26. The Response

When she put her mind to it later, Barbara would have to consider she’d picked a really fantastic outfit to go out doing things with some degree of anonymity. Sneakers were flat for running and jumping, but her black socks, drawn right up to the bottom of her skirt, were leggings-thick. Sure, not as tough as say, her jeans, but it wasn’t like her jeans would stop a knife. Would they? Hm. Test that later. Short skirt with a red tartan pattern, because she liked how it looked, and underneath, shorts to keep in the warm, leaving a single strip of white flesh visible under the hem of the skirt, up at the top of her thighs, over the tops of those socks. Her dark blue hoodie, at least, was oversized enough that she could pull it down over her head, zipped up, and then she just had to yank her scarf across her face, behind her head.

Thirty second transformation sequence, and she hadn’t had to get naked.

Testing the knot at the back of her head, pulling the cords on her hoodie just a little so it didn’t fall easily, she stepped from the corner, and ran around the edge of the building, looking for any kind of entrance.

Barbara grabbed the backdoor handle and without even thinking, a blast of hot, green fire shorted out from between her fingertips, blasting against the screws and threads and whatever-else made up the lock. Pulling back, she let that stout door swing open, free, behind her, and ran inside. Perhaps a more subtle entrance would be useful in the future, but Barbara was acting on something deeper than thought. It was not the part of her mind that remembered consequences and actions; it was the part of her mind that remembered that her father named her after a superhero.

Inside the store, there were four outlines. People. Think of them as people, Barbara, think of them as just guys who have – wait no, think of them as people, not guys. Dammit, why did it have to be hard to be sensitive when you were, well, doing what most of the other kids in school fantasised about doing?

What were they –

Paf!

That’s not what guns sound like, Barbara reflected, as she dived behind a counter. Guns make this big almighty roar, and there’s this huge crack of force and they knock things over where they hit. They don’t just go paf like a firecracker, do they? Do they? Man, movies are bullhockey.

She stuck her head over the counter, not even realising that the fire from her fingertips was swelling, blossoming in her palms, not even being touched. Green flame beckoned in her grip. A moment passed, a realisation – this stuff would kill people.

Barbara didn’t want to kill people. She just wanted to defend this place. She just wanted for a store owner to not lose their stuff. She… had no idea what she was doing here.

Deep breath. Don’t panic. What would Aikon say?

A clutch in her throat. Wait. If Aikon did say something, her phone would chime. If her phone chimed, the guys – the people! She didn’t know they were all male! – with guns would hear her.

Barbara closed her eyes, and tried to listen, without freaking out, to the yelling around her of the me-people in the store.

“Fuck! Fuck, shit,” she heard, yelled. “Fuckin’ – someone’s here!”

“I can tell, asshole! What the fuck you doin’ shooting like that, could have been me!”

Well, okay, they were young. One of them sounded bl- was it okay to say someone sounded black? But then there was that Rick Astley song, and he apparently sounded Black. Why was it so hard for Barbara to keep her thoughts in the here, and now, just after she’d –

A hand swung over the counter, and a column of green flame shot up past it, blasting hot air and toxic smoke into the ceiling in a ring. Reaching up sharply, Barbara grabbed where she thought the throat would be – haha, got it! – and yanked, pulling down hard, and fast, pulling whoever it was face-first into the bar, with all the force of her whole body, not even realising she’d lifted her weight off the ground and made him smack face-first with all of that force.

“Fuckin’ ow!” he blurted, trying to straighten up, fumbling for purchase on the countertop.

That didn’t knock him out? Man, movies are such bullhockey. Green fire was easy, but if she couldn’t stop these guys from fighting back, what was she going to do? Holding his shirt – hoodie? – at the throat, Barbara hoisted her whole frame up, and swung both legs over the counter – crack.

Okay, that didn’t earn a response. Two-footed kicks to the head, even as they made her ankles and legs ache, were clearly okay at putting someone down. But then, she had to follow through, swinging onto the countertop and leaping back, diving between two rows of goods. This, she did understand. They needed to be discouraged, they needed to want to run-

Wait, the guy on the counter was still moving and getting up? What the hell? Then his three friends had grouped in on his location, and Barbara, hunkered against the end-cap of an aisle, held her breath…

To run was an idea that simply never crossed her mind.

*

Elsewhere in the fields of Qinghai, a different four men were running. They were running through fields of rice, across broad, flat plains, trying to keep their feet out of potholes, trying to keep from looking behind them.

What loped behind them was golden, it was fanged, and it was terrible. What was worse was that it oh-so-clearly could catch them, if it wanted. If it but wanted, it would have bounded upon each one, and torn him to pieces.

But what was the alternative? To stand still, to let the lion made out of stars consume?

No.

So they ran.

And they hoped that something would change.

*

Barbara hunkered back against the row of donuts. She drew her breath.

She was … something. She had magic. She was a warlock. She was the better armed person here. She was the aggressor. She was the one with the power. There had to be something Okay, all four of them were male. That was at least a little bit comforting. It meant she could call them all guys without feeling a little bit bad for assuming.

“So what the fuck were you doin’ out back?”

“Photocopyin’ my ass,” came back the response.

“Seriously?”

“Whatchu want me doing? Out here stuffin’ cans into a bag while we run? We got all the tuna fish and puddin’ we’re going to need, jeeze.”

The one that Barbara had knocked prone, had pulled down and beaten badly was still dazed; sitting up, tended by the second. The third and fourth were moving down the aisles, slowly, carefully; one gun between them, a knife to the other, this was definitely a dangerous situation.

Barbara’s heartbeat was steady as a rock.

There are some patterns that are part of the greater myths of humankind. The stories that we tell one another. The stories that we tell ourselves. The story of the journey, and the return. The story of the stranger’s arrival. The story of the underdog – and of the moment of triumph in the heart as the righteous agent visits punishment upon the wicked. These stories are tattooed on the insides of the human mind, perhaps because they are part of what make us human.

Patterns are patterns, though… and knowing or not, Barbara drew her breath, closed her hands, and let the green flame rise. Courage, she reflected, was being scared, and acting anyway. John Wayne said that. Movies may be bullhockey, but…

*

The four men in the field stumbled forwards. The Lion was drawing close on them. This was a story they knew, too; it was script in their myth and their culture. The world was a vast place, with diabolical spirits that did not care for humanity. They had believed it, they had known it, and they had practiced their rituals accordingly.

The lion was a beast of patterns. It had been made by one pattern. It was drawn by another pattern.

And now it loped down, tiring of the hunt. It was time, not to feed, but to win.

*

Barbara stood, tensed her shoulders, and turned. Her left hand moved like she was flicking a softball out, a low underarm sweep that sent a brilliant scorch of green fire, in a long thin line, across the store, the motion prompting a yell, a yelp, and a scream, as it lanced past the advancing man in Aisle Three. His gun discharged, wildly, as the end of the barrel dissolved in the path of fire.

Her right hand however, went the other way, an overhand wheel that sent her phone, hard as a goddamn brick, across the other aisle, shot like a bullet from a gun into the temple of the knife-wielding man, who was lifted up off the ground, and thrown back into the rack of goods behind him. A clatter, a thud, and a spilling bag, a bright-sounding ‘ting’ of his knife hitting the ground, and he was down.

Barbara stood, opening her hands, two huge spirals of green flame running up her arms. Lowering her gaze, her eyes alone visible, she spoke the one word, the only word, she could think to say:

“Run.”

It was not spoken. It was not said. It was growled, a low, dull roar in one syllable. Whatever it was, it was heard.

*

The Lion simply did not exist. In one moment it had been about to pounce, about to crash upon, about to tear apart… and then, it was not.

The Lion had found a better pattern.

*

As the thieves ran out the back door, carrying their unconscious member, Barbara stepped over to pick up her cell phone. The case showed barely a scratch, the glowing green screen bright and black in the pattern that formed words.

why did you do
that?
I’m sure that the
store owner had
some form of
insurance

“… Because I was here,” she said, and tucked the phone away. It was a dirty way to end a conversation, but… somehow, she figured Aikon wouldn’t mind. She had to get out of here before someone turned up to see the holes in the walls, the molten gun on the floor, the burnt out lock. She’d caused a lot of damage – but… but at least nothing had been stolen, right?

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