant and is considered to be endangered -- not that many people would mind seeing it die out, eh?
Danny’s chuckle was deep and throaty. Show off. “Tell you what, wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Danny went over to a shelf behind the cash register and returned a moment later, carrying a pair of sealed glass cubes, each half filled with dirt. My power identified the one on the left as mala mujer and the one on the right as gympie.
The mala mujer had beautiful leaves with little white dots along the veins and stems, giving the plant a pretty, speckled appearance. My power informed me that each of the dots was the base of a tiny hollow needle loaded with a nasty neurotoxin.
The gympie resembled blackberry, even down to the slight fuzz present on the leaves. The fuzz was deceptive though -- it hid invisible spines, each with its own dose of poison. Even just brushing against it would trigger hundreds of little injections. Like the mala mujer, its passiveness belied its hostility.
“These aren’t lethal right? Is there an antidote?”
“Naw, they won’t kill you, but if you get poisoned you’ll wish they did. There is an antidote, but it’s rare. Engineer-made, you know? Expensive stuff and I never liked needles, but boy was I glad to have it when I touched the gympie while repotting it.”
That was reassuring. I figured anyone I used this stuff against would be capable of regenerating, but it was nice to know there was a cure. Accidents happened. I might touch the stuff myself, a bystander might get hurt, hell, a non-prodigy goon could get poisoned while trying to help their boss out. Nobody deserved months of agony.
“Do you have seeds?”
“Of course,” Danny said. “Which do you want?”
“Both,” I said, making a split second decision. “And I’ll take some of those antidotes.”
“Excellent. Stay right here, I keep the seeds in the back room.”
I wandered over to the nearest shelf and looked at the plants while Danny retrieved the gympie seeds. One of the pots held an innocuous-looking seedling, Allocasuarina luehmannii. The name meant nothing to me, but my power told me its wood was extremely hard, about three times as strong as the bamboo I had in my backpack.
Danny’s voice came over my shoulder, making me jump. “Australian buloke, nicknamed ironwood. It’s the hardest wood in the world.”
“How much does it weight?"
“Seventy pounds per cubic foot. It’s not the heaviest wood, but it’s definitely up there,” Danny said. “I have seeds, if you want…?”
I nodded, grinning at how quick he had picked up my desire for seeds, rather than live plants. “Yeah. Just one, though.”
I left The Crown of Thorns five thousand dollars lighter, most of which were the two bottles of Engineered antidote goop. I didn’t haggle -- I had forty grand burning a hole in my pocket, courtesy of Athena’s signing bonus, and the price was worth it. The gympie gave me a weapon against Aquila’s tougher prodigies, and the ironwood would give me a defense against bullets. Next time I got stuck in a situation where a bunch of clones were holding a gun on me, nobody would die. Nobody that didn’t deserve it, anyways.
I rounded a corner and bumped into an oncoming pedestrian, knocking his hood back.
“Watch where you’re going!”
I caught a glimpse of bright blue eyes and lips twisted in anger before he pulled his hood back up. The man shoved me aside and swept past, ignoring me as if I wasn’t even there. I felt a pulse of anger, deep in my gut, but the streets were too crowded to do anything about it. I shook my head and turned away, determined not to let some asshole ruin my day. Still… there was something about him that seemed familiar.
I chewed my lip, trying to figure out where I had seen the man before. A few seconds passed before it came to me in a flash -- Void. He was a Warden and I had seen him on TV before, usually speaking to a reporter with an arrogant sneer on his face. He must be on patrol… although he hadn’t been wearing his costume and now that I thought about it, he had seemed rather furtive. I glanced back and saw that he was thirty or forty feet away, with half a dozen people between us. I knew I shouldn’t. Following a Warden was a good way to get myself into trouble… but I really wanted to know what he was up to.
Void slipped along the street and now it was clear that he was being secretive. He kept his hood pulled up, avoided the thickest clusters of people, and his stride never seemed to falter. He knew exactly where he was going. I followed, careful to stay half a block behind and keep a few people between us, in case he looked back.
The caution paid off after ten minutes when Void stopped in front of an alley and glanced around. I pretended to be looking at the various meat pies a vendor had for sale and when I looked back, Void was gone. I went to the alley and saw him at the end, standing in front of a few people. Very clandestine.
I couldn’t hear over the Bazaar’s noise, but the alley was narrow and its only cover was a few black plastic garbage bags along the edges. If I tried to sneak closer, they would spot me for sure.
I backtracked half a block, until I found a narrow passage between two buildings. It wasn’t even a proper alley, just a foot wide crack left over when the stores were built, but it was enough for my purposes.
Vines slithered out of my sleeves, scaling the wall and knotting into a rough ladder that led up to the roof. The shop beneath me was a seafood place and whoever ran it had never heard of proper waste disposal. The air was thick and heavy with the rancid stench of rotting fish, as if the cooks had butchered a dozen tuna and left them to sit in the sun. I tried to breathe through my nose as I moved across the roof, refusing to let a little bad smell stop me now.
I recognized the people Void was talking to at once. The woman with the shaved head and frayed brown robe was Wrack, a high-ranking Disciple member. The guy next to her had his hood pulled up, but his arm ended in a stump, capped with white gauze. The injury, plus Wrack’s presence, meant there was only one person it could be: Heretic.
What was a Warden doing meeting with one of Aquila’s most infamous crime bosses?
I leaned on the rooftop rail, a thin wooden beam, while listening to them speak. “... another fifty men,” Heretic said. “Just like last time.”
Void’s hood was down, but it was hard to see his face from my angle. “I told you already, I don’t have access to their schedules. Barrett’s taken over prisoner transport.”
Heretic’s good hand disappeared into the cowl of his robe, rubbing at his unseen face. “Show some backbone. Tell him you need it for Warden business and that he doesn’t need to know the specifics.”
“He won’t buy that. That man wouldn’t trust his own mother, if she was a prodigy.”
“A pity.” Heavy metal music blared out of the shop beneath me, making it hard to hear his next words. “It is… pleasure… new convert.”
It is a pleasure to make a new convert? I crept closer, ignoring the railing as it wobbled under my hand. What they had already said was a glimpse of something I had never suspected. I had to know if my guess was right, if the Wardens really were working hand in hand with Aquila’s criminals.
“Perhaps someday, but for now, I prefer to remain in my own mind.” Void gestured at Wrack and the four men, standing still as statues behind their leader. “You have more muscle than anyone else in this city. Why not simply… take what you want?”
He’s talking about kidnapping people, I realized. But what does Void have to do with this?
“And draw the attention of Watchmen and Wardens both?”
Void’s smile was that of a benevolent dictator bestowing a gift upon his servant. “Barrett still gets his information from us. I can ensure neither he nor anyone else ever hears about any, ah, disappearances.”
Heretic was silent for a good four or five seconds. “A hundred converts, then.”
Void’s lip curled. “For the same price as last time?”
Heretic shrugged. “It’s riskier and a lot more work to collect them myself. Two hundred, same as before, with the promise of more as I need the manpower.”
The two burly men standing behind Heretic shifted as Void thrust out his hand. Heretic quieted them with a glare. “We have a deal?”
“We have a deal,” Void agreed. “Two hundred grand, and nobody hears about all the people who disappear over the next few days.”
They shook on it and one of Heretic’s minions passed Void a briefcase. He took it and left the alley, presumably returning to the Vault, where he would wait for reports of kidnapping and ensure they never got anywhere. I had known the Wardens didn’t care about ordinary people, but colluding with villains? This was on another level entirely. Questions buzzed through my head -- were the other Wardens involved? How long had Void been doing this? Were the other gang bosses engaged in similar bribery?
The railing, already old and worn, snapped under my weight. I caught my balance, but the broken piece of wood clattered to the alley below, drawing the attention of all four gangsters. Heretic’s head snapped up and his cowl fell backwards, revealing a pale white face and greasy black hair. I swallowed as his eyes locked onto me. Their feverish intensity hadn’t diminished one bit in the days since I had last met him.