Written by Chad Salmond with some help by yours truly. I wish we could show you more than this but we have some awesome plans! Hope you enjoy the chapter! We'd love to hear what you think of it after reading it!
He passed through the bank of metal detectors, his head still ringing with the admonition of the other Six: The old museum, once a secure and lucrative center for various types of trade had become little more than a money pit. Patrons, once lured in the dozens by academic pursuits, were dwindling due to the ready access of the internet. Facts, figures, schematics, and photographs were accessible at the click of a button. None of his anthropologists had published in months.
Willard plucked at his fingernails as he ruminated on his predicament. And now the other six Sins were adding pressure to the already crushing weight of imminent failure. Perhaps expanding from anthropology to include art or natural history? He shook his head absently as he strode towards the central exhibit hall. The guards--the conventional ones at least, had been dismissed from the area. His personal guards, more heavily armed and and less inhibited, followed at his elbows.
No. The Syndicate was demanding something less orthodox--more drastic. He bit at his finger and spat a piece of cuticle. Along with auctions, the museum already stood as a center for curios trading, but the truth was that the old money already had their fill of collectibles, and the new money was being spent on new toys. Even the black market had its fill of historical knick-knacks. The Syndicate had suggested expanding his black market catalogue, but the other Sins retained a monopoly on most goods. Gluttony had a corner on narcotics… Lust had human trafficking.
Willard reached to his right and his guard handed him a ceramic mask. He stood at the threshold of the large exhibit and stared at the mask for a moment or two. The long, horse-like face sneering in contempt. Pride. He sighed as he flipped on the wireless microphone inside and slipped the mask over his face.
The Brotherhood of Pride, Willard’s thirteen most trusted associates, stood ceremoniously as he stepped toward the podium. He went through the pomp of opening the meeting, even though he worked daily with the curators, anthropologists, accountants and historians who surrounded him. He wore the mask as a symbol, not a disguise. The meeting opened, he outlined the museum’s agendas and goals. He confided with the Brotherhood about changes in the Syndicate’s expectations and opened the floor for suggestions.
Willard trusted these men not because they were capable, intelligent, and responsible--although many of them were. No. He trusted them for their insatiable hunger for power and control. That was the carrot, and Willard held the stick.
As the floor opened for discussion, the Brotherhood erupted with proposals, followed closely by a barrage of well constructed criticism. Willard simply had to wait until fault finding turned into personal insults, then backtrack to the faultless proposal that had invited the childish insults of a defeated critic.
In the meantime, Willard sauntered around the hall, admiring his exhibits. South African tribal costumes… ceremonial knives… an ancient Mesopotamian fertility idol. Wait. This was curious…
He tapped the chest of the guard to his left with his knuckle. “This piece.” he said, indicating a large jade statue. “How long have we had it?”
“Mmm… Not sure,” the hulk replied.
“Not a clue, huh? I might’ve known.” Willard muttered. The Brotherhood had gone silent. Willard turned to them, realizing that his mic was still broadcasting to the local PA. Well, as long as he had their attention.
“Brethren. Who cleared this blatantly eastern temple piece for display in the western tribal exhibit?” He inquired.
Connelly stood and proclaimed “It wasn’t here when I left this afternoon, sir. Jackson relieved me at shift’s end!” The infantile curator actually pointed at Mr. Jackson who stood bewildered, and pointed his finger right back. Before Jackson could retort, Willard waved his hand dismissively.
“No matter. We’ll review the recordings and have it worked by morning. I seem to remember this piece from the collection,” Willard lied.
He turned to regard the piece. Roughly two meters tall, the piece was intricately carved from several large slabs of jade. The style indicated that it was from the early Han dynasty, though the material, a dark misty jade, appeared somewhat newer. In fact, the entire piece was exquisitely preserved.
Willard stepped closer and inspected the lion’s teeth. The edges were too sharp, too crisp; the structure remarkably symmetrical. He felt the tooth with his thumb and forefinger. It was cold and hard as jade, but too smooth for its age. He leaned closer,squinting. In the lion's throat, under the surface, the jade appeared to shift slowly.
“I believe,” said Willard as he peered between the lion’s jaw, “we've received a fake.” His eyes widened as the jade in the throat began to lose its luster and sublimated into a jade mist, which fell from between the lion's jaws.
“You’re sharper than I anticipated,” a sharp, confidant voice echoed from within the lion’s mouth.
A fiercely clawed jade hand shot from the mist, grasped Willard’s tie, and jerked him towards the lion’s nose. The ceramic Pride mask shattered and fell away in pieces as his head collided with the stone. Mist rushed around him. Shocked and slightly concussed, Willard was powerless to fight against the claw that grasped his left wrist and pulled him into the suddenly insubstantial statue. Cold pressure spread across his body and locked him into position.
“Stay awake,” the voice whispered in his ear, “Pay attention.”
Willard fought against the pain and the enclosing darkness. Thick mist obscured his vision and he somehow retained the presence of mind to hold his breath. A dull, rhythmic thudding could be heard nearby. Willard struggled, flexing each limb in turn. His face and outstretched left hand remained free, but every other inch of his body was encased in cool, hard stone. He heard a deep grunt and then a moan.
The mist began to coalesce into a figure perhaps a meter in front of him. Unable to move his head, Willard locked his eyes on the emerging thing, transfixed. It seemed blurry for a moment before solidifying into an insectile being of humanoid proportions. The green mist evaporated into nothing.
Willard glanced quickly around in panic. He was indeed encased in a dark green substance, though he abandoned the idea that it might be stone, or any other material that he was familiar with. His left arm was raised, his left hand palm up and free of the substance. From the corners of his eyes, he could see his two massive guards, lying on the floor, struggling to free themselves. Their wrists were bound to their ankles, hog-tied with manacles.
Willard thought he ought to be facing the center of the exhibit hall, but the bug-thing stood confidently in front of an intricately carved jade-colored wall. Its huge, enigmatic eyes stared fixedly at Willard.
A voice emerged from the thing. It seemed the same as the voice that had whispered from the statue, except it was accompanied by a reptilian rattle and hiss. The mandibles parted slightly as the thing spoke, revealing something vaguely soft and mammalian underneath.
“You look surprised, Willard,” it whispered, approaching slowly. Its feet clicked. “I had hoped that you might be prepared. I gave you ample notice of my impending visit.”
Willard’s mind raced. Surely he would have remembered a visit from this ethereal, alien creature. He tried to force something out. A response. A scream. Anything. But nothing came. With an effort of will he blinked.
“You’d think that ten years would be enough time to prepare. It was more than enough for me. Never mind.” The thing was within reach, but Willard was trying his best to bend his hand away to keep from touching it. “Let’s get you mobile. I’ll need your help with this next part.”
It touched his left wrist lightly for a moment and Willard felt himself raise perhaps a centimeter. Willard cringed as the thing grasped his pinky then gasped as it sharply twisted the finger.
“Let’s get them on the ground.” The creature touched the green wall and two sharp cracks sounded from it in quick succession. It sounded remarkably like gunfire.
Abruptly, the creature swung Willand in an arc toward the edge of the wall. Evidently the bug-thing had raised Willard onto wheels of some kind. His arm struck the corner of the structure and sent him spinning into the space beyond. He realized with some relief that he was, in fact, still in the museum. As his spin slowed, he noticed the Brotherhood crouching behind the three long tables that formed a ‘U’ shape around the podium. Several handguns were trained on him.
“No! No no!” he shouted as best he could through clamped jaws. “Don’t shoot! It’s Willard! Pride! I’m Pride!” He coasted to a stop in the center of the tables, past the podium. Conveniently, he was facing the direction of the jade structure. “There! Behind that! Whatever it is it’s behind that wall!” His garbled words were hardly intelligible, but his frantically stabbing finger got the point across.
As he pointed he watched the bottom of the barrier melt away as it lifted. Slowly the barrier began to advance.
“Shoot that!” shouted Willard, adding a few expletives of encouragement. Shots rang out from all around him and he saw sparks bursting across the advancing shield. It remained undamaged. Willard felt a vibration as a bullet hit him in the back. He cussed again and demanded that they be more careful.
The shield halted when it reached the edge of the tables and again fused with the ground. It began to bend and mold as the more zealous Brotherhood members continued to empty their magazines. A version of the bug thing stepped through the barrier, though it was much bulkier than before. The barrier melted and fused with its armor. After a stunned silence, several more shots were fired.
“Save your bullets!” the creature yelled. Its mandibles opened wider as it shouted and Willard could see more clearly what was inside. Were those… lips?
It shuffled towards the center of the tables and once more stood before Willard. To his left, Willard heard another shot ring out and the twang of a ricochet. Then to his right, from the corner of his eye, he saw Johansen stagger and fall to the floor clutching his chest.
“It’s hard to account for stupid, isn’t it,” the creature commented to Willard, indicating the shooter. “Honestly. Newton is spinning in his grave. Inertia! Trajectory! We’re talking about middle school physics. For the record, I did not kill that man.”
Willard stared. This invincible insect-man from beyond the stars was just standing there giving a lecture about crossfire to a group of former mercenaries.
“Who are you?” called Connely from directly behind Willard. “What is it you want?”
“What do I want?” the creature calmly replied without a hint irony. “I want a challenge. I want a fair fight. I want a victory that isn’t hollow.”
Willard noticed a change in the creature. It was losing mass as it spoke. But rather than being comforted by this fortuitous change in circumstances, he felt a creeping dread. He was beginning to get a glimmer of understanding. It was stalling. He searched his limited view quickly, trying to find… there. On the ground. Tendrils of green mist crept away from the creature’s feet in four directions, silently pulling substance away from it. He couldn’t see where it was headed.
“But more than anything,” the thing paused and inclined its head towards Willard. “I want revenge.”
“Get down!” Willard yelled, but it was too late. With a crash, the tables rocketed into the air, spinning wildly away from Willard and the thing. The podium exploded into a glass display case, sending wood and glass skittering across the floor.
The creature grabbed Willard by the pinky and pulled him to the right, towards the three men that remained. As it walked, Willard could see it forming a device on its left forearm, which it raised and pointed at the man on the left.
“And as for who I am,” it called over the sound of crashing debris. It fired a large claw from the device at Mr. Phillips. The claw’s three digits grasped Phillips' face on impact. The bulky device knocked him to the ground. Phillips writhed, clawing at his face.
“You can call me Mantis.” He pulled two sticks the size of his forearm from nowhere and began to rapidly pummel Christopher McMahon. The thing kept Willard between itself and the rest of the armed men as it delivered several quick strikes to McMahon’s ribs, arms, neck, and knees. McMahon fell to the ground, trying to decide which part of himself to hold in pain.
The next man, whose name escaped Willard for a moment, raised his arms to defend himself. The Mantis’ sticks broke at the midpoint and chained into nunchaku, which it used to disorient and grapple with the other man. Grant, Willard thought, as the man was choked out and sank to the floor.
Mantis kicked Willard backward and he met resistance after several meters. A man stumbled around Willard and pointed a gun at the thing’s face while Jackson rushed behind the Mantis. A third man to the right was collecting himself, bouncing around like a prizefighter.
The Mantis quickly disarmed the gunman while delivering a crippling kick to his ribs. As the gunman staggered back, Jackson rushed forward to wrap his arm around the thing’s ‘throat’, but before he could get hold the Mantis twisted and shot the man in the foot, then threw the firearm at the head of the man bouncing to Willard’s right. Jackson favored his foot as the thing turned, raised its ‘foot’ impossibly high, and dropped the foot on the crown of Jackson’s head. Jackson went down fast and didn’t stir.
The mantis came towards the prizefighter and raked his right elbow up and back down, breaking his guard and then his nose. It then jabbed its right knee into the man’s ribs. while dropping its left elbow into his clavicle. Audible cracking filled the relative silence.
Willard had been pushed towards the corner of the hall. To his left, he noticed the remaining five Brotherhood members struggling to stand. A large slab connected four of the men by their ankles and they were trying to stand simultaneously. The fifth man was helping to lift them. As they heaved, they managed an upright position for a moment but were slammed onto their backs. A lever had sprung from the bottom of the slab. Willard was not surprised to note the color of the slab: Green.
The Mantis was walking toward Willard, calm and relaxed. It stopped and tapped its foot against a large device on the floor. The device, a spring loaded cantilever, had evidently been used to launch the center table. As the Mantis watched the four struggling men, their slab melted into mist and formed a long, narrow cage around them. Inspecting the ground, Willard noticed a small dark wire extending from the launching device to the center of the room, then to the newly formed cage.
The thing must need physical contact in order to affect a change in the intermittently amorphous green material. Willard tried to formulate a plan to take advantage of this new insight, but he imagined it was already too late. The last five Brotherhood members were corralled and Willard stood just as motionless as ever. He couldn’t even shift his weight enough to tip himself over. He wiggled his hand ineffectually and watched the Mantis approach the cage.
The men were still rising to their feet when Mantis reached the cage and opened a gate, which only appeared at that moment and would only permit the exit or entrance of one person. The mist was flowing around the thing’s ankles and his armor was getting thinner. Through the joints, Willard could see some blue, black, and pinkish material. He gave it a moment’s thought as the Mantis beckoned the first man out of the cage. It almost looked like…
Impossible. Willard thought in disbelief. Blue jeans and a T-shirt and that must be skin. And is… is that hair at the bottom of its... helmet? His knees would have buckled if not for the support of the encasing material. He couldn’t believe his eyes: The Mantis was human!
Willard concentrated fiercely as the Mantis dispatched the men one by one, closing the gate behind each man as he left the cage. Their cell kept getting smaller and smaller, forcing them to exit when the door opened. In each case, the thing--no, the man--would wait for the Brotherhood member to attack before countering aggressively. His fighting style changed dramatically from moment to moment. He danced wildly while flailing his arms about, delivering powerful blows packed with inertia, then planted and threw his opponent. One moment he was a drunken master, the next he was a flitting snake. Rigid, then fluid; immovable object, then unstoppable force.
One by one he dispatched them, leaving them writhing on the floor. The last man stood in the cage. It was Linkletter. He stood immobile, defiant. Mantis widened his stance and beckoned for Linkletter to approach him. Linkletter pursed his lips. Mantis gestured more emphatically with his arm. Linkletter shook his head.
Mantis stood fully erect, shrugged, and abruptly the chain cage that held Linkletter crumpled inward. The entire disfigured wreckage fell to the floor. Willard could hear Linkletter wheezing shallowly. All around him the Brotherhood groaned. Several were unconscious, the rest effectively disabled. A pool of blood had formed around Johansen’s inert form.
Silently the Mantis sauntered around the hall and restrained his conquests, using several devices as varied and elaborate as his fighting style had been. One man was chained to the floor by a bear trap, another held by a structure resembling a medieval pillory. When He had finished securing the Brotherhood, he returned to Willard
The Mantis stood for a moment and seemed to sigh. His armor fell off of his body and clattered to the floor as he turned towards Willard. Willard would have gasped if his lungs could expand that far. The thing, the terror that had disarmed and disabled two extensively trained bodyguards and thirteen retired mercenaries, was little more than a boy, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, with dark hair and indeterminate features. Barefoot,he wore distressed blue-jeans and an ill-fitting black T-shirt with a small logo on the right shoulder.
“Well,” said the Mantis. “I can see you’re still surprised. Hard to take in?” The boy sauntered over, spreading his hands at his sides. “Do you remember me yet?”
Willard tried to shake his head no, but reminded himself for the umpteenth time that he was completely immobile.
“No,” he said simply.
“Can’t say I blame you. I suppose without an eidetic memory it would be nearly impossible to remember every life you ruined. It doesn’t matter.” The boy reached Willard and locked eyes with him. Though shorter than him, the boy commanded an impressive presence. There wasn’t a trace of fear or anxiety in his deep green eyes.
“What do you want from me, boy?” Willard hissed defiantly. The child was acting out some absurd fantasy. Unmasked, he seemed little more than a feculent brat.
“Ha!” he barked, throwing his head back. “I’ve already told you what I want from you! I want a challenge. I want a fair fight. I want a victory that won’t be hollow. And I want revenge.” He spoke the last sentence quietly and deliberately, punctuating each word.
“So,” he continued, “You give me a challenge, I’ll ensure a fair fight, I’ll obtain that satisfying victory, and then I’ll take my revenge. Deal?”
“No guarantees,” Willard replied through bared teeth.
The boy smiled deviously, placed his hand on Willard’s chest, and pushed him out of the fog that had been his prison. He staggered back and regained his balance.
“I should warn you.” Willard worked his jaw and shook his injured pinky then started again. “I should warn you that although I accepted a desk job, I never lost my edge. I spar weekly with my sensei. 50 is the new 35” He circled his opponent, removing his suit coat and wrenching his tie loose. He was searching for a weakness. The boy wasn’t defending. He wasn’t even watching.
“You’re stalling,” Mantis replied. “But take your time. Remember, I want this fair.”
Willard lunged suddenly, throwing all of his weight into a right hook. The boy took it, stepping back with his right foot to balance. He stood erect once more arms at his sides, and glared at Willard. A trickle of blood ran from his nose.
“The first one’s free,” he stated.
Willard lunged with a left jab, aiming through the boy’s face to the back of his head. He met no resistance, but quickly regained his balance. The boy had ducked and swerved around to Willard’s side. He tried several jabs and hooks in quick succession. The Mantis dodged or diverted his blows with ease. He dropped and swung his leg at the boy’s ankle, but the boy nimbly somersaulted, narrowly clipping Willard’s nose with his toe as he did so.
From his crouch, Willard lunged and wrapped his arms around the boy’s chest in a crushing bear hug.. He couldn’t seem to catch the boy in a second punch. Before he could wrestle the boy to the ground, he felt hands grasp his shirt at the waist and shoulder. He was flat on his back, a slight ringing in his ear.
“Get up,” the boy said.
Willard stood, cracked his neck, and shook out his shoulders. “I can see you’re well trained and versatile. But perhaps you’ve failed to account for my greater size and strength.”
“Was that supposed to be intimidation? Really. The fear in your eyes undermines your stratagem. Fight,” he commanded.
The blood was smeared on the boy’s chin. He could bleed. Willard lunged again, feinting and dodging, keeping the boy guessing, or so he hoped. With supernatural speed, the youth kept one step ahead of Willard. He felt the heel of a hand drive upwards against his chin, rolled with it and deflected. He lashed out furiously with several lightning kicks. The boy dodged then caught a kick and spun Willard away. Willard used the momentum to launch a flying roundhouse, missed, and ended up on one knee.
“Get up,” the Mantis demanded.
Willard fumed. If there’s one thing that Pride cannot stand, it’s humiliation. He reached for his ankle holster, pulled out his revolver, aimed and squeezed the trigger. He heard a click, but the gun didn’t fire. Click. Click click. He examined the mechanism. Pulling the hammer revealed a small piece of sculpted green material. A pair of tiny insect eyes stared up at him above tiny mandibles. He tried frantically to scratch the material out with his fingernail, but the Mantis’ kick interrupted his efforts.
“You’ve owned that firearm for seven years, thirteen days,” The Mantis explained as Willard lifted himself onto an elbow, holding his head. “The holster is newer. Eight months, ten days. You’ve carried since University and visit the firing range regularly. Your aim is acceptable, but your cleaning habits are atrocious. Now get up.”
He lifted himself slowly and glared through hooded eyes. Outraged, he roared as he threw himself into a wide arching hook. The wind was knocked out of him, but before the blinding pain of his broken sternum reached his conscious mind, a jarring strike to his temple knocked him off balance. His knee was suddenly and painfully jerked in an unnatural direction. It gave way and he fell to the floor.
He lay on his side, desperately trying to fill his lungs. Ringing filled his ears and sharp pain assailed his other senses. He tried to form cohesive thoughts, but all he could experience was pain. Slowly the ringing subsided to be replaced by yelling. Tears were welling in Willard’s eyes and he could barely make out the hunched figure advancing towards him.
“... for ten years!” The boy’s face was scarlet. Blood dripped from his chin. He gesticulated wildly. “You had exactly the same amount of time to prepare! What? You didn’t think I was a threat?! You didn’t think I was serious?! You sat on your hands all this time and forgot?! How could you not be ready?! Not just woefully unprepared, but apparently completely ignorant of the threat!”
Willard began to push himself away from the boy, stricken suddenly by fear and pain. He tried to push with his right leg, but the knee was severely sprained. He whimpered.
The boy paused, mid-tirade, to stare at Willard. He composed himself, standing straight and shaking his head clear. He flicked a lock of hair from in front of his eyes. “Get up.”
“I can’t,” Willard wheezed. “My leg… it’s… I can’t.”
The Mantis shifted his gaze away from Willard and stared pointedly. Hesitantly, Willard followed his gaze to LInkletter’s crumpled form, still tangled in the mess that was once a cage. Linkletter had refused to fight.
“Get. Up.” the boy repeated..
Favoring his left leg, he carefully lifted himself to his feet. He cringed at the pain in his chest as he tried to stand erect. As soon as Willard lifted his head and made eye contact with the Mantis, the boy bared his teeth and struck.
Hammer blows pummeled Willard’s chest and legs. Willard raised his arms to protect his head, but fists, knees, elbows, and feet seemed to be flying from every direction. Even through the pain, willard found it incredible that he was still standing. Every blow that should have knocked him down was counterbalanced with another, yet each new blow struck an uninjured patch. Willard kept his body tensed, marveling at each new pain. Endorphins flooded his system, dulling the world.
His left arm was suddenly wrenched behind him. He could hear the boy huffing quietly in his ear. His pinky throbbed in the boy’s grip.
“By now the body’s natural analgesics have flooded your cutaneous nervous system,” the boy whispered, “Which means I cannot cause you any pain at a superficial level.”
The Mantis shifted his weight and Willard’s wrist snapped. Willard screamed. As he was beginning to catch his breath the boy jerked again, dislocating Willard’s shoulder and cracking the humerus. Blackness crowded the edge of Willard’s vision as he whimpered.
“I have money,” Willard spluttered, blood dribbling from his mouth, “I have so much money. Millions. And I can get more. Take all of it. Leave now and you can have it all.”
“No,” said the boy. He wrenched harder.
Willard dropped to his sprained knee. “Power!” he said between gasps. “You can have my seat on the council. You can be Pride itself!”
“No,” Said the boy. He forced Willard to both knees and doubled him over. He could feel his own hand brush against his left ear.
Through clenched teeth, Willard pleaded, “Anything! Anything you want! Just don't kill me!”
The boy dropped Willard’s arm. He clutched at it and sobbed gently as he kneeled. He was beyond broken.
The boy gave a chuckle. “Nine minutes and thirty-two seconds ago I told you exactly what I want. It was a delightful challenge to enter your museum and disable your brotherhood. Unfortunately, I abandoned hope for a fair fight after you threw your first punch. This victory, though somewhat satisfying, wasn’t quite fulfilling. Acceptable, but not noteworthy. What you’re about to experience, for the remainder of your pitiful existence, is my revenge.”
The boy strolled away and tapped his foot against a piece of discarded armor, which sublimated instantly. The jade mist began to spread across the hall, melting a few of the Mantis artifacts it touched until an inch or two of mist blanketed the floor.
As Willard watched through tear-filled eyes, the mist began to crawl towards him. Tendrils snaked up and around his huddled body. He could feel pressure climbing up his legs as well as a rising, inexorable fear. It felt like insects crawling up his skin. Mist covered his eyes and he squeezed them shut. The pressure crept slowly until his head was encased.
“You can’t give me what I want. But that’s alright. I’m perfectly capable of taking it.”
Clockwork ticks filled Willard’s ears and the pressure increased incrementally across his body. Abruptly and involuntarily he stood, propelled mechanically to his feet. His eyes sprang open in surprise. The Mantis, in full armor more intricate and ornate than ever, stood inches from his face. For the first time, Willard noticed the smell that had subtly replaced the smell of mildew and dust in the last few minutes: Like a freshly mown lawn.
Its mechanical mandibles worked as it spoke. “As for sparing your life,” It rattled, “ I never said I was going to kill you.” He disappeared from Willard’s field of vision, his feet clicking. “Though if I do this right, you'll wish I had.”
Willard tested his restraints. As he flexed his right arm, he felt the plates around his left thigh cinch tighter. Straining his neck produced a similar tightness around his abdomen.
“Please, struggle.” The Mantis’ feet scraped as he shifted his position behind Willard. “By all means. But whatever you do, don’t sneeze.”
Willard felt a chill as a plate on the back of his neck vaporized. The Mantis' hot breath made the hair on his neck stand on end. Willard started to open his mouth to protest, but as he worked his jaw, pressure increased around the crown of his skull.
“When I've finished this procedure, you'll have difficulty communicating with your colleagues. It may be challenging for you to meet my demand. However, it is vital that you convey this one thing for me. I recommend eye tracking software, though you'll have little choice in the matter.” He chuckled softly, then paused and sighed. “You see, Willard, I'm not angry about your performance tonight. I'm disappointed. After all of this time, you have remained blissfully and woefully unprepared for our encounter.”
The Mantis' hands probed and prodded at Willard's neck.
“When it finally dawns on you who I am, remind your ilk of the occasion. Warn them. Exhort them. Tell them everything you can. And tell no one else. If your friends are surprised by my visits... Well I'd prefer not to contact you again, but our second encounter will be our last.”
The fingers stopped and a cold, sharp object pressed lightly above them. The pressure began to increase and the fingers lifted.
“Severing between the C3 and C4 vertebrae will cause quadriplegia. With precision and some luck, you'll retain diaphragm function. Don't move.”
Willard felt a sharp pain that originated in his neck and coursed throughout his entire body, and then nothing. Disconnection. He felt as though he was floating. He struggled to breathe.
“I'll just seal you up and be on my way.”
A few moments later Willard's vision shifted. He dropped to the floor with a thud, his support removed. He lay there, watching the intricate boots of the Mantis as they clicked around the exhibit, gathering green artifacts and releasing the Brotherhood. After a brief scuffle with a released accountant, the boots returned to stand before Willard.
“I wonder if I ought to extract a vertebrae to eliminate the possibility of recovery,” he mused, pausing and shifting his weight. “No. No, it's better to give him false hope.” He dropped an instrument that clattered in front of Willard's face then positioned it with the toe of his boot.
“Huh.” He said, mildly alarmed. “You're still conscious! You stay here. I'll call an ambulance for you.” He shuffled away, carrying a mass of jade on his back.
Willard watched him walk out of the exhibit, silently pleading and cursing. He could hear Linkletter wheezing, released from his crumpled cage. The other members of the brotherhood were beginning to shift out of shock and back into reality. With nothing else to do, Willard's mind wandered, reviewing the long list of people who had grievances against him. He closed his eyes with some effort and mentally checked them off. Most were either dead by his own hand or members of the Syndicate.
As he opened his eyes, they rested on the jade instrument lying in front of his face. It appeared to be a kitchen knife: A traditional chef's knife made from the same material that the Mantis had used for all of his instruments. His mind leaped back ten years to the days when he was merely a thug who barely understood the vastness of The Seven Sins. To an encounter in a forest. With a boy.
Oh. Willard thought, watching the mixed blood and spinal fluid dry at the end of the knife. It finally clicked.Him.
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