I’d made a mistake coming down here. Maybe my last one. This was his territory, and I’d walked right into it. I imagined myself dragged down by dogs, devoured by rats, my corpse thrown in a dark corner. A lousy way to end up, but the Game was rarely kind to the losers.
I ran up the stairs as the mutts gave chase. At the top of the stairs, I slammed the door shut, but the hinges were rotten. It wasn’t going to hold long. Just long enough for me to get out of here.
The forsaken denizens of the tenement stood before me. Darkness covered them, but their eyes reflected in the shadows. Like Vermin’s. Like rats. These people, the forgotten, the devalued, the insignificant were his soldiers now. A wiry, wrinkled woman moved at the front. Her hands fell into a beam of moonlight coming through a hole in the wall, showing fingers tipped with black claws.
Whatever he’d done to them, they weren’t human anymore. No wonder Beggar had sent me in. With that kind of power, Vermin could cause a lot of damage. By transforming these poor bastards into his personal army, he might even become a Major himself. But worst of all, these people would lose what little humanity they had left, becoming what most of the world already perceived them to be. Vermin hadn’t brought them low, but he was the final indignity.
And now I was going to have to beat the hell out of them.
I adopted the dancing spider stance and motioned for her to make her move. “Sorry about this.”
With a feral howl, the army rushed forward. I knocked the lead out with a kick and punched two others hard enough to push the crowd back. Space was cramped, so I resorted to a flurry of knees and elbows. I couldn’t see a damn thing, but I trusted instinct to get me through. The sheer number and tenacity of my opponents threatened to overwhelm me. Claws tore my clothes, raked my flesh. One of the things (they weren’t really people anymore) bit me on the shoulder.
I grew stronger with each moment.
Beggar drew his Mojo from the city. Vermin got his from the shadows. But I found mine in the fight. With each bruise and shattered bone I inflicted, my Mojo grew. Even my own wounds powered me for they were the mark of an unstoppable warrior. The demon took me, and it was all a blur of fists and feet, pain and glory until I stood, bloodied, amid two dozen beaten foes.
Adrenalin and Mojo ran through me, the only thing keeping me standing. I leaned against a wall. I hated that I’d had to do this. I hated that Vermin had made me do it, and I hated that the demon had wanted me to do it. It only cared about the fight. It didn’t care about the reason, but I cared. I wanted to care. I needed to. Otherwise, I was no better than Vermin who had the power to be a savior for the forgotten but was only there to exploit them.
I wouldn’t kill just because the Mojo wanted me to.
The door’s hinges busted open, and the dogs and an army of rats and bugs stepped out. Vermin, smiling, stood at the edge of darkness.
“Impressive,” he said. “But there are always more.”
“You could’ve helped them,” I said.
“I did help them. I showed them where they belonged. Now leave before I change my mind, and don’t come back.”
I stood, held my fists before me.
He laughed. “You can’t honestly think you can win a fistfight against bugs.”
I pushed forward, and all my exhaustion faded. The demon spoiled for a fight, and this was one fight I was happy to offer up.
The dogs moved to meet me, but I somersaulted over them, landing ankle deep in rats and roaches. Vermin retreated into the safety of darkness, but I caught him by the arm. Twisting, I threw him down the hall, where he landed with a thud. I ignored the pain as his pets bit into my flesh and charged through his dogs. I shoved one into the wall with a forearm and another I caught by the scruff of the neck and threw aside. I dodged the third and hoisted Vermin over my shoulder.
I ran. The screeches of a thousand angry rodents followed behind me. His minions crawled in the walls. Bugs poured from cracks in the ceiling, and several homeless thralls blocked the way out.
Roaches ran up my leg while creepy crawlies ran down my back. I ended up in a room with boarded up windows. I set Vermin down and caught my breath. Running had weakened me. The demon loved a fight but hated a coward.
“You idiot,” said Vermin. “Now I’m going to fucking kill you and send your head back to Beggar.”
I thought about saying something clever, but snappy patter had never been my strong point. I unleashed a rhino horn fist into his chest. He flew across the room, smashing through a window. I climbed out after him to emerge in the half-finished courtyard of this abandoned project.
He covered his face from the moonlight coming down through the overcast sky. The rain had stopped but the humidity still clung to the air. The night felt like a spotlight compared to the darkness of the tenement. He scrambled for safety, but I grabbed him by the ankle and broke his leg. He shrieked.
His army of rodents and insects poured into the courtyard. His thralls were reluctant to step into the light. They lurked in the pools of shadow.
“Now you’re dead!” screamed Vermin.
I waited for his minions to tear me apart, but they only stood there.
Beggar appeared, pushing his squeaky grocery cart. The old shaman raised his head as if first noticing us. He blew his nose on his sleeve, and the thralls, human again, stepped into the light. The rats closed in on Vermin.
“I’m your master.” The fear in his voice betrayed him. The Game had many domains. He was no longer in his own.
I touched the scratches on my cheek. “I’m not going to get rabies, am I?”
Beggar tossed me a bottle of pills from his coat pocket. “Take these. You’ll be fine.”
The bottle was marked aspirin, but a gift from the shaman of the city was the best medicine. “You don’t need me for this, do you?”
Beggar shook his head.
I didn’t ask how he planned on dealing with Vermin. I didn’t care what happened to the son of a bitch. I’d have killed him myself, but this was between them.
I popped an aspirin and walked out of that courtyard while behind me, Vermin screamed. The demon chuckled, and I did my best to ignore it.