Angel Cross was the first person who started briefing us. When she spoke, it was a bit slowly and hesitantly. It must be a bit weird for her to speak and not be able to hear herself and adjust. Anyway, she said that there are apparently servants of the Rake, called “maenads.” They’re not very well-known, to the point that Last didn’t even know they existed. In fact, he claims that they may not have existed in our universe until she mentioned them.
“I’m hoping that we can lure the Rake out by killing some maenads,” she said. “It might not care enough about them, but it’s worth trying to attract its attention.”
Last nodded at her and took over. “There’s a colony of them about five hour’s drive away. We’re going to go in and split into groups. Of course, even if the Rake doesn’t show up, that means that pretty much the entire colony’s going to be after us. We go in, hit a few groups, book it out, and keep them off of us until the Rake shows up. Or we have to retreat. Angel, Boston Black, Gabe, you’re in one group. Kenny, Alicia, Fang, you’re in a second. Phones, Mantis, Reaper, Magpie, you’re the the third. Wraith, you’ve got support. Crimson, Inspector, you’re with me.”
Last adjourned the meeting after that. I browsed the internet some that night to calm my nerves. I checked my e-mail, and found this waiting for me from Raggedy:
"I have one last tip for your training before you go off into battle that I wish I had given you before. I may seem obvious but trust, it is the difference between life and death.
“Feel the battle. Feel its flow. Pick your moment. Never strike for the sake of striking them. Every blow is important. Just hurting them is pointless. All it will do is piss them off. Only strike when you know it will have an effect, whether it is dealing them a critical blow or delivering a blow that will give you enough time to get you back into your zone. That is the only way to ensure victory.
“Remember. Pick your moment.”
It helped. It really did. I’d been freaking out about this battle, since it was the first time I’d be knowingly going into a fight. He was right: it did seem obvious. But it was what I needed to hear, and it helped calm my nerves, if even just a little bit.
We took off for the colony the next day in the “Party Bus.” Alicia sat in the seat across from me. She was dressed in weighted gloves, jean shorts, and a tight-fitting shirt that left her midriff exposed, along with a gun and knife strapped to her waist. Maggie leaned over the seat and poked my shoulder. “You know that you’ve got about as much chance with her as I do with Crimson, right?” she murmured.
“Yes, I know, shut up.” She chuckled and sat back down. I looked across the seat to Alicia and tried starting up conversation. After all, we’d have to fight together soon.
“So, uh…you have much combat experience?”
She looked over at me, fairly stone-faced. She’s quiet and stoic like that most of the time, which makes Shine’s emergences all the more striking. “Depends. Some people would say my record of seventy-nine proxy kills isn’t much, but I’ve only been at it for a few months, so, meh. You?”
“Seventy—I…um…wow. I, um…I’ve, uh, never actually killed anyone before. Most all my training is self-defense.”
“Well, I prefer not to kill anyone either. But when your hideouts are raided every week by a group of proxies…well, it’s kill or be killed, and I’d rather it’s them than me.” She let out a sigh.
“Oh. Well…I’m glad you’re on our side, I guess.” I sat back and fell silent after that. I didn’t exactly know how to feel. It seems like most people around me are so ready and willing to kill. Seventy-nine people…most serial killers don’t rack up that big of a body count. I know that all our situations are somewhere between war and self-defense, but is it necessary to kill so many? That’s not a rhetorical question. We’re going on the offensive against Fears, and there are a lot of various people serving them. Will I end up needing to kill that many people? Will I grow numb to it? The thought terrifies me.
At the same time—seventy-nine is an impressive number, and Alicia’s an impressive person to have bested that many. It seems like everyone around me is like that: some sort of superhuman, or at very least, grizzled and experienced. The Masks all have combat experience and the skills and/or wits to put them to use against the Fears, the Inspector has influence over the Fears, Wayward’s basically the MacGyver of flammables and explosives, Raggedy can do his thing with the Yu-Gi-Oh cards, Rogue Shadow can use magic, for crying out loud, and that’s without going into all of you that I haven’t met in person. You all have these amazing skills or can pull of amazing feats…and I’m just a normal guy. Not even that. I’m a stupid, scared kid. And yet Last thinks I’m going to be some sort of hero. Other people have left comments agreeing with him. But it’s just not going to happen. In what crazy fantasy am I even remotely like a hero? I’m not even deluded enough to think it about myself.
I reached into my pocket, feeling for the spearhead a proxy called Moth had given me (long story) to attach to my staff. I considered doing so, but for whatever reason, ultimately decided against, removing my hand to let it rest in its hiding place. Not today.
I turned to Benjamin (or Fang, I guess, since we were all “in character”) and tried striking up a conversation to ease my nerves.
“Trying to focus,” was all he said. I fell silent for the rest of the ride.
When we pulled up at the gas station in the small town that served as our destination, Last told us to stretch our legs, but not anywhere we would get noticed, for good cause. When the Masks are “in character,” they tend to stand out. Some more than others. Maggie and Crimson would be fine, since they just wear the sort of street clothes they always do, and Gabe, Boston Black, and Phones could probably pass, though the former two’s aversion to uniforms with sleeves and the latter’s concealment within his hoodie would draw some looks. Same thing with Alicia, Angel Cross, and the Inspector—plausible, but not improbable. But Reaper in his cloak? Mantis looks like the protagonist of a kung fu movie. Fang wears black and has one of those masks that covers the lower part of his face, making him look sort of like a ninja. And Wraith was the one that really surprised me. He normally dresses in blue jeans and a long-sleeved flannel-print shirt of some sort. Really casual, non-threatening stuff. But his persona actually looks…pretty badass. Camo bandana, dark jacket and pants, those black lines drawn under his eyes…stuff like that. That might be at least partially due to the fact that he’s apparently a sharpshooter. That was something of a shock to discover.
“What?” he said when he caught me looking, his demeanor surprisingly cocky compared to his quiet, laid-back one I’d seen earlier. “A musician can’t be interested in guns?”
I spent most of that time off the bus trying not to throw up. I think I’m okay saying that I was justified in having a minor panic attack. I just didn’t know if I was ready for what was going on.
Of course, it ended up helping that I didn’t have the time to worry, just because I didn’t have the time to overthink. There was a gunshot from inside the gas station, and Last came running out pretty quickly.
“Okay, so, um…it turns out my questions were apparently just a bit too pressing, because he sorta caught on to what we’re doing here. Long story short, I may have had to kind of kill a guy, and now there may be more guys on their way. Get your stuff together and get ready for battle, now. This operation is officially underway.”