Spider-Man : The Darkest Hoursby Jim Butcher

   Chapter 15

No TIME. No TIME. Think fast, Spidey.

"Mary Jane," I said. "I want you to grab the credit cards, any cash we have, and a change of clothes. Now, move."

My wife nodded and hurried to the bedroom.

"Felicia," I said. "Get her out of here."

Felicia had never been much of a fan of tanning beds, but she looked especially pale about now. "Right. Where?"

"Aunt May's. Then we - "

Mary Jane emerged from the bedroom in a flowered dress and a fleece coat.

She carried a nylon backpack in either hand. "That was fast," I told her.

"I thought it might be smart to have a traveling kit ready for emergencies," she said. "This one's mine. This one's yours. Cash, two credit cards we haven't used, medicine, a first aid kid, a blanket, some dried food, clothes."

I felt a surge of sudden pride. "That was pretty good thinking," I said.

"It never hurts to plan ahead." I kissed her on the mouth. "All right.

Felicia's going to get you to the car, and then you're both going to scoot to Aunt May's."

"What?" Mary Jane protested. "I'm not going to - "

"Be used against me," I interrupted. "You're going with her."

"Peter..."

"Don't worry about me, MJ. I'll just bounce around insulting them for a while and then run away." I pulled off my street clothes, put on the mask, and the whole time the sense of panic in me continued to rise.

"This can't be a discussion right now. They're getting closer. Go."

She swallowed, nodded, then said to Felicia, "We should use the stairs."

Felicia detached the flimsy skirt, produced that grappling baton from a sleeve, and opened the window with a grin. "Stairs?"

"Oh my," Mary Jane said. "Don't worry, MJ," Felicia said with a feline smile. "It won't be like with Peter, but I'll get you there." Her head tilted to one side as she presumably looked at something in the visor.

"They're within a hundred meters already."

I checked in with my spider sense. "Yes. Mortia's almost directly below us. They're at the front of the building."

"They came in fast," Felicia said. "Come here, MJ." She produced a strap of nylon webbing, clipped one end to a ring at the waist of her bodysuit, and flipped it around Mary Jane. "I thought you said they had to touch you to track you down."

"They do," I said. "They must have found us some other way."

"Like what?"

"If I knew, I'd have been making sure it didn't work," I said. "Tick tock, Cat."

"Don't get your webs in a knot," she advised me. She ran the strap around Mary Jane and secured it to something on her own outfit with a muted click. "Okay, MJ. We go out the window on three. Hold on tight."

"Wait," Mary Jane said. "Do I have my car keys?" She fumbled a set of keys out of her pocket and clenched a plastic tag on the key chain in her teeth. Then she nodded, donned her backpack, and she and Felicia went out the window on the slender cable extending from the Black Cat's baton.

I went out behind them, part of my attention on Felicia and MJ as they descended at a controlled pace that Felicia couldn't possibly have managed on upper body strength alone. It was hard to tell in the near-dark, but I was betting that there was some kind of rock-climbing-type harness built into the suit. Felicia guided them down in long, smooth rappels, obviously being careful. That would be for my sake, I knew.

Given a choice, Felicia generally likes to do things in the most insanely dangerous fashion she thinks she can survive.

I hit the building above us with a webline, let it stretch, and used the snap to get some more air and throw myself out into the autumn air, nailing the building's corner with another webline to swing around. I sailed clear across the street in front of our apartment, stopped on the building across the street, and froze in a shadow halfway up while my spider sense clubbed me with what had become an almost familiar amount of brainstem-level terror.

There was the usual foot traffic for that time of night, a cool autumn evening, and there were several people moving down the sidewalks while city traffic prowled by at a relaxed pace in the wake of rush hour.

Couldn't the Ancients have waited until midnight? At least then, there wouldn't have been quite so many people around. Rude, these psychotic life-eating monsters. Very rude.

Mortia stood on the sidewalk outside my apartment building, wearing the same outfit as the day before, plus a long evening coat. She was staring thoughtfully at the building. The Rhino stood behind her in, I kid you not, a khaki trench coat you could have made a tent out of and a broadbrimmed fedora. He had a gym bag in one hand - it doubtless held the stupid hat.

My spider sense quivered, and I glanced down. Malos was on the sidewalk immediately below me, walking slowly down the length of the building like a pacing mountain lion, gazing thoughtfully up at lit windows. Down the block, Thanis was doing the same thing on the other side of the street from Mor-tia and the Rhino, neither of whom was headed into my building.

I sucked in a breath. So. They had a general idea where I was, but didn't know exactly where. That meant that they hadn't found out about Peter Parker, at least not yet, which in turn meant that they wouldn't know about Mary Jane - or Aunt May's place. Good. With that off my mind, I would be free to worry about myself - something which is really quite useful when one is in combat.

In fact, given that they were still searching, there was really nothing to be gained from a fight, except possibly getting tagged and tracked down. Not only that, but there were way too many people around who could get hurt. I decided to sidle out and run.

Which is when I got an object lesson in how important it is for prey to stay downwind of predators.

Hey, whaddya want from me? I lived my whole life in New York City. The only time I worried about the wind was during games at Yankee Stadium and in fights with real stinkers like Vermin and the Lizard.

Mortia suddenly tensed and then whirled, eyes intently scanning up and down the street - and then tracking up to me. I was hidden in deep shadow, invisible.

Invisible, for crying out loud. There aren't many people on the whole planet who can sneak around better than me, and I know invisible when I do it.

I guess nobody told Mortia that, though. She bared her teeth in a very slow, very white smile, and as she did, both Thanis and Malos froze in their tracks and looked up at me as well.

The Rhino continued to look around, evidently bored. It took him a second to notice Mortia, and then he squinted upward and around, expression puzzled.

I dove off my perch just as Malos ripped a steel wastebasket off of the sidewalk and chucked it at me. I hit a flagpole sticking out from the building three stories up, flung myself up, flicked a web-strand at Mortia's feet in midair with one hand while sending out a zipline down the street and hurling myself forward with the other. Thanis leapt at me as I did, and I had to contort and twist in midair to alter my trajectory and avoid him.

I hit the sidewalk rolling, then hopped up over a mailbox and landed on its other side, with Thanis coming hard behind me. I reached out and seized the parking meters on either side of me and ripped them from the concrete, one in each hand as Thanis approached.

I caught him on the end of one of the four-foot lengths of metal, the broken concrete jabbing into his belly, and planted the actual meter on the ground beneath me. This had the effect of slamming him in the breadbasket pretty hard, as well as keeping him physically away from me, sending him flying over my head, his flailing fingers missing me by an inch or more.

It was harder without my spider sense working at full power, but I assumed the worst - that Malos was already closing in - and bounded to one side, then up onto the wall, then into a double backflip that carried me all the way to the roof of an old Chevy sedan parked on the street.

My fears had been well founded. Malos missed catching me in a simple tackle by a fraction of a second, but the flip carried me straight over his head and behind him. He whirled around to face me, expression furious. I played "Shave and a Haircut" on his noggin with alternating blows of the parking meters. I put a lot of extra oomph into the "six bits" part, and the meters exploded in mounds of silver coins when I did.

Malos was driven back several steps by the impact, and his knees looked a little wobbly for a second.

But just for a second. Then he gave his head a shake, speared me with an annoyed glance, and started in again.

By that time, Mortia had torn her foot loose from where I'd webbed it to the sidewalk, and she was coming after me at a sprint. Wow, she was quick. And if she'd gotten out of my webbing that fast, she wasn't exactly as dainty as a schoolmarm in the muscle department, either.

Fighting all of them in the open was a losing proposition. Sooner or later Mortia and her brothers would be almost certain to inflict harm on the citizenry - and I had no illusions about outmaneuvering Mortia this time. If this went on too long or I got unlucky, she'd at least get to tag me. Once that happened, I could run, but not hide.

So, I needed somewhere to fight that would leave me with enough room to move around, while simultaneously being hostile to long lines of sight and relatively free of bystanders. New York being what it was - packed with people - unpopulated spaces tend to be the kinds of places no one wants to hang around in: places that are dangerous or unsettling to linger in, places where bad people do bad things.

So I headed for the nearest parking garage. I leapt onto an awning, bounced on it to gain speed, and whirled around a traffic light to get airborne. I took a long, long swing and flipped myself into a helplessly ballistic arch with Mortia only a few leaps behind me. I was making an easy target of myself, and she went for the opening, coming after me.

Excellent. I flipped in midair, gave her some webbing in the face with one hand, stuck a line to a passing garbage truck with the other, then joined the two, and watched the truck jerk her off-course and begin dragging her down the street. It looked painful. Also cool. I landed in a backward roll, flipped up into the air, and used a webline to whirl in a couple of big circles around a streetlight before throwing myself up onto the garage's roof. A little ostentatious, maybe, but this way Malos and Thanis would be certain to spot me. They looked like the types who might not exercise their brain cells very often. Malos showed up first, by climbing up the side of the parking garage. He wasn't sticking to the wall or anything amazing and stylish like that. Instead, he just made a claw shape with his fingers and sank their tips several inches into the concrete, like it was so much soft clay. He went up hand over hand very nearly as fast as I could have done it. He flipped himself up the last five or six feet and landed on his feet with credible grace. His silk shirt was torn in a couple of places where my follow-through with the meters had wreaked havoc, and both his shirt and his long black hair were covered with dust.

"You got dust all over that pretty shirt," I told him in a cheery tone.

"And your hair, too. And look, there are security cameras. Everyone is going to see you all mussed and disheveled."

"Oh dear," he said in a very low, velvety-soft voice, and walked toward me in no great hurry. "However will I survive?"

Then he turned to a dark green Volvo and picked it up.

They might be the safest cars in the world, but when they're thrown from an eight-story parking garage, I really doubt that their Swedish engineering does very much to soften the blow. So I simply hopped off the roof, popped the garage with a webline, and swung back in on the sixth level, out of Malos's sight, and hoped that he wouldn't waste the effort to throw the car.

A distinct lack of crashing crunches told me I'd been right, and I breathed a little sigh of relief - right up until Thanis stepped out of the shadows of a stairway in his expensive Italian suit and threw a haymaker at me.

I didn't sense him coming until the very last second. I got a little lucky. If he'd just reached out to touch me with his near hand, it probably would have been fast enough to land. He'd gone for the whole enchilada, though, and I had time to get my head out of his way. I danced to one side with Thanis breathing down my neck and dodged another pair of quick blows. He was good at throwing them, but I was better at getting out of their way. I could keep this guy from laying a glove on me, if I was careful, and if he didn't get any help - and if he didn't realize that I had no intention of hitting him back.

But he figured that part out - and within a few seconds, to boot - and the shape of the fight altered. It's like that in hand-to-hand combat. If you can simply discard the notion of protecting yourself from counterattack, it's a whole heck of a lot easier to get through an opponent's defenses with a focused, concentrated offensive, and it was suddenly everything I could do to keep him off me - until I ducked under a sledgehammer blow aimed at my neck. Thanis's fist hit the wall behind me, and shook loose a fire extinguisher from its mount on the wall.

I caught it on the way down and hollered, "Batter up!"

I swung with both hands and hit him. I didn't hold anything back. I don't do that very often, but for Morlun and his kin, I cared enough to send the very best.

There was a sound halfway between the ringing of a gong and the thump of a watermelon hitting the sidewalk, and Thanis left the garage by way of having his head line-drived through a section of concrete wall.

Without pausing, I cleared the pin from the firing mechanism of the extinguisher and sent a cloud of white chemicals billowing out behind me

- right into the face of Malos, who had emerged from the stairway in pursuit. He came through blind and aggressive. My second swing of the extinguisher lifted him from his feet and into the concrete roof above me, sending a web-work of cracks about twenty feet across it, and leaving the extinguisher bent into the shape of a boomerang.

"G'day, mate!" I shouted in a cheesy Australian accent, and whipped the extinguisher at him in a sidearm throw. The impact slammed his head back into the front grille of an old Impala, driving his skull into the body of the car up to his ears. "Spider-Man! That's Australian for 'Headache!'

"

The ground started to shake in rhythm, and the Rhino came pounding up the car ramp at a modest pace of thirty or forty miles an hour. He'd ditched the coat, the broad-brimmed hat, and his bag, and he had the silly rhino-head hat on. The fashion slave. He doesn't corner well, and he had to windmill his arms to keep his balance as he bent his course around the ramp. Then he saw me, bellowed, and came my way, picking up speed fast.

Figures. Someone I can actually punch finally shows up and it's already time to leave.

I charged him right back.

He wasn't expecting that, but after a fraction of a second of surprise, he simply lowered his horn and came at me faster, letting out a bellow as he did.

I waited until the last second, then bounded straight up and over him, and clung to the ceiling. As he passed, I tagged his broad gray butt with a webline, then sent another web at Malos, who was just then regaining his feet. And since it had already worked once, I merely joined the lines together.

The Ancient looked down as the webbing plastered itself to his silk and the belt area of his leather pants. Then he tracked the line of the web-strand back to the thundering Rhino.

He closed his eyes in irritation and sighed. "Oh, bother."

I gave him a cheerful, upside-down wave from where I crouched on the ceiling.

The Rhino tried to brake, but he had too much momentum going. He went out through the wall.

The line stretched a little, so that there was a Looney Tune instant of motionlessness, and then it snapped back like a bungee cord and dragged Malos out of the garage after the plummeting Rhino.

"Sometimes I amaze even myself," I said in a cheerful voice. Then I hurried to the far side of the garage and beat a hasty retreat. I'd delayed the Ancients long enough for Felicia to get MJ out of there, so there was no point in staying. It was time to fade out and fight another day.

Except that in the middle of fading, I saw Mortia running down the street back toward me, running on top of the power lines as if they were as wide as a city sidewalk. She spotted me, bounced like a diver on a board, flipped through the air, and landed at a bounding run. I saw that she was wearing one of those tiny headsets some cell phones have, and she was speaking into it as she pursued me.

Maybe thirty seconds later, the Rhino caught up to us and joined her.

He's a lot lighter on his feet than you'd think - he can top out at better than a hundred miles an hour, even if he can't change course much while he does so. Mortia looked like something out of Japanese anime, streaking along in a bounding run that would have run me down in about ten seconds flat on level ground.

I could use that speed against them, to keep them separated from Malos and Thanis.

So I poured it on, zipping down the street, using every trick I knew to move as fast as I possibly could. I didn't have an infinite amount of webbing, and I was burning through it fast, using its elasticity to maintain my momentum and add speed, while taking a lot of turns to prevent the Rhino from getting enough momentum to catch up.

Mortia came after me the way the Lizard always chased me - fast and nimble, bounding over cars and passersby, her feet hardly touching the ground. She leapt to sprint along window ledges occasionally, when traffic on the street was too high-volume.

The Rhino lumbered along the road in the mid-dle of the right-hand lane, passing cars and at one point shouldering aside a cabby who had tried to change lanes and was crowding him. The cab flew into the side of a building.

I made sure to keep the pace down just enough that they seemed to be catching up with me, always gaining a little ground, and as a result they never slowed. We left the other two Ancients to trail along blocks behind us - because while they were superstrong, they just didn't have the raw speed necessary to keep up with Mortia and the Rhino. I started changing the pace as we pulled away, hopping over a block this way, then doubling back and heading three blocks the other way, until I was sure Malos and Thanis were nowhere in the immediate area.

I went by Shea Stadium on long, slingshot-style weblines, zoomed over a line of docks filled with small commercial fishing vessels and largish pleasure boats, and came down in the hangars on the eastern end of La Guardia. Ongoing renovations had several of the enormous buildings gutted and under repair, separated from the rest of the place by those orange construction fences, so there wouldn't be many people around. It was nice and dark there, plenty of three-dimensional space to play in, and not many people.

I swung over the fence and landed on a little open space between acres of yawning buildings, bounced up onto the side of one of the hangars, and made myself scarce and sneaky in the abundant shadows.

Mortia came down practically in the same spot my feet had landed in and froze, her stance a marvel of liquid tension, her eyes open wide. The Rhino wasn't far behind her. He had to jump over the fence to get to her, maybe a seventy-five-foot hop, and nothing his enhanced muscles couldn't handle. He landed on the concrete beside her. The impact sent several cracks running through it, and it took the Rhino a few steps to arrest his momentum.

Mortia gave him another contemptuous look. Then she turned in a slow, slow circle, looking for me. But I'd kept downwind this time.

"You're quite clever," Mortia called out, turning in a slow circle. "But then, the spiders always are. Separating me from my brothers this way is an excellent tactic."

I wanted to make a comment about family therapy, but I kept my mouth shut.

"I should also like to thank you for your gifts," she said. She reached into a pocket and held up my spider tracer between two fingers. "My people tell me that this is some sort of tracking device. They say it was built quite cleverly, but out of unremarkable parts. Which told us that you were not a being of substantial material wealth. But then, spiders rarely are."

She held up the cravat next. "This potion upon my clothes, on the other hand, is quite expensive and quite rare. Even governmental military bodies do not use it; its availability and use is restricted to private security firms. And there can only be so many lovely young white-haired women with access to it."

True enough. Gulp.

"We will find you, spider. You will fall. It can be no other way. Once we learn your name, there will be no place for you to hide. There will be no way to protect those you love. But if you come forth and face me now, that need not happen. I do not know who your loved ones are, nor do I care. My business is with you. I have no interest in them, except in how I might use them to attain you. Come forth and we will depart, our business done. Deny me, and I will destroy them along with you."

For a minute I was tempted to deal with her. Anything I could do to keep the conflict between just myself and the bad guys was something that appealed to me. My fights had spilled over onto innocents far too many times. But I wasn't sure I could trust Mortia. If she really was here on a vengeance kick, she might well choose to take someone close from me, just as I had taken family from her.

Either way, the smart thing to do was to pull a swift fade, break contact, and let them flounder around looking for me. Definitely, that was the smart thing to do.

But no one threatens my family.

It took me maybe a second and a half to hit a scaffold on the opposite hangar, a heavy rig loaded with heavy steel structural support beams. I gave the scaffold a hard pull, and brought the entire stack of metal struts down onto Mortia and the Rhino, burying them in at least a ton of metal.

They weren't under it for long. The mess wasn't done settling before the Rhino started slapping struts away like they were so many drinking straws. Though Mortia did not seem to be the same kind of powerhouse as her brothers, she wasn't a wimp, either, and was able, with visible effort, to begin freeing herself from the tangled steel.

While she was doing that, I swung down at the Rhino and shouted, "Boot to the head!" as I kicked him there.

The Rhino flew into another stack of building materials - heavy-duty rebar and lumber. He came surging out of them with a bellow of anger and charged me, swinging. I let him do it like he always did it, barely dodging him - only this time I danced over toward Mortia, and just as she came to her feet, one of the Rhino's furious swings struck her squarely and slammed her back into the mound of twisted metal.

"Great hook! Thanks for the assist, big guy," I said in a cheery tone.

Then I popped him in the face with a glob of webbing, goosed him, and ran.

But not far.

I doubled back to the far side of the hangars, nipped up to the roof, found a place where I'd be neither scented nor seen, and waited to see what happened.

The Rhino ripped the webbing off his face and bellowed in frustration. He spun around looking for me, and naturally did not spot me.

Mortia sat up, her hair mussed. She might be tough as nails, but when the Rhino tags you, you know it, and I don't care who you are. Where Mortia hit the thicket of support struts, they had been mashed into a definite indentation. It matched her outline exactly. Her cold eyes locked onto the Rhino. "Well?"

"He is gone," the Rhino replied. He let out a frustrated growl and then turned to Mortia to offer her a hand up. "My apologies, ma'am. It was not my intention to strike you."

The Rhino could be polite?

"I told you not to commit yourself against him until I signaled you,"

Mortia said, rising. "You disobeyed me."

"Da," he growled, frustration evident in his voice. "I lost my temper. He makes me angry."

"You allow him to do so," she said in that same cold tone. "You are a fool."

The Rhino looked like he couldn't decide whether to be angry or chagrined. "One day, he will not be lucky. One day, I will strike him, once, and it will all be over."

Mortia looked at him for a moment and then said, "No. I do not think that will happen."

The Rhino glanced at her, a question on his face.

"You have just become more liability than asset," she said, quite calmly.

And then, in a motion so fast even I barely saw it, her hand shot out and clenched over the Rhino's face, her nails somehow digging into his superhumanly durable flesh. There was a flash of sickly greenish light beneath her fingers.

The Rhino screamed. Not a war bellow, not a cry of rage, not a shout of challenge. He screamed like a man in utter agony, screamed without dignity or any kind of self-control, and his superhumanly powerful lungs made it loud, loud enough to shake the ground and the shipping containers around him. His body bent into an agonized arch, and if Mortia hadn't been holding him up with one arm, he would not have remained standing.

Instead, she whirled with him, eyes burning with the cold light one might associate with a hungry python, and drove his skull into the same debris she had struck. "Pathetic little vessel. "You are worthless, incapable of even simple destruction. Be grateful that your life will at last have some sort of purpose."

The Rhino screamed again. Weaker.

I watched it in pure horror.

She was killing him.

The Rhino was no friend. But he was a longterm enemy, and in some ways that's close to the same thing. I've butted heads with him, metaphorically speaking, since my earliest days in costume. And Felicia was right about one thing: The Rhino wasn't a killer. So much so, in fact, that one time, when the Sinister Somethingorother had me dead to rights, the Rhino had refused to participate in killing me with his fellow villains and had, in fact, argued against it. Sure, he hated my guts. Sure, he wanted to beat me down once and for all, prove that he was better than me, stronger than me.

But he wasn't a killer.

The Rhino was one of the bad guys, but there were worse bad guys out there.

Like the one murdering him in front of my eyes.

That unholy light poured up through her fingers, showing the outlines of oddly shaped bones that belonged to something else, something other, a creature who did not feel, did not fear, did not care. Who only hungered.

Aleksei was still a human being. There was no way I would leave a human being, any human being, no matter his sins, in the hands of a creature like that.

I couldn't make a fight of it; the wonder twins would be coming along any minute. So I took a cheap shot. I got to my feet, dove toward Mortia, and shot a webline at the wall of the hangar behind me. As the line stretched, it slowed me, and I stuck a second line to Mortia's rear. The first line snapped me back, and as the second line stretched, I gave it a sudden hard pull with all the power I could summon. The resulting combination of tension and strength ripped her away from the Rhino, sent her tumbling cravat-over-teakettle into the evening air, and flung her over the hangar and out of sight. She let out a wailing, alien howl of rage as she went, one that blended in with the roar of a jet lifting off.

I landed on the ground near the Rhino and said, "Right. Never say I've never done anything nice for you."

The Rhino didn't reply. Or move.

I hopped over and checked on him. He was alive, at least, and he let out a soft, agonized moan. There was blood on his face, trickles of it coming from the marks Mortia's nails had left there. The skin was horribly dry and cracked, flakes coming off as he moaned again, as if his face had been left out in the desert sun for several days.

He was barely conscious, even with his enhanced resilience. If I left him there, he was as good as dead.

"For crying out loud," I complained. "I haven't got enough to do?"

Mortia screamed again. It sounded like she was a lot farther away this time, maybe all the way to the edge of the inlet. A second later, I heard another brassy, weird-sounding call from the opposite direction. Thanis and Malos were closing in.

"No good deed goes unpunished," I muttered. Then I bent down and slung the Rhino over my shoulder. The extra eight hundred pounds was going to make web-slinging difficult, but I couldn't just leave the loser there to die.

So I got moving again, if more slowly, this time carrying an unconscious foe, avoiding the incoming Ancients, and making my way back to MJ and Felicia.

 

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