Open RP Hard Knock Lessons

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“Stereotypes and cliches exist for a reason.”

His father’s words echoed through his head as Nat shuffled nervously through the dark alley. One of the many benefits to the location of his secret layer had been its proximity to the “bad side of town.” Walking to and from the warehouses in the late evenings and early mornings took him through some of the worst neighborhoods in the city, so called for their poverty and crime rates by those who had never been forced to live there. His walks had revealed much of the rumored corruption, but also shown him another side of the community that was often overlooked.

People mostly were the same here as they were is the quaint suburb where Nat lived. They left their homes to run errands and to go to work, to survive just as everyone else did. They had families and children, but their opportunities were different, their options limited by themselves and by their surroundings. Nat had seen this reality, and had been forced to choose to ignore it.

His focus today was on the criminal side, on the darkened alleys like the one he plodded down now with his hood up and gaze fixed on the heels of the man who lead him. It was clear how out of place he was, even beyond the obvious nervousness that exuded from the young man. His clothes were too new, too clean and too bright compared to what those around him wore. The man he followed seemed to lean into those cliche styles even heavier than most, all chains and leather, piercings and tattoos that shamelessly broadcast what interested him.

When Nat had approached the man he had been openly asked what he was looking to buy, and though Nat let him rattle off the long list of drugs that he seemed to be able to provide Nat had been quick to squash the notion that he had any intention of altering his mind.

”No, nothing like that. I’m actually looking to buy a gun.”

Maybe it was the way he said it, or maybe it was the thick roll of bills he had flashed, but for whatever reason the drug dealer had seemed nonplussed. He simply snapped his fingers and ordered that Nat follow him, stating that he “wasn’t stupid enough to carry that sort of thing in the open.”

Though Nat followed diligently he didn’t quite understand how carrying a gun would be any worse than carrying drugs, though he considered that the drugs were probably a bit easier to hide in a pocket. It wasn’t until the reached the end of the alley, and the car parked with an open trunk, that Nat realized he had chosen exactly the right person to approach. An assortment of rifles, shotguns, handguns, and even what appeared to be a few explosive rested in that opened trunk. It was far more weaponry than Nat had seen before, and the men that surrounded it were far larger than most Nat had seen before as well.

”Now, kid. What kind of gun do you want? A handgun so you can feel like a gangster? An assault rifle so you can show those bullies who’s boss?” Though the dealer spoke as if he were fine with this, his massive goons stood in front of the arsenal like guardian statues. ”Pretty dumb of you to go flashing that much cash around without some kind of protection.” Another snap of his fingers and Nat felt arms loop under his own and lift him free from the ground. He kicked his legs futilely against the air as the grip tightened.

”Let this be your first lesson on the streets, kid.” Nat rolled his eyes at yet another cliche as the leather-clad dealer reached past his large associates and withdrew a handgun from the trunk of the car. ”Keep the money hid until you’ve got the product in your hand.” The click of the pistol being loaded brought a smile to the criminal’s face. ”But I guess you probably won’t get another chance to make the same mistake. Now hand over that stack and I will make it quick.”

Nat slumped against the grip that held him, gaze seemingly fixed on the ground beneath him as he apparently gave into the threat. The man holding him gently lowered him to the ground and released him, though another click spoke to the consequences if Nat chose to make any other move than retrieving the money from his coat. Slowly his head raised as his fingers closed around the money, green eyes leveling to meet Leather-Clad’s with a defiant glare.

”Is robbing me really easier than selling me a gun?” Nat spoke through clenched teeth, hesitating before pulling the money free.

Leather-Clad smirked, and waved the gun around him to indicate his men. ”With five guys? Kid you’re the easiest money I’ve made all month.”

Nat sighed, and tossed the money toward the man in a high arc. ”You could just take my money and let me go.”

Leather’s gaze followed the money as it sailed into the air, catching it deftly in his left hand as the pistol leveled toward Nat’s chest. ”Oh no, kid. I know a snitch when I see one. If I let you go you will go running off to daddy, and then the cops. That’s way more of headache than getting rid of a body.” Another click, the safety being switched off. Nat smiled slightly, surprised that a man so quick to kill him would even have his weapon on safe in the first place.

”See you in the next life, kid.”
“I don’t know. Body disposal can get real messy if you’re not careful.”

Cryptid had spent part of the evening watching the dealer’s car. He didn’t even have to hide that well– there were five guys left around here, and not a one of them was actually standing watch over anything but the merchandise. Fucking amateurs, these ones. Not even Leo’s goons were that self-confident. All Cryptid had to do after his first rooftop pass was stand in earshot – for him, anyway – an alley or two down, and listen.

He’d honestly planned to just leave when he heard the familiar voice. It took him a second to place it – it’d been a busy few weeks, with more than enough memorable faces. And then he realized he was hearing Nathaniel, the wolf pup metalbender who he’d agreed to mentor with his real face while scaring him off with his masked one. He listened, and dbated a few things. This would completely fuck up the supervillain persona he’d put on for the kid if he got involved.

On the other hand, the kid was in real trouble, and he wasn’t about to let him just get shot. He sighed, soft as snow, then pushed himself off the wall and stalked toward the alley entrance.

Which was where he strolled out when he made made the offputting comment, left hand in his pocket while he carried a metal trash can lid in his right, hanging idly. He counted out the goons earlier, but he’d focused on the man with the gun. The words were a distraction, the casual tone and self-assurance meant to make him nervous. Your gun doesn’t scare me, the body language and bored black eyes said as they looked him over. The other men were armed, too, but these guys would know a vigilante was a threat. Especially given how recent events showed that his slasher mask and scarecrow figure had earned a bit of a reputation, an urban legend like his namesake.

He already knew at least one person here would be scared, anyway. Maybe Nat’s fear would help trigger the rest of them.

Hopefully, their instincts would tell them to target the real problem, that the helpless stupid definitely-not-smiling boy could be saved for later. It could easily be turned into a hostage situation, but if nothing else, that’d buy Nat time to break loose and take his unspoken offer of help. The trash can lid wasn’t any good to anyone the way it was, after all.
Ice ran through Nat’s veins, and though the gun pointed at his chest might have given him pause it was the voice that interrupted his apparent execution that caused his blood to run cold. He knew that voice, had woken in cold sweat so many nights with it ringing in his ears. He heard it every time he walked into the storage container locked in his warehouse. Though the man that had grabbed him from behind whirled around to face the masked newcomer Nat didn’t need to see the owner of that voice. The image of the mask was seared into his mind.

”Uh, Adrian?” One of the thugs next to the car inched closer to the man in leather, a tremble to his voice that was unbecoming of someone so menacing. ”Look at that mask. That’s the guy that has been fuckin’ up Vasquez’s business.” The big man held up a shaking gun toward Cryptid, finger on the trigger.

”Shut up, Dukes. We ain’t Vasquez. Chill out and put some lead in the creep.” Nat snapped back to awareness as the barrel of the pistol meant for his heart aimed past him. He looked up, into the eyes of Leather-Clad Adrian, and felt his voice catch in his throat. He tried to tell him to run, a simple syllable that might save his life. Clearly the idiot didn’t know what he was facing.

”I heard bullets don’t work on him, Boss.” Dukes didn’t lose his voice to the fear, but it was obvious his boss wasn’t listening.

”Go back to messing with the Jackals, freak. We ain’t scared of no masks.” Leather-Clad Adrian thrust the gun in Cryptid’s direction menacingly before nodding to his men encouragingly.

As several more guns trained on the monster Nat was not quite ready to hunt, he took the opportunity to move out of the line of fire, and finally look at the greatest horror he had ever known. For some reason it was holding the lid to a trash can.
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"And what name do you go by, so that I may tell your five children the tale of your demise?"

She was not here for him, this stranger with the guns, nor for his allies, nor for his target, nor for his five children. Vasia Kairodes was neither a servant of the law or of the greater good.

She hunted monsters.

And this one, that held the lid of a garbage can like he was going to murder someone with it, that had watched from a hidden position while picking out his prey, that had chosen this moment and only this moment to strike - this one was a monster. She could see it in his steps, in the lack of tension between his shoulders. He was quite confident that he could kill all of them, and knew something of what happened after.

Perhaps America was not so lacking in real monsters after all.

Her steps were slow, precise, exactly on a beat that only she could hear - but it could change, any time, if she needed it to. If she wanted it to. Vasia didn't look at the men with the guns - her eyes were on one alone, the monster threatening them, preparing for a kill.

"I think... if you put the guns down and run away very quickly, I may be able to stop him before he kills more than one of you." She considered the situation, carefully. "Perhaps not, though. I think he is very fast."

Rumors were a two-way street. If word gets around that you’re a badder monster than the monsters you hunt, they get scared. Take Dukes, for instance; Cryptid watched him, breathed in the fear that suddenly carried on his scent. Some of the others might’ve had a little fear in them, too – but not even Dukes carried it like Nat did. He’d shaken the kid more than he’d thought. Then again, that had been the point, and he could put the same fear into the hearts of hardened criminals. Maybe he’d been a little too rough on him.

He thought about that while Adrian and his guys bickered. Cryptid listened to their names, the ones he could catch; he drew in their scents as a whole with each breath, and picked through them. It was while he did so that he caught the first hint of something unusual – earthy and plantlike, but entirely foreign to him.

He ignored Adrian’s display of power as someone else stepped up from the other side of the confrontation. A young woman who looked like she’d just gotten out of ballet class and spoke like a hero the same way Todd had spoken to Nat like a monster. She was the source of the foreign scent, and he frowned under the mask as he studied her posture. Like her, he knew another predator when he saw one. The third one in the last few weeks.

Nothing could ever be simple, could it?

The bastards with guns were still a problem, but they were a known factor. Nat was a problem, but experience would let Cryptid guess at what he might do next, too. The newcomer was the biggest threat, because he didn’t know what she was, or why she looked at him like prey. Or why she was letting the real monsters get away.

“Cryptid’s fine,” he told the ballerina, keeping the snap out of the edge of his voice. “Sadly, I think most of them are too stupid or arrogant to run. Careful they don’t get in your way, if you really want to save sacks of shit like this.”

Then, even though he didn’t really like it, he looked back to the leader of the little band. As he did so, he tossed aside the trash can lid, letting it skid to the ground and stop within Nat’s reach. He didn’t look at the kid, and instead gestured toward Adrian like a reasonable human being.

“Adrian, you should really listen to your people. You’re not as far up on the food chain as Leo if you’re out here peddling your own wares and picking on stupid kids.” The dark eyes turned to the man who was shaking the worst, and they softened a little as he offered him a nod. “Dukes, right? Shaking like that you’re not going to hit the broad side of a barn. You’re free to go. I won’t chase if you take off now, and your friends here will be busy unless they decided to follow you. Take the lady’s advice.”

He kept his head tilted toward the newcomer, but his muscles began to wind tense as the guns found their focus. Keep them all on a single target by not moving, and then when you did move, they’d have to change their aim. He wasn’t even that worried about being fast enough – not for them, anyway. Even if they grazed him he’d be okay.

He hoped that his apparent distraction would draw the woman into more direct action, something he could hear or see that would be useful for later.
Tensions that were already high threatened to snap at the arrival of a new new voice, and a new face without a mask. Despite the woman appearing to have come straight from dance practice she spoke as a vigilante, a vague threat of death cast at Nat’s assailant turned prey and a tenuous suggestion of protection from the real monster that had joined the hunt. With her vague threat had come a question, one that the cannibal had taken to answer for himself.

Guns shifted, between the dancer and the masked man and back again in variable rhythm among the six criminals. Even Adrian had let his attention shift to the newcomer, the pistol in his hand held lazily as its aim passed over her amidst a salacious once-over.

”Well, honey. I ain’t the kind to just run away with my tail between my legs. Friends call me Adrian, Adrian Markle, and my enemies call me Two-Shot Ace. You, though? You can call me anytime.” Leather-Clad Adrian, or Nat supposed it was Two-Shot Ace, shot a playful wink toward the woman, and even went so far as to blow her a kiss before returning his attention, and his aim, back toward the masked monster.

”Cryptid, huh? Like an unclear meaning?” Adrian prided himself on his vocabulary. ”You ain’t totally wrong, pal. Me and Leo ain’t on the same level. See, I ain’t running an organization, I’m running a business, and I like to make sure my business runs smoothly.” Adrian switched his pistol to his left hand hand and wrapped his freed right around the barrel of Dukes’ gun. ”Man go get the rest of the boys, ya fuckin’ embarrassment. And bring me one of the new products if you that scared, shit.”

Dukes nodded once and released his pistol before darting with a surprising speed through a side door in the alley. Adrian deftly flipped the gun in his hand, leveling its aim at the woman to his side as the other one held a steady bead on Cryptid’s chest.

”Sorry ‘bout him. See most of my boys and I been working together since the `Stan back in oh three. Dukes is Travis’s cousin, though.” Adrian thrust his chin toward the man who had grabbed Nat from behind. ”A little too soft but we take care of our own.” A quick whistle and the remaining four men after Dukes’ departure picked their targets instantly, two rifles trained upon each intruder. Nat had apparently been forgotten.

Forgotten by all but Cryptid, the newly named monster that knew his face, and knew that he was not quite the helpless child he had been playing. Cryptid, who Nat had been quietly hunting for weeks while he honed his skills and abilities. Cryptid who had inexplicably tossed the garbage can lid in his direction. Nat simply blinked at the offering, mind still trying to process how his simple plan to take a few guns off the street had gone so sideways so quickly.
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"I am not here for you, Adrian Markle."

Vasia had certain things she looked for in a liason, and five children was not it. She had nothing against children, and hoped that she might live long enough to have them some day, but someone with five already and no loyalty to their mother was hardly appealing to her. For the sake of those five children, she had given him the option to run away, but if he chose not to, then she was not taking responsibility for what happened to him.

Only Americans thought that was what heroes did. Vasia had a very different opinion of the matter, and being one, she was here for another purpose entirely.

"You, kryptós, you I am here for." The word was not quite the one he had used, but it had been a Green word in the first place, and Vasia didn't see any reason not to use it. She moved closer, casually, her steps taking her past the boy who was trying to decide if he wanted to fight or flee. He had no place in this, really, except such was a moment when heroes were made. The kryptós had thrown a trash can lid at him - or to him. Vasia did not know which, but it would be important.

She moved up to stand near the boy while he figured it out, not letting him out of her peripheral vision in case he was an ally of the kryptós. Him, though, him she did not let out of her sight at all. When he decided to move quickly, she did not think she would have much time to react. She did not want to waste it by not looking. Time was a familiar thing to her, something she could work with - but only if she knew it was needed.

"And what about you? Boy. Do you think you are a hero?"
Cryptid actually rolled his black eyes at Markle’s attempt at flirtation. It only emphasized his external appearance of boredom with this whole situation, even with three guns trained on him.

“Cryptid like a skinwalker, but same root.” It sounded like the same root as encrypted, which sounded closer to what Adrian was talking about. Todd did not pride himself in his vocabulary. He did, however, have a lot of knowledge about bits and pieces of folklore, given the amount of time he’d spent trying to figure himself out. And even he didn’t know what a kryptós was.

Adrian sent Dukes off to get backup, which was not good. Cryptid didn’t let worry show on his face, even with the plastic mask in between himself and onlookers. If it was just the prey, he wouldn’t be so concerned with appearances. Let them get cocky – he had Kevlar and speed on his side when it came to their guns. But he knew that the newcomer, the woman, meant business. His instincts clocked her as trouble. Maybe not a predator, not the same way he was, but a hunter all the same.

One that had come for him.

He thought about that for a little while, as Adrian – he refused to call the man Two-Shot anything – rambled on. How much did she know about him? He’d developed a bit of a reputation here in Pittsburgh, a lot faster than he’d intended to. Todd hadn’t been around all that long, but Leo’s guys had a bigger rumor network than he’d expected, and he’d been keeping himself busier here, trying to do more good, especially since he meant to stick around for a while. But there was part of him turned queasy at the idea that the ballerina knew about where he’d been before now. He needed to know more before he was comfortable enough to take her, and where she was standing, she could intercept between him and any of the thugs if she wanted to.

He took a deep breath that could come across as frustration, not worry. “See, I am here for Adrian Markle. I take out bad guys. I don’t care what flavor of crime he’s involved with, he was going to kill that kid. That’s pretty bad-guy behavior.”

His eyes finally flicked away from her. As he addressed Nat directly for the first time, he didn’t look at him. He looked at the guns, looked for one that shifted position to him. He hadn’t picked up the piece of metal Todd had provided, and that meant he was still playing vulnerable. So Cryptid, playing the hero, had to watch his back, and watch the bad guys, and watch the hunter.

“Speaking of which. Now’s a good time to run, kid, before somebody gets twitchy with those guns. These guys don’t exactly look like stable types.”

The springs in his muscles finished coiling, pulled tight and taut. The hunter would see, he was sure, but the prey wouldn’t. When one of them finally pulled the trigger, he was ready to be on them. He might even beat the dancer in a footrace, and just have to worry about her at his back.

Damn if that wasn’t a bad plan, but it was all he had right now, unless Nat decided to do something productive. Cryptid was only saving his life, after all. He could really use the extra hands.

Phoenix hadn’t meant to come across the altercation. She went where the wind decided to take her as she flew, and that had happened to be there. The air currents had carried her right overhead, and she had stopped, skidding a bit across the top of the building. Was that Cryptid?

She rushed back over to the edge of the building, looking over the side with her ponytail flipped over her shoulder. Yeah, that was Cryptid alright. She thought they were supposed to be meeting up for patrol later that night. This must have been a simple thing if he was stepping up to it so close to their meeting time. It looked like he could handle– that was Vasia, the woman who she had flirted with at the bar before she and Cryptid had, well. Had their thing. What was she doing there? Phoenix paused and listened in and immediately knew there was going to be a problem. So Vasia was gunning for Cryptid, for Todd. She didn’t know why, she had arrived too late for that, but Phoenix could clock trouble when she saw it.

And clearly, Cryptid could too, because he was tensing, ready to move, and the ballerina that was Vasia was creeping his way. She was near what looked like a very terrified kid. Well, that complicated things even further. Sam watched how Cryptid angled himself for the thugs, and she saw exactly what she could do.

Phoenix tucked her ponytail into her black hood, which she pulled all the way up. She took a few steps back and then ran, flipping through the air. She called out as she spun, “Cryptid, we have got to stop meeting like this!”

She let the hot wind catch her and drop her in a controlled flip in front of Vasia, placing her smack between Vasia and Cryptid. She gave the woman a wide grin, one laced with challenge. Her posture was loose as she looked the woman over.

“Sorry, beautiful. Can’t let you distract him while he’s working. You’ll have to forgive me, but I will not be letting you fight him tonight.” She placed her hands on her hips, leaning to make sure she entirely blocked Cryptid from view. There was a sharp look on her face, despite her easy posture. Her hammer was clenched in one hand, pressed to her hip, the handle wrapped around her wrist. She trusted Cryptid to have her back, and so she focused completely on Vasia.

After all, she needed to have a conversation with Cryptid in about an hour. Couldn't have him getting his ass kicked before then.​
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Two-Shot Ace was a man who valued precision and, while Dukes was a horrible example of what he expected from his men, the rest of the guns trained on Cryptid and the dancer didn’t waver as the latter moved toward the boy he had intended to kill. A cocky smirk twisted his lips as his left gun followed her movement, but it fell away as another mask flew in from the rooftops.

The new woman’s words to the dancer carried to Adrian, and his gun lowered as his smirk rose again, eyes and barrels turned fully to the masked man who interrupted his easy kill. ”So you got backup? I got backup.”

As if on cue the door Dukes has fled through burst open, rifles preceding the half dozen bodies that filed out. Two more followed the reinforcements, their burdens heavier and far more worrisome. Dukes brought up the rear, awkwardly handling the rocket launcher in his hands as tried to close the door the had been splintered on its hinges. Adrian lowered his guns, sighing exasperatedly.

”Just. Duke- DUKES! Just bring me the damn RPG!” Dukes practically jumped as Adrian screamed at him, stepping once toward him and back to the door before committing himself to following Adrian’s order. He took his pistol back, fumbling with it a bit while Adrian tossed his own into the back of the car. Once Adrian had it nestled firmly on his shoulder Dukes leveled his pistol at Cryptid with noticeably less waver than before.

”Yeah,” Adrian crooned as he rubbed his cheek against the smooth cylinder. ”That’s more like it.” With Cryptid square in the launcher’s sights Two-Shot Ace pulled the trigger.



The dancer had told him to run, but even without the act of a scared, normal kid Nat was more than happy not to draw attention himself. He wouldn’t have argued that he needed to go, needed to get somewhere truly out of sight at the very least. Running just didn’t seem like the wisest way to do that. Instead he inched away, backing down the alley as a familiar mask quite literally flew onto the scene.

He couldn’t process Phoenix’s words to the dancer, her defense of the monster he knew stunning him in that breath between her words and Adrian’s actions. The shattering of the door drove him to action, the questions of all of the ways this had gone wrong pushed to the side with the explosion of action from the other side of the alley. He used it to his advantage, scooping up the metal lid the cannibal had thrown to him on instinct and running for the side alley that the car had been parked in.

The guns were trained on Cryptid, a monster far more threatening than the kid who streaked across the alley just behind Two-Shot Ace. Nat wasn’t sure if the cannibal would be capable of surviving the barrage, but he wasn’t willing to take his chances. By the time the last three came through the door Nat had made it to car’s bumper, apparently unseen though he was sure those black eyes were watching. It was hard to tell from behind the mask, but he had felt them since Cryptid had appeared. He knew what Nat could do, and he was expecting him to do something.

”That’s an M72 LAW!” It was an astonished whisper to himself as Adrian shouldered the weapon and Dukes fumbled with his gun. Though Nat had been taught martial arts by his grandfather his own father was somewhat of a gunji-ota, a military otaku. Where his grandfather had valued the blade his father had valued the gun and beyond, extending to military issued rocket propelled grenade launchers. That was overkill, even for a cannibal.

He acted without thinking, tossing the trash can lid at Dukes even as he slapped his hand to the back of the grenade launcher. Not for the first time he was glad for the training he had done with his power, the realization that he could manipulate metals that touched the metals he touched. The ripple of his power traveled through the weapon as Adrian’s final words left his lips, and almost instinctively Nat moved the metal within it.


”What the hell?”
Adrian turned as Dukes fell, but by the time he had turned completely Nat had slipped back behind the fender of the car. His men, queued by his words had began firing as well. The echoes from the shots rang through the alley, their targets almost irrelevant as nine assault rifles and three handguns indiscriminately toward anything with a mask.

While Adrian helped Dukes up with a string of inaudible curses Nat reached into the trunk of the car and pulled free Adrian’s gun. He had come with a purpose, and he was intent upon seeing that purpose through no matter how crazy things got. He tucked the weapon away, beneath his coat and into his waistband before pulling something free of his coat pocket. He hadn’t had a chance to test them yet, but the situation called for drastic measures. Carefully Nat placed the three metal cylinders between his fingers and aimed his fist at the remaining rocket launchers.

The metal rippled, and from within the cylinders darts sailed over the car to bury themselves into both of the rocket wielders’ arms. Their attention diverted, but only only long enough for two steps before each fell to their faces on the pavement. He had done what he could, not for Cryptid but for the hero he knew that was protecting him, and for the dancer who could also see what he really was. How they kept themselves from being riddled with bullets was out of his control.
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The monster had something to say for itself. Vasia listened, because that was how it was done. You did not interrupt people while they were speaking - or other things, either.

"It would be bad to kill someone unprovoked," she responded, with a nod. This was a statement that she could agree with. "That is why I told them I might be able to stop you before you kill more than one of them." If he killed none, then she would not act, but if he took a life, then she would intercede.

They were not to speak uninterrupted, however. Another masked form slipped in between them, flame-haired, not unfamiliar. She spoke a challenge, and Vasia's eyes drifted over her - the way she stood between them, the way her attention was focused, the hammer at her side.

Her voice lowered, soft. It was meant to be between them, but she would undoubtedly be overheard - perhaps even by the monster. Some of them had far-hearing ears, after all. "Do you mean to fight me while he kills them?"

It was a question, not a threat. She was not here to fight other heroes any more than she was here to defend men from their own poor decisions. The kryptós she would fight, if he chose to kill, but if now was not the time for it, then she would return later.

The men of the street were less polite about interruptions, and somehow a gunfight erupted around them. The young man rushed off - to be a hero, it seemed, though he could handle himself better than she had thought. That left the woman, the men, and the monster.

Perhaps they could do as they liked, but Vasia must never forget that she was a guest here. This was not her country, and its rules were not her own. A known metahuman like herself could not attack civilians without causing an international incident.

And so she offered only a slight bow, to the woman in front of her, and the words:

"Another time."

She stepped back, into the alley once more, somehow never quite in the same time and place of any of the bullets. Vasia would have to watch this woman, though.

She might be more of a monster than she seemed.
The hero had taken up too much of his focus. Well, heroes. Monster hunter aside, he was still trying to focus on Nat as he finally took a hint and slunk away to hopefully get his supplies. Todd heard the scrape as he took the trash can lid with him, off the asphalt. But the most distracting of the three was preceded by the faintest breeze of cinnamon before she took up position.

“Nice of you to drop in, Phoenix,” Cryptid replied, and he couldn’t keep the tease from the edges of his voice as his instincts said the same thing as her position – mine. He was actually a little surprised at himself, that the casual flirt with the dancer didn’t bother him. But her actions were speaking louder than that, and the dancer backed off.

Really, if the hero was just here to keep him from killing ‘more than one’, she’d just wasted everyone else’s time. Killing one was off the table just because of Nat, sure, but also because of his self-control. Unless he took most of the gunfire head-on, which he would not be doing, the last few meals should be plenty to keep him going for a while.

It took the sound of the door crashing open to draw his attention back to the present. Now the irritation came in as he turned his borrowed black eyes to Adrian, in time to see Dukes hand him the RPG. He took a deep breath, bracing for a frontal assault and charge – if it missed, he could slip out of range of everything except shrapnel, and he handled shrapnel a lot better than burns. Phoenix was putting her back to him, trusting him to protect her, but it wouldn’t destroy her, either. He’d have to trust–

“That’s an M72 LAW!”

And just like that, all the worry for Sam and Nat went away. He’d know that voice anywhere. Nat’s focus, based on his tone, was on the big guns, and that meant Cryptid only had to worry about the comparatively small-arms fire. He’d done enough man-in-the-chair work for Nat to know his strategies, and as worried as he got, he trusted the kid to take care of himself.

Bullets still hurt, though, and taking enough of them would definitely put him in the ground. The moment the tension released, Cryptid dodged back, then to the side, playing the mobile target and drawing eyes and fire to himself. He wasn’t faster than a bullet, but he was faster than their aim to follow, kicking it up to “just above human” for the time being to conserve energy.

What had happened with the trash can lid didn’t really register until Adrian was mostly through picking Dukes back up. So it wasn’t until he reached the first gunman that he thought to raise his voice enough to call, “Nice shot, kid!”

The goal here was to get up close and either divert fire, or draw the rest in to killing one of their own guys. He hoped the monster hunter didn’t take that the wrong way – after all, they’d be killing themselves by being stupid with autos and semi-autos in a limited area. And the rocket launchers might’ve killed everybody. Death like that would be their own fault, not his.

Whatever the other shooters did, Cryptid was going in for a kick to the inside of the man’s left knee, hard and at an odd angle, then drop a bit to continue to use his body as a shield before moving on to the next one. No bulletholes yet, but the fight was still young, so he couldn’t afford to get cocky.

Phoenix heard the commotion behind her, but she didn’t pay attention until after she was sure their dancer was leaving. Then, as the fire opened, Sam threw herself back into the air with a hop, skip, and jump. She flew up above the bullets, and while she was in midair, she called out, a tease in her voice that hadn’t been there when she had spoken to Vasia, “Well I saw you and couldn’t help myself. After all, we have a date later.”

As she came down from the sky, she saw the RPG just as the kid reached out and touched it. When the man pulled the trigger, it didn’t go off. But that wasn’t the part that caught her attention. It was the voice of the kid who had spoken, and it triggered something in her head. It was so familiar, but Phoenix couldn’t quite place it.

Hopefully, the kid could handle himself, which meant she could focus wholesale on fucking these guys up. She’d keep an eye on him, though. She hit the ground, creating a thermal net to prevent her from breaking her legs. She immediately swung the hammer in her right hand, bringing it up and into the jaw of the closest shooter. She heard a clean crack as it broke his jaw, and the man fell backward, dropping his gun to clench his face.

Phoenix caught sight of Cryptid also gunning for the shooters. Right then, they were the top priority. They needed to get them out of the way if they were going to focus on helping the kid. The fewer shooters, the more likely they’d be able to get to the kid and get him out since he seemed insistent on staying. Despite the situation, Phoenix couldn’t help herself, and she cocked a smile in Cryptid’s direction, her ponytail whipping around as she spun, aiming her hammer for the back of another man’s shoulder.

“What brings you to a party like this, handsome?”
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Nat knew chaos, if not before then certainly now, as bullets whizzed down the alleyway and Cryptid sprang into motion. The man who had held Nat was first, the unnaturally quick and animalistic movements of the masked cannibal making every shot the man- Travis, why did he remember that?- fired at him worthless. Only one of the other gunmen checked their fire as Cryptid ducked behind Travis, and though Dukes shouted and ran toward the other shooters his first step was too late as bullets ripped through his cousin, aiming for the monster behind him that charged forward toward the next man.

Adrian seemed as concerned for Travis as the men who had shot him, turning before he even hit the ground and darting for the driver’s door of the car Nat was hidden behind. It was as if Nat was invisible to him, even when he paused to close the trunk lid just above Nat’s quickly covered head. The vehicle roared to life, and Nat took his hand from the fender as Adrian slammed the gas pedal down hard and the tires boiled white smoke all around Nat.

When the tires found their purchase and the car darted out of the alleyway the smoke cleared, and Nat was gone. The door the men had come from clattered on its broken hinges, and a muffled shout and a single gunshot echoed from within to be lost amongst the fire that was being aimed toward Cryptid and Phoenix.

Dukes, unarmed and wailing, ran to Travis’s side, crouching over him protectively as men fell to the vigilantes around him. A few dropped their rifles and ran after Adrian’s car, but most continued shooting at their enemy. Half of them were gone, and the dancer had been forgotten for the obvious threats that had taken down three men already. They knew that range was their only advantage past their numbers, and wordlessly split into two groups of three to try and lay down a cone of fire the Cryptid couldn’t dodge. The three firing at Phoenix grouped together and backed toward the creaking, crooked door.
Travis was first. Todd only knew it was Travis because of the way Dukes came running, despite the danger. Guys like Dukes, who scared easy, would only do that for family. There was too much blood for him to do anything, but he could at least hold his cousin while he died. Cryptid wouldn’t take that away from him.

Not that he had that much time. He lost track of Nat as the groups split and he had to hone his focus in on not getting shot. Backing off wasn’t an option, though, not really, because that would give them more space to aim. So he needed to close in and just tank the lucky hits, reduce their maneuverability while making quick, precise attacks. Whether those were meant to disarm or incapacitate – or both – really depended on the target.

“Well, these shindigs always have good fun and better company.” He picked up Phoenix’s banter, carried it on as a way to ground himself and drown out the part of him that said run and circle back. Not while she was in danger. “Glad you could join in. Takes two to make it a dance.”

He took one bullet to the ribs, but the Kevlar stopped the shot from being dangerous. It hurt, shortened his breath, and would be bruised for a few hours, but he didn’t have time to be a baby about it. His left shoulder exploded a second later, one shot grazing followed by a shot that hit, but he had to keep moving, even if the pain blinded him for a second. Cryptid was all about intimidation, after all.

You see a guy tank three bullets, that’s pretty fucking intimidating.

It still left him with only one arm to get the job done. Thankfully it was his dominant arm. The kill zone was small enough now that the three of them would have to stop shooting, or risk ending up like Travis. They were good shots, he’d admit, but they weren’t relying on precision so much as volume of bullets, and that volume was going to get someone killed. He wasn’t going to give them the chance to change to handpieces, either.

He went non-lethal, the way he always did, and started with the strap to the middle guy’s rifle. If the other two shot while he was between them, while they could completely fuck him up, they’d also kill each other, no question, and that defeated the purpose of killing him in the first place. He followed up the swipe with another quick kick to the knee, hoping to take him out of the picture long enough to turn to either Lefty or Righty.

Phoenix laughed at Cryptid’s comment, and she turned her attention to the three men trying to crowd toward the door. She kept dancing through their fire, and she adjusted her grip on her hammer. Then, as she spun toward them, she threw the twenty-eight-pound weapon, aiming for the man in the middle. It hit him square in the stomach, and he went down. The other two were distracted by him being thrown into the doorway just long enough for her to move.

She ran in at full speed, and then spun into a high kick, catching the first gunman’s head. She hooked her foot around him and brought him full force into the concrete below them. There was a loud thud as his head bounced off the ground. She turned on the last gunman, who lifted his gun in surrender. He put both of his hands up and looked at her with wide terror. “This isn’t worth it, man, I’m sorry. Please just let me go home, I have two kids and–”

“Give me the gun.” He passed it her way, and she took it in both hands. She brought it down hard on her knee and it snapped, cracking down the middle. She dropped the broken gun to the ground and gave the man a nod, telling him to get out. He took off running. She sighed and turned back to the man her hammer had knocked down, who was trying to stand. He was clearly winded and was taking in long panting breaths. She walked over and picked her hammer up from where he had knocked it off. Then she put a foot on his chest and pushed him back down to the ground.

“This can go one of two ways. Either you surrender and give me the gun, and you get to leave, or you get my boot to your fucking head and you can be here when the cops show. Pick your poison.” Her voice was low and raspy as she said it, a smile on her face. The man swallowed and took a moment to think. Then, he handed her the gun. “Good choice. Get out of here.”

She took her foot off his chest and the man got to his feet and also took off down the alleyway. She sighed and then looked at Cryptid where he was taking on the last few men standing. The kid had disappeared somewhere in the commotion. Probably for the best, given how many guns had ended up being there. Then in her same teasing, slightly sultry tone, she called out to Cryptid. “Well, you do know how much I love to dance. Besides, we have a date. Couldn’t let you miss it.”
Using the cover of the tires’ smoke Nat had found himself face to face with the barrel of yet another rifle as he darted through the door the reinforcements had come out of. It was an instantaneous, instinctive move to grab the barrel, but when the man behind it pulled the trigger Nat quite intentionally used his power to drive thick spikes through the man’s hands. The sounds of gunfire and the hollow sound of blunt blows filtered through the gaping doorway, but Nat was focused on the hundreds of crates that were stacked wall to wall inside the building.


There was a loud, somewhat distant crash as Adrian learned abruptly that Nat had severed the brake lines before he fled. Though he hadn’t intended to take Two-Shot off of the streets yet Nat couldn’t help but smile to himself as he reached into an open crate to place his palm on the barrel of a rifle. As the gunmetal rippled wire-thin tendrils shot into the next crate, and with each ripple of Nat’s powers the weapons within the crates were all disabled, a simple shortening of the steel firing pins within each one enough to render them all useless.

He hadn’t gone into this as blindly as it may have seemed, and had known that he would need to do this at some point down the line. He hadn’t expected there to be so many, though. Two-Shot had seemed far more of a petty criminal rather than an arms dealer with enough ability to steal from the US military. Nat let the steel beneath his palm flow up his arm and neck. He had left his mask behind for this mission, and the people outside had not only seen his face but his clothes as well. It took longer than he would have liked, but as the fighting dwindled outside he layered gunmetal over his face and body, forming a mask identical to his family’s heirloom but for its uniformity. He couldn’t change the color of the steel, after all.

When the Wolf stepped back into the alley the door fell from its hinges, finally giving in to its battle against abuse and gravity. Covered as he was Nat was sure he was unrecognizable, though the cannibal knew his face already. The dust that rose from the door’s crash billowed behind him as Phoenix disarmed her last opponent and Cryptid’s foes simply ran, leaving behind both their guns and their dignity as they screamed shrilly towards the street. Nat looked down at the steel card in his hand, a simplified wolf head stamped on its front.

”If we keep running into each other like this I might think you’re following me.” Nat ignored the banter between Phoenix and Cryptid, ignored the beast completely as he addressed the woman nonchalantly. ”Believe it or not I’ve had my eye on these guys for a few weeks now. Didn’t count on some dumb kid nearly getting himself killed, though.” Thankfully his attempt to lower his voice a bit didn’t result in embarrassment.

Nat held the card up toward Phoenix and turned the wolf side over to face him, a ripple of his power adding an embossed bird with flowing, fiery wings. It wasn’t like she had a symbol on her chest for him to copy. It wasn’t like he had looked at her chest that thoroughly, either. ”I probably could have handled this one myself, but I appreciate the assist.” He threw the card to the ground and its corner buried into the cement at his feet.

Figuring that was enough risk, Nat walked almost robotically to the alley Adrian’s car had been blocking. With a shorter distance between himself and Phoenix than the Cryptid he spoke his warning softly, hopefully enough that only she could hear above the rapidly growing sound of approaching sirens.

”Be careful who you trust.”

Judging by the way she had been flirting with the monster he had sworn himself to capture Nat was afraid his warning would fall on deaf ears.
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